Marxism and Western Intellectuals in the Post-communist Era

Paul Hollander. Society. Volume 37, Issue 2. January/February 2000.

AIthough much has been written about the relationship between Marxism and intellectuals, a reexamination of this relationship would benefit from the radically changed circumstances in the aftermath of the unexpected and historic political changes of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The collapse of Soviet communism had an impact on the Western intellectuals' relation to Marxism that remains far from fully explored putting pressure on those among them attracted to Marxism to give more thought to the strength and weaknesses of this theory and its relationship to the practices of those political systems which claimed to be guided by it. The collapse has also drawn attention to the relationship between Marxist theory and the socialist (or "actually existing socialist") political systems prior to their collapse since every one of them averred that Marxism inspired their policies and was the foundation of their institutions and legitimacy. Eric Hobsbawm called them "countries officially committed to Marx's ideas."

Few would dispute that a large (if unquantifiable) portion of Western intellectuals was attracted to some version or aspect of Marxism; many still are. It is impossible to say exactly what proportion since there are no opinion surveys addressed to "intellectuals." Even if the majority of Western intellectuals today cannot be fairly characterized as Marxist, their beliefs are significantly colored by Marxism; they agreed with many of its basic propositions and especially its impassioned critique of capitalism.

Many Western intellectuals during the past three decades did draw a line between the highly militarized, industrial and bureaucratic Soviet Union and the other Marxist, or Marxist-Leninist countries in the Third World. They hoped that these systems would come closer to the realization of Marxian ideals although their very existence in non-industrial, Third World countries defied the Marxist scheme of social-historical development and progress dependent on a class conscious, industrial working class and developed capitalism.

There was also the question routinely overlooked: how faithful to the spirit of Marxism could political systems be which were dominated by leaders surrounded by personality cults as extreme and grotesque as that of Stalin. Each durable Third World Marxist-Leninist system was dominated by such figures: Mao, Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Kim II Sung and Enver Hodzha (the latter presiding over an honorary member of the Third World, Albania).

Has the collapse helped Western intellectuals to reconsider their relationship to Marxism? Or, as some argue, is this the time to solidify their attachment to Marxist theory, no longer tainted by an unseemly association with political systems which were not "truly" Marxist? An American political scientist, Philip Green said in 1989: "For ... leftists around the world ... a great albatross has been lifted from around our necks.... We are finally free to conduct debate (about socialism) on our own terms." In Germany, Jutta Ditfurth, a spokesman of the Green party, suggested that "there simply is no need to reexamine the validity of socialism as a model.... [I]t was not socialism that was defeated in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union because these systems were never socialist."

Western intellectuals never lived in societies where Marxism was the foundation of the official belief system and the government in power sought to realize its ideals (successfully or not). This circumstance was certainly among the determinants of their attitude toward these ideas. By contrast, intellectuals who lived in "actually existing socialist" countries were indelibly marked by the institutional attempt to realize some of these ideals. One of them, a Russian intellectual, Alexander Tsipko wrote: "Our experience of Marxism differs a great deal from Western experience. We could see Marxism from the inside, something a Western intellectual was unable to do. Upon the slightest contact with life, the theoretical structures of Marxism lose their attractiveness...."

Unlike such Russian intellectuals chastened by witnessing the attempts to put Marxist ideals into practice, Western and especially American academic intellectuals increasingly congregated in geographically and institutionally defined subcultures, enclaves of their own, even physically removed from the rest of their society. These academic enclaves inhabited by the like-minded have been conducive to the preservation of beliefs and mindsets associated with a reflexively and habitually adversarial worldview. This insulation from other currents of thought and information helps to explain the persistence of at least some core commitments to Marxism.

Why Intellectuals Are Attracted to Marxism


The original attraction of Western intellectuals to Marxism had several sources. For some it was a respectable and sophisticated tool of analysis of social and economic structures; for others a theory of historical development highlighting the interdependence of various social phenomena; most popular was its use as an instrument of social criticism aimed at capitalist society.

