How I Got Smart: A Young Marxist Throws in the Towel

From 1968 to 1973, I was the national chairman of the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), the youth section of the Socialist Party of Norman Thomas and Eugene V. Debs. Its creed was democratic socialism.

The YPSL’s reaction to the New Left was ambivalent. Culturally we were part of it. We were radicals; we even thought of ourselves as revolutionaries. Not that we proposed to overthrow the government but we sought a “revolutionary” transformation of society from capitalism to socialism. But politically we were largely at odds with the New Left.

While the New Left ranged from pro-Communist to anti-anti-Communist, we were adamantly anti-Communist, regarding Communism as the great betrayal of the socialist ideal. While the New Left preached “participatory democracy,” we were skeptical, wondering if their real aim wasn’t to vitiate representative democracy.

On these issues we stood to the right of the New Left, but in at least one respect we saw ourselves as standing to its left. The New Left (at least in the early years) eschewed formal ideology in favor of a vague sense of political direction or, more likely, a mere posture. To us this smacked of reformism. We believed in socialism, and we saw the struggle to replace capitalism (and Communism) with socialism as the single overriding political question—the key to man’s destiny, the framework in which all other political issues had to be viewed. We were Marxists. Not Leninists, but Marxists. We believed in the economic interpretation of history, in particular that history was shaped by the struggle of classes and that political systems were best understood in terms of the classes whose rule they respectively expressed. Socialism would express the triumph of the industrial working class which was therefore the chief progressive force, the repository of our hopes, and of mankind’s. We scorned the New Left’s view that students or blacks or any other group could substitute for the workers as the main agency of progress.

Looking back, there is much in this record that gives cause for pride and for reaffirmation rather than regret. But there is ample room for second thoughts, as well. The second thoughts concern socialism, and especially Marxism, and the false evaluation of the American experience that made socialism seem necessary to us.

The motivation for socialism arises from the yearning for justice. If all men are made in the image of God, if each alike possesses an immortal soul, then how can it be right for some to enjoy a share of the earth’s bounty many, many times greater than others? How can it be right for some to enjoy opulence far beyond what they can dispose of while others haven’t enough to eat? Granted, talents and accomplishments may vary, but the vast discrepancies in individual wealth under capitalism—where some people have a thousand or million times more money than others—seem way out of proportion to the degree of variation in individual talents. And would anyone argue that all variations of reward under capitalism arise from variations in talent or accomplishment? Although America’s founding fathers were not socialists, if one believes as they did that “all men are created equal,” then it is hard to accept the vast and sometimes illogical inequalities that arise under capitalism.

Socialism presents itself as the obvious solution to this injustice, but its cure turns out to be worse than the disease. The problem, in brief, is that it does not work. It has failed miserably in its totalitarian versions (Communism) and its authoritarian ones (primarily in Africa and the Middle East). In its democratic variants it has been successful, but only by abandoning its main goal. That is, the socialist parties of Europe and Israel have contributed much to the success and development of their societies, but they have backed away from the essential socialist vision of a fundamentally different type of economy. All have come to recognize severe limits on the degree to which the economy should be owned, administered or planned by government. They have opted instead for an economy that is largely privately owned and governed by markets, but in which inequalities of wealth are cushioned by taxation and social security: in short, the welfare state.

Socialism’s failings are not merely pragmatic; they are spiritual as well. Although socialism is motivated by humanitarian sentiment, it rests ironically on an image of man that is wooden, that robs him of much of his individuality and creativity. The idea that an economy consists of static elements that can be centrally administered or “planned” leaves little room for inventiveness and ingenuity, for individual drive and ambition, or for changes in consumers’ tastes and desires.

The defects of socialism are only a small part of those of Marxism. In the YPSL we believed in Marxism in its most humane and democratic interpretation. We abhorred Leninism as a betrayal of Marxism because it substituted the revolutionary vanguard for the proletariat itself. The beauty of Marxism was that by assigning the task of liberation to the majority (the proletariat), it assured a democratic outcome. And though we were right in saying that Lenin had betrayed the democratic content of Marxism, it seems to me now that Lenin may have been more faithful than we were to other essential components of Marxism that render its democratic content meaningless.

In Marx’s conception, man is a quintessentially economic animal whose “consciousness” is a mere byproduct of his occupational category. An individual’s public acts are of no consequence except insofar as they confirm the role of the class to which he belongs. His inner individual life is at best meaningless, and more likely contemptible. His ideas and feelings, aesthetic sense, and religious convictions are all but insubstantial excrescences of his material life. It may not be true that Marx led inevitably to Stalin, but by denying the worth of so much of what makes man human, Marx surely helped make possible the crimes of Stalin.

