1920s >> 1922 >> no-215-july-1922

Letter: Who Should Wear the Cap and Bells?

To the Editors of the Socialist Standard.

Dear Sirs,

From what I can gather, “J. F.” wishes to convey the impression that for once he has succeeded in discarding the somewhat grumpy and miserable aspect of countenance which, it seems to me, must of necessity be associated with a scribe of his ponderous, rather than pondersome, disposition. As to whether the impression, if created, is a true record of the facts, I, for one, do not believe for a moment. It seems to suffice from “J. F.’s ” point of view that, when he finds himself in difficulties, all that it is necessary for him to do is to tell his readers that he indulged in a fit of hilarity, which he describes as creating “some job to avoid choking.” I have a suspicion that by those means (as well as others) it is calculated that another impression shall be conveyed, and that is—that without accomplishing the task, it shall be made to appear easy and accomplished. “The task” that I am referring to is one that has for its object the meeting of, or dealing with, the points raised in my letter, which I claim have not been even referred to. All such abusive language which questions my “method of discussing Marx” as “genuine” has nothing whatever to do with my letter, and only tends to confuse the issue. “J. F.” with the rippling laughter (or it is ripping?) of the brook such as poets describe, goes on laughing and laughing and “choking,” and by way of demonstrating this laughter as a fact of great importance, he describes me as being capable of “absurd assumptions,” “idiotic interpretations,” “blindness,” with an additional designation of myself as “a short-sighted and intellectually-limited fanatic.” All this, it seems, is of a very cheerful character, so cheerful that one is left to conclude that “J. F.” cannot under any circumstances be very terrible, even when he is miserable. He would certainly make a great jester if he would but indulge in the cult just a little more. In any case, he has amply qualified for the cap and bells with which, before proceeding further, I must hasten to award him with all due solemnity. To begin with, “J. F.” deals with my question as to whether Lenin “expected a country in a backward condition economically to establish Socialism” as follows : “The answer is Yes! Lenin proclaimed the upheaval in 1917 as a ‘Socialist Revolution,’ even as late as his ‘Left Wing Communism’ written in 1920.”

How simple! This appears to me to be the simplification of simplicity itself. It seems that “J. F ” has still a good deal to learn. Why! Even a newly-converted worker to Socialism could tell him that there can be no such thing as a “Socialist Revolution,” except in so far as that it is led by Socialists, and in this sense the Russian Revolution of November was certainly a Socialist Revolution, and Lenin was certainly correct when in that sense he described it as such. How could a Socialist Revolution be otherwise? If we define the word “revolution” as meaning a complete change, and as a “complete change” such as, say, our present social system from primitive Communism cannot, by any stretch of the imagination be described as a “revolution,” but which can rather be described as a complete change brought about through the evolutionary processes of the tools and implements of wealth production, in what other way can we describe a complete change in society as constituting a revolution? It appears to me that “J. F.” expects to wake up one fine morning at, say, 6 o’clock (preferably Monday, as we are all in the habit of starting fresh on that day) and witness the most agreeable spectacle of the present system of society being transformed by 9 o’clock into the Socialist Co-operative Commonwealth, all ready for him to start work in the new order of things. I have heard a lot of chatter and fine distinctions made concerning “ political,” “social,” and other revolutions, and “J. F.” is apparently one of those who indulges in them; but in so far as the existence of classes is a feature of our social system, the only thing that can be described as a “social” revolution is when a subject class attains to the position of a ruling class, and only in so far as that revolution is led by Socialists, or undertaken by the masses converted to Socialism, can that revolution be described as a “Socialist Revolution.” Lenin was, therefore, right when he described the November Revolution as such. That does not mean that he expected “a country in a backward condition economically to establish Socialism.”

“J. F. ” in that respect utterly ignores mv statement which says that “again and again did Lenin assert the necessity for the economic development of Russia as being requisite for the establishment of Socialism.” Then “J. F.,” with a grand flourish of his pen, and, it seems, of trumpets, with all the hilarity and glee that he can muster, proceeds with this revelation : “It is true that later Lenin had to modify his own words, as he has had to do on many other points. But that hits Lenin and Dight—not us.”