Reverence for Marxism sometimes did coexist with ambivalence about "actually existing socialist systems" and especially the Soviet Union. Nonetheless many Western intellectuals throughout the 1960s, 70s and early 80s were inclined to give the benefit of doubt to the Soviet Union: it was certainly not democratic and has not succeeded in providing its citizens with a high standard of living but at least it was not capitalist. Not being capitalist made it morally preferable to the United States and other Western capitalist democracies. Moreover, the Soviet Union helped other, supposedly more authentic revolutionary systems in the Third World, such as Cuba, Vietnam and later Nicaragua, and for this too was given credit. Many Western intellectuals saw the USSR as a useful counterweight to the predatory capitalism and imperialism of the United States. Many subscribed to the moral equivalence thesis (between the superpowers) but in practice were far more critical of the United States than the Soviet Union.

There were also those among American and Western intellectuals who disliked the Soviet system not for its repressive policies but for bringing discredit to the good name of Marxism, for tarnishing the noble ideals of the founding fathers. In their eyes this was the greatest crime of the Soviet system, not the gulag, not the purges, the bloody collectivization of agriculture, or the crushing of the uprisings in Eastern Europe.

What is it in the way of life of Western, mostly academic, intellectuals that made them susceptible to the appeals of Marxism? Why did this attraction intensify in the late 1960s and persist almost to the very end of the Soviet empire during a period when, increasingly, the record of communist social systems around the world showed that the attempted realization, even partial realization, of Marxist ideas produced horrific unintended results?

The answer may be found in the very concept of the intellectual. What defines the person whom we call an intellectual is neither a particular occupation, nor level of education, nor social role but rather a mindset, an emotional focus, or certain attitudes. Bearing witness to the injustices of society matters most to many intellectuals; it is the social critic's role that has been the most important source of their sense of identity, self-esteem and meaning in life and Marxism has been an obvious inspiration for the critics of Western capitalist societies,

Intellectuals share a disposition to a measure of discontent and a strongly felt need to find meaning and coherence in life and the society they inhabit but as a rule they do not succeed. Nor do they typically find comfort in traditional religious beliefs; Western intellectuals as a distinctive group evolved from the secular and vigorously anti-religious tradition of the French Enlightenment. I have also described intellectuals as " ... people with a chronically unappeased appetite for meaning, justice and moral truths, constantly on the lookout for plausible belief systems but incapable of finding them, or adhering to them over long periods of time. This quest and its recurring frustration defines much of their outlook and smoldering discontent as they gravitate to ... the role of secular moralist...."

Contemporary Western intellectuals belong to the educated and leisured strata who display the most unease and discomfort with life in their societies, with the experience of living in modem-that is, secular, pluralistic, wealthy and technologically advanced societies and they are capable of routinely articulating such discontent. Max Weber's observation goes to the heart of the defining character of intellectuals and their needs which is also relevant to their residual attachment to Marxism: "The salvation sought by the intellectual is always based on inner need, and hence it is at once more remote from life, more theoretical than salvation from external distress, the quest for which is characteristic of nonprivileged classes...."

Intellectuals have high expectations. The late Reinhard Bendix defined "intellectuals as those educated people who criticize the world of the possible", and "attempt to achieve the impossible...." It is the predicament of intellectuals that their high expectations are often combined with what Lewis Feuer called "a Hamlet complex: the intellectual often feels that intellect disabled him ... deprived him of the capacities for will and action; he wishes to ... have his every word transmuted to action," Marxism promised to close this gap between ideas and actions, theory and practice, a promise that accounts for its durable appeal.

Intellectuals have also been attracted to Marxism because, despite its scientific aspirations it is rooted in strong moral impulses and certainties. The political systems claiming to be Marxist seemed, up to a point, to embody this unity. The moralistic essence of Marxian socialism was also noted by Durkheim: "Socialism ... is entirely oriented toward the future.... It concerns itself much less with what is or what was than what ought to be .... Socialism is not a science ... it is a cry of grief, sometimes of anger, uttered by men who most keenly feel our collective malaise."

Intellectuals and the Discontents of Modernity


The intellectuals' aversion to capitalism is to a large extent an aversion to modernity, that is, to the combination of industrialization, urbanization, bureaucratization and secularization. Modernity also means social isolation, loss of a sense of purpose, of community, few taken for granted certainties, and too many unregulated choices.

