Book Review from the June 1934 issue of the Socialist Standard
“What Marx Really Meant.” By G. D. H. Cole. (Gollancz, 5s. net.)
“It's a stupid name enough!” Humpty-Dumpty interrupted impatiently, “ What does it mean?" “Must a name mean something?" Alice asked doubtfully. . . . "When I use a word," Humpty-Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “ it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."
Mr. G. D. H. Cole has the same impudent disregard for the ordinary meaning of words. The title of a book is usually expected to give some indication of the contents. When, therefore, a book has the title “What Marx Really Meant,” it is reasonable to assume that it will contain an account of Marx's theories. When the authority is G. D. H. Cole, however, one may wonder what are his qualifications to act as an interpreter of Marx, for he is not a Marxian, and has never given any evidence of beginning to understand Marx (even Mr. E. H. Carr, a non-Marxist, in his recently published biography of Marx, groups Cole among the pseudo-Marxians), but this does not alter one's anticipations regarding the subject-matter of a book with the title “What Marx Really Meant." In other words, the plain man will give words their plain meaning and expect to find in a book with this title a plain statement of what Marx meant. He will be sadly disappointed. There is no connection between the contents and the title. The title is a sheer catchpenny label for a book which has as little connection with Marx as it has with common-sense political understanding. The book is undiluted Cole, with Marx's name dragged in to catch the unwary.
Even Mr. Cole cannot live up to the impertinence of the title, and early explains that his book is “not meant either as an exposition or as a criticism of Marx's doctrines," but is intended “to disentangle from Marx's teaching, from what is dead or no longer appropriate what remains alive and capable of that process of growth and adaptation which is the prerogative of living things.” If that was his object, he ought to have called his book, “What Cole happens to mean—at the moment.”
He betrays a certain amount of nervousness at setting himself up as an authority on Marx, and at dragging Marx into the hotch-potch of his ideas. After asking his readers to make “due allowance for (his) shortcomings as a guide,” he attempts to forestall criticism with the following statement: —
“Some Marxists will say that what I have been stating is not Marxism at all, but a radically different doctrine. Even if that were so, it would not matter, provided that mine was the better doctrine for to-day. But I think what I have written is in essence Marxist, in that sense in which Marxism is to-day a living force, and not the opium of the Socialist orthodox.”
As a piece of impudent writing, this would be hard to beat.
Before dealing more in detail with the book, one other instance should be noted. Marx put forward a theory to explain the evolution of society. To that theory he gave a name, the Materialist Conception of History. He did so intentionally. He used the term materialist because that is what he meant, and Marxians have always referred to that theory by that name. Now along comes this writer of detective stories, and announces: “I shall write ‘realist' in place of 'materialist,’ for I can see no point at all in that form of servility which clings obstinately to a name.” It will easily be appreciated that after being connected with thirty different political organisations, Mr. Cole is not likely to cling obstinately to anything.
The book is a difficult one to review on account of the author’s method. He has jumbled up together his interpretation of certain of Marx's doctrines with a statement of his own political views. His aim seems to be to support those views by relating them to Marxian principles—or what he conceives; to be Marxian principles. Where he is expounding Marx he reveals such a complete lack of understanding of everything Marx wrote, that the doubt at once arises whether, notwithstanding the fact that he wrote an introduction to the Everyman edition of “Capital,” he has ever seriously read much more than the “Communist Manifesto.” It is inevitable, therefore, that what he claims to be A reading of the “signs of our times by a method which is largely that of Marx,” bears absolutely no relation to Marxian thought. No Marxian could be guilty of the errors of analysis contained in this book, while the recommendations of policy in it are, in the main, contrary to the whole of Marx's teaching.
As an example of the kind of statement in this book that raises a doubt as to whether the author is really acquainted with Marx's writings, the following may be quoted: —
It is sometimes suggested that Marx did believe the coming of Socialism to be inevitable, and held that men could, by their conduct, only advance or delay its coming, or cause it to come in a more or less satisfactory form. It is quite possible that Marx did hold this.
If Mr. Cole knows what he is writing about, why this indefiniteness? Marx, of course, made specific statements which gave dear expression to his view. In the Communist Manifesto, he and Engels wrote:—
The bourgeoisie produces its own gravediggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.
This passage was reproduced as a footnote to “Capital,” to which, as mentioned above, Mr. Cole wrote an introduction. (For footnote, see Everyman edition, p. 847.)
It is undoubtedly true that, as Mr. Cole states, Marx, if he had been alive and writing to-day, would not have written "exactly as he wrote in 1848, or 1859, or 1867, or 1883.” but that is no justification for claiming for non-Marxian ideas the support of Marx's name. Despite Mr. Cole's disclaimers, to suppose that Marx would have propounded the theories foisted off on him by Mr. Cole is “the rankest injustice to Marx.” Mr. Cole uses the following specious arguments for putting forward his own ideas as being related to those of Marx:—
If the structure of classes has changed since Marx’s day, as I have tried to show that it has, the theory which Marx formulated as appropriate to the class conditions of his day can no longer be adequate to meet the needs of the present time, at all events until it has been modified and adapted in conformity with these changes. Every Marxist is compelled by his Marxism to be a “revisionist ”. . . no Marxist can escape revisionism without denying the dialectical principle.
