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New International, Summer 1955


Julius Falk & Abe Stein

Magazine Chronicle


From New International, Vol.21 No.2, Summer 1955, pp.131-136.
Marked up up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


[Partisan Review]

Just prior to America’s entry into World War II Partisan Review announced its withdrawal from partisan politics. It would no longer take political sides in any militant fashion, but would devote itself to philosophy and belles-lettres. But only a cursory contact with the magazine in the past few years reveals that PR hasn’t abandoned politics. It has merely reversed its politically partisan nature. From a magazine of social and literary revolt it has become tedious, academic and, what mainly concerns us, engaged in a painful struggle to achieve political respectability.

How painful this effort can be is easily illustrated by an article by Hannah Arendt in a year-old issue, January-February, 1954. Arendt is one of PR’s favored Marx-slayers, a woman who is prepared and over-anxious to club Marx and Marxism to death with a mace spiked with distortions of Marxism and delicately embroidered with innumerable references from the original Greek, Latin, French and German.

All that space, patience and interest permit in this column – is to take a few of the key sections from Arendt’s multi-lingual potpourri which reveal the increasing withering away of anti-Marxist thought.

Arendt quotes phrases from Marx on the state, labor and violence concluding that:

These statements, in addition to being predictions, contain of course, Marx’s ideal of the best form of society. As such they are not Utopian, but rather reproduce the political and social conditions of the same Athenian city-state which was the model of experience for Plato and Aristotle, and therefore the foundation on which our tradition rests.

This is not a typographical error; it’s Hannah Arendt. It is the kind of theoretical mish-mash which is so grotesque that the reader is caught unaware, unprepared to admit what is being said.

In what possible respect could anyone in his right political sense remark that the ideal form of society for Marx could be found in the “political and social conditions” of ancient Athens, a slave society whose estimated ninety thousand free citizens were many times outnumbered by their chattels?

In the Homeric age, before the emergence of a Greek state, Greece was classified by Marx and Engels as a “primitive democracy.” Can it be this which inspires Arendt to write such foolishness? But the Iroquois tribes, according to Engels, were even more democratic and more primitive than the Greeks. Perhaps, then, it was this barbarian Indian tribe which presents a more accurate precursor of Communism?

Whatever may have inspired Arendt to write this, whether it was her misreading of Marxist writing on primitive society, or a misunderstanding of Marx’s genuine admiration for ancient Greek culture, or plain maliciousness, one thing is clear – it belongs in the realm of Pure Nonsense.

This amalgam of Marxism and primitive society is only one in a whole series of scholastically presented boners. Just one or two more examples.

Arendt discusses Marx and labor:

“Labor created man” [a phrase of Engels] means first that labor and not God created man; secondly, it means that man, insofar as he is human, creates himself, that his humanity is the result of his own activity; it means, thirdly that what distinguishes man from animal, his differentia specifica, is not reason, but labor, that he is not an animal rationale, but an animal laborans; it means, fourthly, that it is not reason, until then the highest attribute of man, but labor, the traditionally most despised human activity, which contains the humanity of man.

Hannah Arendt is almost artistic in her creativity. “What distinguishes man from animal, his differentia specifia, is not reason, but labor, that he is not an animal rationale but an animal laborans ...” Does this not show signs of genius, of some sort or other?

If Marx regarded man as an “animal laborans” how does that distinguish man (his differentia specifica) from an animal, in the first place? If that is all man is, then, he is an animal in Marx’s eyes according to Arendt. But that would make Marx a bit of an idiot, and not even Arendt makes any such contention. Of course, Marx regarded man as a thinking animal and it is this ability to think which, if properly exercised, will make us all properly wary of Arendt’s pretensions. Where does Marx counterpose work to thought? Man, according to Marx, through his labor and his ability to reason, is capable of harnessing nature to his needs and interests; through labor and through his unique intelligence he is capable of freeing himself from all the meanness of capitalism.

If Hannah Arendt wants to know – if she is really interested – in learning Marx’s differentia specifica we offer the following passage from Volume I of his Capital (Modern Library edition, page 198).

We presuppose labor in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resembles those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect [the differentia specifica] from the best of bees is that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.

Implicit in the paragraph we have quoted from Arendt – and further along the same lines Arendt refers to Marx’s “glorification” of labor – is a lightly veiled attempt to de-humanize Marx.

Did Marx glorify labor under capitalism? Did he see something especially noble in the idea of a young man wasting away before a British textile loom? Marx of course did not glorify labor under capitalism. What he did was to give a new dignity to labor, revealing its social role and in-dispensability for leading a movement of human emancipation.

