We would be remiss, especially now, when the Democratic Party is poised to go farther left than it has been before, if we did not observe the 172nd birthday of the “Communist Manifesto,” published in London on Feb. 21, 1848.
The pamphlet, written by Karl Marx and the libertine industrialist Friedrich Engels, proclaimed “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” It posited that this struggle would inevitably end all struggles with the triumph of the working class over capitalism. It was slow to catch on at first, but by 1950, almost half the world’s population was living and languishing under Marxist governments.
The manifesto is easy to malign now given what eventually followed in its train, including the hoax of scientific Marxism, but its publication is still a pivotal event in the history of ideas. The standard take is that Marxism is a useful critique of capitalism, even if it is not a substitute for it, any more than you can replace a blender with monkey bars. When Bernie Sanders at the Las Vegas debate said, “You know what, Mr. Bloomberg, it wasn’t you who made all that money. Maybe your workers played some role in that,” he was building on Marx’s theory of surplus labor value.
Marx was the first ideologue. Ideology was the creation of Antoine Destutt, a French count and a proponent of the French Revolution until he was caught up in the Terror and imprisoned. With time on his hands, Destutt coined the term “ideology” for a philosophy that valued individual liberty, property and free markets. Napoleon Bonaparte turned it into a term of abuse for his liberal enemies. Decades later, Marx followed suit, calling Tracy an ideologue and his ideology a “fish-blooded bourgeois doctrine” – and in that moment, Marx owned it in ideology’s modern sense of a reductive world view. Marx’s first enemy was not capitalism; it was the liberals who countenanced it.
His ideas had tremendous appeal from the start because they were so strikingly original. In the 1850s, he wrote many of the editorials in The New York Tribune, a paper Abraham Lincoln read and which shaped Lincoln’s view of the preeminence of labor. Marx supported the abolition of slavery in America, as did Lincoln, but Lincoln could not go as far as Marx in believing wage labor was the same thing.For Marx, racism did not exist in the class struggle, any more than morality was real.
In his preface to the English edition of the manifesto in 1888, Engels, who closely guarded Marx’s reputation and also led Marxists into some of their more inane and destructive propositions, said he believed the work would “do for history what Darwin’s theory has done for biology.”
That is still debatable. Marxism has influenced the writing of history for the better and the worse. But down to the present, it is the confusion of the principles of Marxism with science and the war on liberalism that has defined the left. It is the savagery of the closed mind which covers itself in a mantle of compassion.
After Sanders won the Nevada caucuses last weekend, he tweeted: “I’ve got news for the Republican establishment. I’ve got news for the Democratic establishment. They can’t stop us.”
In response, the liberal-progressive black filmmaker Ava DuVernay tweeted: “I’m undecided. But I know this isn’t what I want.”
As night follows day, Sanders’ supporters said things to DuVernay such as, “How to get yourself on the guillotine list 101.” Asked to explain how they could savage a black woman for speaking her mind, one Sanders soldier said, “There is no racism in the class struggle.”