The Greatest Public Relations Coup of All Time

The branding campaign which transformed the labor movement into the "Worldwide Communist Conspiracy"

Karl Marx - True Believer or Capitalist Scapegoat?

By Jack Barkstrom

Was Karl Marx a Communist? The answer to that question depends, first of all, on just what Communism was or is or how Communism is defined. What is Communism? Almost as important, there is the question of what Marx himself actually believed. If he did believe in Communism, what did he believe in? There is always the related question of what Marx said, or admitted, about what he believed in, or even whether his version of Communism was the same as everyone else's? His beliefs seemed to change over time. One minute he believed in violent confrontation; the next minute he opposed violence and favored a more conservative approach to change. There are also two related questions to consider: What did other people believe Marx believed? and What did other people say about what Marx believed? Were they accurately reporting what he actually believed or were they "interpreting" what he said to attack him or to support their version of events? Was Communism or anti-Communism just a marketing campaign which both sides engaged in to promote different ideologies?

Karl Marx - Looking for clues to communist conversion - From the Communist Manifesto to Capital

Communism 101 - What is Communism?

For a crash course in the 'Fundamentals of Communism,' it is only necessary to bring up the subject of unions, or labor unions, or collective bargaining among a group of conservative business owners. If no one suffers a heart attack, nearly everyone is likely to at least see 'red,' both literally and figuratively. 'Communists' or 'socialists' are the politest terms likely to be used publicly to describe labor organizers. If these discussions can quickly become heated, they may come closest to yielding a real definition of Communism - organizing workers in unions to collectively bargain with business owners, or capitalists. If the elimination of private property is considered a core concept of communism, the 'private property' which business owners most fear communism will take away is control of their own business.

There have been a number of definitions or attempted definitions of Communism or almost semi-definitions relating to what Communism means - 'Where the state owns the means of production,' or 'The Dictatorship of the Proletariat,' or 'where private property is outlawed and property is owned collectively.' Based on the reactions of Capitalist critics, the real definition, if one is possible, may be found in the rallying cry of Marx in 'The Communist Manifesto' - "Workers of the world unite," although he did not use the term union, when he urged workers to unite. Marx seems to have been labeled a Communist, not because he sympathized with the plight of everyday laborers, but because he adopted a militant stance against factory and business owners - capitalists - urging workers to fight back, to organize themselves to confront capitalism.

Communism and socialism, if their definitional core can be boiled down to basic concepts, at least in the popular mind, share two core ideas: first, the elimination of private property and second, the communal sharing or distribution of goods or benefits. They differed over a third idea - the level of violence. Socialism saw change as a gradual or peaceful process which took place within the existing political structure over time. Communism advocated a more active role - if armed rebellion was necessary to bring about political change, then the violent overthrow of existing government was to be undertaken.

The elimination of private property and communal sharing may have defined both socialism and communism but they were hardly new concepts. Plato (c. 429-347 BC), in the Republic had praised communal living as part of his ideal state.[1] Tiberius Gracchus, in 133 BC, had proposed dividing up the public lands among the Roman poor and dispossessed, as did his brother, Gaius.[2] Communal sharing and societal equality had been part of the vision of an ideal society proposed by Sir Thomas More, at the time of Henry VIII. His 1516 book 'Utopia' had envisioned a society where property was held in common and every individual was equal and prosperous.[3]

There were also contemporary writers who proposed similar Utopian views. Engels, in his 1878 essay "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific," singled out those he called the "three great Utopians" - Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen. [4] In Count Claude Henri de Rouvroy de Saint-Simon's ideal society private property, inheritance, and competition would be abolished and societal decisions would be made collectively.[5] He advocated for the public ownership of industrial equipment and other capital.[6] Saint-Simon would also coin the phrase "From each according to his abilities, from each ability according to his work," which would be resurrected by Marx at the May 1875 Gotha Congress as: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!" [7] [8] Charles Fourier, born in 1772, wanted to create a series of autonomous communities, known as phalansteries, which would provide work for individual members, but without the monotony of factory production.[9]

