Lenin's Ghost: How Did Marxist Professors Create a New Wave of Political Leaders?
Europe has by no means recovered from its crisis. The new wave of migrants from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East has worsened the economic forecast. The economies of the Eurozone, with a collective growth rate of under 1.5 percent in 2015, are almost stagnant. Gone are the days of the German economic miracle. Nowadays, nearly 4.5 million young persons under 25 are unemployed in the EU-28 — a staggering figure, to which Chancellor Merkel just added an extra million refugees. Particularly in the Mediterranean countries, youth unemployment is at very high levels: 47.9 percent in Greece, 47.7 percent in Spain and 39.8 percent in Italy.
Confronted with this bleak picture, politicians, journalists, religious leaders, and public intellectuals all search for an explanation. Why is the European dream failing so many young people? How long will the economic recovery last? Will the EU be able to cope with another massive crash of the financial international system?
While experts ponder such questions, legions of university students face the grim, day-to-day reality. Still in their thirties, they cannot leave their parents’ homes. It would be hard to find university graduates from Thessalonica or Malaga with bank savings or with enough funds to allow them to establish a family of their own. Many rely directly on social benefits, while switching from one low-paid job to another. In the public square, the notion of individual responsibility has become unfashionable. Angry crowds demonstrating in Athens, Madrid, or Bucharest call for ever new governmental solutions.
In this atmosphere, both far Right parties and far Left political platforms have been mounting radical proposals. Populism is on the rise, in the form of nationalism, or revolutionary Marxism, or in some cases a strange mix of the two—as can be seen in the “Red-Brown-White” coalition that constitutes Vladimir Putin’s motley political base. Odd as it may seem, the two extremes can, as with the far-Left Syriza and the Independent Greeks (ANEL), a new Rightwing party, march together shoulder to shoulder.
The present essay will examine the Left side of the ledger to see what intellectual and cultural forces account for the resurgence of Left radicalism in various European countries. My claim is that old-school Marxists in Western academia have managed to produce a new class of revolutionary politicians, who are currently challenging the foundations of the Western capitalist order.
We have, for example, the British Labor Party’s new leader Jeremy Corbyn, an anti-NATO politician and welfare devotee. He has called for a friendlier approach to Putin’s Russia. (In accord with the above-noted trend, this puts him in line with Rightwing populists in his country, of the UKIP Party, and Marine Le Pen of the National Front in France.) In Spain, there has emerged Podemos, a Leftwing movement that ran candidates for the general elections under the motto Libertad, igualdad, y fraternidad, and that late last year won 20.65 percent of the national vote, vaulting to the position of third largest political organization in the country.
A 37-year-old political science professor named Pablo Manuel Iglesias Turrión is the leader of Podemos, which means “We Can”—an echo of Barack Obama’s “Yes, We Can.” Iglesias, an admirer of the Bolshevik Revolution, was a member of the Spanish Communist Party until 1999. In 2014, Comrade Iglesias was elected to the European Parliament as a member of his new party. Its growth in the last election came after it gathered in representatives of Izquierda Anticapitalista, an organization that includes some Trotskyites and Gramscians. (Sample press release from that group: “Toward a Democratic Disruption and an End to Austerity”).
Podemos takes pride in presenting youthful faces to the Spanish electorate, and advocates of liberation theology (in the person of Teresa Forcades, “the radical Catalan nun on a mission,” as London’s Guardian newspaper called her). In the land of Don Quixote, Pope Francis’ sympathy for the Bolivarian economic model did make a lasting impression. In fact among former leaders of Podemos, one counts Juan Carlos Monedero, an advisor to the late Hugo Chávez. Incidentally, Hugo Chávez and his successor in Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, have sponsored Spain’s Leftwing parties and associations in the same explicit manner that President Putin has channeled Russian rubles toward his political puppets from Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia.
The European Left, in short, is very much alive and kicking. From Britain, Greece, and Spain to the Die Linke party in Germany, the heirs of Marx show a remarkable efflorescence, resembling the Greek mythological Hydra endowed with multiple serpentine heads, despite its one and only reptilian body. We may ask ourselves who the future Heracles will be, slaying the beast with the humor of Winston Churchill and the manly determination of Mrs. Thatcher…
Why are the ghosts of Marxism haunting the political life of Europe? Mainly because neither the structural evils of communist ideology nor its perpetrators in the former Soviet bloc have experienced a proper Nurnberg-style scrutiny. After the Second World War, the dismantling of the Nazi network in Germany created the proper context for the carrying out of the Marshall Plan. After 1989, the EU’s expansion toward former Socialist republics did not require a similar political lustration. To this day, most of the societal and economic disasters produced by the communist experiment remain largely unknown to the general public from the Western European countries, particularly those not yet born at the time of the 1989 revolutions or who were young at the time.
