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Washington Post Blogs
May 8, 2018 Tuesday 5:00 AM EST
Why the specter of Marx still haunts the world
by Ishaan Tharoor
The 200th anniversary of Karl Marx's birthday meant a lot of things to a
lot of very different people. Over the weekend authorities in the
western German town of Trier, where Marx was born in 1818, unveiled a
giant Chinese-made statue of the philosopher. It drew both cheering
supporters from Germany's fringe Communist Party and a motley group of
"We now have 30 years of distance from reunification," said the town's
mayor, Wolfram Leibe. And as the memory of the former East Germany
recedes further into the past, he said, it "gives us the possibility to
look at Marx with a critical eye, without prejudice." Critics said he
was more interested in the influx of tourists coming to Trier and the
revenue their Marxist pilgrimages generate. (Who was it who said
something about history repeating itself as farce?)
Authorities in China, the last major nation run by a government that
lays claim to Marx's ideological legacy, eulogized the co-author of the
"Communist Manifesto" and "Capital." President Xi Jinping described Marx
as "the greatest thinker of modern times," while state media rolled out
a slick TV campaign declaring "Marx was Correct." Even as the People's
Republic drifts further away from its Maoist moorings - and as Xi styles
himself abroad as a defender of the capitalist order - his government is
trying to cultivate loyalty to Marx as part of a broader nationalist
In the West, conservative politicians and writers railed against the
violent communist regimes that took power in Marx's name, highlighting
the oppression and misery that characterized their rule.
Meanwhile, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier sounded a more
careful note. "We shouldn't fear Marx, but we don't need to build any
golden statues to him either," he said last week.
Amid all the noise, one central theme was clear: Whatever you think of
him, Marx still matters. The Economist, a British publication that has
spent decades sparring with Marxism's disciples, ran a lengthy story
this past week arguing that world leaders should still be reading him.
The political demise of the Soviet Union did nothing to diminish the
value of Marx's understanding of the forces of capitalism. Indeed, it
seems ever more relevant as countries around the world grapple with
widening social inequity. Marx's belief in the ideal of a classless
society may have made him into the bearded boogeyman of anti-communists,
but his economic analysis remains rather uncontroversial.
"Educated liberal opinion is today more or less unanimous in its
agreement that Marx's basic thesis - that capitalism is driven by a
deeply divisive class struggle in which the ruling-class minority
appropriates the surplus labor of the working-class majority as profit -
is correct," philosopher Jason Barker wrote for the New York Times.
The aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis led to the steady rise of
populist movements of various stripes in the West, along with a wider
realization that the havoc unleashed by bankers was not a bug but a
feature of the system. "The post-war consensus that shifted power from
capital to labor and produced a 'great compression' in living standards
is fading," the Economist noted. "Globalization and the rise of a
virtual economy are producing a version of capitalism that once more
seems to be out of control."
You can see the rapaciousness of that system in the withering away of
the welfare state in many countries, in the growing concentration of
wealth among the global megarich and in the deepening adversity facing a
generation of people whose parents were once comfortably in the middle
Marx would arguably take a look at the West in its current state, where
tech companies find new ways to make assets out of human labor, and see
echoes of the moment that gave birth to his ideas. "It is the Marx of
the 19th century who can attract the people of the twenty-first,"
Sven-Eric Liedman wrote in a new biography of Marx.
"The gig economy is assembling a reserve force of atomized laborers who
wait to be summoned, via electronic foremen, to deliver people's food,
clean their houses or act as their chauffeurs," the Economist
elaborated. "In Britain house prices are so high that people under 45
have little hope of buying them. Most American workers say they have
just a few hundred dollars in the bank. Marx's proletariat is being
reborn as the precariat."
Of course, while the Marxist diagnosis of the prevailing order is still
useful, Marxist prescriptions may offer a lot less. "We need Marx to
help us understand the state we're in," wrote the Guardian's Stuart
Jeffries, "though that is only a prelude to the bigger struggle, for
which his writings are less helpful: namely, how to get out of it."
It's not surprising that Marx is gaining far less attention in societies
where politicians ruled under the banner of communism. "The official
stance is that his revolutionary ideas brought misfortune to the Russian
people," Lev Gudkov, director of the independent Levada Center polling
institute, said to the Moscow Times last week. "Russians have all but
And despite the propaganda of China's rulers, the 200th anniversary of
Marx's birth isn't likely to lead to an ideological awakening in China's
deeply materialistic society.
"It's extremely hard to push Marxism in modern China especially in this
internet era. What it presents is severely unrealistic," Zhang Lifan, a
Beijing-based independent political analyst, said to the Associated
Press. "Even inside China, I believe most party members don't understand
or believe in Marxism anymore. Instead, they just use it as a tool for
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