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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Marxism like Christianity is a term that stands for a
family of doctrines attributed to a founder who could
not have plausibly subscribed to all of them, since some
of these doctrines flatly contradict each other. Conse-
quently any account that professes to do justice to
Marxism must be more than an account of the ideas
of Karl Marx even if it takes its point of departure
from him.

As a set of ideas one of the remarkable things about
Marxism is that it is continually being revived despite
formidable and sometimes definitive criticisms of its
claims and formulations. For this and other reasons,
it cannot be conceived as a purely scientific set of ideas
designed “to lay bare the economic law of motion of
modern society” (Preface to first edition of Capital)
and to explain all cultural and political developments
in terms of it. There is little doubt that Karl Marx
himself thought that his contributions were as scientific
in the realm of social behavior as Newton's in the field
of physics and Darwin's in biology. But there is no
such thing as a recurring movement of Newtonianism
or Darwinism in physics or biology. The mark of a
genuine science is its cumulative development. The
contributions of its practitioners are assimilated and
there is no return to the original forms of theories or
doctrines of the past.

The existence of Marxism as a social and political
movement inspired by a set of ideas, sometimes in open
opposition to other movements, is further evidence that
we are dealing with a phenomenon that is not purely
scientific. For such a movement obviously goes beyond
mere description or the discovery of truth. That its
normative goals may in some sense be based upon
descriptive truths, i.e., not incompatible with them,
may justify using the term “scientific” at best to differ-


entiate these goals from those that are arbitrary or
impossible of achievement.

Marxism has often been compared with, and some-
times characterized as, a religion with its sacred books,
prophets, authoritative spokesmen, etc. But this is not
very illuminating until there is agreement about the
nature of religion, a theme which is even more ambig-
uous and controversial than that of Marxism. Nonethe-
less there are some important features which Marxism
shares with some traditional religions that explain at
least in part its recurrent appeal despite its theoretical

Marxism is a monistic theory that offers an explana-
tory key to everything important that occurs in history
and society. This key is the mode of economic produc-
tion, its functioning, the class divisions and conflicts
it generates, its limiting and, in the end, its determining
effect upon the outcome of events. It provides a never
failing answer to the hunger for explanation among
those adversely affected by the social process. That the
explanations are mostly ad hoc, that predictions are
not fulfilled, like the increasing pauperization of the
working class, that important events occur that were
not predicted like the rise of Fascism, the emergence
of a new service-industry oriented middle class, the
discovery of nuclear technology—are not experienced
as fatal, or even embarrassing, difficulties. Just as belief
that everything happens by the will of God is compati-
ble with whatever occurs, so belief in the explanatory
primacy of the mode of economic production and its
changes is compatible with any social or political oc-
currence if sufficient subsidiary hypotheses are intro-
duced. That is why although Marxism as a social and
political movement may be affected by the events and
conditions it failed to explain (like the latter-day afflu-
ence of capitalist society), as a set of vague beliefs it
is beyond refutation. In the course of its history, now
more than a century old, few, if any, Marxists have
been prepared to indicate under what empirical or
evidential conditions they were prepared to abandon
their doctrines as invalid.

A second reason for the recurrence of Marxism in
various guises—there are today existentialist Marxisms
and even Catholic Marxisms—is that its theories are an
expression of hope. Marxisms of whatever kind all hold
out the promise, if not the certainty, of social salva-
tion, or at the very least, relief from the malaise and
acute crises of the time. Whether the future is con-
ceived in apocalyptic terms or less dramatically, it is
one with a prospect of victory through struggle, a vic-
tory that will insure peace, freedom, prosperity, and sur-
cease from whatever evils flow from an improperly
organized and unplanned society, dominated by the
commodity producing quest for ever renewed profit.

The third reason for the recurrence of Marxism is
a whole series of semantic ambiguities that permit
Marxists to appeal to individuals and groups of demo-
cratic sentiment despite the fact that Marxists often
direct savage and unfair criticisms against nonsocialist
democracies. The growth of democratic sentiment and
the allegiance to the principle of self-determination
in all areas of personal and social life are universal
phenomena. They are marked by the fact that almost
every totalitarian regime seeks to pass itself off as one
or another form of democracy. Marxists, for reasons
that will be made clearer below, are the most adept
and successful in presenting Marxism as a philosophy
of the democratic left, despite the existence of ruthless
despotisms in the USSR and Red China, and other
countries that profess to be both socialist and Marxist.
Although the existence of these two dictatorial regimes
and of other avowedly Marxist regimes in Eastern
Europe creates some embarrassment for those who
identify the Marxist movement with the movement
towards democracy, the terrorist practices of these
regimes are glossed over and explained away. They are
represented either as excesses of regimes unfaithful to
their own socialist ideals or as temporary measures of
defense against enemies of democracy within or with-

Finally there are certain elements of truth in Marx-
ism that, however vague, explain some events and some
facets of the social scene that involve the growth of
industrial society and its universal spread, the impact
of scientific technology, the pressure of conflicting
economic class interests and their resolution. Although
not exclusively Marxist, these insights and outlooks
have been embodied in the Marxist traditions. They
function to sustain by association, so to speak, the more
specific Marxist doctrines in the belief system of their
advocates. Although they are generalized beyond the
available evidence, they bestow a certain plausibility
on Marxist thought when other conditions further their

This brings us to the important and disputed question
of what constitutes the nature of Marxism. What are
the characteristic doctrines associated with the Marxist
outlook upon the world? For present purposes we are
distinguishing Marxism and its variants from the ques-
tion of what Marx and Engels really meant. Histori-
cally, this question is by far not as significant as what
they have been taken to mean. Marx like Christ might
have disowned all of his disciples: it would not affect
how their meaning has been historically interpreted
and what was done in the light of that interpretation.
It may be that in the future there will be other inter-
pretations of what Marx really meant and that even
today there are several esoteric views of his thought


different from those to be considered but they obvi-
ously cannot be considered as part of intellectual his-

There are three main versions of Marxism identifi-
able in the history of ideas that have received wide
support. The first, oldest, and closest to the lives of
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in point of time is the
Social-Democratic version. The second version which
acquired widespread influence after the October 1917
Russian Revolution is the Communist version, some-
times called the Bolshevik-Leninist view. The third
version, which emerged after the Second World War,
may be called “existentialist.” Marxism is regarded
from an existentialist view as primarily a theory of
human alienation, and of how to overcome it. It is
based primarily on Marx's unpublished Paris economic-
philosophical manuscripts first made available in 1932.
Although these three interpretations of Marxism are
not compartmentalized in that they share some com-
mon attitudes, values, and beliefs, some of their basic
theories are incompatible with each other. It would
not be too much to say that if the basic theories of
one of these three interpretations are taken to be true
they entail the falsity of the corresponding basic the-
ories of the other two.


The first version of Marxism is represented mainly
by the writings of the later Engels, the early Eduard
Bernstein, Karl Kautsky, George Plekhanov, and in the
United States by Daniel De Leon. It accepts as literally
valid six interrelated complexes of propositions.

1. The fundamental and determining factor in all
societies is the mode of economic production. All im-
portant changes in the culture of a period—its politics,
ethics, religion, philosophy, and art—are ultimately to
be explained in terms of changes in the economic

2. The capitalist mode of economic production is
fundamentally unstable. It cannot guarantee, except for
very limited periods, continued employment for the
masses, a decent standard of living, and sufficient profit
for the entrepreneurs to justify continued production.
The consequence is growing mass misery culminating
in the crisis and breakdown of the system of produc-
tion. The deficiencies and fate of capitalism are not
due to any specific persons or human actions, but flow
from the law of value and surplus value in a com-
modity-producing society. The collapse of capitalism
and its replacement by a socialist classless society are

3. Classes are defined by the role they play in pro-
duction. Their conflicting economic interests give rise
to economic class struggles that override on crucial
occasions and, in the long run, all other kinds of
struggle—religious, racial, national, etc. The variations
in the intensity of these types of struggle, even their
origin, are directly or indirectly a consequence of the
“underlying” economic class struggle.

4. The state is an integral part of the political and
legal order. It therefore has a class character which
must be changed through class struggles, peaceful
where possible, violent where not, before the forces
of production can be liberated from the quest for
ever-renewed profit and utilized for the benefit of the
entire community, in which the economic exploitation
of men by other men is no longer possible.

