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Max Eastman

Burnham Dodges My Views

(August 1938)

From New International, Vol.4 No.8, August 1938, pp.244-246.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

IT BORES ME TO HAVE TO reply to James Burnham’s article Max Eastman As A Scientist, because although written for the most part graciously and without the usual billingsgate, it is not the kind of article a man writes who really wishes to grapple with a problem. Burnham either agrees or does not agree with my criticism of dialectic materialism as a disguised metaphysical idealism. I suspect that he agrees more than he disagrees with it. But he is careful not to let anybody, perhaps not even himself, perceive this, for the very simple reason that he is politically a Trotskyist, and he knows that if he renounces dialectic materialism, or even questions it, Trotsky will renounce him – and probably call him a coward besides.

What I say about scientific method derives its essential meaning in the circumstances from my thesis that Marxism contains this element of wish-fulfillment metaphysics. It is impossible profitably to discuss the article either as criticism of Marxism, or as advocacy of scientific method, or as appraisal of the Russian experiment, or as anything else, without opening this question and honestly grappling with it. One need only read Trotsky’s excommunication of me in the same issue of The New International to see that for Trotskyists such questions are closed. The article Max Eastman As A Scientist therefore scrupulously avoids touching its real theme.

On any other subject – in any other situation – James Burnham, who occupies a responsible post in a scholarly university, would be ashamed to answer a clearly defined and plain-spoken thesis such as mine about the difference between Marxian socialist philosophy and a practical socialist hypothesis, and some of the consequences which result from substituting the one for the other, with the pretense that the author “meditates on a variety of problems” and reaches conclusions “so vague and general as to be hardly arguable”. Every word of his subsequent argument proves this a disingenuous pretense, particularly the statement soon following that my article “ends with the listing of eight proposed points for a revision” of the socialist ideal.

Equally disingenuous, whether consciously so or not, are the indecisive and elusive remarks which follow that introductory pretense:

“The problem what Marx really meant is an interesting one for scholarly research.”

“None of us is surprised that Marx was limited by the stage which scientific knowledge had reached in his day.”

“I, for one, agree that it is desirable to change, in part, his terminology [! ].”

“These problems of scholarly and linguistic [! ] reform.”

The italics are mine and so are the exclamation points, but they are unnecessary. Anybody who having read my article reads these remarks, and believes that Burnham has the slightest intention of grappling with my theses is either a natural born sucker intellectually, or else eager to pull the wool over his own eyes for Trotskyist party purposes.

Burnham’s suggestion that my article might be “mere eyewash and pot-boiler”, I regard as on a par with the statement of Trotsky that I have “fashioned a profession” for myself out of “the struggle against dialectics”. It shows about the same level of common sense, the same realism as to cultural conditions in America. I had that essay Russia and the Socialist Ideal on my desk for ten months after I wrote it, checking over and re judging every sentence it contained, so that there should be no word in it untrue to my most deliberate convictions. I received from Harper’s three hundred and fifty dollars for it. That is the only cent I ever made on any writing relating to dialectics. On the other side of the ledger, I paid for the publication of my book, Marx and Lenin, the Science of Revolution, and I paid for the publication of my brochure, The Last Stand of Dialectic Materialism. That is how it stands in America with the profession of attacking dialectic materialism, and with eye-wash and pot-boilers made out of painstaking studies of socialist theory. It takes no more than common sense to know it. When I come to writing pot-boilers, there are plenty of profitable subjects I can write on.

I introduced my article by remarking that I seem to be in a better position to reconsider the theoretical assumptions of the Russian revolution than Trotsky. That is a specific and unimportant judgment about two individuals, and has nothing whatever to do with my advocacy of the methods of science as opposed to the methods of Hegelian philosophy in socialist thinking. Here again Burnham is running excitedly up a side alley, hoping to be followed by his readers. In general the pretense of my critics that I am posing as a “scientist” makes me tired. I know what scientific method is, and so do they.

