The one thing most readers have always wanted to learn from books about Marxism is how much responsibility Marx must bear for the authoritarian character of the regimes that claim to follow his doctrines. On the answer to this question our attitude to Marx must in large part rest. If the state created by Stalin can without distortion be traced back through Lenin to Marx’s ideas, Marx stands condemned by his own offspring. If, however, these same offspring can be shown to be bastards fathered onto Marx’s writings in violation of their letter and spirit, Marx can be cleared of the heaviest charge against his name.
Of the five books here under review only Robert Heilbroner’s Marxism: For and Against tackles this central question directly, but each has some bearing on it. I opened David McLellan’s Marxism after Marx with high expectations. McLellan is the author of the best recent biography of Marx,1 the editor of the best one-volume collection of his writings,2 and has written half a dozen other useful studies of Marx’s thought and development. But this is not one of McLellan’s better books. It attempts to cover too much ground too quickly, whisking characters on and off the stage of history before we can get to know them. Engels, Kautsky, Bernstein, Luxemburg, and the Austro-Marxists are all rapidly dealt with. Then come the Russians: Plekhanov, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and post-Stalinists. Next the Europeans who wrote between the wars, including Korsch, Lukács, and Gramsci. Third World Marxists are not forgotten: Mao, Castro, and Regis Debray are discussed, although Kim 11 Sung is not, which will infuriate the North Koreans if they ever notice.
This is followed by a section on contemporary Marxism which attempts to cover the Frankfurt School, Existentialist Marxism, the Della Volpe School (all of one page on that), Structuralist Marxism, British Marxism (Raymond Williams gets a dozen lines, while E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill merely get their names dropped), and Marxism in the United States, under which heading McLellan gives three pages to the New Left and little more than a page to the reasons for Marxism’s lack of success.
After this breathless rush, I no longer expected much from McLellan’s “Conclusion,” which was just as well, because the profundity of this closing section can be gauged from its opening sentence which reads: “The above survey has adequately demonstrated the varied nature of Marxist thought over the past century” and its closing sentence, asserting that: “Thus the very variety of Marxism shows that the ambivalences inherent in Marx’s legacy have indeed been fully explored by his followers.”
Perhaps Marxism after Marx has its uses as a handbook, to be referred to but not to be read as a whole. In that case the absence of any analysis or interpretation of the development of Marxism might be excused. Yet surely McLellan could have been a little more venturesome. He is as well qualified as anyone alive to discuss which varieties of Marxism are closer to, and which further from, the spirit of Marx’s thought. It is disappointing to find that a scholar whose professional work has focused exclusively on Marx, and who deservedly has an international reputation in this field, can write a book which has so little to say about the import of what happened to Marx’s ideas after Marx’s death.
Alvin Gouldner’s The Two Marxisms opens more promisingly:
Having set out to change the world, rather than produce one more interpretation of it, Marxist theory must ultimately be weighed on the scales of history.
Gouldner’s scales, however, are difficult to read. Indeed, his book is less concerned with weighing Marxism in the light of history than with elaborating his view of Marxism as simultaneously a critique and a science. By Marxism as a critique, Gouldner has in mind the revolutionary side of the theory, with its emphasis on our freedom to reject the status quo. This aspect of Marxism Gouldner contrasts with its scientific claims, especially with Marx’s claim to have discovered the blind laws of economics by which capitalist society will necessarily give way to socialism, Marxism is, in Gouldner’s phrase, “a tensionful conjunction” of revolutionary practice and scientific theory. The contradiction is, Gouldner asserts, not a seeming contradiction between two interpretations, which might be resolved by establishing which interpretation is false, but a real contradiction in Marx’s theory.
Most of The Two Marxisms is devoted to documenting this contradiction—Gouldner rightly rejects the current tendency to play down the determinist side of Marx’s thought—and then squeezing it for insights into the nature of Marxism. Gouldner gets more out of this single theme than one might expect. He portrays Lenin’s decision to seize power in Russia, where capitalism was yet to mature, as an abandonment of scientific Marxism. From that decision flows the subsequent history of Marxism in power. In Lenin’s—and Mao’s and Castro’s—version of critical Marxism, revolutionary and military adventurism replaces the laws of economics on which scientific Marxism is built. In saying this Gouldner is not suggesting that if only Lenin had stuck to scientific Marxism all would have turned out as Marx expected. That was the course that German Social Democracy took, a course which foundered on the material gains of workers in advanced capitalist nations, and their consequent acceptance of the capitalist state.
