World in the Grip of an Idea: 2. Marxism - Revolutionary Socialism
FEBRUARY 01, 1977 by CLARENCE B. CARSON
In this series, Dr. Carson examines the connection between ideology and the revolutions of our time and traces the impact on several major countries and the spread of the ideas and practices around the world.
“Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.” —Karl Marx
The idea which has the world in its grip has two poles. One pole is the revolutionary road to socialism; the other is the evolutionary road to socialism. The idea—to achieve human felicity on this earth by concerting all efforts toward its realization—is the same for both of them. Both poles, too, operate to root out and destroy the received culture and use government as the instrument that is supposed to move them toward the realization of their goal. The basic difference is one of tactics, then, though tactics are no small matter when they resolve into a question of whether persuasion or a shot in the back of the neck is at issue, as it has sometimes been.
In any case, it is appropriate to begin the examination of particular approaches to socialism with Marxism. Indeed, there are compelling reasons for beginning with Marxism. One is that the world communist movement is traced to its source in Marxism. The other is that all modern socialism comes into focus better when seen from the angle of Marxism. It has been said that all of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. It can be said with equal validity that modern socialism is a series of footnotes to Karl Marx.
A Man of Contradictions
Why this should be so is a baffling question. The facts of his life help hardly at all to explain it. Marx was certainly not a leader of men. He was repelled by most people, even if they were not by him. He championed the cause of the laborer (or industrial proletariat, as he chose to call him), yet he was himself an intellectual. He proclaimed the importance of action, yet he spent much of his life in libraries amidst the musty smell of books. His ghost hovers over the thrust toward planned economies for nations and empires, yet he was throughout his life incompetent to manage the financial affairs of a household. Even his literary output fell short of his aims and the expectations of those who provided financial aid. He is best known for The Communist Manifesto, a rather short pamphlet which was the joint effort of Marx and Friedrich Engels, and the one volume he completed of Das Kapital. Most of his other writing was done in spurts, and consisted mainly of critiques of other works at the time. There was much more of what was wrong with the thinking of others than there was of straightforward development of his own ideas.
The details of his life go further toward explaining why he may have held certain beliefs than they do to accounting for why others were attracted by the Marxian formulations. Marx was, for most of his adult life, a man without a country, if country be taken to mean not only a nation but also religion, culture, and sense of being a part of a received heritage. Marx’s father and mother had been Jewish, but his father became a Protestant in a predominantly Catholic community, converted, it was said, to keep his government job. Karl Marx was baptized a Christian but in early manhood became a militant atheist. He attended universities at
Even so, this alienated man, this man without a country, without traditional religious underpinnings, with few possessions, with only a boiling animosity toward his culture, who could be aroused to write only out of opposition, set forth the doctrines which are today used to hold more than a billion people under control. What brought this about? The answer is surely not to be found in the details of his life. The answer, if it can be had, is in the doctrines. It is in Marxism.
What is Marxism? One way to answer the question is to say that it is that body of doctrines which was formulated by Karl Marx in collaboration with Friedrich Engels in the course of both of their lives. (Engels outlived Marx by several years and continued to expand upon the work that Marx had done.) Or, it can be approached from the angle of its antecedents in German romanticism, Hegelianism, the materialism of Feuerbach, the socialism of Proudhon, the anarchism of Bakunin, and the whole complex of mid-nineteenth century radicalism which was nipping and yapping at European society. Or, it can be traced forward in time into Leninism, Stalinism, Titoism, Castroism, Maoism, and all the variants of it that have been shaped by men attempting to apply it or apply some variety of it.
But any or all of these approaches would take us away from rather than toward the core of Marxism. It is misleading, too, to treat Marxism as a system of thought, though at some point it has to be done. It is certainly not a system of thought by reason of fitting into the established categories for utilizing reason and experience. Marx did not proceed deductively from self-evident axioms. Nor did he proceed inductively to arrive at conclusions from the assembled evidence. But his is not a system of thought.
If it were a system of thought, it could be tested and found to be true or false. It could be held up against actuality and be refuted. Bertram D. Wolfe has noted that Marxism "cannot be shaken by mere rational or factual refutation of any number of its concrete propositions, even those that are central to its logical structure." 1 There may be several reasons for this, but a crucial one has not been much emphasized. Marx is not talking about actuality, or what we ordinarily call reality, in his basic propositions. It is difficult to refute from actuality what bears no demonstrable relation to actuality.
