Karl Marx
Karl Marx; drawing by David Levine


For the past several decades Marxism has been passing through a severe crisis brought about by those of its followers who have transformed it into a conservative official ideology. Yet even at the time of its greatest spiritual poverty, Marxism produced a number of important thinkers: Lukacs, Bloch, Gramsci, Korsch, Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Fromm. True, the continuity of creative Marxism was maintained throughout that time almost solely by Marxists working—again an irony of history—in capitalist countries. It is as if the bourgeoisie wanted to prove once more Marx’s prediction that it would produce its own gravediggers!

There are now increasing signs of recovery from the disaster brought about by an almost schizoid split. I am referring to the Janus-faced attitude of numerous Marxists: radically critical toward capitalism, they were at the same time apologists for socialism. There are now indications that this split is disappearing because it is being increasingly understood that Marxism must be a critique of all existing societies. No matter how strange this may sound at first, Marxists ought to be radical critics of socialism.

The main chance for essential innovations in Marxism lies now, in my opinion, in analysis and critical evaluation of the sociopolitical practice which passes as socialism. For this, however, two preconditions are necessary. First, a relentless Marxist critique of Marxism and, second, the destruction of the most influential ideological-political myth of the twentieth century: the statist (Stalinist) myth of socialism.

In accordance with Marx’s forecast, a radical transformation of “prehistory” (class society) into the beginning of “real history” (classless society) was expected from the socialist revolution. Unfortunately, in the name and under the cover of socialism a society was created by Stalinists that bears all the essential marks of class society. Yet the myth of the socialist character of that society has been so powerful that many are still vainly trying to get an answer to an ill-posed question: how has this or that event, the invasion of Czechoslovakia for example, been possible in socialism?

The initial phase of the present day renaissance of Marxism might be characterized as a “Back to Marx Movement.” However, this phase has already lasted too long. The way out of the crisis cannot be found in the exegesis of Marx’s texts or in scholastic disputes over them. For a long time we have been confronted with problems that will remain insoluble unless we go beyond Marx, which, of course, does not mean without Marx. Those who continue to regard Marx’s thought as a monolith lack the intellectual equipment to become creative Marxists. Marx’s theory is not lacking in serious internal tensions and conflicts. One therefore often must distinguish that Marx who is reliable as a theoretical inspiration from that Marx who has already become part of the past. I would like to remind the reader of two critical conflicts in Marx’s theory and to express my preferences. The first is the conflict between Marx’s moderate and extreme determinism and the second between his dialectics and absolute utopia.


In line with his philosophy of human praxis, freedom, and self-creation of man, Marx often insists that “Man makes his own history, but he does not make it out of whole cloth; he does not make it out of conditions chosen by himself, but out of such as he finds at hand” (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte).* This theoretical position may be called moderate determinism.

But Marx belonged to the nineteenth century, when the rigid determinism of the natural sciences was an important methodological ideal. Besides, Hegel in his philosophy of history treated men as instruments of the objective mind. As a result of these influences Marx often adopts an extreme deterministic viewpoint. For example, “But capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of nature, its own negation” (Manifesto). Or when he approvingly quotes a reviewer of his Capital:

Marx treats the social movement as a process of natural history, governed by laws not only independent of human will, consciousness and intelligence, but rather, on the contrary, determining that will, consciousness and intelligence. [Afterword to the second German edition]

In the following passage Marx expresses the extreme deterministic view of social laws functioning with an “iron necessity” side by side with a more moderate determinism which treats them as only “tendencies”:

Intrinsically, it is not a question of the higher degree of development of the social antagonisms that result from the natural laws of capitalist production. It is a question of these laws themselves, of these tendencies working with iron necessity. [Ibid., Preface to the German edition]

As we see, in Marx’s thought two discordant motifs are interwoven. Man is the subject of historical process, but the path of this process is independent of his consciousness and will. Although man is a creative being, history can move in only one direction. Men have influence on historical development but only on its speed, not on its direction:


And even when a society has got upon the right track for the discovery of the natural laws of its movement…it can neither clear by bold leaps, nor remove by legal enactments, the obstacles offered by the successive phases of its normal development. But it can shorten and lessen the birthpangs. [Ibid.]

