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John West

Max Eastman’s Straw Man

(December 1935)


From New International, Vol.2, No.7, December 1935, pp.220-225.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

MAX EASTMAN has a deceptive, though not unusual, critical method. When he wishes to make a point, he makes it by attacking what he alleges to be the ideas of some one else. But this is only appearance. Actually he builds up a straw opponent, and then goes on cheerfully to tear this straw man to pieces. Naturally he succeeds, for he is careful to build his straw man out of confused and contradictory materials, and consequently has little difficulty in the job of demolition. Most often he labels his straw man, “Marx” or “Marxism”; though other labels—for example, “Sidney Hook”—are not infrequent. It is not impossible for such a method to yield certain correct results; but the method itself is hardly the manner in which to increase our understanding of the alleged opponents. Specifically, it has contributed only to misconceptions, some of them exceedingly serious, about Marx and Marxism.

I do not intend here to discuss Eastman’s position in general. This would require, for example, an analysis of his outmoded, nineteenth-century notion of “science”, and his failure to grasp the meaning of the historical approach. My immediate purpose is more restricted; namely, to examine the leading contentions of his article, Marxism: Science or Philosophy? which appeared in the August issue of The New International.

This article makes two chief points: First, “that Marx himself did not wish to be a philosopher,” that “he did not want any philosophy at all”, that he aimed at “rooting up all philosophy forever”. Second (and more important), Eastman contends that “Marx planted the seed of a new philosophy in the very labor of rooting up all philosophy forever.” The heart of this philosophy of Marx’s own, what in fact proves Marxism to be a “philosophy” and not a “science”, is “the conception that reality itself is a purposive process, and that the highest state of mind a human being can attain is one in which he conceives himself as cooperating with, or participating in, the forward and upward going of that reality towards high ends.” Marx reads “his own ideal program of action into a world conceived as inherently purposive.” (The quotations in this paragraph are all from Eastman’s article.)


To prove that Marx did not want to be a philosopher, that he wanted to get rid of all philosophy forever, Eastman quotes at length from Die deutsche Ideologie. He believes that the quotations establish his point. This becomes part of the stuff of his straw man; Eastman can now go on to show how naive Marx was, how he failed to understand the implications of his own rejection of philosophy, and how Marx himself fell into the trap of philosophical speculation which he had pretended to lay bare.

But, surely, no one who takes Marx’s method seriously can fail to approach such a problem as this concretely, that is, in its actual historical context. A Marxist cannot merely understand “Marx’s rejection of philosophy” in the abstract; he must ask what this rejection means in the concrete historical and biographical context in which it is made. If Marx did reject “philosophy”, he was not simply expressing distaste for a certain word; he was rejecting what the word referred to within the given context. If we approach the question from this point of view, the meaning of Marx’s “rejection of philosophy” becomes clear by a study of precisely those passages from which Eastman quotes.

Die deutsche Ideologie, like the somewhat earlier The Holy Family, was part of Marx’s break with Hegelianism. First of all, then, the rejection of philosophy stated in Die deutsche Ideologie means precisely—the rejection of Hegelianism. But Hegelianism was, in common with the major tradition of German philosophy, a form of philosophic idealism. More broadly, then, the rejection of philosophy means—the rejection of idealism. This is indeed what Marx himself makes clear: “In direct opposition to German philosophy which came down from heaven to earth, we here intend to rise from earth to heaven ...”

But more than this is meant. Marx meant also the rejection of any philosophy which proceeded merely “deductively”, which believed that “truth” about the nature of reality could be obtained merely by correct reasoning from supposedly certain “first principles” known to the mind. Such a procedure characterized not merely the idealist philosophies, but likewise many earlier forms of materialism (e.g., the materialisms of the French Enlightenment). In contrast to this deductive method, Marx insists that we must “start from really acting people”, that we must discover their “empirically ascertained life-process, which is bound up with material conditions”.