The critique of capitalism has increasingly shifted from the material-economic (or political) aspects to the spiritual and psychological. Correspondingly the benefits of socialism came to be perceived in recent decades primarily as spiritual: sense of purpose, community, lack of alienation, caring, wholeness, etc. In Western capitalist democracies it is no longer poverty and economic exploitation, which are the major problems but meaninglessness and the loss of social solidarity. Present-day conflicts tend to be ethnic (or religious) rather than class-based. A variety of social problems (crime, escapism, family disintegration) are connected to the decline of community and of widely and deeply held beliefs. Robert Nisbet observed almost half century ago that "material improvement that is unaccompanied by a sense of personal belonging may actually intensify social dislocation and personal frustration."

Western intellectuals are today anti-capitalist mainly because they regard capitalism as a force that undermines authentic social bonds, disinterested personal relations and all the vital, non-rational gratifications of life-, they perceive it as a social-economic system that erodes true feeling. Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, two American Marxists claimed that under capitalism everyone exists "in a jungle in which there is no love and trust, no purpose worth striving for and no ideal worth fighting for."

Since the 1960s Western intellectuals have also been intensely critical of capitalism on account of its association with "consumerism"-something that might not have occurred to Marx since in his times the problem was that most people consumed too little,, not too much. The animus toward consumption further suggests that hostility toward capitalism is connected to unappeased spiritual hungers. Consumerism is condemned as an escape from the problems of the world or the true self. Herbert Marcuse was in the forefront of those who regarded consumption as a form of false consciousness, an activity that gives people worthless satisfactions, illusory pleasures preventing them from improving their society and themselves by means of radical social change. Marcuse and his followers have not made clear what are "genuine needs" which deserve to be gratified and those which do not, and who is to decide what they are, or should adjudicate between conflicting needs.

The aversion to specialization entertained by Marx and Engels also struck a responsive cord in Western intellectuals in recent times (especially pronounced in the United States since the 1960s); they, too, perceived it as a self-evident evil, a destroyer of "wholeness" and true individuality. Marx and his followers believed that under socialism a new, superior sense of community would emerge unencumbered by traditional beliefs and restraints. Intellectuals found Marxism especially appealing (as Peter Berger among others argued) because it promised a combination of social justice, and material progress (or modernity) without alienation, without the destruction of social bonds.

It is an interesting and not widely recognized paradox that Western intellectuals, including the Marxists among them, find traditional societies attractive whereas Marx held these societies in great contempt. The pursuit of noble savages on the part of intellectuals and artists has been going on for centuries. Today the places of vacation and recreation favored by Western intellectuals continue to reflect their attraction to the survivals of traditional social arrangements and cultural values. "Quaint" fishing or mountain villages are prized wherever they can be found provided they have indoor plumbing and electricity.

Intellectuals find traditional societies appealing because of the sense of authenticity, simplicity, stability, solid communal ties, and the apparent prevalence of strongly held beliefs; they are not impersonal or bureaucratic; levels of work satisfaction are believed to be higher, they are not dominated by the cash nexus or profit motive.

The findings of my book, Political Pilgrims, made clear that Western intellectuals who admired the second-generation communist societies (China, Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua) also found their surviving traditional attributes highly attractive. These countries appeared to succeed in fusing the authenticity of a traditional society with the benefits of applied Marxism; it seemed that the ravages of modernization were kept in check by the counter-modernizing forces associated with socialism. For a long time many Western intellectuals believed that whatever else was wrong with state socialist systems they were free of alienation.

Marxism also promised to conquer personal problems: working for the good of society, and being well integrated into a progressive social movement, party, or collectivity would eliminate the notorious abyss between the personal and the social, the private and the public. Marxism in effect suggested that personal problems were epiphenomenal, rooted in a bad social system; once the system is altered personal problems too would wither away. Alexander Yakovlev wrote of "Marx's ... idea of the possibility of completely eliminating all the global contradictions of human existence and the antithesis between essence and existence, between individual and universal interests, between private and political life, between spiritual and practical life."

Marxism gratified to a considerable degree the religious or meaning-seeking impulses of intellectualsan important point since intellectuals have often been perceived as irreverent, iconoclastic, free thinking, inclined to debunking and demystifying-anything but religious. As it turned out intellectuals have not been comfortable in a world from which, in Weber's words, the gods have retreated.

