- Marx and totalitarianism
Lenin's commitment to totalitarianism, in both theory and practice, is essentially beyond dispute. The view of his precursor Karl Marx is more ambiguous, both because Marx wrote less clearly than Lenin, and because Marx never held power. In spite of this, the totalitarian strain in Marx is pronounced. He directs much of his critique against the classical liberal concern for personal freedom and private property - the Rights of Man, or what Marx called "bourgeois freedom." The doctrine of the rights of man was faulty, according to Marx, because:
None of the supposed rights of man, therefore, go beyond the egoistic man, man as he is, as a member of civil society; that is, an individual separated from the community, withdrawn into himself, wholly preoccupied with his private interest and acting in accordance with his private caprice... Thus man was not liberated from religion; he received religious liberty. He was not liberated from property; he received the liberty to own property. He was not liberated from the egoism of business; he received the liberty to engage in business.For Marx, freedom of religion or the freedom to own property are hollow freedoms, or at least grossly inadequate stepping stones to something better: "political emancipation itself is not humanemancipation." "[B]ourgeois 'freedom of conscience' is nothing but the toleration of all possible kinds of religious freedom of conscience, and that for its part [socialism] endeavors rather to liberate the conscience from the witchery of religion." (Critique of the Gotha Program). Rather than advocating freedom for all people, liberals really value only the freedom of the ruling class of capitalist society, viz., the bourgeoisie.
On the Jewish Question
Marx accuses the liberal tradition of slighting the social nature of man. "Liberty is, therefore, the right to do everything which does not harm others... It is a question of the liberty of man regarded as an isolated monad, withdrawn into himself." Marx elaborates: "The right of property, is, therefore, the right to enjoy one's fortunes and dispose of it as he will; without regard for other men and independently of society... It leads every man to see in other men, not the realization, but rather the limitation of his own liberty." (On the Jewish Question)
Marx's solution, the route to human emancipation, was Communism, which would give people the freedom that bourgeois society denies them. Communism is, he explains, "the positive transcendence ofprivate property, or human self-estrangement, and therefore the real appropriation of the human essence by and for man... the complete return of man to himself as a social being..." (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844)
Innumerable social thinkers disagree with much of Marx's thought, but praise his reflections upon human freedom, the depth of his insight in contrast to the shallowness of laissez-faire liberalism. Yet it is difficult to understand how Marx's concept of freedom is anything more than a defense of tyranny and oppression. No dissident or non-conformist can see society as the "realization of his own liberty." And what can the attack on "the right to do everything which does not harm others" amount to in practice, except a justification for coercing people who are not harming others? The problem with "broad" notions of freedom is that they necessarily wind up condoning the violation of "narrow" notions of freedom. Under "bourgeois" notions of religious liberty, people may practice any religion they wish ("a private whim or caprice" as Marx calls it); how could this liberty be broadened, without sanctioning the persecution of some religious views?
While Marx occasionally says something in favor of democracy, Lenin did not originate the doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat. That was Marx's creation. In his Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx explains, "Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. There corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat." It is not clear how long Marx thought this transitional dictatorship would last. As democratic socialist historian Carl Landauer notes:
Gradually, it became evident that the transition from capitalism to socialism would take not merely months or years but decades, and therefore the extreme left wing of the social revolutionists was compelled to take one further step. If it was permissible and even necessary to throw one's country for so long a period into the horrors of civil war and dictatorship, was it then not illogical to balk at the use of deceit, torture, provocation - in fact of any means that would speed up the revolution? Was it not clear that the actions of revolutionaries in the transition period should be governed only by the law of expediency, and that sincerity, mercy, justice toward the individual had as little place in the struggle of classes as in the jungle? (European Socialism: A History of Ideas and Movements)Marx's thought did not provide the blueprint for Communist totalitarianism, but it did provide a rough outline for more practical men like Lenin to elaborate upon.
- Socialism and totalitarianismMarx was a leading figure in a broad socialist tradition. Much of this tradition shared his critique of "bourgeois freedom" and longed for a world in which the government eliminated both the economic and personal freedom of capitalist civilization. Such ideas may be found in the works of Rousseau, Saint-Simon, Auguste Comte, Ferdinand Lassalle, and many other prominent thinkers. Even socialists critical of authoritarianism such as Bernstein mainly tried to convince their fellow socialists of the value of democracy, showing little appreciation of the danger that universal state ownership as such could pose to human freedom, or the conflict between freedom and enforced equality.
