Monday, October 05, 2015

Short Fuse on a biography that describes Engels as pretty literally the world's first "champagne communist"

Among the most memorable words Karl Marx ever wrote — up there with “A specter is haunting Europe” and “Workers of the world unite” — are these, on the advantages of the world that communist revolution would bring about: “Communist society,” he predicted, would enable “me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic.”

This is from “The German ideology,” published posthumously but written by Marx in his twenties. The image of freedom expressed is an unmistakably youthful one, conveying more about recreation than vocation, and providing no remotely plausible basis for any society, revolutionary or not. If cattle rearing occurred only in the evening, there’d be neither beef nor dairy. If hunters and fishers were active only when the mood took them, we’d all be vegans, except that vegans would starve, too, since what Marx said about hunting and fishing was meant to apply just as strictly to farming, nut gathering, and apple picking.

This utopia of an early Marx consists of aristocratic pastimes, diversions, games. It is a vision of a global human retirement community, of our species relaxing after the terrible toil of history. If such idyllic circumstances could be achieved, what would the critic find to “criticize after dinner”?

But there are substantial weaknesses in Hunt’s account. Hunt does a fair job of describing the various intellectual disciplines that were fused into Marxism. There was, above all, the Hegelian dialectic, Germany’s seminal contribution to Marxism. That was joined with the tradition of French revolutionary activism, and with English analyses of economics.

But Hunt never steps back to contemplate the inherent problem of such grand syntheses when bought to bear on human life. To seek a unified field theory in physics is one thing. If found, it would not lead to gulags or concentration camps, the way ersatz unified field theories of human activity seem always to do.

Hunt writes: “Was Engels responsible for the terrible misdeeds carried out under the banner of Marxism-Leninism?. . . the answer has to be no. In no intelligible sense can Engels or Marx bear culpability for the crimes of historical actors carried out generations alter, even if the policies were offered up in their honor.”

But throughout this biography, Hunt himself seems divided on this issue. He writes, for instance, about one purge of communist ranks carried out by Marx and Engels: “What the next 150 years brought in terms of expulsions, denunciations, and political purges within left-wing parties is grimly foreshadowed” in this instance. There are many examples of such foreshadowing.
Marx once dreamed about a world that allowed for going from “one thing today and another tomorrow.” The intellectual weaponry he and Engles forged for their successors led, contra their youthful hopes, to the opposite.

It's seemed to me over the years that Marxism was just a secularization of the postmillennialist optimism of the era within nominalist Christendom and the real deal proselytizers. It's the apocalyptic expectation and hope that one day the lion will lay down with the lamb but by dint of a different kind of pamphlet writing, the kinds that don't eventually get canonized into a biblical text that imagine that it's more likely a supernatural creator-god will create such a utopia than the observably improbable contribution of the humans who formulated the kinds of economic systems in which oppression and poverty are never necessarily gone.

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