Marx’s historicism, moreover, is a kind of religious belief devoid of the ethical content and love that graces most other religions. Marxian historicism treats History itself as possessing a will, thus attributing to this divine abstraction exactly the quality it denies to man. And History has a place it wants to go, an ultimate endpoint called the classless society or socialism. That indeed is the value of socialism. “Communism is the riddle of history solved,” said Marx. If History has a goal, if Communism or socialism is the riddle solved, then the only possible standard for judging men’s acts is the degree to which they further the design of destiny. As Trotsky put it: “Only that which prepares the complete and final overthrow of imperialist bestiality is moral, and nothing else. The welfare of the revolution: that is the supreme law!” In this framework, liquidating ten or twenty million “kulaks” (or implanting an axe in Trotsky’s skull) can be condemned only if it does not in fact contribute to the advance of socialism; it cannot be judged intrinsically wrong.

Moreover, if one observes, as Lenin in fact did, that without the Party the proletariat will fail to fulfill its appointed mission, then is History’s goal to be abandoned? Who can blame Lenin for charging into the breach and taking on his own shoulders the responsibility for completing the divine plan by creating a vanguard party to fill the vacuum left by the recalcitrant proles?

The democratic Marxist will protest, of course. He will say that substituting a vanguard party for the proletariat defeats the whole purpose of the plan which is to empower a ruling class that for once comprises a majority. If the proletariat has not embraced socialism, we must be patient and we must redouble our efforts to imbue it with socialist consciousness, he says. (I said it myself, God knows how many times.) But the counsel of patience grows tattered now 140 years after the publication of the Communist Manifesto. And why should we have to imbue the proletariat with the consciousness that ought to grow organically out of its class conditions? Above all, the argument rests on the premise that the proletariat constitutes a majority. Democratic Marxists contemporary with Lenin pointed out that in developing countries (such as Russia in 1917), the proletariat was not yet large enough to constitute a majority. But since then we have seen that highly developed countries quickly progress to the stage of “post-industrialism” in which the size of the proletariat shrinks. Thus, if the proletariat ever constitutes a majority, it is only for a brief moment in a nation’s development, and in none of the countries that have passed through that stage has the proletariat seized the occasion to usher in socialism. In short, majoritarian Marxism is a chimera.

My final “second thought” concerns the evaluation of the American experience. In early adolescence, the first news stories that I read, the first news broadcasts that I watched on TV, depicted the electrifying struggle by American Blacks (and their supporters) for civil rights. Snarling police dogs attacking prayerful marchers. Redneck thugs knocking peaceful Black students off lunch counter stools. Pipe-wielding mobs setting on Freedom Riders fleeing burning buses. Bombs in churches blowing little girls in their Sunday best to bits. These were the images that gripped me and many of my generation. They reflected a struggle of elegant simplicity between good and evil. Racial discrimination was an unalloyed evil, for which no rational defense could be offered. On the other hand, the civil rights movement was exemplary in its methods and its goals.

I did not realize then how anomalous this issue was. I did not know how rare the issue is, especially in domestic politics, in which the moral lines are so clearly drawn. I did not know that most political issues involve choices between competing goals each of which contains at least some merit, and equally difficult choices between alternative means of achieving agreed upon goals. The impulse to radicalism thrives on the illusion that political conflicts can generally be reduced to easy moral choices.

The civil rights issue was anomalous in still another way that misled me and others of my generation. It made it easy for us to believe ill about America. Having seen how our country could so badly mistreat its black minority, we could readily believe indictments charging it with mistreating innumerable other groups at home and abroad. Our embrace of socialism flowed from the axiom that American needed to be fundamentally overhauled.

Racial discrimination was indeed a monstrous evil, but it seems clear to me now that far from typifying the American experience, it was the single greatest anomaly: the meanest blemish on a polity which is otherwise probably the most humane, most praiseworthy that man has ever created. Indeed, America’s capacity for moral responsiveness and constructive change were demonstrated dramatically in the triumph of the civil rights movement. We are well on the way to being a multi-racial society of genuine civil equality. How many of those has history known? The major form of legally sanctioned racial discrimination that still flourishes is called “affirmative action.” It prescribes preferential treatment for members of oppressed minority groups to compensate for past discrimination. To appreciate how remarkable this is, try to imagine analogous compensatory policies between, say, Romans and Jews, Turks and Armenians, Frenchmen and Algerians, Englishmen and Irishmen, Ugandans and Indians, Russians and Tatars, Arabs and infidels. Need I continue?

America is arguably the freest country on earth, the most socially egalitarian, and the most generous and peaceful great power in history. (If you think you can name another country that is in some respect more free or egalitarian or generous, you will necessarily be naming a country inspired to some large degree by the American model and relying on America as its protector). Whatever reforms America may need today—and its success is the product of constant experiment and change—the highest imperative is not the radical transformation of America but the preservation and perfection of its values and the extension of its liberating model to as much of the rest of the world as possible. This is the most important second thought of all.


  • Joshua Muravchick

    Joshua Muravchik is a scholar formerly at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and now a fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University. He is an adjunct professor at the DC based Institute of World Politics.

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