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Why I’m Not (Still) a Marxist

Lawrence Bush
August 20, 2017


by Lawrence Bush

I AM A SOCIALIST. I want to see the social and cooperative capacities of human beings cultivated at least as much as our individualistic and competitive tendencies, and I want to see an economic system developed that reckons justly with the reality that all wealth-creation, all economic activity, is deeply social, and that human beings thrive when treated with compassion and generosity instead of pressure and punishment. Still, I am not a Marxist. I don’t believe that class struggle is the key driving force of history; I don’t believe that the revolutionary overthrow of the modern capitalist system and its replacement by a planned economy would necessarily lead to a more free, wealthy, or democratic system; I’m not convinced of the validity of the Marxist theory of surplus value; I don’t think communism fits very well with human nature.

Once upon a time, I believed otherwise. I thought that the guiding principle of China’s Cultural Revolution, for example, was promising, that shaking up the class hierarchy would yield a “New Socialist Man [sic]” imbued with generosity, fairness and non-hierarchical social values. Today, however, I think sending climate scientists to farms and slaughterhouses while putting truck drivers in charge of the EPA would probably be an awful idea. While I strongly believe that our class system in America is far too polarized, far too punitive to poor people, and far too dismissive of the talents and the humanity of all people, I hope to see that softened through social democratic innovations such as free college tuition, class-, race-, and gender-based affirmative action, cooperative businesses, democratic education, labor activism, positive media messaging, and a broadened conversation about sharing the wealth.

Once upon a time I also believed that a council of workers would do a much better job planning for human needs than a profit-oriented board of directors in any given industry. Today, while I’d be more than willing to give that kind of economic democracy a shot, I believe that any small body of people with decision-making power is vulnerable to corruption, cronyism, nepotism, sexual exploitation, powermongering, and worse, depending on the character of the people involved. I’m also aware that broader forms of “people’s democracy,” such as having people vote by computer on the major issues of the day — from education to regulation to abortion and euthenasia to science and technology — would incite an endless flow of propaganda and influence-peddling, and probably yield results that I would loathe.

Once upon a time, I thought capitalism’s idolatry of the “rugged individual” could be made to submit to the idealism of community through inspiration — Billboards! TV shows! Songs! Dances! Potlatches! — without coercion. Today, I’m aware of how precious it is that I can lead my life more or less as I please in this country, without injury to others but also without needing the approval of a neighborhood or workplace watch committee. My political hope is for everyone to have the opportunity to lead similarly autonomous lives (without injury to others) by not having to worry about the economic basics, and by having access to the kind of quality education that enables individuals to overcome the lures of conformity and social indifference.

Unlike the conservative ideologues who are currently running our country, I also believe that such individual liberty is best served by an efficient government that can protect the environment, sustain the legal system, and provide services and support for people at junctures of vulnerability, bad luck, failure, or oppression. Nevertheless, I am very cautious when it comes to endorsing vigorous government enforcement of the “social good” in a culture as varied in its values and religious sensibilities as ours.

Once upon a time, I thought my inability to penetrate the dense jargon of much Marxist writing was the fault of my ignorance, despite my being a fairly smart guy. Today, I read Marxist texts the way I read theology, as literature that is filled with assumptions that I question at the root, and jargon that resists translation, but that nevertheless makes me feel intrigued by its intimations of a “deep” reality behind surface appearances.

I’M NO LONGER a Marxist because I believe that human nature, bred in the bone by evolution, is inclined towards hierarchy, small-group loyalty, and self-interest — by no means exclusively, but powerfully. Efforts to reshuffle our hierarchies are therefore simply that, reshufflings, sometimes for better, often for worse, depending on the wisdom and character of those who rise to leadership and the social conditions that attend their rise.

Class, to my mind, is only one, rather recent (post-agriculture), demarcation of the “us” versus “them” mentality. Class is only one aspect of the social and physical conditions that help shape the outcomes of societal shifts (geography, for example, is also very influential, as Jared Diamond has argued). Class is also only one, not necessarily determinative, factor that shapes individual consciousness (genes and biological gender, to pick two examples, also deeply shape consciousness).

