Myths About Marxism 1: You don’t need to read MarxBaltimore Post-Examiner

Myths about Marxism 1: You don’t need to read Marx

This is the first in a series of articles in which Carl Woodward will address commonly held objections to Marxism.

“How do you tell a Communist? Well, it’s someone who reads Marx and Lenin. And how do you tell an Anti-Communist? It’s someone who understands Marx and Lenin.”

It was a classic Reagan one-liner, and it undoubtedly delighted the comedy aficionados assembled at the right-wing Concerned Women for America convention in 1987.

But isn’t this one of those jokes that gets worse the more you think about it? The punch line comes at the expense of the people who have actually done the reading – they’re the ones who don’t understand the topic.

Reagan’s quip is an explicit ode to illiteracy and intellectual bigotry. And sadly, the premise is enormously popular.

Proud ignorance

As a Marxist, I spend a lot of time defending my ideas – usually against a small set of zombie critiques that were shot down long ago, but that still walk the earth and feast on the brains of the living. I’ll address many of them as this series continues.

In recent years, however, I’ve found a question that stops critics in their tracks: “Which of Marx’s books have you actually read?” The responses are telling:

  • “I have read nothing that Karl Marx himself has written….I don’t need to read his books to know what happened in the USSR and Red China.” – Muh Roadz
  • “Marx’s derivative rationalizations need not be read entirely to know it is vicious, bloody, criminal evil.” – Son of John Galt
  • “I’ve read enough to know that communism is, at best, an ideological fairy tale that ends in blood.” – Survive The Collapse

It’s one thing, of course, to point out atrocities in the USSR and China; these are historical facts that no one disputes. It’s quite another, however, to insist that they had something to do with Marxist theory. And as I’ll explain in my next article, that particular accusation betrays a dramatic misunderstand of what Marx actually wrote.

"Knowledge will break the chains of slavery." [Alexei Radakov, 1920]

“Knowledge will break the chains of slavery.” [Alexei Radakov, 1920]

But even if you do blame Marx for various historical atrocities, it’s obvious that this isn’t even hypothetically proven merely by pointing them out.

That fallacy is so blatant, and so often repeated, that we shouldn’t understand it as a serious analysis of Marxism. It’s just the opposite: it’s the rejection of analysis. It’s a shameless insistence that we should take willful, open ignorance of Marx as a point of pride. Refusing to investigate the causes of what actually happened is somehow proof that we care about it.

The foundations of literacy

It’s extraordinary – and terrifying – that I even have to make this point; but since the Counter-Enlightenment is evidently upon us, I’ll spell it out.

People who have read about a topic are more likely to understand it than people who have not. People who have read more will tend to understand more than people who have read less; and people who read primary sources will generally have a better understanding than people who read secondary sources.

To reject these intellectual foundations of education and literacy is the very definition of stupidity.

Marx vs. “Marx”

Case in point: Karl Marx’s famous declaration, in 1880, that “I am not a Marxist.”

As a rule, Marx’s critics always understand the quote in one of two ways. Sometimes, it’s meaningless, overly-clever paradox – just another example of the left’s pretentious, self-indulgent pedantry. Other times, it’s even worse: it’s transparently dishonest sophism, evidence of Marxism’s radical contempt for truth.

The truth, of course, is entirely different. The phrase appears in a letter written to French organizers who refused to settle for anything less than a workers’ revolution – to the point of rejecting an entire docket of basic labor reforms. Marx opposed this strategy, and declared that if what they called “Marxism” was indeed that dogmatic and impractical, that he would not consider himself a Marxist.

Marx stands vigil over Moscow. [Photo by AKB]

Marx stands vigil over Moscow. [Photo by AKB]

Marx’s argument illustrates three profound problems with illiterate Anti-Marxism.

First: we have to be able to make a basic distinction between what people merely call “Marxism” and Marx’s actual ideas. The two may correspond – but they might not, a fact that Marx himself addressed.

Second: there’s good reason to believe that “Marxism” indeed does not correspond with Marx’s own writing – not just as a matter of theoretical possibility, but as a matter of easily demonstrable fact. Once one simply reads Marx’s letter to the French labor leaders, for example, it’s perfectly clear what he meant when he said that he was “not a Marxist”. Partial readings, or second-hand misrepresentations, can give that phrase an entirely different meaning.

Finally: once we encounter the real Marx, we often find that he is not only quite different from the “Marxism” of his critics – he is often much more reasonable.  He was not, for instance, the callous radical that he is often made out to be, contemptuous of compromise and indifferent to any human costs of advancing his agenda. Those are the political defects rightly attributed to dictators like Stalin and Mao; but they are the very politics that Marx openly fought against.

But to get any of this, you have to actually read what he wrote.


About the author

Carl Beijer

Carl Beijer is a writer who focuses on the Left, linguistics, and international affairs. Contact the author.
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