12/12/2012 02:28 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2013

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

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's (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 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.

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.

[Note: The full interview is available at The Wheat and Chaff.]