Why is Marxism so widespread and popular? Why does a system of thought in whose name an estimated 250 million people have been murdered in the Soviet Union alone keep many, many intellectuals and political activists spellbound?
Each year, university publishers and commercial presses produce hundreds of books devoted to making yet another version of Marxism palatable and understandable. Almost all proclaim to have found yet another important truth in Marxism—an improved version of what used to be thought the truth of the matter by some other loyal Marxist. Each year thousands of university-educated men and women go into the political arena defending some version of Marxist socialism or communism, all the while scorning the likes of Stalin and sometimes even Lenin.
How is this possible? Why can't these perfectly capable human beings see that the doctrine of Marxism is completely permeated with dictatorial, totalitarian prospects?
In fact, there is no mystery here. Marxism, contrary to widespread conviction, is not a grave departure from other prominent viewpoints in Western culture. For example, Marxism is altruistic through and through. From his first published writings to the last, Marx showed that he believed first and foremost in the moral imperative of individual self-sacrifice in support of humanity.
In what David McLellan calls Marx's "school-leaving examination of 1835," when he was only 17, Marx wrote:
When we have chosen the vocation in which we can contribute most to humanity, burdens cannot bend us because they are sacrifices for all. Then we experience no meager, limited, egoistic joy, but our happiness belongs to millions, our deeds live on quietly but eternally effective, and glowing tears of noble men will fall on our ashes.
The entire essay is filled with the spirit of this conclusion. Marx insisted that "man's nature makes it possible for him to reach his fulfillment only by working for the perfection and welfare of his society." And he believed that "if a person works only for himself he can perhaps be a famous scholar, a great wise man, a distinguished poet, but never a complete, genuine, great man."
In our modern age, the supernatural or theological justification of these ideas has fallen on hard times. But these ideas can be—and are—sustained within a secular framework. And when the altruistic ideals are shorn of their mystical underpinnings, they begin to look like real, attainable prospects. Heaven on earth appears possible if we but marshal all our efforts carefully and rationally enough. Reaching the perfection (or full maturity, or emancipation) of humanity then becomes simply an engineering problem.
So in essence Marxism perpetuates a secular version of the Christian idea, as Prof. Harry V. Jaffa pointed out in a recent centennial comment on Marx. "Communism draws upon the same capacity for a 'willing suspension of disbelief' that marks the faith of Christians," noted Jaffa. "The power of communism is its messianic promises.…The Church of Marx declares that these promises will be fulfilled because Science is Truth, and Marxism is Science."
One of the reasons, then, that Marxism is so widespread and popular is that it satisfies the visions of both mystics and materialists with its promise of heaven on earth. Its pretensions to being a science managed, initially, to hoodwink intellectuals who otherwise would have grouped Marx with William Godwin, Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, and Henri de Saint-Simon—all denounced by Marx himself as utopian dreamers. Marx escaped this fate because of his ingenious, if confused, coupling of the collectivist vision of socialism with the aura of modern science. It is that false patina of science that made the real difference.
When Marx appeared on the scene, religion had already popularized the view that improvements in human and social life must ultimately come from outside, from something other than individuals. True, the objective of many religions is personal salvation. But the means to this end are said to be in God, in Jehovah, in Jesus. And although Marx brought this otherworldly force into the natural realm, he still clung to an impersonal redeeming force—the laws of history. By being brought into nature, the utopian ideal seemed far more realistic than it had within the religious context.
In short, by combining "science"—the impersonal but natural forces of history—and the promise of collective human emancipation, Marxism built on past visions while urging more modern methods. This explains much of the doctrine's appeal.
As a matter of plain fact, however, human beings cannot reform, improve, become emancipated, achieve self-perfection, or reach any other fine goals unless they individually take up the task of doing so. So the entire Marxian project is an impossible dream. And impossible dreams cannot be pursued except in fruitless and punishing ways. This is plain enough. Certainly no socialist or communist scheme has ever delivered what it promised—not one.
