Thoughts on “Main Currents of Marxism”
Spanish American philosopher George Santayana once noted, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Fallen man will make essentially the same mistakes that his forbears have made unless he learns from the lessons of history. For this reason, the study of political and philosophical history is essential to understanding current political theory in order to ensure that dangerous philosophies — those which threaten the inalienable rights of human persons — may be identified and rejected through reasoned, free and informed debate before their dangers become brutal reality. People educated in the lessons of history are people wise enough to reject its horrors. So it is that I have come to understand the necessity of learning more about Marxism in light of the current administration’s political machinations which seem to be, on some level, inspired by it.
Main Currents of Marxism: The Founders – The Golden Age – The Breakdown by Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski is widely hailed as the definitive work on the subject and his book is credited with “laying some of the paving stones that would eventually lead to the Solidarity movement”, a movement which itself led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. As I read through this volume, which is actually three books in one, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on what I am learning from it. This will be part one in a series and covers the introduction.
Avoiding subjective presumptions.
Kolakowski outlines the reasoning behind the methods he uses to offer an accurate history of Marxism. He immediately mentions the German philosopher Karl Marx and notes that the very fact that Marx was German may, in and of itself, invoke in the reader certain presumptions about his philosophy. When we make an assessment about something, we always bring our subjective experiences to the table with us. One might be familiar with the differerent schools of thought in the world and presume that Marx, because he was German, held a philosophy somewhat consistent with the German philosophers most commonly known at the time in which the reader is living. Subjective presumptions like this often get in the way of finding out the truth about something. I recall once hearing a teacher tell her class in Kentucky that she had moved from Pennsylvania and was surprised when she got to Kentucky that there were not many people running around barefoot. Reality is very often completely inconsistent with what we presume must be true. Kolakowski sets out to answer questions about the Communism of his day by studying the history of Marxism with a determination not to let subjective presumption get in the way.
Things rarely occur in real life exactly as written on paper.
Kolakowski notes the difficulty in his endeavor being primarily that one cannot precisely connect the dots between the words of a particular philosophy on paper and a social movement of people who follow that particular tradition and thereby prove that one absolutely beget the other with no other factors having impact. As a Catholic, I see this dynamic in the Church which defines through theMagisterium what is believed by Catholics to be absolute dogma leading us to the highest good while, due to man’s fallen nature, the highest good is never fully manifest among her members as a whole. There are Catholic saints alongside those who betray the doctrine through various levels of dissent. So it is with any philosophy, even if the philosophy ostensibly guides a large number of people. The historian should do his work with the understanding that what Marx wrote on paper should not necessarily be presumed to be exactly what Communism became as a social movement of living, breathing people. So it is that we cannot reasonably indict Karl Marx alone for Communism, nor say that Communism is fully Marxist, to the absolute exclusion of everything else. Kolakowski argues that the social movement itself, though it may represent itself as the body of true keepers of a given ideology, is generally quite stronger than the ideology itself.
The particular rallying point of any movement is one key to understanding it.
All movements have their rallying point. For the current Tea Party movement, which is decidedly anti-Marxist, the rallying point is widely credited to the February 19, 2009, plea by Rick Santelli from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Though this came decades after Kolakowski penned “Main Currents of Marxism“, his claim that other factors cause social movements to evolve over time is ringing true in the Tea Party movement now, less than three years after the rallying point. It is because of this inevitable evolution that we find it difficult to delineate with accuracy what ideals make one a “true” Tea Party “patriot” or “representative”. This same difficulty faces Kolakowski in his examination of Marxism, and he argues that for any “historian of ideas”, the correct question on this matter should be to find out what ideas caused the rallying point in the first place.
No single, flawed human being can represent the epitome of a philosophy.
Kolakowski offers an important caution, that it is a fruitless endeavor, at least in the context of historical analysis, to insist that only those who hold to the particular idea(s) that launched the rallying point are the “true” representatives of the movement. A president may be “Marxist”. He may even be a “true” Marxist, but at the same time disagree on key issues with other “true” Marxists. The leader of the movement does not necessarily precisely define the movement or the ideology, nor vice versa. Further, there may be different groups which carry the banner of “Marxist” (or “Tea Party”, or “Progressive”, as the case may be), and movements may change from generation to generation. These are all difficulties for historians of philosophy. The primary reason for this point is to explain that while a study of the history of a philosophy entails the study of the ideas of individuals who clearly, on some level, hold forth that philosophy, this process of discovery is misused if it is given as reason to classify certain individuals as being absolutely “true” or absolutely “false” representatives of that philosophy. Certainly, people have their loyalities to particular political leaders, and fallen man will seek to put a brand name on his hero or his opponent in order that others may be encouraged to follow, or reject, that leader. We see this phenomenon at times in the Tea Party movement with the debate on who leads the movement and with the Left’s attempt to smear the brand “Tea Party” in order to discredit its leaders. Such debates, inevitable due to man’s human nature, are reflections of the very same difficulties Kolakowski describes as being problematic during his Communist-era historical study of Marxism.
