The grotesque sight of politicians lining up to praise communism’s founder should not blind us to the crimes committed in its name
One of the uncanniest commemorations of modern times took place last month. It centred on the Basilica of Constantine, one of several imposing remains of the ancient Roman colony of Augusta Treverorum, later the German city of Trier. This vast brick Aula Palatina — once the throne room of Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, now the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer — was the setting for a celebration of the bicentenary of the birth of Karl Marx on May 5, 1818.
The ceremony culminated in a remarkable tribute to Marx by Jean Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission. “Karl Marx was a philosopher who thought into the future,” Juncker rhapsodised. He had recognised “the task of our time — Europe’s social dimension that remains to this day the poor relation of European integration”. Having designated Marx as godfather of the European Union, Juncker insisted that Marx’s ideas had been posthumously “reformulated into virtually the opposite” and denied that the author of The Communist Manifesto had anything to do with the crimes of communist regimes: “Marx isn’t responsible for all the atrocities his alleged heirs have to answer for.”
Such an official endorsement of an English-speaking thinker — Adam Smith, say — would be unthinkable, but the European Commission pulled out all the stops for the German ideologue. (It is worth noting that Juncker’s speeches are usually written for him by Professor Martin Selmayr, his German chef de cabinet, whom he recently — and controversially — promoted to be Secretary-General of the Commission, the EU’s most senior civil servant.)
On the same day President Xi Jingping of China described Marx as “the greatest thinker of modern times”. Xi had donated a huge bronze statue to stand guard over Marx’s birthplace; it was unveiled by Juncker amid much pomp. Meanwhile in London, John McDonnell was also defending Marx, who died here in 1883. “Marxism is about developing democracy,” Labour’s Shadow Chancellor declared, “but to have an honest debate we need to be able to cut through the lies about Marxism.”
Juncker, Xi and McDonnell are correct in one respect: Marx was no ordinary thinker. Indeed, he dismissed philosophers who had merely interpreted the world: “The point is to change it.” And change the world he certainly did.
Two centuries have passed since Marx was born, but we are still living in his shadow. No man in modern times has had more influence. Yet nobody, perhaps, has done more harm to humanity.
More than a hundred million people have been murdered in his name by Stalin, Mao and other dictators who were his disciples. Billions more have suffered under Communism, the ideology Marx created and which once ruled nearly half of mankind. But for Marx, there would have been no Gulag Archipelago in the Soviet Union, no Holodomor in Ukraine, no Cultural Revolution in China, no Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, nor any other famines, purges and genocides carried out in the name of Communism.
Marx’s ideas undeniably have a superficial appeal. The promise of a world without extremes of wealth and poverty, without homelessness and begging, above all without middle-class guilt, is particularly attractive to intellectuals. The idea of common ownership, too, is exciting — especially for the young — just as high taxes are always popular with those who don’t have to pay them. Many people secretly resent the rich and successful. Marx enables us to do so with a clear conscience.
As for all the wickedness done in the name of Marx: his defenders, such as Juncker and McDonnell, insist that he was in no way to blame for crimes committed long after his death by regimes that called themselves Marxist. But are these apologists right?
The most famous of these regimes, the Soviet Union, no longer exists. Seven decades of “actually existing socialism” turned it into what Ronald Reagan called the “evil empire” — an economic basket case run by the secret police, using subversion and sometimes force to impose its ideology on the rest of humanity. The catastrophic flaws of the Soviet system may legitimately be attributed to Marx, who envisaged a violent revolution followed by a “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Thanks to his blueprint, the Communist Party took absolute control of the economy, society and culture, with no democratic accountability, no rule of law and no individual freedom. These and other ideas were rejected because Marx himself had rejected them as “bourgeois”.
The Russian Revolution began the most ambitious human experiment in history. A century later, we can see that it was an unmitigated disaster, from which neither Russia nor the other Soviet republics has ever recovered.
The damage done by Marx’s ideas was not limited to the Soviet Union, but extended to its satellite regimes in Eastern Europe and across the Third World. One of the less familiar Marxist genocides took place in Ethiopia under the Mengistu dictatorship in the 1970s and ’80s. Half a million students, intellectuals and others were murdered in Ethiopia’s “Red Terror”, while a similar number died in the famine created by Mengistu’s policies. After he was deposed, Mengistu was given asylum in Zimbabwe by another Marxist dictator, Robert Mugabe. Tried and convicted but never extradited, Mengistu still lives there.
The continent that has perhaps suffered most from Marx’s legacy is Asia, and the worst example of all is China. It is no accident that Xi Jinping’s People’s Republic has taken over the role of the defunct Soviet Union in perpetuating the cult of Karl Marx. Xi leads a one-party state that was founded on Marxist idea of class dictatorship — but under Mao the peasantry replaced the proletariat.
