Monday, September 30, 2019

Marx or Lenin? (2019)

Book Review from the September 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

Marx and Marxism. By Gregory Claeys. Pelican. 500 pages. 2018. £8.99

It is a tribute to the continuing relevance of Marx’s ideas that books about him and them are still being published. Claeys’s is divided into two parts, the first on Marx, the second on ‘Marxism’ but which is in fact on Leninism.

Since socialists accept Marx’s basic ideas – his materialist and class approach to history, his analysis of the capitalist economic system, and his advocacy of the need to win political power to change the basis of society – how Marx came to these is of some interest. However, the details of his private life – that, for instance, he was irascible and didn’t suffer fools (or those he considered fools) gladly – are only marginal and of no guide whatsoever as to how a socialist working class majority in control of political power would behave.

The intellectual journey which led to Marx becoming a socialist is more relevant but not crucial. After all, he is only one socialist amongst many and few (none in fact) are likely to follow the same route, i.e., via German idealist philosophy. Claeys’s treatment of this is reasonable and he does raise some issues which socialists still debate, such as to what extent are humans social by biological nature (i.e, is human nature ‘good’ and not merely neutral?) and whether the socialist case against capitalism is based on a morality as well as class interest (Marx certainly denounced capitalism’s treatment of workers in a distinctly moral terminology).

In a bid to partially acquit Marx of the charge of utopianism, even millenarianism, Claeys places too much emphasis on what Marx wrote about producer cooperatives, at one point even seeming to suggest that Marx envisaged capitalism coming to an end through the spread of cooperative societies. In fact, while Marx was not opposed to workers forming them any more than he was to them forming trade unions, his main point was that they showed that production does not require a private owner to be carried out; producers can organise this themselves. He did not envisage socialism as a system of separate cooperatives producing for the market but as being a sort of nation-wide cooperative producing directly for use.

Apart from 20 pages on pre-WW1 Social Democracy, Part Two is of no interest. It reads like a hastily written description of what Lenin and Leninists did when in power. Lenin’s defining difference with Marx was his theory of the vanguard party, not only to seize power as a minority but to hold it dictatorially as the self-appointed representative and sole interpreter of the interest of the working class. This contrasted, both in theory and in practice, with what Claeys previously referred to as ‘Marx’s account of a fully class-conscious revolution led by a democratically organised majority’ (page 249).

Leninism is a quite different theoretical system from Marx’s. There is, however, a historical question that needs explaining: how a theory of state-capitalist development under a totalitarian single party should have come to be associated with Marx when it clearly had nothing of substance in common with what Marx as a socialist advocated? A subject for some aspiring Ph.D student.
Adam Buick

No comments: