Dear C., It has been over a decade since this silence as durable as an iron curtain descended between us.
It has been over a decade since this silence as durable as an iron curtain descended between us. In these circumstances, I have had to depend on others to learn how you regard me these days: how, at a recent social gathering, you referred to me as “one of the two tragedies of the New Left” (the other being a former Brecht scholar who now publishes guides to the nude beaches of America); how my apostasy has inflicted an emotional wound, as though in changing my political views and leaving the Left I had personally betrayed you.
I understand this. How could it be otherwise for people like us, for whom politics was less a matter of practical decisions than of moral choices? We saw ourselves as partisans of a cause that confirmed our humanity (even as it denied humanity to those who opposed us). To leave such ranks was not a simple matter, like abandoning a misconception or admitting a mistake. It was more like accusing one’s comrades. Like condemning a life.
Our choice of politics was never a matter of partial commitments; to choose the Left was to define a way of being in the world. (For us, the personal was always political.) It was choosing a future in which human beings would finally live as they were meant to live: no longer self-alienated and divided, but equal, harmonious, and whole.
Grandiose as this project was, it was not something we had invented, but the inspiration for a movement that was coterminous with modernity itself. As one of our mentors had taught us, the Left was launched at the time of the French Revolution by Gracchus Babeuf and the “Conspiracy of the Equals.” (The Babeuf conspiracy, Marx wrote, “gave rise to the Communist idea, . . . the principle of the modern world.”) With a terrible simplicity the Babouvists pledged themselves to “equality or death,” swiftly finding the latter—in a prophetic irony—on the Revolution’s own busy and bloodstained guillotine.
The new radicals proclaimed a Theology of Reason in which equality of condition was the natural and true order of creation. In their Genesis, it was the loss of equality that was the ultimate source of mankind’s suffering and evil, just as the arrogant pride of the primal couple had provoked their Fall in the religious myths now discarded. Private property became a secular version of original sin. Through property, society reimposed on every generation the travails of inequality and evil and the toils of injustice. Redemption from worldly suffering was possible only through the Revolution that would abolish property and open the gates to the socialist Eden—to Paradise regained.
The ideas embodied in this theology of liberation became the inspiration for the rise of the political Left, and have remained so ever since. It was only half a century later, however, that Marx first articulated the idea of a historical redemption, in the way that became resonant for us:
Communism is the positive abolition of private property, of human self-alienation, and thus the real appropriation of human nature through and for man. It is therefore the return of man himself as a social, i.e., really human, being. . . . [Emphasis in original]
This was our revolutionary vision: by a historical coup we would create the conditions for a return to the state of true humanity whose realization had been blocked by the alienating hierarchies of private property. All the unjust institutions of class history, which had distorted, divided, and oppressed mankind, would be abolished and human innocence reborn. In the service of this cause, no sacrifice seemed too great, no burden too onerous: we were the Christopher Columbuses of the human future, the avatars of a new world in the womb of the old.
How could I divorce myself from a mission like this without betraying those whom I had left behind? Especially without betraying those like yourself who had been my guides and my comrades in the 60’s through the moral wilderness created by the disintegration of the Old Left.
I was the scion of that Old Left—of Communists, in fact—and I was troubled by the crimes the “Khrushchev Report” of 1956 had recently unveiled. Yet even as the unmarked graves of Stalin’s victims were reopened and their wounds bled afresh, a New Left raised its collective voice to proclaim that it was Stalinism which had died, not socialism. In the moral and political confusion of those years, this view of the matter helped to restore my radical beliefs. And so I joined you and the other pioneers of the New Left who condemned Stalinism and its brutal past and pledged to keep the socialist faith.
What was the meaning of this refusal to admit that our ideas had been wrong? For thirty years, with only a minority in dissent, the best minds of the Left had hailed the flowering of the “progressive” state in Soviet Russia. They had made the defense of Soviet “achievements” the sine qua non of what it was to be socially conscious and morally correct. Now the Kremlin itself had acknowledged the monstrous “mistakes” of the progressive experiment, confirming the most damning charges of its political enemies. Yet in the face of such epic criminality and collusion, all we could think of doing was to renew our dedication to the goals that had proved so destructive in the first place.
To be sure, our radical generation was hardly the first (and would not be the last) to go through this cycle of guilt and renewed dedication. It was a process that had begun 200 years earlier, in that dawn of human Fraternity and Reason, which also devolved into fratricidal terror and military empire. But how had the redemptive illusions that inspired the Left been kept alive in generation after generation, despite the inexorable rebuke of human tragedy that attended each of its triumphs?
It was only two decades later, when I had reached the end of my own radical journey and had had my second thoughts, that I began asking myself this question. And it was only then that I was able at last to see how our own modest histories provided the basis of an answer.
You have had no second thoughts. Even as I write, you and many others of my former comrades are engaged in yet one more defiant resurrection, bringing into being yet one more generation of the Left, as eager to believe in the fantasy of a new world as we were then. In this annus mirabilis of Communist collapse, when the socialist idea is being repudiated throughout the expanse of the Soviet empire by the very masses it claimed to liberate, all of you are still searching for ways to deny what has happened.
For you, the socialist idea is still capable of an immaculate birth from the bloody conception of the socialist state. You seek to evade the lesson of revolutionary history by writing the phrase ACTUALLY EXISTING SOCIALISM in bold letters across its pages, thus distinguishing the socialism of your faith from the socialism that has failed. The historic bankruptcy of the planned societies created by Marxist dictators, a human catastrophe extending across nearly three quarters of a century and encompassing numberless ruined lives, is not to be entered in the balance sheet of the Left. This would require of you an accurate accounting and an agonizing self-appraisal. Instead, the bankruptcy is to be seen as someone else’s.
Thus, in the spring of 1989, in a Dissent article entitled “Toward a New Socialism,” the late Michael Harrington (the leader of the self-described Democratic Socialists of America) wrote:
In part the current crisis of socialism is the result of misunderstandings on the part of non-and anti-socialists and, unfortunately, even of some socialists themselves; . . . for at least a generation practically no democratic socialist has accepted [this] underlying assumption: that the Soviet Union and similar societies are either exemplars or approximations of socialism.
There is nothing new in this shell game. It is the same rescue operation that we ourselves performed on Stalinism after 1956, when our slogan was: Stalinism Is Dead—Long Live Socialism. Today you and your “progressive” comrades look on the demonstrations for democracy that are bringing an end to Communist history and are certain that this is not a judgment on the ideas that inspired that history in the first place.
“The vast social upheaval inaugurated by Gorbachev is only entering its fifth year,” observed Daniel Singer, the literal (and intellectual) godson of our old teacher Isaac Deutscher, in the 1989 May Day issue of the Nation. Singer then advised his readers that
one major question dominates the transformation that is under way: was 1917 a historical quirk, an aberration, a parenthesis that is now coming to an end? Or, to put the same question less gloomily, was it a utopian attempt, a portent of things to come in another place and another age? Put either way, the question implies that the whole Soviet venture can only have a capitalist ending. Yet there is another possibility. This is that for all its strange beginning in backward Russia, . . . 1917 was the beginning of a process, of a vast movement that continues to search for another world. . . .
Actually Existing Socialism Is Dead—Long Live Socialism. This is the political formula of the Left—of your Left—today.
Of course, the possibilities of “another world” that Singer so amazingly still locates in the Soviet Union were found by our own generation in the third-world revolutions of the post-Stalin era. The Cuban and Chinese “experiments” had begun by declaring their independence from the old discredited Soviet “model,” and yet, as if shaped by some invisible Marxist hand, had ended in the same way: one-party totalitarian regimes, submerging both economy and people in despotism and despair. So, too, with Nicaragua under the Sandinistas. And in each case, the “independent” Left was there to celebrate and apologize.
What made the Left so willing to ignore the gravitational pull of Marxist prescriptions, and to discount the evils of Marxist rule, was a vision that was not so much Marxist in any strict sense as (to borrow the term used by the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills) Marxisant. This perspective, decreeing a divorce between present reality and the future to come, was the heart of our radical illusion. Our confidence in the outcome of the historical process allowed us to put our talents on the Communist side of the cold-war conflict (or at least against the anti-Communist side), even though we recognized “really existing Communism” as an offense to the spirit of the socialism we believed in.
The British historian E.P. Thompson, a former Communist and a founder of the New Left, explained the paradox by which we had given our allegiance to an intellectual abstraction and wound up acting as partisans of a reality we disdained:
In general, our allegiance to Communism was political: it arose from inexorable choices in a partisan world in which neutrality seemed impossible. . . . But our intellectual allegiance was to Marxism. . . . Thus there is a sense in which, even before 1956, our solidarity was given not to Communist states in their existence, but in their potential—not for what they were but for what—given a diminution in the cold war—they might become.
Yes indeed: our solidarity was given to states in their potential. We refused to become anti-Communist cold warriors and offered “critical support” to repulsive Communist regimes because we believed they would change. It was the “humanist potential” of societies with socialist foundations, not their totalitarian realities, that claimed our allegiance. (By the same reasoning, we were unimpressed by the democratic realities of the capitalist West, because it was axiomatic that private property rendered them oppressive and incapable of “fundamental” reform.) We refused to join in the attack on the Communist camp in the cold-war battles, no matter how morally justified, because we did not want to aid those seeking to destroy the seeds of the future that the Left had sown in Soviet Russia. We were determined to defend what Trotsky had called “the gains of October”—the socialist edicts of the Bolshevik Revolution that had abolished private property and paved the way for a better world. It was our perception of the epoch-making character of these “gains” that defined our radical faith.
This faith was the key to the double standards that ruled our thinking and caused us so much difficulty in winning adherents. For we were constantly vulnerable to attack by our conservative opponents for the support (however “critical”) we gave to totalitarian states where values we claimed to champion—freedom and human rights—were absent, and for the enmity (however disguised as friendly criticism) we directed at the Western democracies where such values were present.
These double standards took many forms. One was the invocation of moral absolutes in judging capitalist regimes, while relativistic historical criteria were used to evaluate their socialist counterparts. Unlike capitalist injustice, repellent practices in the socialist bloc were always placed in their “proper” context and thereby “understood” as the product of preexisting social and political conditions—i.e., as attempts to cope with intractable legacies of a soon to be discarded past.
