Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What's Communism?: My Grandfather's Wisdom

My maternal grandfather was a veteran of World War II. He went to fight in the war when he was barely 18 years old. He finished the war in Berlin and wrote his (and now mine) last name on the wall of Reichstag. Of course, my grandfather was a member of the Communist Party because what options were there?

Once, one of his daughters asked him: "Daddy, what's communism?"

"Let's go outside," he said to his six daughters. "I'll show you communism."

They went outside and looked into the beautiful sunset. "Isn't the horizon beautiful in the setting sun?" my grandfather asked his small daughters.

"Yes, Daddy, it looks perfect!" the girls responded.

"So why don't you try to grab it?" he said. "Go ahead, grab it if you find it so beautiful!"

"But, Daddy, you can't grab the horizon no matter how pretty it looks," the eldest daughter said.

"Well, that's communism for you," my grandfather said.

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10 comments:

Anonymous said...

well so he does think Communism's goal is beautiful like the Sun or the horizon? ;)

Clarissa said...

I forgot to mention that the conversation took place 45 years ago. :-)

Richard said...

Your maternal grandfather would have made an excellent theoretician for the Soviet Communist Party. He has an excellent grasp of Lenin’s thought processes.

Angie Harms. said...

Hello again! I love that Marxism/Communism/Socialism is such a common topic on your blog and that many of your favorite intellectuals are Marxists, even if you don't consider yourself one, and I am particularly interested in your views on the subject, since you grew up, from what I've gathered, in the former Soviet Union.

It has been many years since I've read Marx, but ever since college I have considered myself a Marxist (albeit a relatively uninformed one, always ready to listen to counter-arguments--which is the reason I am commenting here). It is very rare that I seek out a conversation of this nature, and when people try to begin this kind of conversation with me, I usually just grumble something non-committal and try to change the subject. I guess I tend to feel a bit threatened by the fact that most people seem so vehement about their political opinions. I tend to consider my own opinions to be perpetually incomplete, and I am very humble about them. Unfortunately, most people seem to assume that “humble” equals “easily-influenced.” In fact, the opposite is true.

What I long for is a constructive dialogue with other open-minded people who might bring some veritable knowledge to a subject, rather than some vitriolic, regurgitated mishmash they’ve been spoon-fed. Whether it’s Fox News or the BBC, journalism and history are inherently biased to one degree or another, yet people seem to treat whatever they hear as gospel. But then, perhaps I am too much of a skeptic.

In any case, Clarissa, while obviously a woman of strong opinions, also seems to be not only better-informed than most, but also relatively egalitarian and gentle, with the tried and true patience of a world-wise matriarch teaching in the rural Midwest, not far from where I grew up, where political views are as varied (and global understanding as nutritional) as an aisle full of white bread.

In other words, I feel I can trust Clarissa to attack me (if she does so) constructively and tolerantly rather than categorically.

That said, back to Marxism:

The one thing that I have carried with me all these years re Marxist Communism and that continues to make me consider myself a Marxist (however vaguely) is that Marx's theory was one of social evolution, i.e. one that would presumably take hundreds of years to come to fruition. Communism has been tried, yes, and most people would agree it has failed, but it has always been accompanied in the end (and as far as I know) with some version or other of fascist/despotic/totalitarian/non-democratic (at least in practice) rule. Whether or not that’s what the leaders intended when attempting to form a Communist society, that’s inevitably been how it’s ended up.

And that aspect was something that Marx never intended. Marx never spoke of any sudden revolutions or, for that matter, of any FORCE whatsoever. Arriving at Communism was supposed to be a long, slow, peaceful process to which socialism was a stepping stone. (And in this view, it can be argued that his “prophecy” indeed shows signs of fulfilling itself. Scandinavia and many other European countries have been operating very successfully for decades under varying degrees of socialist principles).

