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” themselves with greater zeal than the French. Yet the French Communist Party today has much the same problem of reconciling a theoretical revolutionism and a reformist daily practice as the parties of the Second International, and partly for analogous reasons.
If the expert will nevertheless read Mr. Wolfe with interest, the reader who comes fresh to Marxism is likely to be rather puzzled by his book. He will find no discussion of dialectical or historical materialism, of Marx’s economic theory, or of the post-Marxian debates on these topics. He will not find much, and that mainly in scattered pages, about the place of Marx and Engels in the history of socialism and communism, or for that matter about socialism and communism (neither word occurs in the index). Instead, the author begins with a long analysis of Marx’s and Engels’s attitude to nineteenth-century international affairs in general and to war in particular, and continues with a discussion of their attitude to dictatorship and democracy, violent insurrection, and peaceful social transformation. In between there is a section on their reactions to the Paris Commune of 1871. Interesting though these subjects are, especially to the nineteenth-century historian, and relevant to the judgment of Marx by people who (like the author) clearly hold strong views in principle about some of them, they are not central to Marx’s own thought, or the best introduction to it.
The next part of the book, “The Flaw in the Foundation,” appears to suggest that Marx’s ideal of an international proletarian Marxist movement never had much chance of realization, and rested on Marx’s unjustified insistence that there must be a class—the proletariat—to back his personal determination not just to interpret the world, like the philosophers of the past, but to change it. Wolfe attempts to trace the origins of this identification back to the “marvelous year” of 1843, when Marx discovered himself to be a communist, and for good measure he adds some sketchy chapters on the three Internationals. A final section argues that the workers themselves have not followed Marx, and puts forward the not unfamiliar view that the persistent influence of Marxism is due to the power with which Marx expressed a utopian-prophetic vision. The net result is somewhat frustrating. We see Marx as a prophet, but as such a man might appear, say, on television with bad sound—a man obviously feeling strongly about something, and in a way rather powerful, but whose words we cannot quite catch. We see Marx the politician as someone maneuvering for position and reconsidering tactics, but for purposes which are not altogether clear. In consequence the prize question, why this man’s views should still be of considerable importance today and inspire Mr. Wolfe among others to write a book about him, does not receive a satisfactory answer.
For the weakness of the theory which regards Marx merely as a particularly eloquent utopian preacher with a prophet-like beard—apart from his marked disinclination to make statements about the remoter future—is that he is far from being the only mid-nineteenth-century utopian or prophet. He is merely, unlike Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen, Proudhon, Lamennais, Mazzini, Bakunin, and the rest, the only one we still take much notice of. The mere fact of utopianism, denunciation, or prophecy is not enough to ensure survival. Nor is the reason for the “real staying-power” of Marxism the mere fact that it is a utopian dream which “is also an ism, i.e., a faith.” Several of the prophets of that era founded secular faiths, and one or two, like Comte, actually founded formal religions, which have by no means been without practical influence in such parts of the world as Latin America. Plenty of nineteenth-century social theories claiming to be scientific have also, pace Mr. Wolfe, become isms and still persist as secular theologies among some groups of people such as newspaper owners and congressmen, e.g., dogmas derived from Adam Smith, Locke, and Bentham. Yet they have not the political importance of Marxism either.
In other words, it is extremely difficult to account for the survival value of Marxism without coming to grips with Marx’s views about the subjects to which he devoted most of his literary labors, namely society and historic change in general, and capitalism in particular. It is impossible to do so if we assume a priori that only deluded innocents or amoralists could be taken in by so patently untenable a theory. It may be nonsense, but the last thing it is, is obvious nonsense. On the contrary, one of the characteristics which distinguishes it from other revolutionary ideologies such as anarchism, is its unusual attractiveness to those who like interesting theories and its capacity to influence even those intellectuals who do not, or no longer, share its revolutionary hopes. No discussion of Marxism is of much use which fails to observe the growing deposit of insight and theory which Marxism has left in all the social sciences, or its capacity to survive and to revive among such groups as university students and teachers—even in countries whose working class has never followed or has abandoned revolutionary Marxist movements, and even at times which do not seem propitious to it, as in West Germany, Britain and perhaps even the USA during the past few years. It is possible to explain the appeal of Marxism between the wars in terms of illusions about what Wolfe elsewhere has called “the false dawn in the East,” though it makes better sense to explain it by the failure both of capitalism to avoid war and slump, and of the then current non-Marxist theories to say anything very illuminating about either. It is relatively easy to explain the appeal of Marxism in the emerging nations by its prestige as the most powerful movement associated with anti-imperialism and social revolution, the case for which hardly needs much sophisticated argument in most parts of the world. But it is impossible to account for its survival, indeed its revival, as an intellectual current in the West, after Stalin and in the age of economic miracles, without at least entertaining the hypothesis that it still has something to say about the world which appears to make sense. For even the most plausible alternative explanation, namely that it appeals to intellectuals because of their discontents and “alienation” as a social group, tacitly admits its intellectual attractiveness, since it is an explanation derived from Marxism.
Of course the deficiencies of Mr. Wolfe’s book are accounted for if we regard it not as a serious analysis of a century of Marxism, which it is not, but as an episode in that long process of publicly exorcising one’s past which stimulates the literary production of so many articulate ex-communists. This autobiographical basis of his thinking emerges more clearly from Strange Communists I Have Known, a collection of reprinted articles otherwise without much interest, except for two useful pieces of historical detective-work about Lenin’s mistress Inessa Armand and the policespy Malinovsky. There Wolfe quotes a tribute to his work by the late Samuel Putnam, whom he claims to have converted from communism:
The value of your book for those like me lies in the fact that, by showing us the historical bases of our errors, it restores something of self-respect and affords the basis for a new start.
No doubt Mr. Wolfe’s writings (of which those dealing with Soviet history are superior to Marxism) have had this therapeutic value for him and perhaps for some readers who shared his political evolution. But those who look not for therapy but for some understanding of the phenomenon of Marxism in the twentieth-century world will not find his approach of equal value.