Saturday, 3 March 2007

Consequences - Bernard Levin

Here's a postcard I picked up in Highgate in the early nineties, and with it goes a story.

As you might have heard, one of my great pleasures when living in London was reading Bernard Levin's twice-weekly columns in The Times on the way to work. Wit, erudition and warm-hearted insight such as his in one's regular daily rag was partial recompense for many of the daily indignities of London life. Indeed, it was one of his columns therein that helped persuade me to forswear the indignities and return to New Zealand (or more precisely two successive columns, 'Down Under:1,' and Down Under:2' in which, after a short trip here, he praised New Zealand to the skies).

Re-reading an old book of Levin's columns the other day, I alighted on this one, from 198s, almost a decade before communist Eastern Europe collapsed and with that collapse providing the punchline for the postcard above. If the collapse provided the punchline, Levin's column perhaps provides the eulogy, one delivered a prescient eight years before the final burial.
* * * * *

MARX SURELY PROVIDES one of the greatest paradoxes of history. Nearly half the people in the world live under governments that call themselves Marxist, and although the ultimate goal of humanity, in Marx’s philosophy, was the freeing of the individual from the bonds of class and exploitation which had held him since the rise of capitalism, a process of liberation which was to end with the withering away of the state, every one of the regimes which profess to live by his system is a brutal tyranny, in which the individual is less free than any capitalist wage—slave and in which the state, so far from withering away, is more obtrusive, more powerful and more ruthless than any government based on the class system.

How are we to explain this extraordinary looking- glass world? One way is to say — what is certainly true — that none of these ‘Marxist’ governments have anything Marxist about them, and that if Marx could return and examine them he would be quite unable to understand how and why his name had been dragged into the matter.

But of course that explanation, so far from clearing up the mystery, makes it all the more obscure. For if the Marxists have lost their Marxism, wherewith shall they be Marxed? Why should a Russian govern ment in 1983 feel obliged to pretend that it rules by the principles laid down in a big, boring book on Victorian economics written by an old man with a beard in Tufnell Park? None of the rulers concerned has ever read the book; they couldn’t have done, for no one could possibly finish it, not even Marx, who gave up, bored insensible by his own rubbish, after the first volume, though he lived on for more than a decade, sponging off Engels intellectually as well as financially, and leaving him to make what he could of the rest of the book.

This particular part of the Marxist legacy has many sides. The very same fate, it can be seen, has overtaken Trotsky, our own world being awash with idiots who call themselves Trotskyites without having read, let alone understood, a line of their hero or of Marx: for that matter the murderous lunacy called Maoism gave rise to a similar following elsewhere, calling themselves Maoist to the genuine bewilderment of the Chinese leadership, who could discern nothing of their ruler’s views in those held by many who styled themselves his loyal subjects in partibus infidelium.

A theory which, whatever its deviser’s intentions, has given rise to nothing but a barbaric despotism must surely have had something wrong with it in the first place. What is the causal connexion between Marx’s Marxism and the pseudo-Marxism of the Soviet empire, between a theory of liberation and an actuality of slavery, between a Utopian idealist who wanted all men to be brothers and a gallery of thugs who want nothing but the perpetuation of their own power?

I put it like that because of all the excuses for communist tyranny to be heard in the West one of the most repulsive, as well as the feeblest, is the claim that it cannot be laid to the door of Marx, or indeed of Lenin (who, it should be remembered, set up the Gulag). But in law, a man is held to be responsible for the likely consequences of his actions, and certainly it is not difficult to find in those of Marx and Marxism the seeds of the still proliferating evil practised in their name.

To start with, a man as personally intolerant as Marx, who was constantly denouncing and excommunicating all those in his own camp who ventured to question some detail of his argument, can hardly keep intolerance out of the bones of his philosophy. He did not have the power to send those he anathematised to their death, but he offered to those who came later a ready-made set of templates from which the justification of millions of deaths could be constructed, and it is no use saying he did not intend it; maybe not, but he was it.

He was also, in the same sense, the dictatorship of the proletariat, one of the greatest individual paradoxes within the main paradox itself: there is no system of government in the world, no, not the most corrupt personal fief of the worst of Black Africa’s dictators, in which the proletariat have less say in their own destiny than in the lands of communism, nĂ© Marxism. But it is all too easy for those who dictate to the proletariat, by combining Rousseau (the father of modern totalitarianism) with Marx, to persuade themselves that all they are doing is to carry out the proletariat’s dictatorship by a form of representative government; Rousseau allows such rulers to claim that the proletariat, if they knew their best interests, would approve, and Marx provides a set of principles for the dictatorships to rule by. And the gun and the barbed wire will take care of anyone who points out that on both counts the emperor has no clothes.

The next charge that can be laid to Marx’s account is his historicism; again, the charge is not so much that he was guilty of it, though obviously he was, as that those who came after used it to justify their own crimes, so that Marx faces judgment as an accessory before the fact. If history is seen as a consistent progress through definable stages of development towards an ultimate apotheosis in which ‘pre-history ends and history begins’, then anyone who tries to push history out of its orbit must be an enemy of the people, for whom no fate can be too harsh; from this point it is no great step to arguing that anyone who denies that history is still in its original orbit is an enemy of the people too. Meanwhile the ultimate apotheosis is indefinitely postponed, no
doubt through the machinations of more enemies of the people, who must be sought out all the more ruthlessly, and all the more ruthlessly punished, even if the effort required for such salutary action means that the apotheosis must wait even longer.

But finally, and most important, there is the principle most closely associated with Marx -- though Engels, faced with the realisation that it was manifest nonsense, tried to weasel out of it after Marx’s death: historical materialism. And it is that nonsense, which five miflutes’ conversation with a single real human being would push over, that constitutes the greatest crime
committed by this harbinger of slavery and murder. Once the rulers are possessed of a theory which purports to explain everything in terms outside both the explainers and the explained-to, human beings become objects in a theory, and if there is one thing we know about objects in a theory, it is that they do not feel pain, not even from rubber truncheons or bullets. QED.

Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev, Ulbricht, Jaruzelski, Rakosi, Mao, Castro — such men as these are not aberrations from Marxism, but its most perfect flowers, its juiciest fruits. Marxism gave them the weapons, and they finished the job; the fact that they finished Marxism at the same time is the last great irony of the story, but it is no consolation to those who died or to those who rot in
jail, or for that matter to those who still live still free and wish to stay that way. The revolution envisaged in the Communist Manifesto is, in the communist lands, further off than ever. No doubt that distresses Marx as much as it surprises him. But he has no one to blame except

The Times
March 11th, 1983.


  1. This reminded me of a scene in the movie Clockwork Orange (I watched for the first time just the other night) when the hero “Alex” falls into the hands of his previous victim the writer,

    “The government's big boast as you know sir is the way they have dealt with crime during the last few months, recruiting brutal young roughs into the police, proposing debilitating and will-sapping techniques of conditioning. Oh, we’ve seen it all before in other countries, the thin end of the wedge. Before we know where we are we shall have the full apparatus of the proletariat. This young boy is a living witness to his diabolical proposals. The people, the common people, must know, must see. There are rare traditions of liberty to defend. The tradition of liberty is all. The common people are led….oh yes they will sell their liberty for a quieter life. That is why they must be led sir, driven, pushed.”

    It struck a chord with me that people must be “driven” and “pushed” into any ideology even liberty.

  2. "It struck a chord with me that people must be 'driven' and 'pushed' into any ideology, even liberty".

    Yes, poor old liberty routinely gets a bum deal.

    My favourite are the lefties who insist upon calling themselves liberals.


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