Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Studies Show That Marxism Is Still Bad

Here’s a remarkably sympathetic and subtle review of the profoundly critical and exhaustively detailed criticisms of Marxism and its history in the work of the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski. And it’s located in THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS! The reviewer means to counter the two main Western intellectual fantasies of our time: 1. That our present well-managed liberal or libertarian democracies are immune to radical challenge AND 2. Marx liberated from Marxism and communism might provide the foundation for such challenges.

My thanks to Ryan Rakness for calling this review to my attention. His hope is that the temptation to comment on its excellences and its deficiencies will draw the legendary DAN MAHONEY into our discussion.

Discussions - 13 Comments

How did such a piece manage to get printed in the NY Review of Books?
Will someone lose his/her job over this?

The Times doesn’t like communism any more, ever since they heard that Osama bin Laden is against it.

Thanks, Peter, for calling this to our attention. It is quite rich and wonderful, as you said. I hope this prompts lots of discussion. On first reading, I’m not sure what its deficiencies might be.

I too look forward to hearing from Dan Mahoney, especially since his Aron figures in the essay.

When I finished Judt’s review, I thought about the continued need for Catholic social ethics, for Burke, and for liberal democracy as counters to both the temptations of Marxist categories and "the irritating overconfidence of contemporary free-marketeers of the right" (Judt).

Tony Judt acknowledges the horrific consequences of undertaking the project of remaking men’s souls, as Lenin put it, by using the state to implement a comprehensive system of economic control. However, as an economic illiterate, he accepts the Marxian diagnosis of the shortcomings of market economies, and believes that it is coercive state intervention and adversative worker organization that advance the well being of workers. He now ponders selective interventions in economies around the globe, never mind by what authority. In other words, it is to the benevolence of intellectuals, not the voluntary dealings of millions of individual actors, that we must look. He needs to read Hayek on the consequences of selective interventions aimed at producing particular results by agents who do not comprehend market consequences and secondary effects.

To the extent the NY Review is publishing items that are not 200% politically correct, it is probably attributable to the new editor, Sam Tannenhaus, a liberal, but no ideologue.

Steve, You’ve probably noticed that Thucydides identified a few possible deficiencies or at least matters worth discussing. Doubtless he goes too far in the libertarian direction? I would say that the J. article was at best 8% politically correct.

I meant at worst 8% politically correct.

There are many Tony Judts(among them an utterly predicable critic of everything about the Bush adminstration and an advocate of the abolition of the state of Israel in the name of--hold on to your hats!--a ’binational’ Palestinian-Jewish state). The Judt of the Kolakowski review essay is the one who is still beholden to the anti-utopian wisdom of the East(Kolakowski and Milosz) and the chastened liberalism of Aron. It’s too bad he didn’t cite the marvelous final lines of MAIN CURRENTS which argue that every effort at human self-deification inevitably culminates in a cruel and farcical bondage. The theological-philosophical grounds of that claim are established with searing luminosity in the volume of essays entitled MY CORRECT VIEWS ABOUT EVERYTHING, the bulk of which Judt simply passes over in his review essay. That volume chronicles Kolakowski’s evolution into what one might call a philosophical Christian as well as his studious avoidance of ideology in all its forms, including the various fantasies that emanate today from the libertarian-economistic Right. But Kolakowski knows that Marxism can never promote human liberty and dignity--or correct the excesses of liberal society-- since it responds to real if limited injustices by making the state the owner of men and things. The dream for a unified society without conflict or politics is always and everywhere an invitation to disaster.

Mahoney speaks. Notice that he says that K agrees with the J of the review aboout Marxism and libertarianism being two forms of modern fantasy--two forms of antipolitical fantasy. Thanks to DM for providing us with an exciting and unprecedented moment in blogging history.

Dan: Don’t stop now! I’m just putting the popcorn on.

Sam Tanenhaus is with the NY Times Book Review, not the NYRB.

Is it Marxist to notice shortcomings of the free market? Marx was hardly alone in that. Does Thucydides mean that we must choose between what used to be called laissez-faire, and Marx?

Are voluntary choices in the marketplace the only defensible acts? In a world of states, where do the rules governing those choices come from? Is unanimous consent the only legitimate consent?

No, Steve, that’s just Libertarian-talk. Conservatives understand that society requires authority (not raw power, but authority). Marx’ main problem was that he underestimated the raw innovative power of the free market...the whole pauperization thing is never likely to happen. But people ARE people, and therefore selfish and occasionally evil. It requires checks-and-balances beyond the marketplace to keep capitalism on its rails...that means governmental regulation, of course, but also religion, the family, voluntary associations, and other institutions whose interests will differ from the business community.

No, I am not a libertarian, nor a fan of pure laisser faire. Markets require a moral framework to function, and human beings being what they are, governmental regulation is needed to assure process fairness (respect for property, keeping of contract, prevention of fraud, etc.). However, selective government market intervention in pursuit of transcendent goals, such as utilitarianism and egalitarianism, is no more warranted than attempts to use government to impose those visions through comprehensive systems such as Marxism-Leninism. Judt seems to have backed off from the systematic approach, but wants to keep the interventionism in pursuit of the same ultimate goals.

Not being a liberal, I am not a meliorist. My tendency is like Oakeshott’s: to appreciate what is more than long for some speculative improvement. I do not see government as the means of imposing some vision, some secular eschatology, but simply as providing the framework within which individuals can pursue their own ends in the context of what remains of our classical liberal civilization, besieged though it is by latter day liberals pursuing their incoherent visions of some universal rational civilization, valid for all men everywhere.

Thanks to Steve for the correction on Tanenhaus.

In my view the government can’t completely abandon the pursuit of welfare...rough equality is extremely important. There are good ways to pursue it (e.g., setting up decent groundrules for capital accumulation) and stupid ways to pursue it (e.g., confiscatory taxation and redistribution). Conservatives must balance the needs of individuals with the needs of society...there is no simple recipe to follow (which is the major drawback in both liberalism and libertarianism).

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