Adrian Kreutz:

But can’t we be both tyrannical and interconnected? Buddhist practice could help us overcome the evil aspects of our nature and promote the compassionate side within us. The socioeconomic system of Compassionate Marxism could be the breeding ground for compassion, and compassion the motor of a socioeconomic system with low duḥkha. Working on the inner Tyrannosaurus would benefit those suffering from Capitalism, which, according to Marx and Buddha, is everyone. The problem with Left-activists is that they see the evil as being exclusively caused by the socioeconomic system (this was Marx’s problem too), without understanding how these factors operate within us. ‘Social change requires inner change – becoming less selfish,’ says the Dalai Lama. The question is not who we are – we are malevolent creatures, as far as I can tell. The question is who we want to be.

I know, I know, that’s a strange excerpt to present without further context. Don’t worry, I’ll elaborate a bit. According to his author bio, Mr. Kreutz is a graduate student in philosophy. (This seems like a relevant time to mention that philosophers are renowned for demonstrating the lack of any necessary connection between theoretical smarts and common sense; see also the guy behind the Existential Comics website.) And so, as philosophers are wont to do, Kreutz wonders: what if we could combine Buddhist ethics with Marxist socioeconomics to create a better world? Hence, Compassionate Marxism, an oxymoron to rule them all.

There are, as you’d expect, several thousand words of theoretical plumage obscuring the scrawny meat of the matter, but that’s what hyperlinks are for, in case you’re into that sort of thing. As for me, like Samuel Johnson, I prefer to refute idealist fancies by kicking the rock of historical experience: you can’t reform the nature of Marxism through good intentions. The totalitarian conclusion follows neatly from the theoretical premises, a fact that should be of interest to philosophers. Most interestingly, though, Kreutz professes a belief in the truth of original sin, if not by that particular name. “Humanity is not evil because the economic system is; the economic system is evil because humanity is.” “All signs indicate that we don’t have the capacities for universal benevolent compassion, uncontaminated by a proclivity to evil, hatred and competition.” And yet he wants to believe in the possibility of species-wide harmony of desire and action, conducted by the guiding hand of philosophy. It’s fascinating to watch someone straining every muscle to square this circle. If he should manage to retain his intellectual integrity, I suspect he’ll discover what so many others have — we have a lifetime’s work to do in trying to be consistently virtuous individuals without the added delusion that any of us are fit to arrange society’s affairs for the greater good.

As it happens, I’m currently reading George Will’s new book, The Conservative Sensibility, where he writes something coincidentally relevant to our discussion:

In its attempt to equalize “well-being,” progressivism came to exalt one virtue: compassion. Which is a passion. And compassion is a capacious concept. It can mean the prevention or amelioration of pain, of discomfort, of insecurity, or even of sadness. However, the frustration of desires is uncomfortable and can make people sad. So compassionate government must toil for the satisfaction of all desires. If a desire unfulfilled is painful, or even discomforting, fulfilling that desire is a duty of compassionate government. Such government believes that the pain of unfulfilled desires makes fulfilling the desires necessary. So the desires are upgraded to necessities. People suffering disappointed desires are therefore necessitous people, and, according to Franklin Roosevelt, they are not free. What moderation, what temperance, what restraint can there be in government animated by the idea that freedom, understood as emancipation from necessity, is the gift of comprehensively compassionate government?

It seems to me to be essential to the nature of Buddhism to recognize the futility of trying to satisfy all desires (as well as the futility of desiring to stop desiring), which separates it profoundly from a materialist philosophy which sees the satisfaction of all desire as both possible and necessary. But then again, I only took a few semesters of philosophy.