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The Marxist Conceptual Framework and the Origins of Totalitarian Socialism

  • Allen Buchanan (a1)
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One of the few things modern liberals, classical liberals, and conservatives can agree on is the charge that some of the worst features oftotalitarian socialist regimes have their origins in the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Nevertheless, the nature of this claim, and therefore the reasons for accepting or rejecting it, are oftenleft obscure.

If it is understood simply as a causal statement, then it must be confirmed or disconfirmed by empirical social science. The political philosopher can at most assist by providing a clear characterization of the conceptual content of the beliefs which constitute the independent variable in the alleged causal relation: those beliefs concerning Marx's and Engels's thoughts which are said to have exerted the causal influence in question. Even if empirical research did showthat beliefs about Marxist theory were a significant causal influencein the rise of certain features of totalitarian socialism, this wouldbe of limited philosophical interest if the beliefs in question were misunderstandings of the theory and if the correct explanationof why these misunderstandings occurred appealed to factors external to the theory itself. However, it would be of considerable philosophical interest if correct beliefs about Marxist theory exerted a causalinfluence on some of the more undesirable aspects of totalitarian socialism, or if incorrect beliefs did and the existence of thesemisunderstandings could be traced to ambiguities or gaps in the Marxist theory itself. The political philosopher has a legitimate interestin the relationship between the writings of Marx and Engels on the rise of totalitarian socialism, not because he is interested in articulating and testing causal connections between beliefs and social phenomena in general, but because Marxist theory is supposed – by its authors – to inspire and guide change toward a better society.

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1 Too often, critics of Marxism have failed to distinguish clearly between abuses of Marxist theory and deficiencies of the theory itself.

2 For a fuller discussion of Marx's theory of revolutionary action, along with citations of key texts in Marx, see Buchanan A., “Revolutionary Motivation and Rationality,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 9, no.1 (1979) pp. 5982, and Buchanan A., Marx and Justice: The Radical Critique of Liberalism (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allanheld, 1982), Chapter Five. Much of my discussion of Marx's theory of revolution in the present essay is drawn from these two sources.

3 Marx K., “Critique of the Gotha Programme,” in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, ed. McLellan D. (Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 1977), p.565.

4 Barry B., Sociologists, Economists, and Democracy (London: Collier-MacMillan, 1970), p.32.Parfit D., Reasons and Persons (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 1984), pp.7378.

5 Marx K. and Engles F., The German Ideology, in Collected Works: Marx and Engles, vol. 5 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), p. 75.

6 Hayek F., “The Present State of the Debate,” Hayek F., ed., Collectivist Economic Planning (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1967), pp. 208210. For a critical discussion of the Socialist Calculation Debate to which Hayek's essay was a contribution, see Buchanan A., Ethics, Efficiency, and the Market (Totowa, NJ: Rowan & Allanheld, 1985), Chapter 4.

7 A detailed discussion of Marx's views on communism as a democratic form of social organization is presented in Buchanan A., Marx and Justice: The Radical Critiqueof Liberalism, pp.169175.

8 For a more detailed discussion, see Buchanan A., “Marx on Democracy and the Obsolescence of Rights,” South African Journal of Philosophy, Marx Centenary Issue, Vol. 2, No.3 (1983), pp.130–35

9 Wood A., Karl Marx (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), p. 58.

10 Buchanan A., Marx and Justice: The Radical Critiqueof Liberalism, Chapter Four.

11 Marx K., “On the Jewish Question,” McLellan D., ed., Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), p.52.

12 ibid., pp. 568–69.

13 Buchanan A., Marx and Justice: The Radical Critiqueof Liberalism, pp. 165–66.

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Social Philosophy and Policy
  • ISSN: 0265-0525
  • EISSN: 1471-6437
  • URL: /core/journals/social-philosophy-and-policy
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