Hip and Thigh: Smiting Theological Philistines with a Great Slaughter. Judges 15:8

Monday, October 06, 2008

Readings from Paul Johnson #6

Another selection from historian Paul Johnson's marvelous work, Intellectuals.

Karl Marx: Apocalyptic Poet

Marx was a child of his time, the mid-nineteenth century, and Marxism was a characteristic nineteenth-century philosophy in that it claimed to be scientific. "Scientific" was Marx's strongest expression of approval, which he habitually used to distinguish himself from his many enemies. He and his work were "scientific"; they were not. He felt he had found a scientific explanation of human behavior in history akin to Darwin's theory of evolution. The notion that Marxism is a science, in a way that no other philosophy ever has been or could be, is implanted in the public doctrine of the states his followers founded, so that it colours the teaching of all subjects in their schools and universities.

This has spilled over into the non-Marxist world, for intellectuals, especially academics, are fascinated by power, and the identification of Marxism with massive physical authority has tempted many teachers to admit Marxist "science" to their own disciplines, especially such inexact or quasi-exact subjects as economics, sociology, history and geography. No doubt if Hitler, rather than Stalin, had won the struggle for Central and Eastern Europe in 1941-45, and so imposed his will on a great part of the world, Nazi doctrines which also claimed to be scientific, such as its race-theory, would have been given an academic gloss and penetrated universities throughout the world. But military victory ensured that Marxist, rather than Nazi, science would prevail. ...

But in a deeper sense he was not really a scholar and not a scientist at all. He was not interested in finding the truth but in proclaiming it. ... But there was nothing scientific about him; indeed, in all that matters he was anti-scientific. The poet in Marx was much more important than is generally supposed, even though his poetic imagery soon became absorbed in his political vision. He began writing poetry as a boy, around two main themes: his love for the girl next door, Jenny von Westphalen, of Prussian-Scotch descent, whom he married in 1841; and world destruction. ...

He has himself, in the person of God, say: "I shall howl gigantic curses at mankind," and below the surface of much of his poetry is the notion of a general world-crisis building up. He was fond of quoting Mephistopheles' line from Goethe's Faust, "Every thing that exists deserves to perish"; he used it, for instance, in his tract against Napoleon III, "The Eighteenth Brumaire," and this apocalyptic vision of an immense, impending catastrophe on the existing system remained with him throughout his life: it is there in the poetry, it is the background to the Communist Manifesto of 1848, and it is the climax of Capital itself.

Marx, in short, is an eschatological writer from start to finish. It is notable, for instance, that in the original draft of The German Ideology, (1845-46) he included a passage strongly reminiscent of his poems, dealing with "the Day of Judgment," "When the reflections of burning cities are seen in the heavens...and when the "celestrial harmonies" consist of the melodies of the Maresillaise and the Carmagnole, to the accompaniment of thundering cannon, while the guillotine beats time and the inflamed masses scream Ca ira, ca ira, and self-consciousness is hanged on the lamppost."...The apocalyptic note of the poems again erupts in his horror-speech of 14 April 1856: "History is the judge, its executioner the proletariat" - the terror, the houses marked with the red cross, catastrophic metaphors, earthquakes, lava boiling up as the earth's crust cracks. The point is that Marx's concept of Doomsday, whether in its lurid poetic version or its eventually economic one, is an artistic not a scientific vision. It was always in Marx's mind, and as a political economist he worked backwards from it, seeking the evidence that made it inevitable, rather than forward to it, from objectively examined data. And of course it is the poetic element which gives Marx's historical projection its drama and its fascination to radical readers, who want to believe that the death and judgment of capitalism is coming. The poetic gift manifests itself intermittenly in Marx's pages, producing some memorable passages. In that sense that he intuited rather than reasoned or calculated, Marx remained a poet to the end. [Intellectuals, p. 52, 53, 54, 55]



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