On the 170th anniversary of Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto – can Marx be re-interpreted as a critic of late modernity? (Part One)
By Mark Wegierski
Karl Marx (and his intellectual collaborator and patron Friedrich Engels) have established a heritage of thought which is said today to be nearly-universally discredited, yet which has both today and historically also attracted a surprising variety of supporters and defenders, across virtually the entire, conventional spectrum of left, right, and center.
It could be argued that the Marxian tradition is more multivalent than its identification with the former East Bloc system, nominally called "Communist" -- suggests. This series of pieces endeavors, with a certain critical distance, to avoid either the simplistic condemnation of Marx common among some anti-Communists, as well as the panegyrics which had been de rigueur in the former Eastern Bloc -- which, along with the various depredations of the system -- have today reduced Marx's intellectual cachet far more in East-Central Europe than in the United States, Canada, and Western European societies that never experienced that "worker's paradise."
It is argued that Marx might indeed have some serious disagreements with the current-day Left – and most certainly with the current-day left-liberal establishment.
There are a number of interpretations of Marx's thought which may be termed "mainline" -- and a number which may be termed "dissident." Intellectually-speaking, Marx brought a certain zest into political philosophy, as well as a sharp style of writing that tries to tenaciously "get at" what certain political and philosophical pronouncements "actually say." He may indeed be characterized as one of the modern "masters of suspicion." Among Marx's most famous statements is: "All of the philosophers have tried to describe the world in different ways, the point, however, is to change it."
Marx combined, in what was -- at that time -- a new, interesting way -- philosophical thinking, the claim of being scientific, and what should honestly be called "ideology" or "polemics." Some of the "mainline" aspects of Marx's thought may include his central concept of desire for human liberation, the ferocious condemning of economic inequality, and a doctrinaire atheism, materialism, and hatred of traditional religion. It may be remembered that Marx's chosen motto for his doctoral thesis was the quote from Shelley's Prometheus - "Above all, I hate all the gods."
Lenin's elaboration of Marx's "dictatorship of the proletariat" seemed to be little more than a carte blanche for the exercise of power of a narrow ruling group that was supposed to be putting Marx's egalitarian dreams into reality, but in fact ended up in horrific violence. To borrow the Marxian terminology, the "ideological superstructure" of the promise of the Communist utopia at the end of the road -- where the state would famously "wither away" -- was utterly unreflective of the reality of the brutal, coercive, totalitarian "base." The fact that Soviet Marxism-Leninism and Maoism arose in so-called "backward" societies like Russia and China may suggest that they had more in common with what Marx had disparagingly termed "the Oriental mode of production" -- rather than "scientific socialism." The depredations of the North Korean, North Vietnamese, and Pol Pot regimes are comparatively well-known today. The reception of Marxism in Africa also led to massacres, and usually intensified the deep problems of those societies. In Latin American societies, Marxism appeared to have acquired an almost romantic mystique, as typified by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
Among the leading, early-twentieth-century, social democratic re-interpreters of Marx was Edouard Bernstein -- who largely launched the main lines of Marx's interpretation by Western social democratic parties.
The reception of Marxism in America, Canada, and Western European countries was somewhat different from that in Russia -- in the former societies, it seemed to truly have vast intellectual cachet and was apparently based on the appeal to "liberation" and "decent values." The "liberation" aspects -- especially in regard to the so-called Sexual Revolution -- were given a huge play in the 1960s and post-1960s period, whereas over several decades of the Twentieth Century many people believed that what was somewhat imprecisely called Communism was simply about ensuring a decent life for the laboring masses. It was ignored that the imposition of Soviet Communism on Russia and especially on the East-Central European countries during World War II and its aftermath proceeded by means of mass slaughter and massive intellectual and cultural annihilation of indigenous national and religious traditions.
The apparent paradox of the highly-disciplined Marx-inspired parties and movements had also acquired the admiration of the far right in various European countries, especially France and Germany. More decent ultra-traditionalists such as Oswald Spengler looked to the socialist parties as vehicles for conservative social restoration, whereas the extremal German Nazis (National Socialists) identified with the harsh, totalitarian as well as anti-Jewish and anti-Polish aspects of the Soviet Communist regime. It may be remembered that between August 1939 to June 1941, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were close allies, united by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The admiration of the Nazis for the Soviet regime was, of course, for mostly different reasons than those of the legions of Western liberal "pilgrims" who genuflected before Stalin because they perceived Soviet Communism as realizing the "progressive" utopia.
Among the more fruitful re-interpretations of Marxism, were those carried out by the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Horkheimer, et al.). The Frankfurt School has now emerged as a curiously bivalent tradition, which has inspired some of the most serious critics of what is considered the current-day “managerial-therapeutic regime” (such as Paul Piccone, the late editor of the New York-based scholarly journal, Telos) -- as well as providing one of the strongest "props" for that system, i.e., the theory of "the authoritarian personality." The psychological critique of "personality" at its most pointed considers "authoritarian" political identifications a form of mental illness to be eradicated by mass conditioning, and, if it is discovered in an individual, to be "cured" by semi-coercive "therapy." However, the Frankfurt School’s deep-level critique of consumerist, consumptionist society -- which could be seen as one of their main contributions to intellectual inquiry -- is clearly evocative of traditionalist cultural conservatism.
Another fruitful re-interpretation of Marx's thought can be seen among the so-called "social conservatives of the Left" -- such as William Morris, Jack London, George Orwell, and Christopher Lasch. In an age of a pre-totalitarian and pre-politically-correct Left, John Ruskin, a nineteenth-century aesthetic and cultural critic, could say, "I am a Tory of the sternest sort, a socialist, a communist." However, it should be pointed out that these figures could probably be placed more in the ambit of "utopian socialism", "guild-socialism", or "feudal socialism" -- tendencies which were polemically condemned in Marx and Engel's The Communist Manifesto. Another interesting off-shoot of Marx's thought is the Syndicalist system represented by Georges Sorel, as well as by varieties of Anarchist ideas. The Papal encyclical De Rerum Novarum certainly was a reaction to Marx's thought -- and it can be seen that the so-called "Catholic social teaching" tried to embrace what were seen as the positive aspects of Marx's critique of capitalism and of extreme social inequality, while avoiding its iconoclastic radicalism and possibility of abuse by power-hungry ideologues. G. K. Chesterton's Distributism and C. H. Douglas' theory of Social Credit were two attempts to maintain the rights of decent small-property holders and workers against the depredations of monopoly finance-capital, without recourse to violent dictatorship.
It has often been said that Marx's critique of the iniquities of nineteenth-century capitalism was on the mark, but that his proposed solutions had turned out to be horrible in practice.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.