The Crisis of Dialectical Materialism
and Libertarian Socialism
If there is one sentence in all that has been written
by Marx that summarizes his thought, it is this: "Men make
their own history, but they do not make it just as they please;
they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but
under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted
from the past". (The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, p.15).
Constantly vying with each other are two processes: the attempt
by human beings to change the world into a human world and the self-preserving
inertia of this world they are trying to change. On the one side
human life, the source of all meaning, a free consciousness bent
on making its freedom real and on the other the sheer weight of
circumstances that not only resist this freedom but threaten to
turn human actions into inhuman results.
As long as people do not make history with the consciousness that
they are doing so, the power of circumstances prevails -- "The
tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on
the brain of the living". (ibid. p.15). History remains
the captive of economic necessity and therefore loses its right
to be called history since that word can only be correctly applied
to a record of human achievement whereas history prior to liberation
is a record of the rule of necessity. History proper begins when
this rule has been broken, i.e., when history becomes the enterprise
of free individuals acting collectively out of solidarity with each
other. Till then men make history not as human beings but as objects
blindly reacting upon one another.
Still even if they do it blindly, it is men and women who make history.
Were it not for that there would be no hope of liberation. The rule
of necessity would he permanent and freedom would not only be unattainable
but also unintelligible.
Libertarian socialism starts from this simple but profound truth.
People make their own history. Therefore oppression which has so
far been the predominant theme of history is not a natural principle.
And it is not a supernatural one either. What rules and oppresses
one person is always another person. Of course it is in the interest
of all oppressors to justify their actions on the basis of immutable
natural laws or to disguise them as the actions of impersonal forces
(Gods, nature, the market, machines and so on). But these forces
by virtue of their very impersonality are neutral. The winds do
not oppress, lack of shelter does. Machines do not go out of their
way to injure or to stultify life, the ones who own them do. Oppression
then is not inevitable, the world is not unchangeable because quite
literally the world is what we make it.
Because the world for us is not so much the physical reality that
surround us but its significance for us. By virtue of being given
to us at all things are given to us as situationalized objects.
We do not see abstract trees littering the landscape but this or
that tree, close or far away, blocking our view or giving us pleasure,
caught in a glimpse or observed leisurely etc. Thus while it may
be impossible to actually move mountains through sheer faith it
is quite possible to change the situation within which they are
seen. And that for us amounts to the same thing. Situations can
be altered radically -- the world can he turned upside down. But
can it be turned upside down just by closing our eyes? Is that what
we are saying? Obviously not, since when we close our eyes we know
perfectly well that the world has remained the way it was. We know,
in other words, that we have closed our eyes. If we try to deceive
ourselves and start walking with our eyes shut the pain of bumping
into things will rudely expose our deception. Hence our ability
to change the world and our inability to do so purely through contemplation.
The originality of the Marxian idea is to be found in its simultaneous
recognition of the creativity of the human subject and and the power
of circumstances. As against those idealists who would reduce people
to thought-objects Marx asserted the irreducible concreteness of
human life. Human beings suffer and this suffering is unique to
every person. It establishes irrevocably the reality of each individual
and resists the attempt to drown individual experiences in the totalizing
movement of history. In the sense that Marx emphasizes the materiality
-- the "sensuousness" -- of the subject he is a materialist.
Nevertheless the word "materialist" is misleading. It
hides the originality to which we have already alluded, namely,
the attempt by Marx to go beyond both idealism and materialism.
In his "Theses on Feurbach" and again in "The Holy
Family" he makes it quite clear that he rejects "scientific"
materialism. The materialists of the 18th century, with their mechanistic
view of the subject as a passive receptor of data emanating from
objects. failed to grasp the self-creative character of the human
subject. Insofar as materialism liberated its adherents from the
dreadful mythology of religion it was progressive: it expressed
the experience of those who denied comfort and luxury yet knew all
too well that the material world was far from being an illusion.
As a partial truth therefore, materialism had its function to perform.
As the truth, however, it turned itself into a mythology. True,
"Materialism is indisputably the only myth that suits revolutionary
requirements" (J-P Sartre "Materialism & Revolution")
but it remains a myth and under certain circumstances a dangerous
These abstract considerations have very practical consequences.
