This year is the 200th Anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx (1818-1883). A recent biography of Marx (reviewed here) places him very much as a man of his time. It is a sign of the success of Marx that his legacy is still so debated; it is a sign of his failure that defending Marx involves separating him, and his ideas, from the record of mass murder and tyranny of regimes calling themselves Marxist.
The latter line of apologia has a major problem: the prescient predictions of various of his contemporaries about where his ideas (and his praxis) would lead. If perceptive contemporaries could perceive the potential for disaster in his ideas in advance, it seems a bit otiose to deny the connection in retrospect.
Conclusions becoming premises
Part of the problem is that Marx was not ideologically consistent. His ideas of proper social goals become somewhat more grandiose and totalising over time. So, one can cite earlier writings as a defence against the implications and influence of the later writings. Which leads into the “good intentions” defence—if we cite Marx’s morally engaging statements, we can then claim that clearly he has nothing to do with what was done in his name (see here). Marx, after all, did famously state that he was not a Marxist.
But neither was Freud a Freudian, or Kuhn a Kuhnian and so on. This is the progression pointed out by Etienne Gilson (1884-1978)—the conclusions of the master are the premises of the disciple. Which is a very old pattern. When Philo of Alexandria used Greek natural law theory to effectively re-write the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), rejecting the rabbinical oral tradition and proposing a claim that sits poorly with the actual text, one can see both old and new interpretations in his own writing (in On Abraham XXVI-XXIX). Those that followed just took his natural law imposition on the text and dropped the complexities. As can be seen in St John Chrysostom’s homilies on Romans. So, what had been a story about God destroying societies which were anti-moral, which actively punished good behaviour, became a story about how people of the same sex having sex was treason against the purposes of the Creator (hence worthy of death). Which Philo himself, in his polemical war with Greek religious and sexual culture, was clearly just fine with (see Special Laws III: VII).
So, conclusions have consequences. Hence Bakunin (1814-1876) and other contemporaries picking accurately where Marx’s ideas would lead. It is misleading and dangerous to put so much weight on stated intentions, especially moral intentions as it is precisely the making-trumps element of morality which makes it so potentially oppressive. How things are framed (especially how other people are characterised), the means extolled, scale of the purposes embraced: these all matter at least as much, and often rather more, than intentions, however morally engaging they might be. But we live in an age where many people are deeply invested in moral entitlement status games based on their ostentatious moral intentions.
The Left that was
From 1789 to 1991, across the long C19th (1789-1914) and the short C20th (1914-1991), the term Left in politics had broadly consistent referents. The term started off with who sat where in the French National Assembly. The 1789-1991 Left was, in all its forms, a product of the Enlightenment and largely framed its moral and social analysis in terms of class. It was divided between the Radical Enlightenment; those who believed that applied human reason could transform man, that human nature was plastic to applied social action: and the Sceptical Enlightenment; those who believed that human reason could improve human social conditions but nevertheless had to deal with humanity as it was and had been.
This division, and associated (albeit often implicit) claims about human nature, went at least as far back as the Grandee-Leveller Putney Debates (1647) during the English Civil Wars with Henry Ireton (1611-1651) leading the Grandees, and Thomas Rainsborough (1610-1648), leading the Levellers. The antinomian aspirations and totalitarian tendencies of the Radical Enlightenment Left went even further back, to the radical heresy movements so brilliantly analysed by historian Norman Cohn in The Pursuit of the Millennium.
But that the Left did not erupt ex nihilo does not invalidate that there was a coherent Left in European and European-derived politics across the two centuries from 1789 to 1991—a product of the Enlightenment among whom various class-framings of politics and moral action were dominant. That Left has remarkably little in common with contemporary progressivism, as it has abandoned class framings and embraced Post-Enlightenment ideas (often, somewhat over-narrowly, labelled postmodernism). If one resurrected Karl Marx—or, for that matter Lenin (1870-1924) or Keir Hardie (1856-1915)—they would find familiar and congenial remarkably few of the concerns and obsessions of contemporary progressivism.
Conversely, if one resurrected Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), he would absolutely find familiar the concerns of contemporary progressivism. He would, of course, have a somewhat different take (apart from blame-the-Jews and a functional preference for Islam and Muslims over Christianity and Christians) but the concerns of contemporary progressivism (sex, the stories we tell about sex aka gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, population movements, environmentalism and the valorisation of nature, identity, subjectivity and emotion over reason) were absolutely his concerns. Nor is this some sort of weird outcome; it flows naturally from the reality that the Post-Enlightenment, with its concern for emotion, experience and subjectivity, is the Counter-Enlightenment rebooted and Hitler was the embodiment of the Counter-Enlightenment as a political project.
The Jacobin curse
While I do not agree with anything close to an absolute separation of Marx’s ideas from the history of the attempt to operationalise them, it is still an error to put all the blame on Marx. For there was another figure whose influence on politics across those two centuries, and beyond, has been more disastrous.
That was Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794) who, along with his political associates, such as Louis Saint-Just (1767-1794), created, not merely as conception but as practice, the Jacobin model of politics. The Jacobin model of politics is politics unlimited in means and unlimited in scope. That, is, politics willing to engage in any level of killing and repression, and willing to expand into any aspect of society and social interaction, to achieve its ends. A model of politics which relies on its sense of profound moral purpose to justify its refusal to accept limits in means and scope and, somewhat more implicitly, relies on its sense of profound social understanding to give the required confidence that what what it does will lead where it intends.
