Three Recent Books on Marxism and Communism


Persons who are seriously concerned with developing and spreading libertarian ideas—particularly among students, college professors, and others with possible "leftwing" leanings—should not only know their own ideology but those of their competitors as well. With that in mind REASON is pleased to present a discussion of some of the recent literature on Marxism and the Soviet system which we hope will aid any of our readers who wish to pursue further study on their own. Dr. Raico is a professor of history at State University College, Buffalo, New York.

KARL MARX: HIS LIFE AND THOUGHT, by David McLellan, New York: Harper and Row, 498 pp.

This widely-reviewed and highly-praised book is the first major biography of Marx in English in a number of decades. The author is a Marx-scholar, specializing in the earlier thought (pre-1848) of the great socialist. The urgent need for such a project as this one is not at all obvious; no new information of any great significance concerning Marx's life has come to light since the appearance of earlier biographies, and while certain works (such as The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and The Grundrisse) have only recently been published or had their importance sufficiently appreciated, McLellan's treatment of these is for the most part so superficial as to hardly warrant being embedded in a full-scale biography. The tone is one of "critical" sympathy: certainly not the kind of thing that might come from East Berlin, but, on the other hand, there is scarcely a major criticism of Marxism that is mentioned in the course of expositing and analyzing Marx's thought, let alone admitted as plausible. McLellan's frame of mind may be illustrated by the following: in 1849, Marx was the editor of the radical journal, Neue Rheinische Zeitung, which, naturally, often published analyses of the revolutionary situation in Europe at the time. One such, by Marx's friend Engels, contains this statement:

With the first successful revolt of the French proletariat…the Austrian Germans and Magyars will be free and exact a bloody revenge from the Slavic barbarians. The general war that will break out will break this Slavic union and annihilate all these small pigheaded nations right down to their very names. The next world war will cause to vanish from the face of the earth not only reactionary classes and dynasties but also whole reactionary peoples. And that, too, is progress.

McLellan's comment: "This view was typical of other correspondants of the paper [which] was misled by the role that certain sections of the Slavs played in 1848-49 into describing whole nations as being once and for all revolutionary or counter-revolutionary, as having a right to a history or not having a right to any history at all." But whether Marx and Engels were correct in their ethno-political interpretation is hardly the point here. Let the reader consider once more what Engels wrote (and Marx published and doubtless agreed with): how else can it be characterized than as a call for—and a gloating in the prospect of—genocide? In what other 19th century author of similar stature could such a passage be found? How could McLellan's comment be considered as anything like commensurate to the meaning of this passage and therefore to what Engels and Marx were feeling at this time? But this is surely the kind of thing with which a biographer should concern himself! For anyone who wishes to begin to penetrate to the thought of Marx, Isaiah Berlin's Karl Marx is unexcelled as a short treatment and more than adequate on Marx's life for the purposes of the educated layman (besides, while McLellan is pedestrian in style, Berlin is consistently very fine); and the best critique of Marxism (aside from its economics) is provided by the British philosopher and libertarian, H.B. Acton, in his The Illusion of the Epoch.

ALIENATION AND THE SOVIET ECONOMY, by Paul Craig Roberts, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971, 121 pp.

