I’ve been reading Edmund Wilson’s analysis of how well Karl Marx’s social theories suited his psychological needs as an ambitious writer who was chronically broke and less than honest with himself about money. Wilson: “If you choose to work for humanity, if you will not write for money, why then you must make other people earn it for you or suffer and let others suffer, because you haven’t got it.” Ouch.
I was reminded of a half-baked idea that occurred to me while I was living in Prague, a dozen years ago, when socialism had been so recently overturned that capitalism had not yet set in. It seemed to me then that for a struggling writer, socialism was in fact an awfully convenient arrangement. Under capitalism, a writer who is not (yet) a great success is subject to doubts and slights that force him to wonder if he wouldn’t be better off if he gave up his abstract ambitions and settled on something practical. If he makes the experiment of taking a job, however, he discovers that for him there are two sorts: the intellectually untaxing ones, which pay poorly and to which an unspoken but persistent discredit is attached (surely people think less of him for failing to challenge himself), and the taxing ones, which leave him no time and energy to write anything serious.
Under socialism, though not quite for the reasons that its designers intended, he faces no such choice. The intellectually taxing jobs do not pay very much more than the untaxing ones, and what’s more, they are complicit with a totalitarian regime and therefore have only a negligible social prestige. So he is free to take an easy job and work at it lackadaisically, reserving his strength for his writing. The catch, of course, is that under socialism, no great success awaits any talent, no matter how exceptional, and so the writer will probably treat his art as a hobby in the end. And then there is the problem of free speech, which some writers stickle at. People with no interest in writing, forced to live under a system that spares writers the humiliation of being so much more poorly dressed than everyone else, in fact do resort in large numbers to hobbies in order to find happiness—collecting, gardening, drinking, adultery.
Of course there were many things about socialism worse than its overindulgence of the brittle narcissism and unresolved dependency issues of aspiring writers. But if only Marx could have been treated by Kohut. . . .