Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Effort to Revive Karl Marx

Would that great minds all think alike. Sometimes great minds don’t think at all.

Nowadays some of Europe’s greatest minds are hard at work reviving and resuscitating the reputation of Karl Marx.

One can hardly imagine a more daunting challenge.

It makes sense, that these great thinkers would feel an existential need to dissociate themselves from the horrors that were committed in the name of a god they wholeheartedly supported.

True believers saw Marx as a god. Their intellectual passion for him easily reached the level of idolatry.

While some European intellectuals have renounced their youthful exuberance over Marx and communism, others have clung bitterly to the illusions that make up Marxist thought.

I recommend Arthur Koestler’s The God That Failed for those who would like to read the testimony of those former Marxists who saw the error of their ways.

Nowadays certain sophisticated European leftists believe that even if the fall of Communism drove a stake through the vampire heart of Marx, then this is merely a challenge to their considerable intellects. Only a great mind can rationalize some of the worst crimes in human history.

Today we will ask whether famed British literary critic and inveterate Marxist Terry Eagleton is up to the task.

Eagleton opens his article, “In Praise of Marx” with a hypothetical question: “Were not Marx's ideas responsible for despotism, mass murder, labor camps, economic catastrophe, and the loss of liberty for millions of men and women? Was not one of his devoted disciples a paranoid Georgian peasant by the name of Stalin, and another a brutal Chinese dictator who may well have had the blood of some 30 million of his people on his hands?”

Actually, government systems that drew inspiration from the thought of Karl Marx are responsible for far more than 30 million deaths. A quick read of The Black Book of Communism will give you a truer body count.

After proposing his hypothetical question, Eagleton pretends to respond: “The truth is that Marx was no more responsible for the monstrous oppression of the communist world than Jesus was responsible for the Inquisition.”

I hope that that does not sound too persuasive. As an argument, it’s a clever intellectual parlor trick.

Even at the second word, red lights should start flashing. How can Eagleton assert with full confidence that he possesses  the truth about moral responsibility.

Surely, if Marx was, as Eagleton is going to argue, merely an idea man, and if he does not really bear any responsibility for the horrors committed in his name, then this also exculpates those intellectual luminaries who have been propagating his thought, even to the point of indoctrinating their students in Marxism light.

Those who hold fast to the Cartesian mind/body dichotomy will claim that thinkers have no responsibility for what takes place in the name of those actions.

If you want to believe that, you would also have to concede that propaganda and indoctrination sessions and brain washing are a waste of time. Yet, everyone knows, beginning with Communists, that mind control is essential to the communist tyranny.

Eagleton is arguing by using an analogy. He is explaining that Marx is no more responsible for the oppression and mass murder that were routinely practiced by self-proclaimed Marxist regimes than Jesus is responsible for the Inquisition.

Is he right? In truth-- or let’s say that it’s a higher truth-- even though the Inquisition was undertaken in the name of Jesus, the overall record of Christian or Judeo-Christian civilization contains far more that is positive and constructive than it does horrors.

Whether you are thinking about democratic institutions or free market capitalism or even Giotto and Bach, Judeo-Christianity has far more to be proud of than not.

As for communism, the truth is that it has never been anything but oppression. Communism failed because it never accomplished anything. It made no contributions to human civilization. With the exception of a few bitter clingers in the academy, no one misses Communism.

Unless you want to give out a special award for destroying the greatest number of human lives in the shortest period of time, Communism was a complete and total failure.

Having mastered the art of moral relativism, Eagleton is quick to point out that Western governments have participated in some pretty horrific destructive acts too.

As though one error could justify another.

But, even if you follow Eagleton into what I would call the argumentum ad body countem, Communism so far surpasses all other ideologies that it is in a class of its own. It is manifest Evil.

This does not mean that every idea ever penned by Karl Marx is suffused with evil, but it does mean that every time anyone tried to put those ideas into practice, the results were catastrophic.

To say that Marx bears no responsibility for this is disingenuous.

If you shoot a gun into the air and the bullets fall on human beings, you may not have intended to kill anyone, but you still bear responsibility for the consequences of your actions.

If you drop a match into a vat of kerosene, you may not have intended that the fire escape the vat and consume the neighborhood, but you still bear responsibility for the damage.

But if you see the results of your actions and keep shooting in the air or keep lighting up kerosene, then you cannot say that you did not intend to cause the damage.

In order to exculpate Marx and himself, Eagleton suggests that Marx has simply been misunderstood. If only the politicians had studied with the great European thinkers they would have had a proper grasp of the text and would have acted differently.

In truth, however, many of the great Communist leaders did study in Europe. Take the genocidal maniacs who led the Khmer Rouge on its murderous rampage through Cambodia. Pol Pot and his cronies had studied Marxism in Europe. So had one of Mao Zedong’s chief henchman, Chou en-Lai.

What did all these Communist leaders misunderstand? Eagleton explains that Marx did not believe that his theory should be applied to pre-industrial economies.

As Eagleton describes it: “Marxism is a theory of how well-heeled capitalist nations might use their immense resources to achieve justice and prosperity for their people. It is not a program by which nations bereft of material resources, a flourishing civic culture, a democratic heritage, a well-evolved technology, enlightened liberal traditions, and a skilled, educated work force might catapult themselves into the modern age.”

Note that Eagleton will be making Marxism look like a variant on today’s Democratic party. I bet that today’s Democratic party would not be pleased. Yet, redistributionist policies, the kinds that Eagleton seems to be prescribing, are not really what Marx had in mind.

