by William H. Benson
November 7, 2002
At the age of thirty, Karl Marx fled his native Prussia following the collapse of the 1848 Revolution and migrated to London, where he chose to live the next thirty-five years of his life.
There, in London he and his wife and six kids lived hand-to-mouth, mainly because Marx considered himself a revolutionary and was too proud to work. What prevented the family from starving was Freidrich Engels, who out sympathy sent them money. At the same time Marx suffered from poor physical health but also from even poorer mental health. Bouts of depression and apathy distracted him from any meaningful work or ambition.
Many people admired Marx and what they thought was his brilliant work on political and economic theory, but he had few friends. And those one by one he turned on until they became his fiercest enemies. Only Engels remained true. Marx broke off all correspondence with his mother and was hostile to his sisters. Cordiality was not in his character. Only around his wife and children could he relax and become witty and playful.
With Engels in 1848 he had written The Communist Manifesto in which he had set forth his ideas. He saw history as a series of conflicts between classes–rich, poor, and middle. He did not approve of the free enterprise system because of the natural way it divided people into classes based upon the wealth individuals had acquired.
He suggested socialism as a way to end class divisions. Eliminate private ownership of the means of production–factories, farm land, resources, capital, and labor–and instead allow the state to produce goods, such as food, clothing, shelter, and transportation.
Marx then went on to make bold predictions. A classless society would result–a promised heaven on earth. Socialism is inevitable. And the working class (the proletariat) will overthrow the middle class (the bourgeoisie). It is the prophetic quality of Marxist thought that made it initially such a powerful force. The difficulty came with applying his thoughts to a real world.
Decades later a Russian named Vladimir I. Lenin adopted Marx’s ideas, created a Russian Communist party called the Bolsheviks, and on November 7, 1917 seized important points throughout Petrograd. That same evening soldiers and sailors led by the Bolsheviks attacked Czar Nicholas II’s Winter Palace. By November 15 Lenin also controlled Moscow.
The problem with Marxist philosophy as applied by Lenin in Russia was its real and actual and terrible outcome–Joseph Stalin. The cruelest dictator of all known history, he turned on everybody. Millions faced arrest, imprisonment, and extermination. All bent to his wishes. The spy system he instituted fostered terror and suspicion and poisoned the atmosphere. As if a black cloud had descended across the Russian land, trust between ruler and ruled evaporated.
Instead of a classless society, there were two: Stalin in one and everybody else in the other. Marx’s shiny and modern theory had turned sour and ugly when placed in the hands of the gangster Stalin. Not exactly what Marx had intended. And so it was a happy day in March of 1953 when Stalin breathed his last breath.
In the early 1960’s Nikita Kruschev still held firmly to Marx’s predictions when he taunted, “We will bury you.” But then in the early 1980’s Ronald Reagan called Russia “an evil empire”, and the Russians winced, knowing he might be right but not wanting to admit it. Then, in December of 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin agreed that the U.S.S.R. would cease to exist as of January 1, 1992. The Russian Communist Party fell apart, and Marxist thought was discredited as a workable and desirable political system for people.
A Russian observer once remarked, “The reason America has succeeded when Russia did not is because for years millions of Americans have climbed out of bed every day and gone to work. They then get paid money which they then spend. Karl Marx’s theory sounds better, but in practice the Russians preferred not to work when they did not get paid.”
Is it not remarkable that Karl Marx, who chose not to work, would devise a theory where the people also chose not to work?