The spectre haunting the West: Marxism and the contagion of resentment
There is a synoptic account of the post-millennial world that runs something as follows. The Cold War between the democratic West and the communist powers officially ended in 1989 with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the liberation of the East European satellite states. After a brief spell of triumphalism, the West came to reassess its place in a less dualistic but more complex, multipolar world of conflicts. At present, although the threat from an increasingly aggressive China is not to be ignored, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, the imminent threat to the West is less external than internal. From about the late 1960’s, European Marxists, faced with the abundant and irrefutable evidence of the economic failures of the Soviet Union and the nature of its oppressive regime, were no longer able to stand as its apologists or fellow-travellers, yet were unwilling to abandon the intellectual tradition in which they had invested so much. These intellectuals formed the core – often referred to now as ‘cultural Marxists’ – of the postmodern movement and began what the German activist Rudi Dutschke was so evocatively to describe as ‘the long march through the institutions.’ After a long gestation in academia, the various media and the judiciary, Marxism has recently re-emerged in the mainstream of sexuality, gender and racial identity politics.1
Although this narrative is superficially correct, the simplifications suggest that there has been a concerted and coordinated attempt to subvert the institutions of the West. Although mindful of Karl Popper’s dictum that just because the conspiracy theory of history is discredited, it does not follow that there are no conspiracies, I find it difficult to believe that a conspiracy on this scale is credible. The questions would immediately arise: who is instigating this, and to what end? The cause of the spread of Marxist ideas through our institutions undoubtedly takes place through local activism and power politics, but if we are looking for a systemic explanation for widespread institutional contagion the answer is to be more plausibly found in human psychology. I will argue that the core of Marx’s genius and the lasting, pervasive influence of Marxism was its philosophical justification of resentment and our particular susceptibility to resentment has allowed the theory to be transmitted through time and through the institutions of the West wherever unresolved grievances are found.
As such, this essay is not an attempt at a history of resentment, which is a fascinating study in itself (Ferro, 2010; Martín Moruno, 2013; Fassin, 2013), but a much more limited exploration of how Marxism embodies the spirit of resentment and how it has been able to successfully adapt to any political or social circumstances in which injustice is identified, both factually corroborated and in cases where it’s presumption is largely manufactured.
The co-emergence of identity politics, in particular issues of racial identity, with a worldwide pandemic issuing from an increasingly hegemonic China, makes good grist for the mill of conspiracy theories, which we will have to wait on the verdict of future historians to validate or otherwise. It does, however, provide a suggestive viral model for the spectacular success of Marxism in both evolving and propagating itself. If a political virus seems merely a linguistic analogy to the biological reality, a similar aetiology of social contagion has been noted and explored by celebrated evolutionary thinkers, for example Richard Dawkins’ concept of memetic evolution (Dawkins, 1976) and Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza’s theory of vectors in cultural transmission (Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, 1981). In this essay I will use a model of the viability of the ideological invader and the susceptibility of the host institutions to structure a theory for the otherwise difficult-to-explain continuing enchantment with a failed philosophy.
The ideological viability of Marxism as a bearer of resentment
The issue of ideological viability is separate from any judgment about truth. To say that Marxism is a viable ideology would be to refer to its evolutionary fitness in the viral model framing this argument, not a positive evaluation of its content. It is a morally neutral judgment. In fact, it is clear that from the perspective of most eminent scholars Marxism is philosophically redundant and its claims essentially debunked. Among the many criticisms and critics historical materialism has been soundly refuted by Karl Popper (1947) and Francis Fukuyama (1992), the economic theories, such as the labour theory of value, by Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk (1890), Alfred Marshall (1890), Friedrich Hayek (1944), Milton Friedman (1962), John Kenneth Galbraith (1996) and John Maynard Keynes (2013), and the epistemological claims of the dialectic by Ludvic von Mises (1985) and Leszek Kolakowski (2005). In what then lies the longevity, continuing fascination and adoption of Marxism? The economist Thomas Sowell (1985, p.218) expressed it succinctly:
“What Marx accomplished was to produce such a comprehensive, dramatic, and fascinating vision that it could withstand innumerable empirical contradictions, logical refutations, and moral revulsions at its effects. The Marxian vision took the overwhelming complexity of the real world and made the parts fall into place, in a way that was intellectually exhilarating and conferred such a sense of moral superiority that opponents could be simply labelled and dismissed as moral lepers or blind reactionaries. Marxism was – and remains – a mighty instrument for the acquisition and maintenance of political power.”
