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 …

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