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The Mises Review

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The Strange Death of Liberal Marxism: The European Left in the New Millennium

Paul Gottfried

1 2006
Volume 12, Number 1


Warriors  For Nothing

The Strange Death of Liberal Marxism: The European Left in the New Millennium

Paul Gottfried        

University of Missouri Press, 2005, ix + 154 pgs.

If Paul Gottfried is right, European Marxism is a secular religion in search of a dogma. The classical basis of Marxism is a detailed analysis of the genesis, flourishing, and decline of capitalism. A revolutionary change will inexorably replace capitalism with a vastly more productive system, socialism. Scientific planning will replace the "anarchy of production." Under the new communist conditions, a paradise on earth will ensue: "the free development of each will be the condition for the free development of all."

Unfortunately for the Marxists, their doctrine inverted the truth. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, not even the most convinced true believers could continue to assert the economic superiority of socialism. As Gottfried rightly notes, Mises long before the Soviet collapse had shown the theoretical bankruptcy of socialism: "Economist Paul Craig Roberts has made the point that the ‘socialist project’ suffered a theoretical setback in the 1930s [sic], when the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises pointed out the imponderables of social planning. . . . The effects of this challenge was to push Western Marxists further in the direction of Neomarxism, a form of socialist thinking that borrowed from Marx with increasing selectivity" (p. 56).

If the Marxists abandoned socialism, what remained of their system? The problem that confronted them was even worse. Gottfried, following Eric Voegelin and Murray Rothbard, holds that Marxists apply religious categories to the world. Their opponents are not simply wrong: they are evil and must if necessary be extirpated. But if capitalism was in fact productive and socialism unworkable, where were these opponents to be found?

The Marxists discovered the answer through nostalgia. Was not the fight against fascism during World War II a time when Marxists were not the discredited purveyors of outdated economic fallacies, but rather heroic fighters for freedom? Why not, then, continue the battle against fascism? In that way, past glories might be reinstated and the embarrassing failures of Marxist economics forgotten.

But to pursue this strategy, a difficulty had to be overcome. Since the end of World War II, with all its appalling destruction and massacres, fascists have been few and far between. Who today in the Western world supports the return of Hitler? How can one have a new crusade against fascism in the absence of fascists?

The current Marxist epigones solved this problem in a way that reflected both their disregard for reality and their ruthless grasp for power. They stigmatized anyone with the slightest tincture of ethnic particularism or nationalism as a fascist: "what distinguishes the European Left from American empire boosters are two intertwined features, the intensity of friend-enemy relations and the invocation of what Voegelin . . . calls the ‘second reality.’ . . . What Voegelin considers symptomatic of the ‘second reality,’ looking at things ‘through a kind of slit in an armored car through which one grasps only arbitrary facets of reality,’ causes one to exaggerate the malevolence of anyone suspected of holding ideologically incompatible opinions. Those who reject one’s program for betterment are less than respectful opposition. They are to the Post-Marxist Left ‘right-wing extremists’ and ‘fascists’ . . . who have forgotten the lessons of Auschwitz and who plan to treat Third World minorities, homosexuals, and the transgendered the way Hitler did European Jewry" (pp. 126–27).

Gottfried, displaying a remarkable familiarity with the sources, discusses French, German, and Italian Marxism from this point of view. Much to my delight, in doing so he launches a massive strike against one of my pet aversions, the German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas.

Habermas perfectly exemplifies the pattern Gottfried has set forward. He declares himself a champion of democracy. Reason, Habermas contends, is not confined to determining which means best fulfill given ends. We can argue rationally about goals themselves; and, if we do so, much in Western society will be found lacking. Based on the imperatives of argument itself, people have rights that a just society must respect.

