Book Review: ‘Modern Socialism in its Historical Development’

Tugan-Baranovsky’s Criticism of Marx

‘Modern Socialism in its Historical Development’, by M. Tugan-Baranovsky (1910)

‘Modern Socialism in its Historical Development’, by M. Tugan-Baranovsky, was published in 1910. It was translated from the Russian by M. I. Redmount.

The most interesting feature of the work is the record of working-class efforts and ideas in the early days of the movement. The phrasing is inclined to be awkward, possibly due to difficulties of translation. It is, in places, not easy to get at the ideas. When understood, however, the work presents a rather curious instance of an author losing sight of his own premises, merely because society has failed to act on them.

On page 14 he defines Socialism as

    “The social organization in which, owing to equal obligations and equal rights of all to participate in the communal work, as also owing to the equal right to participate in the produce of this work, the exploitation of one member of the community by another is impossible.”

Having laid this down as a working principle—incomplete as it is—the reader might expect that it would, at least, be used to show wherein working-class parties, calling themselves Socialist failed to act up to their name. Instead, M. Baranovsky, confusing labour politics with what he calls Marxism, declares that the latter has departed from its principles. By Marxism he means the principles that should govern the workers in their efforts to emancipate themselves. These principles were broadly outlined by Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto.

On page 8 M. Baranovsky says that Socialists recognised that they had to bear in mind the immediate needs of the people and shape their policy on them. In consequence of these ingenious Marxian tactics, he says, Socialism has become the greatest political power of the present. He describes this action as transferring the centre of gravity of the Socialist movement into the sphere of practical politics. The ultimate aim, he says, recedes into the background, whilst the proper ideal continues to serve but as a symbol, without any concrete content, and finally, the tactics of Marxism have in theory resulted in weakening the interest in the final issue of Socialism.

Here, he fails to see that it is the Labour Party that has falsified Socialist principles by their reformist policy. The broad facts of the working-class position, and the principles drawn from them are, in essence, the same to-day as when Marx outlined them in the Communist Manifesto. M. Baranovsky should, reasoning from his declared facts, have noted that the Labour Party cannot, at the same time, be both a reformist and a Socialist party.

This failure to see that a Socialist party must have Socialist principles, and base its political activities on them, vitiates the work throughout. To M. Baranovsky the Labour Party is a Socialist party in spite of its reformist policy and its denial of Socialist principle.

The reason for his shortsightedness is seen after a careful examination of his book. M. Baranovsky has the Utopian mind. Something of the soundness of the Socialist position he glimpses here and there; but in the main he belongs to the period of which he writes most fluently; the period when reformers like Owen, Fourier and St. Simon saw the rottenness of Capitalism and planned new systems to supplant it. In his preface he compares these with Marx, as follows:—

    “And taking into consideration that Marxism, as I strongly believe, does not embrace all the scientific elements of Socialism, my investigation necessarily assumed an historical character in so far as I was obliged to retrospect and introduce earlier, partly forgotten doctrines of the so-called Utopian category, which I consider deserving of the most serious attention and which in some respects are even more scientific than Marxism.”

One of the best-known of the Utopians was Fourier. His plan for the reformation of society was the formation of groups, called Phalanstries, each group to settle on the land and provide for themselves by their associated labour. Fourier himself waited in vain for some charitable millionaire to finance his first group. Yet there have been quite a number of these experiments in different parts of the world. They were all failures. Capitalist society is too strong an organism to be affected by such dreamlike projects.

Wherein can such schemes be termed scientific? M. Baranovsky does not tell us. But Marxism, as he calls it, can tell us why they always failed. Working-men cannot throw up their jobs and form groups to produce for themselves. They have no capital to start with (a necessity under Capitalism) and Capitalists already own the land.

But the Utopians are unscientific in another respect. They say that nothing can be achieved by struggling against those in power. The only effective weapon is persuasion. They turn their backs on the class struggle, instead of recognising it and taking their place in the ranks of the workers. What could be more unscientific than refusing to see what is so evident in modern society. The antagonism between Capitalists and workers is the most outstanding feature of modern times, all over the Capitalist world, and conditions cannot essentially change for the working-class until they get the upper hand in that struggle.

But it is not the early Utopian ideas with which M. Baranovsky is chiefly obsessed. His Utopianism has advanced some what. Sixty pages are devoted to what he conceives as the special forms that the future society may take. He reviews the possibilities of eight different systems. Socialism and Communism have each four alternative arrangements, according to him : Centralized, Corporate, Federal And Anarchical. The Utopian cast of his mind is plainly revealed in the profitless task of reviewing these forms. But even more so is this the case in the last section of his book ,where he says on page 230:—

    “In the Socialist community, just so as in the Capitalistic, the price of a commodity will rise in the case of demand exceeding supply, and fall in the inverse instance.”

In this quotation we see how Capitalist ideas clog the minds of those who try to frame schemes to escape from the evils of the present system. M. Baranovsky would carry over into a future system he has somehow conjured up, the very things that make Capitalism what it is. He would still have commodities and commodity production. Sale and purchase of the necessaries of life.

Capitalism is based on the class ownership of the means of wealth production and the commodity character of human labour-power. Labour-power is bought by the Capitalists to operate the machinery of production and sell their commodities on the world’s market. The energy of the worker is a commodity, he is stamped with the commodity character. He is compelled to suffer all the vicissitudes that distinguish other commodities in the Capitalist world: over-supply, depreciation and physical decay, when he can no longer sell his one commodity.

Throughout the productive and commercial world everything has a practical aim in view. The object of it all is profit. The workers themselves cultivate efficiency, eliminate waste, produce all forms of wealth, and run all the services that minister to the world’s needs. Yet they suffer poverty because they do all this for those who buy their energy. Everywhere business is run on practical lines and becoming more rationalised every day. Yet the worker’s mind is still obsessed with the false notion that wealth can only be produced by this arrangement that makes the bulk of human society—the working-class —a class of wage-slaves.

Production and distribution of wealth can be carried on by society without the enslavement of one class. But only the class that is enslaved can possibly want such a system. Consequently, it can only be established by the workers themselves. Moreover, it can only be established in opposition to the Capitalist class. Which means that the workers’ first task is to critically examine and understand the basis of Capitalism. He will then know for himself what must be changed or eliminated in order that he and his class may win security and freedom from exploitation.

F. Foan

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