A Bolshevik Devil’s Dictionary
“The power of accurate observation is commonly called
cynicism by those who have not got it.” – G. B. Shaw
Ambroise Bierce’s, The Devil’s Dictionary, is not only the greatest collection of epigrams in world literature, but also reveals the premises of a critique of capitalist society. But this critique – in the form of entries in a dictionary – is so rich and compressed as to demand further argument. It is the aim of this essay to provide it, and to draw out its Marxist conclusions. Whether or not the author would have considered this demonstration valid, I will leave to my readers to decide. Among the institutions examined by this sardonic lexicographer, are those of politics, economics and religion. Let us begin with his thoughts on politics.
Politics, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.
If we replace ‘strife’ with ‘struggle’, interpret ‘interests’ as those of social classes and ‘principles’ as those of political ideology, we have an axiom from which we can derive much of Marx’s theory of historical materialism. Allow me a brief sketch of that theory.
As an infant, we enter the world with basic needs as a dependent member of society. To satisfy these needs, society must act through cooperative labor, subject to laws of its environment (e.g. the availability of water, climate, raw materials, fertility of the soil, etc.). This universal condition, the labor process, is common to all human history.
Marx classifies societies, modes of production, according to their relationship between the owners of the means of production (i.e. land, scientific knowledge, tools, techniques, etc.) and the direct producers (i.e. those who possess only the ability to work, labor-power):
“It is always the direct relationship between those who control the means of production and the direct producers – a relationship always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labor, and thereby its social productivity – which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure…” – Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 3).
He traces the historical development of these modes of production from pre-class society, through the slave states of Greece and Rome, feudal society and, finally, to capitalism, itself. In pre-class society scarcity prevailed. Men lived in clans at the level of subsistence. Their cooperative labor was based on custom or religion. Social solidarity was valued; competition and individual enrichment were not. These would have led to starvation. And there was greater equality between men and women. Only with the increase in labor productivity was a substantial food reserve made possible (i.e. a social surplus). Without a social surplus, there could be no social division of labor and basis for social classes. It is over the struggle for this social surplus that class society is born. History becomes a series of such class struggles.
Each mode of production (following pre-class society) was also composed of a form of family (for the reproduction and rearing of children), and a state (for the maintenance of the system in the interests of the owners of the means of production, the ruling class), and was driven by a “strife of interests” (the class struggle between those who owned the means of production and the direct producers). The state, controlled by the ruling class, employed not only force (“armed bodies of men”), but also persuasion (its “principles” of politics, ideology), which often served as a screen behind which lurk a “strife of interests”:
“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that therefore, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it…” – Karl Marx, The German Ideology.
The ruling class ideology is a system of beliefs by which it represents its own interests as those of society at large. It consists of nationalism, religion and often racial intolerance, in both public education and the media. In the universities it is taught as “pluralism” in political science, the “free market” in economics, “liberalism” in philosophy, and as “equality before the law” in jurisprudence. It is in our very language: the “national interest”, our “way of life”, the “our” and “we” against “them”.
So I would suggest that our author’s “strife of Interests” is class struggle, and his “contest of principles”, that of capitalist ideology. Now we to turn to the second part of his definition: from social classes to individuals – politicians, capitalists and citizens:
Politics, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.
Who is it that conducts public affairs for private advantage? Surely it is capitalists and their political representatives, politicians, who are merely doing their duty, according to the author:
Duty, n. That which sternly impels us in the direction of profit, along the line of desire.
And their duty, we are told, is a matter of ‘principle’, not one of naked economic ‘interest’. Next we come to the ‘duty’ of all citizens, patriotism:
Patriot, n. One to who the interests of the part seem superior to those of the whole. The dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors.
Who plays the role of ‘dupes’ and ‘tool’s, if not the citizen (i.e. the working class and poor). And who are they duped and used by? – these ‘statesmen’ and ‘conquerors’ – if not the capitalist class and their politicians. Furthermore, it is through the ‘principles’/ideology of nationalism and often racism that they are so manipulated to go to war.
Our author rounds off his account of politics with several additional entries. Once again, we have a ‘strife of interests’ – geographical and economic – parading as ‘principles’/’rights’:
Boundary, n. In political geography, an imaginary line between two nations, separating the imaginary rights of one from the imaginary rights of the other.
The history of colonialism, and later, imperialism, is one in which these boundaries between nations were more often than not the creation of powerful nations who imposed them on weaker ones (e.g. the current embroilment of the nations of the Middle East was the creation of their having been carved up by European powers following the First World War, the ‘Sykes Picot Agreement’.). And such national boundaries were, themselves, often created by alliances and diplomacy between these great powers:
Alliance, n. In international politics, the union of two thieves who have their hands so deeply inserted in each other’s pocket that they cannot separately plunder a third.