But, third, the most distinctive point in this “rejection of philosophy” (for the two former are by no means peculiar to Marxism) is contained in the following sentences, quoted by Eastman: “In this way, morals, religion, metaphysics, and other forms of ideology, lose their apparent independence ... When you begin to describe reality, then an independent philosophy loses its reason for being” (the italics are in Eastman’s version). What Marx is here insisting upon, of course—and this is his central point—is that, contrary to the views of his predecessors, philosophy can be understood only historically, only in the light of the historical and social context in which the philosophy appears. He is attacking the idea of the supra-temporal character of philosophy, of its isolation from the actual world of space and time, of its absoluteness or eternity. Philosophy, like morals, like religion and economics, must be understood concretely, historically.

Does this mean a rejection of “philosophy” in the abstract, of the very meaning and possibility of philosophy of any kind? Clearly, put in this manner, the problem is a purely verbal one. If we confine our definition of the word, “philosophy”, to what Marx here concretely rejects, then he has rejected philosophy altogether. But no such restriction is necessary or particularly useful. If, for example, we include within the meaning of philosophy the analysis and criticism of the fundamental terms, concepts, postulates, and methods of the sciences and near-sciences—a use of the word shared by many contemporary philosophers—Marx’s rejection obviously does not apply. Marx himself was very much concerned with such analysis and criticism. The basis of his empirical studies in, for example, economics, politics and history, is bound up with such “philosophic” analysis. Consider the analysis of “value” and of “labour power” in the first part of Capital. Now this analysis, it is true, cannot be separated from the empirical study to which it is relevant; but it is nevertheless possible to regard it as differing sufficiently from the empirical study proper to deserve a separate name: the analysis of fundamental concepts and methods is—though always to be checked by empirical results—nevertheless presupposed in the very possibility of interpreting the empirical results. The relationship between them is, in a proper sense of the word, dialectical.

This distinction between the meaning of philosophy which Marx rejected and one meaning which he both accepted and contributed to can be enforced by a more recent example. Einstein is a scientist, and in addition a philosopher; but he is a philosopher both in the sense which Marx rejected and in that which he accepted. In his early treatises, Einstein, in part, reached certain scientific results: e.g., certain generalizations dealing with masses at high relative velocities, and with certain data of “field physics”. But to reach these results, Einstein was forced also to make a critical analysis of the fundamental concepts and presuppositions of Newtonian physics—e.g., of the concepts of “simultaneity”, “space”, “ether”, of the supposition that “absolute velocity” had a meaning. This analysis was not purely “scientific” in any usual sense of the word. It called for no new experiments or observations. What was necessary was a new schema in terms of which empirical results already obtained could be made intelligible; and this involved a revision of the root terms and postulates of Newtonian physics. If we choose to call such a criticism “science”, there is no reason to quarrel. It is more useful to use another word to distinguish such criticism from the more strictly empirical inductive aspect of science. But whatever name we use, Marx accepted and notably contributed to such criticism.

But Einstein also “philosophizes” in another sense. He writes essays stating his belief in a loose, semi-mystical kind of idealism, or even pantheism. In spite of Einstein’s own conviction to the contrary, this idealism has no logical relation whatever to his science (or to his “philosophy” in the first sense), and is no better than any other confused, sentimental wish-thinking. It is philosophy of this latter type, and the very possibility of such a philosophy which Marx rejects.

There are other and important functions of philosophy (whether or not we use the word) which Marx accepted, and to most of which he himself made contributions. But there is no need to go into details in the present connection. The important point is to avoid juggling with words, and to understand precisely what Marx did mean, in Die deutsche Ideologie and elsewhere, when he “rejected philosophy”. We shall then be better able to defend the necessary and acceptable tasks of “philosophy” against the naive positivism of the Eastmans as well as against the day dreams of the idealists, and to clarify our understanding of the full import of Marx’s own method.


Eastman, however, believes that Marx, though trying to get rid of philosophy altogether, fell victim to it not only in the “acceptable” senses which I have discussed, but also in the “bad” sense—a sense which is clearly incompatible with the allegations of Marxism. Eastman claims, as we have seen, that Marx treats reality as a purposive process, that he “reads his own ideal program of action into a world conceived as inherently purposive”.

