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Nigel Harris

Old Russian Soldiers

(Spring 1967)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.31,Winter 1967/68, p.38.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Soviet Ideology Today
Gustav A. Wetter
Heinemann, 35s

Old soldiers never die; they only fade away, and the same is true of ideologies. They are not ‘confronted’ by the ‘facts’ or refuted by new clever people who have discovered the truth, they merely become curiously irrelevant, inappropriate, so that former fanatics wonder how they could ever have believed such gibberish. The essential change is not one which takes place in the intellectual world at all, but rather in the general social environment. Soviet ideology is today fading; it is not meeting valiant critics or responding to the marvellously cunning arguments of capitalism; rather is affluence corroding the philosophy of poverty and industrialisation without even bothering to answer Stalin’s elaborately marshalled arguments.

The sign of the evaporation of an ideology is when people start describing it, for until a certain amount evaporates, few people can even see it: it is just common-sense. Professor Wetter is, however, disappointing as an Owl of Minerva, particularly given the quality of his earlier book, Dialectical Materialism. His style is terse and rigorous, and he carefully examines in the most economical manner all the arguments mobilised in the latest Soviet philosophical textbooks, relating these arguments to those used by Marx, Engels and Lenin, and offering a criticism. But this is not an ideology, and is, at best, a most esoteric academic exercise. It leaves out almost entirely the immense contradictory changes that have taken place in ‘Marxism-Leninism,’ the gap between Marx and Kosygin, and, above all, the relationship between the precepts of the ideology and what the Soviet leaders actually do. It is as if someone sought to analyse modern Western ideology by examining popular religious textbooks, noting that both Wilson and Johnson claim to believe in God, that scripture is taught in all schools, that Capitalism has been historically Christian, and so on. The legitimate answer when all the arguments for the existence of God have been mobilised is: So what? Does that explain why Western leaders do what they do?

Without history, without a concrete society, without some explanation of practice, we are left not with an ideology, but with a series of precepts, the determinate meaning of which is scarcely clear until we see how they are used in practice. What Wetter offers are some precepts, taken to be roughly the same as those offered by Marx. A great deal of time is then lost by ‘answering Marx’ with arguments which are rarely new, the real task of delineating ‘Soviet ideology’ being lost on the way. This is a pity for all except those who enjoy philosophic disputation for Its own sake, regardless of the issue. As a whole the book is stimulating, good on the fallacies of a dialectic of nature, on the muddles of Stalinism as a purely intellectual system. But it is poor as a description of a real system of beliefs passionately held by a large number of people over a long period of time, and it offers no explanation at all as to why such a system should exist.

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