Communists often deviated from Marxism on small points, but almost invariably remained true to the broader authoritarian socialist tradition if they could get away with it. Thus, the Khmer Rouge reversed Marx's emphasis on the urban industrial proletariat, idealizing peasant life so strongly that they forcibly deported Cambodia's city dwellers into the country. Their inspiration came from other authoritarian socialists, such as Rousseau. What varies is what the Communist state forces its subjects to do; what is constant is that the Communist state recognizes no constraints upon its rule. The variable portion of the program usually but not always comes from Marx. The constant comes from the critique of "bourgeois freedom" found in the broader socialist tradition.
Placing Nazism, Italian Fascism, and related movements in proper historical perspective sheds further light on the socialist-totalitarian connection. Nazism's connection with Communism is somewhat complex, and is discussed in the next section. The connection with Italian Fascism, however, is quite direct: until 1914, Benito Mussolini was the leader of the Socialist Party of Italy. He was a staunch proponent of revolutionary rather than reformist socialism, and actually received Lenin's endorsement and support for expelling reformists from the Socialist Party. Mussolini split with the Socialist Party over participation in World War I, not over abstract theory, or economic doctrine. As A. James Gregor explains Mussolini's fall from leadership of the Socialist Party: "On the day after Mussolini's call for a change in Party policy [on the war], the directive committee of the Party called a meeting to discuss the issues involved. The meeting was a heated exchange between Mussolini and the orthodox majority, almost all of whom favored adherence to the traditional commitment to absolute neutrality. In the face of almost unanimous opposition, Mussolini submitted his resignation as editor of Avanti!" (Young Mussolini and the Intellectual Origins of Fascism) During World War I, Mussolini publicized his new synthesis of nationalism and socialism, contrasting his view with orthodox Marxist internationalism. As violent verbal and physical clashes between Mussolini's followers and the Socialist Party escalated, Mussolini finally opted to cast aside the "socialist" label. But he freely admitted that his position was a hybrid of nationalism and socialism:
Although Mussolini finally decided that the term "socialist" had become so debased and devoid of specific meaning that he recommended its abandonment, he was quick to remind his readers that he was prepared to assimilate everything that remained vital in the tradition. He argued that his objections to socialism were addressed to the form of socialism that had rigidified into dogma and was no longer capable of confronting concrete reality with any intellectual independence... Those socialists who chose to abandon the nation in pursuit of socialist interests not only failed in their obligations to the many who had died in a revolutionary and progressive war, but also violated the letter and the spirit of the best traditions of socialism. (A. James Gregor, Young Mussolini and the Intellectual Origins of Fascism)At the root of Mussolini's heresy was the realization that a socialism based on concrete tribal affections would appeal far more to the "man in the street" than a socialism based on the abstract solidarity of the international proletariat. Eliminating domestic class conflict would allow Italy to industrialize and become a great power. The galvanizing Enemy naturally became the foreigner rather than the capitalist. Again quoting Gregor, "Mussolini insisted that the only socialism that would be viable in the twentieth century would be a socialism committed to national development, both economic and political. The commitment to national tasks involved fundamental common interests uniting all the special economic and parochial interests of the population."
Mussolini's heresy thrived not because he repudiated socialism, but rather because he and threw out Marxism's internationalist bathwater but kept the socialist baby. He was therefore able to appeal to socialist sentiment and Italian jingoism at the same time. "To insist, as did the orthodox socialists and communists, that so many Italians had died in the benighted service of capitalism left many Italian families, bereft of their sons and fathers, without dignity or consolation." (A. James Gregor, Young Mussolini and the Intellectual Origins of Fascism) Instead Mussolini reached out to veterans and their families as well as other segments of Italian society sympathetic to his message. One of these segments, unsurprisingly, were other disaffected socialists; quoting Gregor, "the rank and file membership of the socialist organizations began to defect in large numbers, and soon over half a million workers were organized in Fascist syndicates. Socialism gave every evidence of disintegration." Or rather, orthodox socialism gave every evidence of disintegration. In would not be long before the former leader of the Socialist Party was the dictator of Italy, Italy's official ideology was his heretical socialist doctrine.
Stalinist invective against Trotsky, proclaiming him an arch-enemy of socialism, has long met with historians' ridicule. The official Comintern line on fascism, however, met with far less skepticism then and since, but it is hard to see why. Mussolini's struggle with the Italian socialists was, like the conflict between Stalinists and Trotskyists, an intra-socialist struggle. Both were a mixture of personality clashes and relatively minor ideological differences within the totalitarian camp.
Related: Hitler was a Socialist.
Related: Libertarian Socialism
Related: The Mind of The Left (the continued appeal of socialism and totalitarianism to the young)
Food for thought while I am away this weekend.