Some three decades ago, as the Soviet empire was falling apart, many of my well-educated colleagues in political theory either reduced or eliminated the time formerly devoted in their survey courses to the thought of Marx and Engels. Given the massive failure of Marxist communism as a political and economic system, to say nothing of the more than 100 million deaths inflicted by Marxian regimes during the 20th century, these now seemed irrelevant to political life. Under such circumstances, to take Marxist thought seriously in a course that otherwise covered profound texts by such giants as Plato and Aristotle, Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau and Nietzsche seemed to make about as much sense as including the study of astrology in a course on astronomy, or of alchemy in a chemistry course.
How quickly time passes! There cannot be many Americans under the age of 45 who have the foggiest recollection of what Communism was like in practice. And so, Marxism is making a comeback. The “Style” section in the November 29 New York Times carried a story on how financially supporting socialism, anarchism, and related causes has become quite the fashion among “trust-fund babies”—those born to enormous wealth thanks to the legacies of highly prosperous grandparents and great-grandparents. (As is characteristic of the Times, the story was accompanied by a large advertisement for Louis Vuitton perfumes—just as stylish as fashionable leftism!) In this, of course, the trust-fund babies were imitating Engels, who used the wealth derived from the factories he’d inherited from his father to finance Marx’s non-remunerative “work” in the British Museum.
The most manifest sign of the resurgence of Marxism in the West is the “Black Lives Matter” movement, whose slogan has elicited so much support from politicians, academics, the media, and even corporate executives, owing to a widespread (if far from fully justified) sense of guilt about the state of race relations in America. While the slogan itself is subject to a wide variety of interpretations, the official BLM movement identifies itself on its website, as noted by Alexandra Phillips in the London-based Daily Telegraph, with such far-left objectives as defunding the police (an evolution of the Black Panther position of public “open-carry” by civilians in order to “control” the police) and dismantling “capitalism” and the “patriarchal” system. And one of the movement’s co-founders, Patrisse Cullors, describes herself as a “trained Marxist,” having been guided into politics by Eric Mann, a member of the terrorist Weather Underground of the 1960’s who served 18 months in jail for having conspired to commit murder by shooting up a Massachusetts police station. (By coincidence, when I was a freshman at Cornell University, Mr. Mann was a fellow member of the school’s debate society—until he was expelled for egregious misbehavior. At the time, Mann had proudly earned himself the cognomen of “Rick the —.” I leave it to readers to fill in the blank as they wish. Following his expulsion, I fortunately never encountered him again.)
Of course, BLM’s leaders and advocates do not typically focus attention on their movement’s long-term objectives, as distinguished from particular race-related grievances (police shootings, disparities in school discipline, incarceration rates). This enables them to draw support from a wider segment of the population who are convinced (rightly or wrongly) that America still suffers from a high degree of racial discrimination, and that such discrimination (rather than problems of family breakdown, drug abuse, and poor public schools) explains the persistence of poverty and other social pathologies among black Americans—without believing that the cure for discrimination is the destruction of “capitalism” (the disparaging Marxist epithet for the system of free enterprise) or the establishment of a proletarian dictatorship.
Nonetheless, as the Times study confirms, the Marxist program itself, however understood (or misunderstood), does enjoy growing appeal among the offspring of the rich, to say nothing of denizens of the American academy. How can we explain the revival of interest among educated human beings in such a thoroughly refuted—refuted in practice (Marx’s own test) as well as philosophically—in a prosperous and free country like the United States, to which millions of people from around the globe desperately aspire to migrate? I want to suggest that the explanation lies in a fact about human nature noted by the 16th century Florentine philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli in the opening paragraph of Chapter Three of The Prince. There he observes that people are always ready to follow usurpers in overthrowing their existing regime, believing that they will “fare better” under the new ruler—only to “see later by experience that they have done worse” (since the usurper is unable to keep the promises he made to his followers, and indeed, must deal harshly with his erstwhile supporters who complain—as well as with adherents of the old regime). (I follow the Mansfield translation.)
