On understanding Marx

“Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx” By Sidney Hook. New York: The John Day Co. $2.50.

Karl Marx, the one-time almost unknown exile, the patient digger for economic facts in the British Museum Library, is now a “world figure.” No man of his generation could claim so many alleged followers, so many bitter enemies, as Marx, if he were alive to-day. He has become almost a god for millions, a veritable devil for other millions. Just as the books of Voltaire and Rousseau were publicly burned in France in the years preceding the French Revolution, so the other day, on an immensely larger scale, tons of Marx’s volumes were consigned to the flames by the fanatical Nazis in Germany, whose leaders, like Canute, hope to hold back the rise of the tide that will sweep away this capitalism.

No man’s ideas have suffered more at the hands of his self-claimed disciples. Even in Marx’s own time his views were distorted and misrepresented by would-be friends as well as opponents, so that Marx himself was driven to declare that he “was no Marxist.” What, then, would he say to-day, when “Marxism” is used to cover all manner of ideas, from reformism and pacifism to the dogmas and crazy political “interpretations” of the Communist press?

A book which restated soundly and in reasonably short compass the fundamental ideas of Marx and applied them to modern events would at the present period prove especially valuable. The volume before us calls attention to the confusion that to-day exists as to Marx and his theories in its very title. It is noteworthy in several ways. Its author is assistant Professor of Philosophy at New York University, and, so far as I know, this is the first time a member of the staff of an “English-speaking” university has written a fairly full exposition on Marx. Furthermore, the book treats well and at greater length than is usual in introductory works, of the less studied aspects of Marx’s system, especially the dialectic method and the interaction of activity and thought.

It is impossible to adequately comment on all the virtues and vices of a book so full of intellectual meat as this is, but, as it will probably be widely read, it certainly calls for whatever praise or condemnation it merits from the Socialist point of view. There are many minor points of criticism that could be raised if space permitted, but the outstanding merits and faults of the work are all that can be dealt with here,

Let me commence with well-merited praise for the three fine chapters on the Materialistic Conception of History, which, in my opinion, except, for one or two points to be mentioned, are excellent, and more satisfactory than the exposition by Boudin or that by Plechanov, in his valuable Fundamental Problems of Marxism. The rebuttal of the manifold crude misconceptions of the theory, such as those which identify it with the views that economic interests on the one hand, or mere technical developments on the other, are the basic factors in history, is well, if briefly, done. An appendix gives the four valuable letters by Engels on Historical Materialism, in which he explained certain difficulties and criticised false interpretations.

I believe that Hook’s theoretical treatment of the role of great men” in history is essentially sound and far closer to Marx than the absurd view sometimes put forward as Marxian that their historic influence is practically negligible. It is all the more surprising, therefore, to find that when our author descends from the abstract to the concrete he falls into a queer contradiction of his main argument and enormously overrates the role of political leaders. In considering the question as to whether or not great men always arise when there is an historical setting which calls for them, he writes: Why did not a great man arise to unify India against foreign imperialism in the nineteenth century, and China in the twentieth? Where was the great leader hiding when Italy was objectively ready for revolution in 1921 and Germany in 1923? Was he not needed then?” (p.172). Apart from the false assumption that the objective conditions” were ready in any of these cases, are we to believe that the great leader” would have brought about the desired result if they had been? Hook may object to such an interpretation, but to me the unescapable inference of his statement is that Fascism triumphed because Mussolini appeared and a Socialist” leader did not, or because Mussolini was a Fascist, not a Socialist.

The chapters on economics are fairly good, considering their brevity, though they are too abstract. On p.193 there is a strange slip in defining capital” in Marx’s sense as wealth used for the production of more commodities,” instead of, as Marx always stressed, wealth used for the purpose of acquiring surplus value. (See Capital, Vol. 1. p. 128, Glashier Edition.)

A grave fault of Hook’s is that he takes a basic idea of Marx’s and then rides it to death, exaggerating it to the point where it becomes absurd, and in a manner which it is certain would have shocked Marx’s logical sense.