Secondly, capitalist and socialist regimes were always assessed under different assumptions about their future prospects. Repressions by conservatives like Pinochet in Chile were never seen as preludes to democratic restorations but condemned instead as unmitigated evils. By contrast, the far greater and more durable repressions of revolutionary regimes like the one in Cuba were invariably minimized as necessary and temporary stages along the path to a progressive future.
Finally, in left-wing arguments the negative aspects of existing socialism were always attributed to capitalist influences (survival of the elements of the old society, impact of anti-Communist “encirclement,” tyranny of the world market, etc.), but the reverse possibility was never considered. Thus, leftist histories ritualistically invoked Hitler to explain the rise of Stalinism (the necessity of a draconian industrialization to meet the Nazi threat) but never viewed Stalinism as a factor contributing to the rise of Hitler. Yet beginning with the socialist assault on bourgeois democracy and the forced-labor camps (which were a probable inspiration for Auschwitz), Stalinism was a far more palpable influence in shaping German politics in the 30’s than was Nazism in Soviet developments. The “Trotskyite conspiracy with the Mikado and Hitler”—the cabal which the infamous Moscow show trials of the 30’s claimed to expose—was a Stalinist myth; but the alliance that German Communists formed with the Nazi party to destroy the Weimar Republic was an actual Stalinist plot. Without this alliance, Hitler would never have come to power.
The same double standard underlay the Left’s failure to understand the cold war that followed the allied victory in 1945. Leftist cold-war histories refuse to concede that the anti-Communist policies of the Western powers were a reasonable response to the threat they faced; instead, the threat itself is viewed as a fantasy of anti-Communist paranoia. Soviet militarism and imperialism, including the occupation of Eastern Europe, are discounted as defensive reactions to Western containment. But the same Western actions, in particular the anti-Communist military build-up, are then alleged to have had no influence on the unilateral Soviet withdrawal from Eastern Europe in 1989 which summarily ended the cold war. In sum, positive developments in the Soviet bloc come from within; negative developments are consequences of the counterrevolutionary encirclement.
The double standard that informs the argument of the Left is the expression of its own false consciousness, the reflex by which it defends an identity rooted in its belief in the redemptive power of the socialist idea. To the Left it is obvious that the revolution cannot be judged by the same standards as the counterrevolution: the first is a project to create a truly human future, the latter only an attempt to preserve an anti-human past. No matter how destructively revolution fails, it always deserves allegiance, because revolutionary evil is only a birth pang of the future.
It was this birth in which I finally ceased to believe. The imagined future in whose name all these actual revolutions had been relieved of their failures and absolved of their sins was, I eventually came to see, nothing more than a mistaken idea.
The intellectual figure who most influenced my realization of this liberating fact was another member of our New Left vanguard, the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski. In the 60’s, Kolakowski had written Towards A Marxist Humanism, whose chapter titles read like stages of our radical rebirth. But in the 70’s, after leaving Poland for the West, he published a comprehensive history of Marxist thought, the world view we all had spent half a lifetime inhabiting.1 In three volumes and 1,500 pages Kolakowski analyzed the entire corpus of this intellectual tradition. Then, having paid critical homage to an argument which had dominated so much of humanity’s fate over the last hundred years (and his own destiny as well), he added an epilogue which began with these words: “Marxism has been the greatest fantasy of our century.” This struck me as the most personally courageous judgment a man with Kolakowski’s history could have made.
It was appropriate that the final terrain of battle should be Marxism. For Thompson had it right, our allegiance was to Marxism. Not to this particular thesis or that doctrinal principle, but to the paradigm itself: politics as civil war; history as a drama of social redemption. If we remained in the ranks of the Marxist Left, it was not because we failed to recognize the harsh facts that Marxists had created, but because we did not want to betray the vision we shared with the creators.
And so the question that would irrevocably come to divide us was not whether Marxists had committed this revolutionary crime, or whether that revolutionary solution had veered off course, but whether the Marxist idea itself could be held accountable for the horrors that had been perpetrated in its name.
It was on this very point that Kolakowski threw down his gauntlet, declaring that Marx’s ideas could not be rescued from the human ruins they had created, that “the primordial intention” of Marx’s dream was itself “not innocent.” Marxism, Kolakowski announced at the outset of his book, was an idea that “began in Promethean humanism and culminated in the monstrous tyranny of Stalinism.” History had shown, and analysis confirmed, that there was no reason to expect that socialism could ever become real “except in the cruel form of despotism.” The idea of socialism could not be freed from the taint incurred by its actual practice and thus revitalized, as Thompson and the New Left proposed, because it was the idea that had created the despotism in the first place.
The claim that the “Promethean” idea of the Left had led directly to the socialist debacle depended on making two historical connections—between Marxism and Leninism, and between Leninism and Stalinism—thus establishing the continuity of the radical fate. This, hardly anyone on the Left could stomach. A reviewer in Dissent called Kolakowski “unfair to Marx.” Michael Harrington took a similar position in his review in the New Republic. The response of our own mutual friend and close comrade, the English New Leftist Ralph Miliband, was one of even greater contempt:
To speak of Stalinism as following naturally and ineluctably from Leninism is unwarranted. However, to speak of Stalinism as “one possible interpretation of Marx’s doctrine” is not only unwarranted but false.
A decade has passed since Miliband wrote this. In the East it is the era of glasnost, the silence of the past is broken, the lies exposed, and the Soviets themselves now acknowledge the genesis of Stalinism in Lenin. But it is the causal link between Marxism and Stalinism that is the real issue, encompassing both.
Stalinism is not a possible interpretation of Marx’s doctrine. What could Miliband (and the rest of you) have been thinking to have blotted out so much of the world we know? Forget the Soviet planners and managers who were the architects of the Stalinist empire and found a precedent and rationale in Marx for all their actions and social constructions, including the party dictatorship and the political police, the collectivization and the terror, the show trials and the gulag. These, after all, were practical men. Consider instead the intellectuals who managed to be Marxists and Stalinists through all these nightmares of the socialist epoch: Althusser and Brecht, Lukács and Gramsci, Bloch and Benjamin, Hobsbawm and Thompson, too. Subtle Hegelians and social progressives, they were all promoters of the Stalinist cancer, devoting their formidable intellects and talents to its metastatic growth. Were they illiterate to consider themselves Marxists and Stalinists? And what of the tens of thousands of party intellectuals all over the world, among them Nobel-prizewinning scientists and renowned artists, who saw no particular difficulty in assimilating Stalin’s gulag to Marx’s utopia, socialist humanism to the Soviet state?
The truth is that Stalinism was not just one possible interpretation of Marxism. In the recorded history of left-wing revolutionary movements it was undoubtedly the prevailing interpretation—of all the interpretations of Marx’s doctrine since the Communist Manifesto, the one adhered to by the most people for the longest time. Maoism, Castroism, Vietnamese Communism, etc., the ideologies of the actually existing Marxist states—these make up the category of Stalinist Marxisms.
This truth leftist intellectuals like you are determined to avoid: the record of the real lives of real human beings, whose task is not just to interpret texts but to move people and to govern them. When Marxism has been put into practice by real historical actors, it has invariably taken a Stalinist form, producing the worst tyrannies and oppressions that mankind has ever known.
I ask again, then: what persuaded us to believe (as you still do) that socialism, having begun everywhere so badly, nevertheless possessed the power to reform itself into something better? To be something other than it had been? To pass through the purgatory of its Stalinist tragedies and become the paradise of our imaginations?
The lineage of this belief could be traced back to the original anti-Stalinist: Trotsky. The legendary Trotsky defied Stalin’s tyranny in the name of the revolution and, refusing to give up his principles, gave up his power instead. While the Father of the Peoples was slaughtering millions in the 1930’s, Trotsky waited in his Mexican exile for Russia’s proletariat to rise up against its new masters and restore the revolution to its rightful path. But as the waves of the opposition disappeared into the gulag, and the prospect of rebellion became impossibly remote, even Trotsky began to waver in his faith.
By the eve of World War II, Trotsky’s despair had grown to such insupportable dimensions that he made a final wager. He declared that the cataclysm the world had just entered would be a test for the socialist faith. If the great war did not lead to a new revolution, socialists would be compelled to admit their defeat—that “the present USSR was the precursor of a new and universal system of exploitation,” and that the socialist program had “petered out as a utopia.” Trotsky did not survive to see the coming of peace and the unraveling of his Marxist dreams. In 1940, his personal dilemma was resolved when one of Stalin’s agents gained entrance to the fortress of his exile in Mexico, and buried an ice pick in his head.
But Trotsky’s fantasy survived. In 1953, Stalin died. When his passing led to a period of “de-Stalinization,” a new generation on the Left convinced itself that the long-awaited metamorphosis was at last taking place. With Stalin’s death came the Khrushchev thaw, the famous speech lifting the veil on the bloody past, and a relaxation of the terror. To those on the Left who had refused to give up, these were signs that the Stalinist caterpillar, having lodged itself in the cocoon of a backward empire, was at last becoming the socialist butterfly of which they had dreamed.
You and I and all our comrades of the New Left had our own legend to explain this transformation. It came from Isaac Deutscher, who had emerged from the prewar battles over Trotskyism to become the foremost interpreter of the Russian Revolution to our radical generation.
Deutscher’s analysis began with the reality that was given to us: the fact of Stalinism. But instead of despairing like his mentor Trotsky, Deutscher explained why Stalinism, in spite of itself, was being transformed into socialism. In Trotsky’s own theories Deutscher had found an answer to Trotsky’s pessimism. While Trotsky had worried that there would be no revolution from below, Deutscher showed us why it was coming from above.
Stalinism, Deutscher wrote, was “an amalgamation of Marxism with the semi-barbarous and quite barbarous traditions and the primitive magic of an essentially pre-industrial . . . society.” In short, Stalinism was the fulfillment of Lenin’s famous prescription: with barbarism we will drive barbarism out of Russia. “By fostering Russia’s industrialization and modernization Stalinism had with its own hands uprooted itself and prepared its ‘withering away.’ ”
As Deutscher saw it, the backwardness of Russian society had provided the Bolsheviks not only with a revolutionary opportunity, but also with a historical advantage. They could avail themselves of modern technologies and social theories. Instead of relying on the anarchic impulses of capitalist investment, they could employ the superior methods of socialist planning. The result would be a modern economy more efficient and productive than those of their capitalist competitors. Wrote Deutscher:
Superior efficiency necessarily translates itself, albeit with a delay, into higher standards of living. These should lead to the softening of social tensions, the weakening of antagonisms between bureaucracy and workers, and workers and peasants, to the further lessening of terror, and to the further growth of civil liberties.
