Max Nomad, Political Heretics: From Plato to Mao Tse-tung, 1963.


During the heyday of the McCarthy era, a patron of a small-town library asked for a periodical named The Progressive. The librarian had never heard of it and suggested that the inquirer might obtain it in the local radical bookshop, for the title sounded subversive. For all its simplicity there was a kernel of truth in the reply, even though the periodical in question was as much removed from radicalism as the braintrusters of F. D. Roosevelt or the advisers of J. F. Kennedy. The history of human progress can be written in terms of revolts against the status quo prevailing at any given time.

An attempt to record all these struggles would be tantamount to writing a history of the human race since its emergence from primitive tribal life. It would require a life-time effort equal to that of an Arnold Toynbee or a Will Durant to do justice to all the major struggles, successful or unsuccessful, against the masters of the day. It is beside the point whether progress is conceived as a real advancement for the bulk of the human race or as a change from one form of minority rule to another, whether it results in the improvement of the status of merely some of those who had risen against the powers that be, or, to be still more modest, whether the memory of the crushed revolts served to nourish the rebellious spirit of the underprivileged of later generations.

Seen thus, the revolts of the ancient slaves, as symbolized by the names of Eunus and Spartacus, though suppressed, in the long run contributed, with the sabotage practiced by the slaves, to the change of their status from vocal pieces of salable property to the somewhat less burdensome condition of serfdom or the like. The movements and uprisings connected with the names of the Gracchi and Catiline, by eventually converging into Caesarism, had their impact in improving the lot of the impecunious freemen. The rebellions of the serfs under Wat Tyler in England, Thomas Munzer in Germany, and Razin and Pugachev in Russia were, regardless of their outcome, not altogether without effect upon the descendants of the victors when they decided to "emancipate" their bondmen.

The same can also be said about the medieval revolts of the Czechs against the Germans and the Church, of the Poles against the Russians, of the Ukrainians against the Poles and the Russians, of the Italians against the Austrians, of the Greeks and Balkan Slavs against the Turks, of the Irish against the British, and of the non-European populations against the colonial powers. Whether or not they succeeded, whether or not the result was the substitution of new or native crooks and grafters for the old or foreign ones -- the course of history was accelerated, carrying with it some improvement of the lot of the underdog, who saw in the rise of new masters an encouragement to fight for his own improvement.

The growth of the cities, the development of modern industrialism, and the concomitant decline of feudalism and agrarianism in general brought to the fore and increased the ranks of three social strata which were henceforth to dominate the historical stage of modern society: the capitalist employer, the hired manual worker, and, between the two, the noncapitalist man of education, the privileged and not-so-privileged managerial and technical employee -- in short, the intellectual worker. Of these three forces, the uppermost stratum, the capitalist bourgeoisie, has in the course of the last centuries secured its ascendancy as a result of a number of violent and peaceful revolutions. In that struggle the bourgeoisie was inspired by the ideology of what is now vaguely referred to as old-time laissez faire or Manchester liberalism -- an ideology which in many respects stands for the very opposite of the ideas advocated at present by New Deal or Welfare State liberalism. In that struggle the bourgeoisie was also largely assisted by two other strata,, the intellectuals and the manual workers, who saw in the defeat of the old masters the dawn of a better future.

The triumph of capitalism put an end to that "alliance." The manual workers, as a mass, evolved no political ideology of their own. Their philosophy, if it may be so called, was a "fair day's wage for a fair day's work" within the existing capitalist system. It was the philosophy of trade unionism, pure and simple, which did not negate the principle of private enterprise.

From its inception the very basis of the profit system was to meet a theoretical and practical challenge issued by many representatives of the propertyless men of education, intellectuals, professionals, technicians, and other mental workers. They questioned the wisdom or the justice of the wealth of the world being concentrated in the hands of a small minority of property owners and suggested various forms of collective ownership under which, as they claimed and believed, the despoiled majority would come into its own.

That challenge found expression in the writings and actions of successive waves of Utopian dreamers, romantic conspirators, profound scholars, gradualist politicians, rabid "direct-actionists," and, finally, the Machiavellian superrevolutionists now in control of one-third of the globe.

Will that control spread over the rest of the world? Is the challenge against social injustice slated to convert the dream of individual liberty and universal welfare into the infernal reality of universal collective submission to the all-powerful bureaucracy of the Moloch state?

