A Lecture by Isaac Deutscher…


This is an edited transcript of a lecture given in February 1965 at the London School of Economics. It was published in the first posthumous collection of Isaac Deutscher’s writings, Marxism in Our Time, edited by Tamara Deutscher, Jonathan Cape, London 1971, and later republished in Marxism, Wars and Revolutions: Essays from Four Decades, Verso, London 1984.


A recording of the actual lecture can be accessed via the Related Links page on this site.



In our time

What is our time, for a Marxist and for Marxism? Is it a time of the ascendancy of Marxism? Or is it an epoch of the decline of Marxism? In those countries where Marxism is supposed to be the ruling doctrine, the official answer is, of course, that this is a time of an unseen, unheard of, unprecedented flourishing of Marxism in theory and practice. Here in the West, especially in our Anglo-Saxon countries, we are told day in and day out, goodness knows from how many academic and other platforms, that Marxism has not only declined, but that it is irrelevant - that it bears no relation to the problems of our epoch. From my native country, Poland, comes the voice of a brilliant young philosopher, but a very poor political analyst, who tells us that it is no use discussing Marxism any longer because Marxism has already gained and won and conquered the human mind to such an extent that it has become an organic part of contemporary thinking, and this marks the end of every great doctrine - when it becomes the organic part of human thought. This young philosopher lived in Warsaw after an epoch of Stalinism during which he and people of his generation identified Stalinism and Marxism. They knew Marxism only in the Stalinist form; they were served, and they accepted, the official Marxism as Stalinism and Stalinism as Marxism. Now they want to get away from Stalinism, and this - as they equated Stalinism and Marxism - means for them getting away from Marxism. It seems to me - such is the bitter dialectic of our epoch - that Marxism is in ascendancy and decline simultaneously.


Since the beginning of my adult life (that is, over forty years ago), I have been a Marxist, and I have never for a moment hesitated in my -  I wouldn't say allegiance because it is not a matter of "allegiance” -  I have never hesitated in my Marxist Weltanschauung. I cannot think otherwise than in Marxist terms. Kill me, I cannot do it. I may try; I just cannot. Marxism has become part of my existence. As someone who owes this kind of "allegiance" to Marxism, I would not like to give any of you, who perhaps only recently made an acquaintance with Marxism, the idea that this is one of the golden ages of the Marxist doctrine. Far from it. This is a time of triumph for Marxism only insofar as this is an age of revolution which develops an anticapitalist, a postcapitalist kind of society. But it is also an age of degeneration of Marxist thought and of intellectual decline for the labor movement at large. Precisely because the modern labor movement cannot find another creative and fertile doctrine except Marxism, all its intellectual standards decline catastrophically whenever and wherever Marxism becomes ossified. We have an expansion in Marxist practice and a shrinkage and degeneration in Marxist thinking. There is a deep divorce between the practical experience of revolution and the whole Marxist theoretical framework within which that revolution has been anticipated, within which that revolution has been justified on philosophical, historical, economic, political, cultural, and, if you like, even moral grounds.


For a student of philosophical or historical schools of thought and doctrines this is not an extraordinary statement. Almost every really great school of thought that dominated the thinking of generations has known its periods of great expansion, awakening and development, and its periods of decadence and decline. In this respect the only other school of thought that comes to mind is the Aristotelian school, which dominated human intellect for nearly two thousand years. In the course of this series of epochs it went through various phases of great creative interpretation and creative influence, and also epochs in which it found its triumph in a parody of itself, in the medieval Catholic scholasticism which, although based on Aristotelian philosophy, yet bore to it the same relationship which caricature bears to the real picture of an original object. This did not deprive the Aristotelian philosophy even in the Middle Ages of its raison d'être, of its creative phases, of its stimuli which still existed and later helped medieval Europe to overcome the scholastical degeneration. In this respect Marxism stands comparison with the Aristotelian philosophy as a way of thinking that epitomizes and generalizes the entire social, economic, and, to some extent, the political experience of the world under capitalism and exposes the inner dynamism of the historical development which is bound to lead from capitalism to some other postcapitalist order, which we have agreed to describe as a socialist order.


