Unveiling a statue of Karl Marx in Trier, Germany—a gift from China to celebrate the bicentennial of the philosopher’s birth—European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said the prophet of communism has been misjudged. He “stands for things which he is not responsible for and which he didn’t cause because many of the things he wrote down were redrafted into the opposite,” the BBC reported Juncker as saying.
Detaching Marx from the consequences of his ideas is an ever-popular endeavour. In European politics—and universities everywhere—the left can’t bring itself to disown him. Sure, communism in the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia and elsewhere killed tens of millions, blighted the lives of hundreds of millions, and turned entire countries into prisons—but that’s apparently of little account beside Marx’s discovery of certain tensions in capitalism and his belief in equality. I mean, some of his followers tended to get carried away, but the man was smart and he meant well.
It’s true that Marx was a great intellect, saw things in capitalism that others did not (most notably its phenomenal productive potential), and started lines of academic inquiry that remain influential and in some cases even deserve to be. Nonetheless, from the outset, violence and totalitarianism were hard-wired into Marxism as a political project.
Marx foresaw not just a tearing up of society by its roots—no more markets, no wage-labour, the expropriators expropriated—but, for good measure, the remaking of the human mind as well. Much of what we think we know is the product not of independent reason, he argued, but of the material conditions of life. Once you see through the illusion of ideology untethered to the prevailing system of production, distribution and exchange, you can begin to work out where society is headed. If you can’t see through the illusion—and without help, this is given to rather few—your opinions are worthless and you had better be quiet.
This notion, later called “false consciousness”, gives repression an excellent footing.
In addition, the communist utopia can’t be approached in moderation. Marxism without revolution isn’t Marxism. Sooner or later, the great day will come. Marx wasn’t trying to advocate or justify it particularly; he was merely predicting. But steps to ameliorate the oppression of the working class might delay the inevitable, and that would be counter-revolutionary. Really, the harder life gets for the downtrodden, the better, both for the plausibility of the Marxist world view and for the prompt arrival of the promised land.
Working out the details of the theory underlying Marx’s prediction has kept generations of academics employed, because what he said was rarely clear and often unintelligible. Given the opacity of his writings, and that he had remarkably little to say about the end-state to which the forces of history all pointed, it would indeed be wrong to say he gave men like Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong a blueprint for action. But it’s also nonsense to say that his texts were “redrafted into the opposite”, as Juncker put it. They served communism’s men of action not as a blueprint but as revelatory, quasi-religious texts. And that was exactly what the men of action required.
In his classic essay on mass movements, The True Believer, Eric Hoffer wrote: “The effectiveness of a doctrine does not come from its meaning but from its certitude. No doctrine, however profound and sublime, will be effective unless it is presented as the embodiment of the one and only truth... We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand. A doctrine that is understood is shorn of its strength.”
Apart from strength through certitude, and certitude through obscurity, Marx gave the communist revolutionaries two other components essential to fanaticism.
First, a vision much larger than the interests of any individual: a goal worthy of self-surrender and total immersion.
Second, a passionate loathing of the present: Things are so bad that ruthless action is justified, so much so that the system deserves to be destroyed even if the path to the future is unclear.
The political power of Marxism didn’t reside in the meaning and merits of the labour theory of value, the falling rate of profit, the immiseration of the working class or “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Its force resided in the warrant it gave to fanaticism—in its pathological certainty, contempt for bourgeois values, discounting of the individual, and eagerness to destroy the present in veneration of a barely imagined future.
As Hoffer pointed out, these traits aren’t unique to Marxism, by any means. They’ve also been true of Nazism and other revolutionary mass movements. But that doesn’t make them a distortion of Marx’s thinking, much less the opposite of what he believed. From the start, Marxism was radically illiberal and lusting after violence.
The eminent Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm remained a member of the Communist Party despite the invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, allowing his membership to lapse only when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. He was famously once asked whether the Soviet experiment, had it succeeded, might have justified the loss of 15 million or 20 million lives. “Yes,” he said.
There’s no such thing as a moderate Marxist. Bloomberg View
Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist. Comments are welcome at email@example.com