Friday, May 11, 2007

Marxism, and Other Faiths

Today, I'm sitting here trying to figure out why this essay by Theodore Dalrymple leaves me cold. I like Dalrymple quite a bit and, as I've said before, think he's the only conservative that should be required reading for liberals. In the essay, he draws comparisons between Marxism and the writings of Sayyid Qutb, showing the flaws in both. I think his points are correct, as they stand, although not especially deep. But, I'm not a Marxist, nor am I a radical Muslim, so his critique of both doesn't bug me. So, what's the problem?

Maybe it's just how shallow the essay seems, which is odd given the depths of Dalrymple's other essays. This one feels ghost-written. He speaks at great length about Qutb's dreadful book Milestones, which he is now reading, and compares it to the writings of Karl Marx. Here is where he gets cursory and glib. To be blunt, I don't get the sense that Dalrymple has ever read Capital, I think he might or might not have read the Communist Manifesto, and I can only guarantee that he's read Karl Popper's critiques of Marxism. Must one read Marx? Well, probably if they're going to write a critique of Marx's thinking. Or to fight insomnia.

I have read Capital, god help me. It seems to me that Capital can be read in two ways:
1. As a critique of capitalism.
2. As a defense of Marxism. (And it should be read as both.)

Indeed, the text tends to vary between passages of extremely dry economic modeling and analysis, and muckraking vignettes of life in a capitalist/industrial society. Most people, myself included, struggle to stay awake through the former and find the latter to be much easier reading. In general, I think Marx's diagnosis of the problems 'inherent' to capitalism, the bulk of the text, are fairly shrewd. But, he didn't really foresee things like the minimum wage, OSHA, or the fact that capitalism would grow wealth as well as it does. In other words, the problems are there, but it's not clear that they're as 'irreconcilable' as he thinks. On the other hand, he did foresee things like globalization.

In the larger sense, Marxism requires us to take Marx's analysis of the phenomena inherent to capitalist societies (the raw data, if you will) as evidence that he has uncovered the underlying laws of historical development, which can be roughly called Dialectical Materialism, taking Hegel's more spiritual Dialectic of History and turning it on its head. (In Marx, material conditions are the base that determines the intellectual/ cultural superstructure, and in Hegel it's the opposite.) He has supposedly seen the stages that societies pass through, the dialectical struggles that make it possible for them to pass through these stages, and the endpoint of history, which is forthcoming. Lucky him.

So, is it possible to accept Marx's critique of capitalism, but not his defense of Marxism? Of course. But, not if you're a Marxist. That sounds glib. My point is that a Marxist cannot get around the dialectic, which is the motor by which Marxist theory 'works'. If there is no dialectic, there are no 'laws of historical development', or at least we can't spot them, and therefore Marxism is suited to predict the future of capitalist societies only as well as anything else.

Perhaps it's not revealing much to say that I don't accept the Dialectic. In general, I don't believe in laws of historical progress at all, I think Dialectical Materialism is quasi-mysticism, civilizations are likely guided more by chance and chaos than material factors and 'struggle', and that Hegel, that house philosopher of Prussian militarism, was an ill wind that blew no good. I am not a Marxist. This doesn't mean that Marx isn't worth reading or thinking about. But, kids, no book is ever going to give you all the answers to understanding the world around you. Remember: ambiguity and ambivalence are your dearest friends.

But, if there are vulgar Marxists, then there are certainly vulgar anti-Marxists. I've read too many articles about Marxism that are as deterministic as vulgar Marxism can be! The poor naive fellow picks up Capital and reads it, and then the mind-control ray zaps him! (Oh, if it was only so exciting to read Capital!) Anti-Marxists describe Marxism as a 'disease' or a 'poison' with all of the nuance of a Maoist describing Capitalism. After all, the danger is in reading Marx uncritically, not in reading him at all. The danger is in reading anything uncritically. Alas, we've now got people compiling lists of the Most Dangerous Books Ever. Like I've said before: Left-wingers see the world as basically unjust, while Right-wingers see the world as basically unsafe.

I think Dalrymple is right in seeing that Qutb borrowed from Marx; but I think he misses the reason this was so easy, namely the eschatological roots of Marxism. Hegel was trying to show that Christian theology is visible in the 'unfolding' of history and therefore to prove the inevitability of the forthcoming end of days. Marx tries to root this in material conditions, and so to make it scientific instead of spiritual, but he never really escapes the metaphysical aspect of Hegelianism. Bertrand Russel's comparison: Yahweh = Dialectical Materialism, The Messiah = Marx, The Elect = The Proletariat, The Second Coming = The Revolution, The Millennium = The End of History & Communism, etc.- works so well because the atheist Marx is modeling his theory after Hegel, who was anything but an atheist.

Therefore, it would make sense that a religious fanatic would borrow from Hegelian ideas. I think the value of Dalrymple's essay is that he sees the implications of there being quasi-Marxist underpinnings to a religious movement- namely, if the 'direction of history' is more important than the lives of us mere individuals, such ideologies can quickly turn authoritarian and murderous. Strangely though, Dalrymple doesn't seem to understand that religious eschatology was already bred in the Hegelian bones of Marxism. And he doesn't see (or doesn't indicate awareness) that all eschatological religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, carry the same danger, and most religions have, at one time or another, brought about the same disastrous results as the Marxist faith. And it's more than a bit interesting that Francis Fukuyama's great book The End of History, which argues that Hegel's Dialectic of history instead indicates that liberal capitalism will be the endpoint of history, and not communism, is required reading in the Bush White House. Especially given the way that the ends justify the means in all Hegelian philosophies, including Marxism. Why isn't this the subject of a book yet?

All ideologies that put some far off ideal or 'the future judgment of history' above the lives and destinies of real-world contemporary people can quickly turn disastrous, and should be rejected. (Actually, let's just play it safe and reject all belief systems. Whaddya say?) Such was the case with the Marxist utopia. Such was the case with Islamic radicalism. And such was the case with the plan to create a free and liberated utopian Middle East with bombs. People who say 'History is on my side' should be locked in rubber rooms; not followed. Remember: Never, ever trust anyone who seeks to undertake large programs of social engineering with heavy artillery.


Holly said...

Did you write that all out by hand prior to posting? I am awed by this prospect.

Rufus said...

I wrote about 3/4ths of it. It grew a bit while I was blogging it. But I am finding that it's much easier to write out the more complicated parts beforehand. Then I can add jokes, explanatory stuff, and fluff when I type it out.