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James Burnham

Max Eastman As Scientist

(June 1938)

From New International, Vol.4 No.6, June 1938, pp.177-180.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

IT IS NOT EASY to be sure just what Max Eastman is trying to say in his article, Russia and the Socialist Ideal, published in the March issue of Harper’s Magazine. He ranges over a considerable field, meditates on a variety of problems, psychological, historical, political, moral; and, as a rule, reaches conclusions so vague and general as to be hardly arguable. He seems, however, if we sum up the general impression given by the article as a whole, to have two main concerns in mind:

In the first place, he revives at length his perennial attack upon the “philosophy” and “religion” which he attributes to Marx. Now, the problem of what Marx “really meant” is an interesting one for scholarly research. We all know, moreover, that Marx made a number of false statements. None of us, if we take historical method seriously, is surprised that Marx was limited by the stage which scientific knowledge had reached in his day, or that his terminology was influenced by the social context in which he lived. I, for one, agree with Eastman that it is desirable to change, in part, this terminology, in order to bring it more closely into accord with contemporary scientific method and practise.

However, these problems of scholarly research and linguistic reform are comparatively leisurely, impersonal and postponeable. The Marxism which is of decisive moment to revolutionists is not the dried letter of Marx’s books but the theory and strategy of the living revolutionary movement. And here Eastman adds to his familiar attack upon his conception of Marx a new attack, upon Marxism. In the past Eastman has attacked Marx, so he rightly or wrongly contended, for the sake of socialism. He has held that Marx’s philosophy and its literal interpretation by present-day Marxists is an ineffective instrument for the realization of socialism. But he has never called into question the socialist ideal itself.

In this current article—if it is meant seriously, if it isn’t mere eyewash and potboiler—Eastman takes up arms against precisely the socialist ideal. It is only a beginning; the attack is not yet launched against the socialist ideal in its entirety, nor indeed is it altogether clear just exactly what he is attacking. He still speaks, in one paragraph, of “we socialists”, which might unfortunately remind us of how Aristotle spoke of “we Platonists” when he began his fundamental break with Platonism. But at the end he sums up “our revision of the socialist ideal”. He remarks: “No mind not bold enough to reconsider the socialist hypothesis in the light of the Russian experiment can be called intelligent.” No legitimate exception could be taken to this statement as it stands by itself: every intelligent mind is ready to reconsider every hypothesis in the light of new evidence. But it is evident that when Eastman writes “reconsider” he means revise, modify or reject.

The traditional socialist hypothesis—the socialist proposals for the reconstruction of society and the solution of its major problems—has been, Eastman argues, disproved. It has been disproved from one direction by modern science, in particular by biology and psychology; from another by “the experiment in Russia”. It is therefore necessary to revise that hypothesis; and the article ends with the listing of eight proposed points for such a revision.


It is Eastman’s claim that he approaches his problem, and reaches his conclusions, as a scientist; and he criticizes Marxists for not being scientific. I wish to begin by examining Eastman’s right to this claim, as shown by the evidence of the article itself. I certainly agree with Eastman about the desirability of employing scientific method in all problems where truth and falsity are at issue; but a method is not scientific merely from being called so by its user.

1. Eastman begins by stating that he is better situated than Trotsky for perceiving “the scope and significance of the Russian failure”. This follows, in part, because “I am completely detached from party struggle and not vitally concerned about revolutionary prestige. I am in a position to regard Stalin and his dictatorship not as an enemy, but as a result”. This opening is more than a little disingenuous. Eastman is saying that our processes of investigation and analysis are affected by the interests we have at stake. This is a psychological commonplace, and holds not merely for Trotsky but for everyone, including of course Eastman. Does Eastman mean that he has no interests at stake in pursuing his inquiries? This is what he suggests (and that is why I have called the statement disingenuous); but as a scientist he could scarcely defend the suggestion. His argument can be exactly countered by suggesting that he is unqualified because he is interested in defending his detachment. More than this: with reference to the particular problem at issue, it might well be maintained that “detachment from party struggle” not merely runs the always present risk of causing biased selection of evidence, but specifically disqualifies the investigator by depriving him of ready access to a great deal of significant data. Eastman will not hold that “party struggle” is irrelevant to an understanding of the Russian experiment. Quite the contrary. And in this respect Trotsky is not in a worse but a better position than Eastman: he is acquainted with more of the data, and with more kinds of data, relevant to the problem.

