The following lecture, “Political Philosophy and Political Reality,” delivered by Harry V. Jaffa in 1991, remains fresh and illuminating in its investigation of the links between old Marxist theory and the new political correctness, which is once again roiling the nation’s college campuses.
Political Philosophy, properly considered, deals primarily with questions about the human condition, a condition which is determined by human nature, which is unchanging. Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics contain hardly a word that refers to the experience of Greeks any more than to the experience of Egyptians, Jews, Hindus, or Bantus. Pleasure and pain, anger, envy, hope, fear, love, hate, are affections of the human soul that are the same for all human beings. It is of these, and of their relationship to reason, that the human good and its opposites are compounded. Different cultures, it is true, have placed different evaluations upon different compounds, although it is unlikely that any two cultures have differed more than the Achilles of Homer’s Iliad and the Achilles of Homer’s Odyssey, concerning the worth of the glory of the warrior-hero. Altogether one might say that the glory and pre-eminence of Western culture consists in the fact that it comprises within itself more of the paradoxes and contradictions of which the human conditions admits, than any other of which we know. Plato’s Republic addresses the problem of justice more profoundly than any other document of the human mind, yet it leaves the problem in some respects more problematic at the end than at the beginning. However the Republic leaves us in little doubt that the inquiry—however inconclusive—into what justice is, is rewarding for its own sake, and that the human good must somehow be consistent with it.
We are today at a great cross road of human history. The break-up of the Soviet empire, and the repudiation of Marxist-Leninist communism by all those societies that—in one way or another—had become addicted or subjected to it—is an event of such stunning magnitude, that it is difficult even to begin to comprehend it. It is an event that for many years all civilized human beings have wished for and prayed for. Until very recently, it was not something I expected to happen in my own lifetime, and I doubted that it would happen within the lifetime of anyone now living. Until a very short time ago, some of the most intelligent students of politics believed that world communism would prove triumphant. Nor does the failure of their prognostications mean that they were wrong in their analyses. The soundness of the soundest predictions must allow for the intervention of human freedom, whether it appear under the guise either of wisdom or of folly. Who—in June or July of 1940—could have predicted that Hitler would lose the war? Who—that is to say—except the madman Churchill?
Communism was not doomed to fail by reason of its own internal contradictions. If communism was doomed to fail for any reason, it was because it placed its faith in the falsehood that internal contradictions were the driving force of human history. Marx inherited from Hegel the belief that the logic of the human mind was not, as classical rationalism had held, intrinsic to the mind itself, but that it was a by-product of events driven by passions over which the mind itself had no control. Marx himself was a bastard child of the Enlightenment. He believed as fervently as George Washington that the American Revolution was a progressive event in human history. He was an enthusiastic partisan of the Union cause in the American Civil War, and hailed the Emancipation Proclamation as warmly as any abolitionist. Yet he did not think that the goals of human freedom, as Jefferson or Lincoln understood them, could be identified with human freedom itself. The removal of class or caste barriers to human equality were good things; but the ultimate barrier to that equality, he believed, was private property.
What was wrong with private property—according to Marx—is well symbolized by James Madison’s assertion, in the tenth Federalist, that the “first object of government,” is the “protection of the different and unequal faculties of acquiring property.” By the principles of the American Revolution, even the most perfect equality in the protection of rights will lead to an inequality of results, because the faculties protected are unequal by nature. No regime that is according to nature can—or will attempt to—remove the inequalities that arise from the inequalities of human intelligence or human virtue. A guarantee of equality of rights is precisely what will lead to an inequality of possessions and, more importantly, to an inequality in the pleasures that derive from such possessions. Such inequality was unacceptable to Marx.
According to Marx, the rich derive pleasure less from the possessions themselves, than from the envy generated by their ownership. A man married to (or otherwise possessed of) a beautiful woman derives pleasure less from her beauty, than from the envy his ownership of her generates in others. A rich man possessed of great works of art does not experience them differently when exhibited in his living room than in a museum. It is the envy generated in others, by the exclusive character of his rights, that provides his peculiar pleasure. It is the domination of others, and the pleasures arising from that domination, that drives the oppression of the many by the few in all pre-communist societies. Marx’s idea of communism owes much to the medieval idea of heaven: the pleasures of the blessed consist primarily in watching the tortures of the damned! And the tortures of the damned consist primarily in being excluded from heaven! In the classless society that Marx foresaw, as the final stage of human history, there would be neither families nor private property of any kind: everything desirable would be held in common. No one could take pride in his “own.”
According to Marx, the greatest part of the production in a capitalist society is devoted to what Thorsten Veblen would call “conspicuous consumption,” meaning thereby the false utility of status symbols in a society dominated by the competitive spirit of capitalism. If, for example, one takes away from the production of clothing all the labor devoted to enhancing the vanity of the wearer, then only a very small fraction of the labor now required to produce it would be needed. (To understand communist consumerism, think of a billion Chinese whose wardrobe consists only of Mao’s pajamas.) If one removes from all production everything that can be put down, directly or indirectly, to human envy and vanity, then human society requires very little wealth. A community society would be a very poor society—by capitalistic standards—but it would not know it was poor. It would however be very rich in terms of human satisfaction, defined as the absence of any unsatisfied desire. It would not know it was poor, because human beings would not be characterized by any of the desires arising from envy or vanity. Envy and vanity—the passions that set human beings apart from each other and against each other (the causes of war and of economic competition are one and the same)—are themselves, Marx held, by-products of the institution of private property. Abolish this cause of what it is that makes human beings care more for themselves individually than for humanity altogether—and bourgeois man will be replaced by socialist man. The transformation in the human condition sought—and promised—by communism, is essentially a transformation in human nature.
