This 19th century German philosopher, distinguished by his seemingly untrimmed wild beard in his portraits, occupies a special place in my psyche. Growing up in China at the height of the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s portraits and statues were everywhere around me as a kid, of course. But the sight of Marx, and that of Frederich Engels, his close friend, another bearded German, were also ubiquitous.
The China embroiled in the Cultural Revolution was a country running with feverish xenophobia, with all things foreign denounced as either decadent “capitalist” (led by the US, followed by its lapdog Europeans and Japanese) or decadent “revisionist” (headed by the Russians, followed by pretty much the rest of the world who were not with the Americans).
We were told again and again that China was the only country on the path to pure Communism, the future of humanity, under our great leader Mao. But I couldn’t figure out what to make of these two Germans, hailed as “Great Teachers,” whose images frequently appeared alongside those of Mao. I questioned, in my timid boyish mind, why our own great God-like leader even needed teachers, let alone "decadent" foreign ones?
Many Americans today probably do not know much about Karl Marx. I suppose things were a little different back in the 1950s and 60s (height of the Cold War), when the Russians seemed ready to conquer the world under the banner of Marxism. I am sure quite a number of names had been hurled in America and elsewhere in the West against the bearded German.
It is interesting then to know that Karl Marx, the man who proclaimed the death of capitalism, not only worked for Americans, the biggest (and “baddest”) capitalists in the world, he actually knew a great deal about and even had favorable views of America, at least compared to his views of Europe including England, his adopted home for over half of his life.
Between 1852 to 1862, Marx’s main income came from being a weekly “European contributor” for New York Tribune, founded by Horace Greeley, the New England politician known for his varied fanciful ideas. While not writing for Greeley, Marx spent the bulk of his time in the reading room of the British Museum, working on his Das Kapital. So it was an influential 19th century American and one-time candidate for US President who financed the biggest project in Marxism.
Reading Marx’s original writing in English left me with several lasting impressions. First, he was a good writer and his English impeccable, particularly for a non-native speaker. Secondly, he was a “westerner” through and through in the sense that Horace Greeley, Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas were. Sure his ideas are different, but there is no question in which civilization his ideas are rooted.
Like his Western contemporaries, Marx was dismissive of things outside the “civilized world,” be it “Chinamen” or the “Russian Colossus.” He was a relentless critic of his own culture. He saw the evils of western capitalism and passionately tried to find a cure, which was why he held a hopeful regard for America. Like many Europeans of his day, America to him was a land of endless opportunities where the creation of a new and drastically improved world (ie, a new Europe) appeared possible, as in his opinion old Europe was too corrupt to improve, short of with drastic and painful social revolutions.
That Karl Marx rose to the level of deity in societies that he personally dismissed and for which his ideas are completely "foreign" while his own society – the Western one from which his thoughts rose and which he so vocally tried to improve – denounced or ignored him is one of the great ironies of history.