5. Capitalism prepares the way for the new socialist
society by intensive development and centralization of
industry, concentration of capital, and rationalization
of the techniques of production. These are necessary
presuppositions of a socialized, planning society in
which the abolition of private ownership of the social
means of production, and its vestment in the commu-
nity as a whole, abolishes the economic class divisions
of the past.

6. The movement towards socialism is a movement
towards democracy. Political democracy must be de-
fended against all its detractors and enemies but from
the point of view of democracy as a way of life, it
is necessary but not sufficient. Political democracy must
be used to achieve a complete democracy by extending
democratic values and principles into economic and
social life. Where democracy does not exist the socialist
movement must introduce it. (The Communist Mani-
because of the absence of political democracy
on the European Continent, advocated revolution by
forcible overthrow.) Where democracy already exists,
the working class can achieve power by peaceful par-
liamentary means (cf. Engels' critique of the Erfurt
Program in 1891 and also his introduction to the first
English translation of Capital).

There are many other doctrines that are part of the
Marxist position (like equality between the sexes, self-
determination for national minorities, the desirability
of trade unions and cooperatives) that are easily deriv-
able from the above propositions and some implicit
value judgments about the desirability of human dig-
nity, freedom, and creative self-fulfillment, even though
they are obviously not uniquely entailed by them.

Marxism, in this its original version, was primarily
a social philosophy. Its spokesmen as a rule adopted
positions in philosophy and religion only in opposition
to those metaphysical or theological doctrines whose
suspected impact obstructed the growth of the working
class movement and the development of its socialist
consciousness. Philosophical and religious freedom of
thought were extended to all thinkers who accepted


the complex of social and economic propositions
enumerated above which defined the theoretical
Marxist orthodoxy of the German Social-Democratic
Party and the majority of the members of the Second
International. Dialectical materialism, for example,
despite its espousal by Engels in his Anti-Dühring
(1878) and Ludwig Feuerbach... (1888; trans. as
Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical
German Philosophy,
1934), was of peripheral impor-
tance in the Marxism that flourished up to 1917. The
attack on Eduard Bernstein as a revisionist of Marxism
was motivated primarily by his criticism of the first
four of the complex of propositions identified above,
and of the party programs of the political movement
based on Marxism. It was only because he rejected the
economic analysis of his party comrades and the politi-
cal program presumably based on it (he approved its
day-by-day activities) that attacks were made on his
philosophical views.

The predominant characteristic of Social-Demo-
cratic Marxist thought is its determinism, its reliance
upon the immanent processes of social development
to create the conditions that would impel human beings
to rationalize the whole of economic production in the
same explicit and formal way in which an efficient
industrial plant is organized. Formulated during an era
in which the theory of evolution was being extrapo-
lated from the field of biology to all other fields, espe-
cially the social and cultural areas of human activity,
the laws of social development were considered uni-
versal, necessary, and progressive. The vocabulary was
not very precise, partly because of the popular audi-
ence to which the teachings of Marxism were ad-
dressed. But even in Capital, as well as in his more
popular writings, Marx used the term “inevitable” in
describing the laws of economic change in heralding
the collapse of capitalism. Engels was particularly
addicted to the vocabulary of necessitarianism. Al-
though aware of the differences in the subject matter
of the natural and social sciences, and opposed to the
reduction of the latter to the former, Marxists regarded
the laws in both domains as working themselves out
with an ineluctable “iron” necessity.

The concept of social necessity remained unex-
amined by the Marxist theoreticians and could not be
squared, when strictly interpreted, with the recognition
of alternatives of development, alternatives of action,
and objective possibilities presupposed in the practical
programs of the Marxist movement of the time. None-
theless it possessed a rational kernel of great impor-
tance. For it stressed the importance of social readiness,
preparedness, and maturity as a test and check on
proposals for reform and revolution. It served as a
brake upon the adventurism and euphoria of action
induced by revolutionary rhetoric, and also as a conso-
lation in defeat when objective conditions were proved
to be unripe.

On the other hand, belief in the concept of social
necessity tended psychologically to inhibit risk-taking
actions, especially as the Marxist movement and its
political parties increased in influence and acquired a
feeling of responsibility. Belief in determinism, and in
the heartening conviction that the structure of the
socialist society was being built within the shell of the
old even by those opposed to socialism, could not
obviate the necessity of making choices in economics
and politics, whether it was a question of supporting
a call for a general strike, or voting for welfare and/or
war budgets. But it naturally tended to reinforce in
practice, if not in rhetoric, the choice of the moderate
course, the one less likely to provoke opposition that
might eventuate in violence and bloodshed. And why
not, if the future, so to speak, was already in the bag?

This attitude of caution and restraint was reinforced
by the implicitly teleological interpretation of evolu-
tionary processes. What came later in time was as-
sumed to be “higher” or “better”; setbacks were only
temporary, the reverse stroke of an historical spiral that
had only one direction—upward to a higher level. This
led in practice to a commitment to the inevitability
of gradualism
so that the very pace of reforms tended
to slow down as a sense of the urgent, the critical,
and the catastrophic in history eased, and became
replaced by a feeling of security in the overall devel-
opment of history. Even the outbreak of the First
World War in 1914, which destroyed the belief in the
necessarily progressive character of change, failed to
dispel the moderation of the Social-Democratic variant
of Marxism. It was unprepared not only to take power
but to exercise it vigorously when power was thrust
upon it—at the close of the first World War in
Germany. It moved towards the welfare state very
slowly, partly in fear of provoking civil war.

Beginning with the last decade of the nineteenth
century, as Social-Democratic movements gained
strength in Europe, an enormous literature has been
devoted to the exposition, criticism, and evaluation of
Marxism. At first neglected, then refuted, then reinter-
preted, modified, and qualified, Marxism in all its
varieties has become at present perhaps the strongest
single intellectual current of modern social thought.
It has left a permanent impress upon economic histori-
ans like Max Weber and Charles Beard, even as they
disavowed belief in its basic ideas. Here we shall offer
only a brief review of the principal interpretations of
the historical role and validity of the central notions
of Marxism.

1. The doctrine of historical materialism is accepted


by many historians as a heuristic aid in describing the
ways a society functions, its class power relations, and
their influence on cultural activities. But it is woefully
deficient in clarity with respect to all its basic terms.
It is clear enough that it is not an economic determin-
ism of human motives of a Benthamite variety, nor
a technological determinism à la Veblen. But the con-
nection between “the social relations of production”
and “the material forces of production” is left obscure,
so that there is some doubt whether the basic motor
forces of historical development are tools, techniques,
and inventions, especially what Whitehead calls “the
invention of the method of invention,” all of which
express the productive drive of human beings—a drive
which would open the door to a psychological, idealis-
tic interpretation—or whether the immanent laws of
the social relations of production are the ultimate
determinants. Actually although many historians ex-
press indebtedness to Marxism for its theory of histori-
cal materialism, they mean no more by this doctrine
than that “economics,” in one of its many different
meanings, must always be taken into account in an
adequate understanding of history. But so must many
other things that are not economic.

There is a further difficulty in ascertaining whether
Marxism asserts that “social relations of production”
or “the mode of economic production” determines the
cultural superstructure, and if so to what degree, or
merely conditions it. If it is taken to mean that it
determines culture in all important aspects—historical
monism—it is obviously untenable. In the face of evi-
dence to the contrary, Marxists are wont to introduce
reference to other factors reserving the determination
of these factors by the mode of economic produc-
tion—“in the last analysis”—despite the fact that
scientifically speaking there is no such thing as “the
last analysis.”

The monistic determinism of Marxism is conspicuous
in its treatment of “great men” in history. From Engels
to Kautsky to Plekhanov to all lesser lights it is dog-
matically assumed that no event-making personality
has existed such that in his absence anything very
important in history would have been different. With
respect to any great event or phase of social develop-
ment it is assumed that “no man is indispensable.”
Nonetheless, to cite only one difficulty, the over-
whelming evidence seems to show that without Lenin
there would in all likelihood have been in 1917 no
October Russian Revolution.