Yakovlev further explains why ostensibly secular intellectuals approached Marxism in a quasireligious spirit: "There is no such thing as pure, unadulterated atheism. When people reject one god they inevitably fashion a hero for themselves on earth and erect a new idol. People search for someone to worship and serve. They need truth absolute.... They are always ... absolutizing something or relativizing something."

The political beliefs of Western intellectuals sympathetic to Marxism and the political systems seeking to implement its values often rested on abstract, non-empirical beliefs and largely symbolic matters. Many of them, even as they became more critical of such systems insisted that their "fundamentals", or the system "as a whole", or its "overall direction" were satisfactory. Such beliefs sufficed for long periods of time to silence doubts in face of disturbing empirical phenomena (this was what Arthur Koestler called, "the doctrine of unshaken foundations"). A convenient degree of insulation from the specifics of social-political realities (i.e. living in the West) was helpful for maintaining this stance but it was the capacity for compartmentalization, the focusing on a handful of abstract notions deeply internalized that best explain these attitudes, and especially the capacity to sharply dissociate ends from means. Even Georg Lukacs, who had lived in '"actually existing socialist societies (the USSR and communist Hungary) was prey to such axiomatic and unexamined beliefs having remarked that " ... in my opinion even the worst socialism is better than the best capitalism." In order to believe this Lukacs had to entertain a quasi-religious notion of socialism that took for granted the essential, self-evident ethical superiority of its goals (over capitalism) and resolutely overlooked all empirical facts calling into question his life-long faith. In the end it came down to matters of faith.

The disposition here sketched is similar to that of conventional religious believers who can rationalize the incomprehensible horrors, injustices, and irrationalities of life experienced here and now because of their deeply felt belief that in its fundamentals the world is ordered and permeated by divine purpose (even if not fully grasped by ordinary mortals) and that divine dispensation will eventually right all wrongs, if not here than in some other world or plane of existence. The unimaginable but hopeful future is of the same importance for the devotee of communist society ("communist" in the Marxist, utopian sense) as the supernatural world is for the religious believer; in communist society all contradictions were to be resolved, all conflicts and scarcities, material or affective (emotional) were to be eliminated.

Unlike the collapse of the other major totalitarian system of our century, Nazi Germany, the fall of Soviet communism did not bring with it an unequivocal, worldwide delegitimation of the ideas which originally inspired the system and its founders. Among Western academic intellectuals Marxism continues to enjoy various degrees of respectability and many remain preoccupied with its rehabilitation. For some of them, the most important result of the collapse of Soviet communism was that it has provided a new opportunity to "recenter ... the debate on our own society." This, to Bruce Cumings (an American historian), meant Putting forward new, hard-hitting critiques of American society based on a purer version of Marxism no longer burdened by association with the likes of Erich Honecker. Cumings also argued that East European communists misunderstood Marx and "institutionalized this failed understanding"-another way of proposing that the theory had nothing to do with the practices it had inspired.

Theory and Practice


Thus in the eyes of many Western beholders the collapse of the Soviet Bloc did not resolve the question of the relationship between Marxist theory and Soviet-communist practice. As Michael Radu pointed out "Many of us, intellectuals ... cannot seem to make peace with the truth that an idea so 'nobly motivated' could have produced such unmitigated disaster. Even today, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union ... there is a powerful reluctance to connect the horrors of Soviet reality to the errors of the socialist idea."

While there is no consensus among Western intellectuals about the relationship between theory and practice, it was certainly among the proud claims of Soviet communism (and of each communist state) that it succeeded in uniting theory and practice. To say the least an effort was made to realize some aspects of the theory and it resulted in a proliferation of unintended consequences. Martin Malia posed the issue with great clarity: "The problem is this: Since socialism set out to realize the 'noble dream' of human equality and fraternity, how could it have produced such palpably bad results in Soviet practice? One way to solve the problem ... is to blame bad results on Russian backwardness, or on the failure of the Western revolution to come to Bolshevism's rescue, or on the heritage of Ivan the Terrible, and by these means to exonerate socialism itself.... Another 'solution' is to say that Soviet Communism was not genuine socialism...." Malia has been among the few who argued that "the Soviet experiment turned totalitarian not despite its being socialist but because it was socialist." He also insisted that " ... all the basic institutions of the Soviet order, as they had emerged by 1935 ... were the creations of ideology...."

