Karl Marx- The German Ideology
Part III: A Very Classical Formation
What Marxism most gave me was not a revolutionary or defiant tendency in my world-view. What is gave me was discipline in thought, action, and sentiment. Compared to most "liberal" paradigms floating around in academic circles, Marxism is a dinosaur. Marxism believes in the universality of truth, cold analysis of events, and is committed to the conviction that ideas do have consequences:
Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.
-Marx, the Eighth Thesis on FeurbachThis is what I most needed at the tender age of sixteen. My brother (an avid reader of this blog) had just gone off to Berkeley, and like a cliche playing itself out again, he was radicalized when he met a group of Trotskyists masquerading as civil rights activists. (Leftists like front groups because it makes them look less scary.) Being the younger brother, then, it was natural that I took interest in what he was doing, and I quickly began absorbing Marxist literature. I was at the time reading a lot of postmodern theorists: Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, etc. My Catholic Faith, while strong in some ways, was becoming weaker and weaker. There was a profound disconnect between what I read, how I believed, how I thought, and how I lived my life. Postmodernism was just a lot of intellectual goofing-off, and it was then that I began to believe that the Roman Catholic Church really had no idea what it really believed in. It was a middle-class, feel-good joke, at least how I experienced it. So it took very little time for me to jettison it all together once I had found something more viable to believe in. I became an atheistic Marxist at the age of sixteen, and for the next three and a half years my life was committed to trying to foment socialist revolution, no matter how absurd that goal really seemed. The first thing I read, coming out of studying philosophy, was Marx's early work, The German Ideology, and I didn't look back from there.
What did Marxism offer? A way to approach the world in all of its aspects. From how to stir up a crowd to fight the police to how to appreciate a work of art, Marxism is a total package as an ideology. At each step it asks: are you committed or not? At each moment you are thinking on how your actions can further the advancement of the liberation of mankind from the eternal enemy of necessity. Even events that might seem cruel and tragic take on a meaning almost equivalent of Divine Providence: Marx said that slavery was necessary in some epochs of humanity. It is only the spread of universal commodity production (capitalism) that has provided the means for human liberation through revolution. Only now can society function where it takes "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need."
Here I pause to notice a trend that will foreshadow a lot of authors in this series. On the one hand, there are the dreamers that have inspired me: Sartre, Plotinus, the Greek Fathers of the Church, many Orthodox theologians, St. John of the Cross, and the various poets I read. On the other, there are the "realists": M.D. Chenu, Georges Florovsky, Iamblichus, monastic spirituality, and above all, Marxists. The former teach us to look to the sky and imagine, the latter force us to keep our feet on the ground and deal with the problems here below. Marx taught me that life is brutal, but there is beauty in that brutality. We live in a fallen world that plays by fallen rules; you can't play by the game-plan of an ethereal heaven when here on earth, man is a wolf to his fellow man, as the Romans used to say. Marx, though he was uncouth, irresponsible, and all around a real bastard personally, really did care about the fate of humanity. He really did care about those people who were dying of exhaustion in the factories; if he didn't he wouldn't have lived the life he led. He was godless, though, and this meant heaven was closed in terms of a solution to all of it. So brutality had to be met with brutality; force with force, and blood with blood. Could you imagine agnostic political pundits being so honest today about these things?
Logic has to exact its price, even if it has to step on the thrones of kingdoms. Think, act and do not count the cost. This is not the drivel we are fed nowadays.
There is poetry in all of it, though. Marx was a poet, and a very good one since he did not have to write a single poem in his mature life. Observe these lines:
Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce...... Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.
This is how Marx begins the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. And who can forget the Promethean hymn that ends the first volume of Capital: the expropriators will be expropriated? There was an aesthetic in all of this, make no mistake about it. Again no one was going to tell me how I should think, act, or live my life. Being a poor kid from the barrio, I was not willing to give capitalist society the benefit of the doubt. I agitated, wrote flyers with the help of my Trostkyist party (yes, I was a full-blown comrade once) and nearly got expelled from school for my efforts. And what I had most was a purpose, a romantic purpose, for why I got up every morning. That is what I needed at that young age, and that drive has been with me ever since.
While I still foment leftists tendencies, I have found, to use what has become a shibboleth on this blog, that life is not that simple. The lofty vision of humanity that Marx had includes God and does not exclude Him. Did not St. Ireneaus write: the glory of God is a man fully alive? Why then do we need to exclude the Archetype when explaining the Image and Likeness? Also, to be completely petit-bourgeois, I have found that, echoing Pierre Hadot, political action is useless without personal transformation. Is our postmodern consumerist society even capable now of producing a Marx, Lenin or Trotsky: people so selfless that they will risk their lives and the lives of others for a conviction, without the comfort of an eternal God? The true Marxist will respond that it is only a matter of time that the material and subjective conditions for revolution will produce minds to lead the class struggle. I remain skeptical, and very skeptical. Besides, the only banner I fly now is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Only this red banner, soaked in His blood, can save the world from the tyranny of death.