Even if all problems of meaning are resolved and
every trace of incoherence is removed from the theory
of historical materialism, its claims that the mode of
economic production determines politics, that “no
social order ever perishes before all the productive
forces for which there is room in it have developed,”
and that no new social order can develop except on
the basis of the economic foundations that have been
prepared for it—have all been decisively refuted by
the origin, rise, and development of the USSR and
Communist China. Marxism as a theory of social de-
velopment has been proved false by the actions of
adherents of the Marxism of Bolshevik-Leninism. Lenin
and his party seized political power in an industrially
backward country and proceeded to do what the the-
ory of historical materialism declared it was impossible
to do—build the economic foundations of a new society
by the political means of a totalitarian state.

2. The economic theory of Marxism is clearer than
the theory of historical materialism, and events have
more clearly invalidated it by negating its specific
predictions especially the pauperization of the working
classes, and the continuous decline in the rate of profit.
The theory failed to predict the rise of what has been
called the “new middle class” of the service industries
as well as the economics of the totalitarian state, on
the one hand, and of the welfare state, on the other.
Even before events invalidated the Marxist economic
assumptions, the theoretical structure of Marxist eco-
nomics never recovered from Eugen Böhm-Bawerk's
searching critique in the 1890's of its inconsistencies.
Much more successful were the Marxist predictions
about the historical development of capitalism, even
though they did not uniquely follow from his theory
of value and surplus value. The Marxists foresaw the
growth of monopolistic tendencies, the impact of sci-
ence on industrial technology, the periodic business
cycle (although mistaken about its increasing magni-
tude), and imperialistic expansion in quest for foreign
markets. Although Marxists anticipated progressive and
cumulative difficulties for the capitalist system, as
Joseph Schumpeter and others in the twentieth century
have pointed out, they failed to see that these difficul-
ties resulted from the successes of the system rather
than from its failures.

3. The Marxist theory of the class struggle differs
from all other theories of the class struggle in that it
weights the component of economic class membership
more heavily than any other theory in relation to other
social groupings and associations, and in its expectation
that economic class struggles will cease when the social
instruments of production are collectivized. Although
economic class interests and struggles play a large and
indisputable role in political, social, and cultural life,
on crucial occasions nationalist and religious ties have
exercised greater weight. Although the international
Marxist movement was pledged to a general strike
against war, when World War I broke out, French
workmen, instead of making common cause with


German workmen against their respective ruling
classes, joined their “domestic exploiters,” the French
capitalists, in a common “national front” or “sacred
union.” The same was true in all major countries.
National allegiance almost always proves stronger than
class allegiance when national interest and class interest
conflict. The union of capitalist Great Britain and
United States supporting the socialist USSR against the
invasion by capitalist Germany not only constitutes a
difficulty for the theory of historical materialism—since
the mode of economic production here was not deci-
sive—but also for the theory of the class struggle, since
the differences between the economic interests of the
capitalist class as a whole and those of the USSR, espe-
cially in its opposition to capitalism declared from its
very birth, are obviously far greater than the differ-
ences among the capitalists themselves. Even within
the culture of a single capitalist country the Marxist
theory of the class struggle fails to account for the
degree and extent of class cooperation. The organized
American labor movement seems just as hostile to
collectivism as an economy and to communism as a
political system as is the National Association of Man-

With the advent of collectivist economies in the
Soviet Union and elsewhere, class struggles have not
disappeared but have taken on a new form, sometimes
expressed in strikes that are legally forbidden, in wide-
spread pilfering, the use of a private sector to buy and
sell, growth of bureaucratic privileges that some ob-
servers regard as indicia of a new class, and disparities
in income and standards of living that are not too far
removed from the upper and lower ranges of earned
income in some capitalist countries. V. Pareto and
Robert Michels, who agreed with Marxism that class
struggles rage in society but disagreed with Marxism
in holding that these struggles would continue even
after Marxists came to power in what they call a
socialist society, seem to have been justified by events.

Very little was done to solve some of the obvious
difficulties in using the concept of class consistently
with its definition, viz., the role played by individuals
in the mode of production. In ordinary discourse, the
various meanings of class take their meanings from the
varied contexts in which they are used. One would have
expected an attempt by Marxists to show that the chief
uses of the term “class” that are different are derivative
from the central Marxist one. Even more important
was the failure to relate the concept of class interest
to individual interest. Marxism is not a theory of human
motivation, and especially not a theory of self-interest
or egoism. The question remains: how does class inter-
est get expressed? Classes are not individuals. They are
abstractions. Only individuals act in history. On the
Marxist theory of class, regardless of whether individual
members of the class are selfish or unselfish, the inter-
ests of their class presumably get expressed. How does
this happen and through what mechanisms? Is there
an implicit statistical judgment that describes the be-
havior of most members of a class or are there repre-
sentative leaders who speak for the class? These are
some of the questions that remained unexplored, with
the result that the concept of class interest, often in-
voked, appeared as vague and mystical as “national
interest,” “the spirit of the times,” “the spirit of the
people,” and similar expressions.

4. The Marxist theory of the state in its simplest
form asserts that the state—consisting of the legislature,
courts, and armed forces—is nothing but “the executive
committee of the dominant economic class.” If this
were so, it would be hard to explain the character of
much of the criminal law or rules of evidence and
procedure, which reflect either common ethical norms
or professional interests not directly related to eco-
nomic interests. The Marxist movement soon discov-
ered that its economic power could be wielded in a
political way to bring pressure on the state to liberalize
and humanize the social relationships of men, and to
reduce inequalities in living conditions. It soon discov-
ered that with the extension of the franchise it could
use the state power to redistribute social wealth
through taxation, subsidies, and price supports. Under
such circumstances the state, especially when it func-
tions as a welfare state, does not act as the “executive
committee” of the dominant economic class. It may
do things that are bitterly opposed by that class. The
state, then, becomes the instrument of that class or
coalition of classes strong enough to win electoral
victory. Allowing for time lags, where the democratic
process prevails the state can become more responsive
to those groups that wield political power with major-
ity electoral support, than to dominant economic in-

5. Marxism as a movement became unfaithful to
Marxism as a theory because of the success of capital-
ism in sustaining a relative prosperity—even if uncer-
tain and discontinuous in times of acute crisis. Over
the years, the numbers of the unemployed and poverty-
stricken decreased instead of increasing. Real wages
increased. Nonetheless, in order to achieve and sustain
this relative affluence the state or government had to
intervene in the economy with controls and plans
foreign to the spirit and structure of a free market
economy. The result has been a type of mixed econ-
omy—a private and public (often hidden) sector, un-
anticipated by the theorists both of capitalism and
socialism. It turns out that the free enterprise economy
of capitalism and the fully planned and planning col-


lectivist economy of socialism are neither exclusive nor
exhaustive possible social alternatives, and that in the
political struggles of democracy the issue was rarely
posed as a stark choice between either a free economy
or a planned economy, either capitalism or socialism,
but rather as a choice between “more or less.”

6. The Marxism of the Social-Democratic movement
became transformed into a broad democratic people's
front in which socialist measures are the means of
extending democracy, providing security, defending
human dignity and freedom. It no longer speaks in the
name of the working class even when the latter consti-
tutes its mass base but instead in behalf of the common
interest and common good. Despite the revolutionary
rhetoric, it has become a people's socialism. Marxism
is no longer the ideology of the German Social-Demo-
cratic Party whose program in broad outline (in the
1960's) barely differs from the liberal wing of the
Democratic Party in the USA or the Labor Party in
Great Britain. A multiplicity of problems remain to
be met in order to make the Welfare State truly de-
voted to the human welfare of all its citizens. Progress
is no longer regarded as automatic but as requiring
patience and hard work. But so long as the processes
of freely given consent are not abridged in democratic
countries and so long as large-scale war is avoided, the
prospects of continued improvement are encouraging.