What words of Lenin did he (Lenin) have to modify? That it (the Russian) was a “Socialist Revolution?” He never “modified” that. That he, with others, established Socialism in Russia, or that he “expected a country in backward condition economically to establish Socialism? (Italics mine.) He never said that Socialism was established, and he could never “modify” expectations he never had. It must have been a most inspiring brain wave which “J. F.” must have become possessed of when he referred to what he calls the modification of Lenin’s “own words” as hitting “Lenin and Dight—not us.” This—coupling of my name with Lenin—is deserving of scorn, and, for my part, I can do no more than say that had the coupling been contrived by some other individual intellectually greater than “J.F.” and providing that that individual was not indulging in the congenial pastime of “leg-pulling,” I might have felt highly honoured. As it is, I feel bound to suspect that the methods employed in this respect are calculated to disparage the intellectual qualifications of a man—in the person of Lenin—as compared with whom the greatest “intellectual giant” of the S.P.G.B. can be likened to a jackass. Of course, the “modification” of Lenin’s “own words,” which, according to “J. F.,” mean that the Russian Revolution was not a “Socialist Revolution,” does not hit “J. F.” or the members of the S.P.G.B. Judging by previous issues of the Socialist Standard that is quite true. On the contrary, you do not even regard this fact with any lack of concern or indifference, but rather does it seem to be regarded with gloating joy such as the myrmidons of the capitalist Press might envy. It is quite true that “any elementary school child can answer the question about America.” (My italics.) It is likewise quite true that any school child can tell us that the weather is either fine or nasty in accordance with circumstances. But what has all this to do with the question at issue? No one asked any “question” as to what it was that prevented America from passing through feudalism, except in so far as that an answer was expected in relation to the point at issue. The thing I was concerned with was the fact that America adopted capitalism without necessarily going through feudalism. That fact is admitted. And then it wasn’t a “question” of America except in so far as that that country served as a means for illustrating my point—a point made quite clear and utterly ignored—and that was that a country need not go through all the phases of a former system before another system is adopted, as well as that it need not even go through the system itself—that is, of course, the system which generally precedes the system adopted. So far it will be seen by any except those who are afflicted with “blindness” that “J. F.” has been indulging in a lot of shuffling and confusion, and where he at all comes to the real question at issue, he uses four words, not connected, out of a passage originally quoted by yourselves, comprising no fewer than eighty-two words. It is true that later he uses two sentences torn from their context, and in that way distorting their meaning. Concerning, first of all, the “four words” above referred to, “J. F.” says that Marx—

“was dealing with the ‘normal development’ of societies and how they cannot evade the ‘successive phases’ of this ‘normal development,’ ”

and that he (Marx) was not dealing, as was my contention, with the “successive phases” and “normal development” of a “revolutionary period.” This is clearly a case of “J. F.” supposing, to use his own words, that “Marx meant something quite contrary to what he wrote,” as I shall show. What is it to which Marx referred when he said that we could not “clear by bold leaps or remove by legal enactments the obstacles offered by the successive phases of its normal development” except a revolutionary period? That it was a revolutionary period to which he referred is clearly proved by the following words from the same passage, to which I drew attention in my letter, and which “J. F.” finds it very convenient to ignore : “And even when a society has got upon the right track for the discovery of the natural laws of its movement.” (My italics.) Then follow the words, some of which “J.F.” only uses, which tells us what under the circumstances cannot be done; and then Marx says: “But IT CAN shorten and lessen the BIRTH PANGS.” Is it necessary to labour the point further? Anyone with little more intelligence than an idiot can understand that there can be no such thing as social “birth pangs” except within a revolutionary period. Your whole point in your original quotation was to prove that “a country in a backward condition economically” (your words) could not establish Socialism without first going through the “successive phases of its normal development” (Marx), and that Marx “expressly denied such a thing possible” (Your words, my italics.) But if we take the thirty-seven words that “J. F.” sees fit to use only, from a quotation from the preface to the second Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto containing about 300 words, there we shall see that not only is it not true that Marx “expressly denied,” etc., but that he, with Engels, asserted the very reverse. Anyone who has read my letter carefully, and closely followed “J. F.’s” “reply,” will see that it would be necessary in order that the issue may be cleared to make my original points and quotations, and, as under the circumstances, this task would grow if the matter is pursued further, I think it would be better to terminate this discussion (if such from “J. F.’s” side it can be called), unless some other person takes up the case. It may not even then be necessary to pursue the matter. That depends, of course, upon whether, if after an attempt has been made to meet my case, I consider my position nevertheless established. I had no idea when I wrote in criticism of an editorial that a “reply” was forthcoming from “ J. F.,” otherwise I doubt if I would have written. I say this as a result of past experience, which is one of abuse, confusion, and shuffle.—Yours faithfully,

Hy. Dight.

Reply:

Mr. Dight—to use a phrase popular in the workshop—is unlucky. Along with many other people, whose knowledge of Marx’s writings and sociology is small, he was carried away by the upheaval in Russia.

To these people that event was the coming of the promised heaven and Lenin was the “Jesus Christ” of the new Revelation. As sheep-like in their following of Lenin as the Christians were of Jesus they accepted and repeated, without the slightest examination, any statement coming from the new Messiah. Sometimes this had awkward consequences for the disciples.