The Labor Theory of Value
Marx’s mode of arriving at conclusions needs to be illustrated by example to show that he was not operating in contact with actuality. This may be done best by his labor theory of value, which is the lynchpin of Marxism. Marx tells us, first, that the value of commodities is determined by the amount of labor used in making them. He put it this way: "The relative values of commodities are, therefore, determined by the respective quantities or amounts of labour, worked up, realised, fixed in them."2 But what is value? That was easy enough for Marx to answer. Price "is a peculiar form assumed by value." Price, taken by itself, is nothing but the monetary expression of value. He tells us, further, that, on the average, "the market price of a commodity coincides with its value."3
The novice might suppose, then, that the value of labor equals the value of commodities produced by it. More, since price and value are, in effect, the same, the price of labor would be the price of commodities. But Marx would not have it as simple as that. He hastens to assure us that "there exists no such thing as the Value of Labour in the common acceptance of the word." 4 What the working man sells, he says, is not labor but "Labouring Power." "The value of the labouring power is determined by the quantity of labour necessary to maintain or reproduce it . . . . "5 There is another difficulty to be got out of the way, too. It might be supposed from Marx’s initial formulation that the more work that went into a commodity the more it would be worth. Not at all, says Marx, it is not labor per se that determines value, but the amount of "Social labour" that goes into making the product.
It would be possible to follow Marx’s analysis further, but perhaps it is not necessary here. Marx claims and may even appear to be talking about the actual world. He is not. Every key word and phrase he uses is loaded with his own special meaning. It is true that he uses market price in the common signification, but he makes clear that prices in the market are relative. All his certainty is reserved for those concepts he has given a special meaning. Value is not value—i.e., something which arises from our desires—; it is the same thing as "natural price,"6 an idea borrowed from the classical economists and dragged, one hopes, kicking and screaming into the discussion. Labour is not labor; it is Labouring Power. That amount of labor which determines the price of commodities is not just labor; it is Social Labour.
His Word for It
How do we know that the value, or price (as in his equation), of a commodity is determined by the amount of social labor in it? We know it, if we know it, only because Marx has told us. There are no calculations that can be performed to prove it. There is no way to add the amount of labor, set it beside the price, and demonstrate that the one is equal to the other. Moreover, even by his own formulation, that would not do it, for it is social labor, not labor that can be summed up in hours and minutes, that he says equals the value of commodities produced.
Is Marx’s labor theory of value right or wrong? Let us put the difficulty of answering this way. Marx only appeared to be talking about the actual world; he was talking about his own vision of a world, a vision of a world that was, is, and will be, but could be conceived only by a willful negation of the world that was in 1865, when he spoke. The proof, if proof there would be, of Marx’s assertion lay in the future, not in the past. If Marx’s labor theory of value were a set of propositions about the actual world, it would be subject to refutation. It was not.
The labor theory of value belongs to Marx’s special Revelation, a revelation vouchsafed to him and to all who have the will to believe it. The refutation of Marx is accomplished by disbelief or, most likely, a strongly held set of counter-beliefs, not by treating it as a coherent thought system.7 This conclusion is buttressed by the tenacity of Marxists in the face of what appears to non-Marxists to be the most convincing demonstrations from reason and experience of its fallacies.
Marxism is an anti-religious religion. To see it in any other light is to miss its character and appeal. A lifelong student of Marxism describes it this way:
In an age prepared for by nearly two thousand years of Christianity with its millennial expectations, when the faith of millions has grown dim, and the altar seems vacant of its image, Marxism has arisen to offer a fresh, antireligious religion, a new faith, passionate and demanding, a new vision of the Last Things, a new Apocalypse, and a new Paradise.8
It is commonly said that Marx stood the philosopher Hegel on his head. He did much more than that. He stood Christianity on its head. Marx held that Christianity was the perfecting of religion. It was, so to speak, the highest religion, as religion, possible. Its perfection would, as in everything else for Marx, result in its negation. Its negation was the flowing into Marxism of Christian imagery, hopes, and longings with everything reversed: eternity brought into time, spirit become matter, the Second Coming become Social Revolution, the Incarnation become the proletariat, and communism become the hope of redemption. The appeal of Marxism, then, is not only that it is an anti-religious religion but also that it is an anti-Christian christianity.