If Marx glorified labor it was not labor under capitalism but labor which would be freely and consciously performed under socialism; a distinction, of fundamental importance, but apparently of little concern to Arendt. To Marx, labor performed under capitalism is on the whole performed with disinterest or disgust. A working man does not realize himself through his labor in bourgeois society. He becomes indifferent, alienated and estranged from his work and from himself, often reduced to an animal level by his condition of life and labor.

“The Marxian identification of action with violence,” Arendt tells us, “implies another fundamental challenge to tradition which may be more difficult to perceive, but of which Marx, who knew Aristotle very well must have been aware.” In reinterpreting Marx on the role of violence, Arendt does violence not only to Marx but to the nature of Greek society. She tells us that:

The twofold Aristotelian definition of man as a dzôon politikon and a dzôon logon echon, a being attaining his highest possibility in the faculty of speech and the life in a polis, was designed to distinguish the Greek from the barbarians and the free man from the slave. The distinction was that Greeks living together in a polis conducted their affairs by means of speech, through persuasion, and not by means of violence through mute coercion. Barbarians were ruled by violence and slaves by labor, and since violent action and toil are alike in that they do not need speech to be effective, barbarians and slaves are aneu logon, that is, they do not live with each other primarily by means of speech. Labor was to the Greeks essentially a non-political, private affair, but violence is related to and establishes a contact, albeit negative, with other man.

Now, this is what the Greeks may have said, but even Arendt knows this does not accurately describe the relation of Greek to Greek, Greek to slave and Greek to barbarian. The labor of the slaves was decidedly not a non-political affair, since the freedoom of the Greek citizen rested on its perpetuation. The Greek state, “a body of armed men,” was always ready to step in and use violence against the slaves to maintain the polis where questions were decided by rational discourse. Furthermore, violence was used not merely against slaves and barbarians, but if we remember our history, in the struggle between one Greek city-state and another. And in how many instances were the vanquished enslaved? Finally, has Arendt forgotten the plight of the Greek peasants, citizens of the polis, who fell into slavery because of indebtedness? Having reinterpreted ancient society and its philosophic tradition in order to discredit Marx as the preacher of violence and not reason, Arendt now shifts her sights into the future to propound a paradox that puts Zeno the Eleatic to shame.

If labor is the most human and most productive of man’s activities, what will happen when after the revolution ‘labor is abolished’ in ‘the realm of freedom’ when man has succeeded in emancipating himself from it? What productive and what essentially human activity will be left? If violence is the midwife of history and violent action therefore the most dignified of all forms of human action, what will happen when, after the conclusion of class struggle and the disappearance of the state, no violence will even be possible? How will man be able to act at all in a meaningful authentic way?

That Marx said “violence is the midwife of history,” we agree. But only Arendt’s inventive mind can deduce from this that Marx also believed that “violent action therefore [is] the most dignified of all forms of human action.” Against that day when the state has withered away and the class struggle is a bad dream, we offer the hypothesis that poets will quarrel on a mass scale with nothing more damaging than verbal violence over the use of meters, and painters will rend the air in a dispute as to the use of solid colors and abstract art. There will be all kinds of struggles. All except the class struggle.

If men are not chained to the machine and the tractor, what productive activity will engage the free energies and minds of men? Being a child of the great German philosophic tradition, Arendt must know that Schiller defined art as the realm of freedom. When men are free from the compulsion of labor, the creative transformation of society, nature and man himself stands on the order of the day. In Literature and Revolution, Leon Trotsky foresaw the day when men would level mountains in one area and raise them in others, turn arid deserts into singing gardens and reshape even their own bodies to their own desire. And in this day of atomic energy, Trotsky’s imaginative visions become real possibilities – if capitalism is replaced by a socialist order.

A Dubious Defense

IT IS NOW little more than a year since a statement of the Atomic Energy Commission concluded that “Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer is hereby denied access to restricted data.” In that year an immense volume, the transcript of Oppenheimer’s hearing before an AEC security board appointed by Lewis Strauss, had been released followed by a niagara of articles, letters, and books on the subject.

One of the books on the Oppenheimer case came out shortly after the scientist’s clearance was lifted: We Accuse! by Joseph and Stewart Alsop. Reading it, one can readily see why We Accuse! has suffered a virtual blackout in the press. It is scathing in its indictment of the government, the AEC, the Air Force Generals, the security system. The Alsop’s accusations are made furiously, but also factually; their mood is one of outrage and indignation which does not impinge on their style which is direct and lucid.

An account of the Alsop brothers’ book is outside the scope of this column. We mention it only to contrast it with another defense of Oppenheimer which has appeared recently in Partisan Review (November-December 1954) written by Diana Trilling. Where the Alsops discuss the Oppenheimer case with forthrightness and a sense of reality, Trilling’s defense is circumspect, equivocal and abstract. In all 32 pages of the PR article one fails to find any connection made other than in passing between the Oppenhimer case and the witchhunt. For all we might gather from the Trilling analysis, the Oppenheimer case might have taken place on a different planet and in a different century – earlier or later, it makes no difference.

