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The Future of Marxism

Raymond Williams

new left review 114 (nov-dec 2018), pp.53-65.

There are two dimensions of politics.1 There is the dimension in which, because of living pressures, men try to understand their world and improve it. This dimension is persistently human. But besides it, always, is that parading robot of polemic, which resembles human thinking in everything but its capacity for experience. If you step into the robot’s world, you get your fuel free, and you can immediately grind into action, on one of the paper fronts, where the air stinks of pride, destruction, malice and exhaustion. Men need a good society and they need food, and further, in our own time, we know that we are living on the edge of destruction. But the slip into the robot world, so easy to make, is against these needs even when it claims to satisfy them. As I look, now, at the greater part of our political campaigns and periodicals, I recognize, reluctantly, the cancer of violence in them, which is our actual danger. And it is no use, after that, turning away. We have to fight to recover the dimension in which people actually live, because it is only there that any good outcome is possible.

The first characteristic of the robots is that the world exists in terms of their own fixed points. Are you a Marxist, a revisionist, a bourgeois reformist? Are you a Communist, a Left radical, a fellow traveller? What answer can a man make to that kind of robot questioning? ‘Go away’, I suppose.

It seems the only adequate thing to say. For we have had it before. Are you Protestant, Catholic, Free Churchman, free-thinker, atheist? If you try to say what you feel and know, you have to fight off the mechanical hands trying to stick their own labels on you or get your voice on one of their recordings. They do this because, once the labels are on, they can fight, show you your enemy, throw you into one of their prepared campaigns. But in the intensity of human need the first struggle is to know the difference between experience and that robot world, to know rice and schools and human speech from that demented, airless pseudo-political dimension. The current robot campaign is to get men to join the camp of democracy to fight for survival against the camp of democracy. ‘Accept no substitutes; ours is the only genuine camp; we will prove it by engaging in relentless struggle.’ And robots do not die; only men die.

The real difficulty is that, in order to think at all, we have to use ideas and interpretations which the robots have already recorded. Somewhere in the world of human thinking coming down to us from our predecessors, the necessary insights, the fruitful bearings, exist. But to keep them where they belong, in direct touch with our experience, is a constant struggle.

I am reminded of this, once again, as I try to sort out my thoughts after reading George Lichtheim’s Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study (1961)—a book that is evidently the result of years of patient work and thought. I am not a scholar of Marxism, and I cannot accurately judge whether Lichtheim’s detailed analysis is correct. But his conclusions are interesting, and directly relevant to our actual world. Lichtheim sees Marxism disintegrating as a system of thought and guide to action:

Its accomplishments are shown to be incompatible with its ultimate aims, which thus disclose their essentially metaphysical—i. e. transcendental and unrealizable, nature. What remains is, on the one hand, the travestied fulfilment of these aims in a reality which is their actual negation; and on the other, the caput mortuum of a gigantic intellectual construction whose living essence has been appropriated by the historical consciousness of the modern world; leaving the empty husk of ‘dialectical materialism’ to the ideologists of a new orthodoxy. In the sunset of the liberal era, of which Marxism is at once the critique and the theoretical reflection, this outcome confirms the truth of its own insights into the logic of history; while transferring to an uncertain future the ancient visions of a world set free.

The sweep of this judgement is very much like actual Marxist argument. Lichtheim is in no way a robot, but this tone raises disturbing echoes. Ways of thinking get old and become irrelevant, but not often, it seems to me, in quite this cataclysmic way. That image of the sunset worries me; it has been, for so long, one of the robots’ stage effects. And when they have not been actually tearing at each other, one of their most com-plicated games has been that of putting one another in the dustbin of history, which they always seem very certain about. Lichtheim may be right, but I find myself drawing back and wondering what, in our actual world, the future of Marxism is likely to be. For this is the irony: that a lot seems to go on in these dustbins of history. The number of systems that are officially dead but won’t lie down is extraordinary. A book called Karl Marx and the Close of His System was published in 1898, and look what has happened since then. This doesn’t prove anything, either way, about the validity of Marxism, but it does suggest that the relation between systems of thought and actual history is both complex and surprising.

