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The Death of Marxism

World Communism

by Richard Lowenthal
Oxford, 288 pp., $5.00

Professor Richard Lowenthal of the Free University of Berlin has collected in this volume a number of papers he has written since 1955 on the crisis of Communism. The result is a penetrating analysis of the intellectual decay and political disintegration which have befallen Communism during the last decade. The story of that disintegration and decay has the characteristics of tragedy. For the collapse of Communism, torn by inner contradictions and disavowed by one historic experience after the other, was inevitable, and the more its leaders tried to stave off the catastrophe, the more certain they made its coming. There is something tragic, evoking terror and pity in the beholder, in the spectacle of Khrushchev and Mao Tse-tung trying, each in his own way, to close the gates of destruction, only succeeding in opening them wider.

It is not easy to tell the story of the disintegration of Communism well; for the story is complex and it has been deliberately obscured by the actors. In the Marxist intellectual world a dogmatic philosophic system masks political reality, changing the facts to fit the dogma or changing the meaning of the dogma to fit the facts, without, however, changing the dogmatic formula. The analytical observer must, then, perform three tasks: he must discover the political reality behind the dogma, he must then find the meaning of the dogma behind its verbalization, and he must discover the political function of the dogma in different periods of history.

In these tasks, Professor Lowenthal has admirably succeeded. Nothing better has been written on the subject, and it is hard to imagine that it ever will. Professor Lowenthal combines a deep understanding of Marxism and of the ways Marxists think, with a sensitivity to the subtler realities of power politics. More particularly, he understands the interplay of Marxist ideology and power politics in the minds of the Communist leaders. He does not fall into the dogmatic error of so many Western analysts of Communism who—to use his own words—

believe that the Leninist doctrine is by itself sufficient to determine the proper strategy for any given situation; hence statements justifying a major policy decision in doctrinal terms may be taken as adequately indicating the actual motives of that decision. This method of interpretation is dogmatic in the sense that the understanding of actions of Communist leaders is reduced to the immanent exegesis of the dogma they profess.

Instead, Professor Lowenthal assumes that

no political doctrine can possibly anticipate all the major choices by which its followers may be faced: at crucial moments, “ideological” politicians are forced to give preference to one element of the doctrine over another with which, owing to unforseen circumstances, it has come into conflict. Whichever decision has been taken will henceforth be justified by emphasizing the corresponding aspect of the doctrine; hence it is not the unchanging doctrine that has determined the decision but the decision that determines the further evolution of the doctrine. This method of interpretation is functional and critical in the sense that the doctrine is seen as a justifying ideology as well as a motivating force, and it is truly historical in focusing attention on the preferences that determine the crucial choices—even if those preferences may not yet have found a mature formulation.

Professor Lowenthal applies this method with consummate skill and illuminating results. He sees in the Yugoslav defection of 1948 the beginning of the end; for that defection challenged with impunity both the ideological monopoly and the political leadership of the Soviet Union. Stalin’s dethronement by Khrushchev in 1956 administered a fatal blow to these Soviet claims; for it disqualified Soviet leaders once and for all from claiming convincingly the monopolistic possession of Marxist truth upon which its authority at home and abroad had rested. The only Communist leader whose ideological credibility remained intact was Mao who is the only Communist leader, aside from Tito, whose ideological and political authority has indigenous roots. Thus while Khrushchev tried to restore the ideological and political monopoly of the Soviet Union, first through pragmatic accommodation, and in the end despairingly and implausibly through uncompromising reassertion, Mao grasped the ideological mantle of Lenin that Khrushchev had torn from Stalin’s tomb.

The analysis of the factors which led inexorably step by step to the present schism between the Soviet Union and China is the most impressive part of Lowenthal’s book. It is original, profound, and persuasive. And it is a testimony to the creativeness, if not the greatness, of Mao Tse-tung. Professor Lowenthal shows convincingly how essentially different Mao’s Communism has been, from the very outset, from that of Marx and Lenin. He demonstrates that Mao’s party was not, any more than Lenin’s was, a representative agency of the industrial workers, but “a centralized party organized for total power.” Against the advice of a succession of Soviet leaders, that party was based upon the peasants, and not upon the industrial workers. Mao’s “strategy had prevailed in the Chinese party not because it had the backing of Moscow—it was eventually approved by Moscow because it had prevailed.”

Considering the fundamental divergencies in political conception and style, the friendly relations between the Soviet Union and China in the early Fifties and more particularly, the initial Chinese support for Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization must be seen as an interlude based upon passing national interests and ephemeral tactical considerations. When the ideological and political weakness of the Soviet Union had become obvious in 1956, China started to compete openly with the Soviet Union for the ideological and political leadership of the World Communist movement. According to Professor Lowenthal, China has a great advantage in this competition by virtue of the radical change that has occurred in the political functions of Marxism-Leninism. For that philosophy does not fit at all the conditions of the workers in the highly developed industrial nations for whom it was originally intended. But, especially in its Chinese version, it fits perfectly the psychological and political needs of the new ruling groups in the emerging nations of Africa and Latin America.

Looking beyond the spring of 1963, when Professor Lowenthal’s story ends, and looking back to the less dramatic decline of Communism which occurred before 1955, when his story begins, one is impressed with the new significance Professor Lowenthal’s analysis imparts to these two periods of history. The fall of Khrushchev—sudden, brutal, degrading to both executioners and victim—poses for the serious student of politics with renewed poignancy the question of the nature of the Soviet state and the philosophy on which it rests. What kind of political society can afford twice in succession to elevate a man to the pinnacle of wisdom, virtue, and power and then to depose, or denigrate him posthumously, as a wicked usurper, a blunderer, if not a criminal? The answer is that no political society can afford to squander its moral capital so recklessly and that a political society that does so can have but a short life-expectancy. What Khrushchev did to Stalin in 1956 and what his colleagues have just done to Khrushchev are symptoms of the fatal crisis that has befallen Communism as a political philosophy, and threatens the Soviet state which derives its legitimacy from that philosophy.

