Clemens Dutt

The Recent Advance in Marxist Thought in England

Source: The Communist International, Vol. XIV, September 1937, No. 9, pp. 663-666.
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

ONE of the most significant developments in England during the last few years has been the growing attention paid to Marxism. It is a sign of the times that the first anniversary of the Left Book Club, founded for the sale and study of new books broadly representative of the “Left” wing in England and reflecting to a large extent the prevailing interest in works written from a Marxist standpoint, should find that the club has become a powerful organization with almost 50,000 members and a wide network of local groups.

Before the World War, the teachings of Marxism in England was in the hands of small sectarian circles, and the recognized exponents of Marxism such as Hyndman had heavily distorted Marxist teachings. At this time Marxism was universally ignored by bourgeois culture or scornfully condemned as an arid dogma and exploded theory. Ramsay MacDonald displayed the ignorance of the British reformist when he wrote, “Marx’s place is on the threshold of scientific sociology but not over it.” (Socialism and Society.)

For a long time, even after the war, most of the works of Marx and Engels were not available in English translation, and existing texts were largely mutilated and distorted presentations. Outside the field of political economy and political theory, the work of Marx was entirely unknown. No textbook of philosophy mentioned his name, and if writers on political economy did mention him it was only with stupid arrogance and with an attitude toward Marx’s teachings as one hardly requiring refutation.

It is only in recent years that a change has taken place in this situation. The influence of Marxist thought is now becoming apparent in many different spheres. In the publishing trade there is something like a lasting “boom” in Marxism. Bourgeois publishers who never ventured into this field before now find that it is worth their while to publish books on Marxism and Leninism. It is significant that the more important hostile biographies of Marx, such as that of Carr, do at least make use of the extensive materials made available by the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute. Such a work as Mehring’s Life of Karl Marx, which has long remained untranslated, is now issued in English by a bourgeois publisher.

The fact that such an opponent of Marxism as G. D. H. Cole hastens to take advantage of the new market with a book on What Marx Really Meant is itself an indication of how greatly Marxism has become a fashion among bourgeois intellectuals, just as the fact also that Cole claims to be a Marxist (“What I have written,” he says, “is in essence Marxist”), at the same time putting forward the most grotesque distortions of Marxism, is an indication of the stage of understanding of Marxism prevailing among his intellectual public.

Bourgeois publishers who a few years ago would have no interest in the subject now try to compete with the “Left” publishers by including works by or on Marx, Engels and Lenin. Thus Routledge publishes Marxism and Modern Thought, and Chapman and Hall have recently issued a collection of Letters of Lenin in a pitiably ignorant and careless translation. Moreover, these books are widely and favorably reviewed in the bourgeois press. England, where the greater part of the lifetime of Marx and Engels was spent, and where they were ignored during their lifetime and slandered so long after their death, is now beginning to take Marxism seriously.

The world of bourgeois thought in England is discovering Marxism. Influential writers on political theory like Professor H. G. Laski are taking an increasingly serious attitude to Marxism. The London School of Economics finds it desirable to include a course of lectures on Marxism, given, it is true, by various persons representing a most confused medley of opinions. Against their will, the bourgeois economists, finding themselves in a blind alley with their equilibrium equasions and psychological factors, are driven to adopt fragments of the very Marxian analyses that they so wholeheartedly detest. Thus the leading British bourgeois economist, J. M. Keynes, in his recent work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, hailed by bourgeois economic thought as the greatest masterpiece of recent years, while explicitly repudiating Marxian economics as “obsolete,” finally arrives at something resembling a labor theory of value.

Especially important is the growing approach to Marxism by natural scientists. Six years ago materialism was still defended only by a few experimental scientists such as L. T. Hogben and J. Needham, who attempted to defend the instinctive mechanical materialism of the natural scientists against the spreading morass of idealist and mystical views characteristic of the epoch of decaying capitalism.

A turning point came with the London International Congress on the History of Science, where a series of papers were presented by the Soviet delegation and created a tremendous impression. It came as a revelation that the researches and discoveries of such a scientist as Newton, for instance, could be interpreted in the light of the economic and social conditions prevailing in his day. More important still, the subject of dialectical materialism suddenly came into the forefront of attention.

The first reaction on the part of the scientist was the typically British one of saying in effect that it was all nonsense, Hegelian nonsense. But gradually, as the writing of the founders of Marxism-Leninism became available and began at last to be studied in Britain, more and more of the outstanding younger representatives of science, philosophy, history and literature began to be attracted by what were to them entirely new theories.

Among the scientists, various lines of development made themselves evident. First of all, there is the continuation of mechanical materialism, as exemplified by Professor Hogben, which adopts a “Left” point of view in social questions but regards dialectical materialism as philosophical moonshine.

Secondly, the professional philosophers, such as Oxford don Carritt, tried to treat dialectical materialism as a specialized philosophical subject which was the prerogative of their department. Professor MacMurray (Philosophy of Communism), on the other hand, gives his support to Marxism as an all-embracing unity of theory and practice, but only in order to try and substitute Hegelian idealism for dialectical materialism and to controvert the class struggle conclusions of Marxism and Leninism. The belletrist, Middleton Murray, along with a number of others, flirts with the adoption of dialectical materialism and Marxism in order to reconcile Communism and Christianity.

