Books, like their authors, are a product of their times. In other words, they have a context. To take them out of their context is a dangerous procedure, for much of what was relevant to the author is relevant no longer. History has moved forward; the times, as they say, have changed.
Two books read by Jared Lee Loughner, the would-be assassin of Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, were The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, published in 1848 and Mein Kampf (My Struggle), written by Adolf Hitler and published in 1926-26. These are not only two vastly different works, but they are the product of two very different men and two very different periods in European history.
There are numerous examples of the right-wing reaction out there: The Cypress Times calls Loughner “A CRAZED LEFT WINGER WHO READS MARX AND HITLER’S MEIN KAMPF” (caps in the original) and SarahNet, which supports Sarah Palin, repeats the story. Alex Jones’ Infowars calls him “very liberal.”
All this is typical of right-wing rhetoric in today’s blogosphere. But how does reading both Marx and Hitler make one left-wing? It helps to understand the context not only of Jared Loughner (who may have had ties to a white supremacist, anti-Semitic group – definitely not a liberal or “lefty” hang-up) but of Marx, Engels, and Hitler. He is also anti-government, which sounds a lot like the Tea Party. Should we blame the Tea Party?
When Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto with Friedrich Engels he was writing in response to the societal and economic conditions of the time, that is the first half-century of the Industrial Age, and the target of their polemic is “old” Europe. The workers they speak of as oppressed are a class new to the world, a product of the industrial age which had shorn away the old rural landscape of Europe and its cottage industries. It was a tumultuous period for Europe, the year of the 1848 Revolutions that swept the continent.
The closest thing to a world war the world had yet seen, the Napoleonic Wars, had ended in 1815, before either man was born. Karl Marx was the son of a Jewish lawyer who had converted to Lutheranism and Friedrich Engels was the son of a textile manufacturer. Neither man had fought in a war, though Engels was a veteran of the Prussian army’s Household Artillery. This, in brief, is their context, though obviously it goes deeper, to their parents, their childhood, specifics of education and geography and physical and mental health.
By contrast, Adolf Hitler was the Austrian son of a customs official, born 41 years after publication of the Communist Manifesto (and six years after Marx’s death) and a generation after the brief wars between Prussia and France and Prussia and Austria. His family was not rich, his father was abusive. He attended a Catholic school before being relocated to a technical high school. From 1905 to 1913 he lived in Vienna and tried to turn himself into an artist. Even after joining the Bavarian army in 1914 he continued to dabble in art. In short, there is no commonality between Hitler and Marx/ Engel. Two entirely different contexts separate them.
Both Marx and Engels died well before the revolution that gave birth to the Soviet Union and had nothing to do with either the communist regime there or its policies and deeds. If you look at some of the propositions advanced in the Communist Manifesto, they’re not all that radical-seeming to modern ears and ears. They’re certainly not the stuff of the Communist terror under Stalin. But it is essential, however you look at it, that it be remembered that The Communist Manifesto has a context that has nothing to do and nothing in common with the world of a century later and beyond.
Hitler’s Mein Kampf is problematic on a number of levels. For one thing, Americans don’t generally read it in German. They read it in English – in one of many questionable translations. I don’t know which version the would-be assassin had read, and that could make a difference in what he took away from it, if anything. Certainly, a person can read Mein Kampf without being a Nazi. I have read it. I have also read the Bible. I am neither a Nazi nor a Christian. The context of Mein Kampf, in whatever translation it is read, is that of the Germany of the 1920s, an era of economic collapse following the horrors of World War I. Historians can debate Hitler’s precise role in that war, or the other early influences on his life and thinking, but however it is understood, it must be understood in that specific context. Hitler, like Marx and Engels, was a product of his time.
Marx and Engels and Hitler did not write in the United States. They were not influenced by ideas of Republican and Democratic Parties and they were not writing for American audiences let alone from an American perspective of race or class or ethnic, religious, or social distinctions. The Communist world of Marx and Engels never came about. The National Socialist world envisioned by Adolf Hitler in 1923 was never realized either, despite Hitler being the one to assume control of Germany in the years after its publication. In fact, Hitler lost in the 1928 elections and he assumed the German people didn’t understand his ideas. An appeal to Mein Kampf easily explains this assumption. It’s a horrible read.
One might claim that since the would-be assassin read The Communist Manifesto that he was a leftist and therefore a liberal. But if the Communism of Marx and Engels has nothing to do with Stalin’s Communism, it also has nothing to do with American liberalism. One might counter that since he read Mein Kampf that he was a right-winger and therefore a Republican (arguments advanced on the right-wing blogosphere that both books make him a leftist are absurd, since Hitler roundly despised Communism and really wasn’t much of a revolutionary, not even being a socialist as the title of his party would suggest).
Such claims, however, are simplistic in nature. Reading Marx no more makes you a liberal than reading Mein Kampf makes you a conservative. The real issue here is not what the young man read but what he heard in the media. That is the context of his time, not the 1840s or the 1920s, not Germany, but the United States. The word “assassination” does not, by the way, appear in the Communist Manifesto. Whatever tenuous link might be sought by 21st century American ideologues, Marx and Engels did not advocate killing American representatives or judges. Hitler does mention assassins in Mein Kampf, but never in a friendly or positive context. Reading neither makes you an assassin.
Hitler was, ironically, rather bourgeois in his outlook (despite his own criticisms) and of course, for Marx, bourgeois meant “oppressor.” And Hitler’s view of assassins in Mein Kampf is that they were cowards and he had been called one himself during the ’22 Putsch German Day in Coburg. Hitler takes great delight in Mein Kampt in the havoc wrought by his Storm Detachment on whom he calls the “Marxists” – in other words, Communists, whom he equates with Judaism. It is difficult to find any kind of connection between Marx and Hitler that is not negative. Hitler was a friend of big business, not its enemy.
We have to understand Jared Loughner’s context to understand Jared Loughner. He had many more influences in his life than Marx and Hitler, including the past two years of rabid anti-government vitriol from the Republican and Tea Parties, not to mention the strong anti-immigration stance of Republicans in Arizona. The assignment of blame based on either of two books is an absurd and meaningless undertaking and to make such accusations without any understanding of Marx and Engels or Hitler, is recklessly irresponsible and intellectually dishonest, to say the least.