Marx was the first to point out that "The materialist doctrine
that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that
therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed
upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and
that the educator himself needs educating" (Theses on Feurbach
Why then has Marxism come to be associated with a doctrine that
proclaims the overwhelming importance of objective circumstances?
In part through propaganda. Capitalism being mechanistic in its
practice is well suited to denouce opposing theories as mechanistic.
Having made freedom precious by denying it it finds it useful to
attribute its own sins to the doctrines of others. Still its task
would have proved far harder than it has if Marxists had not been
so anxious to justify their critics.
When Marx said in The German Ideology that "The ideas
of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas" he
does not seem to have realized the extent to which this applied
to him too. Even less did his followers. But Marx was quite adamant
about this: "circumstances make men just as much as men make
circumstances" and "Just as our opinion of an individual
is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge ...
a period of transformation by its own consciousness" (Preface
to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy).
Certainly as Marx himself demonstrated so brilliantly we cannot
judge the actions of the bourgeoisie by what the bourgeoisie thinks
of them, or for that matter, by what the proletariat thinks of them.
Are Marxists exempt from historical conditioning?
It would appear that they are not. The materialist conception of
history applies to Marx just as much as it applies to Guizot and
if it is correct it could only be proven so by the historical limitations
of its discoverer. The problem is that the ideas of the ruling class
are dominant precisely to the extent that they are universal. It
follows that the most profound expressions of the ruling class --
those ideas that are most closely associated with its character
-- will seem the most harmless and perhaps even beneficial. That
is what allows them to become dominant. There is therefore a constant
danger that revolutionary thought will become infiltrated with counter-revolutionary
concepts absorbed from the surrounding milieu, a process that is
facilitated by the alienation which the revolutionary, no less than
the average worker, is afflicted with. It is only after these concepts
have been re-exteriorized through praxis that they can be identified
for what they are. Revolutionaries will then recognize that their
activities have reproduced, albeit in a different form, the pre-revolutionary
conditions that they were trying so hard to eradicate. By that time,
however, it is quite possible that the original revolutionaries
will have become imprisoned in the circumstances of their own acts.
It is then up to other revolutionaries to learn from the lessons
of those who came before them and avoid their mistakes.
It is in this peculiar situation that we find ourselves today.
We realize now that starting with the later Engels (and to a smaller
extent with Marx himself) the fine balance between idealism and
materialism, subjectivity and objectivity, was upset. The original
synthesis, delicate because it was a purely theoretical concept,
disintegrated when the attempt was made to turn it into a practical,
revolutionary doctrine. Whereas the original balance meant that
a distinction was made between economic conditions and the meaning
assigned to them by the human agent, the new ideology reduced all
human acts to their economic foundation.
From this disintegration two different but ultimately related movements
were spawned: in Western Europe, Social Democracy and in Russia,
Leninism. Both viewed "men as the products of circumstances
and upbringing". The difference was that in Germany circumstances
seemed to be changing in the right direction without too much effort
while in Russia they were changing erratically and offered the opportunity
for intervention. In Germany Marxism developed into an evolutionist
doctrine modeled on Darwin's theory and in Russia it developed into
the doctrine of vanguardist revolution.
For a crucial period of time, these two movements together, comprised
the world total of Marxist praxis. There was of course Rosa Luxembourg,
who opposed both. However not only did she die before she had a
chance to make a significant impact on the European revolutionary
movement but there is also some indication that prior to her death
she was on the verge of changing her attitude towards the Bolsheviks.
(See Lukacs' "Critical Observations on Rosa Luxembourg's 'Critique
of the Russian Revolution'". Lukacs has to be read with caution
since his admiration of Luxembourg was eclipsed by his worship of
Lenin. Nevertheless his suggestion that Luxembourg was changing
her views is plausible. With the success of the revolution even
anarcho-syndicalists went over to the Bolsheviks.)
What this meant was that Marxism had succumbed to that ideological
trend which Edmund Husserl has called the "naturalization of
consciousness": the view that consciousness is caused by physical
objects. This and the related "naturalization of ideas"
inevitably led to the belief that human behaviour could be reduced
to the rigid and "exact" laws of nature. Previously the
world was as God had intended it to be. The new ruling class however
had no place for a deity so it replaced Him with nature, a secular
God. The laws that govern billiard balls were thus extended to cover
relations between human beings proving once again that things could
not be other than they were.