True, this power of blind historical forces over man is, according to Marx, characteristic of class “prehistory.” In communism, however, freely associated men will be able to determine the historical course.

The internal conflict in Marx is the source of two different interpretations that run throughout the history of Marxism. The overwhelming majority of the Marxists of the Second International interpreted Marx as an extreme deterministic theorist. Their reformist practice was much more consistent with such a determinism than was Lenin’s revolutionism.

However, it should be pointed out that Lenin did not notice the above-mentioned vacillation of Marx and accordingly, along with his emphasis on activism, repeated time and again that socialism and communism were historically inevitable and unavoidable. Whereas in theory he often used rigid deterministic language, in practice Lenin put the stress on revolutionary consciousness and creativity. Perhaps no other social movement has so much insisted on the inevitability of its own goals, and at the same time on the indispensability of action by organized fighters for them, as communism has done.

Stalinists have masterfully used the psychological impact of that dualism—absolute determinism at the theoretical level and relative determinism, even voluntarism, at the practical level—to encourage its followers and to dishearten its enemies, including communists.

On the theoretical plane Maoists have always stuck to the extreme deterministic view of history. On the other hand, through their constant organized practical efforts they have been implicitly revealing much less deterministic assumptions. The “Great Leap Forward” was certainly an explosion of an indeterministic, even voluntaristic, utopian hope (the back yard furnaces, the hope that the newly created communes would very quickly develop into basic units of communist—not socialist—society, etc.). However, the “Cultural Revolution” was not another “Great Leap Forward” but in a sense a “Great Leap Backward” aiming at clearing away the consequences of the failure of the former.

Although it may sound paradoxical at first, it can safely be said that the Cultural Revolution was based on a tacit acknowledgment of the deterministic strength of human nature. Ever since the beginning of that revolution Maoists have been viewing permanent revolution in a less confident and less optimistic way as the permanent grand battle of communist ideology against recurrent “bourgeois” inclinations of human nature, including those of the top leaders.

The overdeterministic strand of Marx’s thought has always been a stumbling block to efforts to build up a Marxist ethics. To be able to work seriously on an ethics of revolutionary action Marxists, to begin with, must discard extreme determinism. The task of such an ethics is, among other things, to morally obligate people to try to bring about socialism. However, that job would be meaningless if men were not able to have a significant influence on historical development. The Marx for whom men have almost no influence on the course of history, and hence cannot be responsible for it, has been quoted here more than enough. Rigid determinism excludes the real freedom of man that in turn is the ratio essendi of morals and ethics.

I said real freedom, because the concept of freedom as merely “recognized necessity” represents a theoretical rationalization of the situation in which men are believed to be instruments of the objective mind (Hegel) or of blind historical forces (Marx) more than it represents actual freedom. The latter consists rather in man’s ability to choose between various possibilities and to make real the chosen possibility in the face of apparent necessity. Only to the extent that man possesses this ability is he responsible for the course of history. Without belief in the relative openness of the future a real ethics of revolutionary action is impossible.

Socialism is a real historical possibility and tendency, but by no means an inevitability. For that matter it is a weaker tendency than statism. Whether it will materialize depends on human action. Only the kind of Marxism that conceives of socialism as a historical possibility, and not a necessity, is in the position to oblige people ethically to put their efforts into its realization.