It has to be recognised that Marx was a good writer in the generally turgid genre of political economy, with occasional brilliant flashes, as someone who wrote with passion and wit and was capable of creating particularly arresting images (Barker, 2016; Johnston, 1967). This has to be counted, as Sowell claims, among the reasons for the continuing influence he has. He was also attuned to three significant social trends of the nineteenth century: the revolutionary upheavals that swept across Europe from the French Revolution of 1789 to the liberal revolutions of 1848, the conditions of the working classes under capitalism, particularly in the burgeoning industrial towns of England, and the growing intellectual reaction against the Christian church, with the development of Darwin’s evolutionary theory and of the historical critical reading of the Bible.
Despite the debunking and superseding of his ideas, Marx has a legitimate claim on being one of the founders of sociology, social theory and economics. He introduced a way of thinking about the world that has had a profoundly lasting influence. Marx has made us think more substantially about the place of humans in the world, in particular as political and economic actors and the products of a history which is for the most part and the great majority one of suffering and oppression, although he was not unique in that insight. This explains why Marx has a place in the canon of philosophy and the social sciences and why he should be read, but does not explain the power of his ideas or the fascination, bordering on religious devotion, which he and his successors have accrued.
What does distinguish Marx is the moral perspective he brought to his theorising. That moral perspective, largely derived from a fascination with literary depictions of evil and inspired by the Terror of the French Revolution, stands in stark contrast, for example, to that of nineteenth century evangelicals who campaigned for reform of inhumane institutions and practices. Marx distilled, rather than the hopeful and compassionate strategy for change, the spirit of resentment, the iconography of victimisation by oppressive forces and the metaphysically justified necessity for violent revolution and the overthrow of capitalism and bourgeois society. That Marx held a jaundiced view of the world is no secret and that the outcome of the implementation of communism has been so profoundly disastrous and so amply demonstrated should not really surprise. Marx expressed views such as his belief in “the ruthless criticism of all that exists” (letter to Arnold Ruge) and “the forcible overthrow of the existing social order” (The Communist Manifesto). He expressed on a number of occasions his admiration for the words of Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust:
“I am the spirit that negates.
And rightly so, for all that comes to be
Deserves to perish wretchedly;
‘Twere better nothing would begin.
Thus everything that that your terms, sin,
Destruction, evil represent—
That is my proper element.”2
In Faust Goethe explores the dilemma of one who has sold his soul to the devil, an embodiment of resentment, rebellion, destructiveness and usurpation, a significant motif explored throughout the literary history of the monotheistic cultures. Goethe understands the tragic outcome of this bargain and so places it within the moral framework that has underpinned the social order and literary canon in the West and other cultures that trace their spiritual origins to the biblical myths in the book of Genesis. Marx clearly falls within this canon and references it extensively in his writing and has to be understood in light of the history and literary traditions which he inherited as well as the events of his own time. Marx, though, departs from the canon in explicitly rejecting its moral framework rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, in championing political killing and rebellion against the moral norms of society.
The source of this framework and a profound piece of literature in itself is are the accounts in Genesis of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise and the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. When Genesis was written is somewhat contentious, though scholars believe it to have been either the 10th or 6th century BC, either in the time of the court of Solomon or during the exile to Babylon. The claim contained in the text and the traditional belief that it was written by Moses is not found to be credible. It is clear, though, that it records much older stories which were part of an oral tradition. The significance of the stories from the present perspective is not in their historical veracity but in providing a literary account of a moral tradition that had been validated over time, and the delineating of what Jungian psychology terms the archetypes of human behaviour and experience. The story of Cain and Abel captures perfectly the archetype of resentment:
Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. 6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.”
8 Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” (Gen 4: 2-10)
The author of Genesis was not recording a unique historical event, but expressing in vivid language both an atavistic element of our nature and a continuing capacity for evil and the irruption of evil into the world. However, and this is where the belief system of the Jews departed significantly from those of other peoples of the ancient world, they asserted that we are not the playthings of fate. God posed a moral choice to Cain, to master his resentment towards his brother and be found acceptable. Cain, however, overpowered by feelings of rejection, murdered his brother and refused to accept responsibility for his crime (hence the petulant response, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”).
