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.