Monday, May 14, 2018

The Problem with Blaming Marx

May Fifth of this year marked the 200th birthday of Karl Marx, who needs no introduction. Accordingly, there were a number of pieces celebrating, or at least examining, his legacy. Rightly so; whatever one makes of his philosophy overall, history has vindicated a great deal of Marx's economic thought (even if his more dramatic prophesies of proletarian revolution have failed to materialize) and he remains one of the founding figures in the field of sociology. It makes perfect sense to "normalize" Marx, as Ryan Cooper of The Week argued; like any other thinker, we should be ready to examine his ideas critically, but with an open mind. One certainly doesn't have to be a Marxist to acknowledge that Marx's analysis of capitalism and society, while naturally imperfect and flawed, contains valuable insights.

Karl Marx (image from image library)
Of course, there were also a number of less positive responses to Marx's birthday and the positive articles written about him. Ben Shapiro writes for the the National Review that "Marx’s philosophy would lead directly to the deaths of 100 million human beings over the course of a century, the imprisonment of tens of millions more in gulags and reeducation camps from Russia to China to Vietnam to Cambodia to North Korea, and the oppression of hundreds of millions more." Similarly, Dominic Sandbrook writes for the Daily Mail that "when I hear his defenders denying any link between Marx and his blood-soaked apostles, I wonder how supposedly clever people can be so stupid. For all their cynicism and corruption, the men who ran the communist bloc never doubted that they were good Marxists." This is, of course, a common refrain from critics of Marx: communist regimes killed tens of millions of people; clearly, this fact in and of itself exposes some inherent violence in his thinking.

It's an interesting principle. Marx, of course, didn't himself take part in any communist regime (and it's worth noting that his more orthodox followers denounced Lenin and the first communist regime, the USSR, from the very beginning) but because Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro et al. of course cited Marx as their inspiration and justification, he bears the blame for their crimes. Unless the people promoting this principle are complete hypocrites, they presumably mean it as a general principle, not just one that applies to Marx.

So, relying on this principle--that a thinker is responsible for the crimes of their followers--I thought it would be interesting to have a look at the crimes committed by the followers of someone even more influential in human history than Marx, someone literally worshiped by billions to this day--Jesus Christ. Naturally, if Marx is responsible for the atrocities committed by communist regimes by virtue of the fact that their perpetrators called themselves Marxists, it seems only reasonable to say that Jesus is responsible for the crimes of Christians (at least when they used Christianity as the justification for their crimes). So, then, Jesus is responsible for crimes including (but certainly not limited to) the following:
  • The Spanish Inquisition, in which thousands of "heretics" were killed and those suspected of secretly practicing other religions were tortured;
  • The Catholic Church's role in the brutal colonization of the Americas, which Pope Francis was recently forced to acknowledge and apologize for;
  • The mass murder of political opponents by Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and his Nationalist forces, who were supported by the Catholic Church;
  • The atrocities committed by Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army, infamous for using child soldiers and accused of sex slavery, murder, and abduction
  • The innumerable lynchings and brutal terror inflicted for decades by the vehemently Christian Ku Klux Klan;
  • The estimated 1.7 million people killed in the Crusades, launched by the Catholic Church to reclaim the Holy Land from Muslims;
  • The tens of thousands of people killed as a result of "witch trials" in Europe;
  • The long history of oppression and violence against gay and other LGBT people in majority-Christian countries, often explicitly justified on the grounds of Christianity;
...and much more.

It is certainly baffling to think that the man who shunned violence and famously urged its victims to "turn the other cheek" rather than even striking back could be responsible for all of this. But that is the only conclusion we can reach.

Unless, of course, we reject the idea that a thinker is necessarily responsible for the crimes their admirers commit; if we acknowledge that the crimes committed by Christians listed above--and that the crimes committed by communist regimes--are not necessarily the fault of Jesus or Marx, but are first and foremost the fault of those who actually participated in them. This would mean, rather than assuming that Marx is responsible for the suffering inflicted by communist regimes and going from there, we might actually attempt some kind of examination of the relevant facts to ask why communist countries have been so repressive; it would be relevant to note, for instance, that countries like Russia, China and Cuba had authoritarian governments before their respective communist revolutions; perhaps it's not surprising, given their history, that these countries' new Marxist rulers carried on their predecessors' traditions of ruling through force rather than democratically.

It's also worth recognizing that Lenin, who led the October revolution that established the USSR, was a major influence on the communist revolutionaries that came after him; Lenin was undoubtedly a dictator who "adapted" Marx's ideas in his own ways (for which he was harshly criticized by Marxists like Rosa Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek and Karl Kautsky, who rightly challenged his authoritarian interpretation of Marx). Marx himself would likely not be surprised that the communist revolutions of the 20th century produced grim results; they didn't happen in the highly industrialized capitalist countries that he'd predicted, but in countries like China and Russia that were largely agrarian and didn't have the material wealth of the advanced European countries Marx had had in mind.

If we're giving an honest assessment of Marx's legacy, it's also unfair to focus only on the negatives (just as it would be unfair to define Jesus' legacy by events like the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition while ignoring the work many Christians have done to help the poor and downtrodden throughout history). Marx didn't exclusively inspire dictators like Mao and Stalin; he also influenced people like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., antiwar activists such as Rosa Luxemburg and Eugene V. Debs, sociologists like C. Wright Mills, and many others.

Even the authoritarian communist countries that came about in the 20th century have achieved some impressive results: China enjoyed a major increase in life expectancy under Mao, and Cuba has managed to achieve results in healthcare, literacy and education that are stunning given its circumstances (being a poor island nation that's been the victim of economic warfare by the world's superpower, the United States, for several decades). The US National Security Council even had to admit that communism had a "proven ability to carry backward countries speedily through the crisis of modernization and industrialization." Nothing excuses the oppression and violence that these regimes have committed, which have been nothing short of horrific and are rightly reviled; but it makes no sense to focus exclusively on the crimes and failures of these regimes while completely ignoring their successes, any more that it makes to focus on the numerous evils in America's past and present (slavery, grotesque mistreatment of Native Americans, racism, sexism, imperialism) while ignoring its successes.

So, let's dispense with the talking point that because of the crimes and failures of communist regimes, Marx's ideas are discredited; certainly, there plenty of things he got wrong, and his ideas should be subjected to the same scrutiny to which
we would subject any other thinker's ideas. The oppressive nature of the communist regimes that sprung up in the years following his death certainly deserves to be discussed in relation to his legacy as well. But bringing it up every time someone makes a defense of Marx's ideas is lazy, and claiming with little or no evidence that he's responsible for crimes he didn't commit is absurd. And as I've shown here, applying the principle universally only shows how ridiculous it truly is.

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