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The New International, September 1944

James Barrett

The Anti-Marxian Offensive

On Some New Critics of Scientific Socialism [A]


From The New International, Vol. X No. 9, September 1944, pp. 293–297.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The trouble with most folks is not so much their ignorance as their knowing so many things which ain’t so. – Josh Billings.

I – Motivation

For the past year or so our pragmatist-rationalist group of intellectuals (Dewey, Hook, Kallen, Nagel and Ratner) has created quite a discussion by attacking the traditionalist-Neo-Thomists (Maritain, Hocking, Sorokin, Adler, Buchanan et al.) for an alleged “failure of nerve” in meeting the contemporary crisis in philosophy, religion, politics, and education.

If we refuse to share the general excitement precipitated by this debate, it is for several reasons. First, in spite of what the rationalists may contend, no sharp line of demarcation actually separates them from their opponents. They have attempted, for example, to draw certain political and programmatic conclusions from the beliefs of the religionists, and thus prove that whereas the latter are always on the side of reaction, they themselves are the perennial disciples of progress. What the rationalists have forgotten in their oversimplification of the issue is that religion derives its strength not only from the rationale behind an exploitive society but from a chameleon ability to accommodate itself to the technique and discoveries of its competitors. Catholic or Protestant orthodoxy may move a little cumbersomely but this is more than compensated for by such “centrist” and “radical” wings as express themselves, for instance, in Commonweal, Review of Politics and The Converted Catholic, or The Humanist, Unity and The Protestant. It is these “enlightened” voices, as well as the Christian socialists, pacifists and sociological religionists (Niebuhr, Eddy, Rauschenbusch), who can beat the rationalists at their own game writing nebulous programs in behalf of transcendental “democracy,” “peace,” “abundance,” etc. Second, to judge from the writings of the rationalists one would gather the impression that the “failure of nerve” began to manifest itself either during the war or shortly before it. As a matter of fact, about seven or eight years ago there began to develop in this country what the literary critics euphemistically but rather belatedly referred to as a “romantic revival” (the more obvious examples of blatant mysticism and psychopathology had not, naturally, escaped them).

The innumerable historical, “frontier” and “soil” novels, the biographical and religious plays, and the “nature” poetry, with their emphasis upon early American idealism, fortitude, and faith – all these were not affirmations of “democracy,” as the critics maintained, but sheer escapism, desperate attempts to circumvent the challenge of an ideological crisis. Third, the rationalists are cutting rather pathetic figures because their whole “purely” scientific approach and “democratic” programs are anachronistic. “It is,” as the ancient warning has it, “later than they think.” They are futilely assaying the roles of Milton, Paine, Marat or Mazzini without realizing that the democratic ideals they now extol no longer have any viability within the historic framework of capitalism. The moralistic exhortations of a Hook, a Mumford, a Waldo Frank or a Max Lerner are about as meaningful today as the libertarian verbiage of Roosevelt, Churchill or Stalin. Fourth, from the standpoint of Marxism, this whole debate, even though instructive as a manifestation of bourgeois thought, is merely tweedledee and tweedledum, a pale reflection in the ideological world of similar intra-class struggles in the socio-economic and political world. For those millions whose basic problems will be solved only by the socialist revolution there is this certainty: bourgeois factionalism will cease whenever that class has to unite in opposition to the proletariat and its allies. Ideologically under the impact of war imperatives it has already united, in spite of minor skirmishes. In one field, however, it presents absolute unanimity, and that is in its hostility to Marxism.

Concerning the intellectual world, those traditional, academic amenities so dear to the ideals if not to the realities of bourgeois discourse, such as factual veracity, scientific objectivity, reasoned judgment, etc., seem to disappear whenever Marx or Marxism becomes the subject-matter. We are treated for the most part instead to the following:

  1. an attack upon Marx’s character and personality,
  2. an “interpretation” of his ideas in which the critic attributes thoughts to Marx which he never entertained or which he fought against all his life,
  3. a refutation of Marxian critique by tearing words or ideas out of context, by falsifying history, by mere rhetorical condemnation and snide remarks,
  4. a condescending admission at times that Marx may have had some validity in his own day but not under present conditions, and a reluctant acceptance of some Marxian premises without their logical conclusions or vice versa.