Husserl had the insight to point out that this attitude
was at the heart of what he called the "crisis of European
man". In progressively reducing the embarassing contribution
of the subjective to experience, the naturalist replaced the "life-world"
(the world of actual, human experience) with a lifeless, abstract
world composed of mathematical relationships. This extreme objectivism
however ultimately rested on a subjective, ideal foundation. The
attempt to naturalize consciousness and ideas is therefore self-defeating
since it presupposes precisely the opposite of what it seeks to
establish, namely, that consciousness and ideas, rather than being
the products of a reaction between physical entities (physical sense
data impinging on a physical receptor, the brain) are the basis
of all experience. It is only after the world is presupposed to
be governed by natural laws that such laws can be discovered. The
presupposition itself cannot be discovered by the same method.
The spiritual barrenness of the Western world and the triumph of
irrationalism were according to the idealist Husserl reflections
of the poverty of naturalist thought. Science was able to provide
a cure for diseases of the body but found itself incapable of curing
the Western soul since it itself was a symptom of the disease. "In
our vital need -- so we are told -- this science has nothing to
say to us. It excludes in principle precisely the questions which
man, given in our unhappy times (the mid-1930's) to the most portentious
upheavals, finds the most burning: questions of the meaning or meaninglessness
of the whole of this human existence". (Crisis p.6)
As a solution Husserl attempts to construct a science of the "life-world".
Not accidentally, some passages in this project read like paraphrases
of Marx. Whereas Marx tied his hopes to radical action, Husserl
believed in radical contemplation. Moreover, unlike Marx, he attributed
the actual decay of Western civilization to the decay of thought;
whereas for Marx the relation was the opposite.
Sartre, another phenomenologist, explicitly identifies naturalism
as a form of bourgeois thought. In his early writings this identification
was intuitive. Sartre did not become a Marxist till after the war
but for a long time before that he regarded the bourgeoisie with
revulsion. This revulsion made him allergic to all manifestations
of bourgeois thought, the most hateful of which was the spirit of
"seriousness" with which the "salauds" assured
themselves of their own necessity. "Imbeciles", he writes
in Nausea, "they make laws, they write popular novels,
they get married, they are fools enough to have children. And all
this time, great vague nature has slipped into their city ... and
they don't see it, they imagine it to be outside, twenty miles from
the city. I see this nature ... 1 know that its obedience is idleness,
I know that it has no laws: what they take for constancy is only
habit, and it can change tomorrow." Why? Because human beings
are not what they are the way stones are. A pebble cannot be anything
other than a pebble. Its progression from boulder to pebble to sand
is totally determined by laws exterior to it. Not only that but
its disintegration only has meaning to a human observer. The pebble
is the slave of fate. By contrast the life of a human being becomes
frozen into fate only at the moment of death. At that point all
that one has done in one's life becomes all that one could have
done. Before that point arrives however it is impossible to reduce
one's life to a resultant of conflicting natural forces the way
one can do for the path followed by a billiard ball. One may have
no choice but to become a thief, for example, but the juncture of
circumstances that force this decision on one must first acquire
a pressing significance for oneself. The poor state of the economy
and my persistent need for food and shelter are of themselves only
abstract principles. Without the meaning I attribute to them they
can never determine anything. It is in fact only in the light of
my decision that they take on the character of determining circumstances.
If I was caught and asked why I "turned to a life of crime"
I could reply that my poverty was intolerable and that I could foresee
no way to alleviate it other than through robbery. Poverty and lack
of work would thus have acquired meaning through my thievery and
not the other way round. And that is what distinguishes us fundamentally
from billiard balls. The laws of nature determine the outcome of
a collision between two balls a hundred years from now, whereas
for specific human beings "prediction" must always be
in the form of hindsight. That is why we are forever saying "I
should have known" and always failing to know.
