Below is the latest in an occasional series of essays on the Left by our English correspondent Peter.
The Red Evolution II: When did leftism go bad, or was it ever any other way?
I was amazed last August when the head of the Roman Catholic church, His Holiness Pope Francis, asserted that the most dynamic and rapidly growing religion in the last 100 years has been neither Christianity nor Islam but leftism. Leftism? When I got over the shock I had to ask why the demented old buffer chose to make this outrageous statement at all, never mind that it was only a matter of days after two Muslims slit the throat of a French Roman Catholic priest, the Rev. Jacques Hamel, 85, while he was saying Mass in his church. I am still at a loss.
I have no doubt at all that leftists believe in nothing, represent nothing and support nothing. They will bitch, bellyache, gripe and grouse for hours telling you what they are against, i.e. democracy, capitalism, Christianity, Western culture, nation states, conservatism; in fact everything that we in the West hold sacred. And they will overwhelm any contradicting view with raging torrents of well-rehearsed, high-decibel gobbledygook, generally as a diversionary tactic to prevent their victims from asking questions or, indeed, articulating any form of coherent riposte.
So how did leftism, progressivism, communism, liberalism, radicalism or whatever else you choose to call it become such a malign and malevolent force? It is commonly believed that the basis of Leftism evolved from The Enlightenment, but if so, how did such high-minded and principled people such as John Locke, Charles-Louis Montesquieu, Isaac Newton, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Francois-Marie Voltaire and many others associate themselves with a movement that would degenerate into so much evil? Many leftists deny the malignancy of the movement of which they have become part, but that is only to be expected. To the rest of us, the evil of leftism is only too clear.
The era of the Enlightenment ended with two momentous revolutions, both of which significantly and irrevocably changed the world. The American Revolution was a war fought against a colonial power by colonists who demanded and gained the right to self-determination and, in so doing, created a nation that would eventually become the figurehead of the free world. In contrast, the French Revolution in many ways became an inspiration to those who would enslave that world and, in the process, substantially undermine any meaningful discourse.
A great deal has been written about the French Revolution, and I do not propose to add to it. The revolution covered a period from 14 July 1789 until 27 July 1794, beginning with the storming of the Bastille and ending with the execution of Maximilian Robespierre. In between there occurred the Reign of Terror, a five year blood-bath, in which the royal family, so-called counter revolutionaries, moderates, reformers, priests, aristocrats along with anyone else whose face didn’t fit or who was adjudged to have looked sideways at a member of the Committee of Public Safety, were systematically put to death. Following the death of Robespierre, those who remained alive and in power decided, purely on the grounds of self-preservation, that the Reign of Terror had run its course and something approaching normality should now return. It has been estimated that 17,000 people went to the guillotine as the result of the terror, while over 100,000 were imprisoned after being denounced as counter-revolutionaries. This was relatively small beer when compared with the later excesses of Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot, the Kim dynasty and Mao but it was clearly enough to shock the rest of the population into submission.
While the revolution was at its height, those who were engaged in its pursuit thought that not only was it a good thing to cut off the heads of their own erstwhile rulers and anyone else who incurred their ire, they should spread their new-found wisdom to their European neighbours, encourage them to decapitate their rulers, too, and ally themselves with France to form a coalition of like-minded nations — rather like today’s European Union. Unfortunately for the French, the leadership of the rest of Europe did not share their revolutionary zeal, especially the part about having their heads cut off. As a result of their attempts to export their revolution, the newly established Gallic collective found itself at war with Austria, Prussia, Holland, Spain and, the old enemy, Great Britain.
