In my book on millennialism I have a chapter devoted to Marx in which, among other less than flattering remarks, I note the following about his “dialectical” thinking:
The totalizing discourse operates as a kind of scientistic magic, making millennial promises about total liberation—“complete” control over the instruments of production and universal intercourse. But Marx offered this promise not to the intellectuals of his age, but specifically to those then suffering the most from the throes of industrialization.
. . . Marxist revolutionaries adopt Hegel’s dialectic to prove that each step downward into deeper misery simultaneously and inevitably hastened the coming of paradise. “Imperialist” wars and “capitalist” depressions became, for the apocalyptic Marxists, what the “fortunate fall” and the “signs of the End” are for Christians, the same gratifying dialectic that Bakùnin had in mind when he announced that “the passion for destruction is a creative passion.”
With such a promise comes a fury to console and soothe the agony of one’s current condition—the very crushing pains the laborer now experiences will be transformed into the opposite, the very totality of their alienation will make it possible for all to achievecomplete self-activity.
And behind the apocalyptic historical analysis lay an enticing millennial premise and promise: a “new man” would emerge on the other side of this wrenching process of alienation. Just as the French Revolution had promised a new citizen, so the Marxists promised a “new comrade”—an interesting shift, given the sad fact that “fraternity” was the first of the promises to vanish from the millennial formula of liberté, égalité, fraternité. Here, over the course of the nineteenth century, revolutionaries availed themselves of John Locke’s theories about man as a blank slate who had no “innate ideas,” that is, no innate character, that rather sensory perceptions and experiences mold man. Whatever Locke believed he meant, both Enlightenment thinkers and subsequent radicals seized eagerly on this nurture versus nature perspective to believe anything possible.
As in the case of many millennial texts, this one seems far less compelling with hindsight; indeed, these expectations were and still are completely unrealistic. But, “[o]ne may poke holes in the theories . . . mock any number of embarrassing contradictions. None of that matters. It is the myth, as Sorel saw, and its inspirational powers that count. And apocalyptic Marxism is the perfect myth.” One of the reasons that Marx succeeded in winning so many fervent disciples was not despite the bizarre reasoning here displayed, but because of it.
. Mendel, Vision and Violence, 153.
. By the time of the Directory (1794–99), it appears in the variant: “Liberté, égalité, propriété.” See, for example, a print of the three directors (Barras, La Révellière, and Reubell), after the coup-d’état of the 18 of Fructidor (4 September 1797) entitled La trinité républicaine, BNP, Estampes, reproduced in François Furet and Denis Richet, La Révolution du 9-Thermidor au 18-Brumaire (Paris: Hachette, 1966), 123. See also Mona Ozouf, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” in Lieux de Mémoire, ed. Pierre Nora, 3 vol. (Paris: Gallimard, 1997), 3:4353–89.
. Richard Pipes discusses the link between Locke and the Communists in Russian Revolution, 1899–1919 (London: Harvill Press, 1997), 125–36; see above on the French revolutionaries’ use of this notion, chapter 9 n. 87.
. For an attempt at a sympathetic but realistic review of the completely impracticable assumptions that underlie so much of Marx’s thought about the Communist state to come, see Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 521–27. He repeatedly refers to the elements of Marx’s assumptions and allusions that are “extremely” (522) and “irredeemably Utopian” (526), of coming from “Cloud-cuckoo-land” (524). See also Axel Van den Berg’s characterization of Marx’s salvific vision as an “absurdly bucolic . . . utterly cloudy millennium.” The Immanent Utopia: From Marxism on the State to the State of Marxism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988) 56-7,
. Mendel, Vision and Violence, 152.
. “Such utopian images of the future command society, however scattered and fragmentary in the writings of Marx and Engels, form an essential component of Marxist theory—and one that is essential for understanding the appeals of Marxism in the modern world.” Maurice Meisner, “Marxism and Utopianisn” in Marxism, Maosim and Utopianism, Eight Essays (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982); see also Frank E. Manuel and Fritzie P. Manuel, “Marx and Engels in the Landscape of Utopia” in Utopian Thought in the Western World (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1979), 697–716.