Are we therefore to accept the aristocratic, or rather plutocratic, gospel of .those critics of the coming slavery of totalitarianism who would make us believe that every intervention of the state beyond its role as mere thief-and-murderer-catching policeman is a sinister transgression of the sacred principle of individual liberty, a sinister concession to the infernal idea of socialism, which to those critics is one step removed from what the disciples of Lenin call communism? Or are we to reject their "libertarian" arguments as the special pleading of hired apologists of the sordid interests of the supermillionaires whose "rejection" of the state is the "ideological" fig leaf of their hostility to the income tax, and of their readiness to deliver to private charity -- to starvation -- all the present beneficiaries of social security?

Or is there any substance in the Cassandra cries of those prophets of doom who believe in the inevitable triumph of the totalitarian brand of socialism the world over? Are we to accept the defeatist idea that dictatorial collectivism, now in the ascendancy, is the only historically possible "inheritor" or "grave digger" of the continually changing modern industrial system?

Those prophets of doom should be reminded of the fact that there is no such thing as inevitability of historical outcomes in the life of human societies. (The only thing that is absolutely inevitable is the death of their individual members.) Time was, not so long ago, when many defeatists were convinced that the world triumph of Fascism was inevitable. Three generations before Hitler, there were those who believed in Marx's prediction that the capitalist system was going to collapse because of the increasing misery of the masses. This prediction never came true, not only due to the ever-increasing resistance of the workers, but also because intelligent conservative statesmen initiated the use of what is now called by ultrareactionaries "the welfare-state poison of socialism" to mitigate the misery of the masses and thus to consolidate the basis of the existing system. The mass appeal to the workers and the lower middle classes of the semisocialist Chartist movement of the 1840's inspired the author of Sibyl with the ideas of the "New Toryism," which had its share in stopping the "inevitable" trend toward super-pauperization with its possibly "inevitable" sequel of bloody social revolution. Following Disraeli's example, the German "Iron Chancellor," similarly afraid of the growth of the socialist movement, initiated social reforms which, more than his antisocialist laws, had their share in slowing down the progress of the socialist movement and in quashing the revolutionary spirit of the masses. It is such welfare state measures, on a much larger scale constituting what was called the "minimum program" of socialism, which, after World War I, largely prevented the "inevitable" triumph of both the Western democratic and the Eastern totalitarian version of Marxism in the Western world. It is also the adoption of other "socialist" measures, such as the nationalization of important branches of the national economy, which has likewise contributed to the prevention of that "inevitable" collapse.

It was in recognition of this nonsubversive, or "conservative" character of "socialist" measures that in the middle of the 1880's, long before the turn of the century, the British moderate Liberal statesman, Sir William Harcourt, exclaimed in the House of Commons that "we are all socialists now." That was at the time when, for all its revolutionary Marxist verbiage (outside of England), the socialist movement had already relegated its "final aim" to the realm of dreams and when the more intelligent statesmen of the capitalist world began to realize that the gradual acceptance of the socialist minimum program would conjure away the idea of the maximum program of which only the most timid beneficiaries of the status quo were still afraid.

It was World War I and the past antidemocratic policy of the tsarist government which set in motion the forces which eventually gave birth to the "maximum program." The circumstances of its birth turned into a monster of iniquity what generations of dreamers, conspirators, scholars, organizers, agitators, and terrorists had hoped or claimed would become the realization of the ideal of justice.

Opposition to the house built by Lenin has called forth two equally wrong reactions. Some defenders of the status quo refuse to make any distinction between totalitarian communism and democratic socialism. And some democratic socialists are doing violence to the cause of historical truth when they insist that the system established behind the Iron Curtain has nothing to do with socialism at large, or when they deny that there can be such a thing as nondemocratic socialism.

For socialism -- in the meaning of what is called "public ownership" -- is capable of assuming various forms, not unlike the system of private enterprise, which can be carried on either under the "rugged individualism" of the laissez-faire advocates or under the near-socialist aegis of the welfare state, and which could flourish both under the Oriental medievalism of prewar Japan and under the political democracy of the Western world. Hence this volume is going to deal with the various, often contradictory, phases of socialist thought and action.