In the nation’s apparent march towards socialism, it is often pointed out that the younger generations, millennials and “post-millennials” born after 1980, have no memory of Soviet communism or the Cold War. They never got to hear firsthand, on the news, at school, or in ordinary conversation with family and friends, how the left-wing utopia of the Soviet Union (died 1991) was a criminal disaster. on stilts. Therefore, they are susceptible to the lures of state control of the means of production, universal health insurance, the Green New Deal, universal basic income and everything in between.

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Having spent time with members of these generations throughout this millennium, as a college teacher, I can attest to a relevant aspect of their consciousness. These young people cannot identify Karl Marx. And when he’s pointed at, they can’t care about him. It is worth recognizing this fact and questioning its significance.

The fundamental difference between the pre-millennials and the younger ones, in this regard, is that the first group knows Marx and communism, and the second does not. The opportunity that millennials present to us, in their ignorance of communism, is to consider this interesting question: how would we rate Karl Marx in the absence of knowledge of the 20e century?

The answer, I submit, is that we wouldn’t have the opportunity to notice it. In the broad context of the 19e century, his own, Marx made practically no figure. I say this because for several decades I have taught and given seminars in 19e– century of economic history and intellectual history. In both fields, Marx is difficult to identify or even to discover.

Marx’s natural ground of origin was not economic history – he had nothing to do with economics apart from sometimes being an economic journalist – but the Germanic philosophical tradition as it developed. in its fullness in the middle of the 19the century. It was the era inaugurated by Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schiller and JW von Goethe and carried by immense names in a formidably long list: Hegel, Fichte, Humboldt, Herder, Schlegel, Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Stirner, Feuerbach, Heine, Bauer, Strauss, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, but also competitive personalities in France and elsewhere from Comte to Bergson.

Obviously, Marx was a secondary participant in this tradition, an epigone and an epiphenomenon. The fundamental question explored in this long and strange excursus into the epic of Western civilization was to what extent the collective consciousness (a term Durkheim and Jung would use) of advanced peoples was appropriate to the “objective conditions” of the world in the world. time. Ideally, in this tradition, a collective consciousness slightly “ahead” of real-world conditions could serve as a powerful (indeed the most powerful possible) impetus for practical reform. This was indeed the contemporary definition of “enlightenment”, as the Germans wrested the leadership of this intellectual movement from the French.

Marx was a trivial contributor to this tradition, stacked as it was with much more penetrating minds. For example, when I see students tasked with reading Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” from the start of Marx’s career (the 1840s), their natural reaction is to abandon Marx when finished and take Feuerbach back to them. themselves, this path leading to all kinds of others which never again involve Marx. When it comes to the era of Marx Capital city of the years 1860-80, it is impossible to keep students on this and away from their naturally fused interests in the circle of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. (They find Dühring himself more interesting than Engels’ “Anti-Dühring”.) Heine.

Marx’s only innovation was in his choice of subject, economics. His model was standard Hegelianism with a hint of religious messianism, common as dirt in this crowded intellectual scene. The Germans hardly wrote about economics at the time (the German Industrial Revolution was late), so it had little competition in terms of subject matter. But when contemporary English-speaking writers, from Mill to George, tackle the topic, it always appeals to students. I speculated that if Kierkegaard had chosen economics as the testing ground for his discourse (if that could be imagined), Marx would have been so buried as a mate that we would never have heard from him again. . But Kierkegaard had his head on his shoulders, he didn’t make that choice, and we had Karl Marx. Talk about tragedy first, then joke.

Modern masterpieces from the 19the– century of intellectual history, like that of Ana Siljak Angel of vengeance, of course only have Marx in the shadows, even when, as here, the issue is how the edgy German tradition came to drive left-wing extremist politics on a global scale in the latter part of the century. There really is only one reason we have heard of Marx. It’s Vladimir Lenin, the discontent reduction to the absurd from Russia who for some reason decided that this particular participant in the intellectual scene of the previous era served his purposes most usefully. It is, for the most part, impossible to conceive that there is any inherent relevance to Marx apart from the consideration of the Russian Revolution and the predominance of Leninism within it.

Therefore, I have come to see that the millennial ignorance of communism is only one side of a coin. Knowledge and concern about Lenin’s frightening / hateful “experience” in the Soviet Union is a prerequisite, an essential part of any interest in Marx. When you can read Kierkegaard or Stirner or Heine or Schopenhauer, our millennials tell us, you are careful not to waste time and intellectual energy reading Karl Marx.