Reading: Ernest Gellner (1990): The Collapse of the Eastern European Marxist Faith

Weekend Reading: From Ernest Gellner (1990): The Civil and the Sacred

Il Quarto Stato

From Ernest Gellner (1990): The Civil and the Sacred: "This... characterization of the south- easterly Muslim neighbor of Atlantic civilization... makes a neat contrast to the Marxist eastern one...

...there, we witness a virtually total erosion of faith, combined with a strong, in many cases passionate, yearning for Civil Society. In fact, the present vogue of the term originates precisely in the politico-intellectual life and turbulence of that region.

The claim central to Marxist theory was that civil society is a fraud. The apparent plurality of nonstate institutions adds up to a system systematically slanted in favor of one category (“class”) of people, defined in terms of their relationship to the available means of production. The apparent neutrality of the superimposed order-keeping institutions spurious. This coercive machinery of the state simply ensured the safety of those institutions which were necessary for the perpetuation, and incidentally the camouflage, of the conditions which maintained the unequal and slanted control of resources. Both the plural institutions and their coercive cover really had no function, no raison d’être, other than the services they performed for this class structure. Their abolition, under favorable conditions of advanced productive equipment, would lead to no disaster....

Civil society and the state... were frauds, obscuring a squalid reality. Once that regrettable situation had been corrected, or rather, had corrected itself through the working out of deep processes whose laws were laid bare by Marxism itself, neither civil society nor the state would be required. Both would be pensioned off. The state, as a system of coercion, might at most be required as a temporary measure during the transitional period.

What happened in the Soviet Union between 1917 and 1989 is of course one of the great experiments in human history. The attempt to implement Marxism is the first secular effort at a theocracy, or to put it in a nonparadoxical manner, at ideocracy, as Raymond Aron used to call it. The thinkers of the Enlightenment had their own secular Heavenly City, which failed in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The French Revolution could of course be counted as the first such attempt, but it lacked a properly elabo- rated theory of history and society. It was precisely its failure which engendered such theories, and among them, Marxism became, for better or for worse, by far the most influential. It was a curious blend of brutal realism, bourgeois fantasy, and human utopianism.

The bourgeois fantasy lay in its doctrine that work was the very essence of man, that all institutions constraining or thwarting this deep need were inherently pathological, that productive institutions and processes were crucial in history (all else being but froth), and that this domination of historic development by the productive process would in due course lead to total human fulfillment through free, spontaneous, unconstrained labor. It would then need no state to enforce order and no civil society to check the state.

All this stress on fulfillment through free work is a remarkable projection of middle-class values onto the very essence, the Gattungs-Wesen, of man....

In a domination-prone world, economic rationality is not rational: those who work hard see themselves deprived of the fruits of their labor only by those in power. It could be brought about only by cunning and reason, as an unintended consequence of religious anguish. Those who sought wealth were not to be granted it: those who merely sought to escape despair had wealth bestowed upon them. But Marxism credits this distinctively bourgeois trait to the human soul as such, not to some men under the impulsion of a special torment: work is, it claims, our genuine essence and our time fulfillment....

In consequence, of course, Marxists simply possess no language in which to express their central political problem: their theory precluded the very existence of the problem and eliminated any tools for handling it. As long as political circumstance constrained them to remain within Marxist language, they simply could not even discuss their main problem: that constraint, however, seems now at long last to have lapsed.

The history of the Soviet Union since the Revolution, leaving aside the initial period of transition, falls into two main periods Terror and Squalor.

The two are separated by the first liberalization and followed by the second, whose fate is as yet undecided. The interesting thing about the period of total terror was that it was also a period of faith. It was not merely that terror enforced faith, so much so that men did not even dare admit their doubts to themselves; it was also the case, in a curious kind of way, that terror confirmed the validity of the faith. A terror so total, so pervasive and unprecedented, could only be the herald of some complete transformation of society, indeed of the human condition itself. Without necessarily believing individual propositions of Marxism or specific claims of the authorities, many of those involved in the system accepted its basic vision in a general kind of way, even if they detested the system. Such horror could only herald some Second Coming!