Between 1958 and 1961, the so-called “Great Leap Forward”, Mao deliberately created the greatest famine in recorded history, in which some 38 million people starved to death, in order to turn China into a Soviet-style, centrally-controlled industrial economy: “Production first. Life takes second place.”
The Chinese dictator was so certain that his Marxist ideas were correct that he went on exporting food to earn foreign currency even when the population was dying en masse. He told his Russian allies: “We are prepared to sacrifice 300 million Chinese for the victory of the world revolution.” That was then half the country’s population — and he told his cronies: “Half of China may well have to die.” Yet throughout this period, Mao was boasting to the world that China “can produce as much food as we want”.
According to the author Jung Chang, then an insider, under his rule up to 27 million died in slave labour camps known as “laogai”. Shamefully, the Chinese communist regime still has such camps. Up to 2 million people live and work there at any one time and the conditions remain horrific.
Then there is North Korea. Three generations of leaders — Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-il and now Kim Jong-un — have sacrificed countless individuals and enslaved 25 million people, all in the name of Marx. In the mid-1990s, for example, this nightmarish country endured a man-made famine which left hundreds of thousands dead. Even today, a third of the country’s children are malnourished. Having lived for 70 years on a diet of corn and pickled cabbage, North Koreans are on average two inches shorter than South Koreans. Nobody knows for sure how many have died under the communist regime, but around 200,000 prisoners live in concentration camps, where the annual death rate is 40 per cent. Yet Kim Jong-un boasts of his costly nuclear programme and struts on the world stage.
Latin America is another continent where Marxism has wrought havoc. First there was Cuba, which under Fidel Castro’s communist dictatorship declined from a relatively wealthy nation to its present abject poverty. Castro’s only export was revolution and his poster boy was Che Guevara, hero of innumerable students. But the propaganda disguised Castro’s brutal treatment of minorities and his use of force to prevent the entire population emigrating to Florida.
Nearby Venezuela, once the richest country in central America, has been devastated by the Marxist policies of the late Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolas Maduro. In 2006 Chávez offered Ken Livingstone subsidised diesel for London buses. Now, 12 years later, 90 per cent of Venezuelans live in desperate poverty. Last year, the average Venezuelan lost 24lb in body weight; according to experts, the country is on the verge of mass starvation.
These are just a few of the most notorious examples. In every case where Marx’s ideas have been put into practice, the country in question has suffered economic, political or human catastrophe — and usually all three. Yet wilful ignorance in the West has enabled Marxists to escape responsibility for their failure.
Across Europe, politicians inspired by Marx still enjoy power and prestige. In the last French presidential election, the Marxist demagogue Jean-Luc Mélenchon took one fifth of the vote. He is now seeking to rally workers and students to bring down the elected government of Emmanuel Macron by force. In many parts of the former communist regions of Germany, the Marxist Left Party won more votes at last year’s election than either the Social Democrats, who abandoned Marxism some 60 years ago, or Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
If we are to avoid repeating the mistakes of communism, we must never forget its terrible history and those who bravely endured its evils. We should remember why they died and who bears responsibility for their deaths. Generations born after the Cold War are not inoculated against the Marxist propaganda that still pervades our culture. Last month’s anniversary was worthy of commemoration, if only for the sake of the victims. But it was not an occasion for celebrating the life of a man whose dreams brought forth monsters — monsters that live on today.
Marx still matters in the universities, where a recent survey found that at least eight out of ten staff are on the Left. His ideas still haunt the media and the arts. Many academics, journalists and artists reject Marx. But a significant number of those who teach, inform and entertain the young are Marxists.
His books are regularly rediscovered and attempts are made to airbrush the Marxist past. Professor Terry Eagleton, whose works of criticism are studied by every student of Eng Lit, is also the author of Why Marx Was Right. The title of the bestselling Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Professor Thomas Piketty, the French economist, deliberately echoes Marx’s classic Das Kapital.
And Marx still matters to left-wing politicians — ask Jeremy Corbyn and his entourage. The Labour leader calls Marx “a great economist”. The Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, who reveres Marx as well as Lenin and Trotsky, thinks there is “a lot to learn” from Das Kapital. Corbyn’s Director of Communications and Strategy, the Guardian journalist Seumas Milne, and his Special Political Advisor, Andrew Murray, are both proud to call themselves Marxists — of the hardline “tankie” variety. “Against imperialists,” wrote Murray, “we are all Stalinists.” If Labour wins the next election, Britain would have its first Marxist government.