Robert Owen (1771-1858) experimented with reforming the factory system within his own factories, first at Manchester and then at New Lanark, in the Scottish Lowlands. He paid high wages, reduced hours, and built schools and housing for his employees in his model communities.[10] The New Lanark colony lasted from 1800 to 1829.[11] In 1825, he would found an experimental colony at New Harmony, Indiana, in the the United States, which would last about five years.[12] Engels would credit Owen with the 1819 passage of the first law limiting the hours women and children were allowed to work.[13]

Engels dismissed the 'three great Utopians' as part of 'Utopian socialism,' more or less an attempt to better mankind in general. What he was advocating was 'scientific socialism,' a socialism which specifically championed the cause of the proletariat.[14] Based on past performance, there is always the suspicion that both Marx and Engels were applying an artificial distinction which allowed them to set themselves apart. In contrast to everyone else, they were uncompromising in their beliefs. Communism, if it was going to be different, stood for revolutionary change. At least that was the argument Engels appears to have been making.[15] Engels was willing to make one concrete, somewhat moderate, proposal as part of his 'scientific socialism' program. The three likeliest candidates for state takeover were the post office, the telegraphs, and the railways.[16]

Marx and Engels seemed eager to claim ownership of Communism - a unique ideology which they had created. There were others who were drawn to similar, seemingly identical ideas, such as the elimination of private property, without attracting the attention - or condemnation - which seemed to follow Marx and Engels. Thomas Skidmore, in the United States, published a tract in 1829, called "The Rights of Man to Property." His program called for the confiscation of all existing property and its equal distribution, to be authorized and administered through state constitutional conventions. Individuals could accumulate property during their lifetime but at death it reverted to the state for redistribution to those coming of age. His program did not survive his death in the cholera epidemic of 1832.[17]

Marx liked to use warlike vocabulary or terms suggesting violence and revolution - 'knife-fight,' or continual revolution, or strike them - in explaining Communism. Such terms may be helpful in distinguishing Communism from Socialism. It is not clear whether confrontational or violent language made Communism a much more dangerous ideology than other belief systems. Governments have been dealing with the threat of revolutionary violence almost since the beginning of time. Income inequality, or serious differences between rich and poor, have been present almost as long. Governments have been aware that this inequality has been a major source of political discontent for as long as economic activity has been generating the inequality.

Ancient governments would have understood the revolutionary language used by Marx. They would also be aware that the masses did not need a sophisticated ideology to explain their grievances, to inspire them, or to spur them to action. The contrast between the living conditions of the rich and the poor would have been obvious to anyone living in a society and experiencing them. The wealthy may have been conscious of their rank and made comparisons with others among the wealthy. Crassus once observed that the true measure of wealth in Rome was the ability to maintain an army - a legion was about 5,000 men.[18] Yet, ordinary Romans would have been fully aware of more widely accepted measures of wealth - the houses and country estates which the wealthy lived in and enjoyed compared to the dwellings of the poor, the banquets and parties given for a select few while the lower classes struggled to eat, and the leisure time enjoyed by the wealthy while the working classes found themselves perpetually unemployed and seeking work. A description of the natural divisions did not even include the resentments created when the formerly wealthy and powerful lost ground to ambitious newcomers.

Marx, in the Communist Manifesto, accurately described the divisions and tensions between the rich and poor found in Rome or other ancient societies. "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles."[19] Yet the poor, formerly powerful, and others excluded from wealth and power would not have needed a Karl Marx to offer a theory explaining their circumstances, labeling their resentments as part of a larger, historical 'class struggle,' including them in the category of the 'proletariat,' or justifying their violent outbursts. A simple idea or comment, pointing out the privileges and lifestyles of the rich, would be all the 'theory' needed to spark a revolt.

In 63 B.C. Cicero had to deal with the Catiline Conspiracy, an attempt to overthrow the Roman state, involving former soldiers who felt their requests for economic help were being ignored. It was alleged that the conspirators planned to murder the entire senate and set fire to Rome.[20] The conspirators were executed and Rome sent an army to deal with the remnants of the conspiracy.

