Most of the periodicals I subscribe to are in the service of keeping me informed about what is going on in the world regarding religion and other matters in which I have a professional interest. An exception is The Spectator, which was founded in London in 1828 and claims (correctly, I believe) to be the English-language periodical with the longest record of continuous publication. Moderately conservative both politically and culturally, it is sometimes informative about developments not covered elsewhere. But mostly I read it for pure pleasure. Its editors clearly love the English language (as I do) and its writers demonstrate the same affection and often the sort of nasty wit which higher education in the British Isles seems to inculcate. Reading The Spectator doesn’t usually give me ideas for this blog. The issue of November 12, 2016 did, with an article by Harry Mount on the Marx Memorial Library in Clerkenwell, part of the Borough of Islington in North London. The upcoming 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 1917 makes one reflect on what is left today of Marxism, which for huge numbers of people in the century since then was a faith that would dominate the future. Is it now no more than an obscure memorial in a corner of the city in which Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital?
The building in which the Marx Memorial has been located since 1933 (on another anniversary, the 50th of Marx’s death) dates from 1783, when it housed a school for the children on poor Welsh miners. Whatever the global fate of Marxism may be today, it certainly has a history in Islington. Lenin lived near Clerkenwell in 1902-03 while editing the revolutionary journal Iskra (“The Spark”) that was smuggled into Russia. He was briefly visited there by Stalin, who was then (of all places) residing in Vienna. The Guardian, still the daily breviary of British Leftists, long had its editorial office in the same area. The Communist Manifesto, written in 1848 by Marx and Engels (also in London), began with the lapidary sentence “A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of Communism.” Such a specter (as it were, resurrected from the 1930s) now regularly haunts the Marx Memorial Library—Jeremy Corbyn, the recently elected hard-Left leader of the British Labour Party, who represents Islington in Parliament.
I don’t know that part of London, but I understand that it has been considerably gentrified. The Soviet Union, which inspired the fantasies of British and other Western leftists in the 1930s, no longer exists. Corbyn was not yet alive then, and his sympathy for anti-Western utopias apparently finds other candidates, mostly in the developing world. It is deeply ironic that the period when the Soviet Union was perceived by many on the Left as the principal defender of freedom against fascist tyranny coincided precisely with the climax of the Stalinist terror in Russia that cost millions of human lives. This is not to denigrate the genuine idealism with which many on the Left supported the republic against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and which motivated some to fight there. But it also is not to overlook the duplicitous role played by the Soviet Union in that conflict. I still have a CD with songs of the Lincoln Brigade, the American unit that fought on the republican side. One song is in honor of Hans Beimler, a political commissar who died in the defense of Madrid. Of course the song doesn’t mention that he was shot in the back by Soviet agents, because he would not follow orders from Moscow. George Orwell became ostracized upon his return from Spain, because in his book Homage to Catalonia he told the truth about the Soviet role.
Which states can reasonably still be described as Marxist in ideology? Certainly not Russia. Vladimir Putin is a former KGB agent with a mindset probably still shaped by this early training, who has described the collapse of the Soviet Union as a catastrophe. But his regime is hardly a replication of the Soviet state. Its ideology is a mix of Russian nationalism and Orthodox religion, an unholy alliance of the Kremlin and the Moscow Patriarchate. The structure of the state is increasingly authoritarian, though not (or not yet) fully so. Its foreign policy is increasingly imperial, using brutal force whenever deemed necessary. China is quite different, though again hardly Marxist. Since the beginning of the economic reforms in 1979 the Communist party has presided over an untrammeled robber capitalism, which has furthered an unequal economic growth and an impressive reduction in poverty (especially in the urban areas). As in Russia, the state is authoritarian, its ideology a nationalism with Confucian undertones. Xi Jinping has recently revived some rituals of the Cultural Revolution and made party cadres study Marxist texts, but I suspect that this is more Confucian ceremonialism than a doctrine that anyone actually believes in. Then there are the outlying cases of North Korea and Cuba. The former is indeed totalitarian, with a regime of unparalleled brutality (matched if anywhere by the parts of Iraq and Syria controlled by ISIS), the ideology being Marxist in name but in fact a dynastic traditionalism. Cuba also has a self-defined Marxist dictatorship, now slowly relaxing its socialist economy in the plan to develop Cuba as a tropical tourist attraction. I haven’t been to Cuba, but what I have read about it reminded me of two places where I have been—St.Petersburg, where I ate in a restaurant that featured Soviet-era propaganda posters and rude waiters; and Berlin, where you could go through a checkpoint and be interrogated by threatening People’s Police. (Before long tourists may be able to sip daiquiris at the Che Guevara Holiday Inn in Havana.)
