The Second Coming

Karl Marx is back, and he’s angry

Recessions make their presence felt in myriad ways. Aside from the obvious fiscal consequences, the prospect of a global economic downturn also induces subtle, yet profound, psychological changes. Researchers have found that in hard times people prefer models who look mature—probably because evolutionary instincts compel them to search for a capable provider—while slow, contemplative tunes like “That’s What Friends Are For” are favored over more upbeat melodies.

And perhaps most notably, the recent economic slump has meant good news for someone who hasn’t gotten much since the October Revolution: Karl Marx. Apparently, now that capitalism is teetering on wobbly legs, the polemical rhetoric of Das Kapital is looking more and more appealing. Jorn Schutrompf, who manages the German publishing firm Karl-Deitz, claims that “Marx is in fashion again,” and bookstores peddling Marx’s works have reported sales increases of over 300 percent. Even Germany’s Finance Minister Peer Steinbruck recently conceded in the news magazine Der Spiegel that “one has to admit that certain parts of Marx’s theory are really not so bad.”

Here in Cambridge especially, Bolshevism is in the air. The Revolutionary Communist Party of America—seen regularly handing out leaflets to bemused capitalists in Harvard Square—smells blood in the water. On its website, the group offers a lengthy explanation of how the current financial crisis demonstrates the failure of capitalism and the need for an imminent uprising. Over at Revolution Books, Cambridge’s Marxist haven, the atmosphere would surely be electric, yet it is difficult to tell, because like any good Communist establishment, the store is only open 14 hours a week.

Had Karl Marx lived to see this miniature revival, he wouldn’t have been that surprised. Marx knew the power of cataclysmic financial events to shake the world’s faith in neo-liberal doctrine. In the wake of the 1857 stock market panic, Marx wrote to his friend and co-author Friedrich Engels, “The American Crash is a delight to behold and it’s far from over.” Yet that downturn—along with all of the other shocks and recessions that have periodically plagued American economic history—ultimately failed to break the proletariat from its chains.

Still, capitalism’s rough periods have allowed Marx to score points. Government Professor Richard Tuck, who leads the Marx-heavy theory course “Social Studies 10,” notes that, “in some interesting ways, people have been Marxists of a sort for about 100 years because as soon as a crisis like this happens, they immediately think to do something political to respond.” These days, capitalism is here “on sufferance as long as it delivers the goods”—a stark contrast to previous eras in which notions of property rights were paramount.

This is a meaningful shift. But it doesn’t quite amount to the workers of the world uniting. In the end, it seems likely that the only Revolution in Cambridge will be the book store, which is only open three days a week anyways.

Daniel E. Herz-Roiphe ’10, a crimson associate editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Adams House.