Is Karl Marx making a comeback right in time for his upcoming bicentennial birthday? In this week’s Working-Class Perspective, Kathy M. Newman considers the reasons for Marx’s resurgence in popularity.
Over the last decade, Marx has also made a comeback as a serious intellectual figure. In the fall of 2008, as the global financial crisis was starting to be felt and understood, The Guardian reported on the increasing demand for his books: “‘Marx is in fashion again,’ said Jörn Schütrumpf, manager of the Berlin publishing house Karl-Dietz which publishes the works of Marx and Engels in German. ‘We’re seeing a very distinct increase in demand for his books, a demand which we expect to rise even more steeply before the year’s end.’”
Two best-selling biographies have also appeared, Mary Gabriel’s Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution (2011), a stunning, page-turning re-evaluation of Marx that incorporates much of his family life, as well as Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life (2013), which makes the argument—belied by the popularity of the biography itself—that Marx was more important to his own time than to ours.
In his widely-read book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013), the French economist Thomas Piketty – himself sometimes hailed as a modern-day Marx – encourages economists to “take inspiration from [Marx’s] example.” Meanwhile, David Harvey, a mild mannered CUNY professor, has achieved cult status with his popular online lectures that help the average reader make their way through the hundreds of pages of Marx’s Capital, volumes 1-3.
What’s driving this resurgence of interest in Marx, as kitsch but especially as a serious thinker about economics, class, and inequality? I see a few factors here.
1) The global financial collapse of 2008 made Marx’s critique of capitalism look fresher than ever. Marx predicted cycles of collapse and consolidation, and his analysis explains how inequality deepens during times of capitalist crisis. His predictions have played out as we have seen the top .1% profit from the housing collapse of 2008 while the rest of us have suffered. In the lead up to the election last year, for example, Trump was accused of having cheered on the housing crisis of 2008, because it meant that he and his cronies could buy up scads of cheap real estate that have since risen significantly in value.
2) The collapse of Communist regimes, from the USSR, to the capitalist makeover of China, to the opening of Cuban borders, has everyone proclaiming the death and failure of communism as a political and societal toolkit. Ironically, it may be that if communism is less of a world-wide threat, then Karl Marx, as the official godfather of communism, is seen as less threatening as well.
3) The post-Cold War generation views socialism and communism more favorably than during any time since the Cold War A scholar at Tufts University has hypothesized that millennials, born into the worst job market since the Great Depression, are more skeptical of capitalism than their parents. According to this same researcher, millennials see Scandinavian countries as models for democratic socialism, rather than current or former communist countries like Russia and China.