Saturday, April 7, 2018
Does Communism Have a Future? The Appeal of Marxism/Leninism in the 20th century and even in today’s post-post-post World of Desperation for Meaning
During much of the 20th century, so many people all over the world hung their hopes on communism. It was the new science, new philosophy, the new faith. And even after the enthusiasm faded into disillusion, it seemed as though the Soviet Empire would last many more decades because it was so big and formidable. But then, it all collapsed overnight, and even those on the Left consigned communism to the dustbin of history. But now, due to the crises of late capitalism, rise of globalism, and new inequalities(and amnesia about the extent of communist crime and horrors), there is renewed interest in radical socialism in certain quarters.
So, does communism have a future? But then, it was never generic communism(which predated Marx) per se but Marxism or Marxism-Leninism that made the difference. Ultimately, Maoism was too anti-intellectual to win over converts for long. It was more about hysteria and rabid passion, the sort of thing that burns out rather quickly. But then, one could argue PC owes more to a strain of Maoism because its purpose is to override intellect with intensity of righteous furor. Many of today’s radical young act more like China’s Red Guards than Marxist-Leninist-Trotskite intellectuals whose style was rather ‘bourgeois’.
If it wasn’t for Marxism/Leninism, would communism have gained so many disciples and converts? After all, the basic idea of communism predated Marxism. It was meant as a formula for a society where work and wealth would be shared equally. It wasn’t particularly intellectual or theoretical. It was a utopianism of need.
It was Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels’ theorization of communism that really changed the world. Similarly, psychology and psychiatry predated Sigmund Freud, but it was Freudianism that really created a Movement or Cult(as denigrated by some). It was this strain of Freudianism that had a major impact on culture, from high art to mass entertainment. And among libertarianism, it was Ayn Rand’s particular take on capitalism and individualism that created so many adherents. The basic ideas didn’t originate with Rand, but she pulled them altogether into a radical romanticist worldview with the mytho-heroic individual at the center.
In all these intellectual phenomena, we see several factors at play. We see the appeal of something grand, epic, and/or universal. World Revolution, Discovery of the Mind, and Heroic Freedom. Another appeal is the unification of seemingly disparate ideas. Marx explained how economic forces aren’t just an element of society but THE underlying factor in EVERYTHING. So, religion, arts, culture, history, and etc are all manifestations of economic struggles.
Freud explained that the mind isn’t a pristine rational faculty independent of body and base instincts but an organ shaped by sexual animal drives that, though repressed, can’t be extinguished, thereby leading to the development of complexes.
And Rand argued that every progress in human history owed to the radical heroism of individual liberty. Without unfettered individualism, human advancement shall be impossible. According to Rand, the best way to do good is not to be ‘good’ but to be free as an individual and fulfill one’s destiny(if one is possessed of rare talent). For example, if a man has the genius to invent fire, he should do that instead of taking care of the poor. Helping the poor might do some good, but it doesn't lead to the invention of fire that will change the very course of mankind. Would it have been better for Newton or Einstein to feed the poor than follow their passion in science? Should Tolstoy not have written WAR AND PEACE because it prevented him from aiding the poor? (Granted, most people aren’t great, and the problem of Randism is it conflates, at least in the minds of its acolytes, generic individualism with great individuality. Randism, like Dianetics, was marketed as self-help for the masses when its philosophy is relevant only to those with rare talent. Its success owed to the radical babbity fantasy of any individual pretending he could be a great tycoon or visionary artist.)
Another profound appeal of such movements was the cult of personality. It’s part of human nature to want a name or a human face to iconicly represent an idea, passion, or movement. Development of religion owed to humans personifying the world around them. So, maybe a manlike god makes thunder. Maybe a manlike god controls the seas. Greeks attached manlike deities to phenomena of nature and psyche.
And in war narratives, we like to focus on big godlike personalities. Even though victory in war relies mostly on soldiers and the entire chain of command — and industry providing armaments and logistics — , we’d rather fixate on personalities like Patton, MacArthur, Rommel, General Lee, General Grant, Napoleon, and etc. Big personalities add a mythic dimension to extremely complex phenomena that involve so many details and complications.
Same is true with the battle of ideas. Basic ideas of communism existed before Marx. But Marx became the human face of the movement. He came to be revered as its Moses, the law-giver and prophet.
Likewise, Freud became the sage figure of a great cult. Thus, the ideas of psychology and psychiatry went from abstract academism of dry ideas to the legendary stuff of genius of towering individuality.
And of course, fans of the Ayn Rand cult revere her as a visionary seer. She transformed the generic ideas of freedom and individuality into myths for heroes to live by.
