Marxism: 100 Years in the Life of a Doctrine
Strange Communists I Have Known
There are still some good reasons for writing another book about Marxism, but Bertram Wolfe has chosen by far the least convincing one, namely that Americans have not been told enough about it. This is a curious assertion, even if we agree with him that recent American (but not European) writing has concentrated excessively on the latter-day Marxism of the Leninist era, which he, reasonably enough, refuses to identify with Marx’s own. It is possible to disagree with most of the biographical, exegetical, or critical literature about Marxism, but not to deny its bulk. Indeed this bulk is nowadays a major obstacle in the path of the lay reader, who approaches the subject with nothing but a simple desire to find out what Marxism is all about. Still, it is not beyond the power of the expert to draw up a brief list of available titles which would give the student a reasonable amount of information, and some of the gaps could be easily filled by translating available foreign works or restoring out-of-print English ones to circulation. No such list would satisfy more than a fraction of the experts, but then, neither will Mr. Wolfe’s nor any other volume.
The experts will indeed appreciate Mr. Wolfe’s book as a contribution to what he calls “Marxicology,” to the ancient and voluminous debate about how much justification latter-day Marxists of various kinds can find for their policies in the texts of the founding fathers, and to the flourishing industry of proving Marx wrong. The author knows his Marx and is well-equipped for the type of intellectual battles in which quotations take the place of missiles, though he sometimes seems uncertain which is more deplorable: Lenin, for disagreeing with Marx (who therefore sometimes risks actually being right), or Marx for being wrong in the first place, but in a different manner from Lenin.
The place for a detailed assessment of Mr. Wolfe’s performance as a polemical “Marxicologist,” like the place for a detailed discussion of other relatively esoteric activities, is in publications addressed to a relatively specialized public. Here one may merely note that the determination to prove both Marx and Lenin wrong and undesirable in every respect, is no more helpful to the American reader than the corresponding determination to prove them both right is to the Soviet student, and that the primary concentration on textual study runs the risk of overlooking some of the realities which surround the texts. To take an obvious example: The “ambiguity” of a Marxism which contains both “revolutionary extremism…in the ‘Marxist classics,’ and…practical reformism, and respect for democratic processes in its daily work” may be due to vagueness in the theory. It may equally well be due to the ambiguity unavoidable by any revolutionary movement which operates in times when there are no barricades to be raised. No body of theoreticians took more care to exclude “reformism” from its doctrines than the Communist International, and few of its parties “bolshevized …