In writing my satirical article, “Karl Marx Visits Occupied Wall Street,” I reread the Communist Manifesto several times and found it very useful to do so. It recalled for me the wonderful course in Western Civilization taught by the incomparable Professor Carroll Quigley I took more than four decades ago in which we read and analyzed the great works of political philosophy. The fact that there are so few courses like that anymore — and especially not mandatory ones — is an important factor in the decline of American higher education and of the dumbing down of America to the low point of the Obama era.
But I digress. In reading the Manifesto, I was fascinated to see a problem emerge at the very center of the current political-intellectual mess. If we examine how Marx got things wrong on this issue, a lot becomes clear.
As you know, Marx considered himself to be a scientist uncovering the iron laws of politics, society, and history. Up to a point, he does try to take that approach, even if you disagree with him. But at a certain moment he turns from hardheaded realist to starry-eyed utopian. And the key issue is one on which the founders of America got it right: the problem of government.
First, a little background: in attributing history, politics, and society to class struggle, Marx discussed one important aspect of these things. The problem is that he made this the only issue of any importance. Left out were such things as ideology; psychology and human nature; deep-seated drives of some individuals for power, wealth, and fame; family, tribal, and national loyalty; and other things as well. Marx is a reductionist, a man who constantly must reduce complex issues to a single cause.
Yet his biggest blindspot — the one that has cost millions of lives and that is steering much of the Western world in the wrong direction today — is the role of government.
The founders of America knew very well that every democracy in history had failed. They knew that unless they understood why this had happened and remedied it, the United States would soon become just another monarchy or dictatorship.
They found the answer in this principle: No one can be trusted with power; every individual, party, or group will inevitably abuse power. Thus, the solution they proposed was to divide up power, to ensure that nobody got too much of it. They did this in several different ways:
–Voters elected political leaders and could vote them out of office.
–Laws constrained officials.
–Federalism divided power between the national and state governments.
–On both the national and state level, power was split among the executive (president or governor), legislative (Congress or legislatures), and judicial branches.
–The Constitution limited the power of the central government and also reserved certain rights for the states and for the citizens.
–The Bill of Rights further strengthened the ability of citizens to protest and criticize governments and limited government’s ability to repress the citizenry or order it around.
In short, the founders looked at government as a wild beast that could never be tamed but had to be penned up and trussed up in order to use it for beneficial purposes without being devoured by it. George Washington put it in these terms: “Government…is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”
As further safeguards, there also developed an independent media and an academic system, part of whose job was to be critical of any abuse of power, the pretenses of politicians, corruption, and incompetence rather than being largely boringly consistent cheerleaders for leaders.
At different times, the mainstream of liberals and conservatives disagreed over precisely how to set the balances, with the two groups taking different stances at different times. Indeed, the history of liberalism was based on expanding the sphere of liberty — both political and economic — in battle against states controlled by conservative monarchies.
True, about 1900 American liberals concluded that the federal government had to be strengthened somewhat to balance the rise of big corporations and big city political machines. They were ready to shift the balance but only to maintain that balance. Those reforms were necessary and beneficial. But if the sphere of government kept growing endlessly, the system on which America’s success was based would be destroyed.
Consider the example of environmentalism. That was a needed movement and policy because the welcome development of advanced industrial society also brought certain problems that needed to be solved. And advances in technology made it possible to solve them. The difficulty is that once the balance was righted things kept on going, to more and more strangling demands and regulations that had an ever-smaller positive effect on the environment and an ever-larger disastrous effect on jobs, the economy, spending, and freedom. Now add in dozens of other issues to the same effect.
That’s why so many liberals have been fooled and seduced into supporting today’s far left wolf in liberal clothing. On one hand, they are told that it is still in efect the 1880s, a time when rapacious rich and greedy corporations exploit the country without limit. Yet shouldn’t the effect of all of the changes already made be taken into account? And isn’t the main difficulty today in this regard that the rich and greedy take advantage by exploiting their connections with government to get bailouts, subsidies, and special treatment? Thus, building up government even further has the exact opposite effect of what it did a century ago.
On the other hand, they are told that government programs can abolish poverty, ensure complete equality, save endangered species, and produce the required energy without drilling for oil or building pipelines. In short, that everything is affordable, everything is possible, and that the failure of previous such programs must be ignored. That only a mean, evil person would oppose the new project to feed hungry children, stop man-made global warming, save obscure species, prevent evil oil pipelines and drilling from making a big mess, and so on. Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel; a false do-goodism is the first refuge of the power-mad, money-mad, and incompetent.
What’s essential to understand, however, is that our problem today is not due to old liberal-conservative debates over precisely how to set the balances but to the rise of radical forces that simply reject that framework altogether.
They accept no limits on the power of the central government and smugly refuse to consider why that is such a dangerous notion. And so when a radical speaks of the government, he or she has no trouble saying that it embodies the people and their welfare. The will of the people is embodied not in actual, living millions of people but rather in their embodiment by the department of this or that in Washington, D.C. Jean-Jacques Rousseau said the voice of the people is the voice of God; they say that the voice of the government is the voice of the people, when in fact it is the voice — and to the benefit — of those who run the government as politicians and bureaucrats along with their favored clients.
