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What Does a Marxist Think of Bernie? Q&A with Arthur Peña

Bernie Sanders' campaign has raised many questions about socialism, communism and even Marx. What does an unabashed, thoughtful Marxist think of it all?

This last week’s shift in the Democratic race has surprised most everyone—seemingly including Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. My friend Arthur Peña was not so surprised though, however disheartening it may all be to him, as a self-identified Marxist (and Christian).

Arthur and I first met as part of an experiment to bring together ideologically diverse perspectives to have a more productive, open-hearted conversation about LGBT rights and religious freedom in America. The experience was so moving that Arthur and I stayed in touch and ended up writing a larger treatise about these possibilities: A Third Space: Proposing Another Way Forward in the LGBT/Religious Conservative Impasse (Disagreement Practice, Treasonous Friendship & Trustworthy Rivalry in the Face of Irreconcilable Difference).

After that, Arthur collaborated with me and a larger group of dialogue experts on the Red Blue Dictionaryan effort to map out the contested meanings of many different words in the American lexicon today. More recently, Arthur has been a key collaborator in a book-length project with Charles Randall Paul and myself to make the case for re-imagining persuasion as a social good in America today (see introduction: “Why Persuasion Should Be a Sweet (Not a Dirty) Word).

In short, I’ve come to love and respect this man – learning so much from him over the years. In his own words, Arthur identifies as “a (not entirely comfortably) gay man (with rather conservative instincts on sexuality and marriage), a (libertarian-leaning) Marxist and (an intellectually agnostic but mystically devout Orthodox-leaning) Christian.” Not surprisingly, then, he often says that the front lines of the present culture wars cut through his very soul.

One thing Arthur has been writing about for many years is how Marx has been profoundly misunderstood, in his viewnot just on the right, but also on the left. It’s true that for most everyone on the right, the Marxist ideas behind socialist and communist governments are seen as almost irredeemable and leading only to dark placesas reflected in oppressive, dictatorial governments throughout the last century.  Without denying the devastating ways these ideas have been applied (misapplied he would say) in these countries, Arthur makes a compelling case for how these ideas have been bastardized by cruel leaders, akin to the teachings of Christ “motivating” the Crusades.. He argues there is more to the original teachings than many acknowledge anymore.

Within a larger atmosphere where political opponents are demonized and vilified, Public Square Magazine aims for something else. In the spirit of understanding more deeply the views of even those who may differ from us profoundly, we couldn’t pass up this opportunity during Bernie Sanders’ campaign to ask Arthur to say more about this, along with his observations on what has happened politically in America these days.     

Note: As background context for this challenging discussion (and aware of the strong feelings people have on the topic), Arthur has invited readers to consider the following quote from Marx and Engels, which he believes can provide a glimpse of the side of Marx that he most aligns with: “We have no desire to exchange freedom for equality.” He’s articulated a broader view of his understanding of the historical motivation for socialism in general, especially in an American context, in the first two pages of “Two Souls of Socialism: A Fork in the Road” – with Gar Alperovitz’s short Pluralist Commonwealth video also representing well the vision of socialism Arthur says he most identifies with.  

Jacob Hess: Let’s start off, Arthur, with this dramatic shift in the campaign this last week. You had forebodings about thisand I’d like to know what you think about what you see happening?

Arthur Peña: In short, I see what happened as a kind of “soft ‘extreme centrist’ coup.”

When you combine the tactics of commie-baiting, behind-the-scenes Obama-directed maneuvering, anti-leftist centrist-controlled media bias, the relentless “vote blue no matter who” campaign associated with the emphasis on alleged “electability,” and, finally, the idolization of what is in my view a deeply flawed Obama administration (upon whose coattails Biden has been riding), then the extreme centrist “coup” is unsurprising.

Some have said, “Well, that’s ‘democracy.’” 

I would counter with this: that’s Party politics (and the correlation between Party Machines and real democracy is, I think, questionable).

Bernie, who generally stands both honestly and constantly for what the rhetoric of the Democratic Party ostensibly stands for (aka, democratic socialism), is therefore the primary enemy of that Party. No one is more likely to provoke the ire of any Party’s leadership than someone who really believes and acts on the principles which the Party merely professes.  

JH: As a self-identified Marxist, have you been excited about Senator Sanders’ campaign over recent months?

AP: Yes and no. (For many reasons!)

Yes, because I actually do believe in a certain kind of socialism (socialism “from below,” as I describe in my “Two Souls” essay); and so, to the extent that Bernie’s socialism overlaps with my own, I have been very much looking forward to being able to fight for that in real time, with real power, and with some real chance of (partial) success.  

