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Sydney Hook

Marx’s Criticism of ‘True Socialism’

(January 1935)

From New International, Vol.2 No.1, January 1935, pp.13-16.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

MARX’S criticism of “true socialism” was motivated primarily by his opposition to the political tactics of the “true socialists”, the ultra-revolutionary strategy which controlled it, and the philosophical rationalizations they offered in its support. We shall not concern ourselves here with the special historical circumstances of the political struggles but with the principles with which Marx approached them—principles which have a scope and validity much wider than the particular milieu in which they originally arose. The philosophical constructions of the “true socialists” have shown a greater vitality than their politics. Like most of the theories Marx contended against, they have turned up again and again in different historical situations, tricked out in new phrases and flounces, for all the world fresh and unravished by criticism. Their systematic exposition and analysis may serve to illustrate the Marxian criticism of the type of view they illustrate. In any concrete case the specific meaning of these doctrines depends upon the historical context in which they function but the general logic of the argument can be considered in relative independence of the particular historical situation.

I. Intransigeant Theory and Reactionary Practise. Despite widespread opinion to the contrary, Marx and Engels were never doctrinaries. Clear about their principles, they never sought to force them upon a movement if such action threatened to disrupt or paralyze the forces which had been assembled for a common action. “Every step towards a real movement,” Marx once wrote, “is more important than a dozen programs.” More important not because principles are unimportant — for without correct principles action is blind—but because principles which were not taken up by mass movements and linked to immediate interests are ineffectual. Behind this view was a deeper conception of what a principle is. On many occasions Marx and Engels maintained against those who talked nothing but principles that “communism is not a doctrine but a movement. It starts not from principles but from facts”. (Gesamtausgabe, I, 6, p.294.) What they meant was simply that social and political principles express the real situations in which men find themselves and the needs of those situations. To transfer principles which express the felt needs of masses of people from one historical situation, to another in which class forces and relations are quite different, is to make abstractions of these principles. No matter how revolutionary those principles may originally have been, once they become abstractions imported from without into a different situation, they invariably help reaction rather than hinder it.

This was the case with the “true socialists”, many of whom were so radical that for years they were the comrades-in-arms of Marx and Engels. The revolutionary socialism of the French proletariat had developed in the course of the struggle of the French workers against the bourgeoisie which had been firmly entrenched in power since 1830. In Germany, however, the bourgeoisie far from having attained power was objectively the most dangerous foe of the existing government. The ultra-revolutionary “true socialists”, however, had read the literature of French socialism to some purpose. They attacked the German bourgeoisie with the greatest vigor and in the name of socialism opposed all the liberal reforms as half-measures designed to strengthen the position of the bourgeoisie at the costs of the working class. In Marx’s eyes they were obstructing a real mass movement against the semi-feudal Prussian regime and lending objective aid and comfort to the reactionaries. The reactionary press actually used their denunciations of the bourgeoisie as evidence that the workers themselves were opposed to “immoral” liberalism.

Marx and Engels did not of course believe that the bourgeoisie should not be criticized and their theoretical hypocrisies exposed. But they held that the chief emphasis of the criticism should fall upon the reactionary status quo in Germany, and that the criticism of the bourgeoisie should be of such a nature that none but those who were more radical than the bourgeoisie could use it.

“Our attack upon the bourgeoisie,” wrote Engels, “distinguishes itself as much from that of the true socialists as it does from that of the reactionary nobility, e.g., of the French legitimists or of young England. The German status quo cannot exploit our attack because it is directed even more strongly against it than against the bourgeoisie. If the bourgeoisie is, so to speak, our natural enemy whose overthrow will bring our party to power, the German status quo is much more our enemy because it stands between us and the bourgeoisie and prevents us from coming to grips with the bourgeoisie. That is why we do not in the least exclude ourselves from the oppositional mass movement against the German status quo. We constitute only its most advanced faction—a faction which through its unconcealed arriere-pensée against the bourgeoisie assumes a definite position.” (Gesamtausgabe, I, 6, p.234.)