So why does Marx still arouse such admiration — even from centre-Right figures such as Juncker? It is in part a romantic desire to see in him the eternal rebel. The young Karl rebelled against everything: his family, his teachers and the censors. Though proud of his doctorate in philosophy, Marx abandoned an academic career to become an itinerant agitator. Finding Germany provincial, he moved to Paris, got himself expelled, then stirred up trouble in Brussels. Arrested there in 1848, he fled back to Paris, then to Cologne. After being kicked out of both Germany and France, like most Continental revolutionaries he ended up in London. With his lifelong collaborator and benefactor Friedrich Engels (himself a champagne socialist who lived on the proceeds of capitalism), Marx founded the Communist League and later took over the First International, but by his death in 1883 the idea of a Communist party was just that — an idea.
Only in 1848 did Marx find himself in the middle of a real revolution. Convinced that his time had come, he published the shortest (and hence most widely read) of his works: The Communist Manifesto. The celebrated and often paraphrased final words of this pamphlet read: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of the world, unite!” In fact, Marx plagiarised the first sentence from Jean-Paul Marat, the sanguinary French revolutionary who was stabbed in his bath by Charlotte Corday. (It was typical of Marx to side with the tyrant rather than the avenger.) He stole the last sentence from another German journalist, Karl Schapper.
This was not the only example of Marx the plagiarist. “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” was plundered from Louis Blanc, a French socialist. Yet though his prose is often turgid, Marx did have a sinister gift for the chilling phrase. Only he could have come up with “the dictatorship of the proletariat”.
An unforgiving polemicist, he devoted entire books to character assassination. In his letters to Engels, he revealed extreme racial prejudice. For example, he refers to his Cuban son-in-law and acolyte Paul Lafargue as a “n**ger” and his socialist rival Ferdinand Lassalle as a “Jewish n**ger”. Having married an aristocrat, he became a crashing snob, sneering at self-made businessmen while denigrating the underclass as criminals, the lumpenproletariat. He saw no contradiction between his own inveterate sponging and denouncing “parasitical” capitalists who exploited their workers.
Marx was also a domestic tyrant — and a cheat. Having spent all his posh wife Jenny von Westphalen’s money, he expected her to live in squalor with their three daughters in a tiny flat in Soho, above what is now the restaurant Quo Vadis. Their maid, Helene (“Lenchen”) Demuth, devoted her life to the family for no wages — an early example of modern slavery. Marx also fathered a son, Fred, by her, thereby further humiliating Jenny, who was obliged to live in a ménage à trois. Fred and his mother, the only proletarians for whom Marx ever had personal responsibility, received nothing in his will and after his death the whole affair was covered up for many decades. Marxists, it turns out, minded rather a lot about the bourgeois respectability of their hero.
Despite his egocentric behaviour and dyspeptic disposition, the image of Marx as a man of intellectual rigour and iron integrity has been carefully cultivated ever since his death. His influence is still ubiquitous. When in the 1970s the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski wrote his three-volume history of Marxism, he was obliged to include almost every subject in the humanities; not much has changed since. When the Berlin Wall fell, some predicted the eclipse of Marx too. Yet Marx’s reputation survived and after the crash of 2008 it has undergone a resurrection.
At his graveside, Engels praised him as a man of science: “As Darwin discovered the law of the development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of the development of human history.” The widespread acceptance of such bogus claims to academic respectability explains why Tony Blair could get away with making a diehard Marxist historian such as the late Eric Hobsbawm a Companion of Honour.
Ever since the 1960s, the youthful Marx has also made a comeback, most recently in last year’s stage comedy Young Marx, written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Rory Kinnear. The authors present Marx as the hard-drinking bad boy of revolution, climbing lampposts to evade creditors and police: a genial rogue and a roguish genius.
Rather than revolutions and five-year plans, however, these days the emphasis is on spreading the gospel of “cultural Marxism” — what the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci called “the long march through the institutions”. We can see the results of that march throughout the public sector in Britain. Trade unions have always had a strong Marxist presence, from Jack Jones and Arthur Scargill in the past to today’s leader of Unite, “Red Len” McCluskey. So too have media institutions such the BBC and Channel Four — both of which have in the past employed the openly Marxist Paul Mason as an economics correspondent. And then there is Momentum, Jeremy Corbyn’s private movement of far-left loyalists, which targets moderate Labour politicians for deselection. The Home Secretary Sajid Javid once described Momentum as “a neo-fascist organisation”. Whether that is fair or not, Momentum is certainly on the march.
It’s time to take a long hard look at who Marx really was. Behind the bushy, grandfatherly beard was a ruthless, despotic megalomaniac who thought the end — a classless, collectivist society — justified any means, however violent, including what we would now call ethnic cleansing. The shocking truth is that Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Pol Pot and Milosevic (to mention only a few Marxist dictators) were not necessarily unfaithful to the letter or the spirit of his writings.
Take, for instance, the article “Hungary” of 1849, published in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, the German newspaper of which Marx was then editor. It was written by Engels under Marx’s direction, and it advocates the “total extinction” of “ethnic trash”. It concludes: “The next world war will cause not only reactionary classes and dynasties, but entire reactionary peoples to disappear from the earth. That too is progress.”