2. Eastman constantly stresses his belief that Marxists are guilty of wish-fulfillment thinking. It is amusing to notice that both the content and the very wording of a number of his eight points listed in his “revision of the socialist ideal in the light of science” are simply—wishes. Above all No.8: “We must guard with eternal vigilance the rest [of our individual freedom].” There is nothing necessarily wrong with this. An ideal is, in a sense, a wish. Socialists wish socialism. Max Eastman wishes individual freedom. But there is nothing particularly scientific about wishes as such. Science comes in when we ask whether the wish is possible of realization, and how. I mention this matter only to indicate how Eastman is using the word “scientific” primarily as an epithet of praise and blame and not as a description of one method as against another.

3. Point 2 in the revision is much more remarkable. “Problems of being and of universal history arising from this situation should be acknowledged to exist ...” Do I need to remind scientist and anti-metaphysician Eastman that contemporary science recognizes no problems of “being” or of “universal history”? These, the problems of traditional, arch-metaphysical Ontology and Cosmology are interpreted by contemporary science as either empirically meaningless or purely analytic, and are ruled out of scientific discourse. “It is a question,” Eastman writes, “of going forward or of being stuck in the mud.” Here, as elsewhere, Eastman is not in the least going forward in the light of contemporary science, but returning backward to pre-Marxian conceptions, to the very rationalist metaphysics which Marx himself so vigorously rejected.

4. “It is,” Eastman says, “in the definition of the end that Marxism falls most obviously short of the standards of science ...” It falls short, he somewhat inconsistently argues, because it does not specify what the end is, and because it specifies an impossible end. It should be remarked: The “definition of an end”, where the end in question is an ideal, is only partly a scientific procedure; in part it is an assertion of value, of what we want, or propose to try to get. It is possible, though it seldom happens, that someone might agree entirely with all of the Marxian descriptive analysis of capitalist society, and yet disagree with the end (socialism), preferring perhaps fascism and barbarism or simply retirement to the country. Science can tell me how to cure a disease, but it alone cannot make me take the cure. The analogy which Eastman draws between an empirical scientific hypothesis and an ideal end is not accurate.

But, secondly: it is not at all the case that a failure to blueprint in detail (as Eastman demands) the definition of an end is necessarily a defect. In fact, where the end is an end of moral or social action, the opposite is often true: too detailed a blueprint is a defect, imposing upon the agent either doctrinaire inflexibility or Utopian unrealism, both of which alike Eastman claims to deplore. Intelligent action demands as much elaboration of probable consequences as we can reasonably accomplish under the given circumstances. A detailed blueprint is possible only where we have, in advance, comprehensive knowledge of all relevant facts: as in building a bridge. We do not have such comprehensive knowledge about either life or society. The most we can do or need to do, therefore, is to lay out a general rough sketch. We learn about the details in action, through cumulative experience, modifying, shifting, adapting, filling in the outlines provided by the rough sketch as we go along.

If a man, for example, decided to become a doctor, he would be unable to blueprint his career. He would, if he were intelligent, have considered the available alternatives in the light of the satisfactions they might probably bring, he would have made reasonably sure that he had the requisite potential abilities and could secure the means for professional education. Nothing much more. He would, most likely, not determine in advance even what branch of medicine he would practise in—waiting to see through experience what he was best at or what had most openings; he would not know the hospital where he would try to get his internship, or the office with which he might later try to get associated. In behaving so, he would not be “unscientific”. He would be absurd if he did otherwise; it would be an astrologer, not a scientist who in such cases mapped out blueprints. Nor is it merely a question of insufficient knowledge in advance. The future is not laid out according to a prearranged pattern, but is itself modified by our actions.

How much more ridiculous would it be to lay out a detailed blueprint for the future in the case of a plan of social action, above all a drastic and revolutionary plan. If we are reasonably sure of the main outlines, we go ahead and find out what happens, adjusting ourselves flexibly to experience within the boundaries of our firm central purposes. Only in this way can we be genuinely scientific; the blueprinters are compelled to retire into their own imaginations from which their blueprints sprung, to become Utopians or sectarians, and to complain at history because it doesn’t fit their pattern. Eastman praises the Utopian socialists, Owen and St. Simon and Fourier, over Marx because they had blueprints. Revealing praise! Does he wish us to return to the Utopians? Here, as before, Eastman does not “move forward” toward contemporary science, but swings back to pre-Marxian fantasies. It was exactly Marx’s scientific scrupulousness which led him to reject sternly, whenever the question was raised, the illusion of Utopia by Blueprint.

