by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - November 6, 2006) Book reviews are commonplace, article-reviews less so. But occasionally a piece of journalism appears which is so prodding and succinct, it deserves a critique of its own despite the fact that it is itself a critique of another writer's work. With that disclaimer firmly in place, I draw your attention to Tony Judt's review of Leszek Kolakowski's Main Currents of Marxism (and other works) that appeared in The New York Review of Books on September 21st under the title "Goodbye To All That?"
As a preface to this examination, I need to mention that a few seasons back I directed a play by John Herman Shaner entitled Fellow Traveler, which dealt with the massive disillusionment experienced by thousands (possibly hundreds of thousands) of Americans who were rabid Communists for more than half a century and devoutly believed that Marxism was the doctrine which could rid the world of evil and cleanse the clogged-up arteries of society, both in America and abroad. The unexpected dissolution of the USSR in 1991 and the general refutation of Communist doctrine in many countries in the Eastern bloc settled that matter finally and painfully for all of those who had believed in "the light that failed." Shaner's play was something of a memorial to those legions of disillusioned zealots who, ideologically, found themselves high and dry.
Concurrent with the downfall of the Soviet Union, many of the postulates of Marxist philosophy also collapsed. Clearly, the class struggle and the demise of capitalism, which Karl Marx so vividly (but erroneously) predicted, became something of a chimera and when the primary aspects of a political philosophy fail, the ideological underpinnings of that philosophy tend to crumble as well.
Or do they? Which is the thrust of Tony Judt's appraisal of the work of Leszek Kalakowski, a respected Polish scholar and philosopher and arguably the most meticulous historian of contemporary Marxism.
"If generations of intelligent men and women of good faith were willing to throw in their lot with the Communist project," writes Judt "it was not just because they were lulled into an ideological stupor by a seductive tale of revolution and redemption. It was because they were irresistibly drawn to the underlying ethical message: to the power of an idea and a movement uncompromisingly attached to representing and defending the interests of the wretched of the earth." Judt goes on to declare that "outsourcing" and "globalization" are reminiscent of Marx's "reserve army of labor" and that -- this global pool of cheap workers helps maintain profits and promote growth -- just as it did in nineteenth century industrial Europe." After reporting on a resurgence of Marxist aims in several parts of Europe, Judt observes, "...this renewed faith in Marxism -- at least as an analytical tool if not political prognostication -- is now once again, largely for want of competition, the common currency of international protest movements."
When we read of massive layoffs of auto workers and the impending disaster facing corporations like General Motors, the controversy over "outsourcing" to countries where workers toil long hours for a pittance and international corporations fight to retain their right to maintain low wages so as to secure higher profits, when we read of the grotesque disparity between the salaries of corporate officers and those of their rank-and-file, it is clear that the conditions Marx described still prevail in the modern world and that, if anything, globalization has only exacerbated them.
What Judt's piece does, with insight and accuracy, is to rescue the burning ashes of Marxism from the grate into which they have been consigned. He reminds us that as a social philosophy and as a critique of how labor and capitol interact, the basic principles of Marx's interpretation have taken different forms but not essentially changed.
Several l9th century icons have been, if not smashed to bits, severely bruised by stinging contemporary reassessments. Sigmund Freud has been taken to task by an entire legion of upstart critics who suggested his "talking cure" had been made obsolete by Prozac and other like-drugs; that his theories were flawed and did not stand up to scientific verification; and that he may actually have suppressed some of his own early findings about childhood sexual abuse to avoid controversial attacks by his peers. Currently, Charles Darwin is being kicked around by the proponents of intelligent design, and evolution (incredibly) has once again become a hot-button issue in schools and universities eighty-one years after the Scopes "monkey" trial. But the thinker that the revisionists enjoy kicking the hardest has been Karl Marx. Was he not the presiding spirit over the debacle of the USSR; the chief theorist behind the fall of East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Rumania, the Czech Republic, etc? Can we not, in this eyes-wide-open 21st century, agree that his diagnosis of society's ills has been proved to be at best, sophistry; at worst, tautology?
Judt obviously disagrees. He cites the French author Jacques Attali's popular book about Marx in which the author argues "that the fall of the Soviet Union has liberated Marx from his heirs and freed us to see in him the insightful prophet of capitalism who anticipated contemporary dilemmas, notably the global inequalities generated by unrestrained competition." Views that have been taken up in England as well where, in a 2005 BBC Radio Poll, Karl Marx, to the chagrin of outraged Tories, was voted "the greatest philosopher of all time."
What emerges from Judt's article and the discussion it has generated is that although there is an affinity between the theories and opinions of philosophers like Marx and the formation of political entities, it is unjust to assume that the full-fledged monsters that emerge from totalitarian wombs are the offspring of their ideological progenitors. Nietszche, although admired by Hitler, did not hatch the Third Reich nor did Marx spawn the murderous sprits of Mao or Stalin -- even though vestiges of both failed states can be traced back to passages in their writings.
All dogma is potentially lethal and it is always the Doctrinal Mind which causes the worst massacres and the deadliest wars -- as the present clash of doctrines in the Middle East are clearly demonstrating. The doctrinal Marx is to be shunned, as is doctrinal Christianity or any other credo that proclaims a panacea by insisting upon obedience to a rigid set of rules. But the intellectual rigor of Marx, his ability to see into the mechanics of changing (and unchanging) social conditions makes him an invaluable guide to the workings of socio-economic intrigue and skullduggery, and it would be profligate to condemn him for his blind spots and not benefit from his insights.
It suits the Conservative Mind to diss the propositions that underlie Marx's picture of the modern world, but the abuses he defined and attacked are in some ways more potent today than they were two centuries ago. They are much more stylishly camouflaged because, unlike our predecessors, we have become hype masters and spin specialists and the manipulation of information -- the ability to twist facts to mean what we choose rather than what they affirm -- has become one of the most advanced of all the arts. But the grim truths that are colorfully plastered over in our society are painfully evident in the lives of people who feel the pang of poverty and the cruelties of exploitation. People, perhaps too preoccupied with securing food, health care, and family necessities to concern themselves with the dialectical complexities of Das Kapital, but whose plight was lucidly defined by a hoary old, Prussian anti-Semite (who came from a long line of rabbis on both sides of his family) hounded from Germany to France to Belgium to England and whose ideas, if freshly rethought, may yet change the world.
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