Throughout the book he stresses Marx’s philosophic tenet that the test of the truth of any theoretical proposition lies in action upon the outcome of activity directed by the idea in question. Hook applies this principle correctly enough for the most part. But, when he writes, ‘What justifies Marx and Engels in holding that the mode of economic production is the decisive factor in social life is the revolutionary will of the proletariat which is prepared to act upon that assumption ” (p.181), he is straining the principle until it becomes sheer nonsense. Even if we overlook the slightly awkward fact that, except for a small minority, the proletariat have as yet no “revolutionary will” and are not “prepared to act on that assumption,” Hook’s view would fail to explain how it is that many bourgeois historians now accept the economic factor as decisive. I am afraid that they, unphilosophic fellows, simply “justify” themselves by an appeal to historic data and contemporary events, and this is precisely what Marx and Engels did.

Similarly, Hook, after appearing to give endorsement to the Marxian theory of value, declares it to be of little use in the analyses of complex economic phenomena or the prediction of economic trends, and says: “It is rather the self-conscious theoretical expression of the practical activity of the working class engaged in a continuous struggle for a higher standard of living …” (p.222). Need I point out that the theory of value has never yet been the accepted theory of more than a small minority in the working class movement, industrial or political ?

Again, at the close of a chapter in which he sets out to prove by historical examples the soundness of Marx’s view as to the decisive role of class struggles in history, our author, true to his obsession, avers that, “the truth of Marx’s theory of the class struggle can be established only in the experience of the social revolution, i.e., after class society has been overthrown (p.248).

It is difficult for us to take these aberrations of Hook’s literally, for he writes as an advocate of Marx, but if we do they amount to a declaration that, for the most part, Marx’s immense theoretical work is a mass of deductive, a priori reasoning, an elaborate “justification” for his revolutionary politics. Many open opponents of Marx have, of course, made this accusation, but it is new to find a would-be exponent tending in that direction.

Marx was a life-long revolutionist, but it is grotesquely untrue to even imply that he was nothing else, that everything he did and wrote was motivated almost exclusively by his revolutionary aims, No human activities are so circumscribed, though some neurotics tend that way, and Marx was thoroughly human,” very much of an “all-round man,” a man, as any alert reader of his works is bound to see, intensely interested in philosophy, science and history for their own sake as well as for their bearing on the problems of the working class movement, and he had a wide-awake intellect. Had he not been all this, the unscientific and unhistorical distortions that would have unavoidably crept into, even dominated, his work, would have exposed it to critical annihilation long before the expiration of half a century.

Hook has four chapters dealing with the distorted “interpretations” of Marxism by the German Social Democrats and the syndicalists of France, by which the former sought to justify their anti-Marxian policy of reformism, and the latter their non-political “direct-action,” and he treats briefly but well of the economic and political conditions out of which these “schools” arose.

He describes what he calls the orthodox canonisation of Marx” by Kautsky, Hilferding and Co. But when he comes to deal with Lenin, he subscribes to the latest canonisation without a blink. Though he can see the distortions of the Kautskyans he appears blind or, at least, keeps silent about most of those of the Communists. Just as the former had their roots in definite social conditions, so the newer distortions, the orthodoxy” of Moscow, originally germinated in the underground, illegal struggles against the blood-soaked Czarist absolutism but was only brought to its present detailed perfection under the Soviet regime, with its dictatorship of the Communist Party over the proletariat and peasantry.

When Marx used the phrase, “dictatorship of the proletariat,” which he did on extremely few occasions, he meant, as the context shows, nothing more than the political domination of the working class majority during the period of the socialisation of capitalist property. Hook appears to accept this view, but he refrains from pointing out that the Soviet dictatorship, with its disfranchisement of the old exploiters, its indirect and managed” elections, its stifling and penalising of opposition opinion, even within the ranks of the Communists, find no justification in Marx’s use of the phrase. This repression is without doubt necessary to the retention of power by the Communist Party in its present form, but, to justify it by interpretations of Marx is distortion of the crudest type. To be fair to Hook, he does not do this he keeps silent on the matter but roasts the Kautskyans. It is our business to call attention and to condemn both sets of distorters”