A history of Jewish, Christian and Muslim interpretation of the story of Cain and Abel has fed into the western literary tradition. Building on these layers of interpretation, the literary tradition took this as a warning of the dark side of human nature and portrayed it within the moral framework of sin, guilt, punishment and redemption, exemplified in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Goethe’s Faust, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago;3 and indeed upon which our criminal codes are also based, that is, the idea that we are morally responsible, a foundational principle of all free societies.
Marx, however, rather than seeing resentment as a moral aberration, was the first to give it philosophical justification. Resentment became ensconced as the virulent core of Marxism and is reproduced wherever the ideology holds sway. Moreover, Marx scripted an alternative moral-philosophical framework for its justification, in order that the practitioners of political falsehood, hatred and violence were no longer to be considered beyond the pale in moral reckoning, but righteous actors in the vanguard of revolution.
The route by which Marx enabled the transmission of this resentment was to take the ancient concept of dialectic, which Hegel had turned into a metaphysical principle in The Phenomenology of Spirit, and by inverting Hegel transform this into a supposedly scientific process of development through struggle in nature and in history,4 thus undergirding the idea of the irreconcilability of socio-economic groups. Marx and Engels, rather than critiquing the conditions of the industrial proletariat from a moral perspective and attempt reform, which many Christians and humanitarians did through charitable work, founding educational societies and pressing for changes in the law, sought to justify their belief that change could only come about through violent revolution. For them, social solidarity, rather than a universal aim, was a partisan identification with an idealised proletariat whose virtue lay in its commitment to the overthrow of Capitalism.
Marxism, therefore, managed to do two things that turned it into an exemplary revolutionary ideology: it legitimated individual hatred of an ‘other’ when one believed that one was wronged in some way or a victim of misfortune; it also objectified this hatred as a fact of the contradictions in economic history, thereby removing any justification for moral approbation. Furthermore, by an intellectual sleight-of-hand it encouraged in those studying Marxism a vicarious resentment on behalf of those believed to have been oppressed and against those not directly implicated in one’s own fortunes. From there it is a short stretch, by the convoluted logic of Marxism, to – even more absurdly – resent the narratively-constructed oppressive class to which one belongs oneself, a tradition of self-hatred that runs from Stalinist show trials, through Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ to the dogmas of ‘toxic masculinity’, ‘White privilege’ and ‘White fragility’ in identity politics.
The susceptibility of the West to Marxist resentment
The spirit of resentment forms the dark heart of Marxism, its viral load, to pursue the analogy, and the dialectic its protective mechanism of transport. For Marxism to affect and infect its host, though, it must exploit its weaknesses. One vulnerability is clearly the existence of actual injustices in society, of which there is an endless supply. The other is the susceptibility of a proportion of the population with above average narcissistic tendencies. Though most people are narcissists to some degree, people with several traits associated with narcissistic personality disorder5 are highly susceptible to radical ideologies, not only leftist, but also far-right, Islamist, and animal rights and environmentalist extremism, for example.
The issue to be addressed here is how an ideology that has failed on almost every level has nevertheless come to underpin the predominant way of thinking in the academic world and beyond. The fact that Marxism has managed to provide a unifying account of many strands of thought and an alternative morality is attractive to a type of personality that is comfortable with certainty, seeks an alternative to religion and takes a critical and rebellious stance towards authority. It’s possible that Marx at a literary level inspires a similar type of resentful misfit that J.D. Salinger’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’ antihero Holden Caulfield does, although I think it does so at a more rarefied level of those with a mixture of idealism and intellectual arrogance.6 At the same time, while injustices continue to permeate society, rather than seeing problems to be solved within the existing frame of society, to be a Marxist or allied with a fellow-travelling cause is to be able to consider oneself morally superior without being required, as in most religious and humanitarian organisations, for example, to be socially engaged in dealing with the actual, concrete injustices and suffering of people; it is sufficient to declare oneself on the side of the oppressed and to express vicarious resentment on their behalf.