If this claim is true, Eastman is quite correct in contending that Marx’s abandonment of philosophy is hollow, and that Marx retained the heart of Hegelianism while turning it “the other side up”. The view that the world is purposive is a view of idealism, and, for that matter, usually of religious forms of idealism.

Eastman writes as if Marx had been well-intentioned but exceedingly naive with respect to this problem. The first thing to notice is that both Marx and Engels were keenly aware of it, and make frequent references to it—though not usually in Eastman’s terminology. Indeed, their distinction between “utopian” and “scientific” socialism centers around this very point. This is, however, obscured by the habit of commentators to suppose that by calling socialism “scientific” Marx and Engels meant that history, political-economy, etc., are scientific in the same sense and according to the same methods as, for example, physics and chemistry. This latter notion is, of course, preposterous, and is held by some positivists, not by Marxists. What above all Marx and Engels meant by calling their socialism scientific was that it studied historical and social processes as non-purposive; that they were resolved to discover the general laws of historical development (especially of capitalist society) as these operated independently of the ideals, wishes and subjective purposes of human beings.

“Its [scientific socialism’s] task was no longer to manufacture a system of society as perfect as possible, but to examine the historico-economic succession of events from which these classes and their antagonisms had of necessity sprung, and to discover in the economic conditions thus created the means of ending the conflict.” (Engels, Socialism, Utopian and Scientific)

Indeed, Engels’ whole essay is an attack upon those who do what Eastman accuses Marx of doing—who read their own ideal program into the world. It is precisely this which, according to Engels, defines them as “Utopian”.


“In the social production of their subsistence men enter into determined and necessary relations with each other which are independent of their wills—production-relations which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces ... The mode of production of the material subsistence conditions the social, political and spiritual life-process in general ...” (Marx, Introduction to Critique of Political Economy—My italics.)

These are, of course, “standard quotations”. What it is necessary to clarify, however, is a certain ambiguity in stating that the social relations into which men enter (corresponding to the development of material productive forces) are “independent of their wills”. Marx does not mean that the “wills”—purposes, preferences, ideals, etc.—of men have no role whatever in the historical process (as they do not, for example, in the activities of electrons). This would be manifestly absurd. Men’s wills and purposes do in fact enter in as an integral part of the historical process. As Marx puts it, “The production of ideas and conceptions, of consciousness is, to begin with, directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men.” This is sufficiently obvious. For example, in the early nineteenth century, many of the former artisans and peasants were faced, by the onrush of capitalist economy, with the choice of working for wages or starving. That they should have “willed” or “purposed” to work was an essential prerequisite for the development of capitalist production. However, they might have willed otherwise. Not only is this a bare logical possibility: some did will otherwise, some willed to starve. Similarly, individual capitalists, after accumulating a certain amount of money not only might have but did in some cases “will” to hoard their money, rather than to put it back into production or to loan it at interest.

What Marx means is, then, not that the process of development goes on independently of “will” altogether; but that the course of development is independent of this or that “willing” or “purposing” of particular individuals—that individual peculiarities in “willing” will not affect the general result, and will cancel out in the long run. And he means, secondly, that the wills, purposes, and ideals held by individuals or groups of individuals do not, under any circumstances, play an “independent” role divorced from material social conditions in terms of which they operate.

This distinction is not without importance. Part of Eastman’s confusion, and all of his belief that the Theses on Feuerbach support his argument, are the result of a failure to understand it. Because Eastman observes rightly that Marx finds purposes and ideals entering integrally into the historical process, he concludes that Marx “reads purposes and ideals into the historical process”. But such a conclusion would be justified only if History were a science in the same sense that physics is a science, and if its subject-matter were of the same nature. When we discuss the behavior of atoms, we have little temptation to read purpose or will into the world of atoms, because our subject-matter specifically excludes any form of purpose or will. But when we discuss history, which involves as “its first premise” (according to Die deutsche Ideologie) “the existence of living human individuals”, we could hardly do so adequately without taking some account of the thoughts, wills, purposes and ideals which the living human individuals have.