Habermas’s practice belies his pretense to openness. Free speech, for him, has very definite limits. Historians must not compare Soviet atrocities with those of the Nazis. To do so is to "contextualize" the Nazis: this violates the categorical imperative to carry on the fight against fascism: "Between 1987 and 1990 he [Habermas] explained in a series of attacks that these ‘revisionists’ [e.g., Ernst Nolte] had ‘dangerously’ equated Stalin’s crimes with those of Hitler . . . diverting attention to Communist crimes in order to play down German iniquity. Such ideas went against the ‘reeducation’ that the Germans had enjoyed during the Allied Occupation but which the avoidable catastrophe of the Cold War had then interrupted. Although Habermas did not call for a total prohibition on the expression of such views, he insisted that they should be confined to ‘specialized scientific journals’ that would not reach the public" (pp. 98–99). 1

An examination of Habermas’s The Liberating Power of Symbols: Philosophical Essays (MIT Press, 2001) confirms and extends Gottfried’s diagnosis of Habermas. This short book shows Habermas at his friendliest: it consists of brief essays in tribute to philosophers and writers he admires. Yet the result is an unintentionally devastating portrait of the essence of his own thought. 

For Habermas, the process of controlled dialogue that he favors is more than a political mechanism. He thinks of it as a replacement for religion and previous philosophy. Habermas views his own thought as the culmination of history: other thinkers, however "progressive," are valuable only as way stations along the road to Habermasian insight. Thus, in an informative account of Michael Theunissen’s bizarre attempt to combine Marx with Kierkegaard, Habermas rejects his attempt to find a place for God: "But this modest truth is not enough for Theunissen. He would like to interpret successful acts of understanding in terms of a transcendence irrupting into history, the promissory presence of an absolute power which first makes our finite freedom possible . . . the complementarity of communicative freedom and love affirmed by Theunissen also disintegrates. Communicative freedom then takes on the profane, but by no means contemptible form of the responsibility of communicatively acting subjects." (Habermas, Liberating Power, pp. 105, 108).

It is apparent that Habermas is not a master of the communication he is so anxious to praise. However dense his prose, though, his meaning is clear: nothing can be allowed to "contextualize" his thought. "Communicative freedom" assumes the role that theologians assign to God. Again, after praising the leftist Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz, he remarks that religion must subordinate its claims to the demands of philosophy. Philosophy will instruct the Church on what it may permissibly teach. It "is the philosophical spirit of political enlightenment which lends theology the concepts with which to make sense of a polycentric world Church" (ibid., p. 88). It is not difficult to guess who today incarnates "the philosophical spirit of political enlightenment."

The existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers earns great praise for his endeavor to promote peace among conflicting religions through philosophical reflection. But he falls short: "Yet, as a philosopher of existence, Jaspers was so obsessed with ethical self-understanding . . . that he failed to exploit the normative resources of communicative reason in the domains of morality, law and politics" (ibid., p. 44).

Communicative reason in the style of Habermas imposes a rigid orthodoxy, which extends far beyond the condemnation of any contemporary stance with a whiff of nationalism as fascist. The entire course of modern German history must be brought into line. The Nazis, Habermas claims, did not break sharply with German history but continued, albeit in a much more drastic way, the policies of Kaiser Wilhelm II. In this connection the work of Fritz Fischer, Griff nach der Weltmacht, a "ponderous exposé of German ideological continuities from the second Empire into the Nazi period," looms large (p. 113). 2 Gottfried rejects Fischer’s account, appealing to the criticism leveled against it by the great historian of German militarism, Gerhard Ritter. Fischer’s supporters smeared Ritter as a reactionary nationalist; but Ritter had supported the 1944 plot against Hitler while Fischer had served during the war as a Nazi propagandist.

Gottfried’s book is by no means confined to Germany, and I recommend in particular his penetrating account of Louis Althusser, a French philosopher whose criticisms of the "humanistic" school of Marxist interpretation had a vogue during the 1960s and ’70s. The Strange Death of Marxism is an indispensable guide to the efforts of European Marxists to cope with the demise of socialism. 3



1Gottfried calls to our attention the valuable criticism of Habermas by Ernst Topitsch.  Here I think a brief discussion of the dispute between the Frankfurt School and the followers of Karl Popper would have been helpful. Topitsch was a follower of Popper.

2Eric Voegelin once told me that the only decent German prose in Fischer’s book is found in some letters, reprinted in the book, from the Kaiser.

3Georg Lukács was not "a longtime member of the Frankfurt School" (p. 36); Otto "Kirchheim" should be "Kirchheimer" (p. 74); "Octavo Gutierrez" should be "Gustavo Gutiérrez" (p. 58).

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