de obmibus debutandum
(Translated from Latin, means to “doubt everything.”)
If Karl Marx was alive today, he’d be a frequent guest on news and talk shows. He’d be a regular on CNN, MSNBC, and perhaps even FOX News. Imagine Marx sitting opposite Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson.
Think of Geraldo Rivera, only with brains and integrity.
Marx was not a political fanatic, nor was he an extremist — certainly not when you examine his many writings. In fact, back in his day, during the mid-to-late 19th century, Marx is what we’d now call a social commentator. He wrote about politics, economics, and current events. Think of a leftist version of Jeanine Pirro, only much better looking.
Talking heads didn’t exist back then, not as a television entity nor with David Byrne. So instead, Marx scribed all of his ideas. Those ideas were published in various newspapers and periodicals, including even in outlets based in the United States. He also wrote a few notable books, which weren’t particularly well-received when they were initially published, which is another way of saying Marx was way ahead of his time. Too bad Marx didn’t have an agent. He might have ended up as a capitalist.
Marx doesn’t merit our reverence, though he has come to personify a global movement. Many patriarchs of what we now call “socialism” pre-dated his work and expressed similar ideas with far superior clarity. Indeed, Marx is no ideological messiah. But he doesn’t deserve universal scorn, nor any condemnation, either. Based on several passages of his writings and his character revealed later by those who knew him best (and chronicled these encounters), it’s accurate to say Marx would have been mortified to see the terrors later perpetrated in his name long after his death, carried out more than half a century later in places like the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, East Germany, North Korea, and other bastard regimes.
The fact is, Marx only commented on the events of the 19th Century, a period of vast social upheaval, the industrial revolution, and grotesque inequity. He couldn’t have foreseen the bloody horrors to come (done in his name). Like Jesus or Mohammed fronting similar popular movements some millennia earlier, we don’t hold them responsible for horrors like the Crusades, Islamic terrorism, or the worst catastrophe in the history of the world — The Jim Bakker Show. The mullahs twist Islam. The Falwells and Grahams twist Christianity. And Lenin twisted the hell out of Marx, worse than a dishrag. Pol Pot would have been utterly inconceivable to this struggling academic from Trier, Germany living in the 1830s. Besides, Pol Pot just sounds way too weird to be taken seriously, unless its a marijuana dispensary.
Marx got many things right. He also got some things wrong, which goes with the territory when commentating on unstable political and economic systems with lots of moving parts. He never proposed forming any kind of political movement, though several grotesque variants materialized which dragged his name and historical reputation through the mud. He declined opportunities to join parties and organize revolts. Marx became a victim of history. I would go so far as to say he was a tragic figure. The average (uninformed) American places him somewhere in the company of Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson. Such is the fallout of a supposedly free society with allegedly the greatest access to information than any civilization in history. America, fuck yeah.
Leninism, Stalinism, and Maoism have become the nuclear holocausts of political thought. Like Marx’s writings, the idea of fission may have initially been scientifically correct. What was actually done with the knowledge becomes a far more explosive topic.
But that’s not how our popular attitudes gel or how meanings evolve. Ideology isn’t organic. Rather, it’s evolutionary and politically pasteurized by the events of the day and then seasoned with bias. We always seek simple answers to complex questions. Capitalism = Good. Karl Marx = Bad. End of discussion. Now, turn on the ballgame and grab me another beer. U-S-A!
Indeed, real understanding takes work. Why read or study or think when you can wave a flag? Plowing through deliberate disinformation takes even more work. Overcoming historical misrepresentation even takes courage. Most of all, it requires an open mind, in a world that largely consists of nonsense barreling down the lunatic fringe assembly line. Like trying to pour wine into a corked bottle. Nothing gets in. Even the most advanced societies are a giant cork of ignorance. Closed societies, especially those impoverished or tied to religion, are locked in a barrel.
Nonetheless, Marx and his ideas deserve to be understood accurately, instead of the amalgamation of knee-jerk emotions and the lightning rod for evil that they’ve become. Marxist to contemporary politics what a pedophile is to daycare. It’s an unthinkable prospect.
Given how loosely Marx’s name gets tossed around — especially with the misnomer of “Socialism” being such a timely topic — now is a perfect opportunity to look more closely at this fascinating man who lived from 1812 to 1883.
As you read further, I’ll later pose a question: Is being a Marxist — that is, believing in the words and ideas expressed by this social commentator — really so extreme? Ponder that question. Then, take this short test I composed based on his life and his writings.
Here are 25 things about Karl Marx you might not know (taken from various biographies I’ve read):
(1) Marx wasn’t Russian. He never once visited any of the countries which would (allegedly) later come to practice his philosophy. Marx was born in what’s now Germany. He lived in one of the more enlightened societies in the world, a time and place filled with cultural and artistic expression.
(2) Marx’s parents were Jewish. However, they later converted to Christianity (Protestantism). This was reportedly to avoid fears of rampant antisemitism in central Europe. Young Karl Marx was baptized in the Lutheran Church. Tell that to your Sunday School class.
(3) From early adulthood, Marx openly claimed to be an atheist. Oddly enough, that self-proclamation — highly unusual for its time — made him even more of a social outcast than if he were Jewish. His rejection of religion certainly hurt him professionally and economically much of his life.