Isaiah Berlin was also among the few in the West who did not think that a wide gulf yawned between Marx's ideas and the activities of those who later sought to implement them, there was no liberal humanist Marx to be saved from Stalinist consequences; there was only the young Marx, who believed in 'swift blows and putsches' and the other older one who was resigned to long revolutionary build-up." [Quoted in Michael Ignatieff: Isaiah Berlin: A Life, 1998]

Unlike many Western intellectuals those in Eastern Europe more often than not take it for granted that there was a link between the theoretical inspiration and the practical results (as I also found in my research in Eastern Europe and my recent book reflects). As they see it, the discrepancy existed not between theoretical postulates and the institutions created to implement them but between the theory and its promised results.

It would be hard to dispute that the founders of the Soviet Union were inspired by the central ideas of Marx especially the maximization of socio-economic equality based on an economy of great productivity and a highly motivated workforce. The vastly improved social order was expected to include harmonious relationships between all groups in society (with the exception of the exploiters and enemies of the new social order who were to be removed swiftly and painlessly) and a new sense of community and trust among the citizens. All historically known forms of human misbehavior (crime, greed, selfishness, lack of compassion, envy, etc.) were expected to "wither away." The key economic-institutional measure to attain these goals was the abolition of the private ownership of the means of production. As Leszek Kolakowski wrote: "Marx seems to have imagined that once capitalists were done away with the whole world could become a kind of Athenian agora: one had only to forbid private ownership of machines or land and, as if by magic, human beings would cease to be selfish and their interests would coincide in perfect harmony."

The key political measure was to be the dictatorship of the proletariat exercised through the Party. We cannot guess what Marx might have thought of Lenin's substitution of the Bolshevik Party for the dictatorship of the proletariat, and his attempt to pull off the socialist revolution in a largely peasant society. Nonetheless what Lenin and his followers tried to achieve was not so different from what Marx aspired to in a different setting.

Eduard Shevardnadze's observations reflect an insider's understanding of the relationship between theory (or ideology) and practice: " ... tanks and machine guns may only be employed as arguments within the appropriate ideological frame... the executioner has always been preceded by the inquisitor, the axe and block [were] foreshadowed by the dogmas of faith."

In the Western debates about the relationship between Marxist theory and Soviet-communist practice surprisingly little has been said about the doctrine of class struggle, an essential part of Marxism and one perceived as the defining feature of history. Those who had lived in "actually existing socialist" states did recognize that the belief in class struggle united theory and practice. The theory of the omnipresence and inexorability of class struggle legitimated the generous use of violence allegedly required to create a social system that will eventually not need it.

Yakovlev noted that "Class struggle ... in its crude physical form, the final reorganization of the world ... " was an "obsession" of the founding fathers: "This belief in the inevitability of the coming communist world served to justify the numerous and senseless victims of the class struggle...." According to him:

The idea that one should not fear creating victims in the course of serving the cause of progress ... is very characteristic of Marx.... Moral criteria are ... "revoked" by the brutality and directness of class warfare.... [E]verything that corresponded to the interests of revolution and communism was moral. That is the morality with which hostages are executed, the peasantry was destroyed, concentration camps were built and entire peoples were forcibly relocated. By making the illusory future more important than humanity, Marxism gave people carte blanche to use any means [necessary] ... kindness, conscience, love, cooperation, solidarity, justice, freedom, the rule of law--were unfit, useless. They weakened class struggle.

In short, without the certainties ideological beliefs provided the campaigns of political violence and coercion would have been far less ruthless. By the same token as we reach the 1970s and 80s there is a decline of belief and "without the prop of ideology, the Party's will to coerce eroded"--as Malia summed up the conditions leading to glasnost and the final unravelling.

In the end both the unity and disunity of theory and practice contributed to the unravelling of Soviet communism. The disunity was more apparent: the public ownership of the means of production did not end the exploitation of the workers or make the system more productive or humane. The dictatorship of the proletariat was no more democratic than parliamentary Systems under capitalism. The Communist Party was not composed of the most selfless representatives of the working classes. The leaders were not devoted to the welfare of the masses. Workers did not have reason to believe that they were masters of their lives, owners of the means of production. Communist prisons were no more humane than those in capitalist countries.

