IDEAS and MEN
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W e come at last to Marxist socialism, or communism. From our point of view, Marxism—or Marx-Lenin-Stalinism, to give the canonical succession—is a very rigorous development of, or heresy of, the world-attitude of the Enlightenment. It stands toward the central democratic form of the Enlightenment in some ways as Calvinism stands toward traditional Christianity of the Roman Catholics, or perhaps better, toward the Anglicans who under one formal church organization run the spectrum of belief from unitarianism to high sacramentalism. Marxism is a rigorous1 dogmatic, puritanical, determ-inist, firmly disciplined sect of eighteenth-century optimistic humanitarian materialists.
If you feel that the term “religion” should be limited to systems of belief that maintain the existence of a God, or gods, or spirits, or at any rate something immaterial, supernatural, then you have already been thrown off the track by our comparing national patriotism with religion.
In this book we have applied terms taken from our Western religious history to any organized and articulate set of beliefs about the Big Questions ------ —right and wrong, human happiness, the order of the universe, and so on —which for the believer did at least two things: gave him intellectual orientation in this world (that is, answered his questions) and gave him emotional participation in a group through ritual and other forms of common action. In such terms Marxism, especially as it has been worked out in Russia, is one of the most active forms of religion in the world today, and one that all educated persons must make some effort to understand.
Marxism clearly fulfills one of the simple requirements of a religion: It has its sacred books, its authoritative scripture—in the orthodox tradition the writings of Marx and Engels with the comments, exegesis, and additions brought by Lenin and, to a much less important extent, Stalin. It has also its heresies, of which the most important goes back to the nineteenth-century “revisionist” movement associated first of all with the name of Eduard Bernstein and which substituted for the violent revolution and subsequent dictatorship of the proletariat of orthodox Marxism the gradual achievement of social and economic democracy (equality) by legal political action. Revisionism turned into gradualism, which is substantially the position of present-day socialists (in contrast to communists). Gradualism was to its defenders not merely a device to quiet some bourgeois fears and gain bourgeois converts; it was also, in the minds of leaders like Kautsky, a necessary historical emendation to meet the failure of Marx’s predictions of an inevitable violent uprising of the proletariat in the West. There are many other Marxist splinter-groups or heresies, for which we cannot here find space. The existence of such heresies is not necessarily, however, a sign of weakness of the movement; indeed, if one thinks of the rise of Christianity, it is possible that these heresies are an indication of vitality in Marxism, of a continuing intellectual fermentation that is a sign of life rather than of decay and dispersion.
We must here concentrate on the orthodox form of the doctrine. Now Marx’s great work is which is in form a treatise on economics . Obviously, however, even Das Kapital is no narrowly professional study of economic theory, but a philosophy of history, a system of sociology, and a program for political action. Together with the rest of the accepted canon, it gives a rather more complete and systematic cosmolocv than any single work in the orthodox democratic tradition of the Enlightenment. Marxism is a tighter , neater thing than conventional democracy.
Marxism bears the clear stamp of the nineteenth century in which Marx and Engels lived and wrote. It is based on a very explicit conception of change, of growth, of evolution as an ultimate fact of universal validity. (Whether or not Marx thought of this evolutionary process as due to come to an end with the achievement of the classless society is an interesting but not central question to which we shall return.) Now one of the central themes of all Western thought on these high matters has been the reality and importance of change. The Platonic type of mind has tended to try to escape from the flow of life and death of this world as we human animals experience it into another world above time and change; and more than this—worldly philosophers like the rationalists of the early modern centuries sought for categories of logic that would be absolute and changeless. Marxism, at least on the surface, glories in process, change, and tries to find in change itself the answer to the riddle of change.
The specific answer to the riddle Marx got from his master Hegel was the dialectic. But for Hegel the process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis went on under the impulse of what he called spirit, an immaterial something, force, idea, or soul, at any rate nothing human senses, common sense, or natural science could ever get at. Marx proudly claimed that he had taken the pyramid Hegel foolishly tried to poise on its point and placed it squarely and sensibly on its broad base; that is, he made the idealistic dialectic into the materialistic dialectic Change for Marx takes place according to a plan, but not the_plan of Hegel’s silly world-spirit. Change takes place in matter, in the sense world that surrounds us, of which we too are wholly a part, just like all the other animals. The changes in this material world—it can be called simply our environment—determine our whole lives, our physical well-being, our institutions, our ideas of right and wrong, our cosmology. The key word here is “determine,” a favorite with Marx, for whom “dialectical materialism” were almost equivalent phrases.