Marxism of the Bolshevik-Leninist persuasion is an
extreme voluntaristic revision of the Social-Democratic
variety that flourished in the period from the death
of Marx (1883) to the outbreak of the First World War
in 1914. The fact that it claims for itself the orthodoxy
of the canonic tradition has about the same significance
as the claims of Protestant leaders that they were
returning to the orthodoxy of early Christianity. Even
before the First World War, in Tsarist Russia the Bol-
shevik faction of the Russian Social-Democratic move-
ment had taken positions that evoked charges from its
opponents that the leaders of the group were disciples
of Bakunin and Blanqui, rather than of Marx and
Engels. Their voluntarism, especially in its orga-
nizational bearings, received a classic expression in
Lenin's work What Is To Be Done? (1902). But the
emergence of Bolshevik-Leninism as a systematic re-
construction of traditional Marxism was stimulated by
the failure of the Social-Democratic movement to resist
the outbreak of the First World War, and the disregard
of the Basel Resolutions (1912) of the Second Interna-
tional to call a general strike; by the Bolshevik seizure
of power in the October Russian Revolution of 1917
and the consequent necessity of justifying that and
subsequent events in Marxist terms; by the accession
of Stalin to the supreme dictatorial post in the Soviet
Union; and, finally, by the adoption of the systematic
policy of building socialism in one country (the Soviet
Union) marked by the collectivization of agricul-
ture—in some ways a more revolutionary measure, and
in all ways a bloodier and more terroristic one, than
the October Revolution itself. The chief prophet of
Marxist-Leninism was Stalin, and the doctrine bears
the stigmata of his power and personality. Until his
death in 1953, he played the same role in determining
what the correct Marxist line was in politics, as well
as in all fields of the arts and sciences, as the Pope
of Rome in laying down the Catholic line in the do-
mains of faith and morals. Although Stalin made no
claim to theoretical infallibility, he exercised supreme
authority to a point where disagreement with him on
any controversial matter of moment might spell death.

The Bolshevik-Leninist version of Marxism got a
hearing outside Russia, at first not in virtue of its doc-
trines, but because of its intransigeant opposition to
the First World War. The Social-Democratic version
of Marxism was attacked as a “rationalization” of po-
litical passivity, particularly for its failure to resist the
war actively. Actually there was no necessary connec-
tion between the deterministic outlook of Social De-
mocracy and political passivity, since its electoral suc-
cesses were an expression of widespread political
activity albeit of a non-revolutionary sort. Further, not
only did some Social-Democratic determinists with a
belief in the spontaneity of mass action, like Rosa
Luxemburg, oppose the war, but even Eduard Bern-
stein, the non-revolutionary revisionist, who ardently
believed that German Social Democracy should trans-
form itself into a party of social reform, took a strong
stand against the War. The attitude of Social Democ-
racy to the First World War in most countries was more
a tribute to the strength of its nationalism than a
corollary of its belief in determinism. Nonetheless, the
Bolsheviks on the strength of their anti-war position
were able to insinuate doubts among some working-
class groups, not only about the courage and loyalty
to internationalist ideals of Social-Democratic parties,
but about their Marxist faith and socialist convictions.

After the Bolshevik Party seized power in October
1917 and then forcibly dissolved the democratically
elected Constituent Assembly, whose delayed convo-
cation had been one of the grounds offered by that
Party for the October putsch, and in which they were
a small minority (19%), it faced the universal condem-
nation of the Social-Democratic Parties affiliated with
the Second Socialist International. In replying to these
criticisms Lenin laid down the outlines of a more
voluntaristic Marxism, that affected the meaning and
emphasis of the complex of doctrines of traditional


Marxism, especially its democratic commitments, in a
fundamental way.

Finally with Lenin's death and the destruction of
intra-party factions, which had preserved some vestig-
ial traits of democratic dissent, the necessity of con-
trolling public opinion in all fields led to the trans-
formation of Marxism into a state philosophy enforced
by the introduction of required courses in dialectical
materialism and Marxist-Leninism on appropriate
educational levels. Heretical ideas in any field ulti-
mately fell within the purview of interest of the secret
police. Censorship, open and veiled, enforced by a
variety of carrots and whips, pervaded the whole of
cultural life.

As a state philosophy Marxist-Leninism is marked
by several important features that for purposes of
expository convenience may be contrasted with earlier
Social-Democratic forms of Marxist belief.

1. Marxism became an all-inclusive system in which
its social philosophy was presented as an application
and expression of the ontological laws of a universal
and objective dialectic. During the heyday of Social-
Democratic Marxism, the larger philosophical impli-
cations and presuppositions of its social philosophy
were left undeveloped. So long as the specific party
program of social action was not attacked, the widest
tolerance was extended to philosophical and theolog-
ical views. There was no objection even to the belief
that God was a Social Democrat. Social Democrats,
without losing their good standing within their move-
ment, could be positivists, Kantians, Hegelians,
mechanistic materialists, even, as in the case of Karl
Liebknecht, subjectivists of a sort in their epistemology.

All this changed with the development and spread
of Marxist-Leninism. The works of Engels, particularly
his Anti-Dühring and Dialectics of Nature, of Lenin's
Materialism and Empirio-Criticism and Notebooks, and
subsequently, those of Stalin, became the sacred texts
of a comprehensive system of dialectical materialism,
devoted to explaining “the laws of motion in nature,
society and mind.” The details of the system and its
inadequacies need not detain us here (Hook, 1941;
1959), but what it professed to prove was that the laws
of dialectic guaranteed the victory of communist soci-
ety, that no one could consistently subscribe to the
ontology of dialectical materialism without being a
communist and, more fateful, that no one could be a
communist or a believer in communist society without
being a dialectical materialist.

The comprehensiveness of this state philosophy re-
sulted in a far flung net of new orthodox dogma being
thrown over all fields from astronomy to zoology, the
development of what was in effect a two-truth theory,
ordinary scientific truth and the higher dialectical truth
which corrected the one-sidedness of the former, and
political control of art and science. All communist
parties affiliated with the Third Communist Interna-
tional were required to follow the lead of the Russian
Communist Party. The literalness of the new orthodoxy
is evidenced in the fact that the antiquated anthropo-
logical view of Engels and its primitive social evolu-
tionism, based upon the findings of Lewis Morgan's
pioneer work, Ancient Society (1877; 1959), were re-
vived and aggressively defended against the criticisms
of Franz Boas, Alexander Goldenweiser, Robert Lowie,
and other investigators who, without any discredit to
Morgan's pioneer effort, had cited mountains of evi-
dence to show that social evolution was neither uni-
versal, unilinear, automatic, or progressive. Oddly
enough the acceptance of the Engels-Morgan theory
of social evolution, according to which no country can
skip any important phase in its industrial development,
would be hard to reconcile with the voluntarism of
Bolshevik-Leninism, which transformed Russia from a
backward capitalist country with strong feudal vestiges
into a highly complex and modern industrial socialist

Reasoning from the dubious view that all things were
dialectically interrelated, and the still more dubious
view that a mistaken view in any field ultimately led
to a mistaken view in every other field, including
politics, and assuming that the party of Bolshevik-
Leninism was in possession of the truth in politics, and
that this therefore gave it the authority to judge the
truth of any position in the arts and sciences in the
light of its alleged political consequences, a continuous
purge of ideas and persons, in accordance with the
shifting political lines, marks the intellectual history
of the Soviet Union. Here, as often elsewhere in the
world, theoretical absurdities prepared the way for the
moral atrocities whose pervasiveness and horror were
officially partly revealed in N. Khrushchev's speech
before the XXth Congress of the Russian Communist
Party in 1956. Most of what Khrushchev revealed was
already known in the West through the publications
of escapees and defectors from the Soviet Union, and
the publications of Commissions of Inquiry into the
Truth of the Moscow Trials, headed by John Dewey.

1. The theory of historical materialism was invoked
by all the socialist and Marxist critics of Bolshevik-
Leninism since, if it were valid, a prima facie case
could be made against Lenin and his followers for
attempting to skip a stage of industrial development
and introduce socialism in a backward country. Lenin
and Trotsky in consequence reinterpreted the theory
by asserting that the world economy had to be treated
as a whole, that the world was already prepared for
socialism as a result of modern science, technology,


and industry, and that the political revolution could
break out at the weakest link in the world economic
system as a whole. This would serve as a spark that
would set the more advanced industrial countries like
England, the USA, and Germany into revolutionary
motion (places where Marx and Engels had expected
socialism originally to come). This meant, of course,
that the theory of historical materialism could no
longer explain the specific political act of revolution,
since on the theory of the weakest link, a political
revolution by a Marxist party anywhere in the world,
even in the Congo, could trigger off the world socialist

On the theory of the weakest link, after the political
revolution successfully took its course and spread to
other countries, the world socialist revolution, marked
by the socialization of affluence, would be initiated by
advanced industrial countries, with Russia and China
once more bringing up the rear because of their primi-
tive economies. But they would be the last in a socialist
world, and only temporarily, until the world socialist
economy was established and strategic goods and
sources flowed to areas of greatest human need.

