Marx and Soviet Reality. Daniel Norman (1955)

I: Words and Meanings

There is at least one point on which Soviet propaganda and the opponents of Marxism – and of Socialism in general – agree: both describe the USSR as the embodiment of the Marx – Engels conception of a Socialist society. Both claim to see in the masters of the Kremlin the heirs and faithful pupils of Marx, and in Soviet policy the extension of Marxian policy in our times.

Nothing could be wider of the mark; nothing would have infuriated Marx and Engels more. For under its Marxist veneer of Bolshevik terminology, Soviet reality can be easily identified with everything abhorred, criticised and fought against by Marx and Engels all their lives. And it is indeed difficult to believe they would have been the last to perceive this.

Even before entering on a study of conditions in present-day Soviet Russia, the very ‘Marxist’ jargon in honour in that country strikes one by that ‘doctrinaire and dogmatic’ character Marx and Engels were so quick to condemn whenever they encountered it in their followers, and brings to mind their warnings against it. It was the dogmatic character of their French followers in the late 1870s which made Marx (first in a letter to his son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, and repeatedly thereafter, as Engels reminds Conrad Schmidt in his letter of 5 August 1890) exclaim: ‘All I know is that I am not a Marxist.’

Not once, but many times did Engels remonstrate with his German comrades because they treated Marxian teachings in a ‘dogmatic way’ (Engels to Sorge on 29 November 1886); or emphasise to his friends that ‘our theory is the exposition of a process of evolution...’ (to Florence Kelley Wischnewetsky on 2 December 1886 and 27 January 1887). Yet their modern Russian disciples went even further than the French and German ‘Marxists’ of the nineteenth century. In its Soviet-Russian variant, Marxian language has undergone a profound transformation. Every word has been emptied of its original meaning to be thereupon refilled, as it were, with a quite different one, or else distorted so as to convey the very opposite notion. This process has gone so far that one cannot help wondering how much Marx and Engels would have recognised in the hotch-potch.

For example, a British worker, employed in a nationalised factory (whose economic, social and political situation has undergone so great an improvement as to amount to a revolution since Marx and Engels’ day, and who still retains the means to fight for the maintenance and further improvement of his situation) is a ‘wage-earner’ in the Marxian sense of the word, and still ‘exploited’; but in the Muscovite ‘Marxist’s’ eyes he is only a ‘slave’.

His opposite number in the USSR (where ‘the system of wage labour and exploitation has been abolished’, as Stalin pretended) earns less, works longer hours, has much less variety of goods on which to spend his money, has trade unions which exist only to squeeze more and more work out of him, is tied to his particular factory, and has the prospect of being sent to a forced labour camp if he makes a mistake or protests against his lot; yet he, according to Muscovite ‘Marxism’, represents the most ‘advanced, emancipated and free’ worker in the world.

To admit the justice of this, one must first accept the anti-Marxian Soviet distinction between an amount of unpaid labour which is ‘surplus value’ when it is the British state which is the beneficiary, and the same amount of unpaid labour which is not ‘surplus value’ when the Russian state is on the receiving end – a subtlety that would perhaps not have been very well received by the author of the theory.

It is today particularly important to stress this aspect of the Marxian-Soviet relationship, not only because the myth of an orthodox ‘Marxist’ Russia persists and even prospers, but also because under the mantle of ‘Marxism’ and ‘world revolution’ the traditional, expansionist Russian foreign policy has found a new impetus, and since the end of the war Russian reality has become a matter for export in a Procrustean way, not only where the Red Army brought it a la pointe des baļonnettes – as in the case of the European satellite countries – but also in countries where totalitarian Communists have seized power almost against the will of the Kremlin, as in China.

Stalin’s definition of the Soviet Union as ‘the prototype of the future amalgamation of the toilers of all countries in a single world economy’ and Mao Tse-Tung’s conclusion, ‘Follow the path of the Russians’ (People’s Democratic Dictatorship) compared with Engels’ expressed opinion that ‘independent nations go their own way’, illustrates the fundamental antagonism which has developed between the dogmatic pupils and their ‘masters’’ teaching, as well as the deadly danger facing Socialism as a movement of social and human emancipation from all servitudes, such as Marx and Engels envisaged it.

This danger was foreseen, as early as 1918, by Rosa Luxemburg, whose mastery of the Marxist method of analysis and whose sympathies with the Russian Revolution are well known. In her last work, The Russian Revolution, written in a German prison shortly before her death, she says that everything that was then happening in Russia was to be explained by the inevitable sequence of cause and effect, and that the Russian leaders:

... have truly done what could be done in these devilishly difficult conditions. The danger would be that, making a virtue of necessity, they should crystallise theoretically in all points the tactics which were forced on them by circumstances, and present these to the international proletariat as the model of socialist tactics to be followed.