Marx's Funeral: Premature Obituaries for Seemingly Dead Ideas
Karl Marx is sometimes referred to as a secular prophet. He made lots of predictions. Most of them were wrong.He died in obscurity.
Following the death of his wife, Jenny, in December 1881, Marx developed a catarrh that kept him in ill health for the last 15 months of his life. It eventually brought on the bronchitis and pleurisy that killed him in London on 14 March 1883 (age 64). He died a stateless person; family and friends in London buried his body in Highgate Cemetery, London, on 17 March 1883. There were between nine and eleven mourners at his funeral.His ideas spread, but not the way he foresaw.
The late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm remarked that "One cannot say Marx died a failure" because, although he had not achieved a large following of disciples in Britain, his writings had already begun to make an impact on the leftist movements in Germany and Russia. Within 25 years of his death, the continental European socialist parties that acknowledged Marx's influence on their politics were each gaining between 15 and 47 per cent in those countries with representative democratic elections.
Marx was opposed to democratic politics. He saw democracy as anti-revolutionary. His system presented a religion of revolution. I wrote a book on this in 1968. You can download it here.
His ideas were successful in agrarian Russia. Yet his theory insisted that the proletarian revolution would take place in advanced industrial nations. It never did. It took place in rural Russia (1917) and China (1949).
Almost no one other than a handful of German socialists, the librarians at the British Museum, and the police knew who he was in 1883.
In 1887, a turning point event took place. A young revolutionary was executed in Russia. He called himself a Marxist. His name was Alexander Ulyanov. He was 21 years old. Wikipedia writes:
Ulyanov graduated from the College of Simbirsk in 1883 with honours and entered Petersburg University, where he majored in Natural Sciences and earned another gold medal for his work in zoology. At university he participated in illegal meetings and demonstrations, and pamphleted and made speeches to students and workers. In 1886, he became a member of the "terrorist faction" of a successor to the Narodnaya Volya (People's Will) party. He was one of the authors of its program with Marxism being one of his obvious influences.Acknowledging the working class as a "nucleus of the Socialist Party," the party program affirmed the revolutionary intelligentsia's initiative in fighting with autocracy; terror was seen as a means of struggle.Ulyanov's younger brother Vladimir vowed to continue his brother's work. He later changed his last name to Lenin.
Ulyanov and his comrades began preparing an assassination attempt on the life of Alexander III of Russia. On March 1, 1887, the day of the sixth anniversary of Alexander II's murder, three of them, suspected by the police, were arrested in the Nevsky Prospekt, where they were going to throw their bombs into the Emperor's carriage (he always visited churches that day to pay tribute to his assassinated father). The attempt is known as "The Second The First of March." Later Ulyanov, who was both the main ideologist of the group and the chemist preparing bombs, was arrested too. In court, Ulyanov gave a political speech. All the conspirators were initially sentenced to death, but only five of them were not pardoned by Alexander III, including Ulyanov. On May 8, he and his comrades Pakhomiy Andreyushkin, Vasili Generalov, Vasili Osipanov and Petr Shevyrev were hanged at Shlisselburg. Among the pardoned co-conspirators of Ulyanov there was Bronisław Piłsudski, brother of Józef Piłsudski.
Lenin was no democrat. He was a revolutionary. Of some 3,000 revolutionaries followed by the police of Europe in the late 19th century, he was the only one ever to organize a successful revolution.
Lenin made Marx famous in retrospect. It was Lenin, not the various political parties run by MINO's -- Marxists in name only. Lenin was committed to the religion of revolution, but in agrarian Russia, not Western Europe.
Was Marx a success? His theories were wrong. His predictions were wrong. But he posthumously captured the mind of a 21-year-old college grad in Russia. By 1950, a third of the world's population lived under officially Marxist regimes.
There is a lesson here. We do not know how any group's ideas will play out. What we know is this: most of these groups and their ideas will disappear, useful only for graduate students in search of a Ph.D. dissertation topic. But a few will change the world . . . sometimes long after they have failed to persuade more than a handful of people.