David North
Marxism, History and Socialist Consciousness

What did Daniel Guerin really write?

You repeatedly assert that the International Committee fails to understand the importance of, and ignores, “human factors” that are critical to the struggle for socialism. We are making the same error, you suggest, as that made by the Stalinists and Social Democrats prior to Hitler’s victory in 1933, who, “in the name of a spurious ‘materialism’ were contemptuous of the role of political idealism in mobilizing mass support.” In support of this argument, you refer to Fascism and Big Business, the well-known work of Daniel Guerin, a Trotskyist in the 1930s. You quote precisely one passage from this 318-page book: “The degenerated Marxists believe it is very ‘Marxist’ and ‘materialist’ to disdain the human factors. They accumulate figures, statistics and percentages; they study with great accuracy the profound causes of social phenomena. But by failing to study with the same care the way in which the causes are reflected in the consciousness of men, and failing to penetrate the soul of man, they miss the living reality of these phenomena.”

Commenting on this passage, you state, “This was exactly what Reich and Fromm were saying in the Thirties and what Geoghegan was reprising in the remarks North found so outrageous.” Thus, the conclusion you want the reader to draw is that Guerin believed that too great an emphasis on science and a materialist explanation of objective conditions, and the absence among Marxists of a sufficient understanding of psychology, contributed significantly to the Nazi victory. As Guerin was a well-known Trotskyist in the 1930s, you would have your readers believe that this was also the view of Leon Trotsky.

Once again, your presentation of a quotation is misleading and dishonest. Three sentences are cited in support of your arguments, which are, as we shall see, very different from those of Guerin. Who are the “degenerated Marxists” of whom he is writing? What is the “spurious materialism” that Guerin condemns?

Let us repeat a procedure that we have employed several times in this document. We will go back to the author’s actual text and place your citation in the appropriate context. The chapter from which you have obtained the citation is entitled “Fascist Mysticism,” which offers a valuable account of the propaganda and agitation techniques employed by the fascists to delude and deceive the masses. Guerin points out that the appeals made by the fascists to the emotions and blind faith of potential followers are determined by the class interests they serve. “A party supported by the subsidies of the propertied classes, with the secret aim of defending the privileges of property owners, is not interested in appealing to the intelligence of its recruits; or rather, it considers it prudent not to appeal to their understanding until they have been thoroughly bewitched.” [78]

Guerin goes on to explain that this appeal to blind faith is facilitated by the fact that fascism “is fortunate enough to address its appeal to the miserable and discontented.” He observes:

It is a psychological phenomenon, as old as the world, that suffering predisposes to mysticism. When man suffers, he renounces reason, ceases to demand logical remedies for his ills, and no longer has the courage to try to save himself. He expects a miracle and he calls for a savior, whom he is ready to follow, for whom he is ready to sacrifice himself.

Finally, fascism has the advantage—if we may say so—over socialism in that it despises the masses. It does not hesitate to conquer them through their weaknesses. [79]

One has only to read this passage to immediately recognize how fundamentally incompatible Guerin’s views are with those of Geoghegan, whose work you so warmly endorse. Guerin sees in the irrationalism of the fascist appeal an expression of its reactionary objectives, not a psychological model to be learned from, let alone emulated.

Several pages later, after completing his analysis of fascist propaganda and mass mobilization techniques, Guerin poses the critical question: “What has the labor movement done to combat fascist ‘mysticism?’” The reasons he gives for the labor movement’s failure to develop effective methods bear no resemblance to the position advanced by Geoghegan. First of all, Guerin makes clear that certain problems confronted by socialists in the area of mass agitation flow from the “very nature” of socialism. He explains:

Socialism is less a religion than a scientific conception. Therefore it appeals more to intelligence and reason than to the senses and imagination. Socialism does not impose a faith to be accepted without discussion; it presents a rational criticism of the capitalist system and requires of everybody, before his adherence, a personal effort of reason and judgment. It appeals more to the brain than to the eye or the nerves; it seeks to convince the reader or listener calmly, not to seize him, move him, and hypnotize him. [80]

Guerin allows that socialism’s propaganda techniques need “to be rejuvenated and modernized,” in order to “place itself more within the reach of the masses, and to speak to them in clear and direct language that they will understand.” However, Guerin immediately qualifies this suggestion with the warning that socialism “cannot, on pain of self-betrayal, appeal like fascism to the lower instincts of crowds. Unlike fascism, it does not despise the masses, but respects them. It wants them to be better than they are, to be the image of the conscious proletariat from which socialism emanates. It strives, not to lower, but to raise their intellectual and moral level.” [81]

Comrades Steiner and Brenner, to your own shame you did not quote these very wonderful, beautiful words because you understand very well that they speak in defense of the Marxist confidence in the power of reason, and uphold the view that the victory of socialism requires the raising of political consciousness, not the psychological manipulation of the unconscious. Nowhere in Guerin’s book—whose central purpose, let us not forget, was to expose the objective economic and political links between fascism and the ruling elite (that is, to provide a scientific insight into the political phenomenon of fascism)—is there any suggestion that the problem with Marxism is its “obsession with science.”

Why, then, was socialism unable to effectively counter the agitation of the fascists? In what way did the socialist movement “degenerate?” Guerin’s answer is that the socialist movement became politically opportunist. “It came to believe,” he writes, “that immediate advantages, as well as the ‘paradise on earth,’ could be achieved without struggle and sacrifice, by the vulgar practice of ‘class collaboration.’” [82] Guerin writes with scorn of the labor bureaucrats, describing them memorably as:

… conservative and routine-minded, implanted in the existing order, well fed and complacent high priests, who ruled in buildings paid for by the workers’ pennies and called “people’s houses.” To win a legislative seat or find a soft berth in a union office had become the rule of life for the leaders of this degenerate socialism. They no longer believed, they enjoyed. And they wanted troops in their own image, troops without ideals, attracted only by material advantages. [83]

The degeneration of which Guerin writes was rooted, not in the failure and inadequacies of Marxism, but in the opportunism of the labor bureaucracy. Then, in the paragraph that immediately precedes the passage you cite, Guerin explains the manner in which opportunism undermined the Marxist method:

At the same time, in the field of doctrine, socialism has distorted one of its essential conceptions, “historical materialism.” The first Marxian socialists were materialists in the sense that, according to them, “the means of production in economic life condition in general the processes of social, political, and intellectual life.” Unlike the “idealists,” for whom the profoundest motive force in history is an already existing idea of justice and right which humanity bears in itself and which it achieves gradually through centuries, those early socialists thought that the relations of production, the economic relations of men with each other, play a preponderant role in history. But if they stressed the economic base, too often neglected before them, they in no way disdained the juridical, political, religious, artistic, and philosophical “superstructure.” That was conditioned, they believed, by the base, but the superstructure had its own value none the less, and was an integral part of history and life. [84]

Finally, but in its proper context, following a defense and restatement of the Marxist materialist conception of history, we come to the passage that you cited and which we will quote again in the interest of clarity:

The degenerated Marxists, however, believe it is very “Marxist” and “materialist” to disdain the human factors. They accumulate figures, statistics and percentages; they study with great accuracy the profound causes of social phenomena. But by failing to study with the same care the way in which these causes are reflected in the consciousness of men, and failing to penetrate the soul of man, they miss the living reality of these phenomena. [85]

Now we can properly understand the point that Guerin is making. True to its own opportunism, the degenerate bureaucracy practiced a vulgar and mechanical caricature of Marxism—incapable of understanding the myriad forms through which the increasingly desperate situation confronting capitalist society found conscious expression in politics and mass consciousness. Tied to the fleshpots of the Weimar democracy, the corrupted socialist movement could not find a way to appeal to the masses. The problem lay not in Marxism, in historical materialism, but in the opportunist repudiation of Marxism’s revolutionary perspective and commitment to struggle.

Guerin concludes his analysis by warning: “Thousands and thousands of men, women, and adolescents who are burning to give themselves, will never be attracted by a socialism reduced to the most opportunistic parliamentarism and vulgar trade unionism. Socialism can regain its attractive force only by saying to the masses that to win the ‘paradise on earth,’ its supreme goal, requires great struggles and sacrifices.” [86]

In bringing our review of Guerin’s book to a conclusion, it should be noted that in his preface to the 1965 French edition, the author acknowledged that “the writings of Leon Trotsky on Germany and France served as a guide. They helped me understand the complex problem of the middle classes, who wavered between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, and who were propelled by the economic crisis on the one hand, and the default of the working class on the other, towards the gangsters of the ultraright.” [87]


Daniel Guerin, Fascism and Big Business (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), p. 63.


ibid., pp. 63–64.


ibid., p. 73.


ibid., pp. 73–74, [emphasis in the original].


ibid., p. 74.


ibid., p. 75.


ibid., [emphasis in the original].


ibid., p. 76.




ibid., p. 17.