Millennial Communism

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This article
is excerpted from volume 2, chapter 10 of An
Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought
(1995).
An MP3 audio file of this chapter, narrated by Jeff Riggenbach,
is available
for download
.

The key to
the intricate and massive system of thought created by Karl Marx
(1818–83) is at bottom a simple one: Karl Marx was a communist.
A seemingly banal or trite statement set alongside Marxism’s myriad
of jargon-ridden concepts in philosophy, economics, history, culture,
etc. Yet Marx’s devotion to communism was his crucial point, far
more central than the dialectic, the class struggle, the theory
of surplus value, and all the rest. Communism was the goal, the
great end, the desideratum, the ultimate end that would make the
sufferings of mankind throughout history worthwhile. History is
the history of suffering, of class struggle, of the exploitation
of man by man. In the same way as the return of the Messiah, in
Christian theology, would put an end to history and establish
a new heaven and a new earth, so the establishment of communism
would put an end to human history. And just as for postmillennial
Christians, man, led by God’s prophets and saints, would establish
a Kingdom of God on earth (and, for premillennials, Jesus would
have many human assistants in establishing such a Kingdom), so
for Marx and other schools of communists, mankind, led by a vanguard
of secular saints, would establish a secularized kingdom of heaven
on earth.

In messianic
religious movements, the millennium is invariably established
by a mighty, violent upheaval, an Armageddon, a great apocalyptic
war between good and evil. After this titanic conflict, a millennium,
a new age, of peace and harmony, a reign of justice, would be
established upon the earth.

Marx emphatically
rejected those utopians who aimed to arrive at communism through
a gradual and evolutionary process, through a steady advancement
of the good. No, Marx harked back to the apocalyptics, the postmillennial
coercive German and Dutch Anabaptists of the 16th century, to the
millennial sects during the English Civil War, and to the various
groups of premillennial Christians who foresaw a bloody Armageddon
at the Last Days, before the millennium could be established. Indeed,
since the immediatist postmils refused to wait for gradual goodness
and sainthood to permeate among men, they joined the premils in
believing that only a violent apocalyptic final struggle between
good and evil, between saints and sinners, could establish the millennium.
Violent, worldwide revolution, in Marx’s version made by the oppressed
proletariat, would be the instrument of the advent of his millennium,
communism.

In fact, Marx,
like the premils (or "millenarians") went further to hold
that the reign of evil on earth would reach a peak just before the
apocalypse. For Marx as for the millenarians, writes Ernest Tuveson,

The evil
of the world must proceed to its height before, in one great
complete root-and-branch upheaval, it would be swept away….

Millenarian
pessimism about the perfectibility of the existing world is
crossed by a supreme optimism. History, the millenarian believes,
so operates that, when evil has reached its height, the hopeless
situation will be reversed. The original, the true harmonious
state of society, in some kind of egalitarian order, will be
reestablished.[1]

In contrast
to the various groups of utopian socialists, and in common with
religious messianists, Karl Marx did not sketch the features of
his future communism in any detail. Not for Marx, for example,
to spell out the number of people in his utopia, and the shape
and location of their houses, the pattern of their cities. In
the first place, there is a quintessentially crazy air to utopias
that are mapped by their creators in precise detail. But more
importantly, spelling out the details of one’s ideal society removes
the crucial element of awe and mystery from the allegedly inevitable
world of the future. In the same way, science fiction movies lose
their glamour and excitement when, in the second half of the film,
the mysterious, powerful, and previously invisible monsters become
concretized into slow-moving green blob-like creatures that have
lost their mysterious aura and have become almost commonplace.

But certain
features are broadly alike in all visions of communism. Private
property is eliminated, individualism goes by the board, individuality
is flattened, all property is owned and controlled communally, and
the individual units of the new collective organism are in some
vague way equal to one another.