Both inside and outside the Communist world, Marxism succeeded in securing a near monopoly of the critique of liberal theory and practice. When liberal society did particularly badly in the 1930s - acute economic crisis which confirmed the Marxist prognoses, and the unmasking of the true moral nature of bourgeois society by the brutal candors of fascism and nazism—Marxism correspondingly benefited in prestige. Like other faiths, Marxism operated in a circle of ideas, which contained simple but powerful devices for counteracting the effect of any hostile ideas and evidence. Did dreadful and arbitrary oppression take place in the Soviet Union? The enemies of socialism, the “capitalist press,” would of course say so: but the interest of the enemies of socialism in denigrating socialism was so blatant that the evidence they in- vented so shamelessly could safely and justly be disregarded.

There was also a second line of defense: even if some of that evidence were correct, it would be utterly naive to suppose that a ruthless war, destined to end only in the elimination of one of the two rival systems, and in which no real compromise was possible, could be conducted in terms of some neutral and supposedly higher moral principles. There was no principle, no morality, other than the overriding need for the victory of that alienated human class which was due to inaugurate a new social order within which, at long last, humanity would fulfill itself. To put that victory in peril, or even to delay it, in the name of some inevitably spurious principle invested by bourgeois society in its own interests.... Those who committed such treason, or even those who merely committed it in their hearts, had to be dealt with ruthlessly and could expect no mercy. And they received none.

Self-maintaining circles of ideas of this kind are astonishingly effective and robust. The fact that some segments of the circle carry an amazing load of blatant falsehood fails to subvert the circle as a whole, always provided that two conditions are satisfied: that the circle holds firm internally and does not itself deny any of its own elements, and that it also contains important segments which record great insights and have a genuine appeal and which thus provide deep psychic satisfaction for the adherents. Marxism, like other belief systems one can think of, amply satisfied these conditions. Its critique of the waste, inequality, unnecessary poverty, and frequent fraudulence of capitalist society, especially perhaps in the 1930s, struck home.

As long as those occupying important positions within the circle do indeed stand firm, the circle has little to fear. A climate had been created in which this was one of the great modern belief systems, with a powerful hold on the loyalty of men, and social thought was lived largely in terms of what one of the adherents of the system called “The Great Contest.” We had become habituated to this great confrontation, to the fact that there were two rival interpretations of the nature, destiny, and proper comportment of industrial society, and that, at least logically speaking, neither of the two rival visions would ever be compelled to capitulate. Each contained devices for discounting the arguments adduced by its opponent.

Western society has had some extensive practice in handling this kind of confrontation.... The wars of religion had had a similar character; so had the confrontation between the Enlightenment and traditional religion.... On the liberal as on the secularist side... there is only a negative consensus, a denial of dogmatism and of the claim to unique possession of truth. On the other side, by contrast, there is a fully developed faith with all its institutional underpinning. Which side has the advantage? The secularists and the liberals have the benefit of offering fewer targets for refutation, giving fewer hostages to cognitive fortune; but they have the disadvantage of being less comforting, less reassuring, of possessing less by way of mutual confirmation and support between idea and institutions, and fewer agreed, ever-ready devices for discounting and devaluing the skeptic and the critic. As ideological pep pills, they are less potent.

Marxism, though not the first secular counterfaith, is the first such system to have been formally adopted by large, populous, and important societies. It is the first secularized faith to have been effectively implemented in the real world on a large and protracted scale. The resulting experiment does not necessarily tell us what the fate of any secular religion would be; nevertheless, it provides the best evidence we possess, so far, of the social and historical viability of overtly and fully secular religion....

What in fact happened to the Marxist Circle? Twice it was crucially breached from the inside, the only kind of breach to which these circles are really vulnerable: first by Khrushchev, and the second time by Gorbachev. The first time round, the wound was not all that deep: what was conceded were certain factual charges against Stalin and his period, and these were declared aberrations from or distortions of true Marxism. The faith itself, its central values and intuitions and doctrines, were not disavowed or even subjected to serious scrutiny. Conviction remained strong and vivid, and Khrushchev did indeed believe that communism would eventually prevail in the Great Contest....

Liberalization went into reverse, There followed the period now officially designated as Stagnation, during which Soviet citizens and the bureaucracy which ruled them became increasingly more comfortable (though not nearly comfortable enough when comparisons came to be made, not with the past, but with the contemporary West) ; it also became more cyni- cal, more corrupt, and, from the viewpoint of the messianic soteriology of Marxism, more routinized, disabused, doubly secularized, so to speak. This cynicism could not be expressed in public, so those who consciously articulated it to themselves had to indulge in this like a solitary vice.