Considering the place of Marxism in today's intellectual world, there are far too few libertarian scholars devoting any substantial part of their efforts to understanding and rebutting it (as well as salvaging what parts can be useful for a correct social philosophy), which may account to some extent for the superficiality of a great deal of Marx-criticism. One exception is H.B. Acton, mentioned above, and another is Paul Craig Roberts, who is an economist now with the Hoover Institution (as well as a contributor to REASON). As against even better than average Marx commentators, such as the left-liberal Daniel Bell or the democratic socialist T.B. Bottomore, Roberts demonstrates originality in two important respects: first, in his determination to drive his argument home with no reverence at all for Marx's position as a culture-hero—there is a refreshing gloves-off approach—and, second, in the breath-taking sweep of the argument itself (in regard to both, as he graciously acknowledges, he is following in the footsteps of Michael Polanyi in the latter's interpretation of Marxism and Soviet economic history). The argument is basically this: the theme of overcoming Man's alienation is, indeed, the central theme and meaning of Marxism from first to last (some scholars have claimed to find it only in the thought of Marx as a young man). What that overcoming—equivalent to the final liberation of humankind—consists in is the abolition of commodity production, which is to say, of production for a market. It is from this process that all the other evils which Marx identified in the present human condition flow. Now, Roberts maintains, reality is such that it is demonstrably not possible in economies above the primitive level to do without commodity production (in other words, without a market-system in some sense, real or simulated). Thus, in the case of the Bolshevik Revolution, what we have is a really beautiful historical irony of vast scope (and vastly tragic consequences), as well as what could be viewed as a lesson in elementary metaphysics: low-grade intellectuals like Lenin seized power in order to do the impossible. Reality proved refractory to the actualization of their whims, and they failed—although scarcely anyone to this day has acknowledged that failure. The crucial episode here, Roberts demonstrates, was "War Communism" (1918-1921), which represented not a set of stop-gap measures, but rather the very goal of the Marxist Revolution: the suppression of the price-system, market-relationships and commodity production. It had to be abandoned because, as Trotsky himself later wrote: "the collapse of the productive forces surpassed anything of the kind that history had ever seen. The country, and the government with it, were at the very edge of the abyss." With its abandonment, and especially with the increasing reliance of the "socialist" countries on market mechanisms, the whole point of Marxist-Leninist revolutions and take-overs disappears, and Marxism, properly understood, vanishes like a dream. It is easy to see that Roberts has written an extremely important and provocative book.


There must be few terms in the political vocabulary that evoke as instantaneous and justifiable a feeling of contempt as "fellow-traveller." The term refers, of course, to those who admired the "noble" Soviet experiment (from afar); i.e., Western intellectuals who by their pen and spoken word excused and furnished rationalizations of the Russian people's road to Calvary, while meanwhile in Paris, London, New York and elsewhere in the West enjoying more than the average man's benefits from capitalism and the rule of law. Der Geist steht links ("intellect is on the left") is not altogether true; in point of fact, really creative writers in the 20th century have tended to be conservative or reactionary (Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Lawrence, Faulkner, among English-speaking writers, for instance) rather than leftist (a few, like the brilliant Nabokov, have been mild classical liberal-types, but none, alas, really libertarian). The leftists, though, have been much more conspicuous. David Caute's very intelligent book chronicles the ups and downs of the crush which a large number of French, German, English, American and other intellectuals had on those who wielded the whip over the Russian masses. The great majority of expressions of admiration for Soviet leaders, institutions and policies over the decades—even on the part of distinguished and eminent writers and thinkers such as Romain Rolland, Julian Huxley, Dreiser, Gide and so on—are predictably childish (Huxley said that "the dictatorship of the proletariat" meant "roughly that paramountcy must be given to working class interests"). An exception would have to be made for the Fabians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb and Bernard Shaw. An insight of Caute's is that those people at least knew rather well what they were about: proponents of planning by an elite of experts, and believers in a salutary discipline exercised over ignorant and resisting masses, they found the Stalinist dictatorship to be just their cup of tea. Caute is weak, however, on the theoretical framework he provides for his book (indicated by the sub-title): conservatives, unfortunately, may be able to exploit his linking of the phenomenon of fellow-travelling with the Enlightenment when, in fact, there is little justification for such an association. The genealogy Caute is seeking leads back, through Saint-Simon especially, to a certain positivist and totalitarian wing of 18th century thought, but it would be very hard to include in this writers like Voltaire, Hume and Kant. Nonetheless, this is all in all a worthwhile book, its value enhanced by the fact that its author is himself an informed and humane socialist.