Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Misplacing of Marx (1956)

From the November 1956 issue of the Socialist Standard

The ruling class, through its defenders, have tried many methods over the years to kill the influence of his work, but, like a ghost, Marx continues to haunt them. In the early years he was ignored, but the penetration, power and pungency of his outlook compelled opponents to take notice of him. Then followed bitter attacks upon him and his views, but social development took the point out of these attacks and revealed the ignorance and malevolence of the attackers.

Since then Marx and his work has been approached from different angles, in the endeavour to remove the sting. He has been patronised on the plea that he was quite an energetic and fruitful thinker, but, alas, his theories were all wrong! That what he said was perhaps justified in his day, but times have changed. That his criticism of Capitalism was searching and true in his day, but Capitalism has completely changed since then. And so on. But it was no good. In spite of the claims that his theories were all wrong, and that no reputable economist or historian accepted them, time has shown that Capitalism is still fundamentally the same old Capitalism, and quotations from his writings reveal that his criticisms, his theories, and his conclusions are as applicable today as they were when they were written long ago.

In an editorial in The Times Literary Supplement (21st September, 1956) there is another approach to the work of Marx. He has become respectable, but the sting has been removed.

The editorial is concerned with a new book on Marx by T. B. Bottomore and M. Maximilien Rabel. The editorial tells us:
“The purpose of the editors is to exhibit Marx as, first and foremost, not a philosopher or an economist, but a student of society, and to show how much in the modem development of social theories is due to the impetus derived from Marx.”
The editorial then claims that Hegel was the root of Marxism: “Had Saint-Simon never written a line, the broad outlines of Marxism might still have been the same: without Hegel Marxism could not have existed.” This sweeping statement is nonsense; it ignores the fact that all past thinkers and practical movements played important parts in what ultimately became the Marxian outlook. The philosophers, from Aristotle to Feuerbach; the pre-French Revolutionary writers who were lumped 
together as the Encyclopaedists; economists from Sir Wm. Petty to Ricardo, including Benjamin Franklin; and finally the Utopian Socialists, whose influence, in spite of the editorial, may have been the most important in shaping the direction of Marx’s outlook.

The editorial then goes on:
“Once this reservation [relating to Hegel's influence] is made, however, the case for Marx's influence on the development of sociological thinking is overwhelmingly made out.”
This is a clever way of putting it; not that he was right in his outlook, but that be had a great influence in the development of modern thinking—but they refrain from enlightening us on the subject of modern thinking.

The real kick, however, is contained in the last few lines of the editorial:
"And it is possible to pay tribute to Marx's role in the formation of modern social theory without necessarily subscribing to all his conclusions. Few of the leading sociologists of the last fifty years have in fact been Marxists. But the study of society would not have attained the stature, or assumed the form, which it has reached to-day without the many-sided insights which Marx brought to it.”
There we have it! He was not a bad old chap; did a lot of good work in his time, but, of course, we have progressed far beyond him now! Thus he can be safely canonised and forgotten.

But the devil of it is "He’s dead, but be won’t lie down! ”

Lost Illusion (1949)

Book Review from the August 1949 issue of the Socialist Standard

"Lost Illusion,” by Freda Utley (Allen & Unwin,  237 pages, 10s. 6d.), tells of her conversion to the  Communist Party in 1926, of her marriage to a Russian and her life in Russia for many years, of her disillusionment and eventually of the arrest without charge or public trial of her husband. Except that she received a postcard in 1937 from a Siberian concentration camp she has never heard from him since his arrest and all her efforts to get information from the Russian authorities have produced no result whatever. She says that she refrained from publishing the story all these years lest it should harm him, but she assumes now that he must be dead, or, if still alive, that he no longer has any chance of release whether she publishes the facts or maintains silence.

