George Walford: Accounting for Marxism

In the TLS for 6 September 1985 Anthony Giddens reviews a book, by the late Alvin W. Gouldner, entitled Against Fragmentation; the Origins of Marxism and the Sociology of Intellectuals (OUP 1985). The author was Max Weber, Research Professor of Social Theory at Washington University, St. Louis, and a winner, with an earlier work, of the National Book Award. His writings have attracted high commendation from journals such as Political Science Quarterly, Contemporary Sociology, the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Times Book Review; the blurb quotes some of the phrases used: “An academic Voltaire,” “pyrotechnics,” “masterful,” unparalleled brilliance of scholarship.” The present book was assembled by his widow from his manuscripts, but Giddens assures his readers that it is closely consonant with Gouldner’s previous work.

The review described Gouldner as a critic of orthodox sociology, scorning the pretensions of sociologists to value-freedom and attacking functionist theories for understanding the amount of tension and conflict in societies of every type. Later he became, in his own phrase, a “Marxist outlaw,” deeply sympathetic to the theory yet unable to commit himself to it without reservations. One passage in Giddens’ review particularly caught our attention:

Socialism, Gouldner suggests, is a creation of intellectuals, and has little intrinsic connection with the political involvements of the working class. The main currents of socialist thought derive from a critique of early capitalism developed by intellectuals. The intelligentsia hides its own role in history (even from itself) by projecting it on to the agency of the proletariat.

Harold Walsby said very much the same thing in 1938 and published a book in 1947 which showed (along with much else) how the intellectuals came to behave in this way. Neither he nor those who have taken up his ideas have succeeded in getting a hearing from the academic world but here, it seemed, was one of the brighter academics putting forward at least a part of the same conceptions. This had to be looked into.

Nobody trying to make sense of political movements can get far without an understanding of Marxism and a knowledge of its history, and Gouldner’s book contains more of value on this subject than we can do justice here. For a Marxist (even an outlaw Marxist), he is unusually ready to accept Bakunin as something more than a demon of destruction, going so far as to call him the first articulate Critical Marxist, one who had fused Marxism, Positivism and Anarchism (or aspects of these) in a Hegelian synthesis to form his own doctrine. Much of the history of the International Workingmen’s Association (The First International) is best understood as the outcome of a continuing struggle between Marx and Bakunin; the eventual transference of the organisation to the United States was orchestrated by Marx in order to remove it from Bakunin’s influence. On the theory of permanent revolution, on the relation of Lenin and of St. Simon to Marxism, and on much else, Gouldner is informative and enlightening, but we turn to the main theme of his work, which is also the feature most directly relevant to systematic ideology.

Noting Marx’s thesis that the social position of the knower will influence any knowledge put forward (and must therefore be taken into account when evaluating it) Gouldner asked what, in this sense, was the position of Marxism, and found that, although it claimed to express the interests of the proletariat, it was in fact formulated by the bourgeois intellectuals. If Marxism is to be fully understood it is necessary “to decipher this eerie transformation of elites into elite-devouring revolutionaries.”

Before going further, a word about the historical background to Gouldner’s work. He himself, at least in the present book, says little about this, plunging straight into theoretical discussion; what follows is largely our own highly abbreviated account.

The assertion that there is an intrinsic connection between socialism, communism, Marxism, anarchism, the left-wing movement generally on one hand and the working class on the other, has been so often repeated that it has come to be accepted as a part of the ground from which political thinking takes off. Yet it is not to be found in the original formulations of socialist theory. Gouldner quotes with approval the distinction drawn by Antonio Carlos between the activity of the workers, trying by means of strikes and trade unions to obtain better conditions within capitalism, and the demand of the socialists that capitalism be replaced by a different social system. Socialism, Gouldner says, was originally rooted:

in a critique of society derived from intellectuals and their own distinct motives, arising quite independently of their knowledge of or sympathy for the working-class struggle. (pp 21, emphasis in original)

During the very early days of the socialist movement the question: “Who belonged to it?” could well have been answered with: “There ain’t nobody here but us intellectuals”; the workers, or the exploited, or the masses may have been its intended beneficiaries, but they were not thought to play any more active part. Among the Saint-Simonians, for example, the role of the intelligentsia was not seen as restricted to announcing the rule of other social strata; they themselves were to become a new scientific priesthood, exercising power openly. And, although Gouldner does not mention it, Robert Owen, for whose word the word “socialism” was invented, expected the upper class to establish it simply because this was the rational thing to do. It was the failure of attempts to establish socialism by these means that provoked the search for a more effective agent, leading first to claims on behalf of “the nation” or the Volk and eventually to attempts to attach the socialist movement to the working class; Antonio Carlo himself holds that the greatest service performed by Marx and Engels was their promotion of these efforts.