When Khrushchev in 1959 said “We will bury you,” meaning that communism would out-produce capitalism in consumer goods, he asserted what was then still plausible. Yet his assertion already betrayed an abandonment of Marxism’s pristine ideals, at the heart of which was the ideal of socialist man, in whose soul altruism had replaced egotism. The justification of the unlimited brutality of Leninist and Stalinist tyranny was the creation of a new kind of human being, a quantum jump in the evolutionary process to a higher species. According to this neo-Darwinian mind set, stamping out counterrevolutionary—or, more precisely, counter-evolutionary—forces in the environment was entirely consistent with process by which nature had always generated the higher forms of life out of the lower forms. The unlimited brutality of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the interest of the ultimate emancipation of human life was no more immoral than the stamping out of the small pox virus. It was precisely when this justification of tyranny began to be unbelievable, that communism began to fail. It was when the ruling classes—the nomenklatura—of communism themselves began to look upon this notion of a transformed humanity as absurd, that communism lost its nerve. The Soviet regime, in an amazing display of energy, zeal, and competence had—in a single generation—surpassed the West both in nuclear striking power and in all the major categories of conventional military force. Yet, on the very threshold of what might well have been its final victory, it suddenly lost the will to risk its power (or its life) in behalf of a cause in which it no longer believed. Without that will, the instruments of its power were evanescent.
Like the French aristocracy on the eve of the revolution, all it had left to cling to were its privileges. Meanwhile among the peoples of the U.S.S.R. the old Adam—that is to say, the unchanging nature of man—reasserted itself: in the demand for consumer goods in this world and—evil of evils—in the demand for salvation in the next. Confronting reality, the Bolshevik Party discovered that to deprive human beings of private property does not turn them into keen-minded altruists: it turns them only into disgruntled egotists. Gorbachev himself was typical of what the nomenklatura had become: while still proclaiming himself a Leninist, he showed no familiarity whatever with Leninist doctrine. However, he complained bitterly that, unlike Jesus Christ, he could not multiply the loaves and fishes wherewith to feed the multitude.
I have reviewed this stale Marxist theory because I believe it really illuminates recent events in a way that has not been done in political literature concerning those events. But I have done so also because I see the same theory, detached from its roots, but nonetheless alive, playing an increasingly virulent role in the political life of the West. It is a standard joke that the only remaining true believers in Marxism are tenured professors in American universities. But it is not classical Marxism which is influential: dialectical materialism has long since been discredited, along with any idea of reason in history. Nietzsche long ago took care of that. But the revolutionary goal of a classless society of altruists has survived. It has survived, detached from any rational analysis, such as Marx claimed for himself. For what else is the movement for “consciousness raising,” but a re-named version of the demand for “socialist man”? What is the conflict between the property rights of individuals and global environmentalism but another chapter in the conflict between bourgeois man and socialist man?
“Diversity” is demanded by those who will tolerate no deviation from the “politically correct.” And what is “political correctness” but another name for “the party line”. It is Leninism/Stalinism without Lenin or Stalin. “Racism” is the generic term for any kind of “false (formerly bourgeois) consciousness,” that is to say, for any opinions not considered politically correct. It has nothing to do with what once was called race prejudice—an unreasonable depreciation of other human beings because of their race, color, or ethnic origin. The charge of “racism” is made by the very people demanding racial quotas, race norming, and segregated racial and ethnic centers. To point out the contradiction in these demands—or indeed of any demands made by the politically correct—is to bring on the accusations of “logism,” which means the use of reason, a vice held characteristic of “Eurocentrism”. The contempt for “Eurocentrism” as an endemic vice corresponds closely to Marx’s contempt for the false consciousness engendered in the ruling classes of all societies founded upon private property. “Racism” itself is then nothing but the endemic quality of human consciousness, prior to the transformation of human egotism into human altruism. “Political correctness” is nothing less than the blind and willful insistence upon the fulfillment of the goals of revolutionary Marxism/Leninism, without any reference to that failed enterprise itself, or to any rational political analysis. Indeed, the new political correctness differs from its predecessor only in its insistence that no reason needs to be given as to why it is correct. It is a synthesis of the goals of Marxism with the philosophical (or anti-philosophical) horizon of nihilism.
The defeat of communism in the USSR and its satellite empires by no means assures its defeat in the world. Indeed, the release of the West from its conflict with the East emancipates utopian communism at home from the suspicion of it affinity with an external enemy. The struggle for the preservation of western civilization has entered a new—and perhaps far more deadly and dangerous—phase.
We would like to thank Hillsdale College for permission to post this essay. Hillsdale is currently in the process of digitizing the papers of Harry V. Jaffa. To receive updates on their progress and publication schedule, visit their Harry V. Jaffa homepage.