Monday, February 15, 2010

New Blog - And a Thought on the Failure of the Totalitarian Left

By Mike Dorf

A new blog,, has just been launched by three of my Cornell colleagues--Steve Shiffrin, Eduardo Penalver, and DoL contributor Bob Hockett--along with sometime DoL commenter Patrick O'Donnell and prominent con law scholar Michael Perry. Although I have previously expressed skepticism about the ability of religious language to win over the great middle of Americans who profess some degree of faith, I could be wrong about that, and in any event, the blog promises much of interest to progressives regardless of their religious views and to everyone interested in ideas. Kudos!

Now a short comment on a post on by O'Donnell entitled Marxist & Buddhist?. O'Donnell provides an extended quotation from a 1993 speech by the Dalai Lama in which he explains his goal of reconciling Buddhism and Marxism. There is much in what the Dalai Lama says here with which I agree--and that shows him to be a very sophisticated thinker--but one point which, I think, substantially misses the mark.

The Dalai Lama makes the rather familiar argument that the nominally Communist regimes of the 20th Century--singling out the USSR, China, and Vietnam--were not "really" Marxist but essentially nationalist. Their totalitarian excesses, he goes on to say, were a product of having "placed too much emphasis on the need to destroy the ruling class, on class struggle, and this cause[d] them to encourage hatred and to neglect compassion." Although the Dalai Lama does not invoke the highly egalitarian social democracies of northern Europe, the contrast is at least tacit: Scandinavian social democrats did not become totalitarian because they did not demonize the wealthy.

Stated that way, there is at least a surface plausibility to the Dalai Lama's analysis. Certainly the worst excesses of 20th Century Communist regimes--e.g., Pol Pot's murderous attacks on anyone with an education, Stalin's attacks on kulaks, the Cultural Revolution--can be fairly attributed to something like hatred of the well-to-do. But that simply raises, rather than answers, the question of why these impulses arose and were vented in the regimes in which they were. To my mind, there are two possibilities.

The answer that might appeal to an Orthodox Marxian would note that the most totalitarian nominally communist regimes were precisely those that, per Marx, were least prepared for Marxism--namely, peasant societies rather than industrialized bourgeois societies. In this view, 20th Century Marxism failed because it arose in the wrong places.

An alternative view would simply note that the relative success of social democracies--and certainly their gentleness relative to Communist regimes--was a product of the fact that they were/are democracies. This view (which I myself take) is quite difficult to swallow for a Marxian, because democracy (or what Marx would have called bourgeois democracy) is itself supposed to be a mere unstable phase en route to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Perhaps President Obama can ask the Dalai Lama whether he still thinks well of Marxism in theory, when they meet on Thursday!


Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

[The comment is in two parts owing to character limits.] 1.


I'm grateful for your frank and thoughtful take on the Dalai Lama's remarks. I suspect he would be the first to admit he's not an expert on Marxist theory and practice and might even agree with your view of matters.

And I think the two views you present are compatible insofar as the nominally communist regimes referred to were not at the same time democracies, in any case, I myself would not want to defend an "orthodox Marxian position" of any sort (which is contrary to the scientific methods and temperament Marx himself hoped his theorizing would evidence).

Please permit me an interpretive comment (while avoiding hermeneutic gymnastics) about "the dictatorship of the proletariat:" While defenders and detractors of Marx alike have made much of this phrase, I think both groups have frequently misconstrued its meaning in Marx's writings. As Jon Elster cogently explains in Making Sense of Marx (1985),

"After the exhaustive researches of Hal Draper and Richard Hunt we have a fairly clear idea of what Marx meant by that phrase--and what he did not mean by it. As these authors point out, and as is clear from Marx's own writings, dictatorship at his time and in his work did not necessarily mean anything incompatible with democracy. Rather it involved a form of extra-legality, a political rule in breach of the existing constitution. That violation of a constitution need not involve a violation of democracy is easily shown by using as an example the extreme case in which the existing constitution requires unanimity for constitutional change. If a majority of 95 percent of the population take matters in their own hands and set up a new constitution requiring only a two-thirds majority, they act unconstitutionally but hardly undemocratically. Rather, the latter term would apply to the 5 per cent who oppose the change. I am not suggesting that constitutional guarantees should never be respected in a democracy...although Marx himself did not see the need for any such guarantees. My point is simply that there must be some correspondence between how difficult it is to change the constitution and the proportion of citizens who want it to be that difficult to change it. if this correspondence does not obtain, there is a need for a political revolution and a new constituent assembly. [....]

