Impossible Dreams: The West’s Undying Love Affair With Marx

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Polin_06-2018

Is Marxism Dead?

If the average citizen of a Western society were asked that question, it seems to me he would readily answer that Marxism is indeed a very dead idea surviving only in improbable boondocks like North Korea or Cuba, and even there losing ground, as has been happening in the last great country still nominally communist: China.  The horrors of the communist era have unraveled.  Nowadays, few would disagree with the idea that communism is the black death of our times, the scourge that can be credited with the destruction of millions of human lives.

All the more so as it is now obvious that Marx’s pseudoscientific analysis of history, in general, and the development of Western societies, in particular, have been proved essentially wrong.  To stick to some of the most sacred dogmas, the supposed inner contradictions of capitalism have not had the foreseen outcome, if they ever had any substance to start with.  The Western proletariat on the whole has not been affected by constant impoverishment, and entrepreneurs have managed to prevent the supposed tendency for their profits to dwindle.  Who then can doubt Marxism has passed its zenith and is doomed to be discarded in the dustbin of history?

Yet there is also no doubt that Marxism has not been completely erased from the mind of the Western world.  It is not so much that a few communist parties linger here and there; it is, much more decisively, that Marxism has not stopped hovering over significant parts of our intelligentsia and our Western youth, who seem rather fascinated by the Marxist rhetoric, not to mention the surprising number of people who regret Stalinism.

Our times have not lacked reformers of all walks promoting their respective ways of retrieving a long-lost paradise, but none has been more costly in human suffering, blood, and lives than the ones claiming to be Marx’s disciples.  It nevertheless should appear as a striking fact—which is not the case by any means—that whatever horrors the Marxist-inspired regimes may have displayed, no indictment ever fell on the communist doctrine itself.  There is always a Stalin, a Ceau?escu, a Béla Kun to play the villain, but Marx, the economist, the philosopher, the sociologist, was never openly put to shame.  I have vivid memories, as a student, of listening to respected professors spend the school year explaining the intricacies of Marxism as if Marx were in the same league as any of the great classic philosophers.  The influence of this new Jesus runs deep, even if it often remains latent.  For instance there is little doubt one can feel the breath of Marx behind the latest fad among our elites, intellectual or political, who suggest Western societies and Western civilization in general should be ashamed of what they have been and still are; they should feel guilty, it is said, particularly of the sin of colonization, the crime of the West against the rest of the world.  It is absolutely true that Marxism has morphed into a cultural mind-set in our Western countries (as has been argued in Chronicles by William Lind and others); I couldn’t agree more, but the question still remains: Why has the Western mind become impregnated with this particular set of dogmas?

Let me put my inquiry in the simplest form.  Marx-inspired communism may very well have been the greatest scourge mankind has ever devised against mankind, and I suspect there are plenty who would agree with such an indictment.  But why then has there never been enough steam anywhere in the West to bring about a public trial of communism, the way Nazism was tried without wasting a minute after World War II?  To me this is the real mystery of the West, the surrendering of its soul to the gross attacks of the snake it let grow inside itself.  Of course, the answers to this query are multiple, and well known, like the one arguing that the surviving popularity of Marxist dogma is owing to its being constantly hammered into the heads of the population, young or not.  But then where do the new preachers come from?  Why do their audiences agree to have their heads constantly hammered?

Whatever the reason for Marxism’s survival, it is the reason for that reason which must be discovered, and I have never seen this line of inquiry followed with determination.  And this is, I think, because all answers to the great mystery of the modern West suffer from an unwitting bias: While trying to explain away why the Marxist doctrine may still be well received among significant portions of our populations, it is assumed as a point of departure that Marxism is a doctrine essentially alien to the liberal West’s philosophy, and therefore its acceptance represents a continuous scandal.

What I would like to suggest instead is just about the reverse: Whatever Marxists—or self-proclaimed ones—may have done, there must be something profoundly alluring for Western populations in the Marxist doctrine, so much so that they are spontaneously attracted to it.

Let us return to some fundamentals, which is to say the extraordinary upheaval that permeated the Western world beginning in the 16th century.  The feeling and the idea progressively spread and became an accepted truth that mankind had entered an entirely new era of its history, an era pregnant with the promise (declared to be much more reliable than the Christian one) that mankind had finally emerged from a world of suffering, sorrow, and slavery to enter a new one in which each and every human being would be free to fulfill his needs and dreams, particularly material ones—in other words, to achieve happiness.  And I should say indefinitely more free and happy since, according to the famous words of the French mathematician Condorcet, the human mind was supposed to be capable of indefinite progress.  Modernity was a multifaceted promise made to each and every Westerner.

Now it must just as well be acknowledged that the West proved unable to hold true to its promise, the main reason probably being that the claims of modernity were extravagant, childish, and completely unrealistic.  On a mere practical level the West chose two ways to ensure all Westerners’ happiness: science on one hand, and commerce on the other.  However, science is a long way from ensuring instant happiness to all.  And as far as commerce is concerned, it must be realized that it seldom if ever establishes a friendly relationship between people.  By nature, each partner seeks his own advantage—which is why one often speaks of commercial wars.  So we end up facing the basic inner contradiction of Western societies: They boast of an equal right for everyone to be better off, and even if this often happens to be the case, they also exhibit the indefinite development of inequities that are all the more insufferable as these societies, according to one of their fundamental dogmas, boast of everyone’s right to pursue his own happiness however he thinks best.