Marxism is not an intellectual, aesthetic, or philosophical fashion, no matter what the fashion-mongers imagine. After having been infatuated with it for a season or two they may come and declare it to be obsolete. Marxism is a way of thinking, a generalization growing out of an immense historical development; and as long as this historic phase in which we live has not been left far behind us, the doctrine may prove to be mistaken on points of detail or secondary points, but in its essence nothing has deprived it, and nothing looks like depriving it, of its relevance, validity, and importance for the future. But at the same time we face the problem of degeneration in Marxist thinking. We have the divorce between theory and practice, and we have a striking, and to a Marxist often humiliating, contrast between what I call classical Marxism - that is, the body of thought developed by Marx, Engels, their contemporaries, and after them by Kautsky, Plekhanov, Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg - and the vulgar Marxism, the pseudo-Marxism of the different varieties of European social-democrats, reformists, Stalinists, Khrushchevites, and their like. I am speaking here of a contrast between classical and vulgar Marxism by analogy with the way in which Marx spoke of classical and vulgar economy. You know that for Marx the term "classical economy" has a different meaning from the one it has in your textbooks at the London School of Economics. According to your textbooks, if I am not mistaken, classical economy lasts till the very end of the nineteenth and even the beginning of the twentieth century, and Marshall still forms part of it. To Karl Marx classical economy ends practically with Ricardo. All that follows is for him the vulgar economy of the bourgeoisie, and for a very good reason. In the classical economy, in Ricardo and Smith, Marx saw the main elements out of which he developed his own theory, especially the labor theory of value - of value based on human labor. This was the revolutionary element in the classical bourgeois political economy. For this revolutionary element the bourgeoisie had no use later on and, moreover, was afraid of it. Post-Ricardian economy wants to deduce value from anything but human labor. Later schools of vulgar economy deduce value from circulation; still later they "dismiss" value altogether and build a political economy without it because in this concept of value created by human labor was the seed of revolution. And bourgeois thinking instinctively shied away from it and, frightened, turned in other directions. Classical economy, the economic thinking of Smith and Ricardo, Marx argued, had given an insight into the working of capitalism that far exceeded the practical needs of the bourgeois class.


Ricardo, who understood capitalism so well, knew that the bourgeoisie neither wished nor could afford to understand the workings of its own system, and therefore it had to get away from the labor theory of value in the first instance. This phenomenon of a doctrine and a theory that offers insights into the working of a social system far greater than are the practical requirements of the social class for which it is meant - this phenomenon occurs sometimes in history. And it has occurred with Marxism. The body of classical Marxist thought gave such profound, immense, and till this day unexhausted and unexplored riches of insight that the working class for its practical purposes seemed not to need it. This idea was once expressed by Rosa Luxemburg on the occasion of the publication of the second and third volumes of Das Kapital. She said that the social-democratic movement in Europe had conducted its propaganda and agitation in the course of thirty or forty years on the basis of the first volume of Das Kapital - that is, on the basis of a fragment of Marx's economic theory; then came the second and the third volume and the huge structure was rising before our eyes - yet the labor movement did not at all feel that it conducted its practical and theoretical activities on an inadequate foundation: the intellectual content even of the fragment of Das Kapital was quite sufficient to keep, so to speak, the labor movement intellectually alive for decades.


Marx created a body of thought far in excess of the narrow practical needs of the movement for which he intended his work to serve. Then came the vulgarization, which was in sharp contrast with the original doctrine but which reflected the requirements of the labor movements and of the revolutions that were coming under the banner of Marxism. I hope I have explained in what sense I am using these terms - classical Marxism and vulgar Marxism. I shall perhaps sum up my argument: classical Marxism offers deep historical insight into the working of capitalism, into the prospects of the dissolution of capitalism, and, broader still, into man's relation under this system with other men, with his own class and other classes, his relationship and attitude towards the technology of his age. Vulgar Marxism does not need all that insight; it is fully satisfied with a small fraction of all that understanding, which it places in the severely limited orbit of practical needs, practical strivings, and practical tasks. We have here a historic hypertrophy of practice and an atrophy of thought. Practice is sometimes the enemy of thought; thought sometimes suffers from contact with practice. Here is the dialectic in its crystalline form: basically thought can exist only through contact with practice; practice cannot in the long run ignore theory. Nevertheless there are these temporary, transitional periods of unresolved tensions between theory and practice, and it is in such a period that we have been living these last decades. These unresolved tensions affect the whole structure of Marxist thinking.


