Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

New International, October 1938


Rubin Gotesky

Marxism and Progress

From New International, Vol.4 No.10, October 1938, pp.313-315.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Next Century Is America’s
by Carroll D. Murphy and Herbert Prochnow
Greenberg, Publisher. New York. 1928. 244 pp. $3.

The maturation of American Capitalism and even the definite beginnings of its decline are signalized in the recent appearance of numbers of books which defend its economic structure and political organization. In those societies, which have learnt the art of book-making, there seem to be two stages during which defensive polemics are written: at their birth, when their untraditional and radical institutions need and deserve comparison and defense against decaying but long-accepted and honored institutions of an older society from which they arose, and at middle-age, when arteriosclerosis, angina pectoris, paralysis and carcinoma begin to eat at their vitals. The United States is far from senility; hale though it still appears to be, giving irrefutable evidence of enormous political and economic resources, it is nonetheless definitely past middle-age. Previously its economic and political institutions appeared so strong that the thought or need of defending them against new political and social creeds was not deemed necessary. Attacks when made, centered upon its lack of culture, its rawness, its roughness, its huge vulgarity, its economic prodigality and wastefulness, its political immorality, corruption, graft; but they were made not in order to alter its essential structure but to remedy its incidental evils and sicknesses.

The criticisms made since the war are radically different, directed at the heart of American Capitalism. They attack its inability to serve the needs of the American people. They attack it because it bases itself upon a dead creed: that profit is the sole source of social good and personal or individual initiative. They attack it for its inability to plan; its unnecessary and antisocial extremes of wealth and poverty; for its vast accumulations of economic goods and services, which are unusable by the vast majority because of outmoded and destructive productive relations. These criticisms, for a period after the social revolution in Russia, stood impregnable; and the best that American apologists could do was to assert that America was not Russia. The advances made by the Bolsheviks would be made here in an inimitable American manner without Marxism and without revolution by the will of the people and the radical intelligence of the best sections of the capitalists. In the long run, these shrewd and exploitative gentlemen would see the value of a non-exploitative collectivism and establish a golden era of health, wealth, and happiness. This argument, until recently, was a poor smoke-screen; it veiled nothing, not even its intellectual bankruptcy or the actual intentions of those who made it.

But the most significant social experiment in modern history, the Russian Revolution, has gone the way of all flesh. Just as it outran history in its early stage, opening new horizons of opportunity and creativeness for the exploited masses, and providing telescopic sight of a new culture, not cramped by the greedy needs and philistine vision of an exploiting class, so it has outdone the bourgeoisie under the hegemony of the bureaucracy in its cruelty, rapacity, indifference to human life, and in the abortion of the sciences, literature and art.

The accelerated degeneration of the one society, Soviet Russia, on which men of good will and the masses, once without hope, had looked as the new messianic vision, and the rise of the new political phenomenon, Fascism, which from its very inception gave promise only of sterile and abominable social fruits – have created a new opportunity for those gentlemen who fear the proletarian revolution as they fear death or the loss of their incomes, to come once more to the rescue of the great American Democracy – that mightiest of imperialist powers which according to a legend, originating during the Civil War, was made “by the people, of the people, and for the people.” Messrs. Murphy’s and Prochnow’s The Next Century Is America’s is as its title states, a defense of American capitalism against its critics, particularly from the left; thus, in short, a polemic against the proletarian revolution in America. As a book, it is mediocre; it lacks honesty; it is superficial and clumsily put together. In fact, if the book were judged merely on its merits, it would not deserve this lengthy review. But it is a tendentious book; and it contains essentially the methodology and arguments which better informed men will use to superior advantage.

Above all, the keynote of the Next Century Is America’s is not perfection but the drive towards the ideal. Its authors rule out the actuality of the perfect society, except as a critical ideal for testing present achievement. All societies contain imperfections, unsolicited evils. Our authors therefore wish to compare the relative goods and evils of various societies and nations, as they have been and are now instituted, with the stubborn intent of crowning the United States the best of all. But though it is sufficient for the Christian spirit to murmur of perfection and to dote on the images it brings up of an eternal, unspeakable happiness, scientifically it is a chameleonic word, changeable as a shadow. Therefore, we ask: what meaning do our authors give this word? What criteria of progress, i.e., of this movement towards the realization of an ideal? It is here that our authors meet with their first serious trial.

