Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Algebra of Revolution (1998)

Book Review from the October 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Algebra of Revolution. The Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition. By John Rees. Routledge. £14.99.

We in the Socialist Party have always had a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards "dialectics" mainly because of the use that was made of it by the old Communist Party to justify its policy zigzags on the grounds that "progress proceeds through contradictions". On the other hand, it was a term used by Marx and Engels.

The concept was first introduced by the German philosopher Hegel who died in 1831. This was as part of his religious view of the world. However, shorn of the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo Hegel surrounded it with, dialectics means that, in analysing the world and society, you start from the basis that nothing has an independent, separate existence of its own but is an inter-related and interdependent part of some greater whole (ultimately the whole universe) which is in a process of constant change.

This is a fairly widespread view today (sometimes called "holism") and can even be said to have been incorporated into mainstream scientific method. "Holism", however, is only partly the same as "dialectics" as dialectics brings in another factor: contradiction. Hence Rees's definition that it is "an internally contradictory totality in a constant process of change".

Hegel was, in philosophical terms, an Idealist who saw social systems as being a reflection of the "spirit of the age" as he called the dominant ideas of the people living in them. Applying his theory to the development of society, he argued that social change came about as a result of internal contradictions within the "spirit of the age" leading to people developing a new such spirit and a corresponding new system of society.

Marx took over this idea of social development through contradiction but, as he himself once put it, he turned Hegel upside down (or rather put him back on his feet again) by making the basis of society, not the "spirit of the age" but "the way in which people are organised to produce society's means of life"; as this changed-through the internal contradiction of conflict between classes with antagonistic interests-so did the social system.

This of course is the materialist conception of history which Marx and Engels first worked out in 1844-45 in some notebooks published after their deaths as The German Ideology and which Marx summarised in the 1859 Preface to his A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy.

Rees's discussion of the influence of Hegel's ideas and terminology on Marx and Engels is competent enough. As to the others, our criticism would be of his selection of those to include in "the classical Marxist tradition". As a leading member of the SWP Rees is not in this tradition himself. Anyone who adheres to Lenin's theory of the vanguard party-which is such a fundamental departure from Marx's own view both of the intellectual capabilities of the working class and of how workers should organise to establish socialism-puts themselves outside the Marxist tradition. They are Leninists not Marxists.

This means that the last of those discussed by Rees to come into the Marxist tradition were Rosa Luxemburg (who Rees specifically criticises for not supporting a vanguard party) and Karl Kautsky. If the book had lived up to its sub-title, Lenin, Trotsky, Lukacs and Gramsci (the last two thinkers constructed convoluted philosophical defences of the supposed need for a vanguard party) would have been replaced by Joseph Dietzgen (who was the first to use the term "dialectical materialism"), Antonio Labriola, (whose Essays in the Materialist Conception of History only gets a brief mention because Trotsky happened to have read it) and Anton Pannekoek (author of brilliant criticism of Lenin called Lenin As Philosopher which Rees dismisses in a footnote). All three had interesting and relevant-and different-things to say about dialectics.
Adam Buick