After 33 years of writing articles and columns about capitalism and freedom for The Freeman, I’ve decided to confess. I’m a Marxist, and have been from a very early age.
I’m not the kind of Marxist that you normally think of when that term is used. I have nothing in common with Karl. I am a Groucho Marxist. As the great funny man himself might say, he and Karl were unrelated to each other in many ways. While Karl left a legacy of death and destruction (there was nothing funny about him or his communist nonsense), Groucho still has millions of adoring fans the world over, a third of a century after he passed away.
Count me among those many fans of Julius Henry “Groucho” Marx, born 120 years ago this very month, on October 2, 1890, on the upper east side of Manhattan. But don’t put me anywhere near Karl’s fan club.
The contrast between these two men with the same last name led the American composer Irving Berlin to pen this couplet many years ago:
The world wouldn’t be
In such a snarl
If Marx had been Groucho
Instead of Karl.
What an understatement! No other human being ever concocted a set of ideas that produced more mayhem than Karl Marx, and few were as reprehensible in the way they lived their personal lives. In his book Intellectuals historian Paul Johnson devotes a revealing chapter to the man who wrote Capital and The Communist Manifesto. Karl was an angry, hate-filled man—quarrelsome, neglectful of his family, lazy, and violent. He suffered from hideous carbuncles in part because he almost never bathed. Some of the most memorable phrases from his two books were lifted from others without appropriate credit. He spent almost all his time at home or in libraries, and almost none where the workers he fumed about actually worked. He mooched off of others all his life, prompting his mother to say that she wished Karl would “accumulate capital instead of just writing about it.”
But the worst thing about Karl Marx was not his personality or his hygiene. It was the evil web he spun with deceitful bait that snared and doomed millions. He called the workers of the world to revolution, but, as the Italian writer Ignazio Silone put it, “Revolutions, like trees, must be judged by their fruit.” Without exception, wherever Marxist ideology found root, it grew into monstrous depravity. Some of Karl’s disciples have attempted to explain this away with the old phrase, “To make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs.” The problem is, communists (and socialists and fascists, their kissin’ cousins) only break eggs; they never, ever, make an omelet.
Groucho, on the other hand, did honor to his family’s name and to society at large. In contrast to the loafer Karl, he actually worked at real jobs, enduring many exhausting days for 20 years performing in Vaudeville and in small towns. Early in his show business career, he picked up the nickname Groucho, though he privately chafed at its negative connotation.
After a big break on Broadway in 1924, the Marx brothers team of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo did 13 feature films—including Animal Crackers, Cocoanuts, and Duck Soup. A fourth brother, Zeppo, appeared in five of them. With his trademark cigar, greasepaint mustache and eyebrows, chicken-like gait, zany one-liners, and clever put-downs, Groucho usually stole the show. In later years, he hosted a popular television program, “You Bet Your Life.” His performances are best remembered for pithy wisecracks like these:
- “Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”
- “Those are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.”
- “Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I’ll never know.”
- “Either this man is dead or my watch has stopped.”
- “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.”
- “He’s honest—but you gotta watch him.”
- “I was married by a judge. I should have asked for a jury.”
Though Groucho in real life called himself a liberal Democrat, he never harbored a blind faith in State power that characterized the warped thinking of Karl. In fact he once opined, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it, diagnosing it incorrectly and then applying the wrong remedies.” That description of politics was on full display in Duck Soup, regarded by many, including me, as the Marx Brothers’ best film.
Duck Soup, released in 1933, takes place in the fictional, bankrupt country of Freedonia (“Land of the Spree, and the Home of the Knave”). On becoming its leader, Groucho’s character, Rufus T. Firefly, literally sings what a lot of politicians do but never admit: “The last man nearly ruined this place. He didn’t know what to do with it. If you think this country’s bad off now, just wait ‘til I get through with it.” A mere trifle leads Freedonia and neighboring Sylvania to go to war, a clear spoof of the insanity of World War I. In Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx, Stefan Kanfer writes that the satirical depiction of Freedonia’s government didn’t sit well with Benito Mussolini, who banned the film in Italy.
Government was also the object of Groucho’s irreverence outside the movies. His son Arthur once published an account of the time his father got in trouble with airport customs by listing his occupation as “smuggler.”
Groucho once quipped that he had worked himself up “from nothing to a state of extreme poverty.” But actually, his talent and hard work earned him a very good living. He accumulated the capital that Karl only wrote about and left behind a legacy of some of the most original and hilarious comedy ever performed on the stage or silver screen.
The very persona of Groucho Marx is still imitated by comedians the world over. Almost nobody, however, deliberately imitates Karl outside of Pyongyang and Havana. And thankfully, a dwindling number of people remain devoted to his philosophy or what it wrought. In his introduction to The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, the definitive catalogue of Marxist-inspired atrocities, editor Stéphane Courtois revealed that communism’s twentieth century death toll of 94 million people was far greater than that of any other political movement.
Karl and Groucho. Two men named Marx. Both brought tears to the eyes of millions but for very, very different reasons.
Portions of this column originally appeared in an op-ed by the author in the August 19, 2002, issue of USA Today.