Yet somehow it seems like Karl Marx has been saddled with more than his fair share of blame for all of Communism’s historical failures. The individual atrocities get blamed (or so I like to think) on their respective perpetrators, but the failure of Communism in general gets blamed on Marx and so-called flaws in his theory. But it seems to me that the flaws have come with the misappropriation of his theory, rather than anything inherent in it.

If there is any credence to my argument at all, it cannot be a new one. So how do anti-Marxists react to this line of reasoning? A successful variety of communism might not be possible in today’s world, but as a theory of social evolution, I don’t see any reason (in fact quite the opposite) to discount it as inherently impossible.

Angie Harms. said...

Hello again! I love that Marxism/Communism/Socialism is such a common topic on your blog and that many of your favorite intellectuals are Marxists, even if you don't consider yourself one, and I am particularly interested in your views on the subject, since you grew up, from what I've gathered, in the former Soviet Union.

It has been many years since I've read Marx, but ever since college I have considered myself a Marxist (albeit a relatively uninformed one always ready to listen to counter-arguments - which is the reason I am commenting here). It is very rare that I seek out a conversation of this nature, and when people try to begin this kind of conversation with me, I usually just grumble something non-committal and try to change the subject. I guess I tend to feel a bit threatened by the fact that most people seem so vehement about their political opinions. I tend to consider my own opinions to be perpetually incomplete, and I am very humble about them. Unfortunately, most people seem to assume that “humble” equals “easily-influenced.” In fact, the opposite is true.

What I long for is a constructive dialogue with other open-minded people who might bring some veritable knowledge to a subject, rather than some vitriolic, regurgitated mishmash they’ve been spoon-fed. Whether it’s Fox News or the BBC, journalism and history are inherently biased to one degree or another, yet people seem to treat whatever they hear as gospel. But then, perhaps I am too much of a skeptic.

In any case, Clarissa, while obviously a woman of strong opinions, also seems to be not only better-informed than most, but also relatively egalitarian and gentle, with the tried and true patience of a world-wise matriarch teaching in the rural Midwest, not far from where I grew up, where political views are as varied (and global understanding as nutritional) as an aisle full of white bread.

In other words, I feel I can trust Clarissa to attack me (if she does so) constructively and tolerantly rather than categorically.

That said, back to Marxism:

The one thing that I have carried with me all these years re Marxist Communism and that continues to make me consider myself a Marxist (however vaguely) is that Marx's theory was one of social evolution, i.e. one that would presumably take hundreds of years to come to fruition. Communism has been tried, yes, and most people would agree it has failed, but it has always been accompanied in the end (and as far as I know) with some version or other of fascist/despotic/totalitarian/non-democratic (at least in practice) rule. Whether or not that’s what the leaders intended when attempting to form a Communist society, that’s inevitably been how it’s ended up.

And that aspect was something that Marx never intended. Marx never spoke of any sudden revolutions or, for that matter, of any FORCE whatsoever. Arriving at Communism was supposed to be a long, slow, peaceful process to which socialism was a stepping stone. (And in this view, it can be argued that his “prophecy” indeed shows signs of fulfilling itself. Scandinavia and many other European countries have been operating very successfully for decades under varying degrees of socialist principles).

Yet somehow it seems like Karl Marx has been saddled with more than his fair share of blame for all of Communism’s historical failures. The individual atrocities get blamed (or so I like to think) on their respective perpetrators, but the failure of Communism in general gets blamed on Marx and so-called flaws in his theory. But it seems to me that the flaws have come with the misappropriation of his theory, rather than anything inherent in it.

If there is any credence to my argument at all, it cannot be a new one. So how do anti-Marxists react to this line of reasoning? A successful variety of communism might not be possible in today’s world, but as a theory of social evolution, I don’t see any reason (in fact quite the opposite) to discount it as inherently impossible.

Clarissa said...

"that Marx's theory was one of social evolution, i.e. one that would presumably take hundreds of years to come to fruition."

