The youth movement was an impotent and abortive revolt of youth against the menace of bureaucratization. It was doomed because it did not attack the seed of the evil, the trend toward socialization. It was in fact nothing but a confused expression of uneasiness, without any clear ideas and definite plans. The revolting adolescents were so completely under the spell of socialist ideas that they simply did not know what they wanted.
It is evident that youth is the first victim of the trend toward bureaucratization. The young men are deprived of any opportunity to shape their own fate. For them there is no chance left. They are in fact “lost generations” for they lack the most precious right of every rising generation, the right to contribute something new to the old inventory of civilization. The slogan: Mankind has reached the stage of maturity, is their undoing. What are young people to whom nothing is left to change and to improve? Whose only prospect is to start at the lowest rung of the bureaucratic ladder and to climb slowly in strict observance of the rules formulated by older superiors? Seen from their viewpoint bureaucratization means subjection of the young to the domination of the old. This amounts to a return to a sort of caste system.
Caste Conflict and Class Warfare
Among all nations and civilizations—in the ages preceding the rise of modern liberalism and its offspring, capitalism—society was based on status. The nation was divided into castes. There were privileged castes such as kings and noblemen, and underprivileged castes such as serfs and slaves. A man was born into a definite caste, remained in it throughout his whole life, and bequeathed his caste status to his children. He who was born into one of the lower castes was forever deprived of the right to attain one of the stations of life reserved to the privileged. Liberalism and capitalism abolished all such discrimination and made all people equal under the law. Now virtually everybody was free to compete for every place in the community.
This is more than a crisis of the youth. It is a crisis of progress and civilization.
Marxism provides a different interpretation of liberalism’s achievements. The main dogma of Karl Marx is the doctrine of the irreconcilable conflict of economic classes. Capitalist society is divided into classes the interests of which are antagonistic. Thus the class struggle is inevitable. It will disappear only in the future classless society of socialism.
The most remarkable fact about this doctrine is that it has never been explicitly expounded. In the Communist Manifesto the instances used for the exemplification of class struggles are taken from the conflict between castes. Then Marx adds that the modern bourgeois society has established new classes. But he never said what a class is and what he had in mind in speaking of classes and class antagonisms and in coordinating classes to castes. All his writings center around these never-defined terms. Although indefatigable in publishing books and articles full of sophisticated definitions and scholastic hairsplitting, Marx never attempted to explain in unambiguous language what the characteristic mark of an economic class is. When he died, thirty-five years after the publication of the Communist Manifesto, he left the manuscript of the third volume of his main treatise, Capital, unfinished. And, very significantly, the manuscript breaks off just at the point at which the explanation of this fundamental notion of his entire philosophy was to be given. Neither Marx nor any one of the host of Marxian writers could tell us what a social class is, much less whether such social classes really play in the social structure the role assigned to them in the doctrine.
Of course, from the logical viewpoint it is permissible to classify things according to any trait chosen. The question is only whether a classification on the ground of the traits selected is useful for further investigation and for the clarification and amplification of our knowledge. The question is therefore not whether the Marxian classes really exist, but whether they really have the importance attached to them by Marx. Marx failed to provide a precise definition of the concept social class that he had used in all his writings in a loose and uncertain way, because a clear definition would have unmasked its futility and its valuelessness for dealing with economic and social problems and the absurdity of coordinating it to social castes.
The characteristic feature of a caste is its rigidity. The social classes, as Marx exemplified them in calling the capitalists, the entrepreneurs, and the wage earners distinct classes, are characterized by their flexibility. There is a perpetual change in the composition of the various classes. Where today are the scions of those who in the days of Marx were entrepreneurs? And where were the ancestors of the contemporary entrepreneurs in the days of Marx? Access to the various stations of modern capitalist society is open to everyone. We may call the United States senators a class without violating logical principles. But it would be a mistake to coordinate them to a hereditary aristocratic caste, notwithstanding the fact that some senators may be descendants of senators of earlier days.
In the bureaucratic machine of socialism the way toward promotion is not achievement but the favor of the superiors.
The point has already been stressed that the anonymous forces operating on the market are continuously determining anew who should be entrepreneur and who should be capitalist. The consumers vote, as it were, for those who are to occupy the exalted positions in the setting of the nation’s economic structure.
Now under socialism there are neither entrepreneurs nor capitalists. In this sense, namely, that what Marx called a class will no longer exist, he was right to call socialism a classless society. But this is of no avail. There will be other differences in social functions which we can call classes with surely no less justification than that of Marx. There will be those who issue orders and those who are bound to obey these orders unconditionally; there will be those who make plans and those whose job it is to execute these plans.
Architects of Their Own Fortune
The only thing that counts is the fact that under capitalism everybody is the architect of his own fortune. A boy eager to improve his own lot must rely on his own strength and effort. The vote of the consumers passes judgment without respect to persons. The achievements of the candidate, not his person, are valued. Work well done and services well rendered are the only means to succeed.
Under socialism, on the contrary, the beginner must please those already settled. They do not like too efficient newcomers. (Neither do old-established entrepreneurs like such men; but, under the supremacy of the consumers, they cannot prevent their competition.) In the bureaucratic machine of socialism the way toward promotion is not achievement but the favor of the superiors. The youth depends entirely on the kind disposition of the old men. The rising generation is at the mercy of the aged.
It is useless to deny this fact. There are no Marxian classes within a socialist society. But there is an irreconcilable conflict between those who are in favor with Stalin and Hitler and those who are not. And it is simply human for a dictator to prefer those who share his opinions and praise his work to those who do not.
It was in vain that the Italian Fascists made a hymn to youth their party song and that the Austrian socialists taught the children to sing: “We are young and this is fine.” It is not fine to be a young man under bureaucratic management. The only right that young people enjoy under this system is to be docile, submissive, and obedient. There is no room for unruly innovators who have their own ideas.
This is more than a crisis of the youth. It is a crisis of progress and civilization. Mankind is doomed when the youths are deprived of the opportunity to remodel society according to their own fashion.
Excerpted from Bureaucracy (1944).