Work on the Understanding the Times revision has been moving fast — the first eight chapters are done in draft form, which translates to about 160 pages of text. It’s been a busy month!
One of the big issues I’ve wrestled with is how relevant some of the worldviews we’ve looked at in the past actually are to our own time. Marxism, for example. When I tell people we need to take Marxism seriously as a worldview competitor to Christianity, I get a lot of eye-rolling. Here’s part of my introduction to the chapter, which I intend as a gentle but insistent response to this line of response:
Most people have a vague sense of Marxism’s destructive nature; “It’s a good idea on paper but it never worked in reality,” they say. Very few take Marxism seriously as an idea; the words Marxism or Communism conjure images not of fearsome military power or a hundred million dead bodies, but of clueless hippies wearing Che Guevara t-shirts, silly propaganda posters, and ridiculous dictators who have no clue how out of step they are with the rest of the world. Many believe if you can laugh at it you don’t have to think about it. That’s a mistake.
So what are these ideas, Marxism and Communism? Simply put, Marxism is a philosophy and communism is the ideal state achieved when Marxism is lived out. A Marxist is a person who embraces the philosophy of Karl Marx; a Communist is a person who applies Marx’s ideas to the government and the economy.
Karl Marx did most of his work in the British Museum in London, the city to which he fled because his revolutionary activity elsewhere made whole nations dislike him. There was a lot to dislike. Marx was a famously rude person whose unwillingness to bathe or get a haircut was legendary, as was his inattentiveness as a husband and father. 1
And though he claimed to understand the working man, Marx never stepped foot in an actual factory, that we know of, or did any real work himself. 2
On February 21, 1848, Marx published the Communist Manifesto with the assistance of Friedrich Engels, a young revolutionary who assuaged Marx’s prodigious financial appetite with money earned, ironically, by his father’s factory. After reciting the evils of factory owners, the Manifesto states:
The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Proletarians of all countries, unite!
The Manifesto is radical, vivid, and even prosaic. For more than 150 years now its ideas have marched across the pages of history as surely as Alexander the Great’s armies marched across Asia.
When the Berlin Wall finally fell in 1989, many thought communism itself would crumble too. In quick succession, the Soviet Union and its satellites either quit whistling the tune of Communism or went silent altogether. Yet many nations today still put their faith in communism, among them China, Cuba, and North Korea. For everyone else, claiming to be a Marxist or Communist is like professing to enjoy clubbing harp seal pups; you’re either a jerk or an idiot — take your pick.
And yet, very few in the West have truly come to grips with what has happened in history when Marxists get their way. We all know about the horrors of Nazi Germany but the slaughter of 100 million people by communist regimes of the twentieth century seems not to have registered. 3 Specifically, historians now estimate, only as a starting point, 61 million deaths in the Soviet Union, 38.6 million in China, two million in Cambodia (then called the Khmer Rouge), 1.6 million in North Korea, and 1.2 million in Yugoslavia. 4 We know lots about Hitler — who his girlfriend was, what kind of music he listened to — but virtually nothing about Lenin, Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot, or the others in Communism’s panoply.
Why the indifference? Maybe it’s because while one death is a tragedy, a million is just a statistic. But these were people like you and me, with hopes and dreams and memories, loved by their families. It is too late to stand in the gap for them, but we can honor their memory by proclaiming, “Never again,” and we must. Up against the silence surrounding communism’s atrocities, the first act of healing is to speak. Qui tacet consentit — silence equals consent. There are many reasons we should care, not the least of which is Edmund Burke’s admonition: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Marxists undoubtedly will see our analysis as unfair, reeling off the tragic historical circumstances and the unfortunate rise of a few bad actors who are the ones truly to blame. Perhaps they’re right. To find out, we’ll dig into the influence of Marxism today, examine its basic principles, discern what kind of worldview it is, and explore its answers to life’s ultimate questions. For the most part, it is Marxists themselves, not their critics, whose words will move the discussion along. Our first task is answering the question, “Is this even something we should still care about?”
I’d love to get your feedback!
- Paul Johnson, Intellectuals (New York: Harper Perennial, 1988), pp. 71-81.
- Ibid., p. 60.
- Political scientist R.J. Rummel estimates that communism killed about 110 million people in the 20th century (www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/COM.ART.HTM), while The Black Book of Communism, published by Harvard University Press, estimates that nearly 100 million were killed by communist regimes in the 20th century. The total may never really be known.