Deutscher, I. “On Socialist Man” (1966)


In this speech delivered at a 1966 conference of socialist academics in New York, Isaac Deutscher takes up the question of what humanity will look like under socialism. Deutscher argues that neither the great theorists of the Marxist canon nor contemporary Marxists are dogmatic in their understanding of human nature. Rather, we see human nature as mutable, dependent on our socioeconomic conditions and surroundings. By winning the fight against capitalism, against the economic exploitation that most immediately pushes people into misery, we will defeat the single greatest motivator for human meanness. Deutscher asserts that we make no great claim that the humans of a future socialist society will be moral angels, but that by removing the harmful pressures of capitalism that we have rigorously identified and studied, humanity under socialism will be one step closer to flourishing than we will ever reach under capitalism, criticizing Freudian views of inescapable human savagery. In developing his argument, Deutscher also criticizes the USSR and China’s cynical promotion of their own societies as a place where socialist people already exist and are already flourishing, asserting that this cheapens the historical goals of communism and confuses and demoralizes the global working class in the process. The speech ends with criticism of Western academic Marxists’ general failure to engage with working class movements and concretely work towards building a socialist movement.

On Socialist Man

By Isaac Deutscher
I have been asked to address you on Socialist Man. This is
a theme so wide, and requiring so many approaches from
various angles, that I must beg you to excuse me if what I
am going to say resembles a somewhat rambling causerie in
form, rather than a systematic lecture.
Marxists have as a rule been reluctant to speak about Social-
ist Man; and I must confess that I myself felt something of
that reluctance when the subject for this lecture was first sug-
gested to me. Any attempt to give a positive description of
Socialist Man, i.e., to portray the member of the future class-
less society, is bound to have a utopian flavor about it. This
was the domain of the great visionaries of socialism, especially
of Saint-Simon and Fourier, who, like the French rationalists
of the 18th century, imagined that they—-and through them
Reason—had at last discovered the ideal man and that once
the discovery had been made, the realization was bound to
follow. Nothing was further from Marx and Engels and the
outstanding Marxists of later generations than such a thought.
They, indeed, did not tell mankind: “Here is the ideal, go down
on your knees before it!” Instead of giving us a blueprint of
the society that is to come, they devoted their work to a pro-
foundly realistic analysis of society as it was and is, of capital-
ist society; and, facing the class struggles of their time, they
committed themselves irrevocably to the cause of the proletariat.
In attending to the needs of their age however, they did not
turn their backs upon the future. They did try at least to guess
the shape of things to come; but they formulated their guesses
with remarkable reserve and they did so only incidentally. In
all their voluminous writings Marx and Engels have left us
only a few scattered hints about the subject of our discussion,
hints meaningfully interrelated and suggesting immense new horizons, but only hints. No doubt Karl Marx had his conception of Socialist Man, but this was an analyst’s working
hypothesis not a visionary’s brainwave; and although he was
convinced of the historic realism of his anticipations, he treated
them with a certain dose of skepticism.
Marx scrutinized, to paraphrase his own saying, the embryo
of socialism within the womb of capitalism — he could therefore
see only the embryo of Socialist Man. At the risk of disappoint-
ing some of you, I must say that this is all that we can do
even now. After all the revolutions of our age and despite all
that we have learned about society since Marx, we are not at
all ahead of him in this respect: In discussing Socialist Man
we cannot yet go beyond the rudiments of the problem. Any-
thing we can say about it is bound to be very general, frag-
mentary and, in a sense, negative. We can easier see what
Socialist Man cannot be than what he will be. To the extent,
however, that negation implies also assertion, our negative
characterization of Socialist Man foreshadows some of his
positive features as well.
Marxism has seen the chief contradiction of bourgeois society,
the deepest cause of its anarchy and irrationality, in the conflict between the growing socialization of the modern productive
process and the unsocial character of the control that private
property exercises over that process. Modern technology and
industry tend to unite society, while private property in the
means of production disunites it. The socialized productive process, that rudimentary element of collectivism contained within the capitalist, and, if you like, within the neo-capitalist economy, needs to be released from the bourgeois property relations which constrict and disorganize it. For more than a century bourgeois economists were blind to this contradiction until Keynes and his followers recognized it in their own eclectic
way, thus paying an unavowed tribute to the Marxist critique.
But all that Keynesianism and neo-capitalism, more than
ever haunted by the specter of communism, have tried to do is
to introduce, on the basis of private property (i.e., of monopolistic capitalist corporations) a kind of pseudo-social control
over the socialized productive process. This is not the first or
the last time that men have desperately struggled to ensure
the survival of archaic institutions or ways of life into an age
that has no need and no use for them, I once saw in my native
country, Poland, a peasant who by chance acquired on old motor car and then insisted on harnessing his horses to it. Keynesianism and neo-capitalism are keeping the horses of private property harnessed to nuclear-driven vehicles and space
ships of our time— and they threaten to shake heaven and earth
to prevent us unharnessing them.
To return to my proper subject: Our idea of socialism is not
an arbitrary intellectual construction but a careful extrapolation
and projection into the future of those elements of rational
social organization that are inherent in capitalist society but
are constantly thwarted and negated by it. Similarly our idea
of Socialist Man is but a projection of the social man who
already exists within us potentially, but is distorted, crushed
and stultified by the condition in which he lives. (The germ of
Socialist Man is present even in the alienated worker of our
time in those rare moments when he rises to a genuine aware-
ness of his role in society and to class solidarity and when he
struggles for his emancipation.) It is here that our aspirations
are rooted in the realities and are sustained by them, but all
too often are also imprisoned in them.
