Marxism Über Alles

Intellectuals like Michael Harrington still cling to Marxism. Robert Wesson asks why.


The Twilight of Capitalism, by Michael Harrington, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976, 446 pp., $9.95

Why Marxism?, by Robert G. Wesson, New York: Basic Books, 1976, 281 pp., $12.95

These two books, interesting in themselves, take on added interest when read tandem. Wesson's book is about the continuing success of a failed theory, and Harrington's is about the theoretical failure of a successful system. Together they suggest more of interest than will be explored here. For example, while we in the West seem inclined to abandon a successful system for a failed theory, Communist lands are moving away from the unworkable system produced by Marxist theory.

Wesson proceeds from Marx's Marxism to Engel's Marxism to Soviet Marxism to the Third World's Marxism to Western intellectuals' Marxism. He is not so much interested in Marxism itself as in why it has attracted so much attention. His premise is that the answer is not found in analysis of the doctrines, "an endless and baffling task" to which he gives little attention, "but by study of the uses of Marxism for various people, parties, and revolutionary movements,…that is, of Marxism as a serious kind of political poetry." His book, then, is a kind of history of Marxism. It contains some that is perceptive and some that is defective. One virtue of the book is that it is free of the romantic mythology that produces the unconscious lie evident in Harrington's dedication:

To the future of an almost forgotten genius: the foe of every dogma, champion of human freedom and democratic socialist—KARL MARX.


Wesson sees that "at the heart of Marxism has been an abiding theme of protest" against Western civilization and that "Marxism is a satisfying way of rebelling against the leading sector of civilization." As Harrington makes clear, Marxian protest goes to the foundation of the West's success—market exchange and private property. To protest these is to protest individual liberty.

Harrington captures in a single paragraph both the thrust of Marx's critique and its programmatic implications:

The division of labor in the factory, he wrote in Das Kapital, is planned in minute detail, but the division of labor in the society is anarchic. "It is quite characteristic," Marx wrote bitterly, "that the most enthusiastic apologist of the factory system does not know anything more vexatious to say against the general organization of social labor (that is, against socialism) than that it will turn the entire society into a factory." For Marx the ingenious incoherence of contemporary life, its scientifically calculated purposelessness, is a function of the social system rather than of its technology.

This is Marx's objection to capitalism. On this fundamental issue of Marxian scholarship, I stand with Harrington as an ally against widespread academic misinterpretation of Marx—although I personally do not share this objection with Marx and Harrington.

The answer that Wesson offers to his interesting question—Why Marxism?—is that Marxist doctrines "fulfill more or less irrational political and psychological needs." This answer is not without interest, but there are hints of a better one dispersed throughout his book. His scattered perceptions seem to organize naturally around three factors that together might explain Marxism's success: (1) it is a vehicle of protest; (2) it justifies power based on violence; and (3) it satisfies, in scientific terms, the romantic appetite whetted by the Enlightenment.

I think the answer to Wesson's question is not to be found in irrational needs or the history of Marxism, but in the history of Western intellectual thought. There is an inconsistency in our intellectual foundations that produced Marxism and its success. This inconsistency precludes a positive attitude toward Western experience, and, as Wesson notes, "Marxism has provided a channel, focus, and rationale for essentially negative approaches."


The reason a negative approach toward the West has the upper hand is clear once the inconsistency in our intellectual foundation is understood. The inconsistency stems from the secularization of Christian moral fervor, which produced demands for the moral perfection of society, and from the impact of modern science on our concept of knowledge, which produced a critical philosophical positivism that is skeptical of the reality of moral motives.

The result of the former is a social and political dynamism that is committed to the moral perfection of human society. But the result of the latter is a skeptical sophistication that tends to see morality in terms of high-sounding rationales for lowly but truer motives. We are all used to moral motives being unmasked as rationalizations for class and individual interests or explained as expressions of social, economic, psychological, or political needs.

This unmasking does not prevent moral expression and demands for progress, but directs them into denunciatory rather than affirmatory channels. A morally affirmatory statement, especially if it is in defense of existing society or its achievements, arouses the suspicion of dishonesty and is subject to being unmasked. It encounters objections both from the advocates of social change, who see it as a defense of the status quo, and from skeptics, who look for the real motive that is operating behind the moral guise.

On the other hand, a morally denunciatory statement, especially if it is an accusation against existing society, is seen as an expression of the indignation of the morally honest reformer. In this way moral motives can be asserted backhandedly in praise of social dissenters more easily than they can be asserted straightforwardly in praise of society's achievements. Skepticism and moral indignation together support the social and political dynamism that is committed to achieving progress by remaking society.

