[Marxism] Saul Bellow on Marxism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Apr 7 07:46:00 MDT 2005

(It occurred to me that many people might want to read the entire article 
by Saul Bellow that I quoted from yesterday.)

The Guardian (London)
April 10, 1993
Marx at My Table

Saul Bellow learnt about communism from his Russian parents while still in 
a high-chair. He read Lenin, paid his last respects to Trotsky and hung out 
in Greenwich Village and post-war Paris. Here he reflects on those days and 
the end of the cold war.

by Saul Bellow

WHEN the Bolsheviks took power in 1917 I was two years old. My parents had 
emigrated from St Petersburg to Montreal in 1913, so events in Russia were 
on their minds, and at the dinner table the Tsar, the war, the front, 
Lenin, Trotsky were mentioned as often as parents, sisters and brothers in 
the old country. Among Jews it was scarcely conceivable that the great 
monarchy should have fallen. Sceptical older immigrants believed that the 
Bolshevik upstarts would soon be driven out. Their grown children, however, 
were keen to join the revolution and I can remember how my father argued in 
the street with Lyova, the son of our Hebrew teacher, who said he had 
already bought his schiffskarte. My father shouted that the new regime was 
worthless, but Lyova smiled - deferential but immovable. He went off to 
build a new order under Lenin and Trotsky. And he disappeared.

Much later, after we had moved to Chicago and I was old enough to read Marx 
and Lenin, my father would say, "Don't you forget what happened to Lyova - 
and I haven't heard from my sisters in years. I don't want any part of your 
Russia and your Lenin."

But in my eyes my parents were Russians with agreeable Russian traits. They 
had brought with them a steamer trunk filled with St Petersburg finery - 
brocaded vests, a top-hat, a tail-coat, linen ostrich feathers and button 
boots with high heels. Of no use in the dim Ultima Thule of Montreal or in 
proletarian Chicago, they were the playthings of the younger children. The 
older ones quickly and eagerly Americanised themselves in the US and the 
rest soon followed suit.

The country took us over. We felt that to be here was a great piece of 
luck. The children of immigrants in my Chicago high school, however, 
believed that they were also somehow Russian, and while they studied their 
Macbeth and Milton's L'Allegro, they read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as well 
and went on inevitably to Lenin's State And Revolution, and the pamphlets 
of Trotsky. The Tuley high school debating club discussed the Communist 
Manifesto and on the main stem of the neighbourhood, Division Street, the 
immigrant intelligensia lectured from soapboxes, while at "the forum", a 
church hall on California Avenue, debates between socialists, communists 
and anarchists attracted a fair number of people.

This was the beginning of my radical education. For on the recommendation 
of friends I took up Marx and Engels, and remember, in my father's bleak 
office near the freight yards, blasting away at Value Price and Profit 
while the police raided a brothel across the street - for non-payment of 
protection, probably - throwing beds, bedding and chairs through the 
shattered windows. The Young Communist League tried to recruit me in the 
late 1930s. Too late - I had already read Trotsky's pamphlet on the German 
question and was convinced that Stalin's errors had brought Hitler to power.

IN COLLEGE in 1933 I was a Trotskyist. Trotsky instilled into his young 
followers the orthodoxy peculiar to the defeated and ousted. We belonged to 
the Movement, we were faithful to Leninism, and could expound the 
historical lessons and describe Stalin's crimes. My closest friends and I 
were not, however, activists; we were writers. Owing to the Depression we 
had no career expectations. We got through the week on five or six bucks 
and if our rented rooms were small, the libraries were lofty, were 
beautiful. Through "revolutionary politics" we met the demand of the times 
for action. But what really mattered was the vital personal nourishment we 
took from Dostoevsky or Herman Melville, from Dreiser and John Dos Passos 
and Faulkner. By filling out a slip of paper at the Crerar on Randolph 
Street you could get all the bound volumes of The Dial and fill long 
afternoons with T. S. Eliot, Rilke and e. e. cummings.

