Chapter 13


Every theoretical system has another system inside it struggling to get out. And every system has a nightmare: that the caged system will break out.

In conceiving theories as having a natural history—as distinct from the methodologies, proprieties, and moralities of theory making—we have viewed theory not simply as a response to "data" or "facts" but as developing also in an historical landscape of other theories. A theory establishes itself not only by accounting for or predicting facts but also by drawing lines and separating itself from its theoretical enemies and, sometimes even more emphatically, from competitor theories with which it might be confused. At some point, however, a theory makes its own positive commitments, moving toward an authoritative paradigm, and it then faces the problem of fidelity to its own past, of consistency with the commitments it has made, and therefore of coping with "anomalies" generated either by its own researches or imposed by history.

If a system does not make room for these anomalies, it becomes dogma; but, at the same time, if a theoretical system simply opened itself to them all and acknowledged every anomaly it encounters as soon as it appeared, its boundaries would soon become unclear, and its identity or character would dissolve. It would cease to be.

Having constituted itself by drawing a line separating it from its enemies and competitors—in the case of Marxism, by drawing a line (critique) between itself and bourgeois society, mechanical materialism, idealism, or alternative socialisms such as utopian socialism—any theory must therefore do repressive work to maintain itself. For a theoretical system can be something only on the condition that it forgo alternatives and not be something else. A system becomes what it is as much by what it excludes and represses as by what it admits and makes salient. Both establish its boundaries and define its identity.

A system's enemies, then, are not only outside of but also within it. There are always other, alternative systems within it having varying degrees of vitality and development. In short, there is usually not only one but several other systems struggling to get out, and not just one but several nightmares that trouble any system.

The systems struggling to get out are not only threats to the parent system's identity but are also necessary to it. The cage and the caged help form one another; the repressed systems also help make the repressor system what it is. One is reminded of ancient Sparta whose entire society was warped in every pore by the need for eternal vigilance against her own restive helots.

What, then, are Marxism's nightmares? There are at least two. Implicit in its repression of idealism and utopianism, as well as in its sublimation of millenarianism into scientism, there is the lurking fear that it is not a truly "scientific socialism," not a theory about society or of the objective conditions that will change it, but only another disguise of the political will, an old utopian project masquerading as new science. In other words, one nightmare of Marxism is that it is another religion of the oppressed—a revolutionary messianism, as Georg Lukacs once described his own Marxism. This nightmare broke into the theorizing of Critical Marxism, which is nucleated with utopianism, and, at the political level, emerged openly in Maoisrm.

Yet there is another Marxist nightmare, an even deeper dragon of the mind that stirs fitfully within it. It is, most basically, this: Marxism emerged in a society whose middle classes had proudly insisted that private property and those having it were the foundation of civilization itself and that, as the Communist Manifesto summarizes their view, property is "the fruit of man's own labor . . . the ground work of all personal freedom, activity and independence.'' l This is the nuclear contention—the "first commandment" of bourgeois life—against which Marxism was developed and which its theoretical system seeks to encage. The nuclear importance of the issue for communism is also plainly asserted in the Manifesto which replies: "The distinguishing feature of Communism is ... the abolition of bourgeois property. . . . In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence Abolition of private property."2

As usual, most important things are out in the open; but the task, as Whitehead said, is to take hold of what is there in front of us, "to grasp its precise application," to discover what we see. The bourgeoisie said private property was the very foundation of civilization. Marxism is a system that creates itself in opposition to that contention. It is precisely this thought that Marxism holds in scornful contempt; it is this private property against which its most basic policies are directed, which it seeks to "annihilate." Marxism argues the contrary (not the negation) of the bourgeois first commandment, asserting instead that private property is now blocking the forces of production, has become an obstacle to civilization, and must therefore be expropriated. Far from private property being the basis of civilization, says Marxism, the bourgeoisie have destroyed everything once hallowed. The reality, said Marx, is that bourgeois private property itself has now become the most basic threat to civilization and we must either have "socialism or barbarism."

But where is the nightmare in this? Not in the possibility that barbarism will really triumph, which Marx mentions only parenthetically, but in the possibility that the bourgeoisie were right all along and that he was wrong. Now that is really a nightmare for a theorist. In the nightmare, what happens is: private property really turns out to be the basis of civilization; in the nightmare it is the rise of the bourgeoisie that is the turning point of history, not their expropriation; in the nightmare, socialism does not mean that the proletariat becomes the ruling class, but that the state becomes the dominant force—the infrastructure—and its bureaucracy the new ruling class; in the nightmare this new collectivist state brings a new stagnation to the economy, rather than a new productivity; in the nightmare the expropriation of the bourgeoisie is not the basis of a new emancipation but of a new, many times worse, domination. (The sleeper awakes gasping, drenched in sweat.)

