As a commentator on the sinful acts of an American bureaucracy chasing an idea called “The Great Society” Thomas Sowell rarely misses his mark. Not so as the author of Marxism: Disassociating himself from the so-called “myths and counter-myths” which lurk behind the tendencies to deify or satanize Marx, and siding with Robert Tucker in ascribing the Soviet experience to the character of Russian history and culture rather than to Marxist doctrine, Sowell portrays his Marx as one not to be understood in terms of good and evil (pp. 150, 151, 164). In this respect, his view of Marx stands in contradistinction not only to that of such self-consciously Marxist revolutionaries as Lenin and Stalin, but also to that of Solzhenitsyn and others who, in condemning Marxism, note its essentials with Lenin and Stalin.
It should go without saying that Sowell is decent enough to be occasionally embarrassed by his subject: He disapproves of Marx as a person (e.g., the one who “liked to glare at anyone who challenged his conclusions and say ‘I will annihilate you!'”), and is dismayed by certain severe proposals of the Communist Manifesto like that calling for the destruction of the family (pp. 183, 184, 188). But in the end, when he does admit to a connection between Marxist theory and the Cambodian genocide (p. 203), his admission is qualified by the larger argument of his book-namely, that any such connection is predicated on a crude misreading of Marx himself.
Two revisions to the common or common-sense reading of Marx are meant to be revealed by the more sophisticated reading offered up by Sowell, and they may be generally stated as follows: Marx should be read as a not atypical (albeit out-dated and wrong-headed) economic scientist, and he should be understood, when all is said and done, to have been an American-style democrat. But perhaps such sophistication reveals less about Marx than about Sowell and about the un-American understanding of our politics which prevails in both the “liberal” and the “conservative” wings of the social science professions.
A goodly portion of Marxism can be dealt with and dismissed in summary fashion, for over one-third of it follows Marx through the “labyrinth that he created” in the “massive intellectual feat” that is Capital, or the only work in which the Marxian position was “given a full-scale, systematic exposition . . .” (pp. 72, 73, 109, 220). But Capital, which attempts in a scientific manner to construct an historical model for revolutionary change, is Marxist chaff. Probably the most instructive thing that can be said about it is that Marx left it unfinished.
When, in the 1882 preface to the Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto, Marx acknowledged the possibility of a direct leap from feudalism to communism in Russia, and when he correspondingly endorsed a prototype of Lenin’s Bolshevik party, he revealed that he was not a “classical Marxist” concerned with the formalities of revolution.1Marx was concerned—indeed obsessed—with a radical idea to be realized through revolution. That idea is at the heart of Marxism, but it is an idea that goes unnoticed by Sowell even when he turns from Capital to the question of Marxism’s political consequences.
According to Sowell, Marx is a liberal in the original sense—a man for whom “religious freedom was . . . basic” (p. 45). But while it is fair enough to conclude that Marx’s “crude and repulsive remarks” about Jews (and Negroes) in private letters to Engels do not place his in the “same category as twentieth-century racism that has justified genocide,” when one looks at Marx’s published writings on religion, and in particular on Judaism, it is anything but clear that his animadversion is “hardly in the sense of Hitler and the Nazis” (pp. 177, 178).
Sowell simply and clearly misses the point of Marx’s essay “On the Jewish Question,” which he reads as “in the end . . . a defense of the Jews’ rights to full political equality . . .” (p. 178). Indeed the point insisted on therein by Marx is that Judaism must not be allowed to exist in the private sphere a la the American solution to the religious-political problem, for the freedom of man is to Marx something quite different from political freedom understood in the light of the principles of 1776. It is evident Sowell does not know what it means when he writes of Marx denouncing “the confusion of ‘political emancipation with human emancipation'” for he is himself pawn to that confusion in recognizing Marx’s “commitment to the principles of democratic freedom” and in finding “compatibility—indeed congruence—between a free democratic society and the dictatorship of the proletariat” (pp. 144-46, 150, 151). Marxist freedom is much more radical than he supposes, and American freedom more noble.
“On the Jewish Question” is as good a place as any to begin to see what Marxist emancipation entails.2 Marxist freedom demands not only an emancipation from God and thus religion, but an emancipation from other men and thus from political association (of which democracy is a type) as well. It is a freedom from all that is external to man, with man understood as a social or “species being” without individuality. This emancipation leaves no place for privacy or for a private realm such as exists in any political regime, and where religion dwells in liberal democracy.