Toward the end of the 1930s the Partisan Review was our own Dial, with 
politics besides. There we had access to our significant European 
contemporaries - Silone, Orwell, Koestler, Malraux, Andre Gide and Auden. 
Partisan's leading American contributors were Marxists - critics and 
philosophers like Dwight Macdonald, James Burnham, Sidney Hook, Clement 
Greenberg, Meyer Schapiro and Harold Rosenberg. The Partisan Review 
intellectuals had sided with Trotsky quite naturally, during the Moscow 
trials. Hook had persuaded his teacher John Dewey to head a commission of 
inquiry in Mexico. We followed the proceedings bitterly, passionately, for 
we were, of course, the Outs; the Stalinists were the Ins. We alone in the 
US knew what a bad lot they were. FDR and his New Dealers didn't have a 
clue, they understood neither Russia nor communism.

Although I now drifted away from Marxist politics, I still admired Lenin 
and Trotsky. After all, I had first heard of them in the high-chair while 
eating my mashed potatoes. How could I forget that Trotsky had created the 
Red Army, that he had read French novels at the Front while defeating 
Denikin? That great crowds had been swayed by his coruscating speeches? The 
glamour of the Revolution still cast its spell. Besides, the most respected 
literary and intellectual figures had themselves yielded. Returning from a 
visit to Russia, Edmund Wilson had spoken about "the moral light at the top 
of the world," and it was Wilson who had introduced us to Joyce and Proust. 
His history of revolutionary thought, To The Finland Station, was published 
in 1940. By that time Poland had been invaded and France had fallen.

Nineteen-forty was also the year of Trotsky's assassination.

I was in Mexico at the time, and an acquaintance of the Old Man, a European 
lady whom I had met in Taxco, arranged a meeting. Trotsky agreed to receive 
my friend Herbert Passin and me in Coyoacan. It was on the morning of our 
appointment that he was struck down, and when we reached Mexico City we 
were met by the headlines. When we went to his villa we must have been 
taken for foreign journalists, and we were directed to the hospital. The 
emergency room was in disorder. We had only to ask for Trotsky. A door into 
a small room was opened for us and there we saw him. He had just died. A 
cone of bloody bandages was on his head. His cheeks, his nose, his beard, 
his throat were streaked with blood and with dried trickles of iodine.

He is reported to have said once that Stalin could kill him whenever he 
liked, and now we understood what a far-reaching power could do with us; 
how little it took to kill us, how slight a hold we, with our historical 
philosophies, our ideas, programmes, purposes, wills, had on the matter we 
were made of.

It is perfectly true, as Charles Fairbanks has suggested, that 
totalitarianism in our century has shaped the very definition of what an 
intellectual is. The "vanguard fighters" who acted under Lenin's direction 
in October were intellectuals, and perhaps the glamour of this event had 
its greatest affect on intellectuals in the west. Among political activists 
this was sufficiently evident, but the Bolshevik model was immensely 
influential everywhere.

Trotsky and T. E. Lawrence were perhaps the most outstanding of the 
intellectual activists to emerge from the first world war - the former as 
Lenin's principal executive, Lawrence as the delicate scholar and recluse, 
a Shakespearian Fortinbras materialising in the Arabian desert. Malraux was 
inspired by both men, obviously, an aesthete and theorist eager in his 
first phase for revolutionary action, and manifesting a curious relish for 
violence in a great cause. It was he who set an example for French writers 
of the 1940s. Sartre was certainly one of his descendants and many in 
France and elsewhere modelled themselves upon him, up to the time when he 
abjured revolution. There was a trace of this also in Arthur Koestler, who 
so often exposed himself to personal danger, but it was in France between 
the 1930s until the time of Regis Debray that leftist intellectuals 
presented themselves in the west as soldiers of the revolution.