Some of these determining environmental factors are, of course, of the kind men have long recognized—climate, for instance. But Marx focuses on to him much more fundamental aspect of the environment that he calls the “means of production,” the way men make a living. From this fundamental set of material conditions everything else in a man’s life, in the life of groups of men, must follow. Nomads driving their herds over the Asiatic steppes eat and drink, raise families, obey laws and customs, follow chieftains, fight, and believe in a certain religion all in accordance with inevitable developments from the means of production of a nomadic pastoral society. Marxist scholars have shown great skill and erudition in the concrete working out of these concepts for various societies.
Marx himself was interested primarily in his own Western society, for which he worked out a complete outline of social change in accordance with his dialectic. His base line is the means of production of a self-sufficient manorial economy in the Miildle Ages. The society determined by this manorial economy has a serf class that supports a master class of feudal nobles and their attendant priests, has a fairly rigid graded system of status, and holds the kind of beliefs about God and the universe . This manorial economy and feudal society is the thesis. The principle of change is for Marx something “material,” not an idea in anyone’s mind----—though actually even Marx has to admit that the material change comes about because some men want it, conceive it. The change that began the modern world is in its simplest form mone~~rade, the beginnings of a capitalist economy. As this change slowly goes on, a new class a trading or bourgeois class is formed. Between the old feudal nobility and the new moneyed middle class there follows an active “class struggle” (another very famous Marxist expression). The new class has its own philosophy, characteristically Protestant after a time, its own views of the goodness of competition, the legitimacy of profit, the need of political democracy to get around royal and noble power, in short a full philosophy of life. This trading economy and bourgeois democratic society is th e antithesis. The long struggle between thesis and antithesis, after preliminary bourgeois victories in England and Holland, culminated in the American and Frcnch revolutions and the full victory of the bourgeoisie in the nineteenth century.
The class struggle was by no means over. The victorious bourgeoisie, amalgamated with the conquered remains of the nobility, formed a synthesis, a new thesis, and struggled with a new antithesis, the proletariat. This struggle itself, and the classes that made the struggle, were the material result of another change in the mode of production, the introduction of the factory system and the modern form of industrial and financial capitalism. To the old banking and trading bourgeoisie there is added the industrialist, the factory owner, and a new and more powerful capitalist class arises. The workers are now herded together in factories under the eyes of their oppressors, and held down by the iron laws of capitalist economics to a bare subsistence wage. But at least they can organize, if only in secret, and under Marxist leadership become fully class-conscious. Thesis bourgeoisie and antithesis proletariat are now (Marx first announced the outline of this theory in the Communist Manifesto of 1848) fighting the last class struggle. The victory of the proletariat is assured.
Marx assured it by a rather complicated economic analysis that we cannot attempt to follow closely. The upshot of his argument is that by laws of capitalist competition production is bound periodically to result in gluts that bring on business crises in the course of which the weaker firms go to the wall, their members get proletarianized, and the surviving firms get bigger and more powerful. But the working class, though it suffers in each crisis, gets more numerous and more desperate. In a famous phrase, Marx saw the inevitable working of economic law making the poor poorer and the rich richer. At last there will come a supreme crisis, in which the proletariat, fully organized and fully class-conscious, will rise in its might and take over the means of production. Thus will be achieved the dictatorship of the proletariat, in the course of which banks, communications, transport, and factories will be taken from their bourgeois owners and collectivized, put in the hands of the new proletarian government.
Then comes the final stage. With the liquidation of the capitalist owners there are no more classes—or rather, there is only one class left, the victorious proletariat. There can thus be no class struggle; and since the whole apparatus of the state has, according to the Marxist analysis, been necessary only in order that the thesis class might hold down the antithesis class in the class struggle, there will be no need for the state with its police, its courts, its armies, and its taxes. The state will wither away and we shall at last have the classless society, the heaven on earth of Marxist eschatology. As a matter of fact, Marx himself did not dwell on the details of his heaven, and even Engels and the later commentators are vague on this point. As good nineteenth-century believers in progress, however, they do not like to think of even heaven as static. Perhaps we may say that the Marxist holds that cruel and inhuman struggles like the class struggle will cease with the classless society, but that progress will go on through decent, painless, gamelike competition.