We know, I repeat, what Socialist Man cannot be and will
not be: he cannot be the product of antagonistic society; he
cannot be the collective producer who is controlled by his
product and social environment instead of controlling these. He
cannot be the plaything of the blind forces of the market, nor
the robot of a state-managed neo-capitalist war economy. He
cannot be the alienated and cowed proletarian of earlier days,
nor the dull counterfeit copy of the petty-bourgeois into which
our so-called welfare state is turning the worker. He can be
himself as collective worker only in a most highly developed
and collectivist society. Only such a society will enable him to
reduce his socially necessary labor to the unburdensome mini-
mum which the new technology already permits. Only in such
a society will he be able to satisfy his material and spiritual
needs securely, not haphazardly; rationally, not whimsically.
Only in such a society will he guide himself in the satisfaction
of his needs and the use of his leisure by educated discernment
and intelligent choice, not by any silent or vociferous persuaders of commercial advertisement. Only in a socialist community will man be able to develop all his biological and spiritual capacities, to expand and integrate his personality, and free himself of the dark heritage of millennial material
scarcity, inequality, and oppression. Only in such a community can man overcome finally the divorce between physical and
intellectual labor, the divorce that has been at the root of man’s
estrangement from man, of mankind’s division into rulers and
ruled and into antagonistic classes—the divorce that our advanced technology even now is rendering superfluous while capitalism and neo-capitalism do what they can to perpetuate
it. Socialist Man can rise to his full stature only at the summit
of our culture and civilization, a summit which is within our
sight but toward which our property relationships, our social
institutions, and deeply ingrained inertia do not allow us to
advance as firmly and rapidly as we might advance.
Our idea of Socialist Man has often been criticized for its
unabashed optimism. We are told that we too are utopians
and that our historical-philosophical and psychological assumptions are untenable. We are told that the “paradise on
earth” of which propagandists of socialism have spoken is as
unattainable as was the paradise in heaven the theologians
had promised. We must listen with open minds to these criticisms— we sometimes find grains of truth in them. We must
admit that we have more than once taken too optimistic a view
if not of socialism itself, then of the roads leading to it. But
we must also realize that many of these criticisms express
only the sense of doom permeating bourgeois society and its
ideologues, or else irrational forms of disillusionment in our
own camp.
Thus some of the Existentialists tell us that we are trying to
escape from the basic predicaments of the human condition
and that we are glossing over the inherent absurdity of our
destiny. It is extremely difficult to engage in any fruitful debate
with opponents who argue sub specie aeternitatis (from the perspective of eternity) and from purely teleological premises. The pessimistic Existentialist asks the old question: What is the purpose or the aim of man’s existence and activity when set against the infinity of time and space? To this question we have, of course, no answer—nor has the Existentialist. But the question itself is absurd, for it postulates the need or necessity of an ultimate, metaphysical purpose of human existence, a purpose valid for all eternity. We have no such purpose, and we have no need for it. We see no metaphysical sense in our existence and therefore we see no absurdity in it either—absurdity and sense are only the obverse sides of the same coin: only when you postulate sense can you speak of absurdity.
The human condition with which we are concerned is not
man’s loneliness in the infinity of space and time—in that
infinity even the terms loneliness and absurdity are meaning-
less. We are concerned with man’s condition in society which
is his own creation and which he is capable of changing. The
argument from sub specie aeternitatis is philosophically arid
and socially reactionary; it is as a rule an argument for moral
indifference and political quietism, an argument for resigned
acceptance of our social conditions as they are. Happily, Existentialists, as Sartre’s remarkable example shows, can be philosophically inconsistent and can accept the idea of Socialist Man, despite their view of the absurdity of the human condition.
More specific to some extent is the criticism of socialist and
Marxist aspirations that Sigmund Freud makes in Civilization
and its Discontents. To our view of what man can and prob-
ably will be in a classless and stateless society, Freud replies
with the old adage: Homo homini lupus (man is a wolf to man). Human beings, he says, will always remain aggressive and hostile to each other; their aggressive instincts are biologically predetermined and are not significantly affected by any changes in the structure of society. “The communists,” Freud says, “believe that they have found the path to deliverance from our evils. According to them, man is wholly good and well-disposed to his neighbor, but the institution of private property has corrupted his nature. The ownership of private wealth gives the individual power and with it the temptation to ill-treat his neighbor; while the man who is excluded from possession is bound to rebel in
hostility against his oppressor. If private property were abolished, and wealth held in common, and everyone allowed to
share in the enjoyment of it, ill will and hostility would dis-
appear among men. Since everyone’s needs would be satisfied,
no one would have any reason to regard another as his enemy;
all would willingly undertake the work that was necessary.”
Before I proceed, let me first check whether Freud’s summary
of the Marxist view is correct. Do we really consider man to
be “wholly good” by nature and “well-disposed to his neighbor”?
Freud, who was rather ill-informed about Marxist theory, certainly came across some such statements in the popular communist or social-democratic propaganda, where they did indeed
occur. Serious Marxist theory, however, does not make any
such assumptions about human nature—at the most such
assumptions may be traced in Marx’s youthful, Feuerbachian
writings. I remember that this problem occupied me strongly
when, as a very young man, I was acquainting myself with
Marxist theory and was trying to obtain clarity about the conception of human nature underlying it. Working through the
writings of Marx, Engels, Kautsky, Plekhanov, Mehring, Rosa
Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky, and Bukharin, I arrived at the
conclusion that their assumptions about human nature were
essentially, so to speak, neutral. They did not see man as
“wholly good” or “wholly evil” as “well-disposed” or “ill-disposed
toward his neighbor”; they refused to accept the metaphysical
notion of an immutable human nature unaffected by social
conditions. I still think that the conclusion I then drew 40 years
ago was correct.