The intellectual structure of classical Marxism was entirely based on the assumption of a socialist revolution taking place within a mature capitalist bourgeois society. The vulgar Marxism of our decade, by which I mean the Marxism that comes from the postcapitalist third of the world, is all based on the fact of revolutions occurring within underdeveloped societies. Now, how does this affect the structure of Marxist thinking?


If a revolution takes place in a mature bourgeois society, then what you assume, and what would in fact follow, would be first of all a material abundance, an abundance of goods, an abundance of means of production and a relative or even an absolute abundance of means of consumption, an abundance of human skills, of tools, of abilities, of experience, of resources, an abundance of culture. If the revolution takes place in underdeveloped societies, then the basic, decisive, and determining factor with which we have to reckon is the all-round scarcity: scarcity of means of production, of means of consumption, of skills, of abilities, of schools, scarcity of civilization and of culture - scarcity all round - only an abundance or super-abundance of revolutionary elements. If abundance is the basis of the whole structure of the revolution and of Marxist thinking within the revolution, political freedom is the element which you take for granted. Even if a revolution entails civil war and the dictatorship of the proletariat, this is viewed as a transitory phase during which the dictatorship is to serve only one immediate purpose: the breaking down of the armed resistance of the former possessing classes, but not the disciplining or forcing into obedience of the working classes or even the middle classes of one's own society.  Marx rarely, if ever, spoke about "political freedom”. Precisely because he assumed a revolution amid the abundance of a mature bourgeois society, he took political freedom so much for granted that he discussed only, so to say, the higher mathematics of freedom, those refinements of genuine freedom of which only a socialist society would be capable. On the basis of material scarcity there is no freedom. On the basis of abundance there would be no need for those sharply differentiated wage scales, the Stakhanovism,* and other systems and tricks which result in the recreation of revolting inequality. [*Soviet worker-incentive system named for the miner Alexei Stakhanov, who devised it in 1935] This inequality was inevitable in a society like the Russian one where - as I used to argue in the old days -  fifty million pairs of shoes were produced for a nation of one hundred and sixty million. This was my old argument and old simile; but it is still valid, in one way or another, if applied to nearly all the underdeveloped countries.


In a revolution which takes its course amid abundance and growing equality, there is no question of constraint in cultural matters. This coercion and constraint is presented to you as proletarian culture, as socialist culture. The constraint in the cultural field comes from nothing else but political fear. Censors confiscate poems because they are afraid that these poems may become political manifestoes. When the censors call for novels of "social realism," they wage a preventive battle against political manifestoes of opposition or revolution that might come not even from the poets, but from very prosaic young men somewhere in factories or universities. Intellectual constraint goes together with political constraint, with scarcity, with inequality.


Classical Marxism never envisaged "socialism in a single country" - in Germany, or in France, or in England. Its ground was always Europe, at the very least Western Europe. It was always international in its outlook; yet in the actual historical development it became national in scale. It became national in the sense in which Stalin viewed socialism within the framework of a single state on the basis of economic and even cultural self-sufficiency. This was a profoundly anti-Marxist view. It was the reflection of the false consciousness of the isolated Russian Revolution. Till this day in the East - in Russia, in China, among the foremost Stalinists in Eastern Europe - the whole way of thinking is still shaped by the tradition, the implications, and the tacit assumptions of "socialism in a single country," that is, of autarkic socialism, closed within itself. And of course, while you have scarcity, lack of freedom, inequality, cultural and intellectual coercion, and socialism on a national scale, and consequently the renewed struggle of nationalisms, you have a new form of what it is now fashionable to call, after the youthful Marx, alienation. This is a new form of alienation; man feels estranged from society; he is the plaything of what looks to him like blind social forces. He himself forms part of these forces, which are of his own making, and yet he is their victim. To Marx this estrangement from society was unthinkable in a socialist society, a society which was to grow out of the rich soil of mature capitalist civilization. However, contrary to Marx's expectations the revolution did not develop in Europe, in countries which we like to describe as the cradles of Western civilization, but in the East. And there, in the East, Marx's socialism could not be built. How could it if no material basis for it existed? People there could only engage in the primitive accumulation of the preconditions of socialism; and this they are achieving. Let us not be supercilious, and let us not belittle their immense task and their immense achievement. They are learning with long delays what the Western European nations had learned generations earlier, but they also know what the nations of the West never learned. The development is combined. There is backwardness and there is tremendous progress  - it would be unrealistic ever to leave out of sight any one of these contradictory aspects of history.