Marx, together with Engels, produced one comprehensive statement of basic Marxism: the Communist Manifesto of 1848. This was a masterpiece of political and social theorising. It presented a strong line of argument and analysis, derived from that a policy and laid down a ten-point programme. Unfortunately it proved to be standing at a distance from actual society; the support (for its programme of action if not for its theory), which Marx expected to come from the working class, did not materialise and he spent the rest of his life trying to bridge the gap. The Manifesto speaks of the class struggle as nearing the decisive hour, but over the hundred and thirty years – more than four generations – since it appeared the expectations of its authors have not been realised. In particular, the proletariat has not come to form, as the Manifesto declared it would, a single political party, and gives no indication that it ever will do so. By 1914, when the German Social Democrats, who had been regarded as the principle strength of the revolutionary movement, decided to support their country’s war effort, the end seemed to have come. Marxism, the longest-lived of a number of doubtfully legitimate descendants of Hegelism, began to settle down in the graveyard of unsuccessful theories, among the dusty relics which interest few but historians of ideas. But then trumpets were heard in the distance and the cavalry came galloping over the horizon. Lenin, who held Blanquist conspiratorial beliefs, found it tactically useful to call himself a Marxist. Marxism became known, quite falsely, as the theory on which the Russian Revolution was carried through, and since then every self-important amateur politician who wanted to be respected as a revolutionary has had to declare himself a Marxist. Even worse, every serious thinker who found his investigations leading him into radical criticism of existing society has been compelled, in order to obtain a hearing, to clamber on to the same horse-drawn wagon. In the 1950s Marxism entered the university syllabuses. Professional students of social affairs now find themselves committed to the attempt to reconcile with the life of the 1980s a theory of social behaviour formulated in 1848, before telephones, mass-production, automation, computers, the internal combustion engine, machine-guns, Darwinism or even adult suffrage had begun to produce their effects. This is why Marxist writings become increasingly turgid, involved and self-referential; the authors are driven toward attempting to obscure, in these ways, the inadequacy of the theory to which they are impelled, by the intellectual fashion of the time, to subscribe.

It is not Marx’s fault. He said, more clearly than anybody had said it before, that every thinker is constrained by the conditions of his place and time. He knew that progress involves revolution, rejection and reversal of what was formerly valued. He set the example, turning his mentor, Hegel, upside down. But his epigones have set Marxism up as an exception to the principles for which they claim to value it, they have come (while denying that they have done so) to treat it as a body of timeless truths, not to be altered in more than the details. Gouldner is a partial exception, as is shown by his recognition of Bakunin as a post-Marxist, but he stops shortly of radically criticising the Marxist theory contemplating himself (as we shall see) with introducing an extra complication which does no more than obscure the issue. His book opens with a statement of the problem:

Marxism’s proletarian communism begins in the theoretical work of two very advantaged sons of the well-to-do. It arises out of their privileged education, reading, leisure, and critical independence – another class privilege.

Throughout Marx’s work the theme is clear: thinking, particularly theorising about social questions, and the main lines of behaviour, particularly behaviour in social and political affairs, are fundamentally determined by class interests. The Communist Manifesto notes the fact that a small number of the bourgeoisie join what Marx calls the proletarian camp, but it offers no explanation of this and none is to be found elsewhere in the writings of Marx (or in those of Engels). Marxism, in short, offers no explanation of its own existence. As Gouldner phrases it in his opening sentence: “The historical and social origins of Marxism are tangled in a stubborn paradox” (pp 6). “From the standpoint of Marx’s and Engle’s own Marxism, which insisted that social consciousness is determined by social being, their own accomplishment must seem a sociological miracle” (pp 7).