I also, in a subsequent chapter on the Russian revolution, note the way Western intellectuals dealt with the cognitive dissonance of the failed communist millennium:
Fellow Travelers and the Cognitive Dissonance of Failed Revolutions
The reaction of Western Marxists to the Soviet debacle, namely, the length and depth of their denial that the dream had turned into a nightmare, has astounded and puzzled most intellectuals not in thrall to Communist ideology. This is particular true since some of these people, like George Bernard Shaw and Jean-Paul Sartre, were both brilliant and otherwise known for their mordant observations on people’s “bad faith.” And yet, just like believers incapable of allowing the evidence of apocalyptic prophecy’s failure to enter their consciousness, these people could not admit to themselves or anyone else that the millennial experiment in which they had invested so much (intellectual) energy could have failed.
… these pilgrims proved capable of the most extraordinary ability to ignore whatever anomalies they observed in their terrestrial paradise. George Bernard Shaw’s visit to Moscow in 1931 illustrates some of the psychology involved. A devastating critic of Western capitalism, he checked his skepticism at the border, along with the numerous tins of canned meat that his friends had given him to bring to their starving Russian friends, and arrived oblivious to all that surrounded him, including the dismay of the Russians when he told them about the jettisoned cans of meat since he “knew” there was no famine in the socialist paradise. Russia served not as a case of the “real world,” subject to his penetrating criticism, but the foil for his own dislike of the world he inhabited, no matter how it welcomed the products of his socialist genius. Despite the horror that surrounded him in Russia, he came back with glowing reports. As Russell noted, Shaw “fell victim to adulation of the Soviet government and suddenly lost the power of criticism and of seeing though humbug if it came from Moscow.”
. One of the significant exceptions was Bertrand Russell, who, among other things coined the expression the “fallacy of the superior virtue of the oppressed,” in his 1937 essay “The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed,”Unpopular Essays (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1950). For the broader phenomenon, see David Caute, The Fellow Travelers: A Postscript to the Enlightenment (New York: Macmillan, 1973); Paul Hollander, Political Pilgrims: Western Intellectuals in Search of the Good Society (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1998).
. Eugene Lyons, Assignment in Utopia (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1937), 428–35.
. Bertrand Russell, Portraits from Memory (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956), 59; cited in Hollander, Political Pilgrims, 139.
Now, too late to add to the footnotes, Terry Eagelton, one of the major figures in the abuse of post-modernism for political purposes, comes up with a book entitled Why Marx was Right. I fisk his article for the Chronicle of Higher Education in which he summarizes his argument and tries to rehabilitate Marx for a modern progressive audience. I put Eagelton’s article in bold to distinguish from other quotes I add to this post.
For other excellent critiques, see Ron Radosh, Marx and the American Academy: When Will the High Priests ever Learn? and John Gray, The Return of an Illusion.
April 10, 2011
In Praise of Marx
By Terry Eagleton
Praising Karl Marx might seem as perverse as putting in a good word for the Boston Strangler. 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?
That’s much more likely 70 million. See Frank Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62 (2010) on the “great leap forward” alone which brought on over 45 million untimely deaths. One of the comments Dikötter highlights is the determination of Mao to downplay the number of deaths, something that, even as he pretends to admit the truth, Eagelton continues to do.
The truth is that Marx was no more responsible for the monstrous oppression of the communist world than Jesus was responsible for the Inquisition.
For someone who has contributed so much to post-modern decentering of the notion of “truth” to begin a sentence with “the truth is…” should give pause to wonder what he’s up to. Moreover, to make the “truth” a reference to a very bad analogy is even more striking. The time between Jesus and the Inquisition was about 1200 years, the time between Marx and the Totalitarian Russian revolution is less than half a century, and the links between Marx’s angry active cataclysmic apocalyptic impatience and the sins of his epigones defies any comparison to the radical difference between Jesus and the Inquisition, so memorably depicted by Ivan in Dostoyevski’s The Brother’s Karamozov. See below for the rather distressing links between Marx and the dialectic’s “shift to the East”.
For one thing, Marx would have scorned the idea that socialism could take root in desperately impoverished, chronically backward societies like Russia and China.
I’m not sure where he gets this idea. Marx should have been scornful, but it’s not clear that he was. Here’s Marx writing in the International Herald Tribune(1853), on the Taiping Revolution which eventually killed over 25 million Chinese and was led by a religious megalomaniac who believed he was the younger brother of Jesus, God’s Chinese son (subject of chapter 8 of my book).