Rome was not the only ancient society dealing with class discontent. Earlier than Cicero's time, Sparta had to deal with a planned insurrection in 397 B.C. Spartan society had been experiencing a growing inequality in wealth and many of its citizens, unable to pay their required dues, were becoming disenfranchised, relegated to a class named the 'Inferiors.' One member of this class, named Cinadon, conspired to overthrow the Spartan state. His plot was discovered before it could be carried out. Asked why he had conspired, his reply was: 'I wished to be inferior to none in Sparta.'[21]

Athens, even earlier, around 600 B.C., was experiencing social tension created by a growing divide between the very wealthy and the poor. Solon, who would become archon, the chief elective office of Athens, in 594 B.C., complained that the rich were acting selfishly while the poor were making extravagant demands, one of which was for a redistribution of land. The capitalists of the time, large landowners and merchants, had their own grievances. A major complaint of theirs was that they were shut out of power by a political system based on nobility of birth. Solon conceded their growing political power by opening up elective/political office to all citizens while restricting higher offices to the wealthiest individuals. The richest were those who owned enough land to harvest 500 bushels or more of corn (wheat or grain). Below them were those who owned lesser plots of land, divided into three classes: the knights, teamsters, and thetes.[22] What he offered the lower classes was the cancellation of debt and the freeing of those had been enslaved for debt. It had been the custom for individuals to offer themselves as security when they borrowed money. If they were unable to pay off the loan, they became bonded slaves of the lender, normally working for free for the lender, but also at risk of being sold to third parties.[23] These concessions fell short of the more revolutionary calls for land redistribution but they were concrete measures designed to improve the economic situation of the lower classes.

There may be no better example of the destructive potential caused by income inequality than events on the island of Corcyra (Corfu), from 427-425 BC, during the Peloponnesian War. Events there may also serve to illustrate just how little was needed to spark conflict, how little was needed to sustain it, and how little it depended on a justifying ideology. Criticism of Marx has centered on the idea that he created something entirely new in Communism - an ideology which had never seen before but which was powerful enough to create a revolution out of nothing. That criticism suggested that a never-before-seen arrangement of words and phrases, when combined became a new belief system which was both inspiring and enduring. Yet, some two-thousand years before Marx, and without his magical arrangement of words, societal divisions and existing conditions were enough to unleash a terrifyingly destructive force which all but destroyed Corcyra.

Corcyra, an island off the western coast of mainland Greece, geographically closer to the coast of southern Italy than to Athens, had originally been colonized by Corinth around 734 BC. Corinth, an expanding power, had also established a colony at Syracuse, in Sicily, about the same time.[24] Over time Corcyra began to assert its independence and relations cooled with Corinth.[25] Corcyra, in turn, became powerful enough to begin establishing colonies of its own. One of these was at Epidamnus, (now the Albanian city of Durrës) on the Adriatic coast, north of Corcyra.[26] Relations between Epidamnus and Corcyra, over time, also began to cool.

Around 435 BC, Epidamnus was experiencing political conflict. Corcyra refused to intervene, so Epidamnus turned to Corinth. The Corinthians agreed to help with a force of troops and new colonists. This, in turn, angered the Corcyraeans, who began a blockade of the Epidamnus isthmus. The Corinthians responded with an expeditionary force of 75 ships and 2000 hoplites. Despite its large size it was defeated in a sea battle and, about the same time Epidamnus surrendered as well. The Corinthians spent the next two years preparing another larger force. The result of the preparations was a fleet of 150 ships which sailed against Corcyra in 433 BC.[27] The Corcyraeans confronted them with a fleet of 110 ships, at the small island of Sybota, near the southern end of Corcyra. The Corcyraen fleet was defeated but was not totally destroyed due to the intervention of a small contingent of Athenian vessels. The Athenians had been persuaded to become allies of Corcyra, although they were unwilling to take the next step and enter into a full-scale war with Corinth. Nevertheless, Athens and Sparta, due to their alliances, were being drawn into a war.