In passing, it might also be noticed how necessary the anti-blueprint temperament is at every stage both to the understanding of contemporary events and especially to decisive political action. The blueprinters were not prepared to make the Russian Revolution because Marx had expected the revolution first in the most advanced industrial countries. Eastman himself is blocked from a scientific appraisal of the Russian Revolution because he confines his attention primarily to its non-conformity with the blueprint he had accepted a priori instead of devoting his analysis to the revolution as it is actually developing. For all his metaphysical doubts, I am sure Eastman will not be the first to deny that it is Trotsky who has done more than any other historian in the analysis of the Russian Revolution as it has actually happened; indeed Eastman says as much in this article. How does he reconcile this fact with his charge against Trotsky? Can a scientific theory so entirely wrong yield such fruitful scientific results?

But, thirdly, a directive ideal, though it is Utopian and religious, if utterly incapable of any considerable degree of realization, is not required to be fully and statically realizable. In fact, great ideals are never fully realizable (which is one reason why Heaven was invented: a land where ideals can be fully realized), and, because of their dynamic function would be meaningless if they could be. Eastman makes fun of many elements of the socialist ideal—“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”; the disappearance of the State; the breaking down of the barrier between intellectual and physical labor; “society of the free and equal” ... What is he trying to prove? If he means merely that it is doubtful that all of these ideals can soon and universally and simultaneously be realized, that many of them can never be completely realized, there is no ground for argument. But if he means that, with the technical means and scientific knowledge even now at our disposal—without even allowing for the advances which all evidence permits us to predict—there is not even a possibility of realizing these ideals to a considerable extent, .immeasurably more than realized today (though even today they have restricted operations), then he is being not a scientist but a mystic. He is once more going back, going back to an acceptance of the “tragic sense of life”, to the belief in the original sin which dooms man forever, to those religious, not scientific, doctrines which express, not prove, man’s weakness and despair in the face of the problems which confront him. The remedy for these moods is not science alone, but more determination.

Formally speaking, the ideal of from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs is impossible, since man’s needs are indefinitely expansible. But even within capitalist society, this ideal has gained some operative efficacy—in, for example, the treatment of the unemployed, the blind and crippled and aged, within the family, in the assignment of wages within a working class political party, etc. What possible evidence suggests that it will not have enormously increased efficacy once the technical plant is harnessed—as it certainly can be—to provide enough for the major material needs of men. Certainly no evidence from psychology or biology, to which Eastman appeals, which have not the slightest relation to the problem.

Marx, not knowing the monotony of modern mass production methods, was perhaps over-optimistic in hoping that labor will become instead of drudgery “the highest desire of life”. But with manual factory labor reduced to a minimum through the application of inventive technique (compare even today a continuous rolling mill with the former still existing mill for the same process), and hours of that type of labor shortened to a small fraction of the day, with adequate sanitary and æsthetic conditions of work, with general education and leisure, with city and country planned as even today they are technically capable of being handled, why should not labor become if not man’s highest desire at least part of a highly desirable life? And why should not the barrier between intellectual and manual labor be gradually overcome? Certainly neither science nor facts stand in the way. On the contrary, they provide the means for approximating if not achieving exactly the ideals of socialism, and they show that those ideals are entirely possible, not merely logically but materially as well. What stands in the way are men’s attitudes, among others Eastman’s attitude of despair and resignation. And the business of revolutionary politics is, among other things, to change those attitudes so that the means may be used, the science applied, and the ideals approached.

5. Eastman writes, toward the end of his article, that Marx tried to combine two contradictory ideals: the Jeffersonian ideal of freedom and rank individualism together with the industrial ideal of equality, coöperativeness and governmental regulation. He concludes his article (points 7 and 8 of the “revision of the socialist ideal”) with remarks which make clear that with him the first of these ranks much the higher, and that he will surrender to the second only what is “indispensably necessary”. We have here one more example of Eastman’s purely rationalist—non-scientific and non-empirical—method of analysis; and we have besides an old-fashioned Romantic (again, pre-Marxian) conception of freedom as the equivalent of arbitrariness and sheer spontaneity (a conception, by the way, familiar in Eastman from his tastes in and criticism of art).