What Marx did, then, was not to read ideals and purposes into history, but to discover them (and other forms and manifestations of consciousness) as objectively part of the historical process. Part of his task was to explain how ideals and purposes and consciousness in general (including systematized forms of consciousness such as morals, philosophy and religion) entered into the historical process, what concretely was the relationship between the forms of consciousness and the productive relations, and between them in turn and the technique of production. In doing so he overthrew both idealism and vulgar materialism. He denied the idealist contention that consciousness in any sense “determined existence” or played an independent non-historical rôle; and he denied equally the vulgar materialist conception of a single reality consisting of mechanical atoms in a statically determined interrelationship. In Marx’s view, “which conforms to real life, one proceeds from the really living individuals themselves and regards consciousness [not as something “unreal” as did the vulgar materialists but] only as their consciousness”.


But, Eastman might point out, Marx claims to discover a “direction” in history. Is this not a reading of ideals into the world, a belief that history is purposive, and moving forward to a realization of the ideal? Certainly this would be a valid criticism of most if not all of the bourgeois doctrines of Progress which flourished so popularly during the nineteenth century.

We must ask ourselves what Marx meant by saying that history has a direction. We discover that it was not for him a “moral” notion at all—though we might on occasion draw moral conclusions from it. Marx saw a direction to history in observable, formulable material conditions. This direction is best indicated in the development of the means of production, and is roughly measurable in terms of the output of goods per time-unit of labor. This “direction” is surely not a reading of Marx’s ideals into the world. It is empirical fact which we can confirm by the concrete study of history. It is possible to regard this fact as morally either good or bad, and it is at the present time regarded in both ways by various individuals. If we—as Marx and Marxists generally do—regard it as “good” in the sense that it provides a chief material condition for making possible general material well-being, and thereby providing the basis for great cultural advances for humanity as a whole, we are not in any sense reading our ideal program into the world. We are doing rather the opposite: we are, in a sense, basing our ideal program on the actualities of the real world and the real historical process. It is the contemporary medievalists or the southern agrarians or the liberal meliorists who read their ideal programs into the world: for they formulate their ideals (back to the thirteenth century or to Jefferson, or on to cooperative capitalism) with no relation to historical actualities. Their ideals are not merely “morally wrong” (which is a meaningless statement, in any case, in the abstract), but impossible. In their supposition that these ideals are possible is to be discovered their “reading of their ideal program into the world”.

Marx not merely pointed to a “direction” in past history. He likewise, up to a certain point, predicted the direction of history in the future. Is it on this basis that Eastman can conclude that Marx viewed history as purposive, that he read his ideals into the world? Did Marx, as Eastman would seem to suggest, begin by “willing” the further development of capitalism, the intensification of its contradictions, its overthrow, and the victory of socialism, begin by believing in these developments as “ideals”; and then, by a gigantic process of rationalization, and by reading them into the historical process, pretending to discover them in history as “objective” laws of future historical change?

Eastman, unfortunately, sees this question as primarily a psychological one. As such it has a purely biographical interest. It may be—it is for the biographer to answer—that Marx was driven to the long years in the British Museum by an inescapable psychic drive to justify to himself his own pre-conceived “ideals”, to “make” history conform to him, and not his knowledge to history. But this is not a relevant question to the economist, the historian, or the revolutionist. These latter must ask, not what was Marx’s inner psychic urge, but—was he correct in his conclusions? Can Eastman deny that Marx was, in general at least, correct in predicting that the development of the means of production (in terms of greater output per time-unit of labor, etc.) would be carried further? or that this development would be increasingly hindered and even sent backwards (at least relatively backwards) by the continued maintenance of the capitalist social relations? or that working class associations and parties would develop? or that some at least of these organizations would have as their aim, in theory and practise, the overthrow of capitalist society and the enforcement of new social relations which would permit the less restricted development of the means of production? Eastman can hardly deny the objective truth—in general, at least—of these predictions. They have already been confirmed in actuality. The question of Marx’s psychological process, consequently, is irrelevant. If it is true that these developments corresponded with Marx’s “ideals”, this is of only accidental importance. Once again, Marx was discovering the objective course of historical development, independent of his own or of any individual ideals or purposes. If it happens to be a fact—as it demonstrably is—that history develops in certain more or less lawful ways, in certain more or less definite directions, and if we state those laws and that direction, we are no more considering history as “purposive” than we would be considering a brick “purposive” when we predict that it will fall if we drop it from a high place. There is a difference, of course, in the two cases, as we have already seen: the purposes and wills of men are part of the historical process, whereas they are not part of the activities of the brick; but the purposes and wills are themselves subject to the general laws.


