Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 7 No. 2


Marx at the Millennium

Dear Editor

Cyril Smith’s book Marx at the Millennium was reviewed in Revolutionary History, Volume 7, no. 1, pp. 211–6, by Moshe Machover. My remarks below, for which Moshe bears no responsibility, are intended to complement that review.

The book is Cyril Smith’s mea culpa wherein he ‘takes responsibility for transmitting the insights of Karl Marx to a new generation’ (p. xii). He tries ‘to discover what Marx was actually trying to do’ (p. 16) by interpreting Marx entirely in terms of the philosophical Communism and naturalist humanism of the early Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. A more accurate view of Marx can, however, be gained by looking at all of Marx’s practical and theoretical work, including Marx’s own statements of his intentions. Hal Draper’s book, The Marx-Engels Chronicle: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of Marx and Engels’ Life and Activity (Schocken Books, 1985) shows that Marx’s life was directed towards a quite specific goal – the expected proletarian revolution. The Communist Manifesto seems to provide a more accurate view of Marx’s intentions than the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.

Lest the new generation gets the impression that one must digest the metaphysical verbiage of Marx’s early work before committing itself to proletarian revolution, we should mention, firstly, that Engels, in his early work The Housing Question, drew revolutionary conclusions from naturalistic (as opposed to philosophical) observations, and secondly, that once Marx had distanced himself in exile from the German scene, his attachment to the earlier philosophical phraseology waned. Indeed, Marx and Engels ridiculed this kind of reasoning in the German Ideology, and in The Holy Family Marx shredded the Hegelian orgies of abstraction.

In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx defined his philosophical stance at that time as naturalism: ‘We see here how consistent naturalism or humanism is distinguished from both idealism and materialism, and constitutes at the same time their unifying truth. We see also how only naturalism is capable of understanding the process of world history.’

Marx steered a course between materialism and idealism as he then saw them. There are, however, passages in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and even in the German Ideology which appear to make nature a social construct, and this leans towards idealism. Later, in Volume 3 of Capital, Marx recognised a ‘realm of physical necessity’, that is, that nature exists independently of mankind in some sense (see also Marx to Kugelmann, 11 July 1868). This places Marx as a materialist. Indeed, after Marx had moved from philosophical Communism to practical work for the revolution, his theoretical work drifted into his ‘scientific’ phase, when he repeatedly affirmed his materialism.

Marx and Engels were always interested in science. The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts contain several pregnant, speculative remarks on science, and Cyril Smith makes much of these. However, the views of Marx and Engels on science developed as they studied it more: their reading is documented in Draper’s Chronicle. They favoured evolutionary principles in nature (‘historical nature’ – German Ideology) before Darwin defined evolution in biology (see V. Gerratana, Marx and Darwin, New Left Review, no. 82). The publication of The Origin of Species was seen by Marx and Engels as conformation of their historical-evolutionary views of the world:

‘This is the book which contains the natural-historical foundation of our outlook.’ (Marx to Engels, 19 December 1860)

‘Darwin’s book is very important and serves me as a natural-scientific basis for the class-struggle in history ...’ (Marx to Lassalle, 16 January 1861)

‘... the evolution of the economic foundation of society is viewed as a process of natural history.’ (Capital, Volume 1, Moscow 1954, p. 10)

The view of social development as natural history tends to stress determinism, inevitability and social laws. This is a slippery slope to tread: it is then easy to move to a view of society as determined by cosmic material and metaphysical forces. Neither Marx nor Engels did this, but their many ambiguous statements led credence to this direction of development. Further steps were taken by later Marxists. Cyril Smith claims that Marx would have opposed Plekhanov’s view of Marxism as an ‘integral world outlook’ (p. 19), but without telling us why it was wrong. (In 1888 Engels called Marx’s 11 theses on Feuerbach ‘the brilliant germ of the new world outlook’.) Plekhanov’s outlook, whilst it might be wrong, is neither foolish nor evil – it is a development made plausible by Marx and Engels themselves.

