Culture

A Conservative’s Revisionist History Aims at Marx — and Misses the Mark

The Karl Marx sculpture in Chemnitz, Germany, August 31, 2018. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)
Paul Kengor’s The Devil and Karl Marx is superbly researched, but makes no effort to persuade the unconverted.

Per its introduction, Paul Kengor’s new book, The Devil and Karl Marx, “deals with the grim, disturbing, militant atheism and intense anti-religious elements of Marx and other founders and practitioners of communism.” The history of the last century gives Kengor no shortage of examples of these “elements,” and, as a superb researcher, he is well suited to the task he has set himself. The book contains almost 700 footnotes, and he is clearly well acquainted with practically every biography of Marx in print. Nary a point is made about the life of Marx, or the Soviet Union, or domestic Communist infiltration, without citations from primary or secondary sources (in most cases, both).

The great virtue of the book is the attempt it makes to correct those who would “separate Marx the man from the evils ushered in by Marxism.” Kengor’s point of departure is the observation made by Aristotle that “men start revolutionary changes for reasons connected with their private lives.” He sets out to show that the salient features of Marxist ideology are each and all putrid emanations from Marx’s miserable, morally destitute private life. But he doesn’t devote any significant space in the book to a forensic and dispassionate deconstruction of Marx’s ideas; he merely contents himself with illustrating Marx’s many flaws and implying that Communism can be explained in terms of those flaws alone. In so doing, he leaves himself open to the critique of those who would point out that an idea can’t be refuted by simply observing or explaining its historical origins. So an extra chapter detailing how the ruinous results of Marxist ideology flow ineluctably from its intellectual premises, quite apart from the manifold defects of Marx’s personal character, would have been welcome.

Nevertheless, Kengor does make a strong case that the philosophical output of a man who called for the “ruthless criticism of all that exists” might have been born of considerable personal unhappiness. It is not surprising, for example, that Marx, who once wrote “Blessed is he who has no family” in a letter to a friend about his own domestic unhappiness, also included the weakening of family ties as part of the path to his envisioned utopia. His inability to play well with others also seems to have prefigured the practice of his ideological progeny:

Marx was often dictatorial with his editorial staff and with his Communist League and Party. Payne chronicles what he aptly terms Marx’s “purges,” a haunting bellwether for how various Communist Parties, from Russia to America to worldwide, would deal ruthlessly with internal dissenters who did not always toe the Party line.

The inconsistency of Marx’s conduct with his ideology is, however, even more powerful than the consistency Kengor traces. Marx was a rank hypocrite, devoid of any integrity. He spent an extraordinary amount of time traipsing across Europe to estranged relatives, attempting to scrounge money off of them, since he refused to get a job. He was only too delighted when his mother, for whom he had no affection, died and left him 6,000 franks. His attitude toward the woman who gave birth to him is encapsulated by this line from a letter he sent to his wife, Jenny: “She does not want to hear a word about money but she destroyed the I.O.U.’s that I made out to her; that is the only pleasant result of the two days I spent with her.” As Kengor observes, this flies completely in the face of Article 3 of the Communist Manifesto, which calls for the abolition of all rights of inheritance.

Marx and Jenny also retained a live-in nanny, bequeathed to them by her family. They never paid this woman, named Lenchen. She functioned as an indentured slave, upon whose body Marx would slake his sexual appetites when his wife was ill. The reader would do well to remember Lenchen the next time they hear something about the “exploitation of the proletariat” quoted from Das Kapital.

The book’s novelty is found mainly in its focus on Marx’s work as a poet and a playwright, which, Kengor claims, displays a wicked affection for the figure of Satan. I have to confess, I don’t find this argument particularly compelling. It’s true that the Prince of Darkness does make several appearances in Marx’s creative work, but, as Kengor concedes, there is no real evidence of any interest in the occult or in Satanism as such in these works. What we find instead is the same affection for the figure of Satan that tends to fire the imaginations of most violent political revolutionaries. Marx’s one-time friend and ally, Mikhail Bakunin, eulogized Lucifer as “the eternal rebel, the first freethinker, and the emancipator of worlds.” Even John Milton, himself a devout Puritan, could not wholly resist the literary allure held out by the Devil to political insurgents, as Paradise Lost amply demonstrates. Marx’s similar literary interest doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about the man: He resented the givenness of the world and sought with fiendish fervor to remake it in his own image.

