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catallaxy in technical exile

How many of us are still Marxists?

with 12 comments

Marxism is undoubtedly the most successful political ideology of modern times, given the number of countries that have been ruled by Marxists and its capture of western intellectuals, who for the most part had the incredible good fortune to live in states that were not run by Marxists.

The results have not lived up to expectations, or at least not the expectations of Marxists of good will. They may have satisfied those who adopted the more apocalyptic Marxist visions of ruin and mayhem. Albert Langer, the Melbourne-based and affluent Maoist, is alleged to have opined that revolution sounded like fun.

The following passages are taken from a chapter in The Open Society and its Enemies where Popper described how the Marxists tended to undermine democracy their ambiguity towards violence and the conquest of power. Peace and freedom loving Marxists have not been helped by the more apocalyptic and bloodthirsty passages of Marx, nor by the irrational worship of violence by the revolutionaries in the adversary culture.

This book was published in 1945 and it was described by Isiah Berlin as the most scrupulous criticism of Marxism in the English language. For some strange reason it was almost impossible to find on the reading lists of courses in politics and sociology that I scanned for the (then) 21 universities circa 1989. It looks as though some generations of students have not been introduced to this rather important commentary on the most influential political doctrine of the modern age. No wonder much of the world has got some problems in terms of human freedom and dignity. Imagine if engineers had not been introduced to (say) reinforced concrete and other modern building materials.

In addition to the problems caused by the attitude to violence the essentialist theory of the state is also a major problem – the theory that the state is essentially a class tyranny. This makes it very hard for reasonable Marxists to adopt the language of political proposals (and the dualism of facts and standards) to work towards a functioning democracy, a protective state, the rule of law and the traditional form of equalitarian justice.

Popper was especially critical of the tactical doctrine promulgated by Engels along these lines:

We Marxists much prefer a peaceful and democratic development towards socialism, if we can have it. But as political realists we foresee the probability that the bourgeoisie will not quietly stand by when we are within reach of attaining the majority. They will rather attempt to destroy democracy. In this case, we must not flinch, but fight back, and conquer political power. And since this development is a probable one, we must prepare the workers for it; otherwise we should betray our cause. Here is one of Engels’ passages on the matter:

For the moment .. legality .. is working so well in our favour that we should be mad to abandon it as long as it lasts. It remains to be seen whether it will not be the bourgeoisie .. which will abandon it first in order to crush us with violence. Take the first shot, gentlemen of the bourgeoisie! Never doubt it, they will be the first to fire. One fine day the .. bourgeoisie will grow tired of .. watching the rapidly increasing strength of socialism, and will have recourse to illegality and violence.’ What will happen then is left systematically ambiguous. And this ambiguity is used as a threat; for in later passages, Engels addresses the ‘gentlemen of the bourgeoisie’ in the following way: ‘If .. you break the constitution .. then the Social Democratic Party is free to act, or to refrain from acting, against you—whatever it likes best. What it is going to do, however, it will hardly give away to you to-day!’

He argued that the Engels doctrine and the ambiguities of violence and of power-conquest make the working of democracy impossible if they are adopted by a major political party.

I base this criticism on the contention that democracy can work only if the main parties adhere to a view of its functions which may be summarized in some rules such as these:

(1) Democracy cannot be fully characterized as the rule of the majority, although the institution of general elections is most important. For a majority might rule in a tyrannical way. (The majority of those who are less than 6 ft. high may decide that the minority of those over 6 ft. shall pay all taxes.) In a democracy, the powers of the rulers must be limited; and the criterion of a democracy is this: In a democracy, the rulers—that is to say, the government—can be dismissed by the ruled without bloodshed. Thus if the men in power do not safeguard those institutions which secure to the minority the possibility of working for a peaceful change, then their rule is a tyranny.

(2) We need only distinguish between two forms of government, viz. such as possess institutions of this kind, and all others; i.e. democracies and tyrannies.

(3) A consistent democratic constitution should exclude only one type of change in the legal system, namely a change which would endanger its democratic character.

