Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Marx of a Philosopher (1979)

Book Review from the August 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

Karl Marx’s Theory of History by G. A. Cohen. Oxford University Press, 1978, £10.50

The basis of life under capitalism is the workers' sale of labour power to the employers, although this is not generally accepted as a true description of the world we live in. This is so for a number of reasons. On that basis there arise other relations and institutions which serve it and are subordinate to it, and may be very different in kind. Someone may work in a large organisation which obscures class relations, and their own conception of the nature of society and their place in it may leave no room for a recognition of the basic and unpalatable truth. No doubt this plays an important role in the present acceptance of capitalism.

One kind of institution which masks the basic relation and may seem a long way from it is the department of philosophy, a place where young men and women (nearly all workers, as in the population at large) go to gain degrees and diplomas. They may appear to go there to pursue knowledge for its own sake. In fact they are receiving a mental training which equips them for their subsequent tasks as computer workers, managers, civil servants, teachers and so on, in the service of the capitalist class. We can be sure that governments would not spend large sums of money on such places were it otherwise. Nor would provision have been made for an increasing number of students to study the subject. (At Oxford University, one in four take it as some part of their course.)

But what goes on in these places? Don't people just sit around uttering vague, pompous waffle about the Meaning of Life? The answer is that, to some extent, it depends where you are. In the English-speaking world nothing could be further from the truth. Arguments are subjected to the most rigorous and detailed scrutiny, all terms must be defined, all claims supported. It would be truer, indeed to say that here people sit around talking about the meaning of words. (This is a reflection of a line of approach which has been present in philosophy since Socrates. He argued, for example, that he could not decide whether virtue could be taught until it had been stated what virtue meant.)

In itself an insistence on clarity and definition of terms should be welcomed. But in philosophy it has often come to predominate at the expense of the substance of arguments; it has become sterile nit-picking about words. That is one reason why linguistic philosophy in the English-speaking world has hitherto found no place for the study of Karl Marx, who on the whole is not a nitpicker but makes large claims about the nature of society.

In contrast, there is another tradition of thought on some parts of the continent, notably France, where grand thoughts prevail, precision is not highly regarded and Marx gets a look in. Unfortunately, his thought is often so distorted that you could be forgiven for thinking it was a different Marx altogether who was being talked about. Take these choice examples of garbage from the French Stalinist philosopher Louis Althusser:
"... a philosophical reading of Capital is quite the opposite of an innocent reading. It is a guilty reading, but not one that absolves its crime on confessing it. On the contrary, it takes the responsibility for its crime as a 'justified crime' and defends it by providing its necessity. It is therefore a special reading which exculpates itself as a reading by posing every guilty reading the very question that unmasks its innocence, the mere question of its innocence: what is it to read?
However, Marx's Dialectics would have been very relevant to us today, since it would have been the Theory of Marx's theoretical practice, that is, exactly a determinant theoretical form of the solution (that exists in the practical state) to the problem we are dealing with: the problem of the specificity of the Marxist dialectic."
Small wonder that Marx exclaimed, concerning French Marxists of his own day, that he himself was no Marxist. Impenetrable rubbish like this contributes nothing to a clear understanding of the nature of capitalism and gives people a perfect excuse for ignoring Marx's theories.

In the context of such murk G A Cohen's Karl Marx's Theory of History comes like a hard beam of light on a foggy night. He rejects Althusser's approach and states his twin aim of respecting what Marx wrote and also the standards of rigour in the first philosophical tradition mentioned above. On the whole he is highly successful in both respects, and if that tradition goes on ignoring Marx it is no longer for want of a first-rate philosophical text.

In the main part of the book Cohen explains and defends the idea that growth in productive power is the basis of human history, so that different forms of society, different sets of relations between human beings, different class conflicts, come and go depending on how appropriate they are for the continuation of such growth. There is elaborate and painstaking discussion of all the terms implicit in this idea – productive forces, productive relations, the difference between raw materials and instruments of production, what it means to say that other features of society are explained by the development of its productive power, what counts as an example of each of these things, and so on. There are many interesting and enlightening discussions along the way (for instance on the fetishism of commodities), and later in the book Cohen shows that the thirst for profits under capitalism works to prevent an easing of the burden of toil for the worker. Attributions of any view to Marx are supported by detailed reference to his works.