"Why then did the West not respond to the appeal of Marxism?” I will be asked. The revolution first won in a country which was underdeveloped and backward in 1917; underdeveloped and backward in its whole social structure despite its brilliant and fantastic artistic-literary achievement. The whole edifice was going up on unstable, unhealthy foundations and in the process became as if adjusted to these existing conditions of backwardness. Full of Galgenhumor, old communists used to sigh: "Couldn't God help us to start the upheaval in a more suitable country than this Russia of the muzhiks?" NO, God did not help. Hence, the incongruity of a modern revolution against the background of murky age-old traditions. This had its negative impact on the possibilities of revolutionary development in the West. The revolution in a precapitalist society, which nevertheless aspired to achieve socialism, produced a hybrid which in many respects looked like a parody of socialism. The western worker, however seemingly non-political, followed events very carefully and was quite aware of the famines, the hunger, and the deprivation that the people of Russia suffered after the revolution; he was aware of the terror and persecution they were subjected to. And, unsophisticated as he was, the British worker, the German worker, and even the French one, often wondered: Is this socialism? Have we perhaps in our century-old allegiance to socialism followed a dangerous will-o'-the wisp? Workers have been asking themselves these questions. Uncertain, hesitant, the Western European worker has preferred to wait and see. The Russian Revolution has acted as a deterrent to revolution in the West.


By and large we must look at the developments in the West and the relation of Marxism to the course of the class struggle in the West as upon a war which has lasted for generations - for a century and a half. And this class war has had its ups and downs, its intervals, its pitched battles, its long lulls between battles and campaigns. Anyone may say during a lull between two pitched battles: "Ah, your Marx said history is the history of class struggle and there is no class struggle!" Of course, when Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto that the history of mankind is the history of class wars, he knew perfectly well that there were times during which the war of the classes was at a very low ebb, almost stagnant. Churchill once wrote that the history of mankind is the history of wars - perhaps an unconscious plagiarism from Marx? The difference, of course, is that for Marx it is the history of class war, and for Churchill it is the history of war tout court. But Churchill also knew that wars are not fought ceaselessly; and Marx also knew that class wars have their time of truce, of open struggle, latent struggle, doldrums and intervals.


We have had a war against capitalism lasting many generations. There was 1848, 1870, 1905, 1917-18, 1945-46: all great battles, concluded partly with a victory of revolution in the East, and with heavy defeats of the revolution in the West. Marx never promised victories for the revolutions at any definite date of the calendar. All that he forecast was that there was going to be a struggle, a heavy, at times a bloody struggle, between classes and peoples, a struggle that would go on for generations and which should - if civilization did not in the meantime collapse into barbarity - lead to the dissolution of capitalism and the emergence of socialism. And, of course, parallel with this there has also been a mobilization of all the forces of the counterrevolution. Those who like to speak now about the unfulfilled prophecies of Marx - do they imagine (how shall I put it?), do they imagine that Marx was as shallow as his critics and saw the road towards socialism without the barricades of counterrevolution? We have had the mobilization of counterrevolution all over the world, in all its various forms, from fascism to the most refined social-democratic reformism, all mobilized in the defense of the existing social order. Those forces have benefited from every difficulty, from every wound in the body of socialism. Never yet, except in extraordinary moments like the Commune of Paris, has the working class mobilized itself even to a fraction of that intensity and strength at which the possessing and ruling classes have maintained their mobilization on an almost permanent footing. Even during the Commune the insurgents never really mobilized for a life-and-death struggle - we have all the descriptions showing their light-mindedness, their good-humored and good-tempered optimism.


