Slogans for a Gulag Society

Young Karl Marx made a demand. Marx insisted that we must reabsorb the communal into our personal lives, in order to realize our full potential as human beings. Then, and only then, would humanity be truly emancipated. As Marx said in 1843:

Only when real, individual man reabsorbs into himself the abstract citizen and becomes a species-being, in his everyday life, in his individual work, and in his individual relationships; only when man recognizes and organizes his “forces propres,” his own powers, as social powers, and, consequently, no longer separates from himself social force in the shape of political force–only then will human emancipation be accomplished.

This emancipatory project was about something other than justice, freedom, or democracy. It was about the transcendence of alienation. A genuine revolution would reconcile our human essence and the conditions of our existence. It would remove the underlying causes of social antagonism. It would tear down the barriers that separate individuals from each other and from society as a whole. It would place the material conditions of life in the service of all humanity. Our interests, properly understood, would converge. As our selfish misconceptions withered away, we would come to identify with this collective unity.

Of course, communist revolutions in the twentieth century made a gruesome mockery of this promise. But their leaders did not repudiate Marx. They claimed his project as their own. They used Marxism to rationalize the contradictions of their own regimes: fraternity compelled by terror, and equality imposed by a revolutionary elite. According to philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, their interpretations were plausible, and their tyrannies should have come as no surprise. A former communist who lived for many years in the Polish People’s Republic, Kolakowski traced the logic of Marxian thought in meticulous detail. His masterly tome Main Currents of Marxism is a haunting indictment of revolutionary hubris.

Kolakowski gave a partial summary of his argument in the essay “Marxist Roots of Stalinism.” He said:

In Marx’s eyes the original sin of man, his felix culpa, responsible both for great human achievements and for human misery, was the division of labor–and its inevitable result, the alienation of labor. The extreme form of alienated labor is the exchange value, which dominates the entire process of production in industrial societies. It is not human needs but the endless accumulation of exchange value in the form of money that is the main driving force behind all human productive efforts. This has transformed human individuals, with their personal qualities and abilities, into commodities which are sold and bought according to the anonymous laws of the market, within a system of hired labor. It has generated the alienated institutional framework of modern political societies; and it has produced an inevitable split between people’s personal, selfish, self-centered lives as members of civil society on the one hand and, on the other, the artificial and obscure community which they form as members of a political society. As a result, human consciousness was bound to suffer an ideological distortion: instead of affirming human life and its own function as an “expression” of that life, it built a separate, illusory kingdom of its own, designed to perpetuate this split. With private property, the alienation of labor divided society into hostile classes struggling for the distribution of the surplus product; finally, it gave rise to the class in which all society’s dehumanization was concentrated, and which was consequently destined both to demystify consciousness and to restore the lost unity of human existence. This revolutionary process starts with smashing the institutional mechanisms which protect existing labor conditions and ends with a society where, with all the basic sources of social conflict removed, the social process is subordinated to the collective will of the individuals associated in it. These latter will then be able to unfold all their individual potentialities not against society but for its enrichment; their labor will have been gradually reduced to the necessary minimum, and free time will be enjoyed in the pursuit of cultural creativity and high-quality enjoyment. The full meaning of both history and present struggles is revealed only in the romantic vision of the perfectly united mankind of the future. Such unity implies no more need for the mediating mechanisms which separate individuals from the species as a whole. The revolutionary act that will close the “pre-history” of mankind is both inevitable and directed by free will; the distinction between freedom and necessity will have disappeared in the consciousness of the proletariat as it becomes aware of its own historical destiny through the destruction of the old order.

I suspect it was both Marx’s anticipation of man’s perfect unity and his myth of the historically privileged proletarian consciousness that led to his theory’s being turned into the ideology of the totalitarian movement; not because he conceived of it in such terms, but because its basic values could not be realized in any other way. It was not that Marx’s theory lacked a vision of future society; it did not. But even his powerful imagination could not stretch so far as to envisage the transition from the “pre-history” to “genuine history” and come up with the proper social technology for converting the former into the latter; this step had to be carried out by practical leaders. And that necessarily implied adding to the inherited body of doctrine and filling in the details.

