Misadventures in Marxism

How can well-meaning American academics continue their romance with Karl Marx? European scholars can only guess.

Published August 30, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Of all the 19th century prophets, Karl Marx is the most stubbornly resistant to the ravages of age. The ideologies he spawned may have tumbled along with the watchtowers and barbed-wire walls that accompanied them, but something about the Old Man proves irresistible to the sensitively academic and to the affluently dissatisfied.

In an age of corporate tyranny, his extravagant Old Testament beard, gimlet eyes and air of apocalyptic indignation seem to satisfy a desperate nostalgia for moral fire. Boredom with what C. Wright Mills described as the drab vacuity of America's white-collar "boutique" breeds a yearning among the bookish for redemption with an identifiable name -- and whose better than Marx's? Like most academics who march under his flag, Marx never set foot in a real factory or mine, but this lack of relevant experience only seems to make his condemnations of industrial alienation all the more appealing and lyrically impervious to criticism. In a strange way, with his neuroses and his journalistic violence, he is psychologically tailor-made for us.

Two new books appearing this fall, one American, one European, ask us to reconsider the credibility of Marxism in the modern university. From CUNY's Marshall Berman, author of "All That Is Solid Melts Into Air," comes a collection of essays called "Adventures in Marxism," to be published by Verso in September. From the other side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, comes the massive, somber "Black Book of Communism," edited by French historian Stephane Courtois of the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique in Paris and editor of the Journal Communisme.

The first book is a celebration of the insurrectionary and purportedly libertarian spirit of the young Marx. The latter, assembling a circle of experts in various regions from Cambodia to Russia to China, bills itself as the first systematic investigation of genocide committed in the name of the same prophet.

Could they possibly, one immediately wonders, be talking about the same phenomenon?

The answer is yes, although the two volumes could not be more different. Berman's naively romantic, charmingly self-indulgent ramblings around the radical landscape come in a canary yellow cover with gayly colored Toys "R" Us letters and an adorable little cartoon of Karl himself leaping about in a spasm of what looks like pure revolutionary glee. "The Black Book," on the other hand, is, well, black, with the forbidding sub-title "Crimes, Terror, Repression."

Indeed, these covers alone seem to reflect the differing moods toward Marxism in American and European academia respectively. Europeans, after their long and arduously fruitless love-affair with Marxism, seem to have finally thrown in the towel; Americans, on the other hand, geographically remote from the actual thing, seem not to have lost their taste for radical effusions and postures. If the American campus is the ultimate refuge of lost causes, as it is so often accused of being, then it is the perfect sarcophagus for an ideology more or less abandoned by the vast swathes of humanity that actually lived under it. But then again, dreaming of the young Marx in a Manhattan loft and lining up for sub-standard soap for four hours a day in a Warsaw suburb were never exactly the same thing.

American leftists, too, are prone to the proclivities of their extremely waffly and un-Marxist environment. Berman, a good-hearted old-time "Marxist humanist," loves to enthuse about the great ecumenical faith as if it were a combination of pop art, group therapy and virtuous Rolfing. Here he is, for example, on his mystical first reading of the "Manifesto":

It helped me see how the bad things and the good things of the world could spring from the same place, how suffering could be a source of growth and joy, how radical thought could escape doldrums and dualisms and gather energy and vision for better times.

In a chapter called "Unchained Melody," he waxes ecstatic on the transformational spirituality of creating unions:

And it is not just educational but existential: the process of people, individually and collectively, discovering who they are. As they learn who they are, they will come to see that they need one another in order to be themselves.

According to Berman, the really distasteful thing about capitalism is that it forces people to "freeze their feelings towards each other." The inmates of the Lubyanka, one supposes, would have sympathized.

All in all, this bubbly stuff sounds more like publicity for Prozac or Life Spring than Marxism. We learn, too, with increasing weariness, that "the personal is political," that Marx was a tireless fighter for democracy (he was, needless to say, nothing of the sort) and that historical materialism can help illuminate the problems of "modern spiritual life." Oh, and the bourgeoisie is the "most violently destructive ruling elite in history." The sound of stifled yawns and slowly overflowing sick-bags over in Paris is almost audible.

