Marxism or Communism
“Communism,” by Harold J. Laski. Home University Press.
Professor Laski’s book is one of the most informative and interesting of the dozens of interpretations and criticisms of Marx which have appeared since the Russian upheaval. If, in addition to some minor inaccuracies, the book has one or two important failings, these are not due to the absence of ordinary care or to the class bias and lack of imagination which have marred so many of the works of scholastic critics. Professor Laski has succeeded in compressing a great deal of matter into small space, and has admirably summarised certain aspects of his subject. In a brief historical introduction, he covers adequately the development of Socialist theory, and in the other four chapters he deals with the Materialist interpretation of History, Marxian Economics, the Communist Theory of the State and the Strategy of Communism. Lastly, there is a brief statement of Professor Laski’s own conclusions. While the approach to the subject is critical, the writer does not make the common mistake of imputing to Marx or to the Communists “bad” motives (using bad in the popular sense of a departure from conventional capitalist standards).
He does not make the easy assumption that Bolshevist theories are unsound merely because the Bolshevists repudiate capitalist standards of conduct, fight under strange flags and use unorthodox weapons. He is more than fair, he is generous to his opponents, but it is this very generosity which leads him astray. First he assumes that Bolshevist theory and the Marxian philosophy are identical. This is not entirely true and it is unfair to both Marx and to Lenin.
On the one hand it is the boast of many Communists that his practical revolutionary experience enabled Lenin to improve upon the teachings of Marx; and on the other hand, it is misleading to hold Marx responsible for some of the vagaries of Communist thought and action. Professor Laski’s second and most serious failing is one which perhaps he copied from Professor A. D. Lindsay, who recently wrote a book entitled “Karl Marx’s Capital.”
In his preface, Mr. Laski acknowledges his debt to Professor Lindsay in the writing of the chapter dealing with Marxian Economics. On page 61 of Lindsay’s book we read :—
The Labour theory of value is misleading. . . . It is primarily interested in what a man ought to get in reward for his labour. . . .
On page 95 of the present work; Professor Laski, in explaining the Labour theory, writes:—
Thus we can measure the amount of “labour-power” in each man’s effort, and so determine scientifically how he ought to be paid.
And on page 116 he says:
It is clear, then, that at the root of Marx’s view there lies an ethical test of value. Commodities for him . . . have an inherent value which is what they would obtain in exchange where society was properly organised . . .
Professor Laski apparently picked this up from Professor Lindsay. From what source Professor Lindsay obtained it I do not know, but it is a fantasy so far removed from the Marxian method and purpose that it is impossible for one who sees Marx through these spectacles to grasp his theoretical system as a whole. Marx was not concerned with Utopian societies or with ethical values as a basis for economic theories. His economic doctrines sought to do no more than explain what exists within the capitalist system. For Marx there is no amount that the worker ought to receive, nor was the non-receipt of the full value produced, ever offered as a justification for restitution or for the struggle to rebuild society. Exploitation to the Marxist is not something “wrong,” and therefore to be condemned. Exploitation in various forms has been the necessary basis of different social systems. The need for it is passing, and only that fact calls for and justifies our efforts to establish Socialism. Marx’s economic theories must be judged on their merits, not as contributions to an ideal society of the future. Professor Laski does seriously attempt this, but fails through missing the precise meaning attached to the terms Marx uses. This is his answer to Marx :—
It is clear that if we say (1) that the value of a commodity depends upon the amount of socially necessary labour-time it embodies, (2) that this amount is discovered in the process of exchange, and (3) that the exchange rate is fixed by the value of the commodity, we are really saying that value depends upon value. (Page 96.)
Sunday the 26th (March, 1871) was a day of joy and sunshine. Paris breathed again, happy like one just escaped from death or great peril. At Versailles the streets looked gloomy, gendarmes occupied the station, brutally demanded passports, confiscated all the journals of Paris, and at the slightest expression of sympathy for the town arrested you. At Paris everybody could enter freely. The streets swarmed with people, the cafés were noisy; the same lad cried out the Paris Journal and the Commune; the attacks against the Hotel de Ville, the protestations of a few malcontents, were posted on the walls by the side of the placards of the Central Committee. The people were without anger because without fear. The voting paper had replaced the Chasse-pot.
. . . They can extend the circle of their enjoyments; . . . and can lay by small reserve funds of money. But just as little as better clothing, food, and treatment, and larger peculium, do away with the exploitation of the slave, so little do they set aside that of the wage-worker.