In the course of their criticism of the “true socialists”, Marx and Engels repeatedly emphasize the dangers of the over-simple classifications which the “true socialists” made of class forces and oppositions in Germany. As opposed to the “true socialists” who saw only three classes struggling for power—the landed nobility, the industrialists, and the workers—they stress the greater complexity and diversity of social stratifications. They make not only the distinctions indicated above but many others just as relevant to the formulation of realistic political policy. They recognize the social importance, because of the special interests involved, of the landlords who have heavy holdings in industry, of the free peasant, of the peasants still in feudal ties, of the officialdom, of the petty bourgeoisie, of the handworker, and demonstrate that the demands of the bourgeoisie, if granted, carry with them the possibility of a partial and temporary fulfillment of the immediate needs of all groups except the feudal landlords and bureaucratic officialdom. (Ibid., p. 243.) The bourgeoisie in the struggle for democracy against reaction must be supported even by communists. Any other attitude, no matter how principled it may appear and no matter how sincere its proponents, is political madness which aids reaction.

2. Socialism by Education or Socialism by Struggle. It was not only against the politics of the “true socialists” that Marx and Engels took the field. They objected to the way they expressed the ideals of socialism and the methods they stressed as necessary for its realization. The “true socialists” believed that socialism could be achieved by educational enlightenment and the dissemination of culture. Socialism was presented as a cultural demand with only a casual reference to the economic facts which made that demand both possible and reasonable. The driving forces for the organization of socialists were to be humanitarian, aesthetic and moral. Starting from the proposition that “the true (or ideal) man is an harmonious creature”, they deduced the organizational schemes of socialism—as well as its right and might—from a knowledge of human nature. According to this Platonic conception, social systems were to be judged by their capacity to further the realization of self-harmony for the great masses. Capitalism of course is condemned out of hand as a barbaric throwback compared to which even feudalism is a human and sensible social order. What are called the economic necessities of society and the needs of economic development can only be understood as indicating the ethical direction of social activity. A conscious and clearly formulated ethical philosophy is, therefore, of primary importance for the revolutionary movement.

The ethical ideals of socialism, supported on the fixed basis of true human nature, are to penetrate the masses by organized educational effort. “There is only one way,” wrote Lüning, “to make the proletariat conscious of their humanity, that is through the organization of education.” All the fundamental assumptions behind this position were challenged by Marx and Engels—the assumptions concerning human nature, the nature of morality, the character and efficacy of education. A great many of the criticisms directed against the “true socialists” on these points were intended for Feuerbach and conversely. We shall therefore postpone detailed consideration of Marx’s views until we discuss his relation to Feuerbach. But here a brief indication of the drift and impact of their criticism can be given.

First of all, Marx and Engels insist that the human nature to which the “true socialists” appeal as the guide to social organization is an historical variable. It does not explain society but society explains its specific expressions. To understand human nature, then, at any definite time we must understand the nature of the society in which human beings live. When we do this we find that human nature is not something homogeneous to which we can appeal for justification of any concrete social proposal. Class divisions, interests, and values enter as refracting and polarizing influences upon it. Failure to understand this leads to an identification of the special psychological type which prevails in a given society with the concept of “man as such”—a familiar phrase in the writings of the “true socialists” and other Feuerbachians. Politically, this failure to make the necessary differentiations leads to the attempt to think in terms of the “public”, “the community”, “the nation”, and blurs the clash of interests in a vague formula interpretable in opposite ways. Whether aware of it or not, the lucubrations of the “true socialists” which they addressed to all classes really celebrated the virtues of the progressive-peace-and-comfort-loving citizen. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx accuses “true socialism” “of proclaiming the German nation to be the normal nation and the German philistine to be the normal man”. (Gesamtausgabe, I, 6, p. 552.)