[I]t may safely be augured that the Chinese revolution will throw the spark into the overloaded mine of the present industrial system and cause the explosion of the long-prepared general crisis . . . It would be a curious spectacle, that of China sending disorder into the Western world.
. Marx and Engels, MEW 12:98; cited in John Newsinger, “The Taiping Peasant Revolt,” Monthly Review 52, no. 5 (October 2000): 29. Compare Foucault’s response to the Khoumeini Revolution in Iran (below, chapter 15, n. 117).
Marx was a proponent of the politique du pire, the notion that the worse it got the better for the workings of the “dialectic.” He scorned nothing that promised to “set the spark.”
If it did, then the result would simply be what he called “generalized scarcity,” by which he means that everyone would now be deprived, not just the poor. It would mean a recycling of “the old filthy business”—or, in less tasteful translation, “the same old crap.”
Actually, partly as a result of the magical thinking of the dialectic (when alienation becomes total, then the transformation will produce a perfect world), people like Lenin and Trotsky actually believed that, once the revolution in motion, a backward country like Russia could surpass the West in a matter of months [sic!]:
The reorganization of Russia on the basis of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the nationalization of the banks and large-scale industry, coupled with exchange of products in kind between the towns and the small-peasant consumers’ societies, is quite feasible economically, provided we are assured a few months in which to work in peace. And such a reorganization will render socialism invincible both in Russia and all over the world, and at the same time will create a solid economic basis for a mighty workers’ and peasants’ Red Army.
. Thesis 20, written 7 January 1918; published inPravda 34 (24 February 1918); in Lenin, Collected Works, 26:442–50; trans. Yuri Sdobnikov and George Hanna.
In the book, I analyze how serious Lenin was about this “great leap forward” and the kind of magical millennial thinking that lay behind this Marxist version of Paul’s “twinkling of an eye” (1 Corinthians 15:51–52).
Marxism is a theory of how well-heeled capitalist nations might use their immense resources to achieve justice and prosperity for their people.
This is classic retrospective narrative. For Marx there were no “well-heeled” capitalist nations. They were all on the brink of collapse. If one were to restate this from Marx’s perspective, rather than that of a well-heeled pomo Marxist apologist, one might say:
Marxism is a theory [read: fantasy] about how the technology that Capitalists have deployed with unparalleled effectiveness, will inevitably [sic] become the possession of the proletariat and thereby achieve justice and prosperity for the (now universal) working class.
Eagelton tries here – rather dishonestly in the name of Marx – to appeal to the (completely unforseen) success of capitalist countries (industrial and post-industrial West) to turn their wealth in the service of the poor and disadvantaged. Perhaps a good cause (whatever the limits on its possibilities – eg, end of poverty may be an impossible millennial dream for humans), but with only the vaguest connection to Marxist analysis.
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.
In the book, I discuss the tendency of people to rewrite the story of failed apocalyptic prophecies and millennial projects in the “retrospective perfect,” or what I call ex post defectu, “from out of the failure.” Here Eagelton offers us a democratic Marx, fan of “flourishing civic cultures and democratic heritages” when he had nothing but contempt for the kind of reformist ideologies that contributed to just such developments.
Marx certainly wanted to see justice and prosperity thrive in such forsaken spots. He wrote angrily and eloquently about several of Britain’s downtrodden colonies, not least Ireland and India. And the political movement which his work set in motion has done more to help small nations throw off their imperialist masters than any other political current.
I welcome readers’ comments on this last statement. My sense is that the political movement he set in motion has done more to make the “overthrowing” of imperialist masters into the replication/intensification of the oppression of the newly “freed” people than anything else.
Yet Marx was not foolish enough to imagine that socialism could be built in such countries without more-advanced nations flying to their aid. And that meant that the common people of those advanced nations had to wrest the means of production from their rulers and place them at the service of the wretched of the earth.
Huh? This sounds a lot like the liberal, post-war, de-colonializing efforts of the West to help the rest of the world industrialize. It’s not Marx.
If this had happened in 19th-century Ireland, there would have been no famine to send a million men and women to their graves and another two or three million to the far corners of the earth.
