Marx Without the Realism
R. A. Hettinga
Wed, 15 Jan 2003 14:42:12 -0500
The Wall Street Journal
Marx Without the Realism
The intellectual roots of America-bashing.
BY LEE HARRIS
Wednesday, January 15, 2003 12:01 a.m.
A specter haunts the world, and that specter is America. This is not the
America discoverable in the pages of a world atlas, but a mythical America
that is the target of the new form of anti-Americanism that Salman Rushdie,
writing in the Guardian (Feb. 6, 2002), says "is presently taking the world
by storm" and that forms the subject of a Washington Post essay by Martin
Kettle significantly entitled "U.S. Bashing: It's All the Rage in Europe"
(Jan. 7, 2002). It is an America that Anatol Lieven assures us, in a recent
article in the London Review of Books, is nothing less than "a menace to
itself and to mankind," and that Noam Chomsky has repeatedly characterized
as the world's major terrorist state.
But above all it is the America that is responsible for the evils of the
rest of the world. As Dario Fo, the winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize for
Literature, put it in a notorious post-September 11 e-mail subsequently
quoted in the New York Times (Sept. 22, 2001): "The great speculators [of
American capitalism] wallow in an economy that every years kills tens of
millions of people with poverty [in the Third World]--so what is 20,000
dead in New York? Regardless of who carried out the massacre [of Sept. 11],
this violence is the legitimate daughter of the culture of violence, hunger
and inhumane exploitation."
It is this sort of America that is at the hub of Antonio Negri and Michael
Hardt's revision of Marxism in their intellectually influential book
"Empire" (Harvard University Press, 2000)--a reinterpretation of historical
materialism in which the global capitalist system will be overthrown not by
those who have helped to create it, namely, the working class, but rather
by a polyglot global social force vaguely referred to as "the
multitude"--the alleged victims of this system.
America-bashing is anti-Americanism at its most radical and totalizing. Its
goal is not to advise, but to condemn; not to fix, but to destroy. It
repudiates every thought of reform in any normal sense; it sees no
difference between American liberals and American conservatives; it views
every American action, both present and past, as an act of deliberate
oppression and systemic exploitation. It is not that America went wrong
here or there; it is that it is wrong root and branch. The conviction at
the heart of those who engage in it is really quite simple: that America is
an unmitigated evil, an irredeemable enormity.
This is the specter that is haunting the world today. Indeed, one may even
go so far as to argue that this America is the fundamental organizing
principle of the left as it exists today: To be against America is to be on
the right side of history; to be for it is to be on the wrong side.
But let's pause to ask a question whose answer the America-bashers appear
to assume they know: What is the right side of history at this point in
The concept of a right side of history is derived from Marxism, and it is
founded on the belief that there is a forward advance toward a socialist
future that can be resisted, but not ultimately defeated. But does anyone
believe this anymore? Does anyone take seriously the claim that the present
state of affairs will be set aside and a wholly new order of things
implemented in its place, and that such a transformation of the world will
happen as a matter of course?
And, finally, if in fact there are those who believe such a thing, what is
the status of this belief? Is it a realistic assessment of the objective
conditions of the present world order, or is it merely wishful thinking?
The importance of these questions should be obvious to anyone familiar with
the thought of Marx. Marx's uniqueness as a thinker of the left is his
absolute commitment to the principles of political realism. This is the
view that any political energy that is put into what is clearly a hopeless
cause is a waste. Utopianism is not only impractical; it is an obstacle to
obtaining socialism's true objective, since it diverts badly needed
resources away from the pursuit of viable goals, wasting them instead on
the pursuit of political fantasies.
The concept of fantasy as a political category assumed its central place in
Marxist thought in "The Communist Manifesto," in which Karl Marx and
Friedrich Engels used it as the distinguishing mark of their own brand of
socialism. It was this that condemned all previous forms of socialism to
the realm of vague dreams and good intentions, and that gave Marxism the
claim to be a "scientific" form of socialism.
Marx's use of the term scientific in this text has often been criticized.