Man is the creature of nature, but more particularly of that
part of nature which, as human society, distinguishes itself from
nature and partly opposes itself to it. Whatever the biological
basis of our being, social conditions play the decisive part in
shaping our character— even the biological factors refract themselves through, and are partly transformed by our social personality. To some extent man’s nature, including his instincts,
has so far been submerged and distorted by his social conditions, and only when these conditions lose their oppressive and
distorting quality, may we be able to take a clearer and more
scientific view than we have had so far of the various biological
and social elements in man’s nature.
The main criticism of Freudism that a Marxist is bound to
make—and I am speaking as one who wholeheartedly recognizes Freud’s fundamental and revolutionary contribution to
our understanding of psychology—is that Freud and his disciples all too often fail to make allowance for this refraction
and transmutation of man’s instinctual drives through his
changing social identity—and yet it is Freud who has made
us aware of the processes which are nothing but the mechanisms of sublimation! Psychoanalysis has so far been able to deal only with bourgeois man, the bourgeois man of the epoch
of imperialism, whom it has tended to present as man at large,
treating his inner conflicts in a supra-historical manner, as
conflicts besetting human beings in all epochs, under all social orders, as conflicts inherent in the human condition. From this
point of view Socialist Man can be seen only as a variation of
bourgeois man. Freud himself makes this point: “In abolishing
private property we deprive the human love of aggression of
one of its instruments, certainly a strong one, though certainly
not the strongest; but we have in no way altered the differences
in power and influence which are misused by aggressiveness
nor have we altered anything in its nature.”
Then Freud makes this even more categorical assertion:
“Aggressiveness was not created by property; it reigned almost
without limit in primitive times, when property was still very
scant, and it already shows itself in the nursery almost before
aggressiveness has given up its primal, anal form… If we
do away with personal rights over material wealth, there still
remains prerogative in the field of sexual relationships, which
is bound to become the source of the strongest dislike and the
most violent hostility among men who in other respects are on
an equal footing.” Thus we are warned that Socialist Man will
be, not less than bourgeois man, aggressive and hostile to-
ward fellow beings, and that his aggressiveness will show itself
even in the nursery.
Note that while Freud recognizes in private property a strong
instrument of aggression, he asserts in the most dogmatic manner that it is not the strongest of those instruments. How does he know it? How does he measure the relative strength of the various instruments of aggression? We, Marxists, are more
modest here and less dogmatic: We do not claim to have made
such precise comparative measurements as would allow us to
weigh sexual drives and instinctual aggression against social
needs, interests, and compulsions. The instinctual drives will
undoubtedly be there in Socialist Man as well—how could it
be otherwise?— but we do not know how they will refract them-
selves through his personality. We can only guess that they will
affect him in a different manner than they affect bourgeois
man. (I even suppose that Socialist Man will offer the psycho-
analyst far richer and more reliable material for research and
conclusions, because in him a future Freud will be able to watch
the working of the instinctual drives directly, not through a
glass darkly, not through the distorting prisms of the analyst’s
and the patient’s class psychology.) Nor is Freud right in saying that property is only an instrument of our aggressive instincts— on the contrary, property often uses those instincts as its instruments and generates its own varieties of aggressive
drives. After all, throughout history men organized into armies
have slaughtered each other over property or claims to property; but they have not so far, except in mythology, fought
wars over “prerogative in the field of sexual relationships.”
And so when Freud maintains that the abolition of property
will not alter “the differences in power and influence which are
misused by aggressiveness” and will not “alter anything in the
nature of human aggression,” he simply begs the question. And
when he goes on to say that “aggressiveness . . . reigned almost
without limit in primitive times, when property was still very
scanty,” he does not even suspect that it was precisely the scantiness of property, i.e., material scarcity, that destroyed the
unity of primitive society, by giving rise to savage scrambles
over scanty resources, scrambles that split society into mutually
hostile classes. That is why we maintain that Socialist Man is
conceivable only against the background of an unprecedented
abundance of material. and cultural goods and services. This
is the ABC of Marxism. A friend of mine, an old and wise
psychoanalyst, often says with a sigh: “Oh, if only Freud had
read Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and
the State—he would have avoided so many false trails and
errors!” He might also have avoided supplying ammunition to
people for whom homo homini lupus is the battle cry against
progress and socialism, who operate the bogey of the eternal
human lupus in the interest of the real and bloody lupus of con-
temporary imperialism.
We may well grant that the aggressiveness of Socialist Man
will show itself in the nursery “in its primal anal form” and in
other more developed manifestations. Yet much will depend,
inter alia, on the character of the nursery: Do we imagine it as
an individual nursery within the family unit as we know it?
Or as a communal nursery after the dissolution of this family
unit? In our hypothesis about Socialist Man we assume that
he will not live within anything like the present family, with
its money nexus and its dependence of woman and child on
father. We suppose that Socialist Man will in childhood be far
less subjected to paternal authority than his predecessors have
been, or that he will not know it at all; and that, as an adult
he will be free in his sexual and erotic life, or, at any rate,
that he will be incomparably freer than bourgeois man is to
follow his emotional urges and need of love without coming into conflict with society. His instinctual drives will be refracted
through his personality in a manner which we cannot predict
but which certainly will not be the manner Freud takes for
Should one, for instance, take it for granted that Socialist
Man will be subject to the Oedipus Complex? Will this complex
that has worked so powerfully in our psyche, at least since
matriarchy gave place to patriarchal society, still be there if
and when mankind has moved beyond the bourgeois form of
the patriarchal family? And one may wonder what the super-
ego may be like in Socialist Man, the super-ego that works in
us as our unconscious moral censor and our father within us?