No, because, obviously, having one’s most cherished ideas put to the real-world test means facing the possibility not only of failure but of having been profoundly wrong all along! Also, if the wrong “soul” of socialism comes to predominate, then I do fear for my country, almost (but not quite) as much as I fear for my country if (what I would call) “the present tyranny of capital” is not overthrown.

Yes, because, finally, discussion of the meaning(s) of the word “socialism” will be unavoidable.

No, because the chance of its being a reasonable discussion is, I fear, rather slim (as we’ve seen this last week). I most fear, in fact, the disinformation campaigns coming from the (Wall-Street dominated) Democratic Party establishment. Republican “commie-baiting” and “commie-bashing” is to be expected, and, in many ways, is easier to deal with and, I would say, even more “honest” than what comes up among democrats (even if not very well-informed, in my opinion).

When it comes to commie-bashing from the so-called “Left”….well….it gets bizarre.

JH: You’ve also acknowledged some real reservations on your part about Bernie himself. Say something about that?   

AP: Bernie has one foot in what is sometimes referred to as “socialism from above” (essentially the “social democratic” use of the central government to check the power of capital and to benefit the working class); and he has one foot in “socialism from below” (the more Marxist goal of actually empowering the working class to emancipate themselves “from below” i.e. by their own efforts—focusing on decentralized ownership of the economy, with both the attendant privileges and the responsibilities that come with such ownership).  

Bernie’s “from below” politics are obviously more inspiring to me (his goal of increasing worker ownership of business, for example, which he has declared for as long as he has been in politics).  

His “from above” politics, on the other hand (welfare, medicare-for-all, progressive taxation), are more worrisome to me, as they are sure to increase the size and power of the central government bureaucracy, which is the very last thing any self-respecting Marxist should want. As Engels (Marx’s right-hand man) wrote (emphasis mine):

“…self-government on the American model… this is what we too must have. How self-government is to be organized and how we can manage, without a bureaucracy has been shown to us by America….”

“We have no desire to exchange freedom for equality.”

The ultimate (and far distant) Marxist goal is the “withering away of the State”—sort of the “smaller gov’t” idea on steroids (no, I’m not holding my breath!)—so anything that tends to increase the power of the central State without (at the very least) simultaneously both checking the power of capital and directly empowering (“from below”) the working class is, to my mind, a rather risky business, no matter how well-intended.

Another worry of mine relates not so much to Bernie as to some of his more “liberal” or “progressive” self-identifying supporters who (some of them) do not even acknowledge that he is (or that they are) in fact socialist (or at least on the socialist “spectrum”). I do not trust socialists who either do not know or (worse) do not acknowledge that they are socialists, mostly because such people will not be able to fully learn from the rich history of the socialist tradition—both its successes and its failures—if they do not even know (or admit) that it is, in fact, their tradition.

But, of course, unlike some of his followers, Bernie is honest. He declares himself to be a kind of socialist: a democratic socialist (as opposed to some kind of “authoritarian” socialist).

JH: There has been for some time a sense of foreboding among conservatives at the possibility of Bernie Sanders winning the presidency. How justified would you say any of those fears have been?   

AP: Socialism from above is definitely risky (though not, in my opinion, as risky as making no attempt at all to check the power of capital); and socialism from below (the kind I favor), while less risky, is nevertheless dangerous in the same way that all steps towards greater democracy are risky (and socialism from below is a step towards greater—far greater—democracy).  

Winston Churchill said: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”

I believe that the very essence of Marxism is democracy writ large, that is, democratic principles (i.e. people having a say—a ‘vote’—in the things that affect them) extended beyond the merely political realm and out into the economy (“at work”, as it were). Therefore, the dangers associated with democracy in general could conceivably be even greater for a socialist democracy than for a capitalist democracy, as the sphere within which democratic principles are to be exercised would be expanded. In other words, more democracy might mean more problems inherent to democracy. 

Socialism—because it is all about democracy—could therefore very well be the “worst form of Government”….though, in my opinion, it would probably still be better than “all those other forms that have been tried from time to time,” including capitalist democracy. (Just to head off a common objection raised at this point: No, the USSR was not “socialist” in the Marxist sense.)

There may be other ways, too, of a more spiritual sort, in which conservatives may, with some justification, view a Sander’s victory with foreboding.   