Unfortunately Gouldner cannot sustain his theme for the nearly four hundred pages this book takes up; too much of the book rambles around topics more cogently discussed by others. Readers who plow through the entire book will recall with alarm the warning contained in the preface: this volume, though the conclusion of the Gouldner trilogy begun with The Dialectic of Ideology and Technology, is at the same time the first part of Gouldner’s projected four-part study of Marxism. So grandiose a plan all too easily becomes an excuse for avoiding the tight organization and more severe editing that would have made this volume a succinct first quarter of a comprehensive single-volume study.
There is a more serious objection to Gouldner’s enterprise. Though the tension between the critical and the scientific aspects of Marxism can scarcely be denied, the two aspects can, I believe, be reconciled within a view of Marx’s thought which Gouldner does not appear to have grasped. To see this let us look at Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach and what Gouldner says about it.
The eleventh thesis reads: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Gouldner reads this as a call for revolutionary practice. As such this thesis is, Gouldner holds, at odds with Marxism as a scientific theory, as a politically neutral attempt to understand and report upon the world (pp. 33-34).
Marxists usually read the eleventh thesis as encapsulating the “unity of theory and practice” which they regard as one of Marx’s great achievements. Gouldner makes no systematic search for his unity, and generally writes as if it does not exist. Since most accounts of the Marxist unity of theory and practice either lose it in obscure jargon or turn it into the trite idea that we should read Capital during lulls on the barricades, Gouldner may be excused for failing to take it seriously. Nevertheless it is not difficult to discover, once we read the eleventh thesis within the Hegelian frame in which Feuerbach—it was, after all, a thesis on Feuerbach—and Marx were thinking.
In Hegel’s philosophy, history has a purpose. It is the march of Mind toward freedom. The chief barrier to freedom is the fact that Mind does not understand that it is a unity and as such, master of its destiny. Instead, the individual minds of human beings—which are all really manifestations of Mind—see themselves as separate, and often opposed, entities. From this comes the alienation and unhappiness that exists in this world.
Hegel’s philosophy therefore poses a problem: how is freedom to be achieved? It also suggests an answer: by philosophy showing human beings that they are really manifestations of a single unified Mind, and thus showing them that what they take to be other beings limiting their freedom are not really “other” at all.
Both Feuerbach and Marx accepted the problem posed by Hegel; but neither accepted his quietist answer. Feuerbach, along with other left-wing Hegelians, offered a different interpretation of the world from that of Hegel. He saw religion as the chief barrier to human self-understanding and freedom. He suggested that if the illusion of religion could be shattered, human beings would be liberated from bondage to false gods and would realize their own divine powers.
In saying that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it,” Marx was rejecting Feuerbach’s idea that acceptance of a different interpretation of the problem from that of Hegel would be enough to overcome the problem. It was not just a matter of changing our ideas about the world, and then all would be well; we actually had to change the real world. Thus revolutionary practice was necessary to solve the problem of achieving freedom posed by Hegel’s philosophy
Here is the real Marxist unity of theory and practice. It is to solve philosophical problems that we must change the world. This is Marx’s consistent view at this time (1843-1845). For instance, in “Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction” he had written:
Philosophy cannot be actualised without the superseding of the proletariat, the proletariat cannot be superseded without the actualisation of philosophy.
And even more explicitly:
As philosophy finds its material weapons in the proletariat, the proletariat finds its intellectual weapons in philosophy.3
When in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 Marx refers to communism as “the riddle of history solved”4 it is the riddle posed in Hegel’s philosophy of history he has in mind. Even much later, in Capital, we find echoes of the same idea in Marx’s description of communism “as the negation of the negation.”5 The unity of theory and practice consists, then, in philosophy showing the need for revolutionary practice, and revolutionary practice solving the central problem of philosophy.