Then, under the impact of relative (though not yet absolute) economic failure, came the second, Gorbachevian liberalization. It took off the lid, and suddenly it became plain that no one subscribed to the faith anymore. For instance, at the Institute of Philosophy of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, they still have, in accordance with old custom, red slogans on banners for the embellishment of the place and the edification of the visitor. In the entrance hall, you can read, in very large letters, a hadith of Lenin, to the effect that Marxist doctrine is all-powerful because it is true. I suggest that, by way of experiment, you try out this phrase on any Moscow intellectual: it is impossible for him to hear it without smiling. The idea that Marxist doctrine is either all-powerful or all true is simply comic, above all for those who had long lived in an atmosphere in which external respect for such a nation was obligatory.

What is Perestroika about? It was of course provoked by the relative economic failure of the Soviet Union and by the clear prospect of more of the same to come. Had the USSR been reasonably successful economically, it is exceedingly unlikely that any leader would have taken on the enormous risks, predictable and only too conspicuous now, which are inherent in the overall liberalization and democratization of the country. The pressure from below for reform was far from irresistible, and all the initial reforms, as Moscow liberals are willing to concede, were gifts from above, not something wrested by the beneficiaries. Popular pressure became manifest and powerful only when it became obvious that it would be indulged without lethal or much other serious peril.

Likewise, eventual economic success or failure can be expected to be crucial for the fate of Perestroika itself. While not wishing in any way to deny all this, I would nevertheless be reluctant to accept an economic interpretation of Perestroika. This transformation means many things to many men, but it is not exclusively, or even predominantly, about the economy. It is about the rebirth of Civil Society.

Civil society had indeed been destroyed during the Stalinist terror, and certainly not revived during the Brezhnevite stagnation. It is perhaps for further historical research to determine just how totally it was destroyed, and to what extent talk about the atomiza- tion of society in that period is an exaggeration. No doubt it was not destroyed as completely as it was by Pol Pot. But very little remained by way of institutions other than the single central state-party hierarchy and its appendages. Under Stalin, this monolithic social order, more than Caesaro-Papist, embraced production as well as the maintenance of order and the servicing of faith and took faith with utmost seriousness.

Under Brezhnev, it quietly ceased to be an Umma: it had entered this period still endowed with faith and left it wholly devoid of it. Theoretically, it now faces three alternatives: it could return to both authoritarian centralism and to faith and become an Umma once again, having found that liberalization leads only to ethnic conflict, not to any hoped-for economic amelioration; it could continue in its faithless way while retaining a centralized... single hierarchy... it can reacquire civil society - in other words, a set of institutions strong enough to check the state, yet not, so to speak, mandatory enough from the viewpoint of individuals to constitute an alternative form of oppression.

So civil society is an alternative to the return to an Umma and to a slide into criminalization....

By what paths did Russia arrive at this predicament?

There is, first of all, a certain very distinctive feature of the system of ideas on which this ideocracy was based: the fact that it was indeed more than Caesaro-Papist, that it fused not only the political and ideological functions but the economic one as well. Strictly speaking, the system of ideas did not contain a warrant for jointly centralizing polity and faith, insofar as the state was meant to wither away and the faith to be sustained by its own luminous and manifest truth, without benefit of coercion; but given the conspicuous fact that none of this happened and that a unique politi- cal and ideocratic apparatus did emerge, it inevitably also fused state and church with the centralized economic management.

A basic political centralization is inherent, it would seem, in advanced industrial society: order must be maintained, and it is difficult to imagine industrial production being maintained under conditions of genuine pluralism of mutually independent coercive agencies. In exceptional circumstances, something like this does happen - when multiple criminal and/or political mafias govern a large city (Belfast, Algiers during the final stages of the French presence, or highly criminalized sections of inner cities in one or two advanced industrial nations); but in general, industrial society presupposes that productive citizens can go to and from work without either protecting themselves or needing to duck while rival mafias or police forces shoot it out.

It is assumed, in contrast to segmentary society where the unit of habitation and production is also the unit of self-government, of ritual and defense, that citizens can rely for their protection on a specialized and unique agency or group of agencies. Citizens know whom to obey and do not need to form or choose alliances so as to ensure their own security. The job of keeping peace is performed, and it is clear precisely who does it. It is not a civic activity, but a precondition of other, legitimate civic activities.

If this argument is correct, then modern society cannot find its pluralism in the political or governmental sphere (if by that we mean the order-enforcing agencies). The peacekeeping institution may perhaps take its orders from plural and severally independent bodies (say assemblies, institutions, pressure groups), but it cannot itself consist of genuinely independent bodies, liable to use their instruments of violence on each other. That is the way of segmentary or feudal societies but is simply not feasible in a society with a sophisticated and growing technology, an enormously complex division of labor, and mutual interdependence of highly developed specialisms.

