Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Tonsor #18 -- Marx and Marxism

As the November gloom set in over Ann Arbor, as the days grew shorter, as low clouds were drawn across the sky like a gray wool curtain, I found it necessary to fight a hibernation instinct I didn't know I had. I was not psychologically prepared for the onset of bleak days because, for the prior fifteen years, I had lived along the Colorado Front Range where the late fall and winter are reliably sunny.

Adding to the gloom of the autumn was the persistent cough I'd developed after Halloween. It was diagnosed by one of the U of M doctors as adult-onset asthma. Michigan's climate, combined with the stress of grad school, was taking a toll.

Shortly after Thanksgiving I made the trek to Tonsor's office, wondering how Michiganders survived such dark weather and short days. "I feel as if I'm in internal exile," I told him, and to my surprise he laughed. Raising my arms as if to plead to the gods, I asked, "When will these dark clouds go away?"

The "bare ruined choirs" of mid November

Tonsor reached for a book at the same time that he began quoting lines of verse:

     "That time of year thou mayst ... behold
     When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
     Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
     Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang."

I had taken enough English literature as an undergraduate to recognize Shakespeare's "bare ruined choirs," but I could not locate the lines. Seeing that my memory was flailing, Tonsor opened a tome and said, "Sonnet 73." Handing me the open book, he added, "Or perhaps it is the resignation in Rilke's 'Autumn Day' that better captures the mood: Herr: es ist Zeit.... / Legt deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenurhen.... [Lord, it is time ... to shroud our sundials in shadows....][1] In any case, Mr. Whitney, the clouds will keep you indoors, reading your books. Think of how much more history you will learn at Michigan than at Berkeley or Boulder!

"But for your question about the cloud cover, I must introduce you to a former student of mine, Tony Sullivan. He works at the Earhart Foundation and he is an avid weather watcher. Tony will tell you about the jet stream moving south out of Canada this time of year, steering everything from Alberta clippers to Panhandle hooks through our region like roaring freight trains. Even when no front is present, the cool westerlies that flow over Lake Michigan pick up moisture and feeds the clouds that cover the Lower Peninsula. The gloom is reinforced by moisture flowing down from Hudson Bay this time of year. But -- when Hudson Bay freezes over in December, and parts of Lake Michigan freeze over in February and March, we will actually get more sunny days because the surface ice doesn't conduce to cloud formation. That's why it's cloudier now, but will be sunnier later in the winter. I assure you: You will learn the patience of Job and get through these months."

The Huron River in the late fall
As a former geography major, I very much appreciated that my graduate advisor could talk about Michigan's weather and climate. He knew and loved nature just as I did. It was a point of connection outside of the books and course of study.

Cloud cover aside, on this day I was looking forward to Tonsor’s lecture on Marxism. Not only would it be enlightening, but I thought it might give me insights to push against the cultural Marxism then regnant in grad school. Not that the Marxists in our department felt smug. Somebody had posted an apocryphal Antonio Gramsci quotation on the bulletin board outside the main office:

“The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born: Now is the time of monsters.” ~Antonio Gramsci

Later another bloke came along, inserted a caret, and wrote "Reagan" next to "monsters." Yawn.

U of M's Angell Hall across State Street
By 1987 Marxist proclamations of proletarian triumph at the end of history became the butt of jokes. That catchy line -- “The last capitalist we hang will be the one who sold us the rope” -- just didn't sound clever anymore. Ever since President Reagan had the temerity to speak of the Soviet Union as an Evil Empire that was destined for the ash heap of history, Marxists had been playing defense. Reagan, cheerfully playing offense, poked fun at the last remaining Marxists who were hunkered down on American campuses. It's why they hated him so. "How do you tell a Communist?" the Gipper joked. "Well, it's someone who reads Marx and Lenin. How do you tell an ex-Communist? It's someone who understands Marx and Lenin."