So, people want to believe in a big idea, but big ideas tend to be generic and bland, or academic and abstract. But when it emanates from and revolves around a ‘genius’ or ‘prophet’ who stamps it with personality and vision, it takes on the characteristics of a story and crusade. And this is what made communism such a powerful movement. It had Marx and later Lenin as its prophets. It is why Freudianism, despite its flaws and even fraudulence, captivated so many. And it’s why Rand turned American individualism from a value to a vision.
There was also a bold and radical quality about such figures, making their ideas all the more intoxicating. Even though probity and caution are generally preferable, they don't entice and excite. We love the thrill of clash of the titans. If Marx had been a social-democrat, he might have been a more sensible and measured thinker. Caution may be more wiser, but it’s also limiting of the larger vision striving toward the prophetic. For one to gain renown and/or notoriety, one has to think bigger, see further, and make big claims about history.
After all, cultural controversies arise from bold pronouncements. Auteur Theory altered the course of film history because Francois Truffaut had the gall to declare a new grand theory of cinema. It wasn’t proposed as a possibility but proffered as a certainty.
Like Marx, Freud was also a Big Thinker as was Rand. Their Delusional Derangement Syndrome was part of the appeal. It’s like Hard Rockers usually get more respect than crooners or balladeers. When Led Zeppelin played hard, the music = power = truth. Thunders and storms, not breezes and drizzles, get all the coverage.
Whether Marxism was, good or bad, right or wrong, it was truly bold and epic in its prophetic reach. Imagine if Moses came down with a set of legal documents and explained to Hebrews that he came up with some useful ordinances for the Tribe. Hebrews would have been bored. Moses commanded respect because he spoke big and loud like Charlton Heston and claimed the laws were given to him from God Himself..
Christianity and Islam became great religions because of the fusion of universality and personality: A kind of ‘Universonality’. The ideas expounded by Jesus weren’t really new. There had been ideals of pacifism before. So, why did Christianity take off? Because the ideas and values were poeticized and ‘sacralized’ by the words, deeds, and feats of Jesus, a God with a human face. The combination of ideas, personality, and story did the trick. Likewise, the ideas of Islam cannot be appreciated apart from the personality cult of Muhammad as the great prophet-seer-warrior-servant-of-Allah.
There is also the cult of The Champion. In boxing, there are several leagues, which means there can be three or four heavyweight champions at the same time. This is dissatisfying. We want to the Real Champion. We want all the champs to fight it out to find out who the real champ is. This is why pagan mythology has hierarchy among the gods. There is Zeus as top god in the Greek pantheon, and Odin is the top god in Germanic mythology. But Jews went even further. They decided to unify all gods into just one. So, there is only one God and only one truth. All else are false gods.
And such was the appeal of Marxism, Freudianism, and Randism. They were attempts to offer an explanation for everything by tying all the threads of history into a unified prophecy. It had The Answer for all humanity and for each individual. There had been many ideas of communism before Marx, but it was Marxism that explained how communism isn’t merely a choice of political philosophy but an inevitability of history driven by class conflict. Competing ideas of communism were either subsumed into or rejected by Marxism as the unifying theory.
In a similar vein, Freud insisted that his theory of the mind-body-dynamics explained all of psychology and human nature. And Rand insisted that her theory would ensure the triumph of reason and truth above falsehood, sentimentality, and/or dogma. There was no need for any other theory. Each claimed championship, the unification title.
And yet, Marxism had a greater impact than Freudianism or Randism. As influential as Freud was, the direction of capitalism was bound to lead to consumerism and hedonism EVEN IF Freud had never existed. As for Rand, she was only the most fervent and fanatical proponent of capitalism. She put an accent on individualism but didn’t fundamentally change history. Ultimately, she was a cheerleader pretending to be the coach.
In contrast, even though Marx didn’t invent communism, his theory of communism came to found a great movement and a new order that would shake the world in the 20th century and directly impact the lives of billions who either came under communist rule or were exhorted to stand against it.
Despite psychology’s importance in the 20th century, it’s about the individual mind. Even though everyone has psychology, it isn't possible to unify all minds(unless a super-collective mind machine is created in the future) into a Power or Truth. To be sure, electronica has created something like proto-unification of the mind. TV-Radio-internet is like a Cloud-Mind. As our senses are hooked to TV screens, radios, computers, and smart-phones beaming the same images, sounds, and ideas to billions around the world, our minds are being molded into a singularity by a handful of Big Media corporations. If I controlled a machine that generates ideas & images and could beam them to a billion people around the world, I would effectively be uni-colonizing their minds. In this sense, TV is a mind-control tool that molds countless minds into one. Prior to electronica, people would have been reading different books, different newspapers, hearing different conversations, and etc. But with everyone having a TV, he sees the same images, and his mind is molded by the same stories, news, ideas, and advertising. Invasion by tropes is more insidious than invasion by troops. It’s chilling that Freud’s nephew Bernays was a pioneer in mass advertising, a force that, in some way, became more powerful than any ideology. Electronica favored idology to ideology and it is one of the driving force of ACOWW or Afro-Colonization of White Wombs. Also, the rise of advertising molded arts and culture to function in a similar way: Synergy of art and advertisement.
