Discover more from A User's Guide to History
The ghost of Karl Marx
Where did it go?
"A specter is haunting Europe," began the most influential political pamphlet in history. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were responding to the outbreak of revolution in several countries of Europe in 1848. They called the specter "communism," and they predicted that it would take down capitalism, the emerging mode of political economy in the most advanced industrializing countries.
The revolutions of 1848 failed but the specter persisted. Often called Marxism, it haunted the capitalist world for more than a century. The Marxists gained power in Russia in 1917 and China in 1949. They scared the daylights out of ruling regimes in many other countries, including the United States at times.
For Americans, a fundamental facet of the Cold War was the fear that newly emerging countries in Asia and Africa would voluntarily choose communism rather than capitalism and democracy. This fear drove the American government to employ covert operatives in such places as Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, Congo and Nicaragua to combat the Marxists. The United States fought regular wars in Korea and Vietnam to resist communist expansion. Washington built alliance systems that ringed the world to contain communism.
Political Marxism never caught on in the United States. American workers resented being lumped into a faceless proletariat, and they had higher hopes for themselves and especially their children than remaining in the working class all their lives.
Intellectual Marxism was a different story. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, a sizable number of American intellectuals concluded that capitalism had imploded, and they wanted to be on the cutting edge of the communist revolution to follow. This group thrived during World War II when the United States allied with the Soviet Union. But many ran for cover during the Cold War, often chased by McCarthyites and other rabid anticommunists.
The one place where the Marxists held out was in the academic world. Protected by tenure—which is what tenure is for—they employed Marxist ideas to challenge the constructs of capitalism. One might have expected them to be strongest in history departments, in that Marxism was a theory of history before it was anything else. And there were indeed a handful of high-profile Marxist historians. But the currency of history is demonstrable fact, on which Marxist theory kept running aground.
The Marxists made greater incursions in sociology and English departments. Sociologists, like social scientists in general, prefer theories to facts. Or, to put it otherwise, they employ facts to support theories, which are the coin of their realm. As for the English departments, their denizens have always put fiction above fact, often claiming that the former provides access to a higher truth.
Meanwhile in the real world, communism was losing its grip. Its failure to deliver material goods prompted reforms in Russia that didn't end before the Soviet Union had collapsed and communism been discredited there. Nominal communists still ruled in China, but in their quest for rapid economic growth they were acting suspiciously like capitalists.
By the mid 1990s, Marxism had pretty much lost its purchase on the human imagination. The Marxists might have held out in the academy, tenure having no enforceable term limits, but those once drawn to the teachings of Marx found a new cause in identity politics. Racism replaced capitalism as the putative source of evil in American society. As a catch-all for blame, racism was even more promising than capitalism, for where capitalism required capitalists to do its dirty work, "systemic" racism didn't require conscious racists. The system did it.
None were happier at this turn of events than the capitalists themselves, though they took care not to say so outside the boardroom. Marxism, whether right-headed or wrong, posed a direct threat to the capitalist status quo. Identity politics let the capitalists off the hook. Corporations quickly jumped on the anti-racism bandwagon, supporting the largely symbolic measures the anti-racists demanded. Adding people of color to boards of directors was easily done and at little expense. Injecting diversity into advertising campaigns was no harder.
That it all happened so quickly must have taken the capitalists by surprise. The spearhead of the popular response to the 2008 financial crisis was the Occupy Wall Street movement; the Black Lives Matter campaign a decade later breathed scarcely a word about Wall Street or other citadels of capitalist power.
Maybe Marx had simply got it wrong when he said that the history of humanity was the history of class struggle. Maybe the 1619 Project got it right when it said the history of America was the history of racial struggle.
Whatever the case, almost no one was talking about class in American politics in the early 2020s. Progressives spoke of raising taxes on the rich and reining in corporate wrongdoers, but nothing approaching actual socialism was anywhere seriously discussed, even by those who called themselves democratic socialists.
Marx’s specter had been laid to rest, for the time being, at least. But Banquo’s ghost returned to frighten Macbeth, and maybe the shade of Marxism would mount a similar comeback.