Showdown in November: Marx or Mill?
At the Republican convention in 2008, a reporter got Newt Gingrich's attention with the pointed comment that Sarah Palin's résumé as John McCain's running mate "is not something that we're familiar seeing with presidential candidates." Gingrich shot back: "I don't know of a single thing Obama's done except talk and write. I'd like you to tell me one thing you think Senator Obama's done." The reporter balked.
As Gingrich the historian might have added, individuals propelled by the audacity of hope that talking and writing could change the world are found in virtually every age. I mean the real-deal in the way of original ideas, right or wrong, not feel-good chit-chat designed to sway an electorate. (Copies of Obama's The Audacity of Hope are now in the Amazon dustbin at $0.01 plus $3.99 shipping.) In modern times, the heavy hitter who most dramatically exemplifies intellectual chutzpah run amok is Karl Marx.
Many of Marx's most influential ideas belong under political philosophy, a subject Plato originated that has implications beyond philosophy -- though scholars warn not to read his Republic as an instructions manual for good governance. The job description Plato drew up for philosophers, by way of potential remedy to the mass confusion Socrates found, lists as a key duty the clarification of fundamental concepts -- e.g., justice and virtue. Attention must be paid going from theory to practice! But Marx threw caution to the winds, declaring that interpreting the world wasn't enough: the point was to change it. To the barricades, comrades!
A responsible path in an age of representative government would have been for Marx to enter politics and advance legislation to correct injustices. He would have done a world of good by working on behalf of universal suffrage, for example. But alas, his monumental ego insisted that the engine of society needed a complete overhaul rather than just a tune-up -- not a welcome message in European capitals already in turmoil. Pamphleteering and community organizing didn't pan out, so he switched to sedition, using inheritance money (he could ill-afford to spend) to arm locals bent on shooting up Brussels. When this fling with terrorists got him booted out of Belgium, he beat a hasty retreat (with a false passport) to the safety of France but was on the lam again after altercations with Paris authorities. Marx settled in London in 1849 and would spend the rest his life there, 34 years, scribbling away and crying in his beer when the revolution predicted by his (pseudo-)scientific analysis of history failed to materialize. His final verdict on the country that had given him refuge (when others wouldn't): "Drat the British!"
Marx left behind ideas that have caused immense harm as precursors to communism, providing justification, excuse, or cover (take your pick) for increasing state power at the expense of individual freedom. We all know what happened when Lenin and Mao, power-hungry politicians with intellectual pretensions of their own, got hold of Marx's attack on capitalism and put his "remedies" into practice. (Soviet editors omitted from Marx's Collected Works writings in which he expressed contempt for Russia.) While Marx isn't (entirely) to blame for the suffering Marxism has caused, maybe the British Museum, where Das Kapital (1867) was composed, should have pulled his library card. Universities certainly would have been better off without Marxist flunkies poring over the master's toilet paper for new clues -- and filling students' heads with leftist slogans.
Here are famous (infamous?) formulas to watch this election year. "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" may sound a lot like the Obama Tax Plan or the rallying cry of the OWS rabble, but it is actually a quote from Marx's Critique of the Gotha Program (1875). "Soak the rich" rhetoric urging class warfare against "the 1 percent," exemplified in one too many speeches by Democratic Party politicians, including Obama, also derives from Marx. A version of this inflammatory and un-American verbiage may well find its way into the party platform this summer. Let's see if the platform sneaks in a suitably euphemistic reference to Marx's "dictatorship of the proletariat" as the way of the future in this country. Any bets?
And now for something completely different. John Stuart Mill -- child prodigy, eminent Victorian, author of On Liberty (1859) -- sought change responsibly by entering politics. In fact, he was the first major philosopher elected to office. Mill made lasting contributions in virtually all areas of philosophy -- and treated his wife Harriet as an equal. (Marx impregnated the housekeeper.) Mill was a Member of Parliament from Westminster during 1865-68, serving under a classical liberal in the tradition of Burke and Macaulay, "Grand Old Man" Gladstone. Mill advocated proportional representation and was the first to petition Parliament in favor of women's suffrage. He said that war may be conducted "to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice," as did President Bush. A foreign policy of "leading from behind" would have been unthinkable (for any other American president as well). Mill's attack on colonialism made him unpopular, and he was not re-elected.
On Liberty would make instructive reading for the Obama administration as an antidote to its adulation of Marx. Mill defends a conception of liberty consistent with that of our Framers, who would have been horrified at the proliferation of "czars" under Obama. Individual freedom, said Mill, was compatible only with limited government. How limited? Mill agrees that the state has the right to enact coercive or restrictive laws to prevent conduct that poses a threat to the rights or interests of others, but adds: only then.
Thus, citizens choosing not to buy health insurance are not harming others, so the government has no right to make buying health insurance mandatory. Gun ownership harms others only when combined with actions that can be restricted separately, so the Second Amendment is sound jurisprudence. The Eighteenth Amendment should not have been passed because the sale of alcohol harms no one, while its consumption could harm others only when combined with actions that can be restricted without a constitutional amendment. A purely secular case can be made that the fetus is an innocent human being, so the harm caused by abortion is morally equivalent to murder; Roe v. Wade should therefore not be the law of the land. What consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedrooms is not the state's business, but drugs that cause addiction or lead to violent behavior are. How much business executives should earn is the shareholders' business, not the state's. Admission or employment quotas favoring this or that group are patently unfair and a perversion of equal opportunity. Regulations that hand power over to bureaucrats but accomplish nothing else do not belong on the books. And so on.
This fall's election, then, will be about lines Mill drew in the sand 150 years ago. As to who is best-qualified to figure out how to make Mill's liberty principle work in this huge and complex country of ours, in matters of domestic as well as foreign policy, that, in my estimation, is Newt Gingrich. In any case -- and I can say this within Platonist bounds -- The Marxist erosion of our freedoms must stop.
Arnold Cusmariu is a sculptor and former philosophy professor. He is putting the finishing touches on a book titled Logic for Kids.