Deutscher wrote these words in 1957, the year in which the Soviets celebrated the 40th anniversary of the revolution by launching the first man into space. The feat exemplified the progress that had been achieved in a single generation and heralded the approaching end of the Soviets’ technological “apprenticeship” to the West.
Deutscher’s intoxcating mix of optimism and “realism” became the foundation of our political revival. The turn Marxism had taken in 1917, creating a socialist economy within a totalitarian state, had posed a seemingly insoluble riddle. How could socialist progress be reconciled with such a stark retreat into social darkness? What had happened to Marx’s insight that the productive mode determined the architecture of social relations? Building on Trotsky’s analysis, Deutscher showed the only way out of the dilemma that would preserve our radical faith.
And no doubt that is why, thirty years later, even as the tremors of glasnost and perestroika were unhinging the equilibrium of the Communist empire, Ralph Miliband returned—with, I hear, your enthusiastic approval—to Deutscher’s prophecy as a revolutionary premise. “Much that is happening in the Soviet Union,” Miliband wrote last year, “constitutes a remarkable vindication of [Deutscher’s] confidence that powerful forces for progressive change would eventually break through seemingly impenetrable barriers.”
Yet to describe the collapse of the Soviet empire as a vindication of Deutscher’s prophecies (and thus of the Marxist tradition that underpins them) is to turn history on its head. We are indeed witnessing a form of “revolution from above” in the Soviet Union, but it is a revolution that refutes Deutscher and Marx. The events of the past year are not a triumph for socialism, but a disaster.
Seduced by Soviet advances in nuclear arms and military showpieces like Sputnik, Deutscher had labored under the illusion of generations of the Left—that the goal of revolutionary power was something other than power itself. For years the Left had decried the collusion between corporate and military interests in the capitalist West, while all that time the entire socialist economy was little more than one giant military-industrial complex. By the 1980’s, military investment absorbed 25 percent of the Soviet gross product (compared to only 6 percent in the United States) while military technology provided the only Soviet product competitive for export. Outside the military sector, as glasnost revealed, the vaunted Soviet industrial achievement was little more than a socialist mirage—imitative, inefficient, and outmoded. Straitjacketed by its central plan, the socialist world had been unable to enter the “second industrial revolution” that began to unfold in countries outside the Soviet bloc after 1945. “We were among the last to understand that in the age of information sciences the most valuable asset is knowledge, springing from human imagination and creativity,” Gorbachev complained in 1989. While capitalist nations (including recent third-world economies like South Korea) were soaring into the technological future, Russia and its satellites, caught in the contradictions of an archaic mode of production, were stagnating into a decade of zero growth, becoming economic anachronisms—what one analyst described as “a gigantic Soviet socialist rust belt.”
This reality laid the groundwork for the historic developments of the last year. The rejection of the planned economy by the leaders of actually existing socialist society, the pathetic search for the elements of a rule of law (following the relentless crusades of the past against “bourgeois rights”), the humiliating admission that the military superpower is in all other respects a third-world nation, the incapacity of the socialist mode of production to enter the technological future, and the unseemly begging for the West’s advanced technology—all this adds up to a declaration of socialism’s utter bankruptcy and historic defeat. This bankruptcy is not only moral and political, as before, but now economic as well.
It is precisely this economic bankruptcy that Deutscher did not foresee, and that forecloses any possibility of a socialist revival. Through all of these post-Khrushchev decades, such a revival had been premised on the belief that abundance would eventually flow from the cornucopia of socialist planning and that economic abundance would then lead to political deliverance—the Deutscherian thesis. The present economic bankruptcy of the Soviet bloc puts this thesis finally to rest.
Nothing underlined this bankruptcy so starkly as the opening of a McDonald’s fast-food outlet in Moscow about the time the East Germans were pulling down the Berlin Wall. The appearance of the Moscow McDonald’s revealed the prosaic truth that lay behind the creation of the Wall and the bloody epoch that had almost ended. Its Soviet customers gathered in lines whose length exceeded those waiting outside Lenin’s tomb, the altar of the revolution itself. Here, the capitalist genius for catering to the ordinary desires of ordinary people was spectacularly displayed, along with socialism’s abiding unconcern for the ordinary needs of common humanity. McDonald’s executives even found it necessary to purchase and manage their own special farm in Russia, because Soviet potatoes—the very staple of the people’s diet—were too poor in quality and unreliable in supply. Conversely, the wages of the Soviet customers were so depressed that a hamburger and fries cost half a day’s pay. And yet this most ordinary of pleasures—the bottom of the food chain in the capitalist West—was still such a luxury for Soviet consumers that it was worth a four-hour wait and a four-hour wage.
Of all the symbols for the epoch-making year, this was perhaps the most resonant for leftists of our generation. Impervious to the way the unobstructed market democratized wealth, the New Left had focused its social scorn precisely on those plebeian achievements of consumer capitalism which brought services and goods efficiently and cheaply to ordinary people. Indeed, perhaps the main theoretical contribution of our generation of New Left Marxists was an elaborate literature of cultural criticism made up of sneering commentaries on the “commodity fetishism” of bourgeois cultures and the “one-dimensional” humanity that commerce produced. For New Leftists, the leviathans of post-industrial alienation and oppression were precisely these “consumption-oriented” industries, like McDonald’s, which offered inexpensive services to the working masses. (A sister chain, the Sizzler, even offered “all you can eat” menus that embraced a variety of meats, vegetables, fruits, and pastries virtually unknown in the Soviet bloc.)
Such mundane symbols of consumer capitalism revealed the real secret of the era that was now ending, the reason why the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall were necessary. In 1989, for two hours’ labor at the minimum wage, an American worker could obtain, at a corner Sizzler, a feast more opulent, more nutritionally packed and gastronomically diverse than anything available to almost all the citizens of the socialist world (including the elite) at almost any price.
In the counterrevolutionary year 1989, on the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, a group of protesters raised a banner in Red Square that summed up an epoch: “Seventy Years on the Road to Nowhere.” They had been “over into the future” and it didn’t work.
This epic of human futility reached a poignant climax the same year, when the Soviet state formally decided to return the land it had taken from the peasants half a century before. The collectivization of agriculture in the 30’s had been the very first pillar of the socialist plan and one of the bloodiest episodes of the revolutionary era. Armies were dispatched to the countryside to confiscate the property of its recalcitrant owners, conduct mass deportations to the Siberian gulag, liquidate the “kulaks,” and herd the survivors into the collective farms of the Marxist future.
In the final class struggle, no method was considered too ruthless to midwife the new world from the old. “We are opposed by everything that has outlived the time set for it by history,” wrote Maxim Gorky in the midst of battle: “This gives us the right to consider ourselves again in a state of civil war. The conclusion naturally follows that if the enemy does not surrender, he must be destroyed.” The destruction of the class enemy—the most numerous and productive element of Soviet society at the time—was accomplished by massacres, by slow deaths in concentration camps, and by deliberately induced genocidal famine. In the end, over ten million people were killed, more than had died on all sides in World War I.
Before collectivization, Russia had been the “breadbasket of Europe,” supplying 40 percent of the world’s wheat exports in the bumper years 1909 and 1910. But socialism ended Russia’s agrarian plenty and created permanent deficits—not merely the human deficit of those who perished because of Stalinist brutalities during the collectivization, but a deficit in grain that would never be brought to harvest because of the brutality inherent in the socialist idea. Half a century after the socialist future had been established in the countryside, the Soviet Union had become a net importer of grain, unable to produce enough food to feed its own population. And so, half a century after ten million people had been killed to “socialize the countryside,” those who had expropriated the land were giving it back. (Soviet joke: What is socialism? The longest road from capitalism to capitalism.) Now the Soviet rulers themselves had begun to say that it had all been a horrible “mistake.”
Of all the scenarios of the Communist Götterdämmerung, the actual denouement had been predicted by no one. Throughout history ruling classes invariably had held fast to the foundations of their power. They had not confessed their own bankruptcy, and then proceeded to dismantle the social systems sustaining their rule, as this one had. The reason for the anomaly was that the architects of the Soviet Union had indeed made a “mistake.” The system did not work, not even in terms of sustaining the power of its ruling class.
The close of the Soviet drama was unpredicted because the very nature of the Soviet Union was without precedent. The crisis of the Soviet system was not so much a traditional crisis of legitimacy and rule, as it was the crisis of an idea—a monstrously wrong idea that had been artificially imposed on an entire society by an intellectual elite.
But if socialism was a “mistake,” it was never merely innocent in the sense that its consequences could not have been foreseen. From the very beginning, before the first drop of blood had ever been spilled, the critics of socialism had warned that it would not work and that it would end in tyranny. Already in 1872, Marx’s arch-rival in the First International, the anarchist Bakunin, described with penetrating acumen the political life of the future that Marx had in mind:
This government will not content itself with administering and governing the masses politically, as all governments do today. It will also administer the masses economically, concentrating in the hands of the state the production and division of wealth, the cultivation of land. . . . All that will demand . . . the reign of scientific intelligence, the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant, and elitist of all regimes. There will be a new class, a new hierarchy, . . . the world will be divided into a minority ruling in the name of knowledge, and an immense ignorant majority. And then, woe unto the mass of ignorant ones!
If a leading voice in Marx’s own International could see with such clarity the oppressive implications of his revolutionary idea, there was no excuse for the generations of Marxists who promoted the idea even after it had been put into practice and the blood had begun to flow.
Yet so powerful was the socialist idea that even those on the Left who took their inspiration from Bakunin and later opposed the Communists could not bring themselves to defend the democratic societies of the capitalist West that the Marxists had put under siege. Like Bakunin, they were sworn enemies of capitalism, the only industrial system that worked. Yet their remedy for its deficiencies—abolishing private property and the free market—would have meant generalized poverty and revolutionary terror as surely as the statist fantasies of Marx. By promoting the socialist idea of the future and by participating in the war against the capitalist present, these non-Marxist soldiers of the Left became partners in the very tragedy they feared.
