A specter is haunting the intellectual classes—not exactly the specter of Communism, however, so much as the specter of an irresistible wave of nostalgia for a time when Marxism and its utopian myth of the classless society held so many superior minds in thrall. Now that the tyranny of Communist rule has been lifted from the lives of millions the world over and Marxist doctrine has lost its power to shape the future—for even in China, the last major bastion of Communist Party control, capitalism has succeeded in subverting the faithful--intellectuals in the West are showing signs of a yearning for the good old days when, at no cost to the freedom or prosperity of people like themselves, it was fashionable for Marxism to be upheld as the fount of all wisdom.

It has long been recognized, of course, that in the heyday of its spell over the intellectual life of the West, Marxism had always been something more than an economic or political doctrine. Echoing Marx’s condemnation of religion as “the opiate of the masses,” the French political philosopher Raymond Aron described Marxism as “the opiate of the intellectuals,” and it was certainly true that for many of its adherents in the West the tenets of Marxist thought functioned as a teleological substitute for religious faith, and was thus as resistant to the tests of verification—never mind the tests of common sense—as the most occult doctrines of the religious mystics. For intellectuals, moreover, it was important that Marxism presented itself not as metaphysics or mysticism but as a “science” of history. It was a large part of its allure that it offered its acolytes the absolute assurance that, whatever setbacks Marxism might suffer on the way to building the New Jerusalem, they had elected to be on the right side of history.

We now have ample reason to know that Marxism has itself suffered the fate that its prophets used to reserve for their ideological adversaries—which is to say, it has ended up on that famous ash heap of history. Yet in this post-Marxist era, when Marxist ideology has been stripped of so much of its power to tyrannize entire societies, the will to believe in its virtues and salvage something precious from the ruins persists as a form of conspicuous intellectual consumption among academic minds safely removed from the disobliging consequences of Marxist reality. This remarkable phenomenon is almost enough to persuade us that Marx’s celebrated dictum about history—that it repeats itself, occuring first as tragedy and then as farce—is essentially correct, at least as far as the history of Marxism is concerned. With the age of Marxism as tragedy drawing to a close, the age of Marxism as farce is now apparently upon us.

Or so we infer from the bizarre spectacle of intellectual hoopla that has welcomed the arrival of a fancy “gift” edition of The Communist Manifesto, gotten up to look like the breviary of some Palm Springs religious sect, on the 150th anniversary of its original publication.[1] It would be tempting to regard this publishing event as an episode in political camp—and thus dismissible—were it not for the hosannas that have marked its publication on both sides of the Atlantic.

In New York, for example, Steven Marcus —the George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University celebrated the occasion with a hortatory essay in The New York Times Book Review of April 26 entitled “Marx’s Masterpiece at 150.” This effusion hailed The Communist Manifesto as nothing less than the kind of achievement “we ordinarily associate with great works of the literary imagination—with the imagination of art.” Though acknowledging that Marx got certain things a little wrong—“the revolution it hailed was not successful; the proletariat did not become the gravediggers of the bourgeoisie; the ever-deeper pauperization of the working class was not part of the [capitalist] system’s ‘inevitable tendencies’”—Professor Marcus nonetheless praised the Manifesto’s “incandescence” in fusing “prediction, vision, prophesy,” etc.

Then, in the London Times Literary Supplement of May 8, John Gray—professor of European thought at the London School of Economics—grandly announced that “Marx’s view of capitalism has been in some crucial respects vindicated.” Professor Gray acknowledged, to be sure, that there was the little problem of what he delicately described as “the historical experience of central economic planning”—in other words, the Marxist “experiment” in the Soviet Union. In his view, however, we have tended to get that problem all wrong. “It is a mistake to think that Soviet planning failed because it was not implemented by a democratic government,” writes Professor Gray. “The truth is nearer the opposite. The Soviet system lacked working democratic institutions, because the failure of central planning necessitated tyranny.” Huh? Spoken by some schlemiel in a Woody Allen movie, this sort of thing might pass as an amusing bit of blague, but in a discussion of “the historical experience of central economic planning” it is simply fatuous. For in what nanosecond of the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia were “democratic institutions” ever an integral part of Lenin’s vision of the Marxist state?

“Marx’s achievement,” writes Professor Gray, “was to identify a contradiction in liberal civilization.” Yet about which serious writer in nineteenth-century Europe can it not be said that he—or, indeed, she identified a contradiction in liberal civilization? In one way or another, this was, after all, one of the dominant subjects of European thought in the nineteenth century. Radicals, liberals, conservatives, and reactionaries all weighed in with their grim critiques and dire forecasts, for it was in the very nature of liberal civilization in that period to invite criticism and to debate fundamental principles, which inevitably entails an examination of fundamental contradictions. That is indeed one of the ways in which liberal civilization in the nineteenth century differed from our own version of liberal civilization at the end of the twentieth century. How is it possible for the professor of European thought at the London School of Economics not to be aware of such a thing? But now that the discussion of Marxism has entered the age of farce, we can probably expect to see a lot more of the same.

About those much vaunted “contradictions” of late capitalism, moreover, it is certainly time for grownups to acknowledge that living with them has turned out to be far better than any of the possible alternatives. The truth is that capitalism has brought greater improvements in the quality of life for more millions of people than any other system we know. God forbid that any society should ever again be condemned to live under a system that is wholly lacking in such “contradictions.”

 

Notes
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  1. The Communist Manifesto: A Modern Edition, by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, with an introduction by Eric Hobsbawm; Verso, 87 pages, $13. Go back to the text.

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