The End of Philosophy
Marxism is also an anti-philosophy philosophy. The reign of philosophy ended with Hegel, for whom philosophy became history as idea became actuality. Marx substituted matter for idea, which made philosophy even more a dead letter. Western philosophy has been dualistic following the insights of Plato. Marx propounded a dualism which would end finally in the destruction of one of the duo—the bourgeoisie—and with the triumph of communism an end to history as well. For Marxism, everything is finally being reduced to one. All the elements which have been developed and discerned will move finally to their resolution in one element.
Karl Marx was a poet and a prophet, a poor poet and false prophet, no doubt, but poet and prophet nonetheless. Not nearly enough has been made of the poetic flavor of Marx’s writing. This is not surprising, for few undertakings are so remote from poetry as economics, particularly the ponderous variety of economics constructed by Marx. Yet, many of the Marxian formulations are best grasped as the work of a poet. Take the following, for example:
The task of history, once the world beyond truth has disappeared, is to establish the truth of this world. The immediate task of philosophy which is at the service of history, once the saintly form of human self-alienation has been unmasked, is to unmask self-alienation in its unholy forms. Thus the criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of the earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of right, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.9
Whether this passage can be construed so as to make sense of it is a question that can be left to the side.
My point is that if it could be it would have to be construed, much in the manner of an obscure poem. What is "the world beyond truth," or "the truth of this world," or "the saintly form of human self-alienation," or "the criticism of heaven"? Considered as prose, the whole passage is nonsense. Considered as poetry, what sense it contains can be discerned by consulting the Marxian framework. (Poetry has been traditionally construed by the knowledge of certain conventional allusions. Marx’s phrases are construed by reference to his disillusions.) 10
A Prophet of History
Marx was a prophet, too, not a prophet of God, of course, but a prophet of History. He was the John the Baptist of communism, traveling hither and yon to proclaim the imminent coming of the Revolution.
Marxism is foremost, and finally, an ideology. To Marx, an ideology was a complex of ideas and beliefs arising out of class arrangements which served as rationalization and justification for the ruling class. But those not under his sway have quite a different view of the matter. Ideology is understood today to mean any complex of ideas and beliefs in terms of which things are explained and understood. Marxism, as a phenomenon, gives added precision to the term.
Marxism is a self-contained set of notions which reduces reality to the dimensions of Marx’s vision of history. It explains what has been, is, and will be by way of these propositions. It is a figment of the minds of Marx and his interpreters. All Marxian thought, so called, is an unraveling of propositions found in the ideology. Before Marx, thought was determined by material conditions, Marx thought; after Marx, such thought as is done is to be determined by and kept within the lineaments of the ideology. This last is not what Marx said, but it follows from the revealed nature of the ideology.
Everywhere Marx looked he saw paradox, contradiction, struggle, and eventual destruction. A vast and interlinked disharmony prevailed everywhere, a disharmony that was fated to continue and worsen until that should eventually occur which would bring an end to it and produce harmony and unity. The key concepts of the Marxian ideology are these: alienation, class struggle, industrial proletariat, bourgeoisie, labor theory of value, capitalism, social revolution, socialism, and communism.
There is a brilliance within Marxian ideology which what has been said thus far might not indicate. It should not be denied, however. Marx was an intellectual scavenger, taking in vast quantities of literature by his voluminous reading, opposing the particulars of almost every formulation he encountered, then subjecting all to his own particular turn of mind before he appeared in print with the result. He defined his position in opposition to what he read, but he also incorporated much of what he read into his position. Whether the brilliance comes mainly from what he incorporated or from what he originated is a question that here can be left open. That the brilliance is there should, however, be acknowledged. Unfortunately, he had a tendency to vulgarize.
This was so in the case of his theory of alienation. The Marxian theory of alienation was most fully developed in his earlier writings, and there is some tendency to discount it because some of these were not published until long after his death. Even so, it is crucial to his whole ideology. The theory can be stated in some such fashion as this. Man as we know him is not real, essential man. His reason is flawed. What he experiences is distorted by ideology. He is not free but is rather imprisoned by circumstances and conditions over which he has no control.
Sources of Alienation
The sources of this condition are what might be called mechanical conditions by which he is alienated.
