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By John Zmirak, a Senior Editor of The Stream, Oct. 20, 2017
Yesterday I marked the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution with a list of the crimes that Marxist ideologues have committed around the world. I promised to analyze why all through the decades those crimes were being committed, intelligent people were still drawn to Marxism. Indeed, some still are today. What gives?
Marx’s thought is cynical, bitter, conspiratorial and self-righteous. His writing is clunky and caustic. His vision of human life is mechanistic and joyless. The utopia he promises after decades of bloody struggle is goofy and utterly implausible. Every single society that has tried to implement his ideas has ended in tyranny and famine. You’d think that would put people off.
But then again, every year there are people who try crystal meth or Scientology for the first time, aren’t there? There’s something else going on here.
Why Marxism? Why Crystal Meth?
While there is no real excuse for Marxists today, we can find explanations. As in most things, the root of this profound intellectual mistake is moral. Just as Adam’s sin darkened our intellect, our own sins cloud and corrupt it.
But before I delve into what lures people to Marxism, let’s explore the nature of sin.
The book of mine that I like the most is The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins. It’s the widest ranging and probably the funniest. It’s also the most practical. You can divvy up the whole moral life among seven faculties which God gave us to sustain us as social, rational animals. (Think of them as “talents.” How well are we investing them? Are they buried back in the yard?)
It’s not hard to see how each of the deadly sins is an abuse, overuse, or distortion of each of these faculties.
But we can also err in the opposite direction. As Aristotle noted, and saints were quick to follow him, the Golden Mean of virtue hangs in tension between two extremes. We can overcorrect against each one of the Deadly Sins, and end up in an opposite sort of sin. My book is the first, I think, since Thomas Aquinas, to list these seven excesses. I called them the Seven Deadly Neuroses.
The Seven Deadly Neuroses
Christians rarely talk about them. Indeed, too many earnest believers think that if a sin is so deadly that it made the list, the safe thing to do is to err as far as possible in the opposite direction. Like throwing the switch on the water in your shower from freezing to boiling, that’s not a wise idea. In fact, it can also be deadly. It’s the source of much of the dysfunction, weirdness, and ineffectuality we encounter in church circles. Think for a second. See what I mean?
Four years ago, I offered a little thumbnail of how we can seek the Golden Mean in each of these areas of life. Let me quote from it here, before we apply this seven-stage litmus test to Marxism:
One might indulge in the deadly sin of Lust, and engage in or obsess about illicit sex. Or if you’d mastered Chastity, you’d confine its use to its proper context, marriage. If you were consumed by fear of sin or disdain for fleshly creation, you might well conceive a phobia for the good thing God had made, and fall into the neurosis of Frigidity. Sexless marriages that end in divorce grow out of this particular vice.
At the opposite pole from deadly Wrath is not holy Patience, but masochistic Servility, which teaches us to let aggressors win and bullies triumph, whatever the cost to the next victim.
Gluttony amounts to consuming fleshly pleasures like food or wine in the wrong quantities or the wrong way. A sane Temperance keeps every appetite in check by the force of reason and self-restraint — while gnostic Insensibilitylearns to see food as interchangeable nutrition units and wine as evil in itself.
The Greedy have too strong an attachment to the good things that come from hard work and wise stewardship. The Generous love wealth in due proportion, and have mastered the art of sharing it. The Prodigal, on other hand, treat wealth with jaded disdain and lavishly waste it — certain that more will somehow come to them down the pike.
Sloth is not so much a sin of laziness but of apathy, of the sort that can lead to despair. The Diligent learn how to apply themselves with sane resignation, and a realist’s appreciation of their limitations and weaknesses — while Fanatics hurl themselves headfirst into walls, torment the people who love them, and if they don’t blow themselves up, they burn out and slump into … Sloth.
Vainglory teaches people to preen themselves and be proud of nothing real, or nothing for which they really deserve any credit. You can counter this vice by the starkly honest practice of Humility, which takes a frank account of one’s actual pluses and minuses. Or you can panic at the prospect you might, just might, be proud — and learn to rip yourself to little, despairing shreds through Scrupulosity.
The opposite of Envy, the devil’s own sin which hates the good for being good, is not the large-souled virtue of Magnanimity, but the timid, vacuous sin called Pusillanimity — the kind of thing that drives a servant to bury his master’s treasure in the yard.
So, with all this machinery in place, let’s look at how Marxism taps into the Deadly Sins and the Deadly Neuroses, one human faculty at a time.
