Marx may well have been right when he said that religion is the opiate of the people. In fact, I think he was. But he didn’t finish the equation. Marxism, too, is the opiate of the people. They just aren’t the same people. As Gertrude Stein said of money, “Money is money is money but the pockets change.“ (Google tells me she actually said, “Money is always there but the pockets change.“ I like it better as I misremember it.) So it is with opium. Choose your poison, as they say. There are a lot of potions on the shelf.
What Marx didn’t seem to realize is that all people—no matter how rational they may pride themselves on being, how lofty their intellects and clear their thinking, how far they soar above the common fray, even someone as elevated as Marx—all people need a little opium from time to time: opium as anesthesia against the world’s harsh realities, as a release from the humdrum into the marvelous, as a means to a dream, or just the simple pleasure of getting high. Drugs make us feel good; that’s why we take them. (I am using opium in a largely but not entirely metaphorical sense; I’m not advocating that anyone head to the nearest opium den, crack house, or street-corner drug market.)
But drugs are addictive. Like ideas, they are mind-altering. Sooner or later, and often sooner, the drugs we took to make us feel good, become necessary to sustain us. Eventually, instead of our having power over drugs, drugs hold power over us. What began benignly enough ends up as something quite different.
Communism is not Marx but something else entirely. Communism is to Marx as Christianity is to Christ, as Islam to Mohammed, Judaism to Moses. There’s a connection, all right. Those men got things going. But the link between the idea and the institutions that invoke their names and claim to carry out their will in the world we live in is perhaps not so direct as the leaders of those institutions like to claim. T.S. Eliot wrote,
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow …
It’s a very long shadow, Indeed
History is the God on Communism’s altar, with the shadow of the Dialectic moving ineluctably through it until the Worker’s Paradise is at last achieved, even in Detroit. The dialectic has done its duty and that’s the end of it, the final synthesis. Destiny has been fulfilled. Capitalism is dead, crushed by the Dialectic, and along with it the decadence of the West—prostitution, drugs, homosexuality, the heresies of Freud, etc. Terrestrial harmony rules. Folk dances, peasants in their colorful garb singing as they thresh the people’s grain, happy muscled workers of both sexes industriously turning out carburetors or whatever, joyfully exceeding their quotas month by month. It’s a beautiful day in the morning.
That theme has been sounded in the West as well, most particularly in the United States. Remember Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History? It started out in 1989 as an essay and evolved (no pun intended) into a book in 1992. “What we may be witnessing,” he wrote, “is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.“ I’ll bet writing that sentence put a big satisfied smile on his face.
What could Fukuyama have been smoking? Talk about Western triumphalism! He was serious, too, if delusional. But he’s a respected academic, an adviser to presidents, and, at the time, beloved of the neocons. His essay, a flight of Panglossian fancy, sparked a grave intellectual debate with much nodding of heads and hemming and hawing and pulling of chins. (Fukuyama has since modified his position and has come to see that History, instead of ending in New England town hall meetings happily scattered across the planet, has continued to bobble along in the same old messy way.)
Fukuyama had simply stood Marx on his head. Instead of the Dialectic leading to the collapse of capitalism and a Proletarian Paradise at the end of History, Fukuyama’s Dialectic led to the collapse of authoritarianism and the victory of Liberal Democracy and the Free Market. Each was worshipping at the same altar but one couldn’t see that the God of the other was the same God as his own. Both were cockeyed optimists, as the song goes.
Communism is simply one more way of wielding power, of manipulating the masses—the lumpen as the enlightened intellectuals refer to the great unwashed—of determining their choices and controlling their lives. In practice it has turned out to be a very harsh method, and immensely costly in human suffering and human lives.
Democracy is another way of accomplishing the same thing but less painfully. In democracy more people are involved in making decisions about how they want the Power to act on their behalf. The Power is that whole nexus of wealth and the manufacture of wealth and who controls it and how its benefits are doled out and to whom and in what proportions, but however it’s defined, any governmental system must keep things going, just as the first task of living things is to keep the species going. As our own system amply demonstrates, the level of chaos is higher in a democracy and a mass of people acting together (or fighting together) do not necessarily make the best choices, or even very good ones. But Democracy does not strive for perfection; it only hopes for a little improvement from time to time.
This began, at least in my mind, as a piece about one particular Easter in Romania, loveliest of holidays, and how the church in Romania survived because its opium was ultimately more powerful than the opium of the state. The church gave them something to do. Lighting a candle or blessing themselves when they passed a church turned out to be more rewarding than a day in the cement factory where “We pretend to work,” as the saying went, “and they pretend to pay us.”