It is now over a hundred years since the Communist Manifesto, and the course of history has not gone as Marx planned. It is true that the capitalist business cycle of prosperity and depression has gone on, and that possibly depressions have grown worse . There has certainly been a tendency toward the concentration of capital in giant industry, but it has not been uniform even in the German, British, and American economies. The formula that the rich are growing richer and the poor are growing poorer has certainly not proved true. Government is intervening to regulate industry even in the United States, and in all industrial countries there has been a tendency to some degree of what is often called “state socialism.” And, of course, there was in 1917 in industrially backward Russia—a country Marx himself disliked—the one major revolutionary movement to come to power under Marxist auspices. The Russians have established the dictatorship of the proletariat, but there are as yet not the slightest signs of the withering away of the Russian state. Marx, indeed, supposed that once the revolution was successful in a great nation—he apparently thought it would come first in the most advanced one of his day, Great Britain—it would spread at least to all the rest of Western society, and therefore throughout the world. Faithful Marxists can, of course, point out that until the revolution is world-wide, the state cannot possibly be expected to wither away in beleaguered Russia.
Our concern here is not, however, primarily with the question of how well Marx forecast the future. The movement he founded has come to power in a great state, and his followers, though somewhat split by heresies, are strong in many parts of Western society. Marxism is one of the religions—or if that word is too strong for you, one of the great clusters of guiding principles—that compete today for the loyalties of Western men.
The Marxist God is the omnipotent if impersonal force of dialectical materialism. Like the gods of other advanced religions, dialectical materialism is omnipotent. The Marxists themselves do not hesitate to use the word determinism, with all its overtones of St. Augustine and Calvin . For them the overtones are those of science. This system, they insist, is a scientific one, which is why it must be true. Theirs is not, to an outsider, the science of the laboratory and the clinic, but a hypostasized science that does for them what the hypostasized science of Newton did for the eighteenth-century philosophers. That is, it gives theni4the comforting assurance that they have the key to the universe.
Dialectical materialism, then, will for the Marxist bring about the inevitable world revolution of the proletariat. It will bring that about in spite of anything the capitalists can do; indeed, the more the capitalist, following the course of action dictated to him by the means of production under which he works, behaves like a capitalist, the quicker will come the proletarian victory. The Rockefellers and the Morgans are doing just what dialectical materialism wants them to do. This does not apparently make the Marxist feel any more kindly toward them and their like. Nor does the certainty that the stars in their courses are working for the inevitable triumph of the proletariat make the Marxist a fatalist. We have already seen that for the Calvinist the certainty that God’s will must prevail seems to make the bcliever all the more ready to go out into the world and fight to help God’s will to prevail; and we have noted that for the Calvinist there is always the saving uncertainty that the individual human worm, even though he is a good member of the church of Calvin, may not really know God’s will. For the Marxist there is not even this remnant of Christian humility to provide some logical support for his actual conduct as a fighter for the right as he sees it. The Marxist—and Marx himself—knows absolutely that dialectical materialism will do its work in the foreordained way. But one does not see the convinced Marxist sitting back and letting dialectical materialism do its work without him. On the contrary, he is an ardent propagandist, an ethical meliorist, a man who to judge by his conduct believes that his own efforts can make a difference in human behavior . Once more, we can only note that metaphysical belief in determinism seems for the Marxist as for the Calvinist he so much resembles quite consonant with a psychological belief in free will.
To continue with our religious parallel: The Marxist heaven, as we have already noted, is the classless society, a state men can achieve here on earth, and which has in common with the eschatologies of other advanced religions the concept of a state of things where no human desires will be frustrated. It is true that the Marxist prides himself on his materialisffi, and believes that in the classless societies all decent human appetites will be satisfied; he would deny indignantly that his paradise has anything in common with that mystical and among intellectual Christians predominant concept of heaven as a place in which all appetites are overcome, extinguished, spiritually sublimated. Yet the classless society is no gross place, no place for the kind of sensual delights the Marxist associates with the vulgar capitalist ideal. Indeed, there is, in almost the common acceptance of the term, a puritanical aspect of Marxism; the Marxist is as scornful as any Calvinist of the merely Epicurean side of life, of vulgar, gross pleasures and even more of their aristocratic refinements. Marx himself is a moralist, as indignant at the crassness and injustices of an industrial society as Carlyle or Ruskin. The Marxist tries hard to save a positive aspect of his heaven, to insist that in the classless society men will compete and make progress as good children of our culture should; but what really strikes one in the Marxist as in other heavens is the ideal of absence of conflict and frustration, of the extinction of desire.
