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Marx

May 5, 2011

Here they go again.

It was buried in a one page review of books about Marx, written by Mark Bahnisch in the Australian Literary Review (May 4). But it makes one despair. How much more does the case need to argued? How much more evidence does one need to present?

Halfway into his prose, Bahnisch says:

            No, Marxism does not lead inexorably to the gulag or mass slaughter.

Oh yeah?

Well, there’s been a field experiment since 1917 in societies based on Marxist principles, governed by Marxists. And to my knowledge every one of those societies has had its version of a gulag and its version of mass slaughter. I presume I don’t need to make the case aboutRussia or China. I presume that knowledge of the North Korean gulag is reasonable well spread, and of the cruel labour camps that caused huge numbers of Vietnamese to risk their lives on the high seas.

The reason is that Marx’s prescription for society were these : the defeat of the bourgeoisie and the achievement of collective ownership under the control of the working class. Such a radical program could only be enforced by totalitarian means. And since 1917 so it has come to pass. Where has such a transformation come about through the ballot ? Go on. Just one example.

The human rights abuses of the European Eastern bloc are beyond contest, and in the 1950s at least, their dissidents were fed into the Soviet gulag. I visited the concentration camps of

Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald, formerly in East Germany and absorbed the sad story of how these camps continued under the German Democratic Republic.

Gulags and mass slaughter are in fact distinguishing features of Marxist regimes. Certainly – unarguably – dictatorships are. And the all-powerful secret police that administer the terror, as Lenin intended.

At least, later in the review he points out that there is no “globally organised working class or a political movement that might challenge capital’s reign.” He notes as well there is not revolution in prospect.

We should be grateful for pockets of realism.

16 Comments
  1. May 5, 2011 2:48 pm

    Erm, there has never been a Marxist state.

    No country has ever gone from liberal-capitalist to communist – which is the only way that Marx’s theory says that communism can arise. The nominally-communist countries all rebadged existing third-world tyranny (the Czars, Imperial China) with psuedo-Marxist trappings. Even the former democracies of Eastern Europe were run as part of the Soviet empire, not as independent communist states.

    So Marx was wrong – but he was wrong about capitalism self-destructing; in fact, it’s proved able to continue to generate wealth and to allow levels of redistribution and government welfare that would have seemed impossible in the mid 19th century. He’s no more to blame for the actions of tyrants falsely claiming to follow his views than the Pope is to blame for the actions of the provisional IRA.

    • Bob Carr permalink
      May 5, 2011 3:38 pm

      You are wrong. His prescriptions were so abstract and sweeping they could never be given effect except through tyranny. And in fact never have.

  2. Stephen permalink
    May 5, 2011 2:52 pm

    Don’t worry Bob, we Generation Y’ers mostly have no idea what Marxism is, and when we do chance to find out, we marvel at the way life in former times was so simple that an ideology could seemingly see you through good times and bad.

    Ah, will the romance of those days ever be recaptured?

  3. May 5, 2011 4:05 pm

    This seems to me an argument between the theoretical and the practical.

    As such I find myself in agreement with both sides, there isn’t anything theoretical about Marxism (as Marx developed, compared to Stalinism, etc) which necessarily requires gulags. Marx certainly didn’t argue for them and there are other conceivable (albeit improbable) pathways to Marx’s communist society.

    However in practice such atrocities are an ubiquitous feature of communist states although they are not distinguishing since extreme right fascist states also produced similar atrocities at similar rates of consistency (there just hasn’t been as many). Such is the circular nature of the left-right continuum. This to me is more about the power focused on a select few, if not one, by those who claim to be following Marx’s philosophy and the corruption and distortion of humanity such power entails.

    This is simply one of various aspects to Marxist philosophy which has been found lacking and ultimately flawed.

  4. Mark Bahnisch permalink
    May 5, 2011 4:11 pm

    I think you need to ponder the precise sense of the word “inexorably” more! Marx’ thought, as I suggested in the essay, and as is well established, has more than one face. Leaving aside the fact that his prescriptions on political strategy were multiple and contradictory, and that the idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” had more to do with Roman and Napoleonic meanings of that word than the Leninist take, the least convincing part of Marx’ corpus is the attempt to argue that history is amenable to *inexorable* laws. In fact, again, it’s a lot more complex than that, but you seem to share the 19th century positivist illusion that causation in history is simple and straightforward. In other words, your “natural experiment” implies the same sort of determinism you’d, I imagine, otherwise be wanting to criticise in Marxism.

    FWIW, I think a reasonable case can be made out that Leninism does necessarily lead to anti-democratic ends, and that Lenin himself was committed to violence as a political means. Anyone who’s seriously read Marx – and not through the lens of the sclerotic Marxist orthodoxy which seems also to be your reading – would know that Lenin’s theory of the state and his political practice are actually not that well founded in Marx’s texts.

