CALL ME A KILLJOY but I am sick to death of hearing about Karl Marx. I am sick of his name, his -isms, his undoubted genius, and his “philosophy.” I am sick of him “having reason,” as the French say, or “being right.” But most of all I am sick of his “relevance.”
As someone whose parents were born and grew up in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and who missed the same fate by the skin of her teeth, I know perfectly well what Marx’s relevance amounts to. Marx gave it a name, even if for him it meant something else than it did for the people of Yugoslavia. I am talking about the oft-quoted and seldom understood “religion of everyday life.”
In post–World War II Yugoslavia, Marx’s “relevance” was to be a member of the ruling communist party. Outside of that supra-religious institution no substantial share in the social wealth was possible. “[T]he life-process of society,” as Marx observes in what turned out to be a weird prediction, “which is based on the process of material production, does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan.”
The constitution that enshrined this religion in law and etched it in the consciousness of Yugoslavs did not survive the country’s horrific civil war, which lasted from 1991 to 2001, resulting in the deaths of 150,000 and the displacement of 4,000,000 people; in all, more than one sixth of its total population. And yet remarkably its “religion” survived, despite the fact that today it’s the “freely associated men” — or the freemasonic cabals that rule over the remnants of Yugoslavia like buzzards circling a herd of listless cattle — whose mystical veil is in urgent need of being torn to shreds.
Imagine if Marx had been a theater producer. That was surely far more his style. He certainly knew how to flatter egos, as he did when Ferdinand Lassalle asked him to appraise the manuscript of his dud of a play Franz von Sickingen. “I must applaud both composition and action,” Marx lied, “and that’s more than one can say of any other modern German play.” It might have been his true vocation, putting on dramas and musical comedies at London’s Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, the street where the German Workers Educational Society held its meetings, and where its members could partake of recreational activities, from poetry to fencing. I wonder if Marx ever lamented during those irreproachable sessions the fact that all the world’s a stage, and that he was overseeing the wrong one.
I can’t resist citing that hilarious Mel Brooks film The Producers, starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, in which a washed-up theater producer’s accountant persuades his client to deliberately stage a Broadway flop in order to avoid a hefty tax bill. When Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden becomes an unexpected and inexplicable hit, Mostel’s livid reaction is worthy of Marx himself (Karl, not Groucho) for its topsy-turvy contrariety: “I was so careful,” bemoans the producer. “I picked the wrong play, the wrong director, the wrong cast — where did I go right?”
Is it too outlandish to speculate that in Marx’s case the critique of political economy had been the stand-in for a juvenile passion? Poetry was Marx’s Thing (das Ding an sich), the Real that a combination of his father’s bitter chastisement and his encounter with Hegel’s “craggy melody” managed to cure him of during his Berlin student days. The prospect of earning a living to provide for his future wife, the Baron von Westphalen’s daughter, no doubt helped to tear the veil of his metaphysical illusions. Like a restless artist, Marx’s lifelong fanaticism might thus be read as a nostalgic yearning for an irreplaceable fetish-object, “the sensibly super-sensible” (sinnlich übersinnlich) as he calls it in Capital. Nothing could ever compete with art, no amount of critical veil-tearing could ever substitute for Marx’s love of lyrical poetry. And so he took the only career path left open to him. He became a producer instead; an impresario in the art of critique.
We are living in a culture that sees tragedy everywhere, that fetishizes it. It’s something of a neurotic obsession. In mid-19th-century England, around 60,000 people, including many children, would die each year of tuberculosis. When Charles Darwin’s daughter Annie died of the disease in 1851, he wrote in his diary: “We have lost the joy of the household, and the solace of our old age. […] Oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still & and shall ever love her dear joyous face.” Another child, Mary, died in early infancy. But people don’t refer to Darwin’s life as tragic.
High birth rates were normal for Victorian families, irrespective of class. Marx’s wife Jenny gave birth to seven children, only three of whom survived to adulthood; the Darwins had 10. There is nothing tragic about this high mortality rate. Indeed, Darwin accounts for it himself in On the Origin of Species, noting that the number of individuals of a given species is governed by natural selection, which determines how each individual’s inherited characteristics aid and abet it in the “struggle for existence.” Only a culture profoundly anesthetized to the causes of human suffering would dare mention tragedy in relation to infant mortality, given that it’s derived from the Greek word for “goat” (tragos), whose blood sacrifice would have been lamented in song at the Theatre of Dionysus in fifth-century Athens. For all their apparent lunacy the producers were clearly carrying on a long tradition.
