Soviet Marxism, a critical analysis (Marcuse, 1958)


Un livre (en anglais) que vient de mettre en ligne l’Université de Californie:



THE FIRST PART of this work is the result of my studies as a Senior Fellow at the Russian Institute, Columbia University, during the years 1952-53. The second part was prepared at the Russian Research Center, Harvard University, in 1954-55, under a special grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. I am much indebted to the Russian Research Center, and especially to its Director, William L. Langer, and Associate Director, Marshall D. Shulman, for their kindness in relinquishing to Columbia University Press their publication rights to the second part.

I also wish to express my thanks to George L. Kline, Columbia University, who prepared some of the material used in the second part of this essay; to Alfred E. Senn, for his assistance with Russian references; and to Arkadii R. L. Gurland, who offered valuable help and comments.

My friend, Barrington Moore, Jr., read the manuscript and helped me as usual with his incisive criticism.

The index was prepared by Maud Hazeltine.


Brandeis University
June, 1957


THIS STUDY attempts to evaluate some main trends of Soviet Marxism in terms of an « immanent critique, » that is to say it starts from the theoretical premises of Soviet Marxism develops their ideological and sociological consequences and reexamines the premises in the light of these consequences. The critique thus employs the conceptual instruments of its object, namely, Marxism, in order to clarify the actual function of Marxism in Soviet society and its historical direction. This approach implies a twofold assumption:

(1) That Soviet Marxism (i.e., Leninism, Stalinism, and post-Stalin trends) is not merely an ideology promulgated by the Kremlin in order to rationalize and justify its policies but expresses in various forms the realities of Soviet developments. If this is the case, then the extreme poverty and even dishonesty of Soviet theory would not vitiate the basic importance of Soviet theory but would itself provide a cue for the factors which engendered the
obvious theoretical deficiencies;

(2) That identifiable objective trends and tendencies are operative in history which make up the inherent rationality of the historical process. Since this assumption is easily misrepresented as acceptance of Hegelian metaphysics, a few words may be said in the way of defense and explanation.

Belief in objective historical « laws » is indeed at the very core of Hegel’s philosophy. To him, these laws are the manifestation of Reason — a subjective and objective force, operating in the historical actions of men and in the material and intellectual culture. History is thus at one and the same time a logical and teleological process, namely, progress (in spite of relapses and regressions) in the consciousness and the realization of Freedom. The sequence in the principal stages of civilization is thereby ascent to higher forms of humanity — quantitative and qualitative growth. Marx has retained this basic notion while modifying it in a decisive sense: history progresses through the development of the productive forces, which is progress, not in the realization of Freedom, but in the creation of the prerequisites of Freedom; they remain mere prerequisites in the interest of class society. Thus, for Marx, history is certainly not the manifestation of Reason but much rather the opposite; Reason pertains only to the future of classless society as a social organization geared to the free development of human needs and faculties. What is history to Hegel is still prehistory to Marx.

The assumption of historical laws can be separated from all teleology. Then it means that the development of a specific social system, and the changes which lead from one social system to another, are determined by the structure which the respective society has given itself, that is to say,by the basic division and organization of social labor, and that the political and cultural institutions are generated by and correspond to this basic division and organization.
The manifold dimensions and aspects of societal life are not a mere sum-total of facts and forces but constitute a clearly identifiable unit so that long range developments in any one dimension must be comprehended in their relation to the « base. » On the ground of such structural unity, consecutive social systems can be distinguished from one another as essentially different forms of society whose general direction of development is in a demonstrable sense « predetermined » by its origins. The very impossibility to fix an exact date (even within a century or more) when the one social system ends and the other begins (for example, feudalism and capitalism) indicates the underlying trend which transforms one system into another. The new society emerges within the framework of the old, through definable changes in its structure — changes which are cumulative until the essentially different structure is there.
In the last analysis there are no « extraneous » causes in this chain, for all apparently outside factors and events (such as discoveries, invasions, the impact of far distant forces) will affect the social structure only if the ground is prepared for them, for example, if they « meet » corresponding developments within the respective society or if they meet social wants and needs (as the barbarian influx into the weakened Roman empire, or as the influence of international trade and commerce and of the discoveries on the internally changing feudal societies from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century).