It was widely expected that these revolutions would put Leftist academics, or at least most of them, out of business. Their voices were certainly muted for a time, but that time has expired. Rejecting the notion of public penance, old Marxist professors have resumed their project, and carried on with their negation of historical facts. By spinning their simplistic understanding of the relationship between labor and capital, Marxist ideologues in the North-Atlantic hemisphere have hatched a new generation—one that seeks, and in many cases finds, electoral validation.
Just as the young Barack Obama absorbed Frank Marshall Davis’ worldview in the 1970s, so too have European elites imbibed the vapors of the Maoist philosopher Alain Badiou in Paris, the late historian Eric Hobsbawm in London, cultural critic Slavoj Žižek in Ljubljana, or the Hungarian writer G.M. Tamás in Budapest. Such Marxist professors are responsible, indeed, for the birth of a new generation of historically ignorant opinion-makers in Europe.
The economic crisis of 2007-2009 proved to be a good moment for highbrow academics and social justice street activists. They came together with the dream of rekindling the May 1968 movement against the bourgeois, middle-class establishment in France. Alienated youth flooded social media with Marxist jingles about American imperialism, the existence of banks and mortgages, the privatization of state assets, and the hierarchical structures of traditional family (depicted as sexist and homophobic).
Day and night during—and since—the Great Recession, on television and radio programs, at public rallies, and throughout academic colloquia, utopians recycle the mantras of “equality,” “identity politics,” “prejudice,” and “discrimination.” At times, the fresh young European Marxists may speak more eloquently than the worn-out Bernie Sanders does in the Democratic Party’s primaries. However, this lyrical exaltation of Marxism brings nothing new in terms of understanding economic cycles or the way out of poverty.
Podemos and Syriza won their respective elections by vaguely promising the voters another future—a distant reality in which decisions about individual happiness would be made through a Rousseau-styled “collective deliberation.” How would poverty be eliminated? Through cooperatives, we are told, which would be less profit-driven than the “neoliberal enterprises” but which would benefit from a state-controlled redistribution of wealth.
The call to ideological warfare from Podemos (be it in the form of political correctness, student strikes, militias on campuses, or voluntary sit-ins) flirts with the image of a cosmic deliverance from the “hegemonic powers” of capitalism. The relationship between the individual and the crowd is construed erotically. Comrade Iglesias’ speeches set the stage for a quasi-spiritual, if not mystical, interpretation of the revolutionary endeavor.
The Leftist revolutionaries accuse “the agents of laissez-faire capitalism” of having created a new class of underpaid employees. They depict students, workers, and trade unionists as innocent victims of a vast conspiracy set up by the owners of multinational companies. In response to the selfish individualism of the Right, the new Marxists celebrate the collectivist frenzy of anti-bourgeois demonstrators. By singing the litany of “fairness,” they forget the importance of moral virtue, human character, and individual responsibility. They avoid addressing the psychological dimension of behavioral traits such as laziness, low-esteem, or procrastination.
Professor Claude Karnoouh (who taught Marxist sociology at a prominent university in the central Romanian region of Transylvania) argues that free markets produce social disasters by destroying neighborhoods and towns. He nowhere takes into account the creative nature of capitalist disruptions, so powerfully defended by Joseph Schumpeter and strikingly visible in the recent replacement of old postal offices by email (or in the mass-production of electronic tablets and the rapid decline of desktop computers). The Marxist revolutionaries of 21st century Europe ignore the subtle contrivances of human motivation and organizational behavior, which typically make people leave behind the poor conditions of their ancestors, acquire new skills, and transcend the national barriers in search for a better life.
Also based on false assumptions is Podemos’ rhetoric against corruption. It underestimates the welfare state’s role in diminishing individual freedom and economic opportunity for young Spaniards and young people everywhere. In search of the heroic proletariat, Professor Iglesias is still obsessed with the class struggle and the victory of workers through larger trade unions and more frequent strikes. He ignores that every individual is paid for the skills, and for the needs, that he or she brings to the marketplace.
The leaders of Podemos and Syriza are blind to the differences between an Anglo American approach to economic competition (as a cure to favoritism) and a South American (but of course not uniquely South American) support for state monopoly. Rampant corruption stems not only from the ills of human nature (“the greed of the Wall Street party,” as Iglesias puts it). Corruption is the result of poor institutional arrangements: volatile property rights, overregulation, laws preventing the free association of individuals, rigged contracts pushed by central governments, as well as high taxes for small businesses. It is corruption that kills the natural instinct for entrepreneurship, individual freedom, personal growth, and economic development.
