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Two Cheers for Pope Francis

So Pope Francis, the new pope who has conservative American Catholics, particularly those in politics and the media, freaked out because he is criticizing capitalist greed, knows Marxists who are “good people,” and isn’t upset to be labeled one of them, even though he says “Marxist ideology is wrong.”.

That’s quite a lot for many Americans to swallow. For someone like Rush Limbaugh or Fox commentator Andrew Napolitano, it must feel like the world is collapsing. A “Marxist” pope! How could God allow such a thing!

Part of the problem is that Americans don’t even know what Marxism is. The pope made his remarks on the subject in Italy, to the newspaper La Stampa. Italians, who are busy organizing increasingly massive “pitchfork” demonstrations in cities across their country, and are calling on police and soldiers to take off their helmets and join them in bringing down their country’s corrupt government, have greeted his remarks with a collective yawn.

After all, many of Italy’s largest urban areas have been governed on and off, and sometimes for generations, by Marxists of one stripe or another — even by the dreaded Communist Party itself, which, of course, in Italy has long been something quite different from the Stalinist party that Americans have been trained to imagine when they hear the word. Such “red” municipal governments have been elected over and over by the Italian public because they tend to do a better job, are less corrupt, and try to do what New York City’s new left-leaning Mayor Bill de Blasio says he wants to do: reduce the wealth gap in his city, and do more to help its poorest residents.

Americans, thanks to decades of overt, blatant propaganda in our schools and our media, don’t know that Marxism is a philosophy, a school of thought, an economic and social theory, not a political party. Even the pope got that partially wrong. There is an ideology of Marxism too, but that’s something else again. Marxism, as developed by the man who lent the theory its name, Karl Marx, and his colleague and friend Friedrich Engels, is really a way of thinking, a form of analysis. It posits a few important things. One is that economic relations are a key driver of history. The other is the concept that each new development in history or in social or economic relations contains within itself the seeds of resistance or, ultimately, its own destruction.

If you think about it, those are pretty tough concepts to argue with, and, as far as I am concerned, offer a very sound basis, or at least starting point, for analyzing historical, political, economic and social developments. So call me a Marxist.

But not a Communist, though that point will fly right past most Americans, for whom Marxism is equated with Communism.

The equation of Marxism with Communism is no more correct, though, than equating belief in a god with belief in Catholicism. Furthering the confusion, most Americans, again thanks to all the propaganda to which we are subjected almost from birth, equate Communism with socialism And there things get even more complicated because in reality, many — perhaps even most– socialists are not really Marxists, and in some cases, such as Christian socialists, they may openly reject Marxism, the way the pope is doing.

That’s understandable: it requires some real intellectual gymnastics to integrate a teleological belief in God with the concept of economic determinism. That is, if you believe that economic relations are the primary driver of history, how do you also believe in some anthropomorphized God who is all-powerful? Personally, I don’t see why that would be any more difficult than believing in the theory of evolution and believing in a traditional Christian, Muslim or Jewish god, and millions of devout Americans manage that feat of illogic. But then again, there is not the same concerted and one-sided propaganda against evolutionism that there is against Marxism.

As for Communism, the Bolshevik party of Lenin is no more. In China, where I lived and worked for several years in the 1990s, Mao’s Communist Party has devolved into a kind of fascism, in which the state and private corporations have become one, along with the military and police, all in the interest of preserving the power and privilege of a corrupt ruling elite who call themselves Communists and publicly avow the creed of Marxism. Functionally though, they are capitalists with a brutal political philosophy that Mussolini would find quite accommodating. In Cuba and Laos, and perhaps a few other outposts, there may be some remnant of Bolshevism or Communism, with a genuine lingering focus on the needs of the masses of working people as a goal, but in most places, like North Korea, Vietnam, and other states where the Communist Party continues to rule, the Party has gone the route it went in the former Soviet Union, before its overthrow there, or in China.