This justification of genocide was republished in 1913 and so has been known for more than a century — yet Marxists ignore this and other texts that might reveal their hero’s feet of clay. During the 1930s, indeed, Stalin became so alarmed about the damaging material that might emerge from the complete edition of Marx and Engels then being prepared in Moscow that he had its editors liquidated.
One reason why Marx did not care how many individuals, classes or peoples were sacrificed on the altar of revolution is that he believed in historical determinism. In 1871 he encouraged the Paris Commune (which was led not by Marxists but more moderate socialists), watched in grim satisfaction as its supporters were slaughtered by the forced of the Third Republic, and mythologised the whole episode into a communist uprising. Violence was inevitable — and anyway the revolution required martyrs.
Another reason for his ruthlessness is that he never bothered to understand how wealth is created. Marx’s theory ignores the prosperity generated by free markets or the benefits of private property. He denied the contribution made by the middle class (or “bourgeoisie”) to the unprecedented riches of Victorian society, insisting that their profits consisted of “surplus value”, labour stolen from the working class (or “proletariat”). Marx stuck rigidly to the idea that value was created solely by labour — an idea that was refuted in his lifetime by economists such as Menger, Jevons and Walras. Marx never understood the role of markets in determining the price of both goods and labour.
Marx was also certain that if the rich got richer, the poor would get poorer, by a process he called “immiseration”. Eventually, the whole capitalist system would collapse — and the most advanced industrial economy would be the first to do so. In the 19th century, that meant Britain. As he toiled away on his magnum opus in the then new Round Reading Room of the British Museum, a British revolution seemed to Marx inevitable. Though he never used the word “capitalism” in Das Kapital, he looked forward to its downfall. The proletariat, led by the party, would take over the means of production from the hated bourgeoisie. Finally, the state would “wither away”.
What happened was the opposite. As the rich got richer, the poor got better-off too. By the time the first volume of Das Kapital appeared in 1867, it was obvious that Victorian England was in no danger of revolution. The working class was more prosperous than ever before, thanks to capitalism. Most were not radicals, either — just the opposite, indeed, because they had too much lose. That year, Benjamin Disraeli, the Conservative Prime Minister, doubled the number of voters with his Second Reform Act. Many turned out to be working-class Tories.
The economist John Maynard Keynes is supposed to have said: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” But Marx refused to change his mind. He tried to make the facts fit his theory, and he never finished Das Kapital. (Incidentally, a signed copy of the first and only volume to be published in Marx’s lifetime is now on sale from a dealer in Vienna for €1.5 million [£1,365,000]. This staggering price indicates that among the devotees of Das Kapital must be some very rich capitalists.)
Unable to admit that he had been wrong all along, Marx became ever more dogmatic and intolerant. He had no time for British achievements such as free trade, free speech or the abolition of slavery, nor for reformers such as William Wilberforce, Lord Shaftesbury, Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale and John Stuart Mill.
There is no evidence that Marx cared about liberty, democracy or the rule of law. He showed no gratitude for the protection of the law that he, as a refugee and exile, was given in Britain. Nor did he appreciate the freedom of the press that enabled him to publish anything he liked, including articles claiming that the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, was a Russian agent. Over more than three decades that Marx lived in London, he never had to dread that the police would come knocking on his door in the middle of the night.
Yet the secret police turned out to be essential to realising the Marxist vision. Even one of his admirers called him “a democratic dictator” — though there was nothing democratic about him, whatever John McDonnell may say. Like Comrades Corbyn and McDonnell, Marx was a conspiracy theorist.
Indeed, Marx is the ultimate source of the latest brand of conspiracy theory: left-wing anti-Semitism, which has spread like an epidemic in Corbyn’s Labour Party. Though he was the grandson of a rabbi, his first significant publication was an essay, On the Jewish Question, which has become notorious for its vicious and scatological hostility to Jews and Judaism. It claims that Jews worship money and created Christianity in order to attain world domination. Later, he demonised Jewish bankers: “Behind every tyrant there is a Jew.” Marx’s anti-Semitism was no mere foible: for scholars of the subject such as Julius Carlebach, it was the “indispensable link between Luther and Hitler”.
Yes, Marx still matters. Having given birth to some of the most evil chapters of modern history, his personality and ideas continue to exercise a baleful influence on our world. His bewhiskered bust glares down at us in Highgate Cemetery, reproaching posterity for failing to obey his diktat. When this huge and hideous monument was unveiled in 1956, the Guardian gushed about its “formidable benignity”, evidently awed by “the man whose spirit now dominates approximately half the world”. That year, Soviet tanks crushed the Hungarians.
Even today, plenty of people, including some who should know better, persist in seeing Marx as a prophet. But prophets prophesy; he dictated. It is time to consign Karl Marx and all his works to the dustbin of history.