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New International, March 1949


Thompson Conley

The Inevitability of Socialism

A Discussion of the Grounds for the Theory in the Marxist Movement


From New International, Vol. XV No. 3, March 1949, pp. 92–95.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


A piece of writing may, among other things, be a work of art or a clever hoax. Both types have one thing in common: factual accuracy plays no part in determining their excellence. In judging them, only a partisan of confusion fusses about whether they are true or false. There is a third type of writing that also does away with the use of true and false. But this type differs from the other two in proposing the impossible: it presumes to be factually accurate. For this reason, it may be designated as an idiot’s delight.

I make the three distinctions, because I wish to examine a doctrine frequently associated with the name of Karl Marx, the doctrine of the inevitability of socialism, paying particular attention to an article by Hal Draper, The Meaning of “The Inevitability of Socialism” [NI, December 1947].

The Concept of Causality

The meaning of the inevitability of socialism, Draper insists, depends on correctly understanding “the Marxist view of determinism and causality.” He devotes five numbered sections to an exposition of the principles comprising the view. Although the view has no traffic with the supernatural except to reject it, the sections do have an ecclesiastical odor like that of the Nicene Creed. Perhaps the odor, which, instead of an angelic quality, smells strongly of eighteenth-century France, is even appropriate. For the article, like the Nicene Creed, is written to extirpate heresy. The nature of the heresy I leave to a more proper time, but nothing is anticipated by suggesting that the heresiarchs, Cannon, Johnson and Forest, evidently members of a stuffy, self-righteous sect, are apparently in the throes of amorous imbecility. For, according to Draper, “they amiably enfold dialectical materialism in a crushing and lethal embrace.”

Draper rejects the plausibility of the supernatural in the first section of the exposition. In the second section he denies that nature, “of which man and his works are a part,” is a teleological process. In the third section he concerns himself with indicating the fundamental principle controlling all natural laws, he writes, “To say that natural laws exist is the same thing as saying: every event that takes place is the product of a given cause or combination of causes” and, what is equally important, “the same concatenation of causes will ever produce the same effects.” Hence, the fundamental principle controlling all natural laws is the principle of causality, which, moreover, always exhibits an invariable relation, a necessary connection between a cause and its effect.

While stating the fundamental principle, Draper also tries to stop the so- called public scandal of a cause and its effect being able to live in sin, being “merely a highly probable succession of two events which have no inherent connection.” For example, he tries to forestall the pleasing possibility that, instead of water, hydrogen and oxygen may some day combine to form a highball. The attempt, nevertheless, fails. For Draper’s belief that “no scientist would rest until he had discovered what change in the conditions had brought about the different effect – i.e., what change there was in the concatenation of causes.” is simply a repetition of what he already claims to be the fact. It assumes that the causes have changed. It in no way deals with why it might be plausible to assert that the same cause can, at various times or in divergent places, be carrying on relations with different effects.

Despite the failure of the attempt, it may well be that, in addition to being a scandal, the idea is, as Draper maintains, a “fantasy.” But to describe it as “an idealist version of causality” is to be mistaken about those who prepare its ground. For example, this would be to claim that David Hume is not an empiricist, but an idealist.

Furthermore, Immanuel Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason has undoubtedly been subject to various interpretations. But, were Draper’s description of the scandalous fantasy as an idealist version of causality correct, a new one could now be said to exist. For all previous interpretations, whatever their differences may be, never so much as intimate that Kant, an avowed idealist, intended to write a defense for Hume’s conclusion that a cause and its effect need not have an invariable relation, a necessary connection. In fact, Kant, like all idealists, aims at annihilating such a conclusion. Perhaps, in order to substantiate the description, Draper may assert that the negation of negation, which brings all things to pass for the dialectical materialist, has been at work. But, if this be a fact, the negation of negation has worked nothing less than a miracle.

In the fourth section, as a result of the principle of causality, Draper asserts, “There is thus no room at all for what is called ‘chance determination,’ or ‘accident’ as opposed to causation.” Nevertheless, he is not asserting that chance and accident lack meaning. To explain the meaning of accident Draper uses the battle of Salamis, a battle in which the victory of the Greek fleet was insured by the partial destruction of the Persian fleet in a series of storms. He states that “the anti-Persian storms were historical accidents but were not meteorological accidents.” For, even though a storm may modify the form and pace of history, it is the mode of production that actually determines its fundamental course. That is, “when an event whose causes lie in one field (in this case, meteorology) has an effect on events in another field (here, society), it appears as an accident in relation to the latter field.”