Some of these people were authentic originals and impressively intelligent 
(Harold Rosenberg for example). The more clear-headed of the Greenwich 
Village intellectuals toward the end of the 1930s were beginning to 
understand that the Revolution was a disaster. Few of them, however, turned 
away from Marxism. One way or another they clung to the texts that had made 
intellectuals of them. The Marxist fundamentals had organised their minds 
and given them an enduring advantage over unfocused rivals educated 
helter-skelter in American universities.

What you invest your energy and enthusiasm in when you are young you can 
never bring yourself to give up altogether. I came to New York toward the 
end of the 1930s, muddled in the head but keen to educate myself and, 
toward the end of the 1940s I had become a contributor to the Partisan 
Review and a villager. All around us was commercial America. The Village 
was halfway between Madison Avenue and Wall Street. Its centre lay in 
Washington Square. From her apartment facing the benches and the elms 
Eleanor Roosevelt might have seen, had they been pointed out to her, some 
of the most eminent intellectuals in the country discussing French 
politics, American painting, Freud and Marx, Andre Gide and Jean Cocteau. 
Everyone was avid for high-minded, often wildly speculative talk.

THERE was indeed much to understand: history, philosophy, science, the cold 
war, mass society, pop art, high art, psychoanalysis, existentialism, the 
Russian question, the Jewish question. Yet I quickly saw - or rather 
(because I don't see quickly) I intuited - that writers seldom were 
intellectuals. "A bit of ideology and being up to date is most apropos," 
Chekhov said, tongue in cheek I suspect. In a more serious vein he wrote 
that writers "should engage in politics only enough to protect themselves 
from politics. Absence of lengthy verbiage, of a political-social-economic 
nature," was one of his rules, and he recommended also objectivity, 
brevity, the avoidance of stereotypes and compassion. (Ah, for the days 
before such words had fallen into disrepute.)

In Europe writers accepted politics as their absolute. This, as I learned 
during my Paris years (1948-50), was the thing to do. Nineteen forty-eight 
was a peculiarly bleak and bitter year. Coal, gasoline, even bread were 
still being rationed. That Paris was the capital of world civilisation 
could no longer be taken for granted. French thinkers and writers struggled 
to maintain pre-eminence. Americans, recently cheered as liberators, were 
not warmly received, the Right being nearly as hard on them as the Left.

The bitterness of defeat, occupation and liberation pervaded post-war 
Paris. An atmosphere of disgrace and resentment darkened the famous facades 
and made the Seine (at least to me) look and smell medicinal. This 
oppressiveness, I was later persuaded, was an early symptom of the cold 
war. For the time being the French lay helpless between the USSR and the 
US. The communist alternative, so far as I could judge, held an edge in 
public opinion, so that you couldn't have your hair cut without enduring 
torrents of Marxism from the barber. I had come to Paris, as Americans 
generally did, to be educated, and the general ignorance of the history of 
the Soviet Union in all quarters came as a great surprise. Reading Sartre I 
said to myself Chicago-style, "this has got to be a con."

A con on my turf was a shade more venial than a lie. I preferred to believe 
that Sartre's curious behaviour was deliberate. Machiavellian. His hatred 
of the bourgeoisie was so excessive that it caused him to go easy on the 
crimes of Stalin. On the intellectual Dow-Jones - if there had been such a 
thing - his credentials, before I began to read him, would have been 
comparable to preferred stock. But the facts were readily available, and 
that he should know so little about them was a great disappointment. He 
spoke in Marxist style of an oppressive bourgeois ideology, and while he 
admitted his bourgeois origins, his aim was to create a revolutionary public.

Himself an heir of the 18th century philosophers, he would speak to the 
proletariat as his literary ancestors had spoken to the bourgeoisie, 
bringing political self-awareness to those who were to be the 
revolutionaries of today. He asserted that the working man seeking 
liberation would liberate all of us as well, and for all times. The French 
Communist Party was an obstacle standing between Sartre and the working 
class. As for existentialism, he readily conceded that it was a phenomenon 
produced by the decomposition of the bourgeois carcass. The only public at 
present available to him came, disgustingly, from the intelligent sector of 
the rotting bourgeoisie (victims no doubt, but tyrants also).