The basic form of societal reproduction, once institutionalized, determines the direction of development not only within the respective society but also beyond it. In this sense the historical process is rational and irreversible.

As an example of the development within: The present stage of Western industrial society, with its increasing private and governmental regulation of the economy (in other words, with its increasing political economy and culture) appears as the « logical, » i.e., inherent, outcome of the free enterprise and free competition prevalent at the preceding stage. No Marxist categories are necessary in order to elucidate the connection between the concentration of economic power and the corresponding political and cultural changes on the one hand and the capitalistic utilization of growing productivity of labor and technical progress on the other. As an example of the development beyond: The emergence of the feudal system from the basic institutions of the agricultural economy in the late Roman empire under the impact of the barbarian tribal-military organization provides perhaps the clearest example of inherent historical rationality and irreversibility. By the same token, it seems a reasonable anticipation that, whatever the next stage of industrial civilization may be, the basic institutions of large-scale mechanized industry and the explosive growth of the productivity of labor commanded by it will
bring about political and cultural institutions irrevocably different from those of the liberalist period — a historical tendency which is likely to supersede some of the present most conspicuous differences between the Western and the Soviet system.

This brief outline of the notion of objective historical laws may serve to show the ateleological character of the hypothesis. It implies no purpose, no « end » toward which history is moving, no metaphysical or spiritual Reason underlying the process — only its institutional determination. Moreover, it is a historical determination, that is to say, it is not in any sense « automatic. » Within the institutional framework which men have given themselves in interaction with the prevailing natural and historical conditions, the development proceeds through the action of men — they are the historical agents, and theirs are the alternatives and decisions.

In applying the hypothesis to the interpretation of Soviet Marxism, one qualification imposes itself from the beginning. It seems that the determining trend cannot be defined merely in terms of the structure of Soviet society, but that it must be defined in terms of the interaction between Soviet and Western society. Even the most cursory survey of Soviet Marxism is confronted with the fact that at almost every turn in the development Soviet theory (and Soviet policy) reacts to a corresponding Western development and vice versa. This seems self-evident and hardly worth mentioning were it not for the fact that it is usually taken too lightly, taken into account merely with respect to diplomacy and propaganda, or understood as arrangements of expediency, short-term adjustments, and so on.
However, the interaction seems to go much further and to express an essential link between the two conflicting systems, thus affecting the very structure of Soviet society.

In its most visible form, the link is in the technical-economic basis common to both systems, i.e., mechanized (and increasingly mechanized) industry as the mainspring of societal organization in all spheres of life. As against this common technical-economic denominator stands the very different institutional structure — private enterprise here, nationalized enterprise there. Will the common technical-economic basis eventually assert itself over and against the different social institutions, or will the latter continue to widen the difference in the utilization of the productive forces in the two social systems? (According to Marxian theory, the technical-economic basis is in itself « neutral » and susceptible to capitalist as well as socialist utilization, the decision depending on the outcome of the class struggle — a notion which well illustrates the limits of Marxian « determinism. ») The question plays a decisive role in evaluating the international dynamic and the prospects of a global « state-capitalism » or socialism; its discussion lies outside the scope of this study, which, however, may provide some preparatory material.

The interaction between Western and Soviet developments, far from being an external factor, pertains to the determining historical trend — to the historical « law » governing Soviet Marxism as well as to the reality reflected in Soviet Marxism. From the beginning, the specific international dynamic released by the transformation of « classical » into organized capitalism (in Marxist terms, monopoly capitalism) defines Soviet Marxism — in Lenin’s doctrine of the avant garde, in the notion of « socialism in one country, » in the triumph of Stalinism over Trotskyism and over the old Bolsheviks, in the sustained priority of heavy industry, in the continuation of a repressive totalitarian centralization. They are in a strict sense responses to the (in Marxian terms, « anomalous ») growth and readjustment of Western industrial society and to the decline in the revolutionary potential of the Western world resulting from this readjustment. The degree to which these developments
have shaped Soviet Marxism may be illustrated by the function of the term « coexistence. » The notion of coexistence has received very different emphases with Soviet Marxism — from a short-term tactical need to a long-range political objective. However, the very distinction between
« short term » and « long range » is meaningless without identifiable standards of measurement, which in turn presuppose a demonstrable theoretical evaluation of the historical direction of Soviet developments. In Soviet Marxist language everytliing is short term if compared with the final event of world communism. Outside the realm of this language it is nonsensical to call « short term » policies which may last decades and which are imposed not by the political fluctuations but by the structure of the international situation. Viewed in this context, coexistence is perhaps the most singular feature of the contemporary era, namely, the meeting of two antagonistic forms of industrial civilization, challenging each other in the same international arena, neither one strong enough to replace the other.