But the question arises whether Cohen does not succeed too well in his stated aims. He is prepared to spend several pages teasing out the meaning of two (admittedly important) sentences from Marx's Preface; he pauses and considers too politely the quibble that workers can own means of production because a garment cutter may own a pair of scissors; he deliberates whether empty space is a productive force. Precision, indeed, but it leaves the book with a certain imbalance. For such attention to marginal questions of detail inevitably leaves fewer pages for the very wide and substantial questions which Cohen also expresses views on. It reinforces the impression that this is philosophy book first and a book about Marx second, and suggests that Cohen's view of the wood is impaired by his love for the trees, and indeed the twigs.

For example, he says little or nothing to back up his claims that there are industrial societies which are not capitalist (he seems to think Russia is one such), that there are doubts about the adequacy of the earth's resources, that there exist "the broad middle classes" and that "Marxist tradition expects revolution only in crisis". All of these views we should reject, and we should certainly challenge anyone who expresses them merely in passing.

Yet there is much in the book which is correct and ought to have saved Cohen from these errors. He recognises that socialism will be a moneyless, democratically planned system of common ownership, that it requires a superabundance to be feasible as well as working class unity, and also that class is a matter of one's relation to the means of production.

Why then does he not get it right? Perhaps only because his main concern with a meticulous statement and defence of the material preconditions of socialism. It is almost as if he thought the human precondition – a united and politically conscious working class – will take care of itself. But it will not. The very idea of taking hold of the means of wealth and creating a moneyless world hardly present at all in the minds of workers and is easily dismissed as cranky. That is why it is so vital to establish it as a serious political possibility. It would be sad indeed to think that Cohen is prepared to advance this idea between the covers of a philosophy book but not in his own political activity.

Again, his statement that "All classes are receptive to whatever ideas are likely benefit them" will bring a wry smile to the face of any socialist who has endured abuse from fellow workers. This will not be true until a class sees itself as a class, and the so-called Marxists of the left wing have created as much confusion here as any defender of capitalism, with their talk of "workers and intellectuals" (as though someone paid to think was not a worker) and the perennial "middle class". Cohen had all the materials to hand to dispel this pernicious confusion and make plain that all those who are dependent on the sale of their labour power are workers. He does not do so, and in that respect (though not in others) his book is a missed opportunity.

The conclusion is therefore irresistible that it is as important for Cohen to read the Socialist Standard as it is for readers of the Socialist Standard to read this unusual and impressive book.
Bill Valinas

Related Reading

George Orwell: “Politics and the English Language” in Collected Essays.

Keith Graham: J. L. Austin. A Critique of Ordinary Language Philosophy.

SPGB: Why Capitalism Will Not Collapse (1932).

Socialist Party of Canada: A World of Abundance.

Susan George: How the Other Half Dies.

E. P. Thompson: The Poverty of Theory.

Bias on the Bench (1979)

Book Review from the February 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Politics of the Judiciary by J. A. G. Griffith (Fontana 1977) £1.25

"In the traditional view" John Griffith writes, "the function of the judiciary is to decide disputes in accordance with the law and with impartiality. The law is thought of as an established body of principles which describes rights and duties . . . " Essentially, this view rests on an assumption of judicial "neutrality". Griffith's book is an attempt to explode this erroneous view.

It is not difficult to show that the judiciary are a collection of reactionary, narrow minded servants of the existing elite. Indeed some have wondered why Griffith has bothered to write a book just to demonstrate this obvious fact. However, it is worth demonstrating and although proof is not hard to find the book is useful in that it pulls together in a readable lucid style several areas of judicial action which supports Griffith's contention of the bias of the judiciary.

One of the most illuminating and instructive examples is a well known speech by one of England's best known judges, Lord Denning. In a case dealing with the London Borough of Southwark's claim for possession of slum houses against some squatters, Denning made the following remarkable statement:
If homelessness were once admitted as a defence to trespass, no one's house could be safe. Necessity would open a door which no man could shut . . . So the courts, for the sake of law and order, take a firm stand. They must refuse to admit the plea of necessity to the hungry and the homeless; and trust that their distress will be relieved by the charitable and the good" (our emphasis).
In showing the judiciary's bias in favour of property in general and against such groups as trade unions, students and squatters, Griffith has demonstrated the purpose of his book, which he claimed was to look at the ways in which judges have, in recent years, dealt with political cases which have come before them. What is unfortunate (although inevitable) about the book is that Griffith gets no further than pointing out the lack of judicial neutrality. He writes:"to expect a judge to advocate radical change, albeit legally, is as absurd as it would be to expect an anarchist to speak up in favour of an authoritarian society".

