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.


“ ‘Not a Piano Key:’ Reflections on Socialism and Art”

by Sam Buntz

To argue against Marxism or Communism, at this point in time, might not seem to be the most relevant way of chipping away the hours.  No actual Communist nation exists on earth, if one ever has or even could: the supposedly Marxist nations have either, like China and Vietnam, retained their authoritarianism while joining the free-market (demonstrating that economic liberty doesn’t, somehow, manage to create civil liberty), or become a military-based kingdom of fear, like North Korea, aping Orwell.  Yet, I would like to indulge a passing whim, and argue against the Marxist perspective, since it seems to be an enthusiasm (often in altered forms) of many students and professors at the institutions to which I’ve belonged.  But at the same time, I plan on arguing for an older form of socialism—as an exercise, though I do partially agree with this political philosophy—and show how socialism is not necessarily, as it so often appears be, a matter of collectivist brainwashing, but can be an imaginatively gratifying and individualistic philosophy, although no one today is willing to portray it as such, including its supposed advocates.

Now, practically all of the Neo-Marxists I know would be incapable of bringing off a violent or non-violent Communist revolt—but they are sitting in what should be “the engine room of society” (the university—somewhat laughably, I know), and hence should be responsible for coming up with ideas that matter, in one way or another, and which go somewhat beyond the absurd project of criticizing Shakespeare for being sexist or a capitalist, or what have you.  Now, I actually feel very friendly towards a certain kind of socialism (though I wouldn’t call myself a socialist, when there are so many more important things to be), advocated by such British prophets as Shelley, Morris, Wilde, and others.  That form of socialism was fundamentally democratic, involved no “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and sought to free the human imagination from the chains into which limited economic opportunity had forced it.  The goal of this kind of socialism was to liberate human beings into a new state of creative participation—in which, rather than being the tools of our tools, we could switch the game around, and apply the fruits of technology and progress to re-envisioning the world around us in terms more suited to our humanity.  This kind of socialism was not at odds with individualism or spirituality, and would not have accepted Marx’s awful dictum that “the smallest human unit is two people.”  Rather, in line with Blake and Shelley, this kind of socialism saw the individual’s right to clarify his or her own vision of the world through art and religion as pre-eminent.  In Blakean terms, art is the true religion, since it allows us to picture the world as we would like it to be, ideally—a City of God in which every citizen sees things as they are, “infinite,” rather than in the “stiff and stubborn, man-locked set,” our current modes of perception have forced us into (though this kind of religion has nothing to do with the “opiate of the masses” kind of religion—hypnotic rituals and priest-craft).  But I am continually disheartened to find that not only do (virtually) no American students and professors who think of themselves as socialists see socialism in these terms—in fact, they view it in almost diametrically opposed terms.

Now, if one were to embrace “Scandinavian” socialism—given that one had the resources and the economic stability in one’s own country to pull it off—who could really argue?  The Swedes evidently aren’t suffering culturally or in terms of human rights as a result of their “socialism,” and it seems to further, rather than repress, individuality.  But when it comes to actual academic Marxist critics (or Marxian critics, as we now usually say, for some reason) the situation is far more depressing.  The critic Terry Eagleton —one cannot properly say “literary” critic, since what he does cannot, by my standards, be called literary criticism—is one of the most popular public intellectuals and most cited scholars in Britain, and yet he has said things that to my mind are absolutely reprehensible, and offensive to any advocate of humane thought.  For instance, predicting a Communist golden age, he once said that there may come a time when, “Shakespeare would be no more valuable than much present-day graffiti.”  To my mind, if we were to live in a civil libertarian socialist country (like Sweden), where everyone had just enough, in material terms, the only goal we could really pursue—if we weren’t going to wreck the quasi-Utopia we had managed to create—would be a cultural paradise, a place where we would perfect our spiritual and artistic powers of realization to their utmost.  Shakespeare, therefore, would not only be relevant, but supremely relevant, in such a society—and Scandinavia, at the present moment, and given its small size, seems to me to be a place unusually open to the arts and to cultural freedom.  Yet, for Eagleton, culture and art are only relevant insofar as they can help agitate for universal equality and redistribution of the wealth—they cannot be a vision of reality, springing from the poet’s imaginative re-working of Nature, but need to be hectoring and didactic screeds, launched specifically from the authoritarian Marxist-Catholic viewpoint espoused by Eagleton (by which I intend no offense to Catholics—only to Eagleton’s totalitarian brand of Catholicism).

I pick on Eagleton not only because he is a popular example of something ideologically abhorrent (to me, at least), but because I know plenty of people that basically think the same thoughts.  Sure, they’ll probably be ineffectual on a grander social scale—but they will succeed in doing damage to others by enshrining themselves as inscrutable Sphinx-like authorities in any number of university departments, if they haven’t already done so.  Eagleton and his ilk seem to think that, once we’ve attained the basic goal of equality, we will simply have “enough,” and will treat each other like angels, henceforth, content not to vie with one another for wealth and position.  This is a remarkably naïve view—the idea that equality, in and of itself, forms the sole goal of human progress, seems perverse.  Equality is, to me, only valuable because it affords everyone the opportunity to then develop their individuality, which necessarily occurs through the imagination—that is, through the cultivation of spiritual and artistic goals.  It’s a starting point and a means—not an end.  If anyone thinks that the mere fact of everyone having the exact same amount of stuff will automatically eliminate domestic abuse and alcoholism, for example, I think they’ll be shocked.  Now, I don’t consider a reactionary like Dostoevsky to be a great authority on political matters (though he is a great authority on human character and behavior, and on certain aspects of spirituality), but he critiqued the Utopian Communism of Eagleton and others when he said that a human being would willfully pursue the most perverse ends and desire the most impossible desires just to prove that he or she was not the mere pawn of material circumstances, “a human and not a piano key.”

