Notes: Marx's Carbuncles

YOU ARE A Cuban farmer, and the years have been good to you: a little plot of land, three daughters, a brace of sons. But last year you wanted some extra money as a hedge against hard luck. So you opened a fruit stand—nothing fancy, mind you, just a few baskets of produce piled up by the side of the road, enough to tempt passersby into spending a few pesos on your sweet peaches. The government encouraged this. Following the 1980 boat lift of 125,000 unhappy citizens to the United States the government feared further disaffection and sanctioned farmer’s markets, among other consumer-oriented palliatives, to head it off. But just recently, in one of those abrupt changes of course through which Communist regimes try to force the locomotive of history onto the track of progress, the government abolished the farmer’s markets. In a series of speeches President Fidel Castro called for a return to a centrally controlled economy and said that he wanted private farms, of which there are 70,000 in Cuba, annexed to the anonymous felicity of the state-run collective farms. (“There was too much freedom,” one scholar told The Wall Street Journal. “The system appeared to be loosening.”) Using the familiar blood-stained rhetoric, Castro spoke of “crushing” the “neocapitalists (and) neo-bourgeois who are attempting to get ahead.” He meant you. Your crime? Attempting to get ahead.

However that phrase of Castro’s would have sounded to our imaginary farmer, to us it is one of the most nakedly revelatory political utterances of recent times. Here is what is wrong with socialism as it has been realized in the Marxist-Leninist revolutions. Getting ahead is a crime, owning your own bit of land an offense against equality and fraternity. Proudhon, that saintly Utopian Socialist, called property “theft.” Marx, a son of comfort who lived off kited checks from Engels, called it a “soulless commodity.” These views were foolish but harmless: only the thinkers’ wives and children suffered from them. But Castro has his army and his secret police and a reputation for ferocious caprice, and so he can make a whole people dance to his dementias.

Reflect for a moment on Castro’s inadvertently revealing statement, and something of the perverse spiritual prestige attached to socialism comes through. Getting ahead, after all, means leaving someone else behind; and according to socialism’s morality of the hive, that’s wrong. In one of his speeches Castro said that sights like our imaginary farmer’s roadside stand might create “ill will” among the collective farmers. Founded on envy, socialism takes care to control the spread of envy.

Karl Marx wrote quite a lot about alienation and in his own life was painfully familiar with it, spending all those years sitting on the hard benches of the British Museum, alone with his rancors and carbuncles. One wonders whether his theory would have had less hate in it, and thus incited less hateful realization, if it weren’t for those carbuncles. Yet the carbuncles, too, have an odd spiritual prestige. Marx got them by spiting the flesh in a sustained act of discipline and self-denial—a late triumph, when you stop and think of it, of the monastic spirit. Socialism is founded on those carbuncles. It is a materialistic philosophy with an ascetic core. Regimes based on it will not tolerate the heresy announced by the Czech philosopher Erazim kohák in a brilliant essay published in Dissent— that property is the way in which man’s alienation from the physical world is mitigated, for it makes “matter meaningful.” Our Cuban farmer, proud of his peaches, was fighting the good fight against alienation. In the moment of their ripening, he and nature were one. Matter—the dusty god of the materialist—had been made meaningful.

Would the matter have been less meaningful if the means of production had been socially owned—if the peaches had been grown on a collective farm? An American, reared in the prejudices of individualism, must answer yes. Social property—the subway, the highway— may be useful to me. Private property— my golden fruit—is part of me. To use a biblical tag famously quoted by Marx, it adds “a cubit and more” to my stature. That’s why Castro hates it. He wants men smaller, the better to bully them. “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your peaches.” There you have the real slogan of the revolution that turns seventy this year and of its outpost in the tropics presided over by that logorrheic dictator.

—Jack Beatty