This relative weakness of both systems is characteristic of their respective structures and therefore a long-range factor; the end of one system’s effectiveness would be tantamount to the end of the system. In Western industrial society, the weakness derives from the constant danger of overproduction in a narrowing world market and grave social and economic dislocations, a danger necessitating constant political countermeasures, which in turn limit the economic and cultural growth of the system. On the other side, the Soviet system still suffers from the plague of underproduction, perpetuated by its military and political commitments against the advanced Western world. The implications of this dynamic will be traced in the following chapters.

The development from Leninism to Stalinism and beyond will be discussed as the result, in its main stages and features, of the « anomalous » constellation in which a socialist [1] society was to be built coexistent rather than subsequent to capitalist society, as the competitor rather than the heir of the latter. This does not mean that the policies (such as the Stalinist industrialization) which decided the fundamental trend of Soviet society were an inexorable necessity. There were alternatives, but they were in an emphatic sense historical alternatives — « choices » presented to the classes which fought the great social struggles of the interwar period rather than choices at the discretion of the Soviet leadership. The outcome was decided in this struggle; it was decided in Europe by about 1923; and the Soviet leadership did not make this decision though it contributed to it (at that time probably to a lesser degree than is usually assumed).

If these propositions can be corroborated, the question as to whether or not the Soviet leadership is guided by Marxist principles is without relevance; once Incorporated into the foundational institutions and objectives of the new society, Marxism becomes subject to a historical dynamic which surpasses the intentions of the leadership and to which the manipulators themselves succumb. An immanent discussion of Soviet Marxism may help to identify this historical dynamic to which the leadership itself is subjected — no matter how autonomous and totalitarian it may be.
Thus, in examining Soviet Marxism and the (theoretical) situation from which it originated, we are not concerned with abstract-dogmatic validity but with concrete political and economic trends, which may also provide a key for
anticipating prospective developments.

A few words must be said in justification of such an approach. Marxian theory purports to be an essentially new philosophy, substantially different from the main tradition of Western philosophy. Marxism claims to fulfill this tradition by passing from ideology to reality, from philosophical interpretation to political action. For this purpose, Marxism redefines not only the main categories and modes of thought, but also the dimension of their verification; their validity is to be determined by the historical situation and the action of the proletariat. There is theoretical continuity from the early Marxian notion of the Proletariat as the objectified truth of capitalist society to the Soviet Marxist concept partinost (partisanship).

Under these circumstances, a critique which merely applies the traditional criteria of philosophical truth to Soviet Marxism does not, in a strict sense, reach its objective.

Such a critique, no matter how strong and well founded it may be, is easily blunted by the argument that its conceptual foundations have been undermined by the Marxist transition into a different area of historical and theoretical verification. The Marxist dimension itself thus seems to remain intact because it remains outside the argument. But if the critique enters that very dimension, by examining the development and use of the Marxist categories in terms of their own claim and content, it may be able to penetrate the real content beneath the ideological and political form in which it appears.

A critique of Soviet Marxism « from without » must either discard its theoretical efforts as « propaganda » or take them at their face value, namely, as philosophy or sociology in the traditional sense of these disciplines. The first alternative seems to beg the question as to what is meant seriously in Soviet Marxism and on what grounds the distinction is made.[2] The second alternative would engage in philosophical and sociological controversies outside the context in which the Soviet Marxist theories are presented and which is essential to their meaning. Treated in this manner, as items in the history of philosophical or sociological thought, the articles of the Concise Philosophical Dictionary, for example, or the logic discussion of 1950-51, are totally irrelevant — their philosophical faults are obvious to any scholar; their function is not the academic formulation of generally valid categories and techniques of thought but the definition of their relation to the political reality.[3] In contrast, an immanent critique, far from taking these theories at their surface value, could reveal the political intention which is their real content.
The approach suggested here shifts the emphasis of the critique from the spectacular public controversies, such as the Aleksandrov debate or the logic and linguistic discussion, to basic trends in Soviet Marxism and uses the former only by way of illustration of the latter.