But in his defense, it should be remembered that the German Wissenschaft
describes a far wider category than the English science. It means what we
know as opposed to what we merely opine, or feel, or imagine; the objective
as opposed to the subjective; realistic thinking as opposed to impractical
daydreaming. And it is in this last sense that Marx and Engels use it: For
the opposite of the scientific is none other than the utopian.
This is the basis of Marx's condemnation of all forms of utopian socialism,
the essence of which is the enormous gap between the "fantastic pictures of
future society" the utopian socialist dreams of achieving, on one hand, and
any realistic assessment of the objective conditions of the actual social
order on the other.
This concept of fantasy as "fantastic pictures" inside the head of
impractical daydreamers is a classic theme of German Romantic literature
and is perhaps most closely identified with the characters of E.T.A.
Hoffman's stories, such as Kapellmeister Kreisler. The fantasist, in this
literature, is a character type: He lives in his own dream world and can
manage only the most tenuous relationship to the real world around him. But
unlike the character type of the absent-minded professor, the Romantic
fantasist is not content to putter around in his own world. Instead, he is
forever insisting that his world is the real one, and in the process of
doing this, he reduces the real world around him, and the people in it, to
an elaborate stage setting for the enactment of his own private fantasies.
Marx and Engels's wholesale condemnation of all previous socialism as
utopian fantasy is the fundamental innovation of their own work. It is the
basis of their claim to be taken seriously, not merely by Hoffmanesque
daydreamers, but by men of practical judgment and shrewd common sense. To
fail to make this distinction, or to fail to stay on the right side of this
distinction once it has been made, is to cease to be a Marxist and to fall
back into mere Träumerei.
This demarcation line arose because Marx believed that he had grasped
something that no previous utopian socialist had even suspected. He
believed that he had shown that socialism was inevitable and that it would
come about through certain ironclad laws of history--laws that Marx
believed were revealed through the study of the very nature of capitalism.
Socialism, in short, would come about not because a handful of daydreamers
had wished for it, or because pious moralists had urged it, but because the
unavoidable breakdown of the capitalist system would force the turn to
socialism upon those societies that, prior to this breakdown, had been
organized along capitalist lines.
Schematically the scenario went something like this:
* The capitalists would begin to suffer from a falling rate of profit.
* The workers would therefore be "immiserized"; they would become poorer as
the capitalists struggled to keep their own heads above water.
* The poverty of the workers would drive them to overthrow the capitalist
system--their poverty, not their ideals.
What is interesting here is that, once you accept the initial premise about
the falling rate of profit, the rest does indeed follow realistically. Now,
this does not mean that it follows necessarily or according to an ironclad
scientific law; but it certainly conveys what any reasonable person would
take as the most probable outcome of a hypothetical failure of capitalism.
For Marx it is absolutely essential that revolutionary activities be
justifiable on realistic premises. If they cannot be, then they are actions
that cannot possibly have a real political objective--and therefore, their
only value can be the private emotional or spiritual satisfaction of the
people carrying out this pseudopolitical action.
So in order for revolutionary activity to have a chance of succeeding,
there is an unavoidable precondition: The workers must have become much
poorer over time. Furthermore, there had to be not merely an increase of
poverty, but a conviction on the part of the workers that their material
circumstances would only get worse, and not better--and this would require
This is the immiserization thesis of Marx. And it is central to
revolutionary Marxism, since if capitalism produces no widespread misery,
then it also produces no fatal internal contradiction: If everyone is
getting better off through capitalism, who will dream of struggling to
overthrow it? Only genuine misery on the part of the workers would be
sufficient to overturn the whole apparatus of the capitalist state, simply
because, as Marx insisted, the capitalist class could not be realistically
expected to relinquish control of the state apparatus and, with it, the
monopoly of force.
In this, Marx was absolutely correct. No capitalist society has ever
willingly liquidated itself, and it is utopian to think that any ever will.
Therefore, in order to achieve the goal of socialism, nothing short of a
complete revolution would do; and this means, in point of fact, a
full-fledged civil war not just within one society, but across the globe.