The demand for equality is laudable when we actually believe that equality is useful, and forms a means to the higher end of re-imagining the world.  But when we can only re-imagine the world as a place where everyone has the same number of loaves of bread, we immediately are headed down the course to Stalinism.  I had a class recently where some of the far-left-wing students were arguing against the mystical philosophy of the great Christian mystic, Pseudo-Dionysus, on the grounds that it would not be accessible to everyone—since, as Pseudo-Dionysus observes, the mystical quest for God, pursued with ceaseless rigor and asceticism, would not be a goal that would seem desirable to the vast majority of human beings, caught up in the distractions of worldly life.  Now, to my mind, Pseudo-Dionysus seems undoubtedly in the right—most human beings won’t pursue mysticism, but can probably find another genuinely creative way of fulfilling themselves and aiding those around them, in a hopefully non-disastrous fashion.  The fact that the mystical goal is infrequently accepted is not an argument against it, but an argument against the whims of human beings and their propensity for distraction.  Yet, the aforementioned students in the class were arguing as though Pseudo-Dionysus’ goal were wrong for the reverse reasons—that only a form of spirituality accessible to literally everyone should be practiced or allowed.  This kind of spiritual-leveling strikes me as insane: there are as many ways of serving humanity and God-in-humanity as there are human beings.  To attack one method because of its supposed “elitism,” is the opposite of what it purports to be—it is intolerant, rather than a movement for tolerance.  Oscar Wilde made this beautiful point in his essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” arguing for the kind of socialism I have been defending (if not exactly endorsing):  “And so he who would lead a Christlike life is he who is perfectly and absolutely himself. He may be a great poet, or a great man of science; or a young student at a University, or one who watches sheep upon a moor; or a maker of dramas, like Shakespeare, or a thinker about God, like Spinoza; or a child who plays in a garden, or a fisherman who throws his net into the sea. It does not matter what he is, as long as he realizes the perfection of the soul that is within him. All imitation in morals and in life is wrong… There is no one type for man. There are as many perfections as there are imperfect men. And while to the claims of charity a man may yield and yet be free, to the claims of conformity no man may yield and remain free at all.”  This is not only profound, but the exact prescribed dose of medicine these supposed leftists require.

To argue against mysticism as these students did or against Shakespeare as Terry Eagleton did betrays the same great Error—mistaking equality for brotherhood and sisterhood, and a leveling of all minds to the same lowest-common-denominator for religion.  The liberation into artistic-creation recommended by the non-Marxist, British socialists of the 19th Century is really the opposite of their approach, and I think the Swedish socialists understand this point, as well.  Socialism, if it is to be pure, cannot be a rigid conformity of aims masquerading as something mild—it must be a way of freeing people to see the world with clear eyes and to get their renewed vision down on paper and in the flesh.  By liberating people from servitude to currency, the British socialists were trying to free them from base interests, allowing them to pursue Creation for its own sake, as itself the attempt to repair the broken image of God in Man.  The freest spirits have always managed this—from Shakespeare and Blake, to Emerson and Whitman—yet (in theory at least) the same creative freedom would be made accessible to more and more people by an increase in equal economic opportunities.  Yet since the people who advocate such equal economic opportunities view them as the ultimate and definitive end goal, and usually spurn artistic, spiritual, and literary projects as secondary, they are doomed to be ineffectual.  Countless minds have thrown themselves in the waste-basket.

I personally think that some kind of free-enterprise will always be necessary—though one tempered away from savage impulses, as the Scandinavians have attempted to do.  But the dream of  “a poet’s paradise” still more than tempts me—such a paradise would be valuable not because of its own physical and earthly reality, but because of the ideal of spiritual vision it inspires, the Jerusalem that Blake could see, built among the same “dark Satanic mills” that crowded the British landscape.  Today, we have our own “dark Satanic mills”—literally and metaphorically—and few to oppose them.  But if even a few strike and stand under the imagination’s banner, it’s possible a fighting chance still exists.  One thinks of the Biblical Book of Esther, in which, at the last moment, the evil Persian counselor who seemed to be on the cusp of victory, poised to slaughter the Jews, loses, and the world is turned upside down in Hebraic triumph.  Even if no one ever attains a physical, earthly version of what Percy Shelley predicted as the final goal of human development, its reality as a vision can still inspire, and cannot fail to have a beneficial and fortifying effect on the imagination: “MAN, one harmonious soul of many a soul, / Whose nature is its own divine control, / Where all things flow to all, as rivers to the sea; / Familiar acts are beautiful through love; / Labour, and pain, and grief, in life’s green grove / Sport like tame beasts, none knew how gentle they could be.”