All Commentary
Monday, October 1, 1973

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1973/10


Karl Marx thought he had “demystified” Hegel, that cloudy German philosopher who saw the manifestation of Spirit working through thesis, antithesis and synthesis to produce the ideal of the Prussian State. Marx dispensed with the idea of Spirit, but he kept his belief in the thesis-antithesis synthesis triad. Pumping his own content into the words, Marx made capitalism his “thesis.” Labor, or the proletariat became the “antithesis,” with a new “synthesis” —Communism — postulated as the final end to the Hegelian process.

The whole schematization was absurd, as Max Eastman pointed out some thirty years ago. Society, or Western society at any rate, cannot be poured into any monist mold. It consists of many “theses” — the family, the churches, political parties, clubs and associations of all sorts, businesses, trade unions, interest groups, foundations, even anarchic individuals. They pursue many ends. The big, buzzing confusion works by a series of perpetual accommodation, with scores of new “syntheses” coming into being every day. The Marxist “revisionists” caught a glimpse of this, and the socialist Second International was compelled by the statistics of middle class growth to postpone the date of the revolutionary “final struggle” to an ever-receding future date.

Marxism Won’t Die

So Marxian “scientific” socialism, which stood Hegel on his head, was discredited as pseudo-science. But the Marxist cult refused to die. In a brilliant book called The Western Marxists (Library Press, $8.95), Neil McInnes, the Paris editor of Barron’s, has explored what he calls “the demystification” of Marx. His scholarship does much to explain what happened to the radical movements of the nineteen sixties, a period in which the young often seemed to be rebelling without plan, or philosophy, or justification by resort to tradition of any kind. The Sixties bypassed the mature Marx by seizing on the youthful Marx’s idea of “alienation” to explain a need for revolt. A man named Marcuse was behind much of the rebellion. He was a refugee from Germany, and naturally he had philosophic antecedents. Who were they? Neil McInnes names them.

One of the antecedents was the French syndicalist, Georges Sorel. A Bergsonian, Sorel did not believe in any of the Marxian “laws of motion.” Sorel was a free-wilier who thought man could make almost any sort of history. Myths were important to move men to action. They didn’t have to be “scientifically” true to be useful. One of the Sorelian myths was the “general strike.” If he could persuade enough people to believe in its efficacy, he might topple capitalism overnight.

Lenin’s Rise to Power

Lenin himself, a “Western Marxist” by courtesy of the fact that he lived for most of his adult life “under Western eyes” (Conrad’s phrase) in Switzerland, was something of a Sorelian. When he returned to Russia in the Kaiser’s sealed car he didn’t wait for any capitalist “thesis” to raise up its proletarian “antithesis.” Instead, he seized the leadership of disenchanted peasants and demobilized and deserting troops to grab the levers of government. Marx had not considered that a Communist revolution could come in such a rural State as Russia. Lenin still insisted he was a Marxist. But he had done his own re-reading of Hegel, which prompts Neil McInnes to consider Leninism as part of the “remystification” process. (The “mystery” was later dispelled by Stalin, whose crude materialism began with bank robbery and ended with mass murders as instruments of policy.)

Lenin always paid lip service to the “working class.” Actually, he believed in professional revolutionaries. Once the Bolshevik professionals had won in Russia, however, Lenin put economics back into the picture. Work had to be done, even though it is always done badly under socialism.

Other “Western Marxists” who turned to “myth” in the Sorelian manner were, as McInnes names them, Antonio Gramsci of Italy (Mussolini beat him to the Sorelian punch and put him in jail), Georg Lukacs of Hungary, and the German Rosa Luxemburg. Since both Gramsci and Lukacs had to accommodate their return-to-Hegel thinking to getting along with official Communist Party doctrine, I have great difficulty in following their turns and tergiversations as outlined by Neil McInnes. Hegel, taken by himself, is doubletalk, but when Marxists who don’t really believe in Marx as a “scientist” try to reconcile the needs of party discipline to the needs of exercising originality it becomes triple-talk. The triple-talk, however, is historically important: it affected the young Marcuse, who brought it to America, and it emerged as “instant revolutionism” in Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Frantz Fan-on, Regis Debray, Rudi Dutschke, Daniel Cohn-Bendt, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Stokeley Carmichael and such “academics” as C. Wright Mills and Noam Chomsky.