I am a Christian myself, so too much emphasis on “gaining the world” always makes me worry about the possibility of “losing one’s soul” in the process. In other words, too much emphasis on improving the physical and political and even social lives of people has the potential to overlook the essentially tragic (and imperfectable) nature of life. Too much emphasis on “fixing” things could lead us to what Marx himself lambasted the Stalinist type of communists for wanting to do. As he once wrote:    

There certainly are some communists who, with an easy conscience, refuse to countenance personal liberty and would like to shuffle it out of the world because they consider that it is a hindrance to complete harmony.”   

In other words, allowing space for personal liberty may require that we not pursue too fanatically other social goods, like “equality” or “security” for example. That is why Marx and Engels distinguished themselves from those who sought, say, “harmony” at the expense of liberty, by insisting that they (Marx and Engels) “have no desire to exchange freedom for equality.”

Be that as it may, I think we also run the risk of losing our souls by not (on the socioeconomic level) going in the Marxist, socialism-from-below direction.  

After all, we are to be judged by Christ at least in part by whether or not we have attended to our neighbors’ real physical and social needs (feeding the hungry, healing the sick, etc.). Aiming, then, for a society guided by the (profoundly Christian and yet also core Marxist) principle of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need,” seems important as well. The socio-economic structure of the early Christian community certainly provided a kind of “communist” view of how earthly wealth should be shared: “And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need” (Acts 2:44–45). Obviously, the sharing of wealth among a community of first-century pre-industrial-age believers is rather different from the socialism which Marx was envisioning, and yet neither is the principle entirely alien to Marx’s aims.

Furthermore, if we Marxists are right, then there is something inherently soul-destroying about capitalism itself, and our aim to free each person to be able to more fully own their own labor power and the fruits of their labor might very well be a necessary part of earthly, and perhaps even heavenly, salvation. (Again, to head off a common misunderstanding that arises: by “capitalism” Marxists do not mean “free trade,” but, rather, an investor-profit-dominated economy owned by the very few). 

JH: Many people have been confused with the pairing of “democratic” and “socialist”seeing these as antithetical and essentially opposites. As you’ve said just now, you see them as inextricably tied. What would be your best pitch to convince the skeptics to see this otherwise?  

AP: As you can imagine, given the legacy of the Cold War, I have heard that concern before. 

Bernie clearly qualifies the word “socialism” with “democratic” to quite honestly and genuinely distinguish his own sort of socialism from those “authoritarian” forms which are all-too-well known to us (Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, Castrista Cuba, even Chavista Venezuela). 

But, in fact, as I’ve pointed out, democracy is the heart and soul of socialism—at least any socialism wishing to honestly claim Marx as its ideological father (as opposed to the Stalinists who had to lie on an Orwellian scale in order to claim a connection to Marx).   

Rosa Luxembourg, a famous Marxist, once said “There is no socialism without democracy, and no democracy without socialism.” Another famous (for some, infamous) Marxist, Trotsky (who, not surprisingly, was assassinated by Stalin), also expressed a similar sentiment:  “Socialism needs democracy like the human body needs oxygen.”

Now, of course, we are talking “in theory” here. What actual flesh-and-blood “Marxists” may end up doing is another question entirely. History is replete with people (of all political and religious persuasions) claiming one set of ideals while simultaneously carrying out actions that are antithetical to those ideals.

For those of you wanting a very detailed answer to this concern about socialism and democracy, you can refer to another essay (here) which I wrote to a one-time email acquaintance, “Michael,” who also wanted to know more about this.

I’ve already mentioned above couple Marxist texts relevant to this question:  

  • “…self-government on the American model… this is what we too must have. How self-government is to be organized and how we can manage, without a bureaucracy has been shown to us by America….”
  • “We have no desire to exchange freedom for equality.”

Another text shows the particular contempt in which Marx and Engels held all anti-democratic tendencies (including in America, which in so many other ways they admired and wished to emulate). Emphasis mine:

“Nowhere do ‘politicians form a more separate, powerful section of the nation than in North America. There, each of the two great parties which alternately succeed each other in power is itself in turn controlled by people who make a business of politics, who speculate on seats in the legislative assemblies of the Union as well as of the separate states, or who make a living by carrying on agitation for their party and on its victory are rewarded with positions. It is well known that the Americans have been striving for 30 years to shake off this yoke, which has become intolerable, and that in spite of all they can do they continue to sink ever deeper in this swamp of corruption. It is precisely in America that we see best how there takes place this process of the state power making itself independent in relation to society, whose mere instrument it was originally intended to be. Here there exists no dynasty, no nobility, no standing army, beyond the few men keeping watch on the Indians, no bureaucracy with permanent posts or the right to pensions. and nevertheless we find here two great gangs of political speculators, who alternately take possession of the state power and exploit it by the most corrupt means and for the most corrupt endsand the nation is powerless against these two great cartels of politicians, who are ostensibly its servants, but in reality exploit and plunder it.”