We understand then that by the simple virtue of being human we are
in possession of the freedom to alter that very world which is constantly
altering us. This freedom is what makes revolution possible and
at the same time denies any guarantee for its success. Naturalism
is an indirect attempt to relinquish this troublesome freedom, a
self-deception aimed at hiding the utter lack of necessity in the
way we behave.
Such a deception, tempting as it is under the happiest
of circumstances, is even more tempting in a world where human beings
do actually experience each other as objects. The naturalization
of consciousness is preceded by the fossilization of everyday life:
the two perpetuate each other. Revolt too can be naturalized: it
occurs as a predictable reaction to the fetishization of the objective,
to which is opposed the fetishization of the subjective -- "decadent."
self-indulgence in everyday life and in art, romantic idealism in
popular philosophy. Either that or in the case of Leninism classical
materialism is taken to the extreme. The hippie and the Bolshevik
might at first glance appear to be the antithesis of each other
but they have one thing in common which brands both (ultimately)
as conformists: the tendency to fetishize, the "religious"
outlook. One can always of course distinguish between extreme subjectivism
and extreme objectivism, solipsism and naturalism, but in practice
they are merely components of a single, stable complex.
Nevertheless, of this complex what concerns us most is the authoritarian
component. Disorder can in time correct itself, if only because
it leaves individuals the freedom to reject it. Authoritarianism,
on the contrary, only stabilizes itself with time. Libertarian socialism
is defined first and foremost by the negation of political authoritarianism
and theoretical determinism. It is this negation which is announced
in the First Thesis on Feurbach. In the first thesis however this
negation is purely "contemplative". The actual negation
had to await the dissolution of classical Marxism itself.
If I have gone out of my way to discuss naturalism it is because
of its disastrous effect on Marxism. We simply have to acknowledge
that the principal bourgeois ideology during the early years of
Marxism was not so much political liberalism -- which even then
was well on the way to exposing itself as a deception -- but faith
in the natural sciences and their objectivism. It was precisely
because this faith was shared by all that we have to consider it
the principal ideology of capitalism. It was this universality that
gave it its effectiveness. And if today there is such a thing as
libertarian Marxism it is because naturalized Marxism was a catastrophe
that cannot be forgotten. For us this failure is the equivalent
of the Holocaust in Jewish tradition, For better or for worse the
conception of libertarian Marxism issues from the negation and transcendence
of classical Marxism.
In the first Thesis on Feuerbach, Marx had lamented that the active
side of sensuous activity, the subjective side of human experience,
had been developed by idealism rather than materialism. The aim
of Marx's own brand of "materialism" was, as we have noted
already, to go beyond the limitations of both traditional materialism
and idealism. Almost to this day however what Marx wrote in the
first thesis remains true: the subjectivity of human experience
has had to be championed not by Marxists-- who have all along been
bent on denying it -- but by idealist philosophers like Husserl.
So that when the Western world was plunged into a deep spiritual
crisis, Marxism automatically excluded itself from providing any
answers. How could it? From the perspective of a scientific materialist
the crisis did not exist: diseases of the soul show themselves only
to those who believe in souls and the communists only believed in
matter. So the fascists took over and shot the communists.
Could it have been any different? I think not. Men make their own
history: Marxists could have chosen to be libertarians from the
beginning. But men make history under the power of circumstances
and near the end of the last century the circumstances were more
conducive to the brand of socialism they ultimately produced than
to the kind we would like to see. Indeed, our being libertarians
has a lot to do with the authoritarianism of our socialist predecessors.
If they hadn't made a mess of things the would be less anxious to
avoid their mistakes, the effects of which form the circumstances
under which we make our own history.
For the early Marxists, materialism represented an ideology which
the bourgeoisie had successfully used against the ancient regime,
and which the Marxists, with some minor modifications, would use
against the bourgeoisies. Plekhanov ("the father of Russian
Marxism"), for example, viewed Marxism as "contemporary
materialism". What he and other Marxists did not realize was
that it was not enough to turn bourgeois thought against the class
that had given rise to it. A genuinely socialist theory could only
arise out of the active dissolution of bourgeois materialism. To
merely "appropriate" the old thought would only lead to
a perpetuation of the old system. Similarly it was not enough to
take over state power. The objective was to smash it and build something
Now Marxism as Marx had conceived it did make a serious attempt
to transcend the shallow materialism inherited from the Enlightenment.