Gouldner points out that on the class origins of Marxism Marx and Engels themselves make no clear statement. He says, surprisingly:

There is little reason to expect Marx and Engels to say much about the origins of their own theory beyond acknowledging their intellectual debts. (pp 6)

One is reluctant to engage in direct contradiction, but there does seem to be ample reason to expect them to have a great deal to say on the subject. Their theory claims to account for the intellectual life of any society, not only its laws, religion, philosophy, art and literature but also its political and social theorising, as epiphenomena of its means and relations of production. If that theory itself cannot be accounted for in this way, if their own position was, as Gouldner terms it, “incongruous,” an explanation of this discrepancy is a primary necessity. They do not give it. In Gouldner’s words, the little they have to say on the subject is said “hurriedly, en passant,” it is “oblique and fugitive.” Worst of all, it is “sharply anomalous with the main thrust of their own argument.” (pp 6-7)

Gouldner’s proposed solution to the problem does not entail repudiation of the belief that social consciousness is determined by social being, or departure from the usual Marxist interpretation of that very broad phrase as meaning, in each specific case, that political attachment is determined by class position. What he does is to introduce a “New Class” (it seems to be related to Djilas’ conception put forward under the same phrase although this is not said) which first appears on page six:

the rudiments of a sociology of intellectuals and intelligentsia, i.e. of the New Class. It is only in this social stratum, seen in its historical specificity, that we may adequately comprehend the class sources of Marxism.

The evidence that Marxism is a creation of intellectuals is convincing; the question is, first, whether this recognition can be reconciled with Marxism, particularly with its class theory and, second, whether Gouldner is right in identifying these intellectuals, creators and expounders of Marxism, with the university-educated. Gounder is working at a level where directly to declare himself a Marxist would seem naive, but the trend of his book is toward maintaining the validity of this theory subject to a recognition that the intellectuals play a more active part than Marx had allowed. In doing so, however, he departs farther from the original theory than he seems to realise. To pin it down, he speaks in the passage above of the intellectuals and intelligentsia as forming a “social stratum” and claims that his concept enables us to “comprehend the class sources of Marxism.” The implication is that by recognising the intellectuals and intelligentsia as constituting a social stratum he has located them in a revised, but still Marxist, scheme of classes and thereby solved the problem. But a social stratum is not a class, and to speak of the intellectuals as “New Class” is to use “class” in a sense alien to the orthodox Marxist use of the term.

Close to the root of Marxism lied the conception of a class as constituted by the particular relation in which its members stand to the means of production; in Marxist theory it is fundamentally this, and not style of living, education or even income that distinguishes bourgeoisie from workers. (Strange though it may seem, there is nothing in Marxism which says it is impossible for a worker to have a higher income than a capitalist.) For Gouldner the intellectuals are the people with university education. He calls these the New Class, but he does not demonstrate, as by Marxist theory he needs to do, that as a distinct group they stand in any particular relation to the means of production. By Marxist criteria the attempt, to account for the origins of Marxism by postulating a New Class of intellectuals, does not succeed.

Gouldner is at one with other Marxist revisionists (we use the term objectively, without the usual derogatory implication) in failing to reconcile the Marxist scheme of classes, or any reasonably plausible variant of it, with observed political behaviour; Marxism itself is one political movement standing as an irreducible and fatal anomaly.

In a footnote to the English edition (1888) of the Communist Manifesto, Engels defines the protagonists in the Marxist drama of classes:

By ‘bourgeoisie’ is meant the class of modern capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage labour. By ‘proletariat,’ the class of modern wage labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live.

By these definitions many, who comfortably consider themselves middle-class, are relegated to the proletariat; the Manifesto is definite:

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science into its paid wage labourers.

If the terms be taken in these, their original Marxist senses, then in each of these two classes a minority accepts Marxism and a majority does not.

It is now more common, even among Marxists, to use “working class” or “proletariat” to include only those who do rough, unpleasant work for low pay, the people who sell their labour power under relatively comfortable conditions for higher salaries being middle class. There are still other variations and subdivisions: upper working class, lower middle class and so on. But however the slices be cut it remains true that in each of them a minority is Marxist, the majority not.

