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Dudley Edwards

Proletarian Philosophers

(Summer 1984)

From Militant International Review, No. 26, Summer 1984, p. 31.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Proletarian Philosophers
by Jonathan Ree
Oxford University Press 1984, £15.

“He will be a smart policeman who can arrest the spread of ideas.” (Quotation from the old Plebs magazine which was published by the National Council of Labour Colleges during the 1920s)

This book gives a valuable picture of those more thoughtful working men and women, who during the first quarter of the century, strove to grasp the principles of scientific socialism as it was followed by Marx and Engels, elaborated by Lenin, Trotsky and others and skilfully expounded in Britain by the Scottish Marxist John Maclean, and the great Irish workers’ leader James Connolly.

In drawing attention to these early worker students of Marx, the author has done the labour movement a service.

Unfortunately this long essay at no point sets out in a clear way the main principals of Marxism considered as a ‘guide to action’ which if properly used by the working-class can bring about the transformation of society and the carrying forward of mankind to the next necessary stage in the organisation of civilization. Where the author commits himself to any expression of view about the science of Marxism, he reveals those prejudices frequent among university lecturers on philosophy who see Marxism as a threat to their own trade of teaching various philosophic systems, from which their students may pick the one most suited to their taste. (“If you pays your money, you takes your choice.”)

Here is an example of how that prejudice comes out in print:– “Who, might it be asked, could trust a social theory which is affiliated to the recondite, sectarian and implausible dogmas of Dialectical Materialism?”

Yet nowhere does he attempt to set out what this theory is; contenting himself with a priori condemnations of the above kind. Neither he, nor any of his professional colleagues can explain why this allegedly “implausible dogma” has been more successful in predicting the course of historical events over the last 100 years than any other social theory produced by university professors – nor why the influence of Marxism has steadily increased in all parts of the globe, even though government spokesmen and their university allies have presented a false, but or dried, version of Marxism to the masses of workers.

This book does give a useful historical outline of two sections of proletarian would-be Marxists – those that supported the versions of Marxist philosophy conceived by the older National Council of Labour Colleges in the early ’20s, and the ever-changing versions developed by the Communist Party theoreticians, constantly forced to adapt their theoretical zig-zags of the Stalinist dominated Communist International of those years.

The early NCLC versions of Marxist philosophy suffered from the lack of any serious knowledge of the writings of Lenin, the most successful revolutionary leader of the 20th century, who adhered to the materialist philosophy of Marx, exactly defined as dialectical materialism. He found it a guide to successful action.

The school of Communist theoreticians lambasted this early school of working men and women because they did not acknowledge the completely incorrect additions to Marxist philosophy made by Stalin. Nor would they adapt their theoretical notions to the opportunist political tactics of Stalinism which sprang from Stalin’s theory of ‘Socialism in one country’ – the idea of building a socialist society alone without the assistance of working-class governments in other lands.

Because this controversy between two distorted versions of Marxism ended in confusion we are told that the whole materialist philosophy of Marxism “collapsed”, when in fact a new generation of working-class Marxists are now coming into being, many of whom are gathering around the Militant paper. Young workers in particular are learning to apply Marxism as a guide to action.

Since this review charges the author with nowhere attempting to define what he means by dialectical materialism, although he abuses it, it would be well to conclude with such a definition. Two quotations are taken from Engels, who formulated this materialist theory, and Trotsky, who brilliantly continued to express those ideas in the 20th century.

Engels tell us “... Dialectics is nothing more than the science of the general laws of motion of nature, human society and thought.” (Engels – Anti-Dühring) This scientific method came to be know as dialectical materialism because Marx and Engels saw that universal matter preceded the appearance of Man and therefore man and his ideas are the product of material change.

The brief definition given by Engels is rounded off by a more detailed explanation from Trotsky written 60 years later.

“The essence of Marxism consists in this; that it approaches society concretely, as a subject for objective research, and analyses human history as one would a colossal laboratory record. Marxism appraises ideology as a subordinate integral element of the class structure of society, as a historically conditioned form of the development of the productive forces. Marxism deduces from the productive forces of society the inter-relations between human society and surrounding nature, and these in turn are determined at each historical stage by man’s technology, his instruments and weapons, his capacities and methods for struggle with nature. Precisely this objective approach arms Marxism with the insuperable power of historical foresight.” (Leon Trotsky – Address to Mendeleyev Congress, Sept. 1925 in USSR)

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