There is a sense in which the whole of Marx’s writing boils down to several embarrassing questions: 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?
This is only embarrassing when one mistakes technological prowess for omnipotence, a megalomanic tendency of many people in the 19th century, what I call in the book, “Promethean millennialism.” As Marx himself admitted (in processing the failure of the 1848 revolutions): “Men make their history, but they do not do so freely . . .”
. Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in Selected Works, 1:247; translation revised by Kosselleck.
Articulated in a slightly more modest form (i.e., non-millennial) it certainly is a valid question to ask: how do we, in the modern West, share our remarkable, unprecedented wealth with those, domestic and abroad, who are less fortunate? (I think much of the discussion of medical coverage for everyone in the USA gets framed in these terms: how can a nation as rich as the USA have citizens who cannot get decent health care?)
But the answers to these problems are not as simple as we might think, and the millennial notion that we can abolish hunger the world over is not as obviously simple as we might think. Abolishing hunger is clearly “good” – who would argue with that? – and industrial society can produce unheard of quantities of food. But to take that production for granted, to assume that because we have never known real, life-threatening hunger, it is a norm that we can extend to all mankind overlooks the extraordinary nature of our condition. In pre-modern societies, famines came once or twice a decade, and peasants repeatedly had to make decisions that affected the life or death of their family members in order to save enough seed grain for the next year.
Hunger and the search for food are embedded in our human evolutionary make-up, and we seek to abolish these laws at our own peril. This hardly means we show no compassion for the hungry – right now in the horn of Africa, for example, or, when I was a child, in China, India, Biafra – but to imagine that we can abolish hunger by dint of our technology and good intentions is precisely a millennial fantasy which, in its failed attempt, will produce (and has produced), unintended consequences that may not be so attractive.
For anyone writing responsibly about Marx in the 21st Century (certainly not the case with Eagelton), the question should be phrased as follows:
Why is it that every time Marxist have tried to more equitably distribute the accumulated resources of the West (and generate still more), they have done far worse that the Capitalist West, and rather than overcoming, increasing poverty, starvation, exploitation, and inequality in their very effort to eliminate these blights on humanity?
That is the meditation that well-meaning people today, who all too often think that good intentions are all you need in order to be “doing good in the world” need to think about. Urgently.
What are the mechanisms by which affluence for a minority seems to breed hardship and indignity for the many? Why does private wealth seem to go hand in hand with public squalor? Is it, as the good-hearted liberal reformist suggests, that we have simply not got around to mopping up these pockets of human misery, but shall do so in the fullness of time? Or is it more plausible to maintain that there is something in the nature of capitalism itself which generates deprivation and inequality, as surely as Charlie Sheen generates gossip?
This, more than anything, gets to the core of why (vulgar, well-heeled) Marxists (like Eagelton) are such bad thinkers. The obsession with Capitalism as the source of exploitation, the idea that Capitalist societies are somehow peculiarly given to private wealth and public squalor – compare the worst of the US with Egypt, Calcutta, Mexico City, etc. – is just bizarre. It’s something in the nature of human nature that produces these inequities (libido dominandi anyone?). Indeed, and this is one of the things that confounded Marx’s expectations and sent Marxist scurrying eastward, capitalist societies have done more for the material well-being of commoners than any other societies on record… alas for the radical dreamers who want to point the finger at their own society.
Marx was the first thinker to talk in those terms. This down-at-heel émigré Jew,
The idea that Marx was Jewish is, at least as here formulated, rather bizarre. Both parents converted to Lutheranism, Marx was baptized at six years old, and raised as an “enlightened” Christian (with all the prejudices towards Jews that such “enlightenment” entailed).
a man who once remarked that nobody else had written so much about money and had so little, bequeathed us the language in which the system under which we live could be grasped as a whole. Its contradictions were analyzed, its inner dynamics laid bare, its historical origins examined, and its potential demise foreshadowed.
To put it mildly, this is a fairly sycophantic account (and poorly written) of what Marx offers us of useful analysis, perhaps best illustrated by the final remark about “potential demise foreshadowed.” I guess I’d have to read Eagelton’s book to find out just what he thinks Marx’s analysis offers that so valuable. If someone wants to help out with this, I’ll read a summary.
