I’ve been puzzling for some time over the continuing hold of Communism on the minds of America’s intellectuals. How could a system fail so completely for so long, in so many different variations, leaving a trail of death and suffering in its wake—and still be regarded as “idealistic”?
The answer is that Communism is “idealist” in the strict philosophical sense. And that’s not a good thing.
I realized this while reading the latest paean to Marx in the New York Times, which has spent the last year struggling mightily to rehabilitate Communism. Previously, I had tried to explain why the Communist dream won’t die by looking at its moral appeal—the desperate urge to cling to the ideal of collectivized selflessness, even when it turns out to look like gulags and starvation. But this latest entry reveals an even deeper explanation: the refusal to adjust one’s ideas in response to reality is itself a crucial foundation of Communism.
I called this new piece a paean to Karl Marx, and that’s not an exaggeration. The title is: “Happy Birthday, Karl Marx. You Were Right!” You see, this Saturday marks 200 years since Marx was born. So Jason Barker, an associate professor of philosophy at a university in South Korea—he might want to take a stroll farther north—congratulates Marx on getting everything so amazingly right.
On May 5, 1818, in the southern German town of Trier, in the picturesque wine-growing region of the Moselle Valley, Karl Marx was born….
Today his legacy would appear to be alive and well. Since the turn of the millennium countless books have appeared, from scholarly works to popular biographies, broadly endorsing Marx’s reading of capitalism and its enduring relevance to our neoliberal age.
In 2002, the French philosopher Alain Badiou declared at a conference I attended in London that Marx had become the philosopher of the middle class. What did he mean? I believe he meant that educated liberal opinion is today more or less unanimous in its agreement that Marx’s basic thesis—that capitalism is driven by a deeply divisive class struggle in which the ruling-class minority appropriates the surplus labor of the working-class majority as profit—is correct.
Here, as I understand it, is the timeline. In 1818, Marx is born. In 2002, a French philosopher declares him to be right. Did, um, anything relevant happen in between those dates? Barker’s answer, incredibly, is “no.” The following is the entirety of what he has to say about the history of Communism in the 20th Century.
The idea of the classless and stateless society would come to define both Marx’s and Engels’s idea of communism, and of course the subsequent and troubled history of the Communist “states” (ironically enough!) that materialized during the 20th century. There is still a great deal to be learned from their disasters, but their philosophical relevance remains doubtful, to say the least.
In the 20th Century, we had states that called themselves “Marxist,” based their economic systems on Marx’s teaching, and made generations of schoolchildren memorize Marx’s writings. Then those systems failed spectacularly, both as economies and as societies compatible with human life and happiness. They’re still failing, with people starving and in concentration camps today, this moment, as you read this. But move along, nothing to see here. A hundred years of death and destruction has “doubtful philosophical relevance.”
It’s philosophers like this who have doubtful relevance. By “philosophers like this,” I mean something very specific, and ironically it is explained by Barker himself. He describes Marx’s encounter with previous German philosophers: “Marx found that the late-18th-century idealisms of Immanuel Kant and Johann Gottlieb Fichte that so dominated philosophical thinking in the early 19th century prioritized thinking itself—so much so that reality could be inferred through intellectual reasoning.” When it is used to describe a school of philosophy, “idealism” does not mean a passionate commitment to a moral ideal. It means something closer to “idea-ism”: the notion that ideas take precedence over facts, that ideas come first and reality has to adjust to match them.
Can there be any more thorough statement of “idealism,” in this sense, than declaring the bloody ideological conflicts of the 20th century “philosophically irrelevant” because you don’t want to doubt Marx’s theory?
This is the hallmark of the defense of Communism—and of the contemporary left as a whole. Western intellectuals strenuously denied and covered up the famine in Ukraine and Stalin’s rein of terror, and up to the very end, they would outdo Baghdad Bob in their insistence that things were going just fine under Communism, and the Soviets were going to surpass us any day. Today, they are so committed to philosophical idealism that they will perform radical surgery to mutilate a person’s body to match their delusion of what it ought to be—and instead of calling it “reassignment,” they call it “confirmation.” You see, the idea in the person’s head determines their true physical reality, not the other way around.
This attitude toward facts explains most of the rest of Barker’s article. Here, for example, is the only fact he chooses to cite about the 200 year history of industrial capitalism: “according to Oxfam, 82 percent of the global wealth generated in 2017 went to the world’s richest 1 percent.” In the real world, global capitalism has produced unprecedented wealth for the masses and is a generation away from eliminating extreme poverty.
He also cites Marx’s prediction that educated professionals—a more entrenched class today than ever before—would be reduced to commoditized wage laborers. His proof for this? Recent advances in artificial intelligence that will someday produce robot doctors. So sure, if we skip over 200 years, straight through the present, and on to a science-fiction fantasy of the future, then Marx is totally proven right. Like I said, ideas in your head come first, and reality drags on behind.
Barker tries to tell us that Marx was “the complete opposite” of the philosophical idealists because he claimed that “It was the material world that determined all thinking.” But his doesn’t mean what you might think it means. It doesn’t mean that facts, observation, and evidence are the proper basis for ideas. Instead, it means that all ideas are just excuses or rationalizations for the existing relations of economic power. This makes Marxist philosophy even more impervious to evidence, because any arguments against Marxism can be dismissed out of hand as attempts to impose the repressive thinking that perpetuates the power of the ruling class. In fact, to speak or argue against leftist ideas is itself a form of oppression. This is how Marxist theory became the most rigid and hidebound dogma of all, completely insulated from the impact of experience, analysis, criticism, and a century of historical evidence. Which is how we get articles like Barker’s.
But at least he does us a service by boasting that this Marxist approach is the basis for the entire contemporary left. Now that Marxism has been expanded to cover “racial and sexual oppression,” the only solution to those problems is Marxist revolution: “enlightened or rational thinking is not enough, since the norms of thinking are already skewed by the structures of male privilege and social hierarchy, even down to the language we use.” This is why speakers with opposing views have to be disinvited or physically blocked from college campuses, purged from newspapers and magazines, flagged and filtered out by social media.
This explains the Marx-loving intellectuals’ stubborn imperviousness to evidence, their compulsion to place the idea of Marxism above the realm of facts and argument. But it also reveals something more ominous. It gives the lie to the excuse that totalitarianism is a distortion of Marxism. Absolute intolerance for ideological disagreement is baked right in to the deepest foundations of Marx’s theory, making the continued popularity of that theory deadly to the future of free speech.
This is a fact that is definitely philosophically relevant.