(4) In a democracy, the full protection of minorities should not extend to those who violate the law, and especially not to those who incite others to the violent overthrow of the democracy.

(5) A policy of framing institutions to safeguard democracy must always proceed on the assumption that there may be antidemocratic tendencies latent among the ruled as well as among the rulers.

(6) If democracy is destroyed, all rights are destroyed. Even if certain economic advantages enjoyed by the ruled should persist, they would persist only on sufferance.

(7) Democracy provides an invaluable battle-ground for any reasonable reform, since it permits reform without violence. But if the preservation of democracy is not made the first consideration in any particular battle fought out on this battle-ground, then the latent anti-democratic tendencies which are always present may bring about a breakdown of democracy.

However the Marxists too often pursued a course of making the workers suspicious of democracy. Engels wrote “In reality the state is nothing more than a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and this holds for a democratic republic no less than for a monarchy.”

But such views must produce:
(a) A policy of blaming democracy for all the evils which it does not prevent, instead of recognizing that the democrats are to be blamed, and the opposition usually no less than the majority. (Every opposition has the majority it deserves.)
(b) A policy of educating the ruled to consider the state not as theirs, but as belonging to the rulers.
(c) A policy of telling them that there is only one way to improve things, that of the complete conquest of power. But this neglects the one really important thing about democracy, that it checks and balances power.

Such a policy amounts to doing the work of the enemies of the open society; it provides them with an unwitting fifth column. And against the Manifesto which says ambiguously: ‘The first step in the revolution of the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of the ruling class—to win the battle of democracy’, I assert that if this is accepted as the first step, then the battle of democracy will be lost.

For instance, let us consider more closely the use made in the political struggle of the threat of revolution or even of political strikes (as opposed to wage disputes, etc.). As explained above, the decisive question here would be whether such means are used as offensive weapons or solely for the defence of democracy. Within a democracy, they would be justified as a purely defensive weapon, and when resolutely applied in connection with a defensive and unambiguous demand they have been successfully used in this way. (Remember the quick breakdown of Kapp’s putsch.) But if used as an offensive weapon they must lead to a strengthening of the anti-democratic tendencies in the opponent’s camp, since they clearly make democracy unworkable.

The remainder of the chapter sketched some of the ways that the Marxists doctrines played out in practical politics, culminating in the rise and triumph of fascism. While the social democrats lacked the will to resist effectively, the communists managed to convince themselves that there was no need to resist (ultimately) because fascism represented the last gasp of capitalism and it should be allowed to run its course.

They even hoped that a totalitarian dictatorship in Central Europe would speed up matters. After all, since the revolution was bound to come, fascism could only be one of the means of bringing it about; and this was more particularly so since the revolution was clearly long overdue. Russia had already had it in spite of its backward economic conditions. Only the vain hopes created by democracy were holding it back in the more advanced countries. Thus the destruction of democracy through the fascists could only promote the revolution by achieving the ultimate disillusionment of the workers in regard to democratic methods. With this, the radical wing of Marxism felt that it had discovered the ‘essence’ and the ‘true historical role’ of fascism. Fascism was, essentially, the last stand of the bourgeoisie. Accordingly, the Communists did not fight when the fascists seized power. (Nobody expected the Social Democrats to fight.) For the Communists were sure that the proletarian revolution was overdue and that the fascist interlude, necessary for its speeding up, could not last longer than a few months. Thus no action was required from the Communists. They were harmless. There was never a ‘communist danger’ to the fascist conquest of power. As Einstein once emphasized, of all organized groups of the community, it was only the Church, or rather a section of the Church, which seriously offered resistance.



Written by Admin

December 12, 2006 at 8:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

12 Responses

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  1. STOP PRESS. Albert Langer is still a Marxist! (in 2000 anyway)

    Rafe Champion

    December 12, 2006 at 8:50 am

  2. Yes, Poppers’ is a good critique of Marxism – certainly of Marxism in practice. Though I prefer Schumpeter’s more technical criticisms of Marxist economic dogma. But in condemning those commo intellectuals of the interwar years I cannot be too harsh – the alternatives they were presented with at the time were truly dreadful. Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner.