Of all Marx’s critics, it was only the partisans of capitalism like Ludwig Von Mises and Friedrich Hayek who understood the mistake that socialists had made and thus appreciated the only practical—which is to say the real—social bases of human freedom: private property and free markets. In 1922, as the Bolsheviks completed the consolidation of their political power, Von Mises published his classic indictment of the socialist idea and its destructive consequences. “The problem of economic calculation,” he wrote, “is the fundamental problem of socialism” and cannot be solved by socialist means. “Everything brought forward in favor of socialism during the last hundred years, . . . all the blood which has been spilled by the supporters of socialism, cannot make socialism workable.” Across the vast empire of societies that have put the socialist idea to the test, the names of Von Mises, Hayek, and the other prophets of capitalist economy are now revered, even as the names of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky are despised. Yet in the socialist and Marxist press in the West, the arguments of the capitalist critics of socialism, who long ago demonstrated its impossibility and who have now been proven correct, are nowhere considered. It is as if they were never made.
For socialists like you to confront these arguments would be to confront the lesson that (to say yet again what cannot be said too often) the socialist idea has been, in its consequences, one of the worst and most destructive fantasies ever to have taken hold of the minds of men. And it is the idea that Marx conceived. For (to repeat another point that cannot be repeated too often), the Promethean project of the Left has been just this from the first minute: to abolish property and overthrow the market and thereby to establish the reign of reason and justice embodied in a social plan.
Toward the end of his life, Isaac Deutscher had a premonition of the disaster that has now overtaken the socialist Left. In the conclusion to his three-volume biography of Trotsky, he speculated on the fate that would befall his revolutionary hero if the socialist project itself should fail:
If the view were to be taken that all that the Bolsheviks aimed at—socialism—was no more than a fata morgana, that the revolution merely substituted one kind of exploitation and oppression for another, and could not do otherwise, then Trotsky would appear as the high priest of a god that was bound to fail, as utopia’s servant mortally entangled in his dreams and illusions.
But Deutscher did not have the strength to see the true dimensions of the catastrophe that socialism had in store. Instead, his realism only served to reveal the depths of self-delusion and self-justifying romanticism that provide sustenance for the Left. Even if such a failure were to take place, he went on to argue, the revolutionary hero
would [still] attract the respect and sympathy due to the great utopians and visionaries. . . . Even if it were true that it is man’s fate to stagger in pain and blood from defeat to defeat and to throw off one yoke only to bend his neck beneath another—even then man’s longings for a different destiny would still, like pillars of fire, relieve the darkness and gloom of the endless desert through which he has been wandering with no promised land beyond.
This is the true self-vision of the Left: an army of saints on the march against injustice, lacking itself the capacity for evil. The Left sees its revolutions as pillars of fire that light up humanity’s deserts, but burn no civilizations as they pass.
Yet consider: if no one had believed Marx’s idea, there would have been no Bolshevik Revolution. Russia might then have evolved into a modern democracy and industrial state. Hitler would not have come to power. There would have been no cold war. It is hard not to conclude that most of the bloodshed of the 20th century might not have taken place.
The Communist idea is not “the principle of the modern world,” as Marx supposed, but its anti-principle, the reactionary rejection of political individualism and the market economies of the liberal West. Wherever the revolutionary Left has triumphed, its triumph has meant not progress but economic backwardness and social poverty, cultural deprivation and the loss of political freedom for all the unfortunate peoples in its path.
By promoting the socialist idea, the realization of which required so much death and suffering to implement, and then did not work in the end, you and I have earned ourselves a share, however modest, in the responsibility for its crimes. And it is these crimes that are the real legacy of the Left of which I was, and you so tragically still are, a part.
1 Main Currents of Marxism, Oxford University Press (1978).
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Socialism: Guilty As Charged
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Their coming-and-going polka—now you see ’im, now you don’t—consumed the first 10 days of March. One week Cohn was in the driver’s seat of U.S. economic policy, steering his boss into a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code and preparing him for a huge disgorgement of taxpayer money to repair some nebulous entity called “our crumbling infrastructure.” The next week Cohn had disappeared and in his place at the president’s side Navarro suddenly materialized. With Navarro’s encouragement, the president unexpectedly announced hefty, world-wobbling tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. At first the financial markets tumbled, and nobody in Washington, including the president’s friends, seemed happy. Nobody, that is, except Navarro, whose Cheshire-cat grin quickly became unavoidable on the alphabet-soup channels of cable news. It’s the perfect place for him, front and center, trying to disentangle the conflicting strands of the president’s economic policy. Far more than Cohn, the president’s newest and most powerful economic adviser is a suitable poster boy for Trumpism, whatever that might be.
So where, the capital wondered, did this Navarro fellow come from? (The question So where did this Cohn guy go? barely lasted a news cycle.) Insiders and political obsessives dimly remembered Navarro from Trump’s presidential campaign. With Wilbur Ross, now the secretary of commerce, Navarro wrote the most articulate brief for the Trump economic plan in the months before the election, which by my reckoning occurred roughly 277 years ago. (Ross is also Navarro’s co-conspirator in pushing the steel tariffs. They’re an Odd Couple indeed: Navarro is well-coiffed and tidy and as smooth as a California anchorman, while Ross is what Barney Fife might have looked like if he’d given up his job as Mayberry’s deputy sheriff and gotten a degree in mortuary science.) The Navarro-Ross paper drew predictable skepticism from mainstream economists and their proxies in the press, particularly its eye-popping claim that Trump’s “trade policy reforms” would generate an additional $1.7 trillion in government revenue over the next 10 years.
Navarro is nominally a professor at University of California, Irvine. His ideological pedigree, like the president’s, is that of a mongrel. After a decade securing tenure by writing academic papers (“A Critical Comparison of Utility-type Ratemaking Methodologies in Oil Pipeline Regulation”), he set his attention on politics. In the 1990s, he earned the distinction of losing four political races in six years, all in San Diego or its surrounding suburbs—one for mayor, another for county supervisor, another for city council. He was a Democrat in those days, as Trump was; he campaigned against sprawl and for heavy environmental regulation. In 1996, he ran for Congress as “The Democrat Newt Gingrich Fears Most.” The TV actor Ed Asner filmed a commercial for him. This proved less helpful than hoped when his Republican opponent reminded voters that a few years earlier, Asner had been a chief fundraiser for the Communist guerrillas in El Salvador.
After that defeat, Navarro got the message and retired from politics. He returned to teaching, became an off-and-on-again Republican, and set about writing financial potboilers, mostly on investment strategies for a world increasingly unreceptive to American leadership. One of them, Death by China (2011), purported to describe the slow but inexorable sapping of American wealth and spirit through Chinese devilry. As it happened, this was Donald Trump’s favorite theme as well. From the beginning of his 40-year public career, Trump has stuck to his insistence that someone, in geo-economic terms, is bullying this great country of his. The identity of the bully has varied over time: In the 1980s, it was the Soviets who, following their cataclysmic implosion, gave way to Japan, which was replaced, after its own economic collapse, by America’s neighbors to the north and south, who have been joined, since the end of the last decade, by China. In Death by China, the man, the moment, and the message came together with perfect timing. Trump loved it.
It’s not clear that he read it, however. Trump is a visual learner, as the educational theorists used to say. He will retain more from Fox and Friends as he constructs his hair in the morning than from a half day buried in a stack of white papers from the Department of Labor. When Navarro decided to make a movie of the book, directed by himself, Trump attended a screening and lustily endorsed it. You can see why. Navarro’s use of animation is spare but compelling; the most vivid image shows a dagger of Asiatic design plunging (up to the hilt and beyond!) into the heart of a two-dimensional map of the U.S., causing the country’s blood to spray wildly across the screen, then seep in rivulets around the world. It’s Wes Cravenomics.
Most of the movie, however, is taken up by talking heads. Nearly everyone of these heads is attached to a left-wing Democrat, a socialist, or, in a couple of instances, an anarchist from the Occupy movement. Watched today, Death by China is a reminder of how lonely—how marginal—the anti-China obsession has been. This is not to its discredit; yesterday’s fringe often becomes today’s mainstream, just as today’s consensus is often disproved by the events of tomorrow. Not so long ago, for instance, the establishment catechism declared that economic liberalization and the prosperity it created led inexorably to political liberalization; from free markets, we were told, came free societies. In the last generation, China has put this fantasy to rest. Only the willfully ignorant would deny that the behavior of the Chinese government, at home and abroad, is the work of swine. Even so, the past three presidents have seen China only as a subject for scolding, never retaliation.
And this brings us to another mystery of Trumpism, as Navarro embodies it. Retaliation against China and its bullying trade practices is exactly what Trump has promised as both candidate and president. More than a year into his presidency, with his tariffs on steel and aluminum, he has struck against the bullies at last, just as he vowed to do. And the bullies, we discover, are mostly our friends—Germans, Brazilians, South Koreans, and other partners who sell us their aluminum and steel for less than we can make it ourselves. Accounting for 2 percent of U.S. steel imports, the Chinese are barely scratched in the president’s first great foray in protectionism.
In announcing the tariffs, Trump cited Chinese “dumping,” as if out of habit. Yet Navarro himself seems at a loss to explain why he and his boss have chosen to go after our friends instead of our preeminent adversary in world trade. “China is in many ways the root of the problem for all countries of the world in aluminum and steel,” he told CNN the day after the tariffs were announced. Really? How’s that? “The bigger picture is, China has tremendous overcapacity in both aluminum and steel. So what they do is, they flood the world market, and this trickles down to our shores, and to other countries.”
If that wasn’t confusing enough, we had only to wait three days. By then Navarro was telling other interviewers, “This has nothing to do with China, directly or indirectly.”
This is not the first time Trumpism has shown signs of incoherence. With Peter Navarro at the president’s side, and with Gary Cohn a fading memory, it is unlikely to be the last.
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Review of 'Political Tribes' By Amy Chua
Amy Chua has an explanation for what ails us at home and abroad: Elites keep ignoring the primacy of tribalism both in the United States and elsewhere and so are blindsided every time people act in accordance with their group instinct. In Political Tribes, she offers a survey of tribal dynamics around the globe and renders judgments about the ways in which the United States has serially misread us-and-them conflicts. In the book’s final chapters, Chua, a Yale University law professor best known for her parenting polemic Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, focuses on the clashing group instincts that now threaten to sunder the American body politic.
