I recently read Paul Johnson's "Intellectuals" which includes a scourging critique of Karl Marx and his work. Surprisingly, it focused on Marx's own personality along with his many vices, which according to Johnson has had a profound effect on Communism, to the degree that Marx's hatred of the bourgeois was almost "incarnated" in the Stalinist regime.

Have other thinkers written on this subject? Has any other critic of Marx and his work included the philosopher's moral character in his critiques?

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    Johnson's book is not exactly an example to follow, "The obvious thesis is that intellectuals lead bad lives. The not so obvious, implicit corollary is that, therefore, the ideas of intellectuals are bad", as NYT put it. This sort of "argument" is known as ad hominem fallacy. Russian communists had plenty of homegrown hatred, not only of the bourgeois, they did not need Marx's. For his character you are better off reading a reputable biography, e.g. Mehring's.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jun 25, 2019 at 17:11
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    @Conifold I understand. I am just curious at following the rabbit hole.
    – Mike M
    Commented Jun 25, 2019 at 18:01
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    There is probably a lot of literature on the relationship between the thinker as intellectual and the thinker as everyday person. History is filled with people of spectacular talent in the arts and sciences, whose personal lives were odd, abusive, boring, eccentric, corrupt, and what have you. Commented Jun 27, 2019 at 2:16
  • @markandrews : True but not so much literature on "great thinkers" who's ideas are directly linked to 100 million dead
    – Rushi
    Commented Jun 27, 2019 at 2:42
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    This is so wrong on so many levels that I hope no other author succumbed to this level of intellectual dishonesty. Communism (capital C, ie. party dictatorship with state ownership) is not really Marxist, as a little study of Trotzky vs. Lenin and esp. vs. Stalin will tell. And I do not see how Marx' personality could possibly have transcended through the early Russian translations of the Communist Manifesto. Marxist socialism is grass-root democracy both in economic and political reality with participation of everyone at every level. It is supposed to break all concentration of power.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Oct 23, 2020 at 10:14

3 Answers 3


The Red Prussian by Leopold Schwarzschild, 1986 ed., is an even more savage assault on Marx’s personality. It depicts Marx’s ideas and arguments as intellectually worthless and as used by Marx as a mere means of dominating working-class movements in the interests of gaining personal power.

Neither Johnson nor Schwarzschild has much insight into the nature of Marx’s thought. More balanced accounts of both Marx’s thought and his personality are given by Francis Wheen, Karl Marx, 2010, and Gregory Claeys, Marx and Marxism, 2018.

Whatever may have been the case in his earlier years, once Marx had defined - from the mid- to late 1840s onwards - his own brand of socialism as the exclusive path to communism, there is ample evidence provided by Wheen and Claeys that he was invincibly convinced of the correctness of his own views and intolerant of opposition.

How far, if at all, Marx’s dogmatic intolerance – the dictatorial side of his personality - translated across to the characteristics of the Soviet, and specifically the Stalinist, regime in Russia is hard to determine. The causal links via personality seem tenuous in the extreme. By what medium could Marx's personality have penetrated the nature of the Soviet state?

Two different and more plausible connections can be drawn.

One: Marx advocated with intellectual intolerance an economic and political theory of capitalist society, of its nature and future: and a corresponding picture of socialism and communism. That theory, or rather a version of it formulated by Lenin, was taken up by equally intolerant revolutionaries, particularly Lenin and Stalin. It was the personalities of its leadership, operating in the conditions of post-Tsarist Russia, that mainly produced the defining features of Soviet communism between the two world wars and into the 1950s until Stalin’s death in 1953.

Two: Lenin and Stalin used Marx’s ideas about what he called after 1850 ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ (Gilbert: 130) to justify the dictatorship of the Communist Party. While Marx could countenance the possibility of a peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism, and thought this possibility might be realisable in England (Gilbert: 237-8), his general trend of thought was that an element of violence was to be expected as a part of the process. In November 1848 he wrote in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung [New Rhenish Gazette]: ‘there is only one means by which the murderous death agonies of the old society and the bloody birth throes of the new society can be shortened, simplified and concentrated – and that is by revolutionary terror’ (Buchanan, 1982: 24-25). In context ‘terror’ plainly includes violence. Even with the English concession, Marx could still write in ‘Capital I (1867) that ‘Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one’ . Briefly said, Marx’s ideas were used to legitimate under Lenin and Stalin an extended regime of violence and party domination (given 'people as they are now, with people who cannot dispense with subordination, control', as Lenin wrote in The State and Revolution, III, 1918) which was far distant from the short, forceful rupture which Marx had in mind when he referred to ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ and ‘revolutionary terror’. The activities of the midwife are of strictly limited, not indefinitely extended, duration.


