What Was Attractive about Marxism?

Marxism in general and communism in particular attracted enormous loyalty on the part of millions of people. Millions of people fought in the name of communism, and many of these took part in mass killings on its behalf. Many died on behalf of communism, but I regard the number who killed on its behalf as more significant in evaluating the communist movement. The following are some considerations aimed at accounting for this. I separate them from my main page on Marxism which describes Marxist doctrine.

  1. Marxism (though mostly mistaken) has had (and still has) great appeal as a proposed scientific explanation of the development of human society. It appeals at different levels of detail. At the lowest level of detail, a person may only believe that capitalist society is divided into two classes, capitalists and workers, and the former exploit the latter. Many, who believe this do not even take the next step to believing that workers will overthrow the capitalists and not be exploited any more.

    Further study of Marxism leads to hearing about surplus value either in a simple form or a more complex form that takes other economic transactions than the payment of wages into account.

    We then have Marxist history telling about classes, the state as the instrument of the ruling class, class struggles, and the end of the class system to be accomplished by the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by socialism which will evolve into communism.

    This is just a sample of aspects of Marxism that have had intellectual appeal. Marxism has been nicely mixed with Freudianism in some intellectual circles, but I haven't paid enough attention to say anything about that.

    [Perhaps I should point out one place where the intellectual structure becomes inadequate. Einstein said, "Make everything as simple as possible - but not simpler." There are and have been classes defined by the relation of people to the means of production. However, these have not always or even usually been the most important divisions in society. There have been class struggles, but the majority of conflicts in human society (both in the past and at present) have not been class conflicts but religious, nationalist and dynastic conflicts. A proper theory of society and its history will be vastly more complex than Marxism, and I think such a theory is not close to being at hand. I do not despair of its eventual development.]

    Another embarassment to Marxism was the increase in working class prosperity in the advanced countries when theory said workers would get poorer and poorer. Lenin's patch in the theory referred to an aristocracy of labor and postulated that the poverty was exported to the colonies.

    In an ideal Marxian capitalist society the workers would be paid the minimum needed to keep them alive and reproducing. Marx and Engels referred to the reserve army of labor, i.e. the unemployed, whose competition for jobs would keep wages at the minimum. However, actual capitalist societies were not ideal for several reasons. First there was sometimes a shortage of labor, and this often made the employers increase wages in competition with each other. This was particularly common in the United States as long as the frontier competed for labor. Second workers had three kinds of bargaining power. (1) Individual. Good workers could often get higher pay. (2) Collective. Workers could combine into unions and threaten to strike. (3) Political. Workers could vote for politicians who would enact minimum wage laws and laws to prevent extreme forms of union busting.

  2. The Marxist idea of communism as the goal of human society arouses the same kind of human hope that has been aroused by the Christian and Muslim religions. Millions have killed, inspired by such hopes. Voltaire wrote in his essay on fanaticism, "How can you answer a man who tells you that he would rather obey God than men, and who is therefore sure to deserve heaven in cutting your throat?"

  3. It is hard for us to imagine today, the immense despair about human society caused by WWI. Europe was devastated and millions were pointlessly killed. It made many people intellectually desperate and ready to seize upon the promises of communism and the Soviet Union. Giving up on these promises was so hard that many people were ready to believe every possible excuse for Lenin's and Stalin's crimes and disasters.
  4. Here's a quote from Bertrand Russell in lectures delivered in March and April 1914. WWI started in August 1914. It was a tremendous shock.
    To us, to whom safety has become monotony, to whom the primeval savageries of nature are so remote as to become a mere pleasing condiment to our ordered routine, the world of dreams is very different from what it was amid the wars of Guelf and Ghibelline. Hence William James's protest against what he calls the "block universe" of the classical tradition; hence Nietsche's worship of force; hence the verbal bloodthirstiness of many quiet literary men. The barbaric substratum of human nature, unsatisfied in action, finds an outlet in imagination. In philosophy, as elsewhere, this tendency is visiblep; and it is this, rather than formal argument, that has thrust aside the classical tradition for a philosophy which fancies itself more virile and more vital. - Bertrand Russell in "Our knowledge of the external world", p.10, 1914, delivered as Lowell lectures, March and April 1914
  5. The over simple communist explanation of World War I and its enormous destruction as an imperialist war gained millions of adherents for the Leninist variant of Marxism. When the Soviet Union was partly allied with Nazi Germany between the Soviet-German non-aggression pact of 1939 August and the German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 June, World War II was called an imperialist war. However, few took the model seriously, though maybe it contributed to the French not defending themselves successfully in 1940.

  6. The world-wide depression of the 1930s was explained as an inevitable consequence of the "law" of surplus value and the increasing immiseration of the proletariat. It gave credence to the false claims that the Soviet Union was a prosperous and democratic society.

