All Commentary
Wednesday, July 1, 1970

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1970/7

In the thirties we had plenty of young radicals around who pro­fessed to be Marxists. To give them their due, they had actually read the works of their mentors, from Papa Marx and his collabo­rator Engels, on down through Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein, Rosa Luxemburg, Nicolai Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and the rest. They knew about “revisionism,” they could argue about the relevance of Trotsky’s “law of uneven and com­bined development.” True enough, they were ignoramuses when it came to the subject of economics; they believed the discredited ho­kum about the inevitable impover­ishment of the working classes under capitalism, they spouted nonstatistical nonsense about the “falling rate of profit” as consti­tuting the “law of motion of the capitalist system,” and they ac­cepted the notion of “surplus val­ue” which has no scientific justification whatsoever. But despite their failings, the radicals of the thirties had done their homework when it came to mastering their own literature. It was a pleasure to argue with them, for they knew how to listen and they did not ex­pect immediate capitulation to their point of view.

The contemporary breed of young Marxists, however, is quite a dif­ferent animal. Despite their com­plaints about the “generation gap” and the “lack of communication,” the modern Marxists insist that their slogans must be accepted without argument (to the accom­paniment of witless cries of “right on, right on”). The idea of debate, of a comparison of alternatives, is frowned upon. In the thirties the socialist Norman Thomas and the Communist Earl Browder would submit to questions; today the very idea of conducting a rational dis­cussion with the likes of Jerry Rubin or Abbie Hoffman or Mark Rudd is laughable.

What has happened in the last generation to debase the intellec­tual climate? How is it that our reviving “neo-Marxism” has suc­cumbed to such irrationality and amorality? Lewis Feuer, who was himself a Marxist of sorts when he was a young professor, thinks the source of our contemporary confusion can be cleared up if only we can come to grips with the ca­reer of the concept of “alienation.”

The Concept of “Alienation”

In his thought-provoking Marx and the Intellectuals: a Set of Post-Ideological Essays (Double­day and Co., Anchor Books, $1.45), Professor Feuer traces the sham­bles on our campuses to leftist in­tellectual failure to make a study of Marxism as a whole. The young have become “hung up,” to adapt their own phrase, on a specific phase in the life of Karl Marx which Marx himself came to re­ject as he grew older. By limiting their reading of radical literature to the juvenalia of Karl Marx, the “neo-Marxists” have taken “aliena­tion” as a “slogan-word” out of its context in the totality of a life. The “slogan-word” has become a “generation fetish,” and the fetish has resulted in a “largely direc­tionless rejection of American so­ciety.” Professing themselves to be Marxists, the young have actu­ally become disciples of the an­archist Bakunin, whom Karl Marx held in special abomination.

“Alienation” and the Human Condition

As a dedicated student of the entire library of Marxist thought, Professor Feuer is quite aware that Marx and Engels had to dis­card the concept of “alienation” from their thinking simply be­cause it led nowhere in terms of what they were after. “Aliena­tion” is a psychoanalytic concept which raises more questions about human nature than can be an­swered by references to the class struggle. It leads one out of “his­torical materialism” into the sub­jective world of Sigmund Freud.

As Professor Feuer points out, there are several modes of “aliena­tion” that are quite independent of each other. A worker on an as­sembly line can be just as “alien­ated” in a socialist factory in east­ern Europe as he might be in a General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan. One can feel “alienated” because of race, or because of mother or father rejection, or be­cause of caste restrictions in a pre-capitalist, pre-industrial part of the world. Professor Feuer found “alienation” in the Israeli kibbutz societies, where certain individuals reacted to the “interminable vacuity” of “communal­ity.” These individuals would “flee to their tents” to escape from a “closed circle, a squirrel cage from which there is no release.”

In short, “alienation” is part of the human condition anywhere. It is something the individual must come to grips with in rela­tion to his own psychological prob­lems. To project one’s personal troubles on “society” or on the “system” when they may very possibly derive from one’s family circumstances or from individual character shortcomings is unin­telligent. So Professor Feuer reaches an inevitable conclusion: our “intellectuals,” so-called, give evidence of having defective brains when they permit them­selves to be “hung up” on “aliena­tion” as something worth talking about.

“The socialist movement,” says Professor Feuer, “proposed to eliminate economic exploitation and to abolish the class system. These were relatively definable goals. A movement cannot, how­ever, very well propose to alienate the alienators as it did to expro­priate the expropriators, for the alienated mood is so multiform in its expression, so unlocated in any specific social form, that it does not delineate the clear goals and foci for action that a political movement requires.”

The New Barbarism

The modern Marxist may still make pietistic references to the idea of “scientific socialism,” but actually he has reverted to some­thing that Professor Feuer calls “neoprimitivism.” The new Marx­ism is “Marxist in form but Ba­kuninist in content.” Instead of holding any real belief in what nineteenth century Marxists called the “three arms of the labor move­ment — the union, the cooperative, and the party,” the modern Marx­ist thinks that a “labor metaphys­ic” is an “unrealistic legacy from Victorian Marxism” (the quote is from C. Wright Mills). The new Marxists believe in the primacy of the individual will; they are “neo­barbarian, anti-intellectual, anti­urban, anti-working class, anti-Western.” Their theory is that the “peasant countries” of Asia and Africa and Latin America will eventually surround the “West.” And they look to see the college intellectuals, not the labor ‘leaders, forcing the eventual capitulation of capitalist society to the Mao­ists, the Castroites, and the idola­tors of that consummate guerilla failure, the late Che Guevara.

Professor Feuer is very much aware of contradictions in socialist thought that Marx and his succes­sors in the Soviet Union have nev­er been able to solve. Communism was supposed to lead to a genuine intellectual liberalization. But the Soviets don’t even dare to discuss the origins of Stalinism. If they explain it along “historical ma­terialist” lines, they have to admit that the system devised by Lenin was itself at fault in permitting the emergence of a cruel tyrant. If, on the other hand, they try to blame Stalinism on the “para­noid tendencies” of an individual, then psychoanalytic factors must be accepted as part of “social cau­sation.” No matter how they squirm, the Soviet intellectuals are caught by the “dead hand of of­ficial Marxist ideology.” They can­not think for themselves when they are limited to “historical ma­terialism.”

An Honest Doubt

Though he began as a socialist, and presumably still thinks of himself as one, Professor Feuer has come to reject socialism as a “dialectic system.” Our future de­velopment, he says, is shrouded in mystery because of “three basic aspects of indeterminacy.” The “fall in the rate of profit” is not necessarily fated “unless extra-economic rigidities are added to the laws of economic theory.” “There is no foretelling in the cap­italist economy whether innova­tion will be predominantly of a capital-saving or labor-saving form.” And, “most important, there is no way of foreseeing whether a given era will be marked by the dearth or the emergence of new great industries.” The only advantage that socialism has over capitalism, in Professor Feuer’s estimation, is that it “is an at­tempt to reduce the impact of eco­nomic indeterminacy on men’s lives.” As against the “advantage,” however, there “remains the great question as to the extent to which an over-determined, over-planned and over-socialized economy can frustrate other components in men’s psyches.”

This is fair enough. If our stu­dent radicals were willing to de­bate the subject on Professor Feuer’s terms, we might get some­where. But I’d like to know how many college bookstores have stacked Marx and the Intellectu­als in any depth on their shelves. 

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.