For this semester I’ll offer my reflections on an introductory, freshmen-level course on western core texts that I am teaching.
Maybe the most influential text written in the nineteenth-century, Marx’s “The Communist Manifesto,” still inspires both approbation and repugnance among readers today. While the practice of communism has been a disaster (e.g., the Soviet Union) and mostly repudiated (e.g., the People’s Republic of China), the ideology still retains its allure among western intellectuals and college students. But before speculating why this is the case, a quick review of Marxism is required first.
The key to understanding “The Communist Manifesto” is dialectical materialism where Marx makes two assertions: 1) material reality – and primarily economic reality – is all that exists; and 2) history is dialectical as manifested in class struggle that ultimately concludes in communism. In capitalism, the industrial working class, or proletariat, engage in class struggle with the bourgeoisie, the owners of capital. By exploiting the proletariat for its labor power, the bourgeoisie are their “own grave-diggers” because the proletariat inevitably will become conscious of their potential and will rise to power through revolution.
With his theoretical account of history and reality in place, Marx then moves to practical politics and extols the virtues of the communist party. The party will express the general will of the world’s proletariat and defend their interests. When it achieves power in “the battle of democracy,” the communist party will centralize power and implement a number of measures – such as the progressive income tax, the abolition of inheritance and private property, free public education, centralization of credit – as a precursor to a stateless and classless society. Marx concludes his Manifesto by rallying the communist parties in France, Switzerland, Poland, and Germany to achieve political power.
After reading Marx, one could ask the following questions: Is there something more than material reality? Why should history be understood dialectically? How does Marx know that history ends in communism? Are humans and their societies so malleable that they can be transformed to be stateless and classless? Won’t nationalism be more potent than world-wide, working-class solidarity (as in the case of World War I and II)? Why did communism emerge in industrially backward countries, like Russia and China, and not in western Europe as Marx had predicted? And isn’t the reasons given later by Lenin and Mao nothing more than rationalizations to justify their hold on power?
In The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx’s response to these and other inquiries is “Do not think, do not question me,” for when the socialist person speaks, the rest of people have to be silent. This prohibition of questions is deadly when it attains social effectiveness in society. It not only precludes debate and discussion but promotes a conformity of action that could be lethal. The disobedience of orders, whether at the extermination camp or the reeducation workshop, becomes unthinkable if we are not permitted to ask questions. We are no longer individuals, citizens, or even humans but merely functionaries in the machinery of the party.
An ideology that claims to know the inner workings of history combined with sympathy for the poor and a prohibition of questions is toxic but also attractive. Toxic because it can lead to mass disruptions of society, such as the twentieth-century killing of over 100 million people under communist regimes; attractive because one’s intellectual and moral responsibility is assumed by the party. In other words, those who are spiritually weak, intellectually corrupt, and morally broken yet want to do good in the world are the prime candidates for Marxist ideology. These “useful idiots” excuse and support the actions of psychopaths like Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot, and others.
If there is any role still reserved for higher education, it is to question ourselves, our beliefs, and our actions. But the purpose of such questioning is not to lead us to the second realities of ideological thinking but to guide us towards a greater understanding of truth and how we can live it in our lives. And while we may fall short of understanding and acting on it, we nevertheless keep on pursuing truth in the hope that the next question will lead us further on the path towards enlightenment.
Originally appeared on VoegelinView Read More