Segmentary and similar politically plural societies cannot give us what we want - namely, civil society. All this being so, such pluralism as we need must have its base in either the economic or the ideological sphere, or both. It is precisely because the modern state does indeed have the monop- oly of legitimate coercion (and, in fact, the monopoly of coercion sans phrases when it is not undermined and is functioning properly), that pluralism, or the breaching of monopoly, must occur in one of the other two realms: and, when full-blooded and passionately embraced Marxism prevails, it is not allowed to emerge in them.

Nor does it arise anywhere else either.

Full-blooded Marxism monopolizes faith and the state while claiming that the latter is to be dismantled and that the former monopoly arises spontaneously. It also, thanks to its central tenet of the denial of private ownership of the means of production, monopolizes the economy. It thereby makes civil society impossible.

Marxism does not, either with malice aforethought or in SO many words, oppose intellectual freedom. On the contrary, it is impeccably high-minded and highbrow. One of Lenin’s hadith, which one can still read on the surviving banners in the Soviet Union, reminds the faithful that one cannot be a good Communist unless one has mastered the cultural wealth of humanity. The comrades are expected to have read the best books and to know how to quote from them (though clearly this requirement lapsed in the days of the sleazy Brezhnevite bureaucracy). No boss or philistines in the Party!

In fact, some thinkers still incapable of liberating themselves from a residual hold of Marxism retain their attachment to it precisely because it seems to aim at making this world one fit for intellectuals (and perhaps for no one else) to live in. We’ll have not merely fulfillment but a better class of fulfillment, if you know what I mean. So it wasn’t on purpose that Marxism imposed an appalling, stifling straitjacket on intellectual life, when it was in a position to do so. This was a consequence of the logic of its ideas when implemented, not an overt part of the ideas themselves.

The reason it happened was double: partly it was a corollary of its messianism: if Marxism is a unique revelation which is bringing about the liberation of mankind and is alone capable of achieving that liberation, then rival views, denying it that status (automatically, simply by virtue of being rivals), can only be the agents, conscious or other, of those with a vested interest in opposing and delaying that liberation. If rival political associations are not to be tolerated, then the same must hold of ideas which would encourage their establishment. Siege mentality... locked into a deadly and termi- nal conflict with inescapably evil enemies... in practice led Marxism to impose intellectual monopoly and Gleichschaltung.

It is of course true that many religious systems (notably the “higher,” doctrinally codified and developed ones) also cannot logically tolerate coexistence with rivals: the very existence of a rival is a kind of blasphemy, a denial of that messianic claim which lies at the center of the religion. In practice, however, some at least of these theoretically exclusive and monopolistic faiths have of late learned how to accommodate themselves, with courtesy and even with cordiality, to a religious pluralism.

At least as important, perhaps more important, is the overwhelming tendency toward economic monopoly and centralism. There are two tendencies, in theory, which bear on this point in Marxism and socialism. On the one hand, there is an instinctive warm reaction to “planning” (which once upon a time used to be a word with a strong positive charge), due to the deeply and pervasively held conviction that both the injustices and the inefficiencies of capitalism were consequences of its free-for-all, chaotic lack of direction....

A complex, technically sophisticated, and interdepen- dent economy has to be run in some way: either independent units, genuinely in control of their own resources and their own profits, meet freely under the law in a market, or there is central direction. What appears to be impossible is to have economic liberty and pluralism and the abolition of private property. The property and resources taken away from private or separate hands, do not disappear into thin air ; someone has to control them and decide their fate and deployment, and in a politically and ideologically centralized society, one which believes itself (at certain times, with justification) to be in a state of siege, naturally this dislocated control devolves to the unique power center. This can happen because there is no one else to whom it could devolve, or because there is a positive belief in central planning, or for both these reasons.

The real historic development of socialist societies has made the consequences of this only too conspicuous. If, during the 1930s, when an economic crisis and its political effects seemed to illustrate and confirm all the prognostications of Marxism, “planning,” whatever it might be, seemed automatically to mean something good, then by the end of the 1980s, the “administrative command” system came to be seen as the root of all evil, and “the market,” or market levers, as infallible holy water, which would purge us of all economic sin. What happens under the single-hierarchy command-admin system is that, all in all, those responsible for various units and segments of the economy are largely free of the need to be successful economically but depend for their position, for retaining it or for advancing further along the ladder, on their political alignments, alliances, and intrigues within that hierarchy. Insofar as they also need to acquit themselves as actual producers, in the absence of a market they are once again de- pendent on their informal network connections. So, one way or another, political connections, reciprocal services, are what really count, rather than technical efficiency. In practice, serious socialism has meant the command-admin system, and that system has proved to be highly inefficient....

