Liberals and the Marxist Heresy


This article was originally printed on October 12, 1953


The spate of Congressional investigations, ostensibly intended to ferret out remnants of disloyalty in the schools and colleges, in the churches, and in the entertainment industries, are manifestations of an old tension between the business community of America and the so-called "intellectuals." The former has achieved formal political power for the first time in two decades and it seems intent on evening the score and venting its resentments against its critics of the past decades. The more unscrupulous and demagogic representatives of the Republican Party seek to do this by proving the critics to be involved, directly or indirectly, with the hated conspiracy all good men abhor. The temptation to embarrass the critics of a business civilization was strong, even for those who are not given to the arts of demagogy, for it is a fact that the critics were informed by various shades and versions of a dogma which, in its most consistent form, led to the sorry realities of Communist tyranny.

It is, of course, necessary in the interest of democratic justice and for the sake of our unity with the remainder of the free world, to resist unscrupulous efforts to obscure all shades and distinctions on the Left, and to prove every critic to be in either explicit or implicit connivance with a hated enemy. But it is also necessary for those of us who account ourselves among the critics to confess to the remarkable influence of the Marxist dogma on our viewpoints, even while we resist the efforts of the demagogues to identify every form of dissent with Communism.

The term "intellectuals" is somewhat vague, particularly in America; but it designates, however inexactly, the more articulate members of the community, more particularly those who are professionally or vocationally articulate, in church and school, in journalism and the arts. It is altogether healthy that these articulate members of the community should assume the task of criticism or should have had that task imposed on them by the criteria of their several disciplines, whether religious, academic or esthetic. It is as natural as it is inevitable that the so-called men of affairs, whether in business or government, should be inclined to be more complacent, whether because preoccupation with practical affairs prevents critical thinking or because their interest creates an ideological stake in the status quo, or because practical experience endows men with wisdom proving the tenets of the critics abstract and illusory. Since the latter factor is present in the attitudes of the business community, though in a minor role, it behooves those of us who were and are the critics of our civilization to confess to the power of an abstract dogma over our minds, even while we resist the unscrupulous efforts to relate every form of dissent with the extreme form of the dogma, or even with disloyalty.

The most obvious distinction in the interest of fairness is to note the rigorous resistance to Communism by Democratic Socialists in all nations. The attitudes of Norman Thomas in this country, of the late Ernst Reuter in Berlin, and Henri Spaak in Belgium and many others is sufficient refutation of the outrageous charge that a common Marxist dogma creates an affinity between Communism and Socialism. Socialism and Communism may be brothers; if so, they are, as the late Socialist leader Kurt Schumacher observed, like Cain and Abel. The common Marxist dogma not only failed to guarantee affinity with Communism, but it has not prevented Socialism from being a creative force, when it expressed itself in loyalty to and in the context of a democratic community. A large part of the free world is indebted to the Socialist movement for the establishment of justice. The efforts of our vigilantes to brand the movement with the mark of Cain therefore alienates our friends and seems to substantiate prejudices of their own about our life.

It must be admitted that the intellectuals, committed or uncommitted to Socialist parties, do not have as good a record of discernment as do the party leaders. Some of them, like the late Harold Laski, could not make up their minds whether to condemn Russia as a tyranny or to exalt her as the harbinger of a new culture. Mr. Laski was equally uncertain whether to extol our own nation as an open society or to condemn us as a capitalistic one. In a similar fashion, the Swedish social scientist, Gunnar Myrdal, despite his intimate relation with our culture, was prompted by the Marxist dogma to adopt a defeatist attitude toward our future. He was so sure our economy would collapse after the war that he persuaded Sweden to engage in a very unadvantageous trade agreement with Russia. The examples of Laski and Myrdal will remind us that intellectuals are more easily swayed by Marxist dogma than the workingmen who constitute the bulk of the Socialist movement and who, as Lenin confessed, would not rise unaided, above a "trade-union psychology." That is, they would reject utopian illusions and be content with proximate goals of justice.

