Marx on the Skids | Lit Feature | Chicago Reader

Arts & Culture » Lit Feature

Marx on the Skids

A totured psyche, a bankrupt ideology, the fatal flaws of a man and his revolution.



Like many who've been poor at some point in their lives, Karl Marx spent a lot of time thinking about money. He didn't just think about it of course; he philosophized. In much of his writing money took on almost mystical properties: It reduced the richness and complexity of human labor to an abstraction, helping to disguise the very nature of capitalist oppressions. It gave men powers they couldn't have had without it, allowing stupid men to buy talent, ugly men to win the hearts (or at least the bodies) of beautiful women, cowards to buy bravery. In short, money turned "the world upside-down," it was "the confounding and compounding of all natural and human qualities."

But just as for Freud there were times when a cigar was just a cigar, for Marx there were times when money was just money. Marx spent a good deal of his life sponging off his close friend and intellectual sidekick Friedrich Engels, and anyone who's read their correspondence knows how desperate, even pathetic, his pleas for cash could get. He didn't just beg. He demanded, manipulatively, melodramatically, flaunting his poverty and misery, ignoring even the most basic niceties of friendship. But Engels valued Marx's work and his friendship and so put up with him.

Yet according to Frank Manuel's A Requiem for Karl Marx, Marx's narcissism nearly drove Engels off for good in the winter of 1863, after the death of Engels's lover Mary Burns. In a letter Marx responded to the news with a cursory comment about Mary's "sweet temper," then, barely pausing for breath, began complaining of his own financial misery and demanding another infusion of cash. He realized, he wrote, that it might seem "terribly egotistical of me to tell you of such horrors at such a time." But what could he do? He needed the money and was obviously worried that the tragedy might delay the next shipment. "Instead of Mary," he reflected at one point in the letter, "wouldn't it have been better if it were my mother, who in any event is now beset with physical complaints and has lived out her fair number of years?"

The incident is particularly revealing. Marx professed to care deeply about the future of all humanity, but he often found it difficult to deal with flesh-and-blood humans, even his closest friends and family. In many ways, as Manuel's fine book suggests, Marx's Marxism represented an intricate psychological defense mechanism. It gave him an excuse for his narcissism, and it allowed him to transform a complex set of ambivalences, insecurities, and inchoate angers into the clean, simple moral dramas of politics.

I know how that works. I've done it myself. And I'm not proud of it. A few years ago--more recently than I care to admit--I was briefly a member of a socialist sect. To be specific, I was a dues-paying, paper-selling member of the tiny International Socialist Organization, a sect of the Trotskyist variety. I say "briefly" to lessen the embarrassment, but the fact is, "briefly" wasn't a minute and a half. It was six months. As they would say on Oprah, Six Months of Secret Sectarian Shame.

I don't have an excuse for my lapse in judgment. My politics have always listed leftward, and I've thought of myself as some sort of socialist--enemy of capitalism, friend of the people, and all that--for more than a decade. But aside from the ISO experience I've kept myself relatively sane about it, alternating periods of intense and mildly idealistic political activism with periods when I recoil from politics in disgust. The ISO caught me at a time when I was heading back into politics and feeling rather guilty about having stayed on the sidelines for so long. Perhaps it's too simple to say I became a sectarian out of guilt. As they might point out on Oprah, I also suffered from exceedingly poor self-esteem at the time, and dealing with Trotskyist dogma was easier than dealing with the world.

And in the ISO there was little chance I'd ever have to go near the real world. For the ISO, as it goes to great pains to explain, is not only a socialist group--it's a revolutionary socialist group. So for six months I was theoretically a revolutionary, a designation that now strikes me as inherently absurd. I can only say, in partial defense of my actions, that while I was a member of the ISO I did no lasting harm to the world. After all, we didn't actually go around making revolutions. We had only a few hundred members--almost none of them actual proletarians--and I doubt any of us could have constructed a serviceable Molotov cocktail had the need arisen.

Nevertheless I was kept very busy for six months. I attended an endless succession of meetings, study groups, and "public forums"--which attracted an infinitesimally small portion of the public. I tagged along at dozens of demonstrations, some of them smaller than dinner parties I've attended. We made only rare and inconsequential excursions into the real world--most of which alienated more people than they persuaded. But the endless activity gave the illusion of accomplishment, and our almost antiseptic separation from the real world kept us from doubt. In the ISO, as in so many other little groups like it, the narcissism of Marx's original Marxism has reached its logical culmination.