Diplomacy, n. The patriotic art of lying for one’s country.
Finally, there are Bierce’s classic definitions of ‘peace’ (following Clausewitz, i.e. “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”), and ‘history’:
Peace, n. In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.
History, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.
And, throughout history, it is invariably the direct producers (i.e. peasants, workers and poor) who are the soldierly fools led by the knaves of the ruling class. Having skewered politics, our author now turns to economics. What ‘boundary’ was to his discussion of politics, ‘land’ is to economics:
Land, n. A part of the earth’s surface, considered as property. The theory that land is property subject to ownership and control is the foundation of modern society, and is eminently worthy of the superstructure. Carried to its logical conclusion, it means that some have the right to prevent others from living…
The most famous example of this process is described in Marx’s, Capital, Volume 1, where he talks about the ‘enclosure of the commons’ in the historical development of British capitalism. In violently dispossessing the peasantry of their land, a class of the landless was created, an industrial reserve army, forced to work for the great landowners, or else starve or turn to banditry.
This brings us to the heart of capitalism, the exploitation of labor. First, there are the laborers, who bring with them ‘appetite’ (i.e. their basic needs for food, water, shelter, etc.):
Appetite, n. An instinct thoughtfully implanted by Providence as a solution to the labor question.
Then there is the mystery of profit, itself; where does it come from? Somehow, the capitalist begins with a given sum (and after employing workers, raw materials and machinery in the process of production, and selling the product) ends up with a greater sum:
Labor, n. One of the processes by which A acquires property for B.
A is the working class, B, the capitalist who exploits them. The value of a commodity is the labor-time needed to produce it. The only commodity which can create new value, surplus value, is labor-power. Exploitation results from the difference between the cost of labor-power and the value of the product: the surplus value appropriated by capital through the exploitation of labor-power.
In addition to the fact that the laborer must work for the capitalist (or starve or turn to crime), there is the additional mechanism of debt to maintain his condition of “wage slavery”:
Debt, n. An ingenious substitute for the chain and whip of the slave-driver.
And economics may also be viewed from the point of view of the individual capitalist:
Merchant, n. One engaged in a commercial pursuit. A commercial pursuit is one in which the thing pursued is a dollar.
And there is also the viewpoint of the class of capitalists (its “band of brothers”) in competition with one another:
Commerce, n. A kind of transaction in which A plunders from B the goods of C, and for compensation B picks the pocket of D of money belonging to E.
Furthermore, these capitalists are organized in corporations:
Corporation, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.
And, just as their allies, the politicians (who conduct ‘public affairs for private advantage’), the capitalists are only doing their ‘duty’:
Duty, n. That which strongly impels us in the direction of profit, along the line of desire.
Finally, there is our author’s scathing description of the capital, as it were, of world capitalism, Wall Street:
Mammon, n. The god of the world’s leading religion. His chief temple is in the holy city of New York.
From “the world’s leading religion”, we now pass on to the author’s thoughts on the social institution of religion, itself:
Religion, n. A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.
Our author, like Marx and Engels, understood the profound power of religion in our lives. Engels, in his, On Religion, says:
“All religion…is nothing but the fantastic reflection in men’s minds of those external forces which control their daily life, a reflection in which terrestrial forces assume the form of supernatural forces…and which in the course of further evolution underwent the most manifold and varied personifications among various peoples…Side by side with the forces of nature, social forces begin to be active – forces which confront man as equally alien and at first equally inexplicable, dominating him with the same apparent natural necessity as the forces of nature themselves…”
Overwhelmed by these natural and social forces that control his life, man seeks comfort, in the form of a god or gods to protect him:
“Religious suffering is, at the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of a soulless condition. It is the opium of the people…” – Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.
And, because the answers to the questions of religion are ‘unknowable’, scientific explanation appears insufficient, and faith, alone, provides this comfort:
Faith, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.
In times of crisis we turn for comfort to such being(s) with prayer:
Pray, n. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.
(For a thorough discussion of Marx and Engels views on religion, see Paul N. Siegel’s excellent, The Meek and the Militant. And for the single greatest essay on religion – one both compatible with and complimentary to the views of Marx and Engels – see Freud’s The Future of an Illusion.)
Having completed our short tour of The Devil’s Dictionary’s critique of politics, economics and religion, let us conclude with our own critique of its author. To those who would consider him a “cynic”, Bierce’s own reply is that the role of “cynic” is an honorable one, for such a person “…sees things as they are, not as they ought to be…” We, as Marxists, however, must go one step further. We must also begin by seeing things as they are. But once we have, we must organize and act so as to bring about things as they ought to be.