Wednesday, September 13, 2017

What Marx didn't say (1964)

From the April 1964 issue of the Socialist Standard

On March 5th the Guardian published a thousand word article by Mr. John Grigg, called ”Fat Communists.” Its immediate purpose was to expose the shallow reasoning of the Prime Minister and Mr. Harold Wilson, who had both said that the American Government should not bar trade with Cuba but encourage it, and thus help to raise the Cuban standard of living, because a “fat” Communist is less dangerous than a “lean” one. Mr. Grigg, in developing his argument, also smacked down Churchill and Attlee, Khrushchev, Stalin and Marx.

People who think that professional writers and newspaper editors must know something about what they write and print may have been impressed by the article, but the really remarkable thing about it was the achievement of compressing so much error into so little space.

It was not quite all error: two of the points were valid. Certainly Churchill and Attlee were creating a myth when they referred during the war to a “thousand year feud between Teuton and Gaul.” And if Cuban peasants think that supporting Castro will lessen their poverty they won’t turn against him simply because their poverty becomes less.

Now for a batch of Mr. Grigg’s absurdities. According to him, “Cuba is now a Communist State” (likewise Russia and China),“Communism is a dynamic world religion,” and Marx believed in “economic determinism,” holding that “men necessarily act in accordance with their economic self-interest.”

Just to put the record straight, Cuba is not a “Communist” state, Communism is not a religion, Marx did not explain history by a doctrine of “economic determinism," nor did he believe that individuals necessarily act in accordance with economic self-interest.

Part of the confusion arises because the key-words in Mr. Grigg’s article are widely used by people who have given no more thought to what they intend by them than he has, and he does nothing to clear it up by giving definitions.

Communism (or Socialism) in the meaning attached to it by Marx and other pioneers is a social system based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production, and distribution, without production for sale and profit, without the wages system, without incomes from property-owning, without class privilege, operating on the principle, “From each according to ability: to each according to need.” Communism does not exist anywhere. All the world, except to the extent that there are still backwaters not yet brought into the main stream, is capitalist. Cuba, Russia, China, etc., are in the main capitalist stream, differing from the so-called capitalist democracies in their use of political dictatorship to foster accumulation of capital and industrialisation.

Russia and Cuba do not cease to be capitalist because those in control of the machinery of government choose, out of ignorance or political calculation, to label themselves Communist, any more than Britain ceased to be capitalist under Ramsay MacDonald or Attlee because of their claim to be Socialist.

One pertinent question for Mr. Grigg to answer is posed by the very subject which prompted him to write. The movement or consumption of products inside or between capitalist countries is an act of trade, for money or through barter; in a non-capitalist world they would be neither. How then do Mr. Grigg’s allegedly “Communist” Cuba and Russia come to be concerned with trade which could have no place in Socialism (Communism)?

Now for Marx. Marx called his theory of history historical materialism, not economic determinism. He claimed that men make history, not that it is predetermined. He expressly did not hold that the economic factor is the only one necessary to explain the course of history. Geographical factors are also among those relevant. He held that the economic factor is of predominant importance because the way in which wealth is produced and distributed forms the basis of human society and at a certain stage gives rise to property and class relationship and class struggles; that this economic factor is the one material factor which goes on changing and developing and consequently leads to changes in legal, political, moral and religious ideas and institutions. Marx did not hold that individual actions are no more than the consequence of individual economic interest uninfluenced by ideas. What he did hold was that ideas, and m particular class ideas, are determined by the method of producing the material livelihood, and change with the latter. But the ideas (the idea of Socialism is one of them) exercise their own influence on individual behaviour even to the point that sometimes “the dead hand of the past weighs like an alp on the brain of the living” and to the point that the individual may act in conformity with the ideas of his class against his own individual self interest. Marx went further and pointed out in the Communist Manifesto how it has happened in history that a small section of the ruling class “cuts itself adrift and joins the revolutionary class.” He wrote:—
   . . . so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movements as a whole.
Does anyone suppose that Marx's friend Engels, prosperous partner in his father's textile firm, was following individual economic interest in devoting time and energy to the Socialist movement and giving financial assistance to enable Marx to do the same?