Speaking of poverty and wealth, the Jacobins haven’t managed to create a single socialist success story. No one in contemporary Cuba, Laos, or North Korea goes to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticize after dinner.” Except for the privileged nomenklatura and the party apparatchiks, ordinary people from socialist countries have never experienced the coexistence of these leisurely activities.
Why should we believe that Syriza or Podemos will unchain millions of unemployed people through the shameless rescue of Lenin? In recent times, countries run by radical socialist governments have made no significant contribution to the flourishing of scientific research or to the groundbreaking technological innovations which have spread across the world. Neither Communist China nor authoritarian Russia can boast impressive advances in the field of medical science. Such achievements still crown the healthcare systems of the free world. From its very first political application in real time and real history, Marxist ideology has been a painful failure of astonishing proportions.
What about the scientific claims made by Karl Marx (1818–1883)? As Dr. Paul Aligică from George Mason University once put it, Marxist economists currently employ epistemic tools that resemble the phlogiston theory used by the 17th century physicists. Das Kapital can explain the wealth and the poverty of nations with the same measure of clarity that Johann Joachim Becher’s (1635–1682) alchemist views of combustion help us understand a Ferrari engine.
A century and half since the Communist Manifesto was published, the entire scientific scaffolding of Marxism has fallen to pieces. Marx got it all wrong when he spoke about the future developments of the Western society. As a reductionist theory, Marxism today cannot account for the economic transformation of the West. Let us compare the income and lifestyle of a 19th century worker from a steel factory in Manchester, England with the monthly salary and the spare time enjoyed by a Google employee at the dawn of the third millennium. Would a ship worker from Gdansk in the early 1980s have dreamt of possessing a satellite home television or a mobile phone in his pocket? What is, then, left of all Marxist “prophecies”?
Since Marxist doctrine has no scientific grounding, it would seem to follow that its popularity ought to be examined from the perspective of rhetoric, theology, or literary studies. Decades ago, Robert C. Tucker convincingly argued that myth is a central category in the writings of the young Marx. From time immemorial, people cherished the eschatological promise of a savior (rebranded by Marx as “the proletariat” and by Stalin under the name of “the Party leader”). Since Marxism is neither a serious economic theory nor a rigorous social science, we would understand it better as the secular religion of modernity, which uses a redemptive language for the alienated masses.
Alain Besançon identified the presence of Gnostic themes in the Marxist narrative of class warfare, while the University of Chicago’s Mircea Eliade has shown the extent to which the historicist myth of a classless society projects the image of a Golden Age into modern times. Traditional societies had foundational stories about charismatic, heroic individuals who fought against an evil enemy and promised a radical, not an incremental, improvement of the human condition. Marxists revolutionaries have taken up this apocalyptic imagery. The new small “c” catholic church is the international socialist movement, which brings to the afflicted world a message of a redeemed humanity.
Prime Minister Tsipras (known as the Greek “Che Guevara”) said that “the communist regime . . . at least had humanity at the center of their thinking.” Young and radical politicians such as he do not feel the need to explain the criminal deeds of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Instead of looking at the horrors of the Gulag, the leaders of Syriza and Podemos offer their audience the same toxic and yet mesmerizing incantations that make people forget about the Ukrainian Holodomor or about the Stalinist labor camps of Perm, Volga Canal, and Pitești (the latter experiment being described by Vladimir Tismăneanu in his 2014 book on The Devil in History).
When a freely elected leader of a European nation can say that “humanity” was “at the center” of the communist experiment, we must pause and ask ourselves: How can Europe regain the vast amount of moral clarity it has lost since the 1989-1991 period? Will perhaps the foe of the former evil empire make a Reaganite comeback to help Europe find its way? Might we believe that a future President of the United States will call out the new Jacobins? May we hope that future leaders of democratic parties will stop indulging in a shameless nostalgia for Marx and Lenin?
It is a matter of historical record that, like the victims of the Shoah, the prisoners of communism underwent unimaginable physical degradation and psychological torture. Who will educate the Prime Minister of Greece and tell him of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s long-lasting witness? Who will enlighten Pablo Iglesias Turrión about the black mass which, in the name of humanity, the KGB proxies organized at Pitești Prison during the late 1950s? Students of theology living under communism were forced to denounce God, to mock Christ, and to blaspheme the name of the Virgin Mary under the burden of extreme beatings and despicable sufferings. Such was the “love” for “humanity” that millions of people witnessed during the 20th century. Such are the untruths that vote-seeking, parliament-leading Marxist revolutionaries want to pour into the minds of ordinary men and women, who may begin their adult life by searching for a better job, but might end their pursuit of happiness by embracing an obsolete and evil ideology.