What I keep coming back to, after the force of Lichtheim’s arguments, is that Marxism, or its surrogate in Marxism–Leninism, is now the official doctrine of about a third of the world, actively taught and propagated by powerful political and economic systems, and on any possible estimate likely to be active for as long ahead as we care to think. Well, of course, that is provided for in the argument: the systems are really a travesty of Marxism, their official thoughts are simply empty husks and dead heads. This could be true, and we ought to consider its possibility when we hear that reasoning very common among the small number of Marxists in Britain: that 1,000 million people, stretching from the Baltic to the Pacific, can’t be wrong. But we ought to check every stage of the argument quite carefully. Are the systems created and projected by the Russian, Chinese and other Communist revolutions really a travesty of Marxist intentions?

If they are, to any substantial extent, what will be the relation, in the growth of these societies, between the widespread teaching of a doctrine equivalent to a great national religion, and the reality which this teaching might theoretically or practically question or condemn? I don’t, with any confidence, know the answer to either of these questions, but at least I am much less sure than Lichtheim both that the systems are travesties and that, even if they were not, the doctrines would be merely empty and dead. I will try to express my doubts about each of these points.

Myths of convergence

The widespread disillusion among thinkers in the West over the course of the Communist revolutions is very easy to understand. Two charges stand examination: first, that the revolutions have been disfigured and perverted by the use of terror for political aims; second, that the common people have in fact not been liberated, but have simply passed from the rule of aristocrats, landlords and bankers to the rule of bureaucrats and a party apparatus. On the first charge, there must be no more equivocation, no more convincing talk about ‘revolution and rosewater’, no more reduction of men who died to mere errors. The Communist societies themselves will have to face this reality, in depth, sooner or later; human beings cannot grow without facing that kind of truth about themselves. Political terror was used, on a vast scale, both for political ends and, it would seem, by a monstrous kind of extension, for its own sake. The facts, so often disputed, so often still the matter of argument, but now at least admitted by everyone at a minimum level which is still revolting, have lodged deeply in our minds, and we would be less than human if they had not.

I remember feeling, in the late 1930s, when political terror was being used both in the Soviet Union and in Nazi Germany, how much strength there seemed to be in the argument that these were really the same kind of society: the new kind of totalitarian state. But I eventually rejected this conclusion then, and still reject it now. It seems to me to be a very common error, in judging societies, to abstract one element which they share, and then go on to assume that as whole societies they are identical. The use of political terror is so important that, in the case of Fascism and Soviet Communism, the resemblance in this respect was taken as a total resemblance: our eyes were often closed by this wholly good emotion—the repulsion from terror as such. Yet it now seems clear that any such total identification between Fascism and Communism is absolutely misleading. I would not go as far as Orwell once did, in saying that the resemblance was really that between rats and rat-poison. But it is perfectly clear that Fascism had little to offer but terror, at home and abroad: it was a blind explosion of hatred and frustration. Soviet Communism, on the other hand, not only carried through the industrial revolution necessary in a backward country, but much more crucially, carried through a cultural revolution which is both an absolute human gain and seems, still, in its achievements and its weaknesses alike, a specific product of a particular system. I am of course not saying that terror becomes good or bad according to what else is happening in the society; it is evil always and everywhere. But if you want to make a true judgement of the society, you have to look at all the forces active in it.

The comparison between Soviet Communism and Fascism is now heard less often, because Fascism seems dead except in two or three marginal nations and because the Soviet Union claims to have rejected Stalinism. The disillusion of Western intellectuals has not, however, visibly decreased, although this is difficult to estimate because prominent intellectuals are still of the generation formed by the reaction to Fascism and Stalinist terror. Still, there is a recognizably new formulation: that the Soviet Union is a negation of the hopes of the revolution because it has become a society ruled by a directing elite, which controls all sources of power and controls men’s minds by indoctrination and censorship. An interesting version of this formulation is now common among academics: that, really , the political aspects of the Cold War are old hat (indeed most political aspects of everything are old hat). The facts are, we gather, that the Soviet Union and the United States are growing visibly more alike: societies dominated by organization men through giant corporations, dependent on and interlocking with a military elite, and conditioning their populations though the mass media. Here, again, many of the facts are in dispute, but I would myself accept that there are important resemblances of this kind, and that it would be quite plausible to assume that this is a universal pattern of future society.