But there were also connections between Marxist theory and practice. Communist leaders internalized and acted upon the conviction that private property and profit-hunger were the ultimate source of all evil. Likewise Marx's contempt for peasants was embraced and put into practice. Marx's hostility toward traditional religious beliefs and practices also became institutionalized. The powerful elitist-paternalistic disposition of Marx found full expression in the character of the ruling party and its relationship to the masses. There was a connection between belief, economic policies and economic failures, (as for instance in the establishment and perpetuation of collective farms), between the political will of the leaders and its ideological roots.

Marxism was far more vulnerable to reconciling ideals and realities than Christianity because the promises of Christianity (and most major religions) are projected into another plane of existence, those of Marxism were to be realized in this world.

The Blindspots of Marxism


The present-day relationship between Western intellectuals and Marxist theory is shaped not only by the ambiguous effects of the collapse noted above, but also by a growing awareness that Marxism neglects fundamental problems of human existence. Roger Gottlieb is among the apparently small number of authors coming out of a Marxist tradition willing to raise the crucial question of the relationship between the nature of the theory and the practices it had inspired, and why has it been so difficult to realize the ideals? Some of his observations are strikingly similar to those of Yakovlev quoted earlier: "[Do] ... the roots of Stalinist terror lie in Marxism's fundamental lack of respect for the individual person and for universal human rights? Will Marxism just have to sacrifice innocent lives to some mythical higher purpose? Does the absence of principles held without regard to final consequences mean that Marxist morality will always justify means by utopian ends?"

Gottlieb also drew attention to the Marxian optimism about human nature, at once one of its attractions and major flaw: "Because the Marxist tradition presupposes ... that human fulfillment results from the proper arrangement of human relations and consumption, its model ignores a basic dimension of human experience. The problem arises from some unstated and unexamined premises: If we are given enough bread and justice we will be satisfied and not want more. We will no longer be driven by greed, insecurity, envy, boredom or the fear of death.... We will accept ourselves and others. Having achieved equality we will not seek superiority.... In short, once external misery is ended, internal misery will dwindle."

Yakovlev came to perceive the same weakness of Marxism: "The individual suffers not only from economic inequality but also from spiritual and bodily vulnerability, from fear of death, from the inherent solitude of human beings. The world and life create a multitude of problems ... that cannot be fixed by achieving an equal relationship to the means of production.... Can you deduce human essence from the way an individual makes a living"" He came to the conclusion that "Marx ... had no interest in the psychological realms of people, who, as he supposed, would soon become altered because of the inevitable changes in human nature that follow the modifications in the nature of social relations."

Western intellectuals have adopted different ways to deal with the collapse of Soviet communism and its implications for Marxist theory. There are those who still harbor a residual warmth toward Marxism on account of their past, often youthful, beliefs and commitments. Others embrace a diluted Marxism that can barely be distinguished from liberalism or social democracy-, this watered down version affirms every conceivable human right and opposes every abhorrent political or economic practice or personality trait (e.g. greed, selfishness, dishonesty etc).

For many Western intellectuals Marxism continues to offer a comprehensive and intellectually respectable belief system that combines moral passion with apparent scientific rigor and places them on the side of justice, compassion and other high moral values, As such it continues to help them in maintaining their social critical role which is the major source of their sense of identity and self-esteem.

There are also those (among former Marxist intellectuals) who prefer not think about the validity and vitality of Marxism in the context of the collapse of Soviet communism; they have moved to new preoccupations like multicultural ism, identity politics, postmodernism, deconstructionism, or radical feminism. The postmodernists in particular ceased to be Marxist by virtue of their rejection of the legacy of the Enlightenment and Western rationality that was part of the Marxist tradition.

In the final analysis Marxism had two layers of attraction for intellectuals. The first was linked to social justice, the rational reorganization of society, material progress untainted by the profit motive, the meeting of major and obvious human needs. It is the second attraction that has been the deeper and also more problematic and sinister in its potentialities. It is the allure of the seamless community, new meaning and sense of purpose, the promise of a social system which will reconcile all contradictions of social existence and human aspirations and hence can demand unconditional loyalty and the subordination of means to ends.

This may be a good time for Western intellectuals to finally detach themselves from the remaining appeals of Marxism and conclude from the historical record that it is not a theory which can be relied upon to build either substantially better societies or to improve the character of human beings.