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A Facebook Debate
Karl Marx in Social Media

© Goethe-Institut e.V.

“After 200 years, is Karl Marx still relevant?” This question was asked by the Goethe-Institut Washington in a Facebook post on the project “Marx Now”, which investigated how far the German theoretician could be transferred to current discourses. If we are looking for answers, we quickly find them in the comment section of the Facebook post.

With a total of 185 comments, there was a flood of user posts covering a diversity of views, personal experiences, and also accusations. So that all these opinions don’t disappear into the vastness of the social network, but like the interviews with artists and academics become a part of the project, the attempt should be made at this point to give an overview of the range of responses to the online article.

Passion for discussion

Looking only at the form of the comments, we can already guess how individually the answers to one and the same question can turn out. While some users limit themselves to one-word phrases or a simple “yes” or “no”, others formulate their views on Karl Marx or the historical impact of communism in the form of argumentative pleas or discuss the political orientation of today’s universities. Sometimes even the shortest comments trigger the most extensive chains of reaction – for example, when the claim that Marxism is still relevant because human beings are naturally lazy and envious leads to a debate on fundamental principles in 32 follow-up comments centering on just pay.

The motivation of some users to respond to each post and contradict it with their own opinion is high. The discussion does not always remain at an objective level; users are soon attacking each other personally and questioning each other’s competence. The result is a heated debate culture that shows how passionately many people respond to Karl Marx. This is also interesting in view of the fact that the users are mainly Americans who bring with them their own cultural background on the subject of communism.

Social media as a space of confrontation

The platform on which the discussion is taking place – a social network like Facebook – also probably contributes to there being only a slight inhibition threshold to expression, and in many cases, unsurprisingly, to this expression not being very nuanced. There has been a veritable social media bashing of Karl Marx as a person, reviling him as, among other things, a mass murderer and a hypocrite.

At the opposite pole to this sometimes very aggressive tone are in turn some contributions that refute aired assertions with facts and theoretical details from Marx’s works. These comments are either met with emotional counter-opinions or else bring the discussion to an end, a comment with several paragraphs and complex sentence structure being perhaps too elaborate for a discussion on a Facebook post.

Why “Marx Now” at all?

Some users, on the other hand, take a step back and question the general intention of the Goethe-Institut to conduct a major project on Karl Marx. Is a project reflecting on a two-centuries-old theorist bogged down in the past and missing a view of the here and now? Is there a lack of sensitivity for future developments in the world? And what would Goethe himself have thought of such an intensive occupation with Marx and his intellectual heritage?

Although on the whole criticism of the Goethe-Institut and its project makes up a minority of the comments, it is noticeable that many users have apparently come into contact with the institute for the first time by calling up the “Marx Now” website and equate its content with the institute. While the idea of sketching Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s personal attitude to Karl Marx’s reflections could end only in hypothetical thought-games, the ambition of the Goethe-Institut to consider and critically question current cultural developments and influential German figures in a modern discourse should be highlighted.

The search for answers continues

Not to be forgotten are also the few, but still occurring, positive comments on the question of Karl Marx's relevance today. In contrast to the critical utterances, however, these are noticeably short and are mainly left uncommented. 

The variety of issues which users bring to the discussion would probably suffice for a separate anthology of essays on Marx and the current applicability of his theories. The original question of the specific relevance of Marx to today’s society cannot therefore be definitively answered so quickly. What can be stated without a far-reaching analysis, however, is that Karl Marx still polarizes opinion today and that his theories incite people to reflection.