Today the individual must reconstruct within himself
the civilized universe that is disappearing around him.
– Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Escolios a un Texto Implícito, No. 2,046
Late in the miserably sodden month of February 1848, with the European continent on the precipice of mass revolution, several hundred copies of a 23-page pamphlet, printed on cheap rag paper and stitched into thin green wrappers, were making their way from the publishing house of J. E. Burghard of 46 Liverpool Street, Bishopsgate, along the rain-slicked high streets and through the dank alleys of London, and into the eager hands of a motley assemblage of German political exiles. Some of those radicals devoured the slim booklet straightaway, while others preferred to take it in at a more leisurely pace, waiting for it to be serialized between March and July in the Deutsche Londoner Zeitung. There were enough readers, evidently, to make the pamphlet a modest success, and it was reissued three times within the first month, with a second edition appearing two months later.
After that initial flurry of interest, however, the publication was quickly forgotten amidst all the horrors and the dashed hopes of the Spring of Nations, as Europe descended into what Frédéric Bastiat called a “frightful, fratricidal war.” Most any political tract, no matter how compelling, would have struggled to compete with the daily onrush of thrilling and unsettling news from abroad that was issuing forth from the daily broadsheets. The pamphlet’s author, dismayed at the course of the increasingly nationalistic revolutions, would eventually ask the publisher to shelve the work indefinitely. Most of the shoddily bound copies promptly fell to pieces, destined for the rag-and-bone man; only 26 volumes from the initial printing are thought to have survived to the present day. As for the contents of those pamphlets, that is a very different story altogether, something which would become clear in the fullness of time. What those German exiles had briefly held in their hands during those early months of 1848 did indeed turn out to be an ideological time bomb, albeit one with a delayed fuse.
With a bit of imagination we can picture the typical reception of this brittle little booklet, with its title — Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei — emblazoned on the cover in a compressed, bold Gothic font. Sitting in a damp garret, rain beating upon the leaded window-panes, warmed only slightly by a few lumps of sea-coal glowing in an iron brazier, our imagined reader would likely have been struck, while perusing this hastily printed clandestine publication, by the almost insouciant tone, the seemingly unwarranted confidence on the part of the author (a certain 30-year-old journalist then residing in Brussels by the name of Karl Heinrich Marx) that the program summarized therein had the potential to bring about the wholesale destruction of “bourgeois supremacy” itself. Was this scheme at all practicable? Perhaps it was just a less purple, but less stirring, version of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Masque of Anarchy,” which after the infamous Peterloo Massacre had exhorted the masses to take matters into their own hands and to
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you —
Ye are many — they are few.
Or perhaps the risings of 1848 were the start of something truly revolutionary, but even so, the total seizure of political power by the proletariat, the abolition of all private property, the establishment of vast industrial armies, the centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the new proletarian state, all of the myriad goals laid out in this flimsy little manifesto, surely these must have seemed utterly unthinkable to our imagined reader, even in a time of fast-spreading political upheavals. Enacting such an agenda would require the complete overthrow of all previously established political, economic, religious, and social institutions, a daunting proposition indeed. Yet here Marx was, casually dismissing any pragmatic objections. “All property relations in the past have continually been subject to historical change consequent upon the change in historical conditions,” he posited. “The French Revolution, for example, abolished feudal property in favor of bourgeois property.” Simply change the “historical conditions,” by force if necessary, and anything is possible.
Marx’s revolutionary hit list was admittedly long, and the obstacles formidable, but the project was not as outlandish as it might first have appeared. In order to clear out the Augean stables of the bourgeoisie and establish a dictatorship of the proletariat, democratic institutions would first need to be eliminated, but in some ways this was the least demanding of the tasks. Democracies are actually quite good at destroying themselves. Montesquieu, in The Spirit of the Laws, noted the autophagous tendency of democracies:
Corruption will increase among the corrupters, and it will increase among those who are already corrupt. The people will divide up all the public monies; and as they will have added to their indolence the management of business, they will want to add to their poverty the amusements of luxury. But with their indolence and their luxury, the public treasury is the only thing that will interest them.
