2000s >> 2002 >> no-1170-february-2002

Book Reviews

Is the working class still the agent of socialism?

If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? By G A Cohen. Harvard University Press, 2001.

In 1978 Cohen wrote a basically sound (if tedious) book called Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence. In this series of lectures given in 1997 but only published as a paperback last year he explains why he now thinks Marx was wrong after all.

He claims that Marx’s agency for the socialist revolution was the “industrial” working class which would form the majority of the population but that this has not come about because of the rise of modern technology which has resulted in the “industrial” working class forming a shrinking proportion of the working population. However, Marx was well aware that the development of the division of labour and specialisation would lead to the development of a section of the working class not involved in direct factory work.

When workers are trained to perform certain tasks for example, they have to be taught and instructed, and this involves teachers and instructors. The teacher or instructor can teach or instruct inside the factory or outside it in a school or college. It is absurd to regard the teacher as an industrial worker when employed inside the factory but a “middle class” professional when employed in a school or a college. The function they perform is exactly the same and so also is their relationship to the means of production – they are still teaching or training future workers and they are still reliant on a wage or salary in order to survive.

As industry becomes more complex and as technology develops there is a need for an increasing army of educators, organisers, researchers and the like. As a result the proportion of “front line”, factory workers shrinks. This change in the composition of the working population does not alter one iota their relationship to the productive wealth of society, nor does it alter the fact that it would be in their interest to overthrow capitalism. There is no justification for regarding factory workers as being exploited whilst teachers, lecturers, organisers, researchers, etc are able to escape this exploitation. It is true that most of these “white collar” workers would deny that they are being exploited but so also would most factory workers.

Cohen claims that workers in advanced industrial countries are no longer exploited (not that he defines what he means by exploitation). His claim is that exploitation now takes place in the factories and sweatshops of underdeveloped countries and that only these fit Marx’s description of the industrial proletariat. However, he goes on, these again cannot be regarded as the agents of revolutionary change as they do not constitute the majority of the population in these countries because they are swamped in a sea of peasants. He does not pay any attention to the fact that the “exploitation” of his workers in the underdeveloped world has led to the undermining of the incomes of factory workers in the advanced countries.

He concludes from this that there is no hope of a revolutionary transformation of capitalist society and that only a development of altruistic attitudes can usher in a better and different world. He can only come to this pathetic conclusion by either ignoring or not understanding the capitalist system.

Most liberal political philosophers who claim to strive for “a just and equal society” view modern society as being stratified from top to bottom into different income and status groups (“social classes”) and that it can only be a question of redistributing wealth more “fairly” within these groups. Other political philosophers see this as posing a potentially serious problem in that it could lead to a slacking of effort on the part of the top strata as this could affect their efficiency and effectiveness “in the pursuit of the general good”. In other words, that there is still a need for some inequality in order to provide an incentive for those able and willing to take on demanding, responsible positions in society.

Volumes and volumes are written on this theme and writers like Cohen demonstrate their learning and cleverness by finding loopholes in each others’ theories and developing their own irrelevant versions of the same. What they have to say and write has no bearing on what is happening in the real world. For the real world is not merely made up of a population stratified into different income groups. It is true that the working class can be divided into different income groups. But between these groups there is no direct opposition, tension and conflict – they are just groups of people having different characteristics in terms of income, education and status.

The real world is a world in which the population is divided into two main groups obtaining their incomes in distinct and completely different ways. One group obtains its income from the ownership of the productive wealth of the world and the other group obtains its income from the sale of its labour power to the owners of productive wealth. The first group has to attempt to continually increase the productive wealth its owns by continually revolutionising their productive techniques and by attempting to reduce or limit the income of the non-owners. To do this they have to accumulate as much wealth as possible under given market conditions. The whole system depends upon, and is defined by, this compulsive need of capitalists to accumulate wealth. To think that it is possible to intervene or halt this process through any system of redistribution of incomes – either through taxation or “rich” egalitarian political philosophers foregoing part of their incomes – is unrealistic nonsense. The social system such philosophers wish to reform bears no resemblance to the social system they conjure up in their analyses.

Nowhere is Cohen’s pathetic position more clearly demonstrated than in his belief that he and his fellow philosophers are “rich”. They are not rich even by comparison with other salary earners; when compared with the incomes of the capitalist class their incomes are pitiful. What is more, like most workers they have to consume their incomes in order to survive at the prevailing standards of comfort of their peers. The individual consumption of the capitalists, on the other hand, although often colossal when compared to the individual consumption of workers, is normally only a small proportion of their income as they are compelled to accumulate most of it in order to survive as capitalists.
Lewis Hopkin

Lenin the man

Lenin: A Biography By Robert Service, Macmillan, London, 2001.