The dictatorship of the proletariat, then, is characterized by majority rule, extra-legality, dismantling of the state apparatus and revocability of the representatives."

Part 2. of this comment follows.

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...


And it might be noted that the there is more than a handful of contemporary philosophers, social scientists and intellectuals who identify with much, or at least this or that, in Marx's oeuvre (that is, after sifting the living from the dead in his thought) and at the same time are wholly committed to the necessity and values of democratic theory and practice: be it Elster himself, the late G.A. Cohen, Erik Olin Wright, John Roemer, Jonathan Wolff, Allen Wood, Diane Elson, Meghnad Desai, Peter Singer, Moishe Postone, Claus Offe, the late Michael Harrington, Cedric Robinson, Sheri Berman, R.G. Peffer, Anwar Shaikh, David Schweickart, Ellen Meiksins Wood, among others. Even Rawls well appreciated Marx's critique of capitalism and the attraction of a socialist alternative, what he christened "liberal socialism" (see the discussion in his Lectures on the History of Poltical Philosophy (Samuel Freeman ed.), 2007: 319-372; cf. too R.G. Peffer's Rawlsian-influenced Marxism in his book, Marxism, Morality and Social Justice, 1990).

I think we ought to keep in mind, with Allen Wood, that "Those who identify capitalism with 'democracy' are blind to the forces within capitalism which have always stood in the way of realizing the idea of democracy in the political realm [about which Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers wrote incisively in On Democracy, 1983], and even now are threatening to erode and destroy what minimal degree of democracy capitalist societies have achieved."

Finally, I hope readers who are open-minded on this subject will at least read some of the titles in my bibliograpy for Marxism cited at the end of my post at

Michael C. Dorf said...

Two thoughts in response to Patrick's interesting points:

1) I suspect that historians and others will likely argue for decades to come over whether 20th century Communist regimes fulfilled or betrayed Marx's core vision. I suspect as well that the only sensible answer will have to be "a little of both."

2) With respect to Patrick's second comment, I certainly agree that one can appreciate bits of Marx's critique of capitalism without endorsing any particular positive program, either in economics or politics.

Bob Hockett said...

Thanks, Mike and Patrick, for this very interesting post and set of comments.

Taking up Mike's 'little of both' suggestion, I'm tempted to suggest that both explanations considered in Mike's original post probably capture a good bit of truth. One of the very features of those nations that Marx did not think ripe for Communist revolution was their not having yet instituted systems of would-be democratic governance with imminently universalist aspirations. The latter lack, for its part, stemmed in part from these nations' not yet having industrialized and thus not yet having seen the development of organized labor and cognate suffrage-demanding movements. This feature -- the lack of a pressure valve, so to speak, in the form of at least incipiently democratic governance -- might have contributed to a build-up of volatile resentment on the part of still unorganized classes of oppressed people, such that, once a mode of organization finally did emerge in the form of Bolshevist revolutionary movement, the consequences for perceived erstwhile oppressors were much more dire.

On the dictatorship of the proletariat, two quick thoughts.

One is that my understanding of Marx is that he viewed this as a likely temporary state of affairs en route to the ultimate destination of full communism, about which Marx was notoriously less definite in describing so far as its political organization was concerned. (He was aware of this, and offered explanations for it rooted in his own candidly admitted limitations as a denizen of what remained a capitalist society.)

The other is that Patrick's fine explication of the DoP indicates that Marx might in effect here have anticipated the Pocock/Ackerman notion of a 'constitutional moment'!

All best,

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