America’s Groucho Marxists

LONDON – Groucho Marx has always been my favorite Marxist. One of his jokes goes to the heart of the failure of the ideology – the dogmatic religion – inflicted on our poor world by his namesake, Karl.

“Who are you going to believe,” Groucho once asked, “me, or your own eyes?” For hundreds of millions of citizens in Communist-run countries in the twentieth century, the “me” in the question was a dictator or oligarchy ruling with totalitarian or authoritarian powers. It didn’t matter what you could see with your own eyes. You had to accept what you were told the world was like. Reality was whatever the ruling party said it was.

The designated successor to Mao Zedong in China, Hua Guofeng, raised this attitude to an art form. He was known as a “whateverist.” The Party and people should faithfully follow whatever Mao instructed them to do.

Groucho posed two insuperable problems for the “whateverists” of communism. First, your own eyes and your reason would surely tell you before long that the communist idyll – the withering away of the state and the triumph over need – would never come. Communism, like the horizon, was always just beyond reach. It would be interesting to know how many of those at Beijing’s Central Party School – the party’s main educational institute – believe that the Chinese state is about to wither away, or ever will.