CRF Blog

Karl Marx, Yesterday and Today

by Bill Hayes

In an essay titled Karl Marx, Yesterday and Today for the New Yorker, Louis Menand looks at Marx’s life, his ideas, and his continuing importance as Menand discusses these books: Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life by Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion by Gareth Stedman Jones, Karl Marx: Revolutionary and Utopian by Alan Ryan, Karl Marx: His Life and Environment by Isaiah Berlin, and Capital in the Twenty-first Century by Thomas Piketty.

On or about February 24, 1848, a twenty-three-page pamphlet was published in London. Modern industry, it proclaimed, had revolutionized the world. It surpassed, in its accomplishments, all the great civilizations of the past — the Egyptian pyramids, the Roman aqueducts, the Gothic cathedrals. Its innovations — the railroad, the steamship, the telegraph — had unleashed fantastic productive forces. In the name of free trade, it had knocked down national boundaries, lowered prices, made the planet interdependent and cosmopolitan. Goods and ideas now circulated everywhere.

Just as important, it swept away all the old hierarchies and mystifications. People no longer believed that ancestry or religion determined their status in life. Everyone was the same as everyone else. For the first time in history, men and women could see, without illusions, where they stood in their relations with others.

The new modes of production, communication, and distribution had also created enormous wealth. But there was a problem. The wealth was not equally distributed. Ten per cent of the population possessed virtually all of the property; the other ninety per cent owned nothing. As cities and towns industrialized, as wealth became more concentrated, and as the rich got richer, the middle class began sinking to the level of the working class.

Soon, in fact, there would be just two types of people in the world: the people who owned property and the people who sold their labor to them. As ideologies disappeared which had once made inequality appear natural and ordained, it was inevitable that workers everywhere would see the system for what it was, and would rise up and overthrow it. The writer who made this prediction was, of course, Karl Marx, and the pamphlet was “The Communist Manifesto.” [more]

For a free classroom lesson on Marx, see Karl Marx: A Failed Vision of History from our Bill of Rights in Action Archive.