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Why Socialists Should Drop Marx

DEMYTHOLOGIZING A GIANT

By John C. Cort | June 1989
John C. Cort is a Boston-area writer and the author of the recently released Christian Socialism: An Informal History. He has worked as a reporter, editor, union organizer, and Peace Corps and antipoverty official.

Karl Marx was a giant and a genius. Isaiah Ber­lin has reminded us that he wrote “the most for­midable, sustained, and elaborate indictment ever delivered against an entire social order,” and, to use Marx’s own words about another chronicle, he wrote it “in letters of blood and fire.” Dom Helder Camara, a Brazilian archbishop the walls of whose residence are pockmarked by the machine-gun fire of right-wing death squads, has paid this tribute to Marx: “When a man attracts millions of human be­ings…when a man…makes the powerful of the earth tremble with fear and hate, this man deserves to be studied.”

Although there were and are great socialists who preceded and followed Marx, none has been able to equal him for sheer intellectual dazzle and power. Although some of these have been religious socialists of one sort or another, none could really claim to be in the same class. I also think it only fair, though painful, to point out that, taken by and large, the social efforts of the Christian church­es, particularly in the 19th century, look pretty fee­ble alongside the personal and intellectual contri­butions of Marx and those who followed his lead.

So I agree with Archbishop Camara that Marx deserves to be studied, yes, and also remembered with gratitude for his indictment of the evils of cap­italism. But should he be retained as a dominant theorist of the worldwide democratic socialist move­ment, a major, if not the major, source of ideas, strategy, or, for that matter, analysis? I think the answer to that question is “No.”

C. Wright Mills, one of the most intelligent, sophisticated, and lucid Marxists of the 20th cen­tury, wrote a book, The Marxists, in which he list­ed the 17 major propositions in the Marxian opus. He analyzed each of them in the light of Marx’s time and our time, and concluded that every one of them was “either wrong, ambiguous or inade­quate.” And yet Mills remained a faithful Marxist, a fact which has always struck me as an extraordi­nary triumph of faith over reason.

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