Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

Including Us Out?

(August 1959)

From The Newsletter, 22 August 1959.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

A contributor to the correspondence in the New Statesman about problems of the Socialist Societies in provincial universities has declared that some of these Societies are dominated by ‘exclusionist Trotskyism’.

What, one wonders, may that be? An exclusionist, according to the dictionary, is ‘one who would exclude another from some privilege’, and in particular ‘a supporter of the Exclusion Bill (1679)’.

From what privilege are the redbrick Trotskyists seeking to exclude other socialists? Surely the boot is on the other foot, and it is Transport House that is out to exclude all Trotskyists from the privilege of belonging to the Labour Party.

As for the Exclusion Bill of 1679, what relevance can that have? Socialist Labour League members are doubtless all foes to ‘Popery, slavery, brass money and wooden shoes’, like those who sought to exclude the ultra-reactionary James, Duke of York, from the succession to the throne of England.

But they would claim no monopoly of such sentiments: and might urge that other issues are more urgent nowadays. It is all rather mystifying.

When a movement becomes the object of meaningless abuse, as in this letter, as well as of mendacity, as illustrated by Briginshaw’s circular, that can usually be taken as a sign that its opponents are finding it hard to deal with in an honest political way.

Marx caught two-timing?

A friend who has been badly bitten by Strachey’s Contemporary Capitalism has lent me a book called Marx and America, by Earl Browder, who is now in the same business of trying to show how obsolete and fallacious were Marx’s ideas on political economy.

One of Browder’s big points is that Marx contradicted himself in his theory of wages.

Whereas in Wage-Labour and Capital (1849) Marx shows wages as being basically determined by minimum subsistence levels, in Wages, Price and Profit (given as a lecture in 1865) and in the first volume of Capital (1867) he recognizes the existence of a social (‘historical and moral’) element in wages – something unique in the way that the value of labour-power is determined, as contrasted with any other commodity.

Engels, says Browder, by reissuing Wage-Labour and Capital in 1891 without drawing attention to the alleged contradiction, helped to confuse and mislead students of Marxism from that moment on, until Browder arose to clear the matter up.

In my humble opinion, however, what Browder has discovered is a mare’s nest. The idea of the ‘historical and moral element’ in wage levels is clearly conveyed in Wage-Labour and Capital, in the passage which tilts at attempts to define standards of living in absolute terms, and ends:

‘Our needs and enjoyments spring from society. We measure them, therefore, by society, and not by the objects of their satisfaction. Because they are of a social nature, they are of a relative nature’. Browder appears to have missed this.

Not his Aunt Sally

Unfortunately, though, it cannot be said that Browder is shooting at an Aunt Sally of his own making when he ridicules ‘subsistence-theory’ Marxists.

Owing to the Soviet bureaucracy’s need for a world-picture which would make the condition of the Russian workers seem better than it was, the Stalinists at a certain stage did commit themselves to some singularly foolish statements about working-class standards in the west, and comically ‘theorized’ about them on ‘subsistence-theory’ lines.

See, for instance, the pamphlet Are the Workers Better Off? by J. Kuczynski, with a foreword by R. Page Arnot, published by Marx House in 1944.

Browder quite correctly points to the shortcomings of the view expressed by Marx (and echoed by Lenin) that a more advanced country shows to less advanced ones ‘the image of their future’, but fails to acknowledge his debt in this connexion to Trotsky’s conception of ‘uneven and combined development’.

But it is gratifying to have, even so late in the day, this admission from the leader of the American Stalinists in the 1930s: ‘Lenin never considered the possibility of socialism in Russia alone ... for Lenin in 1917 the Russian Revolution was to be proclaimed “socialist,” not because Russia taken alone was ripe for such a step, but because it would trigger the German socialist revolution.’

Last updated on 12.10.2011