This millennialist
emphasis on the collective is a long way from the orthodox Christian,
Augustinian stress on the individual soul and his salvation. In
orthodox, amillennial Christianity, the individual does or does
not achieve salvation, until Jesus returns and puts an end to history,
and ushers in the Day of Judgment. There is no millennium on earth;
the Kingdom of God remains safely, and appropriately, in heaven.
But millennialism’s emphasis on achieving a Kingdom of God on
earth inevitably stressed – especially in the required
human agency of the postmillennialists – the inevitable collective
march toward the Kingdom in and through history. In what we may
call the "immediatist" version of postmil doctrine, as
we have seen in Volume 1 in the Brethren of the Free Spirit, the
coercive Anabaptists of the Reformation, in Christian communists
and in a secularized version in Marxism, the object is to seize
immediate power in a violent revolution, and to purge the world
of sinners and heretics, i.e., all who are not followers of the
sect in question, so as to establish the millennium, the precondition
of Jesus’s Second Advent. In contrast, the gradualist postmils,
in less violent and precipitate fashion, who would seize control
of most of the Protestant churches in the northern United States
during the 19th century, wanted to use state power to coerce morality
and virtue and then establish the Kingdom of God, not only in the
United States, but throughout the world. As one historian penetratingly
concludes about one of the most prominent postmil economists and
social scientists of the late 19th century – a passage that
could apply to the entire movement:

In [Richard
T.] Ely’s eyes, government was the God-given instrument through
which we had to work. Its preeminence as a divine instrument
was based on the post-Reformation abolition of the division
between the sacred and the secular and on the State’s power
to implement ethical solutions to public problems. The same
identification of sacred and secular … enabled Ely to both
divinize the state and socialize Christianity: he thought of
government as God’s major instrument of redemption … [2]

Gradualists
or immediatists, all millennialists have caused grave social and
political trouble by "immanentizing the eschaton" –
in the political philosopher Eric Voegelin’s infelicitously worded
but highly perceptive phrase. As an orthodox Christian, Voegelin
believed that "the eschaton" – the Final Days, the
Kingdom of God – must be kept strictly out of earthly matters
and be confined to the other-worldly realms of heaven and hell.
But to take the "eschaton" out of heaven and bring it
down into the processes of human history, is to create grave problems
and consequences: consequences which Voegelin saw embodied in such
immanent and messianic movements as Marxism and Nazism.

In common with
other utopian socialists and communists, Marx sought in communism
the apotheosis of the collective species – mankind as one new
super-being, in which the only meaning possessed by the individual
is as a negligible particle of that collective organism. One incisive
portrayal of Marxian collective organicism – what amounts to
a celebration of the New Socialist Man to be created during the
communizing process – was that of a top Bolshevik theoretician
of the early 20th century, Alexander Alexandravich Bogdanov (1873–1928).
Bogdanov, like Joachim of Fiore, spoke of "three ages"
of human history: first was a religious, authoritarian society and
a self-sufficient economy. Next came the "second age,"
an exchange economy, marked by diversity and the emergence of "autonomy"
of the "individual human personality." But this individualism,
at first progressive, later becomes an obstacle to progress as it
hampers and "contradicts the unifying tendencies of the machine
age." But then there will arise the third age, the final stage
of history, communism, though not as with Joachim, an age of the
Holy Spirit. This last stage will be marked by a collective self-sufficient
economy, and by

the fusion
of personal lives into one colossal whole, harmonious in the
relations of its parts, systematically grouping all elements
for one common struggle – struggle against the endless
spontaneity of nature … An enormous mass of creative activity
… is necessary in order to solve this task. It demands the
forces not of man but of mankind – and only in working
at this task does mankind as such emerge.[3]

The acme of
messianic communism appears in the frenzied three-volume phantasmagoria
by the notable German blend of Christian messianist and Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist,
Ernst Bloch (1885–1977). Bloch held that the "inner truth"
of things could only be discovered after "a complete transformation
of the universe, a grand apocalypse, the descent of the Messiah,
a new heaven, and a new earth." As J.P. Stern writes in his
review of Bloch’s three-volume Principle
of Hope
, the book contains such remarkable declamations
as Ubi Lenin, ibi Jerusalem (“Where Lenin is, there is Jerusalem”),
and that "the Bolshevist fulfillment of Communism" is
part and parcel of "the age-old fight for God." There
is also more than a hint, in Bloch, that disease, nay even death
itself, will be abolished upon the advent of communism.[4]