According to Marxism, the ideal ends of men differ with changing social circumstance. Have men desired freedom? Then they have not desired freedom as such, (as such, its concrete meaning and application are indeterminate, vague), but a certain kind of freedom, the specific right and power to do certain kinds of things. Have men desired happiness? Then they have not desired happiness as such, but a specific kind of happiness, dependent upon given objects and relationships. In an ultimate concrete sense, the structure of society and each man’s place within it determine the specific ends sought after socially and individually. How far these ideal ends will suffer profound changes and how far man will be disappointed and disillusioned by them depend in every case, upon the given social structure and man’s capacity under such circumstances to shape his ideals scientifically. Thus for Marxism, there is no fixed ideal although if a word must be found which abstractly connotes man’s changing objective, it is – to use Engels’ world “Freedom”. The class struggle is the struggle of an exploiting class to remain free to exploit, and of an exploited class to be free of exploitation.

Freedom and Production

The possibility of freedom, however, is declared by some Marxists to be entirely dependent upon the expansion of the productive forces. Thus, according to the outstanding living Marxist today, Trotsky, this necessarily becomes the Marxist’s only criterion of progress. The greater the expansion of the productive forces, the nearer do men approach the kingdom of freedom, and the looser become the chains of necessity. The Marxist, therefore, always supports that society whose productive forces are expanding. In a negative form, this criterion is indisputably true, i.e., freedom is impossible without the satisfaction of material wants. In fact, without attaining socially a certain level of development of the productive forces, i.e., without the ability to produce socially a minimum of his bodily necessities, man can not only not be free, but cannot even live.

Positively, however, it is not necessarily true. The expansion of the productive forces, under given historical conditions, does not always involve an ascent from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom for all men. It may result in the enslavement of the majority of mankind. The expansion of the productive forces in primitive times introduced exploitative and class society and transformed a society of free men and women into a majority of slaves or serfs. However inevitable and necessary slavery was as an instrument for the expansion of production, it could hardly be supported, on the above principle, by the Marxist. Greater productivity did not introduce either greater well-being or greater freedom for the majority. In fact, the wretchedness of the majority of men was enormously intensified; their life-span decreased by excessive labor and epidemic disease resulting from crowding into cities, terrible sanitary conditions, and little, and very bad food. Morally their condition sank from that of free men to vocal instruments of material exploitation on a level with the beasts in the field. If the mere expansion of the productive forces were the only criterion of social progress, then the Trotskyist today would support without criticism, the Stalinist regime in Russia or the feudal-capitalist regime of the Samurai in Japan, for both are at present expanding economies. But he gives, in the first case, only critical support; in the latter, he is its most implacable and deadly enemy. The actual Marxist criterion of progress – so it appears to me – includes not only the expansion of the productive forces, but also another element: non-exploitation, i.e., – to use Engels’ word, Freedom. Expanding productive forces which should involve increased exploitation without the possibility of taking over these forces by the masses for their own use would not be supported by the Marxist. In the past, he gave critical support to capitalism against feudalism as he now gives critical support to the USSR against Capitalism only because he thought then in the former case and thinks now in the latter case that the growth of the productive forces in these cases will produce the conditions for the freeing of the masses. If it could ever have happened that a Marxist was faced with the choice of primitive communism with its low productive level and slave society with its superior productivity, it seems to me he would have chosen primitive communism. At least, Marxist literature impresses one that way!

But whether or not the expansion of the productive forces is the only criterion used by Marxists to determine progress in society, it is unquestionable that Marxists today look upon this criterion as insufficient. It is always correlated with another principle: non-exploitation. In so far as the expansion of production operates to free men from economic slavery, insofar does it receive the physical and moral support of the Marxist.

Chart of Utopia

Do Messrs. Murphy and Prochnow give some scientific explanation of the moving historical forces to which men react from and to which driven by their dissatisfied desires they develop images, conceptions and ideologies? Obscurely they do sense some such relationship but what it is precisely they leave in the dark. Instead they draw a chart of Utopia using mathematical indices to fix the weight and importance of each of the elements without which there could be no Utopia. They find seven great categories into which all human values fit. They are

  1. the foundations of liberty
  2. economic level and stability
  3. effective government,
  4. prevailing ideals, religion in particular,
  5. education
  6. brotherliness
  7. gratification.

