Marxist Army Officer Chris Helali on Buddhism, Marx, and the Democratic Left

July 14, 2014

Christopher Helali – Marxist, U.S. Army Officer, community college professor, and graduate student at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology – has some things to say.

In what follows, we discuss Buddhism, Marxism, Carl Sagan, the Acropolis, Keynesian economics, Ayn Rand, intersubjectivity, Bill Clinton, John Locke, and Slavoj Žižek.

MATT BIEBER: You describe yourself as a Marxist. What does that mean for you?

CHRIS HELALI: For me, I’ve realized that the current situation that we live in is unsatisfactory and that there are inherent contradictions within the system that perpetuate inequality. Growing up and reading history and political theory and, of course, hearing of the tales of my family, who participated in ideological conflict both in Greece and in Iran, I realized that there must be another alternative, there has to be another path. So that led me down the road of identifying myself as a Marxist.

MB: When did that begin?

CH: It began in high school. Growing up, I had heard, of course, the stories of my grandfather’s brother – who was a freedom fighter, in Greek, adarti. He was a mountain guerrilla in southern Greece who was killed because of his affiliation with communism.

So for me, I understood what that meant, and I understood the classic yiayia tale – if you have two coats and somebody needs a coat, give that person your coat. That was all good, but it wasn’t until high school that I truly began to learn and immerse myself in it rigorously, to understand the theory behind it.

My high school, which was a private, all-boys Catholic school, had a teacher, Mr. Carl Wilson, who specialized in Russian and Chinese history. So I learned about Russian communism and Chinese communism through that class, and it allowed me the opportunity to really delve into the history of communism and the theory that went behind Leninism, Stalinism and later on, Soviet revisionism and Maoism and then what would happen with Deng Xiaoping and the Chinese Communist Party today. So I was fascinated by that. I continued my studies along those lines.

For me, Marxism today is more relevant than ever before. I think that we’ve realized the economic disparity which has emerged in this country. I think that this country understood what the two positions were in the early part of the 20th century. We had a large socialist movement in this country under the leadership of Eugene Debs. We had the IWW, a prominent, active and militant union. On the other hand we had the fears of fascism and corporate monopolies. I think our politicians realized that there had to be a balance. That’s when they turned to Keynesian economics.

But what we’ve seen is a turn away from that economic model, the model of a welfare state, and a return to that laissez-faire, Milton Friedman (inspired by Ayn Rand) ethical egoism that is at the heart of the capitalist system today – and financial capitalism, where we really see it. I see that that is the path that leads to the destruction of our species. We are becoming so abstracted by this new Chicago School economic principle that the disparity, the depression, the anxiety that has developed in society – not only in ours but in many societies around the world – has thrown us off-balance. And of course, people like my wife and others, my friends, look towards the spiritual path to overcome these difficulties.

Recently, my wife and I spent a month in a Buddhist monastery, and she really took value in that. I took value in the fact that the Dalai Lama proclaims himself to be a Marxist, and I took value in the fact that the Nepalese people are fighting right now for freedom in alliance with a Maoist insurgency. So whereas some people want to find their way out in meditation or yoga or a variety of practices and spiritual traditions, I really see the importance of changing the political makeup –

MB: Let me jump in here. I want to come back to this question of whether there’s really an opposition between deep contemplative practice and political change. But for the moment, I want to ask about this term “ethical egoism” that you mentioned. In particular, how do you conceive the relationship between ethical egoism and the kind of economic system that we have today.

CH: I think that the perfect example is at the beginning of The Fountainhead, one of Ayn Rand’s seminal works. There’s a scene in which a young man, an aspiring architect, goes against the architectural establishment in his school. He basically says that he, himself, will redefine architecture, and the principal, the leader of the school, says something to the effect of, “You can’t do that. Architecture is a group project, created when people come together. Architecture doesn’t happen with one person.” But the young man is adamant that he, himself, will create architecture for himself.

Ayn Rand was very loose in how she understood morals and ethics. In the society she envisions, individuals make themselves. It’s the individual who propels him- or herself forward.

The problem is that individuals do not exist on their own. It’s a fallacy; it’s an illusion. How can I be individual when I require so many people to maintain that individuality? Somebody picks up my trash. Somebody pumps the water and cleans the water that comes into my house. Somebody takes care of the electrical power plant that gives me light and heat.

