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Karl Marx was born on May 5th two hundred year ago. It is difficult to think of any political thinker who exercised a similar influence. Ideas do not always “have consequences” – but Marx’s had. They became the ideological backbone of regimes that ruled over half of the world. It is difficult to say how proficient in Marxism their leaders really were – but they pretended to be.

Famously, Stalin, to put to rest his comrades’ whispering that he was weak in theory, began taking private lessons on Marxism taught by a Party philosopher. Later, he took a shortcut and started putting his comrades to rest directly. Great party leaders needed to master the sacred texts. You can see why communism gave intellectuals the ecstatic feeling of being at the top of the food chain – though Stalinist purges and the Maoist cultural revolution proved that their perch was indeed a precarious one. 

For a quick and much needed reminder of what communism was, I recommend you visit the on line Museum of Communism, set up quite a few years ago now by co-blogger Bryan Caplan. Read also this remarkable piece by Kristian Niemietz on “the unstated etiquette of any contemporary discussion of Marxism”, that is “that the outcomes of real-world attempts to implement them must never, ever, be held against Marx’s ideas”.

On Marx’s (enduring) influence, Branko Milanovich has a fascinating blogpost. Milanovich writes that Marx’s “place is now there with that of Plato and Aristotle” but focuses on “three favorable and unlikely turns of events” which made for the reputation and the enduring influence of the philosopher from Trier.

It is hard to imagine that Marx would have exerted the same power over the minds of his generation if (a) Engels hadn’t been there as his indomitable promoter; (b) if the October Revolution hadn’t made him its true patron saint, since at that time new “revisions” of his system were being undertaken, particularly in Germany; and (c) if the Comintern hadn’t “abandon[ed] its Eurocentrism and to get engaged into anti-imperialist struggles in the Third World”, making of it a point of reference for revolutionaries everywhere in the world.

What if any of the above hadn’t happened? I doubt “we might have hardly heard of an obscure German émigré who died a long time ago in London, accompanied to his grave by eight people”, as Milanovich points of it. For one thing, without Engels they would have been six, and perhaps there would have been no funeral, as he was generously supporting the Marxes’ daughters and their families. But perhaps he would be remembered as a brilliant critic of early capitalism, or as a critical disciple of Hegel, or a maladroit leader of the workers’ movement. Perhaps he would be less controversial and more widely read, including by opponents, instead of sharply dividing the world into lovers and haters. Who knows?

Milanovich’s post however is a useful remainder of how ideas – even, clearly, very powerful ones – are of little avail if they don’t meet the circumstances that allow them to matter. There was a lot in Marx that made him congenial for so many different groups: think, for example, of how his view of primitive accumulation was used to glue imperialism and capitalism together, up to contemporary “dependency theory”. Certainly, his ideas offered a keen systematisation for the feeling that inequalities may signal exploitation. But ideas alone weren’t enough. It took the enthusiasm of Engels first, and then fit circumstances.