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Book Review: 'The Fate of Marxism'

Listen, Anarchist!

'The Fate of Marxism', by Paul Cardan. A Solidarity pamphlet, 10p.

One of the great crimes of Bolshevism has been to identify its own dictatorial state-capitalist policies with Marxism, thus unfairly discrediting the latter. Quite sincere people have been understandably repulsed by the arrogance, cynicism and dishonesty of the self-appointed Bolshevik "vanguards", and have reacted in various mistaken anti-Marxist ways — by losing interest in politics, becoming Social Democrats, moving to the "Right" or enrolling with the anarchists.

We repeat: this must be laid at the door of the Bolsheviks. This is the upshot of their "leadership" delusions, their "developing consciousness through struggle". That does not excuse the anarchists and others from all responsibility. They have drawn the wrong conclusions; with a little thought most of them are capable of drawing the right ones. For example, many of the anarchists who represent bolshevism (or even the present Russian regime) as the logical outcome of Marxism, are well-read enough to realise that they are thereby doing a disservice to the truth.

Curiously enough, though anarchists and Bolsheviks abuse each other heartily, they are agreed on the fundamental question. This basic agreement can be seen in their response if confronted with the Socialist case. When it is suggested that prior to the Socialist revolution the majority of workers must grasp what Socialism entails, both anarchist and Bolshevik reply in precisely the same manner: by ridiculing such an "academic" approach, by muttering about "sectarianism", in short, by claiming that ordinary workers are incapable of acquiring a clear understanding of Socialism before organising together to achieve it.

But since both, in a confused manner, want some sort of social change, and both see the working-class as vital to this process, it is necessary to maintain that workers possess some naive revolutionary desire. Therefore, in analysing the events of May 68 in France (for example) they need some explanation of why revolution didn't result, and find it in the French "Communist" Party.

Socialists, on the contrary, maintain (as a fact, and not because they like it) that the great majority of workers have no wish for Socialism nor understanding of it. Because of traditional ideas, most workers see Capitalism as the only practicable method of operating society. This applies to French workers, just as it does to workers in Britain, America, Russia or China. It is therefore pointless to seek for some special agency which "holds the workers back". The French CP is chiefly an expression of the workers' capitalist outlook, not the cause of it. Since Socialist understanding does not drop out of heaven like the holy ghost, in the space of a few hours, it was clear to every Socialist that the May events had no prospect whatsoever of turning into a revolution. The subsequent election proved this beyond question.

Both anarchists  and Bolsheviks  take the view that "goals emerge from struggle." If any form of "struggle" intensifies, they tend to welcome it as a sign of "rising consciousness" (though often the workers involved are clearly as conservative in their ideas as they were before). If "struggle" becomes very sharp, this is seen as a "revolutionary situation," and in such situations the actions of determined minorities are thought decisive. It is argued either that the workers really do want a revolution, but this desire is "inarticulate" (even "instinctive"!) Or else it is admitted that they have no such aim, but the claim is made that in certain circumstances they will be forced by necessity to adopt the revolutionary course.

These views are often defended with the statement that "people learn by experience," an utterance which demonstrates confusion. The great majority of ideas in anyone's head did not derive from their own personal experience, but from friends, workmates, school, the family, newspapers, TV etc. We all know that arsenic is poison; few of us learnt it by personal experience.

In fact, an item of experience does not lead of itself to a specific conclusion. If a group of people are subjected to a similar experience, they may draw a variety of conclusions about it: the decisive factor will be the system of ideas they have formed before the experience. If there is an economic slump with mass unemployment, Socialists will recognise this as a consequence of the anarchic capitalist market, Christians will conclude that lack of righteousness among the population has brought its inevitable retribution, common-or-garden reformists will believe that incompetence or utterly abnormal circumstances are responsible, fascists and Bolsheviks will put the blame on "finance capitalists," attack political democracy and demand better leadership. Most workers will probably decide that "their country" has been too soft on immigrants, long-haired layabouts, dole scroungers and red wreckers. These ideas will largely determine the way they act, especially the way they vote — and the rise of Hitler should have taught us the crucial importance of the way workers vote.

Naturally, experiences spark off changes in ideas, but until the possibility of Socialism, the moneyless world community, has become widely known and discussed, there is no hope for the emergence of mass Socialist understanding. When two explanatory systems compete in people's minds, then events may decide which is adopted. But given the present near-monopoly of capitalist ideas, it is impossible for the minds of millions to wake up to Socialism until there is a sizeable Socialist movement spelling out the arguments for social revolution.

Given their similar view of working-class ideas, both anarchists and Bolsheviks counterpose leadership plus formal organisation to leaderlessness plus "spontaneity." The Socialist proposal that ordinary working people can operate democratically without leaders, using a large, complex organisation to carry through the revolution, is beyond the comprehension of anarchists and Bolsheviks alike.

The writings reviewed here seem to make some effort to escape from the conventional anarchist standpoint, but this effort turns out to be little more than a gesture. Listen, Marxist! is the bravest try, consisting mostly of an attack on what the author imagines to be Marxism, which is really bolshevism. "Marxism", we are told, means soviet power, puritanical morality, workers' states, vanguards, leaders. We are informed that Marx thought of the Socialist revolution "almost entirely by analogy with the transition of feudalism to capitalism," that chronic economic crisis formed the focal point of his theories, that Marx predicted a continual reduction of workers' real wages, that he didn't foresee increasing state ownership, that he didn’t include white-collar workers in the working-class, etc, etc. On this last point the author admits that Marx defined workers as people who had to sell their labour power— and then argues that he must have meant something different!

