Thursday, 20 March 2014

"How—and How Not—to Love Mankind" (Theodore Dalrymple): Ivan Turgenev and Karl Marx

A brilliant essay on the similarities and differences between Turgenev and Marx, which, interestingly enough, is related to that 'theory' I have after reading "Invisible man" (the artist's mind vs the politician's mind):

"... Two great European writers of the nineteenth century, Ivan Turgenev and Karl Marx, illustrate this diversity with vivid clarity. Both were born in 1818 and died in 1883, and their lives paralleled each other almost preternaturally in many other respects as well. They nevertheless came to view human life and suffering in very different, indeed irreconcilable, ways—through different ends of the telescope, as it were. Turgenev saw human beings as individuals always endowed with consciousness, character, feelings, and moral strengths and weaknesses; Marx saw them always as snowflakes in an avalanche, as instances of general forces, as not yet fully human because utterly conditioned by their circumstances. Where Turgenev saw men, Marx saw classes of men; where Turgenev saw people, Marx saw the People. These two ways of looking at the world persist into our own time and profoundly affect, for better or for worse, the solutions we propose to our social problems.
Both men were known for their sympathy with the downtrodden and oppressed. But for all their similarities of education and experience, the quality of each man’s compassion could not have been more different: for while one’s, rooted in the suffering of individuals, was real, the other’s, abstract and general, was not.
Clearly "Mumu" is an impassioned protest against the exercise of arbitrary power of one person over another, but it is not politically schematic. Though it is obviously directed against serfdom, the story does not suggest that cruelty is the prerogative of feudal landowners alone, and that if only serfdom were abolished, no vigilance against such cruelty would be necessary. If power is a permanent feature of human relationships—and surely only adolescents and certain kinds of intellectuals, Marx included, could imagine that it is not—then "Mumu" is a permanent call to compassion, restraint, and justice in its exercise. That is why "Mumu" does not lose its power to move 140 years after the abolition of serfdom in Russia; while it refers to a particular place at a particular time, it is also universal.
In making his general point, Turgenev does not suggest that his characters are anything but individuals, with their own personal characteristics. He does not see them just as members of a group or class, caused by oppression to act in predetermined ways like trams along their rails: and his careful observation of even the humblest of them is the most powerful testimony possible to his belief in their humanity. Grand aristocrat that he was, and acquainted with the greatest minds of Europe, he did not disdain to take seriously the humblest peasant, who could not hear or speak. Turgenev’s oppressed peasants were fully human beings, endowed with free will and capable of moral choice.
Nor does Turgenev believe that the people who are subject to the power of the landowner are, by virtue of their oppression, noble. They are scheming and conniving and sometimes thoughtlessly cruel, too.
Turning from Turgenev to Marx (although the Manifesto appears under the names of both Marx and Engels, it was almost entirely Marx’s work), we enter a world of infinite bile—of rancor, hatred, and contempt—rather than of sorrow or compassion. It is true that Marx, like Turgenev, is on the side of the underdog, of the man with nothing, but in a wholly disembodied way. Where Turgenev hopes to lead us to behave humanly, Marx aims to incite us to violence. Moreover, Marx brooked no competitors in the philanthropic market. He was notoriously scathing about all would-be practical reformers: if lower class, they lacked the philosophic training necessary to penetrate to the causes of misery; if upper class, they were hypocritically trying to preserve "the system." Only he knew the secret of turning the nightmare into a dream.
The Manifesto makes no mention of individual human life, except to deny its possibility under present conditions. True, Marx mentions a few authors by name, but only to pour heavily Teutonic scorn and contumely upon them. For him, there are no individuals, or true humans, at all. "In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality."
It is no wonder, then, that Marx speaks only in categories: the bourgeois, the proletarian. For him, individual men are but clones, their identity with vast numbers of others being caused not by the possession of the same genes, but by that of the same relations to the economic system. Why study a man, when you know Men?
There is no mistaking the hatred and rage of these words; but anger, while a real and powerful emotion, is not necessarily an honest one, nor is it by any means always ungratifying. There is a permanent temptation, particularly for intellectuals, to suppose that one’s virtue is proportional to one’s hatred of vice, and that one’s hatred of vice is in turn to be measured by one’s vehemence of denunciation. But when Marx wrote these words, he must surely have known that they were, at best, a savage caricature, at worst a deliberate distortion calculated to mislead and to destroy.
His lack of interest in the individual lives and fates of real human beings—what Mikhail Bakunin once called his lack of sympathy with the human race—shines out in his failure to recognize the often noble attempts by workingmen to maintain a respectable family life in the face of the greatest difficulties. Was it really true that they had no family ties, and that their children were mere articles of commerce? For whom were they mere articles of commerce? It is typical of Marx’s unrigorous mind that he should leave the answer ambiguous, as if commerce could exist independently of the people carrying it on. Only his outrage, like the grin of the Cheshire cat, is clear.
