Sherwood Eddy’s treatment of Marx

Sherwood Eddy was an American Protestant activist and missionary in the early twentieth century. (Here is a brief biography and bibliography of Eddy; link.) He was educated in elite American institutions but acquired a deep empathy for the less-well-off members of society, both in the US and Asia. He was drawn to Communism, though never a member of the CP. Eddy explicitly identified himself as a Christian socialist. In 1926 he engaged in a debate in Moscow on the subject, “wherein lies the essence of the present religion and is it compatible with communism?”. In 1934 he was invited to participate in an important symposium, “The meaning of Marx”, with Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Morris Raphael Cohen, and Sidney Hook (link). In 1936 he co-founded a cooperative-based reform of farming for sharecroppers in the US south, with strong commitment to racial equality. 

What is striking in Eddy’s contribution to the Marx symposium is the depth and detail of his knowledge of Marx’s economic theories. Eddy summarizes Marx’s substantive social and economic theories under three topics: his dialectical method of analysis of history; his labor theory of value and surplus-value; and his theory of class conflict as the fundamental driver of historical change (6). Under exposition of the second point Eddy offers a reasonable summary of Marx’s main ideas of accumulation and exploitation. He ends this section with a denunciation of capitalism, and he writes favorably of revolution and the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. 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)

Also striking is Eddy’s own inclination towards the need for thorough-going class revolution. In 1934 Eddy’s intellectual support for Communism was evident.

Is the system just? Must it continue? No! Marx shows the masses a way out. It is a way, he tells them, grounded in science and in natural law. It is bound to win, for the very stars in their courses are fighting for them. By some mystic and incomprehensible “dialectic process,” by a supposedly scientific theory of value and of surplus value it is all being worked out for them. They do not need to understand it. They must believe that they are being exploited and join in the crusade for their own emancipation. (12)

Revolutions are almost inevitably destructive. They occur only when evolutionary progress to justice is blocked by the class in possession and power, when the hard crust of the status quo restrains the molten lava of discontent until the volcano of revolution bursts into eruption. Nearly always the possessing class is blinded by its own self-interest and class ethics of property “rights,” so that it cannot see in time the injustice of the system which seems hallowed by custom and tradition. (16)According to the Marxian formula, as the advance guard of the working class, a Communist Party must be organized with centralized power, under iron discipline, with a single mind and will. The sole purpose of this party must be to prepare for and direct the coming revolution which Marx sees as the only solution of the class struggle. No class has ever been known to surrender its special privileges and share them equally with the dispossessed, unless it was forced to do so…. Once the state has been seized the workers are bidden to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat under the direction of the vanguard of the Communist Party. The party then seeks to make the revolution permanent and continuing until all the members of the ruling and possessing classes are deprived of power. (17)

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).

It is useful to distinguish between  the content of Marx’s political economy and his sociology of capitalism, on the one hand, and the political manifestos, slogans, and party politics of Marxism and communism, on the other. Marx’s theory of capitalism as a class-based system of exploitation is compatible with multiple possible remedies, including democratic socialism. Both sets of issues come up in the 1934 symposium. Eddy’s essay here makes plain the urgency with which intellectuals committed to social justice were searching for answers, and Marx (and Lenin) represented persuasive and compelling ideas about a blueprint for comprehensive change. But strikingly, Eddy — unlike his contemporaries in the English democratic socialist movement — had not yet moved as far as his English contemporaries in attempting to imagine a democratic socialist solution (link).

(George Novack’s lecture on American radical intellectuals in the 1930s, delivered in 1967, provides some context for Eddy’s political orientation, though Eddy’s name does not appear in Novack’s lecture; link. Novack was a longtime leader of the Socialist Workers Party, the Trotskyist alternative to the American Communist Party.)

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