From this point of view there are not two Marxisms in contradiction with each other, but only one. The problem is that already in Marx’s lifetime, as Marx himself laments in the “Afterword” to the Second German edition of Capital, Hegel was widely regarded as a “dead dog.” Despite periodic revivals of interest in Hegel, scarcely anyone now accepts his idea that history is the chronicle of our march to freedom. Yet without such a philosophy of history Marx’s unity of theory and practice is unintelligible. That is why for Gouldner, as for many Marxists, there are two contradictory elements in Marxism.
Though he is sympathetic to a Hegelian reading of Marx, there is evidence, in his discussion of the eleventh thesis and also in his related failure to understand the sense in which Marx spoke of “abolishing” philosophy (p. 75), that Gouldner is unaware of the unity that lies behind the “two Marxisms” he discusses. His insights into the difficulties caused by these two aspects can still be illuminating, because nearly all the actors in the historical drama of Marxism have also operated outside the Hegelian system in which theory and practice are unified. Still, there is something disturbing about embarking on a four-volume study of Marxism without taking the care required to get one’s foundations dead right.
Stanley Moore’s Marx on the Choice Between Socialism and Communism makes a refreshing contrast to both McLellan’s and Gouldner’s books. The text, exclusive of notes, references, and index, runs to only ninety pages, but since Moore has singlemindedly focused on a precise subject, brevity is achieved without a hint of superficiality.
To see what Moore’s subject is, we must first understand his distinction between socialism and communism. The terminology actually comes from Lenin rather than Marx. By “socialism” Moore and Lenin mean what Marx referred to as the first stage of communism. This was a society in which classes have been abolished, and the means of production are collectively owned. No one is allowed to make a living from rent, interest, or profit, but people receive incomes with which they buy what they need or want. Thus in a socialist society there is still some scope for a market. In what Moore and Lenin call “communism” and Marx refers to as a higher stage of communism, no one receives an income, and consequently there is no room for a market. Though some goods may have to be rationed, all are free and distributed according to need.
With this terminological preamble out of the way, the object of Moore’s book can be stated in a single sentence. It is to ask why Marx believed that communism was superior to socialism. To this clear-cut question Moore is able to give an equally clear-cut answer. Marx’s preference for communism over socialism relies on moral and philosophical principles derived from his intellectual roots in Hegel and Feuerbach. This preference has nothing to do with Marx’s materialist theory of history. In fact it is strictly incompatible with it.
In support of this answer, Moore analyzes the key passages in which Marx discusses communism, from early works like the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 through to the Critique of the Gotha Program, one of the last pieces Marx wrote. Moore shows that in the earlier writings Marx embraced communism as a way of over-coming individual egoism and the alienation of man from man that results from it. Abolishing private property, Marx held, would end the division between private interest and common good.
In his later writings, Marx does not specifically refer to this philosophical reason for making communism the goal of human history—to do so would not have fitted with his claims to have achieved a scientific understanding of history. In fact Marx gives very few reasons for preferring communism to socialism. Those reasons that he does give Moore is able to trace to the distinction made by Hegel between a society based on commerce and exchange, and one based on ties of natural community—the distinction between Gesellschaft/Gemeinschaft. Like Hegel, Marx preferred the latter, but this preference gave him no sound reason for believing that a socialist society with a market would necessarily evolve beyond that stage into a community without a market. Thus for Marx communism became, as Moore says, “a goal he was unwilling to abandon but unable to defend.”
Though his conclusion will surprise only those still under the illusion that at some point in his career Marx abandoned his philosophical interests and ethical commitments and took up an ethically neutral, purely scientific attitude to the coming of communism, Moore’s argument is neat and convincing. It meets the highest standards of academic scholarship. Moreover the issue with which Moore is concerned is not simply of academic interest. As Moore notes in his preface, the Cambodian regime of Pol Pot attempted to institute communism by abolishing money and markets. The results were disastrous, and a promise to reverse these measures was prominent in the program of the Kampuchean United Front when it called for the overthrow of Pol Pot. But was the Pol Pot regime in error in making communism its goal, or merely in that its attempt to institute communism was premature? Orthodox Marxism must say the latter.