However, Eastman is not yet fully answered. Marx, he will maintain, does not merely predict such developments and such a direction as have been mentioned. He states in addition that the victory of socialism is “inevitable”. What does this mean? It means, Eastman will claim, that Marx believed that the process of history itself guarantees the realization of Marx’s own subjective ideal (namely, socialism)—in other words, that the world (nature, history ...) is purposive. Thus, in the doctrine that “socialism is inevitable” Eastman finds convincing demonstration that Marx “read his own ideal program of action into a world conceived as inherently purposive”.

It is not my intention at this time to go fully into the alleged doctrine of “the inevitability of socialism”. I wish to do so only sufficiently to show that Eastman cannot justify his criticism of Marx as an “unwitting philosopher” by an appeal to it.

That Marx wrote, on certain occasions, in certain contexts, that socialism is inevitable, is unquestionably true. For example, in the Communist Manifesto, he wrote that the fall of the bourgeoisie “and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable”. But does it therefore follow that Marx was reading a guarantee, a purpose, into history?

This question is not so clear as it might at first sight seem to be. The reason for this is the extreme ambiguity of the word “inevitability” itself. What do we mean when we say that something is inevitable? A number of clearly distinguishable meanings are possible:

  1. Sometimes we mean “logically inevitable”, as in the proposition, “It is inevitable that the angles of any plane triangle should equal 180 degrees.” This is, however, a purely formal meaning, and not relevant to the present question, where we refer to an actual future event. Socialism is obviously not logically inevitable, for there are innumerable alternatives which involve no contradiction.
  2. Often we mean only “highly probable”, as in the proposition, “If you don’t take your umbrella, you’ll inevitably get wet” (as we might say if the weather looked very threatening). But Marx clearly meant more, or at least something different than, this.
  3. Mathematicians express “inevitability” as equivalent to “having a probability of 1”. In mathematics itself this meaning, like the logical meaning, is also purely formal, depending merely upon the definition of the problem. However, in its factual application it is perhaps this meaning which Marx had in mind. He may have meant that the future victory of socialism has, as a matter of objective fact, a probability of 1—in other words, that this victory is objectively certain. At any rate, many alleged Marxists have understood the statement in this way, and the controversies concerning it have—though confusedly—centered on this meaning.
  4. But there are other possible meanings of “inevitable”. It is used with a directive meaning, as when a general might say to his soldiers, “Go forth and battle bravely—your victory is inevitable.” The logical content of his exhortation is: “if you battle bravely enough, then you will win.” But putting it in this form might weaken its effect in rousing the soldiers, which in turn may be a necessary condition of their winning.
  5. There is a closely allied meaning of “inevitable”—what might be called a moral or psychological meaning. A boxer might say that “he will inevitably beat his opponent” and mean concretely (a) that it is possible for him to win, and (b) that he is going to put his entire determination and will into seeing that he does win. Analogously, a revolutionist might mean by saying that socialism is inevitable that he is resolved to stick by his principles and to fight for them whatever happens. Thus the Bolshevik-Leninists in the Soviet Union do indeed remain “inevitably” true to the revolution, when they accept exile, torture, or even death rather than capitulation.
  6. Finally, there is the teleological, idealist, or religious meaning, which Eastman attributes to Marx. In this light, “socialism is inevitable” because a “something” (God’s Will, the logical unfolding of the Absolute, or simply “the historic process itself”) guarantees the outcome. Such a view of history is characteristic of idealists, and especially of theologians. Such people all regard the outcome of history as inevitable, because it is assured by Reality itself. In the end the Kingdom of God or the Perfect State will come to this world, or all will be perfectly consummated in a World Hereafter.

