Gian Piero de Bellis

Who is afraid of Karl Marx ?

(September 2014)



In 1962, the playwright Edward Albee portrayed in Who is afraid of Virginia Woolf? the bitter quarrelling of a middle-age couple amid illusions and delusions for a never born son. The title of the play was taken from the song Who is afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? of the Walt Disney animated version of The three little pigs.

As remarked by the author “who's afraid of Virginia Woolf means who's afraid of the big bad wolf . . . who's afraid of living life without false illusions.”

In the course of the last century, the quarrelling and intellectual fighting between liberals and socialists has been intense and recurrent. It centred, quite often, on the ideas of a thinker like Karl Marx presented either as an absolute devil or as an angelic saviour. Nothing strange, considering that Karl Marx is probably the major advocate of socialism of all times, and that classical liberals, since the times of Frédéric Bastiat, have been increasingly wary, to say the least, of the miraculous virtues of socialism.

However, the quarrel between liberals and socialists should have never occurred because, as remarked by a famous American sociologist, “What is most valuable in classic liberalism is most cogently and most fruitfully incorporated in classic Marxism.”(Charles Wright Mills, The Marxists, 1962).

Nevertheless, the fighting did occur because both, liberals and socialists, manipulated and distorted Marx’s ideas to suit their own preconceptions, interests and political agenda. And, what came out, was just a pile of mental illusions and practical delusions. This happened as if both, liberals and socialists, were afraid of facing the real Karl Marx.

The misunderstanding of Karl Marx’s ideas had already started during his lifetime to the point that Friedrich Engels wrote in a letter that Marx had once openly proclaimed:
“All I know is that I am not a Marxist.”

So, if we formulate the question: Who is afraid of Karl Marx? we can quite correctly answer:
liberals and socialists.
Then, a subsequent necessary question presents itself: Why are they afraid of Karl Marx?

In fact, if we accept as true the statement of Charles Wright Mills we shouldn’t find any reason for liberals and socialists to be afraid of Karl Marx because socialism would be a filiation of liberalism. Unless we examine not just what classical liberals and socialists have said and advocated but also what liberal and socialist parties and activists have done and practiced in the last century. And compare all that with the ideas of Karl Marx.

To do so we need to make a very brief excursus that focuses on seven aspects of Karl Marx’s vision, that have become, in the course of time, the seven capital sins of political distortion and intellectual manipulation of his ideas.

1. The capitalistic mode of production. Marx was a very determined supporter of the “capitalistic mode of production” (in all his writings he almost never used the word “capitalism”). He was interested in technology, production and organization of the work. He wanted the capitalistic mode of production to spread all over the world because only then, with abundance of produced goods and the machines doing most of the work, his vision of a socialist society could become reality.

2. Free Trade. Marx was a champion of free trade because “the protective system of our day is conservative” while “the free trade system hastens the social revolution” by developing the entire world through a series of productive exchanges (Karl Marx, On the Question of Free Trade, Public Speech Delivered by Karl Marx before the Democratic Association of Brussels January 9, 1848).

3. Cosmopolitanism. Marx didn’t pay much attention to nationalism that was, for him, a dead cause and a by-gone reality. In the Communist Manifesto he pointed out, perhaps with too much enthusiasm and a large dose of wishful thinking, that “national-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible” and that “the bourgeoisie … has given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country.” (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848)

4. End of dependent work. For Marx the final goal was the overcoming of work drudgery under an exploitative master. He wrote: “Instead of the conservative motto: ‘A fair day's wage for a fair day's work!’ they [the workers] ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: ‘Abolition of the wages system!’” (Karl Marx, Wages, Price and Profit, 1865). In other words, everybody should become an independent producer, i.e. a capitalist (owner of the means of production) on his own.

5. Reduction of the working day. The massive enlargement of production, due to the introduction, everywhere, of the capitalistic mode of production and its continuous improvements (“the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production” - Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848) ) would necessarily lead to the reduction of the working day. For Marx, the emancipation of the workers is possible only with “the reduction of the working day” (Karl Marx, Capital Book III, Chapter 48, 1894) and in the presence of a high productivity of work.