That Marx’s ideas were profoundly congenial for the Jacobin model of politics is obvious. They bring together both the sense of profound, trumping moral purpose and the sense of profound understanding of human social dynamics. Lenin very explicitly saw himself as applying Jacobin politics to Marx’s ideas as the necessary way to operationalise them. A bringing together that successfully established the first enduring explicitly Marxist regime and led to, at its height, a third of humanity being ruled by such regimes. A bringing together, furthermore, that many, many intellectuals who regarded themselves as followers of Marx implicitly or explicitly endorsed.
Not all, of course; Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) famously demurred. But her murder amidst the failure of the Spartacus uprising both silenced her voice and associated her ideas with failure. And those political Parties which were officially Marxist, but remained committed to democratic praxis, came to abandon Marx’s ideas. Something of a hint there, methinks.
The reality is, Marx’s ideas were ideally suited for the Jacobin temptation and it has been only by acceding to that path that they have come anywhere near implementation. Of course, the conjunction turned out to be nothing like any form of human liberation: a warning in itself. It is, moreover, a general problem: what looks like Morality’s Empire so easily and recurrently becomes Moral Tyranny and then simply Tyranny. Marx’s ideas had particularly weak barriers to that progression. On the contrary, they slid down it oh, so easily.
But the poisonous influence of the Jacobin model extends well beyond the history of Leninism and its offshoots. Italian Fascism and German Nazism both represented the application of the Jacobin model to political projects: in the case of Fascism, to the project of Italian nationalism. In the case of Nazism, to the project of Aryan racial supremacy. If Lenin was Marx+Robespierre, Mussolini was Mazzini+Robespierre and and Hitler was Houston Stewart Chamberlain+Robespierre.
Of the three meldings of the Jacobin model of politics to political projects, Italian Fascism was by far the least morally and humanly disastrous. That was because Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872) was by far the most liberal thinker, compared to Marx or Chamberlain (1855-1927), and Italian nationalism was by far the most limited political project of the three.
Hiding from oneself
One of the purposes in the promiscuous use of the term Fascist!, even to claiming that German Nazism (whose victims number in the millions and whose ambitions ignited a world war) and Italian Fascism (whose domestic victims numbered in the hundreds and whose ambitions led to minor wars of opportunistic conquest) were just instances of the same phenomena, morally indistinguishable from each other, is to obscure the fact that, without Nazism, no modern political movement had remotely the record of tyranny and mass murder of various forms of Leninist regimes. It is deeply embarrassing to leave intensive manifestations of the Left as the peak of mass murderous tyranny, hence the endless invocations of Fascism! and of racism as the worst sin ever.
It is even more embarrassing to note that what made Nazism so horrible was not how different it was from the radical Left, but how similar it was. The grandeur of its ambitions for social transformation, the intensity of its mobilisation of society, the depth of its organised penetration of social institutions, all these were far more like the radical Left than any part of the broad non-Left (aka Right).
Nazi Germany institutionally resembled the Soviet Union far more than it did any of the Western democracies. Even now, as the People’s Republic of China retreats from command economics, it increasingly institutionally resembles Nazi Germany, without the Jew-hatred and Lebensraum ambitions (whatever its South China Sea ambitions, barely anyone actually lives there). Though the overseas Chinese communities provide some potential for irredentist politics.
So, it is very expedient for progressivists to shout “Fascism!” a lot and treat racism as the worst-thing-ever; to talk about Marx’s intentions and ignore the prescience of his contemporary critics. And do it even louder so as to obscure the abandonment of the concerns of the Enlightenment Left and the adoption of those of the Counter-Enlightenment, politically personified in Adolf Hitler. With Paul de Man (1919-1983), Heidegger (1889-1976) and Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), not to mention environmentalism, even providing ideological bridges.
A lot of the moral outrage and moral tub-thumping of contemporary progressivism is about hiding unfortunate political resonances and commonalities: above all, from themselves. But they are people obsessed with their sense of moral status and entitlement burbling endlessly on about equality; so there is a lot of cognitive dissonance to be hidden: above all, from themselves.
Is-people versus Ought-people
The history of the Jacobin model, of grand moral intentions and social understandings, gives us plenty of insights and warnings. But that is so only if you are an is-person who thinks that history is what has happened; that human nature is fairly consistent, so history is a source of warning and insight. If you are an ought-person, who elevates moral intentions as the measure of all things, for whom is history is about the glorious imagined and intentioned future, not limited by the constraints of human nature, then this is just a catalogue of past sins with which the well-intentioned need not concern themselves. And so they don’t, except to distance themselves from it.
Which also makes then not the people you want in charge of anything serious, given how many facts and historical lessons they are hiding from; so it is worrying how much they are now in charge of the culturally significant. In their informative and fun How Women Got Their Curves, the authors observe that:
the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that entropy or disorder increases in natural systems unless energy is available to counteract this process, applies to organisms no less than to nonliving, physical systems.
And also applies to social systems created by organisms. The assiduous efforts, in the name of morality’s empire, to exclude people and concerns from social life, the war on inconvenient facts, the pervasive attack on the wellsprings of culture: folk pursuing such are an increasingly pervasive force for social entropy, and not in any good way.
A certain sense of impending slow disaster seems appropriate, this 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth, 260th anniversary of Robespierre’s birth and 231st anniversary of Robespierre’s election to the Estates-General of the Kingdom of France.
ADDENDA: Branko Milanovic reminds us that, without Engels Marx might have passed into obscurity and without Lenin Marx would have nowhere near the global significance his thought achieved.
[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]