Tony Judt on Marxism
Judt, Tony; Snyder, Timothy Thinking the Twentieth Century,
Questions (bolded) by Tim Snyder
Answers by Tony Judt
It’s the magic of Hegel, though, isn’t it, Tony? Because what Marx is combining, in what you say, is an essentially conservative view, a spiritual view of the past, with the dialectical argument that what is bad for us is actually good for us. Think of Engels writing about the family, for example, but also Marx’s idea about species-nature before it is corrupted by property: here you have descriptions of human integrity and harmony in the prehistorical or nonhistorical past that give pause even today thanks to their sheer intensity. Through Hegelian dialectics, nostalgia is combined with the capacity not merely to accept but to welcome whatever is destroying the beauty of the past. You can embrace the city, and you can embrace the factory: both represent creative destruction. Capitalism may seem to oppress us, and it may seem to alienate us, and it certainly pauperizes us, but nevertheless it has its own beauty and is an objective achievement, which we will later be able to exploit as we return our own nature to ourselves.
Remember, this gives the Marxist a distinct advantage in dialectical confrontations. To liberals and progressives who assert that all is for the best, Marx offers a powerful narrative of suffering and loss, deterioration and destruction. Of conservatives, who would agree with this and augment the assertion by insisting upon the superiority of the past, Marx was of course contemptuous: these changes, however unappealing in the medium term, are the necessary and in any case unavoidable price we pay for a better future. They are what they are, but they are worth it.
I wonder if Lenin’s success doesn’t also have to do with a certain audacity about the future. Lenin treated Marx as a determinist, a scientist of history. The more intelligent Marxists of the age—Gramsci, Antonio Labriola, Stanisław Brzozowski and György Lukács—refused to follow suit (though Lukács later changed his mind). But in this respect Lenin’s was the dominant reading, following Engels. Then Lenin decided that “scientists of history” are allowed not just to observe the experiment but to intervene in it, to nudge things along. After all, if we know what the results are in advance, why not get there more quickly, especially if the results are so very much to be desired. But then, believing in the grand idea gives you confidence about the present meaning of otherwise small, trivial and unglamorous facts. This in turn told against the Kantian forms of Marxism, still widespread in those years: attempts to furnish Marxism with its own, self-sufficient ethics. For Lenin, ethics are retroactively instrumental. Little lies, small deceptions, insignificant betrayals and passing dissimulations will all make sense in the light of later results and will be rendered morally acceptable by them. And what is true for small things ends up applying to big ones too.
You don’t even have to be confident about the future. The question is whether in principle you agree to allow the account to be rendered in the name of the future, or whether you believe that accounts should be closed at the end of each day. A further distinction of consequence concerns those making future-dependent calculations on their own behalf or behalf of others, and those making such calculations and feeling at liberty to impose them on others. It is one thing to say that I am willing to suffer now for an unknowable but possibly better future. It is quite another to authorize the suffering of others in the name of that same unverifiable hypothesis. This, in my view, is the intellectual sin of the century: passing judgment on the fate of others in the name of their future as you see it, a future in which you may have no investment, but concerning which you claim exclusive and perfect information.
Let me take a stab at epistemologically separating liberalism from Marxism. Liberalism starts with optimistic assumptions about human nature, but in practice it’s easy to slide down a slope, where one learns that one should be a bit more pessimistic, which requires a bit more intervention, a bit more condescension, a bit more elitism, and so on. And that is, in fact, the history of liberalism, at least to the new liberalism of the early twentieth century with its acceptance of state intervention. Whereas liberalism assumes an optimism about human nature that erodes a bit with experience, Marxism,thanks to its Hegelian heritage, assumes at least one non-contingent fact: our alienation. The Marxist view goes something like this: our nature is rather bad, but it could be rather good. The source of both the condition and the possibility are private property, a contingent variable. In short, change is truly at our disposal, and in a striking form: with revolution comes an end not merely to the regime of property but also and thereby to injustice, loneliness and the badly lived lives. Because such a future is at our disposal, nature itself becomes fungible—or rather, our present unsatisfactory condition becomes unnatural. In the light of such a vision, almost any radical step and authoritarian attitude become imaginable and even desirable—a conclusion a liberal simply cannot entertain.