Without this catastrophic upheaval, capitalism would remain completely in
control of the social order and all socialist schemes would be reduced to
The immiserization thesis, therefore, is critical to Marx, for without it
there would be no objective conditions in response to which workers might
be driven to overthrow the capitalist system. If the workers were becoming
better off with time, then why jump into an utterly untested and highly
speculative economic scheme? Especially when even socialists themselves
were bitterly divided over what such a scheme would be like in actual
practice. Indeed, Marx never committed himself to offering a single
suggestion about how socialism would actually function in the real world.
By the 20th century the immiserization thesis was already beginning to look
shaky. Empirical evidence, drawn either by impressionistic observation or
systematic statistical studies, began to suggest that there was something
wrong with the classical version of the thesis, and an attempt was made to
save it by redefining immiserization to mean not an absolute increase in
misery, but merely a relative one. This gloss allowed a vast increase in
empirical plausibility, since it accepted the fact that the workers were
indeed getting better off under the capitalist system but went on to argue
that they were not getting better off at the same rate as the capitalists.
The problem with this revision lay not in its economic premises, but in its
political ones. Could one realistically believe that workers would
overthrow an economic system that was continually improving their own lot,
simply because that of the capitalist class was improving at a marginally
better rate? Certainly, the workers might envy the capitalists; but such
emotions simply could not supply the gigantic impetus required to overthrow
a structure as massive as the capitalist system. Before the workers of a
capitalist society could unite, they had to feel that they had literally
nothing to lose--nothing to lose but their proverbial chains. For if they
had homes and cars and boats and RVs to lose as well, then it became quite
In short, the relative immiserization thesis was simply not the stuff that
drives people to the barricades. At most it could fuel the gradualist
reforms of the evolutionary ideal of socialism--a position identified with
The post-World War II period demolished the last traces of the classical
immiserization thesis. Workers in the most advanced capitalist countries
were prosperous by any standard imaginable, either absolute or relative;
and what is even more important, they felt themselves to be well off, and
believed that the future would only make them and their children even
better off than they had been in the past. This was a deadly blow to the
immiserization thesis and hence to Marxism. For the failure of the
immiserization thesis is in fact the failure of classical Marxism. If there
is no misery, there is no revolution; and if there is no revolution, there
is no socialism. Q.E.D. Socialism goes back once more to being merely a
Yet those who still claim to derive their heritage from Marx are mostly
unwilling to acknowledge that their political aims are merely utopian, not
scientific. How is that possible?
There might be several reasons advanced for this, but certainly one of them
is Paul Baran. A Polish-born American economist and a Marxist, Baran was
the author of "The Political Economy of Growth" (Monthly Review Press,
1957). In it, for the first time in Marxist literature, Baran propounded a
causal connection between the prosperity of the advanced capitalist
countries and the impoverishment of the Third World. It was no longer the
case, as it was for Marx, that poverty--as well as idiocy--was the natural
condition of man living in an agricultural mode of production. Rather,
poverty had been introduced into the Third World by the capitalist system.
The colonies no longer served the purpose of consuming overstocked
inventories, but were now the positive victims of capitalism.
What needs to be stressed here is that prior to Baran, no Marxist had ever
suspected that capitalism was the cause of the poverty of the rest of the
world. Not only had Marx and Engels failed to notice this momentous fact,
but so had all of their followers. Yet this omission was certainly not due
to Marx's lack of knowledge about, or interest in, the question of European
colonies. In his writing on India, Marx shows himself under no illusions
concerning the brutal and mercenary nature of British rule. He is also
aware of the "misery and degradation" effected by the impact of British
industry's "devastating effects" on India. Yet all of this is considered by
Marx to be a dialectical necessity; that is to say, these effects were the
unavoidable precondition of India's progress and advance--an example of the
"creative destruction" that Schumpeter spoke of as the essence of
capitalist dynamics. Or, as Marx put it in "On Colonialism": "The English
bourgeoisie . . . will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social
condition of the mass of the [Indian] people . . . but . . . what they will
not fail to do is to lay down the material premises for both" the
emancipation and the mending of this social condition.
