Correspondence on John Strachey

5th March, 1959.


The Editorial Committee


“The Socialist Standard”


London, S.W.4.


Dear Comrades.


In his writings prior to Contemporary Capitalism John Strachey had displayed his lack of understanding of Marxism and his desire to tailor the theory and practice of “Socialism” so that it fitted both Social-Democracy and Leninism. In Contemporary Capitalism he surpassed himself and asserted that. “Marx in fact taught that not only was it impossible for the wage earners to raise their standard of life under capitalism: he went further and announced that their standard must steadily decline.” (Page 101.) Page 95 has it that Marx. “ . . . predicted that real wages could never rise above subsistence so long as capitalist relations of production continued . . .” and page 90 assures us Marx held that, “. . . the standard of life of the mass of the population . . . never rises; indeed, as we shall see, Marx believed that it would actually fall below subsistence.” Strachey is quite dogmatic about this. He tells us that, “The crucial passages leave no doubt that Marx took this view”, then calmly stating, “It may be sufficient to quote two of them . . . ” (page 101) he displays for us the famous “pauperisation ” quote from the Communist Manifesto and the equally famous “increasing misery” quote from Capital, Vol. I. which in the faulty Eden & Cedar Paul translation (dealt with by Jack Fitzgerald and Riazanov, Socialist Standard. Vol. 1932) becomes happily for Strachey “increasing poverty.”


The real significance of these two passages has been dealt with in the Standard and it has been shown that they lend no support whatsoever to Strachey’s case, but what of the other “crucial passages.” the ones that Strachey doesn’t quote, but keeps up his sleeves? The truth is that these other passages just don’t exist, that Strachey is unable to advance any proof to back up his wild claims, that Strachey was, when he wrote this book, on his own admission, ignorant of the real position taken up by Marx on the living standard question which is in fact the very reverse of the position fastened on him by Mr. Strachey.
Mr. Strachey’s admissions were made publicly at the Transport Hall, Cardiff, where on February 10th, 1957, he held, under the auspices of the N.C.L.C.. a one-day school to discuss the scope and findings of his Contemporary Capitalism. I took to that school all the works of Marx and Engels available in English at that date, thus making sure that any defence offered by Mr. Strachey could be accurately examined on the spot and thus eliminating the chance of an alibi based on “writings not on hand.”


During the question and discussion periods I gave Mr. Strachey the opportunity to prove to the hundred or more people present that his analysis of Marxism was correct. With every book that he could need to prove his case on hand, Mr. Strachey was unable to produce any evidence to back up his assertions other than the two quotes already mentioned. The celebrated “crucial passages” failed to materialise, not even a clue could be given as to their whereabouts!


When I read out to the school the many passages in which Marx clearly shows that the working class could increase their living standards under capitalism, Strachey admitted that he was not acquainted with any of the extracts quoted. He stated that the passages I had advanced showed that Marx had held views contrary to the ones attributed to him in Contemporary Capitalism. He also said that it looked as if he had over-emphasised (!) one aspect of Marx’s ideas and neglected others. He was also not aware of the faulty nature of the Eden and Cedar Paul translation of Capital, Volume 1, from which his chief piece of “evidence” was taken. Since my quotes were mainly from Wage Labour and Capital and Capital, Vol. 1 (the majority of these quotes can be found in the January, 1957. S.S.), which are works as basic as one can get. Mr. Strachey s admissions arc pretty damning.


Later, in the presence of the organizer of the school. Mr. Strachey complimented me on my “Marxian scholarship” and speaking of Marx said: “It looks as if I’ve done the Old Man an injustice.” Scholarship is an odd word to describe a mere basic knowledge of a subject and it is intriguing to think of a term which, continuing this same picturesque tradition, will describe Mr. Strachey’s lack of knowledge!


I was prepared to wait for the promised second volume by Strachey before writing anything about this encounter, but I now learn that Mr. Strachey has been acquainted with the articles written by E. W. (JanuaryFebruaryMarch, April. .S.S..) on Contemporary Capitalism and is trying to dismiss their incontrovertible arguments as mere differences in “interpretation” of Marxian theory. This is dishonest of John Strachey. It is not the position he took up at Cardiff and it is not a position that he can maintain if he is bold enough to meet the Socialist Party in public debate. Though not a member of the Socialist Party at the time of this meeting with Strachey, the position I then took up is the same as that held by the Party. I therefore challenge Mr. Strachey to meet a representative of the Socialist Party in public debate and I can promise him that he will be very fairly treated, though 1 cannot promise that his cup of happiness will be overflowing or even full.


Yours fraternally.


Melvin C. Harris.