Monday, May 10, 2010

The enduring appeal of Marxism

Reading Helen Epstein’s essay on Meles Zenawi’s dictatorial regime in Ethiopia, one is treated to a double dose of what an utter moral disaster Marxism has been.

The first is recalling Mengistu’s appalling regime and the collectivisation famine it created, aggravated by its food-denial strategy against its opponents. (Epstein identifies the second factor but not the first.)

The second is the way Epstein’s account makes it quite clear that Zenawi’s policies of control flow quite directly from his schooling in Marxist politics. She writes:
During the early 1970s, when Meles was a medical student in Addis Ababa, he joined a Marxist study group that eventually became the TPLF. Meles’s military performance was undistinguished, but he had a talent for speech-making, and was appointed head of the TPLF’s political wing. In the training courses he ran for recruits, he celebrated Stalin’s achievement in modernizing Russia, but didn’t dwell on the blood that was shed in the process.

In 1985, Meles founded a unit within the TPLF known as the Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray, which was guided by the Leninist principle of “Democratic Centralism.” In pursuit of revolutionary socialist goals, the peasants were to be mobilized by a “vanguard elite,” which would exert total ideological and economic control over society. But after taking office in 1991, Meles downplayed his Marxist past and even enrolled in a correspondence course in business administration at Britain’s Open University. In discussions with US officials and journalists, he indicated that his Marxism extended to antifeudalism, equality, land reform, and teaching farming skills to women, but not to the nationalization of private enterprises or one-party rule.

At first, Meles’s government allowed a degree of press freedom, multiparty democracy, and privatization of some state-owned enterprises. But as rigged elections and arrests of journalists continued, some observers wondered whether Meles’s political change of heart was genuine. In official English-language documents written for the World Bank and other agencies, his government expressed a commitment to human rights and democracy: but Ethiopian-language documents intended for internal government or EPRDF consumption told a different story. These documents outlined a policy known as “Revolutionary Democracy”—essentially the same Leninist program that Meles taught to his TPLF cadres in the 1980s, involving top-down decision-making, regular sessions of “self-criticism,” and single-party rule for generations. Revolutionary Democracy would be promoted through the gradual EPRDF takeover of all organs of “propaganda,” including schools, the civil service, the press, and religious institutions. “When ‘Revolutionary Democracy’ permeates the entire [Ethiopian] society,” Meles wrote in 2001,
individuals will start to think alike and all persons will cease having their own independent outlook. In this order, individual thinking becomes simply part of collective thinking because the individual will not be in a position to reflect on concepts that have not been prescribed by “Revolutionary Democracy.”

Consistent with this aim, the EPRDF has used World Bank funds to purge much of the senior civil service of opposition supporters and replaced the independent Ethiopian Teachers Association with a party-affiliated body. Meles concedes that a Leninist economic program would not be possible as long as Ethiopia is dependent on foreign aid from capitalist countries, but his government still controls all land and telecommunications, and much of the banking and rural credit sectors. According to the World Bank, roughly half of the rest of the national economy is accounted for by companies held by an EPRDF-affiliated business group called the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT). EFFORT’s freight transport, construction, pharmaceutical, and cement firms receive lucrative foreign aid contracts and highly favorable terms on loans from government banks. Ethiopia is not a typical African kleptocracy, and there is no evidence that Meles personally benefits from these businesses. Rather, they are part of a rigid system of control that aid agency officials, beguiled by Meles’s apparently pro-Western exterior, have only recently begun to recognize.

People frequently attempt to differentiate Leninism from Marxism, but Leninism is simply a way of operationalising Marxism. The notion that history has a goal, that this goal is morally trumping, that people are to be graded according to whether they are facilitators or barriers to this goal, that people suffer from mass delusions which the “enlightened” overcome, that large sections of humanity are dispensable, all come straight from Marxism and are all profoundly tyrannical in their implications.