It is precisely through its anomalies that Marxism comes close indeed to that very nightmare. The Eighteenth Brumaire was a nightmare, exhibiting the independence of the state and its domination of the classes. Marx careens back and forth to find a proper class basis for it, first, in the masses of peasants, then in the conservative peasants, then in the lumpen proletariat. A state representing the lumpen proletariat, the demi-monde and "scum" of society! Is it really farfetched to call this a Marxist nightmare?

If Marxism does not maintain that property as such is the foundation of all civilization, it borders on that idea. It does, after all, emphasize that the relationship between direct producers and owners, is the "innermost secret" of every class society. The property system is a central part of the mode of production and the latter, for Marx, is indeed the infrastructure of civilization. Still that is not the same as, but only converges with, the bourgeoisie's first commandment: private property is the foundation of civilization.

Marx is ambivalent about the role of private property; not just hating it, he has a love-hate relationship to it. On the one side, he attributes great importance—great power and, indeed, great value—to the emergence of all the proprietary classes—to slave owners, feudal lords, and especially the bourgeoisie. Consider the judgement passed on the early common ownership of land. "While all civilised people begin with the common ownership of land," says Engels, "in the course of development this common ownership becomes a fetter on production . . . is turned into private property," which, he carefully adds, "by no means makes its appearance as the result of slavery or violence."3 And then consider the paeans with which he greets even slavery: "Without slavery, no Greek state, no Greek art, and science; without slavery, no Roman Empire. But without Hellenism and the Roman Empire as a base, also no modern Europe. We should never forget that our whole economic, political and intellectual development has as its presupposition a state of things in which slavery was as necessary as it was universally recognised. In this sense we are entitled to say: Without the slavery of antiquity, no modern socialism."4 The very flower and highest hope of Western civilization is, indeed, said to rest not just on private property in general but on vile slavery itself. Is not this kith and kin to the bourgeoisie's first commandment?

Consider, further, Marx's own attitude toward the bourgeoisie themselves. Marshall Berman has seen the point here with exceptional clarity, and recognized the power of Marx's ambivalent admiration of them. Speaking of the Manifesto, Berman observed that what is startling about it "is that he seems to have come not to bury the bourgeoisie but to praise it. He writes an impassioned enthusiastic, often lyrical celebration of bourgeois works, ideas, and achievements. Indeed, in these pages he manages to praise the bourgeoisie more powerfully and profoundly than its members have ever known how to praise themselves."5 The Manifesto celebrates the bourgeoisie which, "in its reign of barely a hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive powers than have all previous generations put together. Subjection of nature's forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to agriculture and industry, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground."

The bourgeoisie are the center of modern exploitation; but they are also a veritable colossus striding the earth, trooping it with world commerce, throwing the dross of centuries into history's dust bin, bringing the most backward of people onto the stage of history, waking them from centuries of long slumber. The bourgeoisie has brought into existence forces that ultimately spell its own destruction; it has conjured up forces that it cannot control; it mass produces misery as it mass produces cotton, but it is also the historical embodiment of Prometheus, laying the basis of mankind's ultimate emancipation from want, producing the very marvels of which artists have only dreamed. Indeed, it is the bourgeoisie who, with their ceaseless accumulation of capital, uninterrupted disturbance and agitation, who with their constant revolutionizing of productivity, who are the very paradigm of revolution en permanence. The proletariat's own "permanent revolution," its insistence (or hoped for insistence) on carrying forward the revolution from the bourgeois to the socialist revolution, its refusal to allow the bourgeoisie to call a halt to revolution or to allow bourgeois relations of production to stop this revolution en permanence, are only an extension of the Prometheanism of the bourgeoisie. Marx saw the bourgeoisie as the battering ram of history and parted company with them when, and only because, their juggernaut momentum was stalled by their own property system. He would and did allow them anything, denying that they could be swept off the historical stage, so long as they fueled the forces of production. The proletariat, then, are to carry forward the torch of permanent revolution, wresting it from the hands of the bourgeoisie, as the latter begins to falter; but Marx had no doubt that it was the bourgeoisie who had first lit that torch and put the flame to human progress.