A political order must rest on one of three foundations of legitimacy: religious—here the government rules “by the grace of God”; democratic—here the government rules by the “will of the people”; charismatic—here the government rules owing to a special endowment of wisdom, virtue, or power. The Soviet government is obviously of the last kind. Lenin, Stalin, and Khrushchev governed and were obeyed because they were supposed to be endowed with a special relationship to the truth about man and society, of which the philosophy of Communism is presumed to be the sole repository. Endowed with extraordinary qualities of mind and character, they were the authentic interpreters and augmentors of the Marxist truths. They had the same monopolistic access to those truths as priests have to the truths of revealed religion. Hence their infallibility in thought and action, hence their right to govern, and the citizens’ duty to obey. Doubt that infallibility, and you doubt the legitimacy of their rule. Unmask them as fallible and wicked, and you have destroyed the legitimacy of their rule.

Yet this is what Khrushchev did when he revealed in 1956 Stalin’s crimes, and this is what Khrushchev’s colleagues did when they stripped him of his power. By doing this, Khrushchev and his colleagues have done more than destroy the legitimacy of the rule of one particular man. They have cast doubt on Marxist legitimacy as such. If a tyrant like Stalin could rule for thirty years, and so defective a statesman as Khrushchev for eleven, both in the name of Marxist legitimacy, how valid in theory and useful in practice can Marxist legitimacy be? After that question had been raised in 1956 by Khrushchev with respect to Stalin, it was bound to be raised with respect to Khrushchev by others, and it is bound to be raised by others still with respect to his successors, once their hour of truth has come. As a matter of fact, it is already being raised by implication through the demand of non-Russian Communist parties for an explanation of Khrushchev’s dismissal; for by questioning the justice of that dismissal, they question the right of Khrushchev’s successors to rule.

Once Marxist legitimacy was thus doubted, the question of the validity of Marxism itself as a political and economic system was bound to be raised, too. That question was raised implicitly through the Polish and Hungarian revolts of 1956, and through the intellectual and moral ferment that began to shake the intelligentsia of the Soviet Union and Poland. Kolowski’s Man without Alternative: About the Possibility and Impossibility of being a Marxist is a classical example of that questioning. As applied to the specific Soviet manifestation of Marxism, that question has been raised ever since by the Yugoslavs and the Chinese, the Poles and the Rumanians, the Italians and the French, and by intellectuals within the Soviet Union itself.

While this process of obvious disintegration started in 1956 with Stalin’s dethronement by Khrushchev, it must not be overlooked that Marxism entered its open, and probably final, crisis already weakened and transformed by a series of encounters with historic experience which found it wanting. The first of these crises occurred in August, 1914, when the proletarians of the capitalistic world, instead of uniting, started to kill each other on the behest of their respective ruling classes and on behalf of their respective nations. The second crisis occurred at the end of the First World War and in its immediate aftermath: the October Revolution of 1917, which took place in a backward country—contrary to Marxist expectation—was not followed by proletarian revolutions in the advanced capitalist countries, but remained an isolated event. The third was the phenomenon of fascism, which was a new form of government similar in its political character and techniques to Russian Bolshevism and not, as Marxist dogma had to assume, the last stage of a decaying capitalism, to be followed of necessity by the triumph of Communism. Finally, the persistent inability of Communist societies to solve the problems of agricultural and industrial production provides a glaring empirical contradiction to the claimed superiority of a Communist system of production and distribution.

It is as a result of these departures from reality that Marxism as a system of political thought and a guide to political action is today dead where it once had its greatest vitality: in Central and Western Europe. This sweeping statement is not contradicted by the fact that in France and Italy Communist candidates are supported by approximately one-fourth of the voters; for those votes are cast not so much for Marxism as a political philosophy as against the social and economic status quo. And in Germany and Austria Marxism is an historic memory altogether. One needs only compare this state of affairs with the enormous intellectual ferment—largely sterile politically, it is true—which Marxism caused in that part of the world in the Twenties, and the faith in its intellectual and moral rightness and promise which it aroused in its followers—to realize its decline, as an intellectual, moral, and political force. One of my earliest and most vivid childhood recollections is of a visit I paid with my father, a doctor, to the house of a German workingman who was dying of cancer. “Doctor,” the man said, “when I am dead, will you please see to it that this book is put in my coffin,” and he pointed to a small volume lying on his night table. “Was this the Bible?” I asked my father after we had left. “No, it was his Bible,” my father answered with a trace of acerbity in his voice, being as class conscious as his patient was. “It was The Communist Manifesto.” Can one imagine a German workingman, East or West, uttering such a last wish today?

Perceiving the present open and acute crisis of Communism within the Communist domain itself from this historic perspective of a general and steady decline, one can understand this crisis as the last or, at best, the next to the last act of a drama whose roots lie in the very nature of Marxism as an intellectual system, its inner contradictions, and its contradictions with historic experience. It is the story of that act which Professor Lowenthal tells with consummate skill. His book is brilliantly written and easily accessible to the layman. Almost thirty pages of interesting notes, unfortunately tucked away in the back pages, testify to the painstaking research upon which it is based. Its usefulness would have been enhanced by an index.

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