On Monday, Kyung Hee University associate philosophy professor Jason Barker penned an op-ed for The New York Times celebrating Karl Marx’s birthday with this exciting headline: “Happy Birthday, Karl Marx. You Were Right!” If he was, the people north of the 38th parallel might have an interest in hearing about it, but Barker earned his space in the Times, which has spent the last two years reviving talk of communism’s glories in articles like “When Communism Inspired Americans,” “Socialism’s Future May Be Its Past,” and “Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism.”
So, how was Marx right — aside from the mountains of corpses created under the rubric of his ideology? According to Barker, Marx was filled with “boundless intellectual enthusiasm.” And Barker criticizes Marx’s reliance on Hegel: “If ever there were a convincing case to be made for the dangers of philosophy, then surely it’s Marx’s discover of Hegel.” But then Barker gets to his case:
Today the legacy would appear to be alive and well. Since the turn of the millennium countless books have appeared, from scholarly works to popular biographies, broadly endorsing Marx’s reading of capitalism and its enduring relevance to our neoliberal age.
What, exactly, was Marx right about? According to Barker, he was right that “capitalism is driven by a deeply divisive class struggle in which the ruling-class minority appropriates the surplus labor of the working-class majority as profit.” But this is idiotic. Unless Marx could show involuntary removal of labor by the upper classes, there was no basis for the accusation of labor “appropriation”; that case still can’t be made in a free and open society. And as for Marx’s “prescient … conviction that capitalism has an inbuilt tendency to destroy itself,” that conviction isn’t prescient — it’s just true that Left-wing intellectuals have ginned up opposition to the free exchange of goods and services for political benefit.
But according to Barker, Marx’s real contribution was his solution to the problem of capitalism. What is his solution? There was “no magic formula” for exiting capitalism. But there were “critical weapons” for doing so.
What were these weapons? Deconstruction of the prevailing order. “The key factor in Marx’s intellectual legacy in our present-day society is not ‘philosophy’ but ‘critique’…’[the] ruthless criticism of all that exists.’” Except for his own premises, of course. But society itself could be changed through critique. Says Barker:
Racial and sexual oppression have been added to the dynamic of class exploitation. Social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, owe something of an unspoken debt to Marx through their unapologetic targeting of the “eternal truths” of our age. Such movements recognize, as did Marx, that the ideas that rule every society are those of its ruling class and that overturning those ideas is fundamental to true revolutionary progress.
In other words, you’re not an individual — you’re a widget created by the system. And enlightenment thought can’t free you from your widget-dom — only destroying the prevailing structure can. Identity politics can be the tool for destroying the system that robs life of meaning:
We have become used to the go-getting mantra that to effect social change we first have to change ourselves. But enlightened or rational thinking is not enough, since the norms of thinking are already skewed by the structures of male privilege and social hierarchy, even down to the language we use. Changing those norms entails changing the very foundations of society.
This, of course, is where the dead bodies come in. It turns out that human beings aren’t widgets. They do have the capacity to choose, and they do have the ability to reason. And treating everything you don’t like as a symptom of a system of oppression leads you to treat individuals as either tools or obstacles to utopia. Marx knew that and didn’t care. Neither, apparently, does Barker.
Thinkers for all of time have looked for a way to transform the nature of humanity. They’ve all failed. Their attempts, at a collective level, have led to genocides and gulags. But so long as the dream of the new human being prevails, the whiff of death will never leave the pages of Marx.