(4) Marx and his wife had six children. By all accounts, he was a devoted father. Marx created funny nicknames for each of them.
(5) Marx was burdened by health problems during most of his life. He had severe liver problems, suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, endured migraine headaches, and complained constantly of toothaches.
(6) Marx was an insomniac. He often slept no more than three hours a night.
(7) Marx loved the arts. He initially wanted to become a theater and drama critic. But his father talked him out of this career pursuit insisting there was no way to make a decent living attending opera and plays and writing about the theater.
(8) Marx was immensely popular with his peers while studying in college. He often paid for parties and nights out on the town with friends. He dated often. His out-of-control spending habits left him and his parents in debt.
(9) Marx attended universities in Bonn, Berlin, and Jena. He earned a Ph.D. and was a Doctor of Philosophy.
(10) Marx lived in poverty during most of his life. While they collaborated, his close friend Friedrich Engels provided him money on which to live every month.
(11) Marx met his lifetime writing partner Engels at a street cafe while living in Paris in 1843. After a two-year residency, they both moved to Brussels where they remained for another two years. After that, they moved to Cologne along with their families. Remarkably, the duo long associated with communism spent most of their lives in Germany, France, Belgium, and England — democratic countries that would become the bulwark against the movement during most of the next century. However, one can also say these nations are among the models of modern democratic-socialism. So, perhaps Marx’s ideas did gain fertile ground.
(12) Marx’s personal hero was Spartacus. He was a Roman slave and leader of a popular uprising and revolt during the Roman Empire.
(13) Marx’s personal motto was “nothing human is alien to me.”
(14) One of Marx’s early political writings was an expose on the gross mistreatment and exploitation of vineyard workers along the Rhine River. The controversial story caused quite a stir and led to unskilled workers’ rights being debated seriously for the first time.
(15) Marx did not invent communism. This term essentially means private property rights are dissolved in favor of common (shared) ownership. Such ideas were first proposed by French philosophers, including Jean Jacques Rousseau, in 1762. Those ideas would spark the French Revolution, a generation later.
(16) Karl Marx had drug problems, but that was much more common than is usually reported. Because of his intense pain and multiple ailments, Marx often took heavy doses of arsenic and opium, which in those days were thought to cure for some health problems. He found it so painful to sit down that he often wrote while standing.
(17) Marx spent most of his life working as a journalist. His writings were revolutionary at the time. Some of his ideas included abolishing child labor, providing free public education to all citizens and making school attendance mandatory, and implementing a gradual income tax based on personal income. Virtually all western societies would adopt these “revolutionary” ideas within the next 70 years.
(18) Marx was a fast and prolific writer. One of his most famous books, The Communist Manifesto, was completed in only six weeks. Das Capital, the first edition of his masterwork was also written in a short amount of time.
(19) Marx was an outcast and a refugee. A year after The Communist Manifesto was released in 1848, Marx was expelled from Prussia (modern-day Germany) and stripped of his citizenship.
(20) Marx was highly-principled and ideological. At the time he was expelled from the country, Marx was the editor of a progressive newspaper that featured stories on economic inequity and unfairness. When he learned that the paper would be shut down by authorities, the final issue of the paper was printed in red ink. That act of defiance later became the basis of red being associated with communism.
(21) Marx knew English and lived in England for a time. After being expelled from Germany, he found a job as a reporter in England and moved to London.
(22) Marx even wrote for American readers. While in London, Marx wrote for an American newspaper called The New York Daily Tribune. He served as one of the paper’s European correspondents. Marx initially wrote in his native German language which was translated into English once it reached New York. However, Marx learned English well enough to eventually write all of his columns in the English language. He was fluent in at least four languages.
(23) Marx had a strong grasp of American history and society. Among the many topics covered by Marx was the issue of slavery in America. He wrote passionately about its terrible inhumanity. When The New York Daily Tribune changed management prior to the American Civil War, it also changed its editorial position on this issue and was no longer an abolitionist paper. Despite needing the job at the time, he parted ways with his employer.
(24) Marx got the geography for his ideas wrong. His ideas were intended to be applied to the most modern industrialized societies, such as England, Germany, and France. Instead, they were adopted in Russia (and later China) which were overwhelmingly agrarian societies and lacked the proper political and economic infrastructure to achieve success.
(25). Marx saw the signs of what was to come. Late in his life, Marx attended a political rally that had formed and taken his name. When he found out what they believed and wanted to accomplish, he famously proclaimed, “If they are Marxists, then I’m not a Marxist.”
While writing about this topic, I came up with a couple more:
(26) Marx loved poetry and often wrote about romance. He penned dozens of poems, later judged to be quite respectable. These poems were discovered after his death and were published in 1929.
(27) Marx is buried in England. His body rests in London, at Highgate Cemetery.
So, do these revelations change your idea of Marxism?
In this poisonous political climate of such grotesque historical ignorance, enlightenment clouded by the poisonous shroud of social media, let facts be separated from fiction.
Next time someone is labeled as a “Marxist,” it would be wise to remember who Karl Marx truly was and reflect upon those beliefs. Demagogues who insist on using Marxist as a slur reveal a lot more about their own ignorance than the target of their derision. In fact, based on the points above, the Marxist tag might rightfully be construed as a compliment.