A good, single volume on Lenin is difficult to find; forgive the truism, but the man has tended to be portrayed either as a secular saint or as a vicious, evil psychopath, a sort of left-wing Prince of Darkness. Ten years on from the disintegration of the Soviet bloc through popular revolution and economic stagnation perhaps a cooler assessment of Lenin can be undertaken. The historiography of the Revolutionary and Soviet periods during these ten years – at least in the West and in English, with which the current reviewer is most familiar – have been dominated by right-wing reactionaries, American cold warriors and the descendants of those Russian social classes who were dispossessed by the March and November revolutions. Robert Service, by no means sympathetic to revolutionary socialism, sets himself the task of striking a balance. He is one of the first Western historians to have access to newly opened personal archives of the Ulianov family held in Moscow, and the book deserves attention because of this. The resulting biography is interesting and useful, but at the same time demonstrates the inherent weakness of the form.

Indeed, both the reader with little prior knowledge of Lenin’s life and thought, as well as the historical trivia junkie, will find much to please them. Service vividly recreates Lenin’s childhood, early life and pre-1917 exile, demonstrating well the factors that influenced his social and intellectual development. Vladimir Illich was from a comfortable family of bourgeois outsiders with Tartar and Jewish as well as Russian origins. He grew up in Simbirsk on the Volga, and the Ulianov family were on the social and geographical periphery of the European Russian empire. Elder brother Alexander, a Revolutionary Populist, was executed after his role in actively supporting the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. This gave a personal ingredient to the burgeoning intellectual and political revolt of the precocious Vladimir. On the death of his father Illya in 1886 he became de facto head of the family. His mother, two sisters and younger brother remained close throughout their lives, all three siblings becoming dedicated Bolsheviks themselves. Service develops a fascinating profile of Lenin through his years of exile in Siberia and Western Europe, then later through the October Revolution and into power. He was prolific, intelligent, strong willed, totally dedicated to his cause – the model of the “Professional Revolutionary” he demanded of others. He was also prone to nervous exhaustion and stress, and his massive, self-imposed workload contributed to his lifelong ill health and early death at fifty four.

And so on. Perhaps more interesting, on a deeper level, is the formation of Lenin’s ideas and politics. Here Service correctly identifies Lenin’s enduring fascination with the tradition of Russian populist terrorism, and its influence on his praxis. In particular, Lenin was influenced by Peter Tkachev, the populist who in turn was influenced by the Jacobinism of the French Revolution. Tkachev called for an elite vanguard of revolutionaries, organised centrally, to violently seize power and create an authoritarian regime. As Service points out, in his own writings Lenin was fairly coy in admitting this, citing instead Marx, Engels and Plekhanov. Nevertheless, the influence is apparent in Lenin’s conception of how a revolutionary party should be organised, and what its relationship to the working class ought to be.

Service maintains a good balance between describing Lenin’s thought and preserving the overall chronological structure of the book. His accounts of polemics with other Russian (and foreign) Social Democrats, such as Plekhanov, Trotsky and Kautsky are useful and instructive. Perhaps one of the best instances of this is Service’s description of the disputations within the Bolshevik party over their actual task once they had come to power: that of building state capitalism. Lenin had been clear about this even before the October Revolution. Service points out how Lenin saw the essence of “socialism” as “account keeping and supervision”. One could also add the utter suppression of the working class and peasantry.

The major limitation of this volume, as with the vast majority of historical biography, is that it can fall into the “Great Man” theory of history. The importance of one person is inflated, thereby simplifying and sometimes distorting a description of the historical process. This is occasionally a problem with the present volume. Unlike Services earlier, 1979 classic study The Bolshevik Party in Revolution, 1917-23: A Study In Organisational Change, the Lenin biography tends to focus on the major personalities within the Russian Social Democratic movement. As a result, the description of pre-revolutionary feuds and disputes are superb, but the portions of the book describing events after Lenin’s return to Russia in April 1917 are flat, not putting the thoughts of individuals into any wider context. A working knowledge of the general background is therefore advantageous for the reader to glean the most from the book.

Having said that, such a wider context probably wasn’t in Service’s remit. This biography sets itself the tasks of humanising Lenin and freeing the story of his life from demonisers and sycophants. There can be no doubt it succeeds in this brilliantly. The best one-volume account of Lenin’s life the present reviewer has ever come across, and well worth any reader investigating further.

Robert Worden

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