Leaving Marxism

By Stanley Pierson


Copyright © 2001 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-4404-1

Chapter One

The Nietzschean Presence in the European Socialist Movements


Writing in 1900, a young socialist intellectual in Germany, Ernst Gystrow, declared that Nietzsche "is our prophet even though he didn't know it." It was a strange statement for a socialist to make. For in Germany, as in much of Europe at the turn of the century, the socialist cause was dominated by a Marxism that seemed to have little in common with the philosophy of Nietzsche. While the Marxists explained the social conflicts of the period in terms of a capitalist system caught up in insoluble contradictions, Nietzsche's diagnosis centered on a profound cultural crisis resulting from the exhaustion of the religious tradition. Marxists looked to the proletariat as the agent of social regeneration; Nietzsche's disciples envisioned the emergence of ��bermenschen, heroic individuals who would create new values and political forms capable of rescuing European societies from nihilism and social chaos. The two perspectives were, on the surface at least, poles apart. And yet, to explore Nietzsche's attraction for young Marxist intellectuals in the 1890s and beyond is to lay bare dilemmas within not only the German movement but also the wider development of European Marxism. For the intellectuals were responding to problems within Marxism that would continue to trouble its most important theorists in the twentieth century and help to explain its ultimate failure to maintain its hold on European intellectual life.

It is not surprising that the difficulties presented by Marxist theory and the resort to Nietzschean solutions should have been most evident in Germany. Not only was the influence of the two thinkers strongest in their homeland, but in Germany Marxism had found, in the Social Democratic Party, its most powerful political organization. By 1890, moreover, the Marxist ideology in Germany had taken on the orthodox form it would maintain for most of its European adherents up until World War I and after. Formulated by Engels, and represented in the German Social Democratic Party by Karl Kautsky, orthodox Marxism was based on a strict economic determinism. Social relationships, political institutions, and cultural life were shaped decisively by the modes of production. Capitalism was moving inexorably, through the deepening conflicts between the modes and the relations of production, toward a social upheaval out of which the proletariat would create a radically new kind of society.

In their efforts to apply Marxism to conditions in Germany, however, the Social Democrats soon faced dilemmas that divided their followers. The conflict became acute in 1890 when the legal disabilities imposed by Bismarck were removed and the party entered a new stage in its development. Although the party's Erfurt conference of that year established Marxism as its official ideology, its parliamentary leaders soon softened its revolutionary rhetoric in favor of a broader appeal to the immediate interests of the working class. The contradiction between the revolutionary goals of Marxism and its increasingly pragmatic course generated sharp protests within the party.

The protests came mainly from a group of young intellectuals. Their outlook clashed sharply with that of the Social Democratic leaders. To explore the social background of the dissenters as well as the moral and cultural aspirations they carried into the party is to encounter a sensibility that would continue to collide with the orthodox Marxist doctrines.

The dissenting Marxist intellectuals came, with few exceptions, out of the German bourgeois world. It was a highly differentiated social world, encompassing an upper-middle class of affluent propertied groups, and reaching down through the professions to a lower-middle class made up of artisans, shopkeepers, and small farmers that was being augmented during the second half of the nineteenth century by a new mittelstand composed of white-collar workers. The lower-middle class contributed disproportionately to the group of young intellectuals who made their way into the socialist movement. They had grown up in provincial towns and cities during the sixties and seventies and were exposed most fully to the dislocations as well as the opportunities resulting from rapid industrialization in Germany. While customary paths of livelihood had been closed off, other avenues were opening. Many of the sons of lower-middle-class families were being sent to the universities, which were undergoing rapid expansion in these years, to prepare for careers in the professions-law, teaching, medicine, the clergy, or the civil service. By the late 1880s, however, candidates for those positions exceeded the places available. No wonder there was growing frustration and anger among those who had hoped to enter one of the professions. Some turned to journalism or to creative writing, others found themselves in jobs that fell far beneath their expectations; they constituted, to use the terms widely employed by social observers of the time, an "intellectual proletariat."

These young men were especially sensitive to the deepening cultural and spiritual uncertainties of the age. Raised for the most part in pious homes, they had, as university students, entered into the German cultural inheritance summed up in the concept of Bildung: the forming, deepening, and perfecting of one's own personality. At the same time they confronted the challenge that scientific ideas presented to both the religious and humanistic traditions. Along with their strong sense of social estrangement, the intellectual proletarians were often struggling with existential questions.

