Book Reviews: ‘Classical Marxism’, ‘A Devil’s Chaplain’, & ‘Branded’

‘Classical Marxism’. By David Renton. New Clarion Press. 2002.

There is a tradition of ideas that can be termed Classical Leninism. According to this tradition, classical Marxism was betrayed by a number of key leaders until the collapse of the Second International in the First World War, leaving the way clear for Lenin and the Bolsheviks to carry the flag of socialist revolution. This is the “Great Man” theory of history, and even though this book includes two women in its collection of biographies, the leader fixation remains the same.

Marx played a prominent role in the formation of the International Working Men’s Association (1864-1876), which became better known as the First International. This was an international federation of working class organisations based on the principle that the emancipation of the working class could only be achieved by the working class itself. Renton argues that the Second International (1889-1914) was set up as an explicitly Marxist organisation but went on to distort Marx’s ideas to suit their own purposes. This was the era of “classical Marxism” and Karl Kautsky was its leading theoretician. Kautsky was the “Pope” of Marxism in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Second International. He is the main bogeyman in classical Leninism.

But there can be no doubt that Kautsky did distort Marx, in particular his support for reformism. Kautsky, Lenin and Renton are agreed that parliamentary action must be reformist. However, this is not Marx’s conclusion, as he wrote in 1881 of workers’ struggles being “pursued by all the means which the proletariat has at its disposal, including universal suffrage, thus transformed from the instrument of trickery which it has been up till now into an instrument of emancipation” ( and other writings by Marx. There is no reason why parliamentary institutions could not be used by a class-conscious socialist majority to win power for the socialist revolution, and this is the position adopted by the Socialist Party at its formation in June 1904. Delegates were sent from the Socialist Party to the Amsterdam Congress of the Second International in August 1904, but, after seeing the reformism rampant within it, soon decided to have no more to do with it. When the leaders of the SPD voted for war credits in 1914 it came as a shock to Lenin and at first he refused to believe the news. The Socialist Party, on the other hand, had long warned of SPD support for militarism (see
The fact is the Second International, the Third (Leninist) International (1919-1943) and the Fourth (Trotskyite) International (1938 onwards) have all distorted Marx for their own purposes. The main, but by no means only distortion by Lenin concerns the vanguard party. Lenin argued that workers were incapable of self-emancipation and instead must be freed from above by professional revolutionaries who have the workers’ best interests at heart. (Renton points out that this is similar to Kautsky’s position.) But Marx and Engels profoundly disagreed, as they made clear in a circular to the SPD in 1879:

“At the founding of the International we expressly formulated the battle cry: The emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class itself. Hence we cannot co-operate with men who say openly that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves, and must first be emancipated from above by philanthropic members of the upper and lower middle classes” (

So what is left of Marxism? Renton prefaces his book with a quote from an incredulous Trotsky: “None of those who propose to renounce Bolshevism as an historically bankrupt tendency has indicated any other course.” The Socialist Party has argued that the answer is to be found in the self-activity of the working class. For as Rosa Luxemburg wrote in Leninism or Marxism?: “Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee” and “The working class demands the right to make its mistakes and learn the dialectic of history”(


‘A Devil’s Chaplain’. By Richard Dawkins. Weidenfield & Nicolson, 2003.

The ironic title of this collection of essays comes from a letter Darwin wrote to a friend commenting on his own work, Origin of the Species: “What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write . . .” Most of the essays here concern Darwin’s intellectual legacy. Dawkins is probably the world’s foremost advocate of Darwinism – or as he prefers to call it, “Neo-Darwinism.” His uncompromising defence of scientific method and scorn for irrationally held beliefs has earned Dawkins some notoriety, and some reviewers of this book have been dismayed by what they perceive as his arrogance. But what is offensive to some is refreshingly outspoken to others.

The core of Darwinism, argues Dawkins, is the “theory that evolution is guided in adaptively nonrandom directions by the nonrandom survival of small random hereditary changes.” Several of the essays here defend and expand on that theory. But at the same time as Dawkins supports Darwinism as a science, he states “I am a passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to politics and how we should conduct our human affairs.” This corrects the impression which may have been given to some by his earlier book The Selfish Gene that we are all somehow prisoners of our genes. He denies ever holding a belief in genetic determinism in the sense that genes determine social behaviour.

Dawkins’s withering criticism is mainly directed at religion and associated beliefs. Yet it is important to realise that Dawkins is not being gratuitous; where irrational beliefs affect us all they should be subject to the closest scrutiny. Dawkins tells the story of a TV debate he had with a cleric (later elevated to the House of Lords). The cleric refused to shake hands with any women in the studio for fear that they might be menstruating and so be, in religious terms, “unclean.” Dawkins’s comment is typical Dawkinsism: “They took the insult more graciously than I would have, and with the ‘respect’ always bestowed on religious prejudice – but no other kind of prejudice”. Dawkins is an honorary member of the Rationalist Press Association, and it’s safe to say he is no socialist, though he did come out publicly against the recent Gulf War.


‘Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers’. By Alissa Quart. Arrow.

“Catch them young” has always been the slogan of those peddling religious ideas, but it has now been taken on board by people in charge of marketing in capitalist corporations. As Alissa Quart shows in this interesting if sometimes superficial book, clothing and cosmetics companies in particular are increasingly targeting teenagers and ‘tweens’ (nine-to-thirteen year-olds).

The idea is that youngsters who develop an attachment for a particular brand (Gap, for instance) will continue to buy it as they get older. Thus money spent on advertising to kids will pay big dividends over the years ahead. Brands and logos become crucial in adolescent peer groups: if you don’t have the right bag or shoes, then you may have trouble being accepted by your would-be friends.

But how to advertise? Teenagers spend less time watching TV these days than a few years ago, preferring to surf the web or play video games. So, while TV advertising remains important, it is being rivalled by sneakier ideas such as product placement in films. In Legally Blonde, for instance, it is clear which make of nail polish and shampoo the main character uses. Another avenue for publicity involves planting logos in video games: a skateboarding game may contain logos for a company that makes boards and clothing, or the ‘characters’ in the game may skate past one of the company’s shops.

Teen peer-to-peer marketing is another ploy, with teenagers being ’employed’ as unpaid salespeople, to spread the idea of a particular brand to their friends and provide feedback on proposed new lines. At the same time, parents work longer hours and so have less time with their children, who they may buy off by spending more money on them. As a result, the brand has become a kind of surrogate parent:

“Teenagers have come to feel that consumer goods are their friends – and that the companies selling products to them are trusted allies. After all, they inquire after the kids’ opinions with all the solicitude of an ideal parent. Tell us how best to sell you our products, they ask. If you do, we will always love you.”

There may be a bit of exaggeration here, but it remains a pretty dreadful condemnation of the pressures that commodity-based society places on workers as both producers and consumers.

I must confess that I found parts of the book barely comprehensible – I’d like to think that this is due to its American emphasis rather than my being an old fogey. Quart supplies a preface for this edition, where she discusses the extent to which US-derived marketing ideas have spread to Britain. Schools, for instance, often house subsidised vending machines from Coke and so on, while the Walkers’ Crisps campaign involving “free” textbooks has boosted their brand rating. On the whole, though, things are not quite as commercialised here – not yet, anyway, but there is little doubt about the way that capitalism is going and about how it is driven by marketing considerations rather than any satisfying of human needs.


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