4 November 2009

Marx or Marxism?

[CU for Thursday, 5 November 2009]

Cyril Smith, late in life, and following the fall of the Soviet Union, felt himself free enough to challenge the principle Shibboleths of Marxism, including the word “Marxism” itself. Students may think that here and there, Smith did not quite succeed in resolving all his issues. For example, he approves Marx's aim of “development of communist consciousness on a mass scale” but disapproves, in another place, of what he considers to be Lenin’s determination to do the same thing “from outside” (This CU course will continue to examine that particular question). But otherwise, Cyril Smith succeeds admirably to hit and to knock down his targets, which are the dead wood and the rotten branches of 165 years and more of “theory”; and he does us a great service thereby.

We may quickly get close to the heart of the matter by first looking at Smith’s talk on “The Communist Manifesto After 150 Years” (linked below), and in particular at the section headed “The Subject of History”. In this section, the daily practice of communists (“to educate, organise and mobilise”) comes together with the most profound depths of philosophy. It begins:

“Marx's problem was to discover the possibility for humanity, individually and collectively, to take conscious charge of its own life, and to find this possibility within bourgeois society. Communism would mean that humans would cease to be prisoners of their social relations, and begin purposively to make their own history. In other words, we should cease to be mere objects and start to live as subjects.”

It is not unreasonable, nor is it an exaggeration, to say that this is the whole matter of Marx, Lenin, communism and the entire work of all the communists that have ever been. Therefore this section is suggested as the main reading and discussion text for this part, and the matter will be taken up again in the next part. Use the section on “The Subject of History” for discussion, because it is sufficient, but do also read the entire document, for the light that it sheds upon the Communist Manifesto of 1848.

Soon afterwards, in “Hegel, Economics, and Marx's Capital” (linked below) Smith took on Marx’s premier work, “Capital”, and showed how generations of Marxists have got it very wrong. In particular, Smith shows us how “Capital” is not about “economics” or about what even Great Lenin mistakenly called “Marx’s Economic Doctrine”, but is really what it says it is: “A Critique of Political Economy”. Equally mistaken, Smith shows, is the vulgar conception of the relation between Hegel’s work and Marx’s, and here Smith could have drawn support from E. V. Ilyenkov’s [Image, above] The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital”, published in the Soviet Union in 1960. No doubt, Smith is not the first to rediscover the real Marx, and he will not have been the last. Apart from giving us a very good reminder to pay proper attention to what we are reading, Smith is also validating the CU policy of reading the original work more than the commentators and the analysts (see, e.g., the CU Generic Course on Capital, Volume 1)

Smith is very effective in dealing with the dead phrase with a zombie existence, “dialectical materialism”, never used by Marx, invented by Kautsky and Plekhanov, and used as a brand by Stalin. The third linked item is Chapter 2, “How the Marxists Buried Marx” (linked below), from Cyril Smith’s “Marx at the Millennium”, published in 1998. On the third page of that chapter, Smith wrote:

“… it is appropriate to begin with one of the most widely circulated philosophical statements of the twentieth century. It starts like this:

“Dialectical materialism is the outlook of the Marxist-Leninist party. It is called dialectical materialism because its approach to the phenomena of nature, its method of apprehending them is dialectical, while its interpretation of the phenomena of nature, its conception of these phenomena, its theory, is materialistic.

“Historical materialism is the extension of the principles of dialectical materialism to the study of social life, an application of the principles of dialectical materialism to the phenomena of the life of society, to the study of society and of its history.”

“This stuff appeared in 1939. In my view, its method, standpoint, dogmatic style and conclusions are all utterly opposed to everything that Marx stood for.”

The author was J. V. Stalin. A little later Smith writes (and he could have been writing about “Dialego”):

“Let us bring ourselves to look briefly at the way the Stalinist catechism of 1939 hitched up a highly mechanised materialism with something called ‘dialectics’. On the one hand, ‘Nature, being, the material world, is primary, and mind, thought, is secondary.’ What does this word ‘primary’ mean? Does it mean ‘first in time’ or ‘first in importance’? Or does it mean that matter ‘causes’ changes in ‘mind’? Nobody can tell, and precisely this ambiguity conferred mysterious power.”

Smith shows how even Lenin had been fooled by the catch-phrase:

“In the preface to his 1908 book Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Lenin declared: ‘Marx and Engels scores of times termed their philosophical views dialectical materialism.’ He was so sure about this, that he felt no need to give any references.

“In fact, there is not one! Marx never employed the phrase in any of his writings. The term ‘dialectical materialism’ was introduced in 1891 by Plekhanov, in an article in Kautsky’s Neue Zeit. He thought wrongly, I believe — that he was merely adapting it from Engels’s usage in Anti-Duhring and Ludwig Feuerbach.

Cyril Smith has done a good job. There are plenty of comrades who still cling to the thoughtless formula, “dialectical materialism”, and they give support and solidarity to each other. Smith can help those others who would wish to liberate themselves from the dead hands of Plekhanov, Kautsky and Stalin.

Cyril Smith also does not spare Trotsky, with whom he appears to have had some sympathy. The most serious deficiency he finds in Trotsky, however, is not any of Trotsky’s sins of omission or dissembling, but Trotsky’s lack of philosophy, and his failure to get any of his followers to make up his own deficiency. While Lenin made great progress in philosophy, Trotsky failed altogether, writes Smith.

What Smith is saying is that in the last analysis, it was the inability to overcome the Philistine, Stalin, through full command of philosophy, which led to the degradation of the Russian Revolution and its eventual reversal. Philosophy is the keystone. Without it, the other stones are bound to fall. Smith says of the Trotskyists:

“But they never had the theoretical resources to penetrate to its philosophical core. The best they could do was to show that Stalinist policies and distortions were contrary to the decisions of Lenin’s party and the teachings of ‘Marxism’.” The Trotskyists were trapped within the same hall of mirrors that they had helped Stalin to construct.

The practical work of philosophy is, crucially, to weed out, or clip off, the words, dead of meaning, that encumber and trip us in our work; or otherwise, if possible, to restore their freshness. Some of those words in our present time might be: “hegemony”, “accumulation”, and “elements of socialism”.

The fourth linked item is about “Marxism”, whether there ever was such a thing, and if so, whether Marx was a “Marxist”.

The full Cyril Smith archive on MIA can be found here.

Click on these links:

The Communist Manifesto after 150 years, 1998, Smith (8285 words)

Hegel, Economics, and Marx's Capital, 1999, Cyril Smith (7803 words)

How The Marxists Buried Marx, 1998, Smith (13629 words)

Karl Marx and the Origins of ‘Marxism’, 1998, Smith (4670 words)


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