Happy Birthday Karl Marx?

Saturday was Karl Marx’ 200th birthday. I hope your party went well. Hope you brought enough cake for everyone, making sure to cut it into equal-sized pieces. If you took too big a piece, I hope someone expropriated it from you. 

I make a lot of tongue-mostly-in-cheek Marx and communism jokes. I also own a decent amount of commie kitsch artwork and stuff like that. I have since I was a teenager and didn’t know my ass from my elbow when it came to history, economics or political philosophy.

My taste for such things developed as a reaction to growing up in Reagan’s America. I am not some sort of revolutionary or iconoclast, and while I’m something of a non-conformist, there is more about me and my life that is unremarkable in that regard than I usually care to admit. Still, when most of America zigged toward materialism and the glorification of business and capitalism in the 1980s, I zagged. It didn’t hurt that my father was a government employee and my relatives and the parents of most of my friends were union workers. The cultural zeitgeist of the 1980s tried to tell me that they were what’s wrong with America, that simply did not compute, nor has it ever, and thus you get a kid like I was, playing around with subversive ideas even if I didn’t understand them.

In college I actually took the time to study  history, economics and political philosophy, getting my degree in the latter category. In those courses I read plenty of Marx, Hegel, Smith, Mill, Keynes, Rawls, Weber, Kant and a bunch of other guys. Because I was short-sighted and more influenced by that 1980s materialism than I let on, I ended up going to law school and thus spent a good 14 years zigging back into the glorification of business and capitalism I had zagged away from when I was younger, but I eventually remembered what I cared about and started doing more fulfilling things. Despite the passage of time and a far more relaxed reading regimen than that which I undertook 25 years ago, I feel like I still know enough about all of that political philosophy to at least hold my own when it comes up. Despite some pretty big changes in my life over the past couple of decades, I think I’m more comfortable with where I now stand politically than I ever was before. 

There’s still something of that high school contrarian in me, though. I often joke that I’m not a Marxist, but I play one on the Internet. There’s more than a little bit of truth to that. Despite what people with whom I argue say about me, I’m not a Marxist or a communist. I lean pretty hard to the left and, when I envision an ideal way to set up society it contains a lot more public ownership and regulation than what’s viewed as desirable by most folks running things today, but I’m not an actual commie. When I cite Marx or someone like him in an argument or a tweet it’s usually for rhetorical purposes or, sometimes, because I’m just goofing around.  

It’s much easier to pretend to be a Marxist in modern America than to actually be one, of course, for reasons that have very little to do with Marxism itself. 

Political philosophies don’t have actual public relations firms working for them, but if Marxism did have one it sure as hell did a bad job. Of course, even the best P.R. guy would have a hard time spinning that whole “multiple tyrannical regimes killing millions while claiming to follow your teachings” thing. There isn’t a Powerpoint deck or Harry & David gift box that can change a lot of minds about that. It’s something that’s rather hard to be massaged, as they say. 

​There is a technically correct defense of Marxism that notes how, actually, those murderous regimes weren’t truly practicing Marxism, but you’re not gonna win that argument with most people. Shouting “scoreboard” isn’t always an intellectually honest way to win an argument, but it sure is a damn effective way of ending one. Leave your “actually, the Soviets weren’t Marxists” argument alone, comrade. It’s not gonna go well for you in most contexts. 

Maybe an even tougher problem for the Marxist P.R. Firm is the fact that, irrespective of the mass murders, Marx’s central thesis was discredited in the eyes of most people by events on the ground for a long damn time.

For the bulk of the living memory of the people running things today — and for the living memory of the parents and teachers of nearly everyone else — the very foundation of Marxist observation wasn’t panning out and seemed hopelessly out of touch with reality. Part of this was because of intentional reforms made to the capitalist system during the Depression and in the postwar period. Stuff like the success of the labor movement and subsequent pro-worker regulations and the advancement of civil rights improved the lives of the folks who Marx predicted would rise up in revolution. Accidents of history helped too, such as, you know, a massive global war decimating the planet, paving the way for insane economic growth in the parts of the world that didn’t get bombed to bits. America in the postwar period was a place of so much abundance that the proletariat’s chains weren’t nearly as uncomfortable as Marx predicted they would be.

Between the murderous tyranny of those waving Marx’ banner and the postwar progress in countries like the U.S., it was completely understandable why two or three generations of Americans dismissed Marx completely. Given what could be seen with one’s own two eyes, what possible reason would there be to take anything but a derisive look at this seemingly discredited, hirsute radical? It’s hard to sell any kind of revolution in that environment. 

I think it’s fair to say, though, that the America of 1945-1980 was a historical anomaly. The progress of that time, measured in terms of growing economic and social equality and the  improving wages and conditions for workers, is the historical exception, not the rule. Since the 1980s the progress we witnessed in that period has been slowed and, in some cases, reversed. Indeed, one of our two major political parties sees reversing that postwar progress as its mission. As a result, we are falling into patterns that have historically persisted.

As was the case in Marx’s time (and most other times) a very small number of people own and control most things. Conditions and compensation for workers are degrading. Even people’s health and life expectancy is degrading. This is talked about as a crisis — and and it is a crisis — but it’s not unprecedented. Historically speaking it’s merely reversion to the mean. As someone once said, history repeats itself. I’ll leave it to the drama critics to decide if its doing so now is tragedy or farce. 

Which brings us back to Karl Marx. As a philosopher who sought to put thought into action — he did not think of himself as some mere thinker; he truly aspired to be a revolutionary — he was obviously lacking. As Lennon (not Lenin) put it, “we all wanna see the plan.” Marx didn’t have anything approaching a specific one, those who took up his mantle had some horrifying ones and, as such, we can’t took to either Marx or to his followers for instructions on how to set up a good and just society. I am a lot of things, but one of those things is a pragmatist, and this is why I don’t call myself a Marxist or a communist. Proof-of-concept matters to me. 

That does not, however, mean that we should ignore Marx. His observations about the current capitalist order being thought of by its proponents as inevitable (note: it’s not), the flaws and injustices which come with that order (note: there are many), and the need for that order to be reorganized or, at the very least substantially reformed for the good of humanity (note: it is great), are worthy and instructive.

We must contend with those questions. We must ask ourselves whether current conditions are just and optimal and, if not, how they can be improved. To do so, we are obligated to critique capitalism and to rein in its excesses rather than pretend that the capitalist system as currently constructed was ordained by God Almighty and that questioning it is heresy or treason. If it weirds you out to call those observations, critiques and any subsequent reform derived therefrom Marxism, fine, don’t call it Marxism. If it weirds you out to even read Karl Marx, well, don’t read him (note: Das Kapital is a boring slog, but The Communist Manifesto is a banger). As a child of the Cold War, I get it: commies are bad and evil and even acknowledging their existence makes Lady Liberty cry.

But unless you look at the current economic, social and humanitarian conditions that persist and say “This is great! This is absolutely perfect and we mustn’t change a thing!,” you must contend with and seek to fix capitalism’s flaws. Marx did that first and a lot of folks who are seeking to do that now — hopefully to more humane and practical effect — have followed that path.

That may not justify you putting on a fake beard, going to Denny’s and asking for a free meal in honor of Marx’s birthday, but it does mean you can’t dismiss him or pretend that he and his ideas never existed. 

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the author of the daily baseball (and other things) newsletter, Cup of Coffee. He writes about other things at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.