Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Class War

We must deny before God and man that one’s attitude towards men may be determined solely by considering them as representatives of this or that class….Every man is made in the image of God, however indistinct that image may become, and every man is called to eternal life; in the face of these truths, all differentiation by class, all political passion, all the superfluities that social life piles daily on the human soul are trivial and unavailing.                 
Nicholas Berdyaev, Christianity and Class War (1931)

There is in contemporary America a widely shared perception that a large and growing disparity in material well being among our citizens is problematic from both the social and the moral points of view.  I confess that I share this perception. I regard the situation as serious and dangerous.  On another occasion I might attempt to address its substance directly.  It is conceivable that an expertise in medieval Franciscan thought, in which the biblical account of Dives and Pauper (see Luke xii) received penetrating analysis, might allow me to say something useful--but only barely conceivable.  What this essay is about is class war.

 Lazarus (Pauper) at the Door of Dives   Heinrich Aldegrever, 1552

            President Obama has called for increased tax rates for rich people (a vaguely defined group variously denominated as “the most fortunate among us,” “millionaires and billionaires,” “job creators,” “small businessmen,” and “Warren Buffet”).  Several Republican politicians immediately indicted this proposal as class warfare.  The President himself just as quickly denied the charge, but since then other Democrats have opined that a little class warfare is just what we need.  In informal remarks innocent of any serious pretensions to coherence, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi seems to suggest that the famous phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was a salvo in an early skirmish of the class war.  Less equivocal is the essay entitled “Obama, Don’t Run from Class War" by Howell Raines, former Numero Uno at the New York Times.  I have seen several others in a similar vein.
To be sure Raines stresses a concept of “non-violent” or metaphoric class war.  I still protest.  A professor of English can hardly adopt a general hostility toward metaphor, but there are some metaphors that have been ruined by being made literal, just as there are literal realities that have been ruined in becoming metaphoric.  If you look up the word holocaust in an old reference work you will see that it is the English form of the biblical Greek term for the “burnt offerings” that played such an important role in early Jewish sacrificial worship.  It was a theological concept.  Perhaps one in a hundred people who talk about the Holocaust today knows that fact; but it doesn’t matter, for what holocaust is is what Auschwitz made it.  To use the word in its old sense would be pedantic and trivial.
Having spent a certain amount of time studying twentieth-century Communism, I have a similar attitude to the phrase class war.  The phrase made its serious claim on the modern consciousness through Karl Marx. Marx believed in the “class war,” though the word famously used in the first sentence of the Communist manifesto was “struggle” (Kampf), which is a little different from war (Krieg).  “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

I must pause to say that I am no Marx-basher.  A lot more of the people who talk about Marx flippantly would do well to read some actual  Marx.  Much of it is tough slogging, but no fair reader will fail to find even in the leaden pages a profound and original thinker animated by an attractive humanistic spirit.  I want to adopt the attitude of the great Russian Orthodox philosopher Berdyaev, from whom I took the epigraph for this post.  The dedication of Christianity and Class War reads as follows: “I dedicate this book to the memory of KARL MARX who was the social master of my youth and whose opponent in ideas I have now become.”  Marx is no more responsible for all things done in his name or that of his ism than Freud is personally responsible for Ernest Jones’s interpretation of Hamlet or Jesus Christ is responsible for the Spanish Inquisition.

Nicholas Berdyaev (1874-1948)

Marx was a social analyst, not a revolutionary practitioner of political power, and it was left to later Communists in power like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot to define what “class war” meant in a concrete sense.  What it meant is so appalling that the words should not be used in a casual way.  In statistical terms class war has meant something like the following (taken from the Black Book of Communism, p. 4):
            The Soviet Union, 20 million dead
            China, 65 million dead
            Cambodia, 2 million dead
            North Korea, a million dead
            Vietnam, a million dead…
and more.
            Class war means that it is right and necessary to kill a very great many people.  I suppose that Marxism was never more prestigious among western intellectuals than in the 1930s, which was the decade of the Spanish Civil War, regarded by most intellectuals as a nearly pure instance of good (the Spanish Republic and its allies) versus evil (Franco and his Nationalist insurgents, with their allies.)  The following events from the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) are well-documented.  Nationalist soldiers upon battling their way into a largish village against stiff resistance gathered all the male population of the place into the town square.  A committee of officers then examined the hands of all the men who had been rounded up.  Those with heavily calloused palms were removed for immediate execution, the assumption being that as manual workers they must be Communists or Communist supporters.  In other places where the Republican forces and their international allies were for the moment victorious, all men (and sometimes women) in religious garb were shot.  In at least one instance anyone wearing a religious medal was shot.  Here the assumption was that such people were necessarily “class enemies”.
            By all means let us have vigorous political debate in this country.  Let us debate our absurd tax code and even, if we have the stomach for it, reform it.  Let us engage our “enemies in ideas,” to use Berdyaev’s term; but, please, leave the class war out of it.

 Class War: some collateral damage in Spain