by UnHerd Staff
Wednesday, 29
September 2021
Seen Elsewhere
15:43

What if Karl Marx had never lived?

One author argues that the world and our understanding of it would have benefited
by UnHerd Staff
Monument of Karl Marx in Chemnitz, Germany Credit: Hendrik Schmidt/DPA/PA Images

“The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world, in various ways” Karl Marx wrote in 1845. “The point is to change it.”

Marx’s writings laid the groundwork for future Communist leaders such as Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin, who in turn influenced Mao Zedong, Hồ Chí Minh, Fidel Castro, and Pol Pot. Global Communism may have peaked in 1975 when Saigon fell to the NVA. In 1991 a failed coup in Moscow signalled the end of the USSR. Today North Korea is perhaps the last Communist state on Earth.

The parties and regimes claiming to implement the ideas of Marx had a massively negative impact on human welfare. Tens of millions died. But Marx, whether we hold him responsible for this or not, undoubtedly changed the course of world history.

But what if he had never lived?

That’s the premise of a fascinating new paper by the social and political theorist Jon Elster in Arguing about Justice. Elster considers the impact of Marx both on society and social theory.

Would the world as a whole have been better or worse if Marx had never been born? Would our understanding of the world and the human condition have been advanced further, or diminished?

Elster believes Marx’s writing had a negative impact on the world:

Three besetting and closely interrelated sins of Marx’s thinking were intellectual hubris, moral hubris, and disregard for individual rights. The core intellectual flaw, inherited from Hegel, was the idea that the history of mankind had a foreordained and knowable end – ”end” having the double sense of terminus and goal. This end was the advent of communist society, following which the book of history would only, in Hegel’s phrase, contain blank pages. These general ideas get additional power by the belief that communism can be attained only through a violent revolution, with the implication that anyone who opposes the use of political violence is guilty of delaying an inevitable-cum-desirable outcome.
- John Elster

Marx’s ideology was “convenient” for dictators looking for justifications for violence:

It is easy to see how this rhetoric of omelette-making and egg-breaking could provide a useful after-the-fact justification for dictators bent on destructive aims. It is much more difficult to determine whether they would have acted less violently without this convenient ideology, and (a different issue) whether the latter might actually have inspired their actions…. Without Marx, German socialism might have followed the course advocated by Bernstein, and Russian revolutionaries might have remained stuck in the dead-end of anarchism.
- John Elster

Elster is just as clear on Marx’s impact on social theory. He was a “failure as an analytical economist.” He did “did much harm through his practice of functional explanation.” Marx:

…overrated the importance of class struggle and economic exploitation compared to other forms of social conflict. The transitions in Eastern Europe in 1989-90 and the uprisings in the contemporary Arab world did not take the form of struggles between classes defined in terms of property or nonproperty of the means of production. Had Marx not lived, the importance of class conflict for social change might have remained underestimated. As a result of his influence, it is now perhaps overestimated.
- John Elster

Ultimately Elster believes that “both the world and our understanding of it would have benefited” had Marx never been born.

Read the whole thing here. 

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George Glashan
George Glashan
11 months ago

If it hadn’t been Marx some other third tier thinker would have come up with something similar that those inclined to Marxism would have latched on to. I think there is a misunderstanding that Marx is their motivator, he never was, he is their excuse. These people want to do violence, if the violence is righteous so much the better, but the answer was always violence, How will Marxism be achieved? was the question they thought up afterwards as a justification.

Last edited 11 months ago by George Glashan
Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
11 months ago

Marx’s entire life is a template for the kind of wasters who follow him. Marry a rich man’s daughter, live off another rich man’s largesse, impregnate the maid and generally spend your life spewing out poison about how everyone else is worse, and I’m special because I’m so smart, all while never doing a tap of useful labour. Yes, I think it’s a fair bet the world would have been better off without him.

Alan B
Alan B
11 months ago

Ironically you sound like a Marxist denouncing a capitalist for living parasitically on others’ “congealed labor”! Or was Marx’s sin essentially to have been born un-wealthy? Perhaps the world would have been better had Marx not lived. But in the world as it is (regrettably), marxism at least is useful to keep the other fanatical ideologues honest.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
11 months ago
Reply to  Alan B

He wasn’t born “un-wealthy”. His father was an affluent lawyer. Like all of the worst types, he thought he was the leader of the moorlocks, without being a moorlock himself. Like I said, “special”.