Look, this epistemological and moral chasm does not separate liberals from Marxists so much as it divides Marxists among themselves. Thus, if we examine the past 130 years or so, we see that the most important line was the one separating Marxists who were attracted to the most extreme version of this story (especially in their youth) but who ultimately did not accept its implications—and thus, in the end, its premises—and those for whom it remained credible to the end, consequences and all. The notion that everything is or else it isn’t—that everything is either one thing or another but cannot be both at the same time, that if something (e.g., torture) is bad then it cannot be dialectically rendered good by virtue of its results: this is and always was an un-Marxist thought and was duly castigated, as you know, as “Revisionism.” Rightly so, because such epistemological empiricism has its roots in liberal political thought and represents—indeed always represented—a clean break with the religious style of reasoning which lies at the core of Marxism’s appeal.
All the same, for much of the past century many social democrats who would have been horrified to think of themselves as anything other than Marxist—much less as “liberal”—were unable to make the ultimate move into retroactive necessitarianism. In most cases, they had the good fortune to avoid the choice. In Scandinavia, accession to power was open to social democrats without any need to overthrow or repress existing authorities. In Germany, those who were not willing to compromise with constitutional or moral constraints took themselves out of the social democratic consensus. In France, the question was irrelevant thanks to the compromises imposed by republican politics and in England it was redundant thanks to the marginality of the radical left. Paradoxically, in all these countries, self-styled Marxists could continue to tell themselves stories: they could persist in the belief that the Marxist historical narrative informed their actions, without facing the implications of taking that claim seriously. But in other places—of which Russia was the first and exemplary instance—access to power was indeed open to Marxists precisely because of their uncompromising claims upon history and other people. And so, following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, there was a sharp and enduring schism between those who would not digest the human consequences of their own theories, and those for whom these same consequences were nasty in just the way they had thought they would be, and all the more convincing for that reason: it’s really hard; we’ve really got to make difficult choices; we have no choice but to do bad things; this is a revolution; if we are in the omelette-making business, this is not the moment to coddle the eggs. In other words, this is a break with the past and with our enemies, justified and explained by an all-embracing logic of human transformation. Marxists for whom all of this suggested mere repression were (not altogether unreasonably) accused of failing to grasp the implications of their own doctrine and condemned to the dustbin of History.
Yes, it’s as though after the Russian Revolution of 1917 the Bolsheviks monopolized the mysticism.Why did faith come so easily to the fellow travelers, to those who identified with the Soviet Union during its bloodiest moments?
The story of the Soviet Union for those who had faith in it, whether as communists or as progressive fellow travelers, was actually not related to what they saw. To ask why people who went there did not see the truth is to miss the point. The majority of people who understood what was taking place in the Soviet Union did not need to go there to see it. Whereas those who went to the Soviet Union as true believers usually came back in the same condition (André Gide was a famous and rare exception). In any event, the kind of truth that a believer was seeking was not testable by reference to contemporary evidence but only to future outcomes. It was always about believing in a future omelet that would justify an infinite number of broken eggs in the present. If you ceased to believe, then you were not simply abandoning a piece of social data which you had apparently misread hitherto; you were abandoning a story that could alone justify any data one wished so long as the future payoff was guaranteed. Communism also offered an intense feeling of community with fellow believers. In the first volume of his memoirs, the French poet Claude Roy recalls his youthful fascism. The book is called Moi. But the second volume, which deals with his communist years, is significantly titled Nous. That is symptomatic. Communist thinkers felt part of a community of like-feeling intellectuals, which gave them the sense that not only were they doing the right thing, but also that they were moving in the direction of history. “We” were doing it, not just “me.” This overcame the idea of the lonely crowd notion and placed the individual communist at the center, not only of a historical project, but of a collective process. And it’s interesting how often the memoirs of the disillusioned are cast in terms of the loss of community, as well as the loss of faith. The hard thing was not opening your eyes to what Stalin was doing, but breaking with all the other people who had believed it along with you. And so this combination of faith and the very considerable attractions of shared allegiance gave communism something that no other political movement could boast. Of course, different groups of thinkers were drawn to communism for different reasons. One generation, born around 1905, people like Arthur Koestler, was attracted to Leninism in its earliest years and disillusioned at the latest by Stalin’s show trials in 1936 or the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939. That generation is thus quite different from those who were seduced by the image of the victorious Red Army in the Second World War, by the resistance heroism of communist parties (real and imagined) and by the sense that if America was the alternative, and America stood for capitalism in its crassest incarnation, then Communism was an easy choice. That later generation tended to encounter disillusionment in 1956, in the form of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Whereas for the earlier generation of communists it was the failure of social democracy and the apparently inexorable choice between fascism and communism which mattered most, by the 1940s and 1950s, the choices looked quite different—even though Stalin tried hard to present the Cold War as an essentially similar set of options. And so, fellow travelers—sympathetic to communism but not quite committed to joining it—matter more in the later story than in the interwar one, when the salient issue was whether and when people ceased to be communists and became . . . ex-communists.
