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.
What I keep coming back to, after the force of Lichtheim’s arguments, is that Marxism, or its surrogate in Marxism–Leninism, is now the official doctrine of about a third of the world, actively taught and propagated by powerful political and economic systems, and on any possible estimate likely to be active for as long ahead as we care to think. Well, of course, that is provided for in the argument: the systems are really a travesty of Marxism, their official thoughts are simply empty husks and dead heads. This could be true, and we ought to consider its possibility when we hear that reasoning very common among the small number of Marxists in Britain: that 1,000 million people, stretching from the Baltic to the Pacific, can’t be wrong. But we ought to check every stage of the argument quite carefully. Are the systems created and projected by the Russian, Chinese and other Communist revolutions really a travesty of Marxist intentions? If they are, to any substantial extent, what will be the relation, in the growth of these societies, between the widespread teaching of a doctrine equivalent to a great national religion, and the reality which this teaching might theoretically or practically question or condemn? I don’t, with any confidence, know the answer to either of these questions, but at least I am much less sure than Lichtheim both that the systems are travesties and that, even if they were not, the doctrines would be merely empty and dead. I will try to express my doubts about each of these points.
The widespread disillusion among thinkers in the West over the course of the Communist revolutions is very easy to understand. Two charges stand examination: first, that the revolutions have been disfigured and perverted by the use of terror for political aims; second, that the common people have in fact not been liberated, but have simply passed from the rule of aristocrats, landlords and bankers to the rule of bureaucrats and a party apparatus. On the first charge, there must be no more equivocation, no more convincing talk about ‘revolution and rosewater’, no more reduction of men who died to mere errors. The Communist societies themselves will have to face this reality, in depth, sooner or later; human beings cannot grow without facing that kind of truth about themselves. Political terror was used, on a vast scale, both for political ends and, it would seem, by a monstrous kind of extension, for its own sake. The facts, so often disputed, so often still the matter of argument, but now at least admitted by everyone at a minimum level which is still revolting, have lodged deeply in our minds, and we would be less than human if they had not.