The Shadow of Marxism?
To the Editor:
Irving Kristol’s “Class and Sociology” (October) is the kind of witty demolition job we have come to expect from him, and once again his targets are those popular butts, American sociologists. Some of us, I’m afraid, have had occasion to discover before that his accuracy and fairness fail to match his style.
Let us pass over the patronizing comments on sociology in general. It is no news that much of sociology is no news to a sophisticate like Mr. Kristol. Perhaps sociology is, for better or for worse, simply the mode in which the news is reported in our day, and even Mr. Kristol may have learned more from it than he confesses. Certainly he is adept at the old reviewer’s ploy (perfected according to Granville Hicks by Anthony West of the New Yorker) of borrowing arguments from the book under review to use against it. Both Messrs. Kahl and Barber, for example, report the absence of a clear-cut class structure in America and criticize other sociologists for assuming the existence of something that isn’t there. Mr. Kristol simply paraphrases what they say, and then accuses them of lamenting the failure of society to conform to sociological stereo-types.
His main concern, not unexpectedly, is with “the shadow of Marxism,” the subtitle of his review, and he manages to find Kahl and Barber guilty of all sorts of lurking Marxist, or at best “neo-Marxist,” prejudices. He even seems to regard an interest in class as itself evidence of Marxist bias, although he graciously concedes that “neither author, one supposes, is any kind of a Marxist.” That “one supposes” is a wonderful touch; one would never guess that both authors devote many pages to explicit rejection of Marxist class theories.
Indeed, Mr. Barber’s entire book is a conscious effort to develop a theory of social stratification which owes little to Marx and contradicts Marxism in all major details. I happen to think that he, and the Talcott Parsons school of social theory to which he belongs, go much too far in systematically minimizing the existence of class conflict, the role of wealth and power in social stratification, and economic and technological factors in social change generally. Not that an emphasis on any of these necessarily makes one a Marxist, although Mr. Kristol perhaps thinks so.
One hesitates to translate intellectual positions into political outlooks as freely as Mr. Kristol does, but Parsonian theory has, as a matter of fact, a built-in conservative and anti-egalitarian bias partly derived from the Durk-heimian tradition in sociology, which in turn leads back to those fountainheads of conservative thought, de Bonald, de Maistre, and Burke. Mr. Barber’s very definition of stratification as a system of “unequal evaluations of social roles” is non-Marxist and even anti-Marxist in spirit, for it presupposes both the necessity of social inequality and acceptance of that necessity by the populace. The whole problem of how people are aware of the class structure (the “ambiguity” Mr. Kristol imputes to sociologists rather than to social reality) is downgraded in importance if one starts out by viewing differences in wealth and power rather than “evaluations” as the essence of class. Incidentally, I find Mr. Kahl’s book much more satisfactory than Mr. Barber’s in this respect, although Mr. Kristol finds Mr. Barber the more “Marxist” of the two.
Both authors are accused of a “censoriousness” toward modern society which Mr. Kristol is convinced stems from a fanatic, though unspoken, dedication to extreme egalitarianism. Thus much is made of inverted commas around the word “democracy,” references to the “Horatio Alger myth,” and the like. Mr. Kristol has been an editor long enough to know that academic writers compulsively encircle all misty and controversial words with quotation marks. And it was Stephen Daedalus, no Marxist, who said “I fear those big words which make us so unhappy.” Moreover, Barber asserts that the ideologies and myths people profess about class may be “functional” for society, which could be interpreted as saying in sociologese that illusions are a Good Thing.
We are also told that Mr. Barber says political parties serve class interests, but fails to add that they also serve the common good, because the latter observation would not sound “properly ‘sociological.’” But to say that parties promote rival conceptions of the common good (“ideologies”) which transcend the class interests of their members and often motivate them more strongly than those interests, is to defy no sociological dictum, and this happens to be exactly what Mr. Barber does say, Mr. Kristol to the contrary notwithstanding.
Finally, I find myself in agreement with some of Mr. Kristol’s critical comments on the social mobility theme. American sociologists, including Messrs. Kahl and Barber, do devote an inordinate amount of attention to this phenomenon and rarely display awareness of the possible undesirable consequences of unlimited individual mobility. But this obsession stems from their Americanism rather than from Marxism. Doctrinaire Marxists do not approve of social mobility and rarely discuss it, except to sneer at bourgeois acquisitiveness or to deny the possibility of any mobility in capitalist society, a denial which both Kahl and Barber amply refute.
Ideological equalitarianism, after all, takes many forms and it did not originate with Karl Marx. Belief in “bettering oneself” through social mobility has always been part of the American creed and it is precisely because they are not Marxists that American sociologists worry so much about the individual’s chances of getting ahead, and pay so little attention to the collective fortunes of entire classes over the long haul of history.
Dennis H. Wrong
Providence, Rhode Island
To the Editor:
I was impressed with Irving Kristol’s “Class and Sociology, ‘The Shadow of Marxism.’” He has indeed that trained capacity for detecting the infiltrations of the Marxian virus which comes only with long practice. Those not specifically trained in this art would never have suspected that the shadow had fallen over Messrs. Barber and Kahl, of all people.
But the sickness has been endemic for much longer than Mr. Kristol suspects. I just reread a sociologist who wrote some sixty years ago that: “The thing which makes and breaks institutions is economic force, acting on the interests of men, and through them, on human nature.” The “views of rights are thus afloat on the tide of interest.” The man’s name is William Graham Sumner. And who would have suspected him?
University of California
Mr. Kristol writes:
Dennis Wrong’s letter never descends to specifics, so I find it very difficult to get a hold on his arguments. After all, I did give several examples of how Mr. Barber’s sociological thinking has been influenced by a kind of vulgarized neo-Marxism. Mr. Wrong refers to only one: he asserts that, “Mr. Kristol to the contrary notwithstanding,” Mr. Barber does say that political parties embody rival conceptions of the common good as well as rival class interests. Mr. Wrong, however, refrains from quoting chapter and verse, and very wisely too. The fact is that Mr. Barber says what I reported him as saying, and not what Mr. Wrong thinks he said. This is a matter of fact, not of critical opinion.
There is no contradiction between explicitly rejecting Marxist class theories and being influenced by Marxist notions, which I asserted to be the case with Messrs. Barber and Kahl. That it is a very common experience, Mr. Wrong himself demonstrates.
I pointed out that Mr. Kahl’s habit of enclosing the word “democracy” in inverted commas, when referring to American institutions, revealed an implicit and unexplained bias. Mr. Wrong claims in their justification that “academic writers compulsively encircle all misty and controversial words with quotation marks.” I wonder: is he pulling my leg?
I regret to say that the point of Mr. Coser’s letter completely escapes me.