The prime movers in the revolution were, inter alia, the “Sans-Culottes”, the masses, along with the Girondins a radical group and the Jacobins, a revolutionary political movement led by Robespierre. The Jacobins were members of a political club that met at the Parisian Dominican convent in the Rue St. Jacques — Jacobus in Latin — from which they derived their name. It was they who set up the revolutionary dictatorship that dominated the Committee for Public Safety and the French Parliament, and it was they who instigated the reign of terror. It has been argued that the Jacobins were the forefathers of today’s political militants, and that the French Revolution itself was the birth of today’s leftist movement. Indeed, the behavior of the Jacobins bore a striking similarity to that of groups such as Antifa and Unite Against Fascism, who have assumed the right to assault and physically damage anyone who expresses thought processes incongruent with their own leftist template. The Jacobins were not very nice people but neither were the Herbertists, a radical revolutionary group that also played a significant role in the Revolution. They were fiercely anti-Christian, and actively supported the proposal later attributed to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon that “all property is theft,” using that premise to enforce state seizure of goods, often for their own enrichment. Their leadership went to the guillotine on 24th March 1794, following that of the Girondins, and nobody was sorry to see them go.
The year 1848 was ultimately referred to as the year of Revolution, as people rose up all across Europe and parts of South America to take part in the most widespread series of revolutionary actions in European history. Although this had all but fizzled out within a year, at its height, over fifty countries were affected and were changed significantly by events. At the same time tens of thousands of people were killed, and many more forced into exile. The revolutions were most important in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Italy, and the Austrian Empire, and resulted in significant lasting reforms, including the abolition of serfdom in Austria and Hungary, the end of absolute monarchy in Denmark, and the introduction of parliamentary democracy in the Netherlands. Curiously enough, none of this had anything whatsoever to do with Karl Marx or Friedrich Engels, but their time would come.
In February 1848, while much of Europe was erupting into violent revolution, Marx and Engels delivered the document that would be published as the Manifesto of the Communist League to a printer in London, just three months before Marx’s thirtieth birthday. It is unlikely that either the Jacobins or the French Revolution were directly responsible for the ideologies of Communism or socialism, but they surely contributed to the political and social environment that nurtured and developed both, and it is unlikely that Marx or Engels would have reached their conclusions without them.
In the years prior to 1848 Marx completed his education and gradually developed his understanding, analysis and assessment of the world around him. He had been born into a wealthy middle class family in Trier, Prussia, the son of a successful lawyer. Through his Dutch mother, Henrietta Pressburg, he was related to the Philips family that later founded the Philips electronics conglomerate in Eindhoven. The connection proved to be beneficial to Marx in later years, as he was able to obtain loans from his maternal uncle Lion Philips at times when his family was experiencing financial difficulty in London.
In October 1835 Marx entered the University of Bonn to study law, but as he did not appear to be taking his studies seriously, his father transferred him to Berlin the following year, where he ultimately gained a law degree. He subsequently secured his doctorate from the University of Jena in 1841, with a paper entitled The Difference between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature. Presumably the faculty of the University of Jena understood what this was about, but I suspect they were in a minority and a lot further up their ivory tower than anyone else.
Much has been made of the contention that Marx was born Jewish, though these days this is often a device utilized by leftists to deflect criticism of Marxism by accusing detractors of anti-Semitism. His father, Heinrich (formerly Hershel) renounced Judaism in favour of Lutheranism before Karl was born and his son was baptized into the Lutheran faith. When Marx married the minor aristocrat Jenny von Westphalen, he did so in a protestant church in Kreutznach. They must have made a striking couple, the beautiful aristocratic Jenny and the incredibly hirsute Karl, who, even then, resembled a cross between a werewolf and a lavatory brush. When he declared himself later to be an atheist, it was not Judaism that he renounced, but Christianity.
As a post-graduate Marx became interested in the work of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel while writing prolifically both fiction and non-fiction. In 1842, he became a journalist in Cologne writing for a radical paper known as Rheinische Zeitung (Rhineland News), producing articles that were critical of not only of European right-wing regimes but also of those on the left that he and his colleagues considered to be insufficiently radical. The writings and other activities of Marx and his associates soon drew the attention of the authorities, and Rheinische Zeitung was subjected to close scrutiny and censorship before being banned altogether by the Prussian Government under pressure from the Russian Czar, Nicholas I. At this point Marx decided to relocate to Paris. It was here that he met his future friend and long-time collaborator Friedrich Engels.