Marx, of all people, was well aware that working-class history is full of examples of men who were prepared to put the idea of trade union or class loyalty before their individual economic interest. Let us then repeat for Mr. Grigg's benefit that his beliefs about Marx and historical materialism are wholly baseless.

Mr. Grigg in his article dashes off other sweeping assertions which land him in what ought to be obvious dilemmas. He endorses the claim made by the Jesuits that if they got hold of young children for indoctrination it would not be easy for the children even to escape from the ideas, and enlarges this into the statement that the Russian and other “Communist" governments, with modern propaganda resources, “can become almost self-perpetuating.” He supports it with the statement that the workers in those countries will go on supporting their governments because they will see in underground railways, power stations and dams, etc., “miracles of Communism."

First he overlooks that the Catholic church, despite its hold on the young in the middle ages, lost its grip over a large part of its world to protestant rebels and the growth of irreligion. And much as Khrushchev’s government (like Home’s and every other government in the world) may try to get the workers to believe that they enjoy benefits unknown to the unfortunates who live in other countries how, in the long run, are the exploited working class to be prevented from seeing the gulf between their own conditions of life and those of the privileged minority in their own country? And quite a lot of Russian workers happen to know that underground railways, power stations, etc., exist also in other parts of the capitalist world.

Mr. Grigg, having demolished the Churchill-Attlee myth and the Home-Wilson myth, creates one of his own. Khrushchev, he says, “is a dedicated Russian Communist who aims at world revolution’’ because he is a devotee of that ‘‘dynamic world religion” which he shares with Mao and others.

Here is an explanation which explains nothing. Khrushchev, Mao, Castro, etc., are titular heads of capitalist states which, in the nature of capitalist states, find themselves in conflict with other capitalist states over trade rivalries, strategic frontiers, greed to control sources of raw materials, etc. This is understandable, and Marx’s analysis of capitalism alone explains it. But what are we to make of a Khrushchev and a Mao who are supposed by Mr. Grigg not to be affected by material capitalist factors but to be fanatical idealists motivated only by the idea of Communism, who have done nothing whatever about introducing Communism in their respective countries, whose policies at home and abroad are not significantly different from the policies of all the other heads of capitalist states and who, to cap it all, are in a state of cold war with each other?

Mr. Grigg tries to justify his belief that the world is divided into a capitalist half and a Communist half and “never the twain shall meet,” by saying that one half cherishes “bourgeois values," but “a measure of personal liberty and initiative on which those bourgeois values rest" is foreign to the whole theory and practice of Communism." But hardly has he written this than he remembers something, and adds that these bourgeois values were also foreign “to the traditions and historic Russia."

So he is not only not dealing with Communism at all, he is not even dealing with Russian State capitalism, but with Tsarist Russia.

Here we get nearer to the truth, though it escapes Mr. Grigg. This lack of “personal liberty and initiative" were peculiarly features of pre-capitalist countries all over Europe. They came in with the rise of capitalism in England and elsewhere and though Mr. Grigg cannot see them developing in Russia Mr. Khrushchev is well aware of them. How to encourage initiative has been a recurring theme of Khrushchev’s speeches for years. And, of course, the emerging bourgeoisie in Russia is interested in “personal liberty." What is the use of a privileged status, fat incomes, and accumulation of wealth if it is at the mercy of the arbitrary tyranny of a police state? This is precisely their interest in the movement away from Stalinism. They may have a considerable way to go before they can feel they are the equals of the capitalist class of the West, but the trend is unmistakable and it isn't in the direction Mr. Grigg thinks it is.

One final correction for Mr. Grigg. Personal liberty and initiative are not only not alien to Communism (Socialism) but are an integral part of it. They will first reach full expression only when Socialism comes into being in Russia, China and the rest of the capitalist world.
Edgar Hardcastle

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