2010s >> 2018 >> no-1367-july-2018

Cooking the Books: Quantity and Quality

A surreal exchange took place between the British and Russian ambassadors at a meeting of the UN Security Council on 11 April to discuss whether or not to bomb Syria (they didn’t decide to, but the US, France and Britain went ahead anyway).

The British ambassador, Karen Pierce, threw Lenin at her counterpart, taunting ‘to quote Lenin, quantity has a quality all of its own.’ It is not clear what the quote is supposed to mean. The most plausible interpretation is that it means simply that numbers make a difference, that more counts for more than less. Lenin may well have agreed with this trite statement though there’s no evidence that he uttered it, but so would nearly everybody else.

The Russian ambassador, Vasily Nebenzya, answered with what he said was another quote from Lenin that ‘it is better to have less but better.’ This time the quote was genuine as Lenin did indeed write an article Better Fewer, But Better.

The British ambassador retorted:

‘Karl Marx must be turning in his grave to see what the country that was founded on many of his principles was doing in the name of supporting Syria.’

No doubt Marx did turn in his grave at this suggestion that Russia had been founded on some of his principles. Two of these were that socialism involved the end of working for wages and could only be democratic; neither of which was the case in the former USSR.

But he would not have been surprised at Russia trying to establish and maintain a naval base in the Mediterranean, as it now has at Tartus on the coast of Syria. This is what Tsarist Russia had been trying to do in his day. He might have been surprised that even after the overthrow of Tsarism it wasn’t long before Russia was pursuing the same expansionist policy as the Tsars, more successfully in fact as for some 45 years Russia dominated the whole of Eastern Europe, including a part of Germany and most of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.

What made the exchange surreal was that neither took into account that, since 1991 and the collapse of the state capitalist regime there, Russia doesn’t claim any more to be ‘socialist’ or to be founded on Lenin’s let alone Marx’s principles. It is now openly capitalist like the West, the only difference being that the ruling class there are called oligarchs rather than billionaires.

Lenin did actually use the words ‘quantity’ and ‘quality’ together. He had read Hegel and was aware of the Hegelian ‘law of dialectics’ of changes in quantity leading to a change of quality. Engels gave the example of water changing from a liquid to a gas when the quantity of heat reached a certain point. This is more a description than a law, but has nothing to do with the statement that ‘quantity has a quality all of its own.’

Better Fewer, But Better was one of Lenin’s last articles (he died less than a year after writing it). In it, as in his other articles from 1923, he acknowledged that those who had said that socialism could not be established in Russia in 1917 because of its backwardness had been right, writing that Russia lacked ‘enough civilisation to enable it to pass straight to socialism.’ It was of course one of Marx’s principles that socialism could only be established when capitalism had created the material basis for it in the form of a technology capable of providing plenty for all and a working class capable of using it.