As you can see from this, your question sounds sort of like someone asking, “many people are confused with the pairing of “Christianity” and “love.” The democratic core of Marxist socialism is, well, precisely that: the core. By definition.

JH: It’s remarkable to think that what Karl Marx actually taught and believed may have been so widely misrepresentedespecially in connection to major events in history. Say more about those historical misunderstandings.    

AP: The Cold War period made rational discussion of “capitalism” vs “socialism” very difficult (as Chomsky explains quite succinctly here). 

My view of the history differs from what many have taken for granted, Jacob, but I do believe it represents a fuller truth. Namely this:  the USSR (under Stalin) wanted to associate itself for propagandistic purposes with the high esteem in which Marx was widely held (no matter how antithetical its actual system was to what Marx actually proposed); and, likewise (also for propagandistic reasons) the elite capitalist ruling classes in the United States also wanted people to associate the top-down anti-democratic totalitarian State of the USSR with Marx (“Look at the USSR! That’s Marxism. You don’t want that!”).

The result being that actual Marxist ideas (deeply democratic and profoundly anti-statist and very threatening to the ruling classes of both the Soviet Union and the United States) virtually disappeared from common understanding, especially in America, but also in Russia and Eastern Europe. (Think Orwell….)

We were left, instead, with two powers that I consider essentially imperialist (the US and the USSR) vying for world domination–neither of which was, in my judgment, steadfastly pursuing the actual ideals they claimed were the motivation for said domination. (I realize this is probably not ringing true to my conservative audience, but I am attempting to explain how I see things). Russia was imposing its socialist will (its “democratic” socialist will!?!?) on Eastern Europe, and America (also in the name of democracy) was like a raging bull stomping down any country or people who dared to think they had a right to self-determination. Such a tragedy. So much destruction. So many lives lost. 

Democracy is the heart and soul of socialism . . .

And, in the context of the questions you have been asking, any clarity about what Marx was actually aiming for was also (almost) lost!

The legacy of the Cold War for today is that we are largely left with the impression that the choices facing us are between “socialism from above” (some sort of central government ownership, or government regulation of capital) on the one hand, and completely unregulated market forces, on the other. Or some anemic mix of the two—some kind of “social democracy” constantly under attack from the entrenched capitalist powers that still actually own the economy (and, from behind the scenes, via the power of the purse-string, actually own the government too).

Socialism from below (Marxist socialism), in contrast, is generally not even on most people’s radar…though in spirit it still very much captures people’s imagination, even if they lack the historical Marxist understandings to put that imagination into realistic practice in a way that avoids the pitfalls of the sort of “Statist” forms of socialism “from above” that seem to be the dominant form of socialism today.

JH: You’ve mentioned two very different ways of approaching socialism “from above” and “from below.” Why do you believe that distinction should matter so much for readers?  

AP: In Orwellian fashion, socialism has come to be identified with virtually anything done by the government [even if it is something that benefits the capitalist class!…as headlines reading “we’re all socialists now” declared, in reference to the 2008 government bailout….(wait for it)…of Wall Street banks!?!?].

Marx and Engels themselves ridiculed the notion that socialism could be identified as state ownership (or state action):

Engels, in particular, was quite explicit that state ownership is not the same as socialism. As he noted in 1877, “…of late, since [the conservative German Chancellor] Bismarck went in for state ownership of industrial establishments, a kind of spurious socialism has arisen…that without more ado declares all state-ownership, even of the Bismarckian sort, to be socialistic.” But, he wrote, “…if the taking over by the state of the tobacco industry is socialistic, then [French emperor] Napoleon and [right-wing Austrian political leader Prince] Metternich must be numbered among the founders of socialism.”

In case his point was not clear, Engels hammered it home as follows:

“If the Belgian state, for quite ordinary political and financial reasons, itself constructed its chief railway lines; if Bismarck…took over for the state the chief Prussian lines, simply to be the better able to have them in hand in case of war, to bring up the railway employees as voting cattle for the government, and especially to create for himself a new source of income independent of parliamentary votesthis was, in no sense, a socialistic measure, directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously.

Otherwise, the [Prussian] Royal Maritime Company, the Royal porcelain manufacture, and even the regimental tailor of the army would also be socialistic institutions, or even, as was seriously proposed by a sly dog in [Prussian King] Frederick William III’s reign, the taking over by the state of the brothels.”