Marx’s firm grasp of unreality is also evident in his failure to imagine what would happen when, through the implementation of the ideas of radical intellectuals influenced by his mode of thinking, the bourgeois family really would break down, when "the practical absence of the family" really would become an undeniable social fact. Surely the increased sexual jealousy, the widespread child neglect and abuse, and the increase in the interpersonal violence (all in conditions of unprecedented material prosperity) should have been utterly predictable to anybody with a deeper knowledge than his of the human heart.
Compare Marx’s crudity with Turgenev’s subtlety, alluded to by Henry James, who knew Turgenev in Paris and wrote an essay about him a year after his death: "Like all men of a large pattern, he was composed of many different pieces; and what was always striking in him was the mixture of simplicity with the fruit of the most various observation. . . . I had [once] been moved to say of him that he had the aristocratic temperament: a remark which in the light of further knowledge seemed singularly inane. He was not subject to any definition of that sort, and to say that he was democratic would be (though his political ideal was democracy) to give an equally superficial account of him. He felt and understood the opposite sides of life; he was imaginative, speculative, anything but literal. . . . Our Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, moralistic, conventional standards were far away from him, and he judged things with a freedom and spontaneity in which I found a perpetual refreshment. His sense of beauty, his love of truth and right, were the foundation of his nature; but half the charm of his conversation was that one breathed an air in which cant phrases and arbitrary measurements simply sounded ridiculous."
I don’t think anyone could have said this of Marx. When he wrote that "the workingmen have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got," he wrote as a man who, as far as is known, had never taken the trouble to canvass the living views of anyone but himself. His pronouncement of the death of nationalist feeling was premature, to say the least. And when he wrote that the bourgeois would lament the cultural loss that the proletarian revolution inevitably entailed, but that "that culture . . . is, for the enormous majority, a mere training to act as a machine," he failed to acknowledge the profoundly moving attempts of workingmen in Britain to acquire that very culture as a liberating and ennobling agency. It needs very little effort of the imagination to understand what fortitude it took to work in a Victorian factory by day and read Ruskin and Carlyle, Hume and Adam Smith by night, as so many workingmen did (volumes from their lending libraries and institutes are still to be found in British secondhand bookshops); but it was an effort that Marx was never prepared to make, because he did not consider it worthwhile to make it. One might ask whether he has not set a pattern for hordes of cultivated brutes in the academy, who have destroyed for others what they themselves have benefited from.
Very different from all this, the sympathy that Turgenev expressed for the downtrodden was for living, breathing human beings. Because he understood what Henry James called "the opposite sides of life," he understood that there was no denouement to history, no inevitable apocalypse, after which all contradictions would be resolved, all conflicts cease, when men would be good because arrangements were perfect, and when political and economic control would turn into mere administration for the benefit of everyone without distinction. Marx’s eschatology, lacking all common sense, all knowledge of human nature, rested on abstractions that were to him more real than the actual people around him. Of course, Turgenev knew the value of generalizations and could criticize institutions such as serfdom, but without any silly utopian illusions: for he knew that Man was a fallen creature, capable of improvement, perhaps, but not of perfection. There would therefore be no hecatombs associated with Turgenev’s name.
Marx claimed to know Man, but as for men other than his enemies—he knew them not. Despite being a Hegelian dialectician, he was not interested in the opposite sides of life. Neither kindness nor cruelty moved him: men were simply the eggs from which a glorious omelette would one day be made. And he would be instrumental in making it.
When we look at our social reformers—their language, their concerns, their style, the categories in which they think—do they resemble Marx or Turgenev more? Turgenev—who wrote a wonderful essay entitled "Hamlet and Don Quixote," a title that speaks for itself—would not have been surprised to discover that the Marxist style had triumphed.
Let us recall, however, one detail of Turgenev’s and Marx’s biographical trajectory in which they differed. When Marx was buried, hardly anyone came to his funeral (in poetic revenge, perhaps, for his failure to attend the funeral of his father, who adored and sacrificed much for him). When the remains of Turgenev returned to St. Petersburg from France, scores of thousands of people, including the humblest of the humble, turned out to pay their respects—and with very good reason." 

(Theodore Dalrymple)

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