It is no longer possible to believe in the inevitability of socialism. At least two essential changes relevant to our problem here have occurred after Marx. First, with Stalinism a new form of “class prehistory” that Marx could not foresee—statism—came into being. Second, man has acquired a destructive power so great that even the survival of mankind is not secured, let alone historical development in a particular direction. Nowadays not only the transformation of “prehistory” into “real history” but also an absolute de-historization is possible. What if it turns out that mankind has been making a Sisyphus-like endeavor? Or even worse, if the stone annihilates our Sisyphus and so does away with absurdity, but the price is the triumph of nothingness?



Marx was doubtless one of the most uncompromising dialecticians in the history of human thought. And yet turning his eyes from the past and present toward the future Marx sometimes unconsciously abandons dialectics. In his vision of communism one feels the tension between his dialectical inclination and the utopia of absolute de-alienation. Dialectics urged Marx to conceive communism as relative, but his limitless hopes led him to make it an absolute.

As a dialectician Marx explicitly denies that communism is the end or the goal of history:

Communism is…the negation of negation, and is hence the actual phase necessary for the next stage of historical development in the process of human emancipation and recovery. Communism is the necessary pattern and the dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism as such is not the goal of human development—the structure of human society. [Manuscripts of 1844]

On the other hand it is not difficult to find those passages in which Marx described communism as a society where all basic contradictions would wither away, even the contradictions between man’s essence and his existence. For example:

This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man—the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. [Ibid.]

Some of Marx’s famous passages on total personality, the coinciding of the division of labor with individual inclinations, the complete control of the social processes by associated individuals in communism, and the like also sound absolutely utopian.

A perfect idea always lacks something because, as Hegel says, it is too good for men. With our historical experience and the scientific work of the past one hundred years behind us, we can no longer cultivate a limitless belief in man’s potential for good. Man has a much greater disposition for irrationality, for enslavement and submission, for aggression and destruction, than Marx believed. Our century has witnessed the greatest explosion of human evil. Of course, the conclusion here does not have to be that human nature is today worse than before. Perhaps modern man is even better, but has available to him incomparably more terrible means for inflicting evil. Any philosophy that is to face up to the history of our century must reserve room for inhumanity.

But let there be no misunderstanding. Marx is not being reproached here for having a utopia, understood as a vision of a nonexistent form of social organization, which by that very fact must contain a certain amount of the unrealizable. Without such an anticipation there can be no radical transformation of social reality. Utopia, taken in this relative and not absolute sense, represents a legitimate and important dimension of Marx’s radical and critical thought about society and history. Such a utopia is inherent in his revolutionary dialectics.

However, Marx sometimes visualizes this nonexistent form of social organization as perfect. Then we cannot speak about relative but only about absolute utopia which finds in the human condition the support for limitless hopes: the elimination of all fundamental existential contradictions. If that were to happen then the entire human and social situation would be transformed into a sort of “perpetuum immobile.”

It is a delusion that Marx was a purely scientific, as opposed to a utopian, communist. The difference between these two types of communism is far more relative than it appeared to Marx and particularly to Engels.

Belief in the possibility of realizing perfect goals helps to sustain the struggle for ambitious but relative aims. Woe to them who struggle without real hope, but no less to them who do it with limitless hope. After all that befell the revolution and him personally, how did Trotsky feel, he who had once dreamed of a communist man in this way:

Man will become enormously stronger, wiser, freer, his body will be more harmoniously proportioned, his movements more rhythmical, his voice more musical, and his forms of existence will be pervaded by dramatic dynamism. [Literature and Revolution]


It is well-known that Marx put his revolutionary hopes in the most developed countries. Although he stressed the merits of the primitive or crude communism of his time, he also criticized it as “the return to unnatural simplicity of the man who is poor and with no needs.” Nevertheless, Marxism was first put into practice by communists in underdeveloped countries. Therefore, Marx himself in their interpretation more often than not seems to be a theoretician of primitive communism.