The radical nature of Baran's reformulation of Marxist doctrine is obscured
by an understandable tendency to confuse Baran's theory with Lenin's
earlier theory of imperialism. In fact, the two have nothing in common.
Lenin's theory had evolved in order to explain the continuing survival of
capitalism into the early 20th century, and hence the delay of the coming
of socialism. In Lenin's view, imperialism is not the cause of Third World
immiserization, but rather a stopgap means of postponing immiserization in
the capitalist countries themselves. It is the capitalist countries' way of
keeping their own work force relatively prosperous--and hence politically
placid--by selling surplus goods into captive colonial markets. It is not a
way of exploiting, much less impoverishing, these colonies. It was rather a
way "to bribe the upper strata of the proletariat, and . . . to . . .
strengthen opportunism," as Lenin put it in "Imperialism: The Highest Stage
of Capitalism" (International Publishers, 1933).
This gives us the proper perspective from which to judge the revolutionary
quality of Baran's reformulation. For, in essence, what Baran has done is
to globalize the traditional doctrine of immiserization so that, instead of
applying to the workers of the advanced capitalist countries, it now came
to apply to the entire population of those countries that have not achieved
advanced capitalism. It was the rest of the world that was being
impoverished by capitalism, not the workers of the advanced countries.
Baran's global immiserization thesis, after its initial launch, was taken
up by other Marxists, but it was nowhere given a more elaborate
intellectual foundation than in Immanuel Wallerstein's monumental study
"The Modern World-System" (Academic Press, 1974), which was essentially a
fleshing out in greater historical and statistical detail of Baran's
thesis. Hence, for the sake of convenience, I will call the global
immiserization thesis the Baran-Wallerstein revision.
What I now would like to consider is not the thesis itself, but the role
that this thesis played in bolstering and revitalizing late-20th-century
Marxism. For it is here that we find the intellectual origins of the
international phenomenon of America-bashing. If there is any element of
genuine seriousness in this movement--if, indeed, it aspires to be an
objective and realistic assessment of the relationship of America to the
rest of the world--then that element of seriousness is to be found in the
global immiserization thesis: America has gotten rich by making other
Furthermore, this is no less true of those who, like Mr. Chomsky, have
focused on what is seen as American military aggression against the rest of
the world, for this aggression is understood as having its "root cause" in
America's systematic exploitation of the remainder of the human race. If
American exploitation did not create misery, it would not need to use
military force. It is the global immiserization thesis that makes the use
of force an indispensable tool of American foreign policy and that is
responsible, according to this view, for turning America into a terrorist
state. This explains the absolute centrality of the global immiserization
thesis in the creation of the specter of America now haunting so much of
The Baran-Wallerstein revision of the classical immiserization thesis into
its global context was far better adapted to fix what was wrong in Marxist
theory than the revisionist notion of relative immiserization discussed
above. For, as we have seen, what was needed was real misery, and not
merely comparative misery, since without such misery there would be no
breakdown of capitalism: no civil war, no revolution, no socialism. And who
can doubt that great real misery exists in the Third World?
In addition to providing a new and previously untapped source of misery,
the Baran-Wallerstein revision provided several other benefits. For
example, there was no longer any difficulty in accepting the astonishingly
high level of prosperity achieved by the work force of the advanced
capitalist countries--indeed, it was now even possible to arraign the
workers of these countries alongside of the capitalists for whom they
labored--or rather, more precisely, with whom they collaborated in order to
exploit both the material resources and the cheap labor of the Third World.
In the new configuration, both the workers and the capitalists of the
advanced countries became the oppressor class, while it was the general
population of the less advanced countries that became the
oppressed--including, curiously enough, even the rulers of these countries,
who often, to the untutored eye, seemed remarkably like oppressors
With this demystification of the capitalist working class came an end to
even a feigned enthusiasm among Marxists for solidarity with the hopelessly
middle-class aspirations of the American blue-collar work force. The
Baran-Wallerstein revision offered an exotic new object of
sympathy--namely, the comfortably distant and abstract Third World victims
of the capitalist world system.