"Were the author an Englishman we should here know that our leg was being 
pulled," wrote Wyndham Lewis in The Writer And The Absolute, "but Sartre 
does not smile . . . he is at his wits' end what to do."

LEWIS seems wryly sympathetic. And he does here and there agree with Sartre 
and quotes him approvingly when he declares that we are living in the age 
of the hoax. "National Socialism, Gaullism, Catholicism, French communism 
are hoaxes - consciousness is deluded and we can only safeguard literature 
by disillusioning or enlightening our public . . . Sartre believes all that 
the communists believe," Lewis concludes, "but he does not wish to convert 
this collage into a marriage." He says that Sartre was a fellow traveller 
in the front populaire. "He engaged in a path in those days which leads 
either to communism or to nothing. It was the neant that he chose."

My own guess in 1949 - when I was immature: not young, only, as I now see, 
underdeveloped - was that French intellectuals were preparing themselves, 
perhaps positioning themselves for a Russian victory. Their Marxism also 
reflected the repugnance they felt for the other superpower. There were 
comparable anti-American sentiments in England. Graham Greene, like many 
writers (and civil servants) of his generation, abominated the US and its 
politics. Successive English governments agreed on the whole with the 
American line, but Greene found ways to transfer part of the odium at least 
from London to Washington. On our side of the Atlantic he had a big 
following. Educated Americans, establishment haters, dearly loved to see 
our society and its official policies loused up. "The main enemy is at 
home," was Lenin's wartime slogan. Of all his ideas it may well be the most 

When I revert to those times I can take no pleasure in having spotted the 
errors of Sartre et al. I am disheartened rather by the failure of all 
these aspirations for justice and progress. I can understand that as crisis 
succeeded crisis no one wanted to surrender to passivity. It is sad to 
watch so much ingenuity invested in leaky theories. Behind the Iron 
Curtain, experiencing totalitarianism, directly, people had a clearer 

In the west there was a certain opinion-consumerism. One asked oneself, 
what shall I think of that? Sidney Hook in his autobiography scorns the 
Partisan Review intellectuals, the respectable Left. His description of 
them makes them look like small business types, importers of foreign 
specialities in a highbrow artistic mall. Mere talkers, Hook thought, they 
had no taste for real politics. Moreover, they believed that the second 
world war was an imperialist war exactly like the first. Since they were 
not the kind of Leninists who aimed to lead a putsch in Washington, their 
analyses of England and Germany did bring to mind the theologians of 
Lilliput. A stalwart "cold warrior", Hook's account of their confused 
Marxism is, four decades later, still edged with bitterness.

But the fact that we can do nothing does not preclude wanting to be right, 
and everyone was then intent on the one true position. "I had to turn my 
heavy guns on Dwight Macdonald and the others," Hook told me later. But no 
one has ever examined the connection between helplessness and holding the 
right views. Following contemporary events is in a way like reading 
history. To read history is essential, but what in actuality can we do 
about it? The novelist Stanley Elkin in an essay called The First Amendment 
As An Art Form asks, "Who in old times ever held anything so uncalled for 
as an opinion? . . . History, history really was, still is, the agenda of 
activitists. The rest of us, you, me, the rest of us are mere fans of a 
world view and use the news like theatre - episodes, chapters in some 
Sabbath soul serial." He goes on to say that if we don't have the gift for 
effecting change we have "the solace of criticism."