This is not to suggest for a moment that Marx considered capitalism as simply a Bad Thing, like admiring Sarah Palin or blowing tobacco smoke in your children’s faces.
Eagelton’s idea of a “Bad Thing” is so grievously petty (we are talking about the cruel oppression of vast numbers of people), and putting admiring Palin together with blowing smoke in your child’s face as examples, puts him firmly in the camp of “group mind.” Anyone who disagrees with him, no matter how thoughtful, is clearly either a fool, or a”a Bad Thing.”
On the contrary, he was extravagant in his praise for the class that created it, a fact that both his critics and his disciples have conveniently suppressed. No other social system in history, he wrote, had proved so revolutionary. In a mere handful of centuries, the capitalist middle classes had erased almost every trace of their feudal foes from the face of the earth. They had piled up cultural and material treasures, invented human rights, emancipated slaves, toppled autocrats, dismantled empires, fought and died for human freedom, and laid the basis for a truly global civilization. No document lavishes such florid compliments on this mighty historical achievement as The Communist Manifesto, not even The Wall Street Journal.
Eagelton’s right that Marx has a great admiration for the accomplishments of the Bourgoisie which he expresses in The Communist Manifesto:
The bourgeoisie has disclosed how it came to pass that the brutal display of vigor in the Middle Ages, which reactionaries so much admire, found its fitting complement in the most slothful indolence. It has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades..
. Marx and Engels, “Communist Manifesto,” in Marx-Engels Reader, 476.
There is, however, nothing in Marx about the Bourgeoisie “inventing human rights, emancipating slaves, toppling autocrats, dismantling empires, fighting and dying for human freedom. This is utterly anachronistic, turn-of-the-millennium human-rights palaver, designed to convince the current crop of moral narcissists that Marx is on their side.
That, however, was only part of the story. There are those who see modern history as an enthralling tale of progress, and those who view it as one long nightmare. Marx, with his usual perversity, thought it was both. Every advance in civilization had brought with it new possibilities of barbarism. The great slogans of the middle-class revolution—”Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”—were his watchwords, too. He simply inquired why those ideas could never be put into practice without violence, poverty, and exploitation.
The conflation of Marx with modern sensibilities is complete here, and wildly inaccurate. Marx didn’t wonder why they could not be put into practice without violence; he assumed they could be put into practice only with violence. As for poverty and exploitation, as far as I can make out (see above), Marx thought that the full achievement of total alienation would somehow, magically (ie dialectically) lead to the end of such horrors.
Capitalism had developed human powers and capacities beyond all previous measure. Yet it had not used those capacities to set men and women free of fruitless toil. On the contrary, it had forced them to labor harder than ever. The richest civilizations on earth sweated every bit as hard as their Neolithic ancestors.
This, Marx considered, was not because of natural scarcity. It was because of the peculiarly contradictory way in which the capitalist system generated its fabulous wealth. Equality for some meant inequality for others, and freedom for some brought oppression and unhappiness for many.
This assumes, of course, that the many were not oppressed and unhappy before capitalism.
The system’s voracious pursuit of power and profit had turned foreign nations into enslaved colonies, and human beings into the playthings of economic forces beyond their control.
As if human beings – certainly the manual labors – were not already victims of forces beyond their control. That’s the fate of the peasant since the neolithic revolution.
It had blighted the planet with pollution and mass starvation, and scarred it with atrocious wars.
Again the fundamental error of Marxism and Eagletonism is the assumption that captialism brought evil to new heights. Indeed, what Eagelton has done here (as Lenin before him) is to conflate capitalism and imperialism (which was responsible for the “atrocious wars” that he invokes. In every case where a culture developed a massive technological superiority over its neighbors, the leaders of that society have engaged in imperialist wars of conquest. That is the relationship of various metal “ages” and the spread of empire. Capitalism produced the most enormous advantage, and imperialism used it. But to blame capitalism for the imperialism is putting the cart before the horse.
Some critics of Marx point with proper outrage to the mass murders in Communist Russia and China. They do not usually recall with equal indignation the genocidal crimes of capitalism: the late-19th-century famines in Asia and Africa in which untold millions perished; the carnage of the First World War, in which imperialist nations massacred one another’s working men in the struggle for global resources; and the horrors of fascism, a regime to which capitalism tends to resort when its back is to the wall. Without the self-sacrifice of the Soviet Union, among other nations, the Nazi regime might still be in place.