6. Extinction of the state. Marx has been one of the first to highlight the collusion between state rulers and the owners of the means of production (what would be later defined as “crony capitalism”). For Marx “the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848). Given that, the extinction of the state was for him and for Engels an indispensable condition for the emancipation of the workers and the liberation of the individuals. Engels, for instance, was very clear about the final destiny of the state: “Society, which will reorganise production on the basis of a free and equal association of the producers, will put the whole machinery of state where it will then belong: into the museum of antiquities, by the side of the spinning wheel and the bronze axe.” (The Origin of Family, Private Property and State, 1884 – see passages).

7. Passage to the kingdom of Freedom. With the overcoming of the state, a very high productivity and a reduced time needed for manufacturing the goods necessary for life, the scene was ready for the passage from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom. “In fact, the realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production.” (Karl Marx, Capital Book III, Chapter 48, 1894).


Now, if we examine the reality concerning liberals and socialists during the 20th century we discover that, in every single point, the interests and the agenda of liberals and socialists, regrouped in national parties, have been diametrically opposed to Marx views. Let us examine it in a very synthetic way:

1. Controlling the spread of the capitalistic mode of production. The political and economic exponents of capitalistic liberal England were not sympathetic to the diffusion of the capitalistic mode of production in continental Europe and elsewhere. This would have meant, for England, to lose the position of economic supremacy as the “workshop of the world.”

2. Introducing tariffs and quotas to protect national production. National capitalists and national exponents of trade unions have always been suspicious if not vigorously opposed to free trade. John Maynard Keynes, an important member of the British liberal party, arrived even to criticise free trade in his essay National Self-Sufficiency (1933)

3. Favouring nationalism and the formation of national states. Liberals were in the forefront of national struggles and the formation of national states. Socialist parties organized themselves according to national lines and their parliamentary representatives did not think twice before aligning themselves under the banner of their national states in that carnage that was the First World War.

4. Promoting the diffusion of dependent occupations for the entire population. Full occupation and a full-time dependent job in a factory have been promises and the dreams of all liberal and socialist politicians alike. However, this has nothing to do with the ideal of autonomous independent producers that liberals and socialists originally shared.

5. Discounting or opposing the goal of the reduction of the working day. Liberals and socialists have totally sidelined this objective that was central to Marx’s thinking. Probably because free-time means that people can have time to access information and develop knowledge. And this is the best path towards personal autonomy, a quite dangerous outcome for all (liberal and socialist) politicians.

6. Considering the state as an indispensable entity. Marx’s idea of the extinction of the state was swept under the carpet by those who wanted the state to protect the owners (liberals) or to defend workers (socialists). In actual reality, the state was considered indispensable by liberals and socialists for the continuation of crony capitalism and crony trade-unionism. Even a classic liberal like von Mises considered the territorial state as an essential entity: “For the liberal, the state is an absolute necessity, since the most important tasks are incumbent upon it: the protection not only of private property, but also of peace, for in the absence of the latter the full benefits of private property cannot be reaped.” (Liberalism, 1927)

7. Taking the existence of scarcity as a permanent datum. Liberals and socialists were not at all interested in the passage from the Kingdom of Necessity to the Kingdom of Freedom as advocated by Marx. They wanted individuals in society to be kept in a state of continuous stress and insecurity. Only in this way they could survive as controlling masters and welfare providers. To this aim, squandering resources and promoting conflicts have been their recurrent weapons.

So, it seems quite correct to affirm that, in the course of the last century, liberals and socialists were afraid of facing the real Marx and manufactured one that was either a straw man to attack (liberals) or a wax puppet to ply to their own political interests (socialists). And those interests had, generally, nothing to do with liberalism and socialism.

We still live in the shadow of that intellectual manipulation and political mystification. The solution here suggested is not to go back to Marx (even if a knowledge of Marx’s ideas is not to be underrated) but to go beyond liberalism and socialism as they have evolved during the 20th century. And, at the same time, recovering what is still of everlasting value in those concepts, and applying it in original new ways, to our personal life and social relations.


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