At the same time, the faith itself evaporated. It attained monopoly and lost its own soul: it ended as the monopoly of a nonfaith. The faith spawned monopolistic institutions, which did not work and which lost the very conviction which had engendered them. So we ask once again: just why did faith evaporate, and evaporate so totally?

The answer to this question is less than clear, but the temptation to speculate about it is irresistible. Why is the first secular faith to become a world religion endowed with such a tremendously rapid rate of obsolescence? Why is it that, little more than half a century after its conquest of a major society, there is no one within that society who still takes it seriously, and there are very few even willing to honor it with the compliment of rational opposition?

I hesitate to suggest that this has much to do with the fact that this faith has proved itself to be factually false: empirical falsification has failed to bother most other belief systems. Is it that an overtly secular doctrine is after all more vulnerable to empirical refutation? That traditional religions in the literal sense, whose doctrinal center of gravity is in some other world, are consequently less vulnerable to empirical fact than a vision which claims that it is only about this world, even if it also possesses a special revealed privileged access to the truth about this world? Is it that a creed claiming to be the expression of a coming advanced production stage cannot survive the humiliating demonstration of its economic ineptitude? Is it the excessively collective nature of the salvation offered by this religion, which offers no hope, no consolation to the individual sufferer, whose acute misery may make him or her unwilling to find solace in things which will only come to pass long after he or she is here no longer?

When prophecy fails, the prophets generally find an escape clause, and their faithful, with a deep psychic investment in their commitment, are generally happy to allow them to use it. Why has Marxism, within Marxist societies, not similarly benefited from those well-known, once widely practiced and effective mechanisms? The answer is not clear; but there seems to be no doubt about the facts of the case, which give rise to the question. This secularism has been secularized, this charisma has been routinized to the point of invisibility.

Perhaps the humdrum reason for the rapid obsolescence of the secular faith can be highlighted if we compare it with the traditional faith which is so marvelously resistant to both routinization and secularist erosion, namely Islam. Muslim ideocracy does not attempt to unify and centralize economic life; it regulates it in some measure and, notoriously, some of its requirements are not easy to square with the normal working of the modern financial world; but all in all, it takes the economic institutions of its time for granted and does not aspire to transform them radically. Its quest for justice or the elimination of corruption on earth is not pervaded by any modern sociological sense of the relativity of economic institutions and the possibility of their radical reorganization.

The Muslim state may on occasion grab a large part of the economy - the control of the economic commanding heights comes to it quite naturally; it was indeed ever inclined to have a keen eye for commanding heights and a sense of the importance of controlling them and not endowing wealth to create rival power bases; it has all the Leninist instincts the name of an absolute principle, one which it is necessary to follow out to its full logical consequences. It may have a sense of justice and the obligation to enforce it, to monopolize power so as to enforce good and suppress evil, but it does not have that special sense of justice requiring a total economic reorganization.

It is concerned with a justice only in the context of existing economic custom. Perhaps it is this difference rather than the fact that one of the two faiths concerns itself with the transcendent, while the other, at any rate formally, severely restricts its pronouncements to this world, which accounts for the success of one and the failure of the other. Marxism may be overexposed to reality not so much because it is, formally, so very immanentist and antitranscendentalist, but because its aspirations for reform in this world are so very overextended. Their failure invalidates the system, and they invite failure; they failed by attempting and promising too much. Marx notoriously wanted to change the world rather than merely understand it, and the changes he commended turned out to constitute excessively exposed hostages to fortune.

On a very loose interpretation, one of the central intuitions of Marxism does, however, remain valid: there is indeed a connection (though not, probably, a one-to-one connection) between the technological level of the forces of production and social organization. But the second and more specific proposition, also crucial to Marxism, which connects this general insight with a specific claim, has been falsified in a humiliatingly public and conspicuous way: the idea that socialism is the institutional accompaniment of a superior technology, of a higher state in the development of the forces of production, now appears absurd. The major and tenable Marxist premise, in conjunction with the conspicuously falsified Marxist minor premise, has engendered the conclusion which is fated for Marxism...

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