It should be obvious that Marxism is not what its founders thought it to be. It is neither a “scientific” socialism, based upon knowledge of the objective laws of history and sharply opposed to utopianism, nor is it the ideological expression of the proletariat of advanced capitalist countries. Some people still believe that it is a means of universal human emancipation but, in spite of the growing number of Marxists, the grounds for such a belief are becoming weaker and weaker. The historical record of the states and political parties that adopted Marxism as their official ideology can hardly be used to support idealistic views on the potential of Marxism for human emancipation. And it is very doubtful whether the widespread phenomenon of so-called Western Marxism (as opposed to both classical and Soviet Marxism) can be sufficiently explained by the intrinsic appeal of its lofty ideals and universalist aspirations.

Perhaps one reason why Marxism’s weakness as a theory of freedom is today insufficiently grasped is Marx’s own continuing appeal for intellectuals in the West and in underdeveloped countries. Alvin Gouldner’s posthumously published book addresses the question of how Marxist theory can be used by intellectuals to promote freedom. But even where it is critical of Marxist theory, his book illustrates some of the dangers in thinking of Marxist theory as a means of emancipation.

Gouldner’s book is an interesting attempt to throw light on what Marxism really is and was, and in particular to explain the appeal of Marxism to radical intellectuals. Gouldner’s aim is not to marshal evidence for or against Marxist theory, but rather to offer a sociological analysis of the way that theory has been used by some intellectuals and how it may be used by intellectuals in the future. Marxist theory, he says, is an “objective” theory of capitalism, which states that “laws of history” inevitably lead to its collapse and to the creation of a socialist “dictatorship of the proletariat.” But according to Gouldner, we may acquire a deeper understanding of the theory if we look at how radical intellectuals—including Marx—have used this analysis of capitalism and its collapse to assign themselves important parts in the process of social change, and thereby to pursue a better situation for themselves. In seeing Marxism as the ideology of a “new class” of intellectuals, Gouldner thinks that he can explain in some part the success of Marxist socialism and how “in about half a century, something like one-third of the world has come under the governance of those defining themselves as Marxists.”

Much of Gouldner’s book is devoted to the early history of Marxism and the reasons why intellectuals were drawn to it during the late nineteenth century. According to Gouldner, Marxism was the product of two middle-class intellectuals—Marx and Engels—and was influenced by the popular materialism that spread throughout Germany after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, when there was a growth of bourgeois capitalism and the rise of the liberal welfare state under Bismarck. Before the revolution of 1848, Gouldner writes, some prominent leaders of workers’ organizations insisted that conditions were ripe for a workers’ revolution in Germany; all that was needed for the success of such a revolution, they claimed, was organized action.

Marx argued against this view by claiming that “will” and organization would accomplish little in the absence of socioeconomic development; the downfall of capitalism could occur only if such development had already taken place. Further, Marx stressed that only a “scientific” theory such as his own could help to rationally decide whether “conditions” for a proletarian revolution were present. Gouldner claims that in making these statements, Marx used his own theory to claim for himself a privileged status; he implied that “intellectuals and theorists should hold a special place in the workers’ movement, one that was privileged both epistemologically and organizationally.” Marx, he says, was the first intellectual to use “scientific Marxism” as “an ideology that intellectuals could and did use against their artisan competitors.” This ideology “served to justify intellectuals’ presence in a workers’ movement in which they were all too obviously aliens.”

According to Gouldner, Marx continued to extend and consolidate his influence in workers’ organizations by using his theory in this self-serving way. One of the most striking episodes of this kind was his effort to expel the Russian revolutionary anarchist Mikhail Bakunin from the First International, which he succeeded in doing in 1872. Although Bakunin was an intellectual who agreed with Marx that capitalism should be overthrown and the means of production socialized, his presence in the First International posed a threat to Marx.

Bakunin held that elimination of the bourgeoisie and the propertied class, which Marxists sought, would not eliminate differences in power and class privilege. For even if capitalism were destroyed, differences in knowledge and education would remain, preparing the way for the domination of the new socialist state by what he called a “new class” of bureaucrats and “experts” possessing such knowledge. The members of this “new class,” Bakunin argued, would use the state to further their own political and material interests; as Gouldner puts his view, “the mass of society would simply have exchanged one master for another.” Bakunin “extended this into a critique of Marxism as the ideology not of the working class, but of the new class of scientific intelligentsia” and urged instead his own conception of revolution as the violent destruction of all class differences in a society.