Still, as exciting as ‘idology’ is, it is not fulfilling to the heart and soul. It’s about thrills. It’s like fireworks are fun but can’t warm your body in winter. Warmth is provided by conviction and a belief system. Marxism was certainly that. It had an element of high intellect and converted many intelligent people who sought an ideology as replacement for religion.
But its themes were also about justice for poor folks and toiling workers. Thus, it had an ennobling moral and quasi-spiritual element, not unlike that found in creeds like Christianity and Islam. So, Marxism brought together the mind and heart. And because revolution required a fight, the fist completed the trinity.
Because Marxism envisioned a better future, a heaven on earth, it fulfilled a spiritual need for modern man who could no longer return to faith in God. It united the mind, the soul, and the body. And also the senses. As Marxism connected EVERYTHING to economics, a communist was expected to make and/or criticize arts and culture. Marxist had to master media and entertainment to win over the masses and serve the revolution. And a Marxist had to be a keen reader and critic of bourgeois art and capitalist entertainment to critique them and expose their true agendas. There was a place for artists and critics in Marxosphere, especially when Antonio Gramsci formulated his own brand of Marxism.
Also, Marxism came with a handful of canonical works such as THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, DAS KAPITAL, and works of Lenin and others. The Communist Manifesto had the appeal of the New Testament Gospels. It was easy to understand and digest. It was for everyman, like op-ed in newspaper. Das Kapital was a much more daunting work, like the Talmud, but that was precisely its appeal to those of philosophical or literary bent. Like Heidegger’s BEING AND TIME, its difficulty was appreciated for challenging the intellect. For a revolutionary to have read Das Kapital and understood it was akin to someone mastering the Torah(and Talmud). After all, even as universalist intellectuals wanted to feel a direct connection to the masses, they also wanted to feel superior as serious thinkers. So, Marxism’s appeal to both semi-literate masses and ultra-literate intellectuals was seen as the promise of unity of mind and body of humanity approaching the end of history. It’s like what Barton Fink explains to the working class guy. Fink wants to be ONE with the workers but also ABOVE them with his elaborate literary theories about arts and politics.
What is the appeal of the Bible? It’s the unity. Its themes and similar narratives can be found in lots of other books, but who wants to carry a 1000 books around? Bible’s appeal is that it combines theology, history, genealogy, poetry, philosophy, prophecy, chronology, legalism, ethics, and etc. Greeks and Romans produced many great works but there are here, there, everywhere. There is no single Greek book that brings it all together. Bible, in contrast, brought together the essence of all the Jewish themes, culture, and ideas. So, just by carrying that one book, there is a great sense of carrying truth, meaning, history, spirituality, and etc.
And this was the appeal of communism. Just by having a few collected works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and maybe Trotsky, the Truth was in one’s hands.
I was never a communist but had a collection of commie sacred texts in the 1980s. The capitalist world of US seemed colorful and lively but confusing, complicated, and contradictory. So, reading Marxist-Leninist-Maoist books was akin to perusing through the Bible. They promised certainty and direction in a world where one couldn’t tell how what was going where for whom. Even though I was skeptical of the theories and claims, there was something prophetic in the promise of redemption.
There is a very good piece by Tony Judt in NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS on the death of Marxism.
It tries to understand why Marxism/Leninism had such a spell on so many people — from most distinguished intellectuals in the West to the crudest ragtag rebels in the Third World — in the 20th century. Its secret was in the promise of singularity with a simple but profound idea as conveyed in the canonical texts. It offered an intersection of history, philosophy, quasi-spirituality, theory of justice, prophecy, cult of science and reason(as Marx claimed to be totally rational and objective, just like Freud and Ayn Rand later), manual on manhood(as revolution would require warriors), love(as equal justice would mean happiness for all men and women in sex and love), and arts & culture(as revolutionaries must decode and expose bourgeois propaganda and create new culture for the new man). Via Marxism, various peoples working in different fields and departments of expertise could feel interconnected and complementary because, as fellow Marxists, they were all working toward the same end of Final Justice.
Christianity had once played such a role in the West. It spiritually and morally united everyone from king to the lowest peasant. But with the fading of religions and old hierachies, what could serve as the new ideological and quasi-theological underpinning for all men? Many looked to Marxism as the great hope, the new prophecy based on science than on superstition.
In post-war European cinema, why did so many bourgeois capitalist film-makers claim to be ‘Marxist’? They obviously didn’t want to go live in communist Russia. When they made money, they vacationed like rich bourgeoisie and drove around in sports cars. They ate at fancy restaurants. Still, they adopted ‘Marxism’ as the new-christianity. In a society that seemed increasingly uprooted, alienated, and fragmented, they held onto Marxism that served as a new 'spiritual' compass and connective thread for all mankind.