When one attempts to explain what lies behind the nature and manner not only of these vehement attacks but also of the more soberly-argued refutations by anti-Marxians and revisionists, one is, of necessity, limited to generalized judgments. Were one to know all the necessary biographical details concerning each critic, one could ascertain with greater exactitude the reasons for his political allegiances and deviations. Wanting these, one can only refer to objective facts, e.g., the rabid bias of a Sorokin, the religious illumination of a Muste or a Joad, the unsubstantiated repudiations of former beliefs by a Hook or Corey, etc. We are justified, however, on the basis of what biographical and programmatic material we do possess to venture further, into motivational forces as well as their political expressions.

In the first place, the bourgeois critic’s attack upon Marxism is really a defense of his own vested interests. Were he psychologically able to accept the validity of the Marxian critique, he would be forced to acknowledge the unethical assumptions underlying the class nature of his society. This he cannot afford to do, since he has convinced himself (or has been conditioned to believe) that the society of which he is part is, with minor variations perhaps, the best of all possible worlds. The voluminous literature, for instance, which purports to deal with “democratic planning,” “peace proposals,” “postwar security,” etc., but which never dares to face the basic, inherent tendencies of an economy driving toward inevitable crises and wars, can be interpreted to a great extent as a neurotic reluctance to face reality.

In the second place, the critic of Marxism is usually an academician who not only shares with other petty bourgeois intellectuals the characteristics of dependency, vacillation and instability, but who cannot, for economic reasons, afford to antagonize associates and superiors. This timidity, in turn, makes him more susceptible to opportunism, to “strong” leaders, “big” movements and “popular” programs.

In the third place, as far as the revisionists and outright renegades are concerned (whose many vicious attacks upon Marxism are attempts, incidentally, to conceal a deep intellectual indebtedness), we would have to add other factors: physical and mental weariness which in the case of many refugees, for example, has led to a grateful or cynical servility to Anglo-American or Russian politics; capitulation to nationalism and war psychology; fear of persecution and arrest; inability to submit to organizational discipline; despair at working class defeats; careerism; disillusionment following a romantic attitude toward either the proletariat or revolutionary organizations. These derelictions are naturally rationalized. The revisionist, for example, always insists that he has not forsaken his ideals; he is only changing his tactics to meet a “new” situation, and all those who disagree with him are “bigots,” “sectarians,” “psychopaths,” etc. Or it is not his own panic before an imaginary invasion by the Nazis which is to blame but the “failure of nerve” of others, the “irresponsible” novelists, the “divisive” pacifists, the “dogmatic” Marxists, the “compromising” State Department – in short, any scapegoat which will direct attention away from his own sense of betrayal. Hence also his improvised “emergency” programs of class collaboration which actually turn out to be the “democratic” variants of totalitarianisms. Finally, his fear and guilt do not permit him to conduct an intellectual struggle within the bounds of “fair play,” an ideal to which he is always doing lip-service. He refuses to publish his views in the radical periodicals whose editors or readers might be sufficiently informed to refute him completely. Neither does he deign to answer those Marxist reviews or articles which have in some cases already attempted to answer him and expose his capitulation. He prefers, instead, the safety of the bourgeois press and the approbation of his associates. [1]

An examination of the leading contemporary anti-Marxian literature discloses the fact that its authors are agreed on the following points of refutation in connection with Marxian predictions: the disappearance of the middle classes, the fulfillment of certain inherent capitalistic tendencies in agricultural production, and the development of “increasing misery.” Moreover, Marxism is charged with having provided us with dubious analytical techniques in politics, history, and economics.

In the first field, for example, it has failed mainly in an accurate description of the state. What the critics have done at this point is to counterpose their own description, with especial reference to the political, social and economic pattern under which we are or soon will be living, viz., a “transitional” or “functional” society. Since the critical strictures against the Marxian theory of the state resolves themselves fundamentally to programmatic counter-proposals, we shall discuss this problem under the heading of “Program.”

