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HomeEconomyThree Myths About Marx

Three Myths About Marx

Myth 1.      Marx was a famous economic and social commentator in his lifetime.

Many socialists depict Karl Marx as one of the most famous and influential thinkers of his era. They attribute this alleged renown not only to his philosophical treatises but also his journalism and activism on a variety of mid-19th century labor causes.

In reality, Karl Marx (1817-1883) died in London in relative obscurity. He had a small number of intensely devoted followers in socialist and communist movements, but few people outside of those far-left circles had any knowledge of his work in his lifetime. Contemporary figures from the intellectual circles in England left only a few passing assessments of him. John Stuart Mill, the exhaustively well-networked Victorian philosopher, lived in the same London neighborhood as Marx for many years, and yet his works contain no mention of ever encountering Marx or Marxist doctrine. In 1885, future British prime minister Arthur Balfour remarked that “Marx is but little-read in this country.” Balfour, who was famous as a voracious reader of obscure philosophical tracts, offered the comment to contrast Marx with Henry George, who “has been read a great deal.” Fellow socialists similarly commented upon Marx’s obscurity at his death. Henry Hyndeman, a British socialist who became a personal acquaintance of Marx in the latter’s final years, would recall in his memoirs that “in 1880 it is scarcely too much to say that Marx was practically unknown to the English public,” save for the occasional association of his name with radical revolutionary causes such as the Paris Commune of 1871.

So when did Karl Marx burst into the intellectual mainstream? It wasn’t until 1917, when an obscure band of revolutionary Marxist intellectuals took advantage of political instability in Russia and staged a coup d’état, seizing control of its government. The Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath almost instantly turned Marx into an intellectual celebrity on the left. This fact was widely acknowledged at the time, including among other leftist intellectuals. G.D.H. Cole, a non-Marxian socialist from Britain’s Fabian Society, would quip in that until 1917 “Marx’s works lay securely buried in the grave of their author.” “Lenin,” Cole continued, “altered all that. He resurrected Marx, and gave to Marxism a new theoretical context.” On the other side of the Atlantic, W.E.B. Du Bois would similarly remark in a 1933 memoir that “until the Russian Revolution, Karl Marx was little known in America” and “treated condescendingly” by the few academics who even bothered with his work.

These and similar observations recently received empirical validation in a study conducted by me and Michael Makovi. We tracked Marx’s citations over time using Google Ngram and a separate scanned newspaper database. We found that Marx’s citation pattern tripled almost instantaneously after Lenin and the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917. These findings suggest that political events, rather than intellectual renown, placed Marx on the map.

Myth 2.      The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) popularized Marx before the Soviets by endorsing him with their Erfurt Program platform in 1891.

Marxists who want to avoid the baggage of Lenin and the Soviet Union often put forth an alternative history of Marx’s dissemination. The conventional telling points out that Marxists within the leadership of Germany’s SPD succeeded in infusing Marxist theory into the preamble of their 1891 electoral platform, the Erfurt Program. Since the SPD was one of the largest political parties in Germany between 1891 and the outbreak of World War I in 1913, they argue, Marx must have had a large mainstream following among the voting public.

This story grossly oversimplifies the history of turn-of-the-century SPD. It’s true that an expression of Marxist theory appeared in the preamble of the Erfurt Program, thanks to the efforts of Marxist intellectuals including Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein, August Bebel, and Wilhelm Liebknecht as well as the sanction of Marx’s collaborator Friedrich Engels. The passage does not ever mention Marx by name though, and consists of a watered-down synopsis of his beliefs at most. The remainder of the platform is a generic list of labor reform measures – shorter work hours, government-provided medical care, universal education, anti-poverty programs, and expanded ballot access. Few of these measures were distinctively Marxian, and all were to be attained by legislative means – a repudiation of Marx’s revolutionary doctrines. Although the aforementioned intellectuals celebrated this platform as a triumph of Marxist principles, the average voter would not have noticed much of anything about Marx by simply reading the platform.

There are additional reasons to be skeptical of the SPD as an early disseminator of Marxist doctrine. Eric Hobsbawm, arguably the most prominent and celebrated Marxist historian of the last half-century, studied the SPD’s role in disseminating Marx’s doctrines and concluded that they fell short. As Hobsbawm writes, “there was no strong correlation between the size and power of social-democratic and labour parties and the circulation of the [Communist] Manifesto. Thus until 1905 the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD), with its hundreds of thousands of members and millions of voters, published new editions of the [Communist] Manifesto in print runs of not more than 2,000–3,000 copies.” Marx’s readers, Hobsbawm continues, “were part of the new and rising socialist labour parties and movements” but they “were almost certainly not a representative sample of their membership.”

To further test the SPD/Erfurt thesis, Makovi and I conducted a second empirical analysis of Marx’s citation patterns in German-language books and newspapers. Our preliminary results confirm Hobsbawm’s observations. We were unable to establish a statistically significant boost to German-language mentions of Marx after 1891, although we did find further evidence of a large Soviet-induced increase in 1917.

Myth 3.      Marx and Abraham Lincoln were pen-pals.

In the past several years, a number of academics and journalists on the political left have advanced various claims of an intellectual kinship between Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States. Some versions of this story – including a widely-circulated article in the Washington Post – allege similarities between Marx and Lincoln’s respective writings about the relationship between labor and capital. Others claim that Lincoln regularly read Marx’s journalism in the New York Tribune, and point to an exchange of letters in 1864 after Marx wrote to congratulate Lincoln on his reelection. Politics usually motivates these historical claims as well. By depicting Marx and Lincoln as 19th century pen-pals, they seek to legitimize the platforms of modern-day “Democratic Socialist” politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. If Lincoln truly maintained a transatlantic friendship with Marx, then Democratic Socialism must be as American as the Gettysburg Address!

In reality, Lincoln did not have the slightest clue who Karl Marx was, and certainly did not draw from the socialist philosopher for his economic theories. Lincoln’s writings on capital and labor arose primarily from his reading of other 19th century economic works, most notably Francis Wayland and John Stuart Mill. He never encountered Marx’s Capital, which was not even published until two years after Lincoln’s assassination. Marx’s writings for the New York Tribune consisted of second-hand news summaries from the European continent, and the vast majority were published anonymously. If Lincoln encountered them by chance while reading the Tribune, it is extremely unlikely he would have recognized the author or picked up any ideas about economic theory from Marx’s journalistic contributions.

Indeed, Lincoln’s economic assessments of socialism were highly critical. In 1864, the President wrote a letter to a New York City labor organization after the left-leaning group granted him an honorary membership. While Lincoln thanked the organization for the recognition, he strongly disputed their economic doctrines. As Lincoln wrote:

Nor should this lead to a war upon property, or the owners of property. Property is the fruit of labor –property is desirable — is a positive good in the world. That some should be rich, shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprize.

What about the exchange of letters between Marx and Lincoln? It is true that Marx drafted a letter to Lincoln, congratulating him on his 1864 election victory. The letter was not presented under Marx’s name though. It came from the London-based International Workingmen’s Association, and was delivered under the name of the organization’s secretary, W. Randal Cremer. The response, also addressed to Cremer, did not even come from Lincoln’s desk. Charles Francis Adams, Lincoln’s diplomat to the United Kingdom, issued the letter from the American legation in London. It is little more than a 19th century form letter, a courtesy statement acknowledging that Cremer’s congratulatory note had been received and forwarded to Lincoln through the State Department along with thousands of other notes from well-wishers after the election. A detailed history of this exchange may be found in my article on the subject.