Karl Marx has had more impact on actual events, as well minds of men and women, than any other intellectual in modern times. The reason for this is not primarily the attraction of his concepts and methodology, though both have a strong appeal to unrigorous minds, but the fact that his philosophy has been institutionalized in two of the world’s largest countries, Russia and China, and their many satellites. In this sense he resembles St Augustine, whose writings were most widely read among church leaders from the fifth to the thirteenth century and therefore played a predominant role in the shaping of medieval Christendom. But the influence of Marx has been even more direct, since the kind of personal dictatorship he envisaged for himself (as we shall see) was actually carried into effect, with incalculable consequences for mankind, by his three most important followers, Lenin, Stalin and Mao Tse-tung, all of whom, in this respect, were faithful Marxists.
Marx was a child of his time, the mid-nineteenth century, and Marxism was a characteristic nineteenth-century philosophy in that it claimed to be scientific. ‘Scientific’ was Marx’s strongest expression of approval, which he habitually used to distinguish himself from his many enemies. He and his work were ‘scientific’; they were not. He felt he had found a scientific explanation of human behaviour in history akin to Darwin’s theory of evolution. The notion that Marxism is a science, in a way that no other philosophy ever has been or could be, is implanted in the public doctrine of the states his followers founded, so that it colours the teaching of all subjects in their schools and universities. This has spilled over into the non-Marxist world, for intellectuals, especially academics, are fascinated by power, and the identification of Marxism with massive physical authority has tempted many teachers to admit Marxist ‘science’ to their own disciplines, especially such inexact or quasi-exact subjects as economics, sociology, history and geography.
No doubt if Hitler, rather than Stalin, had won the struggle for Central and Eastern Europe in 1941-45, and so imposed his will on a great part of the world, Nazi doctrines which also claimed to be scientific, such as its race-theory, would have been given an academic gloss and penetrated universities throughout the world. But military victory ensured that Marxist, rather than Nazi, science would prevail.
The first thing we must ask about Marx, therefore, is: in what sense, if any, was he a scientist? That is, to what extent was he engaged in the pursuit of objective knowledge by the careful search for and evaluation of evidence? On the face of it, Marx’s biography reveals him as primarily a scholar. He was descended on both sides from lines of scholars. His father Heinrich Marx, a lawyer, whose name originally was Hirschel ha-Levi Marx, was the son of a rabbi and Talmudic scholar, descended from the famous Rabbi Elieser ha-Levi of Mainz, whose son Jehuda Minz was head of the Talmudic School of Padua. Marx’s mother Henrietta Pressborck was the daughter of a rabbi likewise descended from famous scholars and sages.