Celebrity Smackdown: Thoreau vs. Marx

by Sam Buntz

I’ve never felt the attraction of socialism—although I think I understand what makes it appealing.  For a while, I admit, I was interested in non-Marxist forms of socialism and communal forms of living—like the Christian anarchism of Leo Tolstoy— but this was mainly because those paths made individual development a priority, and they were voluntary associations.  Their existence wasn’t compelled from above by the state, and the thinkers who inspired those movements didn’t say the kinds of things that Karl Marx said— for instance, that “The smallest human unit is two people.”  Although many people find this statement to be a beautiful condensation of the idea that we ought to live for others, it never resonated with me.  In fact, it repelled me.  I do believe we ought to help other people—not that we should be forced to help them, though, since this usually proves to be self-defeating enough.  The idealists who devoutly espouse this principle often seem to think a bit too narrowly about what it means to help other people.  They end up becoming the flip-side of the Ayn Rand worshippers, who make it a moral imperative to live selfishly and not to help others.  That is, they seem to think about charity in primarily material terms—curing hunger and sickness, for example.  But every socialist or communist country that has ever come into existence—and I mean the nations which enforced complete government ownership of all industries and the abolition of most private property, and not the Scandinavian countries, where private property and private enterprise both still exist—seems to have ended by reducing the concerns of humanity to the base material level.  The greatest artists and spiritual figureheads the Soviet Union produced were its dissenters and undertakers—people like Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak—and not the various Stalinist lackeys whose artistic and architectural monstrosities now seem as dead as the empire that funded them.

Undoubtedly, hunger and sickness are enemies we need to fight—but if I insisted that everyone commit themselves to a Marxist notion of what it means to fight them, I would never have allowed Thoreau to spend so much time idling on Walden Pond and in Concord, Mass., taking eight slow years to finally revise and self-publish a book about his often solitary life-experiences. A committed Marxist would’ve seen what many of Thoreau’s more materially-minded contemporaries saw—a lay-about who wanted to “hoard his virtue for himself”, to collect nature-lore and observe the passage of the seasons without ever lifting a finger for others (aside, of course, from sheltering slaves on the Underground Railroad and performing the occasional act of civil disobedience—which are, admittedly, pretty significant instances of Thoreau’s social-conscience.)  All of Thoreau’s contemporaries (except Emerson) were blind to the great gift of Walden—and it failed to find its full audience until the Great Depression clued people into the virtues of simplicity, and again, with a resurgence in the 1960s.  It did eventually have an impact on tens of thousands of people—yet essential to its eventual success was the fact that it had been produced by a man, who, in his lifetime, shirked the idea that we ought to live overtly and materially for others.  He criticized this idea in a passage from Walden:

“I would not subtract anything from the praise that is due to philanthropy, but merely demand justice for all who by their lives and works are a blessing to mankind. I do not value chiefly a man’s uprightness and benevolence, which are, as it were, his stem and leaves. Those plants of whose greenness withered we make herb tea for the sick serve but a humble use, and are most employed by quacks. I want the flower and fruit of a man… His goodness must not be a partial and transitory act, but a constant superfluity, which costs him nothing and of which he is unconscious. This is a charity that hides a multitude of sins. The philanthropist too often surrounds mankind with the remembrance of his own castoff griefs as an atmosphere, and calls it sympathy. We should impart our courage, and not our despair, our health and ease, and not our disease, and take care that this does not spread by contagion.”

This is perfectly balanced wisdom.  But if Thoreau had lived in the Soviet Union, he would’ve been prime fodder for the Gulag.  Of course, post-modern Marxists will argue that the Soviet Union failed to realize Marx’s ideal—which, I would submit, is due to the fact that no one can realize it.  (And besides, the authoritarian state endorsed by Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and Mao didn’t depart significantly from Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat”, anyway.)  And I don’t mean to argue that, since Walden never would’ve been written if Thoreau had lived in a communist state, the Marxist idea is totally bankrupt.  I mean to argue that since thousands upon thousands of meaningful achievements, attained by people known and unknown to the world-at-large, would never have happened if they had been circumscribed by Marx’s rigidly material notion of human-development, the Marxist ideal is totally bankrupt.

The American Transcendentalist tradition—which is fairly close to enlightened Libertarianism—is not an enemy of charity, but only of a materialistic notion of charity.  Emerson did say that he thought a dollar given to the philanthropist was a wicked dollar, although he sometimes indulged in it himself, but his meaning was evidently that real charity isn’t second-hand, but something we produce with our own energy and through the use of our own talents.  I used to think Steve Jobs was a bit selfish for saying that he thought he could due more good for the world by investing his money in Apple, rather than trying to set up a massive charitable foundation like Bill Gates, but ultimately I think that both paths are valid.  The Socialist tendency to condemn all private enterprise jars irreconcilably with this fact.  It would be better to start competing, and marketing good and ethically-responsible products against the constant flow of crappy products that don’t improve life, and in fact damage or lessen it, rather than attempting to destroy those wasteful or value-less products through management from above.  Too often we try to combat those products—like the Kardashian shows or whatever cliché object of derision you want to use for demonstration—by railing against the stupidity of the consumer and attempting to get the government or society to somehow protect the consumer from his or her own negative propensities.  But did it ever occur to anyone that the consumer’s attention might actually be more effectively diverted by the production of quality alternatives—by great ideas and slick marketing?  One might need to wait for some time to see the final fruition of the goal (like Thoreau’s ghost had to), but it is important to consider Time as an ally.  Emerson urged people to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness—such advice would’ve probably diverted the energy that was wasted in things like the Occupy Movement into infinitely more effective channels.  Individualism and Libertarianism are not for people who want to manipulate the public interest without creating anything real—they’re for people who believe that the latent powers of mind and will in humanity-at-large will respond when provoked by a true act of creation.


One thought on “Celebrity Smackdown: Thoreau vs. Marx

  1. Very well said. The distinctions between Throeaus transcendentalism and Marx’s materialism had never occurred to me before. This issue, as well as many others, was a valuable insight to me. Thank you.

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