Reprinted from Mises.org
I have spent my whole adult life in the shadow of one man, Karl Marx.
By the age of 14, I recognized how important Marx was in history. I began to study some of his writings when I was a senior in high school. I continued to study him seriously in graduate school, and in 1968 my book on Marx was published.
Karl Marx changed the world. Yet he did not do this by himself. His colleague, Frederick Engels, wrote some of his shorter materials, such as newspaper articles, and let Marx put his name on them. He co-authored the initially anonymous Communist Manifesto (1848). He also put Marx on the dole for over 20 years. He was a successful capitalist in the textile industry. He ran the family business in Manchester. Without Engels, no one would ever have heard of Marx. It was Engels who converted him to dialectical materialism. That was in 1843. Yet Engels is always regarded as the second banana. He was a far better writer than Marx. He gets some credit for this, but not enough.
The Communist movement after Marx’s death in 1883 was minimal until 1917. Prior to Lenin’s successful revolution, which was really more of a coup d’état, in October 1917, Marx was studied by very few people. It was Lenin, not Marx, who elevated Marx retroactively into a heroic figure and creative thinker. Marx was neither heroic nor a creative thinker who challenged the intellectual powerhouses of his day. He wrote turgid economic analyses, and he wrote tirades against other unknown Left-wing German and French radicals and utopians.
Because Lenin achieved power, a handful of intellectuals began to take Marx seriously. Marx’s ideas on the class struggle and the exploitation of labor got some followers who wrote treatises and articles for other intellectuals. But they steadily defected after the USSR’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, virtually all of these intellectuals abandoned ship. There really is no identifiable Marxist intellectual movement on college campuses today.
Marx’s turgid Germanic prose served as the ideological and therefore religious justification for atheist tyrannies that controlled one-third of the world’s population from 1949 to 1979. Mao took over in China in 1949. Deng Xiaoping abandoned socialist economics in 1979.
The Improbability of Marxism’s Triumph
How was it possible that Marx changed the world by sitting, day after day, decade after decade, in a chair at the British Museum in London, reading dusty books, and writing materials that almost no one read in his lifetime? From an historical standpoint, this is simply incredible. But he did it. This unemployed German Ph.D. whose handwriting was so bad that he couldn’t get the one job he ever tried to get in London, and who lived on the dole of a successful capitalist, wrote nearly unreadable materials that changed the mind of the son of a Russian bureaucrat, who in turn captured the Russian Empire in just ten days. This is simply incredible.
There is no way that any subsequent scholar could find a pattern in this historical connection. There is no model to imitate. There are tens of thousands of scholars around the world who crank out their books and articles that are as unreadable as any that Marx ever wrote. There are undoubtedly some revolutionaries among them. These revolutionaries may live on the dole, meaning that they may be tenured professors somewhere. But few of their students are persuaded. Their readers are few and without much influence. The likelihood of finding a Lenin among them is minimal. Even in Lenin’s case, he was one of maybe 3,000 full-time revolutionaries in Europe in 1900, and he was the only one who ever pulled off a revolution that was sustained more than a few weeks.
There have been a few scholars who have affected the thinking of intellectuals, who in turn have influenced the thinking of activists. Immanuel Kant was such a scholar. Almost nobody reads his original materials, but he has affected the thinking of generations of writers and teachers who are not aware of the extent to which they were followers of Kant. I interviewed F. A. Hayek in 1985. I had recognized early in my career that he was a Kantian. Yet he admitted in the interview that he had not really understood the extent to which he was a follower of Kant until John Gray’s book about him. His statement astounded me.
Charles Darwin had enormous impact on the thinking of intellectuals around the world. But he had no intention of founding Darwinism. He had no strategy to recruit followers. He was a recluse. He disliked confrontations in print. It was Thomas Huxley, beginning in late 1859, who became known as Darwin’s bulldog. He did the heavy lifting intellectually, and then the ideas spread very fast. Darwin, I’m sure you’ll agree, was an evolutionist. He was not a believer in radical discontinuities as shapers of nature. His whole system was opposed to radical discontinuity as an explanatory device.
The World Wide Web
Today, because of the World Wide Web, ideas can spread fast. In our day, Jordan Peterson may be the best example. Nobody can explain this phenomenon. But he is not organizing a movement. He merely represents it. He teaches its adherents. But he is talking about individual transformation, not transforming the world through organized political action. He seems to be opposed to such grandiose plans. He really does seem to believe in the truth that Jesus expressed: you have to get the beam out of your own eye before you try to get the sliver out of the other person’s eye. Otherwise, you can’t see clearly enough to be of any help to the other person. You will produce more harm than good.
The World Wide Web is conducive to individual change, and perhaps local community change, but there are so many competing voices with so many competing programs that it will prove almost impossible for any centralized movement to take over anything larger than a county. I don’t see how the religion of revolution can ever produce the equivalent of the Communist revolutions of the 20th century. Communications are just too decentralized.
Social change is going to come from the bottom up. This transformation is consistent with the teachings of the major religions of the world. It is certainly consistent with the free market political philosophy of Adam Smith and the Scottish Enlightenment. It is equally consistent with Edmund Burke’s anti-revolutionary philosophy, which undergirded European conservatism in the 19th century. Burke and Smith had great respect for each other’s writings. They were a two-man mutual admiration society.
This is why I see the end of anything remotely resembling socialism or communism. When the nation-state’s money runs out, the grand experiment will be over. Really, it ended on December 25, 1991. But it lingers in the background. People with grandiose schemes of top-down political transformation are articulating a pre-Internet worldview of centralization.
If one video can go viral, so can another. This is good news for liberty.