Freud, who confuses fatherhood, which is a biological category, with paternal authority, which is a social institution,
takes it for granted that the super-ego and the Oedipus Complex and other reflections of paternalistic society in the individual’s mind, are there forever.
True, he seems to have had a momentary premonition of
other possibilities. He says: “If we were to remove this factor
too [ie., ‘prerogative in the field of sexual relationships’] by
allowing complete freedom of sexual life and thus abolishing
the family, the germ cell of civilization, we cannot, it is true,
easily foresee what new paths the development of civilization
could take.” He cannot, however, visualize the prospect, for
the monogamic family is to him the indispensable germ cell
of civilization, and even in his thought he cannot detach him-
self from his patient, the bourgeois, monogamic man lying in
front of him on the couch. And so, although he grants uneasily that we cannot foresee what new paths the development
of civilization could take without the present family unit, he is
sure that the indestructible aggressiveness of human nature will
pursue Socialist Man beyond class, society, state, and family.
Here again we, Marxists, prefer a certain amount of agnosticism. We are, of course, concerned in the main with the cruelty
and oppression which is generated directly by poverty, scarcity
of goods, class society, and man’s domination by man. When-
ever Freud ventures into the fields of sociology and history,
he lays himself open to the reproach that he speaks willy-nilly
as an apologist for existing society. We have nevertheless learned
from him something important about the reality of the destructive and aggressive elements in human nature. It is, of course,
true that emperors, kings, warlords, dictators, governments,
and leaders of all sorts would not have been able to make
men behave as aggressively as they have behaved if aggressiveness had not been there in human nature—our rulers have always appealed and still appeal to man’s base instinctual
drives. But the question of how much of the biologically or
sexually conditioned aggressiveness will affect the non-biological
relationships of Socialist Man must be left open.
We do not maintain that socialism is going to solve all predicaments of the human race. We are struggling in the first
instance with the predicaments that are of man’s making and
that man can resolve. May I remind you that Trotsky, for
instance, speaks of three basic tragedies— hunger, sex, and
death — besetting man. Hunger is the enemy that Marxism and
the modern labor movement have taken on. In doing so they
have naturally been inclined to ignore or belittle man’s other
predicaments. But is it not true that hunger or, more broadly,
social inequality and oppression, have hugely complicated and
intensified for innumerable human beings the torments of sex
and death as well?
In fighting against social inequality and oppression we fight
also for the mitigation of those blows that nature inflicts on
us. I think that Marxism has tried and is trying to tackle from
the right end the tasks confronting our society. The Freudians
have concentrated on sex and ignored or belittled man’s social
problems. And what is the result? For all the theoretical importance of psychoanalysis, the practical benefits of its therapy
are in our society available only to a tiny privileged minority.
Our vision of Socialist Man on the other hand, has inspired
a huge segment of mankind; and although we have fought
with varying success and suffered terrible defeats, we have
nevertheless moved mountains, whereas all the psychoanalysis
of the world cannot reduce by a single iota the aggressiveness
with which our world is boiling over.
Yes, Socialist Man will still be pursued by sex and death;
but we are convinced that he will be better equipped than we
are to cope even with these. And if his nature remains aggressive, his society will give him immeasurably greater and more varied opportunities than bourgeois man has for sublimating
his instinctual drives and turning them to creative uses. Even
if Socialist Man may not be quite “free from guilt or pain” as
Shelley dreamed he would be, he may be still “scepterless, free,
uncircumscribed, but man equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless, exempt from all worship and awe.” The average mem-
ber of socialist society may yet rise, as Trotsky anticipated, to
the stature of Aristotle, Goethe, Marx, who, whatever their sexual instincts and aggressive drives, embody some of mankind’s highest achievements so far. And we assume that “above
these heights new peaks will rise.” We do not see in Socialist
Man evolution’s last and perfect product, or the end of history, but in a sense only the beginning of history. Socialist
Man may indeed feel the Unbehagen, the unease and discomfort, that civilization imposes upon the beast in man. More-
over, this may, indeed, be the most essential of his own inner
contradictions and tensions that will impel him to evolve further and scale heights which are beyond our imagination.
These views are or ought to be truisms for any Marxist, and
I ought perhaps to apologize for stating them at a Socialist
Scholars’ Conference. Unfortunately, in the present condition
of the labor movement and of socialist thinking certain elementary truths need to be restated, for all too often they are
forgotten or falsified for the sake of some dubious political
convenience. I have heard it said, for instance, that the proper
subject of my analysis ought to be the Socialist Man living in
the USSR or China today. I would take this view only if I
held that those countries have already achieved or that they
have nearly achieved socialism. I do not accept this assumption and I do not think that the typical or even the advanced
member of Soviet or Chinese society today can be described
as Socialist Man.
We all speak, of course, colloquially about the USSR, China
and the associated and disassociated states as “socialist countries”, and we are entitled to do so as long as we intend merely to oppose their regimes to the capitalist states, to indicate their post-capitalist character or to refer to the socialist origins and inspiration of their governments and policies. But here I am
concerned with a theoretically correct description of the structure of their society and the nature of human relationship
evolving within that structure. You may remember that over
30 years ago Stalin proclaimed that the Soviet Union had
completed the building of socialism; and until now despite the
so-called de-Stalinization and the demolition of so many Stalinist myths, this has remained a central tenet of official Soviet
ideology. Moreover, Stalin’s successors allege that the Soviet
Union is now engaged in the transition from socialism to communism, or that it is entering into that higher stage of classless society that is to complete the cycle of socialist transformation opened up by the October Revolution.
