Or Why the Dalai Lama is a Marxist
When the Dalai Lama announced his Marxist leanings last summer in Minneapolis, the only surprise was how surprising it was. The blogosphere was once again astir with this nonrevelation, which came by way of an Indian-born Tibetan journalist, Tsering Namgyal, who had tagged along when the Dalai Lama held a nearly three-hour meeting with 150 Chinese students. Namgyal, a Mandarin-speaking reporter living and studying in Minneapolis, had posted online that the Dalai Lama surprised his young audience when he volunteered that “as far as sociopolitical beliefs are concerned, I consider myself a Marxist.”
Namgyal’s post explained that a student had asked about the apparent contradiction between the Dalai Lama’s economic philosophy and Marx’s critique of religion. The Dalai Lama’s understanding was more nuanced than the responses of most of the bloggers who jumped on the story: he suggested that Marx was not actually against religion or religious philosophy per se but “against religious institutions that were allied, during Marx’s time, with the European ruling class.” (That would be the capitalist class.) The three-hour exchange was probably not designed for political sound bites. The year before the Dalai Lama had given a series of talks in New York at Radio City Music Hall. Following a press conference in the basement at Rockefeller Center, the Dalai Lama’s news office included this report in its summary:
His Holiness said when he was in China in 1954–55, the Communist Party of China was really wonderful, and the Party members were really dedicated to the service of the people. His Holiness said he was very much impressed and told Chinese officials about his desire to join the Party. His Holiness said he still is a Marxist (although some of his friends ask him not to mention that) and he admired its objective of equal distribution (“this is moral ethics”). His Holiness however talked about the clampdown after the Hundred Flowers Campaign  in China itself and said any authoritarian system always subdues any force that has the potential to stand up to it.
You might think he had his thoughts on the 99 percent, but the Dalai Lama has stayed on message for years, saying the same thing many times in many places—including a Time magazine interview in 1999, and in the following passage from Beyond Dogma: Dialogues and Discourses, in 1996:
Of all the modern economic theories, the economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned with only with gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis and the equitable utilization of the means of production
It is also concerned with the fate of the working classes—that is the majority—as well as with the fate of those who are underprivileged and in need, and Marxism cares about the victims of minority-imposed exploitation. For those reasons the system appeals to me, and it seems fair…
The failure of the regime in the Soviet Union was, for me not the failure of Marxism but the failure of totalitarianism. For this reason I think of myself as half-Marxist, half-Buddhist.
So what’s all the fuss? Marx might still be an inspirational hero for the odd revolutionary in Peru or Nepal, but communism these days is generally summarized as a failed system that crashed and burned. So why this repeated hysteria about Marx? And why now?
While Joseph McCarthy was holding Senate hearings in 1954 and fueling fear of a threatening and subversive communist underground that never really materialized, the Dalai Lama was studying Marx with Mao’s China. Before actually studying Marx, he had also been taught to fear “communists” and representations of communism, with little knowledge of Marx or how China’s communist movement related to Marx’s theories. In the Time interview in 1999, the Dalai Lama reflected on these nuanced differences and possibilities of a “genuine communist movement” in Tibet:
I was very young when I first heard the word communist. The 13th Dalai Lama had left a testament that I read. Also, some of the monks who were helping my studies had been in monasteries with Mongolians. They talked about the destruction that had taken place since the communists came to Mongolia. We did not know anything about Marxist ideology. But we all feared destruction and thought of communists with terror. It was only when I went to China in 1954–55 that I actually studied Marxist ideology and learned the history of the Chinese revolution. Once I understood Marxism, my attitude changed completely. I was so attracted to Marxism, I even expressed my wish to become a Communist Party member.
Tibet at that time was very, very backward. The ruling class did not seem to care, and there was much inequality. Marxism talked about an equal and just distribution of wealth. I was very much in favor of this. Then there was the concept of self-creation. Marxism talked about self-reliance, without depending on a creator or a God. That was very attractive. I had tried to do some things for my people, but I did not have enough time. I still think that if a genuine communist movement had come to Tibet, there would have been much benefit to the people.
Everyone seems to have an opinion about Marx, communism, or capitalism (and usually a strong one), but whenever I have been able to have a sustained conversation about Marxism with friends or students they usually admit how little they know about Marx’s thought, falling back on the view that Marx was an advocate of communism (true), and the Marxism understood as “communism” represents a discredited and disgraced economic and political mode for states (sort of not quite true). In the unlikely event that they had actually read Marx, it was usually Marx and Engels’ very slim 30-page treatise The Communist Manifesto. Buddhists in this late stage of global capital might want to get up to speed on Marx.
Marx’s most important contribution was not a revolutionary labor movement, but his monumental 18-year study of the capitalist economic system, eventually published in three volumes between 1867 and 1894 as Capital (Das Kapital). Anyone interested in working through the text should start young—the three volumes weigh in at about 2,500 pages. Most people know the ending anyway: Marx was less than optimistic about capitalism’s long-term prospects, although how he gets there is why scholars and writers of all stripes have returned to his dense, difficult, logical, detached analysis of the world’s dominant economic system. What is perhaps most surprising in the text is the discovery that Marx’s cool and methodical deconstruction of capitalism is almost entirely free of moral argumentation or appeals to conscience. And readers hoping to understand or critique the communist mode that will finally appear when capitalism reaches its conclusion will also find a remarkable absence of detailed discussion about our future world beyond capitalism.
There have been few silver linings to the Great Recession and America’s own “jobless” recovery, but Marx’s return is certainly one of them. Marxists are stepping out of the academic closet in greater numbers, and new life is being breathed into Marx’s ideas. Capital, it turns out, is a dish best served cold.