Although Kengor’s skill as a researcher is considerable, and the new historiographic ground he breaks is interesting despite the tenuous conclusions it leads him to, his book is in the end a failure, mainly because it exhibits one of the besetting sins of present-day conservative publishing: It is pitched at an incredibly narrow and siloed right-wing audience that is bound to already agree with everything Kengor has to tell them. Put simply, if you are not already a conservative Roman Catholic, you’re unlikely to get very far into this book before putting it down. No attempt is made to convince people who fall outside this demographic of the author’s thesis. Marxists, or even moderately progressive readers, will be so turned off by Kengor’s insults and his childish dismissals of his ideological opponents that they will rightly dismiss it out of hand. We come across fan service for the already-converted and bad writing besides in lines such as “as usual, however, Marx was far from finished venting the acrid recesses of his bitter brain,” and “admirers of Marx will surely want to dispute that, given their fealty to their beloved founding father, for whom they make excuses for everything,” and “modern Marxist oddballs will find reasons to defend this nightmarish trash—in a way, of course, they would never do if, say, a Republican president had penned such pernicious claptrap.”

This is not to say that there’s anything inherently wrong with converts, of course; the history of the conservative movement in America is littered with them. Some of our brightest luminaries have been socialists or progressives who were “mugged by reality,” to use Irving Kristol’s memorable phrase. Ronald Reagan, Whittaker Chambers, Milton Friedman, and Thomas Sowell all began their political lives on the left before being won over to the right, and we can always use more like them — but Mr. Kengor’s book won’t produce any.

One of the most important principles of Sun Tzu’s Art of War is that it’s important to provide one’s enemy with a golden bridge to retreat across. In intellectual terms, this means giving your opponent the respect necessary for them to climb down from their position and change their mind. They have to be able to do this while keeping their self-image and their dignity intact. Otherwise, they will simply dig in their heels. No human being is going to admit that his political aims are wicked and that his conscience is therefore corrupt. Consequently, it’s always advisable to at least attribute noble motives to one’s ideological opponents. Unless they are particularly depraved, the reason that most Marxists want to see their political agenda enacted is probably not that they think it’s evil. They want to see it enacted because they think it is good. Conservatives must work to show them that they are mistaken, and that there are better means to fundamentally good and decent ends.

Kengor’s book shows no interest in that vital work. Take the following passage. After quoting extensively from a Communist writer, Kengor dismisses the content of the quotation out of hand without making any argument:

This, of course, is relativistic pabulum. It is the sophistry that, unfortunately, has evolved into the modern secular-progressive zeitgeist that dominates America and the wider West today. It is the childish philosophical silliness that has enabled modern leftists to redefine everything from life to marriage to gender to sexuality to bathrooms. When man makes himself his own Sun — that is, his own God — then he destroys his world.

Any writer worth his salt knows that the way to convince a reader of something — say, that a given text is “relativistic pabulum” — is to describe, explain, and take apart the opposing argument in such a way that the reader says to him or herself, “Ah, I see. That’s some relativistic pabulum right there.” Kengor doesn’t care to show the reader what to think; he simply tells the reader what to think. Without addressing the claims of the text in question, he has a verbal hissy-fit about the modern Left, punctuated by a bald and pietistic theological assertion.

This last point needs expanding on, because the way the author employs his own Catholic faith throughout the book is also a case study in what not to do when seeking to persuade. Kengor’s references to Roman Catholicism leave an impression of expectation that the reader already shares his prior religious commitments. For instance, take Kengor’s invocation of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness:

As the two debated, the Living Bread told the tempter that man lives by every word from the mouth of God. Marx took not the side of Christ on that one. Of course, Marx rejected Christ in total. Communists are atheists after all.

What is the reader who doesn’t already believe that Jesus is “the Living Bread” to make of this? And why the complete conflation of atheists and Communists? Doesn’t Kengor want to convince his atheist readers that they, too, should abhor Marx and Marxism?

The book is also chock-full of appeals to papal encyclicals, writings, and statements condemning socialism and emphasizing its incompatibility with the Catholic faith. But the author fails to demonstrate why anyone who isn’t a Catholic should care about what any of these popes or bishops have to say. The authority of their statements, as presented by Kengor, is not derived from the independent merits of their historical analyses but from the fact that they are men of authority within the church, which, again, can’t mean much to anyone who doesn’t share his faith. The book’s conclusion includes an appeal to Pope Pius X’s critique of the “many roads” of modernism. Kengor then sums up the Pope’s warnings in his own words:

We face a terrific danger as each and every person renders unto itself his or her own individual interpretation of truth and reality. Eventually, each person becomes his or her own god. Soon enough, it ends in Karl Marx’s ultimate goal: the undermining if not annihilation of religion.