The “foundations of liberty” are valued at 50%, economic level and stability, effective government, religion and education get 10%. Brotherliness and gratification, whose meanings are not made clear, are each given an index of 5%. The “yardstick” with which achievements are measured; the woeful scale in which it is to be weighed, found wanting, doomed.

A flaw certainly not desired by our authors is immediately and ironically transparent. Theirs must be an insupportable mortification when they discover that they have given mortal offense to one of our fundamental institutions and its leaders. Were this chart to become better known through the land, what a storm it would raise in every religious tabernacle! Religion weighed like potatoes and found to be worth only one-fifth of the “foundations of liberty!”, placed on the same footing with economic wealth, material goods, and effective government – these least essentials of the good life! Every pulpit must inevitably become a furnace of pious imprecation against such blasphemy.

Why select the foundations of liberty, gratification or prevailing ideals? Why not the foundations of authority and submission, self-mortification, or “atheism”? No answer is given by our “scientific” graph-makers other than that they are important. But to whom are they important? To all men? At all times? None is offered. Perhaps they mean to say these criteria are important only for Americans? But Americans represent only one-twentieth of the world’s population. On what grounds, then can our authors declare that American values are preferable to those of the French, English, German, Italian, Russian, Maori or Patagonians? They seem to think that quoting that section of the Declaration of Independence which declares certain truths to be self-evident sufficient substantiation. As though the Declaration had established scientifically its so-called self-evident truths upon a solid rock foundation! What scientific sociologist or student of political theory does not know that, if there are truths today which are not self-evident, they are these self-same, self-evident truths, and furthermore that no man in Europe or America prior to the sixteenth century recognized them as self-evident.

If we cannot obtain from our authors reasons for selecting these elements as the criteria of Utopia, at least, we should expect them to be distinct and separate categories, neither part of nor including each other. In short we should expect the rules of scientific classification to be followed. But even in this low expectation, we are disappointed. With simple assurance, we are informed that the Utopian scale requires two great divisions: one which defines the “rights” of men; the other, the “conditions” of men. Nowhere are “rights” or “conditions” so defined that their significance for social interpretation can be determined. Obviously it is presumed only a foreigner, an alien who has remained impregnable to Americanism, can fail to understand this distinction. However, within the domain of “rights”, strangely enough, is found stated the “conditions” of freedom, or as our authors call them: the “foundations of liberty”. These “conditions” or “foundations” are free press, free speech, free assembly, free conscience and right of petition. Without the existence of these “rights” as the “conditions” for action, there could be no freedom. The division of “conditions” is equally, strange, for within it, one finds besides such “conditions” as the spread of comfort and material things, the “rights” of minorities, the “right of happiness”, the right to be educated. In short, it is impossible to discover any legitimate difference in meaning between “right” and “condition”, which does not lead to confusion. Prevailing ideals, i.e., religion represents according to our authors, what it is that civilization seeks to attain. In the end they say, civilization must be “judged by the ideals it realizes”. One would assume, therefore, that “brotherliness”, “education”, “economic comfort”, efficient government and the “foundations of liberty”, would be included under this general heading. Obviously where the ideal of liberty does not prevail, is not realized, there will be no liberty. Thus “prevailing ideals” should receive a mathematical value of 100%. In actuality, it is valued at only 10%.

Four countries, the US, Russia, Germany and Japan are selected for computable comparison as to their approximation to Utopia. Why these countries are selected and not others is never explained. The US is especially favored. It is compared for three different years, 1776, 1929, and 1938. It is considered adequate, however, to report the imaginary index of the other countries for the year 1938 only. The comparison, of course, might not have been so favorable, if a time perspective had been used. One discovers that the index for “liberty” in the US rose from 10% in 1776 to 40% in 1929, but fell back for some inscrutable reason to 35% in 1938. In what respects the foundations of liberty were increased and decreased between 1776 and 1938, are left entirely to the puzzled reader to decipher. Russia is given an index of 12; Germany and Japan of 15. But assuming numbers must be used, why Russia or Germany should be given any value above 0 for the “foundations of liberty” is absolutely incomprehensible, as is also the 3% difference in favor of Germany. It is generally understood quite correctly that the foundations of liberty are non-existent in each of the totalitarian states.