Where Marxism, in one version or another, still survives as a body of ideas to be taken seriously it is probably in Western academia and some of its dependencies in developing societies. It is rarely now the stultified scholasticism of Leninist dogma, but rather the livelier writings of the early Marx, filtered through the interpretations of Western neo-Marxists like Antonio Gramsci or the Frankfurt School. But even then it is not so much Marxism as such, but rather the derivative ideologies into which it has morphed—such as postmodernism, postcolonialism, feminism, and other secular faiths. A good indicator of residual Marxist influences is the curious survival of the distinction between the substructure and the superstructure—respectively the “real” forces of the means and the relations of production (that is, the economy and the class struggle over its control), and the (mostly false) ideas that legitimate the “real” interests. This generally involves a debunking or unmasking method of showing up the “false consciousness” of the alleged oppressors—by definition, then, only the designated victims can understand the “real” interests involved. This method may be “Left” or “Right” in rhetoric, but it always has an appeal to groups that consider themselves to be victims, and want to be liberated from alleged oppression or exploitation. (If you will, from the Third World to unemployed coalminers cheering Donald Trump.)
These quasi-Marxist influences are much in evidence in how many secular intellectuals view religion. Religious phenomena are seen as mere superstructures that must be re-interpreted to get at their “root causes”—which of course are seen as not religious at all, but as the “real” interests of economic, political, or sexual exploitation. I suppose this points to the change from the leftism in the 1930s to that of the 1960s. In the 1930s the Soviet Union was still the utopia of many on the Left, including some of those recruited to fight and die in Spain, or to spy for Soviet intelligence. In the 1960s the utopia was more difficult to locate, though the tendency to overlook atrocities committed by leftist regimes or movements was just as great. While it seems to me that, by and large, Jeremy Corbyn’s nostalgias are fixated on the 1930s, Bernie Sanders is hung up in the 1960s. I was greatly amused when the latter was asked which country today he admired as socialist, he replied “Denmark.” I was reminded of the only time I was in Denmark. That was on a lecture tour in the 1970s, after one of my books had been published in a Danish translation. I was harangued for being politically objectionable by angry students, who without exception described themselves as either Marxist or Maoist (this, mind you, was at the time of the Cultural Revolution in China, whose victims also numbered in the millions). A few students were enthusiastic about Albania, from which they had just returned from a brief trip as volunteers working on railroad construction. Albania at the time was ruled by an unusually brutal regime, allied with Beijing rather than Moscow. The regime was very proud of the fact that it not only preached atheism and persecuted religion (Muslim or Christian), but that it was the only country in the world where even private religious practice was strictly illegal and accordingly prosecuted. Denmark, of course, like the other Scandinavian countries, was never socialist, but had a very generous welfare state that has been somewhat modified since my not-very-happy visit.
If you get to be old enough, everything is likely to reappear in one form or another. Walk into a working-class bar in a small town in Pennsylvania and mention that you voted for Hillary Clinton, or walk through Harvard Square having forgotten to take off your Trump button. (A difficult but workable political slogan: Moderates of all flavors unite: You have nothing to lose except the applause of screaming mobs.)