In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in response to the abuses and consequences of the industrial revolution, many people embraced Karl Marx’s communist ideology. That was suicidally naive. What followed was a century of bloody, catastrophic failure. Today, for anyone to embrace communism, they must be unforgivably ignorant or evil – or both.
Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto in the mid-19th century, just as Western governments were beginning to address the excesses of the Industrial Revolution. In his book, Marx went far beyond addressing those ills, and instead advocated for a complete reworking of society, starting with the formation of labor unions, building into socialism and then to communism. To Marx, all history was a history of class struggles; all society was divided into two classes – the oppressed and oppressors; and all problems were socio-economic in origin and solution. Marx’s promise was that a communist government with plenary power over individuals and the economy could perfect society.
And naive people actually bought into this in the half century plus after Marx published his works. They ignored all the complexities of mankind, they ignored the true lessons of history regarding the evil of tyrannical governments, and they embraced the utopian dream. For but one example, in 1907, a Dutch socialist philosopher, Anton Pannekoek wrote in an article:
The socialist teachings have inoculated the laboring class with an entirely new conception of the world. The realization, that society is in a process of continual transformation, and that misery, poverty, exploitation, and all the suffering of the present are only temporary and will soon yield to an order of society, to be inaugurated by his class, in which peace, abundance, and fraternity shall reign, this realization must revolutionize the whole world conception of the laborer from the ground up. The theory of socialism furnishes the scientific foundation for this world conception. Political economy teaches us to understand the internal laws, which move the capitalist process, while historical materialism lays bare the effects of the economic revolution upon the conceptions and actions of people. And this stands irreconcilably opposed, as a materialistic doctrine, to religion.
This is typical of the utopian expectations of communism at the time, before it had ever been enacted. That is somewhat understandable. At the turn of the 20th century, there were many people in European societies who had no opportunities, who had never lived with freedom and democracy, and many of whom were then suffering under grinding poverty. It is not too surprising that many of these same people came to embrace communism (I believe Ms. BWR might have a story or two on that point). And the lure of communism to the intelligentsia of the time is also somewhat understandable. They could see the problems of society, communism offered simplistic panaceas, and many in the intelligentsia were arrogant enough to believe that they could direct people’s lives for those people’s betterment.
But then came reality. Everywhere communists took power in the 20th century, they committed murder on an industrial scale, ending with a butcher’s bill exceeding 100 million people. They imposed police states and elevated the best interests of government over the welfare and lives of the people under their iron thumb. And their economies, across the board, failed or, at best, struggled along with the mass of people living on the edge of poverty. And ironically, there were, in every one of these countries, still two socio-economic classes — only in the communist world, those classes were those few in government power and the many who were not.
This is not hidden history. This is not arguable history. Thus for any person today to embrace communism’s utopian promise and think that a government powerful enough to impose communism will be benign and effective, they are not simply naive. They are dangerously ignorant and arrogant at best, evil at worst.
Enter Richard Horton, the editor since 2015 of one of the world’s premier medical journals, The Lancet. Like the NYT, the Lancet has, over the past two decades, gone hard to the left. Most recently, Mr. Horton penned an editorial in the Lancet, Medicine and Marx. Horton reflects on whether Marxism provides the best environment for the advancement and availability of all aspects of medical care. Yes, he admits that medical care declined in the Soviet Union towards its demise in 1991. But Horton discounts that one evil — and ignores all others — implying that communism failed in the Soviet Union simply because the precepts of Marx were not applied correctly. According to Horton:
. . . Marxism isn’t about violent world revolution, tyrannical dictatorships, or unachievable utopian fantasies.
Every one of those assertions is ludicrous. Marx embraced violence and expected armed conflict to enact his vision. In an 1848 newspaper article, Marx wrote “there is only one way in which the murderous death agonies of the old society and the bloody birth throes of the new society can be shortened, simplified and concentrated, and that way is revolutionary terror.” I think Mr. Horton may have missed that article. Or what about when Marx wrote that a communist government would act as a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Perhaps Horton should have pulled out a thesaurus and looked up “dictatorship.” As to utopian fantasies, Churchill once pithily stated about socialism, “there are only two places where it will work. In heaven where it is not needed, and in hell where they already have it.”
So what does Horton think that Marxism has to offer?
First, Marx offers a critique of society, a method of analysis, that enables explication of disquieting trends in modern medicine and public health—privatised health economies, the power of conservative professional elites, the growth of techno-optimism, philanthrocapitalism, the importance of political determinants of health, global health’s neoimperialist tendencies, product-driven definitions of disease, and the exclusion of stigmatised communities from our societies. These aspects of 21st-century health care are all better investigated and interpreted through a Marxist lens.
Leaving aside both that much of that paragraph is unintelligible and that it ends in an ipse dixit, the historical reality is that the only greater historic failure than Marxist political theory is Marxist economic theory.
What makes capitalism work was described succinctly by Adam Smith in 1776. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.” Marx’s economic theory denies self-interest of individuals and lets some credentialed person try the impossible – to impose a successful top down economic system. Every country with a communist economy has either failed (Soviet Union, Eastern Europe), is a basket case existing only at the power of a gun (Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea), or has largely discarded Marxist economic theory (China, Vietnam). Moreover, virtually every major advance in medicine and drugs since the late 19th century has come out of the West. The modern medicine that Horton wants to turn communist is almost wholly invention of non-communist countries.
Next, Horton goes completely off the rails:
Marxism defends a set of values. The free self-determination of the individual, . . .
That . . . is insane. The words “free self-determination” never passed Marx’s lips. Even a NORK newsreader would choke if made to claim that “free self-determination” is a Marxist value. Marxism is about imposing conformity with state values. Nothing else. Perhaps Mr. Horton had something like underage prostitution in mind when he wrote that Marxism promotes free self-determination?
. . . an equitable society,
Marxism embraces embraces equality of outcome. To get that, Marxist ideologues must impose unequal opportunities and take things of value from a portion of the population at the point of a gun. I will take Marxists like Horton seriously when he redistributes all of his income and savings above the national average in the name of equality.
. . . the end of exploitation,
What could be more exploitative than to make a person live their life to benefit the state? Indeed, I believe that is a text-book example of slavery.
. . . deepening possibilities for public participation in shaping collective choices,
What in the world does that mean in terms of Marxism? “Public participation in shaping collective choices” is called “democracy.” You don’t find it in a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
. . . refusing to accept the fixity of human nature and believing in our capacity to change,
I hope that you got a good laugh from that one. Communism can never work because it denies human nature, from the enlightened self interest of capitalists to the desire of people to make decisions in their own interests, not that of the state — i.e., free self-determination. That it is why a successful Marxist society, one “in which peace, abundance, and fraternity rein” is an “unattainable utopian fantasy.” One can only claim to the contrary if they are willing to wholly ignore history since 1900, which is what Horton does by “refusing to accept” it. Neat trick, that — and as intellectually dishonest as the day is long.
How intelligent can a man be that could write any of the above? After reading Horton’s essay, I will now approach everything I see in his journal as suspect unless and until proven otherwise.