It is sheer sophistry to pretend that the dialectical principle which requires that things should not be treated and considered as though they were static, and insists that everything is in process of development, necessarily implies that ideas originated, say, seventy years ago, must be inapplicable to-day. In that case the dialectic view would itself be obsolete! Even if the dialectical principle did require a modification, it would not follow that revision should properly take place on the Labour Party lines followed by Mr. Cole. Further, the major premise of his argument is false. If he had properly appreciated what Marx meant by capitalists and proletariat, and by the class struggle between them, he would not have been deceived into believing that "the structure of classes has changed since Marx's day.” Far from changing, that structure stands to-day even more clearly discernible and defined than when Marx wrote. There can be no doubt now that in capitalist society there are but two classes, one dependent upon the possession of property, the other property-less and dependent upon .the sale of its labour power. Like all "intellectuals,” Mr. Cole tries to blur the clear-cut distinction between the two classes. For him the proletariat consists “in the advanced parliamentary countries of Western Europe . . . of a central mass of manual workers and their families, shading off at one end into the unemployables, and at the other into the 'black coats' of the middle class.'' In the world of Mr. Cole there appear to be a large number of classes, for he writes of “the middle classes, that is, the classes between the governing groups of the bourgeoisie and the wage-earners,” who “have increased markedly as a percentage of the entire population,” and who have “assumed the new character given to them by the increased wealth of modern Societies." Patronising snobbery prevents Mr. Cole plunging himself and his fellow “intellectuals" down among the “manual workers," so he puts forward concepts of middle classes which have no basis in reality. Unless the existence of only two classes is denied, the whole case of the “intellectuals" falls to the ground and they cease, as a group, to have any special political significance. Mr. Cole claims that an alliance “of the proletariat and new petit bourgeoisie against the large capitalists and the reactionary petit bourgeois groups . . . is the only possible way of achieving Socialism by peaceful and constitutional means, and probably the only way of averting the spread of Fascist dictatorships." The fact is, however, that whenever the proletariat (by which is meant what Marx meant, namely, all those who are dependent upon the sale of their labour power), want to achieve Socialism they can do so by the use of their own unaided power, and without the advice or leadership of " intellectuals."
How far Mr. Cole is from understanding Marx’s analysis of Capitalism is revealed in his remarks about Russia, of which the following are samples. He writes: "The U.S.S.R. . . . has already thrown Capitalism over . . . under the new Russian system it is utterly impossible for the characteristic dilemma of Capitalism ever to arise . . the Russian system does ensure that as much as they can possibly produce will find a market, so that over-production and under-consumption and also unemployment, save as a temporary consequence of friction in the process of industrial change, simply cannot arise." (Pages 61 and 70.) It is difficult to say whether that displays the greater ignorance of Marx or of conditions in Russia. Capitalism in the sense in which Marx understood it, as a system of society based on the exploitation of a class of property-less wage labourers exists to-day in Russia, just as much as in England. Unemployment has certainly not been banished. The Russians have also been faced with the problem of over-production. Like other capitalist producers, they have had to curtail production because they could not sell various products in the world market at a profit during the depression.
It may be wondered how people like Mr. Cole contrive to achieve their reputations as authorities on Marx, in face of their patent ignorance. It is to a large extent the result of mutual back-scratching. For example, that other self-constituted authority on Marx, Professor H. J. Laski reviewed Mr. Cole's book in the Manchester Guardian, and praised it as providing "a really admirable summary of the Marxian theory of value." Unwary readers may be impressed by Professor Laski’s judgment, but others will know that this Professor of Political Science does not understand Marx’s economic theories, and has confessed as much. When he wrote his "Communism" (see review in Socialist Standard, July, 1927), so little was he able to deal with this aspect that he borrowed his "criticism" of the Labour Theory of Value from a book called "Karl Marx's Capital," written by Professor Lindsay, and Lindsay knows no more about the subject than Laski or Cole.
That is by the way. Here it is impossible to examine in detail Cole's summary of the theory. Whether the Marxian Theory of Value is right or wrong, nobody who had mastered even the first few chapters of "Capital" could ever believe he was representing Marx's ideas in writing: "Marx's 'value' or ‘exchange value' is, then . . . purely and simply objectified use value. It is the real amount of objective utility which a commodity possesses as a result of the labour bestowed upon it." What this all means only Cole and, presumably, Laski, know. Fortunately it is not Marxian.
It is to be hoped that nobody will be enticed into buying or reading the book in the belief that it is a statement of Marxist principles. It is nothing of the kind. It is a vastly irritating sermon on Labourism by a man who, incidentally, has now discovered that his fellow "intellectuals" were wrong when, a short time ago, they proclaimed that Capitalism was in ruins and unable to stand the burden of paying for further reforms or an extension of social services. At any rate, he writes that "the history of the past few years has very plainly illustrated the toughness and resisting power of Capitalism . . . even in face of prolonged world depression; and who is bold enough to say that the present depression, deep and long as it has been, will not pass and be succeeded by a phase of capitalist revival?"
Another author, with whom Mr. Cole claims some acquaintance, is Wm. Cobbett, for he wrote an introduction to Cobbett's "Grammar." Cobbett has a passage which can be fittingly applied to this book:—"the pompous tone, the self-conceit that is manifest from the beginning to the end, forbid us to give (the author) credit for sincerity when he confesses his deficiencies, and tell us that the confession is one of those clumsy traps so often used with the hope of catching unmerited applause."
There is some advice in Mr. Cole's book which we can heartily endorse, contained in the last paragraph: —
Having presented in this book my conception of what Marxism really means, I can only ask the reader, if he is in any doubt, to go and study for himself what Marx wrote, and not merely what others have written about him.
In conclusion there is one thing that should be made dear. The S.P.G.B. has been described by Cole as a "body of rigid Marxians." (Enc. Brit., Vol. 32, Page 507.) It might have been thought, therefore, that the author of a book supposed to deal with Marx would be particularly careful to ensure that it was sent to us for review. This book has not been sent to us. We wasted 5s. on buying it.