The same is even true of the New Class of intellectuals (meaning the university-educated), which Gouldner introduces in an effort to save the class theory. He himself is unable to avoid recognising that some members of this group are Marxists and some are not. He distinguishes between “intellectuals in general” and “revolutionary intellectuals in particular.” (p 7) He says “Marx correctly noted that some intellectuals went over to the proletariat.” (p 9, emphasis added)

Gouldner’s proposal to recognise a “New Class” does not, in fact, make contact with the problem which, persisting in the face of all the polemics and all the vituperation, has bedeviled Marxism from its beginnings. This is not: Why do university-educated people support what Marx called the proletarian movement? Most of them did not and still do not do so. The problem is: How does it come about that a minority of each class, of the bourgeoisie, of the proletariat and, if this “New Class” be recognised, of that also, supports Marxism while a majority of each class does not do so? One thing is clear: Since the members of all classes behave, in this respect, in the same way, their behaviour cannot be explained by reference to their class position or their class interests.

Our attention was drawn to Gouldner’s work by the apparent similarity between his view, that Marxism was not an outcome of proletarian struggle but a creation of the intellectuals, and the view put forward by Harold Walsby, that Marxism is one expression, an expression developed in relation to a particular set of historical and social conditions, of a highly sophisticated and intellectualised ideology. Now, having read Gouldner’s book, and thought about it, the conclusion we come to is that although he recognised that Marxism is defined by its ideas and not by the class position of its originators, supporters or exponents, he has been unable to develop the full value of this perception because he remains shackled by the imaginary need to relate intellectual achievement to class position. Hence his attempts to present the originators and adherents of Marxism as a “New Class,” an attempt which cannot be reconciled either with observation or with the Marxist definition of what constitutes a class.

Marx’s proposition, put forward in The German Ideology and in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, that consciousness is determined by social being, cannot reasonably be denied; every thinker is constrained by conditions of place and time. But the reason why this proposition cannot be denied is not its strength but its lack of meaning. The assumed dichotomy does not exist, consciousness is not separate from social being but a part of it, so that to say consciousness is determined by social being is only to say that consciousness is determined by (among other things) consciousness. The conditions of place and time which constrain the thinker include the thinking of that place and time.

When putting forward their general theory Marxists include this proposition and it is, as we have said, not reasonably deniable. But when they come to apply that theory in social affairs they depart from this generality into a particular form of it. For “social being” they substitute “class position,” and then proposition becomes “consciousness, particularly political attachment, is determined by class position”; it is this assumption that impels Gouldner to present the Marxist intellectuals, with their distinctive consciousness, as not merely a group or stratum but a New Class. The substitution is illegitimate, and the proposition it produces not only can be denied but cannot reasonably be maintained. This revised proposition is falsified by the existence of the very movement which puts it forward; Marxism is one form of consciousness, and an important one, and it is not class-linked. Whatever scheme of classes be accepted, in each of them a minority is Marxist, the majority not. Even Gouldner’s introduction of a New Class, created for the express purpose of overcoming this fatal discrepancy between theory and observation, does not succeed in doing so; this class too is divided in this way.

In Marxist usage an ideology is a set of ideas expressing the interests of a class. Gouldner specifies the ideology characteristic of Marxist intellectuals; he fails, as we have seen, to link it with any particular class, but his speculation is itself a valuable achievement. He terms this ideology the Culture of Critical Discourse (abbreviated to CCD):

The culture of critical discourse insists that any assertion – about anything, by anyone – is open to criticism and that, if challenged, no assertion can be defended by invoking someone’s authority. It forbids a reference to a speaker’s position in society (or reliance upon his personal character) in order to justify or refute his claims. The CCD is the special ideology of intellectuals and intelligentsia, and it is essentially an ideology about how discourse should be conducted.