Eastman is writing about Platonic Forms of “freedom” and “coöperativeness”, and arguing about the logical incompatibility of abstract categories. An empirical scientist will, in contrast, always examine specific historical contexts. The Jeffersonian ideal of freedom, based upon the life of free farmers on rich, virgin soil (and, to tell the truth, farmers who like Jefferson himself had slaves and servants), has little relevance to contemporary and future society. Freedom takes on new concrete meaning in its new contexts. Eastman insists that cooperation and governmental regulation necessarily destroy freedom, because the two concepts are verbally contradictory. They would destroy a Jeffersonian kind of freedom, that is true. They would make impossible a Romantic kind of freedom, which considers the free man to be the one who does immediately whatever comes into his head, who acts from every momentary impulse with no thought of consequences or social effects. But cooperation, governmental regulation (if by this Eastman means, as he seems to mean, socialized economy), economic, social and political equality, in modern society are just what, and what alone, will make a more significant and meaningful individual freedom possible.

Here too we can discover faint foreshadowing examples even in capitalist society. In some places in the T.V.A. territory, the New Deal has introduced considerable “regulation” and coöperativeness among the subsistence farmers of the region. It has taught them how to save their soil, what to grow, how to terrace their land; it has introduced electricity and sanitary devices and even aided in building new homes; it has arranged in some instances that many individual plots of land shall be farmed cooperatively. In so doing it has undoubtedly decreased the Romantic and arbitrary “freedom” of the individual farmers to destroy their soil, half-starve, spread epidemics, raise rickets-weakened and pellagra-struck children, drink contaminated water, and work seventeen hours a day with little result. I do not think that this is the kind of freedom which Eastman seriously wishes to preserve. In any humanly important sense, the freedom of these TVA farmers has been vastly increased, not contradicted, by greater governmental regulation, cooperation and equality. Nor does this in the least entail “spiritual regimentation” against which Eastman so rightly fights. That is only a cock-and-bull story of reaction. The breeder of spiritual regimentation is slums, low wages, unsanitary factories, universal insecurity, poor land—anyone with eyes can see that by looking at the human products of these condition. The “regulated”, equalized, cooperating farmers are in an immeasurably better position to develop their own individual talents and tastes.

6. “To my more skeptical and yet far from pessimistic mind,” Eastman writes, “it seems obvious that if the socialist idea of a free and equal cooperative commonwealth emerging from the dictatorship of the proletariat were practical under an economy of abundance, we should find under an economy of scarcity some lame approximation to it.” This argument, Eastman’s main formal point against Trotsky’s analysis of the causes of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, has become familiar during the past year. In fact, because of its specious plausibility, it has become a crux in the general attack on socialism as “disproved” by the “Russian experiment”. It has no weight whatever. Far from being “scientific”, it betrays once more an elementary misunderstanding of scientific method.

The fallacy here can be easily illustrated by analogous arguments in the same form. “To my skeptical mind, it seems obvious that if you can live comfortably on so many calories of food a day, you can live lamely on a tenth that number.” But you can’t; you starve to death on a tenth that number. “If heavy rain helps grass grow luxuriantly, then a light rain helps it somewhat.” But it doesn’t; a light rain, in a drought season, not penetrating to the roots and below, is worse for the grass than no rain at all. If intelligence plus honor make a noble man, it does not follow that intelligence plus a lack of honor make a somewhat noble man; rather might the latter make a much more ignoble man than would be the case in the absence of both qualities. Similarly, if an economy of abundance plus the dictatorship of the workers makes possible a rapid transition to socialism, including the decrease in coercive state authority, it does not at all follow that the dictatorship alone, based on an economy of scarcity, will make possible a somewhat rapid transition to socialism and some but less decrease in state authority. The opposite happened. The dictatorship in an isolated country plus an economy of scarcity led to the greatest increase in state authority in history. Many persons, including many revolutionary Marxists, hoped that this would not happen. But all that has been proved is that in the specific Russian circumstances, and probably in closely similar circumstances, the rapid transition to socialism with the rapid decrease in state authority which that implies, is not possible.


I have been trying to demonstrate, up to this point, that Eastman’s pretension to scientific method hi his analysis of his problem is no more than a pose. I have dealt chiefly with his method. I now wish to turn to the crux of his material argument, and to examine this in the light of the conclusions of contemporary science.

I have pointed out that Eastman holds that the socialist hypothesis has been disproved by (a) the failure of the Russian experiment; and (b) the conclusions of modern biology and psychology. What then, according to Eastman, is the explanation of the failure of the Russian experiment and what are the conclusions of modern biology and psychology? He gives the same answer to both questions.

“Developments that to the most ordinary shrewd good sense reveal a conflict between Marxian theory [on the degeneration of the Russian Revolution] and the universal attributes of human nature ...” (my italics—JB). The theme constantly is reiterated: “... a scientific mind would raise the question what qualities in the material, human nature can be relied upon ...”; “What is there in human nature to give assurance ...”; “Is human nature ... sufficiently capable ...”. The explanation for the failure of the Russian experiment, provided by the grandiose achievements of contemporary biology and psychology, is: human nature; and not mere plain ordinary human nature but “the universal attributes of human nature”; which include prominently, as we have previously seen, what but our old friend Original Sin.