So to say that I’m an individual and that I make myself just isn’t true. We can talk about intersubjectivity or other things, but what it really is, is that we are a social species. Nobody exists apart from one another. Even in our upbringing—and this is where I find a lot of common ground with the Buddhist tradition—the idea of the mother-child relationship, what a fantastic example for this. The child cannot exist on its own. First of all, it needs two people to procreate. It needs the mother to develop within, and the mother to nurture and to bring forth life. Children do not magically appear out of the air and then become themselves. No. Children are raised in a certain family context, within a certain social context.

MB: I think we can probably go farther in this direction. You mention Milton Friedman earlier, so let me speak to that for a moment. The way I conceive the political spectrum is that almost everyone–right and left–is invested in the ethical egoism you were describing earlier. Roughly speaking, people on the right conceive of everybody as atoms and they’re okay with that. People on the left conceive everybody as atoms but think that those atoms ought to be nicer to each other and work together to form a molecule or something.

But the truth of the matter is that we don’t just pick up each other’s trash and power each other’s homes – we are each other. We are not discrete, freestanding entities that choose to enter relationships with each other. We are comprised of those relationships. To conceive of ourselves as independent is existentially incoherent.

This is why I think that the spiritual and meditative practices at that monastery you visited might have everything to do with politics. In other words, conceived in the right spirit, meditation isn’t actually seem an escape at all. Rather, it’s a way to confront reality. Because as we watch our minds in meditation, we discover, “Oh my gosh, I’m not a solid entity. I’m not a thing. Instead, I’m just a confluence of thoughts and memories and aspirations and dreams and hopes and fears, most of which have to do with other people and come from my relationships with other people. I am, in fact, an effect of other people. My fate is intimately linked with theirs, because at least in some sense, we are the same.

My sense is that realizing this – way more than any slogan or ideology – is key to establishing the motivation necessary to carry out liberative political work.

CH: Absolutely. The first time you do meditation, your mind is referred to as the monkey mind. You’re constantly bombarded by images, by thoughts, by whatever’s going around you the minute you close your eyes. And the point is to silence that and to — you know, single-pointed concentration—to train yourself to so that you’re not so all over the map, to focus on one thing, and to thereby understand it and to really grasp it.

When I meditate, it calms me; I feel a sense of comfort, solitude. I think that in the society we live in, now more than ever, people want that. People want a sense of solitude, of peace, of tranquility. For many people, nature provided that in older times. We see the Transcendentalists going out, looking at nature. We see philosophers looking at the sky, trying to understand our relationship with the cosmos.

This is where I can understand the theologians’ point. The priest that I grew up with, Father Clapsis, would say that we need to have a theocentric vision. Not putting ourselves at the center, but understanding that we are one part of a big process, of a process that goes on all around us.

Well, I don’t have a theocentric vision. I definitely don’t think that the anthropocentric image that is promulgated either on the radical left or on the radical right is a good alternative, either.

I’m more inclined to go to physics, to Carl Sagan. He says that the minute we look up, we realize that we are created of the same matter that everything in the universe is created of, and that we are just one planet in a solar system in a galaxy that is at the far edges of the universe. And at that point you realize that you are inconsequential, that you don’t really matter.

It should not make you scared or worried or all of a sudden have this existential crisis. It should, in fact, empower you to realize that life is precious and that you have a gift and that you can rationalize everything that you see in some way. You can understand it. By doing that, it should propel you to make things better on this planet. It should propel you to unite with the fellow members of your species towards common goals.

MB: That’s interesting. I’m not sure I see the connection between “rationalizing everything we see” and doing good for the world. I was trying to suggest that real compassion might have to be generated in a more organic way, through a recognition that you are comprised of other people and that they are comprised of you. It isn’t a reason exactly; it isn’t the result of a logical process. It’s something that emerges from a certain state of mind.

I suppose I worry about trying to build political movements on reason, on arguments, as opposed to cultivating sensibilities out of which compassion emerges more naturally. Cultivating compassion isn’t necessarily easy either way, but I do think that there is a pretty big difference between these two approaches.

CH: In my humble opinion, I think that compassion means different things in different contexts. I think that compassion as espoused by Tibetan Buddhism doesn’t necessarily translate to the compassion espoused by other traditions. I think that by conceiving compassion as this monolith, you lose the particularities. I don’t think compassion in itself is a universal. I think the feeling that may arise from a compassionate state of being is universal for our species. But the way various traditions conceive of compassion can differ.

