Russel, Marx, Envy, Democracy and Communism

In a previous post Sergio quoted Bertrand Russel saying “that envy is the basis of democracy?” I asked for the source, and he responded:


The quote is from his book “The conquest of happiness” (1930).

Wikipedia´s comment on “envy” is also interesting, as it says Russell also thought that envy is the basis of human unhappiness. Also they mentioned two kinds of envy, a malign and a benign one. I quote:

“Bertrand Russell said envy was one of the most potent causes of unhappiness.[4] It is a universal and most unfortunate aspect of human nature because not only is the envious person rendered unhappy by his envy, but also wishes to inflict misfortune on others. Although envy is generally seen as something negative, Russell also believed that envy was a driving force behind the movement towards democracy and must be endured to achieve a more just social system.[5] However, psychologists have recently suggested that there may be two types of envy: malicious envy and benign envy – benign envy being proposed as a type of positive motivational force.[6][7]“

RL: Precisely the distinction that Schoeck makes. Cultures in which anyone else’s gain is “my” loss, are ones in which there is a high price for success, where magic offers the envious means to strike back, where people fear the “evil eye.” Which is why Schadenfreude is so destructive.

Now no one can be “free of envy” (save the rare saint). But you can be careful. Some people are scrupulous on this. I got a call from a friend on a train which was whizzing by the cars stuck in traffic on Route 1 going to Tel Aviv. “Is it okay to feel a little Schadenfreude when I see those stuck motorists?”

I say this about envy in my chapter on Marx in Heaven on Earth:

In an early meditation on “raw” or “crude” Communism (der rohe Communismus), by which he meant the Communism of Babeuf and Buonnaroti, Marx explained its appeal as a universalization of envy. By implication, he distanced himself from it:

Universal envy establishing itself as a power is only the disguised form in which greed re-establishes and satisfies itself in another way. The thought of every piece of private property as such is at the very least turned against richer private property as envy, and the desire to level, so that envy and the desire to level in fact constitute the essence [of the hatred of the results] of competition. Crude communism is only the fulfillment of this envy and leveling on the basis of a preconceived minimum.

This is a highly sophisticated moral discourse that cuts to the quick of the mechanisms of ressentiment parading as idealism. But for all such insight, Marx ended up stoking the very fires he here critiqued. Helmut Schoeck notes: “It is only in Marxism, the abstract and glorified concept of the proletariat, the disinherited and exploited, that a position of implacable envy is fully legitimized.”

Marx’s aggressive brilliance took hold of history so powerfully that he could shake off the “utopian” fantasies that “all men are brothers” (here, transformative apocalyptic) and drive those who would participate in salvation history into a cataclysmic battle at the side of the true brotherhood, the proletarians. And he accomplished this call to battle with the promise of a hopelessly impossible millennium that could only be “achieved” when alienation had produced so much rootlessness and anger that only a purging violence would clear the decks.

Such tendencies strengthened among those who inherited and implemented Marx’s millennialism in the following generation, whose envy and resentment Max Scheler chronicled. With an irony that became increasingly bitter with every passing generation, Marx may have written his own self-description in his vicious denunciation of the tailor-agitator Weitling for abusing prophecy. Annenkov, a witness to Marx’s tirade, summarized Marx’s assault then quoted him directly:

It was simple fraud to arouse the people without any sound and considered basis for their activity. The awakening of fantastic hopes . . . would never lead to the salvation of those who suffered, but on the contrary to their undoing. “To go to the workers in Germany without strictly scientific ideas and concrete doctrine would mean an empty and unscrupulous playing with propaganda, which would inevitably involve, on the one hand, the setting up of an inspired apostle and, on the other hand, simply asses who would listen to him with open mouth.”

It apparently never occurred to Marx that pseudo-science also constituted “empty and unscrupulous playing with propaganda.”

5 Responses to Russel, Marx, Envy, Democracy and Communism

  1. Sérgio says:

    I wonder how much of Marx´s own resentment was in itself a powerful motivation for his apocalyptic views, including his “scientific” anti-semitism (though according to Maccoby, he seemed to have mollified himself in this respect in his older days, recognizing the social ideas of the Jewish prophets). Or was it just the romantic zeitgeist?

  2. Richard Landes says:

    can you say more about this later development in Marx. I’d like to add it to the book site and further thoughts on the issue. (Ref to Maccoby, and to Marx’s later works.)

  3. Sérgio says:


    It´s a comment in the Chapter on Marx´s antisemitism in Maccoby´s brialliant book “Antisemitism and Modernity”. In page 68 he says that in his later years Marx “recommended his daughter Eleanor to study the Hebrew prophets, whom he described as pioneers of the concept of social justice.” He gives no reference to that but mentions that Eleanor dissociated herself completely from Marx´s antisemitism.

    Another interesting thing is that in the 1870´s Marx met many Jews in Karlsbad (doctors, lawyers, professors) and even befriended the Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz, author of a monumental history of the Jews (in 12 volumes!) and they corresponded with each other in 1877, exchanging their works.

    Yet another curious thing is that Marx was friend and had conversations with Heine in
    Paris, but nothing is known about what they discussed.