    But the Open Society is far more profound in it’s critique of Plato and his legacy. I saw the world with new eyes when I read Part I.

    derrida derider

    December 12, 2006 at 10:47 am

  3. what sort of Marxist?
    Zeppo, Harpo, Groucho?

    Bring Back CL's Blog

    December 12, 2006 at 11:05 am

  4. An alternative view of marx:-

    This is part 1 of a mutlipart essay. The links at the bottom of part 1 take you to the latter sections.


    December 12, 2006 at 11:25 am

  5. Rafe
    Albert Langer is both a Stalinist and a neocon. He was the one behind this site

    This site was established by leftwingers who support the war in Iraq. We called it “Last Superpower” because we believe that US imperialism is weaker than it has ever been before and is no longer the almighty superpower it makes itself out to be. This is a place for people who want to discuss what it really means to be progressive and left-wing in the 21st century – and where we can go from here.

    “The pseudo-left opposes modernity, development, globalization, technology and progress. It embraces obscurantism, relativism, romaticism and even nature worship. At May Day rallies, the pseudo-left whines about how things aren’t what they used to be.”

    Jason Soon

    December 12, 2006 at 11:29 am

  6. Well, I’m not. Speak for yourselves.

    Albert Langer has had relevance deprivation syndrome a) for anyone who didn’t go to Monash or b) since Whitlam was elected (notwithstanding the brief kerfuffle over his voter education program in 1996 or so).

    Much of Islamic thought when directed toward non-Muslims and conversions can be considered pseudo-Marxist in that it deals with an identifiable classes of oppressed and oppressors.

    Can Popper help sensible people deal with Foucault, Deleuze et al?

    Andrew Elder

    December 12, 2006 at 11:59 am

  7. “But in condemning those commo intellectuals of the interwar years I cannot be too harsh – the alternatives they were presented with at the time were truly dreadful. ”

    Try a bit harder. Marxism is idiotic.

    “Can Popper help sensible people deal with Foucault, Deleuze et al?”

    Of course not. Because no sensible person would feel the need to ‘deal with’ Focoult for starters.

    Elders still a commie. (Take him out the back and shoot him.)


    December 12, 2006 at 12:36 pm

  8. As usual, thoughtful views Andy.


    December 12, 2006 at 2:08 pm

  9. Jason

    Didn’t you recently say that macroeconomics is, when you boil it down, Marxist ?

    Therefore Ian McFarlane (see excellent Boyer Lectures here and Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke and Martin Redrado are Marxists.


    December 12, 2006 at 2:23 pm

  10. Thanks for the steer to the Boyer Lectures! actually John Hallows gave them a plug over the weekend as well, but no link.

    On Popper and Foucault et al., the popularity of the pomos represents a desperate search for something more interesting than the dead ends of positivism, analytical philosophy and linguistic philosophy. The ideas of Popper and Hayek provide a more helpful alternative but they were the roads less followed, as I found in the survey of philosophy, politics and sociology reading lists. The short answer to Andrew’s question is that people who got onto Popper and Hayek did not need what Foucault and the others appeared to offer.

    Rafe Champion

    December 12, 2006 at 3:24 pm

  11. I think the Boyer Lectures are the ideal EC100 primer on Modern Australain Economic History.

    And it may attract an audience of one (me), but I would love to see a “Commanding Heights” type doco based on the speech.

    Surely the ABC could do it on 4 Corners, rather than some dreary series on how the US is poisoning Cuban babies by sending their Mom’s free conditioner laced with Polonium !


    December 12, 2006 at 10:25 pm

  12. NEVER was – and NEVER will be a Marxist!!!!!
    ….. but do realize that Marxism had a tremendous inpact on the whole 20th Century. Then again, the Black Death had a tremendous effect on the 14th Century too, didn’t it.

    Jason Soon [post 5]:
    So it’s not just John Howard’s policy advisors who are both Stalinist AND Neo-Con. 🙂

    Graham Bell

    December 13, 2006 at 6:26 pm

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