In order to forestall this, James Madison warned in a 1792 essay in the National Gazette, “men of influence, particularly of moneyed, which is the most active and insinuating influence” would endeavor “to weaken their opponents by reviving exploded parties and taking advantage of all prejudices, local, political, and occupational, that may prevent or disturb a general coalition of sentiments” — an observation almost shocking in its timeliness. The exponential growth of state power would do nothing to preserve democratic norms, either. Bertrand de Jouvenel, in his magisterial On Power: The Natural History of Its Growth (1945), persuasively argued that “democracy, then, in the centralizing, pattern-making, absolutist shape which we have given to it is, it is clear, the time of tyranny’s incubation.” The only question is what form that predestined tyranny will take.
The abolition of private property, as far as Marx was concerned, was equally achievable — historical forces were already seeing to that, owing to the privations suffered by the peasantry and petty bourgeoisie at the hands of the “financial aristocracy”:
You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths…. Do you mean the property of petty artisan and of the small peasant, a form of property that preceded the bourgeois form? There is no need to abolish that; the development of industry has to a great extent already destroyed it, and is still destroying it daily.
As for the demolition of bourgeois family life, Marx saw only opportunities: “The bourgeois clap-trap about the family and education, about the hallowed co-relation of parents and child, becomes all the more disgusting, the more, by the action of Modern Industry, all the family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labour.”
Religion, Marx’s Opium des Volkes, was a rather more redoubtable impediment to the mass recognition of class consciousness to the exclusion of everything else. How fortunate, then, that Rousseau and the French revolutionaries had devised a suitable substitute, an ersatz civil religion that was focused (allegedly) on humanity in the abstract, and that, in its more millenarian strains, had proven perfectly able to motivate its practitioners to make any number of sacrifices, and kill any number of people, on behalf of the earthly utopia ostensibly in the making. Such civil religions have little time for their spiritual competitors and long to snuff them out. Again Jouvenel put it best: the State, what he called the Minotaur, will as a matter of course disregard the “role of spiritual authorities and of all those intermediate social forces which frame, protect, and control the life of man, thereby obviating and preventing the intervention of Power.” Again, Marx and his comrades needn’t lift a finger for now. Changes in historical conditions were once again doing the heavy lifting. Dasitzen und Nichtstun, sit there and do nothing, and in time proletariat could “use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie” and sweep away the old world once and for all.
But what of history and cultural heritage, the vast, invaluable bequest of our predecessors? “The past is a part of ourselves,” wrote Victor Hugo, “the most essential, perhaps.” Effacing it entirely would be a difficult task indeed. What is more, an ideology explicitly based on “historical materialism” cannot simply abolish the past outright. “In bourgeois society,” proclaimed Marx in his manifesto, “the past dominates the present; in Communist society, the present dominates the past.” Domination, then, but not necessarily demolition — one ought to know where one’s been to know where one’s going. When the Bolsheviks seized control of Russia, the first Commissar of Enlightenment, Anatoly Lunacharsky, maintained that “the independence of proletarian creativity presupposes an acquaintance with all the fruits of preceding cultures.” Lunacharsky was reduced to tears at the damage wrought by the Red Guard during the 1917 battle for Moscow, calling the damage to the Kremlin “a horrible, irreparable misfortune” and exhorting his comrades to “preserve for yourselves and your descendants the beauty of our land.” It was said that the Commissar of Enlightenment was “excited by Levitan and Tatlin, Picasso and the Wanderers, the circus and Tchaikovsky,” and he struggled mightily against what the historian W. Bruce Lincoln called Georgi Plekhanov’s “supremely rationalist version of Marxism.” When the Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky urged the Soviets to “throw Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy overboard from the steamer of modernity” and demanded to know “why Pushkin and the other generals of the classics have not yet been attacked,” Lunacharsky admitted to being “painfully shocked” — “I blush for Mayakovsky.”
In the end, the Lunacharsky and Plekhanov schools of thought battled each other to a stalemate. Russia’s artistic, architectural, literary, and spiritual landscape was ravaged but not wholly obliterated. The fortuitous survival of a considerable portion of the collective cultural patrimony, notwithstanding the depredations of the Red Guards and other iconoclasts, would prove fateful for the regime, something for which Marx and his ideological successors, in their blithe arrogance, thankfully failed to account. Yuri Slezkine, in his staggeringly brilliant House of Government (2017), noted how “Marxism developed a remarkably flat conception of human nature,” wherein “a revolution in human property relations was the only necessary condition for a revolution in human hearts.” Yet, intriguingly, the “children of the Bolshevik millenarians never read Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin at home,” but rather the “treasures of world literature,” with “an emphasis on the golden ages (the Renaissance, romanticism, and the realist novel, especially Balzac, Dickens and Tolstoy) and modern historical novels (especially by Romain Rolland and Lion Feuchtwanger).” What these books had in common “was their antimillenarian humanism,” “profoundly anti-Bolshevik” at heart, through which the children of the Revolution could live in a past free of Marxist dogma, and consequently conceive of a future without it as well.
