New Blog - And a Thought on the Failure of the Totalitarian Left

By Mike Dorf

A new blog,, has just been launched by three of my Cornell colleagues--Steve Shiffrin, Eduardo Penalver, and DoL contributor Bob Hockett--along with sometime DoL commenter Patrick O'Donnell and prominent con law scholar Michael Perry. Although I have previously expressed skepticism about the ability of religious language to win over the great middle of Americans who profess some degree of faith, I could be wrong about that, and in any event, the blog promises much of interest to progressives regardless of their religious views and to everyone interested in ideas. Kudos!

Now a short comment on a post on by O'Donnell entitled Marxist & Buddhist?. O'Donnell provides an extended quotation from a 1993 speech by the Dalai Lama in which he explains his goal of reconciling Buddhism and Marxism. There is much in what the Dalai Lama says here with which I agree--and that shows him to be a very sophisticated thinker--but one point which, I think, substantially misses the mark.

The Dalai Lama makes the rather familiar argument that the nominally Communist regimes of the 20th Century--singling out the USSR, China, and Vietnam--were not "really" Marxist but essentially nationalist. Their totalitarian excesses, he goes on to say, were a product of having "placed too much emphasis on the need to destroy the ruling class, on class struggle, and this cause[d] them to encourage hatred and to neglect compassion." Although the Dalai Lama does not invoke the highly egalitarian social democracies of northern Europe, the contrast is at least tacit: Scandinavian social democrats did not become totalitarian because they did not demonize the wealthy.

Stated that way, there is at least a surface plausibility to the Dalai Lama's analysis. Certainly the worst excesses of 20th Century Communist regimes--e.g., Pol Pot's murderous attacks on anyone with an education, Stalin's attacks on kulaks, the Cultural Revolution--can be fairly attributed to something like hatred of the well-to-do. But that simply raises, rather than answers, the question of why these impulses arose and were vented in the regimes in which they were. To my mind, there are two possibilities.

The answer that might appeal to an Orthodox Marxian would note that the most totalitarian nominally communist regimes were precisely those that, per Marx, were least prepared for Marxism--namely, peasant societies rather than industrialized bourgeois societies. In this view, 20th Century Marxism failed because it arose in the wrong places.

An alternative view would simply note that the relative success of social democracies--and certainly their gentleness relative to Communist regimes--was a product of the fact that they were/are democracies. This view (which I myself take) is quite difficult to swallow for a Marxian, because democracy (or what Marx would have called bourgeois democracy) is itself supposed to be a mere unstable phase en route to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Perhaps President Obama can ask the Dalai Lama whether he still thinks well of Marxism in theory, when they meet on Thursday!