All indigenous socialist revolutions have gone, or are still going, through a stage we may call primitive communism. In the period of underground activity, armed struggle, so-called “war communism,” and reconstruction of a country, the communist movement favors only one type of orientation for its followers: solidarity, cooperation, general interests, discipline, moral stimulation, self-sacrifice, and equality in distribution. There is a strong tendency to suppress material incentives, individual and group rights and interests, the desire for a higher standard of living, and differences of income. Perhaps it is possible to reduce all elements of this kind of primitive communism to leveling egalitarianism (uravnilovka in Russian), collectivism, and asceticism.

Primitive communism, in my opinion, is adequate and progressive in the cruel conditions of underground struggle, armed revolution, “war communism,” and reconstruction of a country. It expresses and also idealizes the hardships of the struggle against the old world.

But the idealization of hardship poses a crucial dilemma for the revolutionary movement after the seizure and consolidation of power have taken place and the reconstruction of a country has been set in motion. Either the revolutionary movement will realize the limited value of its primitive communism and accordingly begin the process of its modernization, or it will degenerate. This is confirmed by the experience of the Russian, Chinese, and Yugoslav revolutions. The Cuban revolution is now confronted with the same choice. I would like to say here a few words about three essential ways of copying with that problem.

The fantastic exertions that are required in underground activity, armed revolution, “war communism,” and the beginnings of reconstruction of a country can be voluntarily sustained only by a minority and even then only for a limited period of time. It is not possible to live too long on revolutionary enthusiasm exclusively. That this period can be very long indeed, however, was shown by the Chinese revolutionaries and is still (after more than twenty-five years!) being demonstrated by the heroic and successful struggle of revolutionaries in Vietnam.

The evidence suggests that the attempt of the revolutionary elite to perpetuate primitive communism and to enforce it as a permanent social state soon comes into conflict with tendencies in human nature toward individual differences, initiative, adequate material remuneration, and a more comfortable life. A prolonged suppression of these inclinations is bound to result in a reaction: indifference toward work (partially covered up by participation in various “voluntary work” and other campaigns), absenteeism, negligent handling and poor maintenance of the instruments of production, low productivity, material poverty, and intellectual inertia.

To continue to suppress such human inclinations it may, of course, be necessary, sooner or later, to resort to force. But those who do so, being themselves human, share the same inclinations they want to suppress in others. Thus, they themselves must be restrained by force. Still, this process cannot continue ad infinitum. So it may easily happen that the revolutionary vanguard gratifies such human inclinations in some of its own members and the groups whose support it needs, and at the same time forces the primitive communist way of life upon all other citizens. When such an adjustment to reality takes place, the oligarchic-statist, Stalinist degeneration of revolution soon follows.

The principles of uravnilovka, asceticism, and collectivism change their character and function when they cease to be tied to the preparation and organization of the armed revolution and the reconstruction of a country. The extreme leftist obsession with an ascetic and collectivistic egalitarianism insists on maintaining this condition at any costs as a permanent social state. For this reason, a lot of effort has been devoted to proving the respectable ideological origin of these principles. Uravnilovka is thus presented as a realization of Marx’s principle of distribution according to needs; asceticism as the practically realized reversal of the materialistic value hierarchy of the bourgeois society; and collectivism as the triumph over bourgeois individualism by the socialization of man in the spirit of Marx!

We can imagine with certainty what view Marx, for whom communism was “based on the entire past development in all its richness,” would have taken of this reversion to pre-Marxian communism. Instead of leveling collectivism he would prefer his communist personalism. He would criticize asceticism from the standpoint of his humanistic hedonism and leveling egalitarianism from that of his belief in distribution according to diverse human needs.

When it begins to lose ground primitive communism has to be enforced. But that is self-defeating: it turns into oligarchic statism, where the privileged and increasingly self-interested—and sometimes vulgar hedonistic—ruling class can enforce leveling egalitarianism, asceticism, and collectivism only by relying heavily on indoctrination and repression. The statist class, in other words, continues to preach primitive communism as a regulative consciousness of the entire society but it tends to live differently itself.