Jewishness and “egoism” are words used synonymously by Marx to mean that part of man which causes or allows him to understand himself as distinct from others, and to recognize what is his own—whether in terms of property or of regime, of family or of body—as distinct from what is not. Jewishness for Marx, that is, stands for what to Americans, as in classical and medieval political philosophy, is something natural and vital to man. And it stands for what must be stamped out for Marxist freedom’s sake.
Lest we be lulled into the scholarly detachment from reality that infects all too many considerations of “Marxist theory,” Sowell’s not excluded, another sine qua non of Marxism properly understood should be noted.
As Marx makes clear in so early an essay as “Contribution to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” the traditional distinction between theory and practice—a distinction basic to classical “utopianism”—is no longer to be considered operative. Theory has thought itself out, according to Marx, with its devastating critique of religion, and is now to extinguish itself by overthrowing the political-or the existing order that is compatible with religion—through revolutionary action. It is this teaching, coupled with the insight that the resultant emancipation requires the extermination of human nature or “nature,” that explains the connection between Marx and the Soviets, Mao, Pol Pot, et al., and that does so unqualifiedly.
So how is it that Thomas Sowell, of all people, casts himself in the garb of a Marx apologist?
Sowell presents an argument to the effect that Charles Beard was not, as has been charged, a Marxist for understanding the American Founding as epiphenomena to the Founders’ economic class-interest. The argument is remarkable only for the fact that it hinges on a technicality: Beard failed to emphasize sufficiently the “economic relations” which “shape the conflicting perceptions that lead to . . . social transformations,” and thus did not properly recognize the “morally charged systems” that engagehuman agency. The proposed distinction between Beard and Marx, that is, revolves on the question of the Founders’ consciousness of the fact that the principles on which they founded our regime were epochal illusions (see pp. 60, 61, 65). However sophisticated this distinction might be, it obscures the critical sense in which Beard’s understanding was Marxist, and like Sowell’s book in general it avoids a confrontation with the decisive question that we as American citizens must confront in determining a proper response to the Marxist threat posed us by the Soviet Union: Were our Founders and their later defenders, such as Lincoln and Coolidge, right or wrong?
Sowell does not face this question because his concern is with the choice between “freedom to” and “freedom from” (see, for example, p. 206). Providing less a choice than an echo, neither alternative corresponds to freedom as understood and taught by Lincoln, neither is “morally charged” or with moral content.
Marxists and libertarians agree fundamentally, on freedom as the end for man. While to the Marxists, man is ultimately “species being,” and to the libertarians he is radically individual, the idea of man as a moral creature—whether understood as such by the light of reason or through faith in a God with teeth—is equally anathema to both of their doctrines. Now Sowell repeatedly expresses his abhorrence for foreign Marxist tyrannies. But insofar as Sowell subscribes to the libertarian view of freedom, he is as ill-equipped to understand America in a way which would preclude the advent of Marxist tyranny at home as he is to understand Marx.
Prefiguring the Beardian interpretation, Marx regarded Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves as “tantamount to the tearing up of the old American Constitution.”3 Likewise Sowell apparently conceives of American democracy in terms of majority rule simply, which is thus compatible with rule by class or racial groups who do not recognize the equal rights of all (pp. 148, 150, 151). But legitimate self-rule as set forth in the Declaration of Independence, and elaborated in the Constitution, requires that consent be enlightened by the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”
Unconscious of the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” which are our access to the idea of what is always and everywhere right, American democracy finds itself struggling to assert its moral superiority over a nation that, ruled by an intellectual and nihilistic elite, threatens to subsume it in a universal, homogeneous state. Unhappily, Sowell’s Marxism offers us no reason why we should defend ourselves, and with ourselves political freedom, against either the Soviets or our own encroaching bureaucracy.
1See Thomas G. West’s “Marx and Lenin,” Interpretation, 11, no. 1, 1/83, to which my review is indebted for its understanding of this and other matters.
2See Sanderson Schaub, “Marx as Rousseauian Legislator,” delivered at the 1983 APSA annual meeting, for the significance of Marx’s essay.
3Karl Marx, Frederick Engels: Collected Works, Vol. 19 (New York: International Publishers, 1984), p. 250. This recently available volume in translation is of special interest as it contains Marx’s running commentary on the American Civil War.