Who Is Karl Marx?

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Sep 24, 2018

When writing The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx thought he was providing a road to utopia, but everywhere his ideas were tried, they resulted in catastrophe and mass murder. In this video, Paul Kengor, Professor of Political Science at Grove City College, illuminates the life of the mild-mannered 19th Century German whose ideas led to the rise of some of the most brutal dictators in world history.

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Marx’s anti-capitalist ideas inspired the first communist regimes, which went on to murder about 100 million people in the 20th century.

  • Karl Marx (b. 1818 in Trier) was the author of The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital. Marx’s ideas were influenced by the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, who believed “the State is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth.”View Source
  • Marx believed that the social group of workers were exploited by capitalists who were able to purchase the labor of workers at a price lower than should have been paid.View Source
  • Marx wrote that a worker’s revolution born out of class struggle was required to correct capitalism’s injustices.View Source
  • Over the course of the 20th century, about 100 million people were killed at the hands of Marxist regimes.View Source

Marx’s utopian vision for humanity included the complete “abolition of property and inheritance,” making all dependent on the state.

  • In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx promoted the “abolition of property and inheritance” and the “centralization of credit, communication, and transport in the hands of the state.”View Source
  • Marx’s war on property and wealth stemmed from his war on capitalists, who he defined as those who owned “the means of production” – specifically factories – but were otherwise not involved in any of the physical labor of the production process.View Source
  • Related reading: “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Communism” – Paul KengorView Source

Marx’s ideas were only a theory in his lifetime, but in the 20th-century regimes put it into practice with cataclysmic results. 

  • Karl Marx died in 1883 in London, England, before any of his ideas were put into practice.View Source
  • Nothing much came of Marx’s theory of communism until Vladimir Lenin took power in Russia in 1917.View Source
  • Lenin used a police state and labor camps to enforce communist policies.View Source
  • Stalin continued and expanded the death and destruction of Lenin’s rule.View Source
  • In 1965, Fidel Castro’s communist party took over Cuba, spreading communism to the Western Hemisphere.View Source
  • In Mao Zedong’s communist China, approximately 65 million died from starvation and imprisonment.View Source

Modern defenders of Marxism somehow manage to overlook its undeniable record of economic failure and violence. 

  • Marxism’s modern advocates claim that “real” socialism has never been tried.View Source
  • Marxism, we are told, is, at its essence, about sharing what we have: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”View Source
  • According to a 2016 survey, 44% of millennials would rather live in a socialist country than a capitalist one.View Source
  • Many defenders of socialism are using a wrong definition. A poll in 2014 showed that only 16 percent of millennials could correctly explain that socialism means that government owns and runs the means of production.View Source
  • Related reading: “100 Years of Communism—And 100 Million Dead” – Wall Street JournalView Source

As Marx himself admitted, communism can only be put into practice by “despotic” means.

  • In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx said, “Of course, in the beginning, [communism] cannot be affected except by means of despotic inroads.” His ends could “be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.”View Source
  • Since few people give up their liberties and property voluntarily, creating a Marxist state has always required guns, prisons, and summary executions.View Source
  • “I don’t need proof to execute a man,” Che Guevara is said to have boasted. “I only need proof that it’s necessary to execute him!”View Source

Marx wanted to overthrow all existing social conditions—religion, family, personal possessions, freedom, and democracy.

  • Karl Marx wanted to overthrow all existing social conditions — religion, family, personal possessions, freedom, and democracy.View Source
  • To do this, Marx called for a worker’s revolution born out of class struggle to tear down the capitalist systemView Source
  • Related reading: “Takedown: From Communists to Progressives, How the Left Has Sabotaged Family and Marriage” – Paul KengorView Source

Marx theorized that under communism the state would “wither away.” The opposite happened. 

  • Karl Marx theorized that the state would “wither away” under communism, but exactly the opposite happened.View Source
  • Another key theory Marx got wrong was the impact of the industrial age. Contrary to Marx’s claims, throughout the industrial age, working conditions constantly improved and wealth expanded.View Source
  • Related reading: “The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism” – Paul KengorView Source

Marx never had to experience the real-world consequences of his ideas; instead, he benefited from living in a capitalist society. 