When the theory of the “weakest link” led in prac-
tice to the fact of a severed or isolated link, in conse-
quence of the failure of the October Russian Revolution
to inspire socialist revolutions in the West, the program
of “building socialism in one country” was adopted.
The attempt to build socialism in one country—and
in a bankrupt, war-torn, poverty-stricken country at
that—flew in the face of any reasonable interpretation
of historical materialism. Nonetheless, by a combina-
tion of great courage, and still greater determination
and ruthlessness, and aided by the ineptitude of their
political opponents, the Bolshevik-Leninists succeeded
in doing what the theory of historical materialism
declared impossible. There is no doubt but that a new
economy had been constructed by political means.
Despite this, however, the theory that the economic
base determines politics and not vice versa is still ca-
nonic doctrine in all communist countries.

2. In expectation of the socialist revolution occur-
ring in the highly industrialized countries of the West,
the theorists of Marxist-Leninism have clung to the
letter of Marx's critique of capitalism and his predic-
tions. For decades they have painted a picture of mass
misery and starvation in the West. They have denied
that capitalism has been modified in any significant way
and that the Welfare State exploits the workers any
less than the more individualistic economies it re-
placed. On the contrary, their claim is that economi-
cally the rich get richer, and the poor become poorer—
and the rest is bourgeois propaganda.

3. The concept of “class” has been quite trouble-
some to Marxist-Leninism particularly with Stalin's
declaration that a “classless” society had been intro-
duced in the Soviet Union with the adoption of its new
constitution of 1936. If the concept of “proletariat”
or “working class” is a polar one it implies, when
concretely used, a “capitalist class.” But if capitalism
is abolished and all social ownership is vested in the
community, who or which is the exploiting class? On
a functional conception of property, viz., the legal
right or power to exclude others from the use of things
and services in which property is claimed, critics have
argued that the social property of the Soviet Union
in effect belongs to the Communist Party considered
as a corporate body. And although there is no right
to individual testamentary transmission, so long as the
Communist Party enjoys the privileged position as-
signed to it in the Soviet Constitution, in effect, one
set of leaders, in the name of the Party, inherits the
power over social property from its predecessors, and
the differential use and privileges that power bestows.
Milovan Djilas, in his The New Class... (1957), on
the basis of his study and experience in Yugoslavia and
the Soviet Union argued that in current communist
societies the bureaucracy constituted a ruling elite
enjoying social privileges which justified calling it a
“class.” Subsequently other writers claimed that divi-
sions and conflicts within the ruling elite presented a
picture of greater class complexity (Albert Parry, The
New Class Divided,
1966). It is obvious that the
Marxist-Leninist concept of class cannot do justice to
the Soviet, not to speak of the Chinese experience, in
which peasants are often referred to as proletariat in
order to give some semblance of sense to the termi-
nological Marxist pieties of the Communist Party.

Actually the position of the worker is unique in the
Soviet Union, in that it corresponds neither to the
“association of free producers,” envisaged by Marx nor
to “the Soviet democracy” used by Lenin as a slogan
to come to power. Nor is it like the position of the
workers in modern capitalist societies, since the Soviet
workers cannot organize free trade unions independent
of the state, cannot without punitive risk leave their
jobs, cannot travel without a passport and official per-
mission, and cannot appeal to an independent judiciary
if they run afoul of the authorities. Oscar Lange, the
Polish communist economist, before his return to
Poland, and while he was still a left-wing Socialist,
characterized the Soviet economy as “an industrial
serfdom” with the workers in the role of modern serfs.
Like the phrases “state capitalism” and “state social-
ism,” which have also been applied to the Soviet
Union, this indicates that present-day communist eco-
nomics and class relationships require a new set of
economic and political categories to do justice to them.


Nonetheless, that its economy is distinctive, although
sharing some of the features of classical capitalism and
classical socialism, is undeniable.

4. Even more embarrassing is the nature of the state
in the Marxist-Leninist theory. If the state is by defini-
tion “the executive committee of the ruling class,” then
as classes disappear the state weakens and finally
withers away. But since the Soviet Union is declared
to be a classless society, how account for the existence
of the state, which instead of withering away has be-
come stronger and stronger? The conventional reply
under Stalin was that so long as socialism existed within
one country, which was encircled by hungry capitalist
powers intent upon its dismemberment, the state func-
tioned primarily as the guardian of national integrity.
This failed to explain the regime of domestic terror,
and a concentration camp economy, worse than any-
thing that existed in Tsarist days. Furthermore as com-
munism spread, and the Soviet Union became no longer
encircled by capitalist nations but emerged as co-equal
in nuclear power to the West, more threatening to than
threatened by the countries adjoining it, the state
showed no signs of weakening. Although the domestic
terror abated somewhat under Khrushchev, it still re-
mains, after fifty years of rule, much stronger than it
was under Lenin, before the Soviet Union consolidated
its power.

Theoretically, the Soviet Union is a federal union
of autonomous socialist republics which theoretically
possess complete ethnic and national equality and with
the right of secession from the Union guaranteed. In
fact, it is a monolithic state that can establish or destroy
its affiliated republics at will, and in which some ethnic
minorities have been persecuted and subjected to se-
vere discrimination.

5. The economy of the Soviet Union has remained
a highly centralized, planned, and planning economy,
primarily a command economy, functioning best in
time of war and largely indifferent to the needs and
demands of the consumer. The result has been the
transformation within a period of fifty years of an
agricultural economy into a great, modern industrial
economy. The human costs in bloodshed and suffering
of this transformation have been incalculable. The
excessive centralization has led to inefficiency and
waste, the development of a hidden market, and other
abuses. To supplement the controlled economy's efforts
to take care of consumers' needs, the state has tolerated
a private sector in which goods and services are sold
or exchanged for profit. Under the influence of E. G.
Liberman and other economic reformers, some tenta-
tive steps have been taken to decentralize, and to
introduce the concept of net profit in state enterprises
in order to provide incentives and increase efficiency.
Greeted as a return to capitalistic principles, it over-
looks the limited function of profit as conceived in a
socialist economy, in which prices are still controlled
by the central planning authority.

What these and similar reforms do that is difficult
to square with the theory of Marxist-Leninism is to
increase the power of the plant manager over the
workers, and to differentiate even further the incomes
received. Because of differences created by advances
in technology, comparisons in standards of living are
difficult to make between different historical periods.
With respect to per capita consumption of the material
necessities of life, the workers in most of the advanced
industrial economies today seem to enjoy, without the
sacrifice of their freedoms, a substantially higher
standard of living than the workers of the Soviet Union.
But there is nothing in the structure of the socialist
economy which makes it impossible to equal and even
surpass the standards of living of workers in capitalist
countries. An economy that can put a Sputnik in the
sky before other industrial societies, can probably out-
produce them, if the decision is made to do so, in the
production of refrigerators or television sets. The major
differences lie not in what and how much is produced,
but in the freedom to choose the system of production
under which to live.

6. This brings us to the major Bolshevik-Leninist
revision of the Marxism of the Social-Democratic
variety—viz., the abandonment of its commitment to
democracy as a system of social organization, as a
theory of the political process including political orga-
nization, and, finally, as the high road to socialism.

Until the October Russian Revolution, the phrase
“the dictatorship of the proletariat” was rarely used
in Marxist literature. Marx himself used the term very
infrequently, and Engels pointed to the Paris Com-
mune of 1871, in which Marx's group was a tiny mi-
nority, as an illustration of what the phrase meant.
Even those who spoke of the “dictatorship of the
proletariat” meant by it the class rule of the workers,
presumably the majority of the population, which
would democratically enact laws introducing the so-
cialist society. That is what Engels meant when he
wrote in 1891 that the democratic republic was “the
specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat”
(Marx and Engels, Correspondence 1846-1895, New
York [1936], p. 486). Marx and Engels also anticipated
that the transition to socialism would be peaceful
where democratic political institutions had developed
that gave the workers the franchise. Force would be
employed only to suppress armed rebellion of unrec-
onciled minorities against the mandate of the majority.