In his earlier book, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class (1979), Gouldner tried to extend Bakunin’s thesis, arguing that his prediction has been fulfilled. Bakunin, he said, was right to claim that class privileges do not derive exclusively from money capital; they can also derive from knowledge or culture, from what Gouldner called “cultural capital.” He claimed that the number of those who possess such cultural capital—among whom Gouldner included engineers, managers, college faculty, government officials, reporters, and editors—has grown immensely since Bakunin’s time, and he used Bakunin’s expression, the “new class,” as a name for this group. Neither in that book nor elsewhere did Gouldner adequately explain, however, in what sense this group can be called a “class.” He did not show what interests such diverse people as government officials and newspaper reporters have in common; furthermore, he acknowledged that there are striking differences among the intellectuals who compose the “new class”—in particular between scientific or technical intellectuals and humanistic ones.

In what sense do these intellectuals form a “class”? Gouldner’s response seemed to be that they do so insofar as they are bound together by their use of specialized, technical forms of discourse, rather as French or German speakers are linked with one another. Moreover, he said, they are all concerned to promote what he called an “ideology about how discourse should be conducted.” He calls this ideology a “culture of critical discourse” which demands intellectual freedom and opposition to censorship and which insists that “one must give reasons (arguments) in favor of one’s claims, that these and the principles on which they rest must be stated articulately, and that those who fail to do so are intellectually deficient and deviant.” But Gouldner never tries to show in any detail how this broad language actually describes the behavior of members of a “new class.”

Gouldner’s main thesis, nevertheless, is that the theory and politics of Marxism “elude firm understanding until it is understood in its complex relation to this class,” and that “the theory of Marxism and the kind of socialism it pursues reflect both the material and ideal interests of the new class,”1 thus ensuring that Marxism will remain attractive to radical intellectuals. This is so, he thinks, because, as Bakunin understood, the new class or “cultural bourgeoisie” has material class interests—it seeks to reproduce itself and to increase its political power—and the special appeal of Marxism lies in its vision of a socialist state in which members of this class are not inhibited from securing positions of power. In developed capitalist societies, Gouldner claims, moneyed property “organized as corporate capital” sets limits to the aspirations of members of the “new class,” which is “limited in the positions to which its members can rise in the private sector, where there is private ownership of the means of production.” Gouldner continues:

A new state extending its control over the economy and building “socialism” is thus useful to the class interests of a cultural bourgeoisie; first, by eliminating the class and institutions that limit its autonomy and, second, by extending career opportunities by expanding the state bureaucracy.

But although it has grown greatly in recent years, the “new class,” in Gouldner’s view, is still a minority class that could not, by its own efforts, gain power in an open contest with the old moneyed class, and thus it is condemned, as it were, to “shopping for an agent,” which Gouldner defines as “a search for power by those who feel that they already have the knowledge.” The new class, Gouldner writes, “must seek a mass basis, particularly when it wants to extend its influence on the state. Insofar as its movement is directed against or is costly to the old moneyed class, the only other substantial political ally open to the new class is, of course, the working class.” The choice of the working class as agent finds support in the Marxist view of the historical mission of the proletariat. And the dominance of the new class over the working class is ensured by the Marxist emphasis on the need for scientific theory and theorists to guide the working-class movement. Gouldner claims, therefore, that Marxist socialism is


partly a strategy for optimizing the life chances of the new cultural bourgeoisie—intellectuals—by removing the moneyed class and old institutions that limit its upward mobility, and is partly a political strategy through which the New Class can attract allies to accomplish this.

Gouldner ingeniously develops this view of Marxism as at once “a manifest critique of moneyed capital” and “the latent ideology of the educationally privileged.” He claims that “while Marxism’s text speaks of the future as an emancipation of the proletariat, its subtext implies that it is a liberation of the scientific intelligentsia from the ignorant hegemony of owners.” For Marx, alienation and enslavement meant the lack of planned, rational control over nature and the rule of the blind “natural” forces of the market in societal relations. To overcome alienation, to attain freedom, is to transform men into active subjects mastering the world, and this is to be achieved through the Promethean expansion of the forces of production (“humanistic imperialism”) on the one hand, and by maximum rational control over man’s social forces on the other.2

Such a view of humanity’s emancipation, Gouldner argues, has appealed to the scientific and technical intelligentsia, which is interested in increasing the role and prestige of science and technology, as well as to humanistic intellectuals who are interested in subjecting society to the rule of “critical reason.” The same view will have greater appeal in the future, he believes, should the new class grow still larger. If we see Marxist socialism as a metaphor for emancipation,

it becomes possible to understand how Marxism, which in its mature political economy was an historical critique of capitalism, could transcend this to become a generalized theory of revolution, justifying revolution at almost any time and any place in the modern world.

