Sunday, November 16, 2014

Marxism and Democracy (1941)

Book Review from the February 1941 issue of the Socialist Standard
A useful addition to Socialist Literature

Lucien Laurat’s Marxism and Democracy (Gollancz, 1940, 7s. 6d.) was first published, in French, early in 1939 under the title "Marxism in Bankruptcy" (Marxisme en Faillite). It is a useful addition to Socialist literature and cannot fail to be of help to students of Marxism. While the author has decided views on the many controversies he deals with, he states a reasoned case and almost always gives the source of his many pointed quotations from the writings of Marx, Engels and others. He is not a doctrinaire, to whom Marx's writings are a text to be studied word by word and followed as a kind of Bible. As he says: "A Marxist cannot be orthodox unless he continually questions even the truths he has already acquired, including the words of Marx himself " (p. 48). But having considered the theories of the Bolsheviks, as well as the criticisms levelled at Marx from various hostile quarters, he shows once more how well the mature ideas of Marx and Engels accord with the developments and experiences of the years since their death.

The book will be of special interest to those who have read THE SOCIALIST STANDARD for a number of years. While on a few (but important) points his views differ from those of the S.P.G.B., it is remarkable to find him meeting one after another of the many misrepresentations of Marx with precisely the same arguments as those worked out in the ranks of the S.P.G.B. during its 36 years. Stating that one of his aims "is to disentangle the real ideas of Marx and Engels from the incredible confusion caused by their commentators," he summarises his conclusions as follows:—

"Firstly, that the ideas of Marx and Engels changed and developed as they learned from historical experience; secondly, that it is false to present them as apostles of violent methods at all costs; and thirdly, that whoever ascribes ideas of non-violence à la Gandhi to them would be equally wrong. In the light of the experience gained in the course of their lives as militant Socialists they decided that under a democratic regime the workers would be able to achieve their aims by peaceful means, providing that Capitalism did not itself destroy that democratic legality without which there could be no question of the successful adoption of peaceful means." (p.37)

Among the points he deals with on precisely the same lines as the S.P.G.B. are the Bolshevik claim that Marx and Engels advocated dictatorship on the Russian model (pp.38-43)—in passing he raps the knuckles of Mr. G. D. H. Cole for the same error; the Bolshevik claim that Marx favoured the smashing of the machinery of the capitalist state (p.44); the notion that Marx and Engels preached nationalisation (p. 45); and the claim that Bolshevik organisation and tactics were Marxian. Laurat shows, as did the S.P.G.B., that "the Bolshevist organisational theory . . . although labelled Marxist, in reality represents a lapse into Blanquism, and has its roots in the backward state of Russia in general and of the Russian working classes in particular " (p.122)

He points out interestingly how the Great War, 1914-1918, had as one of its consequences that it stirred into activity and drove into some of the workers' organisations great masses of workers whose political experience and understanding were not superior to the experience and understanding of workers who had been in such organisations before 1914, but greatly inferior. "Unacquainted with the ideas and methods of Socialism, except for a few ill-digested slogans," these inexperienced raw recruits were the material on which the Communists, with their theory of an intelligent minority leading the unenlightened masses, were able to work successfully. The backwardness inside Russia and the backwardness of these workers outside Russia combined to produce results which have been deplorable for the working class and Socialism.

One of the questions on which Laurat holds a different view from that of the S.P.G.B. is that of Socialists collaborating with capitalist parties. His argument is that in the period of ferment after the last war "the strength of the Socialist parties had very considerably increased. Socialism judged, with very good reason . . . that it was now strong enough to exercise a considerable, if not decisive influence on the Government. However, it was nowhere strong enough to take power alone " (p.152)

There were three alternatives: (1) To share power with bourgeois parties whilst waiting until they had won over a majority of the electorate ; (2) to entrench themselves in intransigent opposition and decline the responsibilities of power until the situation was ripe; and (3) to try to seize power by force.

The last solution was the Bolshevik solution. It failed to produce Socialism and necessarily failed to do so:—

"Even in power alone, ruling by terror, and no longer hampered by the resistance of their bourgeois colleagues, the Socialist ministers, or commissars of the people, would still find themselves face to face with hard economic reality, peremptorily forbidding the immediate establishment of Socialism." (p.153)

The second solution he likewise rejects, because "when a Socialist party has between 40 and 45 per cent, of the seats in Parliament it is impossible for it to abstain from participation except at the price of feebly handing over power to a bourgeois coalition in which the extreme Right would have every chance of seizing the principal levers of government and weakening democracy " (pp.153-4)

“Nothing remains in practice but the first solution: Socialist participation in the Government, in spite of all the risks attached to it " (p.154)

Laurat here fails to face up to the fact that his first "solution'' led to the discrediting of the parties that adopted it and in doing so it helped to weaken parliamentary democracy and to turn the workers to Fascist or Communist doctrines of dictatorship. The weakness of his argument should have been obvious to him. He concedes (p.153) that refusing the responsibility of office (which means in all these instances refusing the responsibility of administering capitalism) is conceivable "in countries where the parliamentary representation of Socialism was still relatively feeble." He also concedes (p.152) that much of the support on which the "Socialist" parties relied was that of "immature" masses who had declared for "Socialism" "often by instinct rather than by knowledge and reflection." All of which boils down to the simple fact that the "Socialist" parties (by which he means such parties as the Labour Party) had made the fundamental error of building up their membership and fighting elections on a programme which attracted instead of repelling the "immature masses" who did not understand Socialism. In other words, the parties with 40 to 45 per cent. representation in Parliament had it under false pretences.

It is surprising that Laurat is blind to this, because elsewhere he stresses the importance of real Socialist understanding. As he puts it on page 119, these workers are "in need above all things of a strong dose of Socialist education."

Readers of THE SOCIALIST STANDARD will appreciate Laurat's final plea that the working class "must reject the ' leader ' cult more and more categorically. Unfortunately, far too many workers are still addicted to this cult, though it reeks of both Fascism and Bolshevism, and has nothing whatever to do with Marxism (pp.253-4)

As there are other important points in the book it is hoped to return to them in a further article.

It is a pity that the book costs 7s. 6d., and has no index. The translator, Mr. Edward Fitzgerald, is to be congratulated on his work.

Edgar Hardcastle

1 comment:

Imposs1904 said...

I had previously posted this on the blog, but that was when the blog was very much in the backwater.