But the left's bamboozling rhetoric, Courtois maintains, is but the least of Marxism's sins. The radical tradition as a whole, he argues, has utterly failed to resolve the paradox of its own terrorism and mass violence, leaving it wide open to its current loss of credibility. Academic Marxism hardly even bothers to ask the question, except to play the usual good-cop, bad-cop routine: humane Lenin, evil Stalin, etc. But the failure of Marxism-Leninism goes deeper than its accidental betrayals. It is the ideology itself, claims the darker of the present volumes, that contributed to the stupefying tally of 100 million violent deaths under the hammer and sickle -- the largest ideology-driven genocide in history. Mass murder, they point out with numbing archival thoroughness, was made the center of the revolutionary state in 1918, not 1931, and by 1920 Lenin had killed more people than 90 years of czarism combined. He was, of course, spectacularly outdone by subsequent "Marxist" dictators who thought history was on their side.

For his chapters on the Bolsheviks, Nicholas Werth of the Institute of Contemporary History draws on newly available sources from the Soviet archives. According to Werth, the very idea of class warfare in the abstract -- such vague, antiseptic categories as "bourgeoisie," "kulaks," "counterrevolutionaries," etc. -- provided the theoretical basis for extermination. Indeed, Marx's notion of the evil "bourgeoisie" -- an amorphously vague entity Berman invokes on almost every page -- is the foundation of the original pseudo-scientific hate theory in which an entire abstract class of people is held responsible for all the ills of the race, according to putatively scientific and discernible laws.

Felix Dzerzhinsky, Lenin's appalling police chief, put it clearly enough in a 1917 conversation with Menshevik leader Rafael Abromovich, who had suggested moderation and gradualism. Said Dzerzhinsky:

Yes, but couldn't one change things more radically than that? By forcing certain classes into submission, or by exterminating them altogether?

In his "Defense of Terror," Leon Trotsky couched such calls to violence in the language of social science, writing, "The violent revolution has become a necessity precisely because the imminent requirements of history are unable to find a road through the apparatus of parliamentary democracy." Extermination of classes, therefore, was the implacable will of history, as Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot were quick to learn.

Were Trotsky and Dzerzhinsky being good Marxists or brutishly provincial heretics? Unfortunately, Marx said different things at different times. Yet essentially Marx was not an enemy of mass violence, nor was he averse to the occasional outpouring of bloodthirsty hatred. One cannot abstract Marx entirely from his eschatology, and -- suggests Werth -- the sorcerer cannot be held unaccountable for his innumerable apprentices any more than he can be crudely lashed to them.

Being a decent "Marxist humanist," of course, Berman too dislikes the Dzerzhinskys of this world. He realizes that we cannot have a therapy-friendly Marx with the shadow of firing squads in the background. So he takes pains to celebrate the nonviolent radical tradition: the lineage of Danton; the secret brotherhoods of the 19th century; and Rosa Luxembourg, whose damning diagnosis of the atavistic Lenin expresses the gentler mores of the German Orthodox Marxists.

In a chapter called "From Paris to Gdansk," Berman evokes historian James Billington in an investigation of the radical cafe society of Paris' Palais-Royal, a maze of debating clubs, idyllic plazas and restaurants where intellectual bohemians lived "the politics of desire." Berman would claim that this is the proper milieu for the young Marx, the bookishly romantic hero of 1844. It was this free-speaking atmosphere, of course, that Gracchus Baboeuf, the firebrand of the French Revolution, had laid low with his guillotines.

In a setting curiously similar to the contemporary American academy, then, the purely verbal romance of revolution is played out. But Berman, like Billington, doesn't see the ironies. The cafe society of the Palais Royal was protected by the Duc d'Orleans -- that is, by the Ancien Regime's rule of law -- just as the academic Marxist is protected by the legal code of bourgeois democracy. By contrast, the revolution protects nobody. Depressingly, and without exception, censorship and terror follow the hoisting of the red flag. And the first to go are the academics.

In his thoughtful introductory essay, Courtois tries to explain why Marxism is still hip, why in spite of its seemingly proven track record of devastating economic failure, catastrophic violence and surreally arrogant repression it remains morally fashionable, especially, it would seem, among American academics.