Now we have already noted that the first and second meanings of “inevitable” are inadequate to explain what Marx believed. The third and fourth (what I have called the “directive” and the “moral” or “psychological”) are, I feel, clearly part of what Marx meant. He meant what all revolutionists mean: to exhort the proletariat to take up battle and to win; and to express his own resolve not to give up the struggle. But more than this is meant.

The question, then, is seen to center around the third and sixth meanings, and we may re-phrase the problem as follows: Marx said that he rejected the sixth (“i.e., the idealist) meaning. But did he believe the third: namely, that the victory of socialism has a probability of 1? And if he did believe this, does it then follow that he was therefore unconsciously—in spite of what he said—resting on the sixth meaning? That is what Eastman would maintain. He would say that there are in fact no sufficient objective grounds, no adequate evidence, for assigning a 1 probability to the victory of socialism; and, consequently, the belief that it has such a probability (that is, is certain) can flow only from a conscious or unconscious belief in the purposive character of the world, only from reading our ideals into history and thus “discovering” in history the guarantee of their fulfillment.

In the first place, I wish to point out that it does not follow that the assignment of a probability of 1 to a future event necessarily involves a belief in the world as purposive. For example, I might say that “If I drop this brick, there is a probability of 1 that (it is inevitable that) it will fall to the ground” or that “It is inevitable that I will die” without at all assigning a purpose to nature which guarantees these outcomes. Perhaps I will be mistaken. Perhaps, even, I never have sufficient objective grounds for assigning a probability of 1 to any future event. But nevertheless, I will then be merely mistaken, not reading ideals and purposes into nature. This seems to me clear in the two instances I have just cited. And theoretically it seems to me also clear in the case of the belief that socialism is inevitable. Perhaps this belief is in error; but merely asserting it does not seem to entail the reading of an ideal or purpose into nature, any more than in the case of the operation of the laws of gravity or of the processes of biological dissolution.

However, even if there is no necessary connection in theory, it must be admitted that most persons who have believed in the inevitability of some certain historical outcome have in fact been guilty, consciously or unconsciously, of reading ideals into nature—have been, that is, idealists or theologians under the skin. Does this hold also in the case of Marx?

To answer, we must first summarize briefly the objective grounds on which Marx (and Marxists) base their contention that socialism is likely (leaving aside, at present, the question of whether it is certain—i.e., has a probability of 1). These include: (1) The chief long term material conditions for socialism—the centralization of industry, the high technical level of production, the large-scale “socialization” of labor engaged in production, etc.—are not merely probable but already present. (2) The more immediate conditions for the overthrow of capitalism—serious economic dislocations, financial chaos, general social unrest, etc.—from time to time arise in contemporary society. (3) The continuance of the capitalist social relations, by their very nature, means necessarily increasing inability to utilize the productive forces, means actual sabotage of the productive forces, and means further, as a consequence, wide-spread hunger, war, social chaos, etc. (4) The victory of socialism, and the establishment of its type of social relations is the only way in which the continued utilization and development of the means of production can be carried out.

Now these four factors (and other similar ones which might be added) are, though necessary conditions for socialism, not yet sufficient for the victory of socialism. We sometimes speak as if the machines, “strangled” by the social relations (the property relations), would rise up and smash them. But, of course, this is only metaphor. The only “means of production” which can rise up is the working class; to achieve the victory of socialism, living men must achieve it; and this means concretely that the working class must overthrow the bourgeoisie. We must, therefore, add a fifth set of factors, of a somewhat different kind from the first four: the existence of a sufficient number of persons who both desire to change the material conditions of capitalist society and to establish a socialist society in its place; and, in addition, who possess sufficient courage, resolution, vigour, and political wisdom to be able to do so against the opposition of those who are resolved to maintain society on its capitalist basis. In the concrete, this fifth factor is roughly equivalent to the active existence of an adequate revolutionary party.