The Soviet Union claims to be a socialist society on the way toward communism. From this point of view, allowing markets to replace bureaucracies as a means of distributing goods is a backward step. Marx would have agreed; but his agreement would have been based on philosophical rather than scientific grounds. Accordingly it is not surprising that the Soviet Union and other communist states have made no visible progress in moving beyond a wage system, or that some communist states should make periodic attempts to replace bureaucracies by markets, as the Czechs did in 1968 and the Chinese appear to be doing now.
Marx warned repeatedly against utopian attempts to force reality to conform to political ideals which lack any grounding in the real forces which govern history. Moore shows that Marx’s own commitment to communism was just such an ideal, and those who have attempted to bring it about have been making just such a utopian attempt to force reality to conform. Here then is at least part of an answer to the question of Marx’s responsibility for the regimes that claim to follow his ideas. He bears some responsibility, not because he would have endorsed what Lenin and later communist leaders did—for he would probably have objected violently—but because he misled his followers into thinking that all they had to do was ease the birthpangs of the new communist society that was scientifically certain to emerge from the collapse of capitalism. When events did not develop as they had expected, these communist leaders had to choose between abandoning the goal of communism or trying to force their society to hurry in the direction in which it was supposed to be evolving. Too often they chose the latter course.
Further support for this answer to the question that hangs over Marxism can be gleaned from Paul Thomas’s Karl Marx and the Anarchists, an account of Marx’s disputes with anarchist thinkers. This lifelong dispute begins with Marx’s inordinately long polemic against the anarchist thinker Max Stirner which takes up fully three-quarters of The German Ideology, and reaches its climax in the extraordinary scene at the 1872 Hague Congress of the First International when Engels, with Marx behind him, moved that the seat of the General Council of the International be transferred to New York. The transfer effectively killed the International, as Marx and Engels must have known it would, but as Engels later explained, it successfully prevented the organization from falling into the hands of the followers of the Russian anarchist Bakunin.
Why was Marx so hostile to anarchism? He himself believed that after the communist revolution the state would “wither away.” The differences between his own position and that of the anarchists would therefore seem too small to justify all the energy that Marx put into combatting anarchists. Were the disputes, then, no more than the petty bickerings of revolutionary egalitarians each of whom insisted on being the reigning sovereign of the revolutionary movement?
Thomas shows that there is a consistent theme to Marx’s objections to anarchists like Stirner, Proudhon, and Bakunin which has its basis in theory rather than personal rivalry. The anarchist insistence on revolution as an exercise of “will” was at odds with all Marx’s ideas about the need for revolution to have a material basis in the ripening of the contradiction between the technological base of society and its political superstructure. Moreover the anarchist idea that political activity is inherently corrupting was, to Marx, a false and dangerous form of revolutionary purity.
With this difference of theory taken into account, another possible reading of Marx’s exchanges with the anarchists would be that the anarchists correctly saw political authority as always the chief danger to human freedom, while Marx erroneously believed that political authority could not be a problem once private ownership of the means of production had been abolished. This reading, which fits well with the subsequent history of Marxism, can draw support from one of Marx’s last and most revealing writings. In 1874, apparently in order to teach himself Russian, Marx copied into his notebook extracts from Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy, and in doing so interspersed them with his own acerbic comments. The notebook has been preserved and sections of it read remarkably like a dialogue between these two revolutionaries:
Bakunin: Universal suffrage by the whole people of representatives and rulers of the state—this is the last word of the Marxist as well as of the democratic school. They are lies behind which lurks the despotism of a governing minority, lies all the more dangerous in that this minority appears as the expression of the so-called people’s will.
Marx: Under collective property, the so-called will of the people disappears in order to make way for the real will of the cooperative.
Bakunin: Result: rule of the great majority of the people by a privileged minority. But, the Marxists say, this minority will consist of workers. Yes, indeed, but of ex-workers who, once they become only representatives or rulers of the people, cease to be workers.
Marx: No more than a manufacturer today ceases to be a capitalist when he becomes a member of the municipal council.
Bakunin: And from the heights of the state they begin to look down upon the whole common world of the workers. From that time on they represent not the people but themselves and their own claims to govern the people. Those who can doubt this know nothing at all about human nature.