Marxism is the only doctrine that both satisfies the demands for progress and provides a safe outlet for moral expression in a skeptical age. Marxism is a success because it fuses the two inconsistent strains in Western thought—moral skepticism and moral indignation—and makes them complements in the attack against existing society. Together they preempt society's moral defense, while at the same time focusing moral indignation against it. Marxism is successful because, unlike the West, which, as Wesson says, "is self-critical, oftentimes weary of its own achievements," Communist states do not rely on a self-critical posture as the means of achieving progress.


Wesson states that "Marx stood for violence" and that "Stalin was not mad but a quite successful dictator liberated by Marxism-Leninism from moral prejudices." Since many in our universities will find his statements provocative, I would like to explain why he is correct.

According to Marx, morality is only a mask for class interest. Thus, for Marxists, good will cannot be an effective force in history. Since each class acts in its own class interest, there is no humanistic basis upon which to unite classes and cultivate effective reforms. If there are as many specific moralities as there are class interests, what mediates between moralities? Marx answers that the mediator is violence. Lenin explicitly developed this doctrine of violence. According to Lenin, "the scientific concept of dictatorship means neither more nor less than unlimited power, resting directly on force, not limited by anything, not restricted by any laws, nor any absolute rules. Nothing else but that."

Lenin's doctrine of violence was widely acknowledged by the Communist Party. For example, in 1928 Grigori Pyatokov, later a victim of the doctrine, recognized and approved it: "According to Lenin the Communist Party is based on the principle of coercion which doesn't recognize any limitations or inhibitions. And the central idea of this principle of boundless coercion is not coercion by itself but the absence of any limitation whatsoever—moral, political, and even physical." Marx's reasoning, which leaves violence as the mediator between classes, leads logically to violence as the mediator between the Party and the people (Leninism) and even further to violence as the mediator between the Party and its members (Stalinism).

Wesson is at his best when writing about Third World Marxism. One finds here none of the unwarranted respect that is usually heaped lavishly upon brutal States whose single elite consists of those who rule. Wesson states, truthfully, that "radical leaders of the developing world need only cite what they learned in American or British universities." He could have added: French, German, Italian, Canadian, Dutch, Swedish, and so forth. Khieu Samphan, the Cambodian Communist leader, comes immediately to mind. He learned his Marxism at the Sorbonne, where his thesis stressed social purification at any cost. No doubt he made an A. This is what the West's universities turn loose on humanity.

Wesson says that Marxism is "an accessory of the authoritarianism which seems unavoidable in the third world." I think it is more. It is the only rationale for minority rule that is acceptable both to the West and to the Soviet Union. The only minority rule in Africa to which the U.S. government has objected is white minority rule.

If Wesson intends an academic career, I hope he has tenure. Since he is so forthright, he may as well have attributed the success of the Leninist theory of imperialism to the mask it provides indigenous rulers for the ruthless exploitation of their own people.

In a brief passage Wesson makes a point that has been on my own mind ever since I discussed it with Michael Polanyi years ago. People today think of Nazism and Communism as opposites, and it may startle them to learn that that is not how these doctrines were perceived by people at that time. Wesson is correct when he says that "Nazism appealed to many of the same declasses as Communism, and in the years of its rise it was easy to pass from one to the other." This, I believe, underlines my point that the success of Marxism is explained in terms outside itself. Doctrines of violence have been successful in the 20th century because they provide the ideal outlet for secularized moral fervor in a skeptical age.


Michael Harrington illustrates many of Wesson's points, such as, "Rights in Marxism are for abstract classes, not real people." And, although suitably muted to be acceptable to chic liberals, Harrington stands in Marx's tradition of "violent and self-righteous polemics, the purpose of which was not to illustrate an issue but to destroy an adversary."

Why shouldn't libertarians learn from Harrington's rhetoric and from Wesson's observation that "any group which perceives its welfare or self-respect abused or threatened can express discontent in Marxist terms"? Libertarians have much to gain from a "Marxist" theory of the exploitation of the productive by the State, just as the political imagination of the Republic of South Africa should be schooled by the People's Republic of the Congo, which, as Wesson notes, "uses a full set of symbols of socialist revolution, including a flag patterned after the Soviet model, but depends economically on French assistance."

Harrington's book is, in places, a more serious work than I expected it to be. He seems to understand better than most academics Marx's concept of a commodity and its pivotal role in Marx's analysis of capitalism. He agrees with Wesson that Marxism lends itself to the purposes of new elites, although he is quick to relieve Marx of any responsibility for Marxism's being "a perfect ideology for dynamic bureaucracies that are going to save the workers from themselves." He excuses Marx by claiming that "these elites were not, to be sure, the products of Marx's thought, or even of his erroneous version of it."

