Back in the ‘60s, I lived on a cramped back porch on The Hill in Boulder.
Two mattresses were jammed side by side — one for my high school buddy, Milo, and one for me. At the end of the mattresses was a hotplate to cook on, and that’s all the space there was.
Milo had a poster on the wall, “The Awakening,” a scene of voluptuous Hindu maidens in a mind-expanded paradise. The ceiling was plastered with my paintings from art school. One of them, rendered in black and white, represented a fundamental transformation I had supposedly undergone. I showed it to Dennie, a fellow artist, who commented that he saw no evidence of psychic transformation; it all looked the same to him.
It’s so easy to delude oneself.
Here’s another recollection from my Boulder days: In the course of this mescal-induced madness I have conceived that I owe a climbing acquaintance a karmic debt from some previous life. In the morning I pay him a visit. He comes out on his porch, slightly bemused, to talk to me, a buttery golden beam of light emanating from the center of his forehead. The next day we go climbing together in Boulder Canyon, and I notice that, instead of the beam of light, there is a swollen zit in the middle of his forehead.
How often we form an image in our minds, then become infatuated with it until it takes on a life of its own. We have a magnificent dream; we get stars in our eyes. We look for evidence to confirm the idea we have concocted; contrary information gets brushed aside. Our cherished image acquires the force of an industrial electro-magnet.
I witnessed an example of this while working with a fabric-hanging crew in a luxurious home in Aspen. The living room would be hung in plush, red velvet. Our task was to install a 16-foot ladder in a spiraling stairwell. A New-Ager on our crew claimed it could be done since he had visualized it. I told him it couldn’t be done. We argued back and forth, but he insisted on following his dream, so we sweated, grunted, and scooted until we got the ladder royally stuck up in there, but never succeeded in installing the ladder. A laughable moment.
Not so laughable were the sugarplum visions dancing in the heads of the French Revolutionaries who wanted to “jettison history and re-create human society afresh” (Nicholas R. Needham). The inexorable decrees of the Committee of Public Safety, the grim, up-and-down rhythm of the guillotine. How beguiling and yet revolting was their ideal of universal brotherhood — Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death.
Jump forward 60 years to a bearded scholar studying economics and philosophy in the reading room of the British Museum. He is perhaps the world’s most famous revolutionary.
In his own mind, and, later, in the minds of millions of his followers, he is an infallible prophet, a brilliant theorist who has discovered the laws of history. His findings are the result of rigorous scientific inquiry. His philosophy has been institutionalized in two of the world’s largest countries, Russia and China, and their many satellites (Paul Johnson).
Attempts to actualize Marx’s scientific discoveries have resulted in the various terrors and exterminations perpetrated by Communist regimes upon their own people in the twentieth century: Stalin’s dekulakization program, which involved the deliberate starvation of 6-8 million Ukrainians in 1932-33; the yezhovschina of 1937-38; mass executions; deaths in the Gulag (the French authors of The Black Book of Communism quote a figure of twenty million deaths in the camps from 1930-53); the Great Leap Forward, 45 million; the self-destructive fury of the Cultural Revolution which claimed the lives of at least 3 million (Jung Chang).
All-told, 85-100 million were killed in Communism’s grim harvest, murdered by the all-powerful state. These were all inspired by Marx’s brilliant vision gone awry.
“Many on the political left are so entranced by the beauty of their vision that they cannot see the ugly reality they are creating in the real world” (Thomas Sowell).