Was Karl Marx a political thinker? It might seem like an odd question: What else would he be? Yet over the course of the 20th century, the answer came to seem less clear. Within a few years of the Russian Revolution, Carl Schmitt was already depicting Marxism as generically similar to liberalism, a form of “economic thinking” hostile to all genuine politics. Bolsheviks and American financiers shared the ideal of an “electrified earth,” Schmitt asserted, differing “only on the correct method of electrification.” At the height of the Cold War, Hannah Arendt would describe Marx’s work as marking the “end” of a tradition of political thought that had started with Socrates. And Sheldon Wolin would see in Marx the most powerful expression of the 19th century’s “contempt for politics.” Marx’s thought looked less like a diagnosis of modern society’s ills than a symptom of them.
This line of thinking drew much of its appeal from developments on the world stage: Even in its less sanguinary moments, actually existing socialism seemed to offer little more than dreary technocracy. Its appeal also owed something to developments within the academy: As universities expanded and disciplines solidified, political thought found itself pushed to the margins of an increasingly quantitative social-science universe, threatened by ascendant competitors like economics and sociology. A natural line of defense was to stake out some distinct domain called “the political,” the autonomy of which must be guarded against any trespass. Opinions differed as to what constituted distinctly political concepts: Friend and enemy, speech and action, power, violence, legitimacy, and authority were all put forward as candidates. But thinkers in this vein could agree that politics itself was threatened by the encroaching forces of economy and society, and that liberalism and Marxism were both complicit in the problem.
The notion that Marxism was hostile to politics wasn’t entirely a 20th-century imposition, for the master’s own writings offered some warrant for concern. The canonical Marxist statements here actually came from Engels, whose Anti-Dühring prophesied the withering away of the state and the replacement of “the government of persons” by “the administration of things.” But Engels was simply drawing out an argument that he and Marx had been making since The Communist Manifesto, where they described “political power” as “merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another.” When Marx speaks of politics, he means the state and its coercive machinery, deployed in support of a given class hierarchy. Hence a world without classes would be one without states, and ultimately one without politics. “Public power” will remain under communism, the Manifesto tells us, but it will have lost “its political character.”
One plausible response would be to insist on a more expansive understanding of politics. Stop worrying about defending the autonomy of the political from other domains, and the forms of politics that underlie every domain of human life will come into view. Stop defining politics solely in terms of the coercive machinery of the state, and the “public power” that remains under communism will become visible as a form of politics in its own right.