Book Reviews from the December 1933 issue of the Socialist Standard
Karl Marx by R. W. Postgate. 1s. 6d.
Lenin, by R. Palme Dutt. Is. 6d. (Hamish Hamilton, Ltd., 90, Great Russell Street, W.C.1.)
The above two booklets form part of a series purporting to deal with the pioneers of Socialism and issued at a uniform price. Containing less than a hundred pages each, it is obvious that the subjects suffer a great deal from compression. This is particularly noticeable in the case of Marx. Unfortunately, this is not the only serious defect.
Mr. Postgate's volume has its good points. The thirty pages dealing with Marx’s life are brightly written. The first part of the Communist Manifesto is fairly well paraphrased in the shorter chapter on Historical Materialism, and the first book of Capital is summarised in another chapter somewhat longer. Then follow the final ten pages, in which the author seeks to show that Marx’s dialectical method is out of date and useless. The attempt is cheap, scrappy and quite unconvincing. Because the Bolsheviks obtained political control in Russia and the Nazis have followed suit in Germany, Mr. Postgate thinks that Marxian dialectics have gone phut! He would substitute "Modern psychology." Apparently, what we require to know, in order to understand latter-day history, is (not the material conditions existing in Russia or Germany, as the case may be) but the psycho-analytical interpretation of the dreams of Lenin and Hitler. Which is as good as saying that any such understanding is for ever impossible. Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that Hitler is a sadist, or that Lenin suffered from paranoia; does that teach us anything worth mentioning about the movements with which they were associated ? Obviously not.
On page 89 we are told that "Socialism may be possible, it may be probable, but it cannot be inevitable." Mr. Postgate repeats the stale dualism that the inevitability of Socialism would make action in its favour unnecessary. His difficulty reminds one of the poser put by Alfred Lester to the old lady whom he showed round the village fire station: "Does a hen lay an egg because it wants to or because it can't help it?"
To the dialectical materialist the answer is obvious. The hen's "want” is simply the more or less conscious reflection of an unavoidable, organic necessity. Mr. Postgate is evidently of the opinion that the hen could (if it wanted to) keep on twiddling the egg round the interior of its anatomy for an indefinite period.
The economic conditions which make Socialism possible simultaneously make it necessary. Indeed, logically, there can be no distinction between the terms. Socialism can be possible only if the forces making for its establishment are stronger than those retarding it, in which case it is inevitable. Seeing, however, that society consists of human beings, social development must inevitably consist of the more or less conscious activity of human beings. The social development will force them to recognise the problem and the solution to it. Mr. Postgate's final chapter, however, merely sums up the fallacious attitude which peeps out in his winding up of his earlier chapters.
For example, on page 72 he says: "We see that the labour theory of value explains the growth and composition of capital as accurately at least as any other." What acuteness! One would have thought that if the theory which finds the source of value in labour is accurate, then “other" theories (which find it elsewhere) are decidedly inaccurate. On page 80 he rehashes Bernstein's doctrine of the survival of the "middle-class," and regards the “Fascist revolution" as the work of this section. He fails entirely to see that the intense political reaction of this section on the Continent is the strongest possible evidence of the desperate insecurity of their position as a result of the development of large-scale capitalist production.
Mr. Postgate follows the current fashion among "intellectuals" of professing to regard the economics of Marx as of much less importance than the materialist conception of history. The absurdity of this is apparent on the face of it. According to Marx's view no epoch can be understood apart from its economic basis. His critical examination of capitalism as a system of production is, therefore, of fundamental importance. The understanding of previous history is necessary, since out of the past capitalism arose; but, in Marx’s own words, we have not merely to explain the world but to change it, and must therefore understand what it is that we wish to change.
To sum up, Mr. Postgate displays the stamp of superficial mediocrity; patronising genius, he endeavours to push it aside. It is almost a relief to turn from this flippant, over-grown schoolboy to the somewhat humourless Mr. Dutt.
In spite of the manifest bankruptcy of “Communist" theories (both official and opposition), he eulogises Lenin as having added something of importance to the work of Marx. Approximately two-thirds of the book are taken up with a general description of the life and times of Lenin, especial stress being laid upon his critical attitude towards the leaders of the Second International. Lenin, however, rejected one type of opportunism only to fall into another. The circumstances of the large class of small property owners in Russia, mainly peasants, were different from those of their counterpart in Western Europe, such as the peasantry of France. They still had an active role to play in relation to Tsarism. They had no notion or intention of abolishing capitalism, but they did wish to enlarge their property by breaking up the landed estates of the nobles, large and small.
Lenin was largely instrumental in securing an interchange of support at the critical moment between the politically active elements of this class and the Party which he led. He did this in the name of the world revolution of the working-class; but sixteen years after the Bolshevik seizure of power that revolution is not above the horizon. The attempts of Lenin’s followers to foment it by hot air have failed, from China to Peru. In Russia itself we find Stalin, with his doctrine of "Socialism in one country," occupying the place of Lenin and Trotsky, with their notions of immediate world change.
Like Mr. Postgate, Mr. Dutt cannot forbear to have his little dig at the Second International parties succumbing to Fascism and Nazism, and writhing under the whip of the counter-revolution. He forgets that his own withers are rather badly wrung. Just over ten years ago, The Worker's Weekly (of which he was then Editor) repeatedly assured us that a Communist Revolution would occur in Germany in the course of the following month. Apparently it is still waiting for a German Lenin to descend from the clouds.
Mr. Dutt devotes several pages to an outline of Lenin’s views as to the relation between the workers in the large capitalist countries and the populations of the relatively backward areas of Asia and Africa. On page 70 he advances once more the fantastic notion that part of the tribute from the Colonies is used by the capitalists "To buy off the upper strata of the working class in the imperialist countries." Does Mr. Dutt seriously contend that the workers of these countries fail to produce the equivalent of what they consume as a class ? What kind of "revolutionary Marxism" is this?
On page 77 we are told that "The dictatorship of the proletariat is a dictatorship of the immense majority against the minority of exploiters." This is an attempt to make Lenin's position square with that of Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto. We have ample testimony from Lenin himself that his dictatorship was, on the contrary, one of the few over the many. See, for example, "The Soviets at Work" (pp. 33-37), where he defends the decrees “Granting dictatorial powers to individuals," and "Demands the absolute submission of the masses to the single will of those who direct the labour process."
In supporting the Bolsheviks the workers and peasants of Russia merely changed their political masters. These new masters may be more efficient and humane than the old, but they are masters none the less. The emancipation of “the masses" remains to be accomplished. The Russian dictatorship was the outcome of Russian anarchy—the counterpart of the well-nigh hopeless chaos, both in the workshops and on the land, which followed the military debacle of 1917. It is one thing to import ideas into a country like Russia, however, and quite another matter to import the conditions to which these ideas correspond. Under such circumstances even a hundred Lenins could not prevent “Socialist" ideas becoming a cloak for reactionary practices.