Admittedly, even true “socialism from above” (government programs which really do empower the working class and check the power of capital) tends very much to take the form either of government ownership or government regulation of “the means of production,” or of government-managed redistribution of wealth (via progressive taxation, regulation, etc.).

However, even for this sort of “from above” socialism to be truly socialist (from a Marxist point of view anyway), the actual government which is doing all the “owning” or “regulating” or “redistributing” would itself have to be robustly democratic. It would have to be truly a government “of, for, and by the people” (and not the de facto government of the rich and powerful—or the de facto government of some ‘apparatchik’ bureaucratic class). “Socialist dictator” (from a Marxist point of view) is an oxymoron. (Again, to briefly address an objection that often arises in this context: “dictatorship of the proletariat,” in 19th C. parlance, actually meant “democratic rule—with constitutionally limited government—by the working class majority,” as Engels makes quite clear here.)

However, I needn’t remind my conservative readers that government power rarely remains “checked”! 

There is, therefore, even with the best of intentions, a tendency of this sort of socialism (“from above”) to lead to bigger and bigger government. (I believe that Marx himself, with his faith in democracy—even democracy-from-below—was somewhat naive, or at least not sufficiently cautious, in this regard).   

In contrast to the heavy Statist-orientation of socialism from above, socialism from below is aimed at decentralization of both economic and political power, by giving more people more direct ownership over what Marx calls “the means of life” (the productive, wealth-creating, life-sustaining, and life-enriching capacities of society…business, farms, technology, etc.). 

Worker-owned enterprises or “cooperatives” are the best example of one possible element in this sort of socialism (which I think is best envisioned in Gar Alperovitz’s “Pluralist Commonwealth”). The idea is that giving more people more economic power (i.e. “democratizing” economic power) will also tend to decentralize (again, “democratize”) political power, as economic power does tend to translate rather directly into political power (the “money in politics” problem). The Mondragon Corporation in Spain is perhaps the best known worker-owned enterprise in the world, and is often held up as an example of what is possible when the “class distinction” between “employer” and “employee” is “abolished,” and the people in charge are, simply, “worker-owners.”

At that point, whether one calls it “people’s capitalism” or “people’s socialism” becomes almost a moot point. There is in this “mootness” largely unexplored territory for a meeting of minds between Marxists and Libertarians (which I explore in more detail, in a political context, here).

In summing up my argument against socialism from above and for socialism from below, I sometimes put it this way (“Socialism 101,” as it were):

The antidote to capitalism isn’t redistribution of WEALTH (socialism from above). It’s redistribution of the OWNERSHIP of wealth-CREATION (socialism from below). 

Of course, the conservative readers of this interview may not see the need for any “antidote” to capitalism! But, if one grants that need momentarily, just for the sake of argument, one can perhaps better understand the difference between these two approaches to socialism.  

One advantage to the socialism “from below” model (which I expect would very much appeal to conservatives) is that it doesn’t really require a powerful State to redistribute wealth (e.g. via taxation), as the wealth will tend to “spread out” at the point of its production, at the level of the businesses where the wealth is created in the first place… before it even has the chance to accumulate and become concentrated in the hands of the very few. In other words, if more people owned their own small businesses, or cooperatively owned larger businesses in the form of worker-owned enterprises (a la Mondragon), then economic power would likely become more “spread out,” and political power would therefore likely follow suit. 

This is (more or less) what I believe President Lincoln had in mind, when (in 1861) he warned of the liberty-imperiling “effort to place capital on an equal footing, if not above, labor in the structure of government.” His vision was of a country in which economic power would be more widely distributed among small business owners and small family farmers. Conservatives may be aghast to learn that even Ronald Reagan argued for more employee-ownership in businesses as an aspiration to strive for. 

As Marx correctly predicted, however, capitalism very much tends to squeeze this “middle” (small business) class, and push more and more people into the “working (wage-earning) class,” and thus to concentrate ever more power into the “capitalist” (big business) class. But “socialism from below,” which is essentially a “working class” socialism (think: “worker-owned cooperative businesses”), can perhaps return to the country some of the “middle” class distribution of economic power that Lincoln feared losing (and which we have, in fact, lost).

It is important to note as well that it is not “the market” (or “free trade”) to which socialism is essentially opposed, but, rather, to the OWNERSHIP of that market in relatively few hands…. An economy consisting of nothing but small businesses (either cooperative or privately owned) and large business (all cooperatively owned) would (at least in my opinion) be a major step towards what Marx and Engels (and Lincoln and Reagan!) were envisioning.