While he was in Paris, Marx continued to study intensely while writing a number of significant volumes, including The Holy Family, published in 1845. He also became co-editor of the leftist Parisian newspaper the Deutsch Franzosische Jahrbucher (German-French Annals). Only one issue was ever published, but it had to be considered worthy of note since it was instantly banned by the German states although imported copies were circulated secretly and read widely. After the closure of the Annals, Marx started to write for the only uncensored far left journal in Paris, Vorwarts (Forward). This paper was connected with the self-styled League of the Just, a clandestine, utopian socialist organization with whom Marx considered himself a close associate and fellow traveller. In the meantime, his activities and writings were still being monitored, this time by the French authorities, who closed down Vorwarts at the request of the King of Prussia and in February 1845 expelled Marx from their country.
Having just upset the King of Prussia, Marx did not feel that a return to Germany was a good idea, so he made the comparatively short journey to Brussels where he continued to study capitalism and economics. Two months later he was joined by Engels and a growing number of exiled socialists from all over Europe in addition to many members of the League of the Just. In order to obtain permission to remain in Belgium, Marx had to give an pledge to the authorities that he would refrain from publishing anything that was controversial or politically sensitive, but that did not guarantee that he would be left alone or that he would not write anything that could be published later. In November 1847 he and Engels started to write what would ultimately become known as the Communist Manifesto. Now, all he needed was a group of people to energize the working classes into a mass movement, and he approached members of the League of the Just to undertake this role. Initially they were reluctant to do this, as up until then they had been a secret organization and, for obvious reasons, the membership did not want to reveal themselves, especially in the prevailing political climate. However, Marx proved to be very persuasive, and by June 1847 he had convinced them to come out of the shadows and form a new political party to be called “The Communist League”.
Later the following year, 1848, after he had published the Communist Manifesto Marx was on the move again, having been accused by the Belgian Ministry of Justice of funding the supply of arms to a section of Belgian workers to enable them to stage a revolutionary uprising. While he might well have sympathized with such activities and, due to a substantial legacy, he had the means to provide them with funding, there was no evidence to prove that he was actually guilty of the charge, but he knew he was a marked man and he briefly fled back to France before moving on to Cologne, where he continued to work on behalf of the Communist League in the hope that the Europe-wide revolution would spread to Germany. With that in mind, he launched the publication of a new newspaper, Neue Rheinische Zeitung (New Rhineland News).
While he was in Cologne, Marx was continually harassed by the police. On several occasions, he was arrested and tried on trumped-up charges, the contemporary equivalent of Hate Speech and incitement, but was acquitted each time. Following a change of government in Prussia, pressure was being applied to left-leaning activists and, following the enforced closure of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung by the Prussian state Marx returned to Paris, only to find himself expelled from there, too, as a political undesirable. Having run out of all other available options, he sought sanctuary in London, where he remained until his death in 1883.
While he was in London, Marx achieved a great deal and wrote prolifically thereby enhancing his reputation as a philosopher, economist, sociologist, political theorist and, above all, a revolutionary socialist. Yet there was no working class uprising in England, a situation which led to Marx’s being branded as a failure by certain historians. This has been compounded by the fact that much of his writing, including the final two volumes of Das Kapital, were only published after his death. However, the assertion that Marx had in some way failed was refuted by Eric Hobsbawm, the late leftist historian, who pointed out that while Marx had not achieved a large following in his lifetime, his writings and theories remained an influence long after his death and they continue to be such, though he did not earn a great deal of money from them. However, the true measure of a man should not be represented by the amount of wealth he managed to accumulate during his lifetime, nor has it been with Marx, who died a pauper.