Perhaps most important, the Baran-Wallerstein revision also neatly solved
the most pressing dilemma that worker prosperity in advanced capitalist
countries bequeathed to classical Marxism: the absolute lack of
revolutionary spirit among these workers--the very workers, it must be
remembered, who were originally cast in the critical role of world
revolutionaries. In the new theoretical configuration, this problem no
longer mattered simply because the workers of the capitalist countries no
Hence the appeal of the global immiserization thesis: The Baran-Wallerstein
revision neatly obviates all the most outstanding objections to the
classical Marxist theory. This leaves two questions unanswered: Is it true?
And even if it is true, does it save Marxism?
Whether the immiserization thesis is true or not is simply too complex a
topic to deal with here. Indeed, for the sake of the present argument, I am
willing to assume that it is absolutely true--truer than anything has ever
been true before. For what I want to concentrate on is the question of
whether the Baran-Wallerstein revision is consistent with Marxism's claim
to represent a realistic political agenda as opposed to a mere utopian
fantasy. And the short answer is that, no matter how true the global
immiserization thesis might be, it does not save the Baran-Wallerstein
revision of Marxism from being condemned as utopian fantasy--and condemned
not by my standards or yours, but by those of Marx and Engels.
This is because the original immiserization thesis was set within the
context of a class war within a society--an actual civil war between
different classes of one and the same society, and not between different
nations on different continents. This makes an enormous difference, for it
is not at all unreasonable to think that a revolutionary movement could
succeed, by means of a violent and bloody civil war, in gaining the
monopoly of force within a capitalist society, and thus be able to dictate
terms to the routed capitalists, if any survived.
But this is an utterly different scenario from one in which the most
advanced capitalist societies have a monopoly of force--and brutally
effective force--at their disposal. For in this case it is absurd to think
that the exploited Third World countries could possibly be able to alter
the world order by even a hair, provided the advanced capitalist societies
were intent on not being altered.
What could they do to us?
The answer to this question, according to many of those who accept the
global immiserization thesis, came on September 11. Noam Chomsky, perhaps
America's most celebrated proponent of the Baran-Wallerstein thesis,
expressed this idea in the immediate aftermath. Here, for the first time,
the world had witnessed the oppressed finally striking a blow against the
oppressor--a politically immature blow, perhaps, comparable to the taking
of the Bastille by the Parisian mob in its furious disregard of all laws of
humanity, but still an act equally world-historical in its significance:
the dawn of a new revolutionary era.
This judgment can make sense only in the context of the Baran-Wallerstein
thesis. For if 9/11 was in fact a realistic blow against the advanced
capitalist countries--or even just the most advanced--then here was an
escape from the utopian deadlock of the global immiserization thesis. Here
was a way that the overthrow of world capitalism could be made a viable
historical outcome once again, and not merely the fantastic delusions of a
sect. This explains the otherwise baffling valorization of 9/11 on the part
of the left--by which I mean the enormous world-historical significance
that they have been prepared to attribute to al Qaeda's act of terror.
But was 9/11 truly world-historical in the precise sense required to
sustain the Baran-Wallerstein revision? For 9/11 to be world-historical in
this sense, it would have to contain within it the seeds of a gigantic
shift in the order of things: something on the scale of the decline and
collapse of capitalist America and with it the final realization of the
But this investment of world-historical significance to 9/11 is simply
wishful thinking on the part of the left. It is an effort to transform the
demented acts of a group of fantasists into the vanguard of the world
revolution. Because if there is to be a world revolution at all there has
to be a vanguard of that revolution, an agent whose actions are such as to
represent a threat to the capacity of the capitalist system simply to
survive. This means that it is not enough to injure it; it is not enough to
wound or madden it; it is not enough to rouse it to rage--the agent must
kill it, too. He must be capable of overthrowing the hegemonic power at the
center of the capitalist world system.
