Tony Judt on twentieth-century Marxism

Tony Judt was especially astute when it came to linking history and intellectuals. One strand of thought in his collection of essays, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, is a critical engagement with several twentieth-century thinkers associated with Marxism (and sometimes anti-Marxism), including Althusser, Kołakowski, E.P. Thompson (briefly), Raymond Aron (briefly), and Eric Hobsbawm. With the exception of Kołakowski, Judt’s perspective on these thinkers is negative, usually because of their failure to honestly reckon with the crimes of Stalinism (Althusser, Hobsbawm). And there is often a disparaging tone to his rhetoric.

In the case of Althusser Judt’s tone and critique are especially harsh. He portrays Althusser as an ignorant pundit rather than a serious philosopher, he finds Althusser to be contemptible for his efforts to gloss over the crimes of Stalinism, and he has complete scorn for Althusser’s “structuralism” as an explication of Marx’s theories. On Althusser’s ignorance of history and philosophy:

He seems to know nothing of recent history (among his howlers is an indictment of the “Polish fascist” Pilsudski for starting World War II). He appears only late in life to have discovered Machiavelli and other classics of Western philosophy, and he even admits to a skimpy and partial acquaintance with Marx’s texts (something one might have inferred from his published work). He is also unsophisticated to the point of crudity in his political analysis. He seems to have learned nothing and to have forgotten nothing in the last twenty years of his life. Thus there is much talk of “the hegemony of bourgeois, imperialist capitalism”; and he is dismissive of the dissidents of the Soviet bloc (“cut off from their own people”) and contemptuous of writers like André Glucksmann for “putting around unbelievable horror stories of the Gulag.” Those words were written in 1985! (p. 113)

Judt believes there is no content to Althusser’s “theory of structural practices”. And this shortcoming dovetails with the issue of Althusser’s failure to confront Stalinism:

This subjectless theory of everything had a further virtue. By emphasizing the importance of theory, it diverted attention from the embarrassing defects of recent practice. In such an account, Stalin’s crime was not that he had murdered millions of human beings, it was that he had perverted the self-understanding of Marxism. Stalinism, in short, was just another mistake in theory, albeit an especially egregious one, whose major sin consisted of its refusal to acknowledge its own errors. (p. 108)

I am inclined to agree with Judt’s assessment of Althusser’s structuralism. My own assessment in The Scientific Marx (1986) of Althusser’s structuralist Marxism was negative as well:

A second important example of this “theoretist” approach to Capital can be found in structuralist Marxism, particularly that of Althusser and his followers. In this case, instead of an economic interpretation of Marx’s system, we find an effort to describe Capital as a general theory of the “structures” that define and animate the capitalist mode of production. For example, Hindess and Hirst hold that Capital is fundamentally an abstract theory of the capitalist mode of production that derives the “logic” of the system from the concept of the mode of production. Here too the aim is to portray Capital as a unified set of theoretical principles, with the rest of the work being treated as illustrative material or derived consequences. This account shows the same predisposition identified earlier to construe Capital as an organized theoretical system, and the same reductionist necessity to downplay those portions of the work which cannot be easily assimilated to the theoretical model. (Scientific Marx, 17)

Judt’s discussion of Leszek Kołakowski gives special attention to Main Currents of Marxism: The Founders – The Golden Age – The Breakdown and is much more favorable. 

It is quite impossible to convey in a short review the astonishing range of Kołakowski’s history of Marxist doctrine. It will surely not be superseded: Who will ever again know—or care—enough to go back over this ground in such detail and with such analytical sophistication? Main Currents of Marxism is not a history of socialism; its author pays only passing attention to political contexts or social organizations. It is unashamedly a narrative of ideas, a sort of bildungsroman of the rise and fall of a once-mighty family of theory and theorists, related in skeptical, disabused old age by one of its last surviving children. (132)

Judt believes that Kołakowski arrives at a fundamental insight about the role of Marxism in 20th-century history — the propensity of his followers to regard Marx’s writings as total theories encompassing both the present and the future. These forms of dogmatism laid the seeds of the totalitarianism of Communism as a political-economic system:

Solving the problems of mankind in one stroke; seeking out an all-embracing theory that can simultaneously explain the present and guarantee the future; resorting to the crutch of intellectual or historical “systems” to navigate the irritating complexity and contradictions of real experience; saving the “pure” seed of an idea or an ideal from its rotten fruit: Such shortcuts have a timeless allure and are certainly not the monopoly of Marxists (or indeed the Left). But it is understandably tempting to dismiss at least the Marxist variant of such human follies: Between the disabused insights of former Communists like Kołakowski and the self-righteous provincialism of “Western” Marxists like Thompson, not to speak of the verdict of history itself, the subject would appear to have self-destructed. (136)

Judt also provides an extensive discussion of E.P. Thompson’s polemic with Leszek Kołakowski:

The “Open Letter” was Thompson at his priggish, Little-Englander worst: garrulous (the letter runs to one hundred pages of printed text), patronizing, and sanctimonious. In a pompous, demagogic tone, with more than half an eye to his worshipful progressive audience, Thompson shook his rhetorical finger at the exiled Kołakowski, admonishing him for apostasy: “We were both voices of the Communist revisionism of 1956. . . . We both passed from a frontal critique of Stalinism to a stance of Marxist revisionism. . . . There was a time when you, and the causes for which you stood, were present in our innermost thoughts.” How dare you, Thompson suggested from the safety of his leafy perch in middle England, betray us by letting your inconvenient experiences in Communist Poland obstruct the view of our common Marxist ideal? (p. 136)

This portrait has much of the rhetorical excess from which Judt’s polemical essay “Clown in Regal Purple” (link) suffers in regard to Judt’s treatment of Charles Tilly (link), and seems to reflect intellectual animus as much as substantive critique. A clear indicator of the animus: after discussing Kołakowski’s response to Thompson, Judt writes a few lines later: “No one who reads it will ever take E. P. Thompson seriously again” (136). That is a bit hard, given that few historians would doubt the importance, rigor, and enduring insights of Thompson’s most important work, The Making of the English Working Class (link). 