There’s more than a little irony involved in an author condemning the “individual interpretation of truth and reality” in a book. After all, why put pen to paper if not in an attempt to alter the individual reader’s interpretation of truth and reality? By the very end of the book, Kengor has descended into full-on homiletics, appealing to the anti-Communist Fulton Sheen’s predictably approving assessment of his own church:

The truth was to be found in Truth itself, in Himself. And Sheen was certain most of all that Truth existed in the Church that He, Jesus Christ, founded upon Peter, the rock upon which He built His Church. That Church would provide the foundation for surviving age after age and all the corrosive ideologies and isms and spirits that pervade it. The Church offers a constant reminder to people of the principles that do not change and which thus are those to live by, and those which will protect us from being children of our age.

As a general rule, writers should not make claims that they are unprepared to back up with explanation and evidence. Everything Kengor writes here would fit reasonably in a Catholic devotional book, but baldly asserting any of it in a political and intellectual history of Karl Marx and Communism is unprofessional and immature. Perhaps this brand of presuppositional pietism could be excused to a limited extent if it made room for all theists, or all Christians, seeking to unite them against the avowed materialism of Marx. But Kengor goes out of his way to alienate every one of his readers who is not in communion with the Bishop of Rome. First of all, the Protestant Reformation is presented as leading ineluctably to Communism:

[Marx’s father] became Lutheran. It was a choice that allowed him more choices to define his own views. The son would seize upon such choices with wild abandon. . . . Thinking completely apart from the Church of Rome could pave the way for him to open the door to philosophical communism. Breaking with Rome was the break he needed to pursue atheistic communism.

There’s no attempt to back up this ludicrous assertion of a direct and immediate causal link between disbelieving the claims of the Roman church and embracing communism. Once again, Kengor confesses himself to be an opponent of “thinking completely apart from the Church of Rome,” something that the material conditions of the modern world all but guarantee, quite apart from the theology of the Reformation. Kengor also spills a lot of ink to establish that Protestant churches were easy targets for Communist infiltrators in America. This phenomenon is neatly contrasted with “Catholics Reject the ‘Outstretched Hand’” and “The Catholic Worker Steps Up.”

After defaming Protestantism as a staging ground for full-blown communism, forgetting all the while to mention any of the prominent Protestants who battled against Marxism in the 20th century, the author then sets about burning his bridges with Eastern Orthodoxy. “Totally forgotten in the West today,” he informs the reader . . .

. . . is that the Russian Orthodox Church surrendered to become a tool of the Soviet government (to quote Cianfarra) “in order to unite all Christians and make Moscow the Rome of the Twentieth Century.” Both the Bolshevik leadership and Russian Orthodox Church leadership alike wanted to contest Rome’s leadership as the primary head of the world’s Christians.

This claim is as historically illiterate as it is morally offensive. Insofar as the Orthodox Church behind the Iron Curtain accommodated itself to the Bolsheviks in light of the relentless and overwhelming persecution it experienced, it was with a view to survival, not to deposing the pope. The idea of Moscow’s being a “Third Rome” has furthermore been around since the conversion of the Slavs in the Middle Ages. It is not a “Twentieth Century” idea. Kengor further alienates Muslims alongside Orthodox Christians by deciding to defend, of all the things that Marx criticized, the Crusades. “The Crusades,” the reader is told, are “greatly misunderstood and maligned to this day.” “The goal was to rescue those Christians and recover land and sites (such as the Holy Sepulchre) that had been theirs until Muslim invaders seized them violently.” This would have been news to the Orthodox Christians of Constantinople, who were completely unperturbed by the “Muslim invaders” in 1204, when their city was sacked, pillaged, and burned to the ground by Roman crusaders during the Fourth Crusade.

In short, Kengor’s book fails to justify its own existence as a work of ideas. Virtually the only readers that it won’t alienate are his fellow conservative Roman Catholics. It will undoubtedly serve to confirm the already-entrenched biases of some particularly excitable members of that demographic, but that is insufficient grounds for calling it a respectable work of political history, or even of polemics. Kengor should spend some time immersing himself in the work of C. S. Lewis. He might learn how to graft religious belief onto persuasive intellectual arguments in a winsome and non-sectarian way. If he can master that art and combine it with his remarkable prowess as a researcher, his next work will be a real treat to read.

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