It seems that Draper uses the word to refer to different but not contradictory things. They are: accident as appearance, and accident as actual. As actual, it indicates that the field of meteorology is not the same as that of history. As appearance, it registers the state of man’s ignorance or, to cite Draper, “a human-subjective point of view,” “the relativity of human knowledge and truth.” What is at stake in both usages of the word may perhaps be suggested by stating that, with adequate meteorological information, it is not outside the realm of possibility to infer accurately the entire course of history. For the field of meteorology, though different from, is integrally related to the field of history by the pervasive principles of causality. An accurate inference, therefore, is impossible only because the needed facts are unknown, not because the two fields lack the needed relation. Thus, so far as Draper is concerned, there seems to be more than meets the eye in Laplace’s contention that, if only the masses and their velocities were known, the mind, would be competent to foretell the movement of nature, “of which man and his works are a part,” for all eternity.

He suggests the meaning of chance in the following sentence: “What introduces the element of ‘chance’ into crap-shooting are two facts: (1) we probably do not know all the causal factors involved, though they are far from unknowable; and (2) whether we know or do not know them, the player is unable to control the causal forces.” Chance, therefore, and accident “are measures of human knowledge and ignorance,” and words such as possible, probable, likely or maybe, indicate the varying degrees of that ignorance. For this reason, they should never be taken to mean that the principle of causality has stopped working.

The emphasis placed on the paucity of man’s knowledge seems, however, to make a dogmatist of anyone who holds the principle of causality to be an unquestionable fact. At least, Draper never shows how the principle is to be verified and, hence, how it may be rescued from the charge of being dogmatic. I say this even though, “in giving the reasons for his conviction that socialism will eventually triumph, he does assert that the truth of any conviction, “like all human truth, is tested and confirmed only in practice (in struggle).” But, whatever reassurance this gives for the eventual triumph of socialism, it cannot be used to verify the principle of causality. For the plausibility of now practicing anything either in the past or in the future is, at best, quixotic and, at worst, impossible except for those who, like God, have access to the Eternal. Or is the principle of causality, instead of an unquestionable fact, nothing more than a fruitful working hypothesis, a Marxist convention, a devout conviction? If so, how is it possible and why is it necessary to make a fuss about the scandalous fantasy of the so-called idealists?

Idiot’s Delight?

Be this as it may be, Draper summarizes the Marxist view of determinism and causality in the fifth section. He writes:

“(a) Every event is the inevitable result of all preceding events. Given all preceding events, it could not have happened otherwise. And this inescapably produces the corollary that —

“(b) With regard to any future event posed, there are only two alternatives. That event is either inevitable or impossible. All the events which have taken place determine those which will take place, with the relation of cause to effect. And if, as we have said, a given constellation of causes can produce only a certain determinate effect, then the italicized statement is unavoidable: ‘The event either will take place or it will not take place.’ The italicized statement means: ‘The event either must take place or it cannot take place’ – inevitable or impossible. There is nothing ‘in-between’ on the objective plane of the world of natural law which we have been discussing.”

These two paragraphs unequivocally indicate that the possibility of choice does not exist. Without choice, however, an error cannot be made. And without error, true and false are absolutely precluded except, perhaps, as noises. Naturally, someone may protest that Draper is only referring here to nature and history, not to man. Thus what Draper is saying would in no way preclude true and false. But this would be to protest that man and his works are not a part of history, a protest for which the exposition offers no grounds. Someone else may point out that Draper, later in the article, does speak about choice, even about “a moral choice.” And so much the worse, if not for Draper, at least for morality; because only an intellectual cretin could speak about morality after proposing such a view of determinism.

In practice, that view of determinism not only guarantees that Stalinism inevitably flows from Bolshevism but it also makes Trotsky’s struggle against Stalin an illusion. For, given that view, Stalin as well as Trotsky could do no other than they did. And the same explanation, which certainly is the kindest and easiest way to account for it, holds true of Draper’s article. Or does Draper dwell on a platform from which he may snipe at the universe with impunity, a free agent using the events of history as cards in a game of idiot’s delight? Even without such a specious possibility as this question suggests, the view still remains an idiot’s delight. Instead of a game, it describes a fact. [1]

In theory, at least one thing is clear: the view cannot be called a heresy. For every heresy, in addition to a large element of error, always contains a small element of truth, two elements which the principle of causality liquidates. By the same token, my use of heresy to describe the conviction against which Draper is inveighing becomes unwitting flattery, since it too is based on that view of determination. In other words, by washing away the possibility of thought, the stream of causality drowns the very substance of meaning. Instead of being stated, the view can only be regurgitated.

