03 July 2011

What is Marxism? What is Communism?

John Gray is no fan of capitalism. While he feels obliged to note that capitalism has been "the producer of wealth on an unprecedented scale," he also informs readers of the current New Republic that capitalism is, at least potentially, "the destroyer of what we still call liberal civilization." Gray, a British philosopher and author, believes that Karl Marx's "account of the future of capitalism has proved to be more realistic than the prophecies of capitalism's later evangelists." He argues that Marx's emphasis on capitalism's inherent instability is "closer to reality than generations of mainstream economists." The purpose of his present writing, however, is to smash two fellow authors, Terry Eagleton and Eric Hobsbawn, who advocate the revival of Marxism as a political movement. While Gray concedes that "Marx's thought continues to be relevant to aspects of our situation," he regards Marx's remedies as worse than useless. According to Gray, Marx advocated, as do Eagleton and Hobsbawm, something called "communism." That can't be denied, as Marx co-authored a famous pamphlet called The Communist Manifesto. But "communism," according to Gray, is "an ideal that is intrinsically repugnant to the majority of human beings." Naturally, such a statement begs a few questions.

The immediate question is what Gray means by communism. While it must be admitted that Gray is reviewing Eagleton and Hobsbawn rather than Marx himself, it's also true that Gray intends his attack on "communism" as an attack on Marx, whom he clearly blames for the excesses of Lenin, Stalin and their imitators around the world. It seems fair to expect that Gray might quote Marx directly on what Marx himself meant by communism. But Gray, who I'm sure has read more Marx than I have, prefers to paraphrase or, worse, generalize in a way that fails to distinguish between Marx and Lenin. As far as Gray is concerned, Marxism or communism is primarily a political system, of which Leninism is the effective practical expression. He passes over the economic side of Marxism (e.g. "the convoluted apparatus of the labor theory of value and exploitation") apart from complimenting Marx's analysis of capitalist instability. The meat of Marxism, to Gray, is essentially totalitarian. It has roots in "a fantasy of German Romanticism ... the dream of organic social unity [which] has always been repressive in practice." Gray elaborates:

Hostility to minorities is the very logic of organicist ideology. Marx located his ideal society in the future; but like that of the German nationalists who looked backward to an imaginary folk culture, his communist dream-world could be entered only by shedding particular identities (including that of Jews, who would be emancipated by ceasing to be Jews and becoming specks of universal humanity). In a society of the kind of which Marx ... dreamed, anyone who resists being absorbed into the social organism will be stigmatized as deluded or diseased.

Eagleton laments the fact that the Marxian vision can never be realized -- a tragic implication, as he sees it, of the fact of human imperfection. But it is the ideal itself that is inhuman. Not only minorities but also the majority of the species are excluded from the world that Marx and Lenin
[note the assumed agreement] envisioned. A society in which the communist ideal has been achieved would be worse than any that humans have ever lived in.

I've seen some self-described Marxists or communists espouse the kind of agenda Gray is condemning here. For them, communism is a form of radical democracy in which everyone identifies with and as "the People," true democracy, in their view, being impossible without such a universal identification and commitment. As Gray reports, Eagleton denies that this was Marx's desire. In Eagleton's words, "Marxism is [not] all about faceless collectives which ride roughshod over personal life....One might say that the free flourishing of individuals is the whole aim of his politics, as long as we remember that these individuals must find some way of flourishing in common." But once Eagleton invokes an ideal of "organic unity" between individuals and society, in spite of his own skepticism about its realization, he becomes a witness against Marxism in Gray's court. But on a second reading it becomes clearer that Gray's beef is against "organicism." And while Eagelton apparently asks for it by involving "organic unity," I still wonder whether Marx's agenda, revolutionary as it is, has anything to do with anything "organic." It seems to me that ideologues more committed to "organic" unities are less likely to admit that a society can be made from scratch in radical revolutionary fashion, and less likely to invite, let alone insist, that everyone on earth become a member of that society. Communists were often murderous in pursuit of unanimity during the 20th century, but that doesn't necessarily prove that they were brothers under the skin to Nazis and other race-ideologues, as liberals so often like to claim.

If anything, Leninists are more akin to religious dogmatists, as atheists like Christopher Hitchens have often argued against charges that communists' crimes should be charged to atheism. Gray has attacked the atheists in his recent book Black Mass, accusing them of being exactly the sort of apocalyptic fundamentalists they love to denounce. Though Gray's own religious beliefs are unknown to me, he (like Eagleton, actually) is a defender of religion, claiming that it serves some necessary and irrepressible role as a coping mechanism for the tragedies of life. Communists' hostility to religion (Eagleton notwithstanding) adds to their blameworthiness in Gray's eyes. "The Bolsheviks wanted a world without myth and religion, in which the particular communities in which humans understand and fulfil themselves have been left behind," he writes, "Happily such a world runs against the most powerful and enduring human needs, and for that reason is impossible."