Our problem now becomes: Will this fifth factor be present? Or rather, what is the probability that it will be present? The other four factors are either actually present, or are essential aspects of the nature of capitalism. No reasonable doubt as to them can be entertained. But to conclude that the victory of socialism has a probability of 1, we shall have to present conclusive evidence that this fifth factor has a probability of 1, since without it socialism will not conquer.

The evidence in favor of the fifth factor is drawn chiefly from history. Whenever, in the past, the means of production have no longer been capable of further development under the given social relations, a class of men, usually with the aid of other classes or groups, has in the long run taken social power and altered the social relations to permit further development of the means of production. Sufficient resentment, courage, and intelligence has been generated in this class to enable it to overthrow the class whose social position depended on the outmoded social relations. We may, on the basis of this evidence, conclude that there is a likelihood that this will happen in the case of a transition from capitalism to socialism. Supplementary evidence may be drawn from social psychology and from contemporary history. It seems unlikely, from what we know about how men in society behave, that they will fail, in the end, to take the only solution which will permit the development of the means of production and prevent a relapse of mankind to barbarism. We observe, furthermore, that since the time of Marx the active revolutionary movement has had a continuous existence, and that revolutionary parties or groups have existed or do exist in nearly all countries.

Now this evidence seems to me sufficient to establish what might be called a “likelihood” for the fifth factor; but I see no way in which this likelihood can be translated into a definite probability quotient. Certainly it does not have a probability of 1. The belief that it does would be the sheerest kind of rationalization. This is conclusively shown by a single fact alone: by the fundamental difference between the change from capitalism to socialism and any previous changes in social systems. Previously society has changed always from one form of class exploitation to another; the change to socialism would, however, be a change from class society to a classless society. For this reason, only a loose and rough analogy can be drawn from the past to apply to the change to socialism. This analogy is far too inaccurate to establish anything approaching a probability of 1 for the victory of socialism. It may even be that in the course of the present and approaching intra-capitalist struggles and struggles against capitalism, men will, with modern destructive techniques (which also have no counterpart in the past) destroy each other completely; or at any rate destroy every vestige of civilization. If the latter, historical development would no doubt begin again; and milleniums from now the problem of the victory of socialism would once again face men; and once again it would not have a probability of 1.

This, then, is what seems to me to be the case: The chief material social and economic conditions for the victory of socialism are given in contemporary society; the political and psychological conditions are sufficiently assured to give the objective opportunity for actually achieving the victory of socialism. But whether the opportunity will be taken, whether victory will be achieved, cannot be predicted with certainty beforehand. This is a contingent factor, depending above all on the revolutionary party. I conclude, thus, that the victory of socialism, objectively considered, has a certain probability—is even likely; but that this probability is less than 1.

I believe that this is what Marx meant on those few occasions when he wrote that “socialism is inevitable”. Only such an interpretation can make intelligible his own practical activity, or the powerful influence of his own writings in shaping the revolutionary movement. And this is clearly the attitude of all great revolutionary leaders, if we look not at their words in the abstract, in isolation, but in their concrete context, especially in the context of their lives and activities. The revolutionary leaders have been distinguished, first, by a firm, cold, impersonal estimate of material conditions, and, second, by acting correctly, intelligently, decisively in the right way at the right moment. How else can we understand Lenin’s polemics against those who after the War thought that European capitalism would fall over without a “push”; or Trotsky’s attack today (in France), as always, on those who expect a revolutionary situation to develop to maturity “of itself”?