Marx: If Mr. Bakunin were familiar just with the position of a manager in a workers’ cooperative, he could send all his nightmares about authority to the devil. He should have asked himself: what form can administrative functions take, on the basis of this workers’ state—if he wants to call it that?6
Why did Marx so contemptuously dismiss Bakunin’s objections, objections which we can now see deserved to be taken much more seriously? Marx’s replies scarcely fit the hypothesis that Marx actually supported authoritarian institutions. Marx’s theory of the state is often taken simply as saying that the state is, as the Communist Manifesto suggests, an “engine of class despotism.” In attacking the bourgeois state, this may have been a useful simplification of Marx’s views. Certainly it proved convenient for Lenin, for it implied that once control of the state has been taken out of the hands of the bourgeois and vested in the proletariat, the authority of the state need no longer be feared. Thomas shows that Marx had a deeper opposition to the authoritarian state, the roots of which are to be found in what Thomas terms Marx’s “theory of alien politics.”
Marx starts out with the perception—derived from Rousseau via Hegel—of man divided between his private self and his role as a citizen. To this divided man the state appears as something hostile and alien, a power over him that threatens his private interests. The anarchists sought to solve the problem simply by abolishing the state, but in Marx’s view this would be hopeless as long as humans persisted in their alienated condition. Only when the source of the alienation—which Marx came to see as the economic organization of production—had been changed could man be restored to a unified state. Then, when people produced collectively instead of for themselves, and as a result production was so abundant that there was enough for all, the authoritarian state would no longer be necessary, and nothing would remain of it other than a few administrative functions.
Unlike Stanley Moore, whose chief interest in exposing the Hegelian roots of Marx’s preference for communism appeared to lie in his wish to convince us that we should not follow Marx in this preference, Paul Thomas does not reject the Hegelian elements in Marx’s thought. He concludes his book by endorsing the opinion of the philosopher Charles Taylor that “the line from Hegel to Marx remains in many ways the most clear and intellectually structured theory of liberation in the modern world.” Nevertheless Thomas shows, as effectively as Moore, how persistent the utopian strain in Marx’s thought was. Marx’s utopian illusions about the transient nature of political authority after a communist revolution have, of course, proven even more tragic than his illusions about the evolution of socialism into communism.
For readers interested in a general discussion of Marxism, none of the books so far reviewed is really suitable: McLellan’s is too superficial, Gouldner’s too long-winded, and Moore’s and Thomas’s too specialized. Robert L. Heilbroner’s Marxism: For and Against has none of these drawbacks. As readers of The Worldly Philosophers and An Inquiry into the Human Prospect know, Heilbroner is a lively thinker with the ability to convey complex ideas lucidly and without jargon. He now brings these talents to a discussion of Marxism which is neither bland nor one-sidedly polemical.
Though often sharply critical of Marx, Heilbroner accepts Sartre’s judgment that Marxism is the “necessary” philosophy of our time. We cannot escape Marx because even if we reject his specific conclusions, we find ourselves pursuing the method of inquiry that he invented. What Plato did for philosophy and Freud did for psychology, Marx did for social analysis. (Heilbroner, in his sole lapse into jargon in this book, calls it “socioanalysis.”)
This is not a new idea. In his speech at Marx’s grave, Engels compared what Marx had done for the study of human history with what Darwin had done for the study of organic nature. The difficult task is to describe Marx’s new method of inquiry. Heilbroner tries to do this in a chapter on dialectics and a chapter on the materialist interpretation, before he moves on to Marx’s particular “socioanalysis” of capitalism.
In the chapter on dialectics Heilbroner succeeds in demystifying dialectics by treating it as a method of obtaining insights rather than a means of exact analysis or logical proof. Marx approached history dialectically in that he took the laws of capitalist economics not as something natural and immutable, but as the result of a particular historical process. This historical process moves because given historical conditions contain “contradictions.” These are not logical contradictions, but conflicts or tensions that develop to the point at which the status quo can no longer endure. Marx did not abandon the standard rules of logic in favor of some new dialectical logic, but he did use the dialectical method to gain insights that had escaped thinkers who failed to see history as a process in which conflicts are the driving force.