The impossibility of the Marxist scheme was obvious early enough. Lenin realized right away that the proletariat, which Marxists considered the only embodiment of true humanity, wouldn't do any of the fine things Marx had expected. Workers were plainly unwilling to disrupt their own comfort and material well-being to produce a massive democratic revolution.
So Lenin anointed the intellectuals as the conscience of the workers. Above the intellectuals, he erected the Communist Party elite (in the USSR, the Politburo). And to serve the guiding will of that elite, there was (and is) an army of secret police, butchers, informers, psychiatrists, and sham prosecutors and judges. Stalin developed these "scientific" techniques into the high art of massive, even global terrorism—all in the service of the impossible ideal.
But do true believers give up because of all this? The horrors of the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Holy Wars, and other bloody projects of Christianity did not put an end to this religion. Similarly, the barbarism perpetrated in the name of Marxism will not convince many people that Marxism is a dead end. Instead, thousands of Marxist intellectuals are running around patching up the true faith.
The latest effort is evident in America with the reemergence of the ideal of industrial democracy, in the guise of a system now called "economic democracy." Its contemporary advocates sometimes explicitly reject Marxism, even though many began as hard-line Marxist socialists. At other times they insist that Marx was misunderstood. In the words of Frederic L. Bender, "Nothing justifies the deeds of a perverse Marxism (e.g., that of Stalin); a proper understanding of Marxian humanism, and its betrayal, in contrast, enables us to raise afresh the question of means and to reevaluate the relevant historical, economic, and political facts."
What the economic democrats and Marxists do have in common, however, is the advocacy of what they call "democratic, worker-controlled production [which] would extend democratic choice to work, employment, income, and technology." In their book Economic Democracy, Martin Carnoy and Derek Shearer go on to say that the economic democratic "reform must transfer capital from the corporations to the public, so that the people who work and consume can collectively and democratically decide what to do with it."
How is this transfer of property to be effected? "The logical vehicle for that process should be the government—our democratically elected legislature and executive," write Carnoy and Shearer. "Yet the government is heavily influenced (if not controlled) by these very same corporations." So before the reforms can be achieved, "it is essential, over the next two decades, to build a mass political movement," along lines evident now in many small communities where local left-leaning leaders are heavily involved in rent-control advocacy, "community housing" projects, and various phases of city government, all with an eye to democratic control of economic matters.
We are seeing a virtual replay of the early developments following the initial impact of Marxism. Marx himself did not call for slave labor camps. Nor did he advocate the establishment of intellectual elites or of institutions like the Soviet Politburo. But he did maintain that the workers for whom the revolution was to be fought did not enjoy a state of self-consciousness fully enough developed to lead the revolution.
Marx was guided at least at first by the view that "no social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself." This means, essentially, that socialism must come about—either gradually, even peacefully, or else by means of violent revolution. Such a revolution will occur when the workers realize that it is in their interest to change things. And since the workers are in the majority, this might be accomplished by democratic means. In that case, the famous "dictatorship of the proletariat" will be a democratic dictatorship.
This is bad enough, of course, but it does seem to hold to certain populist, democratic ideals that appeal to many bona fide liberals. If the people want socialism, well, why not? Surely, enacting the people's will satisfies the standards of democracy. We might wish that the majority of the people liked individualism and property rights, but if they don't, there is nothing we can do, can we?
But this line of argument is a fraud. The fact is that the majority of the people won't really be part of an uprising against a system that protects their private property. Corporate power is, after all, people's power, however much this is obscured by deceptive rhetoric to the contrary. Corporations are owned by pensioners, employee groups, stockholders, executives—about as wide a cross-section of the people as one could get. The myth of the people on the one side and the corporations on the other is a desperate effort to distract people from realizing how nicely the corporate system can work for them. It aims to make them embrace state power as an alternative.
In reality the masses of workers are nowhere to be found in most efforts to transform the system to socialism. And there is nothing in economic democracy that distinguishes it in practice from socialism. Both aim at expropriating the means of production from private hands for the public domain.
