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Confessions of an Unrepentant Vulgar Marxist

©Lars Bergquist 1992

I have used the previous chapters to establish the facts (I do hope that nobody
is too browbeaten to protest). This last chapter is different. It is both more s
peculative and more personal. My excuse is that Marxism is no abstract academic
Glasperlenspiel. It is and must be life and action. If we do not dare live Marxi
sm, then we should at least leave it and the Marxists alone and in peace.
I came to Marxism by the same route as Marx himself did; this is not intended to
be as self important as it may sound. The hope of a society without power and s
ubjection, of a dignified existence for man, is a hope that anyone can entertain
. This position-taking however is the inner compass of Marxism: Without it, Marx
ism degenerates into a purely intellectual exercise which puts its participants
under no obligation whatever. When we lose this moral compass, then we are lost
in the wilderness where we willingly accept the power-claims of both Stalinism a
nd capitalism - often simultaneously.
Each time that Europe has seen a turn to the left during the last one hundred an
d twenty years, Marxism has acquired a tail - a baggage of café intellectuals and a
cademic pedants who have jumped on the bandwagon, often with intentions that hav
e been perfectly honourable in their own eyes. The new-found fellowship with les
damnés de la terre has given rise to many a frisson of the kind that the intellect
ual bourgeoisie often experiences when slumming. Still, it is well not to put yo
ur foot into something unpleasant. So, no accusation do the fashionable Marxists
fear more than that of being vulgar.
Consequently, there has been no fashionable idealist philosophy during the last
century that the fashionable Marxists have not tried to infuse Marxism with. Fol
lowing the latest signals from the haute monde, they have sought to prove that M
arxism is no Ersatz thought for dumb proletarians, but the best and most refined
empirio-criticism, logical positivism, humanism, analytical philosophy, structu
ralism - and of course also the best variety of the philosophy according to whic
h the universe is a hallucination in the brain of an assistant professor. And Ch
ristianity, oops, I nearly forgot Christianity. It has not been really 'in', but
it has never been totally 'out' either; and there has consequently never been a
ny lack of comrades who have tried to persuade us that Marx was simply one of th
e prophets, and that Marxism is compatible not only with idealism as such, but w
ith the religious variety.
What makes the living essence of Marxism incomprehensible and indigestible to th
ese people is its position-taking, quite simply. Marxism and Marxists will not a
ccept certain facts, and especially the power relations of present society (they
do not even accept power as such, but this is completely incomprehensible to a
bourgeois. How can people live without a boot pressed against the backs of their
necks and a police stick waving behind them?) They find it necessary to take a
position. This exactly is the 'vulgarity' that strikes horror into the fashionab
le Marxists. It means that they cannot mumble and be evasive, cocoon themselves
in their own empty phrases and reassure both themselves and their listeners that
this was not really serious, it was just an academic Gedankenexperiment. They d
id not really mean it - they just wanted to wave the latest and most exotic buzz
words. Vulgarity, calling a spade a spade, is in their eyes simply class treason
, treason against their own class, the bourgeoisie. Few have the courage to comm
it that transgression unblinkingly.
I do not know why these vapours have never troubled me. On the contrary, I have
always found the clarity of Marxism attractive, the openly declared premises and
the forthright conclusions. After I had rid myself of the Christian paranoia at
the age of thirteen, it was a natural second step (though this followed much la
ter) also to free myself of social and political mystifications. I took both the
se steps with a feeling of immense liberation which is still vivid in my memory.
They were steps out of the anguished half-light of myth into a brightly lit, co
mprehensible reality, into a world where the use of one's human reason was permi
That the world should be comprehensible to us without the aid of revelations and
arcana is probably the most revolutionary notion ever. This is humankind's decl
aration of its own coming of age. Those who have in fresh memory my first essays
on this subject, those on science, will also understand that this notion is no
symptom of intellectual hubris.
First, we understand since Darwin why reason can comprehend reality, the cause o
f that strange consonance of thought and being which has for so long mystified t
he philosophers. If our ability to think had been of no use in understanding the
world, then we would not have possessed it. Secondly, we now comprehend that ou
r truths are provisional. We are not spying on God, and neither do we write laws
for the cosmos. Man's thought will always have a frontier to push against.
