I see that Patrick Deneen has already referenced the inevitable author on this first of May, by which I mean not Marx but Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the 21st Century (I’d link to the Amazon page for the book, but why bother – you can’t get a copy).
I don’t want to steal my own thunder, because I’m working on a longer piece about the book. But I did want to say a couple of things about this whole business of an “elite vanguard” – to whit, to remind us all that all political movements have leaders, that leaders of major political movements are elites of some sort simply by virtue of that position, and that therefore by definition all political movements are elite-led. Moreover, the kinds of people with the combination of talent and independence of means necessary to devote themselves to opinionating are also, by definition, elites of some sort. Christopher Lasch, G. K. Chesterton, Patrick Deneen and myself included.
The question, therefore, is whether one approaches that relationship – between leaders and led – with a class analysis or whether one argues on the classical presumption of reasoned democratic discourse.
Marx did the former. He wasn’t trying to reform or restrain capitalism; he wanted capitalism to triumph completely, so that it could be overthrown completely. And he aimed to convince a key group of intellectual leaders of the inevitability of proletarian revolution, so as to convince them to become the vanguard of that revolution. There are any number of reasons why specific individuals might become “class traitors,” but such were indispensable to the Communist movement in practice, for the reason articulated above.
Piketty is emphatically in the latter camp, which is why I think its odd to compare him, politically anyway, to Marx. He implicitly assumes a social democratic framework for thinking about the questions he raises, and he explicitly pitches his book not as a rallying cry to revolution but as a modest proposal to policy elites for how to deal with an emerging threat to that assumed social democratic consensus.
Moreover, Piketty’s predictions are almost an inversion of Marx’s in that Marx saw industrial capitalism shredding traditional hierarchies, while Piketty sees his inexorable law of r>g leading to the reconstitution of a hierarchical society familiar to writers in the 19th century. Marx saw capitalism taking the world forward – to crisis, but then through that crisis to utopia. Piketty sees capitalism taking the world backward – to a patrimonial order where inheritance matters more than anything. And if there’s one thing a hereditary elite does not want, it’s to shred the social order, because they are already at the top.
I’ll say more about my thoughts on Piketty’s thesis, his history, predictions and policy prescriptions, in the near future. But for now, it’s very strange that he himself seems to want to be compared to Marx, when their perspectives are so different. And his predictions (assuming they are persuasive) pose a distinctly different challenge to conservatives like Deneen, who believe both in social order and social equality, than did Marx’s.