Erich Fromm 1961

1. The Falsification of Marx's Concepts

It is one of the peculiar ironies of history that there are no limits to the misunderstanding and distortion of theories, even in an age when there is unlimited access to the sources; there is no more drastic example of this phenomenon than what has happened to the theory of Karl Marx in the last few decades. There is continuous reference to Marx and to Marxism in the press, in the speeches of politicians, in books and articles written by respectable social scientists and philosophers; yet with few exceptions, it seems that the politicians and newspapermen have never as much as glanced at a line written by Marx, and that the social scientists are satisfied with a minimal knowledge of Marx. Apparently they feel safe in acting as experts in this field, since nobody with power and status in the social-research empire challenges their ignorant statements.[1]

Among all the misunderstandings there is probably none more widespread than the idea of Marx's "materialism." Marx is supposed to have believed that the paramount psychological motive in man is his wish for monetary gain and comfort, and that this striving for maximum profit constitutes the main incentive in his personal life and in the life of the human race. Complementary to this idea is the equally widespread assumption that Marx neglected the importance of the individual; that he had neither respect nor understanding for the spiritual needs of man, and that his "ideal" was the well-fed and wellclad, but "soulless" person. Marx's criticism of religion was held to be identical with the denial of all spiritual values, and this seemed all the more apparent to those who assume that belief in God is the condition for a spiritual orientation.

This view of Marx then goes on to discuss his socialist paradise as one of millions of people who submit to an all-powerful state bureaucracy, people who have surrendered their freedom, even though they might have achieved equality; these materially satisfied "individuals" have lost their individuality and have been successfully transformed into millions of uniform robots and automatons, led by a small elite of better-fed leaders.

Suffice it to say at the outset that this popular picture of Marx's "materialism" -- his anti-spiritual tendency, his wish for uniformity and subordination -- is utterly false. Marx's aim was that of the spiritual emancipation of man, of his liberation from the chains of economic determination, of restituting him in his human wholeness, of enabling him to find unity and harmony with his fellow man and with nature. Marx's philosophy was, in secular, nontheistic language, a new and radical step forward in the tradition of prophetic Messianism; it was aimed at the full realization of individualism, the very aim which has guided Western thinking from the Renaissance and the Reformation far into the nineteenth century.

This picture undoubtedly must shock many readers because of its incompatibility with the ideas about Marx to which they have been exposed. But before proceeding to substantiate it, I want to emphasize the irony which lies in the fact that the description given of the aim of Marx and of the content of his vision of socialism, fits almost exactly the reality of present-day Western capitalist society. The majority of people are motivated by a wish for greater material gain, for comfort and gadgets, and this wish is restricted only by the desire for security and the avoidance of risks. They are increasingly satisfied with a life regulated and manipulated, both in the sphere of production and of consumption, by the state and the big corporations and their respective bureaucracies; they have reached a degree of conformity which has wiped out individuality to a remarkable extent. They are, to use Marx's term, impotent "commodity men" serving virile machines. The very picture of midtwentieth century capitalism is hardly distinguishable from the caricature of Marxist socialism as drawn by its opponents.

What is even more surprising is the fact that the people who accuse Marx most bitterly of "materialism" attack socialism for being unrealistic because it does not recognize that the only efficient incentive for man to work lies in his desire for material gain. Man's unbounded capacity for negating blatant contradictions by rationalizations, if it suits him, could hardly be better illustrated. The very same reasons which are said to be proof that Marx's ideas are incompatible with our religious and spiritual tradition and which are used to defend our present system against Marx, are at the same time employed by the same people to prove that capitalism corresponds to human nature and hence is far superior to an "unrealistic" socialism.

