Marx At My Table, by Saul Bellow
Source Louis Proyect
Date 05/04/08/02:16

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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