Using Marx’s birthday to recall progress toward peace

One reason for a decline in violence over time is the demise of theories that justify force. On the anniversary of his birth, Marx’s theories should be a warning about ignoble reasons for mass killing.

Robert Harbison / The Christian Science Monitor/file
Protesters of communism gather around a monument erected in Moscow's Lubyanka Square honoring those who suffered under the Soviet Union.

Seven years ago, Harvard University scholar Steven Pinker wrote a book that concluded, through analysis of historical data, that “the world is less violent now than at any time in history.” In 2018 peace is still not yet a universal norm. But the trend is clear: Humanity has steadily sloughed off ideas that justify violence, even when an idea promises a noble end.

In 1928, for example, the great powers agreed to outlaw war as a new principle of international law. Before then, attacking another country was simply accepted as a right. A string of treaties in the 20th century reduced the advance of certain weapons, such as toxins. The world has also seen the rise of conflict mediators. And within countries, tolerance of private violence, such as husbands beating wives or the abortion of female fetuses in favor of boys, has been shamed or banned. The #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements are the latest examples of this historical trend.

One of the grandest victories over a justification of violence was the demise of a theory put forth by Karl Marx, whose 200th birthday on May 5 is being widely noted. He wrote that his proposal of a new economic system called communism could be achieved only by “despotic” means. He called for “the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.”

Many of his followers, impatient to see a Marxist utopia in their lifetime, ended up using force well into the 20th century. It resulted in the deaths of as many as 100 million people from North Korea to Venezuela. Only when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and China’s Communists embraced a market economy did much of the world decide that the Marxist maxims on violence should go on the ash heap of history.

Marx’s basic mistake was to put faith in human systems, especially the coercive collectivization of an economy. This use of force came at the expense of universal principles that promote peace, such as the dignity of each individual and the equality of all before democratic law. Marxists tend to see others as dupes of a perverse system, thus justifying violence perpetrated by those who presume they are the advanced guard.

In a democracy, however, humility and respect toward others must triumph over such arrogance. Free societies see the work of progress and enlightenment coming through individuals, not imposed on them by force.

Marx did contribute to the long debate over the origins of prosperity. Does economic progress come through physical labor and state control of credit, as he contended? Or does it lie in the constant discovery of ideas by free individuals who are also willing to put money behind new ideas (“capitalism”) and employ others eager for a job? Such debate over economic theory still infuses academia and politics. Are Uber drivers, for example, employees or entrepreneurs?

Marx’s theories came as a unified package, promoting both force by authoritarian leaders and a system of governance. They were not to be separated. If observing the anniversary of his birth should serve any purpose, it should be to remind us that humanity keeps opting freely for peace by consensus, not coercion.

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