Ideals by Percentage

Let us turn to the second question: why were these elements given these mathematical values? What makes the “foundations of liberty” worth five times as much as “prevailing ideals”, and ten times as much as “brotherliness”? Why should not “brotherliness”, i.e., love thy neighbor as thyself, not be worth a hundred times more than the “foundations of liberty” and a million times more than “economic level and stability”? But our learned authors who are as talkative as the erudite Stroud twin about education and religion, gabbling statistics, arguments and history, are as silent as the Sphinx on this subject.

Are these elements the same, interpreted the same, and weighted the same in importance in all societies? How simple a question, but in reality as important as the first two. Messers. Murphy and Prochnow’s answer is apparently, “Yes”. Now the problem of progress has become as simple to understand as the law that 2 plus 2 makes 4. We know now whether society is becoming better or taking the worst road. But while progress has become entirely simple and clear in meaning, the natures of the societies which are measured by it have become as mysterious and incomprehensible as the trinitarian formula or a spirit which has no corporeal existence, or an infinite space which shinks continually. What hidden, inscrutable forces make societies seek the abyss of corruption and ruin, when the path to a life of greater well-being, less suffering, more comfort, superior spiritual values is so clearly illuminated? Whence the blindness or contrariness? Is it the taint of original sin, introduced by the eating of the apple? The tragic fall from grace?

Relativity of Freedom

Is it that the Utopian chart was never discovered until Messrs. Murphy and Prochnow knitted their massive brows? Thus the obvious compass to guide men through troubled social seas was lacking; and societies stumbled blindly into the future. But why did the great men of the past fail, despite prodigious labors, to root out and suspend glittering like the sun so simple and obvious a device for all men to see their way? One cannot act upon principles one has never conceived or even thought of. Socrates, Aristotle and Plato did not think the Foundations of liberty – in so far as their conceptions of liberty is analogous to our authors’ – good for the vast majority of mankind. Augustine, Aquinas, Scotus, preferred the life hereafter, considering complete submission to the Kingly authority of God and his Son infinitely superior to any kind of freedom found in this world. Moreover the foundations of liberty as understood by our authors never even existed for them. If the departed spirits of our authors were incorporeally to discuss with these sainted sons of the Church the need and importance of introducing the foundations of liberty into heaven, they would not only not have been understood, but in so far as such language was translatable into the idiom of the ancient and mediaeval church, such ideas would have been denounced quite correctly as heretical. Hobbes, whose intellectual heels trod close upon our modern society, attacked Democracy, i.e., the foundations of liberty, as a source of perpetual disturbance of peace, the cause of riots, and a breeder of anarchy. But even he conceived the foundation of liberty differently from our authors. He never thought that these rights applied to the lowest classes and ranks in society, the serf, peasant, journeyman or apprentice. These were rights belonging only to people of substance, i.e., property. Not even Marsiglio, one of the most radical thinkers of the 14th century, a man several centuries ahead of his time, who fought in defense of democracy for the “people” against the hierarchy of the church – not even he thought democracy applied to the serf, slave, poor peasant, journeyman or apprentice. Only the right people, the lord, the burgher, the squire, knight, patrician and cleric had the right to determine the cardinal canons of the living church. By the great resistance which Marsiglio and his good friend, Ockham, met in their time to their ideas one can see that the society in which they lived refused to accept them as even good.

Thus the conclusion is inevitably forced upon us that the Utopian chart does not represent the criteria which other societies either accepted or judged themselves by. Where they did accept certain of these criteria, they did not interpret them in the same way or give them the same weight in importance.

Perhaps it may be objected: one ought not to judge a society by the conscious criteria which it uses to judge itself. Judge it by the criteria it actually used; and the criteria of Messrs. Murphy and Prochnow may be the criteria by which societies really judge themselves and must be judged by. But that is exactly what has to be proven; that is exactly what they fail to do. Instead of providing the evidence to show that their yardstick is the only scientific yardstick, they simply lift like shoplifters, from contemporary American political and intellectual counters, goods which have been displayed before every American school child since the foundation of the American Republic. Clothing them with the dignity and disguise of a statistical chart, can not hide where they were gotten or make them any better as criteria.

Top of page

Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 6.8.2006