In America the Marxist ideology had a surprisingly strong hold on the intellectualist critics of capitalism, despite the absence of a Socialist movement giving their ideas relevance. The "New Deal," a characteristically pragmatic effort to resolve the debate between classical economics and Marxism, was consciously or unconsciously dependent upon the thought of the late Lord Keynes. It fell under criticism of intellectuals prompted by obvious Marxist prejudices. But their Marxism was not consistent; it included every shade of opinion from open hospitality to Communism, to secret or open sympathy for the Communist cause.


Many of the intellectuals who were at first attracted by Communism were subsequently repelled by the realities of Communist politics, particularly as these revealed themselves in the purge trials of the early 30s, the Nazi-Soviet pact and the chicane of the Communist Party in the Spanish Civil War. A group of very distinguished intellectuals have left a record of their initial illusions and subsequent disillusion in the symposium The God That Failed: a moving revelation both of the spiritual and political confusions of our day and a proof that moral sensitivity and utopian longings were responsible for their attraction to Communism. The realities of Communist politics are in such vivid contrast to the moral motives for original allegiance that those converts who have not broken with Communism have become more and more pathetic in seeking to cover their mistaken loyalty with ever more implausible interpretations of present realities. Some have assumed an attitude of neutrality and "objectivity," pretending to be able to criticize both Soviet and American policies with equal severity and equal justification.

Of those who have renounced their Communist faith, some have, in the violence of their reaction, embraced the dogmas of the extreme right, thus exchanging creeds but not varying the spirit and temper of their approach to life's problems. A few have found profit or prestige as professional anti-Communists. Othersfor example, the redoubtable young editor, James Wechsler, and the famous Mayor Reuter of Berlinhave expiated an earlier Communist loyalty by a rigorous anti-Communist, but thoroughly liberal, democratic faith. It is ironic that men who extricated themselves with least hurt to their spirit are now declared suspect by our vigilantes because they have not proved their repentance by adhesion to some dogma of the Right or by imitating its hysteria.

Among the intellectuals who have not explicitly disavowed earlier Communist sympathy, many have gradually taken a more and more critical attitude toward Communist politics. Some of these would probably be surprised if confronted with early writings in which they made ridiculous estimates of Russia as the holy land of a new culture. The number actually involved in the Communist conspiracy was very small. Professor Hook is probably right, however, in charging liberal sentiment on the Left with the error of complacency toward the danger of conspiracy. Many thought of Communism chiefly as a heresy with which they might not agree but which must be granted that tolerance the traditional liberal extends to all dissent. They were thus as undiscriminating as the Right, which is eager to identify every form of dissent with disloyalty or even with treason. The Hiss trial had particular significance. It was a traumatic experience on the Right, for it seemed to confirm all of its worst fears and established prejudices. The Left, however, assumed Hiss's innocence and regarded the proceedings against him as no more than an effort to attack the Roosevelt Administration. In Europe Hiss's innocence is still widely taken for granted.

While fairness demands that distinctions among the opinions on the Left be established, the intellectuals must with corresponding honesty admit the universality of the Marxist dogma over their minds. In one sense the breadth and extent of that is not a mystery. The critics of a business civilization wished to challenge the moral and intellectual assumptions guarding the complacency of the culture. Those assumptions had been stated by Adam Smith, who based his thought upon an earlier physiocratic dogma. According to that dogma, freedom in economic life would automatically bring justice, if only men would rigorously refrain from interfering with the operation of "nature's laws." This view assumed an analogy between historical and natural events which was not true; and it guaranteed social harmonies which the social tensions of a growing technical society violently contradicted. If the injustices of a business society were to be challenged what would seem more relevant than the Marxist dogma? The social realities seemed to validate its presuppositions rather than the optimism of the liberal dogma. Furthermore, it lacked the rigorous and enervating determinism of the liberal dogma and appealed to the human impulse to master historical destiny.