It should be pointed out, however, that the oligarchic-statist system resulting from the degeneration of socialist revolution is not necessarily tied to primitive communism as a permanent and pervasive ideology. The ruling class may be forced by the imperatives of technological and cultural progress to discard it openly (wholly or partially). Stalin, for instance, attacked uravnilovka very early. The transformation of the primitive-politocratic statism into a modern-technocratic one increasingly depends on individual and group interests, material stimulation, the rise of standards of living, and further social differentiation.


Maoists take a romantic attitude toward primitive communism as the substance of their great revolutionary tradition, seeing it as a remedy for the entropy of the revolution and its tendency to degenerate into a new class society. They believe that the most effective way to preserve one’s revolutionary tradition is an all-out and enduring effort to keep it intact at any price. True revolutionary dynamism and vitality lie, in their opinion, in the ability to perpetuate and extend the way of life that grew out of the revolutionary struggle (best exemplified in the famous Hunan-Kiangsi and Yenan days) to the vast masses of people. This revolutionary past represents a kind of qualitative absolute. The communist future will be achieved when that past turns into a quantitative absolute as well, when the traditional profile of the revolutionary—the paradigm of the so-called New Man—becomes general if not universal in practice.

Utopia, then, is not ahead but behind the Maoists. In regard to their vision of the New Man socialism is, to put it somewhat paradoxically, a period of transition to the communist past. It is a constant battle against the strong temptation to give up initial communism. Mao himself is the embodiment of a contradiction between a super-radical and conservative revolutionary. On the one hand, he dared to turn against his own creation—the party-state apparatus—in order to prevent the creation of a new privileged class. This was extraordinary and unprecedented. On the other hand, he has displayed a permanent ideological fixation to the initial phase of the revolution.

It is certain that no hedonism could be a realistic solution for contemporary China. A very backward country would have no prospects at all unless its people resigned themselves to the need for sacrifices in favor of future generations. However, I am also convinced that the long-range solution does not lie in the absolutization of ascetic communism. In recent years, however, during the Cultural Revolution, Maoist ideology moved further in the direction of absolutizing asceticism. In my opinion the long-term solution should rather be sought in a very gradual and long-range course of modernization in every respect, including that of the vision of the New Man.

The sense of such a direction would be far more important than the eventual speed of its motion. It goes without saying that eventual modernization should not be allowed to imperil the principle of a gradual rise in the minimum standard of living secured for everybody independently of his individual ability to contribute to society. Nor should it imperil a fundamental egalitarianism in availability of education and medicine or in participation in group decision making, for example. But, while these conditions must be assured, the modernization should also make possible adequate material incentives for productivity and creativity and should allow the enjoyment of such a life without feelings of guilt.

Sensing that aspirations for modernization will inevitably be renewed, Mao has said that some kind of cultural revolution will be necessary in China about once every twenty years. To my mind, however, simply renewed campaigns will be insufficient to preserve collectivistic and egalitarian asceticism as a permanent social atmosphere. The trend for modernization, which will acquire its own impetus, will demand ever stronger and more violent campaigns.

However, if the praetorians of the revolution follow such a course, then they might, I am afraid, gradually turn themselves into the revolution’s grave-diggers. Only more ruthlessness can bring about a lasting curb on human nature’s desire for self-expression and for comforts. But, being men themselves, the ruthless praetorians will also have a desire for comforts. After a time they are bound to start satisfying this impulse for themselves, while at the same time curbing it in others through force. In this manner, in the name of preserving the revolution, there may appear an ever-growing gulf in the society between the oppressed masses and the oppressing apparatus. The latter will force the masses to live according to the principle of collectivistic and ascetic egalitarianism, whereas they themselves will be living a hedonistic and selfish life of privilege. The participation of the masses in renewed political campaigns will create the illusion of democracy because their “spontaneity” will serve to conceal the manipulators.


