Isaiah Berlin: Marx & Socialism

Marx wrote that Socialism does not appeal, it demands.  While it speaks of rights, it also, assumes a new life form, liberated from constraints of the previous historical social structures and the old social order that it has destroyed.  Instead, moral, political & economic conceptions have altered the very social conditions from which they sprang, and to regard any previous incarnations as either universal or immutable is tantamount to believing that they —in this case the bourgeois order—are eternal i.e. always a possibility; that to Marx underlies both the ethical and psychological doctrines of idealistic humanitarians (fools all).


Reading Das Kapital is a rather vigorous affair.  Contempt and loathing poured from Marx’s pen, as he attacked the assumptions made by liberals and utilitarians, that since the interests of all men are ultimately, and have always been, the same, that a measure of understanding, goodwill and benevolence on the part of everyone may yet make it possible to arrive at some sort of general consensus satisfactory to all.


Marx countered, that such nonsense was not only impractical but foolish, because if the class war is real, and it most certainly was, that much was obvious, then those benign and benevolent interests were absurd because how could a class system have evolved in the first place? If everyone is caring for one another, then there could be no social injustice, could there?  Denying this canonical fact by the questioner was either stupid or cynical, and it was this particular vicious form of self-hypocrisy that needed to be exposed.


This fundamental difference in outlook, distinguishes Marx sharply from the bourgeois radicals and Utopian socialists whom, to their own bewildered indignation, he fought and abused savagely for more than forty years. He truly gave the enemy no quarter, and if you did not agree with him totally, you were the enemy.


Marx detested romanticism, idealism, emotionalism, and most of all their humanitarian appeals, and, in his anxiety to avoid any appeal to the idealistic feelings of his audience, he systematically tried in his works, to remove every trace of the old democratic rhetoric from the propagandist literature of his movement. He neither offered nor invited concessions at any time; he did not enter into any dubious political alliances, since he despised all forms of compromise.  You cannot compromise when you are right otherwise you are betraying your ideals.


The manifestos, was his and subsequently his supporters’ profession of faith and so also programs of action.  He appended his name to them, but they contain scarcely any references to moral progress, eternal justice, the equality of man, the rights of individuals or nations, the liberty of conscience, the fight for civilization, and other such phrases which were the stock-in-trade (and had once genuinely embodied ideals) of the democratic movements of his time; he looked upon these as so much worthless cant, indicating confusion of thought and ineffectiveness in action; in short they obscured the true message.


Since the war, his war, must be fought on every front and all the time, and, since contemporary society is politically organized, a political party must be formed out of those elements which in accordance with the laws of historical development are destined to emerge as the conquering class. They must be taught that what seems so secure in existing society is in reality, doomed to swift extinction, a fact which men may find it difficult to believe because of the immense protective façade of moral, religious, political and economic assumptions and beliefs, but this is because the moribund bourgeois class consciously or unconsciously creates it, and so blind itself and others to its own approaching fate.


It requires both intellectual courage and acuteness of vision to penetrate this smoke-screen and perceive the real structure of events. The spectacle of chaos, and the imminence of the crisis in which it is bound to end, will of itself convince a clear-eyed and interested observer—for no one who is not virtually dead or dying can be a disinterested spectator of the fate of the society with which his own life is bound up—of what he must be and do in order to survive.   This cannot be a subjective scale of values revealed differently to different men, determined by the light of an inner vision, but instead must be knowledge of the facts themselves, that everyman can easily discern and know, and so must, according to Marx, determine their rational behavior


A society is judged to be progressive, and so worthy of support, if it is one those institutions who are capable of the further development of its productive forces without subverting its entire basis.


A society is reactionary when it is inevitably moves into an impasse, unable to avoid internal chaos and its ultimate collapse in spite of the most desperate efforts to survive.  Those very efforts are what creates the irrational faith of its populace in its own stability, it is the anodyne that all dying orders use to conceal the stench of death, from themselves.


Nevertheless, what history has objectively condemned will be inevitably swept away:  and to say that something ought to be saved, even when that is not possible, is to deny the rational plan of the universe.



===========from the book by Sir Isaiah Berlin, Marx’s Life and his Environment.

Tough medicine indeed.