The existence of this frontier has certainly always been a delight to the spirit
-junkies. We do not know everything, they say; therefore we know nothing (though
they can enlighten us of course). Outside the light of our knowledge begins dar
kness, and in this darkness, just out of reach of the irritating light of reason
, is the abode of the Other, the transcendent world, that of which you cannot sp
eak, only scream or mumble. Down on your knees before darkness! Never shall we u
nderstand what dwells there, except by the intervention of those priests and pro
phets who eagerly offer to tell us about it, in much detail and for a considerat
ion, of course.
And then the circle of light widens and the supposedly transcendent world become
s accessible to inspection. The terrain proves to be much the same as that which
we knew previously. It is new terrain; new vistas open and we have to redraw ou
r maps. But the monsters and the powers that the spiritualists painted to us hav
e evaporated just as the sea-serpents and the dog-headed tribes that the cartogr
aphers drew in the atlases of yore, to fill in the blank spaces on sea and land.
The spirit-junkies are not put off however. Their consternation eases and they n
ote with satisfaction that the new and wider circle of light also has its limit;
behind it begins darkness again, and they move their lares and penates there, a
ll those idols that can exist only in the dark. See, you do not know everything
... and we do the same procedure as before.
But if we recognize that our knowledge can never be comprehensive, is this not a
fundamental problem for us? Is there then not a chance after all that the darkn
ess-mongers are right, that a radically non-physical reality does exist somewher
e? Je n'ai besoin de cet hypothèse. ['I do not need this hypothesis.' Laplace's fam
ous rejoinder when Napoleon asked him 'what place God had in his system'.] It is
superfluous. There is nothing in our knowledge of the world that would make thi
s hypothesis necessary. If this transcendent reality did exist, then our ignoran
ce of it would be known by us, we would see a large, clearly visible gap in all
our scientific models. The fact that this gap is nowhere to be found banishes th
e transcendent reality to the lumber-room where those things are stored which no
one can prove and which no one takes the trouble to refute, because their exist
ence or nonexistence would not make the slightest difference.
There certainly are kinds of information about reality that will remain forever
inaccessible to us. For instance, we cannot make any measurements inside a black
hole, because no light, no signal, no data can leave it. Does that mean that we
shall have to join in the chorus in praise of ignorance: ignorabimus, ignorabim
us - we shall never know? Not at all. The point is that we know why we do not kn
ow, and that we know that the cause of our ignorance is a physical one, part of
physical reality itself. Kant was correct in saying that das Ding für uns can never
be completely congruent with das Ding an sich. His mistake was the belief that
there existed a metaphysical abyss between them, that the thing in itself belong
ed to a different, non-physical reality.
Just as physical reality is comprehensible, so is social reality. We are not doo
med to be tossed forever like shipwrecked sailors on an unknown ocean. Marx clai
med, and I think he was right in this, that the gods and the powers of religion
are hypostasized, anthropomorphic personalizations of social power and impotence
. Light has driven them away. Similarly, the gods and the powers of the ideologi
sts shall once burst like trolls in the sunrise: the economical 'realities', man
's inherent capitalism, the holy market, the state as the only organizational fo
rm of humankind, the necessity of the élite and the permanence of subservience.
A society can be completely transparent to its members and still exist and work.
Relationships between people must not necessarily masquerade as prices of goods
. Man's creative labour must not forever be a hostile power in opposition to him
. He is entirely a social animal, and his sociality is in no need of mystificati
on and coercion. It is neither threats of eternal nor of temporal retribution th
at make most of us behave decently to each other: it is our human nature. Adolf
Eichmann was no born criminal. It was not his biological nature, the chimpanzee
within, that made him a mass murderer. It was his other, cultural nature, for th
is is where ideologies arise and linger. It was an ideology, not his genes that
told him that it was his duty to organize the Holocaust.
Mystification and power are not inherent in society as such; then society would
be fundamentally evil, and we too as social beings would be basically evil. Neit
her are they necessary to us because of external circumstances, a Leviathan whic
h must rule us in order to check our inherent blood-lust. They are necessary onl
y to those who would exploit others, to those who would use others as tools of t
heir own ambition and their own enrichment. Free men and women can defend themse
lves against such people, rationally and with restraint, if they are allowed to
do so. But how can you fight crime and greed in a society that exists only to fu
rther the interests of the criminals and the greedy?
Freedom, then, is possible. We do not need the Leviathan. Hobbes believed that s
ociety had been instituted, that men in their natural state were non-social and
that their cohabitation was an invention, which had once been introduced among t
hem, and in the form of absolute monarchy even. But it is not society that has b
een erected above us; man has become human in and through a society, only in a s
ociety is our human existence possible (and how long would you survive as an ani
mal in the woods?) It is the state that has been instituted - above and against
civil society, above and against its members. And human beings have needed it, t
o shore up their class power over subordinate classes.
A free society does not mean that all conflicts, all dilemmas, all suffering sud
denly evaporate. All such statements are purely verbal charlatanery. The hills w
ill not change into marzipan, nor the seas into lemonade. Sorrow and death will
forever walk amongst us, the mirror images of joy and birth. Such is the human c
ondition, and no social arrangements in the world can abolish it nor can any ide
ological smokescreens hide it in the long run. They are the consequences of our
biological nature, which the ideologists hate so. But those who hate it, hate li
fe itself. Those who will not face our tragedy will not see our glory either. Wh
oever must hide reality from himself, anaesthetize himself with chemical or ideo
logical drugs, with megalomaniacal ideas about race or manifest destiny or with
what Engels referred to as "the tiresome notion of personal immortality," denies
his own humanity. For the difference between ourselves and the chimp is neither
reason nor emotion, and least of all 'consciousness'. Our hairy brother holds a
ll this in common with us, in kind if not in degree. The difference consists in
two things which have probably been given to us along with the gift of language:
one is certainly rationalization, hypocrisy, the ability to hide our motives ev
en from ourselves. But the other is that we are the only animal which is conscio
us of his own mortality, at least occasionally, and can still continue to live a
nd love, to think and act.
I do not think that you can ever cease to be a Marxist. I do not think that you
can accept half-truths, lies, rationalizations, ideology, when you have once lea
rnt to use your reason. For Marxism is scientific. To abjure it, we must therefo
re reject not only its answers, we must reject its questions and the very way of
putting them. This would be tantamount to rising and declaring that earth is fl
at and that all we need to know about it is found in the Holy Writ. This would b
e possible only as a mental suicide, after which a zombie existence only would r
emain to one, as one of the undead.
Those who make this recantation, believing it, can therefore never have been Mar
xists. A thinking human being cannot change himself into an idiot. Self-idiotiza
tion is certainly possible, but it must be started early. Pathological idiocy al
so exists, but as a problem in neurology, not in social science. Those erstwhile
'Marxists' and 'communists' which are now milling about in a panic, slinging mu
d at their own past - and thus incidentally at themselves - in their eagerness t
o find new owners with new collars and leashes, those people may have paid the d
ues of a party, or learnt some ready-made cathechism by rote. They have never li
ved Marxism, understood Marxism - which is basically the same thing. And if they
have cause to feel shame, which may sometimes well be the case, then neither Ka
rl Marx nor their honest comrades have given them cause to do so.
This age of collapse, panic and confusion is also a fruitful age, an era of grea
t possibilities. For three generations, we and our parents and predecessors have
been dragging Stalinist 'really existing socialism' along as the chained prison
er dragged his iron ball. It has been impossible to distance oneself from it: it
has remained attached to us by the chain of the past. Its dreadful weight deriv
es from Stalinism's own indigestible mass of reaction and barbarism. No matter w
hat we have said, no matter what we have done - and of course no matter what we
have thought - the societies of Stalinism have been the highly visible, overwhel
mingly concrete examples of 'socialism'. Aha, like in Russia? End of debate.
No matter what we have thought ... but many of us were never capable of thinking
our own thoughts out. It was all right to distance oneself from this or that as
pect of Stalinism. This was after all necessary, even in a civilization as imper
fect as that of capitalism. It was even all right to distance yourself from all
aspects of Stalinism. But only one by one, separately, never in their entirety.
