I took my title for this post from a line in TS Eliot’s The Hollow Men. Eliot describes how we, the living, will be seen by “Those who have crossed/With direct eyes […] not as lost/Violent souls, but only/As the hollow men/The stuffed men.”¹ What a melancholy vision! I am inclined to see humanity through this poem’s lens.
A friend recently shared some thoughts on Karl Marx, and how he put the practical reality of the poor and oppressed before theoretical musings. As a child of the Cold War (and here I think of Billy Joel’s “Leningrad”) my defences were immediately up, my resistance to the very word “communism” as visceral as my disgust at (so-called) “free”-market capitalism. But essentially my friend was expressing a similar view to that of John Berger who wrote that “the socialist opposition (to capitalism), undeceived by the rhetoric and the hypocrisy, insisted on practice. This insistence was Marx’s genius. Nothing diverted him.” I agree with this: many of the early communists from Walter Benjamin and Rosa Luxemburg to Nikolai Berdyaev understood Marx’s analysis as a burden for the wretched of the earth and a prophetic rejection of a heartless and vicious system. (The Wiki article on Marx is interesting. There is a view that Marx’s poor physical and mental health, his abject circumstances and the death of four of his children contributed to his sense of alienation, the wretchedness of life and his critique of his society).
Yet Berger certainty did not romanticise historical communism or marxist-socialism, and the crimes it led to. In his writing one senses the pathos he felt at the betrayal and death of an ideal. In an essay titled “The First Week of August 1991” In his book, “Keeping a rendezvous”, he comments on the remarkable events surrounding the fall of the Berlin wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and it’s satellite states, and the demise of communism. He writes of this betrayal, “It was in the name of their determination and their solidarity (fanaticism?) That the party-machines (of the communist states) justified the first crimes, and later, the crimes to cover up further crimes, till finally there was no faith left anywhere. (Berger is referring to a secular faith, a vision for a better world). Here is a profound thinker, a tragic communist, meditating on the hideously deformed outcome of Marx’s vision. “In the beginning, communists become communists because moved by pity, Marx included. He wrote into what he saw as the laws of history the salvation of the pitiful. Nothing less. Gradually these laws were made to make ever wider and dogmatic generalizations so that they finally became a lie, as all generalizations which become dogma, are bound to do. The reality of the living was obscured by the writing of these laws, and whenever this happens, evil reigns. The communism, today certified as dead, represented at one and the same time an ardent hope born of pity and a pitiless practice.”
I have sometimes wondered how, after the failure of our gods, we are supposed to find the faith to live.
This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.
When I hear our current, massively compromised African leaders spouting the language and rhetoric of good old Cold War Communism, I wonder if they are even vaguely aware of the tragedies of the 20th century, the 100 million deaths as a direct result of Communism.* (*The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression is a 1997 book edited by Stéphane Courtois, documents a history of repressions, both political and civilian, by Communist states, including genocides, extrajudicial executions, deportations, and artificial famines. The book was originally published in France as Le Livre noir du communisme: Crimes, terreur, répression).
And yet even in the wake of devastation there are voices of hope. Cedric J. Robinson, in An Anthropology of Marxism, writes,
“That we are living in a hellish world [This is the dead land/This is cactus land] which appears to outpace our capacities and energy for changing is also true, in part. But it is a particular kind of partial truth: a self-defeating prophecy. For from a different vantage point, the variety of resistance–individual and collective, single and multiply-issued, organized and disorganized, visible and fugitive, loud and quiet, ordinary and extraordinary–is what’s remarkable, that is, what ought to solicit more than the mere remark. And among some quarters it does.
People all over the world and in unprecedented numbers are struggling in all kinds of ways–in the streets, on their farms, in their communities and schools–against neoliberalism and structural adjustment and for a sustainable existence. Thousands gathered recently, at the welcoming invitation of the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil, for the third annual World Social Forum. Meeting simultaneously with the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the WSF gathers people together to discuss alternatives under the rubric, “Another World Is Possible.” South Africans are trying to build a new non-racialist society. Students in Mexico City have been striking over democratic access to higher education for over two years. In the United States, high-school and college students are leading the campaign against sweatshops. Welfare mothers in Kensington, Pennsylvania, have organized an international campaign for economic rights (and a poor people’s university) and literally walked their indictment of the U.S. government for economic crimes against humanity to the United Nations. Here and elsewhere, church members are fasting in solidarity with people starving from debt slavery, imagining a non-financialist future, under the rubric of Jubilee 2000. Micro and grassroots radio is flourishing, pirating the monopolized airwaves, democratizing and redistributing the means of communication. Thousands of people, mostly poor black and brown women, are very publicly and very personally rejecting prison as the ideal model of social order. The worldwide peace movement, with its truly remarkable diversity, grows stronger every day. And on and on and on.
These examples only begin to scratch the surface and do not even begin to convey the nature of these struggles or the visions, passions, and longings that motivate them. But motivated they are. Moreover, or more to my point, embedded in this resistance, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly, is both a deep longing for and the articulation of, the existence of a life lived otherwise and elsewhere than in hell. And yet, we seem to have such an underdeveloped and unmoving vocabulary for these longings and these lives, for how people comprehend in a practical embodied way the otherwise and elsewhere.
“Both in the West and the world beyond, the socialist impulse will survive Marxism’s conceits just as earlier it persevered the repressions of the Church and secular authorities. The warrant for such an assertion, I have argued, is located in history and the persistence of the human spirit. As the past and our present demonstrate, domination and oppression inspire that spirit in ways we may never fully understand. That a socialist discourse is an irrepressible response to social injustice has been repeatedly confirmed. On that score it has been immaterial whether it was generated by peasants or slaves, workers or intellectuals, or whether it took root in the metropole or the periphery.”
My friend is younger than me, less jaded. He signed off his letter, “Aluta Continua. Vitoria e certa!” and I am moved by the passion in that, the passionate resistance to all that is wrong and harmful in society, the struggle both practical and ideological for a fair society. Perhaps, in the ruins of our failed gods, we may yet reach toward a more just society.
 wikipedia, The Hollow Men, TS Eliot