Once again, however, I find I have to reject this conclusion. I would do so simply on the grounds that these organizations are formally dedicated to quite different ideological ends, though this is a part of the argument to which I must return, as it needs separate treatment. In more immediate terms, I find the resemblance unconvincing, or merely partial, because it seems to me undeniable that the elites are, finally, serving quite different functions. It is not only that the Russian elite has been the agency of quite new social forms, whereas the American elite is essentially an agency of rational stability within an existing system. This could be countered by arguing that increasingly the function of the Russian elite is the maintenance of a system that was once new but is now established. Much more important, surely, is that the kind of society each elite is aiming at is quite different. The American version of a commercial democracy, with the individual consumer as sovereign, is very different indeed from the Russian version of a directed modern state, with the community as sovereign. I do not live in either, and I share the values of neither. But the differences in practical policy seem quite plain. In such a functional economic field as transportation, for example, the two elites reach opposite conclusions, both in the attitude to public-transport systems and the use of private cars; and these then visibly change the societies. Because bureaucracies often resemble each other in their methods of working, and their immediate attitudes to people, it does not follow that their basic habits of thought are similar. The feel of the local evidence about bureaucracy is convincing, but the feel of the general evidence, about the kind of society that is resulting, argues all the other way. You can prefer one or the other, and most people actively do. But whatever you feel about the Soviet Union, it is difficult to argue that the kind of society being created there is a negation of what is usually understood as the Marxist ideal. The nationalization of the means of production and distribution and the creation of new social, legal and political forms are there, for admiration or rejection. The Soviet bureaucracy serves them, and is crucially different from the American or British power elite simply because it has these wholesale versions of society, so that it can operate much more directly and tightly through the organization of a political party which is at once government and administration.

Still, the comparison of power elites may not be the most substantial criticism. People who remember the radical and liberating emphasis in early Marxism are not concerned with the fact that there is power-elite control elsewhere, however similar or dissimilar. They insist that the real negation in Soviet society is that what was intended to be a workers’ state has become a party-bureaucratic state; the liberation of the working people is as far away as ever. This, as I understand him, is Lichtheim’s position, though he seems also to subscribe (the two positions are not incompatible) to the ‘power elite’ version, dismissing the Soviet Union as ‘simply another instance of modern planned and bureaucratized industrialism’. I find this the most difficult thing of all to make up my mind about. By the standards of the British working-class tradition, I cannot feel that the working people of the Soviet Union, and still more of China, have been liberated in any practical sense. I do not mean that the British working class is free, whereas the Soviet or Chinese is not. I mean that the disciplines imposed on working people by the demands of a more modern industrial system still operate, and operate more harshly in the Soviet Union and China just because their industrial growth is still either in a dynamic or early stage.

At this point, the difficult theoretical questions arise. The most convincing alternative, as an explanation of the historical process, both to Marxism and to the interpretation I began in The Long Revolution, is, quite simply, that industrialization is the real key, the real dynamic. The imperative demands of a system of industrial production remake human societies, imposing new kinds of discipline and stress—but offering enough, in the way of consumption and in substitution of mechanical for human labour, to get the disciplines and stresses accepted, in a continual balancing of cost and reward. Then the industrial revolution is primary, and capitalism and socialism are simply alternative ways of organizing it: capitalism at first centred only on production and profit, at whatever cost, but later developing continual consumption and mass culture as ways of keeping the system going and the people willing to work; socialism directing production differently, but compelled to introduce both labour discipline and social discipline of new kinds to command the necessary channelling of energy. Certainly, from the Communist leaders and their foreign representatives, we hear more about the achievements of socialism in these terms than in any other. The present world struggle is often presented as a direct competition between capitalism and socialism to see which can best make industrialism work.