Hook, following the general argument of the Communists, tries to prove (p.287) that it was Marx’s settled opinion that, in general, the workers can and will be compelled to resort to armed struggle against the state in order to win political control. Now if Marx had laid this down as one of his major propositions it would be perfectly impossible to ignore the fact or suppress it. There would be no room for argument, at least, as to what Marx said. But actually, in the vast bulk of his writings, Marx said very little about revolutionary organisation and tactics or the form the revolution might be expected to take. Only in his earlier writings, during or immediately after the 1848 period of revolts, do we find any attempt at a detailed programme of action. After the revolts had subsided and it had become evident to him that capitalism had settled down for a far longer period of life and expansion than he had previously thought, Marx’s statements on the proletarian revolution were in very general and guarded terms. He knew that neither he nor anyone else could lay down methods of procedure for an event that would not materialise for many years, and which would do so under conditions very different from those of his day and which would vary from country to country.

Hook writes, “Ultimately, whether fifty per cent or ninety per cent of the population support the revolution, the state power will be won not by pencil and ballot paper, but by workers with rifles. As late as 1872 in speaking of the continental countries . . . Marx wrote: ‘ It is to force that in due time the workers will have to appeal if the dominion of labour is at long last to be established.’” Rifles against tanks, poison gas and aircraft? – come, come! Mr. Hook, and where would they get even rifles? Believe it or not, this slight quotation from Marx’s voluminous writings is the solitary one that Hook gives to support his contention. It contains nothing to indicate that Marx was not referring to the use of force against the bourgeoisie after the working class had gained control of the state armed forces. The phrase, “as late as 1872” is significant. It shows that Hook is fully aware of the big difference between Marx’s earlier and later views on working class tactics. Yet nowhere in his book does he point this out.

There were sound historical reasons for this difference. In the bourgeois revolutionary struggles of 1848, armed insurrection for the bourgeoisie and their working class allies was, in the absence of a wide suffrage, the only form of struggle available and, what is most important, the weapons and fighting methods then in use, made victory for the insurgents, under favourable conditions, possible. Marx and Engels then believed that “the bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.” (Communist Manifesto, IV.)

Following the compromise of the German bourgeoisie with the aristocracy and the defeat of the revolution, Marx in 1850 surveyed the conditions for further advance in his “Address to the Communist League. During the developing struggle of the workers along with the petty-bourgeoisie for a liberal constitution, he advocated the independent organisation and arming of the workers. But for the period which would follow the establishment of parliamentary government Marx urged the use to the full of the political franchise and conspicuously refrained from advocating the continuance of the workers in armed preparedness or the resort to armed risings. Marx knew that under the new conditions such risings would inevitably lead to crushing repression, the crippling of the workers’ movement, and the possible abrogation for a time of the hard- won and politically invaluable suffrage rights.

In 1895 Engels, at the end of his fruitful life, wrote an introduction to Marx’s old work, “The Class Struggles in France,” and in it he summed up the lessons he and Marx had learned on this question of working class tactics during decades of economic, and political evolution. A few extracts are quoted below, but the reader should on no account miss reading the enlightening essay in full. Engels wrote:

With this successful utilisation of the general franchise an entirely new method of the proletarian struggle had come into being and had been quickly built up. It was found that the State institutions, wherein the rule of the bourgeoisie is organised, did furnish further opportunities by means of which the working class can oppose these same institutions . . . And so it came, about that bourgeoisie and Government feared far more the legal than the illegal action of the workers’ party, more the successes of the elections than those of rebellion.”

After showing in some detail how the newer developments in the art of warfare had rendered successful insurrection against the state forces impossible and what would he have thought of those of to-day? – Engels continues:

If we are not so foolish as to please them by allowing ourselves to be led into street fights, there remains nothing for them save to be broken to pieces upon this fatal legality.”