Both Epidamnus and Corcyra had hoped to solve a local conflict by appealing for outside intervention. While their appeals had solved their immediate problems, the outside intervention also served to expose political divisions within. It would soon become apparent that the political and social controls which kept the divisions in check were gone.

Corinth, in mounting an expedition against Corcyra, had unintentionally drawn Athens into the conflict. Corinth now had to diplomatically change course and, if nothing else, neutralize Corcyra. Reversing its strategy, it decided to support the oligarchic party in Corcyra. In 427 B.C., the leadership saw what it believed was an opportunity to seize power by prosecuting the leader of the democratic party, Peithias, on a charge of secretly trying to make Corcyra a subject state of Athens. Their plan backfired however, when he was acquitted. Peithias retaliated by charging five of the richest men with cutting vine-poles in the sanctuaries of Zeus and Alcinous. He not only imposed a heavy fine for each vine, but rejected a request that they be allowed to pay in installments. This proved to be a miscalculation on his part since their response was to invade the senate-house with a large enough force to slay Peithias and 60 of his followers.[28]

The murders seemed to leave the oligarchs in control, but their victory was only temporary. The attack led to street fighting between the two sides. The democratic forces fled to the acropolis and the Hyllaic harbor, leaving the oligarchic forces in control of the lower parts of the city and the agora. Other parts of the island sent reinforcements to the democratic party, while the oligarchs were reinforced from the mainland. The democratic forces proved stronger and to prevent them from seizing the arsenal, the oligarchs set fire to the houses and buildings in the neighborhood of the agora.[29]

The arrival of an Athenian force under Naupactus brought a temporary end to the fighting. However there were only twelve ships and when a larger Peloponnesian fleet of 53 ships under Alcidas arrived they were forced to retreat. The presence of the Peloponnesian ships might have prevented further fighting, but there were reports that an Athenian force of 60 vessels was on its way, so Alcidas decided to return home.[30]

With the departure of the Peloponnesian fleet the leaders of the oligarchic party were left with no protection. Some 400 were claiming protection as suppliants at the temple of Hera and its sacred enclosure. Fifty were persuaded to leave to stand trial but they were all executed. The rest, realizing that there was no protection, began committing suicide. Some hung themselves from the trees in the enclosure. Others, in desperation, held onto the temple walls, but were physically dragged off and murdered. Throughout the city, those suspected of being members of the oligarchic party were hunted down and killed. One group which had sought refuge in the temple of Dionysus was walled up and starved to death. The Athenian fleet under Eurymedon had actually arrived during these activities and remained for seven days but Erymedon refused intervene to stop the killings.[31]

It appeared that the victory of the democratic forces was complete. However, some 600 of the oligarchs escaped to the region of Mount Istone, which lies on the north-east of the island. Establishing a fortress there, they proved strong enough to maintain a low-level war for two years against the city, conducting raids on the plain below. In 425 B.C. an Athenian fleet which was headed for Sicily, under the command of Eurymedon and Sophocles, stopped at Corcyra. A combined force of Athenians and Corcyraeans stormed the fortress, which surrendered.[32]

This time the prisoners were locked up in a large building. The democratic forces began removing them, 20 at a time. Many thought they were being moved to another building. Instead they were being taken away for execution. Before arriving there they were tied together and marched between groups of hoplites who were allowed to attack them as they marched. After three of the groups had been taken away, those inside the building realized what was happening and blocked the entry. The democratic forces, rather than attacking the entrance, climbed up to the roof. Some ripped the tiles off and threw them down on the prisoners while others shot arrows at them. Those who were not killed immediately tried to kill themselves, either using the arrows shot down to pierce their throats or hanging themselves with vines or with their own clothing. The attacks continued, for most of the night, until all the prisoners were dead. At dawn, they entered the building, removed the corpses and dumped them outside the city.[33]

True Believer or Devoted Hobbyist

If Communists have been accused of being fanatical believers in their cause, that accusation has also been leveled at the founders - Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. An initial question is whether a religion arises at the time of its founder, or begins afterwards, when their followers continue to practice their teachings and the teachings attract more and more followers. Christianity, as a religion, probably was considered a religion only after Christ's death. Islam, similarly, developed into a religion only after the death of Mohammed. The question, with regard to Marx and Engels, is whether they would themselves be considered believers, or whether what is called Communism or Marxism, only came into existence at a later time. A related question is the extent to which Marx or Engels were believers in their own system. The temptation is to attribute the strong beliefs of later devotees to them, as founders. If they were believers in Communism, were they fanatical believers or merely advocates for what they believed in.