Why the West in particular has become so vulnerable to Marxist resentment is an important question. At least three reasons suggest themselves. One is the decline of religion as a communal force, which has left an enormous spiritual gap in society. Of course, there are a number of caveats to this. Many people on the left, who may be sympathetic to socialist ideas, are also religious. Christianity itself (or certain interpretations of it) may predispose people to the temptations of Marxism, as seen, for example, in the development of Liberation Theology in South America and elsewhere. But the anti-religious stance of Marxism is undoubtedly attractive to a certain type of humanist or atheist and many are drawn to the angry rhetoric against injustice. The second reason may be the very success of the West in terms of general peace, prosperity and safety, which has made people particularly sensitive to perceived injustices that would go unnoticed in failed states. Marxist-inspired ideologies and activism, particularly of the identity politics sort, has quickly stepped into the breach to exploit such injustices (although, noticeably, only as long as they have the potential for undermining Marx’s bête noires, the bourgeois family, private property and capitalism). Coupled with this, third, is the rise of the internet and social media, which have accelerated the rate of contagion, although it has also undoubtedly done so with conspiracy theories and the ideologies of the far right, an example of the polarising power of the medium.
In light of this, I want to briefly discuss three socio-political concepts which describe systemic attributes of all societies, but which have become, nonetheless, implicated in the spread of Marxist ideas: social capital, hegemony and resistance. These describe what are essentially defence mechanisms that have been disabled or re-engineered to function mainly to propagate Marxist-inspired resentment through society.
Although there are a number of definitions of social capital, most incorporate the idea that the interaction of members of a society creates a social ‘good’ that in some manner can be transformed into (or ‘spent’ on) other more tangible goods, particularly of an economic or a political nature. Croll (2004, p.398) describes social capital as arising from ‘social relationships and the personal networks which they create’, which then becomes ‘a resource which can be used to generate outcomes which are valued’. Human relationships therefore become a resource that have ‘productive capacity’ for society as a whole, not just for the individuals concerned (ibid). Bourdieu defines it as ‘The aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance or recognition’ (cited in Portes, 2000, p. 45).
The idea of social capital is closely connected with that of civil society, the range of autonomous and largely voluntary organisations that bring people together, enabling the strengthening of social bonds and the sharing of ideas and experiences. Robert Putnam, a theorist of social capital, noted in his essay Bowling Alone (Putnam, 1995) the decline in social capital and engagement in civil society in America since the 1950s and this pattern is repeated across the Western world. Another more recent development is what might be called the politicisation of civil society, the transfer of respect away from deserving individuals towards ideological stances. In social terms this augurs a move away from the spontaneity of social capital to the rigidity of ideological conformity.
The term ‘hegemony’ or ‘cultural hegemony’ as a theoretical idea in the social sciences has its origins in Marx but its first clear expression in Gramsci and Althusser. At one level it means ideological domination, but, more subtly, a wilful blindness to the state of dominion, such is its all-pervasive nature. However, even this does not completely capture its sense. According to Strinati (1995, pp.165-6) the existence of a hegemonic domination is in part due to a ‘spontaneous consensus’ of the ruled who find in its rules and values a potential for realising their own self-interest.
There are interesting insights in the notion of hegemony, but essentially it seems to be the conflation of two empirical observations. The first is the commonplace that any believing, as any belonging, is the source of both individual orientation and of self-limitation. The second is that all societies function through differentiation of authority, role and status. In hegemony the rhetoric of Marxist class conflict has appropriated an allegorical interpretation of social differentiation as ‘ideology’, an ideology to which – it is claimed – we are all in thrall and in which we find both our orientation (false consciousness) and limitation (domination).
There is an insight, which I find persuasive, that individually, and to some degree collectively, we accept worldviews and their attendant values that are pervasive to the degree that we cannot conceive of the world being otherwise; that is to say we are imprisoned within the perspective of our own perception. This is a defence mechanism that makes us essentially socially conservative. By making us conscious of this and interpreting this as false consciousness and domination, Marxists hope to ‘flip’ us from one paradigm into a completely different one, defined by the objectives of socialism and communism.
Resistance is a very broad term which includes many different theoretical and ideological persuasions. They are united by the sense that there is a dislocation between the role an individual is expected to play within a social system and the sense that this role in some manner compromises their intrinsic worth, leading to a state of rebellion, which can range from passive non-compliance to aggressive challenge.