The notion of the revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat can be taken as roughly a parallel to the Christian notion of a day of judgment. Again there is the obvious difference that the Marxist believes his saving catastrophe will be brought about by “natural” rather than by supernatural forces. For the Marxist the state of grace, the thing that marks off the faithful from the heathen, is simply the ability to see the universe in Marxist terms, “scientific” terms as the Marxist would put it. His Marx is the rationalist Messiah set over against the spiritual—and to the Marxist, of course, false—Messiah, Christ.
Again as in most religious bodies, this awareness of belonging, of knowing the truth, of having the inner light, is balanced by pcrformance of certain symbolic acts that bind the believer to the whole body of the faithful. In other words, the Marxist has his works as well as his faith: He reads his Marxist holy books, he goes to meetings, he has his party card and his party duties. He has a clue to everything, an answer to all his questions. There should be nothing surprising to an informed outsider that in Communist Russia there is Marxist music, Marxist history, and even Marxist biology.
It is probably true that there is no clear Marxist equivalent for the kind of religious experience that for the Christian is focused in the word conscience. One whole aspect of Christianity, as we have noted in an earlier chapter, centers on the plight of the individual soul of sinful man in its willful struggle with God; Christianity is a highly individualistic faith with a highly individualistic concept of salvation. Marxism is committed to the notion that the true fulfillment of the individual is, not of course in mere ant-or- beelike automatic participation in the social whole, but at least in a thorough identification of the individual with the whole collectivity. Marxism is a collectivist and its notion of individual salvation cannot bevery closely paralleled in Christianity. Yet the Marxist has a conscience, and however ill the notion fits with dialectic materialism, can suffer the tortures of conscience. This you will see readily enough in the hero of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon; and if you take the trouble to look into his career, you will see it in Mr. Koestler himself.
In pure theory —or in Marxist theology at its highest level—Marx and Engels did the great work . Though Soviet practice has canonized Lenin and Stalin as having made essential additions to the main body of Marxist beliefs, to an outsider their importance seems rather as organizers than as thinkers. Marxism has not yet combined the thinker and the doer as successfully as they were combined in St. Paul. Lenin indeed, faced with the fact that the wicked capitalist nations of the West seemed in the early years of the twentieth century to be prospering, that at any rate they were not going on the rocks quite as Marx had predicted, added to the Marxist analysis a corollary to the effect that having reached the limit of exploiting their own citizens English and other Western capitalists had postponed the evil day by colonial imperialism, by exploiting the rest of the world. But this in itself was, according to Lenin, a confirmation of Marx; imperialism was the inevitable over-ripeness of capitalism, the last stage before the revolution of the proletariat.
Actually Lenin’s great service to Marxism came as an organizer of a successful revolution in a backward country. To do this at all, Lenin had to organize a violent revolution—which Marx had always preached, though rather academically —a revolution put through by a minority of disciplined and desperate characters with long years of conspiratorial experience underground, and with no “bourgeois-democratic” scruples about legality, humane decency, honesty, and the like. Marx, for all his testy dislike of mere reformers, had definitely not liked the conspiratorial professional revolutionist. To some of Marx’s followers, then, Lenin is not so much the exponent as the betrayer of true Marxism. To the kindly, hopeful, other-worldly Marxists (there are such, illogical though their attitude may seem to an outsider) Lenin’s ruthless and quite consciously realistic behavior meant accepting the wicked bourgeois world they wanted to transcend. To them, Lenin, and much worse, Stalin, had simply surrendered to such wicked illusions as common sense, practicality, success.
