C.L.R. James

The Gathering Forces

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III. What Is Socialism?

What Is Marxism?

Rather than consider the “ism”, let us begin where Marx began: German idealistic philosophy, French political experience and British political economy. What Marx drew out of all of these was not some synthesis of civilised knowledge up to his day. The great force of his originality lies in the discovery of how the working class, through its productive activity, becomes the self-acting subject of history at a particular stage of society. A perspective of freedom is then opened up for all mankind, for around the working class can rally all other forces who recognise the multi-varied ways upon which the advancement of all civilisation depends. Marx’s link-up of the imposing volumes of Capital with the universal struggle for an eight-hour working day represented a momentous advance of civilisation.

The complaints about all that Marx did not foresee simply refuse to recognise the lines he wrote:

Constant revolution in production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation, distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. (Communist Manifesto)

This was the world after 1914: “All that is solid melts into air”; this is the utter disgrace of the once iconised Stalin; “all that is holy is profaned”; this is the description of the most up-to-date revolution in production – the discovery of an explosive energy in the atom: “man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.” The majority of people, by their experience of this disorder, inherent in present society, will at last be forced to face the real conditions of their existence and their relations with other people. That is when we are going to have the socialist society.

Most people who reach for the pen and the public prints never discuss this. Instead they insist as does George Lichtein: “Even less were Marx and Engels able to foresee that their doctrine might become the ideology of a technocratic elite intent upon imposing its authority upon the workers ...” (George Lichteim, Marxism, p. 396) Thus a typical critic, oblivious to the fact that the heroic efforts of Hungarian workers, Cuban masses, Polish workers, British workers, Negro Americans, the American working class, to break the bureaucratic suppression of the self-development of the producers themselves is the fullest justification of Marx’s centra,l doctrine: the working class through its own self-activity is the liberating force in world history.

But Lichteim one might say is, after all, merely a consistent proponent of the welfare state. We can expect such from him. what of many of those who call themselves Marxists? In reply we can best cite the example of Herbert Marcuse. Once the author of an outstanding study of the revolutionary meaning of Marx’s taking over of the Hegelian dialectic (Reason and Revolution), he has now turned to studies of how Marxism has been appropriated by the Russian elite. Overwhelmed by and accommodating to the power of Stalinism and its heirs, he now has delivered himself of a eulogy on the norking class who have become, he sadly reports, one-dimensional man no longer capable of transforming anything. Suffice it to say that this flies in the face both of reason and experience.

Numerous as his pall bearers may be, Marx outlined the governing factors of the present stage of crisis within the working class movement as regards its enemy, capital. He wrote in Capital:

... these powers appear as self-dependent powers of capital lording it over labour and standing in direct opposition to the labourer’s own development.

The authority assumed by the capitalist ... the social function performed by him in his capacity as a manager and ruler of production is essentially different from the authority exercised upon the basis of production by means of slaves, serfs, etc.

This authority is vested in its bearers only as a personification of the requirements of labour standing over the labourer. (Vol. III, p. 1027)

Is there any more objectively accurate description of Stalin, Beria, Malenkov, Bulganin, Khrushchev, Kosygin and Brezhnev and their counterparts throughout the world? Marx foresaw the relation and therefore his name has outlived all those who praise him solely as the best means of burying him out of sight of the living; or who pontificate about what he did not see.

Last updated on 18 October 2020