Marxism, then, is grounded in the most profound and radical ambivalence to proprietary classes, and its passionate admiration for the bourgeoisie could be controlled only by a theoretical system in which its condemnation of them was equally thunderous, seeing and needing to see them as the possessors of a demonic force akin to "that hideous pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain."6 The Promethean power and activism of the bourgeoisie, the swath of creative destruction they unceasingly cut in the world, fascinated Marx and he could have resisted their attraction only with the most energetic exorcisms. He is surely drawn to his own nightmare.

As Marx extended his comparative studies to include Asia, and discovered the AMP and Oriental Despotism, proprietary classes could only have become more attractive to him. In contrast with the AMP, all exploitative societies and ruling classes in the West now seem uniquely progressive. Marx believes that however exploitative Western societies were, all were far more preferable than the AMP. He is at bottom a modernizer. The Western track of development as a whole, then, comes to be seen as having a uniquely progressive historical character. In contrast to oriental backwardness, even the West's colonial domination of Asia—and its uncivilized "barbarian" societies—was seen as having a progressive import. My point here, however, does not bear on Marx's chauvinism (on which, more in a later volume). The dilemma, for Marxism, went deeper.

It had to do with where the dividing line in Western history was to be drawn. Certainly, Marxism speaks directly to that question unambiguously affirming that Europe's basic turning point was the emergence of a propertyless class who, it is promised, will produce a socialist culmination precisely because it is propertyless. Having "nothing to lose but its chains," the proletariat is imputedly free to usher in the new classless society. This is surely the dominant commitment of Marxism's primary paradigm. Marx and Engels's later studies of Asia, however, were profoundly anomalous, implying a profoundly different periodization and perspective. These suggest that the watershed in world history was the emergence of proprietary classes (for they were more economically dynamic than the state ruling class of the AMP). These studies also brought into focus the epochal significance of the proprietary class's shift from land to capital.

While Marxism states unequivocally that Europe's turning point was the emergence of a proletariat, as the revolutionary agent of a classless socialism, nonetheless, there is another, profoundly different layer in Marx's views. From this standpoint, Europe's turning point had already arrived and its social evolution culminates not with socialism but with capitalism. There is, indeed, the further implication that socialism is only a special case of societies that have freed themselves from a land-dominated mode of production through use of capital. In this latter perspective, "socialism" seems to be a variant of capitalism. That is, "socialism" here seems to be a society that relies increasingly on capital, and which wants to do so still more (but which unlike Western capitalisms remains limited by its encompassing and unproductive agricultural system). The real Prometheans, then, were not of the future but had already come: they were men of capital.

Discussion of Marx's AMP commonly fails to mention that he was interested in it (and other forms of primitive communalism), largely because they helped him understand modern Western capitalism. Having held that wage labor—the sale of labor power for a price—was one of the preconditions of capitalism, the section of the Grundrisse (analyzing primitive communalism) begins by exploring the requisites of wage labor. One of these, says Marx here, is the existence of free labor and its exchange for money; another is the separation of the worker from his own means of production, the means and material of labor. This above all involves the "release of the workers from the soil . . . hence dissolution of small, landed property as well as of communal land ownership resting on the Oriental commune."7

Marx concludes his Grundrisse discussion of the three forms of the primitive commune (the oriental, the Graeco-Roman city, and the Germanic land system) by stressing the unique importance for the West of both cities and private property in land:

The history of [Western] classical antiquity is the history of cities, but of cities founded on landed property and on agriculture; Asiatic society is a kind of indifferent unity of town and countryside (the really large cities must be regarded here merely as royal camps, as works of artifice [superfötation] erected over the economic construction proper); the Middle Ages (Germanic period) begins with the land as the seat of history, whose further development then moves forward in the contradiction between town and countryside; the modern [age] is the urbanization of the countryside; not ruralization of the city as in antiquity.8

This discussion brought Marx's analysis to the point that what was required was a vast comparative and historical scholarship; something quite different from his quick forays into political analysis, or his densely detailed technical political economy, with examples drawn from only one country, England. In the Grundrisse's pages, Marx arrived at the point where the next logical development was the comparative scholarship of Max Weber. In one part, then, Weber's was one of the "nightmare systems" struggling to escape from Marxism.

Marx's analyses of the AMP, then, do much more than certify he had escaped unilinear evolutionary determinism. They suggest with no less force, that Marx, following Hegel, saw Western society as a dynamic entity profoundly contrasted with the stagnant orient. In this perspective, Marx and Engels—followed by Lenin—repeatedly held that imperial Russia to the East was a semi-Asiatic society alien to Western Europe—even if then lately entering its orbit—and, more than that, was a threat to the socialist development that lay growing in the West's historical womb.

