People who dismiss Marxism in absolute terms do so at their own risk. As a philosophy, it would not have attracted the fanatical devotion of millions of people were there not truths within it that made it compelling. Addressing these criticisms of the status quo might even have prevented the communist revolutions in many places, like addressing the concerns of conservative American voters prior to 2015 might have prevented Trump’s successful campaign for president. Because these concerns were ignored, sufficient popular support managed to win a conflict, rather than a conversation, for the power of the state to act upon these ideas.
As a refresher, here are just a few of the things that Marxists have gotten right:
- Inequality – The evidence is pretty firm on the Gini coefficient, which predicts crime, as well as a host of other factors. Within the social sciences, the only thing more scientifically valid than the GC is the Intelligence Quotient (IQ). Marx was right that the increasing levels of inequality would be destabilizing and would create conflict.
- Business Cycles – Marx wrote extensively about this relatively recent theory in Theories of Surplus and Value. Although not first advanced by him (that honor goes to the French historian Sismondi, in 1819), Marx’s theory of inevitable communist revolution was predicated on increasingly severe business cycles. Whereas previous economists thought that these cycles were caused by external affairs (like war), Marx realized that business cycles were caused by the functioning of the system itself.
- Capitalism – The separation of the laborer from the products of his labor is a serious psychological problem. The efficiency pursued by industrialists led to the breaking down (dumbing down) of tasks in order to optimize consistency, and this in turn made laborers unskilled, and disposable. Beyond the decrease in their value, these increases in systematic efficiency of production also reduced the possibilities for improvement, and the achievement of mastery in a craft or trade for the laborer. Marx noticed this, and it served as one of his heavier criticisms of capitalism.
- Religion – Marx is often cited as crassly referring to religion as the “opiate of the people.” To dispel the presumption intoned in this crass half-lie, it is worth reading the quote in full:
The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
— Marx, Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
The quote is neither crass nor dismissive, nor is it unserious in its psychological analysis of the motivations behind religious belief. One cannot honestly even say it is wrong. The best one could say–and which I will say–is that it is incomplete in its exploration of alternatives, or in its grasp of the totality of the motives which bring people to religion.
The importance of addressing this subject became clear to me after reading about the possibility of an upcoming debate between the traditionalist (if not entirely conservative) Dr. Jordan Peterson and the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek. Peterson challenged Zizek to a debate after Zizek wrote about Peterson in the press. It wasn’t a particularly good article, as it fundamentally misunderstood Peterson’s individualism (“clean your room!”) and projected a Capitalist straw man that blames outsiders for his own problems onto Peterson. Perhaps in addition to the “hysteric,” who lies in the expression of a truth, and the “obsessive neurotic,” who tells the truth in the service of a lie, we could add the “lazy,” who lies without realization because he hasn’t done his homework.
Nevertheless, Zizek’s article captures something unique to the Marxist mind, which mirrors one of the left’s own longstanding critique of conservativism.
In his piece on Peterson, Zizek references Jacques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst:
…if what a jealous husband claims about his wife (that she sleeps around with other men) is all true, his jealousy is still pathological: the pathological element is the husband’s need for jealousy as the only way to retain his dignity, identity even.
This statement is interesting because it tries to drive a wedge between cause (infidelity) and effect (jealousy) and criticize the effect without noticing the cause.
The claim that jealousy is needed for his dignity and identity frames the matter pathologically from the get-go. We could imagine a situation in which a man is being chased by a hungry bear: isn’t there something pathological about a man’s need to run? What, does he think he will lose his dignity, his identity even, if he does not run from the bear? As a matter of fact, yes, if the bear eats him, his identity as a living being will be greatly threatened, and with it, any possibility of dignity.
In a similar vein, why should a man not feel jealous if his wife is unfaithful? What is pathological about that particular negative thought in that instance? His identity as a loved spouse has been destroyed, and with it, his dignity — his ability to discern truth having been exposed as false.
This is the form of argument which my book addressed on another subject, reuniting the wedged-apart emotions of love and hatred. Love without the possibility of hatred sounds idyllic, but we were not constructed to live in that way.
Jealousy and hatred are not the only blots upon the untrammeled ecstatic happiness of the human experience: fear, disgust, resentment, lethargy, boredom, suspicion, sadness, pain, and despair all haunt our lives from the periphery. Whatever we may think of these emotions in the moment, they exist for a reason, and we ignore them and reject them in all cases as “pathological” at our own peril. Even resentment–an emotion brimming with potential for genuine pathology–can sometimes be a motivator for positive action. In any case, what good is telling someone that the emotion they are experiencing is wrong? They are products of facts and values, and cannot be done away with without one of their causes being changed or done away with.
The Marxist project is all about the pursuit of an unsustainable emotional ideal. Like Lacan and his inhumanly stoic husband, Marxism — and the creative bent of leftists generally — pursue impossible states of equality, stability, purpose, and happiness. They identify problems, and rather than adapting to them, and learning to live within them, seek out their own kinds of final solutions.
A classic leftist critique of conservativism is that of nostalgia: there is no going back, even if the past was idyllic in some ways.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last paragraphs of The Great Gatsby are often quoted in this vein:
Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning ——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Yet the leftists are not different in kind than the conservatives they criticize. They are only different in the direction they are looking: utopia lies in the future!
When the leftists point out that problems and evils also existed in the past, and that it was perhaps not as “golden” as conservatives imagine, they are right. But when conservatives point out that the future will also be full of danger and evil and pathology, they are also right.
In other words, what’s right about Marxism is inextricably bound up in what is wrong with Marxism, because their compulsion to point out the problems of modernity stem from their desire to escape from problems absolutely. What is communism, where no one can own anything, if not a proposed final solution to the problem of inequality? What is the end to personal ownership if not a permanent solution to the uncertainty that emerges in capitalist business cycles — the “end of history?” What is Marxism if not the attempt to refasten the laborer to the fruits of his labor, regardless of what that labor might be? And what is Marxist atheism, if not an attempted great and fatal blow to all comfortable lies that protect states of emptiness, sadness, and oppression?
The Marxist does not see value in the progress of overcoming an obstacle, only negative value in the obstacle’s presence. This is why they tend to make arguments about the pathologies of “unhealthy ideals” when they believe the achievements of such ideals are impossible. In fact, this argument itself was first presented to me by Zizek himself.
A point that Dr. Peterson has been clear on in his lectures is that the world is a chaotic place: we do not know what the problems will be tomorrow, nor is it necessarily true that the solutions we have for the problems of today will continue working tomorrow. In such a world, the ideal solution is not to solve all of the problems once and for all, so that we do not have to worry about them, as Marxists work towards. This is both futile and undesirable. Rather, the answer to the chaotic world is to become the sort of person who can solve problems. On a broader, social level, this means giving people the tools to deal with problems, rather than physically or psychologically removing all of their problems.