The Marxist-Leninist version of “the dictatorship of
the proletariat” is that it is substantially “the dictator-


ship of the Communist Party,” which means not only
a dictatorship over the bourgeoisie but over the prole-
tariat as well. The Paris Commune on this view is not
really a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” The dictator-
ship of the Communist Party entailed that no other
political parties, not even other working-class parties,
would be tolerated if they did not accept the Leninist
line. It meant that there could be no legally recognized
opposition of any kind. For as Lenin put it, “Dictator-
ship is power based directly upon force, and unre-
stricted by any laws,” and again “dictatorship means
neither more nor less than unlimited power, resting
directly on force, not limited by anything, not re-
stricted by any laws, nor any absolute rules” (Selected
VII, 123).

This whole conception is based frankly on the as-
sumption that armed by the insights of Marxist-Lenin-
ism, the Communist Party knows better what the true
interests of the working class are than the workers
know themselves; that it cannot give the workers their
head but must, if necessary, restrain or compel them
for their own good. Thus Lenin proclaimed “All power
to the Soviets,” the organs of the Russian workers and
peasants after 1917, when he anticipated that they
would follow the Communist (Bolshevik) Party line,
but this slogan was abandoned and even opposed when
there was fear the Soviets would not accept the Com-
munist Party dictatorship. This view of the dictatorship
of the Party is central to all Marxist-Leninist parties.
Thus the Hungarian communist premier, Jan Kadar,
in his speech before the Hungarian National Assembly
on May 11, 1957, justifying the suppression by the Red
Army of the Hungarian workers in the Budapest upris-
ing of 1956, makes a distinction between “the wishes
and will of the working masses” and “the interests
of the workers. The Communist Party, knowing the
true interests of the workers and having these interests
at heart, is therefore justified in opposing the wishes
and will of the masses. This is the Leninist version of
Rousseau's doctrine that the people “must be forced
to be free.”

The antidemocratic conception of the political party
actually preceded the transformation of the dictator-
ship of the proletariat into the dictatorship of the party
over the proletariat. Logically the two ideas are inde-
pendent, since a hierarchically organized party could
accept the democratic process as providing an oppor-
tunity for coming to power legitimately. The Social-
Democratic conception of party organization made it
a very loose-jointed affair. Marx and Engels actually
assumed that in the course of its economic struggles,
the working class spontaneously would develop the
organizational instrumentalities necessary to win the
battle. Lenin, on the other hand, thought of the politi
cal party as an engineer of revolution, spurring on,
teaching, even lashing the working class into revolu-
tionary political consciousness.

The political party structure devised by Lenin owes
more probably to the fact that the socialist parties
were underground and had to work illegally in Russia
than it does to Marxist theory. The theory of “demo-
cratic centralism” was really better adapted for a re-
sistance movement than for political democratic proc-
ess. Nonetheless all of the many Communist Parties
associated with the Communist International were
compelled to adopt that theory as a condition for
affiliation. The Central Committee of the Party was
the chief organizing center, the final link in a chain
of command that extended down to the party cells.
The Central Committee had the power to co-opt and
reject delegates to the Party Congress which nominally
was the source of authority for the Central Committee.
Because of its access to party funds, lists, periodicals,
and control of organizers, the leadership of the “demo-
cratic centralized” party tended to be self-perpetuat-
ing. Certain maneuvers or coups from the top would
bring one faction or another to the fore, but no broad-
based movement of member opposition was possible.
Until Stalin's death changes in the leadership of Com-
munist Parties outside of the Soviet Union occurred
only as a consequence of the intervention of the Russian
Communist Party acting through representatives of the
Communist International. Thus, to cite a typical ex-
ample, the leadership of the American Communist
Party which claimed to have the support of 93% of
the rank and file was dismissed by Stalin in 1928, and
the new leadership of W. Z. Foster and Earl Browder
appointed. The processes of “democratic centralism”
then legitimized the change. After the Second World
War, Browder, based on the ostensibly unanimous sup-
port of the party membership, was unceremoniously
cashiered as leader by signals communicated by
Jacques Duclos of the French Communist Party at the
instigation of the Kremlin.

There have been some developments in the theory
and practice of Marxist-Leninism of the first political
importance. Lenin and Stalin both believed that the
capitalist countries were doomed to break down in a
universal crisis; that because of their system of produc-
tion they must expand or die, and that before they died,
they would resort to all-out war against the Soviet
Union. The classic statement of this view was Lenin's
declaration of November 20, 1920, repeated in subse-
quent editions of his and Stalin's writings:

“As long as capitalism and socialism exist, we cannot
live in peace; in the end one or the other will tri-
umph—a funeral dirge will be sung over the Soviet
Republic or over World Capitalism” (Selected Works,


VIII, 297). Despite the hypothetical possibility of a
capitalist triumph, the victory of communism was
declared to be inevitable in consequence of the inevi-
table war for which it was preparing. The Soviet Union
and all its communist allies must consider itself to be
in a state of undeclared defensive war against the
aggression being hatched against it; Communist Parties
abroad must have as their first political priority “The
defence of the Soviet Union”—which sometimes led
to difficulties with workers who struck industrial plants
in capitalist countries manufacturing goods and muni-
tions for the use of the Soviet Union.

The doctrine of the inevitability of armed conflict
between the democratic countries of the West and the
Soviet Union undoubtedly played an important role
in Stalin's war and postwar policy. Even though Great
Britain and the United States were loyal allies in the
struggle against Hitler, the war had to be fought with
an eye on their capacity for the subsequent struggle
against the Soviet Union. This led to an extensive
development of Soviet espionage in allied countries
during, and especially after, the war; the expansion of
Soviet frontiers; the establishment of a communist
regime by the Red Army in adjoining territories; and
a political strategy designed to split the Western alli-
ance. Although aware of the development of nuclear
weapons, Stalin was skeptical about their capacity for
wholesale destruction, and remained steadfast in his
belief in the inevitable victory of communism through
inevitable war.

Nikita Krushchev, who by outmaneuvering Bul-
ganin, Malenkov, and Beria, succeeded Stalin, had
a far greater respect for the potential holocaust in-
volved in nuclear war. Although he spurred on the
development of Soviet nuclear power, he revived the
notion of “peaceful coexistence,” a theme originally
propounded by Lenin in an interview with an Ameri-
can journalist in 1920, and periodically revived for
propaganda purposes since. But what was highly sig-
nificant in Khrushchev's emendation of the doctrine,
was his declaration that although the final victory of
world communism is inevitable, world war was not
inevitable; that it was possible for communism to suc-
ceed without an international civil war. This recog-
nized the relatively independent influence of techno-
logical factors on politics, and created an additional
difficulty for the theory of historical materialism.

The second important political development since
the death of Stalin has been the growth of communist
polycentrism, and the emergence of Communist China
as a challenge to Soviet hegemony over the world
communist movement. Communist “polycentrism”
meant the weakening of the centralized control of the
Russian Communist Party over other Communist
Parties, and the gradual assertion of political inde-
pendence in some respects by hitherto Communist
Party satellites. For the first and only time in its history
the American Communist Party officially declared
itself in opposition to Soviet anti-Semitism. After
Khrushchev's speech exposing Stalin's terrorism, it has
become impossible for Communist Parties to resume
the attitude of total compliance to Kremlin demands.
The degree of independence, however, varies from
country to country—the Italian Communist Party
manifesting the most independence and the Bulgarian
Communist Party the least.

