A Pen Filled With Vitriol… and Blood – It Happened Today, February 21, 2017
"A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism." It is, I must admit, a brilliant opening line. With that line the Communist Manifesto opened on February 21 of 1848. And the world was never the same again. In, most people must surely now admit, mostly bad or even horrible ways.
Radicalism is, I suppose, inevitable, an intellectual or even psychological disposition that has always been with us and always will be. And it will always be impatient, convinced that good will is all you really need, and therefore also convinced that its opponents must be evil, an attitude which rapidly passes through insolence into abuse. But Marxism seems to have been a singularly poisonous and attractive form of radicalism, a perilous combination.
Marx himself long enjoyed a reputation as a deep thinker that sometimes attaches to the voluminously impenetrable. Marx was not, in fact, a great analytic economist, although his theories had a certain plausibility when conventional economics believed in the labour theory of value that they could not retain to the educated mind after the marginalist revolution of the early 20th century. But he was also attractive to the usual suspects, especially of the more dangerous sort, because his supposed erudition was basically just the lead weight in the glove of his rhetoric.
Marx always was a fine rhetorician even if Kapital is all but impenetrable. I’ve always cherished Joseph Schumpeter’s phrase that "the cold metal of economic theory is in Marx’s pages immersed in such a wealth of steaming phrases as to acquire a temperature not naturally its own."
Especially in the Communist Manifesto, full of ringing phrases like "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles" that are exceptionally clear as well as polemical.
Among these is one that I consider highly perceptive, partly because Marshall Berman used it as the title of an unsettling book about modernity. It is that under what Marx called capitalism but might better be dubbed "modernization," a disorienting process of constant change occurs in which "All that is solid melts into air". Including your formerly brilliant cutting edge smartphone, which three years later is an embarrassing brick. But a few insights do not make a philosopher or an economist.
Nor do a few good phrases make a good man. Including his castigation of "the idiocy of rural life". Oddly the famous "Religion is the opium of the masses" is not from the Communist Manifesto but from the posthumously published "A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right" whose title gives a fair idea of Marx’s general prose style despite his gift for turning a phrase when he wanted. And that quotation, in full, is not as rude as Marx often is: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people". But Marx was, as a rule, abusive, in debate and in his personal life and I do not think it can be disregarded in considering his theories and their appeal.
Space precludes getting into all the details here but he was a mean, selfish, thuggish hypocrite, and his doctrines not accidentally often appealed to thoroughly unpleasant people. Moreover they were materialist, which necessarily denies human dignity (whether it is true or not is of course not determined by its attractiveness). And Marx and Engels’ theory of class struggle, in ways that to borrow a Bolshevik phrase are no accident, absolutely denied the possibility of rational debate, declaring all opposition to Communism to be at once viciously self-interested and impenetrably obtuse, thus leaving a speedy resort to violence the only course. In that sense, for all its elaborate theoretical framework, Marxism was at bottom radically relativist and nihilistic regarding the very possibility of objective truth.
Despite its failings, or perhaps because of them, far too many adolescent revolutionaries of all ages adhered to it for far too long for the thrill of giving reputable society, and staid socialists, a poke in the eye, without looking carefully at the implications of its doctrines. And perhaps that, too, is an enduring characteristic of radicalism. But if so, it is another reason to avoid it.
A spectre did indeed haunt Europe for more than a century after the Communist Manifesto first appeared. And it turned out to be even worse under Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot among others, than its most vociferous critics warned, in part because its most vocal and determined adherents were so careless about what they advocated. It remains hugely popular on the intellectual left, even trendy.
Do such people never learn?