Marxism failed years ago, but in our time of rapid global change, Karl Marx is as quotable as ever. “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify”—shave that, from the Communist Manifesto, down to 140 characters, and you have learned-sounding retweetable material. Read on in Marx’s 1848 pamphlet, and you find a familiar engine behind all of the change: the bourgeoisie or owning class—our own One Percent—with its “naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.”1
Are we back in 1848, then, except with better technology? In a sense we are, and ironically that makes Marx a better analyst than prophet. His depiction of Victorian-era global political economy is strikingly familiar—“In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations,”2 he went on to write—but Marx expected that revolution soon would knock the global system off course and redirect it into history’s final phase of communism. The revolution did come, but it took nearly seven decades, and occurred in Russia rather than the expected birthplace, Germany. And far from breaking the proletariat’s chains, the revolution produced a cruel and imperialist regime that the workers of the communist world united to throw off another seven decades later.
Marx’s ability to predict was hobbled by mistakes that Marxism’s liberal adversaries often repeat today. They, like him, have underestimated the robustness of two particular obstacles to universal market logic. One is the nation-state; the other, traditional cultures. The nation-state’s resistance is manifest in the form of a rising, ambitious, and decidedly nonliberal China. Traditional cultures’ defiance is manifest in Western movements chafing against the homogenizing ways of global elites and finding articulation in populism.
“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned,” Marx wrote in another tweetable aphorism.3 Here, at the close of the second decade of the twenty-first century, old solid particularisms are not melting away, and the sacred is having its revenge. Liberal internationalism has warded off acute threats before—fascism and communism, among others—albeit at high cost. Today, Chinese and Western variants of populism threaten not so much the violent destruction of liberal internationalism, but its atrophy; in the end, they may succeed where older grand ideologies failed.