I was recently given a copy of History of Political Philosophy edited by Leo Strauss and his successor, Joseph Cropsey. It’s a superb book, a well curated collection of essays by distinguished scholars in the field covering the time period from Thucydides to Martin Heidegger. Each essay succinctly covers, in about 20-30 pages, the political thought, life, and times of each of the figures studied. You really all should buy it.
That’s not the reason I’m writing, though. I’ve always felt a visceral disdain for Marxism, from the repugnant nature of its premises (I side with Aristotle: “But that the unequal should be given to equals, and the unlike to those who are like, is contrary to nature, and nothing which is contrary to nature is good” Politics Book VII 3.5, 1325.b) to the ugly cant of its diction. There is nothing in it that appeals to me, and its followers whom I have encountered, either snide petit bourgeois professors with manicured fingernails and soft hands, or the spoiled and deluded children of middle-class families, have not helped my perception. Always and interestingly for me is that I have never met a single member of the proletariat who has actually referred to himself as such, or has shown anything but a similarly gut hatred of Marxist rhetoric. Marx’s own anti-Semitism is not endearing to a Jew like me, either (I recommend Sander GIlman’s work, Jewish Self-Hatred, for those who would like more information).
Despite my misgivings, I have not found such a beautiful encapsulation of why I reject Marxism until I read Cropsey’s essay on the great thinker:
Unexpectedly, we now see coming into view a ground of agreement between ancients and pre-Marxian moderns on this most important point: political life rests upon the imperfection of man and continues to exist because human nature rules out the elevation of all men to the level of excellence. The connection between civil government and man’s imperfection is expressed by Rousseau, for example, in the form of the distinction between state and society: men can be social while uncorrupted, but in political community they prey and are preyed upon by one another. At the beginning of Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote, “Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections,t he latter negatively by restraining our vices… The first is a patron, the last a punisher.”
Rousseau may be said to have suggested, via the doctrine of the perfectibility of man, that government may be more and more replaced by society: in the perfect freedom of self-government, coercion loses most of its sting. But Rousseau did not at all suppose that all men would become philosophic, nor that there is any perfect substitute for the full rationality of men that would render coercion and rhetoric of all kind, i.e. political life, dispensable. He did not, in brief, expect ordinary selfishness imply to disappear from among the generality of men.
What in Rousseau was a limited suggestion, although an emphatic one, came to be the dogmatic core of a confident prognosis, a strident propaganda, and a revolutionary incitation in Marx: the state or political order will wholly wither away, and homogeneous mankind will live socially under the rule of absolute benevolence – from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. No longer will duty be performed incidentally to the pursuit of selfish interest. The link between duty and interest, which is to say the subordination of duty to interest, will be broken once and for all by the abolition of the categories ‘duty’ and ‘interest.’ They will be abolished by the revision of the property relations, by the inauguration of a new economics which will bring on the full perfection of human nature via the transcendence of production for exchange.
Marxism is not simply another political system, or one more ideology. It proposes nothing less than the end of the West – of political life, philosophy, and religion – as the foregoing summary indicates. Perhaps we should look forward with eager anticipation to the end of the West – but we cannot know whether we should without rationally examining the project for strangling philosophy. That rational examination is part of the philosophical quest itself. We cannot free ourselves of philosophy, if only because we must philosophize to pass judgment on philosophy. We begin to suspect the soundness of the anti-philosophic historicism of Marx. Observing its weakness prepares us to concede that history can make room for spiritually impoverished societies: the viability of Marxist nations is a sign not of the soundness of Marx’s prophecy but of the unsoundness of the sanguine historicism on which he based it. We have every right to conclude that history is the opiate of the masses.
Marx’s utopia is impossible because he desires perfection in men, perfection that pre-Marxian philosophers rightly saw as within the province of no one but the philosophical sages. Successful Marxists that came after him maintain their faith in the prognostications of orthodox Marxism in principle but reject it in practice. Mao, for example, rejected his more zealous comrades’ complaints that he had not abolished capitalism in the countryside, arguing that to do so would be inappropriate for a China that had never had a capitalist economy. The fruits of his relative moderation are seen in the totalitarian state he created, which lacked either economic or social development towards any goal but consolidation of the Politburo’s power. When Marxists claim that there has never been a truly socialist state, they are correct, but not for the reasons they think. It is not because socialism has not been fully tried, but because doing so is completely impossible. This impossibility is rooted in man’s very nature, biologically, physically, culturally determined but, crucially, determined without an end. There is no final cause in history. There is only flux, a notion Marx inherited from Heraclitus and stupidly wed to Hegelian progressivism, coming up with the paradoxical idea that the historical change by which past societies arose and fell apart would somehow come to an end in the decay of capitalism.
Libertarianism is an equally utopian vision, but the viability of a libertarian project is considerably rosier, as its utopia does not call for the radical transformation of the human being. Indeed, doing so would conflict with its fundamental principles. Rather, it calls for the harnessing of man’s most self-interested tendencies for a good purpose: selfishness leading to production, production leading to trade, trade to peace and prosperity. The realization of libertarianism in practice is possible. It is a vision of, not better selves, but a better self-actualization of the selves that we possess. Realizing this, we must not make the same mistake that Marx made, for as the popularity of our philosophy shows, we are not the majority. Not even close. We probably never will be. The political life, the state and its coercions, will likely never cease to be a factor in our lives. But what we can do, and what we ought to do, is actualize in ourselves the faculty of self-rule, upon which may be built the more virtuous state.