-For now, none of Marx's prognoses came true. There were things in the development of capitalism that he simply did not foresee. Instead of being buried under its own contradictions, as Marx predicted, capitalism found some brilliant ways of negotiating those contradictions.

"But it seems to me that the flaws have come with the misappropriation of his theory, rather than anything inherent in it."

-There are two flaws that, in my opinion, are inherent to Marx's theory:

1. Economic relations are the base, while everything else is the superstructure. That is just simply wrong. Nothing and nobody are motivated by economic relations. Contemporary Marxists have tried hard to salvage this by shuffling the base and the superstructure as much as they could. Still, this belief in economic relations as the underlying cause of everything is a huge problem. Because it's erroneous.

2. Mistake two: human beings are - or can eventually become - collective beings who will be able to sacrifice their individual interests for the common good.

I believe that this is just wrong. This vision of human beings goes completely against the very nature of humanity. I am locked inside myself and can only hope for a glimpse of some genuine contact with another being.

Of course, if - in some indefinite future - human beings do change in the direction of privileging the collective while also becoming motivated by the economic relations, communism will be very possible.

Today, it can't even be a remote dream because it relies on two very basic things that are simply non-existent in objective reality.

I'm not being as articulate as I'd like to today because I've gone 40 hours without sleep at this point.

But thank you for your intelligent questions! It's a joy to discuss things with you.

Clarissa said...

"that Marx's theory was one of social evolution, i.e. one that would presumably take hundreds of years to come to fruition."

-For now, none of Marx's prognoses came true. There were things in the development of capitalism that he simply did not foresee. Instead of being buried under its own contradictions, as Marx predicted, capitalism found some brilliant ways of negotiating those contradictions.

"But it seems to me that the flaws have come with the misappropriation of his theory, rather than anything inherent in it."

-There are two flaws that, in my opinion, are inherent to Marx's theory:

1. Economic relations are the base, while everything else is the superstructure. That is just simply wrong. Nothing and nobody are motivated by economic relations. Contemporary Marxists have tried hard to salvage this by shuffling the base and the superstructure as much as they could. Still, this belief in economic relations as the underlying cause of everything is a huge problem. Because it's erroneous.

2. Mistake two: human beings are - or can eventually become - collective beings who will be able to sacrifice their individual interests for the common good.

I believe that this is just wrong. This vision of human beings goes completely against the very nature of humanity. I am locked inside myself and can only hope for a glimpse of some genuine contact with another being.

Of course, if - in some indefinite future - human beings do change in the direction of privileging the collective while also becoming motivated by the economic relations, communism will be very possible.

Today, it can't even be a remote dream because it relies on two very basic things that are simply non-existent in objective reality.

I'm not being as articulate as I'd like to today because I've gone 40 hours without sleep at this point.

But thank you for your intelligent questions! It's a joy to discuss things with you.

Clarissa said...

And I have no idea why this particular topic is doubling up everybody's comments.

Angie Harms. said...

Thanks Clarissa. I had definitely forgotten about the negation of individuality included in Marx's theory. I'll have to go back and read him again. What were his views on art? I know, for example, that art in the DDR became very sterile (and censored) during socialist rule. Did he necessarily believe that sacrificing individual interests for the common good/ purely economic motivations would preclude individuality/originality in art as well?

Sorry to bother you again. If you're too busy to respond, I can do some research of my own.

Hope you've gotten some sleep!

Clarissa said...

I am never too busy to answer good questions. :-)

For Marx, art is also part of the superstructure. Still, he recognized that art did not directly follow changes in the conditions of material production. He saw that talking about any direct link between an economic system and art would be a gross simplification. So he pretty much left his followers to grapple with the issue on their own.

Which, as you point out correctly, resulted with a very unhealthy relationship between the Communist regimes and art. In the Soviet Union, you could neither create nor read anything that wasn't socialist realist. And this standard was imposed outside of the country as well. Juan Goytisolo, a Spanish writer and a Communist, had problems with the party leadership because he couldn't deal with writing in this idiotic style any more.