In view of all these elementary mistakes about what the writer is supposed to be attacking, it is tempting to dismiss this pamphlet as a tale told by an ignoramus, full of four-letter words, signifying nothing. This would be wrong however, for the author has come to a number of conclusions in line with the Socialist case, and in contradiction to the consensus of traditional anarchism. For example, he lays great stress on the potential plenty which now exists, and concedes that anarchism in the past was doomed to failure because it was rooted in scarcity. He admits that the Russian Revolution replaced Tsarism by state capitalism, a change from the usual anarchist line that Russia is Communist (which is supposed to show that Communism is the same as Capitalism). Further, he emphasises that what has been lacking in twentieth-century revolts until now, including the French May Events, has been sufficient consciousness among the population at large, (or as we would prefer to say, with our desire to avoid unnecessary jargon, sufficient understanding).

Of course, these arguments are precisely those of Marxism. We can only confront the followers of Anarchos and similar groups with the fact that most of the observations they announce with such pride as sensational novelties designed to show "that Marxism has ceased to be applicable to our time . . . because it is not visionary or revolutionary enough," are to be found in the pages of the SOCIALIST STANDARD for years (or decades) past. And without some of the confusions which appear in the Anarchos document.

Apart from numerous cloudy assertions ("Political institutions as such are decaying." The revolution will be made by a "non-class." etc.) we find here the specific dogma which underlies anarchist as well as Bolshevik activity: the incapacity of workers inside capitalism to understand Socialism. Thus, Anarchos tells us that "in a revolutionary situation, the revolutionary organisation presents the most advanced demands: it is prepared at every turn of events to formulate . . . the immediate task . . ." So for all the writer's talk about "consciousness," he does not envisage a united working-class which has democratically decided on its revolutionary strategy, but an entirely fluid situation with competing groups advocating different demands: it is he who falls into the trap of seeing the Socialist revolution by analogy with capitalist revolutions.

"For the first time in history, the anarchic phase that opened all the great revolutions of the past can be preserved as a permanent condition by the advanced technology of our time." But this "anarchic phase" and its apparent alternative, vanguardism, really mutually condition each other: where workers have not advanced to the Socialist stage of leaderless democratically-disciplined organisation, their choice is naturally between leaders, who will stamp on them, and foredoomed, futile "spontaneity."

The group called Solidarity do not use the words "anarchist" or "anarcho-syndicalist" to describe themselves, but the gist of their case is the same. Since they are reacting against Bolshevism (nearly all their pamphlets read as though penned with a Trotskyist peering over the writer's shoulder) they have undoubtedly made some advances in understanding, and on a number of issues have come round to views pioneered by us. But they remain entangled in outdated Leftist ideas. Their fundamental flaw is an obsession with "workers management" as a solution to working-class problems. They fail to appreciate that in terms of genuine human freedom, how work is managed is a side issue. The important thing is that all work should be entirely voluntary—a condition demanded by Marx's slogan "Abolition of the wages system!" "Workers management" is in no way incompatible with Capitalist exploitation.

Cardan begins The Fate of Marxism by listing some of the bewildering variety of so-called "Marxisms," all mutually contradictory. He bemoans the fact that Marxism "has become impossible to pin down. For with which Marxism should we deal?" An obvious first step would seem to be to look at what Marx had to say, but Cardan evades this by a curious line of argument. (He has already given ample evidence that he hasn't read Marx. See the SOCIALIST STANDARD, February 69) He claims that "the significance of a theory cannot be grasped independently of the historical and social practice which it inspires and initiates." In other words, Marxism must be held responsible for everything done in its name—which opens up truly fabulous possibilities. In a similar manner, Darwin could be refuted by Desmond Morris, or Mendel by Hitler.

Like everyone else, Marx made mistakes, and so has the Socialist Party. But Cardan cannot stomach this approach:

“It is no longer possible to maintain or to rediscover some kind of 'Marxist orthodoxy'. It can't be done in the ludicrous (and ludicrously linked) way in which the task is attempted by the high priests of Stalinism and by the sectarian hermits, who see a Marxist doctrine which they presume intact, but 'amend,' 'improve,' or 'bring up to date' on this or that specific point, at their convenience.”

According to Cardan then, it is wrong to stick to a theory, and equally wrong to amend it. We must admit to accepting some of Marx's ideas — a heinous crime, certainly. And rejecting some of Marx's ideas? Oh dear yes, we plead guilty to that fiendish trick as well!

Revolutionary Organisation declares: “Whilst rejecting the substitutionism of both reformism and Bolshevism, we also reject the essentially propagandist approach of organisations such as the Socialist Party of Great Britain." Solidarity is of course equally as concerned with propaganda as we are, but its propaganda consists overwhelmingly of reports of strikes and other activities, whereas ours consists of posing an alternative form of society and explaining how it can be achieved.

The "learning by experience" clap-trap predominates here: Solidarity apparently seriously believes the "people in struggle do draw conclusions which are fundamentally socialist in content." Not that they occasionally do, nor that they might do, but that they do. Obviously if this were the case we should have got Socialism long ago.

In this vein, the pamphlet stresses that workers in conflict with management "counterpose their own conceptions and ideas of how production should be organised." Often they do—but these conceptions and ideas are equally capitalist in character. The number of workers who understand the need for doing away with production for sale, remains very tiny.

If we are to appreciate how the revolution in ideas (a necessary precondition of the social revolution) will occur, we must first rid ourselves of the simplistic fallacy that people change their minds only when they burn their fingers.