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International Socialism, July/August 1976


Martin Shaw

Marx and Modern Social Theory


From International Socialism (1st series), No.90, July/August 1976, p.27.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Marx and Modern Social Theory
Alan Swingewood
Macmillan, £2.95 (paperback)

This book is a textbook exposition of Marx’s theories and a comparison of them with the writings of bourgeois sociologists. As I read it, I couldn’t help contrasting the interest of academic sociologists in Marx, with his relative neglect by the socialist movement which he founded. The great ‘lives’ of Marx by socialists, such as Mehring’s and Riazanov’s, and the most readable and reliable expositions of his ideas, such as Hook’s and Korsch’s, all date from well before the last war. IS, for example, has published pamphlets and books on Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg – but not on Marx and Engels. Are we content to leave them to the academics – and our own comrades to learn about them from academic texts?

Swingewood’s book begins with chapters on ‘dialectics’ and ‘method’: precisely the aspects of Marx’s thought which are least of all discussed (the dogmatism of the WRP apart) in the modern revolutionary movement. Thinking, for example, of our own critique of ‘orthodox trotskyism’, it seems to me that this must hinge partly on the dogmatic, undialectical and non-materialist method which it uses in theorising about Russia, the party, etc. And yet we rarely talk about this question of method, relying rather on the concrete social, economic, and political aspects of the argument.

Of course, Marx’s materialist dialectics are hardly to be set up into a dogma, independent of the concrete issues. This has been the tendency of orthodox trotskyists who have discussed dialectics: and Swingewood (who is influenced by this point of view, as his feeble defence of the ‘workers’ state’ concept in chapter 6 shows), tends to fall victim too. Although much he writes, on this as on the other aspects of Marx’s thought, is useful and informative, it is a surprisingly undialectical work. It is another variety of what Mike Kidron (in a celebrated review of Ernest Mandel) once called ‘Maginot marxism’: defensive and lifeless.

What else, it might be asked, should we expect from what sets out to be a textbook? Well, we can and should ask for more. The purely formal approach (taking main concepts like dialectics, totality, ideology, alienation, class, power, hegemony, in turn, and asking what Marx, and then various bourgeois writers, have had to say about them), gives us some information but tends to obscure the fundamental differences between Marx’s standpoint and that of bourgeois thought.

But then Swingewood rejects the idea (as put forward, for example, by Georg Lukacs) that we can talk about ‘bourgeois thought’ in general. Why this should be so wrong, when Marx (with Swingewood’s approval) looks at the bourgeois mode of production, state, etc. in precisely the same general terms, is not clear. Anyway, it leads Swingewood – although he criticises Lukacs for being unhistorical – to show bourgeois sociology in an unhistorical light. And because he never considers bourgeois thought in general, he remains trapped in sociology, presenting Marx as a sociologist, never bringing out the fact that Marx challenges not just sociology but the whole division between sociology, economics, philosophy etc which exists in bourgeois thought.

Swingewood’s approach leads him to some rather weak arguments for the superiority of Marx’s theory over others – on bureaucracy, this is very obvious, but it comes out elsewhere too. There are also points where he is weak in expressing ideas – Marx’s method he describes as one of ‘shuttling between the parts and the whole’, which seems ugly as well as inexact; or in producing the relevant facts – e.g. white-collar trade unionism is dismissed on the basis of figures up to 1964! (p.125). There is also a very curious reference to women on p.137 which reinforces the impression of datedness.

There are many details in this book which sociology students might find useful, and it is certainly one of the better academic products of recent years. But there are alternative (if older) books on Marx, and even on sociology, to which readers should turn first.

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