Suppose Karl Marx had never been born.  How would the modern world be different? 

My best guess is highly optimistic.  Without Marx, there would have been no prominent intellectual promoter of violent revolution for socialist dictatorship.  There would still have been a big socialist movement, including many socialists dreaming of bloodbaths and tyranny.  But the movement as a whole would have rapidly evolved into something like social democracy.  Third World dictators would still have killed in the name of socialism.  But there would have been no Soviet Union without Marx.  And without the Soviet Union, there would be no fascist Italy and no Nazi Germany.  A socialist dictatorship could still have come to China.  But without the ghoulish example of Soviet agriculture, even a socialist China would have avoided major peacetime famine.

It’s clearly possible that an alternate, equally influential theoretician of violent revolution for socialist dictatorship would have arisen.  But this seems unlikely.  When historians of science try to weigh a scientist’s influence, they search for runner-ups – rival scientists waiting in the wings to make the same discovery.  Challenge: If Marx had never lived, who exactly would have replaced him?  In Germany, Marx’s top rival was Ferdinand Lassalle, a figure far more in tune with modern social democracy than Marx.  On the global socialist scene, it’s hard to name any figure that compares with Marx.  Who’s even in the running?

There’s really only one fact that tempers my optimism: The world with Marx has never had a nuclear war.  Altering any major facet of history could plausibly reverse that happy outcome. 

Your thoughts?

P.S. John Alcorn points out an interesting essay by Jon Elster on “If Marx or Freud Had Never Lived?”  Elster and I seem to be on the same page:

I believe
that the mind-set developed in the Second International was (1) a direct
legacy of Marx and (2) a direct cause of the Russian Revolution. Without
Marx, German socialism might have followed the course advocated by
Bernstein, and Russian revolutionaries might have remained stuck in the
dead-end of anarchism.


The question that remains to be discussed is that of preemption. Perhaps
Marx and Freud only preempted other writers or politicians who would
have taken their place and accomplished, “tant bien que mal” as Engels says,
what they did. To address this issue, it is not good enough to say that their
ideas were “in the air”. Rather, we should follow the example of Engels, in
his discussion of historical materialism, and try to identify actual historical
who were engaged, at the same time, in similar endeavors. With
regard to the most important issues, I do not think such individuals can be
found. Marx’s theory of revolution and Freud’s theory of the unconscious
were genuinely radical proposals, and not simply the earliest or most
forceful expressions of ideas that would have made their way without them.