“After the Mosaic-prophetic summons to justice, after early Christianity, Marxism constituted the third of the major blueprints of hope.” This remarkable sentence appeared in a recent issue of The New Yorker. The occasion—the ostensible occasion, anyway—was the publication of Bertolt Brecht’s Letters, 1913-1956. The author was the American expatriate writer George Steiner. What had moved Mr. Steiner to make this extraordinary utterance and enlarge upon its implications wasn’t anything he found in Brecht's letters, however. He was clearly in deep mourning over the collapse of Communism in East Germany and in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and eager to share his sense of loss with readers on this side of the the Atlantic who could not be expected to understand the nature of the Marxist “blueprint” or the meaning of its extinction.
Communist East Germany, according to Mr. Steiner, had something that the United States—now said to be, like the Soviet Union, “receding into colossal, lamed—if occasionally belligerent—provinciality”—could make no claim to. “Marxism, being itself the product of an intelligentsia, notably in East Germany,” he wrote, “felt committed to certain archaic, paternalistic ideals of high literacy, of literary-academic culture. Classical theatre and music, the publication of the classics flourished.” That there were vexing problems even in this cultural Utopia, Mr. Steiner readily acknowledged. “Ineluctably,” he wrote, “collectivist-socialist ideals seem to lead to one or another form of the Gulag.” He even spoke of “the homicidal labyrinth of Leninism and Stalinism.” Yet in Mr. Steiner’s moral reckoning, the Marxist “blueprint of hope” transcended such catastrophic vicissitudes, if only because it remained untainted by what he called “the yawp of money” and “the stench of greed”—in other words, capitalism.
Mr. Steiner was nothing if not candid in spelling out the implications of his belief in the moral superiority of Marxism. “Those who were wrong, hideously wrong, like the Bolsheviks, the Communards in France in 1871, the International brigades in the Spanish Civil War, the millions who died proclaiming their fidelity to Stalin, were, in a paradoxical, profoundly tragic way, less wrong than the clairvoyant, than the ironists and the yuppies, than the Madison Avenue hype peddlers and the jobbers ‘bellowing’ on the floor of the bourse. . . It is better to have been hallucinated by justice than to have been awakened to junk food.” Which, translated into the language of political reality, can only mean that it is better to murder—and murder in the millions—in the name of some imaginary “justice” than to see McDonald’s doing business in Red Square.
This was not, to be sure, Mr. Steiner’s first attempt to stem the tide of moral inquiry into the nature of Marxism and the revolutions enacted in its name. It will be recalled that upon the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago Mr. Steiner had treated us to an indignant defense of Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution; and upon the three volumes of Leszek Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism—the most comprehensive and magisterial of all the critiques that have lately been devoted to Marxist theory and practice—he likewise lavished his fury. There can be no doubt that for Mr. Steiner, as for so many other intellectuals of our time, Marxism has remained a faith—indeed, a religious ideal—that is not to be judged by the mundane standards of historical evidence or earthly suffering. Marxism as an ideal remains the crucible of all virtue and the measure of all salvation, whereas capitalism is to be seen as synonymous with sin and damnation. It seems never to have occurred to Mr. Steiner, by the way, that in assessing the “blueprints of hope” that have won the allegiance of the world’s least privileged people, the United States—owing to both its democratic political system and its promise of economic opportunity—has proved to be a more potent ideal than Marxism ever has been for those free to make the choice.
It would be pleasant to believe that Mr. Steiner’s diehard faith in the moral superiority of the Marxist ideal and its corollary detestation of capitalism was now an isolated case, but an acquaintance with the intellectual press in this country suggests otherwise. In last month’s New Republic, for example, Irving Howe once again offered us a defense of the “idealism” that was alleged to have inspired “even the most brutal,” as he said, of the Communists he had known, and warned—his sense of irony for the moment paralyzed—that “Man cannot live by commodities alone.” Acknowledging that in the downfall of Communism “A dream long corrupted has now been shattered,” Mr. Howe nonetheless clearly yearned for a return to the old-time religion, thus reminding us that out of the ashes of the Marxist collapse there is now rapidly emerging in the West a new wave of nostalgia for the old socialist ideal. Which, given the ghastly experiences of this century, can only mean a nostalgia for disaster.
Yet another variation on this nostalgia for the old Marxist “blueprint of hope” came from Simon Leys in a recent number of The New York Review of Books. To Mr. Leys’s eloquent writings on China, especially his book Chinese Shadows, we owe a good deal of what we know about the horrors of Mao’s regime, and in this latest of his essays he confirms the scale of those horrors with figures even more chilling than any we have seen in the past. “The human cost of [the ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the ‘Cultural Revolution,’]” he writes, “was staggering: the famines that resulted from the ‘Great Leap’ produced a demographic black hole into which it now appears that as many as fifty million victims may have been sucked. The violence of the ‘Cultural Revolution’ affected a hundred million people.” And so on.
Yet in conclusion even Simon Leys, revealing himself to be as much a fundamentalist in his faith as Messrs. Steiner and Howe, exempts Marxism from any role in this historic catastrophe. “Marxism,” he writes, “has acquired a very bad name in China—which is quite understandable, though somewhat unfair: after all, it was never really tried.” This, apparently, is to be the new alibi for the true believers in the Marxist “blueprint of hope”—that it was never really tried anywhere! Which inevitably raises the question: How many times will Marxism have to be tried—and at what cost—before it will be acknowledged by its intellectual acolytes that it has indeed been tried, over and over again, in nations large and small, and found to be a failure on a scale more disastrous to human life than almost any other “blueprint” in history?
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 Number 3, on page 1
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