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Karl Marx: An Irrelevant Man

AUGUST 01, 1991 by DONALD SMITH

Mr. Smith is a writer living in Santa Maria, California. He has been a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal.

I remember reading Karl Marx in college. The assignment was, to understate the case, a tedious experience. There is a quality about this ponderously dull man that makes the eyelids heavy, and his work is not recommended for a pleasant afternoon at the beach. In defense of Marx, however, the writing that we see is a translation, and the passage of thought from one language to another often has the effect of squeezing out the pithy phrases and the clever shades of meaning. I doubt that this happened to any significant degree with Marx, but it is still possible that he is more of a thundering bore in English than in the original German. Let’s give him the benefit of a doubt on this one.

Over the years I have also remembered Marx as a man who was simply wrong in the conclusions that he reached, but here was another judgment that couldn’t be put to rest that easily. I have always had some trouble with the word wrong in regard to Karl Marx because he wasn’t one for hitting nails squarely on heads, and his oblique phraseology didn’t lend itself to the simplicity of right and wrong. Adolf Hitler was wrong throughout Mein Kampf, but not in the sense that the word would apply to Marx. There is a certain specificity to being wrong that applies to a Hitler but not to a Marx.

It is wrong, for example, to say that Altoona is the capital of Pennsylvania, but the word cannot be so easily applied to the proposition that Altoona is, or is not, a nice place to live. Hitler would have gone with the first statement and gasped his last mortal breath insisting that it was correct. Marx would have preferred the other proposition, making fuzzy and ill-conceived statements that have no basis in fact but are hard to support or refute.

I have been rereading Marx in recent weeks, and I am turned off to the same extent that I was in my undergraduate days. I now believe, however, that I can pinpoint the reason that Karl and I just don’t get along. The word that I had sought for so many years was not dull and it was not wrong. The word for Karl Marx is irrelevant.

One will note that Marx prattled incessantly about the great class struggle. This might have had some meaning for 19th-century Europeans, but it means absolutely nothing to Americans of any century. We are a nation of individuals with very little concept of social or economic class. Our group affiliations are temporal: an afternoon cheering for the home team, a lodge meeting, or a get-together with the property owners’ association, but it ends when we step outside and become individuals again. I suppose that a contemporary American could hold his or her income up to some economic scale and find a place in a pre-selected bracket, but it really doesn’t mean much to anyone. Certainly there is no class struggle, and I don’t think that I know anyone who could define the term, or who cares enough to find out.

The Irrelevance of Labels

Marx uses the words bourgeoisie and proletarian repeatedly, and both are about as relevant to our lives as hoop skirts and butter churns. I know what the words mean, or what they meant to Karl Marx, but there are too many people who fit into both categories, or neither, for the words to have any applicability. I would be hard put to label anyone I know as one or the other. If a man repairs shoes, for example, he is probably a proletarian, but what if he owns the shop and he is the only employee? This makes him the boss and also the one who does all the work. In the great revolution, Marx would probably have him destroy himself.

Marx was obsessed with the idea of class, but to most Americans this is a vague, if meaningless, concept. We see the world as individuals, a group of divergent entities, each with a unique value and making up a collective body that is less important than its parts.

If one would ask the proverbial man-on-the-street American to pinpoint himself on a class scale, he would probably come up with an answer of sorts, but it would be offered with a shrug of the shoulders and a “Who cares?” tone of voice. Class loyalty is about one step below loyalty to a bowling team or an alumni association in human intensity. Certainly no American is going to take to the streets for the honor of the citizens in his salary bracket.

This, I believe, is the reason that Karl Marx has made so little impact on American thought processes. No one is quite sure what the man was talking about, and if they ever found out, they wouldn’t care anyway. He wasn’t evil, he wasn’t insane, and he certainly wasn’t stupid. On our side of the Atlantic, he is merely irrelevant. To put it succinctly, Karl Marx is a man with nothing to say to the American people.

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August 1991

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