Marx­ism may have been de-fanged, but not enough has been done to de­bunk it

The Sunday Telegraph - - Sunday Comment - TIM STANLEYEY READ MORE READ MORE

You of­ten hear it said that com­mu­nism was a good idea in the­ory, ru­ined by prac­tice. The seeds fell on stony ground. Rus­sia was too back­wards, say the the­o­rists, its peo­ple too au­thor­i­tar­ian. The Soviet Union was more Rus­sian than Marx­ist.

Plenty of Rus­sians take a dim view of this. The writer and dis­si­dent Alexandr Solzhen­it­syn ar­gued that Lenin’s 1917 rev­o­lu­tion was in fact a coup d’état, the vic­tory of an athe­is­tic ide­ol­ogy that con­tra­dicted not just Rus­sian iden­tity, which is deeply spir­i­tual, but hu­man­ity it­self. You can read Solzhen­it­syn’s in­dict­ment of Soviet tyranny and mo­ral cor­rup­tion in his three-vol­ume Gu­lag Ar­chi­pel­ago, newly pub­lished by Pen­guin in, thank heav­ens, abridged form. If even that is too long for you, you can al­ways set­tle for the punchy fore­word by Jor­dan Peter­son.

Read­ing be­tween the lines, Peter­son, a Cana­dian clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist, prob­a­bly sees some par­al­lel be­tween him­self and Solzhen­it­syn. Both men took on the Left; both men paid a pro­fes­sional price. But while Solzhen­it­syn en­dured eight years in a gu­lag and was de­ported, if Peter­son has any sense of ex­ile then it is self­im­posed and imag­ined. The man is ev­ery­where: on TV, in print, sell­ing more than two mil­lion copies of his lat­est book. Crit­ics think he is an­ti­mod­ern, anti-fem­i­nist, anti-progress. To his fans, he’s an ar­tic­u­late re­al­ist. To live is to suf­fer, he sug­gests; great­ness is mea­sured in per­se­ver­ance. He wants to shift the em­pha­sis of our cul­ture away from cor­po­rate guilt and vic­tim­hood and to­wards in­di­vid­ual re­spon­si­bil­ity. I have a mea­sure of blame for my own prob­lems; I am the an­swer to many of them. I cer­tainly need to stop eat­ing Coco Pops for din­ner.

Peter­son’s world-view can be as for­eign to Solzhen­it­syn as Marx was to the Siberian farmer. His fore­word speaks of the West as a counter to the “evil empire of com­mu­nism”, but Solzhen­it­syn found the West in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic and ar­ro­gant; he could him­self be back­wards-look­ing, pos­si­bly re­ac­tionary. But even if Peter­son reads the Ar­chi­pel­ago like a North­ern Amer­i­can, he picks out the uni­ver­sal truths and ex­presses them with real lit­er­ary power.

Like Solzhen­it­syn, he takes Marx­ism se­ri­ously. It was not about be­ing nice: it had a game plan, it had a vi­sion, it be­lieved any­thing was licit in pur­suit of heaven on earth. There would be sac­ri­fice, but who would make it? The Chris­tian be­lieves the an­swer should be largely per­sonal: “each of us sac­ri­fice what is un­wor­thy and un­nec­es­sary and re­sent­ful and deadly in our char­ac­ters… so that we could stum­ble prop­erly up­hill un­der our re­spec­tive and vol­un­tar­ily shoul­dered ex­is­ten­tial bur­dens”. The utopian, by con­trast, be­lieves his­tory is a strug­gle not within the in­di­vid­ual but be­tween classes and thus, to re­solve that war, oth­ers must go to the wall: “some per­pe­tra­tor, or vic­timiser, or op­pres­sor, or mem­ber of a priv­i­leged group”.

Marx­ism leads in­evitably to per­se­cu­tion be­cause it cat­e­gorises and pits peo­ple against each other, and thus wher­ever it has been tried – lit­er­ally in each and every lo­ca­tion

at tele­ opin­ion – it has ended in death. Com­mu­nism didn’t thaw in the Cuban sun; it didn’t suc­cumb to Bud­dhist en­light­en­ment in Cambodia.

