Marx’s 200th Birthday


So, let’s start with the obvious stuff. The followers of Marx made the Nazis look like amateurs on the whole “mass murder” thing, the public ownership of the means of production has, whenever tried, either collapsed or led to authoritarianism and the economic part of Marx’s theory is charitably described as a confused version of Pauline Christianity. So, this seems like an open and shut case of “Marx sucks and we should all hate him.”

Indeed, if you value human rights, this is probably a pretty good analysis. If you think we should reduce human suffering, this is probably a good analysis. If you think we are progressing towards some higher moral plane, this is probably a good analysis. However, if you compare Marx to the class of people I think he more properly belongs, the conquerors, the picture becomes much more interesting.

Alexander the Great earned his title by absolutely devastating the greatest empire the world had seen to that point. Alexander burnt the beautiful Persian capital of Persepolis to the ground either because he was drunk, because a hooker asked him to or both. He destroyed the temples of Zoroaster and, of course, killed a whole hell of a lot of people. His conquest created an economic depression that would last centuries in Persia. Upon this foundation of devastation, a Hellenized Persia and a Persianized Greece drove some of the greatest social and cultural developments of the classical world.

Genghis Khan and his kin also built their reputation on killing approximately 10% of the world’s population. The medieval Kievan Rus got absolutely smoked by the horsemen; the Golden Age of Islam, crushed beneath the hooves; the Song Dynasty reduced to rubble. None of this even mentions all the millions of women who found themselves suddenly the “wives” of the Mongols. Upon this pile of corpses, the Mongols re-opened the Silk Road, brought the enlightenment of China and India to the backwards medieval Europeans and became the first people to outlaw torture. Upon this foundation of death, Genghis and his successors created one of the most prosperous, diverse and culturally rich empires the world has ever seen.

Napoleon Bonaparte as well brought death and destruction on a previously unknown scale to the decaying remnants of feudal Europe. At least 3,000,000 people died in his wars and perhaps as many as 7,000,000. He reintroduced slavery to French holdings and destroyed the city of Jaffa, massacring the surrendered inhabitants. Upon these atrocities he established rule of law, ended serfdom, guaranteed due process, restrained monarchs with constitutions, elevated the middle class to dominance and forced a sleepy and conservative continent into one of the most rapid period of reform it has ever known.

If we think of Marx in this sense his legacy goes from a mere monster, an inspiration for Mao and Stalin and Pol Pot, to something much more nuanced. This man’s ideas, used to kill at least 100,000,000 people, to starve China into submission and endow Russia with the some of the greatest death camps the world has ever known, scorched the earth in much the same way Alexander, Genghis and Napoleon did. Where before the broken countries of the earth slumbered beneath the mass of complacent nobles and incompetent antique hereditary dynasties, Marx gave the common man the means to vengeance eternal. Marx came to these poor, these hungry, these disenfranchised and whispered in their ears.

You, oh poor and laboring, are good because history has declared it so.

You hunger because they, the useless bourgeoisie and idle intellectuals, are anathema.

They are anathema because history has declared it so.

Righteousness is yours. 

Vengeance is yours.

Go, bring vengeance to the corners of the earth and purge its evil.

Upon Marx’s unrivaled pile of victims, China returns to its historic glory. Upon the foundation of gulags and purges, Russia struggles on free of the Tsars. Crushed beneath the KGB, eastern Europe rises to heights never before seen. This, Karl Marx, is your legacy. Happy birthday.

I can’t decide how sincere I am in this analysis. Part of me wants to stand by it fully, pointing out that disaster usually is the soil from which progress sprouts. Part of me wants to find exceptions and point to progress borne of less traumatic processes. I cannot decide if it is callous to praise these bringers of death and progress or squeamish cowardice to shrink from praising them. 



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