First as Tragedy, Then as Farce

How Marx Predicted the Fate of Marxism

By Michael Rectenwald (January 2019)

Kill the Resisters, Jiang Feng, 1931


A few months ago, I was surprised and disappointed to learn that Marx’s famous statement, the title of this essay and a rejoinder to Hegel’s supposed remark—“that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice”—had been appropriated by the contemporary Slovenian Marxist and psychoanalytic theorist Slavoj Žižek, for the title of one of his books. I was disappointed because I had considered using the title myself. I was surprised because, not having read Žižek’s entire oeuvre, I hadn’t known of his appropriation. Further, quite apart from my own intended (and past casual) use, I was astonished to see how unselfconscious and lacking in intentional irony Žižek had been in naming a book about capitalism First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (2009). I’ve used the phrase quite differently on social media: “Marx(ism): First as tragedy, then as farce”—crediting Marx for his profundity and ironically applying his observation to Marxism itself in a boomeranging way that Marx could have hardly hoped for or expected. But if this statement aptly applies to the repetition of any world-historic fact, it applies to Marxism itself.
The tragedy of Marxism has been well-documented, and despite the obstinate denial of contemporary Marxists, some of whom ludicrously hold the conspiracy theory that the documentation of historical facts amounts to “capitalist propaganda,” the evidence speaks for itself, for an epochal and epic tragedy, a tragedy unmatched by any other ideologically-induced horror in human history. And the rebounding contemporary popularity of socialism-communism is certainly farcical, mostly representing LARPing by theoretical and activist posers but more so the stunning historical and political illiteracy that such posturing betrays.
Yet just over two years ago, I was a theoretical Marxist LARPer myself, I suppose. I wasn’t a Stalinist or tankie, and thus didn’t deny the history of Soviet, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Cambodian, and Cuban atrocities. In the case of the USSR at least, I believed that the nightmare had been the result of the usurpation of a potentially social-communist revolution by the Bolsheviks, whose conniving party leaders became dictatorial state leaders. In the case of China, it was a “bourgeois revolution with red flags.” Mao’s revolutionary army hadn’t consisted of the working class, which had already been decimated, but rather an amalgam of peasants and assorted “petty bourgeois” radicals with no material interest in the working-class control of society. In all cases of “actually-existing” socialism-communism, the Marxist project had been utterly foiled, or merely mimed and maimed by frauds posing as Marxists. The resultant dire consequences could and would be averted in a truly socialist-communist society of the future.
“But still, how could you have been communist,” you may ask, “especially after the twentieth century?” Despite the accumulation of corpses, strangely enough, the answer is the same as it had been at the inception of Marxist communism. It is the same answer as the answer that could be given to the question, “What does it mean to be a Communist?”
I’ve only recently found the best answer I’ve seen yet—in a book referenced by Daniel Mallock in “Driven to Despair: The Return of American Socialism,” an important essay published in last month’s NER. The book is Witness by Whittaker Chambers, the 1952 classic tale of a former communist who “broke”—with the party and communism itself.
A communist, Chambers held, is not merely (or necessarily) a believer in dialectical materialism, the labor theory of value, the dictatorship of the proletariat, or even the utopian promise of universal human emancipation. The basis of communism is not found in the dare and promise of the final three sentences of the Communist Manifesto of 1848: “Workers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to gain.”
Rather, a true communist is one who has examined a long-historical and still presently dysfunctional world, probably more negatively than most, and has arrived at the conviction that its rational and total remaking is both necessary and possible. Without yet giving away his eventual and ultimate objection to communism, I quote the germ of the communist creed as Chambers saw it, which I agree is its fundamental premise and claim:
It is the vision of man’s liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirecting man’s destiny and reorganizing man’s life and the world . . .
It challenges him to prove it [the centrality and capacity of rationality] by using the force of his rational mind to end the bloody meaninglessness of man’s history—by giving it purpose and a plan. It challenges him to prove it by reducing the meaningless chaos of nature, by imposing on it his rational will to order, abundance, security, peace. It is the vision of materialism . . .
Communism does not summon men to crime or to Utopia, as its easy critics like to think. On the plane of faith, it summons mankind to turn its vision into practical reality. On the plane of action, it summons men to struggle against the inertia of the past which, embodied in social, political and economic forms, Communism claims, is blocking the will of mankind to make its next great forward stride. It summons men to overcome the crisis, which, Communism claims, is in effect a crisis of rending frustration, with the world, unable to stand still, but unwilling to go forward along the road that the logic of a technological civilization points out—Communism.
