How to Choose your Political Belief, Part I: Marxism

After much consideration, I recently decided to do away with all of my prejudices, which were proving an inconvenience and a barrier to clear thought. Over a spring afternoon, I made a careful list of all of those things I strongly believed, but had no evidence whatsoever for. I then stopped believing those things. Realizing that I often talk out of my ass, I resolved henceforth to talk only out of my mouth.

The result, I am pleased to report, has been both enjoyable and illuminating. I am now rigorously empirical. When a new idea comes along, instead of greeting it with an “Ugh,” I give it a “Hmm” and contemplate it with care. In this way, I only believe things that I ought to believe, and none of the things I oughtn’t.

As part of this prejudice-cleansing process, I have decided to entertain all possible political ideologies. While I cannot escape an innate socialistic temperament, I have no party allegiances or thoughtless emotion-driven favoritisms. Instead, whenever I encounter a political viewpoint, I interrogate it ruthlessly, and determine whether I should adopt it as my own. If I believe the ideas will lead to civilizational ruin and mass slaughter, then I discard them. If I believe they will produce a blissful paradise of eternal beauty and repose, then I embrace them and proselytize them to the masses.

Now, the difficult thing about all of this is that there are many, many types of politics. Fortunately, most of them expose their foolishness with dependable regularity. Over the course of a single day of browsing the news, I have been able to firmly reject Marxism, Mainstream Liberalism, and American Conservatism (and also managed to salvage a bit of useful truth from their catastrophic intellectual wreckages.) I shall today confine myself to a discussion of the first.

Marxism

Marxism is a stout and sturdy set of beliefs, a hearty potato broth of a philosophy. It wears overalls as it hammers in rivets and rises up and hangs the banner of proletarianism from the palace spires. All richly enticing stuff. And so I thought, because my natural inclinations are to spew weepy truisms about the universal brotherhood of humankind, that Marxist socialism might play my tune.

Alas. No matter how much I might wish for the triumph of the international egalitarian ethos, I found that I could not believe in Marxism. Witness the following advertisement for a new Marxist magazine, put out a few days ago by undoubtedly well-meaning people:

The crisis of capitalism has been a crisis of its opposition. We stand in the rubble of the post-Left… Where are the rough beasts whose birth we await? … Salvage is a new publication in which we hope to pose these questions, if not – yet – to answer them. It will be by and for all those who despise the rule of capital, inequality and oppression – but who cannot stomach any more the bad faith in which the opponents of that system have come to live and breathe. We abjure the typical and grotesque left chimera of sentimentalism, moralism and bullshit. We despise the bad dialectic of defensiveness and self-aggrandisement. We do not despair, but we are despair-curious. Across literary form and theoretical loyalty, obsessed with politics, economics, art and the (post)(anti)human, Salvage declares for austere revolutionary pessimism. Salvage-Marxism embraces the Socialist rococo… Salvage is not the foundation of a future Left. It may be a time-capsule for one…Salvage is not a tool of agitation, however devoutly we hope for the situation to become agitated.

I winced at nearly each word of this passage. Let’s comb through a few of the minor issues:

  • “Austere revolutionary pessimism” does not do much to disown the image of the gulag and the guillotine that so unfortunately dog the radical left. Personally I am not austere; I am floral. I can already feel the austere glares I will be given when these despair-curious dialecticians are deciding whom to purge.
  • Secondly, not a single word of this makes any sense. What does it mean to be both posthuman and antihuman? Are they inhuman? I like humans. Salvage would therefore not appear to be the magazine for me. Or perhaps it would. Who knows?
  • Worrying, too, is the disdain for “sentimentalism.” I confess to being mushy. If I like the left, it is because of old-fashioned bleeding-heartism. I dare to believe in a world of hugs. If I am to believe this advertisement, this makes me grotesque.
  • Ah, but perhaps these bullet-points are being a little too kind to Salvage, by parsing it with care. In fact, the main problem is that, for a political magazine, I have no idea what kind of society these people want, but to the extent I can figure it out, it sounds both pretentious and terrifying.
  • As a final note, if ever I find myself slipping into this kind of prose, please slip me a cyanide tablet.

Thus, after a fair-minded investigation, I must sadly conclude that Salvage and its Marxism are (1) irrelevant and (2) drivel. And with politics being quite important and consequential, the pursuit of irrelevant drivel would appear a poor use of one’s time.

Alright, but I must be fair. Perhaps the promoters of Salvage just got a bit carried away with themselves. Who hasn’t slathered the prose on a bit thick from time to time? One should not dismiss an entire century-and-a-half old belief system on the basis of a single overwritten fundraising letter. It would be wrong to jettison Marxism after 200 words, however telling those words might be.

Indeed! But I have a second case study. This one is from the pages of Jacobin magazine. It is an article by Matthijs Krul entitled “Marx Still Matters,” and aims to show exactly what the title says. Perfect! I will find out precisely why I here in 2015, living so long after Marx’s death, should nevertheless voluntarily entangle myself in his beard.

Apparently a new biographer of Karl Marx has concluded that Marx was ultimately a figure of the nineteenth century. To some, that may seem an incontrovertible fact. But it is not, because in describing Marx as having a “nineteenth-century life,” the author has implied the provocative notion that Marx’s ideas have limited relevance to the present day. Because Mr. Krul is a Marxist, he wishes to defend the ideas of Marx against this charge of irrelevance. Let’s see an example of how he rebuts the new biographer, and proves Marx’s relevance:

Sperber observes that Marx had an interest in agricultural chemistry but views this as a marginal hobby. He notes neither the great prescience of Marx and Engels’s interest in agricultural transformation and ecological constraints, nor the importance of their comradely relations with Justus von Liebig, the nineteenth century’s greatest organic chemist.

Well, I’m sold! If he had comradely relations with Justus von Liebig, Sperber must surely be mistaken about whether Marx’s ideas are useful!

Actually, I am being slightly unfair in selecting a ridiculous pair of sentences, about whose content nobody could possibly care. But I challenge my reader to find another part of the article that more persuasively states the case for Marx against the calumnies of the scoundrel Sperber. My claim is that the reader will return to me empty-handed.

There is a passage in the conclusion:

Sperber’s irrelevance thesis is not plausible on its own terms. It is even less so in the face of the enduring vitality, despite considerable defeats and setbacks, of Marxist politics around the globe; the continuing appeal of Marxist political economy to many seeking to explain the crisis-ridden nature of capitalism; and the recurrent “returns of Marx” fearfully invoked by the liberal press every few years.

But this justification for Marx’s relevance amounts to “Marx matters because there are Marxists.” Well, yes, that’s sort of true by definition. But it does not, of course, offer any reason why one should be a Marxist if one is not already. “Marx is relevant because he is feared” is also an argumentative strategy Marxists might want to reconsider using, since the same could be said of dyptheria.

I am left, then, very much unpersuaded by Mr. Marx’s envoys. And so, despite the squeals of Monsieur Krul, to the ash heap of history he goes! One political persuasion down, many more to consider.

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