Marx’s outlook is supposed to be ‘dialectical’. Cyril Smith quotes Marx’s well-known claim that his ‘dialectical method’ is the direct opposite of Hegel’s, but like most Marxist writers, fails to define ‘dialectical’, or exactly what Marx’s inversion of Hegel was. This is an obscure and difficult problem which has given rise to a growth industry – it should not be knocked in this phase of the Kondratiev cycle. In most Marxist discourse, ‘dialectical’ has mainly a talismanic function. It would be a disaster if the new generation inherited this taste for systematic obscurity.

So what is Hegel’s ‘excellent dialectical method’ (p. 130)? It is foolish to make a definite statement about this because, firstly, amongst Hegel scholars there is little agreement about his philosophy, and there is at least one who claims that his method is not ‘dialectical’, and secondly, Hegel’s philosophy, starting with his work on the problems of Christian origins (first published in 1907), underwent several changes until his great works, the Phenomenology of Mind and the Science of Logic, had been written. As with Marx, you can pick and mix various statements made during Hegel’s life to make him into anything. For instance, it is alleged that Hegel denied being an idealist (p. 143). He may indeed have said that at one time – you have to study the context to see what he meant by it. But in another work, Hegel classed his philosophy as ‘speculative idealism’ and ‘absolute idealism’ (Wallace, The Logic of Hegel, Oxford 1892, p. 287). The terms ‘idealism’ and ‘materialism’ are vague: they indicate spectra of positions. Bald assertion neither decides the issue nor does it convey understanding.

The question of Marx’s debt to Hegel has engendered a vast literature. A case can be made for asserting that Marx’s attitude to ‘dialectics’ was ambiguous, and that it was a dispensable rhetorical device. In the Afterword to the second German edition of Capital (1873) (pp. 19–20), Marx makes some important (and now famous) remarks about the ‘dialectical method’. He says of a reviewer of Capital who wrote an admirably clear summary of it without using ‘dialectical’ verbiage, that: ‘Whilst the writer pictures what he takes to be actually my method, in this striking and [as far as concerns my own application of it] generous way, what else is he picturing but the dialectical method?’

A few sentences, later Marx explained the circumstances in which he affirmed his debt to Hegel: ‘... and in the chapter on the theory of value, coquetted with modes of expression peculiar to him.’

Further, in a letter to Engels (15 August 1857), Marx, commenting on a report he made for a newspaper, said: ‘I risk this prediction on the supposition that the reports available so far are true. It is possible that I am making a mistake. In that case one can always help oneself with a bit of dialectics. I have naturally made my statements in such a manner that in the opposite case I am also right.’

In other words, one can prove anything with dialectics.

But other passages in Marx’s writings suggest a belief that ‘the dialectic’ occurred in nature, and he contributed to Engels’ Anti-Dühring and the Dialectics of Nature which became the main authority for orthodox Marxism’s ‘world outlook’ so deplored by Cyril Smith. However, the sloppy, ad hoc, metaphorical use of ‘dialectical’ terminology to natural phenomena merely creates piquant, poetic paradoxes which, on close analysis, disappear into banality.

Cyril Smith continues his criticism of the ‘scientific’ aspect of orthodox Marxism by launching an idiosyncratic attack on science itself (chapter 4). He derives inspiration from Marx’s remarks about science in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, for example: ‘Natural science will in time incorporate into itself the science of man, just as the science of man will incorporate into itself natural science: there will be one science.’

Neither Marx then nor Cyril Smith explain what this unified science would be like. Nineteenth century science itself developed unifying principles, for instance, the ‘law of conservation of energy’ in physics, evolution in biology, etc. Engels, with Marx’s consent, saw science unified by a concept of motion (Engels to Marx, 30 May 1873). Is this how Cyril Smith sees a unified science? Engels’ idea was the foundation of the Dialectics of Nature, which, as Cyril Smith points out, became a ‘world outlook’, and eventually ‘scientific Socialism’.

