According to Darwinism, species that adapt to their environment thrive; those that fail to evolve face extinction. The same is true for ideas. Marxism evolved from the primordial swamp of the Industrial Revolution but lies gasping for relevance after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Asian values -- fashionable when South Korea and Thailand were economic success stories and the West was mired in recession -- lost their luster following the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Mutual assured destruction kept the two Cold War superpowers in check but offers little assurance to nations threatened by suicide terrorists. The Club of Rome's doomsday prophecies of global starvation are now starved for credibility. The threat of the military-industrial complex is taken seriously only in Hollywood films and on conspiracy newsgroups. Dependency theory thrived amidst a backlash against economic imperialism yet withered in a globalized era of free trade and foreign investment.
Are these ideas really doomed to oblivion? Or, for all their flaws, do they still have some relevance? Can they make a comeback? FOREIGN POLICY has invited six notable minds to sort through the dustbin of history and share what they found.
No other idea so enchanted the 20th century as Marxism. To this day, one often comes across assertions that Marxism retains value as an "analytic tool" -- the use of which does not necessarily make one a Marxist. The first person to make this distinction was, of course, Karl Marx himself, who famously forswore "Marxism," an appellation coined by his detractors. Marx's collaborator, Friedrich Engels, however, embraced the term, building a powerful cult around it, in which he was the high priest and Marx the oracle.
The first of the many ironies surrounding this cult was its claim to being scientific. In Manchester, where he was sent by his father to be isolated from radical influences, the young Engels searched out the followers of Welsh industrialist and social reformer Robert Owen. The Owenites had hit upon the idea of "socialism," a term they coined, and set out to demonstrate its efficacy by means of experimental communities. Scores of such experiments yielded uniform results: the settlements collapsed, usually within the span of two years. Engels was well aware of this record but brushed it aside. He and Marx, a pair of 20-something children of privilege, believed they had discovered a pattern to history that would produce socialism regardless of human will or ingenuity. ("It is not a matter of what this or that proletarian or even the proletariat as a whole pictures at present as its goal," wrote Marx in their first collaborative work, The Holy Family. "It is a matter of what the proletariat... will historically be compelled to do.") In short, they substituted prophecy for experimentation and thereby claimed to have elevated socialism from the plane of utopia to that of science.
If Marx and Engels turned the idea of science on its head, the bold breadth of their prophecy (or theory, if you wish) was still dazzling. "The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles," they said. They claimed that the immutable workings of "capitalism" (a term largely, if not wholly, of their invention) would lead to the reduction of society to two classes, an ever growing and increasingly impoverished proletariat and an ever shrinking and increasingly wealthy bourgeoisie. This dynamic would make revolution morally necessary and politically possible. It would also assure that the socialist revolution would be the final revolution. Previous triumphant classes had themselves become the new exploiters, but since the proletariat would consist of almost everybody, whom could it exploit? Ergo, its rule would inaugurate the golden era of classlessness.
From the moment Marx and Engels penned this theory, it proved false on every front. Over the course of the second half of the 19th century, the standard of living of workers in Europe, far from falling, roughly doubled -- a trend that continued apace until the outbreak of World War I. Concomitantly, the middle classes did not disappear but grew many times larger, and the wealth of the capitalists, although it certainly multiplied, became more dispersed, not more concentrated.
A still more deadly blow struck the doctrine in 1914, as the outbreak of war put to test Marx and Engels' claim that "the working men have no country." At once, working men displayed their patriotism on all sides. Moreover, most of the socialist leaders, either as a result of similar stirrings within their own breasts or in response to the mood of their constituents, also rallied to their respective fatherlands. Georgy Valentinovich Plekhanov, the dean of Russian Marxism, captured the spirit of the moment: "If I were not old and sick I would join the army. To bayonet [the] German comrades would give me great pleasure." This efflorescence of nationalist feeling made nonsense of the postulate that class is the decisive historical variable.
Yet just at the moment that the theory had thus been rendered nugatory, it gained a cachet far beyond any it had previously enjoyed. The Bolshevik seizure of power rescued Marxism from the wreckage of its economic and social predictions by seeming to validate its most seductive claim -- namely, that history had a foreseeable end. However far trends and events had strayed from the forecasts, this much was certain: socialism of some kind had risen in Europe's largest country. The Russian Revolution seemed a powerful vindication of the prophecy that humankind was striding from the capitalist past to the socialist future. Even such profound anti-Marxists as Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter and U.S. journalist Whittaker Chambers conceded this directionality, much to their despair.