“Revolutions,” according to Slezkine, “do not devour their children; revolutionaries, like all millenarian experiments, are devoured by the children of revolutionaries,” and so
The [Bolshevik] parents lived for the future; their children lived in the past. The parents had luminous faith; the children had their tastes and knowledge. The parents had comrades (fellow saints who shared the faith); the children had friends (pseudo-kin who shared their tastes and knowledge). The parents started out as sectarians and ended up as priestly rulers or sacred scapegoats; the children started out as romantics and ended up as professionals and intellectuals. The parents considered their sectarianism to be the realization of humanism — until their interrogators forced them to choose, and to die, one way or the other. The children never knew anything but humanism and never understood their parents’ last dilemma.
Fatally undermined by the power of antimillenarian humanism, “the Soviet Age did not last beyond one human lifetime.”
It is one of the supreme ironies of history that the Marxist theorists purported to have discovered ironclad laws of history, some of which are actually quite insightful, but then assumed that their movement would be exempt from those very laws. Lenin, in his 1917 The State and Revolution, made the astute observation that “through all the innumerable revolutions which have taken place in Europe since the end of the feudal system, this bureaucratic and military machine has developed, improved, and strengthened…. Every revolution of the past has done no more than improve the government machine, when its real task was to smite and smash it.” His revolution would prove no different, with its general secretaries accumulating more power than any czar, its NKVD brutalizing the populace on a scale unthinkable to the Okhrana, its ideology more pervasive and obligatory than any Orthodox Church doctrine.
And the ultimate irony of all would have to be the simple fact that, as Leszek Kołakowski observed, “perhaps [the] closest thing to the working class revolution” described in the Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei was not at all Bolshevik in nature, but rather the Polish anti-Soviet Solidarity protests, during which workers organized themselves “against the exploiters, that is to say, the state. And this solitary example of a working-class revolution (if even this may be counted) was directed against a socialist state, and carried out under the sign of the cross, with the blessing of the pope.” Marx’s manifesto famously described communism as a “specter [that] is haunting Europe,” but evidently there were specters haunting communism — the specters of religion, culture, and humanism — which fortunately had not been exorcised, and ultimately led to the regime’s demise. “At least five times,” wrote G. K. Chesterton in The Everlasting Man (1925), “with the Arian and the Albigensian, with the Humanist sceptic, after Voltaire and after Darwin, the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases it was the dog that died.” Make that six dogs.
Today, when those on the right give voice to what Marx called the “branding reproach of communism,” what they are really describing is almost invariably neoliberalism. This confusion is understandable. Readers of Ryszard Legutko’s The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies (2018) will be familiar with the Polish philosopher’s prescient observation that both “communism and liberal democracy proved to be all-unifying entities compelling their followers how to think, what to do, how to evaluate events, what to dream, and what language to use,” while making a fetish of technê, advocating “alternative family models,” “distanc[ing] themselves from the past,” and building “a system that started history anew,” one which “had to be, in essence and in practice, against memory.”
Think back to the political program envisioned in Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei, and then consider the political landscape stretched out before us. We see the World Economic Forum notoriously envisioning a world in which “I own nothing, have no privacy, and life has never been better.” We see the bureaucratic Minotaur taking control of most every facet of daily life, while the centralization of the means of communication is self-evident. We see the demolition of “bourgeois family life” continuing apace, with cultural revolutionaries like Sophie Lewis now even seeking to “denaturalize the mother-child bond … the idea that babies belong to anyone — the idea that the product of gestational labor gets transferred as property to a set of people” and more besides, a phenomena recently explored by Angela Nagle in The Lamp. We see religion being driven from the public square and smothered in its remaining inner sanctums, while even the unifying civil religion of yesteryear is being replaced by a hodgepodge of millenarian identitarian faiths. And if “Marxism developed a remarkably flat conception of human nature,” what of the “flatness” of modern life as laid out in Alana Newhouse’s Tablet article “Everything Is Broken,” which incisively analyzed how
The internet tycoons used the ideology of flatness to hoover up the value from local businesses, national retailers, the whole newspaper industry, etc. — and no one seemed to care. This heist — by which a small group of people, using the wiring of flatness, could transfer to themselves enormous assets without any political, legal or social pushback — enabled progressive activists and their oligarchic funders to pull off a heist of their own, using the same wiring. They seized on the fact that the entire world was already adapting to a life of practical flatness in order to push their ideology of political flatness — what they call social justice, but which has historically meant the transfer of enormous amounts of power and wealth to a select few.