Changing the Establishment

What distinguishes the younger “Western Marxists” is their theory that society is a total “establishment” that must be changed all at once. But how do you do this when “labor,” or the “proletariat,” is making the highest wages ever? Marcuse has denied that labor can be the leader in any revolutionary overturn under modern capitalist conditions: the working man has been “bought out.” So we have the “instant revolutionary” trust in the young (see such books at The Greeing of America), the blacks and the poor, all of whom seem to be letting Marcuse down these days as the Vietnam War recedes into the distance and the campuses return to a study of other things beside the art of insurrection.

When ideas get a re-run, says McInnes, they often emerge as grotesquerie. Hegel and the young Marx of the “alienation” period turn up as Zen Marxism, Pop Marxism, existentialist Marxism, and Flower Children estheticism. The “Western Marxists” are long on what they dislike (they object not only to capitalism but to any and all manifestations of industrialism, the Soviet Union included). Georg Lukacs, who looms particularly large in Mr. McInnes’s chronicle, wanted a Communism that would liberate humanity from the very necessity of dependence on economics. His main interest, aside from revolution, was esthetic criticism, and his idea of Utopia, one gathers, was a community of scholars who would be miraculously freed from the necessity of digging and delving. The secret aristocratic bias of many of Mr. McInnes’s “Western Marxists” is evident; they would have been quite at home in ancient Athens with slaves to do their work.

The constructive message of Mr. McInnes’s book might be summed up as “beware of the thinker who insists that society is a totality that must be changed as a unit.” In the first place, society is a ragged, fluid, ever-changing affair. Secondly, any successful unitary coup must result in total repression. Communism and/or Fascism, what is the difference?

 

THE MORALS OF MARKETS by H. B. Acton (London: Longman Group Limited, 1971) 104 pages, £1.75.

Reviewed by M. L. Zupan

Professor Acton has gone a long half way toward providing a moral defense for the competitive market system. For although he does not here offer a positive thesis as such, he effectively demolishes the major historical and prevailing contemporary criticisms of free enterprise.

To accomplish this he relies, not on a detailed analysis of the economic advantages of freedom in transactions — which few deny —but on moral philosophy, in which he is well versed. Most of the criticisms of the market economy have been moral judgments, and the only effective way to deal with them is on their own terms, which Acton has done.

From Plato to the present day there has been a “continuing chorus of disapprobation” of the economic order, with the Eighteenth Century classical liberals’ defense of it providing “only a brief interlude.” Professor Acton catalogs the major forms the criticism has taken: (1) that the profit motive makes selfishness and greed into virtues; (2) that competition engenders strife whereas cooperation and public service are better ways to carry on men’s affairs; (3) that competition leads to monopoly, thus the original freedom is subverted to tyranny; (4) that the goal of production, i.e., satisfaction of needs, is lost sight of in the impersonality of the market place; and (5) that competitive economies are necessarily chaotic and unjust whereas planned societies bring order and fairness.

Acton spends a chapter on each of these accusations, drawing on the actual works of their proponents from Carlyle and Ruskin to Hobson, Tawney and Galbraith. He is not concerned with showing that the virtues of foresight, honesty and reliability fostered by the free market and the practices of exchange, bargaining and competition required for its operation are more worthwhile than the virtues and advantages claimed for socialism — self-sacrifice, cooperation, generosity. Rather, he discusses the appropriate spheres of action and shows that the virtues attributed to the two systems are compatible in men’s lives.

But socialism contains other elements which are incompatible with the tenets and virtues of the free system. In his excellent chapter on egalitarian collectivism and distributive justice he concludes that any attempt to merge these with a free enterprise system must lead to the imposition of a state morality “from which independent thought and action have been unwittingly excluded.”