Although Gouldner’s thesis is not new, his elaboration of it is certainly more thorough and impressive than that of his various predecessors, such as Bakunin or his belated disciple, the Polish-Russian revolutionary Waclaw Machajski (1866–1926). Gouldner’s book deserves to be considered as a serious exercise in the sociology of knowledge. At the same time, it may lead some Marxist or radical intellectuals in the West to become more aware of the implications of their own views. This does not mean, however, that the book’s arguments are without deep flaws or that its conclusion can be accepted.

The historical side of Gouldner’s argument, for one thing, will hardly withstand critical examination. It is difficult to understand how Bakunin, who championed violent destruction and saw the essence of freedom in uncontrolled spontaneity, and who abhorred the idea of intellectuals in power, can be seen, as Gouldner does, as “the first articulate Critical Marxist” and as founder of a tradition of Marxists committed to “rational values.” It is also impossible to explain the growth of Marxist political movements in the nineteenth century, especially the spectacular successes of German Social Democracy, as the use of Marxist theory to promote the ends of the new class. The rise of a “labor aristocracy” of skilled workers in Germany and England in the same century might plausibly be seen as an effort by members of a new class to further their interests; but no serious historian would endorse, as Gouldner does, the view of Waclaw Machajski that the parties of the Second International were in fact the vehicles for promoting the specific interests of the intelligentsia.

As for the victory of Bolshevism in Russia, in spite of Lenin’s stress on the role of bourgeois intellectuals in developing socialist consciousness and socialist theory, it would be absurd to interpret this victory as one for the Russian intelligentsia, many of whom were crushed or cast aside by the Bolsheviks. Nor can the influence of Marxism in the third world be explained by the appeal to third world thinkers of Marx’s own views, given his blatant preoccupation with European societies and his qualified support for colonialism; that influence is better explained by Lenin’s theory of imperialism and its usefulness to nationalist political leaders. One can safely say that without Lenin, and without the revolutionary experience of Russia, which demonstrated the possibility of modernization that avoided capitalism, the appeal of Marxism to the third world would be much weaker.

Thus Gouldner’s theory cannot explain why “something like one-third of the world has come under the governance of those defining themselves as Marxists.” For it is not the genuine intelligentsia—scientific or humanist—which has profited by the rise of these Marxist regimes. Intellectuals do not rule the third of the world he refers to. Indeed, Gouldner’s generalizations seem to apply not to the intellectuals of the Marxist third of the world but only to the intellectuals of the Western, noncommunist world; for it is only there that what Gouldner calls “the culture of critical discourse” and its accompanying desire for intellectual freedom and the opposition to censorship has been allowed to develop.

We may agree that commitment to such a culture may reflect some features of original Marxism, such as Marx’s and Engels’s emphasis on scientific theory and rationality. Even so this is only a partial explanation. Who can seriously claim that the countries of “really existing socialism,” or the Marxist states of the third world, care very much about preserving and developing the “culture of critical discourse”? The fate of dissidents like Sakharov and others in Russia and other Marxist states—and the lack of active, visible concern for them among intellectuals in those states—would suggest that they care little about it. And who can say that the preservation of this culture is the common ideology and chief concern of organized communist movements in the East or the West? It seems obvious that a genuine commitment to that culture excludes Marxism as it is practiced today, and vice versa.

Apart from the vagueness of his conception of the “new class,” the weakest point of Gouldner’s theory is his belief that Marxism “reflects” the aspirations of this class to increase its political power and that Marxist socialism is attractive to its members because it promises to remove the barriers that prevent them from acquiring such power. The new class, Gouldner writes, may be “the best card that history has presently given us to play.” Perhaps. But all who deeply sympathize with the legitimate aspirations of intellectuals should realize that Marxism can be dangerous because in practice it inevitably leads to the use of such aspirations for political purposes. Marxist socialism is in fact incompatible with the genuine interests of intellectuals, if these are defined (as Gouldner defines them in The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class) as gaining control of “their work and work settings” and creating the best conditions for the expression of intellectual freedom and criticism. From the point of view of intellectuals concerned with their own interests, Gouldner’s claim that Marxist theory “reflects” these interests is not only misleading but self-contradictory as well—self-contradictory because Marxist socialism, far from promoting these interests, is likely to defeat them.