The Yugoslav revolution has also gone through the primitive communist stage. Uravnilovka, asceticism, and collectivism were three basic principles of the so-called Partisans’ Ethics during World War II. But the first symptoms of the degeneration of the revolution appeared very soon after the victory in 1945. This occurred because of the Stalinist model of social organization; I deliberately say Stalinist and not Soviet, since a certain continuity with the latter was established only with the introduction of workers’ councils in 1951. The state-party apparatus, composed of former partisans, went on preaching the ascetic and collectivistic egalitarianism to the masses of people, but it itself began to lead the life, naturally as veiled as possible, of privilege, special interest, and enjoyment. No doubt it would have become the new ruling class had it continued on that road.

The turning point in the opposite direction was the Communist Party’s conflict with the Cominform during 1948. The Yugoslav revolution had to break through the “socialist” encirclement of socialism. It may be characterized as a kind of “revolution within the revolution.” However, its golden age was a relatively short one, culminating ideologically in the adoption of the Program of the League of Communists (the new name for the CP) in 1958. The revolution within the revolution soon began to reveal its limitations. No matter how enthusiastically it was embraced by the masses of people, the Yugoslav revolution within revolution was not only initiated but thereafter and always directed and controlled from above.

The most important consequence of the break with Stalin was the gradual introduction of the principles of self-management and self-government at the local level. Yet the forms of self-management and self-government, established long ago, have not been allowed to get out of the ghettos of relatively small social groups (factories, schools, universities, medical and cultural institutions, etc.) and develop into an integral system of socialist democracy. This accounts for the existing hybrid system: self-management and self-government at the local level and fairly strong statism at all higher levels of social organization. The key change, of course, would be radical reform of the Party.

Another important consequence of 1948 was the abandonment of the ideal of primitive communism. Gradually but irretrievably asceticism has been replaced by efforts to reach and enjoy high standards of living. The pursuit of individual and group material interests, previously stigmatized by collectivism, has become legitimized ideologically, politically, and morally. And, finally, serious remunerative differences have been encouraged in order to stimulate education, skill, productivity, and creativity. As a result, a unique economic model has been created that represents a combination (by no means a synthesis!) of social ownership, flexible central planning, workers’ self-management, and market competition (a sort of socialist “free enterprise system”).

Recent history, however, has shown that two basically different ideological and political orientations have been supporting this modernization trend: one is petty-bourgeois and the other socialist. Both tendencies are now in sharp conflict on the Yugoslav ideological-political scene. Unfortunately, the petty-bourgeois tendency increases every day. There are already disturbing signs of excessive social differentiation, individual and group egotism, and excessive materialism. Petty-bourgeois “socialists” are pressing for more of these.

Advocacy of the mechanisms of an uncontrolled market economy is another characteristic of their conception. According to them even the stock system should be introduced in socialism. An equal number of shares should be distributed to the employees so that they would have a more intimate interest in the success of their self-managing enterprises. After that, of course, stock exchanges would have to be opened. Only we are not told what would happen to socialism when the short idyl of universal stock owning is over, and society has been divided into the producers without shares and the “producers” in whose hands shares would become concentrated! If petty-bourgeois “socialists” prevail socialism might become a period of transition between a very underdeveloped and a more sophisticated bourgeois society in Yugoslavia.

We may, therefore, conclude that the Yugoslav revolution is far from resolving the agonizing question that has confronted every socialist revolution until now: how to undertake the necessary modernization without allowing it to kill the prospects for achieving social equality, justice, and democratic participation at all levels of society. To put it differently: in the process of de-Stalinization the Yugoslav social revolution has arrived at another crossroads, one direction leading to petty-bourgeois “socialism” and the other to democratic socialism. One part of the Party, the student movement, and the workers are now, through their strikes and sometimes demonstrations, fighting against the former and for the realization of humanistic socialism.

This Issue

July 1, 1971