    You also seem to have missed the fact that the whole point of the essay was to express scepticism about the contemporary relevance of a Marxian political analysis, and in theoretical terms, was much more sympathetic to Weber and Merleau-Ponty as guides to analysis of our contemporary political predicaments. My interest is in analysing the potential for political change from the point of view of radical social democracy, and – as the essay calls for – stimulating political and economic analysis which has a similar ambition to that of Marx’s social science, with a view to re-orienting the democratic left.

    That may be hard to see if you’re reading through Cold War liberal glasses, but your polemic here is really just the flipside of Eagleton’s equally mistaken inability to see past Cold War Marxist orthodoxy.

    • Bob Carr permalink
      May 5, 2011 6:56 pm

      Think of one of Solzhenitsyn’s comrades, starved and frozen, his life destroyed because of a regime that extolled Marx, quoted Marx, believed Marx, draped itself in Marx – and he in a labor camp because he stood in the way of a reordering of society along Marxist lines over-sighted by disciples of Marx. Maybe all these Marxists are not that wrong. Maybe the first principles of these awful societies actually, in the end, do in fact have something to do with Marx. After all, Marxism has spawned no other models. And in Marx’s mature writings there is a lot of anger that made him look like ” the Red Prussian”. Maybe the poor bastard in the Gulag would not be that wrong to think, “To hell with Marx, better he’d been strangled at birth.” The wickedness is not all Lenin’s – who would believe Lenin owed nothing to Marx ? ; these loathsome dictatorships, remember, were Marxist-Leninist. The great Solzhenitsyn argued that Lenin and Stalin were faithfully applying Marx. I believe him.

  5. Bill permalink
    May 5, 2011 4:20 pm

    I suppose you could claimthat Venezuela and Chile, did not contain gulags – if you define Chavez and Allende as Marxists. But then they were elected, and if they had tried to impose more stringent Marxism on their unlucky countries the gulags would eventually have been necessary.

    That didnt happen in Chile because the army staged a coup and shot about 3000 Allende supporters instead. It will be interesting to see what happens in Venezuela.

    But it is basically true – any thorough version of Marxism is inevitably tyrannical.

  6. Mark Bahnisch permalink
    May 6, 2011 12:01 am

    Well, Bob, I think it’s been accepted since before the time of Socrates that an argument from authority is no argument – and that goes whether the authority is Solzhenistyn or anyone else.

    Obviously, you have some sort of desire to shift to an emotive register here, for reasons I am not privy to.

    But it would be preferable if we could engage on the grounds of adducing evidence, and discussing what I actually wrote, but sadly, that seems not to be an opportunity you wish to take.

    I think you’re making a straw person out of my review essay, so no doubt that negates any possibility of an actual dialogue. That’s a pity. For what it’s worth, I think it should be clear from any fair reading of the piece that it’s not intended to be an argument *for* Marx, and as for myself, no doubt for my sins, I find it difficult to break from my attachment to the Australian Labor Party which has gripped me for a couple of decades or so. It’s very hard, I note in passing, though, to keep that faith now. But the position from which I’m arguing is from that of a radical social democrat whose political thinking is informed largely by both Catholicism and a very deep desire for equality, and for a transformative social democratic politics.

    We should all abhor human suffering, and indeed evil inspired by political ends, but it doesn’t seem to me that it’s at all possible to think seriously about politics, and the woeful state of the world today, without seriously engaging with Marx. Not necessarily with “Marxism” and still less with the now dead and buried attempt to invoke his name in justification of a system of domination.

    But – really – we’re not talking to each other, are we?

  7. Bob Carr permalink
    May 6, 2011 9:36 am

    One issue here.
    Your proposition that Marxism does not lead inexorably to gulags and mass slaughter .
    I disagree. I believe the evidence of the last century is that it does.
    The vast evidence provided by the Soviet and China is sufficient. But as further evidence : the absence of any society run by Marxists where there hasn’t been a gulag or mass slaughter. Contradict me. Name one.
    That’s all. That’s the question at stake. That’s the sentence I take issue with.

  8. Antonio permalink
    May 6, 2011 10:42 am

    Mr Carr, in the same way that there is a great deal of difference between the new testament and the institution of the Catholic Church, there is a substantial difference between Marx’s literary output and movements which described themselves as Marxist. This is an important distinction to make which you are evading. If we took the approach of dismissing a body of literature on the basis of social movements inspired in their name we would throw out the major religious works of humanity! Heidigger was a Nazi, should we ignore his Opera Maiora? Bertrand Russell was a Marxist, should we re-evaluate his oeuvre accordingly?!

    It seems a bit lazy to claim that because that Marxists have historically been authoritarian therefore we should bury Marx’s literary legacy without further analysis and engagement. Surely with the end of the Cold War, now is the time for a more sober, mature and critical analysis without needing to cite the hackneyed formula Marx = Communism = Death.