I embraced Reagan's determination to defeat Soviet communism. In 1984-'85, I had won a Fulbright scholarship to then-West Germany, and had traveled to Berlin/East Berlin with many questions about Soviet communism. The experience at Checkpoint Charlie and my walks along the River Spree, where I saw crosses of all the Germans who were murdered trying to flee the oppression of East Germany, seared me. I was openly anti-communist, which drew me to the like-minded Stephen Tonsor. But our shared conviction would be the source of a brewing battle royal in grad school.

I knew from our talks that Tonsor was feeling vindicated by the exhaustion of Marxist theory and practice. His insights into Marx and Marxism generated some of his best content as a historian and some of his finest rhetoric as a teacher. From my notes and revisions, the following are the highlights of his lecture to our class.

From Tonsor the intellectual historian and biographer:

“Let’s get one thing out of the way at the outset. Both Marxism and capitalism are dedicated to the revolutionary transformation of society.[2] No other economic system more efficiently satisfies man’s material wants than capitalism. If a society wants pornography, the free market will deliver it with greater efficiency and in greater quantity than any other system. So Marx was correct in discerning the revolutionary forces unleashed by capitalism. It has transformed the world and it has displaced traditional society and its institutions. One need not be a dialectical materialist in order to understand the scope and the meaning of the changes; nor need one believe that all historical changes result from changes in the ‘mode of production’ in order to agree with and appreciate the insight of Marx.”[3]

Camille Pissarro, "The Factory at Pontoise" (1873)
“To understand the modern age, you have to understand the profound impact the Industrial Revolution had on European society. The image of the factory tended to replace all other images of community.[4] In a significant sense, Marx was furnishing Europeans with a moral critique of the Industrial Revolution. He was hardly alone. Every -ism was offering some moral critique of the Industrial Revolution. Anarchism, liberalism, nationalism, progressivism, socialism, communism, Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism, fascism, Nazism – each decried the breakdown of community in the shadow of the factory; each offered a blueprint for how to put community back together; and each tried to answer the question, Who should be in that community?”

“Both Marx and Engels were under thirty when they wrote the Communist Manifesto, a document whose revolutionary rhetoric embodied nearly every intellectual current of the age. True to the theory of its authors that there is an unbreakable link between theory and practice, the Manifesto not only reflected history but made it. In the 140 years since its publication, it has become one of the central documents of our times, inspiring faith, dedication, contempt, and hostility in nearly equal amounts. To understand the Manifesto is to understand what most of the shrill and discordant debates, civil wars, and ideological conflicts have been about since.”[5]

Karl Marx (1818-1883)
“There can be no denying that Karl Marx was a genius. But like most geniuses, he had a complex and contradictory personality. Throughout his life he saw himself as Prometheus chained to a rock by an angry Zeus. His abiding personal struggle was to break out of his chains and attain absolute freedom. This Promethean image also explains his bohemian temperament and why he found it difficult to live by the rules of conventional society and morality. It is no surprise that he became a revolutionary. He was descended from rabbis on both sides of his family, and it has been observed that there must have been a close connection between the Old Testament prophets’ call for justice – Judaism’s apocalyptic and chiliastic tradition – and Marx’s secular vision of a perfected society that comes through a revolutionary ‘day of the Lord.’”[6]

“Karl Marx was unwilling to play second fiddle in any orchestra. He quarreled with men as much as he quarreled with the gods and the rulers of society. He could not bear contradiction or defiance – it evoked vituperative hatred – and the secret of Engel’s long friendship with Marx lay in the younger man’s willingness to play a totally subservient role.”[7]

“As happens to many strong-willed men, Marx would be frustrated by the reality he hoped to change. The revolutions of 1848 did not prove to be the turning point for which Marx had hoped. European history did indeed turn, but it turned to the right. Until 1917, though the influence of Marx increased, the ‘commanding heights’ in Western society were still held by political conservatives.”[8]

From Tonsor the cultural critic:

“As with any great statement concerning the human condition, the Communist Manifesto cannot be read without taking sides. Its words will not let us suspend judgment or defer commitment or condemnation. Karl Marx came not to bring peace but a sword.”[9]

"In the modern age, when Jews have abandoned Judaism, more than a few of them have followed Marx's path. That is to say, they do not abandon Judaism's messianic tradition. Rather, they secularize the messianic tradition and create materialistic substitutes such as Marxism, socialism, Bolshevism, and other justifications for class warfare or for confronting bourgeois culture."