Granted, I think there are probably common elements and threads. But humans are products of a complex network of social relations, cultural relations, and language, and some of these things may get lost in translation. I think that the compassion that a Westerner practicing Buddhism feels may not necessarily translate to the compassion a Tibetan monk feels in the mountains.

Perhaps the Westerner grew up in a more privileged lifestyle that allows him or her to try out a Buddhist tradition. The monk, on the other hand, may have been born into the tradition or forced into the monastic life by his family’s economic need.

MB: Earlier, you described the political and economic status quo under which we live as unsatisfactory. Say more about how you conceive the problems we face, and how Marxism might provide some solutions.

CH: First and foremost, the issue is the things we value. In this country and in the capitalist system, we value competition, we value prosperity, we value the person on top, the winner. It’s in valuing those things, and most especially in valuing material success – in which success is defined by how much you have, what you have to show for it. This is the essential contradiction within the system. Because we know that the Earth does not have infinite resources and we know that the universe does not have infinite resources; there is a point at which that system will no longer be able to sustain itself.

Maybe this isn’t what our species should aspire to. Maybe we shouldn’t aspire to a world in which one group must suffer if another is to prosper. Statistics show that the top 20% in the world hold approximately 80% of the wealth. Those top 20% tend to think that they generated their own prosperity—the American model of “pick yourself up by the bootstraps”—but it came at the expense of the remaining 80%. We no longer live in a state of communal sharing.

The values that the system teaches us are wrong. The Keynesian economic model, on the other hand, taught us that we do in fact have an obligation to everyone in society. There is a need for healthcare; there is a need for unions; there is a need for higher wages and better working conditions and education. But that all was eroded by the values that lay at the base of the our current system.

You said it perfectly in the class when you spoke about Locke’s Second Treatise, where property is what I put into the land, what I form with my hands becomes mine. Well, that’s half of the equation. The land was there and you came from the land, right? So to say that the land is yours, the land could equally say that you’re a part of it. So we have this mentality that as humans, with our faculty of reasoning and our capacity to dominate, that we have a right to the land, that we have a right to everything that falls from the blue sky. The minute that we replace those value systems, we can have a more harmonious balance in the world.

MB: On one level, I’m really sympathetic with this argument about limited planetary resources, because I think it’s probably true. But I do worry that leading off with that argument re-instantiates the kind of self-interest that is at the core of what you’re trying to combat.

Imagine we develop some hyper-efficient technology for converting solar energy into electricity. All of a sudden, that argument goes away, and we’re still left with the deeper problem – the sense that the way we live isn’t actually good for us; the things that we’re taught to want don’t actually bring us deep wellbeing; that viewing our neighbors and fellow human beings as enemies or competitors in a zero-sum game is bad for all of us. It makes us small, and it forms us into these tiny little clinging egos that are fighting to defend and to protect their territory all the time.

You also mentioned this effort to dominate nature; that cuts into something very deep, which is a control-oriented mentality. More generally, it’s the sense that we can set goals – getting more stuff or producing more products or whatever – and that attaining those goals will lead to contentment. To me, the profound truth is that control over our lives constantly eludes us. If we base our own wellbeing on the possibility of control, we’re bound to fail.

But let’s return to something you mentioned earlier. You were speaking enthusiastically about Keynesian economics, and I got the sense that you have some good feelings toward FDR – toward a period in our history in which a somewhat more communitarian ethic was espoused at the highest levels of government. But here, we’re talking about the Democratic left – unions and poverty relief and so forth. If all of that can be accommodated within the framework of mainstream politics, then what do we need Marxism for?

CH: Well, it was accommodated but it’s failed, it’s gone; the majority of it is gone. Union membership has gone down to 8% in this country from a high in the 30s. The Democratic left was a good experiment at the time. But it failed because the Democratic left got corrupted; it got corrupted by itself, by being a part of the system. So when the money started coming in, they went against what the Democratic left had fought for.

So for example, Bill Clinton, a figure highly revered by Democrats today, right? Under Clinton, the leader of the Federal Reserve was Alan Greenspan, and Alan Greenspan was a disciple of Ayn Rand. We had a variety of economists who promulgated laissez-faire deregulation, and Bill Clinton gave them the green light. Both Republicans and Democrats gave them the green light. This deregulation started with Jimmy Carter and progressed through the Reagan years into the Bush, Clinton, and then Bush II years. Along the way, we see unions collapsing and NAFTA being passed.