Let us now confront this state of affairs with the Marxist discourse.  Two things must be pointed out.  The first one is that Marx has no other goal than that of modernity itself, which is the West’s goal par excellence.  Just listen to him: Communism is a system in which it will be possible “for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”  Communism is a society of utter freedom, where everyone roams at his leisure doing only what he wants to do.  Now is that so different from John Locke’s and, behind him, all the liberals’ discourses?  All men, writes Locke in his Second Treatise on Government, are naturally “in a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man.”  One may observe that Locke mentions the law of nature as a limitation to man’s unfettered freedom; but between a self-regulating freedom and a perfect freedom bestowed on man by nature, Locke’s heirs will have to choose—which they have done by abandoning any reference to a law that would impinge on the individual’s bon plaisir.  One cannot pull the trigger of a loaded gun and hope the slug will drop just after it leaves the barrel.  At that point it becomes difficult to view Marx as an enemy of the modern liberal West whose goals he clearly appears to have made his own.

But there is one significant difference between Marx’s discourse and the liberal one.  The liberal makes promises but is unable to hold to his word; whereas Marx claims he has discovered the way to achieve the very goal of the West to make the liberals’ promises come true.  Marx is not an enemy of the liberals; he is the embodiment of a liberal who has managed to attain the goal he has set himself.

Reading The Communist Manifesto, it is not difficult to realize he thinks the path to communism—or, I should say, to fully implemented liberalism—is not so arduous.  Indeed, “the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.”  One must grasp the full significance of Marx’s prescription.  When he declares that no one will be a property owner anymore, he doesn’t mean that everyone will be deprived of that capacity; on the contrary—and this has not been noticed enough—he means that all citizens will be turned into full-fledged property owners, together with all other citizens.  In his German Ideology Marx explicitly stated that the revolution would achieve the appropriation by each individual of all the possible means of production—such an appropriation turning each individual into a man who doesn’t have to obey anyone but himself, one who is his one and only master, a sovereign in his own right.

Now I want to suggest that it must be extremely difficult for anyone who believes in the promises of modernity not to be tempted by Marx’s proposals, so generous at first sight, even though they must have included the elimination of a few kulaks, a few of the old-style owners.  But who cares about a few lives, if the happiness of millions is involved?  Marx was giving new life to a dying dream.

This is not the end of the story.  As much as I think that Marx may be the new Pied Piper of all those who are dissatisfied with modernity as presented by the liberals, I also think that Marx’s path toward the complete conquest of the West cannot be a straightforward one.  Indeed, what obstructs it is commonsense reality: Once the citizens have been declared each the owner of everything that’s worth owning—and first of all the instruments of production, the factories—then what happens?  Either the factories cease functioning altogether, because we are living in a sort of paradise where no one has to work to earn a living; or the citizens all gather at their factories, and then start working not because they obey somebody but because the factories are theirs.  But this is a sham: They can only pretend—pretend they are equal sovereigns and call one another “comrade,” however unrealistic the situation may be.  The communist citizens are doomed to live in a fantasy world in which everything has changed, even though nothing really has; they are doomed to live a constant lie, both aware of the lie but reluctant to call it a lie and face a spurious reality.

How long can the dream linger on?  Things will go their natural way, and soon enough the comrade general will become much more of a general than a comrade.  Little by little communism will slouch toward its most hateful state, that of a society that has lost all pretence of community.  Since everyone is supposed to be a sovereign, each will try to ensure his sovereignty as much as he possibly can, and communism will turn into a jungle in which every man is a law unto himself and no one stoops to obedience unless fear forces him to do so.

This is why the people of the West are having an epiphany of sorts.  Suddenly, liberal societies represent, in the very eyes of the communist-inspired citizens themselves, mankind’s best hope for universal happiness, because these societies let every individual pursue his own happiness in his own way, without fear of being sent to the cellars of the Lubyanka.

Now I think we can understand the relationship that is predominant between Marxist societies and liberal ones.  Liberalism is intrinsically linked to Marxism.  Wherever you have one, you have the other, for the simple reason that liberalism naturally fosters the notion that it cannot satisfy what Marxism claims to be able to fulfill.  Of course Marx’s prescriptions are a sham, and if followed, inevitably bring about the war of all against all.  But the mistake of our conceited West is to imagine that the failure of communist societies may serve as a lesson to all the disgruntled, bitter, “underprivileged” people that the West constantly nurtures: It is not because it has not succeeded once that it is bound not to succeed another time; it is of the essence of the Marxist dream to attract dreamers, regardless of its impracticality.  In a word, I have a dream: What right does anyone have to deprive me of my willingness to dream?  Marx is the unholy ghost of the modern West and will continue to haunt it as long as the West strives to be modern, i.e., to deliver promises whose infantilism is matched only by the sheer nonsense of Marx’s supposed remedy—a twin set of intellectual flaws that don’t seem to bother too many of our contemporaries, erudite or not.

Is Marxism dead or dying?  By no means, since the West seems intent on adhering to its impossible dreams.  The West will rid itself of Marx only if it decides to return to the wisdom of its past, correcting its possible flaws, but preserving its commitment to the fundamental belief that man must understand the world and his place in it, rather than try to recreate a world in which everyone may live according to his impulses.  It must nevertheless be realized what liberal reformers are facing, which is nothing less than the great temptation that has been mankind’s ever since man was created: “Ye shall be like gods.”  Marxism is just the umpteenth temptation of the Dark Angel whose names are legion.  Of course, the price of yielding to such temptation is Hell, which is why from time to time the walls protecting the unholy dreamers come crumbling down.  But the dream marches on and will continue to do so as long as Westerners stick to the infantile wishful thinking that the great Deceiver keeps whispering in their ears and which is rendered periodically irresistible by the patent and unjustifiable inequities of modern Western societies.

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