In the second field, Marxism has foisted upon us a “materialistic” interpretation unwarranted by the dictates of the subject matter; and in the last field, it has not withstood the attack of academic, economic criticism, particularly with regard to the Marxian labor theory of value. The critics have attempted to prove here that the failure of the Marxian approach to both historical events and economic theory is due to an incompleteness of treatment, a monistic bias, as it were, which is incapable of appreciating the “multiple” character of reality. We shall, therefore, treat this problem under the heading of “Supplementation.” Let us now proceed to an examination of these alleged “refutations.”

II – Predictions

We are informed, first, that, contrary to Marx, the middle class not only has not disappeared, but, if one considers the “new” technical-managerial groups, it has actually increased in numbers.

(1) Marx never predicted the absolute disappearance of the middle classes before the advent of socialism. He was referring to the small-scale owners of his day and not to the professional and intellectual groups. He repeatedly described the status and function of the so-called “new” middle classes in capitalist production. Almost all the critics who attempt to refute Marx’s analysis of classes use as illustrative material only The Communist Manifesto which was intended to be not a scientific description of class functions but primarily a call to revolutionary action. Neglected completely are works, for instance, like Capital and Theories of Surplus Value, which explain in economic terms the rationale behind the “disappearance” theory; neglected also is the rich historical literature which illuminates the socio-political relationships among all classes in society during specific cultural periods, e.g., The Eighteenth Brumaire, The Civil War in France, Germany: Revolution and Counter-Revolution, Civil War in Spain, etc. But even in the Manifesto, Marx, in showing the changing form and composition of the middle classes, indicated what he meant by “disappearance.” He was concerned with the possible viability and independence of the petty tradesmen and farmers in relation to the other classes, to the state, to the inherent tendencies of capitalist development (accumulation, concentration, centralization) and in this socio-economic sense the “new” middle classes are just as anachronistic today as were the “old” whom he described in the Manifesto. This spurious “independence” has been most clearly demonstrated in our day in the fluctuations of middle class political ideology (product of both economic status and deliberate bourgeois propaganda): its preoccupation with ill-defined individualisms, its alternating fears of state encroachment and demands for state “controls,” its neurotic hostility to proletarian alliances, its susceptibility to “classlessness,” “nationalism,” etc. – socio-psychological reflexes mirroring its economic position between the two fundamental classes, the bourgeoisie and the working class.

(2) It is important to remember that although the usual processes of competition, expropriation and assimilation during the period of expanding capitalism characterized the economic existence of the petty as well as of the big bourgeoisie, the former “grew” in the sense that, possessing property, it too possessed the power to participate in the exploitive activities of a competitive society. Its property psychology at the time had economic and political validity, since a stake in one’s property (peasant, shop-keeper, merchant, etc.) constituted a revolutionary weapon against the property absolutism of feudal, ecclesiastical and monarchical interests. But under monopoly and state capitalism, when small business ceases to be a developing entity and is tolerated by corporate powers as an innocuous economic “lag,” its preoccupation with continued property status becomes pure nostalgia (seventy-eight per cent of business property in the United States is corporate, eighty-eight per cent of the people are dependent upon the property of others for a living and among them seventy-seven per cent belong to the middle classes). Just as the “new” propertyless middle class is forced to think in proletarian terms of jobs, salaries, possible savings, viz., protection, so the old middle classes (small business) are compelled to abandon concepts of property and new business ventures for those of security. In political terms, petty bourgeois, anti-statist programs of former years give way today to demands for state “protection.” Herein lies the dependency factor appealed to by fascist demagogy. [2]

(3) Most of the critics are extremely solicitous about the middle classes. Eduard Heimann, for example, charges the Marxists with disastrous political strategy based upon disappointed hopes. Since the so-called Marxian “ripeness of situation” (radicalization of middle and working classes) has not materialized, frustrated Marxists have repeatedly attempted to foist upon these classes a “revolutionary situation” which has no objective validity. Such attempts especially frighten the middle classes and drive them to fascism. Furthermore, Marxists are wrong in maintaining that the middle classes are incapable of independent political action, the contrary being proved by our “middle class dictatorships over both capital and labor.”