Since the view is described as “the Marxist view,” this implies that Marx saw things in this manner. Thus, a verbal judgment, including those made by Marx himself, is nothing more than an irrepressible flow of noise generated by a palpitating larynx. Undoubtedly Marx’s more irascible critics would be pleased if this were true. For Capital, along with the rest of his writings, could then be dismissed as an irresponsible physiological expression. But even the most perverse of the irascible critics, those highly imaginative, yet colossal liars, though concocting an amazing amount of nonsense about the writings of Marx, have never had the audacity, the lack of wit to ascribe to him a view that puts an end to responsible discourse.

To urge that Marx accepts the fact that other people, as well as himself, are capable of thinking and of choosing and of acting, seems unnecessary. Or if necessary, then useless, since whoever needs to be reassured has simply lost his mind. But it is not without point to indicate that Marx unquestionably rejects the ground on which Draper bases his convictions.

The ground is indicated in Draper’s assertion that man and his works are a part of nature. That is, whatever differences may be found in society and nature, these differences are, according to Draper, differences in degree, not in kind. This means, for example, that the relations among men and those among animals, since they are rigidly controlled by the principle of causality, are not totally dissimilar, but merely vary in degree. But Marx repudiates such an idea, insisting that, between nature and society, there exists a difference in kind. He writes:

“Where there exists a relationship, it exists for me; the animal has no ‘relations’ with anything, cannot have any.”

Obviously, a distinction in kind, not one of degree, is alone compatible with this assertion. For in order for there to be a distinction in degree, an identical relation of some type would have to exist for both Marx and the animal.

A distinction in kind is also substantiated by Marx’s analysis of the false insight shared by the economic prophets of the eighteenth century. Their fundamental error is that of considering man “not as a product of history, but of nature.” To drive home the point that man is not a part of nature, let alone one of its products, he then writes:

“Man, however, is in the most literal sense of the word a zoon politikon, not only a social being, but a being that can develop into a person only in society.”

And the insistence that man literally is a zoon politikon, a being completely outside the community of the brute, definitely means that man and his works are radically different from the animal and natural events.

This radical difference, this qualitative distinction is also apparent in the course of Marx’s analysis of surplus population, a lugubrious term for the unemployed. In distinguishing between the development of population in nature and its development in society, he observes:

“An abstract law of population exists for plants and animals only, and only in so far as man has not interfered with them.”

Society and Nature

The ability of man, an ability totally lacking in plants and animals, to control the population of nature is a fact that can be explained only on the basis of a distinction in kind. Moreover, since the capitalist mode of production is adequate for the advance to socialism, man can create a society that would make a museum piece of the so-called surplus population.

The reason for maintaining that man and his works are not a part of nature, that between nature and society a distinction in kind exists, is not something that Marx need pluck from his beard. At least, a fundamental quality of causality cannot be found in some of the relations composing the framework of society. The quality consists of the lapse of time that always intervenes between a cause and its effect. In other words, there are relations in society that, instead of a temporal sequence, exhibit a quality of simultaneity.

Inevitability of Socialism

For example, a wife becomes a widow neither before nor after the husband leaves the land of the quick, but at the very moment of his death. And marriage, the relation that allows for this example of simultaneity, certainly is an essential relation of capitalist society. Perhaps someone may protest that marriage is not a natural relation. But if the protest is intended to suggest that marriage is a fiction, the protestant lacks a sense of humor. For even though marriage may, so far as history and contemporary custom is concerned, be nothing more than a transitory relation, it definitely is a social fact, never a fiction.

Even if a social relation happens to exhibit a temporal sequence, this does not signify that it is a causal relation. To insist that it is makes as little sense as to insist that, because an arrow as well as a bullet kills, the arrow is also propelled by gunpowder. Moreover, in order for the principle of causality to be a quality of the social relations, it must exist only as a part of society, never in any way as a part of nature. For a distinction in kind does not permit it to operate in both places at the same time.

The fact that society is not controlled by the principle of causality, that between it and nature a distinction in kind exists, may well explain why Marx finds the methods used in examining nature to be completely worthless in examining society. At least, he states that, in examining the field of political economy, “neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of use.”