Spokesmen of the People’s Republic of China have been
making similar claims for their country. Now, the Stalinist
dogma about the achievement of socialism in the Soviet Union
has significantly affected and changed the popular image of
Socialist Man and even the thinking of quite a few socialist
scholars. Yet one thing is, or ought to be, immediately obvious: the typical man of Soviet society, whether under Stalin
or his successors, presents so striking a contrast to the Marxist conception of Socialist Man that either we must refuse to
consider him as Socialist Man or we must throw the Marxist
conception overboard, as the Stalinist school of thought has
tacitly done. This is not a squabble over the letter of the Gospel, but an issue of the greatest theoretical and practical importance for us. If our aim is Socialist Man then our conception
or image of him is vital to our theoretical thinking, to the
moral-political climate of the labor movement, and to our own
ability or inability to inspire our working classes.
Now, Socialist Man was envisaged by Marx, and all his
followers up to Stalin, as a free associated producer working,
even in the so-called lower: phase of communism, under a
rationally planned economy, no longer a buyer or seller,
trading products in the markets, but someone who turns out
goods for society at large and receives them for personal consumption from society’s common pool. By definition Socialist
Man lives in a classless and stateless society, free from social
or political oppression, even though he may at the beginning
still carry a burden—a steadily diminishing burden—of inherited social inequality. The society in which he lives has to
be so highly developed, so wealthy, educated, and civilized
that there is no objective need or necessity for it to allow any
recrudescence of inequality or oppression.
This is what all Marxists before Stalin took for granted.
This is the ideal that has inspired generations of socialists—
without it socialism would have never come to life as the dynamic force of the century. Marxism has demonstrated the
realistic character of this ideal by showing that the whole development of modern society with its technology, industry, and
increasingly socialized productive process tends toward this
outcome. Now, the Socialist Man that Stalin and his successors have shown the world is a pitiful parody of the Marxist image
of Socialist Man. True, the Soviet citizen has lived in a society
where the state, not the capitalists, owns the means of production, and this circumstance is already reflected in certain progressive features of his mentality. Even the most backward of
Soviet workers takes the social public ownership of the means
of production for granted. Private ownership of a factory or of
a coal mine seems to him to be a revolting relic of some barbarous past. He shudders at the mere thought of it. He looks
upon it very much as the average member of any modern
bourgeois society looks upon slavery, as a social condition
degrading to man. But nevertheless these progressive features
in the outlook of Soviet man—although they are there—are
not the dominant features of his social psychology.
Soviet society has suffered and is still suffering from material
scarcity, an extreme scarcity of consumer goods in the first
instance, which has over the decades led to an inevitable recrudescence and aggravation of social inequalities, to a deep
division between a privileged minority and a deprived majority, to a spontaneous reassertion of the economic forces of the
market, and to a revival and a terrifying growth of the oppressive functions of the state.
The Socialist Man Stalin presented to the world was the
hungry, ill-clad, ill-shod or even barefoot, worker or peasant,
selling or buying a shirt, a piece of furniture, a few ounces of
meat or even a piece of bread on black or gray markets,
working 10 or 12 hours a day under a barrack-like factory
discipline and, sometimes, paying for any real or alleged offense with years of forced labor in a concentration camp. He
did not dare to criticize a factory manager, let alone a party
boss. He had no right to express any opinion on any major
issue affecting his and the nation’s destiny. He had to vote as
he was ordered; to applaud the Leader with frantic enthusiasm,
as he was ordered; and to let his dignity and personality be
mocked by the so-called personality cult. These are the facts,
now Officially so described by the Soviet leaders and reflected in
a vast Soviet literature with all the emphasis of authenticity.
Although in recent years the conditions have been greatly mitigated, the poverty, the inequality, the lack of political and intellectual freedom, and the bureaucratic terror are still there.
My purpose in recalling all this is not polemical, if only
because I see the main cause of these conditions not just in the rulers’ ill-will, though there has never been any lack of
this, but in objective circumstances, in the terrible inherited
poverty that the Soviet Union (and now China) has had to
overcome in isolation, amid blockades, wars, and armament
races. It was out of the question that a country like this should
be able to achieve socialism in such circumstances. It had to
devote all its energies to “primitive accumulation,” that is, to
the creation under state-ownership of the most essential economic preliminaries to any genuine building of socialism. Consequently the Soviet Union is even today a transitional society, finding itself some way between capitalism and socialism, combining features of the one and of the other, and showing marks even of its more primitive pre-capitalist heritage. The same is unfortunately true of China, Vietnam, North Korea, and most
of Eastern Europe. We in the West bear a heavy responsibility
for the predicaments of those countries—our failure to pro-
mote socialism in the West has been the ultimate cause of their
failure. But if we are to face our task anew and enable a new
generation of socialists to resume the struggle, we must clear
our own minds to the end of the misconceptions and myths
about socialism that have grown up in the past decades. We
must dissociate socialism once and for all not from the Soviet
Union or China and their progressive achievement, but from
the Stalinist and post-Stalinist parody of Socialist Man.
I cannot go here into the motives of dogma and prestige
that led Stalin and his associates to proclaim that the Soviet
Union had achieved socialism and that still cause his successors
to keep up this pretense. I am concerned here only with the
impact this dogma or boast has had on socialism in the West.
That impact has been disastrous. It has demoralized our labor
movement and confused socialist thinking. Our working classes
have watched in their own shrewd way developments in the
Soviet Union and have drawn their own conclusions. “If this
is the ideal of the Socialist Man,” they have said in effect, “then
we will have nothing to do with it.” Many of our socialist intelligentsia have reacted likewise or have become so entangled
in Stalinist mythology and scholasticism that they lost the
élan and power of socialist conviction and have so disarmed
themselves spiritually that they have been unable to struggle
against the disillusionment and apathy in the working classes.