I shall try to demonstrate that this interpretation of Marx is completely false; that his theory does not assume that the main motive of man is one of material gain; that, furthermore, the very aim of Marx is to liberate man from the pressure of economic needs, so that he can be fully human; that Marx is primarily concerned with the emancipation of man as an individual, the overcoming of alienation, the restoration of his capacity to relate himself fully to man and to nature; that Marx's philosophy constitutes a spiritual existentialism in secular language and because of this spiritual quality is opposed to the materialistic practice and thinly disguised materialistic philosophy of our age. Marx's aim, socialism, based on his theory of man, is essentially prophetic Messianism in the language of the nineteenth century.

How can it be, then, that Marx's philosophy is so completely misunderstood and distorted into its opposite? There are several reasons. The first and most obvious one is ignorance. It seems that these are matters which, not being taught at universities and hence not being subjects for examination, are "free" for everybody to think, talk, write about as he pleases, and without any knowledge. There are no properly acknowledged authorities who would insist on respect for the facts, and for truth. Hence everybody feels entitled to talk about Marx without having read him, or at least, without having read enough to get an idea of his very complex, intricate, and subtle system of thought. It did not help matters that Marx Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, his main philosophical work dealing with his concept of man, of alienation, of emancipation, etc., had not until now been translated into English [2], and hence that some of his ideas were unknown to the English-speaking world.

This fact, however, is by no means sufficient to explain the prevailing ignorance, first, because the fact that this work of Marx's had never before been translated into English is in itself as much a symptom as a cause of the ignorance; secondly, because the main trend of Marx's philosophical thought is sufficiently clear in those writings previously published in English to have avoided the falsification which occurred.

Another reason lies in the fact that the Russian Communists appropriated Marx's theory and tried to convince the world that their practice and theory follow his ideas. Although the opposite is true, the West accepted their propagandistic claims and has come to assume that Marx's position corresponds to the Russian view and practice. However, the Russian Communists are not the only ones guilty of misinterpreting Marx. While the Russians' brutal contempt for individual dignity and humanistic values is, indeed, specific for them, the misinterpretation of Marx as the proponent of an economistic-hedonistic materialism has also been shared by many of the anti-Communist and reformist socialists. The reasons are not difficult to see. While Marx's theory was a critique of capitalism, many of his adherents were so deeply imbued with the spirit of capitalism that they interpreted Marx's thought in the economistic and materialistic categories that are prevalent in contemporary capitalism. Indeed, while the Soviet Communists, as well as the reformist socialists, believed they were the enemies of capitalism, they conceived of communism-or socialism -- in the spirit of capitalism. For them, socialism is not a society humanly different from capitalism, but rather, a form of capitalism in which the working class has achieved a higher status; it is, as Engels once remarked ironically, "the present-day society without its defects."

So far we have dealt with rational and realistic reasons for the distortion of Marx's theories. But, no doubt, there are also irrational reasons which help to produce this distortion. Soviet Russia has been looked upon as the very incarnation of all evil; hence her ideas have assumed the quality of the devilish. Just as in 1917, within a relatively short time, the Kaiser and the "Huns" were looked upon as the embodiment of evil, and even Mozart's music became part of the devil's territory, so the communists have taken the place of the devil, and their doctrines are not examined objectively. The reason usually given for this hate is the terror which the Stalinists practiced for many years. But there is serious reason to doubt the sincerity of this explanation; the same acts of terror and inhumanity, when practiced by the French in Algiers, by Trujillo in Santo Domingo, by Franco in Spain, do not provoke any similar moral indignation; in fact, hardly any indignation at all. Furthermore, the change from Stalin's system of unbridled terror to Khrushchev's reactionary police state has received insufficient attention, although one would think anyone seriously concerned with human freedom would be aware of and happy with a change which, while by no means sufficient, is a great improvement over Stalin's naked terror. All this gives us cause to wonder whether the indignation against Russia is really rooted in moral and humanitarian feelings, or rather in the fact that a system which has no private property is considered inhuman and threatening.

It is hard to say which of the above-mentioned factors is most responsible for the distortion and misunderstandings of Marx's philosophy. They probably vary in importance with various persons and political groups, and it is unlikely that any one of them is the only responsible factor.