  1. According to these critics, fascism is not a logical development of capitalist tendencies but, to a main extent, the result of propaganda which, as they phrase it, however, turns out to be not Marxist at all but sheer putschism or third-period Stalinism. The critics have discovered nothing new. Anti-Marxists have always accused revolutionaries of “advocating” force, violence, civil war, etc. What is always implied in such charges is that the revolutionary brings chaos into a society which is apparently harmonious, and that by analyzing, predicting or describing events, he therefore not only “advocates” them but is solely responsible for them as well whenever the events materialize.
  2. What is sequential or dialectical to Marxists becomes abstractly antithetical for the critics. “Ripe” and “revolutionary” situations are sharply counterposed, whereas they should both be considered in terms of objective and subjective factors, viz., “ripe” conditions of socio-economic development and relationships and “revolutionary” or subjective conditions of political consciousness, leadership, idealism, etc. [3] To a Marxist the concept of revolution means that, given the production relations, the working class has been placed in a position where it has to revolutionize the class relations in order to release itself and therefore society. Hence his emphasis upon the two polarized classes, the capitalist and proletariat. A revolution cannot come from those in power but only from the powerless; there is no other class within the economic framework which can challenge the bourgeoisie. This concept also helps explain why Marxian organizations, though devising educational techniques for reaching the middle classes, have logically concentrated upon those sections of the working class which control the focal points of the economy. A strike, for instance, in coal, steel or transport, can paralyze a nation, whereas one in office personnel cannot. To misunderstand the Marxian approach to classes from either the purely descriptive (socio-economic) or the propagandistic angle (political-educational) is to fall into the “new” class theories of Burnham, Drucker, Heimann, Chase and others wherein intra-class destruction, expropriation and spoliation, manifested more dramatically under fascism than under “democratic” capitalism, are mistaken for new revolutionary class relations and new societies (e.g., “bureaucratic collectivist,” “managerial,” “middle class dictatorship”).
  3. This solicitude over the fact of the “new” middle classes can be characterized as a technological “compulsive.” According to the critics, we are already living under a “transition” society in which these new classes are “functionally” and numerically dominant. Included in this picture is a society whose scientifically-geared constructions manned by a technical-managerial elite is reducing the “working class” to insignificant proportions. Such imaginary concept, of course, is a pure compensatory mechanism for petty bourgeois alienation. Commodities, machines and wars apparently no longer require the labor power of a working class; they merely reproduce themselves or are conjured into being by the technicians. (Some critics contend that our machine technology has even refuted the Marxian theory of value, since machines are the predominant producers of value.) The whole technological concept is not only divorced from the realities of capitalist society which constantly subverts its inventions to the imperatives of competition, exploitation and class rule, but it also fails to see that the “new” middle classes, like the other producers, are members of the working class who sell their labor power because they too are divorced from the means of production. Moreover, the concept does not draw the full implications of its professed ideals: if technology has allegedly progressed to a point enabling the “new” society to produce abundantly for all, why then the continued divisions between the urban and the agrarian, the skilled and the unskilled, the mental and the physical – why, in short, does our society continue to function under the law of value?
  4. A neat trick employed by the critics in swelling the ranks of the middle classes consists in blandly accepting the necessity for capitalist waste. Just as most apologists of capitalism never consider this factor in connection with unused productive capacity or untapped human potentialities, they also assume that another kind of waste which exists must be evaluated only in terms of economic gain. We are referring to advertising, selling, the coercive techniques of “personnel administration,” the multiple clerkships associated with public relief, etc. – these are looked upon as the necessary concomitants of a healthy, progressive society!
  5. Most of the statistical data adduced by the critics to prove the alleged tenacity of small business are meaningless because they generally refer to the pre-depression era; they tell us little about business turnover; they omit factors of small-business dependency upon market conditions, goods, financial resources controlled by huge business and banking interests; and they do not show the economic weight of small firms in relation to rapidly-developing monopolization and cartelization both nationally and on the world market. In spite of Drucker’s admonition that “total war requires free enterprise,” reports in connection with small business issued by TNEC, the House committee, Senator Truman, Colonel Johnson, the Department of Commerce, etc., describe a rather catastrophic future. Accelerated concentration and centralization, by-products of war, doom the small business man with greater rapidity. The number of small firms has dropped by more than half a million since 1941, and the Department of Commerce sees no hope for a return to pre-war conditions. As to the future of the farmer, statements by government authorities indicate continued measures of “government credit, subsidies, market devices, etc.” (socializing of losses) in order to “stabilize” agriculture; attempts, in other words, to organize the internal economy in its struggle against other agrarian competitors, e.g., Canada, South America, Australia.