Harrington's book needed a severe and good editor to impose some discipline on a mind that is prone to contradiction and untenable positions. How, for example, if Marx misstated Marxism, as Harrington claims, can Harrington claim to have discovered the authentic Marx, as he does? At best, he can only claim an authentic Harringtonism. There are two interesting questions here. How can Marx, if he did not understand his own work and his own method, have any authority to convey? And why does Harrington so desperately want this authority? "I hope to introduce a living presence into the late-twentieth—and even the twenty-first—century," writes Harrington. "Let me call him 'the new Karl Marx.'" But the question is unavoidable to the reader: Why not call him Michael Harrington? Perhaps what is operating here is the old psychological ploy of giving the primitive instincts of hatred and aggression a sophisticated, independent, and moral form. Gods and bibles have often been used as a rationale for shedding blood.


Harrington's book is a curious mixture of orthodox Marxism, revisionist Marxism, Harringtonism, and personal opinion (some perceptive, some silly) about policy debates and political events of the past ten years. He is particularly exercised by Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The book also offers a commentary on more Marxist writers than the reader will have heard about.

Harrington's thesis is that "capitalism has collectivized its contradictions but not abolished them." He sees the welfare state as "the temporary salvation of the system, but also the portent of its end." Capitalism will self-destruct, he says, because it is opposed to the redistribution of wealth. "The successor to capitalism will be collectivist, of course. That has already been settled." He is happy that we will be collectivized, even though he only gives us one chance in three of a humane collectivity. The other possibilities are the totalitarian and the authoritarian.

The main concern for Harrington is that capitalism is finished, sooner or later. It is a subsidiary question whether we all end up in the Gulag. He is so outraged about capitalism that he criticizes it from contradictory standpoints. It is not possible to be a Keynesian and a Marxist at the same time, but Harrington is—because he can attack existing society from the standpoint of both. After insisting that economic crisis is the inevitable result of capitalism, he then condemns the recent depression as "cruel and unnecessary." Economists will join logicians in tearing out their hair. He suggests that on net balance we subsidize the commercially inefficient, not realizing that this is impossible in real terms. But his economics is no worse than the remarkably stupid congressional study, which he cites, that concluded that to give away real income abroad is good business because it helps hold up the level of demand in the U.S. domestic economy.

Harrington, like Marx and American liberals, stands in the Enlightenment tradition that things will get better as existing society is consciously overturned (either at once through revolution or gradually through reform). The act of faith does not explain why things will not get worse. Why, then, do they choose to believe that things will get better as a result of overturning existing society? My answer is that if one believes that change does not mean progress, one does not have a moral guise for the hatred and aggression that have been channeled against existing society that results from a secularized morality. When morality was secularized, moral fervor was rechanneled from seeking individual salvation to seeking the moral perfection of society. Thus, aggression flows naturally against all existing (imperfect) social arrangements. Harrington, like Marx himself, is merely a slave of the Enlightenment. His class consciousness is that of a philosophe, a descendant of Rousseau, the product of no mode of production. In Michael Polanyi's words, "Here is moral fury attacking all that is of good repute: all accepted manners, custom, and law."

In an atavistic act of good will, a 20th-century act of folly, I say in Harrington's defense that relatively few intelligent and sensitive minds have escaped falling into this syndrome. And many of the few who fight the battle for liberty today are people who have pulled themselves out of this syndrome. Perhaps Harrington also will one day abandon the fight against and join the fight for liberty.


In the meantime, libertarians could become more serious. Many regard liberty a natural state. It is not. Liberty is an achievement, fought for by those who believed in it. If libertarians are not prepared to kill and die in defense of liberty, they should be prepared to lose it. That is the clearest message that Harrington's book conveys to libertarians. That Marxists will kill and die to take away liberty is the clearest message of Wesson's book.

In thinking over these books, I am left with the provocative thought that the net social product of a class of intellectuals is negative. The general welfare would increase if this class were paid not to write and speak. The products of intellectuals are social problems, which they discover and market to earn their living. Without this class to stir up discontent, envy, and hatred, people might go about their business of cultivating their own gardens, of earning their incomes, tending to their families, and being civil to one another. Government would certainly be smaller. Wesson would probably agree with this thought. It would go against Harrington's grain, but if not even Marx understood Marxism, what defense of intellectuals can Harrington offer?

Intellectuals generate enormous social costs by socializing personal problems. Just as in the case of pollution, some way must be found to internalize these costs. Perhaps the only way is to open legal recourse to the victims. The intellectuals and their coterie of regulators, IRS agents, liberal judges, parole boards, and bleeding hearts are the true criminals of our time. In self defense, peaceful individuals must find some way of protecting themselves against them.

Dr. Roberts is the author of Marx's Theory of Exchange, Alienation, and Crisis and Alienation and the Soviet Economy.