A counterfactual notion of scientific ‘theory’ bears the burden of the attack on science, the tactical purpose of which is to claim that Marx did not have a theory in this sense, and thus ‘scientific Socialism’ is not Marxist. Cyril Smith claims poetically that natural scientists proceed by building a theory of something from a fixed set of definitions – ‘it is necessary to fence off this “something” ... make sure that it will not break out and wander all over the place’ – some categories – ‘kinds of things you are allowed to say about the “something” defined’ – and a method – ‘all-purpose instruction, available for use with any kind of definition and any set of categories’ – imposed on scientists by philosophers of science. A host of sloppy, hippie questions arise from this Aunt Sally – too many to attempt to answer here.

Which scientific theories conform to Cyril Smith’s stereotype? Not one example is given. As a matter of fact, to establish a theory, say, about a part of human physiology requires much trial-and-error and questioning of initial assumptions, checking equipment and readings (for instance, to rule out artefacts of technique), and deciding on mathematical tools. The procedures are mostly subject-oriented. The only general ‘method’ that can be said to be used here is the requirement that the results and the theory can be used reliably by other people at other times and places. The (correct) reasoning that supports this phase of scientific activity is certainly not formal logic, and some might even like to call it ‘dialectical’. But there is no mystery about it, and the rhetorical questions posed by Cyril Smith do not arise in practice.

A more serious view of natural science would result from a study of the real movement of science, its institutions and structures of authority, their organisational connection with higher education, engineering, the state and industry, and their relations to theory. The way conformity and coherence within a science is actually achieved, its punishments and its rewards, and the way its ideas and practices are propagated or contained have to be decided empirically, not by a priori assumptions about scientific method or a philosophy of science.

In some areas of science, there is considerable freedom of thought, at least, for ‘top’ people. Thus, when cosmology was getting its conceptual underwear in a twist over the Big Bang, some top people in the field ran for help (to no avail!) to priests of various religions. Others get fat fees by mystifying science for the media. Where, however, business or the military is concerned, this freedom is restricted. Non-conforming voices (‘whistle blowers’) are suppressed as in the ‘BSE crisis’, and the current controversy over genetically modified food. Instead of worrying about the philosophy of science, Marxists might engage the practical issue of the defence of dissenters within science, medicine and engineering.

Yours fraternally

John P. Cleave

Cyril Smith replies:

What can I say in response to the remarks of Dr Cleave, which is (a) adequate, (b) short enough for Revolutionary History to print, and (c) printable? The obstinacy with which the devotees of that old-time religion quaintly known as ‘Marxism’ defend their faith against the ideas of Karl Marx appears to present an immovable barrier to thought.

Cleave’s job, to rubbish what I have written, is an easy one. He just has to tell the world a tale to which it is already receptive. Marx, he says, has clearly stated his intentions, and these are identical with the old story told by ‘dialectical and historical materialism’. The hard work which the real-life Marx did to clarify his actual meaning can then be dismissed as ‘metaphysical verbiage’. Instead, we are invited to the nightmare world of ‘natural-scientific method’ – a caricature of the real achievements of the natural sciences, by the way. That was always how it was done.

As I have tried to show, however, Marx’s development was not at all a matter of ‘distancing himself from’ his early ideas, but of finding new ways to restate them. There is nothing in Capital which was not already in essence in the 1844 Manuscripts or the Notes on James Mill.

However, the prevailing intellectual climate in the long years of exile – not all that different from our own – forced him to restate his thoughts in new forms. These, unfortunately, helped his later followers to adapt them to bourgeois society. The Second International had extracted the essential juices from them, and carefully buried them. Stalinism could then mix what remained with blood. By then, Marx was safely dead.

But that was not the end of the story. Despite desperate efforts to get rid of the explosive ideas of Communism, they will find new forms in which to re-emerge. (We saw this briefly in 1968.) New generations of Communists will find their way back to those notions of ‘a truly human society’, one which the real Karl Marx said would be ‘worthy of our human nature’, because, other than these conceptions, there is no way to meet the problems of the twenty-first century.

Updated by ETOL: 3.10.2011