The strained relations between Communist Yugo-
slavia and the Soviet Union and especially between
Communist China and the Soviet Union—all invoking
the theory of Marxist-Leninism—are eloquent and iron-
ical evidence that some important social phenomena
cannot be understood through the simple, explanatory
categories of Marxism. After all, war was explained
by Marxists as caused by economic factors directly
related to the mode of economic production. That one
communist power finds itself not only engaged in
military border skirmishes with another, but actually
threatens, if provoked, a war of nuclear annihilation
against its communist brother-nation, as spokesmen of
the Soviet Union did in the summer of 1969, is some-
thing that obviously cannot be explained in terms of
their common modes of economic production. Once
more nationalism is proving to be triumphant over


The third interpretation of Marxism may be called
for purposes of identification, “the existentialist view”
according to which Marxism is not primarily a system
of sociology or economics, but a philosophy of human
liberation. It seeks to overcome human alienation, to
emancipate man from repressive social institutions,
especially economic institutions that frustrate his true
nature, and to bring him into harmony with himself,
his fellow men, and the world around him so that he
can both overcome his estrangements and express his
true essence through creative freedom. This view
developed as a result of two things; first, the publica-
tion in 1932 of Marx's manuscripts written in 1844
before Marx had become a Marxist (on the other two
views), which the editors entitled Economic and Philo-
sophic Manuscripts,
and second, the revolt against
Stalinism in Eastern Europe at the end of World War
II among some communists who opposed the theory
and practice of Marxist-Leninism. Aware that they
could only get a hearing or exercise influence if they
spoke in the name of Marxism, they seized upon several
formulations in these manuscripts of Marx in which


he glorifies the nature of man as a freedom-loving
creature—a nature that has been distorted, cramped,
and twisted by the capitalist mode of production. They
were then able to protest in the name of Marxist
humanism against the stifling dictatorship of Stalin and
his lieutenants in their own countries, and even against
the apotheosis of Lenin.

Independently of this political motivation in the
reinterpretation of Marx, some socialist and nonsocial-
ist scholars in the West have maintained that the con-
ception of man and alienation in the early writings
of Marx is the main theme of Marx's view of socialism,
the aim of which is “the spiritual emancipation of
man.” For example, Eric Fromm writes that “it is
impossible to understand Marx's concept of socialism
and his criticism of capitalism as developed except on
the basis of his concept of man which he developed
in his early writings” (Marx's Concept of Man [1961],
p. 79). This entails that Marx's thought was understood
by no one before 1932 when the manuscripts were
published, unless they had independently developed
the theory of alienation. Robert Tucker's influential
book, Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx (Cambridge,
1961), asserts that the significant ideas of Marx are to
be found in what he calls Marx's “original Marxism”
which turns out to be ethical, existentialist, anticipa-
tory of Buber and Tillich, and profoundly different
from the Marxism of Marx's immediate disciples. How
far the new interpretation is prepared to go in discard-
ing traditional Marxism, with its emphasis on scientific
sociology and economics as superfluous theoretical
baggage alien to the true Marx, is apparent in this
typical passage from Tucker:

Capital, the product of twenty years of hard labor to which,
as he [Marx] said, he sacrificed his health, his happiness
in life and his family, is an intellectual museum piece for
us now, whereas the sixteen page manuscript of 1844 on
the future of aesthetics, which he probably wrote in a day
and never even saw fit to publish, contains much that is
still significant

(p. 235).

Another source of the growth of this new version
of Marxism flows from the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre
and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, especially the former's
Critique de la raison dialectique (Vol. I, 1960) in which
despite his rejection of materialism and his exaggerated
voluntarism, Sartre seeks to present his existentialist
idealism as ancillary to Marxism, which he hails as “the
unsurpassable philosophy of our time” (p. 9).

For various reasons, detailed elsewhere, this third
version of Marxism is making great headway among
radical and revolutionary youth that have disparaged
or repudiated specific political programs as inhibiting
action. Among those who wish to bring Marx in line
with newer developments in psychology, and especially
among socialists and communists who have based their
critiques of the existing social order on ethical princi-
ples, the existentialist version of Marx has a strong

The theoretical difficulties this interpretation of
Marxism must face are very formidable. They are
external, derived from certain methodological princi-
ples of interpretation and from textual difficulties; and
internal, derived from the flat incompatibility of the
key notions of existential Marxism with other published
doctrines of Marx, for which Marx took public respon-
sibility. Of the many external difficulties with the in-
terpretation of Marxism as a philosophy of alienation,
three may be mentioned.

1. The theory of alienation according to which man
is a victim of the products of his own creation in an
industrial society he does not consciously control, is
a view that was common coin among the “true” social-
ists like Moses Hess, Karl Grün, and others. It was not
a distinctively Marxist view. Even Ralph Waldo
Emerson and Thomas Carlyle expressed similar senti-
ments when they complained that things were in the
saddle and riding man to an end foreign to his nature
and intention.

2. In the Communist Manifesto Marx explicitly dis-
avows the theory of alienation as “metaphysical rub-
bish,” as a linguistic Germanic mystification of social
phenomena described by French social critics. Thus
as an example of “metaphysical rubbish,” Marx says,
“Underneath the French critique of money and its
functions, they wrote, 'alienation of the essence of
mankind,' and underneath the French critique of the
bourgeois State they wrote 'overthrow of the suprem-
acy of the abstract universal' and so on” (Riazanov
edition; English trans. London [1930], p. 59).

3. If Marxism is a theory of human alienation under
all forms and expressions of capitalism, it becomes
unintelligible why, having proclaimed the fact of
human alienation at the outset of his studies, Marx
should have devoted himself for almost twenty years
to the systematic analysis of the mechanics of capitalist
production. The existence of alienation was already
established on the basis of phenomena observable
whenever the free market system was introduced.
Nothing in Capital throws any further light on the
phenomenon. The section on the “Fetishism of Com-
modities” (Capital, Vol. I, Ch. I, Sec. 4) is a sociological
analysis of commodities where private ownership of
the social means of production exists, and dispenses
completely with all reference to the true essence of
man and his alienations of that essence. What Marx
calls “the enigmatic character” of the product of labor
when it assumes the form of a commodity is the result


of the fact that social relationships among men are
experienced directly by the unreflective consciousness
as a natural property of things. The economic “value”
of products that are exchanged is assumed to be of
the same existential order as “the weight” of the

This results in the fetishism of commodities which
is compared to the fetishism of objects in primitive
religion in which men fail to see that the divinity
attributed to the objects is their own creation. Or to
use another analogy, just as what makes an object
“food” ultimately depends upon the biological rela-
tionships of the digestive system, and not merely upon
the physical-chemical properties of the object, so what
makes a thing a “commodity” depends upon social
relationships between men, and not merely on the
physical characteristics of what objects are bought and
sold. Marx's analysis here is designed to further his
contention that men can control their economic and
social life and should not resign themselves to be ruled
by economic processes as if they were like natural
forces beyond the possibility of human control. The
Marxist analysis is used here to argue for the feasibility
of a shorter working day and better conditions of work.

The “internal” difficulties that confront the existen-
tialist interpretation of Marx are grave enough to be
considered fatal in the absence of a politically inspired
will to believe.

1. The doctrine of “alienation” runs counter to
Marx's scientific materialism. Its religious origins are
obvious in the idealistic tradition from Plotinus to
Hegel. It is inherently dualistic since it distinguishes
an original “nature” of man separate from its alienated
manifestations to which men will someday return.

2. It even more obviously violates the entire histori-
cal approach of Marxism which denies that man has
a natural or real or true self from which he can be
alienated. Marx maintained that by acting upon the
external world, nature, and society, man continually
modifies his own nature (Capital, Eng. trans., I, 198),
that history may be regarded as “the progressive modi-
fication” of human nature, and that to argue that so-
cialism and its institutional reforms are against human
nature—one of the oldest and strongest objections to
the Marxist program—is to overlook the extent to
which the individual with his psychological nature is
a social and therefore historical creature. Many of the
difficulties of the view that Marxism is a theory of
alienation and a social program liberating man from
his alienation are apparent as soon as we ask: From
what self or nature is man alienated?, and then com-
pare the implications and presuppositions of the re-
sponse with other explicitly avowed doctrines of Marx.
The attempt by Tucker to distinguish in Marx between
a constant human nature—productive, free, and self-
fulfilling—and a variable human nature—alienated in
class societies—attempting to save the doctrine of
alienation, fails to explain how it is possible that man's
constant nature should come into existence, according
to Marx, only at the end of prehistory, only when the
classless society emerges. In addition, Marx like Hegel
repudiates the dualism between a constant and variable
human nature to the point of denying that even man's
biological nature is constant.