I identified with the left in America for a while, but no longer. I don’t understand the mentality of the left today, saying that it’s okay that we want cheap goods, but we’re not willing to pay higher prices. We’re going to speak one way – we’re going to pander to the large unions, and we’re going to say, “Oh, yes, we fight for you,” but at the same time we’re going to pass free trade agreements that, at their core, send good manufacturing jobs out of this country to countries where these products can be produced for pennies.

The Democratic left isn’t as radical as it used to be; it’s lost that. It’s slowly being brought towards the right. Meanwhile, the right has become so radical and corrupted by xenophobic and nationalist politics – “build a wall against the immigrants” and so on and so forth. Whereas in the past, the left brought the right towards itself with a massive socialist movement, with the fear of communism, with the unions in powerful positions; it brought the dialogue leftward.

Now we’re going in the opposite direction – that’s the problem. That’s why we need to radicalize the left once again. That’s how we can rediscover the balance this country once knew.

MB: If I understand you then, you’re not really after Marx’s original goals–proletarian revolution and collective ownership of the means of production. It’s more about creating a new center; it’s about pushing the dialogue in this country far enough left that the place we end up in is closer to where we once were. Is that right?

CH: I realize that there are limitations within our contemporary Marxist framework. Theorists like Poulantzas, Erik Olin Wright, and others have tried to overlay a Marxist class structure today on western countries like America. For me, I do not believe that even capitalism “with a human face”— to use Žižek’s term – is necessarily a good thing. I want to move toward a new society, toward a new economic framework, toward the eradication of money, toward the eradication of the system in which we operate.

We may never get there – and I’ve accepted that. It’s a utopian vision that I realize is comforting for me, just like I’m sure heaven or nirvana is comforting to people. Realizing our limitations is important. Marxism in this country has declined. There was a little bit of renewed vigor after Occupy Wall Street, and I think that it’s still there. But I don’t see a proletarian revolution coming, not even in the distant future.

Still, we can move beyond this economic system that we have today. It poses an existential crisis for our species.

I would like to see the potentiality of the human species realized. We went to the moon. I think our species could learn a lot more about this universe instead of being so fixated on material wealth. We can do more to educate people. We can build a better society. But I don’t think that those in power today want to do that. They may pander about education and things of that sort, but having been a tutor in a university and now serving as an adjunct professor at a community college, I can tell you that students are in need of an education, and that it is easier for the system to keep its people ignorant than to give those students a wealth of information so they can decide for themselves.

MB: You teach about Marxism at MassBay Community College.

CH: Yes, I do – absolutely. I give them a unique perspective, and I think that many of my students have been very receptive to that. They’ve seen that there are good things in it. For me, Marxism works; for others it may not work. What we need to do is open up a dialogue where we can discuss the merits and limitations of the system. Every system has limitations. If I didn’t recognize that, I would probably be the same as an evangelical Christian would be, with this all-encompassing and very deterministic view of things – you know, either you accept Christ or you burn in hell.

I don’t say that about Marxism. I simply say that we face a crisis, and that crisis needs to be solved. We can look to Marx for some good tools to solve that crisis, and to help us see that our system may not necessarily be the end-all-be-all. Our system should not be the end; it should not be the ultimate creation of the human mind. We can move beyond it.

If people are willing to believe in heaven and hell and to joke about vampires on HBO, I think that we should also believe that another world is possible. I don’t understand why that has to be a vision that’s relegated to the sidelines – that it’s easier for people to believe in metaphysical things. But to believe that we can change the conditions here and now, that is pure fantasy – never achievable. Well, why not?

MB: I suspect that one of the tensions and contradictions that constrain the way we think about some of these challenges is the nation-state itself. Earlier, you were talking about Democratic politicians who, on one hand, promise to protect union jobs, and on the other hand, pass free trade agreements that result in union jobs going overseas.

As I was listening to you, I was thinking about two things. The first is that we’re all human beings, and that while it’s very difficult to watch communities that we know suffer, there might at least be some comfort in knowing that somebody is going to be employed somewhere. I’m not sure how to feel about that.

The other thing is that Marx believed that the proletarian revolution couldn’t happen in just one place. It had to take place around the whole world all at once – that that was the only way to achieve escape velocity from the constraints of capitalism.

When we operate within the confines of the nation-state and try to create economic security for our own fellow citizens, we do so knowing that other countries do it differently and that we have to interact with them economically. In a certain sense, then, I would love to imagine a politician who’s in that jam – on the one hand, wanting to protect his constituents, and on the other hand, believing that a certain type of free trade agreement will do good for countries that are in more dire economic straits than we are. Because at least that person sees these moral contradictions.