Burnham finds it “amusing” that although I oppose wish-fulfillment thinking, yet the “content and very wording of a number of the eight points listed in my revision of the socialist ideal are simply – wishes”. That is not true, but if it were, it would not be amusing except to a person ignorant of – or in a political position compelling him to ignore – the difference between wishes and wish-fulfillment thinking.

Burnham says that contemporary science “recognizes no problems of being or of universal history”; after that he says that such questions are “ruled out of scientific discourse”. The former statement is incorrect, the latter correct. They are ruled out of scientific discourse – except by a tiny group who maintain that logically they have no meaning – because now if not forever they cannot be answered. I advocated on the same ground that they be ruled out of socialist discourse. Burnham calls my simple formulation of scientific scepticism “rationalist metaphysics”. What is the use? Why not discuss the issues?

I make an allusion to “the universal attributes of human nature”, and Burnham, identifying that with “the essential nature of man”, jumps into a harangue about my wanting to “go back not merely to the Romantic, to the Eighteenth-Century Rationalists, but hurtling headlong into the Middle Ages”, my wanting to “revive the doctrines of Substance and Essence”. And then a long high-brow lecture about Substance and Essence. How pitiful!

Everybody knows that there are universal attributes of human nature. Does not blood flow in all our viens? Is not arsenic poisonous to us all? Sophistry unhappily is not.

Burnham calls attention to the obvious fact that often in social action “too detailed a blueprint is a defect”, and asserts that I demand a “blueprint in detail” of the socialist society. That is not true. I myself carefully warned against a too detailed blueprint, and also called attention to the difference between social and mechanical action in this respect. Burnham has invented this diversion for the same reason as the others – because he cannot discuss the real point I am making.

The point is this: Marx, on the one hand, dispensed with blueprints altogether, or thought he did – “the workers have no ideal to realize”. On the other hand, he adopted in the place of blueprints any and every extreme and absolute social ideal that happened to be floating in the wind. He did these two inconsistent things for one reason – namely that he believed in a universal benign evolution of Reality-As-Such to ever “higher forms”. My thesis is that both these errors, the alleged absence of blueprints and the existence of Utopian blueprints, and the inconsistency between them, are the result of that unscientific faith. Since Burnham dare not touch the question of that faith, he invents a disagreement between us about a matter of simple good sense – a disagreement which, so far as plain English could do it, I carefully forestalled.

“Eastman praises the Utopian socialists, Fourier and St. Simon,” Burnham says, “because they had blueprints. Revealing praise! Here as before Eastman does not “move forward” to contemporary science, but swings back to pre-Marxian fantasies.”

That again is not true. What I said was that even Marx’s Utopian predecessors raised the problem what there was in human nature to guarantee the possibility and success of a socialist society, and that, instead of developing these “amateurish but obviously necessary inquiries” [1], Marx abandoned them, because to him they were rendered superfluous by his faith in a benign universe. Again it is only because he dare not broach the question of that faith that Burnham misrepresents my statement. If he had quoted my remark about Fourier and St. Simon, not one sentence of his comment would have made sense. And he uses more space telling falsely what the remark was, than would have been required to quote it. Revealing measurement!

Speaking roughly, I advocate the amount of blueprinting that would seem sensible to a practical mind not misled by a “philosophy of optimism” (as Trotsky well describes the dialectic faith). On the other hand, I advocate that we abandon those Utopian and absolute ideals which we know cannot be realized unless that philosophic dream is true, and talk practical good sense about the future society. It is obviously impossible to discuss justly the equilibrium I am proposing, if one is debarred from grappling with the question of the truth or falsity of the said “philosophy of optimism”.

This question of blueprints and resulting mental equilibrium in large-scale social efforts, is the most important methodological question in the world today. Burnham, ignoring for political reasons my careful approach to it, merely asserts überhaupt that “the anti-blueprint temperament is ... necessary to decisive political action”. I wonder if he realizes how much that statement can mean in the present conjuncture. The lure of “decisive political action” without blueprints is the very magic wand of fascism. It is a wand also ruthlessly employed by Stalin. I do not know how much Stalin was helped in shifting the Bolshevik locomotive from the road toward socialism to the tyrant road by the Marxian mystic disposition to believe that any decisive political action taken with the support, or plausible support of the proletariat, would lead inevitably to “higher forms”. I know that he was helped a lot. He was helped in getting these disgraceful, world-deluding, lying “confessions” from his opponents. Americans, even when they pretend to believe in it themselves, hardly realize that the Russian Bolshevik leaders really did believe in that antique religion.