In any social system there is a balance between compliance with the law and reasonable demands and resistance to arbitrary authority. This exists in open societies to protect the moral authority of the individual that in turn upholds the societal norms. This is a somewhat unstable equilibrium that is vulnerable to overbearing narratives of fear or resentment, which can quell or incite resistance and either disable its moral function or destroy the social fabric. Marxism not only supplies a highly effective narrative of resentment but is able to co-opt the moral authority of the individual to rebel against the established social order. Of course, the danger for communist society is that resistance re-assert itself in rebellion against the new social order. That problem is always dealt with by instigating a reign of terror.
Resentment and narcissism are of course not limited to those on the Marxist-inspired left. It also underlies the development of far-right and even nationalist thinking. Yet the viral model of the transmission of Marxist thinking – mindful of the dangers of stretching the applicability of a model too far – is also suggestive of a fundamental difference of the function of the right and the left and of the different dangers they pose. If the far left represents a viral invasion of the body politic, the far right represents the reactive overdrive of the immune system. The present pandemic has demonstrated how in severe cases the body’s immune system itself is what threatens the life of the patient. Perhaps – although one would not want to offer false hope – the viral model holds out the possibility that Marxism will evolve, as do viruses, to become less dangerous. Were America, Europe or other parts of the free world to become communist, it is possible that we might not see a repeat of the genocides and gulags of Soviet Russia, the Cultural Revolution of Mao’s China and the killing fields of Cambodia. However, I would not be willing to place that much faith in a speculative model to wish to live through that experiment.
1. The process by which the postmodern left has emerged, by the migration of traditional Marxists to postmodernism is complex and probably too complex to recover historically, such is the ferment of ideas and the multiplicity of influences. A number of philosophers, such as Stephen Hicks (2004), have traced the lineage of today’s identity politics back through the postmodernists and the critical theorists of the Frankfurt school to Marx. I would make two points about this. First, the connection to Marxism does not totally define any of these intellectual or social movements, all of which have multiple sources and all of which have produced some outstanding achievements in philosophy and the social sciences. Also, there is a strong anti-postmodernism narrative within the traditional Marxist left and factions of the liberal left, and that of interpretivist Marxism the Frankfurt school.
There is an alternative interpretation, that the nature of identity politics represents a late stage of the Enlightenment, capitalism and modern liberalism itself. Liberalism with its traditions of critical scepticism has hypertrophied into a parody of itself. There is strength in this argument. Capitalism has given rise to the consumer society and the belief that our desires are everything. Old-fashioned ideas of duty, responsibility and loyalty have largely disappeared. Technological progress has resulted in the world of social media in which our opinions can be communicated instantly with potentially vast audiences and we can receive affirmation or condemnation immediately. Ideas fundamental to democracy, such as free speech, are under attack, because feelings have been elevated over reason.
2. In “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon”, for example, Marx quotes Faust: “Everything in existence is worth being destroyed.”
3. Some writers, such as Milton, Goethe and Byron, following the Rabbinic and Scholastic traditions of interpretation, amalgamated the character of Cain with the rebellious figure depicted in Isaiah 14:13-14, as the tempter, accuser and destroyer of mankind who lurks behind the scenes throughout the cultures of the monotheistic religions.
4. A lot of the application of the dialectic to nature was done by Engels, in works such as Anti-Dühring (1877).
5. The Mayo Clinic (2020 defines it thus: “Narcissistic personality disorder — one of several types of personality disorders — is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”
6. A typical example of this is the journalist and left-wing activist Ashna Sarkar, who declared to a TV interviewer, “I am literally a communist, you idiot” as a statement intended to shock as much as to inform; “I am literally a Hegelian/liberal/phenomenologist” doesn’t quite have the same effect, with good reason. Perhaps the subtext might be, “I am literally an apologist for an ideology which believes in the violent overthrow of the very society which enables us to find our place reasonably securely in the world and us to sit here chatting on television and me to espouse my views without fear of arrest; it is an ideology, moreover, which has been responsible for the murder of over 100 million people, the persecution of countless millions more and the impoverishment of entire nations, but a point which you are too polite, naïve or scared to mention”.
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