Having accomplished the daunting task of giving a simple yet accurate account of Marx’s use of dialectics, Heilbroner stumbles on the next problem, the materialist interpretation of history. Heilbroner cannot bring himself to accept that Marx really meant what he said when he wrote passages like:
The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist.7
Citing a letter written by Engels after Marx’s death, Heilbroner rejects the idea that Marx was an economic determinist. Instead, according to Heilbroner, for Marx the class struggle is “the main driving force of historical change.”
Whatever Engels may have said when Marx was no longer around to deny it—and Heilbroner in fact goes far beyond what Engels did say—Marx never viewed the class struggle as the main driving force of history. As his celebrated “Preface to A Critique of Political Economy” makes clear, in Marx’s view of history the driving force is technological development—that is, the development of the tools we have available for production. It is only when these productive forces develop to the point at which they come into conflict with relations of production—as the steam mill may conflict with a feudal system in which peasants are tied to the land and hence unable to move to new factories—that the epoch of social revolution begins, and the society itself is transformed. Marx says:
In considering such transformations, a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic, or philosophic—in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.8
It is precisely this distinction that Heilbroner neglects. For Marx the class struggle is only the surface manifestation of an underlying economic reality.
Heilbroner gets closer to Marx’s real view in his chapter on Marx’s analysis of capitalism. Here he singles out as “the most convincing and the most portentous of all the implications of Marx’s thought” the insight that capitalism is fundamentally anarchic, that its development takes place not according to reason or foresight but because of the dictates of capital itself. Hence the imbalances of our present economic system, which defy the best efforts of our governments to patch things up. Here Heilbroner is, I think, completely correct; but if he had put this point next to his account of Marx on history, he might have noticed that in one case he allows economic forces an independence from human control which in the other case he implicitly denies.
In his final chapter Heilbroner turns to the issue I raised at the beginning of this review: the responsibility of Marxism for the Stalinist terror; and not only for that, but also for the authoritarianism of Cuba and Yugoslavia, the thought control of Maoist China, and atrocities of Cambodia.
Heilbroner confronts the issue squarely, without ignoring the gains Marxist regimes have sometimes brought or denying their crimes. He begins by recapitulating two common arguments against Marxism: the first that there is an inherent predisposition toward totalitarianism in Marx’s ideas; the second that Marxist theory fails to understand political power as an independent force and so fails to see the need to balance this power by other institutions.
Heilbroner does not take the first of these arguments very seriously, simply asserting that if there is a totalitarian “mind set” in Marx’s thought it is not in the content of his ideas, but in the feeling of privileged insight that they confer on a select band who understand them when others do not. The second argument he does take seriously, but he counterposes to it such mitigating factors as the embattled nature of Marxist regimes in a capitalist world and the fact that Marxist revolutions have occurred only in countries without established democratic institutions.
Here Heilbroner expresses his impatience with these conventional and inconclusive considerations, and announces that he will attempt a different approach: a Marxist analysis of socialism itself. He begins by probing more deeply into Marx’s idea of freedom and its implications. This discussion one could accurately place under the heading of the first of the conventional arguments Heilbroner considered—the claim that there is an inherent predisposition toward totalitarianism in Marx’s ideas—but whereas previously Heilbroner peremptorily dismissed that suggestion, he now comes close to embracing it.
The point that Heilbroner makes is that, for Marx, freedom consists in taking control of the blind forces of economic life and subjecting them to our conscious direction. It is this control over the forces that have previously controlled us that marks off the communist era from all previous history. This control will require more, not less, authority to be exercised over economic activity. In the long run greater freedom may be gained, for contrary to the assumptions of many liberal theorists, limits to our freedom caused by blind forces can oppress us as much as the intentional acts of dictators. Nevertheless, in the short run there is great danger of an abuse of the power required for the transition, and no guarantee that the transition itself will ever be made.
This point links up with the second conventional argument connecting Marxism and political tyranny: Marx’s failure to see the drive for political power as an independent force. Heilbroner notes that “Marxism has been constantly taken by surprise by political tendencies that are part of the common wisdom of not only bourgeois, but ancient and Asiatic and aristocratic conceptions of politics.”