As Chua sees it, “our blindness to political tribalism abroad reflects America at both its best and worst.” Because the United States is a nation made up of diverse immigrant populations—a “supergroup”—Americans can sometimes underestimate how hard it is for people in other countries to set aside their religious or ethnic ties and find common national purpose. That’s American ignorance in its most optimistic and benevolent form. But then there’s the more noxious variety: “In some cases, like Vietnam,” she writes, “ethnically blind racism has been part of our obliviousness.”
During the Vietnam War, Chua notes, the United States failed to distinguish between the ethnically homogeneous Vietnamese majority and the Chinese minority who were targets of mass resentment. In Vietnam, national identity was built largely on historical accounts of the courageous heroes who had been repelling Chinese invaders since 111 b.c.e., when China first conquered its neighbor to the south. This defining antipathy toward the Chinese was exacerbated by the fact that Vietnam’s Chinese minority was on average far wealthier and more politically powerful than the ethnic Vietnamese masses. “Yet astonishingly,” writes Chua, “U.S. foreign policy makers during the Cold War were so oblivious to Vietnamese history that they thought Vietnam was China’s pawn—merely ‘a stalking horse for Beijing in Southeast Asia.’”
Throughout the book, Chua captures tribal conflicts in clear and engrossing prose. But as a guide to foreign policy, one gets the sense that her emphasis on tribal ties might not be able to do all the work she expects of it. The first hint comes in her Vietnam analysis. If American ignorance of Chinese–Vietnam tensions is to blame for our having fought and lost the war, what would a better understanding of such things have yielded? She gets to that, sort of. “Could we have supported Ho [Chi Minh] against the French, capitalizing on Vietnam’s historical hostility toward China to keep the Vietnamese within our sphere of influence?” Chua asks. “We’ll never know. Somehow we never saw or took seriously the enmity between Vietnam and China.” It’s hard to see the U.S.’s backing a mass-murdering Communist against a putatively democratic ally as anything but a surreal thought experiment, let alone a lost opportunity.
On Afghanistan, Chua is correct about a number of things. There are indeed long-simmering tensions between Pashtuns, Punjabs, and other tribes in the region. The U.S. did pay insufficient attention to Afghanistan in the decade leading up to 9/11. The Taliban did play on Pashtun aspirations to fuel their rise. But how, exactly, are we to understand our failures in Afghanistan as resulting from ignorance of tribal relations? The Taliban went on to forge a protective agreement with al-Qaeda that had little if anything to do with tribal ties. And it was that relationship that had tragic consequences for the United States.
Not only was Osama bin Laden not Pashtun; he was an Arab millionaire, and his terrorist organization was made up of jihadists from all around the world. If anything, it was Bin Laden’s trans-tribal movement that the U.S. should have been focused on. The Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance was based on pooling resources against perceived common threats, compatible (but not identical) religious notions, and large cash payments from Bin Laden. No American understanding of tribal relations could have interfered with that.
And while an ambitious tribe-savvy counterinsurgency strategy might have gone a long way in helping the U.S.’s war effort, there has never been broad public support for such a commitment. Ultimately, our problems in Afghanistan have less to do with neglecting tribal politics and more to do with general neglect.
In Chua’s chapter on the Iraq War, however, her paradigm aligns more closely with the facts. “Could we have done better if we hadn’t been so blind to tribal politics in Iraq?” she asks. “There’s very good evidence that the answer is yes.” Here Chua offers a concise account of the U.S.’s successful 2007 troop surge. “While the additional U.S. soldiers—sent primarily to Baghdad and Al Anbar Province—were of course a critical factor,” she writes, “the surge succeeded only because it was accompanied by a 180-degree shift in our approach to the local population.”
Chua goes into colorful detail about then colonel H.R. McMaster’s efforts to educate American troops in local Iraqi customs and his decision to position them among the local population in Tal Afar. This won the trust of Iraqis who were forthcoming with critical intelligence. She also covers the work of Col. Sean MacFarland who forged relationships with Sunni sheikhs. Those sheikhs, in turn, convinced their tribespeople to work with U.S. forces and function as a local police force. Finally, Chua explains how Gen. David Petraeus combined the work of McMaster and MacFarland and achieved the miraculous in pacifying Baghdad. In spite of U.S. gains—and the successful navigation of tribes—there was little American popular will to keep Iraq on course and, over the next few years, the country inevitably unraveled.I n writing about life in the United States, Chua is on firmer ground altogether, and her diagnostic powers are impressive. “It turns out that in America, there’s a chasm between the tribal identities of the country’s haves and have-nots,” she writes, “a chasm of the same kind wreaking political havoc in many developing and non-Western countries.” In the U.S., however, there’s a crucial difference to this dynamic, and Chua puts her finger right on it: “In America, it’s the progressive elites who have taken it upon themselves to expose the American Dream as false. This is their form of tribalism.”
She backs up this contention with statistics. Some of the most interesting revelations have to do with the Occupy movement. In actual fact, those who gathered in cities across the country to protest systemic inequality in 2012 were “disproportionately affluent.” In fact, “more than half had incomes of $75,000 or more.” Occupy faded away, as she notes, because it “attracted so few members from the many disadvantaged groups it purported to be fighting for.” Chua puts things in perspective: “Imagine if the suffragette movement hadn’t included large numbers of women, or if the civil-rights movement included very few African Americans, or if the gay-rights movement included very few gays.” America’s poorer classes, for their part, are “deeply patriotic, even if they feel they’re losing the country to distant elites who know nothing about them.”
Chua is perceptive on both the inhabitants of Trump Country and the elites who disdain them. She takes American attitudes toward professional wrestling as emblematic of the split between those who support Donald Trump and those who detest him. Trump is a bona fide hero in the world of pro wrestling; he has participated in “bouts” and was actually inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013. What WWE fans get from watching wrestling they also get from watching Trump—“showmanship and symbols,” a world held together by enticing false storylines, and, ultimately, “something playfully spectacular.” Those on the academic left, on the other hand, “are fascinated, even obsessed in a horrified way, with the ‘phenomenology’ of watching professional wrestling.” In the book’s most arresting line, Chua writes that “there is now so little interaction, commonality, and intermarriage between rural/heartland/working-class whites and urban/coastal whites that the difference between them is practically what social scientists would consider an ‘ethnic difference.’”
Of course, there’s much today dividing America along racial lines as well. While Americans of color still contend with the legacy of institutional intolerance, “it is simply a fact that ‘diversity’ policies at the most select American universities and in some sectors of the economy have had a disparate adverse impact on whites.” So, both blacks and whites (and most everyone else) feel threatened to some degree. This has sharpened the edge of identity politics on the left and right. In Chua’s reading, these tribal differences will not actually break the country apart. But, she believes, they could fundamentally and irreversibly change “who we are.”
Political Tribes, however, is no doomsday prediction. Despite our clannish resentments, Chua sees, in her daily interactions, people’s willingness to form bonds beyond those of their in-group and a relaxing of tribal ties. What’s needed is for haves and have-nots, whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives to enjoy more meaningful exposure to one another. This pat prescription would come across as criminally sappy if not for the genuinely loving and patriotic way in which Chua writes about our responsibilities as a “supergroup.” “It’s not enough that we view one another as fellow human beings,” she says, “we need to view one another as fellow Americans.” Americans as a higher ontological category than human beings—there’s poetry in that. And a healthy bit of tribalism, too.
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Then again, you know what happens when you assume.
“Here is my prediction,” Kristof wrote. “The new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well. Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square on his watch, and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning writer, will be released from prison.”
True, Kristof conceded, “I may be wrong entirely.” But, he went on, “my hunch on this return to China, my old home, is that change is coming.”
Five years later, the Chinese economy, while large, is saddled with debt. Analysts and government officials are worried about its real-estate bubble. Despite harsh controls, capital continues to flee China. Nor has there been “some political easing.” On the contrary, repression has worsened. The Great Firewall blocks freedom of speech and inquiry, human-rights advocates are jailed, and the provinces resemble surveillance states out of a Philip K. Dick novel. Mao rests comfortably in his mausoleum. Not only did Liu Xiaobo remain a prisoner, he was also denied medical treatment when he contracted cancer, and he died in captivity in 2017.
As for Xi Jinping, he turned out not to be a reformer but a dictator. Steadily, under the guise of anti-corruption campaigns, Xi decimated alternative centers of power within the Communist Party. He built up a cult of personality around “Xi Jinping thought” and his “Chinese dream” of economic, cultural, and military strength. His preeminence was highlighted in October 2017 when the Politburo declined to name his successor. Then, in March of this year, the Chinese abolished the term limits that have guaranteed rotation in office since the death of Mao. Xi reigns supreme.
Bizarrely, this latest development seems to have come as a surprise to the American press. The headline of Emily Rauhala’s Washington Post article read: “China proposes removal of two-term limit, potentially paving way for President Xi Jinping to stay on.” Potentially? Xi’s accession to emperor-like status, wrote Julie Bogen of Vox, “could destabilize decades of progress toward democracy and instead move China even further toward authoritarianism.” Could? Bogen did not specify which “decades of progress toward democracy” she was talking about, but that is probably because, since 1989, there haven’t been any.
Xi’s assumption of dictatorial powers should not have shocked anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to recent Chinese history. The Chinese government, until last month a collective dictatorship, has exercised despotic control over its people since the very founding of the state in 1949. And yet the insatiable desire among media to incorporate news events into a preestablished storyline led reporters to cover the party announcement as a sudden reversal. Why? Because only then would the latest decision of an increasingly embattled and belligerent Chinese leadership fit into the prefabricated narrative that says we are living in an authoritarian moment.
For example, one article in the February 26, 2018, New York Times was headlined, “With Xi’s Power Grab, China Joins New Era of Strongmen.” CNN’s James Griffiths wrote, “While Chinese politics is not remotely democratic in the traditional sense, there are certain checks and balances within the Party system itself, with reformers and conservatives seeing their power and influence waxing and waning over time.” Checks and balances, reformers and conservatives—why, they are just like us, only within the context of a one-party state that ruthlessly brooks no dissent.
Now, we do happen to live in an era when democracy and autocracy are at odds. But China is not joining the “authoritarian trend.” It helped create and promote the trend. Next year, China’s “era of strongmen” will enter its seventh decade. The fundamental nature of the Communist regime in Beijing has not changed during this time.
My suspicion is that journalists were taken aback by Xi’s revelation of his true nature because they, like most Western elites, have bought into the myth of China’s “peaceful rise.” For decades, Americans have been told that China’s economic development and participation in international organizations and markets would lead inevitably to its political liberalization. What James Mann calls “the China fantasy” manifested itself in the leadership of both major political parties and in the pronouncements of the chattering class across the ideological spectrum.