  7. The pro-communist propaganda by journalists who saw what they were determined to see had a large effect. An interesting example is Edgar Snow's Red Star over China that glorified Mao and the Chinese communists. It so suited the Chinese communists that they had it translated into Chinese. One Chinese in Taiwan told me that he had been converted to communism by the Chinese version of the book. He had since changed his mind. Another example is Walter Duranty who denied the Ukrainian famine of 1934 in the New York Times while simultaneously telling the British Embassy in Moscow about the famine. Since he wrote what the journalistic establishment wanted to read, he got a Pulitzer Prize. There has been some muttering in the New York Times about giving up that prize, but the plaque is still on the wall.

  8. The example of hard work and self-sacrifice by individual socialists and communists in the trade union movement won adherents for their doctrines. Missionaries won adherents for their churches in the same way.

  9. It was possible to explain the poverty of the backward countries as consequences of imperialism as defined by Lenin. Politicians in backward countries often still run for office against the colonial rulers of 50 years ago.

  10. Revenge against killings and oppression was a powerful motive. Once killing has started, accounting of who killed how many of whom and when is irrelevant. Besides the usual revenge motivations associated with all conflicts, Marxism offered specific justifications for revenge against the class enemy. Marxist propaganda makes much of martyrs and calls for revenge - as does Islam. Since classical Christian martyrology does not call for revenge, it is morally more advanced than Islam or Marxism. [Please distinguish between calls for struggle against current oppression and calls for revenge.]

  11. Ideologies that attach blame to an enemy are attractive to those who are inclined to feel guilty. It feels much better when the guilt is transformed into hatred.

  12. The demigod image of Stalin was a major attraction of communism for a large fraction of its adherents. Here's a part of a poem on the death of Stalin in March 1953 by the Chilean Communist poet Pablo Neruda. (It is usually, but not always, omitted from editions of Neruda's collected poems.)

    ...We will sail there together, a poet is a fisher-
    man and the sea to the distant Captain who
    when entering into death left to all the peo-
    ples as a legacy, his life. To be men! That is
    the Stalinist law!
    -We must learn from Stalin
    his sincere intensity
    his concrete clarity
    ...Stalin is the moon,
    the maturity of man and the peoples.
    Stalinists, Let us bear this title with pride.
    ...Stalinist workers, clerks, women
    take care of this day! The light has not vanished.
    the fire has not disappeared,
    there is only the growth of
    light, bread, fire and hope
    in Stalin's invincible time!
    ...In recent years the dove,
    Peace, the wandering persecuted rose,
    found herself in his shoulders
    and Stalin, the giant one,
    carried her at the heights of his forehead,
    ...A wave beats against the stones of the shore.
    But Malenkov will continue his work.

    Neruda's own loyalty to Stalin had motivated him, while a Chilean consul, to give false Chilean passports to a team sent to Mexico to assassinate Leon Trotsky in 1940, who had been a rival of Stalin in the Soviet Union. (That attempt was repelled by Trotsky's guards.) He also gave a Chilean passport to the Mexican painter David Siquieros so he could flee the country while on bail after taking part in an attack on Trotsky's residence. Notice that Neruda was hoping for a new maximal leader in Georgi Malenkov, Stalin's immediate successor as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Malenkov didn't last long as leader; he was out-maneuvered and ousted by Khrushchev. He survived into his 90s, however. According to one of the Venona decryptions, the KGB in Mexico included Neruda as an agent. See The Venona Story by Robert Benson http://www.nsa.gov/publications/publi00039.cfm.

    Besides its appeal to utopian sentiments, the Communist version of Marxism also promoted class hatred of the working class towards the capitalist class. Because the appeal of communism was greater to intellectuals than to workers in many countries, the class hatred was often vicarious. Here's a nice example of its expression, perhaps by a person not given to violence himself.

    Blow the bloody bugle, beat the bloody drum.
    Blow the bloody bourgeoisie to bloody kingdom come;
    We'll build a big bonfire, high as the old church spire,
    And we'll burn the bloody bastards one by one.

    Eric Hoffer in his 1951 The true believer: thoughts on the nature of mass movements emphasized the certainty that communism offered to its followers. He quotes the 1945 edition of the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the official glorification of Stalin (available on the web at marx2mao.org).

    The power of Marxist-Leninist theory lies in the fact that it enables the Party to find the right orientation in any situation, to understand the inner connection of current events, to forsee their course, and to perceive not only how and in what direction they are developing in the present but how and in what direction they are bound to develop in the future.

    Not all followers were motivated by that claim of certainty, but some were. Suppression of private discussion was incomplete, and many apparently firm followers were relieved by the collapse of the repression both in Germany and in the Soviet Union. Many had been previously relieved by Khrushchev's 1956 exposť of Stalin's crimes.

