From the May 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard
Historically, Marxism has meant the materialist conception of history, the Labour Theory of Value and the political class struggle.
We accept the materialist conception of history as the only method that makes it possible to investigate and gain knowledge about historical and social events and changes. We regard Capital as a brilliant analysis of the workings and historical tendency of capitalism and an explanation of how the working class is exploited. We accept Marx’s theory that the working class can be liberated from exploitation only by its own class conscious, democratic political action for Socialism.
This is what we mean when we call ourselves Marxists. It does not mean that we accept everything Karl Marx said and did during his lifetime. Marxism was not something that came out all ready-made from Marx’s brain. It was developed gradually, with Marx as the main contributor.
The young Marx in his first presentation of the case for Socialism (the so-called Paris Manuscripts) based it on a philosophical humanism, using concepts and expressions like “human essence’’, “man’s alienation from his species life’’ and “man’s return . . . to his human existence’’. Later however Marx came to base the case for Socialism on the interest of the working class under capitalism, not on any philosophical view of human nature. In the Communist Manifesto, written a couple of years after the Paris Manuscripts, he explicitly repudiates, in the section on “True Socialism”, views similar to those he had once expressed himself to the effect that Socialism represented “not the interests of the proletariat, but the interests of Human Nature, of Man in general who belongs to no class, who has no reality, who exists only in the misty realms of philosophical fantasy”.
But, whatever were the views of the young Marx, Marxism does not stand or fall with them. Marx’s early manuscripts were, for the main part, not available until the beginning of the nineteen thirties, but by that time Marxism—as we described it at the beginning of this article — had already existed for over half a century. None of Marx’s main theories stands or falls with his early philosophical ideas.
This does not mean that Marxism lacks a conception of Man. Man is throughout history a social being — not a “lone wolf”—and only in relation to other people is he human. This is the only basic human nature that exists; apart from this “the whole of history is nothing but the continuous transformation of human nature” (Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy).
The idea that Marxism regards mankind’s future as predetermined is wrong. It explicitly rejects this. In a letter he drafted but did not send to a Russian journal in November 1877 Marx himself took up the question and explained that his “outline of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe” was not “a historico-philosophical theory of the general course, fatally imposed on all peoples, regardless of the historical circumstances in which they find themselves placed, in order to arrive finally at that economic formation which insures with the greatest of productive power of social labour the most complete development of man” (i.e., Socialism).
Marx’s analysis of capitalism points to Socialism as the next, higher stage in social development, but there is nothing of predeterminism in this. With today’s large stocks of nuclear and biological weapons and massive pollution of the environment the old socialist challenge “Socialism or Barbarism?” is more relevant than ever. Socialism will not be inevitable until the working class decides to establish it.
It is true that the young Marx sometimes saw the socialist revolution as a more or less spontaneous process. But the mature Marx — “Marx the Marxist” — stressed that the change-over to Socialism must be a conscious act, “the conscious reorganisation of society” as he put it in volume III of Capital (chapter V, section II). And this was not a question of consciousness among a small minority leading the great majority (as in the Leninist theory). As Engels put it in his 1895 Introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France 1848-50:
Where it a question of a complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for, body and soul.
And in his 1890 Preface to the 4th German edition of the Communist Manifesto:
For the ultimate triumph of the ideas set forth in the Manifesto Marx relied solely and exclusively upon the intellectual development of the working class, as it necessarily had to ensue from united action and discussion.
Ake Spross (Sweden)