“Marx maintained that his system was ‘scientific’ rather than utopian. Of course, every charlatan realizes how great an advantage the adjective ‘scientific’ lends to any theory. Marx meant, however, that his system was scientific because it was inevitable, because its coming into being was causally determined. Whereas the dreams of utopians were dependent upon the puny efforts of men for their realization, ‘scientific socialism’ was written into the very order of the cosmos. It was the next sequent event in the womb of time, to paraphrase Hegel. Why this was true is, of course, what the rhetoric of the Communist Manifesto seeks to demonstrate. To make a socialist future no less certain than tomorrow’s sunrise was no small feat of apologetic art. We are still waiting for the inevitable to take place, and socialism, utopian or scientific, has, now that we have seen its partial realization, lost something of its appeal.”[10]
Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937)

"When Marx's theory of history showed itself to be toothless -- it had little analytical or predictive bite -- later generations of Marxists shifted the focus. One of the most important shifts was achieved by the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, who argued that Marxism could transform the culture. Withering away in prison in 1915, Gramsci wrote:  
Socialism is precisely the religion that must overwhelm Christianity.... In the new order, Socialism will triumph by first capturing the culture via infiltration of schools, universities, churches, and the media by transforming the consciousness of society.[11]
"With that quotation in mind, ladies and gentlemen, you might go to the third floor of Haven Hall, to the main office of our history department, and take note of the large poster off the elevator proclaiming that the study of history is about -- transformation."

"You should also be familiar with Leon Trotsky. To young American leftists, he was the most brilliant and attractive of the Russian Revolutionaries -- a veritable brain trust. Yet he was seen by his comrades in the U.S.S.R. as a little too cerebral, a little too critical, a little too global in his imagination. As a result of his criticism of Soviet communism, Stalin had Trotsky exiled and then murdered in Mexico City. He was stabbed to death by one of Stalin's agents, a Spanish communist wielding an ice pick."

From Tonsor the philosopher and logician (remember, he studied philosophy as an undergrad):

“Marxism contradicts itself. Is it not ironic that the Communist Manifesto, which argues that history is shaped by material economic forces, supplied the decidedly non-material ideas that after 1848 were themselves to become shaping forces?”[12]

“One can argue convincingly that most of the experience of the nineteenth century was an attempt to broaden and deepen the meaning of human freedom, to take man, insofar as possible, out of the realm of necessity and to place him in the realm of freedom. Thus the German idealist Immanuel Kant was preoccupied with the problems of freedom and necessity. Confronted with the reality and necessity of natural causal laws, Kant sought for a realm of human experience where these laws did not prevail; where man could be the actor rather than the acted upon. That’s the nineteenth-century context of the Marxian project. When Marxists speak of alienation, they simply mean that man is prevented from realizing himself by the social, economic, and religious institutions that he has created. They are like gravity and the other laws of nature in that they limited man’s freedom. It follows that revolution is needed to break the chains of the economic, social, and religious institutions that bind him to the realm of necessity. That, at bottom, is the Marxian project.”[13] 

“It is richly ironic that history would appoint Friedrich Engels to be Marx’s collaborator. Do you think Engels was living among the proletariat, suffering at their side, and singing 'The Internationale'? He was not and did not. Engels was the scion of a Manchester textile manufacturer and lived off the profits of his capitalist father. In London he resided in the fashionable Primrose Hill district, surrounded by all the bourgeois comforts of the day. Perhaps even more richly ironic is that Marx was supported for much of his adult life by these same capitalist profits that Engels made available to him.[14] They apparently had no qualms about biting the hand that fed them.”