Secondly, the arguments which Marx urged against: Stirner’s abstract morality he turns against the “true socialists”. Where Stirner had glorified selfishness, Hess and his followers had preached unselfishness. Marx points out that selfishness and unselfishness are in themselves neither virtues nor vices. The social context and content of psychological impulses give them their moral quality. The concrete needs of the working-class must be the point of departure for its morality. Conventionally, this may appear to be selfishness but it is only through its self-assertion as a class that a decent life can be won for the individual members of the class, and ultimately, for all individuals. Where the concrete needs are not sufficiently stressed the invocation to selflessness, to humanity, weakens the immediate struggles of the class, leads to concern over the enemy’s “soul” and to despair about one’s own. Marx comments very bitterly on the religion of self-abasement implied in Kriege’s words: “We have more important things to do than to worry about our miserable selves: we belong to humanity.” [1]

“With this infamous and disgusting servility towards a ‘self which is distinguished and separated from ‘humanity’—and which is therefore nothing more than a metaphysical and even religious fiction—with this certainly ‘miserable’ slavish degradation, this religion like all others, ends. Such a doctrine which preaches crawling and self-contempt is perfectly fitted for brave—monks, but never for energetic men especially in times of struggle.” (Gesamtausgabe, I, 6, p. 18.)

It was not the fact that the “true socialists” spoke in the name of morality which led Marx to oppose them but the nature of the morality they professed—a morality which was timeless and place-less, that dealt in injunctions which were never specific and turned men’s attention away from the determining social forces of human behavior.

Thirdly, when the “true socialists” spoke of the necessity of organizing the education of the working class they seemed to imply that socialism as a fully formed theoretical doctrine was to be carried into the working class from without almost in the same way in which the apostles brought Christianity to the women and slaves of Rome. Again, it was not their stress on education but on the kind of education which was at fault. And the kind of education they advocated followed from the kind of socialism they believed in. Since the realization of socialism was conceived to be the task of all enlightened people and not particularly the special job of the working classes, there was no provision for linking up socialist teachings with their daily life and struggles. Since the appeal was to the “good sense”, “reason” and “conscience!” of humanity, it “condemned the destructive tendencies of communism and proclaimed its impartial detachment towards all class struggles” (Marx). Since the social question was first and last an ethical question, the “socialist” education of the “true socialists” dwelt not upon the objective tendencies of social development, which Marx and Engels taught were the basis of revolutionary program and practise, but upon the miserable and inhuman consequences of capitalist production. It turned the attention of the German workers and petty bourgeoisie not to the mechanisms of social institutions but to the individuals who were most prominently identified with them. It dealt with the individual motives of the kings of politics and finance; it encouraged the hopes that their humanity would triumph over their greed for profit and power.

Already in his controversy with Bruno Bauer, Marx had settled with this kind of education but whereas Bauer was engaged in propaganda for social enlightenment in general, Hess and his friends were convinced that socialism as a specific form of social enlightenment could be effectively propagated in this way. Marx and Engels had the greatest respect for the French Utopians from whom the “true socialists” borrowed many of their arguments. But what was already a mistaken point of view in France was doubly mistaken when reasserted in a different country a generation later. Since “true socialism” was not only a political movement but a literary one as well, Marx and Engels were compelled to follow them into belles-lettres to expose the mis-education wrapped up in their fragrant metaphors. [2] Engels’ criticism of Karl Beck’s Lieder vom armen Mann may serve as illustration of the themes the “true socialist” poets selected, how they developed them and the point of view from which the critical analysis was made.

In his poems Beck sung about the cares and trials of “the poor man”, “the little man” and called the rich men—the Rothschilds of the day — to account for existing social misery. But there was no inkling of the real source of the trouble in any of his writings. Pitiful appeals alternated with empty threats to those whom Beck, together with the other “true socialists”, held personally responsible for the course of German economic life. A propos of Beck’s opening poem An das Haus Rothschild Engels writes:

“Right off in his ouverture, he reveals his petty bourgeois illusions that gold ‘rules according to Rothschild’s caprice’; an illusion which carries with it a whole series of fantastic misconceptions about the power of the House of Rothschild.

“The poet does not threaten the destruction of the real power of Rothschild, the social foundation upon which it rests; he merely desires that it be applied in a human way. He complains that bankers are not socialistic philanthropists, dreamers or purveyors of human happiness, but just bankers. Beck celebrates the cowardly petty bourgeois misere, sings of the ‘poor man’, the pauvre honteaux with his miserable, pious and inconsequential wishes, of the ‘little man’ in all his forms but not of the proud, threatening and revolutionary proletariat. The reproaches and threats with which Beck overwhelms the House of Rothschild ... rest upon childish illusions concerning the power of the Rothschilds, upon an entire lack of knowledge of the connection between this power and the existing situation, and a complete misconception of the means which the Rothschilds had to use to become and remain a power.” (Gesamtausgabe, I, 6, p.33.)

