Can we please bury Marx once and for all?
I’m on the road again, this time for the big artist-blacksmiths’ conference in Memphis, which is held only once every two years.
But there’s something I noticed on the tubez in the days and weeks just before I left that is really needling me. There are a number of otherwise very smart people, some whom I deeply admire, who have begun promoting the ideas of Karl Marx, and the application of Marxist critique to the current socio-politico-economic situation in the United States.
Now, I understand that there is an increasingly desperate search for a workable socio-politico-economic approach as it becomes increasingly clear that electing an African-American as President of the United States is not leading to the fundamental changes in the polity and the economy many of us were hoping and fighting for. As disappointment with the innate conservatism of Barack Obama grows, there is an increasing radicalization of many progressives that, unfortunately, in too many cases, is leading to a growing support of and interest in Marxism.
To be blunt, Marxism is an unmitigated failure.
First, of course, is the mind-bogglingly brutal and bloody repression Marxists have wreaked on millions when Marxists actually achieved political control.
Isn't that reason enough to write off Marxism as worse than useless?
Moreover, it saddens and startles me that otherwise smart people do not appreciate how a profession of admiration or even simple utility for Marxism is a political gift that the wrong-wing knows how to use with devastating effect.
Second, as Lawrence Goodwyn points out in his Introduction to his 1978 classic, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America, both capitalist and socialist or Marxist societies have ended up with inherently anti-democratic hierarchical socio-political structures when organizing modern industrial economies. This fact suggests that there is something about modern industrial economies that even Marxists do not understand.
And in fact, the central critique Jonathon Larson has made of Marxism is that it simply fails to fully understand modern industrial economies:
ONE: Marx did not understand the revolutionary nature of industrialization. By the time they became rich in Marx’s mind, industrialists were as parasitic as any landowner, priest, or tax farmer. In fact, they were worse because they invented news ways of human exploitation. The fact that industrialists were devout Protestant pacifists (Quakers were heavily involved in early stage industrialization) who were in the business of applying scientific rationalism to the problems of production seemed to have never gained traction in Marx’s mind. To prove that he really didn’t get industrialization, he claimed that the problems of production had been solved in early capitalism. This is a serious error for the simple reason that solving the problems of production is an ongoing and evolutionary process.
This is a feature of industrial production that verges on theology. Perfection as perfection can never be achieved, but it can be approximated. Especially in his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul calls on Christians to strive for perfection. Of course, it is understood that perfection can never be achieved by human beings; it is the Creator alone who achieves perfection. Humans can, however, strive to become less imperfect. Something similar to this theological idea is basically the foundation of industrial statistical process quality control, especially as embodied and achieved in the Japanese concept of kaizen, pioneered by the auto manufacturer Toyota.
By underestimating the importance of industrialists, the Marxist countries became known for shoddy, UGLY, and environmentally insane production. Turns out the problems of production not only had NOT been solved, they are a LOT harder than they look at first glance. Political agendas mix very poorly with industrialization’s tyranny of the facts on the ground. . . .
In 1989, there was a miner’s strike in the Donets region of USSR. One of the key demands was for sufficient soap to clean up with after a day under ground. Imagine a system striving to be a worker’s paradise that cannot provide soap to miners. It is such a perfect example of what happens to those who assume that the problems of production have been solved and all that remains is proper political supervision of distribution.
TWO: Marx was openly scornful of agriculture. His “idiocy of rural life” remark was probably the MOST damaging of his life. It may be possible to get by with industrial junk like Ladas, but it is impossible to get by without food. With Marx ringing in his ears, Stalin thought nothing of destroying his agriculture system. He actually murdered the people who could grow food. The politically-driven replacement of collectivized farming was such a perennial failure that the Ministry of Agriculture was were political careers went to die. Mao’s agricultural experiments produced famines that killed millions.
Is it possible to simply do without modern industrial societies? Only if we are willing to permit a massive die-off of the human population. Are you willing to decide which people, which cities, which countries, will be allowed to live, and which should die? Are you willing to actually name names?
The incontrovertible fact is that the miracles of production created by modern industrial societies are essential to supporting us and all our fellow human beings at what we would consider an adequate standard of living.
Sheldon Wolin has pointed out that the industrial and financial regulations of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal created the “least imperfect” manifestation yet accomplished of the ideals of the American Declaration of Independence, and Constitution. The wrong-wing, of course, hates the New Deal, and has been struggling to roll it back ever since the Texas “Big Rich” oilmen began funding the rise of modern American conservatism in the 1930s. (See Bryan Burrough book, The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes.)
So, we know that there are better ways to organize a modern industrial society than ours now is. (We should know that simply from the theological perspective on perfection, without recourse to historical examples.) Those ways did not involve Marxism. There, is, in fact, a rich American tradition of leftist socio-politico-economic analysis, organizing, and accomplishment. The Farmers Alliances of the 1880s and 1890s, the Greenback monetary theorists like Charles Macune, Henry George, Charles Lindbergh Sr., Louis D. Brandeis, the Non-Partisan League, Ignatius Donnelly, Robert M. LaFollette, and Thorstein Veblen are some of the names that anyone could easily spend hours, even weeks, researching and reading the works of, to explore and understand this American tradition that I think would be far better to resurrect than Marxism.