But this is absolutely implausible. Any realistic assessment of any
possible scenario will inevitably conclude that nothing that al Qaeda can
do can cause the collapse of America and the capitalist system. The worse
eventuality in the long run would be that America would be forced to break
its hallowed ideal of universal tolerance, in order to make an exception of
those who fit the racial profile of an al Qaeda terrorist. It is ridiculous
to think that if al Qaeda continued to attack us such measures would not be
taken. They would be forced upon the government by the people (and anyone
who thinks that the supposed cultural hegemony of the left might stop this
populist fury is deluded).
In other words, the only effect on America of a continuation of September
11-style attacks would be an increasingly repressive state apparatus
domestically and a populist home-front demand for increasingly severe
retaliation against those nations supporting or hiding terrorists. But
neither one of these reactions would seriously undermine the strength of
the United States--indeed, it is quite evident that further attacks would
continue to unite the overwhelming majority of the American population,
creating an irresistible "general will" to eradicate terrorism by any means
necessary, including the most brutal and ruthless.
But this condition, let us recall, is precisely the opposite of the
objective political conditions that, according to Marx, must be present in
order for capitalism to be overthrown. For classical Marxism demands, quite
realistically, a state that is literally being torn apart by internal
dissension. Revolution, in short, requires a full-fledged civil war within
the capitalist social order itself, since nothing short of this can
possibly achieve the goal that the revolution is seeking. Hence, 9/11-style
attacks that serve only to strengthen the already considerable solidarity
between classes in the United States are, from the perspective of classical
Marxism, fatally flawed. For such attacks not only fail to further any
revolutionary aims; they actually make the revolution less probable. A
society of 300 million individuals whose bumper stickers say "United We
Stand" is not a breeding ground for revolutionary activity. Nor is it a
society that can be easily intimidated into mending its ways, even if we
make the assumption that its ways need mending.
But if the result of 9/11 was to strengthen the political unity of the
United States, then 9/11 was definitely not world-historical. The
unspeakable human horror of 9/11 should not blind us to the ghastly
triviality of the motive and the inevitable nullity of the aftermath.
The Baran-Wallerstein revision of Marxism does provide a new global
reformulation of the immiserization thesis. But the locus of this misery,
the Third World, does not and cannot provide an adequate objective
foundation for a revolutionary struggle against the capitalist system.
Rather, this foundation can be provided only by a majority of the workers
in the advanced capitalist countries themselves; but, as we have seen, the
effect of 9/11 on the working class of the United States was not one
conducive to the overthrow and demise of capitalism. On the contrary,
nowhere was the desire to retaliate against the terrorists more powerfully
visceral than among the working class of the United States. The
overwhelming majority of its members instantly responded with collective
and spontaneous expression of solidarity with other Americans and
expressions of outrage against those who had planned and carried out the
attack, as well as those who attempted to palliate it.
For those who are persuaded by the Baran-Wallerstein thesis, 9/11
represents a classic temptation. It is the temptation that every fantasy
ideology offers to those who become caught up in it--the temptation to
replace serious thought and analysis, fidelity to the facts and scrupulous
objectivity, with the worst kind of wishful thinking. The attempt to cast
9/11 as a second taking of the Bastille simply overlooks what is most
critical about both of these events, namely, that the Bastille was a symbol
of oppression to the masses of French men and women who first overthrew it
and then tore it down, brick by brick. And while it is true that the
Bastille had become the stuff of fantasy, thanks to the pre-1789 "horrors
of the Bastille" literature, it was still a fantasy that worked potently on
the minds of the Parisian mob and hence provided the objective political
conditions necessary to undermine the Bourbon state.