Apart from the strength of any belief, there is a question relating to the definition of believer. Being devoted to a cause or a particular interest may not rise to the level of a religious belief. St. Francis of Assisi may have dedicated his life to serving the poor, but his religion was Christianity. People who devote time to a hobby, such as model trains or photography, would certainly be called dedicated, but normally such interests are not considered a religion. Marx and Engels were certainly outraged by the conditions of workers and devoted much of their time criticizing the capitalist system and championing the cause of workers, but that does not mean that their views amounted to a fanatical belief.

The question surrounding the most idealistic of goals, is whether the believer actually believes what they espouse. Pope Urban II called for the First Crusade in 1095. One of the lingering questions is whether he was inspired by religious beliefs or simply wanted to provide an inspirational message for the Faithful. The Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade, called in August 1198, by Pope Innocent III, may have started out believing in the idea of reclaiming the Holy Land but they ended up spending three days sacking the city of Constantinople. They gave up on the idea of continuing to Jerusalem and their leader, Count Baldwin of Flanders, decided to settle for the position of emperor of Constantinople.[34]

Karl Marx began to espouse the proletarian cause when he first moved to Paris and encountered the ideas of the leading French socialists. So he could be said to have become a communist sometime after August 1843. [35] (McClellan, p, 88) Just how radical his ideas sounded however, seemed to depend on much money he had. The less secure his financial position, the more radical he became. When he had some financial security, he seemed less combative and more accommodating. His own commitment to Communism seemed more related to his belief that he was unwilling to compromise his principles. In every new city and situation, with every new organization he tried to take over, he portrayed himself as the uncompromising advocate of Communist ideals. Unfortunately, in nearly every organization he took over, his authoritative style alienated so many people that membership immediately dropped. A competent executive, yes, and a brilliant advertising copywriter, definitely, but a general marketing and people-person, absolutely not.

Nature of Communism

What was it about Communism, of all dreaded ideas, that unleashed such an irrational fear, inspired the powers of the imagination, and created such terrifying visions of the unknown? If the popular perception of Communism was its fanatical devotion to a cause, then how did it differ, in language or degree, from other causes or beliefs. There have been individuals throughout history described as committed, driven, ambitious, zealous, or fanatical in their devotion to a cause or objective. Did Marx, or Communism, differ from others in his commitment, or would he be included, or classified as one among them? Did Marxism involve more than an ordinary level of commitment?

Some have been remembered for their commitment to a cause. Others have been remembered, not for their sacrifices to a greater cause, but for their achievements in pursuit of personal ambition. Somewhat before the time of Marx and Engels, one of the English members of Parliament, William Wilberforce, had devoted himself to the abolition of slavery. In 1807, the Foreign Slave Trade Bill or Slave Importation Bill, which prohibited the import of slaves into British Colonies, came into force.[36] (Wilberforce, p. 356) It would not be until July 1833, with the passage of the Abolition of Slavery Bill, when Wilberforce was dying, that slavery was abolished in the British Empire.[37] (Wilberforce, p 502) If he was committed to his cause, he is not remembered or condemned as a zealot or fanatic, but as something of a champion of justice.

Alexander the Great may have been committed to a larger-than-life goal, but it would probably be considered to be a goal fueled more by personal ambition than by service to humanity. The Crusaders seemed to be in service of a greater goal, a little more idealistic than Alexander, but not totally committed to the cause, as when the participants of the Fourth Crusader became distracted by the wealth of Constantinople - distracted enough to spend three days looting it. Abraham Lincoln is revered for his pursuit of a more equal society and freedom for all. Bismarck's overriding goal was the creation of a unified Germany out of the disorganized and diverse elements of the Prussian state and the smaller kingdoms of the German-speaking people.