Socialist education for Marx and Engels had to be based upon a knowledge of the fundamental economic tendencies which determined the social existence and conditions of life of the proletariat. Otherwise they were likely to be infected by all sorts of Utopian illusions peddled by “well-wishing” representatives of other classes. But more important, such education must be acquired in the struggles and battles of the class war. The class struggle is not a doctrine but the school in which doctrines arise, are tested and used or discarded. The working class not only becomes conscious of itself in these struggles, but it changes and reeducates itself by its revolutionary practise.

3. Nature, All-Too-Peaceful-Nature. The ethical ideals of the “true socialists” flowed from their conception of a peaceful and harmoniously developed human nature. The model for this human nature was physical nature, especially in its peaceful modes. A diluted and vulgarized Spinozism was propagated as the chief philosophical support of this ethical and social theory. The organic bonds by which the totality of existence was held together in a mystic unity could serve, once they are recognized, as the ties of social life. The feeling of natural kinship between man and world without, experienced when we recall the physical conditions of our origin and of our achievements, establishes its existence. That kinship is a metaphysical fact which holds, since men are part of nature, for human relationships, too. A false education has obscured this feeling and clouded our consciousness with artificial distinctions. We need only reflect, however, upon those qualities which have always been regarded as social virtues to see that they presuppose a fundamental unity between man and man, and man and nature.

All sorts of arguments were adduced by the “true socialists” to win support for this sugary natural piety. Even formal logic was laid under toll. For did it not teach that differences between species could only be made on the basis of a common genus? And that any distinction between man and nature therefore presupposed their fundamental unity? Was not this the central theme of Hegel’s expositions of the socially organized Absolute? Was it not the abiding spiritual insight of Christianity which stressed the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God or Nature? “See the lilies in the field!” And does not science bring daily proof that man cannot set himself up against nature or seek peace by flight to a supernatural realm?

“Has not man arisen,” asked the “true socialists” in the Rheinischen Jahrbücher, “out of a primal world, is he not a creature of nature like all others? Is he not built out of the same stuff and endowed with the same general powers and qualities which animate all things?”

Marx’s response to this mysticism reduces itself to two simple points. First, he denies that nature is as peaceful as the “true socialists” seem to think and protests against the tendency to make of the term “unnatural” an ethical category. Strictly speaking, nature is what it is discovered to be and nothing can be dismissed as unnatural. Secondly, whatever the facts of nature may be which make social life possible, it is a mistake to regard man and man’s consciousness from the point of view of what they have in common with everything else. When this is done we get a false conception of man and his mind, with all the important things left out; human beings are considered to be natural bodies, and the self-consciousness of man is transformed into “the self-consciousness of nature”. This constitutes respectively the first steps towards mechanical materialism or absolute idealism. The “true socialists” take them both and the melange of materialistic Hegelianism and idealistic Spinozism is the philosophical result.

A) That nature is not as peaceful as the kind-hearted “true socialists” believed, Marx has little difficulty in proving. In the face of the manifest facts of natural cruelty or rather the indifference of nature to peace or war, the illusions of the “true socialists” can be explained only as the pathetic fallacy of reading their ideals of what society should be into natural processes. “See the lilies in the fields!”

“Yes,” comments Marx sarcastically, “see the lilies in the field, how they are chewed by the goats, transplanted by ‘men’ to the lapels of their coats, and how they snap together under the unchaste lovemaking of the cow-girl and donkey boy.” (Gesamtausgabe, I, 5, p.456.)

The psychological motivation of the apotheosis of natural peace and of the “true socialist” lament that no human society in the past ever modelled itself on the laws of nature, Marx explains as follows:

“Ideas were smuggled into nature which the ‘true socialist’ wished to see realized in human society. Just as earlier the individual man became the mirror of nature, so now the whole of society. From the ideas smuggled into nature conclusions were drawn bearing upon human society. Since the authors did not concern themselves with the historical development of society and satisfied themselves with this barren analogy, it is not hard to understand why society was not always a faithful picture of nature.” (Ibid., p.459.)

