Monday, 7 May 2018

Full Marx

The 200th birthday of Karl Marx certainly didn't pass unnoticed, with much discussion of the old monster and his legacy in the press and on the radio over the weekend. Clearly much can justly be laid at his door, but I wonder if a lot of the bloody stuff mightn't have happened anyway, even if Marx had never written a word. After all, the template for murderous, all-devouring terror in the name of remaking the world (of course on 'scientific' principles) was set by the French revolution, and arguably the horrific Chinese and Cambodian revolutions, if not the Russian one, could have taken their 'thinking' straight from the French model. That the Russian revolution occurred as it did was the result of a particular freakish combination of events, and could never have been predicted – it certainly wasn't foreseen by Marx, nor has any revolution ever happened along the lines envisaged by the German sage (industrial proletariat seizes power as capitalism collapses under the weight of its own contradictions).
  So here's a thought experiment: what essential difference would it have made to the course of history (as against the history of ideas, social sciences, etc) if Marx had never existed, and the line of revolutionary terror had run straight from French 'Enlightenment' ideas to the revolutionaries of the 20th century? (Pol Pot and Deng Xiaoping both spent several years in France and Pol Pot greatly admired Rousseau.) Indeed, might not the roots of bloody revolution be traced still further back, to religiously based (Christian and Islamic) millennarian ideas about remaking and redeeming the human world at any cost? Or maybe even to something destructive and delusional in human nature itself...


  1. I've just finished Bertrand Russell's "The History Of Western Philosophy", and it seems to me the idea of remaking the world into an ideal probably goes back to the Greek admiration for Sparta, bits of these philosophies pass into Christianity and beyond. So it certainly exists as an impulse going back into antiquity. Though certainly one gets the idea the 'social' aspect of it is steadily gaining hold though the middle ages (Hobbes 'Leviathan' for example).

    In all of the examples of revolution given, the philosophies espoused have only really served as window dressing for power grabs which had been made possible by external events. So in my somewhat limited opinion, history would have taken much the same course. It's not Marx so much as Lenin who is important to the course of history, the man of action.

  2. Thanks Craig – I'm sure you're right that it all goes back to the Greeks (as most things do). Maybe it all got out of hand with the growth of empires and nation states bringing the means and opportunity for wholesale idealistic slaughter. A sorry story...

  3. Revolution needs an ideology to hang its murderous impulses on. Marx gave them the script as iconic as Che's face.