Be that as it may be, the lack of any resemblance between the convictions expressed by Marx and by Draper suggests that Draper’s usage of the word Marxist is an infringement on the good will of the reader. Nevertheless, two of Draper’s convictions have yet to be examined, and they may be in agreement with Marx. That is, Marx may find the triumph of socialism to be inevitable, and the meaning with which Draper invests this conviction may be compatible, if not identical, with Marx’s meaning.

In order to suggest Draper’s meaning, I compare it with the meaning proposed by Cannon, Johnson and Forest, with the heresy against which he is inveighing. According to Draper, they denounce as “un-Marxist any suggestion that capitalism can possibly be followed by a society other than socialism.” The denunciation necessarily excludes a type of society such, as bureaucratic collectivism, which surely, according to Draper, now exists in Russia. Among the heretics opinion is divided about that nation. Johnson and Forest refer to it as state capitalism, a nervous confession of confusion. Cannon describes it by that contradiction in terms, a degenerated workers state, which keeps it, even though degenerated, within the realm of socialism. Each opinion, it should be noted, is at least verbally compatible with the conviction expressed in the denunciation, with the conviction that the meaning of inevitability is socialism or capitalism, nothing else.

The conviction, however, “like all human truth, is tested and confirmed only in practice (in struggle).” And, Russia being, as Draper insists, an example of bureaucratic collectivism, the truth of the conviction is obviously lacking. But this indicates that the truth of Stalin and his works is conclusively verified. Hence, the criterion disposes not only of the heresy against which Draper inveighs, but even of the reasons that led Trotsky to struggle against Stalin. And Draper, who accepts Trotsky’s reasons, would thus seem to take a diabolic delight in continuing the error.

Even so, on the basis of the criterion for truth, Draper concludes that the paucity of man’s knowledge, though sufficient to ascertain the inevitable triumph of socialism, is insufficient to determine the type and sequence of social orders leading to it. Actually this is not, nor is it intended to be, a complete rejection of the meaning accepted by Cannon, Johnson and Forest, since Draper considers his meaning a legitimate modification, a modification demanded by the turn of events in Russia. For this reason, prior to the advent of Stalinism, the meaning could properly be stated as capitalism or socialism. Today, however, it must be socialism or barbarism.

So far as Draper is concerned, the phrase, socialism or barbarism, is thoroughly compatible with a rigid doctrine of determinism. At least, he insists that the phrase is not “impugning his deterministic conviction,” that it does not imply that the future affords two possibilities, either one of which may be realized. He explains that since what is going to happen is irrevocably determined by what has already happened, the phrase simply registers a speculation about the future. And it can be no more than a speculation precisely because of the paucity of knowledge possessed by man.

The explanation, though ingenious, turns the Communist Manifesto into a tip-sheet on the human race. Or Marx, if not a tout, certainly becomes, as a result of the doctrine of determinism, a cynical kibitzer offering useless advice to the proletariat. And, in a world where everything is inexorably determined beforehand, any attempt to follow the advice suggests that, instead of its chains, the proletariat would do well to lose its brains.

Though Draper’s explanation appears suspect, the phrase, socialism or barbarism, is compatible with the conviction of Marx. In other words, though not needing the degeneration of the October Revolution as a reason, Marx holds the opinion that capitalism can be followed by a type of society other than socialism. He writes:

“Bourgeois productive relations represent the last antagonistic form of the process of social production, not antagonistic in the sense of individual antagonism, but an antagonism which develops from the social conditions of life of the individuals. However, the productive forces developing within the framework of bourgeois society create at the same time the material conditions for the liquidation of this antagonism. With this type of society, therefore, the preliminary history of human society ends.”

At first glance, this passage may appear to confirm the conviction condemned by Draper, the conviction that capitalism is to be immediately followed by socialism. But the finality about which Marx is speaking does not refer to the bourgeois productive relations. On the contrary, it refers to their antagonistic form, an antagonistic form that other types of society may possess even after capitalism has passed away.

This usage of form may be illustrated by the term nationalized property. This form of property not only exists today in Russia, which now is a bureaucratic collectivist state, but the identical form also existed at the time of Lenin and Trotsky, at the moment when Russia was a workers’ state. That is, the antagonistic form of social production, like the nationalized form of property, may be shared by various types of society.

Capitalism or Socialism?

