Should Karl Marx Be Canceled?
By Pierre Lemieux
There are good arguments to the effect that nobody should be “canceled”; but if somebody should, it would be Karl Marx. For all we know, he was a bigot and a racist who even used the N-word, something worse for the current dominant culture than what many did who were canceled or will soon be. One of economist Walter Williams’s columns was titled “The Ugly Racism of Karl Marx.”
The main economic argument against the cancel culture is that of John Stuart Mill in On Liberty: freedom of speech is necessary in the search for any sort of truth. Not only do mobs historically and literally lynch unpopular individuals, but the fear of the mob also reduces the incentives to look for the truth and turns many people into wimps. Anybody can make youth errors but they are easily forgivable when the author later changes his mind; he should certainly not be punished simply for having been wrong (assuming he did not physically lynch anybody).
It is true that free speech does not—or should not—allow one to shout what he wants in somebody else’s living room or on a platform that belongs to somebody else. But we can still forcefully argue that the owners of private “speakers’ corners” should not be intimidated by witch-hunting mobs, especially when these mobs, as they nearly always do, are asking for the support of the government’s armed agents. The universities where the woke-cancel culture thrives do not belong to the wokes. And certainly, the state should not subsidize activism and speech against free speech.
The economist’s individualist methodology as well as the individualist values it often nurtures lead to the belief that an individual is not to be judged by the group, racial or whatever, to which he “belongs.” In a New York Times article (“A Profession With an Egalitarian Core,” March 16, 2013), Tyler Cowen illustrated the economists’ individualist values:
In 1829, all 15 economists who held seats in the British Parliament voted to allow Roman Catholics as members. In 1858, the 13 economists in Parliament voted unanimously to extend full civil rights to Jews. (While both measures were approved, they were controversial among many non-economist members.) For many years leading up to the various abolitions of slavery, economists were generally critics of slavery and advocates of people’s natural equality.
Two economists, David Levy and Sandra Peart, explained that Thomas Carlyle, a 19th-century man of the right, called economics “the dismal science” because economists opposed slavery. Levy and Peart write:
Carlyle attacked [economist John Stuart] Mill … for supporting the emancipation of slaves. It was this fact—that economics assumed that people were basically all the same, and thus all entitled to liberty—that led Carlyle to label economics “the dismal science.”
Carlyle was not alone in denouncing economics for making its radical claims about the equality of all men. Others who joined him included Charles Dickens and John Ruskin.
Back to Marx, whose ideas led to the death of tens or hundreds of millions of individuals and to the impoverishment of even more. It is true that (contrary to what the typical woke seems to think) words do not kill; killers kill and rulers impoverish. Marx’s free speech was helpful in the pursuit of truth: without him, how would we know, except theoretically, where theories like his naturally lead?
So what did Marx wrote that should kick him out of the New York Times, Teen Vogue, and many places of high dominant culture? But before that, remember how, after a 45-year career at the New York Times, Donald McNeil was recently harassed into resigning for having said the N-word in a conversation about somebody else who had used the word, notwithstanding his apologies. (I can only hope that speaking about somebody who spoke about somebody who used the N-word won’t bring my own cancellation.) In a similar fashion, Alexi McCammond was fired from a new job at Teen Vogue: a decade ago, the young (black) woman had apparently penned racist and anti-homosexual tweets for which she grovelingly apologized before the large masses.
Marx did not live long enough to be devoured by his revolutionary comrades as often happens. The French Revolution and Stalins’s multiple “disappeared” comrades provided dramatic illustrations. Wokes are now banning their own comrades from the bien-pensant society.
So here is finally (thanks for your patience!) an excerpt of a letter Marx wrote to Friedrich Engels on July 30, 1862:
The Jewish nigger Lassalle who, I’m glad to say, is leaving at the end of this week, has happily lost another 5,000 talers in an ill-judged speculation. The chap would sooner throw money down the drain than lend it to a ‘friend,’ even though his interest and capital were guaranteed. … It is now quite plain to me—as the shape of his head and the way his hair grows also testify—that he is descended from the negroes who accompanied Moses’ flight from Egypt (unless his mother or paternal grandmother interbred with a nigger). Now, this blend of Jewishness and Germanness, on the one hand, and basic negroid stock, on the other, must inevitably give rise to a peculiar product. The fellow’s importunity is also niggerlike.
This letter, written in German, is translated and reproduced in Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1985), pp. 388-391. It is important to note that Marx wrote the N-word in English as reproduced above; he occasionally wrote other foreign words in their original language (see the preface to the Collected Works, p. XXXVIII). The same translation appears on a Marxist website, the Marxists Internet Archive 0r MIA. The site owners explain:
The MIA aims to maintain an archive of any and all writings which are Marxist or relevant to the understanding of Marxism and can be lawfully published. In the past, some writers who have contributed to Marxism have expressed racist, sexist or other distasteful views. The MIA generally does not “filter out” such views … The MIA does not endorse any of the views expressed by any of the writers included here, which are provided solely for the information of the reader.
A few years before the complete Moscow edition, a different translation of selected letters, including that of July 30, 1862, was made available by an American publisher: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Selected Letters: The Personal Correspondence, 1844-1877 (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1981), pp. 81-82.
When he wrote the incriminating letter, Marx was angry with his democratic socialist “friend” Ferdinand Lassalle for refusing to lend him money. Lassalle was Jewish and, as far as we know, had no black ancestor. Marx apparently thought or wanted to think the contrary. We can bet that no such excuse would spare any victim of woke cancellation. Moreover and paradoxically, Marx himself was Jewish, but attacking one’s own group identity must be another mortal sin for the wokes.
A possible excuse for Marx would be that he was a man of his time and that historical circumstances must be taken into account. Indeed, suppressing history prevents us from learning its lessons. But the cancel culture never accepts this excuse.
P.S. (04-25-2021): Interestingly, the very same volume printed in Moscow that I cite in my post above is (or was) available under the imprint of International Publishers, a Marxist publisher founded in New York in 1924. As far as I can see, the only differences in the International Publishers edition are: (1) the publisher’s imprint on the title page; (2) on the copyright page, the addendum of the New York publisher’s name; (3) the Library of Congress catalogue data; (4) the latter replacing some short (catalogue?) inscriptions in Russian. Strangely (at least for a non-librarian), while the copyright is unchanged (“Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1985”), the Library of Congress data gives the copyright date as 1975.