This is Communism’s moral sanction, which is twofold. Its vision points the way to the future; its faith labors to turn the future into present reality. It says to every man who joins it: the vision is a practical problem of history; the way to achieve it is a practical problem of politics, which is the present tense of history. Have you the moral strength to take upon yourself the crimes of history so that man at last may close his chronicle of age-old, senseless suffering, and replace it with purpose and a plan? The answer a man makes to this question is the difference between the Communist and those miscellaneous socialists, liberals, fellow travelers, unclassified progressives and men of good will, all of whom share a similar vision, but do not share the faith because they will not take upon themselves the penalties of the faith. The answer is the root of that sense of moral superiority which makes Communists, though caught in crime, berate their opponents with withering self-righteousness. (Chambers, Whittaker. Witness (Cold War Classics). Regnery History. Kindle Edition.)
It is this faith in the centrality and capacity of human rationality and will, effectively embodied in science and technology, and in scientific theory—of which Marxism claims to be the social scientific representative—that makes a belief in communism possible and that allows the communist to undertake, excuse, and/or deny a host of crimes committed against humanity in its name.
That being said, what brings a communist to “break” with it? How does the communist escape this “iron cage of rationality,” a phrase that Max Weber, a sociologist and critic of Marxism, used in a slightly different but related context? The answer, as Chambers saw it, amounted to a choice between “God or Man, Soul or Mind, Freedom or Communism.”
While Chambers doesn’t explain exactly what this choice means, I will try to flesh it out here. The choice is very much like the one I made just over two years ago. What does it mean to choose between God and man, between soul and mind, between freedom and communism?
I believe Chambers meant that Marxism maintains a faith in the human capacity to determine the course of events to a degree that he later came to regard as inflated at best and delusional at worst. One need not posit the existence of God to grasp the problems with the extreme hubris that Marxism entails. The overweening belief in the power and near infallibility of rationality implies that humans possess the capacity to control factors that are barely understood, including our very selves, as well as the unforeseen consequences of many poorly understood phenomena beyond ourselves. For example, it assumes a thorough knowledge of human nature—of the brain, of its creative potential, and its potential for destruction. Or, more accurately, it implies a disbelief that human nature exists in the first place. After all, Marx posited the utter plasticity of “human nature,” a nature without a nature as it were, and thus endowed humans with the ability to shape themselves according to whatever preconceived image given only by themselves. Except among leftist believers in this extreme environmental determinism, such unlimited human malleability has been rejected, thanks to modern genetics. And much more remains to be known.
The Marxist vision also implies that humans know everything that we need to know about our niche, about our productive capacities, and about the possible modes of human production—despite purposefully excluding the adventuresome gambles and gambols of individuals, the aleatory conditions of markets, and the workings of whatever creativity can happen only beyond the control of the state.
The Marxist hubris suggests that human rationality is essentially godlike, capable of controlling itself and everything that it comes into contact with, capable of choreographing events as if in possession of a blueprint that is valid for all time, as well as having the capacity to follow said blueprint without fail.
One can be an atheist and still accept the criticism suggested here. In his Theses on Feuerbach, Marx ended by writing: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” In 1845, this was quite a premature conclusion, and it remains premature to this day. At the time, very little was known about the animal in question (homo sapiens sapiens). We lacked the science to know what on earth we were dealing with. Little or nothing was known about evolutionary history, evolutionary psychology, epigenetics, and so on. Knowledge that might be provided by the social sciences, including sociology, cultural anthropology, and psychology, was sorely lacking. It would take much more knowledge to venture a plan adequate for all of futurity, and even with this knowledge a strict plan would remain woefully incomplete and terribly dangerous to follow. Without the appropriate knowledge, we lack the slightest chance of successfully creating a planned economy and society. We do have historical evidence, however, about how such plans have worked out. The translations of Marxism into historical reality have proven disastrous beyond anything attempted thitherto, or since.
Chambers discusses how some communists (miraculously) resolved to leave communism. He tells how, without warning or prior indication, a pro-Soviet German communist, apparently visiting the USSR, reached a breaking point. According to his embarrassed daughter, “[h]e was immensely pro-Soviet . . . and then—you will laugh at me—but you must not laugh at my father—and then—one night—in Moscow—he heard screams. That’s all. Simply one night he heard screams.”
And who emitted such screams? Chambers reminds us:
