In the Spring of 2012, when I was teaching Human Resources Management, the oddest thing happened. One of my students asked me a question about Marxism. It had been a good twenty years since I fielded a Marxism question. It gave me the sort of nostalgic feeling one experiences when hearing an old song on the radio, such as Won’t Get Fooled Again or Trick of the Light. But love him or hate him, and there is seldom an intermediate position where the father of global communism is concerned, Marx is back from the dead, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the global financial meltdown.


How could this be so? It’s not 1982, when I first read The Communist Manifesto. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, well before most of my current students were born. The brutal excess of the Stalinist purges and the Cultural Revolution have been well documented. The remaining communist states are either economic basket cases (North Korea) or have introduced market reforms (China). As much as anything can be settled in the social sciences, the case for Marxism seems closed. What accounts for Marx’s revived popularity?


Unfortunately, my copy of The Communist Manifesto was long-lost. Dating as it did back to the early years of the Regan era, it probably disappeared during one of the many life changes that carried me from Louisiana to Colorado. Fortunately, with a Kindle app, such things are never inaccessible. So that I would have both sides, I also returned to two critical books – Thomas Sowell’s Marxism and Richard Pipes’ Communism. As I read, or perhaps I should say “re-read,” I immediately recognized the slippage between the first reader (Russell-in-the-1980s) and the second (Russell-in-the-2010s).


When I first examined The Communist Manifesto, the Cold War was just reaching its critical, terminal phase. With the Soviet Union and the West locked in nuclear stalemate, I read the book as an alternative plan for organizing society. In this respect, The Communist Manifesto did not (and does not) fare well. To this day, some of Marx’s and Engels’ ideas strike me as, at best, unworkable and, at worse, brutal (e.g., seizure of private land, control of credit by the government, re-distribution of the population). The ideas that I liked, such as the abolition of child labor and equality for women, did not require communism and, in any case, were well on their way in the liberal Western democracies. Before you hang that cool poster of Che on your bedroom wall, ask yourself a question – Would you really prefer to raise your children in oldEast Germany when you could raise them in theNetherlands? That’s what I thought.


During the 1980s, mine was a fair reading of The Communist Manifesto. It still is. However, it is not the only reading possible. As I returned to Marx’s life and works, I realized that I would learn something new if I approached The Communist Manifest with a scholar’s goals in mind. Let me explain what I mean. We scholars need at least three things to do our job well — questions and answers, to be sure, but we also require analytic tools that bridge the gap between them. At the outset of our investigations, answers are probably the least important. In most cases, we can begin our work with just a few good questions and a conceptual tool kit to help us analyze and interpret them. The answers will follow, or so we hope, with enough thinking and testing.


This is where Mr. Marx and his collaborator, Mr. Engels, really come into our story. As I discussed above, they did not always have the best answers, but for some important questions they offered a comprehensive set of analytic tools. Having thought seriously and deeply about certain phenomena, Marxism provides an interpretive paradigm with some novel ideas that are not widely used within the organizational sciences (outside of labor relations). To illustrate, let us here consider just one.


Notably, The Communist Manifesto presents class as a central organizing idea. Marx and Engels assert that within all economic systems classes develop around economic interests. The group that controls the “means of production” tends to take advantage of the group that does not, thereby creating squabbles. The resulting class conflict drives history forward. Like many big ideas, this one is simple, but the more you think about it the more you see its implications. Let’s take an example.


If you are a mainstream scholar in a North American or European business school, you have probably learned that technological innovation is a good thing. It benefits society by creating new and more efficient ways to meet customer needs, and it benefits organizations by giving them a competitive edge. It’s hard to argue with this sort of “win-win” arrangement, but Marx was willing to do so. His skepticism came about because he framed the question in terms of class conflict rather than in terms of economic growth. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx maintained that capitalists exploit workers by “constant revolutionizing of production.” That is, technology can be used to prevent working people from asserting their class interests. Is this analysis correct? Certainly not entirely, but before completely dismissing this view let me leave you with a thought. For the past few decades both the American and British economies have seen wealth-creating technological advances. However, most sociologists agree that there is also a growing gap between the rich and the poor. That is, wealth was created by these new technologies, but working people have reaped fewer benefits than others. Did Marx have a point? Maybe and maybe not, but can you blame your colleagues for asking the question? Notice how a Marxist interpretation of technology causes one to see the issue in a different (and in this case a less favorable) light.


Now we are close to answering the question that began this discussion – Why is Marxism experiencing a revival? At the present time, the western world is facing a complex social-economic upheaval that is difficult to understand. While the particulars vary by nation, things are not looking all that great. Economic growth has slowed, unemployment is high, inequality is increasing, and a few nations have been experiencing budget crises. In this environment, there are important questions, some of which were placed on the backburner during healthier times, which need to be asked. Marx was willing to ask them. To do their jobs, scholars require some conceptual apparatus that allows them to address these questions. Marx supplied tools for doing so. The answers provided by Marxism are, at least for the moment, less critical. It is the questions and the paradigm that has re-ignited the interest of scholars.  The contemporary interest in Marxism is not due to a sudden turn toward historicism, much less to an outpouring of affection regarding the theory of surplus value. Rather, scholars are looking for a set of intellectual concepts to help them understand our current economic crisis.


This is a fine kettle of fish for those of us who haven’t signed on to the Marxist critique of western society. The predicament can be stated as follows – If people apply Marxist concepts to Marxist questions it is only a matter of time before they draw Marxist answers. What is one to do? If we don’t like Marx’s economic and political recommendations, then we are left with two terms that we could, in principle, alter – the seminal questions and the analytic tools. Actually, our circumstances are worse than this, because if we are going to be serious scholars, we cannot and should not alter the questions that people choose to ask. All of us want to know about important phenomena that exist in society, such as inequality and power relations. These matters take on a special urgency when people all over the world are suffering from the economic meltdown. There is no avoiding it. The questions Marx asked are timeless enough that they will eventually come up again. And, as long as such questions are placed before us, scholars will attempt to find answers by using whatever concepts are relevant and available. But there is more to the matter than this. Ignoring these issues would be intellectually dishonest, and that’s precluded by good scholarship.


By this ruthless process of elimination, we have only one remaining option. We must confront the Marxist paradigm directly, accepting the portions that have something to teach us, but providing principled and thoughtful alternatives when doing so is merited by the evidence.