  9. Mark Bahnisch permalink
    May 6, 2011 5:10 pm

    Yes, I’d agree thoroughly with Antonio here. It’s also worth pointing to the very large number of Communists who very honourably rethought their allegiances when aspects of the deplorable nature of the Soviet regime became clear. So, too, those deplorable events and practices do not invalidate many of the questions that Marx posed about capitalism and inequality in his texts. The fact that there is so much dissension and difference both within those texts and in their subsequent elaboration also, by the way, demonstrates that a claim that there’s an inexorable link between Marx and the gulag is logically false.

  10. Jules permalink
    May 6, 2011 8:20 pm

    Radical social democrat and catholocism? Let me guess you marry the nuances in both to create a solid evidence base of your ability to be a progressive, striking and individual thinker. Yawn. You didn’t answer the question merely wax lyrical with abstract views that bear no relevance to the reality of the one question posed by Carr. No one defends Marxism like a privileges middle class white man, that much is clear. What is also apparent, is Mr Bahnisch, is an academic. And not a very good one. The definition of which being one who can thrive outside the constraints of the academy and who deals with courage and grace the impost of the reality of human experience. Yawn.

  11. May 7, 2011 7:10 pm

    I haven’t read Dr Bahnisch’s original piece so I’m not sure what the context of that statement is.

    Marxism is inherently authoritarian. And there’s a line that leads straight from him to the Soviet Union and gulags, mass execution etc. But there are other branches as well. Social Democracy cannot claim to be entirely free of Marxist influence now can it?

    That said, Marx, like all philosophers who think political perfection is possible, provides intellectual justification for tyranny. I don’t think the Left have learned this. finally.

    • Bob Carr permalink
      May 7, 2011 9:31 pm

      To A C Stewart,
      Absolutely. And nobody made the point better than Isaiah Berlin who argued the search for perfection ( as in Marx ) “does seem to me a recipe for bloodshed, no better even if it is demanded by the sincerest of idealists, the purest of heart…to force people into the neat uniforms demanded by dogmatically believed-in schemes is almost always the road to inhumanity.” See The Crooked Timber of Humanity.

  12. Michael permalink
    May 10, 2011 3:58 pm

    Bahnisch: I’m glad you ‘thoroughly agree’ with Antonio, because Antonio is half wrong, and the other half’s logically strained. To start, Bertrand Russell was not a Marxist. He was a Fabian Socialist with a libertarian streak, especially in relation to sexual matters and censorship. Read his summation on Marx in his History of Western Philosophy. He falsifies Marx nicely in about 5000 words. To label him as Marxist, then, is to give the truth a good kicking. I wish you’d give Marx a good kicking with your other foot, instead of a subtle hand-job under the table.

    As a side point, there were congruities between Heidegger’s philosophic work and his political ideals reflected through his membership of the Nazi Party. Heidegger’s believed that a distorted view of Being (with a capital B) destroyed philosophic concepts of human nature. Heideggeran philosophy is thus value-less, which thereby enables nihilistic political regimes. As Richard Rorty argued, Heidegger saw himself as the philosopher king of the Nazis. If you believe the Nazi regime wasn’t nihilistic, a brief visit to Auschwitz should cure you of that fantasy. So, Antonio and Bahnisch: yes, we should ignore Heidegger accordingly.

    Premier Bob has said nothing contentious here whatever. Marx promoted a society in which social order is transformed under the guise of enforced equality. Enforcing equality leads necessarily to economic centralisation. Economic centralisation necessarily leads to political centralisation. Economic and political centralisation is totalitarianism. Therein is the exorable link. Marxism’s historical determinism also elevates historical progress above human rights. In this sense, Marxism is fundamentally illiberal. An illiberal society that eschews political rights smells like a totalitarian society to me, but maybe my nose is blocked.

    Bahnisch seems to define Marxism as an intellectual construct, and not much more. But it’s more than an idea, though it is an idea. It’s a political order that leads to human degradation, gulags, suffering. It squeezes the oxygen out of human decency, and robotises humanity. So when Premier Bob writes of Gulags and forced labor camps, it’s not an emotive register to which he’s appealing: it’s an empirical register. These are the disgusting facts of Marxian regimes. It doesn’t matter whether the authority to which Bob is appealing comes from Solzhenitsyn. The facts remains the same.

    And casually name-dropping Socrates does nothing to advertise your erudition, which I suspect is your motivation. It makes you an academic obsessed with showing the world how clever you are. Which makes you typical.

  13. Patrick Caldon permalink
    May 14, 2011 1:05 pm

    “the achievement of collective ownership under the control of the working class.”

    Forgive some tongue-in-cheek, but that sounds a lot like compulsory superannuation.

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