Marx and Engels, in their commitment to the proletariat, seemed to be serving an idealistic cause, in their efforts to better the living and working conditions, wages, and treatment of laborers. They have been condemned however, for their advocacy of violent revolution and confrontation. Were Marx and and Engels, or Marxism and Communism, singled out as fanatics, a higher level of commitment, not just because they were working on behalf of ordinary laborers but because they were confronting business in what business considered its own domain? They were fighting business owners for a share of what the capitalists felt was their special creation.


(1) Allan Bloom, translator, "The Republic of Plato," (New York:Basic Books, 1991, 2016), Book VIII, Section 543b.
(2) Arthur Hugh Clough, editor, "Plutarch: Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans," (Oxford;Benediction Classics, 2015), Tiberius Gracchus, Caius Gracchus, PP. 771-791.
(3) Patricia S. Daniels and Stephen G. Hyslop, "National Geographic Almanac of World History," 2nd edition, (Washington, D.C.:National Geographic, 2003, 2006, 2011), p. 166.
(4) Robert C. Tucker, ed., "The Marx-Engels Reader" 2nd edition, (New York;W.W. Norton & Company, 1978), from Friedrich Engels, "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific," p. 685.
(5) Tristam Hunt, "Marx's General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels," (New York:Holt Paperbacks, Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2009), p. 65.
(6) R. R. Palmer, "A History of the Modern World," (New York:Alfred A. Knopf, 1954), p. 445.
(7) Hunt, op.cit., p. 65.
(8) Tucker, ed., "The Marx-Engels Reader," op.cit., from Karl Marx, "Critique of the Gotha Program," p. 531.
(9) Hunt, op.cit., p. 68.
(10) Palmer, op.cit., p. 445.
(11) Tucker, op.cit., from Friedrich Engels, "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific," p. 691.
(12) Palmer, op.cit., p. 446.
(13) Tucker, op.cit., from Friedrich Engels, "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific," p. 693.
(14) Hunt, op.cit., p. 69.
(15) Tucker, op.cit., from Friedrich Engels, "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific," pp. 683, 713 & 717.
(16) Tucker, ibid, from Friedrich Engels, "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific," p. 711.
(17) Daniel Walker Howe, "What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848," (New York:Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 540.
(18) Clough, editor, "Plutarch: Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans," op.cit., Crassus, p. 507.
(19) Tucker, op.cit., from Karl Marx, "Manifesto of the Communist Party," p. 473.
(20) Clough, editor, "Plutarch: Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans," op.cit., Cicero, pp. 814-816.
(21) J.B. Bury and Russell Meiggs, "A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great," Fourth Edition, (New York:St. Martin's Press, Inc., 1975), pp. 335-336.
(22) Bury and Meiggs, ibid, pp. 121-123.
(23) Bury and Meiggs, ibid, p. 123.
(24) Bury and Meiggs, ibid, p. 77.
(25) Bury and Meiggs, ibid, p. 106.
(26) Bury and Meiggs, ibid, p. 107.
(27) Bury and Meiggs, ibid, p. 246.
(28) Bury and Meiggs, ibid, p. 263.
(29) Bury and Meiggs, ibid, p. 263.
(30) Bury and Meiggs, ibid, p. 264.
(31) Bury and Meiggs, ibid, p. 264.
(32) Bury and Meiggs, ibid, p. 265.
(33) Bury and Meiggs, ibid, p. 265.
(34) Charles Phillips, "The Complete Illustrated History of Knights & Crusades," (New York:Anness Publishing Ltd, 2013), pp. 242-243.
(35) David McLellan, "Karl Marx: A Biography," (New York:Palgrave MacMillan, 2006), p. 88.
(36) Victorious Century, p. 125 William Wilberforce, p. 356
(37) Victorious Century, pp. 186-187 William Wilberforce, p. 502