The Donald Trump campaign confirms the validity of Karl Marx's gibe that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.
With middle class incomes stagnating and economic disparities growing between the wealthy and the rest of us, Marx's theories have returned to favor. When the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, the old revolutionary's work was tossed into "the dustbin of history,"
But now, with economic disparities widening, and voter anger fueling Trump's buffoonish populism, the Brexit vote in Great Britain and Bernie Sanders' Democratic-socialist campaign against the "rigged" financial system, Marx's 19th century predictions appear on target.
New biographies of Marx see him favorably, making the case that his work should be seen in context of 19th century Europe rather than today.
Louis Menand, in a review of Jonathan Sperber's "Karl Marx: a 19th Century Life," and Gareth Stedman-Jones' "Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion" in the Oct. 10 New Yorker, considers Marx as a man of his times while asserting that his philosophy provides keys to understanding today's inequalities.
Exiled to London for the last 33 years of his life, Marx was a fierce polemicist and revolutionary, spending his days in the British Museum doing research for his world-shaking works "The Communist Manifesto" and "Das Kapital."
In his personal life, he was a gentle teddy bear, according to his biographers, scraping together money to give his children drawing and drama lessons, and a lover of Shakespeare, red wine and cigars. Poverty-ravaged and beset by illness, he scratched out a living writing for newspapers including the New York Tribune and depended on the largess of his revolutionary comrade Frederick Engels, a rich industrialist.
Menand notes that Marx was virtually unknown at his death in 1883, and would have remained obscure had his disciple Lenin not carried out the the Russian Revolution. Marx's theories fueled the 20th century communist revolutions in China, Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea, and were the basis of communist governments in Eastern European countries behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. y
While his name is associated with the totalitarianism imposed by Lenin and Stalin, Marx believed in human freedom, Menand says, conceiving a classless, property-less society after the workers' revolution overthrew capitalism.
Freed from the factory system's division of labor, people would define themselves through a range of humanistic pursuits. Alas, Lenin's enactment of Marx's theories brought about a soul-crushing monolithic state.
Many of Marx's predictions now appear accurate. The French economist Thomas Pikerty drew upon Marx's work in his surprise best-seller "Capital in the 21st Century," which showed the prevalence of economic inequality favoring the rich for most of history except for a 30-year period in the United States following World War II.
Menand in discussing stagnant incomes doesn't touch upon a basic cause: falling productivity. The prevalence of computers and the Internet has not brought a productivity leap like those of previous technological advances.
Fundamental changes in the U.S. economy are roiling the presidential campaigns. Trump's "Make America Great Again" is based on fantasies of lost jobs coming back, while Hillary Clinton has adopted many of Sanders' proposals.
The political turmoil shows the return of Marx's relevance, Menand says. "Still in the political confusion, we are seeing something that has not been seen in Western countries like Britain and the United States since before 1945, people debating what Marx would call the real nature of social relations."
Ignoring the intense social and political conflicts of the '60s, Menand also neglects to point out the continuation of Republican intransigence if Clinton is elected.
While Marx's thought gives deep insights into the American economy, he lived in a vastly different world. Yet he remains a helpful guide to the future, whether it emerges as tragedy, farce, or a new age of prosperity and creativity.