Tuesday, May 2, 2017

"A Word on Marxism" (1952)

From the June 1952 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is not an exaggeration to state that to-day "Marxism” is becoming almost a household word. Unfortunately this does not mean that over the wide world millions of people have become thoroughly acquainted with the fundamentals of Marxian doctrines. Rather does it signify that the word “Marxist” has become the modern equivalent of “heretic” or “turk.” In other words, when a man is to-day called a “Marxist” people are usually expressing strong disapproval, although they may have little or no idea of the real meaning of the word they are using. As members of the working class concerned with the crying social evils of the modem world we cannot afford such loose thinking. We do not brand or abuse our political opponents; but are concerned rather with a thorough examination of their point of view. We do not reject or accept their statements out of hand. Marxism must be treated likewise by all serious-thinking men and women, and to do this we must ascertain exactly what we mean by the term.

Like the word “Socialism,” “Marxism” has, over the course of the last century, been largely abused and misrepresented. We can, however, in brief form put the essential ideas of Marx as follows: —
1. Materialism.
2. Materialist conception of History. (Including the class struggle.)
3. Theory of Value.
These three components of Marxism are an indivisible unity. The so-called “Marxists” of the “Red” variety who claim allegiance to Marxism yet at the command of their Russian masters flout the class struggle and the most elementary conclusions to be drawn from the theory of value can lay no authentic claim to their title. No one with even an elementary understanding of the Marxian outlook can at one time claim to be a Marxist and in almost the next breath speak of his Christian faith and belief in God. as do many members of the Communist Party, including the one-time prominent Douglas Hyde of “I Believed” fame. Such people have failed to understand the most striking feature of Marx’s ideas, i.e., each central proposition implies and leads logically to the others. Materialism, so to speak, the foundation stone, is a philosophic view of the universe, irreconcilably opposed to religious dogma.

For centuries man’s thinking had been dominated by idealism and metaphysics, and it was not until the development of industrial Capitalism that modern materialism began to take its rightful place in the study of the natural world. So long as the material world was viewed as a realm devoid of objective laws, and subject to the overwhelming power of “mind,” little progress could be made towards an understanding of its real nature. With the rise of materialism, however, and greater emphasis on empirical methods astounding achievements were made in all branches of science, particularly in the natural sciences during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Marx’s concern , was to apply this highly successful methodology to society itself, a task hitherto inadequately attempted. We are led then to a materialist conception of society.

The materialist conception of history seeks to explain the causes of social progress. Its subject matter, human society, has a history covering a period of thousands of years. Marx took the relevant facts of history and, using the scientific method, sought to make them intelligible, and it is probably in this field of study that he made his greatest contribution to human understanding. To discover, as it were, the motive forces of social development, to lay bare the principal causes of great social changes, was a herculean task. Up to the time Marx commenced his studies, changes in the political structure of society, supposed to be brought about by man’s growing insight into absolute principles, were generally accepted as the dominant factors in social development. Starting with this supposition Marx (who was himself a student of law) found it impossible to give a coherent explanation of events around him. In his own words, “I was led by my studies to the conclusion that legal relations as well as forms of state, could neither be understood by themselves nor explained by the so-called general progress of the human mind, but that they are rooted in the material conditions of life . . . .” (“Critique of Political Economy,” page 11, translation from second German edition, 1904, Chas. H. Kerr & Co.). Following this line of thought Marx was led to a conclusion which he summarised as follows: “In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society —the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.”

Marx set to work with the germ of his new idea to unravel the real causes of social change. It had long been known that widely differing forms of social organisation had existed. In early times whole communities had owned in common the things they needed in order to satisfy their needs, including the land and their primitive tools. At other times men lived divided into classes, some property owners and a majority in subservience. The important questions for Marx were, how had all this arisen and how could the degradation and poverty of the many be abolished? Must the idea of freedom and emancipation from bondage remain merely an ideal or, by the study and an understanding of the past, would it be possible for the subjugated majority to set themselves upon the sound path towards their emancipation?

By the detailed application of the M.C.H. to the world in which he lived his penetrating examination into the economic processes of his contemporary society Marx both answered these questions and developed the third basic tenet of Marxism—the Labour Theory of Value.

This theory, i.e., that things reproduced for the purpose of exchange, exchange in proportions determined by the amount of socially necessary labour time involved in their production, gives us an insight into the economic workings of the everyday world that makes clear the cause of our major social evils and the path along which we must act in order to remove them. On all sides we find tremendous accumulations of wealth produced for a market. The workers who produce this wealth receive in return through their wage packets only a part of it. Their buying power in terms of money is obviously less than the total money value for the wealth they have produced; otherwise there could be no profits. In order to profitably dispose of the consumer goods produced by their respective workers capitalists are compelled to seek entrance to markets abroad. But, and this is the important point, looked at on a world scale, the capitalist class has ultimately no outlet. What happens in fact is that the endless struggle for markets, cheaper goods, profitable sources of material and other economic advantages results in continual struggle between on the one hand the workers and capitalists, and on the other armed struggle between rival capitalist powers. We can see from the foregoing that the class struggle, the ever present conflict of economic interests between the “haves” and the “have nots” expresses itself in the modern world in the. opposition of the working class to the capitalist class. In short, the class struggle is at all times a property struggle and as Marx and Engels so clearly pointed out has characterised the whole of man’s written history.

In a short article of this kind detailed examination of Marxian theories is out of the question. As it is, the foregoing is a somewhat simplified statement best supplemented by careful reading of recognised Marxian classics. One thing is certain, we can do no better than to study Marxism through the writings of its founders, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.

One last word. Socialism, the world we are striving to obtain, is not a pipe dream. It is the name that we, in common with Marx and Engels, give to the society that will follow capitalism—a world in which property and the problems arising therefrom will no longer exist

An understanding of Marxism is a means towards that end.
Joan Lestor


1 comment:

imposs1904 said...

The author of this article, Joan Lestor, resigned from the SPGB a couple years after this article was published and ended up a Labour MP and Labour Minister.