Mired in technological and technocratic sludge, modern life under neoliberalism has become flat, gray, and etiolated, as “historical conditions” have been radically altered in ways Marxists could only have dreamed of.
Is it still possible to find refuge in the cultural golden ages of previous eras? Yes, for now, but everything is riding on the outcome of the ongoing war against memory, one waged by the current system with different means, but a similar goal, as that of the Marxist millenarians. What distinguishes the two was best articulated by the cultural critic Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death: “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book for there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.” There are of course those who would ban books just the same — recall the kerfuffle over Shea Martin’s tweet encouraging public school teachers to “Be like Odysseus and embrace the long haul to liberation (and then take the Odyssey out of your curriculum because it’s trash).”
The philistinism of our hideous age knows almost no bounds, but it is not always warmed-over Marxism that is to blame. Alex Hochuli, responding to Leicester University’s decision to eliminate medieval and early modern literature from its curriculum so as to “decolonize” its academic program, was able to sniff out the real culprit:
This is really the full neoliberal set. As well as all the philistine “decolonize” nonsense, you get “new employability modules”; redundancies to staff; an aim to respond to student (consumer) expectations; and aims to make the uni “compete on a global level”…. Really a shame that conservatives haven’t understood that philistinism rides in on marketisation. While the left is unconcerned about philistinism as long as it’s dressed up in “radical” garb. Plus it’s too sympathetic to the student-consumer. So its critique is still-born.
Neoliberalism, in the end, is just as antagonistic towards humanism, towards taste and knowledge, as communism. As Legutko put it, “once big ideas were gone, works and entertainment seized the imagination of the people and turned them into copies of a standard liberal-democratic model.” This in turn rather puts me in mind of John Ruskin’s profound critique of industrial society, which held that
the great cry that rises from our manufacturing cities, louder than the furnace blast, is all in very deed for this, — that we manufacture there everything except men; we blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages.
A post-industrial society increasingly predicated on app-based gig work, comforted by the products of pharmaceutical companies and dispensaries, and distracted by infinite scrolls and auto-playing streaming media will doubtless fare even worse in that respect.
For all that, the seventh dog may yet meet the same fate as the sixth, but only through the efforts of those who inculcate within themselves and within their communities the sort of humanism, taste, knowledge, and faith that played such an important role in undermining the grim ideology of the Soviet Age. Here I will make a humble contribution to this project, directing the reader to the works of the Russian poet Osip Emilyevich Mandelstam, who paid a terrible price for having referred to Stalin as a “peasant-slayer,” and met his end during the Great Purge, but not before leaving behind a corpus of poetry that will resound for as long as there are eyes to read it and ears to hear it. One of these works, which says it all and can stand as the last word on the subject for now, I have rendered thusly:
Дано мне тело — что мне делать с ним,
Таким единым и таким моим?
За радость тихую дышать и жить
Кого, скажите, мне благодарить?
Я и садовник, я же и цветок,
В темнице мира я не одинок.
На стекла вечности уже легло
Мое дыхание, мое тепло.
Запечатлеется на нем узор,
Неузнаваемый с недавних пор.
Пускай мгновения стекает муть —
Узора милого не зачеркнуть.
This body was given to me — what shall I do with it?
So unique and so much my own?
For the quiet joy of just breathing, just living,
Whom, tell me, am I to thank?
I am the gardener, but I am the flower too,
So in the prison of this world I am never alone.
Up against the window of eternity, I’ve made my mark
With my breath, and my warmth.
On the surface, a pattern appears
Hard to make out until now.
May the drabness of this moment pass,
And may that lovely pattern remain uneffaced.