This is a significant passage because Marx has been accused of precisely the same intellectual procedure—reading his wishes into the natural world and then adducing the world, as so conceived, as evidence in behalf of his dreams. It is unlikely that any man as critical-minded as Marx would fall a victim to a type of thinking which he so often condemned. Marx’s emphasis upon the changing historical patterns of society and his stress upon the transformative effect of struggle show how little he shared the illusions of the “true socialists”.

“We would gladly believe that ‘all social virtues ... are derived from the feeling of natural human kinship and unity’. It is well to remember, however, that on the basis of this ‘natural kinship’ feudalism, slavery and the social inequality of all epochs, rested. In passing, let us also note that this ‘natural human kinship’ is an historical product which is constantly being transformed in daily activity. It is always something quite natural no matter how inhuman and unnatural it appears before the tribunal not only of ‘man’ but of a subsequent revolutionary generation.” (Ibid., p.464.)

B) The attribution of what is true of part of nature to the whole of nature, as well as the inferences from one part to another, usually reduces itself to the logical fallacy of the undifferentiated middle-term. Everything that happens to man is in one sense a natural fact but it does not warrant drawing conclusions about Nature as a whole, or about other natural facts, unless an analoguous structure is observable. Social phenomena, for example, may suggest approaching certain natural occurrences with definite categories just as the division of labor observable in human societies may help us discover something about the organization of a colony of bees or ants. But such hypotheses are at best weak and conjectural, and even when they seem to be confirmed, closer examination will generally show significant differences between the behavior patterns of men and those of any other living or nonliving things. All materialistic and idealistic reductions of the totalities of experience to one set of categories whether it be of matter or mind ultimately rest upon the systematic neglect of difference, novelty and uniqueness. What Marx wrote of the “true socialists” in this connection is just as valid against numerous schools of idealism and materialism which have succeeded them. I give only a fragment of his interesting analysis. Speaking of the shift from the term nature in one meaning to nature in another, he writes:

“This whole prologue is a model of naive philosophical mystification. The true socialist takes his point of departure from the idea that the split between life and happiness must cease. In order to find a proof for this proposition he calls nature to his aid and tries to make it appear that such splits do not exist within it. From this he concludes that since man is likewise a natural body and possesses the general characteristics of bodies, this split ought not to exist for him. With much greater justification could Hobbes derive his bellum omnium contra omnes from nature, and Hegel upon whose constructions the true-socialist stands, see in nature the lewd [liederliche] moments of the absolute Idea and even refer to the animals as the concrete anxiety of God. After having mystified nature, our true socialist mystifies human consciousness in that he makes it into a ‘mirror’ of mystified nature. Of course, as soon as ideas which are nothing more than the conceptual form of pious wishes concerning the human relationships of nature, are smuggled into the expressions of consciousness, then it follows forthwith that consciousness is only a mirror in which nature sees itself. And just as it was previously established by considering the qualities of man as a natural body, so here by considering his qualities as a merely passive mirror [blosser, passiver Spiegel] in which nature comes to consciousness, it is proved that the splits which were read out of nature must be eliminated from the human sphere ... ‘Man possesses self-consciousness.’ That is the first fact which is expressed. The drives and powers of the particular natural creature are transformed into the drives and power of ‘Nature’. They then naturally ‘appear’ in this creature particularised. This mystification was necessary in order to establish later the union of these drives and powers of ‘nature’ in man’s self-consciousness. Herewith the self-consciousness of man was easily transformed into the self-consciousness of nature in him. This mystification undergoes the appearance of being dispersed by the subsequent fact that man takes his revenge upon nature, and because nature finds its self-consciousness in him, he seeks his self-consciousness in it—a procedure through which he finds no more in nature than that he has put into it by the above described mystification.” (Gesamtausgabe, I, 5, p.456-7.)

