There are two dimensions of politics.footnote1 There is the dimension in which, because of living pressures, men try to understand their world and improve it. This dimension is persistently human. But besides it, always, is that parading robot of polemic, which resembles human thinking in everything but its capacity for experience. If you step into the robot’s world, you get your fuel free, and you can immediately grind into action, on one of the paper fronts, where the air stinks of pride, destruction, malice and exhaustion. Men need a good society and they need food, and further, in our own time, we know that we are living on the edge of destruction. But the slip into the robot world, so easy to make, is against these needs even when it claims to satisfy them. As I look, now, at the greater part of our political campaigns and periodicals, I recognize, reluctantly, the cancer of violence in them, which is our actual danger. And it is no use, after that, turning away. We have to fight to recover the dimension in which people actually live, because it is only there that any good outcome is possible.
The first characteristic of the robots is that the world exists in terms of their own fixed points. Are you a Marxist, a revisionist, a bourgeois reformist? Are you a Communist, a Left radical, a fellow traveller? What answer can a man make to that kind of robot questioning? ‘Go away’, I suppose. It seems the only adequate thing to say. For we have had it before. Are you Protestant, Catholic, Free Churchman, free-thinker, atheist? If you try to say what you feel and know, you have to fight off the mechanical hands trying to stick their own labels on you or get your voice on one of their recordings. They do this because, once the labels are on, they can fight, show you your enemy, throw you into one of their prepared campaigns. But in the intensity of human need the first struggle is to know the difference between experience and that robot world, to know rice and schools and human speech from that demented, airless pseudo-political dimension. The current robot campaign is to get men to join the camp of democracy to fight for survival against the camp of democracy. ‘Accept no substitutes; ours is the only genuine camp; we will prove it by engaging in relentless struggle.’ And robots do not die; only men die.
The real difficulty is that, in order to think at all, we have to use ideas and interpretations which the robots have already recorded. Somewhere in the world of human thinking coming down to us from our predecessors, the necessary insights, the fruitful bearings, exist. But to keep them where they belong, in direct touch with our experience, is a constant struggle. I am reminded of this, once again, as I try to sort out my thoughts after reading George Lichtheim’s Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study (1961)—a book that is evidently the result of years of patient work and thought. I am not a scholar of Marxism, and I cannot accurately judge whether Lichtheim’s detailed analysis is correct. But his conclusions are interesting, and directly relevant to our actual world. Lichtheim sees Marxism disintegrating as a system of thought and guide to action:
Its accomplishments are shown to be incompatible with its ultimate aims, which thus disclose their essentially metaphysical—i. e. transcendental and unrealizable, nature. What remains is, on the one hand, the travestied fulfilment of these aims in a reality which is their actual negation; and on the other, the caput mortuum of a gigantic intellectual construction whose living essence has been appropriated by the historical consciousness of the modern world; leaving the empty husk of ‘dialectical materialism’ to the ideologists of a new orthodoxy. In the sunset of the liberal era, of which Marxism is at once the critique and the theoretical reflection, this outcome confirms the truth of its own insights into the logic of history; while transferring to an uncertain future the ancient visions of a world set free.
The sweep of this judgement is very much like actual Marxist argument. Lichtheim is in no way a robot, but this tone raises disturbing echoes. Ways of thinking get old and become irrelevant, but not often, it seems to me, in quite this cataclysmic way. That image of the sunset worries me; it has been, for so long, one of the robots’ stage effects. And when they have not been actually tearing at each other, one of their most complicated games has been that of putting one another in the dustbin of history, which they always seem very certain about. Lichtheim may be right, but I find myself drawing back and wondering what, in our actual world, the future of Marxism is likely to be. For this is the irony: that a lot seems to go on in these dustbins of history. The number of systems that are officially dead but won’t lie down is extraordinary. A book called Karl Marx and the Close of His System was published in 1898, and look what has happened since then. This doesn’t prove anything, either way, about the validity of Marxism, but it does suggest that the relation between systems of thought and actual history is both complex and surprising.