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Or Why the Dalai Lama is a Marxist
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.