This of course is the wrong question. It is not a matter of whether the judges are concerned to preserve and protect the existing order of society, but what the working class are prepared to do about capitalism. Griffith shows little understanding that what is at stake is not the obvious bias of the judiciary, but the bias of the working class in favour of the society that the judiciary defend.
Ronnie Warrington

Lee Harvey Oswald, ‘Hunter of Fascists’? (2015)

From the December 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

In October the media reported a claim that a notorious photo of Oswald clutching a couple of ‘Marxist’ papers was not a fake. We will let the experts settle that one, but in what sense is Oswald being regarded as a ‘Marxist’?

Many claim that the assassination of President Kennedy on 22 November 1963 by Oswald was part of a conspiracy rather than the act of a lone gunman. In some way we can be reminded of the Reichstag Fire of 1934, readily blamed by the Nazis on a ‘Communist conspiracy’ but, in fact, a lone arson attack by the Council Communist, Marinus van der Lubbe.

Lee Harvey Oswald was a leftist who at one point in his life, defected to Russia, a self-professed Marxist who became opposed to Russian-style ‘communism’, declaring at one point’ I never had a card to the Communist party. . . . I am a Marxist, but not a Leninist-Marxist. . .’.  In addition to defecting to Russia, he later also distributed leaflets for the pro-Castro Fair Play for Cuba Committee. The photograph in question shows him clutching his Carcano rifle, holding up two newspapers, The Militant, of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party and The Worker, of the CPUSA. He inscribes on the back of one of those photos ‘hunter of fascists.’ Oswald had already made an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the far right-wing General Edwin Walker. His wife Marina said that he considered Walker to be the leader of a ‘fascist organization.’

Some say that his self-proclaimed Marxism was all a ruse but every person on record who knew him -- family members, co-workers, associates -- say he held his political views sincerely. Oswald flaunted his ‘communism’ in the Marine Corps, to the point that other marines called him ‘Oswaldskyvitch.’ Norman Mailer in his book on Oswald, Oswald's Tale, shows with ample evidence that he was a Marxist of sorts, as have Gerald Posner and Priscilla Johnson McMillan who document his leftist beliefs from the time he was 15 and was given a pamphlet defending the Rosenbergs, executed for spying for Russia. Oswald said that this pamphlet got him interested in reading socialist literature and that he later borrowed Marxist books from the New Orleans public library and that it was confirmed by classmates that he was reading these library books. Oswald became and stayed -- however simplistically he understood it -- a ‘communist’. We have Oswald's public and private writings professing to be a Marxist and an admirer of Castro as well as his public and private behaviour supporting this.

During his defection to Russia he became disillusioned with life there. He wrote:
‘No man, having known, having lived, under the Russian Communist and American capitalist system, could possibly make a choice between them. There is no choice, one offers oppression the other poverty.  Both offer imperialistic injustice, tinted with two brands of slavery.’
His diary entry for the period August-September 1960 reads:
‘As my Russian improves I become increasing conscious of just what sort of society I live in. Mass gymnastics, compulsory after work meeting, usually political information meeting. Compulsory attendance at lectures and the sending of the entire shop collective (except me) to pick potatoes on a Sunday, at a State collective farm. A 'patriotic duty' to bring in the harvest. The opinions of the workers (unvoiced) are that it's a great pain in the neck. They don't seem to be especially enthusiastic about any of the 'collective' duties, a natural feeling. I am increasingly aware of the presence, in all things, of Libezin, shop party secretary, fat, fortyish, and jovial on the outside. He is a no-nonsense party regular.’
And in January 1961:
‘I am starting to reconsider my desire about staying. The work is drab, the money I get has nowhere to be spent. No nightclubs or bowling alleys, no places of recreation except the trade union dances. I have had enough.’
Back in Dallas, he told an acquaintance that the people in Russia ‘were poor. They worked and made just enough to buy their clothes and their food.… The only ones who had enough money to buy anything else … the luxuries of life, were those who were Communist Party officials … high ranking members of the party.’

Another acquaintance said that Oswald ‘seemed to classify all members of the Communist Party as opportunists who were in it just to get something for themselves out of it.… and [he] thought they were ruining the principles which the country should be based on. In other words, they were not true Communists. They were ruining the heaven on earth which it should be.’

Oswald's belief in ‘communism’, as he understood it, was no doubt genuine. On more than one occasion he differentiated between ‘Marxists’ and ‘Leninists/Communists’.  Of course he was no Marxist in any sense that we understand but he did get one thing right, ironically about the futility of assassinating leaders. A police interrogator records him as saying:
‘Since the President was killed, someone else would take his place, perhaps Vice-President Johnson. His views about Cuba would probably be largely the same as those of President Kennedy… When the head of any government dies, or is killed, there is always a second in command who would take over.’