When I speak of classical Marxism and of its validity, I have in mind what is essential in Marx. Marx was politically active in 1847-48, in 1868, and 1878; he wrote letters to his friends and to Engels in which he expressed his hope that perhaps the labor movement would take a revolutionary impetus in a year's time, in two or three years. And then Engels, after his friend's death, was writing to his disciples - and there were many of them in Western Europe - communicating to them his hope still to live and see the coming together of the workers of Britain and France and Germany. It was only natural that they had all these sanguine expectations but they were also thinkers who could step back from their immediate and tactical involvements and look at the historical perspective. There was Marx who laid the foundations of the First International and hoped that soon, very soon, that International would be able to produce some great upheaval. But there was also Marx who was writing Das Kapital, and he did not commit himself in this severely scientific and historical work to any forecast or any prophecy except to a conclusion which followed from his profound, detailed and meticulous analysis of capitalism - the conclusion that this system must collapse because its inner contradictions would not allow it to function in the long run. When it will dissolve and collapse - into this he never entered, not because (as so many of his clever critics suggest) he was so clever, but because he had a sense of responsibility. A politician may have to bank on certain events occurring within a certain time; he can rally for the coming struggle his own strength and that of his friends and followers. The historical thinker cannot do this; nor can he foresee the complications of history or map out its exact route.


I said that I shall concentrate on what is essential in Marx and I have slipped into what is inessential, so allow me just to touch on another problem which is marginal, namely the problem whether the working class under capitalism is condemned to absolute impoverishment. This has long been passionately discussed in the European, and especially in the French, Communist Parties. Well, you can find in Marx some support for such a theory and you can find some refutation of it. Marx's mind was too rich and complex to play with narrow formulae. In Marx's time, in Western Europe, there certainly were empirical facts which pointed to progressive and absolute impoverishment.


But let us return to the very essentials in the Marxist critique of capitalism. When people say that Marxism was a doctrine, highly elaborate and realistic for the nineteenth century but now obsolete, may we ask: obsolete in what? In its essentials? There is one, only one, essential element in the Marxist critique of capitalism. It is very simple and very plain, but in it are focused all the many-faceted analyses of the capitalist order. It is this: there is a striking contradiction between the increasingly social character of the process of production and the antisocial character of capitalist property. Our mode of existence, the whole manner of production, is becoming more and more social in the sense that the old free-lance producers can no longer go on producing in independence from each other, from generation to generation, as they did in the precapitalist system. Every element, every fraction, every little tiny organ of our society is dependent on all the rest. The whole process of production becomes one social process of production - and not only one national process of production but one international process of production. At the same time you have an antisocial kind of property, private property. This contradiction between the antisocial character of property and the social character of our production is the source of all anarchy and irrationality in capitalism.


This contradiction cannot be reconciled à la longue. The collision must come. That was all that Marx said. Now, has this essential critique of capitalism become obsolete? We are told that it has, that since Keynes capitalism knows how to plan the economy. For eighty years planning was supposed to be a bee in Marx's bonnet. Now that bee has been elevated almost to a divine insect, and we are told that capitalism can also plan. Has it ever planned except for war purposes? If it has, I have not yet heard of such a case. But suppose that it can. Is planning congenial to capitalism? Some capitalist enterprises were, after all, conducted on a feudal basis; one can also, I suppose, create a simulacrum of socialism on a capitalist basis. But is this congenial to capitalism? And can capitalism, even when it plans, achieve the rate of growth that planning in a really publicly owned economy has achieved? Of course not, because if there is national or international planning, then national or international ownership and organization are the congenial and natural conditions for planning. You can, of course, put planning into capitalism, but it is almost like putting a motor engine into a horsedrawn drozhka. And can capitalism create international societies? You will say: What about the Russians and the Chinese? Have they created an international society? Of course not. The way in which the Russians and the Chinese conduct their affairs is still a reflection of a capitalist way of thinking. But there it is a reflection of capitalism, a projection of capitalism into a postcapitalist structure of society, while here it is historically inherent in the whole working of the capitalist order. Wherever capitalism tries to break out of its national crust, it always does so in a catastrophic way, by staging world wars, by swallowing smaller and weaker nations or competitors.


If you look at the nearly two decades of postwar capitalist prosperity, what do you see? A refutation of Marxism? This is not the first time in history that we have seen twenty years running their course without the old-type slump and boom that have been characteristic of capitalism from at least 1825 to the Second World War. After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-7I there were twenty-five years of Germany's tremendous industrialization, of capitalist development without a real crisis. At the end of these twenty-five years came the revisionists, the friends and disciples of Marx and Engels, who said: "The masters must have been mistaken. They said there would be a collapse, there would be crises, there would be slumps. There are no slumps. From now on capitalism will develop smoothly in an evolutionary manner." And after only a few years, in 1907, came the tremendous collapse. Then the next tremendous slump led into the First World War.


