Materialism: Dialectical or Otherwise

(February 14, 2001)

During the cold-war era, the confrontation between Communism and Capitalism was usually cast as a show-down between totalitarianism and freedom. And of course, this was, in many ways true. But at the same time we have to remember that the past century saw other kinds of totalitarianism that were strongly anti-communist, such as Italy's Fascism and Germany's Nazi regimes. So what was the difference?

The difference was that Communism appealed not to ethnic pride or supposed racial superiority, but to a philosophy known as "dialectical materialism". It held that in the economic order (which was seen as determining all human activity), one form of society would inevitably follow another, as medieval feudalism was replaced by capitalism, and with capitalism being replaced, in turn, by state socialism, and this socialism, in turn, to be eventually replaced by a truly communist society, where all government control would be relaxed or removed entirely in favor of a new humanity where everyone would be rewarded according to his or her contribution to society with no one left in need.

Of course, the whole thing turned out to be a tragic farce. Violent revolution was promoted on the excuse that this dialectical process had to be speeded up for the benefit of humanity, and that totalitarian means could be justified in order to better "educate" humanity to its future stateless state. In many ways, Communism was very much like a "religion". It had an official doctrine, enforced a strict morality -- at least by its own standards -- and even promised a bright future in the future still to come!

Why then did Communism fail so miserably? It was not primarily, as so many capitalists like to think, because it lacked an efficient economic system. Inefficient as it was, it still provided guaranteed employment, health-care, education, old-age pensions, and even vacations at government expense. In comparison, except for a small class of people, material poverty and hardship for the average citizen in the former Soviet Union is worse now than at any time since World War II. So what went wrong?

Aside from it being out-spent by the West in the great cold-war arms race, what would kill Communism, according to the marxist East German philosopher Ernst Bloch, was a loss of faith, or really, a loss of vision. Once all the material benefits of Communism began to be available, people lost the reason or purpose for living or striving. More or harder work only meant more of the same -- more food, another or better car, a larger house, etc., etc. It was, as Bloch put it, a vision of a material paradise which, the closer they approached it, people discovered to be a hollow existence that could never fill the human heart.

True, East Germany's relative prosperity under Communism never reached the economic affluence and material comfort of life in West Germany -- which still surpasses that of the United States in many aspects. Nor have the East Germans -- much like the West Germans -- turned back to any extent to traditional religion. But I think there is a great lesson here for us all. Materialism, whether in a "dialectical", i.e., Communist, form, or in a consumerist-free-market Capitalist form can never fully satisfy human aspirations. At best, the more "efficient" (at least for the lucky or talented) Capitalist form can supply more toys to keep one occupied longer in avoiding the inevitable.

As the great St. Augustine once put it: "Our hearts were made for you, O Lord, and they will not rest until they rest in you." All that Communism accomplished, at the cost of millions of human lives, was to speed up that realization of that ultimate truth. But the sad part is that so many of us in the grip of our consumerist society are too busy to pay attention to what really happened or are too distracted by our affluence to even ask the ultimate question.