Third, we have an important group of scientists who have given pleasing recognition to dialectical materialism as having a weighty bearing for the general theory of science, but who are still greatly influenced by the English tradition of empiricism, who in general underestimate theory and who have an instinctive distrust of all philosophy. This attitude is not without its influence on those who are now definitely prepared to proclaim themselves dialectical materialists. Hence, while recognizing the advance toward the understanding and acceptance of Marxist theory which has taken place recently in Britain, it must be admitted that the present stage of thin development is characterized by a mass of confusion, inexactitudes, aberrations and harmful deviations from Marxism.

It is significant that on the subject of dialectical materialism the only important contribution that has so far appeared in England, and which in spite of many confused formulations and other shortcomings is marked by originality, breadth of treatment and understanding, is not the work of a bourgeois intellectual but of a tried militant in the ranks of the working class. We refer to T. A. Jackson’s Dialectics.

The movement now taking place in the direction of Marxism in England is one of the most characteristic signs of the deepening revolutionary crisis. It is a product of the experience gathered from the World War and the Russian Revolution, and its growth has been accelerated above all by the impact of the economic crisis of 1929-32. It was a staggering revelation for the adherents of Reformist Socialism in England, who had sneered at Marxism as a bundle of out-of-date fallacies, to find that the predictions of Marxist analysis were confirmed by experience on every hand, while the cherished assumptions of “gradualness” and peaceful evolution crumbled and broke when put to the test.

For half a century Fabian Socialism was the dominant tendency in England. It represented the English variety of “revisionism” and, in accordance with its fill adaptation to the conditions of imperialism and a labor movement under the guidance of bourgeois ideology, it proclaimed itself, not a revision of Marxism but the open enemy of Marxism. Foremost among the founders and exponents of Fabianism were Sydney Webb and Bernard Shaw. It is characteristic that the last great work of Sydney and Beatrice Webb, Soviet Communism: A New Civilization?, is in effect a repudiation of the whole theory that they have championed during the last half century.

Very similar conclusions could be drawn from the two new chapters (on Sovietism and on fascism) just published by Bernard Shaw as an appendix to one of his older works. The foremost leaders of the British variety of Socialism are forced to testify that there is no alternative to Marxism, that the world today is not the world of reformism, but a world whose development was foreseen by Marx.

A new generation is growing up in England which is coming to realize the truth of these statements. It is significant that a wider and deeper unity has been achieved in the student movement in Britain between the Communists and Socialists than in the Socialist movement outside. The foundation of the Marx House in London, the interest taken in the lectures provided by it and its support from prominent representatives among British intellectuals, at last give Marx the honor that is his due in England and further testifies to the growing influence of Marxism. Among the outstanding poets and writers of the new generation, a large number are going over to Marxism and their influence is felt in such periodicals as the Left Review and new Marxist literary journals, such as New Writing.

The turn from Fabian Socialism to Marxism is clearly revealed by the changed attitude of the Independent Labor Party. For thirty years and more the I.L.P. has always proclaimed itself as anti-Marxist. Now we find, for instance, the secretary, Paton, declaring shortly after the Blackpool Congress in the summer of 1932 that the I.L.P. is a Marxist party. In place of the reformism of MacDonald and Snowden we have the rather half-hearted recognition of Marxism by Maxton and the pseudo-revolutionary utterances of Fenner Brockway, who pictures himself as more Marxist than the Marxists. The extreme danger of this shallow, verbal pretense of Marxism without acceptance of the reality of Marxist-Leninist revolutionary teachings is seen in the easy way in which these I.L.P. Marxists turn to Trotskyism and to support of the counter-revolutionary P.O.U.M. The misunderstanding of Marxism can be more dangerous than open hostility to it.

The recognition of these dangers is one of the most important lessons which must be learned from experience of the development of Marxist theory in Britain at the present stage. The fact, for instance, that such a widely read exponent of Marxist theory as J. Strachey should have recently given his approval, in a preface to a new work on Freud and Marx, which attempts to reconcile these irreconcilable standpoints, is an indication of the deficiencies in the understanding of Marxism that are still prevalent in England.

The stage that has now been reached in England is one where a wide approach to the understanding of Marxism has been made for the first time. The first necessity now is for more and deeper study. A certain proportion of the main works of Marx and Engels are now available in English translation, although it is true that such major works as Dialectics of Nature, Theories of Surplus Value and the German Ideology are still unknown to the English reading public. Up to now, a large proportion of the young bourgeois intellectuals in England have merely flirted with Marxism, without attempting really to study and apply the theory.

The rich experience embodied in the teaching of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin furnishes the only correct guide for action in the complex problems facing the working class movement in England today. The application of Marxism-Leninism in practice for the advance of the working class movement requires that the theory be fully mastered and that there be a ruthless exposure of the prevailing confusion and mistakes.

The present ferment which is bringing toward the working class movement important elements from the intelligentsia has not yet gone far in affecting the outlook of the working class movement as a whole. In view of the great weight of traditional thinking, which affects the outlook of the trade union movement, as well as the preoccupation with immediate issues of struggle that hinders attention to theoretical questions, it is the more important that the theoretical realization of the necessity of Marxism as the only path forward in England should have its fruit in practice in the realization of a broad popular front for the immediate objects of struggle, common to workers and intellectuals alike. The fact that the growth of Marxism in England is above all noticeable among the intellectuals and advanced working class elements is a sign of the specific character of the dialectical development of the situation in Great Britain.