This is the second in a series of articles in which Carl Woodward will address commonly held objections to Marxism.
“A lie repeated a hundred times becomes the truth,” Mao said. Hitler wrote that in a “big lie there is always a certain force of credibility”. And Stalin, according to Khrushchev, always had “some sort of inner urge to lie” – even in casual conversation.
These men weren’t just known liars. They were quite open about lying, and open in their belief that it was a legitimate and effective way to consolidate power.
So it’s baffling when Marx’s critics insist that we accept, with utter credulity, the radical propaganda of some of the most notoriously dishonest tyrants in history. When it comes to the thing they would be most likely to lie about – the pretexts for their horrific actions – these monsters, they insist, were telling the truth.
Were these men actually trying to implement an economic agenda based on the theories of Karl Marx? “Of course!” the critics argue. “Let’s just take their word for it!”
Agreeing with Nazis
Consider: in recent years, Republicans like Bruce Walker have argued that “The Nazis were Marxists, no matter what our tainted academia and corrupt media wishes us to believe.”
Why? Because of what Hitler and the Nazis wished us to believe!
For example: the Nazis said all kinds of things in their 1920 Munich platform. They even called for some “very Leftist economic policies,” Walker writes. Jonah Goldberg agrees: “the most striking thing about the platform was its concerted appeal to socialistic and populist economics”.
You read that right. Did you think the most striking thing was, say, the part where the platform strips away the rights of Jews? Or the open demand for “land and soil” to settle Germany’s “excess population”? If so, you’ve clearly been brainwashed by our liberals schools, because it turns out that it was actually Germany’s “economic and statist policies that America’s GIs fought and died to defeat.”
Sarcasm aside – why are we taking Nazi promises at face value, as credible evidence of their actual economic agenda? This is the same Munich platform that appeals to “the right to self determination of nations” and calls for “equal rights for the German people with respect to other nations” (emphasis added). No one pretends those were serious aspirations of the Nazis.
Historians typically understand Nazi economic promises as similarly disingenuous and pandering. “Since the Nazis recruited their first mass following among the economic and social losers of Weimar Germany, they could sound anti-capitalist at the beginning,” Columbia University historian Robert Paxton writes.
That was before Hitler seized dictatorial power by blaming leftists for the Reichstag fire. Before the Nazis murdered and arrested thousands of suspected leftists during the infamous Night of Long Knives. And before they filled the very first concentration camps with even more leftists.
Hitler may have won popular support with promises of a socialist economy, but he “betrayed them” by reverting to capitalist policies, Paxton writes. Capitalists like Nazi economic advisor Helmuth Wohlthat, an American-educated businessman, set to work rolling back state controls and openly contrasted their approach to the welfare measures being taken in America: “We are only trying to solve the problem Roosevelt tried to solve with the New Deal,” he told Time Magazine in 1941.
Within ten years, German political scientist Franz Neumann could state categorically: “no responsible National Socialist leader is out to expropriate private property and to substitute a socialist or a semi-socialist system”. But why let facts get in the way of whitewashing the Nazis and endorsing the cynical propaganda of Adoph Hitler?
Soviet in name only
A similar pattern emerges in the history of the Soviet Union: an economically depressed populace; an authoritarian right-wing faction that cynically uses Marxist rhetoric to advance an agenda that has little to do with actual Marxism; and Capitalist critics who are fine with endorsing the deceptive rhetoric of tyrants in opposition to basic historical facts.
A simple litmus test is enough to expose the direct opposition between Leninist governance and Marxist thought. The “leading question” in any revolutionary movement, Marx argued, must be “the property question”: whether workers or their masters will control the means of production.
Lenin certainly understood this, which is why he came to power declaring slogans like “all power to the soviets [workers councils]”. And if we take him at his word – much like Capitalists ask us to take Hitler at his word – we can assume that this is exactly what happened.
But history tells a radically different story. The Bolsheviks, after the October Revolution, quickly moved to seize power from the workers: “political authority ultimately coalesced in the Bolsheviks, while most soviets [workers councils] lost their democratic, representative and independent character,” historian John M. Thompson writes. Lenin, meanwhile, drafted “rules for workers’ control” – including the stipulation that they would “be answerable to the state for the maintenance of the strictest order and discipline and for the protection of property.”
None this, of course, had a thing to do with Marxism – as contemporary Marxists like Rosa Luxemberg, were quick to point out.
“Lenin was a right-wing deviation of the socialist movement, and he was so regarded…by the mainstream Marxists,” political commentator Noam Chomsky observed. “We’ve forgotten who the mainstream Marxists were because they lost. And you only remember the guys who won.”
Using gravestones as soapboxes
Say what you will about the Marxist understanding of history – this is indeed what Marxists believe. Those who deny workers control of the means of production, regardless of their rhetoric, are tyrants and should be understood as such. Men like Hitler and Stalin obviously fall under that indictment.
Marx’s critics, of course, rarely contest any of this. It’s a lot easier to simply invoke gruesome body counts and horrific oppression from the twentieth century – and inexplicably take for granted that Marxists actually endorse it.
Nevermind that the majority of those victims were fighting for Marxist revolution – not against it. And nevermind that believing otherwise means believing the cynical propaganda of history’s most monstrous liars.
Too many of Marx’s critics look at a gravestone and see a soapbox they can stand on to shout their political beliefs. It’s grossly opportunistic, it’s unconscionably disrespectful to the dead, and it has the third and not at all trivial disadvantage of being completely untrue.
Carl Beijer is a writer who focuses on the Left, linguistics, and international affairs.