There are many intractable reasons, according to Courtois. In the first place, there is the perpetually romantic notion of revolution itself and the continuing popularity of its icons: The cold, totalitarian Che Guevara is still a staple of Western adolescent bedroom posters. (Communist propaganda, admittedly, had a superb visual aesthetic. As a Western child placed by radical parents at fashionable Comsomol summer camps in Bulgaria in the '70s, I well remember the lulling narcotic effect of red flags and stirring worker hymns.)

Berman seems to confirm this theory, launching into his own paean to communist imagery, waxing lyrical over its music, its flags and its posters. For instance, although he is wary of it, he cannot quite resist the image of Lenin "riding the shoulders of the masses" under spotlights after his return from the Finland Station -- a scene of carefully stage-managed political theater. Werth provides the real story of the October coup d'itat, a classic putsch if ever there was one. The tiny Bolshevik Party, with no popular mandate whatsoever, maneuvered its way into power through a mixture of armed intimidation and ruthless political betrayals. But who can deny the appeal of the image itself?

For people with almost no actual historical experience of Marxist power, moreover, this political equivalent of designer iconography is irresistible, which is why Berman ends his books by triumphantly claiming the return of Marx the icon. "The iconic," he writes, somewhat cryptically, "looks more convincing than the ironic."

The counterpart to this delicious and captivating iconography, according to Courtois, is communism's equally appealing humanitarian rhetoric. Communism, he writes, "claimed to be the emissary of the Enlightenment, of a tradition of social and human emancipation ... And paradoxically, it was this image of 'enlightenment' that helped keep the true nature of its evil concealed." Needless to say, Western intellectuals, with their impoverished and limited historical experience, consummately confuse form and substance. Writing of the postwar left's self-willed amnesia and hypocrisy, its turning of a blind eye to its own irrationality and inhumanity, Courtois concludes that as misguided as such intellectuals were, their sentimental romance with Marxism rarely arose from sadism or a lack of concern for humanity:

Whether intentional or not, when dealing with this ignorance of the criminal dimensions of Communism, our contemporaries' indifference to their fellow humans can never be forgotten. It is not that these individuals are coldhearted. On the contrary, in certain situations they can draw on vast untapped reserves of brotherhood, friendship, affection, even love.

How could all these well-meaning people continue to harbor utopian delusions about their academic faith? To some extent, it's a matter of geographic accident. Unlike the crimes of the Nazis, communist atrocities mostly took place far from the Western heartland. Nor were they ever filmed or exposed by conquering armies. The Soviet Union ended World War II both as a victor and as a Western ally, and was able to profitably ride the wave of "anti-fascism." To those in the West, in the wake of a devastating world war in which the forces of humanism ultimately triumphed, it was simply beyond imagining that one mode of totalitarian genocide had largely been defeated by another. The likelihood of Steven Spielberg ever making a film about the Cheka killing Cossack girls with sledgehammers is remote indeed. Marxism will never have a Holocaust chained to its ankles because those 65 million corpses in China never made it to the screen. The iconic is indeed, alas, more powerful than the ironic.

In the end, though, the "Black Book's" body counts -- necessary as they are -- are less important than the soul-destroying connections between Marxist idealism and the violence committed in its name. Who are the "bourgeoisie," after all, whom humanitarians like Berman have for a century reviled as "bestial," "vile," "cancerous," "murderous" and "bloodsucking"? Are we not reminded of that other phantom scapegoat of anti-capitalist ravings, the Jew? But Berman, unlike the writers of the "Black Book," cannot tell us who his villains actually are, any more than Stalin could. For that is how revolutionary ideology works. The bourgeoisie, like all internal enemies, is undefined and nameless, sometimes little more than a nebulous synonym for civilization itself. It is described as a bacteria, a plague. But in the end it is merely everyone: Berman, Marx, you and I.

In the world of Baboeuf, we are all candidates for the guillotine.

By Lawrence Osborne

Lawrence Osborne is the author of "Paris Dreambook" and "The Poisoned Embrace," both published by Vintage. He lives in New York City.

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