  13. Marxism has proved adaptable to power-seekers. Of course, Marxism is not the only ideology with that property.

  14. Repeated crises within communism have led to people leaving communist parties. Here's a list: Lenin suppressing the Socialist Revolutionaries. The exile of Trotsky (Mostly his followers quit then.) The show trials of the 1930s in which leading communists were forced to confess being Nazi spies. The Soviet German non-aggression pact of 1939. The iron curtain cutting off communication between people in the Soviet Union and their friends and relatives abroad. The suppression of the Hungarian revolt in 1956. The Berlin wall of 1961. The invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The Maoist Cultural Revolution of 1966. Each of these events caused people to quit the communist movement, sometimes even a majority of a communist party, but always a core stayed on.

  15. Finally, we need to ask why so many people stuck with communism even after seeing its failures and crimes. Some were implicated in the crimes and profited from them. Others hoped that the Soviet Union would get better in spite of seeing that it wasn't. Humans have great capacity for wishful thinking.
  16. Many people stayed in the communist movement out of fear of the consequences of quitting. (1) If your job depended on Party members, leaving the Party was likely to lose your job. (2) If your family stayed in, they were pressured to divorce you or otherwise separate from you. (3) The Party launched rumor campaigns in which defectors were accused of being drunks, wife beaters and embezzlers. (4) A person might see the crimes of the Soviets but still accept the Party propaganda about the evil nature of the FBI and American police departments.
Currently the green ideologies have some of the same properties as Marxism, but they don't pretend to give a comprehensive view of human affairs. They become more motivating to their adherents when combined with some of the leftovers from Marxism that provide attractive theories about whose fault it all is. I wonder and fear what would happen if the world-wide green movement was taken over by a leader with the intellectual skill of Lenin and/or the rabble-rousing skill of Hitler.

The collapse of communism and the Soviet empire dealt Marxist ideology a severe blow. It was fortunate that communism collapsed all by itself rather than by external attack. This greatly reduces, but does not entirely eliminate, regarding the Soviet empire as a martyr to capitalism. Nevertheless, I think Marxism will be back as memory of communism fades. Its simple picture of human society would be reinvented even if forgotten. That there is less injustice in the world, especially in the advanced countries, than in previous centuries will delay Marxism's recovery and reduce the chance that it will ever again come to dominate a country.

Attractions of communist society

The slogan of communism is "From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs". Under certain circumstances this can work quite well.

1. Within a nuclear family with young children provided the family is not too wealthy. The grownups do most of the work and the children do what they can. If the parents agree, or if the wife has promised to obey the husband and does, then disagreements are settled according to authority. Important property is not accumulated by the separate members of the family.

2. In a small group with good leadership in a dangerous situation for a short time. The short time is needed so there is little question of individuals accumulating resources.

3. When communist ideology dominates a group and it doesn't have too much of a surplus. The examples that went farthest are the Israeli kibbutzes (or kibbutzim). These were initially farming communities with a few hundred to about 1500 members. They ate communally and initially raised children in children's houses apart from their parents. A key point is that there should not be internal money within a kibbutz. It worked pretty well, and almost dominated Israeli political life in the beginning, but the kibbutzes came to involve a smaller and smaller proportion of the population. Too many of the children decided the outer society offered more opportunity. Too few of the immigrants to Israel wanted to be kibbutz members. The ideology became stressed when a kibbutz expanded economically and began to depend on hired labor that did not want to become members. Another stress point arose when it became possible to afford cars and other expensive consumer goods. When expensive consumer goods are distributed without money, the individual has no way of expressing his relative preference for different goods.

Attractions of socialism

The slogan, at least in the Soviet Union, was, "From each according to his abilty; to each according to his work."

The means of achieving this was public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Socialism rejects the idea that some people should own the means of production and that other people should be their employees.

The faults of the Soviet Union were often explained and excused as relics of the 250 year rule of the Mongols and/or by the practice of swaddling babies. However there have been 21 countries ruled by communist parties, and they share common features not explicit in the doctrines of communism and socialism. These include

  1. Dictatorship of the Party and usually of the Party leader.
  2. Advancement is achieved by those with the skills of a courtier.
  3. As the leaders age, they retain power. Communist countries become gerontocracies. When leaders die, power usually goes to people who are almost as old.
  4. Fake elections with candidates chosen by the Party - usually just one candidate per office
  5. No freedom of speech or of the press.
  6. Forbidding free emigration. This is necessitated by the stress the system puts on the people. Too many essential people prefer to leave.
  7. Internal spying. There are secret police, but also ordinary people are required to spy on each other.
  8. A feudal economic system. Which industries and firms grow is determined by politics.

In practice socialism hasn't been very successful economically, although it is often militarily formidable.

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