If Marx Had Been Groucho

First Published: 2007-08-31

A version of the following article originally appeared in the Aug. 19, 2002 issue of USA Today under the title "Be it Karl or be it Groucho, with Marx you bet your life." (Note: Aug. 19, 2007, is the 30th anniversary of the death of Groucho Marx.)

Reprinted with the kind permission of Mr. Lawrence W. Reed, president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Michigan.

Twenty-five years ago this month, two American cultural icons died. While much of the country will give considerable attention to remembering one of them—singer Elvis Presley—I will be thinking primarily of the other: the quick-witted, mustachioed comedian Groucho Marx.

I freely admit it. I am a Marxist, but not the kind 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 the former left a legacy of death and destruction (there was nothing funny about him or his communist philosophy), the latter still has millions of adoring fans the world over, a quarter-century after he passed away on August 19, 1977, at the age of 86.

The contrast between these two men with the same last name led the renowned English philosopher and social historian Sir Isaiah Berlin to pen this couplet some 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. Historian Paul Johnson in his book "Intellectuals" devotes a revealing chapter to the man who wrote "The Communist Manifesto." Karl was an angry, hate-filled anti-Semite—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 wrote about actually worked. He mooched off of others all his life, prompting his mother to say that she wished son 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 crime, terror and repression. Some of Karl’s disciples have attempted to explain this away with the old phrase, “to make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs.” The problem is, communists (and socialists and fascists, their kissing cousins) only break eggs; they never, ever, make an omelette.

Julius Henry Marx, on the other hand, did honor to his family’s name and to society at large. Born in New York City in 1890, as one of six sons, he endured many exhausting days for 20 years performing in Vaudeville and in small towns. Early in his showbiz career, he picked up the nickname, “Groucho,” but privately chafed at its negative connotation. After a big break on Broadway in 1924, the Marx brothers team of Groucho, Chico and Harpo did 15 movies—including “Animal Crackers,” “Cocoanuts,” and “Duck Soup.” With his trademark cigar, bizarre 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.”

Though Groucho Marx in real life called himself a liberal Democrat, he never harbored a blind faith in state power that characterized the warped thinking of Karl Marx. In fact, he once opined, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it, misdiagnosing it and then misapplying the wrong remedies.” His movies are best remembered for his endless, and often completely spontaneous 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.”

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. Nobody, however, deliberately imitates Karl. And thankfully, a dwindling number of people remain devoted to his philosophy or what it wrought.

Karl and Groucho. Two men named Marx. Both brought tears to the eyes of millions but for very, very different reasons.

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