Alas, Max Eastman! All in the name of Science, he now wants us to go back not merely to the Romantic, to the Eighteenth Century Rationalists, but hurtling headlong into the Middle Ages. We will revive the doctrines of Substance and Essence. We will dispute together, like good Scholastics before the Emperor, over the problem of “the essential nature of man”, and refine our definitions to the vanishing point.

Are we to take him seriously? I do not need to tell him that among the very greatest of the methodological achievements of modern sciences, a presupposition of rapid advance in almost every field, is the abandonment of Substance and Essence in the interpretation of phenomena, and the substitution of functional analyses. Eastman himself praises highly Trotsky’s “sustained sense of human society as a process rather than a thing”. “Universal attributes ...”—these, he knows as well as I, are the dead lumber of the Platonic realm of Being. And he knows also that the whole approach of the best of contemporary theory in education, medicine, penology, ethnology, sociology ... is solidly based on the conception of human beings as active organisms, actively in inter-relationship with their changing material and social environments, changed by that environment and changing it. Is he tomorrow going to tell us again that men become criminals because they are “criminal types”, that there is an “essential” difference between various races, that slum-dwellers are “naturally” slovenly, that scoundrels and hoboes and tyrants are Born not Made. Of course not. But this is where explanations in terms of “universal attributes of human nature”, of doctrines about what human nature “essentially” is (his underlining), logically and plausibly lead.

To explain the failure of the Russian experiment by an appeal to “eternal human nature” is to abandon the last vestige of scientific method. And, in point of fact, nothing eternal or universal can ever explain anything specific which happens. If any factor were eternal or universal, it can never account for difference, and without difference there is no distinction among events: that is, time and history dissolve into everlasting and undifferentiated Being. Let us assume with you that human nature is eternally and universally what it is. Then what explains that blunt fact that the Russian Revolution occurred, and degenerated? We are no further advanced in solving this problem. We must relate our human nature to the environment, material and technical and social, in relation to which it operated. Included in our explanation will be the specific activities of specific men and groups of men (the Stalin clique, for example); but these activities in their turn must be explained. They do not explain themselves, unless you accept a doctrine of Essence, whereby out of the Essence of Man there logically unfolds the particular sector of the Absolute.


A last question, which deserves extended treatment, but which I shall only summarize:

Human beings, assuming that we are not going to lie down and die, must be active in one way or another. Whether in individual or in social matters, we have no choice between action and no action, but only between this, that or the other line of action. This means that when selecting a moral or political program (which are generalizations of lines of action) we must make our choice from among the available alternatives.

To show that in Program A there is a difficulty, a confusion, a risk, is by itself without significance unless we are at the same or risk, together with approximately equal or greater positive time showing that in Program B there is less difficulty, confusion potentialities. There is confusion and risk in all programs.

Let us, for a moment, assume the truth of Eastman’s negative criticism of “the socialist hypothesis”. What does he wish us, then, to do? He is compelled, if he is responsible, to propose another alternative hypothesis, another program.

If nothing, in terms of action, follows from his argument, then the argument is not merely politically but also empirically meaningless, comparable to the idle academic debates over Ontology and Epistemology.

If something does follow, and it is not the program of the Fourth International, then what is it? If Eastman disagrees with the program of the Fourth International, just what does he disagree with and what does he propose to substitute? If he holds that the socialist hypothesis has been disproved, does he then conclude that we should be passive: i.e., submit to imperialism? There are those who draw this conclusion, both in words and in action, from his present position; his position in fact justifies and rationalizes their passivity—and he is morally and politically responsible for this unless he makes unequivocally clear that this is not the valid inference from his position.

Does he think, in the light of a scientific appraisal of history, that a purely individualistic struggle against specific individual injustices, without the “inevitably degenerative” party organization, is the best program for “arriving at a more reasonable and decent general form of social life”? There are some who draw this conclusion from his present position; and he is also responsible for them, unless, again, he makes unequivocally clear that this is not a valid inference from his position.

These seem to me the only two alternative programs which might be suggested by the general trend of his current argument as it has so far been developed. If so, Eastman has placed himself in an awkward dilemma: his position is either empirically meaningless, in that nothing whatever follows from it in terms of action; or it is reactionary. And in either case, it is the friend of neither science nor the revolution.


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