Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Letters to the Editors: Socialists and the State (1937)

Letters to the Editors from the October 1937 issue of the Socialist Standard

We have received the following letter from a Southampton reader. Our reply follows.

August 22nd, 1937.

Dear Sir,
    Your party is certainly uncompromising, but when Marx was studying the Paris Commune he discovered the fact that the State, with all its various offices, was not of the slightest use to the working class. In the Socialist Standard, July, 1937, reference is made there to Lewis Morgan; he, more than anyone, illustrates the fact that with a change in the tool, and the ownership thereof, there came a change in government old forms, old means of repression: everything changed when the character of the tool changed. In our day? social methods of production are decaying under private ownership; the S.P.G.B., as I see, contend that the working class will govern, or be governed, as you will, by the political State; you evidently don’t intend an industrial democracy based on the social mode of wealth production.

       I can quote from Marx, Engels, and De Leon, as proof of my ideas, and your movements policy is, to put it mild, dishonest or dumb. A revolutionary organisation holds a great responsibility; do not avoid the facts.
N. Jolliffe.

Our correspondent thinks that Marx expressed certain views about the State, and that the S.P.G.B. holds other ideas, and that, therefore, we are dishonest or dumb. It would have been helpful if Mr. Jolliffe had been more explicit about the place in which Marx is supposed to have expressed these views, and that we are supposed to have opposed them, for actually both of these assertions are baseless.

But, before dealing with them, we would remind our correspondent that he is very much mistaken in thinking that he can prove any policy to be sound or unsound by quoting from “Marx, Engels and De Leon," or from Holy Writ or anything else. All he can prove by quoting from Marx is that Marx held a certain view. As Marx was a careful, conscientious and very well-informed and experienced student of political and economic questions, his considered opinion is deserving of the fullest attention, not, however, to be accepted as gospel. Marx, like other people, had to learn by experience, and sometimes made mistakes. Even geniuses make mistakes.

However, on the question before us the only mistakes have been made by Mr. Jolliffe.

What Mr. Jolliffe believes Marx wrote after studying the Paris Commune is that:—:
   The State, with all its various offices, was not of the slightest use to the working class.
What Marx really wrote was as different as chalk is from cheese. (The references are to “Civil War in France,” by Karl Marx; Labour Publishing Co. edition, 1921.)

Marx (p. 8) first quotes, with approval, the declaration of the Communists, that: —
   The proletarians of Paris . . . .  have understood that it is their imperious duty and their absolute right to render themselves masters of their own destinies, by seizing upon the governmental power.
Marx then adds his own comment: —
    But the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.
What Mr. Jolliffe has done (and many others before him) is to ignore the first statement about the duty of seizing upon the governmental power, ignore the word "simply,” and ignore the later passages where Marx explains that, having seized on the governmental power, the workers must amputate the “merely repressive organs,” wrest its “legitimate functions” from the usurping authority, and restore the legitimate functions to the responsible agents of society (p. 32). 

Neither here nor anywhere else does Marx ever say that the State is “not of the slightest use to the working class.”

As Mr. Jolliffe has brought in Engels, it will be fitting to use Engels’ own amplification of what Marx and he had in mind. In a letter to Van Patten, on April 18th, 1883 (i.e., immediately after Marx’s death), Engels wrote as follows: —
    . . .  The working class must first take possession of the organised political power of the State and by its aid crush the resistance of the capitalist class and organise society anew. . . . This state may require very considerable alterations before it can fulfil its new functions.
Now if our correspondent will turn to our “Declaration of Principles” he will find precisely the same idea in paragraph 6.

Regarding the next statement in our correspondent’s letter, concerning the supposed views of the S.P.G.B. as to the "Political State” under Socialism, we deny that he can find such a statement in any of our literature. The S.P.G.B. agrees with Marx and Engels that, with the disappearance of classes, there “ also disappears the necessity for the power of armed oppression or state power” (in the letter quoted above). The State will, therefore, in due course "wither away”—
   State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies out of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of the processes of production. The State is not “abolished," it dies out.—(Engel’s “ Socialism, Utopian and Scientific.” Chapter III).
Editorial Committee. 

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