It was once said of the Jesuits that, having failed to raise
earth to heaven, they dragged heaven down to earth. Similarly, Stalin and Stalinism, unable to raise a poverty-stricken
and miserable Russia to socialism, have dragged down socialism to the level of Russian misery. It may be argued that
they had to do it. Even if that were so, we have to do some-
thing else: We have to raise socialism back to its own height.
We have to explain to our working classes and intelligentsia
why the Soviet Union and China have not been able to produce and could not produce Socialist Man, despite their remarkable achievements which give them a right to our recognition and solidarity. We must restore the image of Socialist
Man to all its spiritual splendor. We must restore it in our
own minds first and then, fortified in our conviction and re-
armed politically, we must carry socialist consciousness and
the socialist idea back into the working class.
[At this point a letter from Professor Herbert Marcuse was
read and the panel of commentators — Professor Robert S. Cohen, Dr. Shane Mage, Donald McKelvey and Professor Roberi P.
Wolff—spoke. There were also some questions and comments
from the audience. Then Mr. Deutscher delivered the following
concluding remarks.]
Mr. Chairman, I think you exaggerated when you said that
I was now going to reply. I’m still recovering from the painful surprise at the first half, at least, of our discussion. One
learns even at my age; one learns all the time.
I am grateful to the last two speakers who somehow restored
my sense of reality. I can agree or disagree with them, but
we can argue. Nevertheless, I feel that I ought to devote most
of my answer to the speakers who took part in the first half
of the debate, because I see in the first half of the debate a
disquieting symptom of this otherwise creative intellectual ferment that is going on in the minds of the American intelligentsia, in the young generation of American scholars. But
there are strange by-products of it which seem to me very,
very dangerous, indeed.
And I am almost nonplussed by the statement which Professor Marcuse sent us. As the first speakers were really form-
ing a sort of supporting chorus to their absent inspirer, I must,
unfortunately, concentrate on Professor Marcuse’s statement.
He raises three or four important points, but he puts these in so vague and elusive a form that this also makes discussion
somewhat difficult.
First of all he states that we are far ahead of Marx and
Marxism, that our advanced Western society has rendered
Marxism obsolete, and that consequently from Marxism we
must move somewhere ahead. I’m always inclined to say yes
when people tell me that Marxism is surely not the last word
in the development of human thought, that we have to advance from Marxism. This is a very Marxist objection to Marx-
ism and I’m inclined to applaud it. But one must also reflect
for a moment in what respect Marxism is really so obsolete
and whereto are we supposed to move from Marxism.
I must first ask the question: has the basic contradiction of
capitalist society, as Marxism has analyzed and diagnosed it,
the contradiction between the socialized process of production
and the unsocial character of control over production by private property—has this basic contradiction been overcome?
Or is it becoming deeper and deeper, more and more irrational,
with every decade that passes?
We are told that advanced American society has rendered
the Marxist analysis of capitalism obsolete. But has this society,
which maintains its balance and keeps its production going
with the help of almost permanent warfare, really done so?
I simply don’t understand the logical or illogical processes
of reasoning by which people can arrive at such a conclusion.
We are told that surely in 1966 we cannot hold a diagnosis,
which was made on the basis of the technology of 1867, as
still valid. We are told that we have therefore left Marxism
far behind.
My argument is that, on the contrary, Marx was intellectually
so much ahead of his time— ahead of the society in which he
lived— that we are even now in many respects still behind him.
And if anyone wanted a confirmation of this, he had only to
listen to our debate.
The fact is that 100 years ago Marx postulated as the premise of socialism a society so highly developed technologically,
a society capable of producing such an abundance of goods,
that really for his age even the vision of such a society was
almost utopian. If one were to analyze the statistics of production per head in the most advanced capitalist societies of the
19th century, one would arrive at the conclusion that if social-
ism had won then, it would really have won in what by our present standards was an underdeveloped society. This is the
criticism one can make of Marx—that he ran intellectually so
far ahead of his age, and incidentally even of our age, that
we haven’t yet caught up with him.
Marx, we are told, did not foresee a society in which cybernetics, in which machines would do the work of men on the
scale on which they are doing it now—computers and all that.
Marx had not foreseen a society in which scientists and the
proto-class of scientists would be so important. But, on the
contrary, Marx always assumed that his society was already
on the point of becoming such a society, and there he was
mistaken. It is all right to say that surely a theory formulated
a hundred years ago must have become obsolete in some respects, although most who say so tell us usually in the end—
if they don’t advise us to take drugs to “liberate” ourselves
from the oppression of this society— most often they advocate
a return to some pre-Marxist ideas, sometimes to Christianity
which is 2,000 years younger than Marxism.
Or, at the most, when we have to deal with very educated
and very sophisticated critics of Marxism, then they offer us
the return, the regression — not an infantile regression though —
to utopian socialism or to 18th century rationalism. Yet there
are certain revolutions in human thought which are irreversible. Nobody can go back to the pre-Copernican systems of
cosmology although the development of the human mind has
led from a Copernicus to Einstein; but it did so only after
250 years or so.
I don’t think that Marxism will really be outdated in its
broad critique of the capitalist system as long as the system,
no matter how it is further developed, remains with us. Our
impatience with certain familiar formulas and truisms of Marxism does not render these truisms false or useless.