The role of culture in the development of philosophy.
Culture plays a significant role in the development of philosophy, and Kolakowski describes his view of the role of culture as being similar to that of the German writer Thomas Mann. Mann did not seek to absolve German culture of the evils of Nazism. Rather, he approached the question by seeking to find those aspects of German culture which allowed Nazism to take root. Though Mann was, as a citizen of Germany, a part of the very same German culture he studied, he did not seek to protect Germany from learning hard truths about the culture which may or may not have facilitated the horrors of fascism. The very clear influence of Nietzsche did not, after all, occur within a vacuum. Again, we see this point about culture holding true in America today with the Tea Party laying claim to the hallmarks of American civilization in the use of imagery of the Founding Fathers, the American flag, the American Bald Eagle, etc.. This cultural imagery represents America’s historic opposition to totalitarianism. Meanwhile, as the far left rejects the idea that one culture is better than another, there is backlash against the use of American imagery and, often, the propogation of Islam in an attempt to establish it as a major cultural component of our national identity. An interesting question to pose might be whether or not the “multi-cultural” far left in America has a culture itself and, if so, what does that culture look like? Also, is there, as with a power vacuum, a danger in having a “cultural vacuum”?
Limitations regarding the flow of information.
There are practical limitations in studying the history of Marxism specifically. Among them is the fact that so many of Marx’s works were not even in print until the Communist Revolution had already taken place, though they were later considered by Communists to be essential works. Fortunately, in this age of more advanced technology, it is far easier to offer for mass distribution the writings of college student Obama, community organizer Obama, or Senator Obama so that the public might examine trends in his thinking and whether or not those trends are the source of his current policies as president. Unfortunately, this did not happen. Another difficulty is that Marx addressed multiple fields — “basic philosophic anthropology, socialist doctrine, and economic analysis” — and that varities of opinions abound, not only on the particular division of fields, but also on the question of how (and whether) they are related. We see this same difficulty in our examination of the far left in America as a movement made up of various dimensions including radical environmentalism, multiculturalism, anti-capitalism, etc. Despite this variety of “talent” and goals, it is still possible to assess similarities in thinking which are common threads in the philosophy.
The role of tradition.
We will always find, even in the anti-tradition Left, a certain level of adherence to traditional thinking. Though the “democrat” may reject the idea that tradition is worthy of our consideration, surely he points to figures from tradition, like the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Lincoln (both of whom were Republicans) and claims them as forbears.
Catholic philosopher G.K. Chesterton wrote on the topic of “democrats” and their rejection of tradition:
Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils.
Surely, the Communist regime had the deceased Karl Marx at their “councils” in the form of adherence to his ideas. So, too, we may endeavor through the research of common threads to see if Karl Marx is similary seated at the table with President Obama’s Cabinet.
The impossible goal of Utopia.
Considering the many challenges involved in the analysis of a philosophy, Kolakowski resolves to focus his efforts “on the question which appears at all times to have occupied a central place in Marx’s independent thinking…” which is the question of how one can possibly adopt a utopian ideal when there exist so many variables that contribute to what is, in reality, an inevitable diversity of opinions and of outcomes. There is a further difficulty, as well, that Kolakowski points out. Marxists believe that history has “progressed”, and will continue in a “progressive” manner, in stages of class warfare, with the end result being “true” socialism. I am reminded of a quote from our progressive President Obama which he borrowed from Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”
The “bending arc” toward “justice” is one way of describing Marxist thought about history’s “progressive” stages toward socialism. Unfortunately for us, the “moral universe” of Marx rejects both tradition and natural law, finding its basis in economics and class warfare, unlike Dr. King’s “moral universe”. King said that law not rooted in natural law is unjust. Dr. King himself borrowed his quote on the arc of the moral universe from Theodore Parker, who inspired Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and was a proud grandson of Captain John Parker, American Revolutionary leader at the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Perhaps the historians of the future can sort out the reasons why a progressive would use a quote about justice from a Christian preacher who stood firm on the justice of natural law. Was President Obama’s quote an act of preserving or usurping traditional values? I would argue that it is an usurpation.
Indeed, values and philosophies are carried on from generation to generation, from sea to shining sea and beyond. Some preserve while others usurp. I look forward to reading more of “Main Currents of Marxism” and sharing my thoughts with you as I delve deeper into the history of Marxism.