Pious criticisms of Marxist determinism are somewhat ironic, considering that the business community follows a more deterministic creed. The danger in the Marxist creed derives, not from its determinism, but from its pretension that men can, at a particular climax in human affairs, triumph not only over injustice but over man's ambiguous role in history and become masters of history. This ambition to achieve mastery of historical destiny conformed to one part of liberal secularism, exemplified by August Comte. There is, therefore, good reason for the power of the Marxist dogma over the minds of the intellectuals and critics of a business civilization. Unfortunately for them, and for our civilization, the Marxist dogma was a mistaken dogma upon which capitalistic culture rests. It was doubly unfortunate that the Marxist errors led to worse injustices than those which prevailed in our free society. The dogma of the Right sought to reduce the power of the state; but it preserved the multiplicity of power centers in society. The dogma of Marxism assumed that the socialization of property would eliminate economic power from human affairs. This was a great mistake, for it led to the concentration of both economic and political power in a single oligarchy. The resulting tyranny must therefore be regarded not as the fortuitous corruption of an original Marxist ideal but as the inevitable fruit of its illusions.

All the errors in the rightist dogma could not efface its one virtue: preserving a multiplicity of power centers in society. And all the virtues of the Marxist dogma could not efface the evil effects of its single great error: creating a monopoly of power. The moral embarrassment of the intellectuals derives from accepting Marxist dogma too uncritically, failing to perceive its error. In the democratic world, Marxism did not lead to the noxious consequences of the totalitarian state chiefly because the dogma was not consistently expressed or applied.

The fact is that an economy can neither be totally regulated nor totally unregulated; just as men can be neither masters of their historical fate nor mere prisoners of destiny. Neither dogma is totally true. Modern communities do not live in the harmony assumed by the one dogma, nor do they move inevitably to a climax of social tension as the other dogma assumes. So the healthiest modern nations have distilled truth from the tension between both equally untenable dogmas and have preserved their health by practices which followed neither too consistently. That is probably why Britain is spiritually the healthiest of modern nations, however precarious her economic health may be. There the creed of the business community was qualified by an older aristocratic tradition, and the creed of a quasi-Marxist party was leavened by an older and more pragmatic Christian radicalism. Thus the struggle between contradictory creeds was mitigated, and the comparative equality of strength between social forces, holding allegiance to each creed, has prevented the unequivocal triumph of either. America, by comparison, is less favorably endowed. The absence of a strong Marxist movement has led to the triumph of the opposite creed without serious challenge; and the present effort of our vigilantes to wipe out or discredit every form of critical dissent not only makes our political thinking inflexible but deepens the rift between ourselves and the free nations of Europe and Asia.

Oddly enough our business community is more pragmatic in the management of its affairs than in its political creed. Whether because of its practical wisdom or because of the policies of a political movement which it opposed and abhorred, our history has not been as catastrophic as it seemed that it might be in the 1930s. Then, general defeatism among the critics, and among some of the defenders of our economy was one of the primary reasons for Marxism's attraction. Recently a friend wrote to congratulate me on my accuracy in predicting the inevitable corruptions of power in the Soviet state in a book I wrote in 2934. Upon rereading the book to enjoy the experience of justified prophecy, I discovered that my wisdom was not as perfect as the friend suggested. Reflections on the End of an Era was a perfect revelation of the pessimistic assumptions, prompted by Marxist thought, which had informed one who was challenging at least some of the Marxist illusions. History is fortunately not as predictable as those who invent a logic to contain it can imagine. Our civilization is not as free of problems as the conservative dogmatists pretend. But we were able to survive the stresses of the war with rather more residual health than was anticipated. The Nazi peril was moreover something quite different from the final desperate defensive action of capitalism Marxist analysis made it. In reality it was a lower middle-class revolt against a weakened civilization.


It is an ironic fact that the actual "class struggle" between owners and workers has been less severe, and characterized by more accommodations of interest, in America than in Europe. We therefore enjoy a measure of political and moral health. But the ideological struggle between the defenders and the intellectual critics of our economy has been more severe than in Europe. It threatens at the present time to sow confusion both within our boundaries and between ourselves and our allies. Thus adherence to inflexible dogmas, and dishonesty in taking advantage of an ideological foe, threatens to undo whatever a wisdom in practical affairs has established in this nation.

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Loading Related Articles...
Article Tools

You must be a subscriber to post comments. Subscribe today.