Trilling’s failure to discuss the Oppenheimer case in its social context is not an oversight, and it is more than a defect. It stems from her own basic commitments to prevalent prejudices and anti-democratic attitudes. We know this from her past writings, her political activities and from what is said and left unsaid in her article on Oppenheimer. In the Spring issue of PR there is a very effective analysis of Trilling’s approach, written by Hans Meyerhoff on the faculty of the University of Southern California. Meyerhoff’s article was made all the more persuasive by Mrs. Trilling’s brief rejoinder in the same issue.

... at one point she [Diana Trilling] admits that Oppenheimer was reinvestigated because he represented “a way of thinking and even of being which was antipathetic to a dominant faction and because the political climate of our times had prepared an appropriate ground for his defeat.” But if Mrs. Trilling thinks the political climate of our times is relevant to this case, or why it is, she has nothing more to say about it in the entire article. She has nothing more to say about what it means that this political climate provided an appropriate ground for Oppenheimer’s defeat. She does not assign any significance to these contemporary problems looming in the background. She does say that the final AEC report by Strauss “evaded the very issue” of Oppenheimer’s opposition to the H-bomb; but she does not say what this evasion means. In other words she herself evades any issue which might possibly be of current interest. As far as her analysis is concerned, it is as if we were not dealing with any contemporary problem at all.

Thus her only comments on the report by the Gray Board are that “public reaction ... was intensely unfavorable” and that “liberal sentiment was outraged,” because a man seemed to be condemned for his opinions. Was he? Mrs. Trilling does not, or will not, say. Was liberal sentiment justifiably outraged by what looked like punishment for a thought-crime? Or does Mrs. Trilling’s phrasing imply that she really believes liberal sentiment, once again, indulged in liberal sentimentality? The Alsop brothers print excerpts from this report. It affirmed Dr. Oppenheimer’s “loyalty,” “high degree of discretion” and the public debt owed to him for “loyal and magnificent service.” The Board then declared Dr. Oppenheimer a security risk; and the Alsop brothers ask the naive question, what standards of security and justice were employed in this ruling. Mrs. Trilling does not ask any questions. To say that a man deserves the thanks of the fatherland and to humiliate him in the same breath – is that absurd or not? Mrs. Trilling does not, or will not, say.

Mrs. Trilling fails to discuss the political and cultural climate surrounding the Oppenheimer case but she does develop a theory of the political and moral responsibility of the liberals of the thirties and forties for the growth of Stalinism and the present impasse of liberalism. McCarthy-ism, the witchhunt, even the humiliation of Oppenheimer are the unpleasant retributions visited upon liberals for their past mistakes. Diana Trilling writes:

Fairness to Dr. Oppenheimer requires that we remind ourselves that our current acute relations with Russia, of which the Oppenheimer case is only one relatively small result, would very likely have never reached their present point of crisis had not so much of the energy of liberalism been directed, in the very period in which Dr. Oppenheimer failed to report Chevalier, to persuading the American people that Russia was our great ally instead of the enemy of democracy and peace which she had already clearly demonstrated herself to be.

Does Diana Trilling really believe that it was the liberal world during the war that has brought us to our present “point of crisis”? Is she really ignorant of the fact that liberals never could have cornered the market on coining adulatory phrases for “our great Russian ally” because the bulk of the bourgeois world jealously clung to its rights of peddling the virtues of the Russian Bear. Doesn’t Mrs. Trilling know that it wasn’t only the liberals, sucked in by the Stalinist Fronts and even by the Communist Party who proposed toasts to Stalin and the glorious Red Army? From the Daily News to Time magazine and from Cordell Hull to Churchill our “great Russian ally” was treated to public adulation. Whatever secret misgivings some bourgeois politicians may have had or even occasionally expressed, it was the bourgeois world, not liberalism, which must bear this onus for invaluable services performed for Stalinism, motivated by more or less equal parts of immediate military considerations, stupidity and a typical imperialist indifference to conditions of life in Russia.

This view of the responsibility of liberalism for Stalinism today is nothing more than a gentle and palatable version of Senator McCarthy’s screwball expostulations about “twenty years of treason.” Diana Trilling’s self-flagellation for the crimes of liberalism permits her to conclude her article with the observation that, in effect, the fate of Oppenheimer,”... constitutes a projection upon Dr. Oppenheimer of the punishment we perhaps owe to ourselves for having once been so careless with our nation’s security.”

Smash us with your broomsticks, oh you avenging witchhunting angels, for we one-time radicals are guilty and born in sin.

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