The immanent critique proceeds under the assumption that Marxian theory plays a decisive part in the formulation and execution of Soviet policy, and that from the Soviet use of Marxian theory inferences may be drawn for
the national and international development of the Soviet state. The fact is that the Bolshevik Party and the Bolshevik Revolution were, to a considerable degree, developed according to Marxist principles, and that the Stalinist reconstruction of Soviet society based itself on Leninism, which was a specific interpretation of Marxian theory and practice. The ideology thus becomes a decisive part of reality even if it was used only as an instrument of domination and propaganda. For this reason, a recurrent comparison between Soviet Marxism and pre-Soviet Marxian theory will be necessary. The problem of Soviet « revisions » of Marxian theory will not be treated as a problem of Marxian dogmatics; the relation between the different forms and
stages of Marxism will rather be used as an indication of the way in which the Soviet leadership interprets and evaluates the changing historical situation as the framework for its policy decisions.

Soviet Marxism has assumed the character of a « behavioral science. » Most of its theoretical pronouncements have a pragmatic, instrumentalist intent; they serve to explain, justify, promote, and direct certain actions and attitudes which are actual « data » for these pronouncements.
These actions and attitudes (for example, accelerated collectivization of agriculture; Stakhanovism ; integral anti-Western ideology; insistence on the objective determinism of basic economic laws under socialism) are rationalized and justified in terms of the inherited body of « Marxism-Leninism » which the Soviet leadership applies to the changing historical situation. But it is precisely the pragmatic, behaviorist character of Soviet Marxism which makes it an indispensable tool for the understanding of
Soviet developments. The theoretical pronouncements of Soviet Marxism, in their pragmatic function, define the trend of Soviet developments.

Distinction must therefore be made between overt formulation and actual meaning of Soviet Marxist statements.
This distinction is not conveyed by the convenient term « Aesopian language, » which conceals rather than points up the real distinction. To be sure, in Soviet usage the meaning of « democracy, » « peace, » « freedom, » etc., is very different from that understood in the Western world — but so is the meaning of « revolution » and « dictatorship of the proletariat. » The Soviet usage also redefines the meaning of the specifically Marxian concepts. The latter themselves are transformed in so far as Soviet Marxism claims to be
Marxism in and for a new historical situation; they form the Marxist answer to the fundamental economic and political changes during the first half of the century.

From this point of view, Soviet Marxism appears as the attempt to reconcile the inherited body of Marxian theory with a historical situation which seemed to vitiate the central conception of this theory itself, namely, the Marxian conception of the transition from capitalism to socialism.
Preparatory to the discussion of Soviet Marxism, we must, therefore, circumscribe the historical as well as the theoretical situation from which Soviet Marxism derived. We must try to identify the point at which the historical development seemed to explode the Marxian analysis. This is the crucial point for the understanding of Soviet Marxism.

Part I of this study aims at analyzing the basic conceptions by virtue of which Soviet Marxism appears as a unified theory of contemporary history and society. We take these concepts in their dogmatic statement only in order to develop them in the context of the social and political processes which they interpret and which alone makes them meaningful. Emphasis is throughout on the tendencies which Soviet Marxism seems to reflect and anticipate.
Whereas Part I is thus focused on the objective factors underlying Soviet Marxism, Part II deals with the subjective factor, that is, with the « human material » which is supposed to follow the lead and to attain the goals set by
Soviet Marxism. The material for this part is taken from Soviet ethical philosophy.


[1] Use of the term « socialist » for Soviet society in this study nowhere im
plies that this society is socialist in the sense envisaged by Marx and Engels.
However, it is assumed that the initial intention and objective of the Bolshevik Revolution was to build a socialist society.
[2] See pp. 39 f . below.
[3] See Chapter 5.


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