Those whose interest in the book is in this tragic personal story will probably be well satisfied and will doubtless accept the tribute to her sincerity paid by her friend of many years Bertrand Russell, who contributes, an Introduction. If, however, they have the curiosity to wonder what led the authoress through her various political enthusiasms they may well be puzzled, as indeed she is herself. She writes: “ Looking back on that distant time, I now wonder, did I really believe it? 1 suppose I did, or I should never have thrown up my job in the capitalist world and gone off with my husband to take part, as we thought, in the construction of Socialism.” (p. 17). Elsewhere (p. 11) she quotes what Bertrand Russell said to her when she was toying with the idea that it was all Stalin’s fault and that perhaps Lenin or Trotsky would have changed things. All Russell said was: “ Will you never learn and stop being romantic about politics?” The truth appears to be that in spite of having had what among the rich would be called a good education, and in spite of her economic and political studies, her changes of political faith have never been much more than violent emotional reactions against whatever unpleasant facts forced themselves on her attention. So when she came up against the sordid cruelty of British capitalism in the General Strike she suddenly had a vision that strange, faraway Russia, with its Communist Government, was different and must therefore be noble and beautiful. It is not clear from the book exactly where Freda Utley’s present political sympathies lie but we do know that it is the fate of many who approach politics in this emotional way to end up as cynical upholders of things as they are.

Socialists who read “Lost Illusion” will be interested in Freda Utley’s many first-hand examples of the inequalities of wealth, the class distinctions and snobbery, the callous attitude of the ruling clique towards the workers and peasants, and the brazen way the outward forms of democratic methods embodied in the Constitution are ignored in practice. Above all. Socialists will notice her description of Russia as a form of State Capitalism:
“The Russian workers, like the peasants have no say at all as regards the disposal of the wealth created by their labour. The Communist Party, although not in theory the ‘owner’ of the means of production, appropriates to itself or for its own purposes the profit and benefits derived from the labour of the rest of the population. One can call the system state capitalism with the Bolshevik Party drawing the dividends.” (P.184.)
By itself this may appear to indicate that Freda Utley has a clear insight into the nature of capitalism and Socialism. In fact she seems to have reached a correct form of words by accident, for there is nothing in the book to show that she understands what Socialism and capitalism are and much to show that she does not. Nowhere does she say what exactly she understands by Capitalism and Socialism and she repeatedly uses terms in a way that betrays lack of understanding. On page one we are told that Russia in 1927 “ might be called semi-Socialist,” and we learn that some time earlier she was “ active ... in the Socialist movement" but what she means by the latter is that she was a member of the Labour Party. As such, as also when she was in the I.L.P., she was supporting the movement to establish State capitalism in Britain, which makes her criticism of “State capitalist ” Russia somewhat mystifying. If in her eyes the difference is that Russia is now a dictatorship it is pertinent to remind her that so it was in the early days of her admiration for it. And when we are asked to note that in State Capitalist Russia since 1935 “the salaries of high officials have been anything from ten to thirty times as high as the wage of a worker of average qualifications” (p.191) it is relevant to point out that exactly the same inequality prevails in British State capitalism under [a] Labour government. There is just such a gulf between a railway porter’s £5 a week and the £8,500 a year paid to heads of some State Boards.

Quite late in the book (p.183) she is still calling the Russian government “Stalin’s Socialist government,” yet she complains (p.175) because the idea still persists in western countries that Russia is a “Socialist state.” She forgets that she was one of those who in the Labour Party and I.L.P. and later in the Communist Party spent years building up the illusion that State Capitalism is Socialism. If at the beginning she had seriously studied the problem and had asked herself whether the working class could be emancipated within capitalism, she would have realised that emancipation requires common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution, that this cannot be achieved until the majority become Socialists, and that it involves the ending of property incomes, the wages system and production for sale and profit. Had she done this she would not have contributed to the perpetuation of forms of capitalism by backing the Labour Party and Communist Party. Incidentally she would have escaped the painful experience of going to Russia only to be disillusioned by what she found there. She would have known from the outset that Socialism did not exist in Russia and was not being built up there any more than it is being built up in Britain today.
Edgar Hardcastle