He is alienated from himself, first of all, by religion. Religion subjects him to the mediating powers of others. He is alienated from himself by private property. Property sets him at odds with others and alienates him from his social nature. He is alienated from himself by the state. The state is an artificial creature which arises from division into classes in society. It is an instrument of class rule. He is alienated from the product of his labor by its appropriation by the capitalist. This alienation is apparently exacerbated, too, by the division of labor.
This theory of alienation is usually known in its most vulgar form, i.e., in the alienation of the wage earner from the product of his labor. This is so, mainly, because Marx and Engels placed the greatest emphasis upon it by elaborating it so much. Here is a fairly typical expression of the alienation of the worker theory:
The alienation of the worker in his object is expressed as follows in the laws of political economy: the more the worker produces the less he has to consume; the more value he creates the more worthless he becomes; the more refined his product the more crude and misshapen the worker; the more civilized the product the more barbarous the worker. . . .¹¹
The concept was vulgarized (vastly oversimplified, anyhow) by bringing it all to bear on the alienation of the worker.
In any case, it was alienation which made revolution necessary for Marx. Marx was certainly aware that during his lifetime governments were taking various measures intended to ameliorate the lot of the worker. Why might socialism not be achieved by gradual degrees in an evolutionary fashion? Marx sometimes wavered on the matter, but he returned again and again to the position that revolution will be necessary. It will be necessary because alienation is too broadly and deeply established. The Gordian knot of alienation must be broken, and revolution is the means by which he thought this could be accomplished. Revolution, presumably, would shatter the bonds forged by alienation.
What Marx meant by revolution, as what he meant by anything else in his special language, is colored by ideology, refracted through his special vision, and given a special meaning. One thing he meant was a conflict in which the industrial proletariat should triumph over the bourgeoisie. Marx and Engels put it this way:
The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all the other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of the political power by the proletariat.12
The revolution must proceed, however, to become a social revolution:
But while a social revolution with a political soul is either a paraphrase or a meaningless expression, a political revolution with a social soul is a meaningful phrase. The revolution in general . . . is a political act . . . However, when the organizing activity of socialism begins and when its own aims, its soul comes to the fore, socialism abandons its political cloak.¹³
The important thing here is that as a result of the revolution everything, everything, is to be altered and changed:
The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.14
Everything is to be transformed:
Communism is the positive abolition of private property and thus of human self-alienation and therefore the real appropriation of the human essence by and for man. This is communism as the complete and conscious return of man. . . . It is the genuine resolution of the antagonism between man and nature and between man and man. It is the true resolution of the struggle between existence and essence, between objectification and Self-affirmation, between freedom and necessity, between individual and species . . . 15
All existing relations must be abolished—destroyed—so that social man may emerge:
Religion, family, state, law, morality, science and art are only particular forms of production and fall under its general law. The positive abolition of private property and the appropriation of human life is therefore the positive abolition of all alienation, thus the return of man out of religion, family, state, etc., into his human, i.e. social, being.16
Marx apparently realized that such a revolution would not be completed swiftly. He said that the working class "will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men." 17
The remainder of the Marxian formulations have to do mainly with establishing "scientifically" that the revolution is inevitable. The labor theory of value was the lynchpin of this demonstration. If Marx was right in this theory, the laboring man was being robbed of the fruits of his labor. Moreover, he claimed that the more capital that was accumulated, invested, and concentrated, the more deplorable would be the plight of the industrial worker. More and more people would fall into this class; in numbers it would constitute the majority of people in a country. When the situation of the working class became sufficiently desperate, its numbers so overwhelming, it would revolt and throw over the ruling class. All of history had been a series of class struggles. The stage was being set, Marx proclaimed, for the final class struggle, the class struggle to end all class struggles, the class struggle between the proletariat and bourgeoisie.
It is often alleged that the tyranny of communism in practice is the result of some sort of aberration from Marxism, or from Leninism, or is the result of a historical residue of Oriental Despotism in certain lands, or whatever. On the contrary, the tyranny is implicit in the ideology. The tyranny of communism is so essentially a part of Marxism that if a committee of Albert Schweitzers were assembled to put it into operation in some land they could only proceed by becoming tyrants. A review of the essentials of Marxism should demonstrate why this is so.