Now, let’s return to Marx. He understood nothing of the wisdom that went into constructing the United States.His approach to government was utopian and philosophically idealistic (meaning it all came out of his head and wishful thinking).
After having described all of history as a struggle between classes, he posited that it is possible not to have classes and also asserted that once you didn’t have classes you wouldn’t have history. Magically, all conflict would disappear and the government would be this mechanical, automatic force in which no actual human beings participated. No actual human begins would shape it with their own selfishness, greed, ambition, or personal perspective.
Next stop, Joe Stalin and Mao Zedong.
Between the time he was purged and the time he was ice-picked, Leon Trostky partly grasped this problem in discussing what went wrong in the Soviet Union: “The party organization substitutes itself for the party, the central committee substitutes itself for the organization, and, finally, a dictator substitutes himself for the central committee.” The problem with Trotsky is that he believed that if the party organization had kept all the power then everything would have been just fine. But he’s just reflecting the profound flaw in Marx’ original concept.
Here’s what Marx said:
“The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.”
Think about what this means. All of the money and power would be focused in the state, but then the state would not do anything with that concentration of power. The state was innocent. There would be no cronyism, no corruption, no bureaucracy, and no concentration of stupidity so as to make mistakes much bigger.
This is precisely — without the proletarian aspects — the Obama worldview. Good citizens with high levels of education will be the philosopher kings, telling everyone what to eat, drive, and do for their own good. Naturally, these people would have no interests of their own. Naturally, their learning from books and theories rather than from real life would not lead them into really big mistakes.
And naturally this system will make the economy grow (“increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible”) rather than collapse because the people running the state know nothing about creating jobs or meeting a payroll or actually producing anything.
Then, there is Marx’s view of what later became known as the withering away of the state:
“When…all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. … If the proletariat…makes itself the ruling class…then it will…thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.”
What we have here today is not the triumph of the proletariat but the triumph of the managerial-bureaucratic-intellectual-cultural elite. The best describer of this is not Marx but James Burnham, a former Marxist whose writings in the 1940s were the basis for George Orwell in writing 1984. Then there is Karl Popper, who pointed out that the greatest threat to freedom (the “open society”) were those who thought they knew everything.
And those who seek political power, with few if any exceptions, are people set on accumulating power, glory, and wealth. All the more reason to limit what they can do.
Nevertheless, this grasping elite views itself as disinterested. It does not act from selfish motives but because it knows better than anyone else how to promote the public good. And even with the best will and highest morality that mortals are capable of achieving, political leaders and bureaucrats are still limited by their own worldview, life experience, and specific role (where you stand is where you sit, as one popular Washington, D.C., maxim has it).
There’s nothing here that would surprise America’s founders, who knew that freedom always depended on restraining such people.
Finally, Marx unleashes his inner utopian:
“In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”
Completely losing any sense of critical evaluation of human society, he posits the magical transformation into a society where everyone was unselfish, sensitive, and generous, willing to work overtime (from each according to his ability) for those less fortunate (to each according to his needs) without recompense.
In short, Marx ends up like a hippie who’s smoked too much dope or, if you prefer, much of California. (Okay, that last phrase was a joke.)
Marx’s equivalent of God thus becomes the state, at least a state run by “good people” (proletarians) rather than “bad people” (the bourgeoisie). And that’s precisely the concept being pushed by those currently in power in America and most of Europe with disastrous results, be it economic stagnation, contempt for dissent, and stifling regulation rather than concentration camps and firing squads.
This leaves us with two possibilities:
1. Government is a value-neutral machine made up of those who merely mirror society’s desires. They have no ambitions, no institutional interest, no greed or lust for power. They don’t possess, as Shakespeare put it in Hamlet, “The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to.” Christianity calls it “original sin”; Judaism the “evil impulse.”
2. Those who purvey that notion know it isn’t true and are merely pursuing their own interests that include imposing their vision of society on everyone else.
Marx’s basic error on that point is contained in his third “Thesis on Feuerbach,” published in 1845:
“The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.”
In other words, there is a sudden leap that breaks all the rules that have hitherto governed human history. Indoctrination through education only makes people less able to conduct their affairs successfully because it fills there heads with ideas, that then become a guide to action, that don’t work. And once you divide society into two parts, the “superior” one reintroduces class warfare all over again. After all, the governmental class may not personally own the means of production but they control them to an ever-larger extent.
For Marx, the concept was to, in the words of “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” say, “Together we can take it to the end of the line.”
But democrats understand that the key concept is one of sensible balance. Both liberalism and conservatism have made sense as long as they have been involved in dialogue and compromise about achieving that balance. For example, the best way of coming close to balancing the budget is by making cuts and reducing spending by setting reasonable priorities (rather than spending the country into oblivion).
And that concept of balance has been discarded today in favor of unlimited spending, unlimited government, unlimited debt, unlimited regulation, and throwing away the concept of national interest and American virtue.
Thomas Jefferson put it this way:
“I predict future happiness for Americans, if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.”