By the late 1880s Berlin had become the main gathering place for the intellectual proletarians. They were drawn to the German capital and its increasingly vital cultural life, some to continue their educations, others to work as journalists. They discovered, in the discussion circles that soon sprang up, mutual stimulation and support. It was in Berlin that the new Naturalist movement in German literature found its most vigorous expression. The fiction of the Naturalists, frequently autobiographical, often dealt with the vicissitudes of educated young men who were adrift in a world that had ceased to provide satisfactory institutional ties or moral guidelines. To understand this troubled sensibility, and the competing appeals of Marx and Nietzsche, we can turn to one of the most influential of the Naturalistic novels in these years, Hermann Conradi's Adam Mensch, published in 1888. It ran, so a writer in the Social Democratic paper, Neue Zeit, observed, "like a gospel" among those circles from which the party drew its educated recruits.

Conradi's novel described the psychological and social condition of the "proletarians of the spirit." His leading character, Adam Mensch, after gaining a doctorate in philology, had failed to "find a sphere within which ... I can work." He was disgusted with the monotonous lives of the lower middle class-"the same duties, the same concerns, the same words, the same ideas." Even to participate in ordinary social life, to "speak the jargon of the day," reinforced his sense of estrangement. Unable to connect in any meaningful way with the outer world, or what he called the "Not I," his eyes remained focused "too much on the inner life."

The introspective bent of "Adam Mensch" only demonstrated, however, that his social alienation was accompanied by the loss of a stable sense of self. His inner consciousness was a battlefield of conflicting values and impulses. He confessed to a feeling of extreme fragmentation, of the presence of "a thousand small separate interests." They included mystical and metaphysical yearnings along with strong aesthetic aspirations. But his sense of "unused forces" was overwhelmed at times by a perception of the darker aspects of life, indeed, by the lure of Thanatos and thoughts of suicide. And while many of the traditional religious and moral sentiments remained, they were countered by the thought that all of "our ideas are illusions." He was, in fact, morbidly intellectual; the rationalism developed by nineteenth-century science deprived him of any confidence in the significance of his will or his capacity to act.

Adam Mensch yearned, however, to escape from the condition in which he found himself. He spoke of the need for a "new Bible," or a modern New Testament, to provide guidance in a world that had lost its old moorings. Convinced that he lived between two worlds, that he was an ��bergangsmensch, a man of transition, he looked for signs that a new way of life was being born. He acknowledged his "messianic disposition." At times he saw the working class as the hope of the future. He was attracted to the "great Marx" and considered the possibility of becoming a Social Democratic leader. But he concluded that the working-class movement would produce at best people who were "healthy and sober" and yet narrow minded and incapable of great passion. In looking beyond the "great convulsions" that lay ahead, he turned to Nietzsche. The influence of Nietzsche pervades the novel. The future, "Adam Mensch" declared at one point, would belong to the few who, like himself, had been emptied of the old values, who could transcend the Christian or Semitic moral code, with its disgusting concealments and repressions, and undergo the "spiritual deepening" necessary for a "freer, clearer, more objective set of values." We are, "Adam Mensch" declared, "the aristocrats of the future."

For Conradi, the contemporary cultural and spiritual crisis was comparable to that during the breakup of the Roman empire and the emergence of Christianity. Hence his concept of the ��bergangsmensch, the "candidate for the future," who would be capable of representing the "still, undifferentiated, unintellectual will" hidden in the present. A few months before his death at the age of twenty-eight in the spring of 1890, Conradi claimed that he embodied "what the modern really means"-that he was a "pedagogue for the future."

To this belief that one historical era was ending and a new one was beginning both Nietzsche and Marx appealed. Indeed, despite their different diagnoses of European social and cultural development, the two thinkers had much in common. The thought of both was rooted in the Enlightenment; they carried forward its rationalistic critique of traditional beliefs and its naturalistic view of the human condition. Both thinkers, moreover, owed much to the romantic outlook, renewing its Promethean bent and its emphasis on human freedom and creativity. In their reinterpretations of the human condition Marx and Nietzsche both offered secular versions of the older "theological model," according to which humanity had fallen out of a state of initial harmony and embarked on a historical journey, characterized by personal and social discord but moving toward higher forms of integration. While they viewed the human journey very differently, Marx and Nietzsche provided answers to the question that troubled many young intellectuals in Germany, and Europe in general, during the closing years of the century-what gives meaning to life in a post-Christian world?