Thus in a former communication Mr. Dight tried to use against us a falsification of Marx by Lenin. Our exposure of this piece of fraud was intensely disagreeable for Mr. Dight, as shown by his shuffle of a reply. But it taught him one lesson— namely—that if he wished to quote Marx in controversy with us it was necessary to read Marx himself and not to rely upon Lenin for his quotations. Still even to read Marx does not necessarily guarantee an understanding of what he wrote.

An instance of this was given in Mr. Dight’s letter in the May issue of the Socialist Standard, where it was easily shown that the quotations given were in direct opposition to the views they were used to support. All Mr. Dight can do, when these facts were pointed out, is to indulge in a long tirade of personalities about “J. F.,” to whom he offers the cap and bells. “J. F.,” however, has no wish to deprive Mr. Dight of his eminently suitable equipment.

To what a maze of confusion and contradiction hero-worship leads is shown in Mr. Dight’s attempt to defend Lenin’s false claims of the upheaval in Russia being a “Socialist Revolution.” At one part he says:—

“There can be no such thing as a ‘Socialist Revolution,’ except in so far as that it is led by Socialists.” (Italics ours.)

This phrase displays an appalling ignorance of the first elements of Socialism and an entire lack of knowledge of social evolution, which is further emphasized by his remarks a little further on when he states :—

    “A ‘complete change,’ such as, say, our present social system from Primitive Communism cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as a ‘revolution.’ ”

No! it can better be described as the product of a particularly uninstructed mind, for even the school books provided by the capitalist class for workers’ children admit the existence of two other systems—chattel slavery and feudalism—between primitive Communism and Capitalism !

Before a Socialist revolution can take place a majority of the working class must understand and accept the essentials of Socialism and organise to establish it. This understanding not only renders “leaders ” unnecessary, it forbids their existence. The working class will keep control in its own hands and administrators will have to carry out the workers’ instructions. To talk of a “Socialist Revolution” as being “led by Socialists” is at once to proclaim one’s entire ignorance of even the elements of Socialism. It is therefore not so surprising to find Mr. Dight is unable to see the glaring contradictions of his attempted defence of Lenin when he states :—

“Lenin was, therefore, right when he described the November Revolution as such” [i.e., as a Socialist Revolution] and then says:—“Again and again did Lenin assert the necessity for the economic development of Russia as being requisite for the establishment of Socialism.”

When is a Socialist Revolution not a Socialist Revolution? When it occurs in Russia !

If it was a “Socialist Revolution” how was it that it failed to establish Socialism? And if it failed to establish Socialism how could it be a “Socialist” Revolution? Such is the result of following “leaders.”

Mr. Dight agrees that any school child could answer his question on America— though he was unable to answer it—but now states that he did not put the question “except in relation to the point at issue” —which was exactly why we dealt with it. So to clarify the issue he puts the question again, because we “utterly ignored” it before—by answering it. He repeats his previous point as follows :—

  “A country need not go through all the phases of a former system before another system is adopted.”

As “evidence” for this entirely inaccurate assertion he pointed to America. We showed how ridiculous this illustration was and Mr. Dight admitted our point, and then repeats his stupid assertion. He has not yet learnt the difference between a country in the geographical sense and the people who inhabit such a territory. A society is formed of the people in a particular country or countries. As pointed out in our previous reply the people of America did not adopt Capitalism. They were exterminated by the people of another country who had adopted Capitalism after passing through Feudalism, and who merely extended their own system into the new area. To put the point more fully—there is no race or nation of people who have passed from either Barbarism or Chattel-slavery into Capitalism without developing through Feudalism. There is no race or nation of people that have passed from Feudalism to fully developed Capitalism without going through the essential phases of Capitalist development.

On the matter of the quotations from the preface to “Capital,” Mr. Dight adopts the well-worn subterfuge of using emphasis for argument. First he put certain phrases in italics. Then, after it was shown that the phrases contradicted his assertions, he tries to make a show of a case by repeating the phrases in capital letters. Unfortunately for Mr. Dight the truth of a statement does not depend upon the type used to print it, but we are inclined to agree with his remark that:—

“Anyone with little more intelligence than an idiot can understand that there can be no such thing as social ‘birth pangs,’ except within a revolutionary period.”

for even he appears to understand the phrase. Where his understanding fails is in not seeing that the “successive phases of its normal development” of any society precedes the “birth pangs” of a new order and is not, as he imagines, contemporary with it.

We also agree that the words Mr. Dight italicised in his quotation from the preface to the 2nd Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto completely knocked out the interpretation he tried to place upon them, and flatly contradicts his present statement that Marx and Engels “asserted the very reverse.” Perhaps he was wise not to restate this quotation, seeing that those he has requoted have merely exposed further his mental confusion and lack of knowledge. Nor would we deny that his past experience has been one of abuse, confusion and shuffle in face of the strong corroboration of these points to be found in his letters.

Jack Fitzgerald