Jonathan Ellman
Jonathan Ellman
11 months ago

I have a feeling that Marxism was an expression particular to a period of history of a more general human trait, namely, collectivism, as opposed to individualism. Those two polarities, interacting, attracting and repelling, have been expressed through countless religions and ideologies throughout the ages. If it hadn’t been Marxism, it would have been something else.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
11 months ago

Surely it was/is the product of the eternal battle between the haves and the have nots – and to this day the haves ‘have not’ learned that it is to their benefit to ensure that the have nots are reasonably happy with their lot in life – not too hard surely. if one has the brainpower to makes lots of money out of ‘the system’ surely they can figure out how to make ‘the system’ work for all. Or is human greed intransigent and corrupt and humanity is therefore doomed to be steadily overrun by the angry have nots who are sick of being exploited / manipulated by the haves. Cant say I blame them – maybe they should all go to China to train as worker robots. Marxism merely provided a template for the exercising of anger against perceived injustice – or the exercising of naive optimism as to the nature of the human psyche… The new bourgiosie are the corporate, financial, professional, political elites – and they surely need a decent dose of ‘have not’ outrage. Heck that appears to be happening right now………… !!

Jonathan Ellman
Jonathan Ellman
11 months ago
Reply to  chris sullivan

No, it’s not about wealth. It’s about status, a far more powerful force in human affairs. We are afraid of each other and therefore we seek status to protect us. Marxism was a means of organising a collective amongst the poor to raise its status as a class. Of course, Marxism has always been corrupted by the individual’s desire to raise status; never more so than now amongst the woke.
I don’t see ‘have not’ outrage happening anywhere in the world right now.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
11 months ago

What if Karl Marx had never lived?One author argues that the world and our understanding of it would have benefited”
To be fair, we could say that about many well known people, past and present. At my first meeting with her, my personal tutor warned me that 90% of the ideas that I would come across would be fanciful nonsense. She, at least, was right about that.

Last edited 11 months ago by Terry Needham
Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
11 months ago

Marx never anticipated the development of a managerial/executive class that would wrest control of firms away from the owners and thus get to exploit the workers and owners at the same time. For all that Marxism is taught in universities, I still find that most people who studied there still aren’t really aware that this class exists, and sees them only as servants of the owners, rather than their masters.

George Glashan
George Glashan
11 months ago

conveniently that unseen managerial class is where the Marxist graduates are looking to get a job.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
11 months ago
Reply to  George Glashan

I might pick a different word than ‘conveniently’, but yes. 🙂

Last edited 11 months ago by Laura Creighton
Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
11 months ago

Marx did not live to see what was done in his name. The irony is that his attempt to move away from idealism failed because he was idealistic about how people would behave in a classless, equal, society. Inevitably an individual sees a way to seize power for his own advantage. The very act of dismantling the established structures that perpetuate the historic class differences makes it easier for such individuals to create new structures with new class differences. The horrors they led to were the unintended, albeit inevitable, consequence of the solution Marx proposed to stop the injustice in the inequalities he observed. He was one of many thinking along similar lines so no, the world would not have been different without him.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
11 months ago

Marxism cannot be denounced as a bad idea. To do so would insult the work of thousands of scholars who have written millions of words, trying to apply the idea to real life situations. Today, hundreds of thousands of people are enchanted by the ideas of Marx and Engels.

The problem has always been to convert the paper ideas to three-dimensional real-life situations. Today, each Marxist clearly believes he can be the one to steer theory into reality – it is a lifetime aim for a lot of people. In order to justify this singularity of purpose it is necessary to believe that the rest, the unbelievers, just aren’t clever enough to see the point. Clauses like ‘Marx might have said A but what he really meant was B’ are frequently seen in Marxist works. In fact, the important thing for Marxists is that they believe in the theories, whatever the doubts voiced around them. They have to have faith in the ideas.

This sounds, in fact, more like a religion than a political belief.

Rod McLaughlin
Rod McLaughlin
11 months ago

World War One would have turned out much better if it wasn’t for those pesky Marxists