The great appeal of economic democracy lies in its implicit commitment to everyone in society having an equal say about things. Voting carries this impression with it. And it carries the impression of civil liberties, too.
But the actual facts are different, and have been throughout the history of socialism. For example, the great democrat Marx did not hesitate to jump on the bandwagon of the extremely elitist communist movement in Russia. He rationalized this by claiming that it "is one of those exceptional cases where a handful of people can make a revolution.…And if ever the Blanquist fantasy of convulsing an entire society by means of a small conspiracy had any chance of success, then the place is undoubtedly Petersburg." Ever since then, most fighters for the Marxist dream of heaven on earth for everyone have not hesitated to sacrifice democracy for socialism.
Consider a few recent developments in America. Enemies of capitalism want to engineer equality between men and women. While equal treatment may be a laudable goal, they want to use governmental coercion to achieve it. And then tactics are employed that these zealots would unhesitatingly condemn if used by the CIA or FBI.
For example, in 1980, a Labor Department investigator in an employment-discrimination case at the Law School at the University of California at Berkeley pushed his investigation to the point where it could hardly be distinguished from totalitarian methods. He secretly monitored law school classes by posing as a student. The investigation had been instigated by the "Coalition for a Diversified Faculty," which complained to the Labor Department that the law faculty was dominated by white males and that "intellectual stimulation in general is diminished by time spent on defending the status quo rather than facing squarely the problems of allocation of power and goods in society, beginning with [the law school] and working together for peaceful social change."
When the investigator's tactics were discovered, he was unrepentant. He met with law school officials and, according to the Los Angeles Times, made it clear that he was directly interested not only in hiring practices but also in the content of the law school's courses and the manner in which they were being taught. When the associate dean protested, the investigator retorted that "anything that would be discouraging or displeasing to minority students would be within [the Labor Department's] jurisdiction to observe and correct."
Academic freedom out the window! The revolution must be served!
Another affirmative action case further illustrates the point. Three years ago, a University of Georgia professor named James A. Dinnan refused to reveal how he voted in a 6-to-3 decision to deny tenure to Maija Blaubergs, a linguistics and women's studies professor. When Dinnan refused, he was jailed on the order of a judge who was hearing a sex-discrimination suit brought by Blaubergs. Most of the university community was scandalized—but the Georgia director of that bastion of civil liberties, the ACLU, claimed that the judge's move ordering Dinnan to disclose his vote was "not an infringement of [Dinnan's] rights."
This indifference to Dinnan's personal privacy was not rationalizing some conservative intrusion on academic freedom, the sort that leftists thought so offensive and characteristic of McCarthyism. No, it instead typifies the benign, paternalistic, and enlightened sensibility of liberals and egalitarians who not only object to discrimination but will condone abuses of the most elemental rights to weed it out.
The point is simple. When the democratic ways to achieve the ultimate goal are inefficient, others must be used. That is the history of socialism in Russia. It is going to be the story everywhere else to the extent that socialism makes inroads. For when the aims of the socialists are thwarted by democratic means, the helplessness, stupidity, or malleability of the people will be offered as the rationale for side-stepping democracy.
There is very little that is democratic about the socialist goals of economic democrats. Their commitment to democracy is purely pragmatic. If and when it is expedient to dispense with democratic restraints, they will do so.
And they will be following in the footsteps of Karl Marx himself. Trotting out some of the humanistic passages from Marx doesn't disprove the fact that Marx would eagerly take short cuts when they were available. He would sacrifice any sense of humanity toward actual individuals if it would further the vital goal of making the "new man" of a future, glorious heaven here on earth.
So Stalin is, then, an excellent illustration of what would very probably result when people do not freely choose socialism. They must be made to swallow it whether they like it or not.
And if it were a winning strategy, Karl Marx—his occasional democratic and humanist inclinations notwithstanding—would not reject the idea in the slightest.
Tibor Machan is a senior fellow at the Reason Foundation. For the fall semester, he is the E.C. Harwood professor of philosophy at Franklin College in Lugano, Switzerland.