Marx and Soviet Reality. Daniel Norman (1955)

III: The Marxian Key to Soviet Reality

Before going into our investigation proper, it is necessary to make acquaintance with the other Marx, the realist and scholar, who has provided the method of discovering what the USSR really is, and why she is what she is. This is all the more necessary as Marx and Engels’ Utopia is not altogether pure imagination, but often has its roots in reality, since they sought the answer to man’s future in human society both of the past and of their times, and the method they used to form their theory is perhaps the most precious part of their legacy; it has since, in fact, been accepted and used by ever larger circles of scholars in the historical and sociological field, most of whom are avowed adversaries of Communism.

Marx and Engels never believed that their millennium could be brought about on earth by the will of the few and imposed on man generally. The society they envisaged must result from a ‘natural evolution’ and their theory only showed men how to behave, how to recognise favourable conditions – that is, if the material basis on which such a society is possible exists – and eventually how to act so as to hasten its advent in such circumstances.

Their method of investigation is known as historical materialism. Its most complete definition was given by Marx himself in his preface to the Critique of Political Economy, in which he also describes how its conception was arrived at. As it is too lengthy to be reproduced here, we shall instead use a condensed version, given by Engels in a letter to J Bloch (21 September 1890).

According to the materialist conception of history [he wrote], the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. If therefore somebody twists this into the statement that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms it into a meaningless abstract and senseless phrase.

The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure – political forms of the class struggle and its consequences, constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc... and then even the reflex of all these struggles in the brains of the combatants: political, legal and philosophical theories, religious ideas and their further development into systems of dogma – also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form.

There is an interaction of all these elements, in which amid all the endless host of accidents... the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary...

And he resumes: ‘We make our own history, but in the first place under very definite presuppositions and conditions...’

But what exactly is this ‘ultimately determining element’ of which Engels speaks? Marx’s answer is: ‘The specific form in which unpaid surplus is pumped out of direct producers...’ (Capital, Volume 3, Chapter 47/2) And he adds that it ‘determines the relations of rulers and ruled, as it grows immediately out of production itself and in its turn reacts upon it’.

This is the basis of the ‘entire foundation of the economic community’, he explains, and at the same time ‘determines its political shape’ (ibid).

And here is the Marxian key to Russian reality:

It is always in the direct relations between the owners of the conditions of production and the direct producers... that we discover the innermost secret, the hidden foundation of the entire social construction, and consequently of the political form of the relations between sovereignty and dependence, in short of the specific form of the state. (Ibid)

This form of the state, explains Marx, ‘naturally corresponds always with a definite stage in the development of the methods of labour and of its productive social power’. But:

... this does not prevent the same economic basis from showing infinite variations and graduations in its appearance, even though its principal conditions are everywhere the same. This is due to innumerable outside circumstances, natural environment, race peculiarities, outside historical influences, and so forth, all of which must be ascertained by careful analysis. (Ibid)