Socialis Humanism: An International Symposium

edited by Erich Fromm
Doubleday, 264 pp., $5.95

Karl Marx
Karl Marx; drawing by David Levine

What happens to an idea when it takes on flesh and becomes a way of life? One may also ask: what happens to a movement with utopian aims when it comes to power and finds itself confronted with the ancient conundrums that have baffled political philosophers since the time of Aristotle? Does it renounce its ultimate goals, reformulate them, admit the necessity of compromise, or pretend that nothing has happened? The history of the great world religions supplies one answer, that of Western liberalism since the Renaissance another. We have all grown used to the notion that civilizations are founded upon utopian or messianic promises which are never fulfilled, but without which there would have been no progress. This is Hegelian skepticism, suitable to a post-revolutionary age. We have seen through every illusion, including the latest and most potent of all: that of communism.

The odd thing is that the founder of “scientific socialism” started from a similar conviction. In the 1840s—half a century after the French Revolution had proclaimed the advent of a new age—all the clever young men in Europe were busy explaining why the enterprise had failed. The cleverest of them were the Berlin Hegelians, who had been taught by the Master to perceive the Cunning of Reason: the process whereby History (the rationality of the Whole) triumphs at the expense of its own agents. And the outstanding intellect among them was the youthful Karl Marx, then briefly editor of the bourgeois-liberal Rheinische Zeitung. His editorial office (he complained in 1842) was infested with utopian contributors who even tried to smuggle communist propaganda into music criticism. It was downright immoral, he said! Even after he had in the following year removed to Paris and become a revolutionary democrat, he still distrusted the French communists he met. Their crude egalitarianism, he said sharply, amounted to no more than a generalized envy, and moreover they seemed to be aiming at the destruction of marriage!

Of all the paradoxes which have accompanied the history of Marxism, the greatest is that of Marx himself: the ruthless critic of utopianism posthumously become the prophet of a “total” revolution. Some two-thirds of the three dozen essays assembled by Dr. Erich Fromm under the title Socialist Humanism deal with various aspects of this transformation. Four are outstanding: those by Herbert Marcuse, Eugene Kamenka, Iring Fetscher, and Maximilien Rubel. Most of the others can be read with profit, notably those contributed by neo-Marxist philosophers from Poland, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. Only one (by Professor Abendroth of Marburg) deals specifically with Marxian economics. This seems a pity, especially since Abendroth’s real forte is political philosophy, on which he is very good indeed. The non-Marxian Socialists included in this volume are a curious lot: Bertrand Russell (represented by an amiable piece of nonsense); Norman Thomas (very good and topical); Professor Titmuss, the theorist of British welfare socialism; a couple of…

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