A 1934 debate about communism among American philosophers

The appeal of Marxist socialism — communism — as an alternative to the consumerism, inequality, and exploitation of European and American capitalism was a powerful draw for many intellectuals in the 1930s, especially in the context of the great Depression and widespread crisis and deprivation of the 1930s. This interest extended to many prominent American philosophers. It is a credit to philosophy that these philosophers took on the great issues of the day and engaged seriously with them.

1934 was an especially intense time for intellectual and political debate between defenders of liberal democracy and advocates for some version of communism. The Depression was in full swing, and there was a widespread view in Britain, France, and the United States among intellectuals that capitalism was bankrupt — incapable of solving the social problems it created and confronted. On the other side, the enormous failures of Stalinist Communism were not yet as visible in the west in1934 as they would be in 1954. The Moscow Show Trials were still five years in the future, the Holodomor was not yet widely known in the west, and — at least in its propaganda image — Soviet economic planning had succeeded in transforming a backward society into a rapidly developing modern industrial economy.

A particularly interesting document from 1934 is a symposium called The Meaning of Marx (link) including contributions by Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Morris Cohen, Sidney Hook, and Sherwood Eddy. All of the contributors except Eddy are leading philosophers in the analytic and pragmatist traditions of philosophy, and their comments and reflections on communism as a social-political system are highly interesting.

Sherwood Eddy and Sidney Hook frame the symposium with articles entitled “An Introduction to the Study of Marx” (Eddy) and “The Meaning of Marx” (Hook). Dewey, Russell, and Cohen offer brief essays on the topic, “Why I am not a Communist”, and Sidney Hook has the final word with an essay called “Communism without Dogmas”. This period of debate is much more interesting and substantive than the vitriolic animosities expressed in the 1950s under the conditions of McCarthyism, because each of these authors makes a serious and sustained effort to make sense of the historical events through which they are living. (In 1937 Dewey and Hook were also actively involved in supporting Leon Trotsky against Stalin’s accusations following the Moscow show trials of 1936.)

Sherwood Eddy

Sherwood Eddy is not a familiar name, but he was a prominent Protestant educator and missionary, educated at Yale and Princeton Theological Seminary. What is striking about Eddy’s essay is the unstinting admiration he expresses for the ideology and values of Soviet Communism. Eddy’s interpretation of social change remains “religious” in a sense; he understands Communism as a unifying belief system capable of motivating the masses of the population.

Russia has achieved what has hitherto been known only at rare periods in history, the experience of almost a whole people living under a unified philosophy of life. All life is focused in a central purpose. It is directed to a single high end and energized by such powerful and glowing motivation that life seems to have supreme significance. It releases a flood of joyous and strenuous activity. The new philosophy has the advantage of seeming to be simple, clear, understandable, all-embracing and practical. (2)

Further, he contrasts the ideological unity and purity of Soviet society with the degeneration of values in western capitalist society:

As surely as Soviet Russia has become united, we of the West have witnessed a philosophic decadence and disintegration. Where feudalism once united the world, capitalism has divided it by the competitive anarchy of a loose individualism. Not organized society but the insecure individual is now the unit where every man is for himself. The economics of profit conflict with the aims of culture. The gain of the few is pitted against the welfare of the many. This whole laissez-faire philosophy of life breeds competitive strife between individuals, classes, races and nations. (4)

At the end of the essay Eddy summarizes points of agreement and disagreement with Marx; most important is this point:

I. I do not believe that violent revolution is inevitable, nor do I believe that it is desirable in itself as Marx almost makes it. When once violence is adopted as a method in an inevitable and “continuing revolution,” when to Marx’s philosophy is added Lenin’s false dictum that “great problems in the lives of nations are solved only by force,” most serious consequences follow wherever communism is installed under a dictatorship or prepared for by violent methods. This shuts the gates of mercy on mankind. In Soviet Russia all prosperous farmers are counted kulaks, and the kulak becomes the personal devil or scapegoat of the system, as does the Jew in Nazi Germany. Intellectuals and engineers are all too easily accused of deliberate sabotage, of being “wreckers,” class enemies, etc. When this philosophy–that great problems are solved “only by violence”–is applied, then trials, shootings and imprisonment follow in rapid succession. Hatred and violence mean wide destructive and incalculable human suffering. (27)

Thus, though I acknowledge my real debt to Marx, I do not count myself a Marxist. I have stated elsewhere: the reasons which would make impossible my acceptance of the system as practised in Soviet Russia under the dictatorship: Its denial of political liberty, the violence and compulsion of a continuing revolution, and the dogmatic atheism and anti-religious zeal required of every member of the Communist Party. (29)

Here he draws out precisely the implication of totalitarianism contained in Stalin’s version of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. The war on the kulaks — the Holodomor — was going on as this symposium took place (1933-34) (link).