CH: You bring up a good point. Marxism is an international ideology. It’s an ideology motivated by the breaking down of those borders that constrain us. I remember a quote by a member of the IWW. He was asked, “What are you?” and he said, “I’m a worker.” He was asked, “What country are you a citizen of?” and the worker replied, “I am a citizen of industry.” There are no borders. A worker is a worker; a worker here is the same as a worker overseas. They both have terrible conditions, some more than others, and they both live a hard life. They toil and they try to make a better existence for themselves in a system that is inherently keeping them down.

I think now more than ever we see that we can’t progress as easily as we wish. The American dream is dead. I actually think it was a fantasy to begin with. Not everybody can be a winner in this system; not everybody can win. I enjoy seeing in schools how “Everybody did a good job” or everybody gets a trophy. That is not how it operates in the real world, not within a capitalist framework. Somebody wins; somebody loses. Somebody gets a big house; somebody gets a shack. That’s just it.

The bottom 10% and the top 10% are father apart than ever and growing even farther apart. Going back to what you said about finite resources, let’s connect all of this with a concept that exists in some traditions, that of the transitory nature of all things.

I love science. I consider myself an empirical man and a scientific man. The universe will end, it’s a guaranteed fact. Either with a big crunch –with the universe coming back in on itself – or a big rip, a big tear, everything being stretched apart.

The universe is expanding. When Einstein realized this, he got very worried and it caused an existential crisis for him. He didn’t really believe it. But once Edwin Hubble showed that that was indeed what was going on, Einstein came to terms with the fact that the universe is expanding. Which means that there will come a point where everything that we’ve done, all of our monuments, will be gone. That’s it!

It’s a very hard thing for people to swallow. We like to think in eternal terms because of our own mortality. We like to try to envision a time where we will live forever – and we won’t. This recognition – that I don’t believe that I’m going to last forever, that I will die at some point – is important to me.

This is where I think Buddhism comes into play. Given that I’m going to die, how do I change the conditions here and now – not only to make my life a happier, more tolerable one, but for those around me?

I do not believe capitalism provides that opportunity. I think that we need another path. Is Marxism the answer? For me, it offers a lot of good things. That said, I think we can go beyond Marxism. That’s the beauty of Karl Marx; he critiques everything, and by doing that, he encourages us to critique him as well. We must be radical critics of ourselves too; we must radically and consistently critique the current state of things. The moment we become apathetic is the moment that we go back to this way of living, this clamoring after success and power. We can move beyond that.

MB: The fact that everything is destined to end strike a deep chord with me, too. We can think about so many of the ways we live as attempts to avoid that reality, efforts to grasp at permanence or build monuments for our own egos. The irony is that we can’t win that game; we absolutely lose that game. The only way we have a shot at ‘winning,’ so to speak, is by giving up that particular game and realizing that there isn’t anything to hold onto. There is, however, the possibility to live a much bigger, vaster, deeper, more profound life – and I think that can happen when we’re truly living with and for one another, as opposed to keeping one another at bay.

CH: If I can just interrupt you.

MB: Please.

CH: I love the fact that when I look at history – and being ethnically Greek, I love my history – the Greeks wanted to keep things eternal. Plato believed that matter itself was eternal, and there was this sense that true success came from living far beyond your mortal years, right? In the Orthodox Church, we have the ceremony where we commemorate the dead. The hymnal refrain of the service says, “May your memory be eternal.” There is this need for eternal memory, eternal monuments.

That is why it’s fascinating to see that the Acropolis and the monuments built by the Greeks will far outlast the monuments built by capitalism. Capitalism claims that it wants to be eternal, but its monuments are transitory. For the Greeks, building the Acropolis – a center piece, a temple for Athena, for wisdom – was a crowning achievement. It lasts because it was built that way – to last. It lasts because that’s where they invested everything. The people around the Acropolis, their houses and their things are now shattered vases and little trinkets here and there, but the Acropolis remains.

Today, we create all of these monuments of steel and glass that will not last. We build bigger and better and more beautiful, but we use all of the cheapest materials and we get the cheapest labor. We don’t put our own blood, sweat, and tears into creating things that will last. We build these huge apartment complexes, and in 20 or 30 years, we bring them down. I think that in itself shows a lot about the system.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed here are those of the interviewee and do not reflect the opinions of the United States Army, the Department of Defense or the United States Government.