Howard Zinn on How Karl Marx Predicted Our World Today

On the second centenary of his birth, Karl Marx remains as relevant as ever.

Howard Zinn May 4, 2019

Happy birthday, Karl Marx. (Wikimedia Commons)

In the Sep­tem­ber 2000 issue of In These Times, Howard Zinn wrote this review of a book about the life of Karl Marx by Fran­cis Wheen. On the 200th anniver­sary of Marx’s birth, we present Zinn’s review in full, in which he dis­cuss­es how Marx pre­dict­ed the world of today, with ever increas­ing con­cen­tra­tions of wealth in few­er and few­er hands, with cap­i­tal­ism roam­ing the globe in search of prof­its, with a deep­en­ing con­tra­dic­tion between the colos­sal growth of pro­duc­tion and the fail­ure to dis­trib­ute its fruits justly.”

To his daughter Eleanor, Marx was "the cheeriest, gayest soul that ever breathed, a man brimming over with humor."

It takes some courage to write still anoth­er biog­ra­phy of Karl Marx, espe­cial­ly if the writer has dared to go through the 40 vol­umes of his writ­ings and his cor­re­spon­dence. Fran­cis Wheen seems to have done that research scrupu­lous­ly, open to both col­or­ful sto­ries and thun­der­ous ideas.

The time is right for a new appraisal of Marx because igno­ra­mus­es and shit­heads (the spellcheck on my com­put­er reject­ed this, sug­gest­ing instead hot­heads, cat­heads, white­heads, skin­heads”) on all parts of the ide­o­log­i­cal spec­trum have dis­tort­ed his ideas in ridicu­lous ways. For­give me, but I want to give you the fla­vor of Marx’s per­son­al­i­ty, which includ­ed fre­quent insults direct­ed at those, whether bour­geois or left intel­lec­tu­als, who drove him to dis­trac­tion by dis­agree­ing with him — not, I agree, an admirable trait, but we must be hon­est about peo­ple we oth­er­wise admire.

Marx has been stu­pid­ly (there, I’ve caught the virus of vir­u­lence again) linked with Stal­in, by both Stal­in­ists and apol­o­gists for cap­i­tal­ism. So this is a good time to set the record straight. The review­er of Wheen’s book in the New York Times Book Review seemed to think that the lack of Marx­ists in depart­ments of eco­nom­ics, his­to­ry and phi­los­o­phy is some­how proof of the inad­e­qua­cy of Marx’s the­o­ries and, absurd­ly, won­ders why the rest of us should both­er with Marx’s ideas now that the Berlin Wall has fallen.”

Wheen lets you know imme­di­ate­ly where he stands on this mat­ter: Only a fool could hold Marx respon­si­ble for the Gulag; but there is, alas, a ready sup­ply of fools.” Marx would have been appalled by the crimes com­mit­ted in his name.” He has been calami­tous­ly mis­in­ter­pret­ed.” And the mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion has been bipar­ti­san, as all these bloody blem­ish­es on the his­to­ry of the 20th cen­tu­ry were jus­ti­fied in the name of Marx­ism or anti-Marxism.”

This is a wor­thy enter­prise, to dis­tin­guish Marx him­self from the actions of the so-called Marx­ists (who led an exas­per­at­ed Marx at one time to say: I am not a Marx­ist.”), as well as to keep alive his still-accu­rate cri­tique of capitalism.

Wheen pro­vides a col­or­ful romp through Marx’s life. Marx grew up in a mid­dle-class Ger­man fam­i­ly, with rab­bi ances­tors on both sides, but his father con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty for prac­ti­cal rea­sons. (Karl in fact was bap­tized at the age of six.) At 18 he was engaged to the beau­ti­ful Jen­ny von West­phalen, whose aris­to­crat­ic fam­i­ly admired the young Karl for his remark­able intel­lect, and whose father took long walks with him, recit­ing Homer and Shakespeare.

Marx stud­ied first at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Bonn and then the Uni­ver­si­ty of Berlin, as a rather wild and fun-lov­ing stu­dent even while seri­ous­ly pur­su­ing the teach­ings of Hegel and writ­ing a doc­tor­al dis­ser­ta­tion on Greek phi­los­o­phy. His the­sis, com­par­ing the ideas of Dem­ocri­tus and Epi­cu­rus, is a ring­ing dec­la­ra­tion of free­dom from false author­i­ty, insist­ing that the true pur­pose of phi­los­o­phy was to deny all gods of heav­en and earth who do not rec­og­nize man’s self-con­scious­ness was the high­est divinity.”

Hegel also saw the his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment of man’s self-con­scious­ness as the human march toward free­dom. But Marx was soon to go beyond that, to turn Hegel on his head,” to see free­dom as requir­ing, not sim­ply a change in con­scious­ness, but a rev­o­lu­tion­ary change in the mate­r­i­al con­di­tions of life. Ear­ly on, Marx’s extra­or­di­nary intel­lec­tu­al pow­er was evi­dent. His friend Moses Hess said that Marx com­bines the deep­est philo­soph­i­cal seri­ous­ness with the most bit­ing wit. Imag­ine Rousseau, Voltaire, Hol­bach, Less­ing, Heine and Hegel fused into one man, and you have Dr. Marx.”