They come from husbands torn forever from their wives in midnight arrests. They come, muffled, from the execution cellars of the secret police, from the torture chambers of the Lubianka, from all the citadels of terror now stretching from Berlin to Canton. They come from those freight cars loaded with men, women and children, the enemies of the Communist State, locked in, packed in, left on remote sidings to freeze to death at night in the Russian winter. They come from minds driven mad by the horrors of mass starvation ordered and enforced as a policy of the Communist State. They come from the starved skeletons, worked to death, or flogged to death (as an example to others) in the freezing filth of sub-arctic labor camps. They come from children whose parents are suddenly, inexplicably, taken away from them—parents they will never see again.
In other words, the screams were expelled from those who represented potential impediments to the rationality of communist planning. Such screams sometimes managed to break through the mental barriers of communist believers precisely because the screams starkly contrasted with the Marxist, communist vision these believers had accepted. The screams sometimes broke the spell of communist belief because they slipped past the armed guards of the mind, past the ideological iron curtain, managing to reach unwary, unhampered, and relatively free mental processes that lay beneath rational control and the unremitting rehearsals of Marxist creedal commitments. Those who screamed had either failed to get the memo, disbelieved the memo, or to their surprise and horror, discovered that the memo had changed meanings without notice. Those who really heard the screams realized that despite or because of the memo’s paltry and insubstantial existence, its arbitrary and often nonsensical import, and its flimsy indictments, the memo nevertheless bore indelible and overwhelming witness against their neighbors, trumping their very humanity.
Nothing remotely as dramatic as hearing such screams happened to me. It was 2016 and I didn’t live in a communist society, nor had I been an underground member of the official Communist Party, USA, as Chambers had been. I had been a communist for at least ten years and, at a time when communism’s popularity was curiously on the rise, I was a member of a loosely affiliated group of left communists. I wrote a number of essays for this group and other communist publications.
As I write in my recent book, Springtime for Snowflakes, I broke with left communism and communism en toto after my criticisms of social justice ideology and identity politics had been assailed and I was denounced, not only by social justice warriors, but by all variety of leftists, by left communists, and by most other communists as well. I didn’t hear the screams of victims but nevertheless I had a vision of the horrors of communist dictatorship. My “comrades” showed me the totalitarian character that lay just beneath the thin veneer of egalitarianism that they otherwise proclaimed and the virtuous-sounding rhetoric that they usually mouthed.
I suppose I did hear screams of a kind. I heard screaming that was aimed at me and the shrieking convinced me of the contracted wickedness of my fellow travelers. I have been criticized for leaving communism primarily in response not to communist ideals but to those who held them. There is some truth to this accusation, although it is only partially correct. As it turned out, I realized that the actual behavior of people is more telling than the lofty abstractions that they avow. But I soon regarded the abstractions differently and realized that they concealed more than they revealed.
The abstractions concealed the force required to actualize them. But once the required force is witnessed—heard in the screams, anticipated by the imagination, and registered beneath the deliberative rationality that refuses its acknowledgement—the abstractions lose their grip. It is then that they show their full character and reveal that which they must reduce or eliminate to arrive at that which they promise. The tradeoff is far greater, far more expensive than any committed communist can or will ever admit. And there is no use trying to convince the communist with argumentation, evidence, or even pathos that the equitable price of a workers’ paradise cannot be millions of lives. The consciousness of the committed communist is locked against any and all polemics, evidence, or emotional appeal. Their release can only come upon hearing the screams themselves. They must witness the tragedy of the past to recognize the farce of the present.


Michael Rectenwald is a Professor of Liberal Studies at New York University, where he has taught cultural and social history as well as academic writing since 2008. He is the author of eight books, including Springtime for Snowflakes: “Social Justice” and Its Postmodern Parentage (New English Review Press, 2018), Nineteenth-Century British Secularism: Science, Religion and Literature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), Academic Writing, Real World Topics (Broadview Press, 2015), and Global Secularisms in A Post-Secular Age (De Gruyter, 2015). His academic essays have appeared in the British Journal for the History of Science, Endeavour, and the Cambridge University Press anthology George Eliot In Context, among others. Michael is a prominent spokesperson for academic freedom and free speech and an expert on the history and character of the "social justice" movement. He has published articles and essays on these topics in several periodicals and news outlets and has appeared regularly on national television, as well as on numerous radio and Internet shows. He holds a Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies from Carnegie Mellon University.

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18 Jan 2019
Send an emailGreg Taylor
Peace comes from within

22 Feb 2019
Send an emailcynthia m curran
Russia and China were more backward compared to England and Germany. One reason why the Revolution happen with peasants more than skilled factory workers. Communism appeals to the usual backward nations not the ones usually doing well.

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