Along the way we are treated to his sensible approach to some of the opponents’ bugaboos, e.g., monopoly and advertising, and his unsympathetic opinion of trade unions, government subsidies to struggling (“publicly needed”) industries, and taxation to support public relief (which he believes leads to the view that such services are a right).

Professor Acton does little more than clear the ground for a defense of the free market, but we are given some clues as to how such a defense ought to proceed: competitive markets are not ends in themselves, but are right for society because they “give more scope for intellectual and moral excellence.” Thus, he is in line with the Socratic/Aristotelian notion that freedom is good for man not in and of itself, but as the only means by which man might achieve his own excellence.

This is a book which in the midst of the perennial outcries against laissez-faire provides a refreshing and impressive alternative. It is quite readable and, although based on sound philosophy, requires no special knowledge in that or in economics.

 

PASSING OF THE MODERN AGE by John Lukacs (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 222 pp., $7.95 cloth, $2.25 paper.

Reviewed by Haven Bradford Gow

Professor Lukacs examines the era which began four to five hundred years ago, commonly called the Modern Age, in contrast with the Middle Ages and Antiquity. Decline of the West was for Oswald Spengler a philosophical speculation, but the sense of an age on the wane is now based on everyday experience. For at the same time that Western man has attained Olympian heights in science, technology and material prosperity, there is, paradoxically, loss of faith in the civilization which has produced these accomplishments.

Among the signs of the erosion of faith, the author discusses the purposelessness of society; the faithlessness of religion; the mutation of morality; the fiction of prosperity; the decay of science; the destruction of nature. Because of the limitations of space, this review focuses on the last three.

By the “decay of science,” Professor Lukacs refers to the widespread acceptance of the scientific world view to the exclusion of all others, and to the extension of the methodology of the natural sciences into the humanities and social sciences. He strongly suggests an intimate connection between the decay of science and the destruction of nature. For when the scientific world view and the methodology of the natural sciences are deemed sacred, there are pernicious consequences not only in the epistemological order, but in the real world as well.

The scientific world view emphasizes man in sharp contrast with physical nature. Unlike the wiser view of St. Thomas — the view which holds that while man is distinct from nature because he possesses rationality and a soul, he also has a body and is a part of nature — the scientific world view claims that man exists in total independence from nature, and that man therefore can (with impunity) manipulate and rapenature to suit his desires and needs. The result is the destruction of nature which Lukacs writes about.

Clearly, we have heard from too many “doomsday prophets” regarding environmental decay, but Professor Lukacs is of a different breed. He has a valid point to make and his closely-reasoned analysis explodes several myths. For instance:

Few people recognize that the destruction of nature has been proceeding fastest in those regions of the earth where the growth of population has been the slowest (in Western Europe and in the urban regions of the United States)….

Then there is the paradox of prosperity. The people of the Western world, the author tells us, are better off materially than ever before; but these same people are unhappy, frustrated, discontented. Why?

Mainly, the author contends, because we have been trying to cure a spiritual malaise with political nostrums. For many years our politicians and intellectuals have inundated us with political and economic remedies for conditions which really reflect disorders of the spirit. The planners have mistaken the proximate answer to an economic problem for the ultimate solution for every issue of life. They have led us to believe that, if we would just increase economic planning and the GNP and material benefits to those living in the Western world, happiness and peace of mind would surely ensue. But in sober truth, spiritual disorder — confusion as to the meaning and purpose of life—demands a religious solution.

It goes without saying that financial resources are extremely important (we need only to ask the man with heavy medical bills), and such material satisfactions as color television sets, electric toothbrushes, automobiles and expensive cigars are nice to have; but things of this sort cannot adequately minister to the intense demands of the human spirit. Thus, at the end of the Modern Age, we find ourselves in a paradoxical situation: “people are prosperous as never before, [but] immense numbers of them are unhappy and confused. Millions of people are now aware, often painfully, that they do not live by bread alone.”


  • 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.