JH: This begs another question for me, Arthur. Are these two socialist visions really that separate? I’m conjuring the classic image of a revolutionary mob storming the castleand then imposing a top-down tyranny as a few people take charge. In that image, no fundamental distinction between the two is apparent. So help me with that: Is socialism from below also more peaceful in the means it seeks to achieve these changes?  

AP: Can democracy be “imposed” from “above”? 

If the answer is “no” (which it rather obviously is), then neither can (Marxist) socialism be imposed from above, because (Marxist) socialism IS democracy. 

Hence the historical absurdity of Soviet tanks rolling into Eastern Europe and imposing “socialist democracy” (democracy!?) on the people they claimed to be “liberating,” but who in reality were victims of Russian imperialism; much as the United States overthrew one democratically-elected government after another in order to “free” the people of those countries, but in reality turning them into victims of what many see as American imperialism.

If a “few” people take power and then impose a kind of tyranny, then no Marxist revolution has occurred, as, first, any Marxist revolution must by definition be popular; and second, the Marxist aim is governance not only for the vast majority of people but by the people themselves—not rule over the working class by the few! This is, again, what Orwell was warning us about: things have come to mean their opposites, which is how Stalin was able to pretend (i.e. lie) that his totalitarian dictatorship over the proletariat was what Marx meant by the “dictatorship” (“governance” in 19th C. parlance) of the working class by and for the working class.

Having said that, “force” may certainly be necessary under certain circumstances when it comes not to “imposing” democracy but, rather, fighting for democracy (socialist or otherwise) against its enemies.  

The Americans were not able to free themselves from British tyranny without force. Slavery was abolished through force. Nearly every major step in the direction of freedom has been met with violent resistance on the part of the “reactionary” elements (those defending the prior system), and hence has been met in turn with force on the part of those seeking freedom.

The antidote to capitalism isn’t redistribution of wealth . . . It’s redistribution of the ownership of wealth-creation.

Martin Luther King and Ghandi may (perhaps) represent a workable alternative. But Marx was no pacifist. However, neither did he call for violence or force when not necessary. He was particularly (and, in my view, naively) optimistic (because of his faith in democracy) regarding the chances for a peaceful transition to more freedom in the United States and other democratic countries (emphasis mine):

Someday the worker must seize political power in order to build up the new organization of labor; he must overthrow the old politics which sustain the old institutions, if he is not to lose Heaven on Earth, like the old Christians who neglected and despised politics.

But we have not asserted that the ways to achieve that goal are everywhere the same.

You know that the institutions, mores, and traditions of various countries must be taken into consideration, and we do not deny that there are countriessuch as America, England, and if I were more familiar with your institutions, I would perhaps also add Hollandwhere the workers can attain their goal by peaceful means. This being the case, we must also recognize the fact that in most countries on the Continent the lever of our revolution must be force; it is force to which we must some day appeal in order to erect the rule of labor.

Marx was, unfortunately, clearly right about Europe (“the Continent”). Even the Scandavian countries (I am told) only achieved their “social democracies” at the cost of some spilled blood. It is, unfortunately, too late to hope for a completely peaceful transition towards more robust democracy even in the United States, as people have already died fighting for it (in the Revolutionary War, in the Civil War, the labor wars of the early 1900’s, and violence of the Civil Rights era). But, still, one may hope that the violence of the reactionary forces may—in the future—be overcome by peaceful means.

To be fair, it is worth noting that religious visions of the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth are nearly invariably quite violent (earthquakes, wars, pestilence, plagues, not to mention lakes of fire….)—a violence administered by God or God’s earthly instruments. Therefore the critique which many conservative Christians make about the supposedly blood-thirsty communist revolutionaries should, I think, be balanced by a recognition of the violence which runs throughout their own apocalyptic views of what is required for the earth to be cleansed. It’s in this sense, Jacob, that I once told you “you Latter-day Saints are secretly Marxist (‘no poor among us’…’it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin‘) the only difference is that for you, Jesus is the one who does the dirty work when He comes again.” 

When it comes to Bernie, however…the Jewish guy from Brooklyn…well, I think one needn’t worry about any call to revolutionary arms coming from him! (I mean, he was willing to let the likes of Hillary Clinton steal the nomination from him, and then support her in her bid for the presidency; and he is committed to supporting whomever the Democratic Party nominates this time…even if it turns out to be the commie-baiting Biden….). But I do hope (and expect) that a President Sanders would be willing and able to use the legal power of the State—legal “force”—to defeat the enemies of working class democracy, much as the people of Iceland did by putting some of their “banksters” in jail.  