Power in society (1983)

From the February 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

The concept of power is a confused one. Whether we're thinking about political and social institutions, or individual relationships, power means to have some dominance or control. Capitalism, a system based on production for profit, works in the interests of a minority — those who own and control the means of life. Workers vote into parliamentary power, political parties pledged to the continuation of capitalism — parties which operate against their interests. As long as the workers allow this situation to persist, a conflict will exist between “us and them”, the majority and the minority, the producers and those who own, the powerless and the powerful. To resolve this conflict we have to understand what power really means and what it could mean. We have to challenge the whole ideology of present social arrangements.

There are two essentially different uses of the word power. The first is the typical way in which we experience power in capitalism; the power which other people exert over us. Because workers believe that the present system is the only way of organising society — that it has always existed and must therefore continue to exist — they go on allowing others to control our lives. Small wonder. From childhood to old age, we see and fit into the social arrangements of the society we are born into. We experience the authority structure of capitalism, at first through the family, with its extended period of “childhood" and legal powerlessness. Later through schooling, through churches, through employment, the newspapers, television and so on, we come to accept the view that some people are “better" than others, that we need "leaders", that hierarchies are inevitable and that left to our own devices, the workers would create chaos.

This indoctrination imbues us with a belief in our own weakness, in our inability to decide for ourselves. We learn to aspire only to a “normal” lifestyle and a mentality fragmented by the crippling contradictions between what we feel ourselves to be and how capitalism compels us to behave. As we grow up in this society, our hopes and expectations are progressively impoverished. Children, for example, are constantly learning, constantly active in response to the world they find around them. Contrast this with what we all learn in school. Education exists to train us for our function in the larger world, beyond the school and family, for an adulthood where our behaviour fits the requirements of capitalism.

In classrooms children learn to sit still, to “do as they’re told — or else” (and the punishment system of the school mirrors in miniature the punishment system of the wider society, with its “detention” and centres for the “maladjusted”). Ultimately, children learn that if what they want to do conflicts with how the teacher — the person with power over them — expects them to behave, they cannot beat the system. There are only two choices: either to respect and conform to the superiority of those who control them, or to channel their nonconformity and disrespect into a negative form — rebellion and disruption. Whatever else children learn at school, they are forced into the habits of passivity and powerlessness, to external regulation and imposed definitions of their capacities and aptitudes. They learn to be one of the crowd or risk the cruelly isolating behaviour of other children. From schooling and elsewhere we are all then coerced into an evaluative, limited and impoverished sense or view of ourselves and our needs. The opportunity does not exist for young people to continue the way they started out, with a “natural" and integrated active approach to their environment.

Capitalism creates disintegrated individuals and a disintegrated society; one which lives out of harmony with its people's material needs. In this society constraints are invariably imposed on us — we are governed, not self-governing. Is it surprising then that power has become a word with wholly negative connotations? In capitalism, power means oppression.

In sharp contrast is the original derivation of the word — the French verb “pouvoir” meaning “to be able". So power means also an "inherent quality in something" — whatever that something can do. It means an active property — a physical strength, energy itself residing in the material nature of an organ or mechanism. In this sense power is simply the ability to “affect” — the power of a herb or a drug to affect a body, the power of the press to affect opinions, the power of a film to affect our emotions, or the power of an argument to affect our ideas.

If we look at power and society in this context, we can see how that society functions. Physically we need certain things to sustain life — we need food, warmth, shelter, we need to reproduce ourselves and we need to achieve some sort of integration with other parts of the natural world. People are part of the natural world; it is therefore inseparable from our existence that we should be active; our activities are the means by which we express our abilities, our capacities, our human powers. It is these powers and activities which create wealth. Workers produce the food, the energy, the building materials; we operate the transport networks that distribute them.