Well, some people think that it’s enough to go back to the
young Marx and to declaim, in and out of context, his very
early and even his immature reasonings about “reification”
and alienation, and to repeat them in circles, to solve the problems of our age. But they don’t go beyond Marxism, they go
back from the mature to the immature Marx, to the almost
adolescent Marx.
But even the adolescent Marx was a very mature thinker
compared with those who now exhibit, as one of the speakers
said, that tendency to the infantile regression.
I see only one respect, one major issue, on which Marxism,
the Marxist prognostication of socialism, has so far really to
some extent been falsified by developments. And that is that
socialism has so far won not in any of the advanced capitalist societies but in the backward ones, in which a feudal
structure was beginning to collapse under the impact of capitalism and where the feudal-capitalist systems collapsed under the impact of primitive bourgeois and socialist revolutions.
And so we have a legacy of this historical development, an
historical development which really differs from the Marxist
prognostication: we have a tremendous discrepancy and gulf
between East and West, a gulf that tends, unfortunately, to
perpetuate itself to the detriment of both East and West.
And for Marxists, for socialists, for socialist scholars, whether in this country or elsewhere, the great problem of our age,
the great problem of the movement towards our goal, towards
Socialist Man, towards a socialist society, is how to overcome
this gulf between the separate, divergent historical roads that
East and West have taken. That is the real problem from
which you cannot run away into any utopias or into any
“liberating” drugs.
I wish I could share the enthusiasm of my comrade on the
right side [of the auditorium] for what is going on in China.
I wish I could do so because I recognize the great revolutionary idealism and the international value of certain revolutionary innovations which the Chinese have made.
Unfortunately, it will do us no good to show such sovereign
idealistic contempt for the realities of China’s material situation, for the industrial and cultural backwardness of a society
that has had the heroism to initiate a socialist revolution amid
its appalling poverty and backwardness. These factors, unfortunately, influence the policies of the Chinese government
and lead the Red Guards to repudiate not only Russia’s so-called revisionism, but even Beethoven and Shakespeare as
the useless rubbish of a degenerate bourgeois culture.
I cannot accept this as socialism. I cannot accept this as a
liberating experience. Nor can I accept the Maoist cult as being
any better than the Stalinist cult, although it is in some respects more excusable.
All these developments deepen and widen the tragic gulf be-
tween the advanced capitalist societies of the West, including
their working classes, and the post-capitalist revolutionary societies of the East. The historic precedent of which one thinks
is the gulf that developed, during the wars of religion, between
the Catholic countries and the Protestant ones.
Protestantism, too, began as a liberating movement, as a
protest against the oppressiveness of the Catholic Church; but
then in the process of the struggle Protestantism too developed
its own oppressive features. And then, after decades and centuries of struggle, the situation became stabilized; and the line
of division between Catholic and Protestant countries was not
to be obliterated.
A historical coexistence between two rival religious creeds,
behind which there were also great social movements, became
a fact. Something like it has happened in our lifetime: we have
witnessed the actual coexistence—this is an antagonistic, hos-
tile coexistence — of two relatively stabilized systems, the Western capitalist-imperialist system and the Eastern post-capitalist, semi-socialist one.
I think, however, that this historical analogy may be misleading, is misleading, in one respect. Protestantism and Catholicism could coexist in the long run. The world in the era
after the religious wars, in the 17th and 18th centuries, was not
yet one world. It was not yet a world unified by technology
and industry. It was a world broken up into many units of
young nation states, of feudal, semi-feudal principalities and
particularistic units.
The world today is one world potentially and even actually;
technology and the development of the productive forces make
of mankind one indissoluble unit, crying out for integration.
Either mankind will be integrated within socialism or it is bound
to perish. And therefore, the kind of a stabilization of the lines
of division that existed after the religious wars is impossible
today. The world will become one and must become one. And
only socialism can unify it. Capitalism can.only keep it disunited and heading for disaster.
But the question is: which is the way to that unification of
the world? Can, in the meantime, the class struggle in the world
become a single process?
Marx spoke of the history of mankind as the history of class
struggle. But of course it wasn’t so that class struggle throughout history went on with the same intensity all over the world,
over the ages. The transition from capitalism to socialism,
we know now, is a matter of very many generations.
I do not feel so much discouraged by the fact that the class
struggle has been running at. a very low level in our Western
society as to give up the Marxist analysis and prognostication.
That our working classes, especially the older age group in
those working classes, have allowed themselves to be confused,
demoralized and corrupted by the meretricious advantages offered them by our so-called welfare state is, of course, true.
Yet, I think that the problem that the late C. Wright Mills posed,
the problem of who remains the agency of socialism — the working class or elites of the intelligentsia — that this problem needs, especially in America, a thorough discussion and a thorough analysis because nowhere does it pose itself with the same
It is 60 years now since a great Russian Marxist, Leon
Trotsky, said that Western Europe exported its two major
products in two different directions. It exported its most advanced ideology, Marxism, to Russia. It exported its most advanced technology to the United States.
But the Russia which received Marxism as an import from
Western Europe was technologically and industrially back-
ward, the most backward of the great nations of Europe.
The United States which has so advanced technologically
has, unfortunately, remained backward in political thinking.
To this day, I am sorry to say this, it has remained a most
backward country in political thinking.
And I believe, I would like to believe, that the great teach-in
movements of these last two years and meetings like the present
one are proof that the United States is trying, is beginning to
shake off its backwardness in matters of ideology and political
thinking. But how much still remains to be shaken off!
I think it is a great weakness of this movement that you have
an American scholars’ conference here which takes place with-
out arousing any interest in your working class. And you
shouldn’t— you have no right to—complain about it because
so many of you American socialist scholars— I wouldn’t like
to generalize—so many of you show no interest in your working classes.