What really mattered to intellectuals was a milieu: people whom you knew—or people who were like the people you knew—and the things that happened to them. Beyond this milieu were the collectivized peasants who lost their land and starved by the millions in the early 1930s and then were shot in the hundreds of thousands later in the decade.
There’s a lovely essay by Koestler in The Trail of the Dinosaur called, “The Little Flirts of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.” He writes about French fellow travelers and communists as peeping toms, peering through a hole in the wall at history, while not having to experience it themselves. The victims of communism could comfortably be re-described (and often were) as the victims not of men but of History. Communism thus passed as Hegel’s spirit doing the work of history, in countries where history had failed to do the work for itself. From such a distance one can make arguments about History’s costs and benefits: but the costs are borne by someone else and the benefits can be anything you wish to imagine. In one sense this is rather like the debates over the Industrial Revolution that we studied in King’s College when I was an undergraduate: it may have had terrible human outcomes in the short run, but it was both necessary and beneficial. The transformation was necessary because without industrialization there would not have been generated the wealth needed to overcome Malthusian impediments in agrarian societies; and it was beneficial because in the long run everyone’s standard of living rose.
The argument thus resembles the case proposed by communism’s Western apologists (on those occasions when they acknowledged the scale of its crimes). The difference of course is that no one was sitting in London in 1833, planning the Industrial Revolution and deciding that—whatever its costs—they were worth imposing on others for the sake of the long run benefits.
This point of view is summed up in Bertolt Brecht’s obnoxious poem, admired by so many people: “Even the hatred of squalor/
Makes the brow grow stern. Even anger against injustice/
Makes the voice grow harsh. Alas, we/
Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness/ Could not ourselves be kind.” In order, in short, to justify present crimes we must keep our eyes firmly focused upon future gains. But we do well to bear in mind that in such accounts, the costs are always assigned to others, and usually to another time and place.
This seems to me an exercise in applied political romanticism. We see it in similar cases elsewhere in the twentieth century. In a world where many people—intellectuals above all—no longer believe in the afterlife, death has to acquire an alternative significance. There must be a reason for it; it must be advancing history: God is dead, long live death.
All of this would have been much harder to imagine in the absence of the First World War and the cult of death and violence to which it gave rise. What communist intellectuals and their fascist counterparts had in common in the years after 1917 was a profound attraction to mortal struggle and its beneficial social or aesthetic outcomes. Fascist intellectuals in particular made death at once the justification and the attraction of war and civil violence: out of such mayhem was to be born a better man and a better world. Before we set about congratulating ourselves on having said “goodbye to all that,” let’s remember that this romantic sensibility is by no means behind us. I well recall the response of Condoleezza Rice, then U.S. Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, to the Second Lebanese War in 2006. Commenting on the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon and the scale of civilian suffering to which it gave rise, she confidently asserted that these were “the birth pangs of a new Middle East.” And I remember thinking at the time, I have heard this before. You know what I mean: once again, other people’s ordeals are being justified as History’s way of delivering a new world, and thereby assigning meaning to events that would be otherwise unforgivable and inexplicable. If a conservative American Secretary of State can resort to such cant in the twenty-first century, why should European intellectuals not have invoked similar justifications half a century before?