From Tonsor the wit:

“Ludwig Feuerbach’s work was to have a great influence on Marx, almost as profound an influence as the works of Hegel. Feuerbach’s father had been a professor, and as a young man, Feuerbach studied philosophy in order to pursue an academic career. But he began to break with the Protestant religious tradition of his father and of the academic culture at the University of Berlin. Both his views of religion and his Left Hegelian philosophy blocked him from getting a university appointment after he finished his Ph.D. Like many other radicals of his generation, Feuerbach was unable to find an academic job. So he became a rootless, disaffected intellectual. Imagine how different world history might have been had all these Left Hegelians gotten nice, good-paying jobs at a university. They would have settled for bourgeois comforts and amused themselves playing golf. Instead they became hostile critics of society. Our world could have been spared much grief."[15]

Tonsor had another mordant barb that I did not fully appreciate at the time because I did not know the Jewish term he used. "When revolutionary Jewish thinkers fall away from their religion and adopt a left-wing ideology; when they secularize Judaism and transform the messianic tradition into a radical program; it does not seem to occur to them to sit shivah to mourn the loss of their faith."

His last spear thrust made the class laugh. "You would be amazed at how many died-in-the-wool Marxists have struck it rich writing books and going out on the lecture circuit to talk about class warfare. It turns out they make the best capitalists!"

From Tonsor the poet:

“There is always a considerable distance between the dream of a bright tomorrow and today’s dark reality. In order to be effectively translated into reality, dreams demand a map of how to get from here to there. The Communist Manifesto is such a road map. Today men dream other and more satisfying dreams, and the map drawn by Marx reveals itself to be filled with traps and pitfalls. What remains, then, is a great political poem about the mind of the mid-nineteenth century….”[16]

Marx's Communist Manifesto -- "a great political poem"? These words were some of the most powerful and unexpected I ever heard Tonsor utter.

*     *     * 

After class, another student and I went up to the front of the room to ask questions. He was the student who thought Tonsor looked like the Paddington Bear. When he thanked the professor for a lecture that was critical of Marxism, Tonsor let slip what he really felt about Marxist historiography. With some force he answered: "I have waded around in Marxist sewers for so much of my life that, unfortunately, I now know them too well. The Marxists are resentful ideologues who will not submit to reality. I am thoroughly disgusted with the whole intellectual enterprise. Too bad the Marxist and former Marxist scholars in our universities cannot come down with cholera or at least some disabling disease which would prevent their writing or teaching another damned word. We have had enough. It is time to forget Marxism and get on with the real puzzles and difficulties of life."[17]

Then came my turn came to ask him a question. I was struggling to put the relationship between Marxism and the mainstream of Western intellectual life in the right way. But it proved too big a question to answer on the spot. Kindly he invited me to join him and Caroline for lunch. By the time we were outdoors headed for Burns Park, he spoke in a burst of prose that addressed the matter.

"First let's review the essential insight of the liberal conservative who emerges from the mainstream of Western intellectual life. Recall the lecture in which I mentioned Walt Whitman, who in Song of Myself asked: 'Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)'[18] Whitman expressed the profound truth that the essence of life can be fully encountered only by embracing its opposing forces – its polarities, oppositions, tensions, and contradictions. We have seen how the Romantics sought the organic accommodation of opposites. The impulse to achieve the organic accommodation of opposites is not really new but has been a big part of the Western project since the tenth century. Occasionally writers and artists harness these oppositional forces and integrate, harmonize, or synthesize them. In fact, the organic accommodation of opposites by a sovereign personality, institution, or society is the measure of a dynamic, healthy community.[19] It imparts nobility to our civilization.

