From: labsoc- at -netspace.net.au (davie maclean)
Cyril Smith, Marx At The Millenium, Pluto Press, 1996.
Reviewed by Davie Maclean
Is Marx still relevant ? The absence of any significant political force on the planet still committed to carrying through Marx's communist project has led many to raise this question as the millennium draws to a close.
Cyril Smith's book provides an answer to this question, but it is an answer that will come as a surprise to most. For while he shows convincingly that Marx's ideas are as relevant today as ever, he does this by arguing that these ideas are not what most people, including the vast majority of 'Marxists', think they are.
Cyril Smith makes a grand claim - Marx has been misunderstood, his ideas distorted, not only by his opponents but above all by the generations of his followers who adapted his views in line with their own conceptions according to the conditions of their times. In this manner a 'Marxist' tradition emerged, within which various currents and trends may have clashed, but all of who related more to each other than to the thoughts of their originator.
One by one, these 'Marxisms' have foundered and the organisations for which they provided a basis have shattered. Amidst the wreckage, however, lies the possibility of clearing a way to the original ideas of Marx himself and weighing up these ideas free from the constraint of having to approach them from inside one or other of the various 'Marxist' traditions.
This is what Cyril Smith has done, and his book is the result. His is not the first journey of this type, nor is it likely to be the last, but his effort stands out for the insights it contains, and above all for its unique and thought-provoking conclusions.
Cyril Smith was an active member of the British Trotskyist movement for three decades. The organisation to which he belonged committed many errors, some of which led to its disintegration in the mid-1980's. It did however take Marxism's claim to be a science seriously, and gave due emphasis to Marxist theory. Cyril Smith is a product of this environment, he knows his Marxism and he knows his Hegel, more importantly - he knows his Marx. Unlike many of his generation, Cyril Smith kept abreast of the latest developments in the study of Marx's thought. He read the 1844 Manuscripts when these were first published in English in 1959, and the Grundrisse which appeared as late as 1973. To students of Marxism today, it seems incredible that such important works were discovered only so recently, and little wonder that Marx has been so badly misinterpreted in the absence of these being available. In fact it can be stated categorically today, that without a familiarity with the Grundrisse in particular, it is just not possible to form any rounded view of Marx's ideas - this work is the lynchpin of his entire thought and the key to understanding Capital.
The release of these works sparked much debate in Marxist circles in the late 1960's and early 1970's. Most of these discussions were confined to academia and little of their content filtered through to activists in the movement. However their implications were potentially dynamite, possibly another factor in the intellectual conservatism of the leaders of most of the Marxist political organisations active at the time.
Since most of these organisations have since either dwindled or disappeared, the way has now been opened for a new generation to absorb these more recently discovered works and form a fresh opinion of Marx in the light of their contents. The importance of Cyril Smith's book lies in its position as an important milestone along this path.
Marx's best known work is of course Capital. Like Newton's Principia Mathematica, Capital is one of the most influential and talked over books of the modern era. And like the Principia it is also one of the least read and understood.
Why did Marx write Capital ? Why did he break from his earlier studies in philosophy to devote the next forty years of his life to a monumental and unfinished investigation of political economy ?
Most Marxists, taking their cue from Karl Kautsky, the foremost leader of the second Socialist International, have seen Capital as an exercise in unravelling the 'laws of motion' of capitalist society in order to expose their internal contradictions, in this way providing a 'scientific' basis for a socialism defined as the means for overcoming such contradictions and so unleashing the productive powers of industry for the benefit of humankind.
Certainly this interpretation of Capital is not without some foundation. Marx and Engels did see their communism as 'scientific' rather than 'utopian', and the exposure of contradictions within capitalism, such as the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, as proof of the transitory nature of capitalist social relations and thus forming one of the arguments for socialism.
The Marxist case for socialism appeared then to rest on economics. Kautsky himself saw Capital as an economic work, proving in its pages beyond all reasonable doubt the inevitability of socialism's triumph in the wake of capitalism's impending collapse. This emphasis on economics was carried over into the practice of the third Communist International whose agitation during the early 1930's concentrated exclusively on the hunger caused by the Depression, earning for example the criticism of Communists like Wilhelm Reich, leader of the SexPol movement in Germany, who argued that capitalism should be overthrown for a whole variety of reasons including the repression of sexuality among the young, and not just for its economic failures. The problem with this over-emphasis on hunger lay in that once the worst of the Depression was over the revolutionary mood in society ebbed and the Communist International itself reflected this in a lurch to the right and a purely reformist practice for the rest of the 1930's.
But was Marx's Capital really about economics ? In fact it was nothing of the kind, Capital was first and foremost a work of philosophy, a new kind of philosophy, and one with a profoundly revolutionary nature.
Marx's real purpose in turning to political economy was to demystify the nature of capital itself. Marx believed that once it was generally understood just exactly what capital was, this knowledge in itself would deal the system a mighty blow and pave the way for its replacement by communism. The writing of Capital, far from being a work of theory, was instead an act of revolutionary practice on Marx's part.