The problem was that to the degree that Marxism was anti-bourgeois
(and not just anti-aristocratic i.e. anti-idealist) it was also
idealist. A critique of bourgeois thought and reality would inevitably
have to counterpose some form of subjectivism ("idealism'')
against bourgeois materialism. The critique of bourgeois political
economy, for example, is a critique: precisely because, not satisfied
with examining the appearance of economic phenomena, it directs
its attention to the thoroughly subjective lives of those responsible
for these phenomena. Marx's critique demonstrated that underneath
such objective terms as "value", "commodity"
and "labour costs'' lay a world of human suffering towards
which it was impossible to adopt a neutral position. Indeed if Marx's
critique achieved anything it was the demystification of "objectivity".
The difference between Communism and capitalism:
Under capitalism it is dog-eat-dog; under Communism, it is just
But how could this theoretical critique be translated into a program
of action? How could one attack bourgeois materialism when the idealism
of the ancient regime was still a concrete ideological force"?
This problem is simply the theoretical counterpart of a very practical
question: what to do when capitalism, a hateful system. is consolidating
itself against feudalism, an even more hateful system. If, as indeed
seemed the case, socialism was not possible without a preparatory
period of capitalism, then the correct strategy was to align oneself
with the bourgeoisie in those countries where it was a revolutionary
class and oppose it wherever it had consolidated itself.
But it did not work out that way. Even in those countries where
the bourgeoisie was no longer threatened with a restoration of the
system it had overthrown, bourgeois ideology still had a universal,
revolutionary ring to it. This was especially true of those theories
and values which were not overtly political. These could stay "undercover"
longer than theories that could be linked directly to the new ruling
class. In consequences it was not easy for revolutionaries to detect
their real enemies. What could be more radical, in the face of a
declining and therefore exceptionally embittered autocracy, than
to affirm scientific rationalism, the theory of a new age? What
could be more disreputable than the atheist belief in progress at
a time when for reactionaries, civilization was disappearing beneath
the waves? But that which is disreputable in a society is precisely
what a revolutionary will go out of his/her way to promote.
So the revolutionaries fooled themselves. They accomplished in fact
what bourgeois thought left to itself would never have done: the
destruction of those humanist "prejudices" that were left
over from the feudal era. Naturalist Marxism with its endless vituperation
against the subjective and the "unscientific" lent the
bourgeoisie a valuable weapon against its early enemies. If then
Marxism, through German Social Democracy, eventually reconciled
itself with that very society it had earlier vowed to overthrow,
this was only natural, since this Marxism had been nothing more
than the most radical form of bourgeois ideology: Marxists, so to
speak, had merely played the part of Janissaries, shock troops preparing
the way for the bourgeois onslaught ... All they asked, these Social
Democrats, was that the workers not starve, a demand which capitalists
eventually understood to be in their interest to accept. Once that
was settled. the subsistence wage came to include not only the cost
of perpetuating the physical power of the labourer but also his
loyalty. The capitalists simply revised their accounts. Personally
perhaps they still despised the workers and they increased wages
only grudgingly. Still they increased them because romantic hatred
could no more than romantic love compete with the profit motive.
Starting with this modification the early and unstable form of capitalism
evolved towards an equilibrium. A symbiotic relationship was set
up between socialists and reactionaries: the former provided the
motive power behind a set of stabilizing reforms, the latter supplied
traction by putting up resistance.
In Russia this same naturalist Marxism encountered different conditions
and consequently developed differently. In Western Europe, Marxism
encountered a nascent and vigorous capitalism within which it was
eventually integrated. In Russia, as the nihilist Tkachev pointed
out, revolution was possible only as long as Russia was still a
backward country. In other words revolution in Russia was possible
precisely because there was no capitalism to speak of. Hence there
was never any question of Marxism integrating itself into the structure
that preceded it. Finding no capitalism within which to loose itself
Russian Marxism had to invent something like it.
One ought to remember here that in Russia capitalism started too
late to develop in the same way that it had developed in England
and France. Had it attempted to take the latter's example it would
have quickly fallen prey to foreign capital in much the same fashion
as for example Latin America. The solution was supplied by the Bolsheviks:
primitive accumulation under forced conditions. Superexploitation
of Russian labour and autarchic economic development took the place
of foreign investment and allowed the Soviet Union to become an
independent industrial power.