Marx was 24 when he moved to Cologne, as edi­tor of the Rheinis­che Zeitung. He soon began chal­leng­ing the sacred laws of pri­vate prop­er­ty, denounc­ing the arrest of peas­ants who were using fire­wood from pri­vate forests, and writ­ing edi­to­ri­als against the Pruss­ian cen­sors. What can be more infu­ri­at­ing to cen­sors than to rail against cen­sor­ship? They cas­ti­gat­ed the Zeitung for impu­dent and dis­re­spect­ful crit­i­cism of the exist­ing gov­ern­ment insti­tu­tions.” And proved it right by shut­ting it down.

Wheen enjoys show­ing the inani­ty of Marx’s detrac­tors, as when they reduce his com­plex view of reli­gion to uncon­di­tion­al hos­til­i­ty, quot­ing repeat­ed­ly his state­ment that reli­gion is the opi­um of the peo­ple.” The full quo­ta­tion, from his 1843 essay, Toward a Cri­tique of Hegel’s Phi­los­o­phy of Right,” shows a more nuanced and sym­pa­thet­ic under­stand­ing of the social role of reli­gion: Reli­gion is the sigh of the oppressed crea­ture, the heart of a heart­less world, the soul of soul­less con­di­tions, it is the opi­um of the people.”

Dri­ven from Ger­many, Marx went to Paris, where he and Jen­ny found a lit­tle flat on the Left Bank, and where their first child, Jen­nichen, was born in 1844. It was in the cafes of Paris that Marx met an extra­or­di­nary group of oth­er young rad­i­cals: Proud­hon (“prop­er­ty is theft”); Heine, the bril­liant poet; Bakunin, the wild man of anar­chism and spon­ta­neous rev­o­lu­tion; Stirn­er, the supreme indi­vid­u­al­ist; and, most impor­tant of all, Fred­er­ick Engels.

Engels was two years younger than Marx, but already more aware of class oppres­sion and class strug­gle, hav­ing wit­nessed a gen­er­al strike in Man­ches­ter, Eng­land, where his father owned tex­tile mills. In 1845, at 25, Engels would write elo­quent­ly and pow­er­ful­ly of work­ing-class lives in his book The Con­di­tion of the Work­ing Class in Eng­land. He described one Man­ches­ter slum as fol­lows: Mass­es of refuse, offal and sick­en­ing filth lie among stand­ing pools in all direc­tions; the atmos­phere is poi­soned by the efflu­via from these, and laden and dark­ened by the smoke of a dozen tall fac­to­ry chim­neys. A horde of ragged women and chil­dren swarm about here.”

Marx and Engels, meet­ing for the first time in August of 1844 in the Café de la Regence (Voltaire, Diderot and Ben­jamin Franklin were among its famous patrons), hit it off from the start, intel­lec­tu­al­ly and per­son­al­ly. Engels then vis­it­ed Marx’s flat, and there fol­lowed 10 days of intense and wide-rang­ing dis­cus­sion, which Wheen, see­ing this as the begin­ning of an extra­or­di­nary rela­tion­ship, with immense his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance, calls ten days that shook the world.”

It was in Paris, at the age of 26, that Marx wrote his famous Eco­nom­ic and Philo­soph­i­cal Man­u­scripts,” which remained unpub­lished until the 1930s, but which con­tain some of his most pro­found ideas. The cen­tral con­cept was alien­ation, but Marx saw the source of this alien­ation not as a prob­lem of con­scious­ness, as Hegel put it, but in the mate­r­i­al con­di­tions of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety. Under cap­i­tal­ism, human beings led a non­hu­man exis­tence, being alien­at­ed from their work, from the prod­uct of their labor, from one anoth­er, from nature, from their own true selves. The solu­tion was not in the realm of ideas, but in action to over­turn these conditions.

Dri­ven from Paris, Marx met Engels again in Brus­sels, and, com­mis­sioned by the Com­mu­nist League of Lon­don, they (most­ly Marx, it seems) fash­ioned one of the most influ­en­tial doc­u­ments of mod­ern his­to­ry, The Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo. It appeared in French just before the 1848 rev­o­lu­tion. The first Eng­lish edi­tion, in 1850, start­ed with the sen­tence: A fright­ful hob­gob­lin stalks through Europe.” In the 1888 trans­la­tion that became: A spec­tre is haunt­ing Europe— the spec­tre of Communism.”