Sidney Hook

Sidney Hook was a well-known philosopher, with a political commitment to radical change and a willingness to defend Communist ideas in the 1920s and early 1930s. He became anti-Communist and anti-Stalinist beginning in 1933 and broke fully from the Communist International by 1939, but remained on the left as a democratic socialist. Hook came to be regarded by some on the left as a renegade and new conservative, but Tony Judt disagrees strongly with that view:

He became an aggressively socialist critic of communism. The “aggressively socialist” is crucial. There’s nothing reactionary about Sidney Hook. There’s nothing politically right-wing about him, though he was conservative in some of his cultural tastes—like many socialists. Like Raymond Aron, he was on the opposite side of the barrier from the sixties students. He left New York University disgusted with the university’s failure to stand up to the sit-ins and occupations—that was a very Cold War liberal kind of stance. But his politics were always left of center domestically and a direct inheritance from the nineteenth-century socialist tradition. (Judt, Thinking the Twentieth Century, 226)

So what was Hook’s position in 1934? He believed that it was valuable to distinguish between Communism (the specific version implemented after the Russian Revolution) and communism (the ideal theory implied by Marx’s writings on post-capitalist society). Hook’s goal in “The Meaning of Marx” is to express what he thinks Marx’s writings actually imply about “communism”. And he believes, even in 1934, that Stalinism was a cruel perversion of that vision of the future, but that Marx’s own conception was the correct pathway for modern people to follow.

Here is the first premise of Hook’s view:

Marxism [urges] social action which aims by the revolutionary transformation of society to introduce a classless socialist society. (33)

What is a “classless society”?

The abolition of private ownership of the social means of production spells the abolition of all economic classes. (38)

This point reflects a double-pronged theory on Marx’s part: ownership confers massive economic advantage to one group over another, and that advantage is transformed into the political power needed to sustain the class system itself against the protests of the under-class.

Hook then turns to the political implications of this socio-economic analysis of capitalism. How can the working class gain political power over the propertied class? His account has three features — militant action by the masses of workers for improved conditions, coordination with “intermediate and subordinate groups” to change the existing order, and to “destroy the myth of the impartiality of the state” in order to effectively demand social and political revolution (47).

So what about dictatorship and democracy in Marxist socialism? Hook argues that Marx’s conception involves a genuine version of democracy that is different from liberal democracy: “proletarian democracy”.

Against the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, Marx opposed the ideal of a workers’ or proletarian democracy. His criticism of political democracy in bourgeois society is that it is a sham democracy for workers–a sham democracy because, no matter what their paper privileges may be, the workers cannot control the social conditions of their life.

In the nature of the case, a workers’ democracy–based upon collective ownership of the means of production–does not involve democracy for bankers, capitalists and their supporters who would bring back a state of affairs which would make genuine social democracy impossible. (49)

How is proletarian democracy different from dictatorship?

According to Marx, in at least two important respects. First, it expresses the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population, and by providing a social environment in which human values rather than property values are the guiding principles of social control permits the widest development of free and equal personality. Second, as the democratic processes of socialist economy expand and embrace in its productive activities the elements of the population which were formerly hostile, the repressive functions of the estate gradually disappear. (49).

This paragraph has the tragic ring of utopian optimism about the “withering away of the state”, and observers of the logic of Stalinist repression would note — this expectation of gradual democratization is absurdly unlikely. It sounds like an op-ed piece in the Daily Worker. Hook is strongly opposed to the dictatorship of the party (50); but the logic of power demonstrates that what he describes is a fairy tale. And later in his career, it is doubtful that Hook would have claimed or expected such a benign development. I will return to Hook’s views later.

Bertrand Russell

Russell responds directly to the question, “Why I am not a Communist’. He makes it clear that by “Communist” he means “a person who accepts the doctrines of the Third International” (52) — that is, a Stalinist. His reasons are stated succinctly. He denies “historical necessity” to any particular process of historical change — including the necessary triumph of socialism over capitalism. He finds the theories of value and surplus value in Marx to be indefensible. He rejects the concept of “heroic infallibility” of any individual — whether of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, or Stalin. Unlike Hook, he takes the “dictatorship of the proletariat” at its plain meaning and rejects it because it is fundamentally anti-democratic. As a sociological fact he observes that Soviet Communism is highly repressive of liberty — freedom of thought and expression — and he rejects it on that basis as well.

He also has several more minor objections. Marx glorifies manual work over intellectual work. “Class war” is unlikely to succeed, and politics should proceed through persuasion rather than violence. Communism is grounded in hate, and hate is not a basis for social reconciliation. The claim that we must choose between communism and fascism is a wholly false choice; there is a third alternative — liberal progressive democracy.

John Dewey

John Dewey’s response to the question is similar to Russell’s. Soviet Communism is authoritarian, repressive, and dogmatic. The Communist view of history is deterministic and monistic. The primacy Marxism gives to class conflict over-estimates this particular economic source of conflict within society Worse, the threat of proletarian uprising is likely to bring about fascism. Communist politics — the behavior of the Communist state and its functionaries — rely on lies, deception, and betrayal. And social change created only through violence by one group against another cannot succeed.

Were a large scale revolution to break out in highly industrialized America, where the middle class is stronger, more militant and better prepared than anywhere else in the world, it would either be abortive, drowned in a blood bath, or if it were victorious, would win only a Pyrrhic victory. The two sides would destroy the country and each other. (56)

Dewey’s response gives the impression of a person who has reflected seriously both on history and on the pro’s and con’s of communism. His rejection of communism is fully considered and reflective.