In both cases Marxism objectified those tendencies it had internalized
earlier. In the West it helped to develop the system it was born
into. In Russia where Marxism was an import it recreated in a distorted
form the Western milieu on which it had been originally reared.
Despite its authoritarianism the USSR is not a capitalist state.
Neither was Lenin an "objective" agent of capitalism.
Indulgence in such simple-minded schematism is appropriate to Stalinists
not libertarian socialists. Bolshevism is imbued through and through
with bourgeois ideology but nevertheless it remains a revolutionary
ideology. To transcend it, rather than just negate it, we have to
historically situate it without overlooking its uniqueness. Instead
of doing this libertarian thought has for the most part been preoccupied
with villifying it.
This practice more often than not ends in absurdity. It is for
example fashionable today to make oneself respectable by claiming
to be a "pure" Marxist. Pure Marxism can only exist however
if Marxism is reduced to an abstract ideal. If in fact the villains
by virtue of their villainy automatically excommunicated themselves
as Marxists, then we have to admit of long that if the Nazis had
been real Germans they would have stopped being Nazis.
If we give up trying to be respectable however we will view Leninism
as the first attempt to realize Marxism. It failed. If there were
any doubts about this while Lenin was alive they were dispelled
by his successor. But without this failure, without Stalin, Marxism
would not have grown up, would have effectively remained unaware
of its deep neurosis. It is indeed tragic that this neurosis had
to develop into murderous lunacy before it could be purged. The
crimes of the past however can only be expiated by the good deeds
of the future. One cannot simply dissociate oneself from them through
a mere word. To say "I am a libertarian" is to take upon
oneself the responsibility of diminishing the horrors of the past.
In the same way to say that you are an adult is to admit that once
you were an adolescent trying to become an adult. You may have made
serious errors but without them you would not have grown up. "It
is only those who do nothing who make no mistakes", said Kropotkin
and he was an anarchist.
Unless we want all our heroes to be martyrs we have to learn that
the world will not be changed without getting a few hands dirtied.
Not enough ruthlessness and disorganization can betray a revolution
just as much as too much ruthlessness and authoritarianism. We should
give Makno, the Kronstadt sailors, the Spanish anarchists, the French
students and all other libertarians their due and then we should
note that they failed. To become a symbol is not enough.
As it is we have enough saints and martyrs to fill a liturgical
calendar. Of course there is glamour in tragic failure but only
those who survive can appreciate it. For too long now libertarianism
has been an outlet for those who can't accept the existing order
but who at the same time can't be bothered with doing anything about
it. They find in libertarianism a dream of unmatched purity which
they take care to define in such a way as to make it unattainable
the Leninists Will Win" elsewhere in this issue). Then
lo and behold, quietism becomes revolutionary. It is not at all
surprising in fact that the various Leninist sects are still able
to attract recruits. Anybody serious about radical social change
can't help but notice that while anarchists have beautiful sentiments
Bolsheviks are more likely to do something about it.
Which brings us back to that synthesis of object and subject that
has been prominent throughout these reflections. Through this synthesis
revolutionary socialism attempted for the first time to overcome
the one-sidedness of materialism while at the same time avoiding
the perils of romantic idealism. It should be recognized that libertarian
socialism must start from this synthesis. One-sidedness in whatever
form it occurs destroys the whole project. It is obviously a difficult
error to avoid -- in view of the Bolshevik experiment it is very
easy to say that one cannot be too subjective -- but then "the
revolution is not a tea-party". Vanguardism ultimately oppresses
the working class. Lack of leadership leaves it stranded in oppression.
Bureaucratism stifles revolutionary tendencies. Pure spontaneism
dissipates them. Rigid centralization is authoritarian. Lack of
coordination and discipline is ineffective.
No movement can consider itself socialist that does not put in practice
the synthesis that has eluded Marxism since that first thesis. Bolshevism
failed by succeeding. Anarchism failed by failing. We'll see what
we can do.
Published in Volume 2, Number 1 of The
Red Menace, Summer 1977.
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