With the recent death of Fidel Castro the world lost its only remaining Cold War dictator.
The 90-year old Cuban captured the imagination of the Left for well over fifty years, admired in some quarters as a hero for standing up to the imperialist Yanquis.
At first glance, Castro might not appear to be a typical Marxist revolutionary. He was, after all, the son of a wealthy landowner. His fair skin betrayed his Spanish ancestry, which afforded him special status in a nation with a definite racial hierarchy. He studied at the best Catholic prep schools on the island and earned his juris doctorate in 1950. By any measure, Castro had a pretty good life in Fulgencio Batista’s pre-revolutionary Cuba. His two closest lieutenants, brother Raúl and the Argentinian transplant Ernesto “Che” Guevara, were also well off.
Yet Castro was not as much of an anomaly as one might think. As long as Marxism has existed it has presented itself as the movement of the dispossessed despite the fact that the dispossessed have rarely been at its helm. Instead they have relied on a few class traitors such as the Castro brothers to lead them. There are exceptions of course — Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro isn’t lying when he speaks of his humble roots. He’s a former bus driver. If you want to know what a country run by a bus driver looks like, witness the mismanagement and scarcity of today’s Venezuela.
Still, it seems that Marxism has rarely ever been the bottom-up movement it was supposed to be. A closer look at Marxism throughout the centuries shows that it has often been the pastime of rich people who care, or think they care, about the poor. It frequently takes the form of a therapeutic exercise in wringing the guilt out of unearned wealth. Naturally, some people won’t see the problem with this. If a few rich kids want to take up arms alongside the peasantry, what’s wrong with that?
Well for starters, communist revolutions are bloody affairs. Poor people, many of whom really were dealt a lousy hand in life, rise up against the wealthy and slaughter them wholesale before taking everything they have. It’s murder and theft, plain and simple. Some people don’t see anything wrong with murder and theft so long as it’s poor people doing it to rich people, but I do.
The Marxist mob’s prolific violence is excused because of their motive — to level society by tearing down the rich and lifting up the impoverished. I would argue, however, that the motive is tainted when the angry mob is provoked into a rage by someone who is himself very wealthy. Suddenly it isn’t poor people slaughtering rich people — which would be bad enough — it’s one group of rich people siccing the bedraggled masses on another group of rich people.
In most cases, and certainly in the case of the Castro brothers, the rich Marxist cadre end up even richer after the gentry’s property has been seized and divided. Then they lie about it lest anyone come to suspect that their motives were impure. Fidel Castro, for example, often claimed during his nearly 50-year dictatorship that he survived on about $43 a month and that he lived in a fisherman’s hut when in fact he was living high on the hog. Castro did nothing admirable; all he did was steal the wealth of his country by promising to give the peasantry a cut when all was said and done. The lion’s share went to him and his sidekicks, Raúl and Che.
Economic class has always been at the center of left-wing, progressive, and Marxist thought. Only in recent years have other categories — race, sex, sexuality — begun to supplant class as the most important factor in dividing people into friend and foe. On one side stand the common people, called the proletariat in Marxist vernacular — peasants, wrench-turners, and the like. On the other side is the ruling class, often called monopoly capitalists, the people who own everything. Sandwiched between these two groups is the bourgeois, a middle class that enjoys just enough privilege under the current system to want it preserved.
Such is the traditional Marxist worldview, a simple and self-contained Theory of Everything. Marxists take the side of the proletariat against the other two groups, or so they would like to believe.
But of course reality is much messier.
Working people are often the most conservative — or “reactionary” as the Marxists say — among us. Donald Trump wouldn’t be our president-elect if he hadn’t had so much appeal in the rust belt region. Karl Marx had a word for workers who weren’t on board with his program; he called them the Lumpenproletariat. These are the workers who have not achieved class consciousness and likely never will. They don’t want revolution and may actively work to stymie it. As someone who used to work in a factory, I will tell you that a lot of America’s blue collar workers are basically conservative, even some of those who vote Democrat. The Lumpenproletariat represents a large portion of American workers, probably the majority.
Despite Karl Marx’s mockery of the uncooperative Lumpenproletariat he was in fact the furthest thing from a working man. Marx was a wealthy lad whose parents paid for him to spend years at the university and to travel extensively. His mother, Henriette Marx, once wrote in a letter to a friend that “If only little Karl had made some capital instead of just writing about it.”
When Marx could no longer mooch off his rich parents he moved on to mooching off his even richer friend Friedrich Engels, the son of a successful textile manufacturer. It’s said that Marx never set foot on a factory floor yet he really believed that he had valuable insight into the lives of working people. Any workers who didn’t agree with his assessment were dismissed as mere Lumpen (rags).
Ironically, it was Karl Marx’s economic background that allowed his ideas to flourish in mid-19th century Europe. If he had been one of the laborers he claimed to represent, no one would have paid him any mind and none of his books would have been published. In all likelihood the term “Marxism” would not exist if Marx had not been a son of privilege whiling away his days in Paris and London, scribbling about the struggles of people he did not know and could not relate to.
Again, I don’t mean to imply that Marxists have never found any support among the proletariat they claim to support, but it does appear that nearly all Marxist leaders have been at least moderately wealthy by the standards of the time and place in which they lived. Vladimir Lenin, for example, was the son of an educated man who taught the children of the nobility at a prestigious academy. He became a committed communist while studying at Kazan University, a prospect that was simply inaccessible to average Russians.
John Reed, the founder of the forerunner to the Communist Party USA, was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Reed was essentially a ne’er-do-well who somehow managed to get into Harvard despite poor academic performance. He later settled in New York’s Greenwich Village and hobnobbed with the celebrities of his time. Reed travelled widely in Europe. In 1917, he trekked to St. Petersburg to witness the events of the October Revolution and fell in love with the ideals of the new communist state. He quickly wrote “Ten Days that Shook the World,” his account of the Bolshevik rise to power.
It isn’t difficult to see why these people — the Castro Brothers, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Reed — might see wealth and the capitalist societies that produce it as wholly illegitimate. By sheer luck of the draw, they had been born rich while a great mass of other people had been born poor. Meritocracy was, in their estimation, a sham.
It’s this kind of guilt that seems to drive rich men to don jungle fatigues and line their enemies up for the firing squad. But don’t be fooled. These people are poseurs trying to garner some street cred by acting like they grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. To make matters worse they usually do it out of the basest motives — to make themselves even richer than they already are.
Inevitably they end up hurting the people they promised to help, and not necessarily by accident.