After I quit the group my former comrades ceased speaking to me, though on rare occasions they'd castigate me for my frivolity. None of them ever bothered to try to figure out why I'd quit. It didn't matter. I'd gone over to the enemy--anyone who wasn't in the ISO. I think they secretly suspected it would happen all along. For one thing, I'd been terrible at selling papers--and worse, I hadn't seemed interested in improving my technique.

It's hardly an exaggeration to say that my ex-friends' faith in their brand of revolutionism had a religious cast--and that their faith served more of a psychological function than a political one. Like recent converts to an evangelical religion, they were simply baffled that anyone would think to question this or that tenet, and they tended to look on any ideological opposition as evidence of ignorance, laziness, or opportunism. Like born-again Christians witnessing on the street corner, they were unapologetic about their certainty. One of their pamphlets pitted "Marxist Views of Women's Oppression" against what were described as "Wrong Views of Women's Oppression."

Of course the ISO ideologues weren't the first volunteer saviors to project their hopes and fears on a proletariat they barely knew. As Manuel's A Requiem for Karl Marx suggests, the infamous intolerance of so many Marxists stemmed from Marx himself.

Manuel's book attempts to take stock of this difficult, often contradictory character, a man whose words and ideas held sway over much of the world during the century after his death, even though he now seems destined to be consigned to that famous dustbin of history. In a series of interrelated essays dealing with everything from Marx's relationship with Engels to his inability to finish his masterwork, Das Kapital, Manuel presents a provocative picture of a brilliant thinker almost undone by his own narcissistic anger and self-hatred. And by telling us so much about Marx, Manuel tells us a great deal more about the movement he created.

Marx's contradictions were many. Though at times he lived in miserable poverty, this prototype of the middle-class revolutionary never had much contact with flesh-and-blood industrial workers, except in meeting halls and in the pages of radical magazines. And despite his admiration for the abstract proletariat, he tended to view real workers with contempt, at times mocking their intellectual inadequacies and deriding them in private as "yokels." Tellingly, his major theoretical works were written in a style that was inaccessible to all but the best educated, and he spent much of his life desperate for recognition from the academic elite.

Yet in his less vindictive moments Marx was content to project his most grandiose fantasies onto the class he believed would be the salvation of the world. He spoke enthusiastically of the "pure freshness, the nobility" of the workers and looked upon every radical stirring with the naive hope that it might be a sign of the Marxist end times. "As each outburst of rebellious energy in the countries of Europe dissipated into thin air and left behind nothing but another cohort of disgruntled emigres," Manuel writes, Marx never let his hopes die--in part, one suspects, because he identified so strongly with his abstract proletariat that to give up on it would be to give up on himself.

For Marx's psyche was a volatile mixture of grandiose illusions, anger, and self-hatred. Born a Jew but baptized a Lutheran at age four, the atheistic Marx denied and rejected his Jewish heritage, filling his writings with vicious denunciations of Jews and "Jewishness" that would make any anti-Semite proud. A man without a religion--and later without a country--Marx looked for spiritual sustenance in his grand mythology of the proletarian revolution. "The festering wounds of Marx's self-loathing might have destroyed him," Manuel writes, "had he not found salvation in the fantasy of an arena of combat in which he could lead the forces of the proletariat to victory." In other words, the proletarians would not only save the world--they would save Marx from himself.

Since revolutionism for Marx was as much a psychological as a political necessity, it comes as no surprise that he inspired generations of similarly narcissistic revolutionaries. The failure of Marxism should provide us with lessons not only about the complexities of class and identity, but about the inadequacy of any political system based as much on psychological projection as on social realities.

For much of this century, even outside the communist countries where a debased Marxist dogmatism was enforced by official edict, the language and ideology of Marxism had considerable appeal, particularly for those who thought of themselves as intellectuals. Half the political parties in western Europe, whatever their current ideologies, can trace their origins to an earlier Marxist vogue. In this country during the 1930s and the '60s a flirtation with some variety of Marxism was perhaps the most important ideological rite of passage for young intellectuals.

But in the developing world, as political scientist Forrest Colburn notes in The Vogue of Revolutions in Poor Countries, Marxism had very real consequences, as the political imagination of dissident intellectuals was captured by the "expansive and ambitious" vision of a "common revolutionary intellectual culture." Generally quite wealthy by the standards of their countries and often as alienated from their own cultures as Marx was from his, these intellectuals found in the simple certainties and comforting abstractions of Marxism a way to relate to their own people at last--and if not with real workers and peasants, then with their Marxian essence.

