Book Review: Another Critic of Marx
“The Socialist Tradition,” by Alexander Gray, is interesting to socialists because it provides, if nothing else, an illuminating illustration of how little the type of criticism he offers of Marx has changed over the last fifty years or so.
Some idea of his approach to Marxism is seen when he informs us (p. 306) that Engels in later years became satisfied that there had been an early golden age. The fact that Engels in “Anti-Duhring” (p. 201) points out that early society far from being a primitive paradise, was marked by a low degree of productivity, is apparently unknown to Mr. Gray. The astonishing statement is then made (same page) that Marx and Engels thought the human race had taken the wrong turning. To give colour to this false conception he adds his own words, “the evil thing being the division of labour.” Again it was Engels in “Anti-Duhring” (p. 203) who pointed out that the slave society which superseded the primitive communities represented an advance in productive powers and under the condition of the times was a great step forward; and adding that without slavery there could be no Greek culture, no Roman Empire, and consequently no modern Europe. Likewise the strongest justification offered for the coming of capitalism was the classic tribute Marx and Engels paid to it in showing that its great historic function was to multiply the productive forces and capacities to an unparalleled degree and thus provide the basis for the free and full development of associated humanity—Socialism, and this from men profoundly and intensely aware of the human costs involved in the accumulation of capital. For Marx and Engels the path of social development is not a consequence of the good intent or bad intent of individuals, but the result of the objective possibilities provided by a given historical situation. This indicates to what extent Mr. Gray has in his approach to Marxism taken the wrong turning.
Mr. Gray (p. 306) says that history cannot be explained in terms of the economic factor alone. He merely repeats a fallacy Marx himself exposed. What Marx did say was that the central point in the life of society consists in the way the productive forces are organized by the social activity of men at any given time—its mode of production—and constitutes in the last analysis the preponderating influence in determining the general social structure, viz., its institutions, laws, politics, etc. It follows then that in the functioning and development of these productive forces is the key to social evolution to be found. This evolution, since the advent of private property relations, has taken place through the agency of class struggles. For instance, from the growth of trade and commerce in feudal society there evolved a commercial class—the early bourgeoisie. In quest of profit they strove to expand the productive forces free from feudal let or hindrance. In the class struggle that ensued feudalism was destroyed and modern Capitalism appeared. As the final result of the class struggle to-day Capitalism must also disappear and the widest expansion of the productive forces secured by instituting a classless society based on production for use.
In the light of the foregoing, Mr. Gray’s contention (p. 329) that the materialist conception of history provides an interesting technique in historical interpretation, but Marx unfortunately linked it with the class struggle, wears a comical aspect. To attempt by some ghostly process to abstract the centre piece of Marxist doctrine would reduce it to a meaningless absurdity. One might as well attempt to retain Newtonian physics apart from the concept of gravitation.
The great man theory as an objection to historical materialism is then advanced. An idea rooted in the tribal conception of hero worship enshrined in the philosophy of Carlyle and at length turned into a political instrument of fascist demagogy. We are told (p. 307) “doubtless great men are conditioned by their environment, but not produced by their environment.” The great man thus appears on the scene like a sudden revelation or a divine act. In the course of history emperors, generals, statesmen and, finally, the so-called great captains of industry have all been called upon to play this mysterious role. It is, of course, a typical piece of bourgeois fetishism that ascribes the great advances in production due to the division of labour, improved technical processes, etc., as being the result of the creative intervention of rare individuals, just as bourgeois economists have thought that the unpaid labour appropriated by the capitalist is the result of some creative attribute inherent in capital. Men make history, says Marx, which includes, of course, both “great men” and “little men.” The kind of history that men make is not, however, derived from the impulses, ideas or theories which actuate certain individuals, but the outcome of specific social factors in a given environment, which not only conditions these mental concepts, but limits their range and effectiveness. Further the action and interaction of all the forces in a given social environment act selectively on these ideas, theories, ideals, etc., and only those concepts which correspond and are in line with the objective conditions can constitute effective mental instruments for changing the world. Thought and action (theory and practice) in so far as they are informed by a knowledge of the conditions and limits imposed upon them by the nature of the social environment in which they operate constitute a purposeful and effective force and are presupposed in Marx’s system. Mr. Gray’s silly remark (page 305). “that the materialist conception of history is a view that tends towards fatalism,” is further evidence of his mysterious conception of Marxism.