(4) Not content with merely showing that the tempo of concentration in agriculture has perhaps not proceeded as rapidly as that in industry, the critics go beyond this by permitting themselves statistical luxuries which fly in the face of actual conditions. But try as they will, their figures correctly interpreted or supplemented no more revive the myth of middle class farmers’ “independence” or “property” than that of small business. One has only to consult such sources, for instance, as reports from the National Resources Committee, the President’s Committee on Farm Tenancy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the TNEC dealing with agriculture, technology and economic concentration, or the works of A. Rochester [4], C. Schmidt [5], C. McWilliams [6], to find the Marxian analysis confirmed. All these studies add up to the following agrarian developments as capitalism moved from its small-scale, competitive to its industrial and monopoly phases: tremendous urban capital investments in agriculture (via consolidated, specialized and chain farming); centralization and concentration accompanied by industrialized techniques, e.g., mechanization, rationalized production, management; huge farm ownership by insurance companies and banks; monopoly control of machinery, products, markets, wage rates, farming methods; growth of mortgages, indebtedness, tenancy, sharecropping, wage labor, seasonal and technological unemployment.

Second, we are told by the critics that the theory of “increasing misery” is refuted completely by a pervading capitalistic psychology and a constantly rising standard of living among workers and by a great distribution of property among all classes.

(1) Marx was the last one to deny the capitalist psychology permeating the minds of the working class. How could it be otherwise since the ruling class enjoys the monopoly of press, pulpit and education? In discussing the proletarianization of the middle classes or the increasing misery of the working classes in general, he was describing socio-economic processes and not analyzing psychological categories. There is no mechanistic correlation between depressing living conditions and revolutionary consciousness. The latter is the result of socialist education giving direction to mass frustration.

(2) One has to be nothing short of presumptuous to present at the present time figures “proving” property and stock distribution in the years 1928–29! The devastating depression era aside, even in the “boom” period preceding the collapse, such typical studies as those of Berle and Means [7], the Report on National Wealth and Income, or President Hoover’s Research Committee on Social Trends reveal the following instructive figures: one per cent of the people owned fifty-nine per cent of the national wealth, whereas eighty-nine per cent of the population owned only one-tenth. Sixty-eight per cent of the gainfully employed, constituting the wage workers and clerical groups, owned 4.7 per cent of all income-yielding wealth. Most of this consisted of small savings and insurance. One per cent of the people owned eighty-three per cent of the liquid wealth of the country. Incidentally, reports such as The Distribution of National Capital, Conditions of Britain (G. Cole), The Economics of Inheritance (J. Wedgwood) and Conditions of Economic Progress (C. Clark) covering approximately the same period for “democratic” England, inform us that two-thirds of the workers had an average income of two pounds sterling per week, and that only slightly more than a quarter of these had an average income of four pounds sterling per week. As for the neo-Bernsteinian stockholders in this country during 1928–29, 525,000 of them out of 3,750,000 owned eighty per cent of all corporate stock. The average yearly dividends of 2,600,000 stockholders yielded $100. Concerning the theoretical power of these people in relation to the actual power of the financial groups controlling the giant corporations and their subsidiaries, we can accept Keynes’ comment with regard to the governor of the Bank of England as being applicable also to our own corporate interests. “... There is no class of persons in the Kingdom of whom the governor ... thinks less when he decides on his policy than of his shareholders.” (Drucker’s, Chase’s, and Burnham’s “managers” will no doubt be interested in TNEC Monograph 29 which shows that American big business is not only “controlled” but actually owned by a small, powerful oligarchy.)