I am not one to deprecate or belittle movements of protest
generating in the intelligentsia. I always remember that through-
out the 19th century the Russian intelligentsia carried on their
weak shoulders the tremendous burden of the struggle against
the Russian autocracy, the whole tremendous burden of the Russian revolution.
Generation after generation of the Russian intelligentsia, in
the 19th century, smashed their heads heroically, self-sacrificingly, againat the walls, the iron walls, of the Russian Czarist autocracy and perished. But they didn’t perish in vain. They prepared the future, they worked for the future.
I believe that you too are working for the future, for Socialist
Man. The Russian intelligentsia in the 19th century— they were
then very isolated, the peasantry didn’t respond to them, the
industrial working class hadn’t yet come into being—the intelligentsia were isolated and because of this, because they
fought alone, they developed a certain megalomania; and the
great epic of the revolutionary struggle of 19th century Russia
is full of pathetic, eccentric interludes. Because intellectuals,
when they don’t have a live contact with the working masses
of their own nation, tend to develop their own eccentric self-
centeredness and tend to produce goodness knows what fantastic nostrums for society.
Our discussion has revealed something of a similar weakness
in present-day America. Excuse me if I go away from my subject, Socialist Man, but we have to discuss the man who has
to pave the way for Socialist Man. And that is you.
I am convinced— and this is not a matter of dogmatic faith
but of an analysis of society, of the Marxist analysis of society—that your working class remains the decisive agency of
socialism, just as the Russian working class proved itself to be
the decisive agent of socialism after generations of the intelligentsia had fought alone.
You too may be fighting alone. It depends on you for how
long. Perhaps only for a few years if you find a way to your
working class. Or for decades if you try to ignore your working class. You may smash your heads against goodness knows
how many iron walls if you ignore your working class. Be-
cause every movement of protest, every movement of opposition to powerful capitalist oligarchies, is bound in the long run to be impotent, if it doesn’t get a firm grip on the productive apparatus of the nation.
It’s true that your scientists now have a much firmer grip
on the productive apparatus of the nation than they had in
any previous generation. But the great mass of producers are
still— whatever you say about cybernetics and the great vision
of a supra-cybernetic future—the great mass of producers in your society are still the workers. And I don’t believe that they
have much more reason to be satisfied with this society, with
their alienated condition in it, than the men of your intelligentsia, than you young American scholars have to be satisfied with this society. Do you really take such a contemptuous view of your working classes that you think that you alone are so sensitive or
so noble as to be dissatisfied with this degrading society and
that they cannot find it in themselves to be dissatisfied? Do
you really believe that they are so much more prone, and by
nature conditioned, to be corrupted by the meretricious advantages of this war-flourishing capitalism than you are?
I know, I know that the old age groups of the American
working class are almost certainly corrupted. They compare
their present condition with what they knew in the 1930’s. But
surely the head of the young American worker hasn’t turned
and become confused by the fact that in his parental home he
finds a television set and that he can have a car. He takes
these things for granted. They are a part of the standard of
living which he finds as he enters adult life. He’s surely not
corrupted by that and he has enough reason to be dissatisfied.
I am sure that behind his outward political apathy there are
layers and layers of doubt and discontent and a feeling that he
has to earn his living by working for death, by working
for war.
Can’t you approach this young worker and tell him that
the way to live is to work for life and not for death? Is it
beneath American scholars to try and do that?
Professor Marcuse tells us that we shouldn’t count on the
working class anymore, but he doesn’t tell us on whom we
should count. We should count, he says, on the young people
who voice their discontent with the sexual conventions of this
society. Of course, we should count on them also. After all,
it was an Engels who wrote about the origins of family and
exposed the family as an institution belonging only to a phase,
or phases, of society’s history; and he exposed the conventions
of bourgeois morality built up around the family.
We should not ignore this discontent with family and sexual
conventions among our young people, but sometimes I think
that those venerable old teachers like Professor Marcuse are
playing some jokes on us, are simply amusing themselves at
our expense. He says first that Marxism wasn’t utopian enough; and then he goes on to say that the actual development suggests that the idea of a socialist revolution in the advanced
industrial societies was or is unrealistic and is obsolete, just as
obsolete as is the idea of a gradual transformation of capitalism into socialism.
Now please add two and two together. Revolution, he says,
is an obsolete idea and reformism is also an obsolete idea.
That is, there is no road from capitalism to socialism, whether
revolutionary or reformist. Why then talk about socialism?
What Professor Marcuse tells us is that socialism was utopian
and then he says that socialism wasn’t utopian enough. How
an old and respected teacher can commit so many non sequiturs and so many illogicalities and play about with such vague
irresponsible generalities within five brief paragraphs beats me.
In many respects this discussion has been for me a sad experience. But I remain an inveterate optimist. I believe that
these are the incidental costs of a creative intellectual ferment
in your midst. I wish you clarity of thought and honesty of
thought, and I wish that you should concentrate on the essentials instead. of allowing yourselves to be diverted into some
circus-like operations that have nothing to do with serious
political thinking.
You cannot run away from politics. Men live not by politics
alone, true enough. But unless you have solved for yourselves
in your own minds the great political problems posed by Marx-
ism, by the contradictions of capitalist society, by the mutual
relationship of the intellectual and the worker in this society, “unless you have found a way to the young age groups of the American working class and shaken this sleeping giant of
yours, this sleeping giant of the American working class out
of his sleep, out of the drugs— out of this sleep into which he
has been drugged, unless you have done this, you will be lost.
Your only salvation is in carrying back the idea of socialism
to the working class and coming back with the working class
to storm—to storm, yes, to storm—the bastions of capitalism.