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Marx and Freedom

In response to:

Marx and Freedom from the November 24, 1983 issue

To the Editors:

In the concluding section of his often excellent article [“Marx and Freedom,” NYR, November 24, 1983], Andrzej Walicki rushes beyond the evidence to attribute to Marx several cold war positions on life and freedom under socialism. When Marx says, for example, that “the appropriation of a totality of instruments of production is…the development of a totality of capacities in the individuals themselves,” this is not—as Walicki believes—a comment on the “miraculous power” of nationalization to reunify the capacity of the individual with the capacities of the species. Nor is Marx saying that “after the means of production have been socialized, the new, superior race of men will apear of its own accord.”

Rather, as part of the organic development of a socialist society, the socialization of industry corresponds to changes that are already occurring in the evolution of individuals and the species. The relationship between these two developments is not a causal one, but one of mutual dependence and reciprocal effect. Consequently, the character and quality of the socialization and of the conditions in which it takes place cannot be dismissed, and the human element involved cannot be viewed as mere effect. Not every act of nationalization, in short, counts as socialist nationalization for Marx. A little dialectic would help.

A similar error occurs when Walicki claims, Marx “did not foresee the possiblity that, even in a socialist welfare state, men might still be dominated by a bourgeois scale of values, that their needs and aims might remain just as mean and egoistic, just as ‘inhuman’ (by his standards) as under capitalism.” But Marx did foresee this, and that’s why he recommends that the Government which comes to power in a socialist society begin with relatively mild reforms, such as a progressive income tax, the nationalization of a few major industries, and the abolition of the right of inheritance (as distinct from wealth), to mention but a few obvious examples (Communist Manifesto). In each case, this assumes that there are still many people, perhaps a majority, who feel the need to earn more than others and even become entrepreneurs if they are to do their best work. These attitudes do not change overnight. Nor are they taken as unalterable facts of nature. As part of a long evolution in people’s material and social conditions, and in the organization of life, Marx believes these human qualities will also change.

What is completely missing in Walicki’s account of Marx’s vision of the future is the essential distinction between socialism, understood as a period of transition of indeterminate length, and communism, the qualitatively new society which is built on the foundations laid down during socialism. To ignore or even play down the precursor role of socialism makes it impossible either to grasp or to evaluate what Marx says about the end of alienation and the attainment of human freedom in communism. Likewise, to treat Marx’s views on socialism without making it perfectly clear that he was talking about a post-capitalist social formation (with all this implies for industry, wealth, democracy and freedom) is to compound this confusion by altering the initial equation with a set of conditions and problems that were foreign to Marx’s thinking on this subject. When, in the absence of these distinctions, Walicki falls back on talk of what “experience has shown,” he is at best irrelevant and at worst seriously distorting of Marx’s views.

There is, for example, nothing in Marx’s writings that suggests—contra Walicki—that Marx is “ready to sacrifice the present generation for the sake of the future” (this is what capitalism does to workers), or that he would countenance “forcible indoctrination…and other coercive means” to win support for socialism. Surely, Walicki knows that Marx argued against centralization and control of education by the socialist state (Gotha Critique). Peasants, whom Marx calls above all “men of reckoning,” were to be won over by showering them with material and cultural benefits (something only possible in a rich, post-capitalist society). Marx’s only reference to coercion in socialism is the penalty he urges the new socialist Government to adopt against emigrants and rebels (not those who speak against socialism, but those who take up arms against it). The penalty? Confiscation of property—not death, not even a prison sentence. Where is the authoritarian/totalitarian Marx in all this?

Most western Marxists have come to understand that there is little to learn about socialism (understood as a form of society that can be built in our countries) from the experiences of the “socialist” world. Unfortunately, and with a few outstanding exceptions, these same distorting experiences have meant that there is little to learn about Marxist theory (especially as it applies to the unfolding potential of capitalism, its/our possible future) in the works which come out of these countries, whether communist or anti-communist. No, if Marxism is to serve as a critical arm in a socialist transformation of capitalism, this is an arm we shall have to fashion for ourselves.

Bertell Ollman

New York University

New York City

Andrzej Walicki replies:

There are, basically, three allegations in Professor Ollman’s criticism of my “often excellent” article on Marx.