Another partial statement of Kolakowski’s views can be found in his essay “The Myth of Human Self-Identity.” The myth was “soteriological,” or a doctrine of salvation, and it required “the identity of civil and political society.” In this essay, Kolakowski cited Marx’s quote above about “human emancipation” and argued that the revolutionary theorist’s later works “grew out of this initial hope.” The same vision, he said, “of man returning to perfect unity, experiencing his personal life directly as a social force, makes up the philosophical background of Marxian socialism. In all later writings which were to define his position in contrast to liberal, anarchist, and communist totalitarian doctrines, the same eschatological concept of unified man remains.”

Liberalism, broadly defined, is not compatible with this project. Liberalism offers social peace and individual freedom, but not perfect unity. It takes conflict between rival interests as a given. It seeks to mediate our competing demands through the state, which partially limits the freedom of each in order to provide security for all. And while this state can promote the general welfare, it leaves most human activities to civil society, which is the autonomous realm of particular interests. The state neither replaces civil society nor becomes superfluous to it, thus avoiding the twin evils of tyranny and anarchy.

Liberalism seeks a balance between the public and relatively private. But by partitioning social life in this manner, no free society can answer the communist demand for social unity. As Kolakowski said in the closing paragraphs of his myth essay:

I believe that socialist thought in its traditional areas of concern (how to ensure for working society more equality, more security, more welfare, more justice, more freedom, more participation in economic decisions) cannot at the same time entertain prospects of the perfect unity of social life. The two kinds of preoccupation run against each other. The dream of perfect unity could be realized only as a caricature that would deny its original intention: as an artificial unity imposed by force from above, with the political body preventing real conflicts and real segmentation of the civil society from expressing themselves. This body is almost automatically compelled to crush all spontaneous forms of economic, political, and cultural life. Thus the rift between civil and political society, instead of being healed, is deepened.

To the question of whether this outcome was somehow inscribed in original Marxian thought, the answer is certainly “no” if “inscribed” means “intended.” All the evidence indicates that the initial intention was the opposite of what grew out of it. But this initial intention is not, as it were, innocent. It could scarcely be realized in any very different form, not because of contingent historical circumstances but because of its very content.

The dream of a perfectly unified human community is probably as old as human thought about society; romantic nostalgia was only a later incarnation. It is a dream that was philosophically reinforced by that element in European culture which arose from Neoplatonism. There is no reason to expect that this dream will ever disappear, for it has strong roots in our awareness of the split which humanity suffered at the very beginning of its existence, when it emerged from its animal innocence. Nor is there any reason to expect that it can ever come true, except in the cruel form of despotism; and despotism is a desperate simulation of paradise.

The dream cannot come true, but it can be faked. A counterfeit unity is possible. In “The Death of Utopia Reconsidered,” Kolakowski explained how this can be achieved:

An attempt to implement a conflictless order by institutional means can be indeed successful in the sense that it can, by applying totalitarian coercion, prevent conflicts from being expressed. Being incapable, however, of eradicating the sources of conflict, the utopian technology necessarily involves a huge machinery of lie to present its inevitable failure as a victory. A utopian vision, once it is translated into political idiom, becomes mendacious or self-contradictory; it provides new names for old injustices or hides the contradictions under ad hoc invented labels. This is especially true of revolutionary utopias, whether elaborated in the actual revolutionary process or simply applied in its course. The Orwellian language had been known, though not codified, long before modern totalitarian despotism. Rousseau’s famous slogan, “One has to compel people to freedom,” is a good example. So is the announcement of the Paris Commune stating simultaneously that the compulsory military service has been abolished and that all citizens are members of the National Guard. So is the egalitarian-revolutionary utopia of Tkachev (an important source of the Leninist doctrine) which asserts that the main goal of the revolution is to abolish all the elites and that this task is to be carried out by a revolutionary elite.

The fault in Marx’s project is not in seeking to reform society. It is not even in the attempt to demystify private property. It is in the communist demand for social unity and the millenarian conceit that humanity could be redeemed through social revolution.