The Man­i­festo demol­ished the idea that cap­i­tal­ism was a nat­ur­al and eter­nal con­di­tion. It was a stage in his­to­ry, which came out of feu­dal­ism and would give way to a more humane soci­ety. Cap­i­tal­ism brought about an enor­mous devel­op­ment in tech­nol­o­gy and pro­duc­tion: The bour­geoisie has cre­at­ed more mas­sive and more colos­sal pro­duc­tive forces than have all pre­ced­ing gen­er­a­tions togeth­er.” But work­ers were now noth­ing more than com­modi­ties, their lives sub­ject to the dom­i­na­tion of the mar­ket. And as cap­i­tal­ism becomes more and more obvi­ous­ly inad­e­quate to con­trol its own enor­mous growth, the work­ing class will become the instru­ment for its replacement.

As work­ers become a rul­ing class,” rep­re­sent­ing the vast major­i­ty of the nation, they will sweep away the con­di­tions for the exis­tence of all class­es, and will there­fore have abol­ished its own suprema­cy as a class.” The cli­mac­tic sen­tence of the first part of the Man­i­festo is pro­found­ly impor­tant, repu­di­at­ing any notion of a police state, and insist­ing on the ulti­mate goal of indi­vid­ual free­dom: In place of the old bour­geois soci­ety, with its class­es and class antag­o­nisms, we shall have an asso­ci­a­tion, in which the free devel­op­ment of each is the con­di­tion for the free devel­op­ment of all.”

Expelled from the con­ti­nent and find­ing refuge final­ly in Lon­don, Marx labored for years in the library of the British Muse­um on his epic work, Cap­i­tal. All this, while liv­ing with Jen­ny in the mis­er­able con­di­tions of Soho, and griev­ing as three of their chil­dren, two boys and a girl, died in the first years of life. Two girls, their first-born Jen­nichen and Lau­ra, had sur­vived, and a third, Eleanor, was born in Lon­don. (Eleanor was a remark­able child, polit­i­cal­ly pre­co­cious at the age of 8; Yvonne Kap­p’s two-vol­ume biog­ra­phy of Eleanor Marx is a won­der­ful descrip­tion of the life of the Marx fam­i­ly in London.)

Wheen is unspar­ing in his depic­tion of Marx’s nas­ti­ness, direct­ed against Fer­di­nand Las­salle (includ­ing anti-Semit­ic barbs, although anti-Semi­tism was not part of Marx’s phi­los­o­phy or polit­i­cal behav­ior), Proud­hon and oth­er intel­lec­tu­als of the left. He was unmoved by Proud­hon’s plea that they should not become the lead­ers of a new intol­er­ance” and respond­ed caus­ti­cal­ly to Proud­hon’s The Phi­los­o­phy of Pover­ty with his own dia­tribe, The Pover­ty of Phi­los­o­phy. He referred to anoth­er refugee from the 1848 rev­o­lu­tion in Ger­many, one August Willich, as an une­d­u­cat­ed, four times-cuck­old­ed jack­ass.” Willich chal­lenged him to a duel, which he wise­ly declined.

Yet Wheen also rec­og­nizes that Marx was a lov­ing hus­band and deeply affec­tion­ate father who, despite being unable to pay bills and depend­ing on Engels for finan­cial sup­port, bought a piano for his daugh­ters and sent them to the seashore to get them away from the ran­cid air of Soho. He read Dante, Shake­speare and Cer­vantes to Eleanor, whose love and devo­tion to him were expressed through­out her life. His ene­mies may have seen him dif­fer­ent­ly, but her father, Eleanor said, was the cheeri­est, gayest soul that ever breathed, a man brim­ming over with humor.”

It is to Wheen’s cred­it that, despite his some­times obses­sive atten­tion to the com­ic ele­ments in Marx’s life, he treats the man’s ideas with great respect. He does­n’t insist that Marx’s analy­sis in Cap­i­tal is flaw­less, but sees it as a work of the imag­i­na­tion,” its pur­pose an iron­ic one, jux­ta­posed with grim, well-doc­u­ment­ed por­traits of the mis­ery and filth which cap­i­tal­ist laws cre­ate in practice.”

He points out how Marx pre­dict­ed the world of today, with ever increas­ing con­cen­tra­tions of wealth in few­er and few­er hands, with cap­i­tal­ism roam­ing the globe in search of prof­its, with a deep­en­ing con­tra­dic­tion between the colos­sal growth of pro­duc­tion and the fail­ure to dis­trib­ute its fruits just­ly. Wheen says that the more I stud­ied Marx, the more astound­ing­ly top­i­cal he seemed to be.”

Those who would doubt Marx’s com­mit­ment to a tru­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­ety should study his elo­quent (sec­ond in lit­er­ary bril­liance only to his The Eigh­teenth Bru­maire of Louis Bona­parte) descrip­tion of the 1871 Paris Com­mune. The Com­mune abol­ished rents and debts, equal­ized wages, hailed cul­ture and edu­ca­tion, made lead­ers sub­ject to imme­di­ate recall by the peo­ple, destroyed the guil­lo­tine. Women played a cru­cial role in all of its activ­i­ties (see Gay Gul­lick­son, The Unruly Women of Paris). It was, Marx said, the most glo­ri­ous achieve­ment of our time.”

Howard Zinn is the author of A People’s His­to­ry of the Unit­ed States
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