  • Karl Marx spent most of his adult life living freely in London, England.View Source
  • Marx lived off the generosity of his collaborator and patron Friedrich Engels, who proved to be a successful businessman, thriving in the capitalist system.View Source
  • Marx spent his days in the Reading Room of the British Museum, researching and writing.View Source
  • Related reading: “Dupes: How America's Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century” – Paul KengorView Source

Ideas have consequences.

Sometimes good. Sometimes bad.

And sometimes catastrophic – like the ideas of Karl Marx.   

Born in Trier, Germany in 1818, Marx didn’t invent communism. But it was on his ideas that Lenin and Stalin built the Soviet Union, Mao built communist China, and innumerable other tyrants, from the Kims in North Korea to the Castros in Cuba, built their communist regimes. Ultimately, those regimes and movements calling themselves “Marxist” murdered about 100 million people and enslaved more than a billion.

Marx believed that workers, specifically those who did manual labor, were exploited by capitalists – the people who owned, as Marx put it, “the means of production” (specifically, factories) – but who did very little physical labor themselves.

Only a workers’ revolution, Marx wrote in Das Kapital, could correct this injustice.

What would that revolution look like?

Marx and his collaborator, Friedrich Engels, spelled it out point-by-point in The Communist Manifesto. It included the “abolition of property and inheritance” and the “centralization of credit, communication, and transport in the hands of the state.” And a lot more along the same lines.

In other words, the state owns and controls pretty much everything.

This notion was widely discussed and debated in European intellectual circles during Marx’s lifetime, but nothing much came of it until Vladimir Lenin took power in Russia in 1917.

This changed everything. Despite its repeated economic failures, Lenin’s Russia, which became known as the Soviet Union, became the model for dictators around the world.

Wherever Marx’s ideas were practiced, life got worse – not by a little; but by a lot.  There is not a single exception to this rule. Not the Soviet Union, not Eastern Europe, not China, not North Korea, not Vietnam, not Cuba, not Venezuela, not Bolivia, not Zimbabwe. Wherever Marxism goes, economic collapse, terror and famine follow.

So, if cataclysmic failure – meaning terrible human suffering – is the inevitable legacy of Marxism, why do so many people – and now, especially, young people – defend it?

The most common answer Marxism’s advocates offer is that “they” – whoever “they” are: Lenin, Stalin, Chavez – never really practiced Marxism. They all somehow got it wrong.

Marxism, we are told, is, at its essence, about sharing what we have: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” as Marx put it.

Maybe that sounds good to you. But what does it mean? Who determines ability? Who determines need?

The answer is The State. The ruling elite. Under Marxism, that’s who has all of the power.

That’s why the truth is this: Marxist dictators like Lenin, Mao and Pol Pot really did get Marxism right. They wanted absolute power, and Marxism gave them the way to get it.

Karl Marx never had to face the consequences of his theories. He lived most of his adult life breathing the free air of London, England, living off the generosity of his collaborator and patron Engels, who, as it happens, inherited his money from his wealthy merchant father.

Marx spent his days in the Reading Room of the British Museum, researching and writing. Although he was obsessed with the term “scientific,” he was never able to marshal data to prove his theories. There’s a good reason for this: There was no data to prove his theories.

For all of his time in the library, Marx couldn’t find any evidence to suggest that capitalism – the free exchange of goods and services through privately-owned business – was a passing phase. Throughout the industrial age, working conditions constantly improved and wealth expanded. Marx had to rely on outdated reports to make his case. And even then, he had to manipulate the data to get it to conform to his predetermined theories.

But Marx really had no interest in proving his theories. He knew that they could be put into practice only by brute force.

He said so himself. “Of course, in the beginning, [communism] cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads,” he wrote. His ends could “be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.”

All existing social conditions. That’s religion, family, personal possessions, freedom, and democracy. They all had to go in order to achieve Marx’s vision of an earthly paradise.

But since few people give up their liberties and property voluntarily, creating a Marxist state has always required guns, prisons, and summary executions. Marx’s many disciples, from Lenin on, never considered this a problem. Some, like revolutionary poster-boy Che Guevara, considered it a bonus.

“I don’t need proof to execute a man,” Che is said to have boasted. “I only need proof that it’s necessary to execute him!”

If you’re still a fan of Marxism after all the death, suffering, and destruction it’s caused, that’s your right. But own up to it. Don’t hide behind the “it’s never really been tried” line.

It has.

I’m Paul Kengor, Professor of Political Science at Grove City College, for Prager University.

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