Morris Raphael Cohen

Morris Cohen too gives powerful intellectual and personal reasons why he is not a communist. He finds Marx’s political economy highly illuminating; but the associated theory of revolution and socialism is unacceptable to him. Most importantly, the experience of Soviet Communism is a humanly appalling example of repression and dictatorship. Cohen makes a very interesting historical point: uprisings by single groups almost always lead to disaster, massacre, and oppressive reaction (58). Profound social change requires a high level of social concurrence. He draws attention to the social violence that the USSR is brought to impose:

To this day the Communist regime dare not declare openly in favor of nationalizing the land. Their system of cooperatives is frankly an attempt–and I do not believe it will be a successful attempt–to evade the peasants’ unalterable opposition to communism so far as their own property is concerned. (59)

(Here again — the collectivization of farmland in Ukraine and the horrendous war of starvation against the kulaks was just beginning in 1933-34 in the USSR.)

Rather than harsh dictatorial imposition of the will of one class over another, Cohen offers the view that real social change requires cooperation among social groups:

If the history of the past is any guide at all, it is that real improvements in the future will come like the improvements of the past, namely, through cooperation between different groups, each of which is wise enough to see the necessity of compromising with those with whom we have to live together and whom we cannot or do not wish to exterminate. (60)

And, like Russell, he believes that the argument that one must choose between communism and fascism is entirely specious:

When the communists tell me that I must choose between their dictatorship and fascism I feel that I am offered the choice between being shot or being hanged. It would be suicide for liberal civilization to accept this as exhausting the field of human possibility. I prefer to hope that the present wave of irrationalism and of fanatical intolerance will recede and that the great human energy which manifests itself in free thought will not perish. Often before it has emerged after being swamped by passionate superstitions. There is no reason to feel that it may not do so again. (62)

Sidney Hook (rebuttal)

The primary line of criticism of Communism offered by Eddy, Russell, Dewey, and Cohen is their forthright rejection of the dictatorial and repressive nature of the Communist regime in the USSR, along with their view that these features derive in some way from some of the features of Marx’s own theory of socialism and class conflict. Hook too rejects dictatorship and repression. But he argues that these features are not inherent in a Marxist-socialist revolutionary regime; they are accidents of history. In this it seems that history has plainly refuted him.

But let’s ask the more fundamental question: why did Hook remain a committed Marxist? Why did Hook persist (in 1934) in affirming the importance of socialist revolution? It was because he continued to pay a great deal of attention to the other aspect of Marx’s analysis: the systemic exploitation, domination, and indignity to which the working class is subject within capitalism, without any realistic hope of change absent comprehensive economic revolution. He was Marxist in his socialism because he was Marxist in his diagnosis of how capitalism unavoidably works, and he thought there was no other way to end exploitation and domination of the working class.

It is the absence of a realistic alternative program and path of action which makes the criticism of the communist position — justified as it may appear to be from an abstract ideal position — irrelevant to the pressing tasks of combating capitalism, fascism and war. (65)

However, this is intellectual stubbornness, because there were in fact realistic alternative programs. Laissez-faire capitalism was not the only non-communist political-economic regime to serve as an alternative to communism. The germs of social democracy were already visible in western Europe in the 1930s, including in the socialist and workers’ movements in Britain.

It is hard not to see Hook as an apologist for communist dictatorship in this period of his thinking — even though he explicitly rejects Soviet repression and dictatorship. “My own position is briefly that the fundamental doctrine of communism is sound but it has been so wrapped up in certain dogmas that its logic and force has been obscured” (74). This is either simple naïveté, or simple apologetics. Further, his unwarranted confidence in the Communist movement shows up here:

Communists would not martyrize an entire people as the fascists have done, they would not countenance wholesale massacres of innocent victims, they would not pound and torture women and children in order to achieve power. (71)

The year of this symposium was 1934. And the Soviet Union was engaged in precisely those practices at that time, including especially the horrendous war of starvation against the Ukraine, with four million deaths by hunger. It is interesting that Hook quotes New York Times reporter Walter Duranty. Duranty was the journalist in 1932 who popularized the aphorism, “If you want to make an omelette, you’ve got to scramble eggs” (link).

Hook closes his rebuttal with an indefensible call to repeat a failed experiment: “The time has now come to build a new revolutionary party in America and a new revolutionary international” (89). In this debate, Dewey and Cohen show the greatest wisdom: work towards greater fairness, equality, and liberty through cooperation among social groups in a democratic society.

What I find interesting about this debate is the fact that it is much deeper, about issues that really matter, than any discussions of alternative futures for humanity that might be feasible for future generations that are in the air today. What was at issue in 1934 was whether it was possible to have a decent society for all citizens within the framework of a democratic market-based economy; or, instead, only collective ownership and party rule could ensure equality. There are alternatives — for example, social democracy and the Nordic model — but we no longer seem to want to have those fundamental conversations (link).

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