Of course, the cit­i­zens of so­cial­ist so­ci­eties had agency; they had some choice over how far they would sub­mit or re­sist. But proof that it was the sys­tem, not solely its cit­i­zens, that made com­mu­nism so grim was the divi­sion of Ger­many in the Cold War. Should you meet a Marx­ist stu­dent, ask them this: “Where would you have rather lived?” Even if you ac­cept the most un­gen­er­ous read­ing of West Ger­many – ma­te­ri­al­ist, hyp­o­crit­i­cal, in­suf­fi­ciently hon­est about its fas­cist past – it was still a place where you could list these flaws and not go to jail. In East Ger­many, you might get ar­rested for com­plain­ing about the food.

How could one peo­ple, di­vided by a wall, op­er­ate two com­pletely dif­fer­ent so­cial sys­tems? The an­swer is, the ide­ol­ogy made the dif­fer­ence. East Ger­many was a dump in most part thanks to com­mu­nism, not the lo­cal cul­ture.

Peter­son of­ten talks about neoMarx­ists in academia, crit­i­cis­ing the rise of an iden­tity pol­i­tics that hasn’t aban­doned the class strug­gle but made it more com­pli­cated by adding dozens of ra­cial, sex­ual and gen­der cat­e­gories. Marx noted that his­tory re­peats it­self first as tragedy and se­condly as farce. Solzhen­it­syn, for all his flaws, was a gi­ant tak­ing on drag­ons, whereas Peter­son’s squab­bles with stu­dents sug­gest Marx­ism has been de-fanged and is now es­sen­tially silly. But the the­ory is in­tact and not nearly enough has been done to de­bunk it. It re­mains, as Peter­son puts it, “dressed… in com­pas­sion” – and cross-dress­ing, as we all know, is hugely in fash­ion.

It is be­ing de­scribed as the lat­est dis­as­ter to be­fall the higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. Three uni­ver­si­ties are re­ported to be fac­ing bank­ruptcy, sur­viv­ing on short-term loans be­cause they have not been able to at­tract as many stu­dents as ex­pected. Would a uni­ver­sity re­ally be al­lowed to go bust, asked the BBC, as if we should all be re­quired to chip in to a great bail-out of bod­ies that have trag­i­cally mis­cal­cu­lated their growth po­ten­tial. There are melo­dra­matic whis­pers of “con­ta­gion” and warn­ings that ap­pli­ca­tion num­bers could tum­ble at other uni­ver­si­ties. Noth­ing has yet hap­pened, but min­is­ters are al­ready be­ing called upon to step in.

Apart from min­imis­ing dis­rup­tion for the stu­dents af­fected – in­clud­ing help­ing them on to other cour­ses – they should re­sist the temp­ta­tion. Ever since the Gov­ern­ment re­moved the cap on stu­dent num­bers, en­cour­ag­ing uni­ver­si­ties to com­pete for ap­pli­cants and al­low­ing the best of them to grow, some­thing like this was al­ways go­ing to hap­pen. There is a quasi-mar­ket in higher ed­u­ca­tion now: wit­ness the ad­ver­tis­ing hoard­ings pro­claim­ing the ben­e­fits of study­ing in this or that small English town. Stu­dents, it seems, are be­hav­ing more like con­sumers, too.

This mar­ket is by no means per­fect. There re­mains a dis­con­nect be­tween the over­sold prom­ises of the sec­tor and the re­al­ity that a de­gree is no longer al­ways a route into a high­er­pay­ing job. There are fears over

The Chris­tian be­lieves in per­sonal sac­ri­fice. Marx­ist ide­ol­ogy, by con­trast, be­lieves that to re­solve earthly strug­gle, other peo­ple must go to the wall

There re­mains a dis­con­nect be­tween the over­sold prom­ises of the sec­tor and the re­al­ity that a de­gree is no longer al­ways a route into a high­er­pay­ing job

at tele­ opin­ion

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