Granted, activists like Hook made a difference. Their contribution to 
victory in the cold war can't be measured but must be acknowledged. It was 
Hook, taking Hook as representative of any number of thinkers and activists 
- Hook, not Sartre, whose views prevailed, and should have prevailed. And 
what Elkin does is to report accurately on the state of opinion in a 
democracy like ours. What we need to consider is the combining of 
theorising with effectiveness. I give Hook full marks for the wars he 
fought and admire him despite his evident lack of sympathy with my way of 
looking at things. He was the active, not the contemplative sort, not so 
much a philosopher as an ex-philosopher. On one of the last evenings I 
spent with him he told me that philosophy was no more. I asked what the 
PhDs he had educated were doing with themselves. They were working in 
hospitals as ethicists, he said. That didn't make him unhappy either. I 
don't think that the end of the cold war signifies that theorising is 
bankrupt. To obtain a clear picture of the modern project, to give the best 
possible account of the crisis of the west is still a necessity.

POLITICS as a vocation I take seriously. But it's not my vocation. And on 
the whole writers are not much good at it. The positions they take are 
generally set for them by intellectuals. Or by themselves, insofar as they 
are intellectuals (eg. the case of Sartre). Those anti-communist 
intellectuals and publicists with whom I have agreed on issues of the cold 
war, though they tend to be high-toned and swollen with cultural pride and 
suffisance, are often philistine in their tastes. Their opposite numbers on 
the Left are, in this respect, a mess entirely. These are the basics, the 
first principles of modernity, of the Enlightenment conviction that this is 
what would be best for most of us. The objectives of Lenin's revolution 
never materialised in Russia but they are all about us here in bourgeois 
America, says the philosopher Kojeve. But in the process everything worth 
living for has melted away.

My case against the intellectuals can be easily summarised: science has 
postulated a nature with no soul in it; commerce does not deal in souls and 
higher aspirations - matters like love and beauty are none of the business; 
for his part, Marx too assigned art etcetera to the "superstructure". So, 
artists are "stuck" with what is left of the soul and its mysteries. 
Romantic enthusiasm (resistance to bourgeois existence) was largely 
discredited by the end of the 19th century. The 20th inverted Romanticism 
by substituting hate for love and nihilism for self-realisation.

Intellectuals seem to me to have turned away from those elements in life 
unaccounted for in modern science and which in modern experience have come 
to seem devoid of substance. The powers of soul which were Shakespeare's 
subject (to be simple about it) and are heard incessantly in Handel or 
Mozart have no footing at present in modern life and are held to be 
subjective. Writers here and there still stake their lives on the existence 
of these forces. About this, intellectuals have little or nothing to say.

Here I have no choice but to go overboard. Russia's oriental despotism 
comes from the past, and the sympathies generated by those who fought for 
their lives against it have little to do, I suspect, with this present 
world of ours. Our American world is a prodigy. Here, some of the perennial 
dreams of mankind have been realised. We have shown that the final conquest 
of scarcity may be at hand. Provision is made for human needs of every 
sort. In the US - in the west - we live in a society which produces a 
fairy-tale superabundance of material things. Ancient fantasies have been 
made real. We can instantaneously see and hear what is far away. Our 
rockets are able to leave the earth. The flights we make are thoughts as 
well as real journeys.

This is something new, this can make us tremble for the humanity we miss in 
everything we see in the incredible upwelling of inventions and commodities 
that carries us with it. We can't say whether this humanity has been 
temporarily diminished or has gone for good. Nor can we tell whether we are 
pioneers or experimental subjects. Russia is perhaps done with tyranny and 
privation. If it develops a free market and becomes a union of commercial 
republics, it will have to do as we have been doing all along. Kojeve hints 
that we are irreversibly trivialised by our unexampled and bizarre 
achievements, so that neither life nor death can now be grasped. He seems 
to accept Nietzsche's appalling vision of the degenerate "Last Man".

I myself believe that everything that can be imagined is bound to be 
realised at least once - everything that mankind is capable of conceiving 
it seems compelled to do. These, for better or for worse, are the thoughts 
the end of the cold war suggests to me.



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