But then, of course, at this point we are bound to ask what are the factors which lead societies into these alternative courses, if their overall industrial aims are basically the same. Well, we say, actual historical conditions; and Marxism was attractive because it offered a fundamental analysis of these conditions. It is at this point, however, that all the difficulties return. We are always in danger of taking too short a view—-history is much slower than any of us can bear—but it certainly does now look as if the Marxist thesis of passing, by a recognizable historical process, through various stages of capitalism to the establishment of socialism, is not the way the world is going. The socialist revolutions have occurred mainly in industrially backward countries, often seeming to skip the capitalist stage in any important sense, while in the countries of mature capitalism the likelihood of socialist revolutions is small, and programmes of radical change have increasingly taken on a reformist character which affects not only the method of establishing socialism but the kind of socialism that would be established.

Peasant revolts, industrial imperatives

Of course this has been pointed out many times, but what are the real conclusions we should draw from it? That Marx himself was wrong in this respect seems comparatively unimportant, because it is the movement he generated, rather than his own absolute formulations, that we must now be concerned with. And it seems to me we are usually much too limited in our view of the world, when we now pronounce Marxism outmoded. It is true that Marxism, in any of its orthodox forms, seems to have comparatively little to say about the present situation within Western capitalist societies; or rather, what it continues to say sounds like a wilful and simplifying dogmatism, which reality is continually contradicting. At the same time, however, what it says about imperialism, and in theory and practice about the economic liberation and progress of currently backward countries, seem to me to make better sense than any other version of this now commanding issue. The general trend of Communist success, in these areas of the world, seems to be due not primarily to clever power politics but to the formulation of a theoretical and practical programme which in general the realities confirm.

The successful revolutions have occurred where there has been a strong peasant movement of revolt against impossible conditions, and where this has been allied with or directed by Marxist or Marxist-influenced intellectuals and sometimes elements of the urban working class. The two most significant recent cases are China and Cuba: the former under Marxist direction from the beginning; the latter increasingly taking on a Marxist character as the revolution unfolds. It is important to see this as an organic development of Marxism rather than a mere contradiction or abandonment of Marx. Lenin’s fundamental change of direction certainly altered the whole character of Marxism, but is it enough to say that in cutting it off from its former Western European context, and putting it in a new context, Lenin was simply perverting its ideals? It is a matter of political judgement, but my own judgement is that this change of direction has in general served the cause of human liberation in a decisive way, and in a way essentially compatible with the original impetus of Marxism.

What we have then to look at is the effect on Marxist thought of this change of context. There seem to me to be two major and related effects. First, that since the revolutions have occurred in societies without mature democratic forms, the emphasis on a small, highly organized directing party has necessarily changed the whole previous conception of the working class taking power. Second, that the impetus of these revolutions, from the people, has been primarily the long peasant demand to break landlordism and exploitation of the labourer, while at the same time the necessary future of the country—not only as Marxist intellectuals see it, but as economic survival and growth dictate—is an industrial future. The contradiction between noble but limited peasant aims and the demands of this industrial future has been the major problem of each of these revolutions as they develop, and in this situation the directing party has to some extent taken over from all immediate class interests. The major human suffering in the development of Soviet Communism was of precisely this character. In China and Cuba there have been differences, but in each we can see the same combination of a generalized liberation with an actual directing party. The immense cost to its first generations of any forced industrial revolution is exacted by the directing party from a people which the party can be seen in long term to be liberating, but in short term to be controlling with exceptional and often inhuman rigour. While this critical stage lasts, any threat to the ruling party, or to its definitions of policy, is mercilessly repressed.

It is not my purpose to defend these developments in Marxist theory and practice, but I think we have to make an effort to understand them, in the context in which they are actually operating. A Chinese or Cuban peasant is bound to see this process in ways different from any we can really imagine. At the same time, there is something ludicrous in the practice of Western Communist parties imitating the habits of thought and theories of organization deriving from wholly different social situations. Not only because they will then seem right out of touch with the reality of their own societies, but also because, if they underwrite these developments as the twentieth-century version of Marxism as a whole, they lose their capacity as Marxists to define the course of these revolutions. For, even on the most favourable view, the exercise of control by the directing party is always in danger of becoming an end in itself, in detail if not in general. The aim of social revolution can easily be perverted to the creation of a powerful industrial and military state: a perversion of which the elements of chauvinism in each of these revolutions give continual warning.

