Happy birthday! It’s tempting to say that much has changed in the 200 years since your birth, but as I sit down to describe those changes, I must admit I am more struck by the similarities than the differences between your time and mine.
The big news is, of course, that the kings you fought so hard to unmask as charlatans no longer are divine. Well, there are a few monarchs who still claim tangential ties to a higher power, but most people have cottoned on to the fact that royal power is really just a combination of heredity and tenacity. And, unfortunately, your kings have been replaced by new ones who base their right to rule on an aristocracy of wealth.
Have you heard about the terrible wars of the 20th century? They were called World Wars, and that was no exaggeration. The first one, which involved said kings and their ambitions, killed as many as 40 million people. A second war began 20 years later because the first had never truly ended. It would kill twice as many people and produce a weapon so formidable it could wipe out the planet. In that war, man proved he could kill like a beast and a god. Ironically, your name was invoked in the slaughter.
Yes, Karl, after you died in 1883, people discovered your writings and some promptly misused them. There are statues of you in capitals around the globe where governments expounded “Marxism” to deprive people of the very freedoms you extolled. They reinterpreted your vision of “the free development of each” being “the condition for the free development of all” as the freedom to be equally miserable. Indeed, the repression and butchery accomplished in your name during the last century would horrify you.
Do you remember your high hopes for democracy? How you believed free speech, universal education and the vote would help usher in a world that created the greatest good for the greatest number? It hasn’t really worked out that way. While so-called Marxists operating under a communist banner expunged rights around the globe, capitalists busily subverted democracy in a long and insidious hostile takeover.
Don’t get me wrong. The initial benefits of capitalism were tremendous. Humankind’s possibilities soared. Scientific, technological and medical discoveries ensured that people lived longer and better. The arts flourished because people had leisure time to read, paint and compose. Natural resources were harnessed to improve agriculture, so everyone could eat. It really was marvelous, but as you said, for the capitalist, marvelous isn’t enough. That omnivorous beast hungers eternally for more and bigger profits.
I hate to tell you, but the man now occupying Lincoln’s house is your old capitalist friend Mr. Moneybags.
In the past 40 years, especially, such capitalists have turned democracies on their heads. Most of those governments are no longer of the people or for the people. They serve one constituent: business. Politicians are bought by the dozen, the highest echelons of government bureaucracies are peopled with titans of industry and finance and their minions, and laws are written to protect corporate interests over people’s interests. Citizens of democracies, who fought so hard in your century for the right to vote, have seemed to lose interest in the ballot when faced with the powerful adversary, capital. The vote has been devalued, and like any commodity, it has been snapped up by savvy investors who understand its power.
I remember how much you admired Abraham Lincoln and how you thought that brilliant son of the working class embodied everything good and great about the United States. Well, I hate to tell you, but the man now occupying Lincoln’s house is your old capitalist friend Mr. Moneybags. I recently reread your “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844” and laughed because you described him to a tee when you wrote about the wizardry of money, which can turn even a brute into a prince. “I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness — its deterrent power — is nullified by money. … I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honored and hence its possessor. … Does not all my money, therefore, transform all my incapacities into their contrary?” You must have had a crystal ball in the Paris apartment where you wrote those words.
So, what else has happened 200 years down the road? African men and women are still being sold, but now it’s called “people trafficking.” Citizens have been made somnolent by the trinkets of capitalism the way populations in your time were subdued by conquering colonial powers. Now, as then, the distance between factory workers and the people who use their products is great enough that the guilt over the exploitation of workers dissipates by the time coveted stretch jeans or smartphones arrive on store shelves. As in your day, happy consumers congratulate themselves on grabbing a bargain without being troubled by the fact that a person a continent away worked themselves to death to produce it.
It’s a grim picture, indeed, I’m sorry to say. But there is hope! This century has seen a series of events that indicate a new generation may be finding its way past the prison houses of 20th century ideologies. A collapse of the global financial system in 2008 exposed for even some free-market stalwarts the flaws in its construction. Newspapers that had previously scoffed at the mere mention of your name began to question, “Was Marx right?” Sometimes, brave individuals stuck their necks out and whispered, “Yes.”
And then, two years later, in late 2010, spontaneous revolts that came to be known as the Arab Spring signaled the possibility of mass social change. It was a revival of your 1848 Springtime of the People revolts in Europe. Entire populations rose up to overthrow autocratic and corrupt rulers in North Africa and the Middle East. Unfortunately, history repeated itself in that, as in 1848, the reaction from entrenched powers was swift and deadly. Alas, the counterrevolution won again. But, eight years later, the embers are still warm, and the wind (which is now called the internet) is spreading them.
In the past two years, individuals have discovered their voices and the strength that resides in their numbers. Black and white citizens have taken to the streets to denounce the murder of black men by police. Women have joined forces to expose sexual predators and the industries that not only enable them, but profit by it. Tens of thousands of children have assumed the mantle of adults by acknowledging the truth their elders are too cowed to express: Guns kill.
So, dear Karl, as you celebrate your 200th birthday, there is hope. And it’s great that you are still around to help us, if not in person, then through your work and your words. You inspire us still.
Mary Gabriel is the author of “Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution.” Her latest book, “Ninth Street Women,” will be published by Little, Brown in September.