Marx was not fomenting violent revolution because he wanted to revise the tax code.

Actually, Marx did support agrarian reform movements. When Mao Zedong, for instance, identified the Chinese peasantry as a type of proletariat, he was not misreading the text.

Marx considered that serfs should rebel against feudal landlords. Wouldn’t that have been another moment in the great world historical class struggle?

Eagleton seems to want to sell us a kinder gentler Marx. To test his idea, let’s turn to a few lines by Marx himself, from the Communist Manifesto: “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”

Dare I say that there is a marked difference between Eagleton‘s pabulum about social justice and Marx’s call for the “forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.”

Good Marxist that he is Eagleton wants to analyze the internal contradictions in capitalism. He begins by asking some hypothetical questions.

Take this one, for example: “Why is it that the capitalist West has accumulated more resources than human history has ever witnessed, yet appears powerless to overcome poverty, starvation, exploitation, and inequality?”

It’s strange that he accuses America-- to take an exemplary Western capitalist culture-- of being unable to overcome starvation at a time when most Americnas are suffering because they eat too much.

Of course, Eagleton is simply trotting out the idealist’s ruse. If you compare reality with the ideal, reality will always appear to be lacking.

Admittedly, China is not a Western nation, but it has, over the past three decades, moved more people out of poverty, starvation and exploitation through the free market reforms than has any other country in the history of the world.

Is today’s China better or worse than it was fifty years ago when Mao’s Great Leap Forward led to a famine that managed to starve tens of millions of people?

True enough, capitalism is not perfect, but capitalism in most parts of the Western world has been larded over with socialist policies, policies that were influenced by thinkers like Karl Marx.

One begins to wonder how carefully Eagleton has really read his Marxist theory or how closely he has studied the history of its implementation.

One does know that Stalin and Mao-- to say nothing of that other great Socialist, Adolph Hitler-- believed that socialist government would lead to the advent of a New Socialist Man.

Faced with the failures of Marxist policies, Communist leaders had a choice. Take the blame themselves or blame human nature. Obviously, they chose to blame human nature.

To which Eagleton replies, in defiance of the evidence: “Socialism, then, does not depend on some miraculous change in human nature.”

As it happened, Leon Trotsky-- who, I dare say, was not a Stalinist-- did not see it that way: “Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman.”

Much of what Eagleton says is the work of a skillful propagandist, someone who tries to echo your thoughts and values in order to trick you into joining his cause. At times, he seems to be saying that Marx was a therapist manqué.

About Marx Eagleton says: “Again and again, he speaks of the just society as one in which men and women will be able to realize their distinctive powers and capacities in their own distinctive ways. His moral goal is pleasurable self-fulfillment. In this he is at one with his great mentor Aristotle, who understood that morality is about how to flourish most richly and enjoyably, not in the first place (as the modern age disastrously imagines) about laws, duties, obligations, and responsibilities.”

Given that Aristotle was the greatest ethical thinker in Western civilization, and that he literally wrote the book on laws, duties, obligations, and responsibilities, it feels more than strange that Eagleton wants to portray him as a degenerate hedonist. Does any sensible thinker really believe that the Artistotelian injunction to work toward excellence is an invitation to lotus eating?

Eagleton is trying to sell an ideology, especially to those who are young and susceptible. How better to do it than to use the techniques that draw people to cults. You say that Marxism is all about love, not the violent overthrow of governments and the forcible imposition of new values. You tell young people that Marxism will teach them to love and will spare them from having to work.

In Eagleton‘s words: “Marx's goal is leisure, not labor. The best reason for being a socialist, apart from annoying people you happen to dislike, is that you detest having to work.”

Who, pray tell, is going to be doing the work that is going to guarantee you the fortune that will permit you to enjoy the full measure of leisure? Your parents? The state? Terry Eagleton?


Leonard S. Goodman said...

When confronted by the cruel history of communism, the modern liberal confidently states that the problem was with who was in charge. airily dismissing Mao and Stalin, and Pol Pot and, Tito, and the rest of the gang of ogres. "We know better now," they believe. And, I guess this may have been what the Dope meant when he stated that, "We are the ones we've been waiting for." We know how to do it right this time. Only fools would fall for this line but we have to worry as God made so many of them.

Off topic... I started with the earlier essays of Theodore Dalrymple which are in the archives of and have been reading several a day. Dalrymple's writing is top notch (and a pleasure to read for his wonderful way with words) but his topics are very, very depressing. My sense is that he writes to maintain his sanity in his dysfunctional prison/hospital world surrounded by those with so little education as to have no past and no future longer than 10 minutes.
Thanks for the pointer.
Steve G

Anonymous said...

I like to work for the gain of my family, and myself. How can you make me work for "those who detest work" except by force?

To increase my work, you must increase the force on my family and myself in the service of "those who detest work".

That will make me quit working and make me fight.

There's yer problem, right there.


Anonymous said...

I think a few real differences, however, will result from technological changes in the last century as well as those on the horizon. Any new political establishment will be watched and exposed much more closely at its inception (and conversely have the power to watch its people).

And human nature no longer has to wait for evolution - we have it in our power (technologically if not practically and legally) already to manipulate the personality traits of a populace through genetics and chemical intervention.

What this means for the future of Marxism or other ideologies I've no idea, but I am sure it will be something we can't yet predict.

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