Of all this, Hook says not a word. He raises strong objections to the view expressed by Marx as early as 1872, that “there are certain countries, such as the United States and England, in which the workers may hope to secure their ends by peaceful means. (Quoted by Steckloff, History of the First International,” p.240.) He calls it a “joker” that Engels qualified this by saying that Marx “never forgot to add that he hardly expected the English ruling class to submit, without a pro-slavery rebellion,’ to this peaceful and legal revolution.” (Capital, I, xiv, Glaisher Ed.) The “joker,” however, is on Hook, for it is obvious that by “pro-slavery rebellion” is meant one against the victorious workers and the state forces they controlled which has no bearing as to the method of first winning such control. In his effort to show how for once Marx erred in making this exception in the cases of England and America, Hook emphasises the numerous times in English history, from Cromwell on, that the government meted out violent repression, instancing Peterloo, Egypt, Ireland and India. What irrelevant argument! Who knew the brutality of the rule of the English capitalists better than Marx? But he also knew that even they cannot do exactly as they like, and he evidently believed that, faced by a powerfully organised and politically educated working class, victorious at the polls, the capitalists wou1d be forced to re1inquish the state power.

As for America, Hook asks: “Was it likely that in a country in which feeble and constitutional’ attempts to abolish chattel slavery had called forth the most violent civil war of the nineteenth century, the abolition of wage-slavery could be effected by moral suasion? (p. 295.) He overlooks the fact that the planters of the south and the capitalists of the north were separated geographically, and had separate State government and forces, and secondly, that the cause of the war was not abolition but secession Why, by the way, does he not instance the abolition of slavery in the British colonies, which was done constitutionally and almost without resistance? The reference to moral suasion” is beside the point, for the Socialist case for parliamentary action does not rest on that at all but on the fact that a working class majority grounded in Socialism will constitute an irresistible political force.

At this point Hook wins the sympathy of his reader, when, after asking, What led Marx and Engels into the error of qualifying their general position as they did? he admits, with evident pain, that, after toying with several hypotheses, the author frankly confesses that he does not know.” (p. 296.) May I suggest to him that he turn again to the afore-mentioned Introduction by Engels and not only read it, for a casual reference (p.31) giving, however, no glimpse of its embarrassing contents suggests he has already done this, but mark, learn and inwardly digest it. After which there may be no further need to toy with any more hypotheses. But one never can tell.

As a trump card, our author warns us that: The Socialists captured a legal majority of the Finnish Parliament in 1918. Before they could put through their programme, they were drowned in rivers of blood by an armed counter-revolution. (p.290.) As an illegitimate argument this would be hard to beat. He omits to mention that Finland was and is a predominantly agrarian country, quite unripe for Socialism, that consequently the so-called Socialists were not Socialists at all but only reformers, and were far from having a genuinely Socialist majority behind them, and that the violent suppression was chiefly accomplished by German regiments specially brought over to do the job at the request of the Finnish ruling class in other words, not by the state forces of Finland but by those of another and more powerful state.

We have never held, as a matter of fact, that a merely formal majority at the polls under no matter what circumstances, will give the workers power to achieve Socialism. We have always emphasised that such a majority must be educated in the essentials of Socialist principles and have a party democratically organised and disciplined. It is the quality of the voters behind the vote that, in the revolutionary struggle, will be decisive. In our Declaration of Principles we stress the necessity of capturing the machinery of government including the armed forces. That is the fundamental thing. The method, though important, is second to this. The attitude of fetishism which the communists show towards “violence,” their advocacy of street warfare against overwhelming odds, and their efforts to build up a party on mere desperation and unintelligent discontent only serves to make more difficult the Socialist education and organisation of the workers.

As a Socialist I can only conclude that Hook’s book is going to contribute further to the misunderstanding of Karl Marx, however much some of his material on Marxian philosophy and Historical Materialism may enlighten the worker-student who is already fairly well grounded. Hook fails to give us a really satisfactory exposition of Marxian theories in relation to the problems .of to-day, largely through falling under the spell of the new dispensation from Moscow. He has missed his mark.

(Socialist Standard, July 1933)

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