But the Bolsheviks weren't the first people to espouse an exclusive mythos and aspire to the suppression of all others. We live today with the conflicting aspirations of two such groups, the Christians and Muslims. Gray may not care much for either group, nor for their various subdivisions, but he'd presumably defend their right to particularity against any attempt to flush the lot down the hole of history. Why, then, is he so eager to consign the particular coping mechanisms of Marxism or communism, through which many people still seek understanding and fulfillment, to the ash heap? The answer may be simply quantitative. Leninists probably killed more people in the 20th century than Christians or Muslims ever did in any comparable time period, and that may make Marxism (at least as preached by the authors under review) supremely toxic in Gray's analysis.

Gray himself retains considerable sympathy for Keynes among the economists, and for the notion that "the anarchic forces of capitalism could be domesticated" by government regulation. He admits, however, that "the financial question has planted a question mark over [Keynes's] analysis," since "Globalization has reduced the scope of government intervention." But if capitalism has defeated Keynes, and Marxism (so says Gray)promises only tyranny and environmental devastation -- what is to be done? Gray himself is a kind of pessimist, a great believer in inescapable tragedy, and he notes that Marx himself worried that "the crisis of capitalism might be resolved by a renascence of barbarism." It's a point in Marx's favor, Gray feels, that the German "fully accepted the possibility of unredeemed tragedy." But Marx pushed for revolution just the same, which presumably means that he accepted some degree of risk that Gray would not. The proletariat, after all, had nothing to lose but their chains in his opinion. History shows that there's always a risk of heavier chains, but the less people have to lose, the more they may be willing to risk. How much Gray might risk, and for what purpose, remains unclear -- as does the meaning of Marxism for anyone who knows no more than what Gray says.


d.eris said...

Great post. So many associations raced through my mind while reading, I'll just throw out a few random thoughts.

In eliding the difference between Marx and Lenin (one could probably also add Stalin and Mao here as well), which is fairly common practice, folks like Gray miss the crucial differences between them – from their theoretical positions to the concrete historical situations they sought to address. Marx in 1848 is very different from Lenin in 1905. Indeed, Marx in 1880 is very different from Marx in 1848, just as Lenin in 1919 is very different from the Lenin of 1905.

When discussing "inescapable tragedy," we shouldn't forget its repetition as FARCE ;-)

"Organicism" isn't something I would typically associate with Marxism, but rather fascism, which is squarely based on the fantastical idea of organic racial unity, whereas Marxism is based on the "laws of history".

I've always been struck by the prescience of the early anarchist critiques of Marxian thought and praxis. The Russian anarchist Bakunin was expelled from the first international for his vehement opposition to the state as such, which directly contradicted the Marxian/Socialist goal of either seizing state power or working within the system. As Bakunin famously said, "If you took the most ardent revolutionary, vested him in absolute power, within a year he would be worse than the Tsar himself."

Anonymous said...

Let me throw another thought out there. The idea that "the fact that the Marxian vision can never be realized -- a tragic implication, as he sees it, of the fact of human imperfection."
Again, the notion of perfect/imperfect has it's roots in religious thought. Only god is perfect, therefore everything else is somehow flawed or imperfect (as if a perfect being is incapable of creating anything perfect).

I'd say, rather, the fault is that of human individualism. With, in the extreme, shows itself as paranoia or xenophobia. The thought, for some reason, that any "communist society" must somehow be made of people who all look alike, wear the same drab clothes and acceptingly live in relative squalor (compared to their "big brotherites" who still live in bourgeois paradise).

Samuel Wilson said...

d., Gray seems to mean by "organicism" the opposite of pluralism, an assumption that harmony can only be achieved through homogeneity. But if Marx's own ideal is based on "from each according to his ability to each according to his need" (I paraphrase), then some sort of pluralism or individuality remains implicit. Anarchists are right about revolutionaries since almost by definition revolutionaries want power. They may be right about practically nothing else.

crhymethinc, I'm not sure if a belief in human imperfection or imperfectibility is inherently religious. I imagine that Freud, for one, held similar views. Anyone who believes in an essential "human nature," regardless of where it may have came from, may declare the sort of harmony Marxists are supposed to yearn for impossible to achieve. Leninists, or at least Stalinists, believed human nature to be malleable through political action. They seemed to think that they could force a change in one generation, which is different from both a belief in human nature's evolution over the long term and a belief that it never changes.