Commentary Magazine

The Rejection of Marxism

To the Editor:

A prevalent tendency among intellectuals these days is the rejection of Marxism. The reasons for this rejection, which are many and complex, and the validity of it I do not propose to discuss here—though it would be disingenuous of me to deny that I have little sympathy or respect for most of its manifestations.

I do, however, ask to say a word about the quality of some of the anti-Marxism that has been filling the pages of COMMENTARY: its indiscriminate and unscholarly zealousness, its air of rude certainty, its readiness to indulge in the most sweeping generalizations without reaching for those modulations which the present historical moment requires from any serious political opinion. I do not refer to everything that has appeared in COMMENTARY. Franz Borkenau’s review of Isaac Deutscher’s Stalin [January 1950] seems to me a serious piece of work, though I disagree with some of his conclusions. But let me cite a few examples:

In a discussion of Russian psychiatry [“The Mind of Man: Soviet View,” May 1951], Robert Gorham Davis concludes with several disparaging sentences about the Marxist view of man. It seems to me that a writer so habitually serious as Robert Davis is obliged to raise the question: what connection, if any, is there between the psychiatry sponsored by Stalin and Malenkov and the view of human nature held by Marx and Engels? Is Davis willing to accede without ado or discussion to the one proposition the Stalinists cherish most: that they are the legitimate intellectual descendants of Marx? To give an objective—I do not say, uncritical—account of Marx’s view of human nature, would he not have to do more than offer a few sentences from an early and immature book, The German Ideology?

In his review [April 1951] of Arthur Koestler’s The Age of Longing, Alfred Kazin accuses Koestler of accepting the “fatal Bolshevik premise that individuals are not interesting in themselves.” I think that anyone who took the trouble to read, say, Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution would conclude that this statement is, at the least, a wild exaggeration—though such a reader need not agree with Trotsky’s estimate of the role of individuals in history. But this point I shall not stress. I am interested in another of Kazin’s sentences, the one in which he says that Koestler’s “characters talk at each other with all the sodden brilliance of old-style Bolsheviks at a party conference.” (My emphasis.) Now I submit that anyone reading Koestler’s novel will see that his characters talk neither like Bolsheviks nor non-Bolsheviks, but only like Koestler’s characters, which is unlike anything ever heard on heaven or earth. But Kazin implies that he, Kazin, knows something about the speech habits of “old-style Bolsheviks” at their conferences. The Russian Bolsheviks neither he nor I have ever heard, but what must, willy-nilly, pass for their American facsimiles—the various Trotskyist and anti-Stalinist left-wing groups—I know something about. Most of the speeches at such conferences are, I submit, neither startlingly brilliant nor startlingly sodden; nor anything resembling a blend of the two, whatever that may be. I wonder whether Kazin’s remark is another case of a literary man talking authoritatively about something he knows little about. After all, has Kazin attended very many Bolshevik conferences?



In his review [June 1951] of Norman Mailer’s novel Barbary Shore, William Barrett describes Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution as a “romance and a falsification of the Russian Revolution.” Barrett has the right to believe, if he wishes, that the Bolshevik revolution was nothing more than a coup sprung by a handful of tough Leninists while Kerensky’s democracy was dozing; he has the right to believe that Trotsky’s History, which, agree with it or not, is surely one of the great works of our time, is a “romance.” But falsification? That is a very serious charge. The dictionary defines falsification as “to make false or incorrect, especially so as to deceive . . . to alter fraudulently”—that is, to distort evidence knowingly. Now in his preface to the History Trotsky challenges historians to dispute the facts adduced in his book; he admits that there can be numerous intellectual disagreements but insists that his book is based on solid research and scrupulous documentation. Thus far, no serious historian has taken up that challenge, though many have, of course, disputed Trotsky’s interpretation. On what evidence, then, does Barrett charge Trotsky with “altering fraudulently . . . especially so as to deceive” the materials of his book?

Finally, Mr. William Grampp, in an article [“The Facts About ‘Capitalist Inequality,’” June 1951] declaiming over the splendors of American capitalism—an opinion he has every right to hold—ends by suggesting that for certain economic ends it may be necessary to institute “a program of eugenic control, which would require at least the elimination of the family.” This “desperate remedy,” he says, has not been advocated by many, but there have been a few, “like Plato and Marx.” No doubt Plato will have his defenders, but I must say that the reference to Marx as a believer in eugenic control or “at least the elimination of the family” is the hoariest piece of nonsense. This is one of the most vulgar charges ever brought against Marx—all that is missing is the reference to “free love”; and it was answered, as it deserved to be, exactly one hundred and two years ago in the Communist Manifesto.

I repeat: I am not complaining about serious criticism of Marxism, little of that though there has been. Nor am I demanding anything as unlikely as the possibility that COMMENTARY might resist the current intellectual trend. And I do not rise as a defender of the true faith prepared to fight for every jot and tittle—whoever cares about such matters knows that I consider Marxism in a state of acute intellectual crisis and that I am myself subject to this crisis. I raise only one question, less to the editors of COMMENTARY than to some of its contributors, among whom are men I count as my friends and whose work I respect: would it not be the most ironic and crushing comment on American intellectual life to discover, a decade or two from now, that precisely the new zeal, the intolerance, the fatal inability to make distinctions and discriminations, and the huffy impatience which characterized so much of our home-bred Marxism in the 1930’s has carried over entire to the anti-Marxism of the 1950’s?

Irving Howe
Princeton, New Jersey



About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.