Bu such views are also convenient, since they justify massive concentration of power and provide grounds to de-legitimise opposition. As Epstein’s concluding paragraph expresses:
The Western Renaissance helped to democratize “the word” so that all of us could speak of our own individual struggles, and this added new meaning and urgency to the alleviation of the suffering of others. The problem with foreign aid in Ethiopia is that both the Ethiopian government and its donors see the people of this country not as individuals with distinct needs, talents, and rights but as an undifferentiated mass, to be mobilized, decentralized, vaccinated, given primary education and pit latrines, and freed from the legacy of feudalism, imperialism, and backwardness. It is this rigid focus on the “backward masses,” rather than the unique human person, that typically justifies appalling cruelty in the name of social progress.

The notion that the history of Marxism does not reveal its logic is a deeply contemptible evasion.

The persistence of Marxism in the West is a function of its persistence in academe. Without that, it would wither and die. [Given the grotesque failures of the attempts to base societies on Marxist thought.] Why does it persistent in academe? Because Marxism satisfies three deep cognitive wants for academics:

(1) It is a complex theoretical system. There is nothing that establishes one’s bona fides as a Very Clever Person more than mastering a complex theoretical system: the denser and more jargon-heavy the prose, the better. And Marx’s writings have plenty of dense, jargon-heavy prose.

(2) It is a system of grand intent. If one lives the life of the mind, then the grander one’s intellectual projects, the grander one’s cognitive sense of self: Marxism not only “explains” human history and society, it “reveals” the final end point of human and social transformation. What could be grander than such a project?

(3) It completely de-legitimises commerce. Under Marxism, the only legitimate economic role is to supply labour. All commerce is de-legitimised and all those engaged in it—including all those people who have far more wealth and organisational significance than academics—are de-legitimised, reduced to “exploiters” who are but immoral dust beneath the heels of academics in no way “polluted” by vulgar commerce.

We can see the strength of these factors from the way they manifest in the typical attitudes of academics (particularly humanities academics) way beyond belief in Marxism (though, often, a form of decayed “vulgar Marxism” still lurks in putatively non-Marxian manifestations). Marxism simply hits these notes in a more sophisticated and coherent way than the alternatives, which are often left with a fairly superficial re-glossing of Marxian perspectives, due to the lack of a powerful alternative that is as well grounded in academic cognitive preferences.

[Marxism is a deeply flawed system of thought: for example, Marx's labour theory of value is false and Marx's notion of "exploitation" rests on playing games with the concept of 'labour'.]

Marxism is of historical interest because it has been so profoundly influential in modern history. Its continuing appeal is of sociological interest. But it is not a philosophy worthy of any moral respect and its persistence in academe is a sign of social pathology, not of intellectual or moral health.

ADDENDA: This post has been amended to add the bits in [].


  1. Lorenzo, I really like your insightful explanation of why Marxism is so attractive to academicians. This really makes a lot of sense.

  2. And I don't care what anybody says. All that postmodern/structuralism that infected the universities in the 1990s and 2000s was just souped-up Marxism disguised in nails-down-the-chalkboard meaningless inhuman gibberish.

  3. PP: ROFL. Lovely turn of (abusive) phrase :)

  4. There's a real religious aspect to Marxist belief - a kind of belief by adherents that the scales have fallen from their eyes, but everyone else needs to be re-educated. Therefore, anyone who rejects the Marxist world view can be written off as delusional, and not sufficiently re-educated. In fact, those big statues of Marxist leaders seem to me an attempt to replace religious beliefs with a political leader.

  5. LE: Yes, many people have commented on Marxism's "substitute religion" features (sometimes in titles, such as The God That Failed). It has many of the features of a religion: ascribes meaning to the world, gives a sense of purpose, has an eschatology, creates rituals and iconography, sacred texts, heresy hunting ...

    And it is very Gnostic in the sense of dividing the world into the "enlightened" and the "deluded".

    It also has the deep feature in common with monotheism of creating an absolutely trumping moral authority against which there is no appeal. Thereby justifying stripping moral protections from all sorts of people. Indeed, it tends to be worse at that than monotheism proper because it lacks the "we are all children of God" restraint. (Though Marxism's access to greater technology, populations and organisational capacity in its virulent enthusiasm stage complicates that comparison.)