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


  1. Dear Professor,

    A couple of observations:

    The disparity between the richest men in America and the poorest is surely no greater than when Cornelius Vanderbilt and John D. Rockefeller each owned more than 1 percent of the entire nation's GDP -- more than double what Bill Gates owns today.

    On the other hand, the condition of the poorest 10 or 20 percent of Americans is so much better today than it was during the XIXth century, as would have been almost inconceivable to our forebears. When the biggest nutritional problem confronting your poor is obesity, you've come a long way, baby. To coin a phrase.

    I'm surprised that you consider Marx an "attractive humanist spirit." I wouldn't have thought you an admirer of a dyspeptic racist, anti-Semitic miscreant. As far as his economic theory is concerned, the results speak for themselves.

    And I have no doubt that the communists who surround the President, and among whom he grew up, look forward to a real class war and happily imagine, as the President's sponsors, Billy Ayres and Bernie Dohrn did, to killing 10% of the American people in an American gulag.

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  3. With respect to the disparity between rich and poor, I should have mentioned "My Man Godfrey" as well.

  4. This seems a bit pedantic and unimaginative. I've read Marx and I'm aware of the history of class war, which is precisely why I find the language of class warfare so repugnant and so in need of being renounced. I believe that actively encouraging a hatred of one class of people based on their wealth is likely to lead to the same end that it has led to in the past.

  5. Dear John,

    I'm so sorry you seem to have been misread; and sorry that some readers are blinkered by knee-jerk M***ophobia, confusing Marx with Marxism(s).

    Also: agreed with mlu above on not replacing one hatred with another. Hence why I'd advocate a combination of anarcha-feminism and archimimocracy... in an ideal world... but meanwhile, back on Planet Reality: all I can advocate is talking, listening, and repeating same. With everyone, at all levels.

    I should add that this post proved rather inspiring: coinciding as it did most obviously with the ongoing 99% business (expanding to Vancouver next Saturday); less obviously with some local acts of idiocracy; one round-table and talk in my dept. last week about the future and/or point of literary studies; and my family worrying about necks being foolishly stuck out vs. The System. I've taken the liberty, once again, of referring the wise and thoughtful reader this way. (The reference to this post was once I'd meandering around to the topic of Franciscans, and how they are wonderful, by the way...)

    Continuing best wishes in Interesting Times,


  6. What is "archimimocracy?" All of the recorded instances of this word on the world wide web appear to refer to its usage by one person.

  7. Indeed. It's a neologism; quite modestly proud of it, really (I mean "quite" in the British sense here). Has also been used by at least three other people in teaching political science. I'm hoping it catches on, as a new version of good enlightened government, a new incarnation of the idea of the Philosopher King, with a more human face. Only time will tell, and hopefully we all have some of that left...

  8. So . . . . what does it mean? What is an "archimimocracy?"

  9. archimimocracy n. E21. [f. ARCHIMIME M17 f. L archimimus f. Gk. ἀρχίμῖμος: see ARCHI-, MIME, f. as ARCHIMIMOS + -CRACY]: government by comedians; more exactly, by the very finest political satirists; pl. ~ies.
    See the OED entry for “democracy” and replace “the people” with “comedian(s)” throughout.
    NB this is not like adding “in bed” to fortune-cookie prognostications; it is more like a new and enlightened version of the Philosopher-King, good comedians—the likes of Jeremy Hardy spring to mind—being our nearest real-world contemporary equivalent.
    Also, related:
    archimimocrat (pl. ~s)
    archimimocratical, archimimocratically
    archimimocratism, archimimocratic, archimimocratist
    archimimocratize, archimimocratization
    et al.

  10. Thank you for the clarification and the link. It is an amusing word, but I had been hoping that archimimocracy might be something at least as serious as anarcha-feminism.

    But why do the clerks always yearn for the philosopher king?

    The idea that a(n eventually worldwide) community should be governed by a philosophical ruler is of course very old; Shafarevich describes it manifestations in sundry socialisms as disparate as Plato's Republic, St Thomas More's Utopia, the early Qing, the Inca Empire, and War Communism.