Judt believes that Marxism was historically important in the twentieth century, but its importance was largely destructive. Judt believes that Marxism gave rise to social and political theories that led fairly directly to Communist totalitarianism. So he argues that it is of more than academic interest for us to try to understand the nature of Marxist thought throughout the first half of the century.

Marxism is thus inextricably intertwined with the intellectual history of the modern world. To ignore or dismiss it is willfully to misinterpret the recent past. Ex-Communists and former Marxists—François Furet, Sidney Hook, Arthur Koestler, Leszek Kołakowski, Wolfgang Leonhard, Jorge Semprún, Victor Serge, Ignazio Silone, Boris Souvarine, Manès Sperber, Alexander Wat, and dozens of others—have written some of the best accounts of twentieth-century intellectual and political life. Even a lifelong anti-Communist like Raymond Aron was not embarrassed to acknowledge his undiminished interest in the “secular religion” of Marxism (to the point of recognizing that his obsession with combating it amounted to a sort of transposed anticlericalism). And it is indicative that a liberal like Aron took particular pride in being far better read in Marx and Marxism than many of his self-styled “Marxist” contemporaries. (137)

Marxism was important, Judt believes, because it gave a unified narrative that ordinary engaged people could understand about how society might move forward to a more just future.

The Marxist project, like the older Socialist dream which it displaced and absorbed, was one strand in the great progressive narrative of our time: It shares with classical liberalism, its antithetical historical twin, that narrative’s optimistic, rationalistic account of modern society and its possibilities. Marxism’s distinctive twist—the assertion that the good society to come would be a classless, post-capitalist product of economic processes and social upheaval—was already hard to credit by 1920. But social movements deriving from the initial Marxian analytical impulse continued for many decades to talk and behave as though they still believed in the transformative project. (138)

Most importantly, Marxism highlighted the features of contemporary capitalist society that were most visible and repellent to ordinary people: exploitation, alienation of ordinary life, inequality, and the indignities of class. However, for a number of years, the Marxist narrative appeared to be refuted by the postwar expansion in the standard of living, the accessibility of public education, and health and welfare protections.

Marxism, as the Polish historian Andrzej Walicki—one of its more acerbic critics—openly acknowledges, was the most influential “reaction to the multiple shortcomings of capitalist societies and the liberal tradition.” If Marxism fell from favor in the last third of the twentieth century, it was in large measure because the worst shortcomings of capitalism appeared at last to have been overcome. The liberal tradition—thanks to its unexpected success in adapting to the challenge of depression and war and bestowing upon Western democracies the stabilizing institutions of the New Deal and the welfare state—had palpably triumphed over its antidemocratic critics of Left and Right alike. A political doctrine that had been perfectly positioned to explain and exploit the crises and injustices of another age now appeared beside the point. (140)

But — as Judt recognizes in the final few pages of the essay on Althusser — twenty-first century capitalism persists in presenting humanity with many of the same crippling problems that Marx identified in the nineteenth century: staggering inequalities, extensive deprivation for working class and underclass men and women, and alienating forms of daily life. The seemingly unbridled power of corporations to have their way in the market and in public policy makes the language of civic equality seem hollow. And we now know the terrible potential of right-wing extremist movements — whether National Socialism in the 1930s or right-wing nationalist populism in the 2000s — to mobilize mass support for dictatorship and repression. The stability of liberal democracies is no longer assured; authoritarian leaders like Orban, Erdogan, and Trump have demonstrated their willingness to smash democratic institutions and norms. 

Judt argues that intellectuals and social change have always gone hand in hand; intellectuals help us think about the future and how to create a pathway of progress to better circumstances for humanity. Judt plainly rejected the notion that Marxism could play that role. But in the current moment, we have a deficit of convincing intellectuals and broad social movements that might help us envision and secure a more egalitarian democracy. We urgently need broad and appealing visions of a more palatable future for all members of society. Where are the social thinkers who will speak for progressive liberal democracy? Rejecting “Marxism” cannot be extended to intolerance of creative thinking by a range of democratic socialist theorists. Social democracy, democratic socialism, and non-Marxist socialist thought are broad and important ideas in our current context. Are there socialist thinkers in the past who gave greater attention to individual freedom and wellbeing whose work repays a rereading (for example, Alexander Chayanov, murdered by Stalin in 1937 (linklink))? Do contemporary thinkers like Erik Olin Wright and others associated with the Real Utopias project have important contributions to make in the current setting (link)? We need progressive public intellectuals who can speak to the disaffected in contemporary society; otherwise, the Orbans and the Trumps will pursue their politics of division and hate, and will determine our futures in quite ugly ways. (Quite a few earlier posts have addressed this problem — for example, linklinklink.)

(For what it is worth, the Democracy Index estimates that the most democratic nations in the world are Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Finland, Ireland, Denmark, Canada, Australia, Switzerland. Significantly, the Nordic countries make up five of the top ten nations on this list — nations that have adopted strong versions of “social democracy” as a foundation for their social contract. This too is part of the progressive tradition of thought within which Marx did his work.)

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