Meanwhile, in most democratic countries, the Community Party of old has ceased to exist, with memberships voting, particularly since the collapse and break-up of the Soviet Union, by overwhelming margins, to eliminate the Leninist centralism that was anathema to democracy. These successors to old Communist Parties have become a part of the broader socialist political world. Many, like the Communist parties in Germany and Italy, dumped the name Communism from their identity altogether in favor of names like Democratic Party of the Left.

None of that has registered in America, where the media still speaks of Communism and Marxism in the same scary breath, and where, as a result, I find that many people still think Russia is a Communist country! Heck, in the latest off-year elections, one of the biggest national(!)!stories in the US was that an “avowed” socialist (gasp!), won a hard-fought seat on the Seattle city council, ousting a Democratic incumbent!

But it’s worse than that. To many Americans, Europe itself is viewed as “socialist,” which in many US minds means “Communist.” This is true even though on most of that continent (and in Canada, too), the socialist parties are currently in opposition. This is the case in Sweden, in the UK, in Germany, in Spain, in Italy, in Austria and elsewhere. Only in France are the Socialists in charge, and given that country’s harsh policies against workers of late, they barely deserve the name. In the US, socialism, like Marxism, is simply equated with Communism. Just last week, Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the New York Times, and now one of what that newspaper considers to be its “liberal” columnists, wrote a ridiculous column in which he tried to show that the ruling African National Congress in South Africa is a “communist” organization. One of his key pieces of “evidence”: that the ANC’s members refer to each other as “comrade”! Never mind that members of non- or even anti-Communist socialist parties around the world, including Britain’s Labor Party, proudly call each other comrade, too. and have done so since before the Communist Party was even formed.)

This would all be a pointless discussion, except that the US is facing a huge crisis, indeed one that Marx would have labeled a “contradiction.” Capitalism has triumphed here to an extent that 35 years ago would have seemed inconceivable. The ideology of free-market capitalism espoused by the likes of the late economist Milton Friedman, has triumphed to the point that it is considered almost heresy for a politician, Republican or Democrat, to suggest that unfettered markets don’t work best. So we get insane policies like cutting off welfare benefits to poor families after five years (a lifetime limit!) on the theory that then people will get (nonexistent) jobs, slashing funding for education on the theory that then parents will “choose” to send their kids to costlier charter schools run by private corporations that underpay their teachers and suck off the profits for the owners, eliminating rent subsidies and food stamps for the poor on the theory that this will reduce homelessness and get people to go out and find nonexistent apartments and nonexistent or grossly underpaid jobs, and international “free trade” treaties that allow US companies to ship all their production to cheap-labor countries abroad, and then export their formerly US-made goods back to the US, tax free and jobs free. We also get a militarized police force that increasingly resembles a brutal army of occupation, and a colossal blood-sucking military that receives half the national budget each year and that is costlier than the rest of the world’s militaries combined.

This illogical faith in the ideology of free-market capitalism, which is really a nothing more or less than a fanatical fundamentalist religion in its own right, has brought the US to where it is today — a once-wealthy nation that now has among the worst infant mortality and life expectancy statistics, the poorest performing students, the highest rate of poverty, the shabbiest and stingiest retirement and disability program, the biggest gap between rich and poor, the worst public transportation and infrastructure, and among the most corrupt political system, in the developed world.

One can only hope that Marx was right, and that the dialectical seeds of the destruction of this dreadful and perverse system — a rebellion that would end with the corrupt political and corporate elite locked up in prisons to replace the millions of poor people who currently languish unjustly behind bars — are sprouting. Certainly the kleptocracy that has been created, and the continuing impoverishment of the majority, that is underway, cannot continue for much longer. There won’t be anything left for the ruling class to steal.

Perhaps Italy’s pitchfork rebels can show us the way, with their (thus far) peaceful movement to force the whole government to resign, just as the Icelanders did to their corrupt capitalist government in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. (For those who might want to see what a socialist United States of America would look like, check out Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA, a new book by my comrade, agent and fellow Marxist Frances Goldin. I contributed the chapter on health care.)

Either that or we will have to hope that some just and wrathful god will exercise her teleological authority, and do that job for us.

Maybe the new Marxist-friendly Pope Francis could put in a word with his God about that.

Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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