    Iosif Vissarionovich viewed himself, or at least portrayed himself, as a philosopher king whose self-willed life would have been among the intelligentsia, but who reluctantly adopted the disguise of the brutal tyrant because (alas!) that's what governing Russia required. He enjoyed conversing on the telephone, it seems, with men like Mikhail Bulgakov and Viktor Shtrum.

    The tyranny of Stalin could not have existed without the work of Marx. Socialist tyrannies have existed in the world without Marx (before Marx and after Marx) and even in explicit opposition to Marx and Marxism, but Marxism is nonetheless a philosophy from whose womb tyrants have crawled, time and time again.

    Here's an example of Marx's "attractive humanism:"

    "As for slavery, there is no need for me to speak of its bad aspects. The only thing requiring explanation is the good side of slavery. I do not mean indirect slavery, the slavery of proletariat; I mean direct slavery, the slavery of the Blacks in Surinam, in Brazil, in the southern regions of North America. Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. … Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance."
    - Karl Marx
    (Letter to Pavel Vasilyevich Annenkov, December 28, 1846)

    "… only by the most determined use of terror against these Slav peoples can we [Germans], jointly with the Poles and Magyars, safeguard the revolution… there will be a struggle, an ‘inexorable life-and-death struggle,’ against those Slavs who betray the revolution; an annihilating fight and ruthless terror - not in the interests of Germany, but in the interests of the revolution!"
    - Friedrich Engels
    ("Democratic Pan-Slavism, Cont.," Neue Rheinische Zeitung, February 16, 1849)

    And in describing Lasalle in a letter to Engels (30 July 1862, in Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe , Part iii. Vol. 3, pp. 82-84), Marx wrote:

    "It is now perfectly clear to me that, as the shape of his head and the growth of his hair indicate, he is descended from the negroes who joined in the flight of Moses from Egypt (unless his mother or grandmother on the father's side was crossed with a nigger). Now this union of Jewishness to Germanness on a negro basis was bound to produce an extraordinary hybrid. The importunity of the fellow is also niggerlike."

    Our host, Professor Fleming, charitably writes:

    "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. "

    I think there should be little doubt that the "class war" practiced by Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot was exactly the "class war" that Marx would have practiced, had he ever succeeded in becoming a "philosopher king."

    But à chacun son goût.

  11. Well, I'm afraid that you'll have to count me amongst the doubters, for reasons of logic (and I hope common sense):

    1. Archimimocrat = a version of the Philosopher-King. Not all PKs are identical and interchangeable.

    2. Not all class wars/struggles are identical either. They come in various sorts; add to that the quibble of whether or not they're actually "wars" in the first place, given that "struggle" or "conflict" is a translation that better expresses the idea. Call me a flat-footed philologist as well as a pedant if you will (it's OK, I'm quite used to it).

    3. Your "was exactly" = we're into the territory of Aristotle's sea battle (De Interp. 9); we'd be looking at "possible" on the facts and associated probabilities, at best.

    But then there is hope: modal realism could help you out a bit, in that while your proposition is neither true nor false in the actual world, it _is_ still true in at least one possible world (and so: doubly "possible") and contingent too, being true in some possible worlds and false in others.

    4. Alas, such a possible world is as fictional, imaginary, and fantastical as one in which my beloved archimimocracy is a reality. As for which if these possible worlds qualifies as "serious"--be that comparatively or absolutely: effectivement, à chacun son goût.

    5. Then again, you may have been being tongue-in-cheek; given that at least one of the Marx excerpts cited has, as I recall, at least _some_ ironic intent...

  12. apologies: typo: in 4., which *of* these possible worlds (+ i.e. yours or mine).

    On a more serious note:

    "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."

    There's something in common to both 19th-21st c. idea of "class struggle/war" and to any (civil, civilized) debate in polite discourse, via the fundamental influence--to both--of Hegel, Kant, and Plato: dialectics. If you don't like Marx because of Marxism(s), or you just plain don't like Marx, or you'd view them both as evolutionary blind alleys: fine, fair enough. But there is common ground there, in the very ideas of debate and of tensions between differences.

    On an anarcha-feminist note: none of which have necessarily to be resolved in anything other than a civil, polite, non-violent way. But rather: to quote John (back at himself): "reform," engage[ment]."

