What's Left of Marxism?

By Skousen, Mark | Freeman, August 1998 | Go to article overview

What's Left of Marxism?


Skousen, Mark, Freeman


"The world described by Marx and Engels in 1848 in passages of dark, laconic eloquence, is recognizably the world we live in 150 years later."

-ERIC HOBSBAWM'

Communism as a political movement may be dead, but Marxism as an intellectual movement lives on. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Karl Marx and Frederick Engel's profound polemic, Manifesto of the Communist Party. The date may have been missed by devotees of the free market, but the 1848 pamphlet is being reviewed and celebrated by radical intellectuals everywhere. A dressed-up "modern" edition has just been published, with an introduction by historian Eric Hobsbawm, who presumably would like to reignite the dying flames of Marxist dogma.

Gary North has his "fat book" theory: all revolutionary works are tomes of biblical proportion. Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, Ludwig von Mises's Human Action, and Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged come to mind. Marx wrote a three-volume work, Das Kapital. But there are also a handful of declarations, pamphlets, and small books that have changed the world. Thomas Jefferson's "Declaration of Independence," Tom Paine's Common Sense, and the Four Gospels of the New Testament are good examples.

The Communist Manifesto fits into the second category. In rereading it, I couldn't help feeling the passionate power, the pungent style, and the astonishing simplicity of Marx and Engels's words. I can easily see how a young revolutionary could be swayed by these unforgettable lines: "A specter is haunting Europe-the specter of Communism.... The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.... Let the ruling classes tremble at a communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!"

I can remember feeling similar emotions when I read Murray N. Rothbard's What Has Government Done to Our Money?, first published in 1963 (Mises Institute, 1990). It will change forever your view on money and economics. And his penetrating essay, "The Great Society: A Libertarian Critique," will forever change your outlook of government.2 Rothbard is the free market's answer to Marx.

Market vs. Government Failure

But the attraction of The Communist Manifesto is ideological as well as emotional. How can anyone not be moved-favorably or unfavorably-by this critical appraisal of "bourgeois" capitalism: "The bourgeoisie . . . has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous `cash payment.' It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom-free trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation."3

Marxist rulers may no longer control the political and economic lives of millions, but their ideology of exploitation, alienation, and class struggle still haunts the academic world of law schools, sociology departments, and literary-theory classes. According to Hobsbawm, Marx's insights on capitalism are relevant today. Hobsbawm envisions capitalism as "a world system capable of marshalling production on a global scale; its devastating impact on all aspects of human existence, work, the family and the distribution of wealth; and the understanding that, far from being a stable, immutable system, it is, on the contrary, susceptible to enormous convulsions and crisis, and contains the seeds of its own destruction."4

And I thought Austrians were doomsdayers! …

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