Indeed, not only was the soothing scenario of China as a “responsible stakeholder” on the glide path to democracy widespread, but media figures also admonished Americans for not living up to Chinese standards. “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks,” Tom Friedman conceded in an infamous 2009 column. “But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.” For instance, Friedman went on, “it is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power, and wind power.” The following year, during an episode of Meet the Press, Friedman admitted, “I have fantasized—don’t get me wrong—but what if we could just be China for a day?” Just think of all the electric cars the government could force us to buy.
This attitude toward Chinese Communism as a public-policy exemplar became still more pronounced after Donald Trump was elected president on an “America First” agenda. China’s theft of intellectual property, industrial espionage, harassment and exploitation of Western companies, currency manipulation, mercantilist subsidies and tariffs, chronic pollution, military buildup, and interference in democratic politics and university life did not prevent it from proclaiming itself the defender of globalization and environmentalism.
When Xi visited the Davos World Economic Forum last year, the Economist noted the “fawning reception” that greeted him. The speech he delivered, pledging to uphold the international order that had facilitated his nation’s rise as well as his own, received excellent reviews. On January 15, 2017, Fareed Zakaria said, “In an America-first world, China is filling the vacuum.” A few days later, Charlie Rose told his CBS audience, “It’s almost like China is saying, ‘we are the champions of globalization, not the United States.’” And on January 30, 2017, the New York Times quoted a “Berlin-based private equity fund manager,” who said, “We heard a Chinese president becoming leader of the free world.”
The chorus of praise for China grew louder last spring when Trump announced American withdrawal from an international climate accord. In April 2017, Rick Stengel said on cable television that China is becoming “the global leader on the environment.” On June 8, a CBS reporter said that Xi is “now viewed as the world’s leader on climate change.” On June 19, 2017, on Bloomberg news, Dana Hull said, “China is the leader on climate change, especially when it comes to autos.” Also that month, one NBC anchor asked Senator Mike Lee of Utah, “Are you concerned at all that China may be seen as sort of the global leader when it comes to bringing countries together, more so than the United States?”
Last I checked, Xi Jinping’s China has not excelled at “bringing countries together,” unless—like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam—those countries are allying with the United States to balance against China. What instead should concern Senator Lee, and all of us, is an American media filled with people suckered by foreign propaganda that happens to coincide with their political preferences, and who are unable to make elementary distinctions between tyrannical governments and consensual ones.
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Marx didn’t supplant old ideas about money and commerce; he intensified them
rom the time of antiquity until the Enlightenment, trade and the pursuit of wealth were considered sinful. “In the city that is most finely governed,” Aristotle wrote, “the citizens should not live a vulgar or a merchant’s way of life, for this sort of way of life is ignoble and contrary to virtue.”1 In Plato’s vision of an ideal society (the Republic) the ruling “guardians” would own no property to avoid tearing “the city in pieces by differing about ‘mine’ and ‘not mine.’” He added that “all that relates to retail trade, and merchandise, and the keeping of taverns, is denounced and numbered among dishonourable things.” Only noncitizens would be allowed to indulge in commerce. A citizen who defies the natural order and becomes a merchant should be thrown in jail for “shaming his family.”
At his website humanprogress.org, Marian L. Tupy quotes D.C. Earl of the University of Leeds, who wrote that in Ancient Rome, “all trade was stigmatized as undignified … the word mercator [merchant] appears as almost a term of abuse.” Cicero noted in the first century b.c.e. that retail commerce is sordidus (vile) because merchants “would not make any profit unless they lied constantly.”
Early Christianity expanded this point of view. Jesus himself was clearly hostile to the pursuit of riches. “For where your treasure is,” he proclaimed in his Sermon on the Mount, “there will your heart be also.” And of course he insisted that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
The Catholic Church incorporated this view into its teachings for centuries, holding that economics was zero-sum. “The Fathers of the Church adhered to the classical assumption that since the material wealth of humanity was more or less fixed, the gain of some could only come at a loss to others,” the economic historian Jerry Muller explains in his book The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought. As St. Augustine put it, “Si unus non perdit, alter non acquirit”—“If one does not lose, the other does not gain.”
The most evil form of wealth accumulation was the use of money to make money—usury. Lending money at interest was unnatural, in this view, and therefore invidious. “While expertise in exchange is justly blamed since it is not according to nature but involves taking from others,” Aristotle insisted, “usury is most reasonably hated because one’s possessions derive from money itself and not from that for which it was supplied.” In the Christian tradition, the only noble labor was physical labor, and so earning wealth from the manipulation of money was seen as inherently ignoble.
In the somewhat more prosperous and market-driven medieval period, Thomas Aquinas helped make private property and commerce more acceptable, but he did not fundamentally break with the Aristotelian view that trade was suspect and the pursuit of wealth was sinful. The merchant’s life was in conflict with the teachings of Christianity if it led to pride or avarice. “Echoing Aristotle,” Muller writes, “Aquinas reasserted that justice in the distribution of material goods was fulfilled when someone received in proportion to his status, office, and function within the institutions of an existing, structured community. Hence Aquinas decried as covetousness the accumulation of wealth to improve one’s place in the social order.”
In the medieval mind, Jews were seen as a kind of stand-in for mercantile and usurious sinfulness. Living outside the Christian community, but within the borders of Christendom, they were allowed to commit the sin of usury on the grounds that their souls were already forfeit. Pope Nicholas V insisted that it is much better that “this people should perpetrate usury than that Christians should engage in it with one another.”2 The Jews were used as a commercial caste the way the untouchables of India were used as a sanitation caste. As Montesquieu would later observe in the 16th century, “whenever one prohibits a thing that is naturally permitted or necessary, the people who engage in it are regarded as dishonest.” Thus, as Muller has argued, anti-Semitism has its roots in a kind of primitive anti-capitalism.
Early Protestantism did not reject these views. It amplified them.3 Martin Luther despised commerce. “There is on earth no greater enemy of man, after the Devil, than a gripe-money and usurer, for he wants to be God over all men…. Usury is a great, huge monster, like a werewolf …. And since we break on the wheel and behead highwaymen, murderers, and housebreakers, how much more ought we to break on the wheel and kill … hunt down, curse, and behead all usurers!”4
It should therefore come as no surprise that Luther’s views of Jews, the living manifestation of usury in the medieval mind, were just as immodest. In his 1543 treatise On the Jews and Their Lies, he offers a seven-point plan on how to deal with them:
- “First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools .…This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians …”
- “Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”
- “Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.”
- “Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb… ”
- “Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside … ”
- “Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them … ”
- “Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.… But if we are afraid that they might harm us or our wives, children, servants, cattle, etc., … then let us emulate the common sense of other nations such as France, Spain, Bohemia, etc., … then eject them forever from the country … ”
Luther agitated against the Jews throughout Europe, condemning local officials for insufficient anti-Semitism (a word that did not exist at the time and a sentiment that was not necessarily linked to more modern biological racism). His demonization of the Jews was derived from more than anti-capitalism. But his belief that the Jewish spirit of commerce was corrupting of Christianity was nonetheless central to his indictment. He sermonized again and again that it must be cleansed from Christendom, either through conversion, annihilation, or expulsion.
Three centuries later, Karl Marx would blend these ideas together in a noxious stew.
The idea at the center of virtually all of Marx’s economic writing is the labor theory of value. It holds that all of the value of any product can be determined by the number of hours it took for a laborer or laborers to produce it. From the viewpoint of conventional economics—and elementary logic—this is ludicrous. For example, ingenuity, which may not be time-consuming, is nonetheless a major source of value. Surely it cannot be true that someone who works intelligently, and therefore efficiently, provides less value than someone who works stupidly and slowly. (Marx anticipates some of these kinds of critiques with a lot of verbiage about the costs of training and skills.) But the more relevant point is simply this: The determinant of value in an economic sense is not the labor that went into a product but the price the consumer is willing to pay for it. Whether it took an hour or a week to build a mousetrap, the value of the two products is the same to the consumer if the quality is the same.
Marx had philosophical, metaphysical, and tactical reasons for holding fast to the labor theory of value. It was essential to his argument that capitalism—or what we would now call “commerce” plain and simple—was exploitative by its very nature. In Marx, the term “exploitation” takes a number of forms. It is not merely evocative of child laborers working in horrid conditions; it covers virtually all profits. If all value is captured by labor, any “surplus value” collected by the owners of capital is by definition exploitative. The businessman who risks his own money to build and staff an innovative factory is not adding value; rather, he is subtracting value from the workers. Indeed, the money he used to buy the land and the materials is really just “dead labor.” For Marx, there was an essentially fixed amount of “labor-power” in society, and extracting profit from it was akin to strip-mining a natural resource. Slavery and wage-labor were different forms of the same exploitation because both involved extracting the common resource. In fact, while Marx despised slavery, he thought wage-labor was only a tiny improvement because wage-labor reduced costs for capitalists in that they were not required to feed or clothe wage laborers.
Because Marx preached revolution, we are inclined to consider him a revolutionary. He was not. None of this was a radical step forward in economic or political thinking. It was, rather, a reaffirmation of the disdain of commerce that starts with Plato and Aristotle and found new footing in Christianity. As Jerry Muller (to whom I am obviously very indebted) writes:
To a degree rarely appreciated, [Marx] merely recast the traditional Christian stigmatization of moneymaking into a new vocabulary and reiterated the ancient suspicion against those who used money to make money. In his concept of capitalism as “exploitation” Marx returned to the very old idea that money is fundamentally unproductive, that only those who live by the sweat of their brow truly produce, and that therefore not only interest, but profit itself, is always ill-gotten.
In his book Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, Jonathan Sperber suggests that “Marx is more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure, who took the circumstances of the first half of the nineteenth century and projected them into the future, than as a surefooted and foresighted interpreter of historical trends.”5
Marx was a classic bohemian who resented the fact that he spent his whole life living off the generosity of, first, his parents and then his collaborator Friedrich Engels. He loathed the way “the system” required selling out to the demands of the market and a career. The frustrated poet turned to the embryonic language of social science to express his angry barbaric yawp at The Man. “His critique of the stultifying effects of labor in a capitalist society,” Muller writes, “is a direct continuation of the Romantic conception of the self and its place in society.”