To explain this point, we should recall that according to Gouldner the new class, or cultural bourgeoisie, would like to enlarge its intellectual freedom while increasing its share of political power, creating a state that would have more control over the economy, and extending its own opportunities for careers by expanding the state bureaucracy. This is, no doubt, a good description of the real aims of many Western Marxists. The true friends of what Gouldner calls “the cultural bourgeoisie,” however, should realize that the growing influence of politics in all aspects of life, and the expansion of bureaucratic control, characteristic of Marxist socialist societies, is much more dangerous to intellectual freedom than the capitalist market. It is arguable that the fate of the free market for ideas is inseparably linked to the fate of the free market in general and that the nationalization of moneyed capital, as demanded by Marxist socialism, must sooner or later entail the severe curtailment or complete liquidation of the autonomy of “cultural capital.”

Indeed, we can make a strong case, as the economist Alec Nove has done in his contribution to a recently published collection of articles on Marxism, that the nationalization of capital leads irrevocably to the domination of society by a bureaucracy.3 Nove writes that one of the gravest errors in the Marxist tradition is the belief “that planning under socialism would be simple, that the market, commodity fetishism, makes opaque what can and should be clear, transparent, obvious.” In fact, as he convincingly argues, the reverse is true: good planning is impossible without the market because the planners cannot be omniscient, and only the market mechanism can provide them with adequate knowledge of what is going on in the economy and what it really requires. In addition, a marketless economy makes it necessary to establish a complex, hierarchically organized control structure which involves “the danger of an excessive concentration of power at the center.” It is true that dictatorial regimes can suppress personal rights while maintaining a market economy, as we can see in a number of Asian and Latin American countries today. But it is also true, as Nove writes, that “the elimination of market relations must require the substitution of the visible for the invisible hand, and therefore a complex bureaucracy and hierarchy that would dominate society.”

Moreover, people who have succeeded in acquiring full political control of the economy must, sooner or later, be tempted to increase their importance by extending their control to cultural activities. This is so because the drive for power is not easily compatible with respect for intellectual and cultural autonomy; freedom conceived as rational (or quasi-rational) control over others necessarily curtails, or even liquidates, individual freedom. Lenin’s Bolshevik vanguard party, equally successful in seizing political power and in crushing intellectual freedom, may be seen as a rather extreme case of this drive for power. But the lessons of Leninism should nonetheless not be forgotten. Gouldner describes Leninism as the ideology of intellectuals whose political ambitions in public life were sharply thwarted during the years before the revolution.4 If so, we must beware of the political ambitions of frustrated intellectuals, even in conditions completely different from those obtaining in czarist Russia. We should be skeptical as well of Gouldner’s view of intellectuals as people who, in seeking to overcome the fragmentation of modern life, become the “functionaries of totality.” Perhaps most disturbing of all is his conviction that some aspects of the Marxist vision of “uniting the totality,” given the “conditions under which people found themselves, deserve to have been accepted.”

Such skepticism is reinforced if we ask a question that Gouldner does not address: to what degree was Marx responsible for Communist totalitarianism? Bruce Mazlish in his short book The Meaning of Karl Marx tries, among other things, to answer this question.5 In his view, Marx’s idealization of the participatory democracy of the Greek polis supports the argument that “Marx is clearly not totalitarian-minded.” On the other hand, having interpreted Marxism as a sort of secular religion, he asks whether Marx was indirectly responsible: “Is it that, although not himself a totalitarian thinker, the eschatological aspirations in Marx led him to a lack of realism concerning man and society which made for a lacuna into which totalitarian solutions rushed?”

To this question he gives an unambiguous answer: yes. Marx, he asserts,

gave no regard anywhere in his work to the protection of individual rights—for he assumed that in communist society there would be no need for such protection. He does not move in the tradition of a John Locke, a James Madison, or a John Stuart Mill, with their concern for a system of checks and balances on the human proclivity to power; their definition of “liberty” and Marx’s is far apart. Consequently, there are no safeguards in Marx’s doctrines against the possible rise of totalitarianism.

This is a reasonable answer but, as Gouldner’s book has suggested, the arguments for Marx’s responsibility for totalitarianism can be multiplied. The most important of them is the elimination of the market from Marx’s image of the ideal society, amounting in practice to the elimination of economic safeguards against the drive for power.

When these are wholly discarded, the only known alternative is the “command economy,” which, as its very name suggests, is not conducive to freedom. Marx, whatever his intention, systematically eliminated both the legal and economic safeguards of liberty, thereby preparing the way for a society in which the scope of control embraces all spheres of human life. Such a system of total control deserves to be called totalitarian, even in the case (as yet unknown) where unlimited power is exercised by a democratically elected body. F.A. Hayek is right when he reminds us that “a democracy may well wield totalitarian powers.6 Democratic totalitarianism is conceivable, but it would be totalitarianism nevertheless.

This Issue

April 25, 1985