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International Socialism, Spring 1964

Gavin Kennedy

Letter From a Reader

From International Socialism, No.16, Spring 1964, p.15.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Hal Draper’s refreshing polemical style (IS 15) effectively refutes the concept of the inevitability of socialism. It is a pity, therefore, that his theoretical effort is marred by the mechanistic train of thought which he so correctly criticises. Materialism is a method, not a routine. It is not sufficient to have at hand a concordance of everything written by Marx and others, for, when subsequent events proved their earlier conclusions wrong or modified them, they clearly said so. (How many ‘dedicated’ Marxists have read the many ‘prefaces’ to the works of Marx or Engels?) To search the writings for the ‘revealed truth’ is to turn original polemical styles into a scissors-and-paste job. The conclusion of such Marxism is that creative materialism ended in August 1940.

When we state, ‘This world of nature, of which man and his works are a part, is governed by natural laws,’ we are at once dividing ourselves off from all varieties of idealism and introducing the thin end of the wedge of crude mechanical materialism. One idealist vigorously denies the existence of laws of nature that are independent of man’s consciousness, another states that such laws of nature are revealed to man by God. The mechanical materialist upholds the supremacy of natural laws but then identifies his conceptions of law with reality. This commonly takes the form of establishing a formula for a sociological process and then misapplying it to any similar situation (dogmatism). Apparently these ‘Marxist laws’ have the advantage of eternal validity.

The assertion that ‘the same concatenation of causes will ever produce the same effect’ has a strictly relative, i.e., dialectical, meaning. Causality is only a crude approximation of the objective reality, a freezing at an instant in time of a continuous process of infinitesimally minute changes in an infinitesimally great universe. Cause and effect are reciprocally identical. Human thought separates them in a time scale. A physicist measures the relationship between one and the other with a high degree of accuracy (which is still an approximation). Mathematics can translate related functions into symbols and predict cause and effect in a limited way (the calculus, computers, etc). But a materialist is not dealing with quantitative objects in a laboratory but with a living social process. Causality is not apparent to us as a result of repeated exacting experiments because ‘history does not repeat itself,’ and hence the difficulty of reducing the class struggle to mathematical concepts except in a most general way. It is therefore even more absurd to fit the class struggle to pre-conceived formulas and notions.

The difficulty of scientific socialism is that in isolating a particular event (the Soviet State) we are isolating a series of sub-events (socio-geographical factors, histories, classes, parties, world relationships, etc) and can easily overlook or over-emphasise this or that factor and then generalise an error into a principle. Also, significant factors can be operating, unknown at the time due to the inexact nature of our analyses, which later appear and significantly alter the course of events. Hence Trotsky posed alternatives for the human race at a particular stage in a general way. All the time these alternatives were useful when a question mark was placed over the future of socialism – as it was by Stalinism in Russia and Fascism in Europe. But such a posing of alternatives has a strictly limited value. As eternal ‘choices’ they are meaningless.

It is in this light that the idea of the inevitability of socialism must be viewed, as must the equally mechanical maxim, ‘socialism or barbarism.’ If the former is a device to encourage the devoted, the latter bears the same relation to the movement as the theological alternatives of heaven or hell to the devout. Draper wrote his article in 1947, Trotsky posed the alternatives in 1938, and neither has yet emerged (we have neither socialism nor barbarism). This in itself should cause us to question the usefulness of such catch-phrases.

The ‘inevitable-ist’ has many of the ideas outlined by Draper. But the ‘either-or-ist’ commits as many mistakes with his warnings of impending doom if the revolution is not made soon. Ironically, this same person, conscious of the alternatives to socialism, is in the forefront of the moral critics of those revolutions that are made. Barbarism is seen in every revolution, bureaucracy becomes an ogre of the workers’ states. A process of identification of barbarism and Stalinism begins and we end up with an Orwellian pessimism. To be sure, the road to 1984 emerges in the fog of ‘democracy’, ‘morality’ and phobias about ‘bureaucracy’.

Draper ends with a heart-stirring call to assault ‘the last thousand feet.’ It is in the nature of a mountaineer to worry about how he gets down the mountain after, and only after, he has climbed it. Likewise, the socialist movement, if it is to do what is necessary, must take its chances on the threat of bureaucracy.

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