First, my alleged errors and my disregard of the distinction between socialism and communism. I dare to think that the philosophical conception of freedom and the problem of transition from socialism to communism are two different topics. I did not say that Marx believed in the immediate miraculous effect of every nationalization. I put in question the very idea of “reunifying the capacity of the individual with the capacities of the species”; I do not believe that nationalization of industry (quite irrespective of the existing level of development and of the slower or quicker methods of transition) can achieve this miracle.

Professor Ollman believes that Marx did foresee that even in a socialist welfare state men and women would still remain unregenerate. If so, this makes my conclusion about the Marxian and the liberal conception of freedom even stronger. In the liberal conception individuals are free to remain themselves and the government is not seen as the collective educator, trying to create “a new, superior man.” Liberal government may undertake “positive action” to help people to achieve optimum development of their capacities, but such action consists of removing social obstacles, not of imposing goals. Reeducating people in accordance with preconceived notions of “true human nature” or “higher freedom” is incompatible with the liberal conception.

Second, the problem of sacrificing the present generation for the sake of the future. According to Professor Ollman there is nothing in Marx to suggest this view; on the contrary, “this is what capitalism does to workers.” This argument, however, is self-defeating. For Marx, capitalism meant the greatest alienation, the sufferings of many generations, and nevertheless he accepted these sufferings as the necessary price for progress; he constantly stressed in Capital that “collective laborer” develops at the expense of “individual laborer,” but he saw this process as creating the preconditions for socialism. He rejected and ridiculed the view that living people should not be sacrificed for the sake of future paradise, referring to such a view as “sentimental,” “utopian,” or “reactionary.” Both he and Engels seemed sometimes delighted in emphasizing that history must be cruel, that the price for progress, whatever it is, must be paid. “History,” wrote Engels to a Russian populist, “is among the most cruel of all goddesses”; progress, wrote Marx, resembles “that hideous pagan idol” who “drinks the nectar from the skulls of the slain.” It will cease to be so, but not now, only after the final victory of the world socialist revolution. Is it necessary to “dot the i” and to say that such habits of thought are especially dangerous in the situation where a revolutionary vanguard has seized power and feels responsible for doing everything to realize the final goal of history?

I hesitate to believe that Professor Ollman has not read my article in its entirety. But if he has read it, he has not understood it. My argument in this article consists in showing that the maximization of the productive capacity of humankind achieved at the cost of maximum alienation was in Marx’s view a necessary condition for the full realization of man’s species capacities in the future. If so, the sacrifice of many generations for the sake of the future was essential for Marx’s vision. If not, Professor Ollman should have rejected everything in my article, and not only its concluding section.

Third, the letter makes an implicit ad personam argument in its apparent reference to my East European background. Professor Ollman thinks that Western Marxists have little to learn from their East European colleagues, because the views of the latter, whether communist or anticommunist, are shaped by their “distorting experiences.” Since he also says that I attribute to Marx “several cold war positions on life and freedom under socialism” (what does this exactly mean?), it seems clear that he thinks of me as a hard-line East European anticommunist, supporting a cold-war attitude toward the countries of “really existing socialism.”

This is simply not true. Assuming the existence of a connection between criticism of Marx’s views on freedom and cold-war positions is absurd and below the level of honest polemic.

Nobody doubts, I think, that censors in the countries of “really existing socialism” are not peculiarly tolerant toward cold-war anti-communism. Nevertheless, Polish censors proved to be more tolerant toward me than this American professor. In an article published in Poland in 1981 (see Polityka, No. 27, 1981) and reprinted in an enlarged English version under martial law (Dialectics and Humanism, vol. 9, no. 1, 1982), I criticized the Marxian view of freedom (this time from a consciously East European perspective) more severely than in The New York Review. I concentrated my criticism on legitimizing political power by reference to the “irreversible laws of history,” allegedly discovered by Marx, and referred in this context to “the police and tanks in service of an alleged necessity” (although I hastened to add that Marx should not be charged with direct responsibility for this). I also devoted much space to criticism of Marx’s contempt for “negative freedom.” My conclusion was: “Respect for ‘negative freedom,’ protected by the law…has become one of the most essential conditions of the functioning of the socialist system.”

The same conclusion is to be found in my book Poland, Russia, Marxism, also published under martial law.

The editor in chief of Dialectics and Humanism is a convinced Marxist; my book, mentioned above, was published by a publishing house specializing in Marxist literature. But it did not occur to anyone that my criticism of Marx’s view of freedom amounts to anticommunism, let alone a cold war position.

Reality is sometimes less schematic than some people are inclined to believe.

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