JH: When Mayor Bloomberg used the word “communist” in the Las Vegas democratic debate, Senator Sanders called that a “cheap shot.” Do you agree with Bernie that this is just a cheap shot?  

AP: Yes, absolutely, because it attempted to associate what democratic socialist Bernie is proposing with what most people have in mind when they hear the word “communism,” namely, authoritarian Stalinist Russia.  

Even in the very worst case scenario, there would be quite a long road from where Bernie is starting out to some kind of ‘Stalinist USA’. 

Moreover, people forget that “communist” Russia began in the midst of WWI, under already-present conditions of brutal destruction and deprivation. The (relatively bloodless) communist revolution itself was almost immediately followed by a horrifically bloody Western-backed counter-revolutionary civil war, which created even more devastation. 

Less propitious conditions for the establishment of a robustly democratic socialism can scarcely be imagined than those out of which the Russian Revolution were born! And those are hardly the sort of conditions under which the “Bernie experiment” would be taking place.  

(Bottom line: War and socialism do not mix, if for no other reason than it is hard to direct social resources towards education, health care, and fighting poverty if those programs must compete for resources with the production of weapons of mass destruction….!)

JH: Along with “communist,” the word “Marxist” would undoubtedly be applied to Senator Sanders were he to face President Trump in the general election.  Like “socialist” itself, these words “Marxist” and “Communist” remain largely pejorativeand will likely continue to be used in this way. What would you say to those who label Bernie as a “Marxist” as well?  

AP: For me, as a Marxist, those three words—“Marxist, socialist, communist”—are largely synonymous (though sometimes distinguished one from the other in important ways). I consider myself a Marxist, and therefore also a socialist, and also a communist. But, as you probably have gathered by now, what those words mean to me have very little in common with what they probably mean to you (for example, “communism” to me refers to a distant future condition of society in which all coercive State power has ‘withered away’!)

So, from the point of view of my definitional universe, I wish Bernie were (more of) a Marxist! 

Though Marx himself had some “socialism from above” elements in his vision, he was, first and foremost, a “socialism from below” guy, almost libertarian in his distrust of all State power—a truly genuine small-d democrat dedicated to personal liberty. (Remember: we have no desire to exchange freedom for equality.”)

I wish more progressives and Democrats (including Bernie himself) who chant about “equality” would consider what Marx had to say about that! (Marx considered the aim of “equality” to be profoundly problematic.)

And, it should be remembered, Marx’s ultimate goal was “communism”—i.e. the “withering away” of all coercive State power entirely. If Bernie also had that as a conscious goal (and he might, I don’t know), then I would feel more secure in supporting his plans which, at least temporarily, are almost certain to increase the power of the State. 

Nevertheless, I do consider Bernie, in spirit at least, a Marxist, and a communist—in the Marxist sense of the word (not in the Bloomberg sense of the word). That is, like the son-of-a-rabbi Marx, my beloved social-justice-steeped Jewish Bernie wants to end the tyranny of capital. That makes him my “comrade,” even if our strategies of how to do that may not always coincide.

JH: Can you summarize in simple fashion what you see as the most commonperhaps the most importantmisunderstandings of Marx and his teachings?

AP: Terry Eagleton does this far better than I ever could, so I highly recommend his 20-minute video on the topic. I have written extensively on the ways in which one of most well-known anti-Marxists, Jordan Peterson, profoundly misrepresents Marx, so that would also be a good source.   

But I suppose I would say that people simply fail to realize how committed Marx (and his right-hand man, Engels) were, not only to small-d democracy, but even more so to personal liberty, and how distrustful of (even passionately opposed to) they were to all State power (even socialist State power), even more so than many libertarians. (They may even have been too much opposed to State power. Like any other good Marxist, I don’t always agree with Marx and Engels!) 

I wish more progressives and Democrats (including Bernie himself) who chant about “equality” would consider what Marx had to say about that!

The following texts from Marx and Engels should provide some proof of their small-d democratic credentials.

Small d-democratic instincts and dedication to personal liberty (emphasis mine):

We are not among those communists who are out to destroy personal liberty, who wish to turn the world into one huge barrack or into a gigantic workhouse. There certainly are some communists who, with an easy conscience, refuse to countenance personal liberty and would like to shuffle it out of the world because they consider that it is a hindrance to complete harmony. But we have no desire to exchange freedom for equality. We are convinced … that in no social order will personal freedom be so assured as in a society based upon communal ownership… [Let us put] our hands to work in order to establish a democratic state wherein each party would be able by word or in writing to win a majority over to its ideas …”

Distrust of all State (even robustly democratic socialist State) power:

….people think they have taken quite an extraordinary bold step forward when they have rid themselves of belief in hereditary monarchy and swear by the democratic republic. In reality, however, the state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and indeed in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy; and at best an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, whose worst sides the proletariat…cannot avoid having to lop off at the earliest possible moment, until such time as a new generation, reared in new and free social conditions, will be able to throw the entire lumber of the state on the scrap-heap.