As for Stalin, only for the orthodox Communists is he a thinker at all. His policy of “socialism in one country” is indeed a practical corollary to Marx of the greatest importance; but it seems to have been forced on Stalin as a policy, not as a theory. He has, of course, proved a successful organizer of Marxist belief in a nation-state with a long history and a profound patriotic tradition. He has helped make the amalgamation of Russian culture, of Russian history in its full sense, and the particular set of ideas about the meaning of the universe and the destiny of man associated with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
One last and perhaps most outrageous parallel. Stalin has been in some ways in a position analogous to that of the early Christian organizers when it had become fairly clear that Jesus was not going to return to earth immediately, that the whole elaborate Christian eschatology had to be fitted to a different time-scale, and indeed to a different world. In Stalin’s Russia the classless society has had to be postponed; there is frustration, unhappiness, competition, and great economic and social inequality in Russia today. Stalin has had to try to temper the basic optimism of Marx to the facts of life on this earth. Someday we shall know how well he succeeded. At present, from the other side of the iron curtain, we can note chiefly that he seems to be using a very old device indeed, that of emphasizing the persistence and toughness of the satanic foe—the capitalist.
The standard of moral and aesthetic values for the Marxist on this earth is very essentially bourgeois, capitalist, with a slightly soured puritanical twist. There are advanced circles in Western countries where Marxism is combined with various kinds of moral and aesthetic rebellion against conventional standards of the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century bourgeoisie—but not in Russia. Marxism is, in fact, one of the most legitimate heirs of the materialist and rationalist cosmology of the eighteenth-century philosophers. Marx himself has a vision of the properly functioning society strangely like that of Adam Smith—an economy, and therefore a society, in which each individual by behaving naturally contributes to the well- being and smooth working of the group. The ideal, the end, of Marxism is the philosophical anarchism among free and equal human beings that is one of the persistent themes of the Enlightenment.
The means, however, is violent revolution and a transitional state of dictatorship in which there will be rigorous use of authority from above, strict discipline among the masses, the whole apparatus of a totalitarian society. Here Marxism breaks sharply with the tradition of the Enlightenment, which, though proud of revolutions like the American and the French, was also a bit ashamed of the tar and feathering and guillotining, and regarded political revolution as at best a necessary evil to be avoided if possible. Now in this world the means affects the end. So far, the Marxist effort to arrive at anarchy by the use of authority has not got beyond a very firm use of authority by a small ruling class. And even were the Russian experiment able to continue in a world not hostile to Russia as a political entity, it seems extremely unlikely that the Marxist heaven on earth would be achieved. Only in an Hegelian world of the pure intellect do you achieve an end by trying to achieve its opposite. In this world, if you set out to build a society in which human beings behave as much like ants as possible y~u are not likely to get a society in which they behave like lions. The Marxist attempt to solve the eighteenth-century tension between liberty and equality has on the whole been even less successful than the orthodox democratic attempt.
The study of the nineteenth century has led us, perhaps unduly, into many considerations about the twentieth century. We have followed some phases of Marxism far beyond the century in which the doctrine was born. We may return briefly to summarize the doctrines, the tensions we have studied in the last two chapters.
There is a center----not a dead center—in the nineteenth century, which we have called the Victorian compromise. That compromise sought to retain a moderate nationalism and individual economic freedom of enterprise balanced by a strict moral code and conventional, churchgoing Christianity. In a Western society based on that compromise there was great industrial and scientific advance, great material inequalities and yet for the lower classes a higher standard of living in a material way than ever before, and a lively and varied intellectual and artistic flourishing.
Yet this intellectual and artistic flourishing, if contrasted with that of the thirteenth century, or of fifth-century Athens, lacked unity of style, perhaps unity of purpose. For the nineteenth century was a time of extraordinary diversity of thought, an age of mult-animity.
Its extremes were great extremes, its tensions clearly marked—tradition against innovation, authority against liberty, faith in God against faith in the machine, loyalty to the nation against loyalty to humanity—the list could be very long indeed. Somehow the nineteenth century managed to keep these warring human aspirations, these basically conflicting ideals of the good life, in uneasy balance. Our century has seen this balance upset. Two great wars and a great depression are the witnesses of this upset. We are now attempting, among ideals quite as conflicting as those of the nineteenth century—they are indeed essentially the same ideals—to establish a balance of our own.
IDEAS and MEN.
THE STORY OF WESTERN THOUGHT.
Copyright @ 1950. By: Crane Brinton (Pgs. 478-490)
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