With its cities, its private property in land, its dynamic proprietary classes, Western Europe and its culture—Marx saw but did not "discover"—was a unique center of historical development of world scope. Marx's analysis of the ancient city-state or Germanic communalism suggests that the bourgeoisie was only the recent expression of a larger Western dynamism, inescapably grounded in this unique past. The materials on early communal forms undermine a vision of Marx as the prophet of a universal "marche generale"; but they offer another, nightmare vision of him as an emerging theorist of the West's manifest destiny and of socialism as the heir to that unique destiny, at which point Marx has developed another interface with Max Weber.

The bourgeoisie, says the Manifesto, "creates a world in its own image," compelling all nations to adopt its revolutionary civilization, to renounce their backwardness and to enter the stream of world history. "The bourgeoisie . . . draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization . . . it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilized ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West."9 This is plainly the language of Western superiority over Eastern "barbarianism," of a bourgeois manifest destiny blindly preparing the ground for the next, higher stage of Western development, to which the proletariat is heir.

There is an ambiguity in Marx's work, then, as to which break in history was really decisive. For while the focus of Marx's early work on socialism and the proletariat affirms that this is the important dividing line in history, Marx's later work, after his studies of oriental history, suggest that the real watersheds may have been the irruption of proprietary classes in general and of the bourgeoisie in particular. As Umberto Melotti notes (quoting from Marx's 1857 Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy), "only capitalism, in Marx's view, constituted a real qualitative jump in the process of man's historical development, by breaking the stranglehold of nature: 'In all forms in which landed property is the decisive factor, natural relations still predominate; in the forms in which the decisive factor is capital, social, historically produced elements predominate.'''10

Underneath Marxism's primary paradigm, then, there was another very dim scenario; there was a stifled embryo Marxism whose profound divergence from the paradigm's public posture required that it remain unborn. From a standpoint that assigns strategic significance to the shift from landed property to capital, the expropriation of the bourgeoisie may not be as historically significant as the emergence of capitalism; from a comparative perspective on the stagnant Asiatic Mode of Production, the expropriation of the bourgeoisie may appear to be a perilous experiment threatening a new stagnation. In all this there is a rising redolence, faint but pungent, of an ethnocentrism exalting the West as embodying a unique promise for the world's future development.

In this nightmare scenario, it is the West that is the true agent of historical development; the proletariat, caught in the cunning of history, is the servant of that higher destiny. I have called this, nightmare Marxism; yet nightmares are real and some have them. It is likely that this nightmare flitted through more than one dream of German social democracy and its Scientific Marxism. As one observes the Russians glumly counting their growing Moslem population, or seized with anger against the Chinese and scanning for a theoretical basis for detente with the West, it sometimes seems as if they too may be drawn into this nightmare Marxism.



1. Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, authorized English edition of 1888, supervised by Engels, published by Charles H. Kerr, Chicago, p. 31.

2. Ibid.

3. Friedrick Engels, Herr Eugen Duhring's Revolution in Science (Anti-Duhring), trans. Emile Burns, 
ed. C. P. Dutt (New York: International Publishers, 1939), pp. 150, 179.

4. Ibid., p. 200

5. Marshall Berman, "All that Is Solid Melts into Air, Dissent, Winter 1978, p.56. See also Paul Sweezy, "There are . . . in all literature probably no passages which paint the achievements of capitalism in more glowing terms than those devoted to the subject in the Manifesto." Science and Society, Winter 1948, p. 80.

6. Karl Marx, Selected Writings, ed. David McLellan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 336.

7. Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin Nicolaus (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1973), p. 471.

8. Ibid., p. 479.

9. Communist Manifesto, p. 18. Despite this and much other straightforward evidence, Norman Levine assures us that, unlike Engels "Marx never made a value judgement as to the relationship between Western and non-Western societies." Norman Levine, The Tragic Deception: Marx Contra Engels (Santa Barbara Clio Books, 1975), p. 20.

10. Umberto Melotti, Marx and the Third World (London: Macmillan Publishers , 1977) , p. 27. Melotti 's study is a critique of the Marxist discussion of the problem of unilinear and multilinear evolution in general, and of Marx's analysis of Asiatic society, in particular.


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From Alvin W. Gouldner,  The Two Marxisms.   New York:  Oxford University Press, 1980,  Chapter 13 - "Nightmare Marxism,"   pp. 380-389.

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