At any rate, in the present crisis of man’s hopes, to have able men going around advocating “decisive political action” with no scientific plans, no concept of human nature, no apprehension of the problems to come, no recognition that they will be in large part the same problems that have arisen in Russia – nothing but an antiquated German-romantic faith in a universe where planets are revolving in “ever more magnificent circles”, and things on them from bugs to bureaucracies are in a state of everlasting progress “from the lower to the higher” – is anything but helpful. To transplant all this disguised Hegelian rationalistic animistic balderdash into our western world, which has been so largely characterized by practical and therefore sceptical, empirical good sense, is unqualifiedly bad. When Trotsky says that what we need in this country is “more dogma”, he ought to be resisted as an obscurantist by every alert and free and educated mind in America – and he will be.

There is one other magic wand, wielded by Hitler and Mussolini – and also by Stalin. That is the redefinition of popular key words like freedom, democracy, socialism, etc., to make them mean whatever the tyrant and the bureaucrats may have in mind. This wand is also wielded by George Soule in his Future of Liberty, where we are told without a smile that we can cling to the ideals in the Declaration of Independence, if we will only “redefine” liberty and make it mean “subordination to a common purpose”. Soule is merely tracing out the road by which our soft-headed liberals can with some few scant ragged piteous relics of their mental dignity go over to Stalin. It is no accident that Burnham, defending not only “decisive political action” by the “anti-blueprint temperament”, but also the system of having instead of blueprints ideals so Utopian that by his own admission “many of them can never be completely realized”, finds himself also involved in the disgraceful business of redefining a clear term. Governmental regulation and freedom, he declares, are only “verbally contradictory”. Cooperation and governmental regulation would only “make impossible a romantic kind of freedom, which considers the free man to be one who does immediately whatever comes into his head, who acts from every momentary impulse with no thought of consequences or social effects”. Why “immediately”? Why “momentary impulse”? Did anybody say that freedom is opposed to hesitation, to deliberation, to judgment of consequences or social effects? Freedom is being in a position to do what comes into your own head, to set whether soon or late on your own impulses, to restrain those impulses when you do restrain them because of your own judgment of consequences and social effects. That is what freedom means, and anybody who clouds that meaning is well on the road toward “liquidating the opposition”.

The way to approach the problem of the relation between freedom and a well-organized economy is to say candidly and clearly what freedoms, and how many, must be sacrificed to such organization. That is the scientific compromise between anarchism and socialism. The metaphysical compromise effected by dialectic materialism, complete endorsement with indefinite postponement, leads with perfect logic down the road that Burnham and George Soule are mapping out, and Stalin has already travelled. Do not forget that Stalin was a socialist. Mussolini was a socialist. Hundreds of thousands of the followers of Hitler were socialists or communists, converted overnight by the lure of “decisive political action”, and by a small redefinition – a small sacrifice of what is “Romantic” – in the principle of human freedom.

We want blueprints definite enough to make that process of conversion difficult. Is it too much to ask of the professed defenders of civilization in its hour of crisis that they should have aims that they honestly believe in – that they believe can, and if the appropriate action is taken, will be realized. Is it just or truthful to impute “despair and resignation” to a person who makes this demand?

Burnham says in conclusion that “Eastman is compelled, if he is responsible, to propose another ... program”. Taking “program” in a very general sense, that is true. To my sensibility it is the one statement in his article that seems to come quite clearly from the heart. If I live I will complete my thesis. If the profession of struggling against dialectics were a little more lucrative, I would complete it sooner. But even so I would not hurry. I know it cannot seem so to party militants, and they have always my humble respect, but to me it seems just now in America a period for deliberation. It is so at any rate in my own life, and, both for pecuniary and intellectual reasons, I am combining this review of socialism with a review of my life.



1. I quote from memory.

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