Just as to Marx the proletariat was an almost mystical force, so to many of his ideological heirs Marxism (or Marxism-Leninism) was a spiritual thing. Colburn explains that it was "mysticism of an almost religious character, which lent not only a methodology for understanding, criticizing, and imagining social structures, political institutions and economic systems, but also an attitude of self-righteous militancy." In many ways the spread of Marxism represented a kind of Western imperialism as powerful and pervasive as the spread of Christianity centuries earlier.

An Ethiopian poem written in 1980 captures some of the flavor of this mystical Marxism:

Three in One
And One in Three
The Trinity in Unity
For Many's Liberty!
Marx the Father
Engels the Son
And Lenin
The Holy Ghost
Made the new Man
Free from slavery!

Perhaps this mysticism helps explain the faith in Marxist revolution in the poor countries of the world despite Marxism's atrocious track record. The general assumption is that revolutions move things forward, even if the going is at times a bit rough. "Yet the trajectory of contemporary revolutions challenges this facile conclusion," Colburn writes. "The nation-states that have undergone revolution look anything but more 'modern' for the experience....Those countries that have recently gone through the calamities of a revolution seem 'backward.' Their collective experience has wrought savage and cumulative damage on the rationalist promise of revolution."

In many of the post-World War II revolutions Colburn surveys, revolution was made easily enough, often by a wide range of citizens disgusted with a particular dictator or regime but not much motivated by specific ideology. "Socialism came later," Colburn writes, "as a by-product of the revolutions, foisted on the polities by determined political elites."

Once the new governments settled in, those elites set out to remake society, and their model was the Soviet Union. Colburn quotes Alvin Rubenstein: "The essential components of the Soviet package...[were] a theology of self-legitimation and internal unification, an organizational model for mass control and mobilization, and a security apparatus to nip plots in the bud and eliminate opponents." To this already brutal model many revolutionary leaders added ideas of their own. "We shall remove the enemy from within," one revolutionary leader in Mozambique proclaimed. "We shall cut the umbilical cord that links him to the former master, with hatchet and axe, if necessary. Usually you take a pair of scissors to cut the umbilical cord, don't you? In this case, it will be a hatchet or axe." Soviet-style politics may not have been pretty, but they were undeniably efficient.

The same could not be said of Soviet-style economics. Misreading the psychology of the masses, the revolutionary elites tried to harness the fervor of the revolutionary days for the mundane tasks of everyday life--and in virtually every case failed miserably. They succeeded not in inspiring the people with their talk of economic heroism and military-style efficiency crusades, but in creating deep-seated, if often well-hidden, resentments. "Our male and female combatants will surely succeed in their determined offensive to build our beloved fatherland by leaps and bounds and make it prosperous," the leaders of Democratic Kampuchea declared. The cost of this hubris, as Colburn calls it, was high. Within four years a million Cambodians were dead--some shot, others starved or worked to death. In China the failures and inefficiencies of one particularly bad idea, collectivized agriculture, contributed heavily to a famine between 1959 and 1962 that left 20 million dead.

It would be convenient to dismiss these terrible consequences--as some have tried to do--as evidence only of a perversion of pure Marxism by demagogues and dictators. But there's too much in this history that's redolent of the Marxism of Marx himself: the boundless faith in revolutionary progress, the unspoken certainty of those who presume to know what's best for the masses, the vindictive intolerance shown those who haven't seen the light.

Most of the world no longer seems to be looking to Marx for answers, but Manuel notes in his sad and sympathetic conclusion that there's still something of value in his work. "For the sufferings of Karl Marx the exile, we can feel compassion; for his elaborate theoretical system, benign doubt and perhaps selective approval; for the abominable practices instituted in his name, loathing."

But while we can't absolve Marx of responsibility for the abominations of crude Marxists like Stalin and Mao, neither can we dismiss the utopian longing at the heart of the Marxian system. As Manuel writes, even the most "skeptical utopian...can still believe in the worth of the guiding principle: from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." It's when one person presumes to know another's abilities--and another's needs--better than they do themselves that we begin to run into problems. And it's when one person projects his own needs upon the world that we begin to see the potential for disaster. A little self-knowledge is the beginning of political wisdom.

A Requiem for Karl Marx by Frank E. Manuel, Harvard University Press, $24.95.

The Vogue of Revolution in Poor Countries by Forrest D. Colburn, Princeton University Press, $19.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

Add a comment