All that was found impossible to accept had to be described as unfortunate but i
solated abuses, instances of degeneration which the apologists were rather too e
ager to write to the account of capitalist encirclement and aggression. In princ
iple, they argued like the propagandists and fellow-travellers of capitalism, wh
o painted each imperialist outrage, each massacre, each case of publicly reveale
d pillage as isolated but regrettably unavoidable spots in an otherwise brightly
shining sun. In the shadows there lurked forever the notion that Stalinism was
after all somehow socialist and that it therefore had to be defended. And then y
ou rose and applauded the Soviet delegate when he had regurgitated his nonsense,
and he who first stopped clapping was nearly as perfidious a 'Trotskyist-Maoist
' as he who would not applaud at all. All attempts to analyse 'existing socialis
m' with the instruments of Marxism were indignantly rejected. Marxism could expl
ain all societies on this planet Earth, from prehistoric time to the present, ex
cept those that actually claimed to be Marxist.
And then there were of course the congress-farers. There certainly were 'leading
comrades' who felt irresistibly called to speak at the congresses of ruling par
ties, to produce the same meaningless newspeak as the hosts used, and to warm th
emselves in the glow of the great or at least the minor luminaries of this world
. These are exactly the comrades who are now screaming about the criminal nature
of all that they have themselves officially harangued in Moscow, Berlin, Prague
and Bucharest. And we, the non-leading comrades? What crimes have we committed?
We who never ate Brezhnev's caviar, drunk Honecker's schnapps or slept in Ceaus
escu's bed? We who only fought for a just society in Sweden, and who mostly rece
ived only hatred, contempt and harassment for our trouble, instead of schnapps a
nd caviar? What crime have we committed? The criminals point their fingers, and
cannot help but point at themselves. They must content themselves with this.
Much has been written about the 'pilgrims' of socialism, of those who devoutly t
ravelled to various Vaticans in order to kiss the feet of various Popes. And the
y did exist. It is heavy going for a human being never to be able to say anythin
g but no, no. We have a need to sometimes say yea. We are not all strong enough
to say no to our yea-urge. Many people feel an overwhelming need to find somewhe
re something to affirm, something you can point to as a living model, a holy and
Catholic church where salvation is. It is at the same time remarkable how the b
ourgeois pilgrim traffic is taken for granted. Has anybody ever poked fun at all
those upper-class faithful who have kissed the sidewalk outside the New York St
ock Exchange or have stood trembling with awe outside the White House? Not to sp
eak of their parents and their peregrinations to Berlin? That people travel to t
hese holy places in order to worship there is regarded as a perfectly natural th
ing. Only pilgrimages in the wrong direction elicit comment. But imagine the sca
ndal, if C.H. Hermansson or Lasse Werner had frequented the corridors of the Cen
tral Committee or the KGB, the way Carl Bildt or Olof Palme frequented the State
Department or the C.I.A.! [Carl Henrik Hermansson and Lars Werner - former chai
rmen of the Swedish CP, later 'the Left'. Carl Bildt, present leader of the Cons
ervative ('Moderate') party in Sweden. Olof Palme, former chairman of the Social
Democrats and Prime Minister.]
We are now rid of all that. Russia is still a terrifying example - but to the ot
her side. The collapse, the fall, the coming mass starvation and dictatorship ar
e now iron balls around the feet of the bourgeois only. They wrote the recipe fo
r disaster. We are back at square one: we have to define our terms without letti
ng others define them for us, to lay out our course which does not lead us to an
y ultramontane Vatican, to be ourselves without any obligations other than that
to our own conscience. We are free.
The bourgeois too are back to square one. But they are not free. From this momen
t they are irrevocably bound to their own deeds and misdeeds. The fall of Stalin
ism has not made capitalism the least bit more capable of solving its own proble
ms. It can however no longer refuse its own peoples a decent life, absolving its
elf by pointing to the threat of the Evil Empire. There are no excuses anymore.
For the first time in seventy years, daylight shines brightly on the battlefield
of the class struggle. Here we stand. There they are. This is what they do, thi
s is how they are. They are the enemy. It is a merciless light, but we see clear
ly by it.
And when we reach for a map, then there is only one available. It is incomplete.
It must be added to and refined. Certain parts of it have to be revised. But it
is the only map; for those that the enemy are trying to press on us are useless
. Only reality is good enough for us - this accursed reality which hobbles us an
d tortures us, but which nevertheless has an irrefutable point in its favour: it
exists, and it is alone in doing so.