Buchanan, A.E., Marx and Justice, Published by Rowman & Littlefield Pub Inc, Totowa, NJ (1982). ISBN 10: 0847670392ISBN 13: 9780847670390

Claeys, G., Marx and Marxism, London: Penguin, 2018.

Gilbert, A., *Marx’s Politics: Communists and Citizens, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1981. ISBN 10: 0855204419ISBN 13: 9780855204419

Lenin, V.I., The State and Revolution, 1918: http://www.marxist.net/lenin/staterev/index.html

Marx, K., Capital, I, 1867: https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/marx-capital-a-critique-of-political-economy-volume-i-the-process-of-capitalist-production

Schwarzschild, L., The Red Prussian, London: Pickwick Books, 1986.

Wheen, F., Karl Marx, London: Fourth Estate, 1999.


If you follow this link you'll discover that Albert Einstein had a tendency to get his freak on. But to date (so far as I know) Einstein's sexual escapades have not undercut the principles of modern physics. Well... I suppose they might sow some doubts about the Big Bang theory, but honestly...

It's an obscure truism that philosophy is psychology writ large. Every philosopher who ever existed started with something that bugged him or her personally, then generalized, abstracted, and rationalized that emotional reaction into something intellectual and universal. Thomas Hobbes didn't start at "the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short"; he started at the 17th century equivalent of "life sucks" and fashioned a philosophy to cope with that. In this sense, philosophy is a bit like poetry or other arts. One draws a bead between one's own experience and the experiences of others, catching something that is universally recognizable and expanding on it. It's a tenuous thing. If the bead of commonality can't be established then one is is something other than a philosopher: a pundit, a demagogue, a cranky uncle, an outright lunatic, a bad poet, or any of those other types that stand on soapboxes, screaming at the world. But every philosopher starts as a soapboxer, so that edge is always present in philosophy.

Everything Johnson says about Marx may be true; I don't know. I also don't much care, because of another obscure truism in philosophy: namely, that if the only objection we can make to a theory is that the person who came up with it was unpleasant, then that is a strong theory.

And really, we have to be careful with historical allegations. All philosophers can do is (metaphorically) snap their fingers under people's noses to get them to wake up and smell the coffee. But finger-snapping doesn't always wake people up; often it just gets registered as part of their dream as they continue to sleepwalk. And so:

  • We can't blame Adam Smith for the ravages of industrial capitalism
  • We can't blame Nietzsche for the obscenities of Nazism
  • We can't blame Buddha for what's happened to the Rohingya, Jesus for the Inquisition or the modern fanatical fundamentalist; Moses for the plight of the Palestinians; Muhammad for ISIL and terrorism
  • Really, we can't blame the guy who invented baseball because people use baseball bats as weapons

And so we can't blame Marx because people used his theories and insights in odd and unfortunate ways. Remember, Marx himself jokingly said "All I can say is I'm not a Marxist" when co-authors Guesde and Lafargue argued that Marxism called for total, violent revolution. There's only so much one person can do.

  • Funny, Cheers, CS
    – user37981
    Commented Oct 23, 2020 at 17:44

For my own part, I do not see the benefits of reading an author's personality into a philosophical work, even in the far more difficult case of Heidegger. If there is anything philosophers share in common, it is the struggle to prevent their field from being reduced to psychology. Still, one can make such arguments. Marxist critics, for their own part, have sometimes pointed to the aristocratic status of Plato as undermining the very origins of Western philosophy.

Indeed, the Marxist concept of an ideological superstructure could be turned around on Marx himself, as one of the generation of displaced intellectuals who were alienated from the universities--though I hasten to add that this would be a very dubious application of the concept. It is true that Marx adopts a very sardonic, combative, and condescending tone in much of his writing, though there is humor there as well. The stakes were high and the working classes really were badly oppressed, and his tone was par for the course among many Young Hegelians and revolutionaries.

I know this isn't your point, but I would add that the high ideal of philosophical friendship described by Aristotle has few examples as remarkable as the lifelong friendship between Engels and Marx. Along with some beer drinking and derisive anger, Marx was a very devoted husband and father and loved by many of those who knew him best. Guess those traits never made into the Politburo.

Anyway, I agree with others that Johnson's charge is absurd, but it is fair game to consider how personality or social status may influence theory. This is not philosophy, however, it is the reduction of philosophy to folk psychology. Anyway, if you want to go down the rabbit hole, you might try "The Devil and Karl Marx," reputedly a favorite of Sen. Ted Cruz. From the jacket:

"At long last, here, in this book by Professor Paul Kengor, is a close, careful look at the diabolical side of Karl Marx, a side of a man whose fascination with the devil and his domain would echo into the twentieth century and continue to wreak havoc today. It is a tragic portrait of a man and an ideology, a chilling retrospective on an evil that should have never been let out of its pit."

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