Tim Stanley used to be a Marxist, but he’s better now. In a blog post for the Telegraph, he urges his former comrades to make the link between Communist theory and practice:
“I was once a Marxist and I once fooled myself that there was a distinction between economic analysis and practical despotism. There isn’t.”
First of all, let’s remind ourselves about the practice:
“Sixty-five million were murdered in China – starved, hounded to suicide, shot as class traitors. Twenty million in the USSR, 2 million in North Korea, 1.7 million in Africa. The nightmare of Cambodia (2 million dead) is especially vivid. ‘Reactionaries’ were sorted out from the base population on the grounds of being supporters of the old regime, having gone to school or just for wearing glasses. They were taken to the side of paddy fields and hacked to death by teenagers.”
Karl Marx died long before any of his followers came to power. He bears no direct responsibility for their appalling crimes. However, Stanley’s argument is about Marx’s intellectual responsibility:
“His view that all human relations are shaped by economics and that everything we do is measured in purely material terms reduced the individual to a pawn in a historic war between competing classes. You’re not a person – you’re either an exploiter or an alienated peasant. At least the crowned tyrants who preceded him had some sense of the value of the human soul; at least they saw their power as limited by God, tradition and a passing respect for conscience. After Marx, all these things stood in the way of progress and could be brushed aside with the swish of a signature on a death list.”
Fatally, Marx’s collectivism was combined with his historicism – which Karl Popper defined as “an approach to the social sciences which assumes that historical prediction is their primary aim.” In other words, historicists believe that human events are subject to historical laws just as natural events are subject to physical laws.
For Marx, the eventual dictatorship of the proletariat was inevitable:
“Throw into the mix [his] belief that the working-class could not lose – historical determinism – and you get the kind of fanatical, anti-human view of life that would end inevitably in gulags. ‘To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss,’ said the teenage vanguard of the Cambodian communists. Compelling logic to the intellectually unformed.”
Tim Stanley is careful to distinguish Marxism in particular from socialism in general:
“…there’s a distinction between socialism as evolved through democratic reform movements and the poisonous philosophy of Karl Marx. But what’s troubling is that a new generation of Leftists – when either occupying Wall Street or the BBC – doesn’t bother to make it. It speaks to a kind of moral amnesia, a forgetfulness about the facts of the past and an inability to judge what is really right and wrong.”
Unfortunately, it’s not just lefties who suffer from such ignorance. Naive non-political types will sometimes tell you that ‘Communism was a good idea in theory, but it didn’t work out in practice.’ Even among people who ought to know better, you sometimes hear the notion that Marxism, shorn of its political associations, is just another school of economic thought – like Keynesianism or Monetarism. Such individuals may even regard their willingness to engage with Marxism out of context as a sign of intellectual sophistication.
Still, let us count our blessings. While our forebears had to deal with Marx and Engels as a new and shocking ideological challenge, the most prominent bearded revolutionary of our own time is Russell Brand.