Avoiding the issue by pointing the finger at others is the time-honored practice of people without integrity. Are these things he cites reasons/excuses for what Marxism did? Do they mitigate Communism’s crimes? Does he take his readership for fools? And who says that it’s only Marxists who recoil at the horrors of Western (capitalist) imperialism? Only in the universe where “Marx was right” do we find people who think that if you criticize Communists, you let imperialists off the hook.
The issue in question when one wants to argue that “Marx was right” is hardly to point out that Marx’s enemy was wrong. What’s at issue is that if all these things attributed to capitalism here are “a Bad Thing” then what are Marxists doing matching (or outdoing them 4:1, horror for horror, hundreds of millions dead to tens of millions dead? As Radosh notes here:
As for his answer to Communist mass murders, he neglects the obvious fact that its supporters argued they were going to create a humane alternative to the horrors of capitalism, not a society that slaughtered millions in the name of their theory, and perpetrated deliberate horrors that were the byproduct of the system they created.
Eagelton just keeps on going:
Marxists were warning of the perils of fascism while the politicians of the so-called free world were still wondering aloud whether Hitler was quite such a nasty guy as he was painted.
As for the Marxists denouncing Fascism and Nazism, one of the great intellectual scandals that any self-respecting “Marxist” must acknowledge concerns the way that Western fellow travelers – who at the time found no contradiction between being Marxists and Stalinists – lined up with Stalin and ceased to denounce Hitler after Stalin (foolishly it turns out) made an alliance with the devil himself. In other words nothing stopped Marxists from supporting the most revolting deeds in search of their millennium, not then, and apparently not now.
Almost all followers of Marx today reject the villainies of Stalin and Mao, while many non-Marxists would still vigorously defend the destruction of Dresden or Hiroshima.
This strikes me as a doubly perverse inversion of reality. First, the analogy is (again) abominable. Dresden and Hiroshima were wartime decisions, not peace-time “policies” like the disasters brought on by Stalin and Mao. Even if you don’t agree with the calculus, these acts were designed to save lives by bringing the wars to an end. No one can argue that for the famines in Ukraine or China.
Second, on the contrary, it’s still fashionable to be left and to shield even Stalin from criticism. As one German historian wrote me in response to my query about why modern historians resist identifying Communism as a millennial movement:
It is a widespread resistance among German historians and social scientists dealing with Marxism-Leninism to describe and analyze this movement in terms of a religious fait social in Emile Durkheim’s sense. Most of the critics still are convinced that Marxism-Leninism is a historical fellow of the French Revolution, which brought humanity the sun of reason, progress and a new brotherhood. Thus they believe that even Stalinism has some connections with this project of historical progress and any attempt to put this totalitarian system in the category of a closed and barbarian theocracy is very often vehemently refused. In this case, very emotionally seated aspirations and hopes of young or older intellectuals are at stake . . . Everybody who dares to take the Bolshevik world as a religious community is considered as a traitor betraying the humanitarian ideals of the modernity of the French Revolution . . . If you see it in this sense, say the proponents of the project of modernity, the distance between the old and the new modern world would shrink too much and the debts to the Christian tradition would become too heavy. Thus, when you treat the Bolsheviks as a millennial sect you are going to betray the project of modernity and treat the Bolsheviks despite their very modern efforts to industrialize the backward Russia as a medieval sect of obscure believers.
. Email communications from Klaus-Georg Riegel, 18 and 20 November 2008. See also Martin Amis, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (New York: Talk Miramax Books, 2002), 255–57.
The very equation of Dresden with the Gulag is loopy, as inappropriate as (but not parallel to) the equation of the Gulag and Gitmo. These are classic expressions of “moral equivalence” designed to shield ruthless tyrants (as long as they’re on the left) from moral opprobrium while heaping it on those who actually represent a humane tradition: at the end of the war, both Japanese and Germans fervently preferred to be liberated/conquered by American rather than Russian troops.