I don't want to be a Cassandra, but I cannot say that I have confidence in the further smooth, evolutionary development of Western capitalism, or in the perpetuation of its so-called prosperity. After these twenty years of prosperity, what do we see in Western society? We see an intensification of all those trends which Karl Marx diagnosed as the trends leading to the further development of capitalism and its doom. We see all over the West the disappearance of those middle classes that were supposed to constitute the conservative foundation of capitalism; of the small-owning, smallholding peasantry. The peasantry that was the mainstay of French conservatism is vanishing, and France has ceased to be a peasant country. So have most Western European countries. America has no peasants, and only a small percentage of its population is engaged in farming. That was what Marx prophesied: that what will be left will be the bourgeoisie and the propertyless working class. For decades it seemed that this particular prognostication was not coming true. Karl Kautsky wrote a very learned and voluminous work on the agrarian problem, in which he explained why in agriculture there was no such concentration of capital as there was in industry. Nevertheless, he maintained, the Marxist prognosis was correct. Lenin accepted Kautsky's argument and pointed out that the peasantry remained in existence although it was getting progressively impoverished. Now this peasantry is vanishing! The proletariat is growing in numbers. Proletarianization, that horror of the bourgeoisie, is progressing with every year of our prosperity, with every year of our welfare state. The processes of production are becoming larger and larger in scale, centralized, social in character, calling more and more for social control, for social ownership. The productive forces of our countries cry out against the national self-sufficiency in which tradition and the ruling classes have kept them. That is the Marxist inferno coming through, almost invisibly, almost unnoticed, in the midst of this welfare state paradise.


In the meantime, one feels as if the whole development of class struggle here in the West has become arrested for a while, waiting for some great chapters to come to a close. There is one great trend in the historic development which promises - but this is only a promise - to turn the whole tide of Marxism and socialism: the growth of the productive forces of the Soviet Union, and with it that of the other postcapitalist countries. The process of primitive socialist accumulation, which has caused such tremendous distortion in the intellectual and moral structure of Marxism, does not have long to run. I do not know whether this is a matter of another decade or two, but the development will come full circle when Russia, this underdeveloped and backward country, and with it the other countries, will at last turn fully into modern, industrial nations - when the educated countries (with a socialist tradition surviving in them in spite of everything) realize in their midst those preconditions for socialism of which Marx and Engels and generations of socialists had dreamed: the material and cultural abundance, the lack of constraint in politics and in culture, the growing equality, the growing internationalism.


I have no doubt that despite the very ugly scenes between Moscow and Peking, the social systems of those countries are more intelligent and more progressive than their leaders. The social systems will force the leaders into internationalism even if they are the most chauvinistic idiots under the sun; they will push and drive them aside and bring out new people who will be capable of following the call of internationalism that comes today from the whole of mankind. And when this happens the development of those countries will not only catch up with classical Marxism, but it will probably surpass it. So, I think, we can confidently look forward to the prospect, even if it is not an imminent one, that theory and practice in Marxism will come together again. You and people of your generation should look wholeheartedly to this perspective, when Marxism will no longer be the Marxism with which we had to live - the Marxism projected through the distorting prism of backwardness, of backward civilization and backward societies. Your generation, I hope, will see this new upsurge, this new ascendancy of Marxism undimmed by any intellectual decline.


Marxism and socialism have been the products of Western Europe. They have gone out of Western Europe to conquer the world and they have lost ground in Western Europe. When will they come back? The country in medieval Europe from which the rest of Europe learned the arts of capitalism was Italy. The Italian cities, the Italian economists, the Italian bankers were the foremost in Europe. And then, in the nineteenth century, when nearly the whole of Europe had already gone bourgeois, Italy had not yet achieved its own capitalism. Capitalism came back to Italy belatedly, after the whole of Europe had accepted it. Is Western Europe going to be the Italy of socialism? Are we going to wait until Marxism and socialism have conquered the world, and then stand there, last in the queue, waiting for its return to us? Or shall we save ourselves from our own increasing and terrifying backwardness?