Machiavelli helps us identify a recurrent error of the popular mind: a natural utopianism that if not overcome leads them to ruin.
The greatest historical exemplar of such behavior was Vladimir Lenin, who no sooner gained power in 1917 than he appointed a ruthless and bloodthirsty secret police chief with orders to execute a few hundred thousand civilians in order to terrorize the Russian populace into submission. This policy echoed the one Machiavelli attributes to Cesare Borgia in Chapter Six of The Prince—only the ruthless governor that Cesare installed (in a province he had just acquired) had orders not to terrorize the people generally, but rather to eliminate the gang leaders and criminals who had previously brought perpetual disorder into submission, following which Cesare installed a “civil court,” i.e., a form of constitutional government rather than endless terror.
That Machiavelli’s account of Cesare Borgia is largely fictionalized need not concern us here. What is of interest, however, is his reporting that once Cesare’s ruthless governor had finished his dirty work, Cesare had the governor himself executed, disclaiming any responsibility for the severe punishments he had carried out. Cesare had to do this in order to mollify the people who had been alienated by the governor’s severity, despite the fact that most of them had benefited from the security that that severity brought to the province, making his apparent cruelty (as the author subsequently explains) really a form of “effectual mercy”—in contrast to the namby-pamby policies of the Florentine people, who so as to avoid a “name” for cruelty, allowed a city they governed to be torn apart by factional strife, so that that their nominal mercy really amounted to “effectual cruelty.” The combined relevance of these two passages from The Prince—one concerning the people’s readiness to be fooled, time and again, by usurpers who promise them the moon yet end up making them worse off; the other displaying the people’s incapacity to accept the harsh prerequisites of constitutional government—subjecting violent criminals to severe punishment—is as follows. Taken together, they demonstrate a recurrent error of the popular mind: a natural utopianism that if not overcome leads them to ruin. As Machiavelli puts it, those who follow a usurper typically find themselves, too late, deceived in the promise of a “future good” he had made to them.
In The Prince, the future good to which Machiavelli alludes—as indicated by the concluding passage of Chapter Three, in which he describes how the corrupt Pope Alexander VI, whom he later calls the greatest liar in history, gulled Louis XII into granting him a province in return for an annulment of his marriage—is the Christian promise of a blissful afterlife. Since the era of the French Revolution, however, an increasingly secular populace is far more likely to be gulled by the promise of a paradise on earth. Just like the people described by Machiavelli who keep falling for the empty promises of usurpers, no matter how many times they (or their forebears) have been deceived by them, “sophisticated” Europeans and now even Americans, rather than appreciate the benefits that their free governments afford them (even if no government can entirely eliminate such evils as poverty, illness, prejudice, or police misconduct) continue to swallow the patent medicine sold them by Marxist theoreticians.
The only remedy for such gullibility, if there is one, is serious education in history and civics at both the college and pre-collegiate level that would acquaint new generations with the evils wrought by Marxism and other totalitarian movements; the preciousness of the goods that their free governments have brought them; and—in the case of Black Lives Matter—the enormous progress that the United States has made in race relations over the past 70-plus years. Needless to say, the anti-civic education exemplified by the Times’s “1619 Project,” which is designed to instill young people around the country with such specious and libelous claims as that America’s central purpose, since its beginning, was to promote slavery and then racial oppression, can have only the opposite effect. And America, as I exhort some of my best students (who may be contemplating more lucrative careers in law or business, yet are animated by high ideals) desperately needs an influx of well-educated and genuinely patriotic teachers of high-school history and government. (Of course, this presupposes that the school systems where they seek employment do not emulate the San Diego Unified School District’s newly adopted policy of requiring all teachers to undergo a program of “white privilege” training in which they are commanded to admit their “white fragility,” commit to becoming “antiracist,” and acknowledge that the United States was established on land “stolen” from Native Americans.)
As for me, I won’t be dropping Marx and Engels from my syllabus any time soon—or ceasing in my efforts to uncover their fallacies and their blood-soaked legacy.