Yet it is not only Western Marxists who have this duty to keep their analysis clear. It is also, obviously, the capable Marxists within the directing parties themselves. And here we must turn again to the relation between an ideology and the society in which it operates. I think we have a possible parallel in our own history. If we follow Christianity through the many and varied societies within which it has operated as an officially directive set of fundamental beliefs, we find, at first, no possible basis for optimism. For it seems clear that in many respects Christianity has survived as an official belief by adapting itself to the changing ideals and practices of the society which contains it. In its attitudes to class divisions, to moneymaking, to love and the family, it has often changed like water, taking on the convenient colouring of the time. Will not the human ideals at the roots of Marxism similarly change, in Communist societies? Are not men and ideologists capable of endless self-deception, endless intellectual twisting, to achieve this marriage of convenience? It would be stupid to say, after the history of Marxist argument in the forty years of Soviet Communism, that the self-deception and the twisting have not occurred, in major ways: sometimes to a point where we want to give the whole thing up in disgust. It has seemed to make no difference that Christianity is other-worldly, and Marxism this-worldly. Christianity could gloss war and class-rule and materialism; Marxism has glossed terror and actual dictatorship. At this point it is easy to fall back, as Orwell fell back, on the feeling that all ideology is hypocrisy, to cover the realities of convenience and power.

Yet does this answer to our experience, in the end? It seems to me that in the history of Christianity, for example, alongside every example of official perversion and hypocrisy, there has been challenge of a Christian kind, based not on new beliefs but on the original beliefs. While the gospels are there, a basic kind of human feeling, relevant at any time and in any situation, is always potentially active. We have had uncountable thousands of cases of men moved by this feeling to challenge and sometimes to change the complex of dross and perversion which has been set over them. I see no valid reason why this will not also hold true of Marxism. Indeed it seems to me that already, in elements of the Polish and Hungarian revolutions, and also within the Soviet Union itself, this kind of challenge has been made and has not been wholly defeated. Many Christians would say that the underlying beliefs are of a different order: Christian values are timeless, Marxist values are limited and temporal. I cannot, myself, accept this distinction. The teaching of love is fundamental but so also is the teaching of freedom. I find it interesting that in Poland and Hungary, and in the writers of ‘the thaw’ in the Soviet Union, there was no significant turning to the values of a wholly alternative system; no turning, for example, to capitalist versions of freedom. The power of the challenge, in fact, was that the societies were being criticized in terms of their own system of values. Whenever this happens, there is a real dynamic, and a real possibility of change.

Of course the governors and the high priests will do all they can to contain or suppress it, and their all is much. But I would say, against Orwell, that you cannot finally suppress a challenge of this kind: you can destroy those who make it, but not the ideas they embody. For the nominal source of the power of the rulers, the doctrine by which at worst they rationalize their controls, has to be disseminated. The gloss will go with it, of course, but I do not honestly see how anybody could go on disseminating the fundamental beliefs, aspirations and images of Marxism, and successfully conceal from everyone that they compose a continually revolutionary doctrine. Nor do I myself believe that the ruling parties are engaged always and only in deception. At certain critical points, elements of the basic ideology emerge very clearly, not only to define the directions of the society, but also as the ground for conflict between groups within the parties. Communist politics has this evident difference from the kind of politics we see in our own ruling parties. Even in the sometimes bloody disputes, there are theoretical and absolute elements which suggest that it is still a basic doctrine that is being fought about, rather than a gloss for personal rule. Further, it is not the worst of these groups that always wins. In the Soviet Union, for example, in recent years, it has been quite clearly one of the better groups.

Recovery and renewal

For all these reasons, I think it is wrong to assume that Marxism as a set of active doctrines is finished. I am continually struck by the view of the world that has become orthodox among Western intellectuals in the years since the last war. The real world, as they see it, is the United States and Western Europe; the rest is divided between ‘enemies’ and ‘neutrals’: the former too evil to matter, the latter too backward to count. If Marxism seems irrelevant in the United States and Western Europe, it becomes, in this view, totally irrelevant—an ‘old’ idea. But even while they are saying this to each other, with almost incredible complacency, movements deriving from Marxism are decisively changing the shape and balance of world society.