In other words it is our labour which sustains life on this planet. It is in us. the people who work and produce useful wealth, that the power in society actually resides. Paradoxically, the workers who produce all that is useful at present don’t engage in this activity for themselves: the owners live parasitically on our backs, we are giving them sustenance by our labour and the quality of that sustenance is far higher than we'll get in this system. “Human power” — the human ability to be active and to be effective — could be used by us, the majority of people who are producing wealth anyway, in our own interests. It is precisely this consciousness of our own nature and our own class interest and our own needs which capitalism attempts to drum out of us. The dominant ideas of any age are those produced by and in support of the status quo — the interest of the controlling powerful class. The development of an education system with the characteristics already outlined, is necessary to train us to accept a social system which is at odds with our perceptions of our own natures. We have to be taught to submit to control from beyond ourselves — it is necessary that we go on believing in our inabilities and weaknesses.

There is another contradiction in the belief that we who produce wealth cannot do it for ourselves. This theory has it that we’d be driven by insatiable urges to kill and maim and rob: that we’d create chaos in the world. There is an irrational belief that we need money and markets, prisons and property, to prevent this happening. The agonising irony of this belief lies in the fact that it is capitalism itself which creates such behaviour. Wars fought in the interests of the capitalist class cause workers to murder each other. Theft is a concept valid only through the existence of private property. As for chaos: what could be more chaotic and irrational than an economic system where people starve to death while glib politicians speak of “overproduction" and pay farmers not to produce food? It is impossible to imagine how a world community, conscious of its needs and producing directly in response to them, could fail to function better than that. Still, it seems their propaganda has usurped our rationality — we go on denying the evidence of our senses.

Under capitalism virtually our only experience of the use of our abilities is in the sense that our capacities are regulated by others. We have no experience of how to use our abilities and powers for ourselves in our working lives. This has repercussions in personal relationships, simply because we are alienated from our abilities: we sell them weekly-and monthly, they don’t seem to be ours. Much is talked about power in relationships — about gratuitous acts of cruelty and violence, about sadism and masochism. Most of this behaviour can be traced back to our attitudes towards two particular forms of learnt behaviour: dominance and submission.

Why is such behaviour typical under capitalism? The fundamental cause lies in the opposed class interests, which requires that one class dominates and the other submits. Associated with this are the values we have had bred into us: our belief in the need for leaders and authority, our acceptance of the evaluative definition of ourselves by others (so that status can be awarded accordingly), and the attitude we have acquired of constantly assessing ourselves in comparison with fellow workers to decide who is “better” and who “worse”. Attitudes like these ensure that domination and submission continue: they ensure we use our “powers” against ourselves. We do not recognise that our interests as a class coincide. We spend our energies fighting among ourselves, men against women, blacks against whites, salaried against waged employees, young against old. The competition for artificially scarce resources encourages this class divided, mutually hostile attitude.

Because of all this our daily existence is made up of frustrating experiences, of contradictions and tensions in our working and personal lives. A sense of frustration usually has one of two effects, both destructive: it may be expressed outwards in angry and aggressive exhibitions, or inwards, causing stress illness, withdrawal and depression. The only positive way of resolving this frustration is to recognise it for what it is. Frustration is a sense of powerlessness, an inability to express what we feel to be our energies and powers. Frustration is synonymous with a feeling of “lack".

Under capitalism we are controlled externally, we are not in control of our own lives, and we lack a material existence in line with our needs. This situation will only change once we become conscious, as a class, of our power. Our weakness is a myth. Human beings are active and thoughtful; already the working class runs society from top to bottom. What we urgently need to do is create a society in which these abilities can be used productively. Socialist democracy means that we express our own sense of what we need, that we control our lives directly, develop our powers and use them for ourselves. Socialists rehabilitate the idea of “power”, to act on that frustration to end it.
Chira Lovat