Although Marx’s favorite poet was the Greek tragedian Aeschylus, his was certainly not a tragic life, at least according to the historical definition of tragedy handed down to us from Aristotle. It was sad. And of course it was defined by struggle. But it was not tragic, since the mere fact of being born, becoming ill, then dying, sooner or later, is a biological fact. In order to be a tragic figure the deaths in question would need to be attributable to an act of hubris on the protagonist’s part. But there is no evidence to suggest Marx committed any such act in the case of any of his four deceased children.
It was arguably Charles Dickens — like Darwin, Marx’s contemporary — who was largely responsible for this perversion of the idea of the tragic or sacrificial death, which he memorialized through his depictions of children and their poor unfortunate souls, to such an extent that the plight of almost any Victorian child is today thought of as “tragic.” But this Dickensian propensity for melodrama is more worthy of a satyr play. As Oscar Wilde put it: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”
To be honest, one knows why Marx is so often portrayed as a tragic hero. It is to humanize him, thus attenuating any controversial aspect of his thought. By depicting Marx as a “19th-century life,” to borrow the title of Jonathan Sperber’s wholly unconvincing biography, one relativizes the man and his ideas. One quarantines it, much like the dangerous animals one locks inside cages at the zoo, so much the better to prod and gawp at the exotic creatures, in clear ignorance of the social context that facilitates such saccharine objectification.
Marx is not a tragic specimen, and I for one am not prepared to let him off the hook so easily. To say that his was a 19th-century life is to forget that his name and ideas only entered into common currency in the 20th. If the specter of communism makes any sense today then it’s because the thing itself was barely stirring when Marx and Engels prophesized it in 1848. It would be another hundred years before Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and their supporting cast succeeded in turning one third of the global population red.
But! his devoted fans insist, Marx cannot be blamed for the crimes carried out by the inheritors of his political legacy! Which is like saying that the makers of gunpowder cannot be blamed for its misuse. That is perfectly true — assuming we can agree on what might constitute “misuse.” Gunpowder isn’t intended for washing the dishes. It’s made for the express purpose of blowing things up.
Let us remind ourselves that Marx was the inventor of historical materialism. And this “science of history” advances the following basic principle: “men” make history in unforeseen circumstances. History takes us for a ride. We are all subject to its petulant whims; slave to its organic rhythms (something akin to being battered by a wave and thrown head over heels — you might say one “adapts” to the experience). Those fortunate enough to gain a foothold on the train of history must hang on as best they can. But ultimately the “natural laws of capitalist production” work with “iron necessity toward inevitable results,” meaning woe betide anyone stupid enough to get in the way, for they shall be steamrolled. Like the Slavs whom Marx describes as being “incapable of progress and civilization,” and Engels as “residual fragments of peoples” whose “whole existence in general is itself a protest against a great historical revolution.” Despite being “destined to perish before long in the revolutionary world storm” the Slavs might at least take heart from knowing that their brute existence served some purpose in the long march toward civilization. But then Marxists have been feeding the same message to the Slavs for the last century and a half.
I have a suggestion to make. Given the un-tragic wrongness of Marx’s thought, why not make a case for the great man’s contemporary irrelevance? After all, is there today anything more incongruous, perverse, and patently absurd than the call by self-styled communist philosophers like Slavoj Žižek for a Marxist-communist renaissance or “idea of communism,” which looks suspiciously like the idealism or “German ideology” that Marx spent his youth meticulously taking to pieces?
Experience shows that there are two sides to every contradiction. And one would be stupendously naïve to think that anti-Marxism hasn’t for some years now been an article of faith as robust as the genuine article. “I am not a Marxist,” Marx was alleged to have told his son-in-law Paul Lafargue, when the latter brought news from Paris of French “Marxists.” But there is no reason to believe him. Marx was no less vain and insecure in respect of his own intellectual legacy than most of his rivals and opponents, which explains why so many of the letters people sent him went missing, no doubt destroyed by their correspondent. It is difficult to believe that Marx would have been indifferent to the propagation of his own mythology, and to claim that he wasn’t a Marxist is about as convincing and self-critical as Groucho Marx’s hilarious assertion that he wouldn’t wish to join any club that would have him as a member.
Not quite an irrelevant legacy, then. But without doubt patently absurd. Whenever I watch The Producers I can’t help thinking of Marx, and like Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom I wonder to myself how he could possibly have gone right.
Ana Stankovic graduated with a master’s degree from the Faculty of Fine Arts Belgrade in 2013. She is a practicing painter whose work has been exhibited in Serbia and Switzerland. She is currently undertaking research at Kyung Hee University in the Department of British and American Language and Culture.