Whatever one might feel about Marxism — and I am by no means a supporter — it is beyond dispute that Marx never killed anyone neither did he order anyone’s death or imprisonment. It might be argued that by making statements to the effect that the bourgeoisie must overthrow the aristocracy before the proletariat could overthrow the bourgeoisie and impose a proletarian dictatorship, his writings had been an incitement to violence. That such violence did subsequently occur in a multitude of uprisings and revolutions involving millions of deaths instigated by others in the name of Marx cannot be directly laid at his door. But for all that, Marxism was a failure.
Most of those countries whose economies were based on Marxist theories, such as the former Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites, reverted to democracy and capitalism after the Marxist experiment collapsed. Indeed, any political, social or economic system that has to be imposed and maintained by compulsion, violence and fear is eventually destined to fail.
My own theory on why Marxism failed so spectacularly is quite simple: his writings lacked clarity. Some months ago I purchased a copy of Marx’s and Engels’ Communist Manifesto. Containing a mere 44 pages of narrative, I thought I would get through it in a couple of hours but I was mistaken. It was forbidding enough that the front cover flaunted photographs of both hirsute authors each exuding an air of icy malevolence, but the content also proved to be a challenge, rather like dissecting a corpse with a set of chopsticks. What antagonized me most was the reluctance of either Marx or Engels to present any cogent, well-presented or reasoned argument to support what was little more than a convoluted list of unsubstantiated statements, many of which have subsequently been disproved.
I bought the book for the same reason I once bought The Observer’s Book of Reptiles before I left the UK for India, that is, to know my enemy. However, all I succeeded in doing was to reinforce my original view that Marx lacked clarity. Marx’s written works have been translated into every known language, even though most are difficult for the non-academic or the layman to decipher and, for that reason, probably lost a little of their meaning each time they were translated. This would explain a lot. For example, take a country such as Albania, officially the poorest country in Europe by the time it abandoned Communism. The whole place had been laid waste politically, socially and economically under the paranoid leadership of Enver Hoxha, who suppressed dissent and banished dissenters to a series of prison camps modeled on Soviet gulags, where they were forced to work in government-controlled mines or on construction projects, and a great many of them died as a direct result of the atrocious and inhumane conditions. The people who were not confined to camps fared little better in a climate of endless political murders, chronic food shortages and little contact with the outside world. The citizens lived under intense state scrutiny. There was a general disregard for their well-being, not to mention the rule of law by the elite, which brought about realistic comparisons with North Korea, give or take a few nukes.
When the Albanian communist system finally collapsed, people were leaving in droves by ship, ferry, rowing boat or raft, and, missing out Yugoslavia, which had troubles of its own, they headed straight for Italy any which way they could. The Albanian economy had become so bad that, even if the entire workforce had sat down, lit up a cigarette and done absolutely nothing for the previous fifty years, the country could not have been left in a worse state. Yet they claimed to have used Marxism as their blueprint.
Maybe they had the Bulgarian version.
As for Marx, himself, I suspect he was less of a blazing beacon for the repression that came after him and more of a scapegoat. Either way, Marxism certainly got the blame. However, none of the above addresses my original question, that is: when did leftism go bad, or was it ever any other way? I do not claim to have an answer, only another theory. Leftism turned bad when it divorced itself from the moral constraints imposed by Judeo-Christianity. It lost its compass, its compassion and its humanity, ultimately leading to the atrocities committed by Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, the Castros and the Kim dynasty. Clearly there were many others but these were the worst of the worst.
At this point, I was about to illustrate the contrast between the Victorian Christian Philanthropists and the burgeoning trade union movement operating in western countries at around the same time, but I fear I might have already strained the attention span of those readers who are still with me. Instead, I will conclude by quoting my favourite definition of a Communist. It comes not from a politician, cleric or philosopher but from a long-dead English music hall entertainer by the name of Charlie Chester.
He said that a Communist is a man who wants all the money in the world shared out equally among all the people in the world… and when he has spent his, he wants it all shared out again.
Peter is an English expatriate who now lives in Thailand.