"The liberal conservative acknowledges this complex, oppositional reality and cheerfully submits to it. He seeks to achieve a harmony of contradictory principles – the principle of authority and the principle of liberty; the principle of equality and that of natural aristocracy; of individualism and of community; of private enterprise and of cultural, moral, and human values that transcend the market mechanism; of Providence (God’s sovereignty) and human freedom; of transcendence and immanence; of sacred and profane; of time and eternity. He resists the ideologue's temptation to abandon the one principle or the other. Rather, he accepts these contradictory ideals, this dual heritage, as fundamental to the human condition.[20]

"That’s what our best minds have taught. Take Tocqueville and Acton. Together their lives spanned the nineteenth century, and together they elaborated the soundest and most coherent body of modern conservative thought that contemporary conservatives can draw upon. These liberal conservatives embraced the complexity of reality. They accommodated, in their lives and in their thinking, the polarities and contradictory principles that characterize our lives.[21]

Stephen J. Tonsor, pictured in the lower left corner of this 1976 dust jacket,
was one of the more prominent thought leaders in the postwar conservative movement.
"Now, contrast what I’ve said about these liberal conservatives, Tocqueville and Acton, with what I've said about Marx. For the left Hegelians in general and for Marx in particular, the dialectic obliterates opposites. For example, at the end of the dialectical process, reality is not spirit and matter, but only matter. There is social value not in the individual and the collective, but only in the collective. Justice is not satisfied by both freedom and equality, but only by equality. Not both-and, but either-or.

"No question Marxism is an attempt to restore purpose, ends, and values to history. But it does so by flattening human experience, by excluding the vertical element, by excluding Providence. Its hostility to the transcendent is the most telling reason for Marxism's failure. It is difficult enough to reconcile God’s ways to man in the ambiguities, failures, dilemmas, and ultimate unknowability of history; but it is downright impossible to justify the 'rational' course of dialectical materialism when confronted by the events of this century, what with its violence and irrationality.[22]

"Marx’s tragic error, you see, was to turn his back on the accommodation of polarities. His error was to amputate half of each pair of polarities. You can trace the amputation back to Hegel. As the Hegelian dialectic moved forward in time, Reason was supposed to obliterate paradox.[23] What Marx did not see is that man will never eliminate contradictions and irrationality. In contrast to Marxism, conservatism has learned to absorb the polarities in the human condition that Marxism can not."

So, I thought, this was the key, the essential Hegelian and Marxist error, which was to obliterate the nature of reality itself -- a reality which, for the conservative, it is necessary to submit to. It's why I would come to call Tonsor's interpretive principle the hermeneutic of accommodating opposites. My professor wrapped up:

"When William F. Buckley Jr. established National Review in November 1955, its founding editorial declared its mission to stand 'athwart history, yelling Stop!' The history Buckley had in mind was Marx's 'History,' left-Hegelian 'History,' the 'History' with a capital "H" that Marxists thought would unfold inexorably until the day of communism's triumph.[24] Conservatives united around a different conception of history that was steeped in irony, polarities, opposites, and unintended consequences. The most fierce anti-communists in the conservative movement were fulfilling their civilizational mission to save the West from 'History.'"

There it was again, the idea of a "civilizational mission." A good term, that.

A few paces before turning from Lincoln onto Morton Avenue, I thought I caught a glimpse of Caroline in the kitchen window.[25] What a welcome respite a relaxed conversation over lunch would be after all this talk of Marxism, a gray and cheerless ideology that was as oppressive as the clouds that blanketed the Michigan landscape.

*     *     *

After lunch, on our walk back to campus, I asked Tonsor about the remarkable number of ex-communists who changed their minds and became pillars of the postwar conservative movement.