“There is no crisis which can be, by itself, fatal to capitalism. The oscillations of the business cycle only create a situation in which it will be easier, or more difficult, for the proletariat to overthrow capitalism. The transition from a bourgeois society to socialist society presupposes the activity of living men who are the makers of their own history ... If ... the party of the working class, in spite of favorable conditions, reveals itself incapable of leading the proletariat to the seizure of power, the life of society will continue necessarily upon a capitalist foundation—until a new crisis, a new war, perhaps until the complete disintegration of European civilization.” (Trotsky, paraphrasing Marx and Lenin, in Whither France?)

It is true, however, that the “inevitability of socialism” is not interpreted in this way by many alleged Marxists. Many do regard it as a “guarantee” that socialism will conquer—as meaning that socialism has a probability of 1. Historically, we discover that such a view has always been the expression of forces which have slipped away from the revolutionary struggle for power to non-revolutionary or anti-revolutionary activities. We find insistence on “inevitability” in this latter sense characteristic of the theoretical views of, for example, the following:

  1. Social-democratic gradualism. In this case, from the late nineteenth century on, belief in the inevitability of socialism has proved a satisfying rationalization of the repudiation of the struggle for power. Why not peaceful, gradual development, if socialism is inevitable anyway? There can be no answer to this question if its premise is granted. The gradualists are correct: The Leninists have no justification for their call to the masses to break with reformism and take the road of bitter struggle, if victory is guaranteed in advance. The masses would be quite right in replying: “Go talk to someone else. We have enough troubles as it is. The meek will be rewarded equally with the brave—your ‘historic process’ will take care of that; and it is a lot less trouble to be meek.”
  2. Stalinism. The Stalinist theoreticians, with their so-called philosophy of dialectical materialism—which is only a disguised form of monistic objective idealism—likewise make a great point of the “inevitability” of socialism, even proving that anyone who doesn’t believe in its inevitability is thereby demonstrated to retain typical “petty-bourgeois vacillations”. And the Stalinist acceptance of the dogma is no accident. All the workers of the world need do now is to preserve peace and the status quo, and allow socialism to be built quietly in the Soviet Union. The struggle for state power may be put aside for this period; the defeats in Germany, or Spain, or France, are only minor episodes; because, of course, victory is guaranteed in advance when the proper time comes—when Stalin finishes up socialism in Russia and starts out for new lands to conquer. Once again, the theoretic attack on Stalinism must include a denial that victory is, either in the long run or in a short time, guaranteed; it must insist that victory must be won, must be seized.
  3. Sectarianism. Insistence on the inevitability of socialism (in the sense that it has a probability of 1) has also characterized most types of sectarianism throughout the history of the movement. In this case, the doctrine becomes, the philosophic justification for failing to go to the masses, for the substitution of purest revolutionary phrase-mongering for revolutionary activity. In the long run, the sectarian reasons, the masses will come to us, for our ideas are true and their victory is inevitable. We need only keep our theses and our resolutions pure. Thus, as in the case of the gradualists and the Stalinists, the sectarians likewise reveal the non-revolutionary character of their position, which is, as in the other two cases, rationalized and made philosophically respectable by the doctrine of inevitability.

To the extent that Eastman’s attack is directed against this conception of inevitability, he renders a great service. I agree with him that the belief that the victory of socialism has a probability of 1, that history itself objectively “guarantees” its victory (for this is what the belief amounts to) is in essence a form of philosophic idealism, a reading of one’s own ideals into the world, and closely allied to a religious attitude. As such, it has nothing in common with the genuinely Marxist attitude, which indissolubly combines scientific objectivity with the intransigent struggle for power. I believe that in attributing the former attitude to Marx himself, Eastman is mistaken, and that his mistake flows from taking Marx’s words in isolation, out of their context in Marx’s writings and the larger context of Marx’s activities. But this is after all a minor matter. If Eastman chooses to make a correct and gravely important point by building up a straw-man-Marx, he must be criticized for historical inaccuracy, and for the confusions such a method leads to. But to the extent that his criticism is directed in essence not against Marx but against the non-revolutionary falsifiers of living Marxism, we must not merely accept but drive home his lesson.


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Last updated: 13.3.2005