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


Marx Versus ‘Crude Marxism’

Dear Editor

Before getting to the main point of Moshe Machover’s less than enthusiastic review of my book, Marx at the Millennium, in Revolutionary History, Volume 7, no. 1, I want to concede the correctness of its criticisms on one-and-a-half issues.

Questioning my allegation that Plekhanov and Kautsky were responsible for the body of ideas generally know as ‘Marxism’, Moshe says that many of these ideas start with Engels. In the book, I tried to rebut this commonly-heard accusation. However, I later decided to examine Engels’ views more carefully, not on the usual question of the dialectics of nature – that argument has gone round in ever-decreasing circles for at least a century – but on political economy. The resulting article, Friedrich Engels and Marx’s Critique of Political Economy, appeared in Capital and Class at the end of 1997. It argues that Engels never completely grasped what Marx was trying to do in this sphere, despite that fact that Engels’ brilliant essay of 1843 was one of the major influences leading Marx to turn to the subject.

Moshe says that I was wrong to state that Marx used the phrase ‘rate of exploitation’ as a synonym for ‘rate of surplus value’. I now think he is right, but I only count this as a half-point. If readers consult Chapter 9 of Capital, Volume 1, The Rate of Surplus-Value, they will see that Section 1 has the title The Degree of Exploitation of Labour-Power. And few pages later, Marx says: ‘The rate of surplus-value is therefore an exact expression for the degree of exploitation of labour-power by capital, or of the worker by the capitalist.’

Now let me turn to the major issue, which Moshe and I have argued about for some time: his defence of what he is proud to call ‘crude Marxism’. He is so sure of this outlook that he lumps me together with a motley collection of ‘Western Marxists’, only because they also question it. Moshe’s hero is actually a composite character, something like one of those mythical beasts which combine bits of different animals. One bit tells us that the world would be a better place if we were all nice to each other. Other parts belong to tough-minded scientists, building theoretical models of different aspects of the world: a model of history, a theory of politics, an economic theory, and so on. The whole collection is held together with string and cellotape.

Now will the real Karl Marx please stand up? His incomplete – essentially unfinishable – project was concerned with the problems which Moshe quotes: What is it to be human? In what ways are we estranged from our humanity? How can we live humanly? What must we do, and how must we think about the world, to make this possible? Every part of Marx’s work is concerned with such issues. So when he describes his work as ‘science’, he means something quite precise and different from everybody else. It is a critique of bourgeois science, where ‘critique’ here does not mean what Kant meant by the word, as Moshe imagines. Starting from his declared standpoint – ‘social humanity and human society’ (Theses on Feuerbach) – Marx uncovers the contradictions encountered by established social theories, and then seeks to trace their origins in the fundamental contradiction of the inhuman character of social life. For instance, he takes as his target the highest point reached by political economy’s ‘labour theory of value’, and ‘critically expounds’ its categories to break through the assumption that the relations they express are ‘natural’.

Essential to this way of looking at things, and to Moshe’s dislike of it, is my contention that to give a logical account of something implies that it is itself rational. As a logician, Moshe cannot abide this. But it is the central point of Hegel’s break with Kant, and Marx’s critique of Hegel for not taking this far enough. Their conception of logic, like Aristotle’s, but unlike everybody else’s, is that it is not external to its objects. That is why Marx’s scientific project is not something outside of his Communism, but is directly bound up with it.

I am pleased that Revolutionary History found space for a review of Marx at the Millennium, but I urge readers to read it for themselves before they criticise it.


Cyril Smith

Updated by ETOL: 3.10.2011