But the fantasy embodied in 9/11, far from weakening the American political
order, strengthened it immeasurably, while the only mobs that were
motivated by the enactment of this fantasy were those inhabiting the Arab
streets--a population pathetically unable to control even the most
elementary aspects of its own political destiny, and hence scarcely the
material out of which a realistically minded revolutionary could hope to
fashion an instrument of world-historical transformation. These people are
badly miscast in the role of the vanguard of the world revolution. And what
can we say about those in the West, allegedly acting within the tradition
of Marxist thought, who encourage such spectacularly utopian flights of
The Baran-Wallerstein thesis cannot save Marxism; and, in fact, it is a
betrayal of what is genuinely valid in Marx--namely, the insistence that
any realistic hope of a world-historical transformation from one stage of
social organization to a more humane one can come only if men and women do
not yield to the temptation of fantasy ideology, even--and, indeed,
especially--when it is a fantasy ideology dressed up to look like Marxism.
Instead, the Baran-Wallerstein thesis has sadly come to provide merely a
theoretical justification for the most irrational and infantile forms of
America-bashing. There is nothing Marxist about this. On the contrary,
according to Marx, it was the duty of the nonutopian socialist, prior to
the advent of genuine socialism, to support whatever state happened to
represent the most fully developed and consistently carried out form of
capitalism; and, indeed, it was his duty to defend it against the
irrational onslaughts of those reactionary and backward forces that tried
to thwart its development. In fact, this was a duty that Marx took upon
himself, and nowhere more clearly than in his defense of the United States
against the Confederacy in the Civil War. Only in this case he was
defending capitalism against a fantasy ideology that, unlike that of
radical Islam, wished to roll back the clock a mere handful of centuries,
not several millennia.
Those who, speaking in Marx's name, try to defend the fantasy ideology
embodied in 9/11 are betraying everything that Marx represented. They are
replacing his hard-nosed insistence on realism with a self-indulgent flight
into sheer fantasy, just as they are abandoning his strenuous commitment to
pursuit of a higher stage of social organization in order to glorify the
feudal regimes that the world has long since condemned to Marx's own
celebrated trash bin of history.
America-bashing has sadly come to be "the opium of the intellectual," to
use the phrase Raymond Aron borrowed from Marx in order to characterize
those who followed the latter into the 20th century. And like opium it
produces vivid and fantastic dreams.
This is an intellectual tragedy. The Marxist left, whatever else one might
say about it, has traditionally offered a valuable perspective from which
even the greatest conservative thinkers have learned--including Schumpeter
and Thomas Sowell. But if it cannot rid itself of its current penchant for
fantasy ideology of the worst type, not only will it be incapable of
serving this purpose; it will become worse than useless. It will become a
justification for a return to that state of barbarism mankind has spent
millennia struggling to transcend--a struggle that no one felt more keenly
than Marx himself. For the essence of utopianism, according to Marx, is the
refusal to acknowledge just how much suffering and pain every upward step
of man's ascent inflicts upon those who are taking it, and instead to dream
that there are easier ways of getting there. There are not, and it is
helpful to no party to pretend that there are. To argue that the great
inequalities of wealth now existing between the advanced capitalist
countries and the Third World can be cured by outbreaks of frenzied and
irrational America-bashing is not only utopian; it is immoral.
The left, if it is not to condemn itself to become a fantasy ideology, must
reconcile itself not only with the reality of America, but with its
dialectical necessity--America is the sine qua non of any future progress
that mankind can make, no matter what direction that progress may take.
The belief that mankind's progress, by any conceivable standard of
measurement recognized by Karl Marx, could be achieved through the
destruction or even decline of American power is a dangerous delusion.
Respect for the deep structural laws that govern the historical
process--whatever these laws may be--must dictate a proportionate respect
for any social order that has achieved the degree of stability and
prosperity the United States has achieved and has been signally decisive in
permitting other nations around the world to achieve as well. To ignore
these facts in favor of surreal ideals and utterly utopian fantasies is a
sign not merely of intellectual bankruptcy, but of a disturbing moral
immaturity. For nothing indicates a failure to understand the nature of a
moral principle better than to believe that it is capable of enforcing
It is not. It requires an entire social order to shelter and protect it.
And if it cannot find these, it will perish.
Mr. Harris is an Atlanta writer. This article appears in the
December/January issue of Policy Review , published by the Hoover
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"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'