After expressing this opinion, which Marx’s anarchist opponents would have heartily endorsed, most writers would back away from Marx’s conception of socialism. Taking his characteristic position “against” as well as “for,” Heilbroner admits that people like himself might well decide to be content with Swedish-style democratic socialism, thus avoiding the dangers of ridding themselves completely of capitalism. Yet he also, more shockingly, suggests another possibility: that socialism is so radical a change that it will involve departing from our bourgeois ways of thought, including quite possibly our bourgeois respect for liberty.
At this point we should note—for Heilbroner himself fails to do so—that we have stopped investigating whether Marx’s ideas are inherently predisposed toward restrictions on individual liberty, and instead are asking whether this predisposition—which we now assume exists or well may exist—is a sound reason for rejecting Marxism. Why Heilbroner is suddenly so ready to entertain the assumption which he earlier denied, I am not sure. Certainly there is more to be said on Marx’s behalf against the charge of latent totalitarianism. Especially relevant here is the notion of community that, as Moore and Thomas point out, Marx has taken from Rousseau and Hegel. Marx would have argued that because communist society is a community, individuals will cease to see their interests in the private, egoistic manner fostered by bourgeois society. Instead they will come to identify their own interests with those of the community. Society can then leave its members entirely free to make their own choices, secure in the knowledge that they will not freely choose actions that harm the interests of others, since in doing so they would be harming their own interests. Political authority will become superfluous.
Perhaps Heilbroner thinks this idea is so patently utopian that it cannot be Marxist. Whatever his reason, in choosing to defend not the compatibility of Marxism with respect for individual liberty, but the possibility of accepting Marxist socialism while admitting its hostility to individual liberty, Heilbroner has turned directly against currently fashionable forms of Marxism, like Eurocommunism, and raised again the most fundamental ethical question about Marxism.
What Heilbroner has done is to apply a Marxist analysis to our evaluation of individual liberty, which leads him to the thought that the ethical standard by which we tend to condemn Marxism is itself relative to our bourgeois culture. This is a ploy used in a limited way in the Communist Manifesto and since then greatly overused by second-rate communist propagandists. It is rarely used now because the atrocities of the past forty years, in which millions have been killed as members of the bourgeois classes, have made ethical relativism itself less fashionable than it once was. Moreover it is now almost universally recognized that Marxism itself contains an ethical commitment at its very core. Therefore Marxists cannot be full-blooded ethical relativists. They may condemn the moral judgments of others as “class morality” but they must follow Engels in regarding their own preference for communism as resulting from a morality that transcends their own class and is “truly human.”9
That being so, to the extent that Heilbroner endorses the idea that our preference for individual liberty is a result of our bourgeois perspective, he owes us an account of the ethical basis on which one might accept socialism despite its antipathy to individual liberty. And he owes us a demonstration that this decision is somehow deducible from objective or universal moral considerations in a way that the decision to support individual liberty is not. Without this, it is nonsense, or worse, to talk of socialism as “a new social order” (Heilbroner’s unfortunate phrase recalls the Nazi term for their occupation of Europe) so different from our own society that we should not presume to judge it. The ethical principles we have, after we have thought hard and critically about morality, are the best we can attain. There is no other basis on which we can express a preference for or against socialism. Heilbroner offers no reason why respect for individual liberty should not be prominent among these principles.
September 25, 1980
Karl Marx: His Life and Thought (Harper & Row, 1974). ↩
Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford University Press, 1977). ↩
Reprinted in D. McLellan (ed.), Karl Marx: Selected Writings, p. 73. ↩
Karl Marx: Selected Writings, p. 89. ↩
Capital, vol. I (Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1961), p. 763. ↩
Karl Marx: Selected Writings, p. 563. ↩
From The Poverty of Philosophy, reprinted in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, p. 202. ↩
Karl Marx: Selected Writings, pp. 389-390. For a more detailed discussion of Marx’s theory of history, see my review of recent books on this topic in The New York Review of Books, December 20, 1979. ↩
F. Engels, Anti-Dühring, Ch. 9; reprinted in L. Feuer (ed.), Marx & Engels: Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy (Anchor Books, 1959), p. 272. ↩