Modern capitalist nations are for the most part the fruit of a history of genocide, violence, and extermination every bit as abhorrent as the crimes of Communism. Capitalism, too, was forged in blood and tears, and Marx was around to witness it. It is just that the system has been in business long enough for most of us to be oblivious of that fact.
This is a bit jejune to say the least. It is true that imperialist capitalism – especially the European variety had terrible consequences for natives, especially at the end of the 19th century (see Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts). And of course the American whites did quite a number on the natives. But the more democratic values advanced, the more these cultures rejected precisely such actions. Communists, on the contrary, consistently regressed upon gaining power and promoting their values. And the proof of their perversity is that, rather than kill some feared/despised/hated “other”, they killed their own people.
The selectiveness of political memory takes some curious forms. Take, for example, 9/11. I mean the first 9/11, not the second. I am referring to the 9/11 that took place exactly 30 years before the fall of the World Trade Center, when the United States helped to violently overthrow the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende of Chile, and installed in its place an odious dictator who went on to murder far more people than died on that dreadful day in New York and Washington. How many Americans are aware of that? How many times has it been mentioned on Fox News?
This is a pretty amazing segue. It’s not about Marx, but about Global Jihad and Latin American Dictatorships. From the point of view of historical argumentation or analogy its about as useless as comparing Gitmo to Gulag: it’s not related to historical analysis in anyway, it’s just an easy way to shift attention and blame from the people one can’t defend directly.
How about a different calculus. How many people died at the hands of the Shah, installed when the CIA got rid of a democratically elected government in Iran in 1951 vs. how many people died because progressive presidents like Carter and Obama let religious fanatics take over in Iran in 1979 and hold power violently in 2009? The point is not to make the latter case, but to point out how ludicrous this form of thinking is.
Marx was not some dreamy utopianist. On the contrary, he began his political career in fierce contention with the dreamy utopianists who surrounded him. He has about as much interest in a perfect human society as a Clint Eastwood character would, and never once speaks in such absurd terms. He did not believe that men and women could surpass the Archangel Gabriel in sanctity. Rather, he believed that the world could feasibly be made a considerably better place.
This is really amazing, and exactly the opposite of what was the case (see my passage at the top of this post).
In this he was a realist, not an idealist. Those truly with their heads stuck in the sand—the moral ostriches of this world—are those who deny that there can be any radical change. They behave as though Family Guy and multicolored toothpaste will still be around in the year 4000. The whole of human history disproves this viewpoint.
4000? When normal people talk about radical change (e.g., Marx in his day) this had nothing to do with millennial-long changes, but with rapid, radical change in their own day. The point is that those who attempt to bring about constructive radical change inevitably find they’re not successful, and end up with far less (or worse) change than what they thought they were effecting. Marx, and subsequent “Marxists” are among the least realistic of people when it comes to issues of rapid change for the better. They want it; they bring its opposite.
Radical change, to be sure, may not be for the better. Perhaps the only socialism we shall ever witness is one forced upon the handful of human beings who might crawl out the other side of some nuclear holocaust or ecological disaster. Marx even speaks dourly of the possible “mutual ruin of all parties.” A man who witnessed the horrors of industrial-capitalist England was unlikely to be starry-eyed about his fellow humans.
And yet, his promises of what will happen with the “withering away of the state” are all based on the most ludicrous of “philosophical” speculation, itself based on the most starry-eyed notions of how people will change once capitalism has been destroyed.
All he meant was that there are more than enough resources on the planet to resolve most of our material problems, just as there was more than enough food in Britain in the 1840s to feed the famished Irish population several times over. It is the way we organize our production that is crucial. Notoriously, Marx did not provide us with blueprints for how we should do things differently. He has famously little to say about the future. The only image of the future is the failure of the present. He is not a prophet in the sense of peering into a crystal ball. He is a prophet in the authentic biblical sense of one who warns us that unless we change our unjust ways, the future is likely to be deeply unpleasant. Or that there will be no future at all.
I’ve lost my appetite for fisking this astonishingly shabby piece of intellectual drivel. As Radosh points out, the very fact that the Chronicle of Higher Educations published so long a piece, suggests just what level of intellectual bankruptcy now permeates the intellectual organs of academia. (I really doubt they’ll do as much for my book; they’ve already rejected a piece of mine which I’ll publish here soon.) For those with the stomach for it, read the rest.