In other words, Marx was a romantic, not a scientist. Romanticism emerged as a rebellion against the Enlightenment, taking many forms—from romantic poetry to romantic nationalism. But central to all its forms was the belief that modern, commercial, rational life is inauthentic and alienating, and cuts us off from our true natures.
As Rousseau, widely seen as the first romantic, explained in his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, modernity—specifically the culture of commerce and science—was oppressive. The baubles of the Enlightenment were mere “garlands of flowers” that concealed “the chains which weigh [men] down” and led people to “love their own slavery.”
This is a better context for understanding Marx’s and Engels’s hatred of the division of labor and the division of rights and duties. Their baseline assumption, like Rousseau’s, is that primitive man lived a freer and more authentic life before the rise of private property and capitalism. “Within the tribe there is as yet no difference between rights and duties,” Engels writes in Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. “The question whether participation in public affairs, in blood revenge or atonement, is a right or a duty, does not exist for the Indian; it would seem to him just as absurd as the question whether it was a right or a duty to sleep, eat, or hunt. A division of the tribe or of the gens into different classes was equally impossible.”
For Marx, then, the Jew might as well be the real culprit who told Eve to bite the apple. For the triumph of the Jew and the triumph of money led to the alienation of man. And in truth, the term “alienation” is little more than modern-sounding shorthand for exile from Eden. The division of labor encourages individuality, alienates us from the collective, fosters specialization and egoism, and dethrones the sanctity of the tribe. “Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist,” Marx writes. “Money degrades all the gods of man—and turns them into commodities. Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has, therefore, robbed the whole world—both the world of men and nature—of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and man’s existence, and this alien essence dominates him, and he worships it.”
Marx’s muse was not analytical reason, but resentment. That is what fueled his false consciousness. To understand this fully, we should look at how that most ancient and eternal resentment—Jew-hatred—informed his worldview.
The atheist son of a Jewish convert to Lutheranism and the grandson of a rabbi, Karl Marx hated capitalism in no small part because he hated Jews. According to Marx and Engels, Jewish values placed the acquisition of money above everything else. Marx writes in his infamous essay “On the Jewish Question”:
Let us consider the actual, worldly Jew—not the Sabbath Jew … but the everyday Jew.
Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.
What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money [Emphasis in original]
The spread of capitalism, therefore, represented a kind of conquest for Jewish values. The Jew—at least the one who set up shop in Marx’s head—makes his money from money. He adds no value. Worse, the Jews considered themselves to be outside the organic social order, Marx complained, but then again that is what capitalism encourages—individual independence from the body politic and the selfish (in Marx’s mind) pursuit of individual success or happiness. For Marx, individualism was a kind of heresy because it meant violating the sacred bond of the community. Private property empowered individuals to live as individuals “without regard to other men,” as Marx put it.
This is the essence of Marx’s view of alienation. Marx believed that people were free, creative beings but were chained to their role as laborers in the industrial machine. The division of labor inherent to capitalist society was alienating and inauthentic, pulling us out of the communitarian natural General Will. The Jew was both an emblem of this alienation and a primary author of it:
The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner, not only because he has acquired financial power, but also because, through him and also apart from him, money has become a world power and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations. The Jews have emancipated themselves insofar as the Christians have become Jews. [Emphasis in original]
He adds, “The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange.” And he concludes: “In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” [Emphasis in original]
In The Holy Family, written with Engels, he argues that the most pressing imperative is to transcend “the Jewishness of bourgeois society, the inhumanity of present existence, which finds its highest embodiment in the system of money.” [Emphasis in original]
In his “Theories of Surplus Value,” he praises Luther’s indictment of usury. Luther “has really caught the character of old-fashioned usury, and that of capital as a whole.” Marx and Engels insist that the capitalist ruling classes, whether or not they claim to be Jewish, are nonetheless Jewish in spirit. “In their description of the confrontation of capital and labor, Marx and Engels resurrected the traditional critique of usury,” Muller observes. Or, as Deirdre McCloskey notes, “the history that Marx thought he perceived went with his erroneous logic that capitalism—drawing on an anticommercial theme as old as commerce—just is the same thing as greed.”6 Paul Johnson is pithier: Marx’s “explanation of what was wrong with the world was a combination of student-café anti-Semitism and Rousseau.”7
For Marx, capital and the Jew are different faces of the same monster: “The capitalist knows that all commodities—however shabby they may look or bad they may smell—are in faith and in fact money, internally circumcised Jews, and in addition magical means by which to make more money out of money.”
Marx’s writing, particularly on surplus value, is drenched with references to capital as parasitic and vampiric: “Capital is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. The time during which the worker works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labor-power he has bought from him.” The constant allusions to the eternal wickedness of the Jew combined with his constant references to blood make it hard to avoid concluding that Marx had simply updated the blood libel and applied it to his own atheistic doctrine. His writing is replete with references to the “bloodsucking” nature of capitalism. He likens both Jews and capitalists (the same thing in his mind) to life-draining exploiters of the proletariat.
Marx writes how the extension of the workday into the night “only slightly quenches the vampire thirst for the living blood of labor,” resulting in the fact that “the vampire will not let go ‘while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited.’” As Mark Neocleous of Brunel University documents in his brilliant essay, “The Political Economy of the Dead: Marx’s Vampires,” the images of blood and bloodsucking capital in Das Kapital are even more prominent motifs: “Capital ‘sucks up the worker’s value-creating power’ and is dripping with blood. Lacemaking institutions exploiting children are described as ‘blood-sucking,’ while U.S. capital is said to be financed by the ‘capitalized blood of children.’ The appropriation of labor is described as the ‘life-blood of capitalism,’ while the state is said to have here and there interposed itself ‘as a barrier to the transformation of children’s blood into capital.’”
Marx’s vision of exploitative, Jewish, bloodsucking capital was an expression of romantic superstition and tribal hatred. Borrowing from the medieval tradition of both Catholics as well as Luther himself, not to mention a certain folkloric poetic tradition, Marx invented a modern-sounding “scientific” theory that was in fact reactionary in every sense of the word. “If Marx’s vision was forward-looking, its premises were curiously archaic,” Muller writes. “As in the civic republican and Christian traditions, self-interest is the enemy of social cohesion and of morality. In that sense, Marx’s thought is a reversion to the time before Hegel, Smith, or Voltaire.”
In fairness to Marx, he does not claim that he wants to return to a feudal society marked by inherited social status and aristocracy. He is more reactionary than that. The Marxist final fantasy holds that at the end of history, when the state “withers away,” man is liberated from all exploitation and returns to the tribal state in which there is no division of labor, no dichotomy of rights and duties.
Marx’s “social science” was swept into history’s dustbin long ago. What endured was the romantic appeal of Marxism, because that appeal speaks to our tribal minds in ways we struggle to recognize, even though it never stops whispering in our ears.
It is an old conservative habit—one I’ve been guilty of myself—of looking around society and politics, finding things we don’t like or disagree with, and then running through an old trunk of Marxist bric-a-brac to spruce up our objections. It is undeniably true that the influence of Marx, particularly in the academy, remains staggering. Moreover, his indirect influence is as hard to measure as it is extensive. How many novels, plays, and movies have been shaped by Marx or informed by people shaped by Marx? It’s unknowable.
And yet, this is overdone. The truth is that Marx’s ideas were sticky for several reasons. First, they conformed to older, traditional ways of seeing the world—far more than Marxist zealots have ever realized. The idea that there are malevolent forces above and around us, manipulating our lives and exploiting the fruits of our labors, was hardly invented by him. In a sense, it wasn’t invented by anybody. Conspiracy theories are as old as mankind, stretching back to prehistory.
There’s ample reason—with ample research to back it up—to believe that there is a natural and universal human appetite for conspiracy theories. It is a by-product of our adapted ability to detect patterns, particularly patterns that may help us anticipate a threat—and, as Mark van Vugt has written, “the biggest threat facing humans throughout history has been other people, particularly when they teamed up against you.”8
To a very large extent, this is what Marxism is —an extravagant conspiracy theory in which the ruling classes, the industrialists, and/or the Jews arrange affairs for their own benefit and against the interests of the masses. Marx himself was an avid conspiracy theorist, as so many brilliant bohemian misfits tend to be, believing that the English deliberately orchestrated the Irish potato famine to “carry out the agricultural revolution and to thin the population of Ireland down to the proportion satisfactory to the landlords.” He even argued that the Crimean War was a kind of false-flag operation to hide the true nature of Russian-English collusion.
Contemporary political figures on the left and the right routinely employ the language of exploitation and conspiracy. They do so not because they’ve internalized Marx, but because of their own internal psychological architecture. In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi, the talented left-wing writer, describes Goldman Sachs (the subject of quite a few conspiracy theories) thus:
The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled dry American empire, reads like a Who’s Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.
Marx would be jealous that he didn’t think of the phrase “the great vampire squid.”
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has occasionally traded in the same kind of language, even evoking some ancient anti-Semitic tropes. “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special-interest friends, and her donors,” Trump said in one campaign speech. “This election will determine if we are a free nation or whether we have only the illusion of democracy, but are in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system, and our system is rigged.” He added: “Our corrupt political establishment, that is the greatest power behind the efforts at radical globalization and the disenfranchisement of working people. Their financial resources are virtually unlimited, their political resources are unlimited, their media resources are unmatched.”
A second reason Marxism is so successful at fixing itself to the human mind is that it offers—to some—a palatable substitute for the lost certainty of religious faith. Marxism helped to restore certainty and meaning for huge numbers of people who, having lost traditional religion, had not lost their religious instinct. One can see evidence of this in the rhetoric used by Marxist and other socialist revolutionaries who promised to deliver a “Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”
The 20th-century philosopher Eric Voegelin argued that Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire had stripped the transcendent from its central place in human affairs. God had been dethroned and “We the People”—and our things—had taken His place. “When God is invisible behind the world,” Voegelin writes, “the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.”9
The religious views of the Romantic writers and artists Marx was raised on (and whom he had once hoped to emulate) ran the gamut from atheism to heartfelt devotion, but they shared an anger and frustration with the way the new order had banished the richness of faith from the land. “Now we have got the freedom of believing in public nothing but what can be rationally demonstrated,” the writer Johann Heinrich Merck complained. “They have deprived religion of all its sensuous elements, that is, of all its relish. They have carved it up into its parts and reduced it to a skeleton without color and light…. And now it’s put in a jar and nobody wants to taste it.”10
When God became sidelined as the source of ultimate meaning, “the people” became both the new deity and the new messianic force of the new order. In other words, instead of worshipping some unseen force residing in Heaven, people started worshipping themselves. This is what gave nationalism its spiritual power, as the volksgeist, people’s spirit, replaced the Holy Spirit. The tribal instinct to belong to a sacralized group took over. In this light, we can see how romantic nationalism and “globalist” Marxism are closely related. They are both “re-enchantment creeds,” as the philosopher-historian Ernest Gellner put it. They fill up the holes in our souls and give us a sense of belonging and meaning.