3. In Marx's published writing, where psychological
phenomena are mentioned that have been cited as
evidence of Marx's belief in the importance of the
doctrine of alienation, despite his refusal to use the
early language of alienation, Marx explains these
phenomena as a consequence of private property in
the instruments of production. But in his early Eco-
nomic-Philosophical Manuscripts
(written before 1847),
he asserts that alienation is the cause of private prop-
erty. This would make a psychological phenomenon
responsible for the distinctive social processes of capi-
talism whose developments the mature Marx regarded
as having causal priority in explaining social psycho-
logical change.

4. The concept of man as alienated in the early
manuscripts implies that alienated man is unhappy,
maladjusted, truncated, psychologically if not physi-
cally unhealthy. It does not explain the phenomenon
of alienation which is active and voluntary rather than
passive and coerced. Marx himself was alienated from
his society but hardly from his “true” self, for he
undoubtedly found fulfillment in his role as critic and
social prophet. From this point of view to be alienated
from a society may be a condition for the achievement
of the serenity, interest, and creative effort and fulfill-
ment that are the defining characteristics of the psy-
chologically unalienated man. Marx's early theory of
alienation could hardly do justice, aside from its in-
herent incoherences, to Marx's mature behavior as an
integrated person alienated from his own society.

5. The existentialist interpretation of Marxism makes
it primarily an ethical philosophy of life and society,
very much akin to the ethical philosophies of social
life that Marx and Engels scorned during most of their
political career. Nonetheless this ethical dimension of
social judgment and criticism constitutes a perennial
source of the appeal of Marxism to generations of the
young, all the more so because of the tendencies both
in the Social-Democratic and, especially, in the Bol-
shevik-Leninist versions of Marxism to play down, if
not to suppress, the ethical moment of socialism. In
the canonic writings of these interpretations of Marx-
ism, socialism is pictured as the irreversible and in-
escapable fulfillment of an historical development and


moral judgments are explained, where they are recog-
nized, as reflections of class interest, devoid of universal
and objective validity. The doctrinal writings of both
Marx and Engels lend color to this view—despite the
fact that everything else they wrote, and even the
works purportedly of a technical and analytical char-
acter, like Capital itself, are pervaded by a passionate
moral concern and a denunciation of social injustices
in tones that sound like echoes of the Hebrew social
prophets. The very word Ausbeutung, or “exploita-
tion,” which is central to Marx's economic analysis,
is implicitly ethical although Marx seeks to disavow
its ethical connotations. Even critics of Marx's eco-
nomic theories and historicism, like Karl Popper, who
reject his contentions, recognize the ethical motivation
of Marx's thought. Capitalism is condemned not only
because it is unstable and generates suffering, but be-
cause uncontrolled power over the social instruments
of production gives arbitrary power over the lives of
those who must live by their use.

Nonetheless, despite its ethical reinterpretation of
Marxism, existentialist Marxism fails to make ends meet
theoretically. Either it ends up with a pale sort of
humanism, a conception of the good and the good
society derived from the essential nature of man and
his basic needs—a lapse into the Feuerbachianisms
rejected by Marx—or it denies the possibility of a
universally valid norm of conduct for man or society,
stresses the uniqueness of the individual moral act,
makes every situation in which two or more individuals
are involved an antinomic one in which right conflicts
with right and self with self. If the first version gener-
ates a universalism of love or duty and brotherhood
of man which Marx (and Hegel) reject as unhistorical,
the second points to a Hobbesianism in which “the
other” far from being “a brother” is potentially an
enemy. Marx conceals from himself the necessity of
developing an explicit positive ethics over and above
his condemnations of unnecessary human cruelty and
injustice. The closest he comes to such an ethic is in
his utopian conception of a classless society whose
institutions will be such that the freedom of each per-
son will find in the freedom of every other person “not
its limitation but its fulfillment.” Many critics find this
expectation an astonishingly naive conception of man
and society, which does not even hold for traditional
versions of the Kingdom of Heaven. But even this
utopian construction can hardly absolve Marxists from
the necessity of making and justifying specific ethical
judgments for the City of Man.

The periodical revivals of Marxism in our age reflect
moral and political interests in search of a respectable
revolutionary tradition. The discovery of the social
problem by phenomenologists, Neo-Thomists, positiv-
ists, and even linguistic analysts usually results in an
attempted synthesis between Marx and some out-
standing philosophical figure who has very little in
common with him (Hook, in Drachkovitch, 1966).

From the point of view of sociological and economic
theories claiming objective truth, Marxism has con-
tributed many insights that have been absorbed and
developed by scholars who either do not share or are
hostile to the perspective of social reform or revolution.
Scientifically there is no more warrant for speaking
of Marxism today in sociology than there is for speak-
ing of Newtonianism in physics or Darwinism in biol-
ogy. The fact that Marxism has become the state doc-
trine of industrially underdeveloped countries in Asia
and Africa is testimony to the fact that his system of
thought proved to be inapplicable to the Western
world whose development it sought to explain. There
is also a certain irony in the fact that the contemporary
movements of sensualism, immediatism, anarchism, and
romantic violence among the young in Western Europe
and America which invoke Marx's name are, allowing
only for slight changes in idiom, the very movements
he criticized and rejected during the forties of the
nineteenth century—the period in which Marx was
developing his distinctive ideas. Some modes of con-
sciousness and modes of being that are the concern
of New Left thought and activity today Marx scornfully
rejected as characteristic of the Lumpenproletariat.

At this stage in the development of Marxism it may
seem as fruitless a task to determine which, if any,
version of Marxism comes closest to Marx's own doc-
trinal intent as to ask which conception of Christianity,
if any, is closest to the vision and teachings of its
founder. Nonetheless, although difficult, it is not im-
possible in principle to reach reliable conclusions if
the inquiry is undertaken in a scientific spirit. Even
if he was in some respects self-deceived, Marx after
all did conceive himself as a scientific economist and
sociologist. Allowing for the ambiguities and impreci-
sion of Marx's published writings, there is greater war-
rant for believing that those who seek to provide
scientific grounds for his conclusions are closer to his
own intent and belief than are those who, whether on
the basis of Marx's unpublished juvenilia or Sartre's
metaphysical fantasies, would convert him to existen-
tialism. The scientific versions of Marxism have an
additional advantage: they permit of the possibility of
empirical refutation, and so facilitate the winning of
new and more reliable scientific truths which Marx as
a scientist presumably would have been willing to
accept. Existentialist versions of Marxism, where they
are not purely historical, are willful and arbitrary
interpretations of social and political phenomena.


“Marxism,” declares Sartre, “is the unsurpassable phi-
losophy of our time,” but only because he interprets
it in such a way as to make it immune to empirical
test. Holding to it, today, therefore, is not a test of
one's fidelity to truth in the service of a liberal and
humane civilization, but only a measure of tenacity
of one's faith.


R. N. Carew-Hunt, Marxism—Past and Present (New York,
1954). Milovan Djilas, The New Class (New York, 1957). Eric
Fromm, Marx's Concept of Man (New York, 1961). Sidney
Hook, Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx (New York
and London, 1933). Karl Kautsky, Die Materialistische
(Berlin, 1927). V. I. Lenin, Collected
(New York, 1927); idem, Selected Works (Moscow,
1932). Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Historisch-kritische
(Frankfurt and Berlin, 1927); idem, Selected
(Moscow, 1950). Karl Popper, The Open Society
(London, 1945). Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique de la raison
(Paris, 1960). Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism,
Socialism and Democracy
(New York and London, 1942).
Joseph Stalin, Works (Moscow, 1948). Robert Tucker, Phi-
losophy and Myth in Karl Marx
(Cambridge, 1961).

Three books on Marxism, written from different points
of view, well worth reading, are: George Lichtheim,
Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study (New York and
London, 1961); John Plamenatz, German Marxism and
Russian Communism
(London and New York, 1954);
Bertram Wolfe, Marxism: One Hundred Years in the Life
of a Doctrine
(New York, 1965). Two useful collections of
essays on Marxism are Milorad Drachkovitch, ed., Marxism
and the Modern World
(Stanford, 1965); idem, Marxist Ide-
ology in the Contemporary World. Its Appeals and Paradoxes

(New York, 1966).


[See also Alienation; Existentialism; Historical and Dialec-
tical Materialism; Ideology of Soviet Communism;
alism; Social Democracy; Socialism; State; Totalitarianism;
Welfare State.]