So, the key issue isn’t whether communism will make a comeback or not. The main question is why Marxism/Leninism still has a hold on people. It is because the human mind is essentially religious to the extent that we crave the unity of truth and authority. When the West practiced religion, the sense of totality and unity was provided by God and Jesus through the Sacred Texts and the Church. But real religion has long been dead.
The End of History is here and the Final Idea is this bland thing called ‘liberal democracy’ which can mean just about anything. Some have tried to find meaning through Homomania and Negromania. But for how long can humanity find meaning in worshiping butt-banging? And how long can we worship the Magic Negro, which is as mythical as the unicorn? Furthermore, whatever fun and thrills that people might get from pop culture saturation of Negro dongs and Black booties, is it ultimately meaningful? The idolatry of homos and Negroes have a powerful hold on globalist culture, but they lack depth and substance for those seeking meaning..
For a while, there was an attempt to turn Shoah into a new religion, and this still holds for many Jews. Europeans have been raised with Shoah-guilt as their neo-christianity with Anne Frank as Virgin Mary and with Jewish victims as the neo-christs who died for the ‘sins’ of gentiles. But how long can this hold as EU fills up with Muslims and Africans who feel nothing for Jews? And with people becoming more cynical about Jewish power and the mess in West Bank — and with negative news about the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Anthony Weiner — , the Shoah-as-new-religion is becoming ever harder to sustain. Too many Jews are too rich and too corrupt. As horrible as the Shoah was, Shoah-worship is as problematic as Magic-Negro-worship and Homo-angel-worship. It ultimately comes down to worship of man, and mankind is a sinful animal. So, even though we want to believe in blacks-ennobled-under-white-tyranny, they mostly act like louts. And even though Jews suffered the horrors of Shoah, they’ve gained great power since then and do awful things.
Unlike God who can be said to be eternally great, all peoples wildly vacillate on the scale from good to evil. Germans were once good, then terrible during Nazism, then good again, and now bad again. Jews can be good or bad at different times. Worshiping Shoah-as-religion won’t work because it posits that we must look at ALL Jews through ALL of history through the prism of Shoah for ALL eternity. So, even if Zionists were to decide to wipe out the Palestinians, we have to see Jews as ‘the eternal victim’. It’s ridiculous.
There is no longer any unity of truths and meanings. In some ways, this is a good thing as no single ideology or worldview can explain everything. And yet, there is a longing for unity,the culmination of historical, moral, spiritual, material, and rational truth. In the absence of such, some are returning to Marxism/Leninism, esp as capitalism has grown so corrupt and disgusting.
Some on the True Left must be wondering what the hell happened to the Idea of Progress. How did Leftism become the arm of Wall Street, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley, taking huge sums from money-changers like Soros who promote whores and homos? Given what has become of progressivism, it is now de rigeur to support homos and all that. But in doing so, leftism has lost its true meaning, purpose, and connection to the people. Also, the embrace of Diversity has turned leftism into a ideological cesspool of incoherence. Is leftism for feminism or for Islam? Is it for women or for trannies? Is it for essentialism or fantasism of 50 genders? Is it for capitalist pop culture or against it? If leftism is about ‘more immigrants’, how can it ever address the problems of the natives when it’s too busy attacking natives as ‘xenophobes’ for not taking in MORE foreigners.
Given this mess, some may be hankering for Classic Marxism that was universal but also demanding and disciplined as theory and practice.
BUT, Marxism really is a spent force, and you can’t go home again. But then, Christianity is also a spent force. It had a great 1600 yr run, but it’s now comatose as faith and culture. Esp its failure to resist homomania exposed it as the Sick Man of Religion. As for Marxism, it failed too big and too tragically in the 20th century to make a real comeback. Also, Marxism is essentially too literary and intellectual for young generations raised on internet, texting, and selfies. Even the 60s youth radicals were more Coca-Cola than Marx.
But the current malaise opens up opportunities for new great ideas, movements, and even religions. A state-of-the-art religion may not even require faith but a vision, like in sci-fi stories. Maybe L. Ron Hubbard was on to something even though what came of his movement turned into a cultish joke.
This is the time to create new visions and religions, new ideologies and movements. And that is why there is such fear of the Alt Right and other such voices. They sense that something is terribly wrong and out of balance in the world. Old Rules and Old ideas no longer speak to our times. And yet, something big and powerful must happen for the world to be saved and set straight again.
It is time to write the Book, a new book that will unify the disparate ideas yet waiting to be gathered into one. It’s like what Bob Dylan did with BLONDE ON BLONDE. He took everything from country, rock n roll, blues, folk, and poetry and brought it all back home and made something that was both everything but also unique and special. This is why Dylan’s stature as the prophet of Rock stuck.