The engine of Marxism is hatred, hatred for everything as it is, hatred of religion, hatred of the family, hatred of the division of labor, hatred of the state, hatred of capitalists, hatred of property, hatred of the "rural idiocy" (as Marx put it) of farmers, and, yes, hatred of industrial workers.18 The proletariat who would triumph and be transformed into true man was not, of course, the industrial worker whom we actually encounter. He must be the class conscious industrial worker, i.e., a worker become Marxist in his conceptions. Above all, Marxism is a hatred of the past, everything shaped out of it, everything drawn from it, which is to say, just about everything. Marxism is a hatred of all imperfection, and everything that is, is imperfect. In short, Marxism hates man as he is and has been.
The modus operandi of Marxism is destruction. That is the true meaning of Marxian revolution. It is no simple seizure of political power. It might better be conceived as a cataclysmic earthquake, followed by devastating tremor after devastating tremor until every relationship that was has been sundered. All the actuality that has been accumulated through the ages must be destroyed—property relationships, religious belief, family ties, legal forms, the intellectual heritage, culture and civilization itself. How else, but by tyranny, can such a destruction be wrought?
Tyranny is embedded in the very framework of Marxism. What is history for Marx but a tyrant? The course of history is determined, according to him; it has a direction which is beyond our control. Such history is not guide, but dictator, so to speak. More, "History is the judge—its executioner, the proletarian."19 Of course, the executioner and tyrant is not the whole body of the proletariat; it is to be carried out by the class conscious wing. No clearer prescription for tyranny has been contrived.
On the other side of the divide, of course, Marx tells us that all this will end. The class struggle will end with the victory of the proletariat. With this victory, too, history will end. The state will be no more; it will wither away. The dictatorship of the proletariat will have ended because its work will be done. Man will no longer be separated from man; he will have become completely social. He will become pure man, so to speak, with all his energies released and himself integrated. Even the rift between man and nature will be healed.
Appeal to Passions
The appeal of Marxism lies in the fact that it justifies and sanctifies the release of the demonic urges in each of us. It justifies and sanctifies hate, envy, the love of power, the bent to destruction, the desire to set everything right (particularly, others), and all the vague and unfulfilled longings of man. It offers to the believer union with the forces of history, an end to his separateness, and the assurance of final victory which is inevitable. It offers, too, an end of struggle, that struggle which has been man’s lot throughout history. Its deepest appeal has always been to intellectuals, to those men who sit on the fringes of society with their ideas. It holds out to them the hope and expectation that their ideas can at last become actuality.
The reality of communist practice proceeds directly from Marxian theory. The revolutionary road to socialism was staked out by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The proof of this must be sought in the communist practice. But first, there is another road to socialism, the evolutionary road. That, too, draws sustenance from Marxism. Marx is even supposed to have suggested late in life that in some lands revolution might not be necessary. In the report of a speech in 1872, he is supposed to have said:
We know that one has to take into account the institutions, customs and traditions of various countries, and we do not deny that there are certain countries, such as America and England, to which if I were better acquainted with your institutions, I would also add Holland, where the workers can attain their goal by peaceful means. . . .20
But evolutionary socialism has its own ideology, and it needs to be examined on its own grounds.
Next: 3. Evolutionary Socialism
‘Bertram D. Wolfe, Marxism (New York: Dial, 1965), p. 361.
²Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Selected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1968), p. 204.
³Ibid., p. 207.
4Ibid., p. 209.
5Ibid., p. 212.
6Ibid., p. 208.
7This is not to belittle the achievement of the
8Wolfe, op. cit., p. 369.
9Quoted in Thomas Molnar, The Decline of the Intellectual (New York: Meridian, 1961), p. 90.
‘°Marx wrote a goodly amount of verse in his youth, and even retained an interest in poetry after he became a revolutionary. See David McLellan, Karl Marx: His Life and Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), pp. 20-25, 103-04. Engels was said to have been something of a poet, too.
¹²Ibid., p. 299. 13I bid., p. 283. "Ibid., p. 292.
¹5Quoted in McLellan, op. cit., p. 118.
¹6Ibid., p. 119. ¹7Jordan, op. cit., p. 301.
¹8See Wolfe, op. cit., p. 198.
¹9Jordan, op. cit., p. 292.
20 Ibid., p. 294.