JH: Let’s end with a different kind of question. I’ve heard more than one Christian leader express an opinion that Marx may have been the false prophet John foresaw in the Book of Revelationreflecting their fears about the doctrine he espoused. Would love to hear your response to that particular concern. 

AP: Without going too far down that rabbit hole (interpretation of John’s Apocalypse is the Mother of All Rabbit Holes!), I would only say that, as a Christian myself (Orthodox-leaning), I also sometimes wonder what Marx was “really” up to….. 

After all, as I devoutly pray before lovely icons at a local Russian orthodox monastery, I do sometimes ponder whether, if this had been Russia in, say, 1918, some wild-eyed self-styled fanatical “Marxist” might not have felt obliged to come in to desecrate the beautiful images of the saints and the Mother of God… or to put up me against a wall and shoot me.  

I’m not sure how often that sort of thing happened, but my understanding is that it did (on both sides). War, especially civil war, is an ugly, ugly thing…there are always atrocities on all sides….especially in this case, as the civil war followed almost immediately after Russia’s self-extraction from the vast destruction and the unleashing of evil that was WWI…wave upon wave of hatred and evil was already sweeping the land before the Bolsheviks took power….

I therefore sometimes find myself wondering if my own Marxist Christian prayers in a Russian monastery might not be healing that historical wound in some small, mysterious spiritual way…

Be that as it may, given how distorted people’s understanding(s) of what Marx himself actually even wrote are, I think any judgment about what he truly intended and truly was “up to” would be rather premature.

Once people stop wildly mischaracterizing what Marx actually, in fact, said, then, perhaps, we can begin to sort out some of the more esoteric possibilities regarding what he was “really” up to…or, more probably, what some of his alleged followers were really up to… (which no doubt was, sometimes, no good at all.…).

I understand well why so-called “communism” (that is, “communism” Orwellianly defined as its exact opposite to what Marx meant i.e. communism defined as Stalinism, Maoism, etc.) has come to be seen as an evil force unleashed upon the world, subjecting a third or more of humanity under a reign of terror and godlessness. However, I see the so-called “Free World” as having been the instruments of quite a bit of satanic terror and destruction as well. In any case, all of these evils have been under the auspices of the Father of Lies, and so the alleged justification for these evils is also very apt to be a lie. When the USSR claimed to be sending dissidents off to gulags in the name of “socialist democracy”…it was a lie; and when “the West” was bombing country after country in the name of “liberty”…it was a lie. You can bet the Father of Lies has been very proud of these his chosen instruments.

I’ve often marveled at the willingness on the part of anti-Marxists to take Stalin—a brutal habitual liar—at his word when he claimed to be the leader of a “socialist” country. These anti-Marxists don’t seem to believe the Chinese are really overseeing a “Republic,” so, why, then do they believe the Chinese dictators when they claim to be “communist”? The answer, of course, is that they almost never even know what “socialism” or “communism” meant to the very same Marx these regimes have claimed as their ideological founder.

It is all too typical of great men’s followers to do things in the name of the Leader which the Leader himself may very well have found abhorrent. One need go no further than what has been done in the name of Christ to find just such a disconnect between the actual teachings of the founder of Christianity and what was, later, done in his name. (Note: I am not equating Christthe God-Man—and Marx, a very flawed human being! God forbid! I’m just making a point about their followers…)

From Jesus’s self-sacrifice on the cross….to the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, and the burning KKK crosses of America… there is the kind of tragic and horrific disconnect that is all too common when the seeds of any Great Ideas fall on the rocky and weed-choked soil of fallen human nature…

I leave you, again, with the quote from Marx and Engels with which I began this interview:

“We have no desire to exchange freedom for equality.”

Now, compare that with what was done in Marx’s name.

About the authors

Jacob Z. Hess

Jacob Hess is a contributing editor at Deseret News and publishes longer-form pieces at He co-authored "You're Not as Crazy as I Thought, But You're Still Wrong" and “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.” He has a Ph.D. in clinical-community psychology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Arthur Peña

Arthur Peña is a semi-retired teacher of Spanish and English as a Second Language. He has an M.A. in linguistics from the University of Iowa, and a Certificate in Conflict Resolution from Sonoma State University.
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