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International Socialism, Spring 1962


David Cairns

Another Look


From International Socialism (1st series), No.8, Spring 1962, p.31.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Tyranny of Concepts: a Critique of Marxism
Gordon Leff
Merlin Press. 21s.

It is very difficult to understand what Mr. Leff is getting at. He says his book ‘has been largely prompted by the socialist rethinking of the New Left.’ Yet, he says, it is not a direct contribution to it. In fact it is barely relevant, for it concentrates on the Lenin-Stalin-Mao-Tse Tung line of Marxist thought and entirely neglects the numerous, often much more fruitful and humanistic, alternative interpretations and elaborations that have been offered. Everything is ordered so as to fit in with Mr. Leff’s theory that the Leninist and Stalinist sterilisations of Marx’s work are the principle characteristics of Marxism today, which neatly coincides with the ‘Labourist’ distortions of Marx.

The greater part of the book is devoted to a study of dialectical materialism and historical materialism. Much of the author’s criticisms of the logical fallacies of the official Communist versions of these concepts is fair enough, but surely if one. is writing a book about Marxism this is to beg the question; besides which it has all been said before. The section on materialism is particularly naive, implying as it does a rigid dichotomy between a Freudian position and a Marxist one, completely overlooking modern developments in psychology which have been sweeping aside notions like instinct, and desperately trying to find some area of human life which is not fundamentally shaped by social experience. He completely ignores the degree of autonomy ascribed to the superstructure of society by Engels, Marx’s tendency to concentrate on political ideas as reflections of the base, and contents himself with echoing the usual nonsense about scientific discoveries being unaffected by a society’s political structure.

I find the sections on freedom and dictatorship of the proletariat more refreshing. Mr. Leff does well to warn us of the dangers of ‘the tyranny of necessity’ that lie in many Marxist minds. On the other hand a much fuller discussion is needed of alienation to do justice to Marx on the question of freedom, especially of the way in which the concept has been broadened by some people into a coalescence with the concept of anomie.

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