For this reason, the finality about which Marx is speaking does not mean the end of social antagonism. On the contrary, it refers to the fact that bourgeois productive relations bring the social antagonism to its final perfection by uncovering all the possibilities of friction that it will ever possess. Moreover, in stating that bourgeois productive relations create the conditions for liquidating the antagonism, Marx only suggests that the conditions are necessary, not in any way sufficient for socialism. He is simply stating that they make socialism a realizable possibility. In other words, there is no reason to believe that, after these relations have become a fact, Marx restricts the subsequent types of society to capitalism and socialism, nothing else. On this point, therefore, there is at least a verbal compatibility between the conviction of Draper and that of Marx.

Before trying to determine whether Marx considers the triumph of socialism to be inevitable, several other interpretations of the doctrine are to be examined. Max Shachtman finds that the doctrine may have two meanings. After emphasizing that socialism “can be established only by conscious, deliberate, planned efforts,” he writes:

“If we can speak of the ‘inevitability’ of socialism, then it is only in a conditional sense. First, in the sense that capitalism creates all the conditions which make the advance to socialism possible; and second, in the sense that the advance to socialism is a necessity for the further progress of society itself – even more, the only way in which to preserve society. ‘In this sense,’ wrote Bukharin, along with all those who understand Marxism, ‘we may also speak of the historical necessity of socialism, since without it human society cannot continue to develop. If society is to continue to develop, socialism will inevitably come. This is the sense in which Marx and Engels spoke of ‘historical necessity!’”

The meaning of the first sense indicates that Shachtman finds it plausible, even “worthy of the name ‘scientific,’” to describe what is merely possible as inevitable. But to urge that a possibility can in any way resemble an inevitability, a meaning evidently originated by Shachtman, is, if not absurd, certainly unique.

On the basis of this sense, it presumably is “scientific” to insist that the birth of a child in the United States creates all the conditions which make its advance to the presidency inevitable. Thus, in addition to being either absurd or unique, the first sense becomes a politician’s ruse, a clever hoax.

In the second sense, the further progress of society refers to the things enabling man to cease being a victim of necessity, to the values and the material means consistent with freedom. If Shachtman means anything less than this, then the further progress of society can be achieved without making the advance to socialism. In other words, the further progress of society is identical with the advance to socialism. For this reason, the second sense is as weird as the first. That is, Shachtman is urging that the advance to socialism is a necessity for the advance to socialism.

Instead of the values and the material means to be achieved by socialism, Bukharin is only speaking about the material means allowing the values to be realized. That is, if the material means are to continue to develop, then the advance to socialism needs to be made. But since the material means are only one aspect of socialism, Bukharin’s meaning, unlike Shachtman’s, is not an unenlightening tautology, not a clever hoax.

The talent for hoaxes reaches spectacular proportions with Shachtman’s observation that “all those who understand Marxism” take the doctrine of inevitability in a conditional sense. The observation neatly disposes of Cannon, Johnson and Forest as well as of Draper, and this is not a great loss. But it also disposes of Plekhanov, Lenin and Trotsky, whose understanding of Marxism has generally been considered adequate.

In other words, Plekhanov finds the triumph of socialism not to be in any sense conditional but, quite the opposite, an “absolute inevitability.” And Lenin, though disagreeing with Plekhanov on a variety of matters, seemingly endorses the veracity of this fact. For in 1921, even when considering Plekhanov a political fraud, a Menshevik incompetent, Lenin states “that one cannot become an intelligent and genuine Communist without having studied – I say advisedly studied – all that Plekhanov has written on philosophy, for it is the best of its kind in international Marxist literature.” Trotsky, too, has no truck with the idea that the arrival of socialism is to be taken in a conditional sense. He writes:

“The lucubrations of certain intellectuals on the theme that, regardless of Marx’s teaching, socialism is not, inevitable, but merely possible, are devoid of any content whatsoever.”

There is a fundamental difference between this usage of inevitability and Draper’s. So far as Plekhanov, Lenin and Trotsky are concerned, the process guaranteeing the advent of socialism does not suffer from the blight of causality. Instead of invoking a mechanical process, they leave man free to think, to choose, to act. For example, commenting on the coming victory of the proletariat, Trotsky writes:

“Marx had no doubt that the working class, at the cost of errors and defeats, will come to understand the actual situation and, sooner or later, will draw the imperative practical conclusions.”

Thus, though socialism can never be irrevocably forestalled, its arrival depends on a conscious act and is not, as it is for Draper, a natural event.

(Concluded in Next Issue)



1. This should not be taken to mean that Draper’s exposition is entirely without virtue. For it is an excellent recapitulation of the first two chapters of Bukharin’s Historical Materialism.

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