Marx was a genius; in fact, he was a super-genius. He had a theory of economics, of sociology, of history, of revolution, and a moral idealistic theory. The whole shmear. So much of what he said 150 years ago is in common usage that, like Shakespeare, sometimes you read what he wrote and think, it's just a lot of old sayings. “Dictatorship of the proletariat”; “the first time as tragedy the second time as farce”, “ownership of the means of production.” In fact, there is so much, you can pick and choose what you use and what you believe, and who's to say whether or not you are a Marxist?
Is Putin a Marxist? Yes, I think he understands much of the world in terms of Marxism. You can't be trained for years on end in Marxism and not come to think in those terms as second nature. When he thinks of “capitalism,” reams and reams of material must bubble up inside him. He must accept much of Marxist thought, probably the labor theory of value and how capital is generated, relations between the classes, the inevitable conflicts that capitalism and imperialism generates in search of markets. All that.
But to understand the world in Marxist terms is not necessarily to accept Marxist ideals. Certainly Russian communism has incorporated nationalism since Stalin's time. Only an ultra-dedicated Marxist can look at Marx's predictions and say they are OK, that we just aren't there yet. He predicted conflicts and wars that wouldn't come, he predicted the rise of the proletariat that wouldn't come, he predicted a classless society that wouldn't come. And lots more. Part of the problem is that no one can predict the future, because it is just unknowable. But another part is what we ourselves bring to our predictions, which in the case of Marx was probably wishful thinking. Wouldn't it be nice if there were to be a heaven on earth? Wouldn't it be nice if everyone were treated fairly (ignoring that “fair” is not an objective terms, but a very subjective one.) Wouldn't that justify the wars and hardship and misery of the world, if there were a heaven at the end of it? And since God is obviously a myth, the heaven will need to be on earth.
Well, good luck with that. After enough time had elapsed to show that Marx was not a reliable guide to the future, but that his analysis of society often did indeed hold up, then the Russians who were supposed to continue to be “Marxists” could pick and choose what elements of belief would be enough for them to be so qualified. What Putin and his ilk have chosen not to believe is the heaven on earth part. He believes the analysis part, just not the idealism part. The masses will always be the masses, Russia will always have a vast peasantry in outlook, even if many of them are no longer down on the farm.
Meanwhile, while the masses are the continuing mass, what's so bad about capitalism? What's wrong with state capitalism? Who says we have to treat the masses to economic prosperity? With our understanding of economics and society, and with the understanding of power that we have achieved in the last 100 years thanks to the ascent of Lenin – what's wrong with our benefitting from it as a class ascendant? What is wrong with being rich and powerful? After all, we can get the traditional Orthodox Church – it was wrong to suppress them – to bless us and be complicit. “Opiate of the masses,” bah! It's good for them to believe, it makes them happy, and why should we stand in the way of that? Add in nationalism and patriotism, a history and expectation of authoritarianism, all of which can substitute for economic health, and you have a winning formula, as long as you have no ideals and no guilty conscience. Go forth and conquer, and if you can't conquer, at least get rich.
In other words, yes, Putin is a Marxist. If you put a check box next to all the elements of Marxism, he would check most of them. He just wouldn't check the idealistic part.
Which brings us to the subject of Donald Trump. What is Donald Trump seen through the Marxist filter? Not a stupid man, but a very narrow man, a classic caricature of a capitalist. Lenin's description of a capitalist fits him well: a man who “will sell us the rope with which we will hang him.” (Another old saying.)
Not a cultured man, not a man of taste, not a man of learning, not a man who understands government, and indeed, not a man who understands and reveres the American theory of democracy. He does not understand the long history of English polity, the rise of parliamentary government, the problems with royalty and aristocracy, the difficulties of finding the enlightened popular will. What he sees is the world of the capitalist. The reference group for Trump is businessmen. His idea of quality was and is to get the best businesspeople (as long as they will be loyal to him) in government, along with some generals. What a high it must be for Trump, the proprietor of a family business, to have the real major leaguers answering to him! The head of ExxonMobil, the guys who have made real money, the real corporatists.
“Where can we do business, and with whom can we do it?” That's Trump's world, which is easy for any student of Marxism-Leninism to understand. Like Putin, Trump doesn't have an ounce of idealism in him. Like Putin, he understands the power of lies, the importance of capturing the attention of the nation without the use of an independent filter of a press, the rapture of immediacy. Tell your story and don't let a counterstory emerge, that's the ticket. Putin likes his shirt off, Trump speaks Queens-ese. Think they can do business together? They think so.
So Vladimir and Donald have a business communality. Beyond that, however, and of course, are their vast differences. What strikes me most is the difference in global sophistication. Putin has been playing this game his whole life. He has seen the Cold War from the inside, he has experienced East Germany, the Stasi, the fall of the Wall, the fall of the Empire, the resurrection from the ashes to the new Empire, the new nationalism. So much, so much.
Trump has had bankruptcies and near bankruptcies, and a migration of his business to one of branding. Globally? He'll be winging it. Where Putin has Marxism, national eclipse and rejuvenation in his back pocket, Trump has … business. Just business. Forget all the personality and character deficiencies. What is his sense of Putin, of Russia, of the world? To Trump, he must see Putin as a businessman ascendant, just like himself. The questions of policy will resolve themselves into, where can we do business, and with whom? He is a realist in the sense that he rejects any concern with the welfare of people anywhere but in the US, and it's questionable how much he is concerned about the US. If he ever thinks about it, which he may not do seriously, he is a trickle down man. He admires Putin because Putin knows how to exercise power, he has succeeded in a crowded field, become very rich, divorced his wife to be with a flight attendant, and doesn't have to bother with public criticism. “What's wrong with that as an ideal?” thinks Donald.
And this is going to be a problem. Donald as ingenue, smiling as he comes on stage, snarling behind the stage and those who would keep him off stage, it's doubtful that he looks into Vladimir's eyes and sees KGB, as he should. If Donald thinks Ukraine is far, far away, and the “stans” not worth thinking about, in fact natural parts of the Russian Empire, Russia will simply regrow like a briar patch. Does that matter to anyone outside the briar patch? Many would say yes, that growth and influence of an inevitably antagonistic force, an autocracy that itself needs to feed off the labor of others, an anti-liberal societal force, a force historically dedicated to aggression under cover of defense – many would say that this is a problem, that you can't just say “shut your door so I can't hear what you're doing.”
Of course, that could be wrong. I'm frequently wrong – just ask my kids. Or just ask me, I'm my own most severe critic. Maybe being a non-interventionist friend will work after all. Maybe live and let live and let's make money together will work. Maybe the ingenue will be wily enough to escape with vital interests intact. Who knows?
But myself, I value the bourgeois virtues of what I see as freedom of thought, freedom of expression, the rule of law, the protection of the weak, the progress of fair competition, the steady increase in equality before the law and equality of opportunity, personal dignity, all those shibboleths. And I don't think that dancing with the big bad wolf is going to do us any good. I just wonder how and where Donald will lose his innocence. It could be bloody.
On the other hand, I take succor in thinking, you never know. You just never know. Hopefully.