Plenty of young people are drawn to radical circles in part by the lure of looser morals. But once they get in power, Marxist regimes drop Lust as a weapon of mass disruption. They suddenly turn Frigid.
Since the New Left in the 1960s, we’ve come to associate leftist movements with “free love.” That’s often true in the beginning. Marx condemned traditional marriage as part of wicked middle class values. Campus radicals saw destabilizing the family as a way to bring down “the System.” And plenty of young people are drawn to radical circles in part by the lure of looser morals. But once they get in power, Marxist regimes drop Lust as a weapon of mass disruption. They suddenly turn Frigid. They see that unbound Eros creates alternative loyalties to the Party and its government. Like Winston Smith and Julia in 1984. That’s why you saw gay people tortured in Castro’s Cuba. It’s also, in a way, why China imposed its One Child Policy: to gain absolute control over people’s most intimate lives.
Obviously, Wrath is one of primal forces that drive people to Communism. Seeing real or apparent injustice, they give themselves license to hate the “exploiters.” Once in power, they’re likely to treat them, even label them as subhuman — which the Soviets did to successful farmers, while starving them in Ukraine. Again, once they’re in power, Marxist regimes turn on a dime. Instead of goading workers into anger-haunted zealots, they beat them down into Servility. Instead of founding labor unions in America, they crack the heads of union members in Poland.
This topic seems morbid. Think of the Marxist famines that dug millions of graves from Ukraine to China. The hunger now afflicting Venezuelans and North Koreans. They can’t afford to be Gluttons. In fact, they learn not to be picky. Call it mandatory Insensibility. But Gluttony of a sort does play a part in leftist movements. It’s the gluttony of quality, not quantity. Think of how elaborate are the food codes of pampered leftists in America, from Park Slope to San Francisco. They teach themselves that it’s okay to spend $7 on a head of lettuce because they’re promoting “sustainable agriculture.” Or fighting agribusiness. The squabbling with fellow gulag inmates over a bowl of fish-head soup … well, that comes later.
Does Greed play a role in Marxism? Well, yes — in a special sense. Marxists might not be materialists in the everyday sense of the word. They might shun working on Wall Street. (Though far from all of them do.) But their whole view of the world is materialistic. (Another name for Marxism is “dialectical materialism.”) They believe that every jot and tittle of culture, art, religion, and human action is driven by economics. They’re Greedy for the power to get their hands on the steering wheel. Then they will channel people’s actions as they see fit. That’s where the Prodigal waste of resources, talents and human lives really kicks into gear.
Hardcore Marxists go way beyond Diligence and turn themselves into Fanatics. You’ll see them at Antifa rallies, or crashing meetings of College Republicans to shout speakers down and heckle. But on some level Marxists are Slothful. They’re too intellectually lazy or scared to ask themselves the deadly questions that Marx avoided. (Such as, “What if you’re wrong about religion?” And “Why were all Marx’s economic and political predictions wrong?”) As political philosopher Eric Voegelin noted, Marxism like fascism rests on brittle premises. Because Marx couldn’t defend them, he brushed them aside sarcastically. He promised that in Marxist societies these questions wouldn’t even come up. And sure enough, the secret police made sure of that.
Here the attraction to Marxism often runs the other way. People of means feel tortured by (often) inappropriate Scruples. They see the inequalities that come with our varied talents, fallen condition, and disparate national histories. They could humbly look for realistic solutions that would spread the opportunity for private property and economic growth to poor people worldwide. Instead they wallow in guilt. They look for grandiose answers. Then when they discover Marxism, they learn to feel proud of themselves. They’re positively Vainglorious about having happened upon the key to all human history. And also for being so pure of heart and committed to “social justice.”
It’s almost clichéd to say that Marxism is founded on deadly Envy. That doesn’t make that statement any less true. What else could lurk behind the standard response of bitter anti-capitalists when you point out that global poverty is plummeting? That in the past 30 years a billion people escaped destitution, through the globalization of markets? You know the response you’ll get from your average Marxist (or distributist). He’ll complain about “consumerism,” and rant about rich Texans driving SUVs to the suburbs. He could make a Magnanimous effort to harness the human potential of the poor around the world (see the Acton Institute’s Poverty Cure). But Marxists wave off such reforms as useless. If you won’t let them play with the poisonous medicine of revolution, they’ll sit back and let the patient wither. They’ll take their concern for the needy and bury it in the yard.