In contrast,
there is no more eloquent championing of orthodox Christian individualism
and revulsion against collectivism, than G.K. Chesterton’s critique
of the views of a leading Fabian socialist, Mrs. Annie Besant –
in which Chesterton swats Mrs. Besant’s pantheistic Buddhism:

According
to Mrs Besant the universal Church is simply the universal Self.
It is the doctrine that we are really all one person; that there
are no real walls of individuality between man and man…. She
does not tell us to love our neighbor; she tells us to be our
neighbors … the intellectual abyss between Buddhism and Christianity
is that, for the Buddhist or theosophist, personality is the
fall of man, for the Christian it is the purpose of God, the
whole point of his cosmic idea.[5]

Let us turn
to some of the main features of communism. In the typical communal
millennial future, an epoch of bliss and harmony, work,
the necessity to labor, becomes deemphasized or disappears altogether.
Labor, at least labor in order to maintain and advance one’s living
standards, does not ring true with very many people as a feature
of utopia. Thus, in the vision of Joachim of Fiore, perhaps the
first medieval millennialist, no work would be required to disturb
the endless round of celebration and prayer, because mankind would
have achieved the status of immaterial objects. If man were pure
spirit, it is true that the economic problem – the problem
of production and living standards – would necessarily disappear.
Unfortunately, however, Marx, being an atheist and materialist,
could not exactly fall back on a Fiore-like communism of pure
spirit. How could solidly material human beings solve the problem
of production and of maintaining and expanding their living standards?

There was method
in Marx’s refusal to treat the communist stage in any detail. His
utopia was shadowy. On the one hand, Marx assumed and asserted that
goods in the future communist society would be superabundant. If
so, there would of course be no need to refer to the universal economic
problem of scarcity of means and resources as applied to ends. But
by assuming away the problem, Marx bequeathed the puzzle to future
generations, and Marxists have been split on the question: Will
communism itself bring about this magical state of superabundance,
or should we wait until capitalism brings superabundance
before we establish communism? Generally, Marxist groups have solved
this problem, not in theory but in practice (or "praxis"),
by cleaving to whatever path would allow them either to conquer
or to maintain their power. Thus Marxist vanguards or parties, on
seeing an opportunity to seize power, have been invariably willing
to skip the "stages of history" preordained by their Master
and exercise their revolutionary will. On the other hand, Marxist
elites already entrenched in power have prudentially put off the
ultimate goal of communism ever further into a receding future.
And so the Soviets were quick to stress hard work and gradualism
in persevering toward the ultimate goal.[6]

There are several other
probable reasons for Marx’s failure to detail the features of ultimate
communism, or, indeed, of the necessary stages to achieve it. First
is that Marx had no interest in the economic features of his utopia;
a simple question-begging assumption of unlimited abundance was
enough. His main interest, as we shall see, was in the philosophic,
indeed religious, aspects of communism. Second, communism for Marx
was an inverted form of Hegel and his philosophy of history; it
was the revolutionary end to Marx’s neo-Hegelian version of "alienation"
and of the "dialectic" process by which the aufhebung
(transcendence) and negation of one historical stage is replaced
by another and opposing one. In this case: the negation of the evil
condition of private property and the division of labor, and the
establishment of communism, in which man’s unity with man and nature
is achieved. To Marx, as to Hegel, history necessarily proceeds
by this magical dialectic, in which one stage gives rise inevitably
to a later and opposing stage. Except that to Marx, the "dialectic"
is material rather than spiritual.[7]
Marx never published his neo-Hegelian Economic
and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844
, in which the philosophic
basis of Marxism was set forth, and one essay of which, "Private
Property and Communism," contained Marx’s fullest exposition
of the communist society. One reason for his refusal to publish
was that, in later decades, Hegelian philosophy had gone out of
fashion, even in Germany, and Marx’s followers were interested more
in the economic and revolutionary aspects of Marxism.

Murray
N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian School,
founder of modern libertarianism, and chief academic officer
of the Mises Institute. He
was also editor — with Lew Rockwell — of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his literary
executor. See
his books.

Copyright
2012 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided
full credit is given.

The
Best of Murray Rothbard

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