Better Dead than Read

Andrew Stuttaford reviews “Marx and Marxism,” by London-based historian Gregory Claeys, in the WSJ:

Reading Mr. Claeys’s description of Marx the man—someone he evidently, if far from unconditionally, admires—it is both easy and reasonable to conclude that Marx’s personality set the tone for some of the most lethal strains in the regimes he inspired: “He was . . . almost totally unwilling to see anyone else’s viewpoint. The essence of democracy—compromise and the acceptance of opposition—was often beyond his capacity.” From his earliest years, Marx would tolerate very little dissent, and the sometimes lengthy, frequently inventive and sporadically repulsive abuse to which he subjected those with whom he disagreed (especially on the left) contain more than a hint of the prosecutors’ diatribes at show trials to come.

Marx died in 1883. Eleven people attended his funeral, but, as Mr. Claeys notes, “a year later . . . some 6,000 marched to the gravesite.” The cult was on the move. Something more than the cult of personality already emerging while he still lived, it came with echoes of earlier eruptions of millenarianism—a term that has long since expanded beyond its original theological definition to include, among other varieties of judgment day, the complete overthrow of society and its replacement with, in essence, heaven on earth. These similarities have been identified by scholars since at least the mid-20th century, but too often ignored.

Mr. Claeys, who is also a historian of Utopianism, is well equipped to avoid that omission. He acknowledges that millenarianism seeped into aspects of Marx’s philosophy, including both his view of history and his conveniently hazy vision of the communist paradise to come. This line of inquiry would have been worth pursuing further: Millenarianism is an ancient, proven formula that will find an audience as long as the credulous, the discontented, the jealous and the unfairly treated are among us—in other words, forever.

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