Home Fiction Humor Essays Books

Liberty and compromise...

by Greg Swann

I had some mail recently from someone who suggested that, while his political prescriptions have not worked very well, Karl Marx's economic analysis has been first rate.

I found this doubly amazing.

First, Marx didn't make any political prescriptions. Aside from advocating that socialism be achieved by democratic means, he gave his followers no cohesive picture of how a socialist state might be run. Vladimir Lenin's chief contribution to Marxism was a model of a Marxist state. No one would dare call it a working model, I think, but Lenin did do what Marx did not; he established a method by which Marxism would work in practice, in power.

And second, Marx's economic analysis has no place in economics. Marx is of no use to the Neo-Classicists and the Monetarists. The Austrians have no need of him except as a whipping boy. And even the economists who call themselves Marxists are using analytical tools that did not originate with Marx. Marx's contribution to economics consisted of completing the work of the Classicists long after they were a dead letter.

Karl Marx made his lasting contribution not as an economist, not as a political philosopher, but as a tactician. Marx was a master tactician, and his methods have influenced not just his followers but his opponents. He permanently changed the form and flavor of political debate, recasting it in his own image and likeness. No one would dare call this an improvement, I think, but this is the actual, enduring contribution of Karl Marx to the life of the mind.

As Marx himself lent the cachet of science to what was in fact a rather revolting reification of medievalism, so did Marxist tactics anoint as justice practices which, if performed by anyone else, would have been denounced as low, deceptive, even criminal. For one example, the practice of co-opting pre-existing organizations and recasting them in Marxist form without announcing that the group is now presenting a false face to the world. For another, the Marxian hubris of claiming to speak for the workers or the nation or the world; in this tactic we find united Jesse Jackson and Ross Perot, among many others. And most commonly, the practice of "refuting" an opposing point of view by sneeringly and vituperatively denouncing the proponent. This last, alas, is the most widespread legacy of Karl Marx. It permeates - and poisons - the political landscape.

The true sons and daughters of Marx are relentless in their pursuit of tactical goals. They never miss a meeting. They never pass up a chance to vote. They recast their every passing thought in Marxist rhetoric, so that their every word becomes propaganda. Unthinking people hear this and think they are hearing a natural linguistic innovation, thus themselves becoming unwitting propaganda machines; not everyone who uses the word "struggle" is a Marxist, but everyone who uses that word in debate is - knowingly or not - putting a nickle in the Marxist toll box.

Marx had a revolutionary agenda, and he provided a revolutionary methodology for a cadre of hard-core, committed revolutionaries. We can look at this and laugh - at our peril. Yes, it was just a bunch of rich-kid college students playing spy versus spy games on daddy's money. But they almost succeeded in taking over the world, and their failure did not owe to a lack of trying.

And this is what is truly amazing about Karl Marx, that he could take a fanatical hatred of his burgher father and a fanatical desire for a royalist's sinecure and, by means of a tactical genius, turn it into a force of world domination.

I don't normally talk about tactics. First, it's rather early in the battle to worry too much about this or that reform or proposal. And, I don't view myself as a politician, nor as a worthy advisor to politicians. And finally, compellingly, and perhaps suicidally, I find something ugly and undignified about the hurly-burly of political tactics, intrigues, tricks and traps. Obviously, I would have no part of anything that is unsavory. But I can't escape the feeling that everything about that sort of business is unsavory, that no one can elevate it, that everyone is degraded by it. This is effete nonsense on its face, although I am hardly the first friend of liberty to exhibit this squeamishness. And I know, rationally, that I could grow used to working among criminals and tyrants without compromising my principles. And yet, like Bartleby, I prefer not to...

But I do want to talk about about tactics, or a tactic. It's appropriate to this stage of our battle, and to every later stage. It's a methodology that can be put into practice by actual working politicians without corrupting themselves. And it is the very epitome of dignity, honor, intellectual consistency and moral purity.

The tactic is this: Don't cave.

Don't compromise on issues of basic principle, even if it means losing immediate tactical goals.

That sounds awfully like a principle, rather than a tactic, doesn't it? Well, so it is. But standing inflexibly on the side of principle is also a potent political tactic. And it is the only tactic that can actually achieve our goals.

Consider, for example, the "health care" debate. When the neo-Marxists put their plan on the table, everyone with any sense was horrified. So what did the primary opponents do? They presented an alternative plan that conceded every basic principle of the neo-Marxists. Even if the alternative plan is the one that is eventually enacted, it will be the neo-Marxists who have won the war. First, because some part of their vision will be implemented at once. And second, because the full vision will be implemented in due course. This kind of wedge-driving is another enduring Marxist tactic, and the alleged opponents of tyranny get sucked in by it again and again. The only right way to oppose the nationalization of medicine is to oppose it entirely, the whole neo-Marxist agenda and the restraints on free trade in medicine and insurance already in place.

In the same way, in the debate on gun control, the only principled stand is in direct opposition to any control or restraint or prohibition on the ownership of weapons. Compromising because a control seems harmless, or because public opinion is aroused, or because you feel that something must be done - serves only to betray the principle. Either we are free and whole and sovereign in our persons or we are not. There is no middle. The tyrant, practically speaking, cannot shackle everyone. But if he can get us to concede that we deserve to be shackled, he doesn't need to. When we tolerate the smallest barrier to access to weapons, we are tacitly endorsing and consenting to our ultimate disarmament.

Now the bright spark will ask, what's so useful, tactically, about this tactic? By observing it, won't we simply lose every battle we join, and invite ridicule besides?


And that, gentle beings, is exactly the point. We will lose, but we will lose with dignity, with honor, with intellectual consistency and moral purity. We will invite ridicule, but it will be the ridicule of the ridiculous, the smutty, small-minded sneering that Karl Marx brought into the world.

Ours is a battle of persuasion. We will jettison from our consideration the people whom we have no hope of persuading in any case, the people who believe they have a stake in tyranny, or who refuse to see that tyranny has a stake in them. But by our fidelity to principle, our sincerity and fairness in debate, our refusal to put anything before truth, by the beauty and nobility of spirit we bring to what looks like the martyrdom of a lost cause - by these means will we draw the attention of the people we can persuade.

How tactical do I have to get? Even this makes me a little squeamish. It's what I do anyway, but laying it out this baldly, identifying the practical benefit, has the look and feel of real marketing. Ah, well. I hie me to principle for principled reasons. If I reap a practical gain, I cannot be more corrupted by that than I would be by betraying the principle itself.

For our only hope - in medicine, in gun control, in drug prohibition, in taxation, in national service, in every issue with which tyranny confronts us - is to stand for our total liberty. We end up making the same argument over and over again, changing the details to fit the issue under discussion. But it is the only argument we have. And it is the truth. And, as we betray it, we betray the possibility of achieving liberty and not just arguing about it.

We won't win anything until we win everything all at once. But we won't win ever if we don't fight for what we really want, and not what seems practical or necessary or expedient or profitable. The smallest compromise with the tyrant is a victory for tyranny, and we cannot win anything for liberty by lending our strength to tyranny.

Don't cave.

That's all. The whole of my tactical arsenal.

Don't cave.

It's the hard way. The long way. But it's the only way that will work.

Don't cave...

Home Fiction Humor Essays Books