Marxism may have been de-fanged, but not enough has been done to debunk it
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 telegraph.co.uk/ 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 telegraph.co.uk/ opinion