Why, however, is the CCD alienating? Under the scrutiny of the culture of critical discourse, all claims to truth are in principle now equal, and traditional authorities are now stripped of their special right to define social reality. The credit normally given to the claims of those with worldly success, to the rich and powerful, now needs to be hidden if not withdrawn, because it comes to be defined as illicit and unworthy. The CCD is alienating and even radicalizing because it demands the right to sit in judgment over all claims, regardless of who makes them. (p 30)

Here Gouldner has pinned down, with admirable precision, the factor which most sharply distinguishes the operations of the left from those of the right. The CCD functions most strongly among the extreme left, alienating them from existing society certainly, but also from each other. This commitment to criticising every statement, no matter who makes it, accounts for the tendency towards fission so marked at that end of the political range. It accounts for the need of “party discipline” to secure some appearance of unity among communists and for the existence of a number of anarchists groups and organisations almost equal to the number of anarchists. But it appears even among the moderate left, it produces the notorious divisiveness of the Labour Party, entitling a speaker at the Conservative Party Conference of 1985 to describe his opponents as “firmly united in fraternal hatred of each other’s guts.”

There is an indecisiveness running through Gouldner’s book and it arises form the absense of any clear answer to a crucial question: Who, exactly, are these intellectuals, creators and supporters of Marxism, of whom he is speaking? He wants to identify them with the university-educated, and in this he does not depart far from Marxist tradition. Marx himself had no high regard for the few auto-didacts who joined his movement in the early days. Wilhelm Weitling achieved an honourable position as one of the first Marxists to be purged, and of Dietzgen Marx commented that he “would do best to condense all his ideas into two printer’s sheets and have them published under his own name as a tanner,” while Engels responded with the suggestion that he great majority of Marxist writers and speakers now are graduates, but it is no less true that the great majority of graduates are not Marxists and never were. In Marx’s time, and for long afterward, a main function of universities was the training of the clergy, not a notably Marxist group, and today most graduates enter professions which require from their practitioners not the Culture of Critical Discourse which Gouldner rightly ascribes to Marxists, not independent critical thinking, but acceptance of established standards and procedures, together with a markedly non-Marxist deference to authorities.

The possession of higher education is not definitive of Marxists, but neither is the absense of it. The picture of Marxists as a mob wearing dirty overalls, each of them a sledge-hammer in one hand and Das Kapital in the other, as what Harold Walsby once called “horny-handed exponents of the MCH” (the Materialist Conception of History) is no more justified than Gouldner’s vision of them as wearing academic robes and carrying their diplomas.

The attempt to account for the existence of Marxism by reference to the educational system is no more successful than the attempt to account for it by reference to class division. Marxism is a set of ideas, but not everybody who can recite, or even expound, its doctrines is a Marxist. Marxists are people who accept these ideas because they feel them to express their deeply-held values and aspirations. In order to account for Marxism, as for any other social movement, the problem is to explain how it comes about that different groups hold different sets of values and aspirations. The original Marxist class theory has been shown, by the experience of over a century, to be incapable of this, and we have seen that Alvin W. Gouldner’s proposed revision does not succeed either. The solution offered by systematic ideology is outlined, for those who have not met it before, at the front of this journal.

Every serious thinker about social affairs owes Karl Marx a debt which cannot be measured; we are all post-Marxists now. If we have thoroughly learned what he, more than a century ago, set out to teach us, then we will know that knowledge and understanding, like other social affairs, advances by way of revolution. It is not sufficient to modify and adapt his ideas, to reform his theories. If we are to prove ourselves worthy disciples of Karl Marx we have to effect a revolution in thinking which overthrows Marxism.

– – –

THE TLS IS a thing of beauty and a joy for ever. In the issue of 6 Sept 85 Peter Hebblethwaite speaks of “the ordinary theological rough-and-tumble.”

The TLS is sometimes just plain irritating. In the issue of 27 September 85 one contributor says Kay Boyle deserves celebration for her indomitable spirit and for the tradition she upholds: the radical intellectual streak in American culture, now unfashionable, which holds that dissent on grounds of conscience is not anti-American but essentially American.

Has he not heard of dissenters in Russia? Or that Amnesty works for the release of political prisoners in most parts of the world? Or that it was English people, dissenting on grounds of conscience, who started America? That breakaway group over there sometimes gets above itself.

from Ideological Commentary 21, November 1985.