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Goodbye Plato and Jefferson, Hello Lenin!

Both Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin would be pleased if they could see how their doctrines have been realized in the United States. As I learned at Moscow State University in the 1950s, dialectical materialism (“diamat”) holds that the economic base—who owns what—determines the political, social, and cultural superstructure. The superstructure spawns a false ideology—an illusion that the present arrangement between haves and have-nots is inevitable and as good as it gets. The superstructure creates an educational system and mass media that foster this illusion. Institutions of government may appear to serve the people, but they are tools of those who own the means of production and control workers and farmers.

This Marxist vision has been validated by many trends in the United States.  Ronald Reagan’s defense outlays pleased the military-industrial complex; his tax cuts, de-regulation of industry, and anti-welfare policies benefited the upper classes while harming most Americans.  Like Reagan, George W. Bush also spent wildly on defense, widened the gaps between rich and poor, and broadened the budget gap.  Meanwhile, the Supreme Court increasingly acted as a servant for the ruling elites. It threw the 2000 election to George W. Bush—the first of two recent elections when a Republican became president despite losing the popular vote. In 2010 the court ruled that the government may not limit what non-profit and for-profit corporations and unions spend on “electioneering communication.” In summer 2018 the court ruled that racial gerrymandering is legal and that the president may ban the entry of all people from five Muslim countries plus North Korea and Venezuela. The court also voted 5/4 to gut public sector unions.

With the highest court in the pocket of the administration, where can critics turn to challenge policies they see as unjust or downright crazy?  For Marxists, there is a bright side: “The worse, the better.”The court’s decisions can be expected to intensify the contradictions destined to explode capitalist society and lead to socialism.

What does Leninism add to Marxism?  While Karl Marx expected the forces of materialism to destroy capitalism, Lenin shunned any form of determinism. Politics, he argued, is a fight to the death—kto kovo, or “who will do in whom?”  What is ethics in politics according to Lenin? Not some commandment that flashes down from heaven, but anything that promotes Communist objectives.  (So sensitive was Lenin’s view of morality that my academic adviser in Moscow tried to keep the relevant document from me—a speech by Lenin in 1920 to Young Communists, which I remembered reading in a Columbia University library.)

Kto kovo? Who whom? Lenin would not have been surprised by the amoral, zero-sum campaign waged by Republican leaders against Democrats since the Richard Nixon years. In 1968, for example, candidate Nixon and Henry Kissinger scuttled talks to end the Vietnam War, an outcome that would have helped Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey to win the presidency in November. Nixon also opened a “Southern strategy” to convince southern whites that Republicans would perform better than Democrats at keeping down blacks–an approach later adopted and embellished by presidential candidates Reagan and George H. W. Bush.   In 1994 Republican Congressman Dr. Newt Gingrich (Tulane Ph.D.,1971) proclaimed a “Contract with America” calling for lower taxes. The contract’s demagogic slogans, fine-tuned by the Heritage Foundation, helped Republicans regain control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1952.  Like Donald Trump in later years, Gingrich strongly influenced Republicans despite a troubled personal story involving debt, philandering, and double-dealing.

Senator Mitch McConnell deepened the struggle in 2008 by committing Republicans to making the incoming Obama administration fail at whatever it assayed. Republicans proceeded to throttle many Obama initiatives.  Members of what used to be the Grand Old Party continue striving to weaken if not kill the Affordable Care Act. McConnell’ supreme victory, however, was preventing Senate deliberations on Obama’s recommendation for the ninth judge on the Supreme Court. A year later, with Republicans controlling all branches of government, the Senate is now asked to approve a Trump nominee for the Supreme Court whose presence will probably assure a conservative majority for decades.

These tricks and dirty tricks break with democratic principles and can shape America’s future. They have been aided and abetted by a leading follower of Lenin, former KGB agent Vladimir Putin. True to Lenin’s operational code, Putin has used every tool and trick to advance his objectives—from the Kremlin and Crimea to the White House. Reversing Karl Marx’s expectations, however, Putin—somewhat like Trump–has used politics to influence and profit from his country’s economic base. Blending political and economic power, both Putin and Trump have sought to create a false ideology for their subjects.

The big picture sketched here needs to be qualified. Some Democrats also play hardball, though stopping far short of the no-holds-barred tactics embraced by top Republicans.  George Soros and Michael Bloomberg as well as the Koch brothers use their wealth to try and shape U.S. politics. Can voters be brain-washed?  Fox News has become an arm of the Trump administration, but America’s major newspapers and some TV channels still strive to report true—not false—news.  Nonetheless, the fact that a third to half of American voters still support President Trump no matter what he says or does—even if it hurts their interests, shows that the basics of Marxism, aided by some Leninist tactics, have permeated American life and may be hard to erase.

Commenting on these thoughts, Boston University historian Igor Lukes notes that Plato argued that only the most exquisitely educated among us should govern. Lenin, in sharp contrast, said that “revolutionary sailors” can master the art of government in twenty-four hours. Trump acts like one of Lenin’s revolutionary sailors, confident that being president is not much different from buying and disowning a casino. The president  and his backers  may not grasp that they are the revolutionaries who have come up from the street and may lack the know-how and skills to run  a huge and multifaceted government.  While Trump and most of his cronies may be incompetent, they have survived more than a year already. Good-bye Plato, hello Lenin!

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Walter Clemens is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Boston University and Associate, Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He wrote Complexity Science and World Affairs (SUNY Press, 2013).

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