Anyway, humans were human way before they created capitalism, and the evidence shows that in many instances they were heedless towards their environments and towards one another, way back when. They were also, however, inventive problem-solvers and cooperators, for that, too, is bred in the bone by evolution. Indeed, if I still have any hope for socialism emerging, as Marx predicted, from the chaos of capitalism, it is pinned to human inventiveness: to the scientific and technological advances, all achieved cooperatively, that have already nearly brought us into a post-scarcity era. If only we are now smart, flexible, and morally evolved enough to recognize what we’ve achieved, we could abandon the competitive nastiness of private ownership and hierarchical exploitation, realize that we don’t need to be so aggressively productive and inventive, and could instead cultivate those human traits that will incline us towards a more leisurely, loving, maternal, cooperative society. Perhaps I am just expressing here a peaceful, non-revolutionary variation on the Marxist belief that capitalism sows the seeds of its own destruction. But in my vision, socialism would be an achievement of capitalism — a system that has brought us to the brink not only of disaster but of post-scarcity plenitude.

WHAT I MISS about being a Marxist is the abiding hope in such positive outcomes. There is a redemptive sensibility that Marxism brings by holding out the promise that history is traveling along an arc towards a classless society, and that the “logic” of capitalism is to yield, ultimately, to socialism. I’m afraid, however, that the “scientific” analysis that led Marx and Engels to that conclusion is about as enduring as Freud’s theories of the ego, the id, and the Oedipal Complex. Both Marxism and Freudianism were rooted in 19th-century realities — the ruthlessly exploited, resourceless lives of the industrial proletariat, who were nevertheless transforming the globe with their productivity, and the patriarchal, buttoned-down culture of the Victorian era, which was nevertheless slipping the knots of religion. I believe that both Marxism and Freudianism have been rendered antique in many aspects by modern knowledge and by the lessons of history. What’s left to us of essential value from Marx is the realization that capitalism is a human-made system, not a natural order, and can be changed to better serve the human race. (What’s left to us from Freud is that there’s more to human behavior than what Torah scholars call the peshat, the plain and simple meaning.)

Making major changes to the capitalist system is certainly necessary if we are to have a thriving civilization on a healthy planet. We need to diminish the power of small boards of unelected property owners and the enormous wealth gap that they have produced, while cultivating popular power and share-the-wealth policies. We need to diminish selfishness and cultivate a communal caring. We need to diminish nationalism and cultivate an “Earthling” mentality. We need to diminish the lust for private wealth and cultivate the joy of sharing and celebrating. We need to develop cultural messaging that orients human beings towards their interconnection and away from their “rugged individualism.” These difficult undertakings are the work of socialists — but we do not need Marxist analysis, or a dialectical materialist outlook, or democratic centralism, to pursue it effectively.

It is long past time to unlink our socialist aspirations from the bloody, ineradicably compromised history of so-called Marxist governments and economies, and to seek other sources of support for our fundamental affirmation of the reality principle of human interdependence, i.e., socialism.For me, certain fragments of the Jewish tradition have provided some of that support. Rabbinic thought affirms one key dialectic (look at me, using the lingo!): that on the one hand, all economic activity is social, using resources that are our shared inheritance as Earthlings (“The Earth is the Lord’s, and all of its fruits” — Psalm 24); while on the other hand, human beings are oriented towards themselves and their kin, and are easily roused to hostility and competitiveness (“If not for the evil impulse, no one would build a house, marry, have children, nor engage in trade.” — Yoma 69b, Talmud).

In this dialectic, socialism is the undeniable reality principle that we are interdependent in every economic sense, right down to the reproduction of labor — that is, the creation of human beings, which requires the mixing of human genes. But in the same dialectic, capitalism also lurks in the human heart, and must be overcome through encouragement, nudging, reform, art and culture, mitsves, and other forms of participation in social life — not through the kind of Cultural Revolution that imagines human “material” to be malleable and even expendable.

One might protest that I’m simply paraphrasing the perceptions of a bunch of religious men from a couple of thousand years ago — and that their teachings include a kind of fatalism, a things-will-never-change conservatism. Why trust them as somehow relevant to our lives today?

I dunno. To me they seem more realistic than the perceptions of a brilliant refugee scholar from the mid-19th century.

Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents. His books include Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist and Jews, Money, and Social Responsibility.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.