  4. nelson says:


    I’ve some remarks to make here, and will make them another day. Let me just say quickly now the following:

    I don’t agree with Richard when he says that zero sum games in our societies have been primarily relegated to sports or gambling. On the contrary, there are infinitely more zero sum games in our modern Western or westernized societies than in traditional ones. Almost everything in our societies has become a zero sum game: getting a place, say, in the best medical school, being elected president, senator, representative, being chosen as for the Supreme and many other courts, having to compete for the woman or women (or man/men) one wants (instead of simply agreeing with allowing one’s family chose one’s mate), getting rich, being able to buy one’s own house, getting a car –or that specific Ferrari– instead of being forced to use public transport, eating in a Michelin reviewed restaurant instead of a MacDonald’s etc.

    Everything in our societies is up for grabs, everything has to be “fought” for with intelligence or cunning, luck or dishonesty etc., and almost nothing, well, nothing that counts, is given. Everything may be won and/or lost, every day and everything in it is a battle that can be lost or won. In short: there’s perpetual competition and, as soon as one wins one level of any game, one continues playing, fighting for victory in the next level, because there’s no end to the game, there’s no point in it when one can say: I reached the top, there’s nothing above the level where I am.

    Imagine that, even after being twice elected president, someone like Clinton couldn’t rest and wasn’t satisfied — because he did not get, for instance, the Nobel prize for Peace, because he didn’t manage to elect his wife president and so on. Some of the most intense and explicit examples of resentment aren’t found among the lowliest and most miserable losers, but among people like Jimmy Carter who, having been a successful politician, a governor of his state and a president of the most powerful country on Earth, still couldn’t swallow the fact that he wasn’t reelected: for over 30 years now he has done nothing that is not a direct consequence of his huge resentment.

    I’d suggest that, from the point of view of traditional societies, few things are more scary in ours than this perpetual competition, this game without end in which one is never a winner for long enough, there’s always a higher or different level of the game to play and there’s also the eternal risk of, having been a winner yesterday, becoming a loser today. Our societies are dynamic and based on this perpetual game, while the traditional ones are static, things rarely change in them, and not only individuals, but whole groups and segments of these societies are born winners or losers and the same applies to their children and grandchildren as it had applied to their parents and grandparents.

    It’s also a fact that in those static societies envy is institutional and equally perpetual, while, in their own way, our societies try to minimize envy exactly through this perpetual game, through their own inherent instability, for, if one’s not a winner for ever, neither is one a loser for ever — because the game, as the show, cannot stop. Thus, if I cannot get the job I want in the morning, I may well try to outcompete the other suitors and get, in the evening, the girl I want. And even if I had been a loser all my life, my son or daughter will not necessarily inherit my losing and will be able to play their own games by themselves. The great grandson of yesterday’s millionaire may be working for the great granddaughter of yesterday’s penniless immigrant or refugee. The point however is that, in such circumstances, envy can only be minimized if people can always see and feel society perpetually changing all around them, that is, things work while everybody knows that the game is on and won’t be stopping anytime soon. By the way, the same applies in sport: the reason why the losers don’t go out and murder the winners in this year’s soccer World Cup or Olympics is because they know there’ll be another one in 4, 8, 12 etc. years. The game may be zero sum in the short run but it’s not necessarily so in the long run, because it is potentially infinite.

    Curiously, all the world’s revolutionaries, leftists and Marxists, as well as all the environmentalists, Muslim radicals and others who hate modern societies and would like to change them want only one thing: stability, changelessness and the end of this perpetual game once and for all. Yes, they say they want a revolution, they offer hope and change, but all these they want to do once, only once. While what characterizes our modern societies is this perpetual change, for them societies in general and the whole world are only one revolution, on change away from perfection, a perfection that, once reached, will mean that no further change is necessary. As their allies from traditional static societies, they too strive for stasis and are absolute enemies of change and of the game. Perhaps, even more than fear of the unknown, of a future that’s different from today, what moves them is laziness. They’re lazy: they want to reach a certain point and stop playing, they want not only to get out of the game but to abolish it. And, to fulfill their laziness, they would pay any price: they’d accept a society defined by structural envy.

    Though envy and resentment cannot, in the end, be eradicated, they can, as I suggested above, be minimized up to a point, and that’s what our societies do at their best, that is, when they are working at full speed, when everything in them is changes except, of course, change itself — when they are growing economically, when new technologies appear every day, when most people are sure the future won’t resemble the past. So, what do our societies offer, what can they offer that is as strong or, at least, almost as strong, potent and attractive as envy? Basically instability and incertitude which, for today’s loser, mean hope. But let’s remember that this is the gambler’s hope, the hope that the next card will be the one, that there will be a next card, there will be another round of the game and so on. This also implies that meritocracy, to work, implies accepting the rules of the game and being a good sportsman, even a good loser. It implies agreeing with the idea that it’s more important than winning or losing to keep on playing the game, that what really counts in the end is to do one’s best. For the time being, the only society that seems to have accepted real change and hope (for it’s only in perpetual change that there can be this kind of hope) is the American one. This is perhaps one of the causes of the almost universal anti-Americanism.

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