Unlike reality—which is infinitely and ultimately unknowable—Marxism as ideology pretends to understand the world, but, in reality, it offers only the merest shadow of true complexities…
Though responsible—directly and indirectly—for the murder of nearly 150 million innocent children, women, and men in the previous century, Marxism is making a comeback in Western civilization. Not only have Che Guevara t-shirts remained in vogue for several decades now, but college-age students in the Americas as well as in Europe are beginning to re-discover that that which has been forgotten by their parents seems new again. Unlike Naziism, which has been properly vilified in all its gaudy horror in the cultural mainstream, Communism was bland and bloody in reality, and little stigma has attached itself to it, despite its utter failures and atrocities.
To be sure, there’s no immediate threat of new communist revolutions anytime soon—despite what Blade Runner 2049 might claim in the backgrounds of its noir landscapes. Whatever tyrannies arise for the foreseeable future will have much more in common with populism, nationalism, ethnicity, and out-and-out racism than they will with Marxian class struggles. James Burnham and George Orwell understood best that fascism, communism, and crony capitalism will be the major managerial forms of present and emerging political states that really matter.
Still, there is a growing interest in Marxian theory, and, thus, there’s a need for those of us who despise all ideologies to remember what Marxism—at least in theory—was all about. Karl Marx came of age in the nineteenth-century German states. Though his father and mother were both Jewish, Marx’s mother raised Karl and his numerous siblings as Protestant Christians (Lutherans). Marx grew up in middle-class comfort and received a liberal arts education in Trier, surrounded by their family vineyards.
Through his vast reading, Marx found great comfort in a variety of authors, classical, medieval, and modern, but none more so than John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, G.W.F. Hegel, and Charles Darwin. Like many nineteenth-century intellectuals, he craved a form of socialist utopianism. Few supporters of socialism, however, knew how to attain it. Marx offered such a popular and compelling theory that, by 1900, as J.M. Roberts has noted, all socialism really meant Marxist socialism, even when presented as Christian socialism, national socialism, or democratic socialism.
While one could throw oneself into the heart and complexities of Marxism from the inside, it is, like all ideologies, profoundly simple in its structure and its longings. Unlike reality—which is infinitely and ultimately unknowable—Marxism as ideology pretends to understand the world, but, in reality, it offers only the merest shadow of true complexities. And, as with all ideologies, it is simple enough to be understood by the masses and inspirational enough to offer a substitute religion to a people who have lost direction and orthodoxy. The poet, Robert Conquest, called it a form of “mindslaughter.”
Given the long history of the world, Marxism is relatively new, though the desire to create Utopia is as old as Eden itself. In 1848, Marx published his Communist Manifesto. Almost twenty years later, in 1867, he published Das Capital. Always as much about activism as about philosophy, the First International (of all socialists) met in 1864, and the Second International met in 1889. Within a decade after the formation of the Second International, the German Marxists came to dominate the movement, exiling all anarchists as heretics from the true faith of Karl Marx.
There are five major points to understanding Marxist theory.
First, man is fundamentally materialistic and shaped and delimited by environmental and economic considerations. Ultimately, everything—even, for example, religious dietary restrictions—have a basis in material realities.
Second, economic classes form from and against those who own the “means of production.” If the “means of production” seems vague, it’s because it is. Marx believed that in the beginning of history, all humans lived in a primitive community, sharing all material resources equally. As that paradise failed, the rich—or the elites—developed as certain persons and groups hoarded material goods, thus shaping law, culture, religion, and all things that seem intangible. The dominant ruling elite controlled the “means of production”—the material resources that allowed a society to flourish. In opposition to the dominant class controlling these material resources, though, the lower classes revolted, thus leading to “dialectical materialism”—a philosophy of history that claimed the Hegelian struggle of thesis and antithesis repeatedly led to a new synthesis, which soon became the thesis and soon was challenged by a new antithesis.
Third, according to Marx, capitalism and capitalists only succeed because they have taken for themselves the surplus value of labor. The labor needed to make any single thing or things has objective value. Whatever price the laborer agrees to sell his labor must be low enough for the capitalist to buy it and then sell it again for a profit. The profit made by the capitalist is a form of theft, denying the worker his rightful gains.
Fourth, the problem of capitalism is that in the dialectic of history, fewer and fewer come to possess the means of production. At some point, the oppressed will see that they are controlled by the wealthy (say, the one percent for sake of argument). At that point, the workers become aware and conscious of the fact that they have been the servants, slaves, dupes, and playthings of the elite. Once the ninety-nine percent have achieved consciousness, they will overthrow the elite.
Five, in the final battle of the thesis (the one percent) and the antithesis (the ninety-nine percent), society will return to its primitive beginnings, a communist paradise. Strangely, Marx’s paradise was a place in which every day and every moment, the laborer has full access to the means of production, and he can, consequently, choose his labor at that moment. One day, he might be a teacher, the next a woodworker, the third a cattle rancher. After all, there is no such thing as freedom in the libertarian or republican sense, only liberation from the oppression of the dominant classes.
In 2018, there remain only five countries that officially consider themselves Marxist: China, Laos, Cuba, Vietnam, and North Korea. To be sure, though, an interest in and sympathy for Marxism is on the rise. Dangerously so.
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Robert Conquest, Reflections on a Ravaged Century
Richard Pipes, Communism: A History
J.M. Roberts, A History of the World
Thomas Sowell, Marxism