Two Bearded Germans of the Nineteenth Century

Today is May 1, also known as May Day, the holiday of holidays for communists, socialists, and other such purported champions of the working class. (Personal disclaimer: I was once a member of the working class, and these champions never did a damn thing for me, unless you credit them with somehow contributing to the reality that at two of my jobs, I was “represented” by a union, which meant that every month a union functionary showed up at the factory and collected the union dues the employer was contractually bound to withhold from my pay.) So, live it up, commies. Celebrate your vaunted solidarity to the high heavens; you have nothing to lose but your intellectual and moral bankruptcy.

Johannes Brahms

Nineteenth-century Germany was the fount from which the greater part of socialist dogma flowed. As fate would have it, however, that same time and place also gave birth to some of the greatest glories of Western civilization. I am thinking, in particular, of the music of Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Wagner, Brahms, Bruch, and many others, who left a legacy that will enrich the soul as long as human beings retain a capacity to appreciate beauty in its sublimest form.

Johannes Brahms (1833-97) was one of the greatest composers of all time. (Note that when I say so, I am relying not only on my own decidedly scant expertise in music, but also on the judgment of those who are clearly qualified to judge.) His Double Concerto for violin and cello ranks among my most beloved pieces of music. His First Symphony, which he labored for fifteen years to perfect, is an immensely stirring tribute, as it were, to Beethoven, whom he revered as the greatest master and in whose shadow he always worked—a marble bust of Beethoven looked down on the place where he composed at the piano. If he never equaled the master—did anyone?―his compositions certainly achieved the first rank, spanning a range from beautiful songs and exquisite chamber pieces to grand symphonies and A German Requiem.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx (1818-83) was Brahms’s contemporary, and like him, wore the fashionable facial hair of the nineteenth century. There, however, the similarity ends. Marx’s mind moved not along aesthetic lines, but along what he mistakenly took to be “scientific” ones. In his main work―a sprawling, turgid, almost incomprehensible mishmash of empirical observation, philosophical musing, ideological ranting, polemics, and ostensible economic analysis―he sought to overthrow the received doctrines of classical economics and to replace them with ideas that would show the oppressed workers of the world the earthly paradise that awaited them as the remorseless interplay of historical developments carried the world inexorably toward a classless society.

Not content to watch from the sidelines as this allegedly irresistible historical process occurred, Marx also busied himself in workaday revolutionary politics, seeking, as it were, to prod the workers into turning the wheel of history a bit faster. As we now know to our sorrow, however, such Marx-inspired revolutionary efforts were ultimately channeled into the creation of vast charnel houses in Russia, China, Cambodia, and many other places. The human toll in blood and suffering far exceeded that of any other ideology, and in a few unfortunate places, such as Cuba and North Korea, it continues even today.

None of these horrors was preordained. Individual choices, not some ineluctable historical force, brought them about. People ought to have known better. By the early twentieth century, when the grim harvest began in earnest, Marx’s doctrines had already been thoroughly debunked by Eugen von Böhm-Bawert and others. No matter. Revolutionary leaders such as Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, and others recognized Marxism as the perfect cloak for their will to power, and a sufficient number of the downtrodden took comfort from this new, if godless, religion to give it their allegiance and to serve self-proclaimed Marxist leaders as useful, murderous idiots.

In the study of history, one encounters many mysteries. One constantly searches for connections in order to understand the course of events. One looks to cultural environments, for example, as breeding grounds for the ideas that move people in new directions. Yet the same time and place may produce the most exhilarating art and the most deadly ideology. Nineteenth-century Germany was such an ambivalent hotbed of cultural creativity.

Robert Higgs is Retired Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Founding Editor of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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