  13. Your comment, "Not all class wars/struggles are identical either," is spot on.

    When we Americans refer to the War Between the States as "the Civil War," we tend to think it must have been what Marx and other Europeans meant by a "Buergerkrieg." Except perhaps in Missouri, our Civil War was not that sort of civil war, but rather a regional war.

    A real civil war, or class war, without lines, pitting neighbors against each other, would be a horror unknown in our history.

  14. And please don't have any doubts about who is ginning up "class war" style antagonisms in our Country. As reported in the Journal:


    The president's incendiary message has now reached the streets. His complaints that rich people must "pay their fair share" have now goaded some of our society's most unfortunate, including one who felt compelled to refuse money because it was not enough. President Obama has become the "Great Divider" instead of the "Great Unifier" that we all hoped he would be.

    I do not recall another president in my lifetime whose negative drumbeat about large segments of the population has been so relentless. I do not recall another president (even those similarly frustrated by congressional gridlock and the stifling of their agendas) repeatedly targeting a specific economic class, complaining as loudly and using his bully pulpit so consistently for bashing those who disagree with him.

    Presidents, once elected, instantly become president of all the people. They are the ultimate parental figures who should show no favoritism while always reaching across the dinner table to keep the family together. Even when they are confident their plan is the right one, they must communicate it such that everyone in the family knows they care equally about each of them. Painting important parts of our economy and population with such a negative brush is not only un-presidential, it is destructive to the fabric of our nation.

    *****End Quote*****

    What is happening is what you would expect to happen when an Alinskyite small-c communist is elected to the White House.

    It is going to get worse before it gets better.

  15. John,

    Thank you again for another thoughtful essay. Regarding your suggestion that Marx-bashing may stem from ignorance or misunderstanding, I'd like to note the corollary that I avoided with atypical sensitivity. When I was in undergraduate school during the pre-Vietnam days, I lived in an environment that was filled with individuals who considered "communist" to be the all-purpose derogatory label for conduct or ideas. When my own political and social views needed to be characterized, I would typically respond with, "I think I'm probably a communist. But, not having studied Marx and Engels, I'm not comfortable embracing something about which I am so ill-informed."

    As a person with limited intellectual energy and a much greater interest in baseball, the opposite sex, psychology, and literature than politics and economics, I never got around to Marx. But the experience of another 49 years so dramatically altered my perception of the human race and the nature of human interaction that I can now confidently abandon any illusions that I might be a budding Marxist.

    I have written you privately regarding "The Anti-Communist Manifestos," which filled me with an insatiable need for revisionist thinking about the popular and intellectual portrayal of Cold War and anti-communist politics. My American Novel Professor said about Mark Twain and his essays on religion that Twain failed to distinguish between a particular faith and the individuals who practiced it. Sadly, that has long been true of anti-communists and anti-anti-communist.

    I wonder how many Americans, and perhaps Europeans, have shared my 20-year old perspective because our revulsion at the ignorance and bigotry of those we knew to be outspoken ant-communists.

  16. I left out an "of" immediately preceding "our" in the last paragraph of my previous post. Why can't I ever proofread as carefully before I have posted as I can immediately afterward.

  17. That is an interesting perspective. As it turns out, the anti-communists were right about life under communism, weren't they?

    May I commend your readers, Professor Fleming, to Vasily Grossman's magisterial novel, LIFE AND FATE (which I have recently finished reading)? Grossman was a Soviet insider, the most respected war correspondent of his time, who covered the siege of Stalingrad. With that titatnic battle as the focus of his sprawling story, he portrays the everyday and philosophical realities of life in the Soviet Union, under real-life communism - mainly for an extended family of the intelligentsia and their friends. Officers and officials.

    The grinding fear of living in a totalitarian system, in which simply mentioning the year "1937" is enough to evoke life-shattering horrors, is amply portrayed.

    Of particular interest to the philosophically inclined is the extended interview (monologue really) between an SS interrogator, Liss, and his prisoner, the Old Bolshevik Mostovskoy, in which Grossman depicts the essential and underlying identity of the communist and National Socialist systems.

    No wonder that Mikhail Suslov told the author that his book could not be published in the Soviet Union for 200 or 300 years.

    This is not the work of an anti-communist outsider, but that of a committed communist journalist who was also the first to describe and publicize the new of the Endloesung and the Vernichtungslagern.

  18. Class War enthusiasts in Boston: