One need not be a devotee of Karl Marx to recognize the important contribution he made to social and economic thought. His theories, linking economics, social science, politics, and philosophy, provided the heady grist for the discussion of these disciplines throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries. His vision of a communist society, in which each person would contribute according to ability and received according to need, captured the imagination of millions and inspired revolutionaries in many parts of the world.
Yet, a hundred years after his death, it is baffling why Marxism still retains its ability to appeal. As an economic theory, it has long ago been discredited. It never did take hold in the industrialized countries as Marx expected but was adopted by underdeveloped nations in which the peasant class still predominated. In the industrialized nations, capitalism did not lead to pauperization of the working class, largely because of the emergence of trade unions. The supposed class struggle did not develop. Governments in the industrialized states, far from becoming instruments of repression, used their power to mitigate social injustice and the abuses of the capitalist system. Capitalism did not disappear.
Wherever communism is practiced today, it has fallen far short of Marx's utopian ideal. Instead of the state withering away in such countries as the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Vietnam, it has become the overriding presence in society. Instead of the old autocratic ruling class, communist countries have produced a new ruling class - the ''New Class,'' Milovan Djilas called it - with its own privileged way of life. Nowhere does the proletariat rule (witness Poland). Instead of liberating people's lives from the shackles of exploitation, communist states have been despotic, exploitative, bureaucratic, and grossly inefficient.
Marxism, in short, has proved incapable of dealing with reality. Solzhenitsyn calls it a ''dead ideology.'' Boris Pasternak demolished it in one telling sentence in his novel ''Doctor Zhivago'': ''I do not know a movement more self-centered and further removed from the facts than Marxism.''
Still, the doctrine survives, though in many permutations. For many impoverished nations, and not a few people in the Western world, Marxism seems to offer what French philosopher Raymond Aron calls a ''secular faith'' - a messianic hope that the world, with its lingering injustices and poverty and violent conflict, can be improved through socialist practices. Even some theologians are being drawn to a so-called ''Christian socialism.''
While socialism is of course subject to many definitions, there are pitfalls in this line of thinking.
Where Marx erred was in predicating his theories on the doctrine of dialectical materialism, which affirms the all-encompassing presence of matter and denies the existence of the Creator, Spirit. The belief in matter as the building block of the universe is a belief in limitation. And a belief in limitation is what leads to erroneous theories of competition (as sometimes practiced in Western societies) and to attempts by the state to control or parcel out the limited amount available.
From this premise of limitation, Marx reasoned that the production of material wealth, i.e., economics, determined the nature of a society and that, if only a humane, conflict-free economic system were built, humane social, cultural, and political institutions would follow. His objectives were humanitarian but his philosophy, as historical experience has borne out, was flawed.
By contrast, the Judeo-Christian faith insists on moral and spiritual regeneration as the foundation on which economic and political progress is built. Such regeneration, based on a vision of man as the spiritual offspring of God, liberates the individual from material limitation. It is not surprising that nations which have sought to put into practice the Judeo-Christian teaching have witnessed an unprecedented development of democratic government, individual freedom, technological progress, and even material abundance. Capitalism is an economic system. But it is Judeo-Christian principles which have in significant measure helped sensitize Western societies to making capitalism serve the highest purposes of social good.
To say this is not to hide the imperfections of Western societies. Indeed, as Western critics reflect on Karl Marx and his legacy a century later, they would do well to reflect also on the reasons for the unregenerated ills of capitalist countries - irrational violence, social inequities, economic stagnation, moral decline - and on where these may be taking society if not checked.