For Marx, the inevitable victory of Communism would arrive when the people, collectively, seized their rightful place on the Throne of History.11 The cult of unity found a new home in countless ideologies, each of which determined, in accord with their own dogma, to, in Voegelin’s words, “build the corpus mysticum of the collectivity and bind the members to form the oneness of the body.” Or, to borrow a phrase from Barack Obama, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
In practice, Marxist doctrine is more alienating and dehumanizing than capitalism will ever be. But in theory, it conforms to the way our minds wish to see the world. There’s a reason why so many populist movements have been so easily herded into Marxism. It’s not that the mobs in Venezuela or Cuba started reading The Eighteenth Brumaire and suddenly became Marxists. The peasants of North Vietnam did not need to read the Critique of the Gotha Program to become convinced that they were being exploited. The angry populace is always already convinced. The people have usually reached the conclusion long ago. They have the faith; what they need is the dogma. They need experts and authority figures—priests!—with ready-made theories about why the masses’ gut feelings were right all along. They don’t need Marx or anybody else to tell them they feel ripped off, disrespected, exploited. They know that already. The story Marxists tell doesn’t have to be true. It has to be affirming. And it has to have a villain. The villain, then and now, is the Jew.
1 Muller, Jerry Z.. The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought (p. 5). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 Muller, Jerry Z. Capitalism and the Jews (pp. 23-24). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
3 Luther’s economic thought, reflected in his “Long Sermon on Usury of 1520” and his tract On Trade and Usury of 1524, was hostile to commerce in general and to international trade in particular, and stricter than the canonists in its condemnation of moneylending. Muller, Jerry Z.. Capitalism and the Jews (p. 26). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
4 Quoted approvingly in Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. “Capitalist Production.” Capital: Critical Analysis of Production, Volume II. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, trans. London: Swan Sonnenschein, Lowrey, & Co. 1887. p. 604
5 Sperber, Jonathan. “Introduction.” Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. New York: Liverwright Publishing Corporation. 2013. xiii.
6 McCloskey, Deirdre. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 142
7 Johnson, Paul. Intellectuals (Kindle Locations 1325-1326). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
8 See also: Sunstain, Cass R. and Vermeule, Adrian. “Syposium on Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures.” The Journal of Political Philosophy: Volume 17, Number 2, 2009, pp. 202-227. http://www.ask-force.org/web/Discourse/Sunstein-Conspiracy-Theories-2009.pdf
9 Think of the story of the Golden Calf. Moses departs for Mt. Sinai to talk with God and receive the Ten Commandments. No sooner had he left did the Israelites switch their allegiance to false idol, the Golden Calf, treating a worldly inanimate object as their deity. So it is with modern man. Hence, Voegelin’s quip that for the Marxist “Christ the Redeemer is replaced by the steam engine as the promise of the realm to come.”
10 Blanning, Tim. The Romantic Revolution: A History (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 34) (Kindle Locations 445-450). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
11 Marx: “Along with the constant decrease in the number of capitalist magnates, who usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this process of transformation, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production.”
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Review of 'Realism and Democracy' By Elliott Abrams
Then, in 1966, Syrian Baathists—believers in a different transnational unite-all-the-Arabs ideology—overthrew the government in Damascus and lent their support to Palestinian guerrillas in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank to attack Israel. Later that year, a Jordanian-linked counter-coup in Syria failed, and the key figures behind it fled to Jordan. Then, on the eve of the Six-Day War in May 1967, Jordan’s King Hussein signed a mutual-defense pact with Egypt, agreeing to deploy Iraqi troops on Jordanian soil and effectively giving Nasser command and control over Jordan’s own armed forces.
This is just a snapshot of the havoc wreaked on the Middle East by the conceit of pan-Arabism. This history is worth recalling when reading Elliott Abrams’s idealistic yet clearheaded Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring. One of the book’s key insights is the importance of legitimacy for regimes that rule “not nation-states” but rather “Sykes-Picot states”—the colonial heirlooms of Britain and France created in the wake of the two world wars. At times, these states barely seem to acknowledge, let alone respect, their own sovereignty.
When the spirit of revolution hit the Arab world in 2010, the states with external legitimacy—monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait—survived. Regimes that ruled merely by brute force—Egypt, Yemen, Libya—didn’t. The Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria has only held on thanks to the intervention of Iran and Russia, and it is difficult to argue that there is any such thing as “Syria” anymore. What this all proved was that the “stability” of Arab dictatorships, a central conceit of U.S. foreign policy, was in many cases an illusion.
That is the first hard lesson in pan-Arabism from Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The second is this: The extremists who filled the power vacuums in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and other countries led Western analysts to believe that there was an “Islamic exceptionalism” at play that demonstrated Islam’s incompatibility with democracy. Abrams effectively debunks this by showing that the real culprit stymieing the spread of liberty in the Middle East was not Islam but pan-Arabism, which stems from secular roots. He notes one study showing that, in the 30 years between 1973 and 2003, “a non-Arab Muslim-majority country was almost 20 times more likely to be ‘electorally competitive’ than an Arab-majority Muslim country.”
Abrams is thus an optimist on the subject of Islam and democracy—which is heartening, considering his experience and expertise. He worked for legendary cold-warrior Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and served as an assistant secretary of state for human rights under Ronald Reagan and later as George W. Bush’s deputy national-security adviser for global democracy strategy. Realism and Democracy is about U.S. policy and the Arab world—but it is also about the nature of participatory politics itself. Its theme is: Ideas have consequences. And what sets Abrams’s book apart is its concrete policy recommendations to put flesh on the bones of those ideas, and bring them to life.
The dreary disintegration of the Arab Spring saw Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, which after a year was displaced in a military coup. Syria’s civil war has seen about 400,000 killed and millions displaced. Into the vacuum stepped numerous Islamist terror groups. The fall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya has resulted in total state collapse. Yemen’s civil war bleeds on.
Stability in authoritarian states with little or no legitimacy is a fiction. Communist police states were likely to fall, and the longer they took to do so, the longer the opposition sat in a balled-up rage. That, Abrams notes, is precisely what happened in Egypt. Mubarak’s repression gave the Muslim Brotherhood an advantage once the playing field opened up: The group had decades of organizing under its belt, a coherent raison d’être, and a track record of providing health and education services where the state lagged. No other parties or opposition groups had anything resembling this kind of coordination.
Abrams trenchantly concludes from this that “tyranny in the Arab world is dangerous and should itself be viewed as a form of political extremism that is likely to feed other forms.” Yet even this extremism can be tempered by power, he suggests. In a democracy, Islamist parties will have to compromise and moderate or be voted out. In Tunisia, electorally successful Islamists chose the former, and it stands as a rare success story.
Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood took a different path in Egypt, with parlous results. Its government began pulling up the ladder behind it, closing avenues of political resistance and civic participation. Hamas did the same after winning Palestinian elections in 2006. Abrams thinks that the odds of such a bait-and-switch can be reduced. He quotes the academic Stephen R. Grand, who calls for all political parties “to take an oath of allegiance to the state, to respect the outcome of democratic elections, to abide by the rules of the constitution, and to forswear violence.” If they keep their word, they will open up the political space for non-Islamist parties to get in the game. If they don’t—well, let the Egyptian coup stand as a warning.
Abrams, to his credit, does not avoid the Mesopotamian elephant in the room. The Iraq War has become Exhibit A in the dangers of democracy promotion. This is understandable, but it is misguided. The Bush administration made the decision to decapitate the regime of Saddam Hussein based on national-security calculations, mainly the fear of weapons of mass destruction. Once the decapitation had occurred, the administration could hardly have been expected to replace Saddam with another strongman whose depravities would this time be on America’s conscience. Critics of the war reverse the order here and paint a false portrait.
Here is where Abrams’s book stands out: He provides, in the last two chapters, an accounting of the weaknesses in U.S. policy, including mistakes made by the administration he served, and a series of concrete proposals to show that democracy promotion can be effective without the use of force.
One mistake, according to Abrams, is America’s favoring of civil-society groups over political parties. These groups do much good, generally have strong English-language skills, and are less likely to be tied to the government or ancien régime. But those are also strikes against them. Abrams relates a story told by former U.S. diplomat Princeton Lyman about Nelson Mandela. Nigerian activists asked the South African freedom fighter to support an oil embargo against their own government. Mandela declined because, Lyman says, there was as yet no serious, organized political opposition party: “What Mandela was saying to the Nigerian activists is that, in the absence of political movements dedicated not just to democracy but also to governing when the opportunity arises, social, civic, and economic pressures against tyranny will not suffice.” Without properly focused democracy promotion, other tools to punish repressive regimes will be off the table.
Egypt offers a good example of another principle: Backsliding must be punished. The Bush administration’s pressure on Mubarak over his treatment of opposition figures changed regime behavior in 2005. Yet by the end of Bush’s second term, the pressure had let up and Mubarak’s misbehavior continued, with no consequences from either Bush or his successor, Barack Obama, until it was too late.
That, in turn, leads to another of Abrams’s recommendations: “American diplomacy can be effective only when it is clear that the president and secretary of state are behind whatever diplomatic moves or statements an official in Washington or a U.S. ambassador is making.” This is good advice for the current Oval Office occupant and his advisers. President Trump’s supporters advise critics of his dismissive attitude toward human-rights violations to focus on what the president does, not what he says. But Trump’s refusal to take a hard line against Vladimir Putin and his recent praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s move to become president for life undermine lower-level officials’ attempts to encourage reform.
There won’t be democracy without democrats. Pro-democracy education, Abrams advises, can teach freedom-seekers to speak the ennobling language of liberty, which is the crucial first step toward building a culture that prizes it. And in the process, we might do some ennobling ourselves.