Book Reviews: ‘Marx’, ‘The State to Come’, & ‘New Interventions’
Marx without Lenin
Marx by Terry Eagleton. The Great Philosophers, Phoenix, 1997.
Inscribed on the headstone of Karl Marx’s grave in London is the assertion: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”. This was a criticism by Marx, not of philosophy in general, but rather of the German ideology prevalent in certain circles in early nineteenth century Germany. Criticism of the philosophy of that time was also a criticism of the society which gave rise to it. In much the same way as “post-modern” thought today tells us that subjective interpretation is all there is, this is symptomatic of a deeper social malaise. Marx’s action-orientated theory provides an understanding of, and contribution towards, human and social development.
An important feature of Marx’s social theory is the way freedom is conceived as self-realisation. Capitalism robs us of those things which make us truly human: socialism is the re-appropriation of those powers alienated from us under class society. Eagleton outlines the key relationships between production, labour and ownership in Marx’s thinking and offers us Marx’s vision of an alternative society:
“If the means of production were to be commonly owned and democratically controlled, then the world we create together would belong to us in common, and the self-production of each could become part of the self-realisation of all.”
It is to Eagleton’s great credit that he looks at Marx without Leninist spectacles, even though at one point he repeats the Leninist distortion that for Marx socialism was a transitional society between capitalism and communism. At £2 for 53 pages you could look for yourself.
Reformists never learn
The State to Come by Will Hutton. Vintage Press, 1997. £4.99.
Reformists never learn. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Observer editor Will Hutton still claims that societies can shape capitalism “to meet their wider goals. Different ethical values apart from the market ethic must be protected . . . Human values need to be incorporated into the core of market processes . . . to produce a kinder, more tolerable society . . .” But if this is possible, why has it never happened up to now, at least not for any length of time?
The fact is that capitalism can’t be reshaped so as to put human values before market values. It has to put profits first and its economic mechanisms impose this on any government which may have other thoughts. Since 1973 it has been even worse for reformists. The end of the post-war boom and the period that has followed of slow growth, punctuated by recurring slumps, has meant that capitalist states have been in almost permanent fiscal crisis. They have not had the money to introduce any new social reforms and have been compelled to cut back on existing ones. The Blair government’s action against single mothers and their future plans against the sick and disabled is merely a continuation of this. They are acting as all governments of capitalism are forced to these days.
Hutton, who is a Labour supporter (this short book was written to urge people to vote Labour in the last election), is at the same time an open supporter of capitalism. He wants Britain to “develop its own specific capitalist model” and “to build a capitalist structure that can regulate itself better”. He realises that this is all that Labour aims at too but has his doubts as to whether it wants to go even that far. Labour, he says, “wishes to reshape British capitalism-a little” but the danger is that “Labour will find in office that it governs as a nicer group of Conservatives”. Whether Blair and his band of hypocrites (particularly the one who shopped his son to the police) are nicer than the other arrogant lot is a matter of opinion or remains to be seen but, in any event, is irrelevant in that it is not the personal attitudes of ministers that count but what the workings of the capitalist system forces them to do. It is capitalism that is the enemy and not the particular politicians who run it.
And capitalism can no more be reformed or reshaped so as to serve human rather than market values as Hutton deludedly imagines than a leopard can change its spots.
New Interventions, Vol 8 , No 2, Winter 1997-98, PO Box 485 Coventry, CV5 6ZP. £2.
This issue of a Trotskyoid journal is devoted to a reappraisal of Bolshevism on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. But, instead of the expected praise of the Bolsheviks and a call for the 1917 experience to be repeated in this country, most of the contributors expressed doubts about whether the Bolsheviks did the right thing in 1917 and the years that followed.
Veteran Trotskyist Harry Ratner writes that Russia remained a genuine soviet regime (a workers’ democracy) for only “a few weeks” after November 1917 (he says October 1917–Trotskyists still use the old Julian calendar). After that, the Bolsheviks established their own dictatorship. He wonders if it might not have been better if some sort of broad front democratic government had been allowed to emerge from the elections to the Constituent Assembly, and asks:
“So were Kautsky and the Mensheviks right to oppose the October Revolution from the start, as an attempt prematurely to go beyond the ‘bourgeois’ stage of the Russian revolution? Were they right to declare a socialist working-class revolution in a backward Russia premature and doomed to failure because the conditions for socialism were not ripe-both as regards the economic base and the social and cultural level of the working class? On the face of it, subsequent history would seem to justify them”.
His reply is even more surprising:
“All one can say is that the ‘workers’ state’ that was born in October 1917 was premature and infected from infancy. Unfortunately, as it degenerated, it infected the working-class movement internationally, and proved an obstacle on the road to socialism. My old comrade, the late Alex Acheson, who joined the movement in the 1930s and remained a committed Trotskyist till his death last year, once told me: ‘It might have been better if the October Revolution had never occurred'”.
Another contributor, Hillel Ticktin, editor of Critique, tackles the question “What if the Left Opposition had Taken Power?”. After beginning with the preposterous statement that “the Russian Revolution is possibly the most important event so far in human history”, his conclusion is that they too would have established a dictatorship that would have “had nothing to do with socialism” but would not have been as bad as Stalin’s. He asks himself the same questions as Harry Ratner: “Do we wait until we have a revolution that is totally democratic?”, “Are those who argue that in 1917 the means of production were not yet sufficiently developed then correct?”. His answer is not very clear, especially not to the first one.
Al Richardson, editor of Revolutionary History, says that even “workers’ state” is “a term that does not appear in Marx at all, to my knowledge”. Only Ian Birchall of the SWP claims the mantle of true Bolshevism. It is his party that seems to him to “come nearest to being a legitimate successor to the essential spirit of Bolshevism”. He’s right. That’s why they should be opposed.
Two other articles, one by a Socialist Party member on “Why the Russian Revolution Wasn’t a Proletarian Revolution”, the other by Alastair Mitchell on “1917 and All That”, have no time at all for Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks.
The same issue also contains a lengthy reply by another Socialist Party member to an ignorant criticism of the Socialist Party in the previous issue by Ted Crawford who supplies an equally ignorant (in all senses of the word) reply.
Of course it wasn’t just Kautsky, Martov and the Mensheviks who warned that conditions in Russia in 1917 weren’t ripe for a socialist revolution there. We did too. In fact anyone who had read and understood Marx knew this. We know people don’t like being told “we told you so”. So we shall resist the temptation.