According to the author, mighty repercussions in history might spring from trivial non-economic causes (page 307). This is confused thinking, for history can only be the outcome of what was important in its making. He then invites us to speculate on the consequences of the Tudor Queen Elizabeth marrying and having issue. Thus the Scotch James would not have come to the throne. The opportunity for the Union of England and Scotland thus missed, “Who knows,” he adds, “when it might have recurred.” The Union of Scotland and England was not decisively the outcome of James ruling both countries, but the need of an expanding capitalism to secure a single economic unit and the economic advantages that went with it. The accession of James did not prevent the quarrels and war that broke out between the two countries later, the product of commercial and economic jealousv and rivalry. Indeed, the Union was dissolved in 1660 and it was not till 1707 that the economic advantage due to the further economic development of a rising Capitalism was finally recognised by the respective interests. The Union then was a direct outcome of economic trends.
It might be of interest to note that the personalities and ideas of the catholic Stuarts had little effect on the course of history. The civil war precipitated by the personality of Charles I against an English Government well advanced in the stages of a mercantilist system was only an incident in English history. The triumph of the political revolution of the English bourgeoisie was assured by the economic revolution which had preceded it. Reactionary ideas may postpone but they cannot prevent economic development. The key to the understanding of the events of that time can only be found in the developmental economic changes which occurred in the womb of Tudor society and not to any hypothetical developments that might conceivably have taken place in the womb of one of its queens.
Mr. Gray, on page 307, then tells us “that factors such as religion and. patriotism attain to an independent existence in defiance of economic interests.” As this statement, like most of Mr. Gray’s statements, is uncomplicated by any evidence, we can only say that far from these factors being independent they can be shown to be closely interwoven into the economic fabric of ruling class needs and interests. Patriotism, for example, is itself the spurious by-product of nationalist sentiment, itself an ideological outcome of a long historical process, a process which consisted of the efforts of the early capitalist class to establish a geographical and political unit—the nation and strong central government—consistent with its own productive needs as against the sprawling ramshackle territories of feudalism. Thus the nation-states of Capitalism evolved. But the “free” young capitalist states of yesterday are groups of rival powers to-day. It is this economic rivalry that makes war as the final instrument of economic policy, inevitable. Patriotism in its modem guise becomes an indispensable ideological instrument for mobilizing the workers for willing sacrifice. A so-called identity of interests between exploiters and exploited is supposed to take place around abstractions like “pride of common possession,” love of country, etc. To the worker the issue is presented as a threat to life, liberty and family and social security. In face of the seeming threat to the common interest, powerful social impulses, themselves the age-long product of social evolution and invaluable in the struggling primitive communities, are invoked. Propaganda, press, radio, etc., then facilitate the process of subordinating these social impulses to ruling class interests.
Nevertheless Mr. Gray discovers, on page 331, that Marx has proved the most influential figure of the 19th century. We can only add that the ideas of Marx, dead this sixty years or more, are still a greater intellectual force than any of his motley crowd of critics— dead or alive.
We cannot deal with Gray’s so-called economic criticism for reasons of space, but in hoping to review Professor Schumpeter’s book, “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy,” we shall be covering much the same ground. In conclusion we can only warn our readers that the potency of Marx’s historical method must be judged by the way Marx himself used it and not how people who have not taken the trouble to study him seriously attempt to interpret it. Mr. Gray’s handling of it irresistibly reminds one of a small child playing with his grandfather’s sword.