The usual corollary of this North Atlantic viewpoint is that capitalism, while not exactly liked, has proved itself able to contain the socialist challenge in its own societies, which are consequently moving into a new post-capitalist stage: the open welfare state. People who go on using Marxist or even socialist arguments are then seen as merely sentimental fundamentalists, or cases of historical lag. Two things are overlooked by this new and confident orthodoxy. First, that whatever is happening within Western societies, our lives are in fact dominated by the spread of revolution elsewhere: not only as a matter of international relations, but as a matter of international economics and trade. As a socialist, I have to live within an alliance which exists either to destroy Communism (if it could be safely done) or to contain it. And all socialists in Western countries have to live with colonial policies which seek to destroy or delay colonial revolutions (if either can be safely done) or else seek to direct them into ‘moderate’ paths. With these issues at the centre of our political life, the struggle between socialists and others, in Western societies, becomes inevitably, in the first instance, a struggle over international issues. The peace movement, and the support of colonial liberation movements, are then the critical fields of our contemporary socialist activity. And it is not only that the struggle, in these fields, is still evidently alive and undecided. It seems also that the shape of Western society is itself being primarily determined by this international struggle, to which the open welfare state seems merely a marginal accompaniment. Indeed the continuation in Britain of this sense of an easy, improving society seems to me to depend on ignoring the fact of international military struggle, which is changing us deeply from inside, and also on ignoring the facts about the changing nature of the world economy, which will hardly leave us to go comfortably on as we are.

I will not fight in the Cold War, in either camp, and I do not want to replace it by some kind of economic war—a popular argument for economic change in Britain. Instead, I want to work out relations of a living kind, both with the Communist societies and with those parts of the world now losing their dependent status. The temptation, for some people here, is to go over to those other ‘camps’, but that would be an act of treason of a very deep kind. If what I have said about the actual political results of Marxist movements elsewhere is right, it is as impossible for me to underwrite their definitions and systems as it would be for me to join the reactionary forces which are trying to destroy them. This is not just a matter of national and political loyalties (though to lose them, for me, would be to lose everything). It is also, quite directly, a matter of theory. In the older industrial societies, the course of political development has been quite different. We who live in them have to interpret our own social experience, and it may be that certain traditions we have managed to keep alive, certain interpretations of new problems only encountered in mature industrial societies, will be critically important in the development of international socialism.

The independent Marxists of the West have been turning, recently, to the early thought of Marx, in particular to the concept of ‘alienation’. At the same time, many non-Marxist socialists have been looking at the same set of problems: the relation between work and leisure; the nature of community; the problems of resisting manipulation within the expansion of culture. I do not know how far we have got, though I think we have made some progress. I cannot say that I myself find in early Marx anything more than a series of brilliant hints and guesses, but I may be wrong, and in any case the area of concern is common. I feel certain that this work can benefit our own societies, and I believe it may be of critical importance to the Communist societies as they develop. In any case, it will serve to define our relations to them. What we can offer is a tradition of critical independence and a tradition of active democracy, which in themselves do not compose socialism, but which are essential to any mature form of it. If we chuck those traditions, in the name of solidarity, we are chucking a great part of the future.

Perhaps the moral of all this is that the future of Marxism depends on a recovery of something like its whole tradition, and that this could happen in practice in the course of defining relations between our own socialist movements, the liberation movements of the industrially backward countries, and the developing Communist societies. The name of ‘Marxism’ will of course be fiercely claimed by each of these historically separate movements, and for my own part I would prefer to drop the struggle over the inheritance, and see the thing in a broader way. Marx was a great contributor to socialism. Inevitably, in actual history, his influence has been joined to other forces. The only thing that matters is the reality of socialism: the achievements of peace, freedom and justice. Marxists and many others, can contribute to this reality in many different ways. If Lenin took Marxism in one direction, because of the actual problems he faced, many Western socialists have taken socialism in another direction, because of their own actual problems. Neither movement has a monopoly of the truth; neither can dismiss the other as having no future. In the present world crisis, everything depends on the search for understanding, between varying traditions and peoples. The robots do not want this, but men want it.

  1. This text first appeared in The Twentieth Century, July 1961, pp. 128–42.