From the September 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard
Below we print a letter published in the Belfast Sunday News in reply to an article by Belfast city councillor Paddy Devlin in his weekly column.
Over the last hundred years the ideas of Karl Marx have been distorted and confused, both by those who claim to have put his theories into practice in their police state dictatorships and by those who see visions of that old anti-Marxist, Stalin, every time they attempt to criticise the views of Marx.
It is quite understandable that most workers who live in countries which do not claim to be Marxist look at the state capitalism of the so- called “Marxist world" and conclude that if that’s liberation, then its achievement would not be worth the effort.
To dismiss Marxism on the grounds that it has been tried and failed is to misunderstand the revolutionary message of Marx which, as Paddy Devlin states correctly, is to be found in his conception of history. For Marx, history is a process in which humans actively create their own conditions, doing so, at all times, within the limitations which existing economic conditions make possible. History is not given to us, like a mystery gift from above, but is made by us. History is not simply a story of the past, but a vision of the future. All historians before Marx — and too many since — believed than humans were the subjects of history, often going under the alias of God or The Invisible Hand: Marx recognised that humanity would only be liberated when it used its ability to comprehend and design history.
The revolutionary point in Marxism is its proposition that mass human consciousness (our ability to think, plan and fashion our own behaviour) can transform society. Revolution, in the Marxist sense, as opposed to the anachronistic idea of barricade insurrection, can only be enacted by those who reject being the victims of history — the millions in the dole queues, the inhabitants of the slums, those who feel threatened by the bullet or the bomb, the wage slaves who are forced to spend most of their lives creating profits for the capitalist owners of industry: it is when such people, who constitute a majority of the world population, decide to take society and make it into their own that history becomes an active, revolutionary product.
It must be apparent that there is a fundamental difference between the revolutionary conception of history advanced by Marxists and the ideologies which dominated the so-called Marxist revolutions in Russia and China. There is a diametrical opposition between Marx’s view that working class emancipation must be the democratic act of the vast majority of workers and the view of Lenin, the architect of the Bolshevik seizure of power, whose elitist view was that it would take five hundred years for the workers to be educated to understand the need for socialism, and in the meantime it was up to leaders to create history “on the workers’ behalf’. The Leninist Left has about as much confidence in the ability of workers to determine our own futures and run our own lives as Mrs Thatcher does: they are in the leadership business, calling upon their human flock to follow' them on a mystery tour into a future which looks more and more like the present the closer you get to it.
It is its call to conscious action which makes Marxism more than an academic conception of history, to be debated by those who are lost in the study of the past. It is precisely this active, vital feature of Marx’s materialist conception of history which Paddy Devlin excludes from his explanation; to do so is like trying to analyse road transport without any reference to the existence of the drivers.
Paddy Devlin’s picture of Marxism is a mechanistic one of society automatically passing through stages — of change without changers and revolutions without revolutionaries. Is this because his enthusiasm for Marxism collapses when the need for majority working class consciousness and democratic political action becomes the inevitable practical consequence of the theoretical validity of Marxist history? Could it be that Paddy Devlin, like so many others on the Left, regards the prospect of the revolution, which he theoretically recognises the need for, as being beyond the grasp of other workers?
It is not worth taking up Paddy Devlin’s claim that "the introduction of comprehensive social services and full employment by Labour" have weakened the Marxist case; to my knowledge there has never been a Labour government which has created full employment and neither can their second-rate state charity be described as comprehensive social service.
The evidence that there is still a need for Marxism is that we are living in an age of mass social discontent.
Socialist Party of Gt. Britain
Published in the Belfast newspaper, The Sunday News on 19 June.