Jason Barker invites us, in the New York Times, to celebrate the bicentennial of Karl Marx’s birth in the ancient southern German city of Trier. The celebrity philosophy professor’s argument is that Marx has been right all along, and that he remains our indispensable guide to the future. Barker bears the torch with arguments as deathless as they are wrong.

His fundamental postulate is that Marx correctly analyzed capitalism as class warfare, the eternal conflict between exploiters and the exploited (the proletariat), a struggle that will lead necessarily to capitalism’s self-destruction and its replacement by a classless society. In passing, Barker claims that today’s economists all accept Marx’s definition of capitalism. It seems more likely that Barker has never met an economist, for none still sees capitalism according to the Marxist framework of exploitation. Unlike philosophy, economics is based on the analysis of reality; Marx’s great mistake was to have failed to predict that capitalism would produce an enormous middle class that is neither exploiter nor exploited. In developed countries, this middle class represents perhaps 90 percent of the population, leaving the two extremes on the margins of the system. That doesn’t just contradict the Marxist framework; it demolishes it.

Undaunted, post-Marxists beginning with Vladimir Lenin have tried to expand the class-warfare concept to a planetary scale by dividing nations into two categories: the exploiting capitalist nations and the exploited proletarian—that is, colonized—nations. Facts again invalidated this thesis, since formerly colonized nations, influenced by international trade and their own capitalist enterprises, generated in turn their own predominant middle classes, as has been the case in China, India, and Brazil. Exploitation in the developing world is primarily centered in countries that call themselves Communist, such as China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Cuba, where Communist Party dignitaries exploit and oppress their own populations. Here again, Barker, following Lenin’s example, avoids reality through the use of metaphor: capitalism’s contradictions get translated into the war between the sexes and the races, as currently expressed by #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, the most prominent expressions of proletarian consciousness at the moment. Such a metaphor cannot substitute for analysis, however, since it is only in capitalist societies that such social contradictions come to light and are discussed and (sometimes) resolved. In countries that deny capitalism—especially China—the Party declares that sexual harassment and racism exist only in Western societies. How does this sound to women laborers in China, or to Tibetans?

Barker proposes a counter-argument for capitalist societies’ openness and willingness to attack taboos: they have Marxist critiques to thank. If by this he means that social critique and the scrutiny of dominant power are the functions of philosophy, then we are in full agreement. But who needs Marx for that? Socrates went further in this exercise, and paid the price for it, unlike Marx.

Barker concedes that Marx never really described the society of the future but instead invited us to seek it. In fact, wherever the utopian Marxist scheme was applied, it produced well-documented human catastrophes; in the laboratory of Marxism, nations are guinea pigs. Every Marxist experiment failed, and Marxists explain to us that the fault lies not with Communism but only with its clumsy misapplication. The Soviet Union failed because Russians were Russians, and Marxism was a disaster elsewhere because, you see, the Chinese and the Cubans are tropical peoples. These excuses demonstrate that, as soon as Marxism is applied, it ceases to be Marxist, which allows a resolutely materialist philosophy to transform itself into pure idealism.

Marx himself said that he was not a Marxist—by far his most perceptive statement. As for his contemporary disciples, for whom Marxism is a substitute for real thought, they will never be persuaded of their error, because they are not interested in reality.

Translated by Alexis Cornel

Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next