Saturday, November 8, 2014

To Marx's (Dis)Credit

The 20th Century

If we want to understand this century, we need look at the 20th century. The 20th century and its carnage is clearly influenced by the ideology of Marxism, and so it carries through to our century. The New York Review of Books reprints a speech that Isaiah Berlin wrote (but read by someone else) at the University of Toronto in November 1994, where he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

Berlin says:
They were, in my view, not caused by the ordinary negative human sentiments, as Spinoza called them—fear, greed, tribal hatreds, jealousy, love of power—though of course these have played their wicked part. They have been caused, in our time, by ideas; or rather, by one particular idea. It is paradoxical that Karl Marx, who played down the importance of ideas in comparison with impersonal social and economic forces, should, by his writings, have caused the transformation of the twentieth century, both in the direction of what he wanted and, by reaction, against it. The German poet Heine, in one of his famous writings, told us not to underestimate the quiet philosopher sitting in his study; if Kant had not undone theology, he declared, Robespierre might not have cut off the head of the King of France.

He predicted that the armed disciples of the German philosophers—Fichte, Schelling, and the other fathers of German nationalism—would one day destroy the great monuments of Western Europe in a wave of fanatical destruction before which the French Revolution would seem child’s play. This may have been unfair to the German metaphysicians, yet Heine’s central idea seems to me valid: in a debased form, the Nazi ideology did have roots in German anti-Enlightenment thought. There are men who will kill and maim with a tranquil conscience under the influence of the words and writings of some of those who are certain that they know perfection can be reached.

Let me explain. If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise. Only the stupid and malevolent will resist once certain simple truths are put to them. Those who resist must be persuaded; if they cannot be persuaded, laws must be passed to restrain them; if that does not work, then coercion, if need be violence, will inevitably have to be used—if necessary, terror, slaughter. Lenin believed this after reading Das Kapital, and consistently taught that if a just, peaceful, happy, free, virtuous society could be created by the means he advocated, then the end justified any methods that needed to be used, literally any.
“The end justifies the means.” This is the crux of the matter; when one thinks that he has the solution to humanity’s problems, that he alone can conceive an ideal perfect society—as Marx did in his writings—he will initiate many acolytes or followers who will think similarly; and they will act so in accordance to such simple and straightforward dictums. We have witnessed such deplorable acts of the faithful not only in the last century, but also at the beginning of this century. The result is never good.

You can read the full speech at [NYRB]

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