4. Was Marx a “True Socialist”? We now turn to the comparatively unimportant question whether Marx himself was ever a “true socialist”—a question about which many scholarly disputes have been waged. As distinct from Engels he never called himself a “true socialist”. And if “true socialism” be defined politically, he was never within hailing distance of the doctrine. But neither was Engels. Marx on many occasions employed phrases which appeared in the writings of the “true socialists”. He did this, however, not only in the ‘40’s but throughout his life. For example, in the statutes of the First International which he wrote we read that the purposes of the International are: “to acknowledge truth, justice and morality on the basis of conduct ... towards all men, without regard to color, creed or nationality” (cf., Stekloff, The First International, p.446.). The use of such phrases was permissible, Marx explains in a letter to Engels, because the substance of the doctrine is not obscured by them and some people find their way to a revolutionary position through them. Suavitur in modo, fortiter in re, was the principle which guided him when he came into conflict with working class views which were similar to his own. Where he recognized, however, a fundamental difference in point of view, Marx was loath to compromise even on terminology, for fear of obscuring issues. That is why he called himself and his party communist, when the Manifesto was written. And when there was a possibility that enemy groups might masquerade with the same phrases that the socialists of the time used, he scrupulously insisted upon the necessary qualifications.

For Marx the essence of “true socialism” was its abstract, classless morality. Neither in his Left-Hegelian nor materialistic phase, then, can he properly be regarded as having been a “true socialist”. His opposition to the “true socialists” would not have been so intense if he had not observed the way in which extreme reactionaries were making use of their slogans. The Rheinischer Beobachter, for example, a Catholic government sheet, was almost calling itself communist and using the phrases of the “true socialists” in criticizing bourgeois hypocrisy. And those whom Marx in the Manifesto calls feudal or tory-socialists were trying to capitalize upon the impressions which the literature of “true socialism” was making on the German public. Of this tory-socialism, Marx wrote:

“They waved the beggar’s wallet in their hand as a flag in order to get the people behind them. But as often as this took place, the people caught sight of the old feudal coat of arms upon their behinds and dispersed with loud and scornful laughter.” (Gesamtausgabe, I, 6, p.646.)

It was Marx’s consciousness of the fact that the feudal socialists were waving the doctrinal flags of the “true socialists” which gave his words the sharp bite they had whenever he discusses “true socialism”. That many of the things he said of Hess were unjustified, Marx’s subsequent attitude towards him reveals clearly. But politically, Marx felt it was his revolutionary duty to oppose with all energy those who blocked the possibility of making any gains by the working class, no matter how small, in its struggle for liberation. He did not spare his friends any more than he spared himself. And although he was furious at stupidity, it was not out of intellectual hauteur but out of a realization that if correct theories have practical consequences, mistaken theories have no less practical consequences. There were many things that he did not see; but he always saw the implications of doctrines, programs, and sometimes even the choice of words, for the class struggle. It is in this sense that the following passage which treats of the terminological sentimentalities of the “true socialists” must be understood:

“In the real world there exists, on the one side, owners of private property and on the other, a propertyless communist proletariat. This opposition becomes sharper day by day and is heading for a crisis. Consequently, if the theoretical representatives of the proletariat desire to accomplish anything by their literary activity, they must above all get rid of all phrases which weaken the intensity of this opposition, all phrases which glide over the opposition and which offer the bourgeoisie an opportunity, impelled by its sentimental quest for security, to approach the proletariat. All of these bad characteristics we find in the slogans of the true socialists ... We are well aware that the communist movement cannot be corrupted by a pair of German phrasemongers. But it is necessary in a country like Germany where philosophical phrases have for centuries had a certain power, and where the absence of the sharp class oppositions which prevail among other nations makes the communist consciousness less militant and decisive—to oppose all phrase-making which waters down and weakens still further the consciousness of the total opposition of communism to the existing world order.” (Gesamtausgabe, I, 5, p.453.)



1.Wir haben noch etwas mehr zu tun als für unser lumpiges Selbst zu sorgen: wir gehören der Menschheit.”

2. Marx in Die deutsche Ideologie and Engels in a series of articles in the Deutschen Brüsseler Zeitung, entitled German Socialism in Verse and Prose.

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