Monday, January 13, 2014

Sometimes you get surprised

I recently saw a book about the "mythos" of Karl Marx referred to in a leading German philosophy journal, the Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie, also known to regulars as DZPhil.

The book is by Konrad Löw, Der Mythos Marx und seine Macher: Wie aus Geschicten Geschichte wird (1996). The reference was in an article by Gerald Hubmann, "Ruckkehr in die Philosophie? Neue Marx-Literatur" DZPhil 50:2002/3. Hubmann cites an article in a popular German news magazine, Focus, in which Löw grumps about how useless it is to spend money on new editions of Marx's collective works, because who cares about his stuff any more? Or something to that effect.

Hubmann notes in a sober academic tone, "Gerade aus einer solchen Tabuisierung, ja Dämonisierung aber konnte eines Tages der neue Mythos erwachsen, den Löw eigentlich verhindern mochte" ("But precisely out of such a tabooizing, even demonizing, one day the new mythos could grow that Löw actually would like to prevent.")

So I thought, oh, this might be interesting. A post-Cold War look at various ways that people have turned Marx into some kind of mythical figure. So I checked it out. I read some of the part dealing directly with Marx' biography, and saw that Moses Hess and other Young Hegelians and one-time allies of Marx criticized him, that Marx sometimes disagreed with leaders of the German Social Democratic Party, that he wrote a Critique of the Gotha Programme that expressed concerns about the official unity program the Party adopted in 1875, that Frederick Engels was an enthusiastic disciple of Marx. Big whoop. All standard parts of the old boy's biography. Löw seems to find all of it particularly damaging to Marx' reputation. But then it was obvious from Hubmann's comments that Löw was no fan. Just nothing new or particularly interesting in that part.

So I thought, oh, here's a whole section of the book on Marx as "the most successful 'theologian' since the Reformation," dealing with Christianity and Marxism, Paul Tillich, Ernesto Cardenal, Leonardo Boff, all theologians of some note. In the first couple of pages, he explains that Marx' philosophical materialism and atheism was incompatible with Christian theology. (Well, duh!) But whatever the varying positions the real existing socialist countries of the 20th and 21st centuries took toward religion, surely Löw would have noticed Marx' own statement in the Critique of the Gotha Programme to which he enthusiastically refers in the earlier section, when he where Marx suggests an appropriate Social Democratic statement of principle on freedom of conscience would be, "Jeder muß seine religiöse wie seine leibliche Notdurft verrichten können, ohne daß die Polizei ihre Nase hineinsteckt." ("Everyone must be able to relieve his religious as well as his bodily needs without the police sticking their noses in.") Obviously not very reverent. But it's nevertheless a pretty Jeffersonian definition of religious freedom from government interference.

Not only would it seem to make a better argument from his perspective to point to the anti-religious policies of later states which identified themselves as officially Marxist. But his argument suggests that the philosophical materialism of Marx' argument poisons everything else he talked about, from economics to politics to history to social theory. I thought while reading it that such an argument could be just as easily applied to, well, all of modern science, which relies on assumptions that are at a minimum compatible with philosophical materialism. I began to wonder what Löw would think about Darwinian theories of natural selection, which also don't require a divine Creator.

He then makes a argument, with a somewhat sarcastic edge, that Marxism actually has a lot in common with the Christian religion, e.g., it proposes the Proletariat as Savior. I thought, okay, this is really stretching it. And it sounds like stock Cold War cliches about how Marxism was an ersatz religion. Not an argument to be entirely brushed off. But hardly original. Nor did Löw seem to be offering any new insights.

Maybe he does later. But on the third page of this section he says - seriously - "Manches spricht sogar für the These, daß Marx ein Satanist gewesen sei." ("There is even some evidence for the thesis that Marx was a Satanist.")

Marx was a Satanist?!? What the ...? The only "evidence for the thesis" would be that fanatic fundamentalists of the Glenn Beck or John Birch Society or White Citizens Council variety think it sounds good to say.

Good grief! When Gerald Hubmann wrote that Löw was "demonizing" Marx, he wasn't being rhetorical!

At this point, I felt embarrassed that I actually had to read more than two pages to realize the writer was a blithering crackpot. I take some comfort in recalling Charlie Pierce's five-minute rule in talking to fans of the Ron Paul dynasty. Which is that you can have a perfectly rational conversation with one of them for up to five minutes. Then at precisely 5:00:01 minutes, they start sailing off into the stratosphere of Alex Jones type conspiracy theories.

The Satanist bit comes on p. 223 of Löw's book. I like to think that if I had read it from the start, I would have figured out it was hack propaganda recycled in highbrow form long before I wasted the time to read 200-plus pages.


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