"Ask yourself why that is. Why do men change their minds? It's one of the most fascinating things to know about a person. Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Max Eastman, Will Herberg, my mentor Frank Meyer -- each in his own way changed his mind and went from being a communist to being an anticommunist. The migration from communism to conservatism is one of the most remarkable intellectual migrations in the twentieth century. It came about for many reasons. Partly it was an aversion to their own communist past, partly it was because of Stalin's betrayal, and partly it was due to the devolving Cold War after 1945."

There was one additional thing that I wanted to know before leaving the topic of Marxism. What did Tonsor think of the fact that so many of his colleagues c. 1987 were cultural Marxists -- indeed, that so many elite history departments in the U.S. were hiring cultural Marxists who idolized Gramsci.

"I am very worried about the progress of the Marxists in the university. I don't worry about them because of the influence they exercise over students -- which is nil -- but I do worry about the estrangement of the university from the parent society which must follow in the wake of the triumph of the Marxists. It is distressing and there seems to be little or nothing which can be done about it. I shall be an active force for only another four or five years. At this point in my career, I will not be able to do much to counter the Marxists on campus. They are silly people. They will continue to conceive of the university as a teenage gang devoted to adolescent Marxist struggle -- and will damn all who are in disagreement. Never mind that the scholarship -- like Francois Furet's salutary impact on the historiography of the French Revolution -- and the parent society have moved past their stupid ideas."[26]

[1] My translation of the opening of Rainer Maria Rilke, Herbsttag, lines 1-2; at this URL, accessed November 22, 2016; my gratitude to Ann Tonsor Zeddies for this reminder, via a Facebook post, November 19, 2016.
[2] Stephen J. Tonsor, “Science, Technology, and Cultural Revolution,” in Tradition and Reform in Education (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1974), p. 49.
[3] Stephen J. Tonsor, Introduction, Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx (Chicago: Henry Regnery Gateway Edition, 1969), p. ixx-xx.
[4] Tonsor, Introduction, Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx, p. xx.
[5] Tonsor, Introduction, Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx, pp. vii-viii.
[6] Tonsor, Introduction, Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx, pp. ix-xi.
[7] Tonsor, Introduction, Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx, p. x.
[8] Tonsor, Introduction, Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx, pp. xi-xii.
[9] Tonsor, Introduction, Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx, p. viii.
[10] Tonsor, Introduction, Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx, p. xxi.
[11] See the quotation and discussion thereon at URL
[12] Many years after I heard Tonsor’s lecture on Marxism, I was delighted to encounter many of the same observations, including this one in Lloyd Kramer, Lecture 13, “Hegelianism and the Young Marx,” in European Thought and Culture in the Nineteenth Century (Chantilly, VA: The Great Courses, 2001); audio format.
[13] Tonsor, Introduction, Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx, pp. xii-xiii.
[14] Kramer, Lecture 13, “Hegelianism and the Young Marx,” in European Thought and Culture.
[15] Kramer, Lecture 13, “Hegelianism and the Young Marx,” in European Thought and Culture.
[16] Tonsor, Introduction, Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx, pp. xxi-xxii.
[17] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, August 18, 1984, pp. 3-4; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.
[18] Whitman quoted in Stephen J. Tonsor, “The Conservative Search for Identity,” Equality, Decadence, and Modernity (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 247.
[19] Tonsor, “The Conservative Search for Identity,” Equality, p. 247.
[20] Tonsor, “The Conservative Search for Identity,” in Equality, pp. 235, 248-49.
[21] Tonsor, “The Conservative Search for Identity,” in Equality, p. 248.
[22] Tonsor, “The Conservative Search for Identity,” in Equality, p. 249.
[23] Tonsor, Introduction, Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx, p. xiii.
[24] David Frum, "Unpatriotic Conservatives," National Review, March 25, 2003; at this URL, accessed November 22, 2016.
[25] Caroline Tonsor to Gleaves Whitney, Grafton, IL, June 26, 2014.
[26] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, February 15, 1986, pp. 3-4; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.

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