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Was Leonard Woolf a Marxian?

In response to:

The Best of Bloomsbury from the March 29, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of the Letters of Leonard Woolf [NYR, March 29], Noel Annan described Woolf as “an ethical socialist” who “detested ideological socialism and equated communism with Roman Catholicism, both evil systems.” Woolf certainly was consistently skeptical about dogmas of all kinds and, over a long life, he never allowed his commitment to the left to be a narrowly sectarian one. Nevertheless, I think it worth noting that, suspicious though he was about a “science of society” and the inevitability of class struggle, he could describe himself as a Marxian socialist, and one who believed in the essential truth of Marx’s theory. Woolf was, of course, aware that these positions might seem contradictory, but that did not seem to trouble him. (See his War for Peace originally published in London in 1940 by Routledge and reprinted in 1972 by the Garland Press, New York, p. 152).

S.J. Stearns
The City University of New York
Staten Island, New York

Noel Annan replies:

I don’t want to split hairs with Professor Stearns. On page 152 of the book to which he refers Woolf describes himself as a Marxian socialist. But he then goes on to declare that the “conflicting economic interests of classes” are not inevitable. He next says it is as wrong to personify classes as it is to personify nations. In many cases the interests of one set of workers conflict with those of another set, and each has more in common with their capitalist masters than with other workers. Professor Stearns is quite right to say that none of this troubled Woolf. He got out of his difficulty by calling orthodox Marxists “neo-Marxists.” He seemed to regard the theory of natural rights as valid—in some sense—as utilitarianism, and both as valid as Marxism. Woolf may have considered himself “Marxian” in that he believed part of politics consisted of “facts,” i.e., the social and economic relationships between individuals. But for him the determining force in politics was the psychology of those individuals. That determined how they acted, and that was why reason should be brought to bear upon political problems in the hope that it would dispel prejudice.

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