Thursday, July 4, 2024

Not concise (2024)

Book Review from the July 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism. Editors: WF Haug, F Haug, P Jehle, W Kuttler. (Brill, 2024)

This is a selection of essays by a Berlin-based group of contributors, translated into English, in what the publishers claim is the Historical Materialism Book Series. It’s an open-access title freely distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence. The start of the Foreword gives some indication of where they are coming from:
‘The sudden downfall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc after 1989, an upheaval of cataclysmic proportions, left many of us in a state of shock, disbelief, grief, relief, doubt and hope. It forced us to take stock of what was irretrievably lost, and what could and should be saved’.
The result is this book. Its scope is impressively wide-ranging but pithy it ain’t. Anyone looking for concise dictionary definitions will be disappointed. Each of the 30 entries gives a detailed historical background but in crucial respects some are uncritical. Among the contributions you might not expect to find are entries on Cooking, Hackers, Hope and Intellectuals.

In the essay on Communism we are told that it is without classes, without state, without market and without contractual relations. However, the writer then poses the question:
‘Which form of trans-subjective relationship can determine such a society, without opening itself to the constitutive intersubjectivity of a new kind of social contract? Communism threatens to become an activist or operaist variant of an absolute knowledge in the sense of the Hegelian objective spirit.’
Whether the writer is being deliberately obscure or bullshitting is difficult to say, but this way of writing occurs frequently in this book. We are also told that socialism is a transitional society between capitalism and communism, where ‘social activity is still subject to the organisation by state planning’. Marx and Engels made no such distinction. Lenin did, though in the entry on Lenin’s Marxism this is not explained. Most of the contributors to this book refer to the former USSR as an example of ‘state-socialism’. There is no stand-alone entry on socialism.

The essay on Crisis Theories is probably the best of the book. It makes the point that Marx’s writings on this subject are ‘somewhat disjointed or even contradictory’. For three decades Marx wrote about underconsumption theories, overproduction theories, disproportionality theories, profit-squeeze theories, and over-accumulation theories which take the ‘law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall’ as their starting point. The author argues that cyclical capitalist crises only emerged in the 1820s. In 1844 Engels was to state that ‘periodically recurring’ crises were an inherent feature of capitalism. This point is important because some influential defenders of capitalism wrote before this time. For instance, Jean-Baptiste Say’s Trait√© d’√©conomie politique (A Treatise on Political Economy), published in 1803, declared that ‘the value we can buy is equal to the value we can produce’. This ‘law’ is usually interpreted as saying ‘supply creates its own demand’. Or, more precisely, that the normal state of an economy is equilibrium in which total demand equals total supply. This notion can still be found in some branches of capitalist economics where any imbalances are said to be ‘self-clearing’. This may have been the case when Say wrote but not when capitalist production became a competitive disequilibrium.

Lenin and Leninism are treated largely uncritically and the writings of Antonio Gramsci are given reverential handling. Most of the entries, to a greater or lesser extent, are guided by his thinking. For Gramsci, ‘organic intellectuals’ had a key role to play in social transformation. They would provide the cultural politics that would allow the working class to establish its hegemony. In Gramsci’s version of Leninism, capitalism is a system of privilege and oppression, but he said it is ‘the duty of the “leader” to explain the source of these privileges and this oppression’ to the working class. This is the way to socialism, so it is claimed. This cult of political leadership is a line of theory and practice which stretches back through the twentieth century from Gramsci to Lenin, to Kautsky and the Second International. Its failure wherever it is tried is a vindication of any basic understanding of Marxism: that the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself. There is no understanding of that anywhere in this book.
Lew Higgins

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