For a number of the intellectual proletarians in Germany in those years, the Marxism of the Social Democratic Party offered new meaning and, indeed, the promise of a transformed world. Hence their violent reaction in 1890 when the party, having been freed of its political disabilities, began to soften its revolutionary claims in order to reach a wider electorate.

This was the background for the Jungen rebellion, the challenge that a group of the young Marxist intellectuals presented to the party's leadership during 1890 and 1891. The individual who initiated their protest, Bruno Wille, had become a leader in those circles in Berlin where young intellectuals-journalists, students, creative writers, and social activists-came together. His Marxism was little more than a veneer for aspirations that were ethical, religious, and aesthetic. But he accepted Marx's claim that the working class would regenerate society and culture and inaugurate a radically new way of life. He was dismayed, therefore, at the seeming abandonment by the Social Democratic politicians of the Marxist vision of social transformation in favor of electoral policies that, through an appeal to the immediate interests of the workers, would simply reinforce existing attitudes and values. A number of the young Marxist intellectuals quickly rallied behind Wille on behalf of the imperiled Marxist vision.

Party policy was not the only threat, in the eyes of the young Marxist intellectuals, to socialist goals in the summer of 1890. Several had begun to question the adequacy of Marxist theory, particularly the doctrine of economic determinism. It collided directly with their own heightened sense of activism. Thus one of the ablest of the party's young journalists, Paul Ernst, contended that economic determinism encouraged a passive outlook and failed to account for the actual psychology of the Social Democrats. It denied, for example, the significance of fantasy and its capacity to generate enthusiasm.

Similar doubts about economic determinism were raised by two young Marxists in K��nigsberg, Conrad Schmidt and Joseph Bloch. They expressed their doubts in separate letters to Engels in the summer of 1890. Schmidt had been persuaded, as he wrote Engels, by Paul Barth's study of the materialist conception of history and his claim that "the economic does not determine the political in a one sided way but that the political also determines the economic." Bloch's skepticism was evident in the question he put to Engels: could "economic conditions overall, directly, alone and completely independent of persons, unalterably and irrevocably work as natural laws?" Nor did Engels's well-known concessions to the play of noneconomic forces satisfy Ernst, Schmidt, or Bloch. In time each would break with orthodox Marxism.

The Jungen challenge was soon defeated by the Social Democratic leadership. When, before a large, mainly working-class audience in Berlin late in August 1890, Wille debated the issues with the party chairman, August Bebel, he found scant support. What is of interest here, however, was Wille's turn to Nietzsche to rescue the hope for radical change that he could no longer find in the Social Democrats. He had concluded that the workers were, in terms he drew from Nietzsche, being left in a "herd-like condition" by their leaders. They were losing sight of the new individuality that was, for the educated recruits, a central feature of the Marxist promise.

Following the defeat of the Jungen, several of the young intellectuals concluded that the Marxist vision of a radically new way of life could be realized only by a new party. In drawing up a Manifesto for an "Independent" socialist party, they again emphasized their commitment to "individuality." "We oppositional socialists," they declared, "place great value on the individuality of the worker.... We want him to form his own opinions.... The more the individuality of the worker develops ... the more revolutionary he is." No wonder Nietzschean ideas assumed a prominent place in the outlook of those who had broken with the Social Democrats. In the philosopher's idea of the ��bermensch they could see the fulfillment of the bourgeois ideal of the autonomous personality as well as the ethical and aesthetic interests that had moved them to adopt Marxism.

The dissenting intellectuals had hoped to make the Social Democratic Party, and its working-class following, a vehicle for their own bourgeois values. But their central value of individuality had little relevance to the immediate interests and desires of the workers. Through their selective reading of Marxism, the intellectuals had, in fact, cut themselves off from the proletariat. As Ernst concluded, the educated recruits discovered that they were still "part of another class."


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