(3) With reference to the “discredited” theory of “immiseration” (Schumpeter’s phrase), here, too, the critics present statistics to prove that higher wages and improved living conditions have refuted Marx’s prophecy. Some, like Schumpeter, are not satisfied even with the “natural law” tenet of the marginalist which maintains that there can be no exploitation of the working class, since all classes are subject to “fixed laws of distribution.” These critics go beyond this point by claiming that historically, the working class in comparison with the capitalists has fared far better! This statement is made in spite of the fact that during the period of expanding capitalism (with its tendency of increasing unemployment) there was a relative fall in the worker’s standard of living, just as there is an absolute fall during the present period. Bald charts of wages tell us nothing unless broken down into such factors as the difference between money and real wages (cost of living, national and sectional variations); the relation between wages and national production, capitalist accumulation, technological innovations, profit, the number of employed, the intensity of labor, periodic stagnation, etc., not to mention the physical and psychological factors of health, insecurity, anxiety, wars – all integral components of our competitive society. Those who refer to union activity, mechanical conveniences and social services as counterposing tendencies to “immiseration” are thinking in purely mechanistic terms. Wage increases as a result of unionization, for example, must be considered in terms of those factors connected with overcoming the reduction in the rate of profit: intensified exploitation, new machinery, cheapening of constant capital, acceleration of foreign trade, export of capital, etc. Add to these the other implied factors of the industrial reserve army, colonial exploitation and imperialist wars, and it becomes clear why “better living conditions” within the orbit of world capitalism is a mirage. For Marxists, wages is a derivative category; it is the relations of production which determine the worker’s subsistence and as long as this relationship exists there is no “betterment” short of a society organized for social use.

[Continued in next issue]


A. The attempted refutations of Marxism dealt with throughout this essay are to be found in the following books – Marxism: An Autopsy, Bamford Parkes; Communism, Fascism and Democracy, Eduard Heimann; To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson; Man’s Estate, Alfred Bingham; Marxism: Science or Religion, Max Eastman; American Stakes, John Chamberlain; Reason, Social Myths and Democracy, Sidney Hook; The Unfinished Task, Lewis Corey; Challenge to Karl Marx, Kenneth Turner; The Future of Industrial Man, Peter Drucker; Freedom and Culture, John Dewey; Darwin, Marx and Wagner, Jacques Barzun; Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Joseph Schumpeter. Some of these writers, like Hook, Eastman and Heimann, for example, have supplemented their criticisms by way of periodical contribution.

1. The considerate regard with which the anti-Marxian critics treat one another’s books is amusingly rotarian, if not downright indecent. There is mutual admiration between Wilson and Hook and Eastman and Wilson. Heimann praises Schumpeter; Barzun bows to Hook, and Chamberlain to Wilson. Eastman even has kind words for Stalinoid Max Lerner.

2. The programmatic appeals of the Eastmans. Coreys, Lerners and Chamberlains, maintaining that property rights are guarantees of freedom against the state, are based upon the following illogicalities: (a) the concept of freedom is vulgarly defined in terms of mere property (quantities of property being apparently equated with quantities of freedom); such appeals are anachronistic in that they attempt to recapture the petty bourgeois dreams of Jeffersonian agrarianism or of muckraking anti-trustism; (c) the possession of property (associated historically not with freedom but with tyranny and oppression as well) Is being urged at the very time when what is needed is its abolition; (d) this middle-class property concept perpetuates the jungle morality to which the petty bourgeoisie have always subscribed. They may balk at the horrors of socialist confiscation but they continue to support a system which by its very essence means constant property expropriation and destruction. The whole vitality of revisionism’s freedom is strikingly illustrated by A.P. Lerner’s statement that although the state in a mixed economy could most likely punish dissident private income, still every little safeguard helps. And Chamberlain unwittingly reveals the precarious nature of freedom by suggesting that it must be sought for in the interstices of society.

3. This failure incidentally to distinguish between these two factors is partially responsible for the persistent accusations of inevitability levelled against Marxism. This accusation is generally difficult to answer merely because the critics have never accurately differentiated among those concepts inherent in the whole problem of causation-determinism, mechanism, freedom, teleology, etc. So-called chance elements in history unless evaluated within specific contexts of socio-economic, political and ideological forces can become a sophomoric pursuit comparable to the metaphysical quest for ultimate causes or primeval essences.

4. Why Farmers Are Poor.

5. American Farmers in the World Crisis.

6. Ill Fares the Land.

7. The Modern Corporation and Private Property.

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