What then is capital ? Marx's essential point was that although capital appears to us as a thing, in reality it is not a thing at all, but a social relation, one that has emerged as a product of human history.
Capitalist social relations have developed on the basis of the spread of commodity production, that is - the production of goods and services for sale rather than the direct satisfaction of human needs. The growth of exchange, and the division of labour that develops alongside it, are for Marx expressions of the social nature of humankind, our dependence on one another, and in fact define our humanity, our nature as 'species-beings' rather than mere individuals. In Marx's eyes this is a good thing in itself. The problem, however, lies in the inhuman shape our social relations have taken under the specific form known as capitalism.
In order for capital to appear a number of conditions needed to be present in history. One of these was the separation of the mass of the population from the means of producing wealth. This was by no means an automatic or natural process, but involved a brutal war by one part of humanity against another over several centuries. In the closing chapters of Volume One of Capital, Marx describes in vivid detail the violent and bloody manner in which Scottish peasants were driven off their land and how dispossessed English farmers were forced into factory work by a series of savage Acts of Parliament punishing 'vagrancy' in the severest terms possible, including death.
The outcome of this historical process is capital - money that has the unique property to accumulate for its owners by extracting surplus value from a working population deprived of any means of livelihood other than selling their ability to labour to those who do possess the buildings and machinery on which the production of society's wealth depends. As a result, human beings confront their social nature as something alien that stands over and above them like a hostile force. Our dependence on one another for the satisfaction of our needs becomes the means by which we are enslaved within a set of social relations over which we have no control and which forces us to work for the benefit of another in whatever capacity we can in order to earn the money necessary to live. Not only the means of production, but the very product of our labour, and even the activity of work itself, all become something separate and apart from our real selves, which struggle to find some space in what we call our private lives. And although this whole process is an expression of our common humanity, because we participate in society in such an alienated manner, we inevitably become alienated from one another.
Marx developed his theory of alienation in the 1844 Manuscripts. But why did he turn his attention to political economy from this point on ? What was the connection between the two ?
Marx sought to clarify the real nature of the social relation that is capital. But why does this need demystifying ? As Cyril Smith puts it, 'Why are the appearance and essence of social forms separated ? Why is a science needed to bridge the gap ?' The answer lies in the alienated nature of these social forms - they appear as something separate and apart from ourselves, subject to their own laws and dynamics, in the face of which we are forced into submission.
The classical political economy pursued by such men as David Ricardo and Adam Smith, who Marx respected for the insights their work had produced, went some way to explaining the content of these laws, but they 'never asked once why this content has assumed such a particular form'. Marx on the other hand, was concerned with precisely this question. In writing Capital then, Marx was not engaged in his own study of political economy, tidying up some loose ends in Ricardo's labour theory of value, but rather a critique. His aim was to show that the contradictions in the theories of the classical economists were not merely theoretical problems, but rather a reflection of the very nature of the object under study. This is an important point to be borne in mind when Marx's own economic categories are put under the spotlight. For the question today is not whether the law of value as modified by Marx can be applied rationally to the 'post-industrial' economies of the West in the same way as Marx did to the England of the industrial era. The point is rather, that in these societies personal services such as health care have more and more been reduced to commodities and their activity subordinated to the laws of capitalist production and it is this that is irrational. The problems such developments may pose for correct analysis by economic theorists are bye the bye, for the contradictions in their theories simply reflect the true state of affairs. This is Marx's argument.
Marx aims in Capital to show that the real essence of capitalist social relations are quite different from how they appear, because although capital rests on the social nature of human beings, it distorts this nature through its workings beyond all recognition. The effort to restore the true essence of these social relations into full view from a truly human standpoint was to absorb Marx for the next four decades of his life. Marx's point was to show how the fact that social relations appear as something outside ourselves, as an object that can be made the subject of a science in the same way as physical processes, was no accident - but was instead a reflection of the most important feature of these relations, that they do confront us as something alien to ourselves, and that this alienation is the heart of the problem to be addressed.
But on this point the Marxist tradition begins to diverge from Marx's own position. Marx saw that up to now economics and history have taken place outside of human consciousness. What people thought they were doing in history or in their daily activity of producing wealth was quite different from they way it really was, seen objectively. For this reason it was possible to approach these subjects from a 'scientific' viewpoint and detect the laws that governed their motion, as Marx did himself. But whereas the 'Marxists' saw the task as one of submitting to these laws once they were discovered, resting the case for socialism as the inevitable outcome of 'natural' laws working themselves through and bringing out capitalism's collapse, Marx believed the exact opposite - that these were laws to be overcome. In fact the whole point was to overcome them, replacing the blind workings of history and impersonal forces such as the 'market' with the conscious, collective control by humanity over our destiny. This is what Marx meant by communism.
To understand Capital therefore as a work of economic theory is to miss the point completely. Marx's aim is rather to abolish the need for such a theory by abolishing its object - the inhuman social relations that go under the name of capitalism.
Understanding Marx in this way is not only consistent with the entire body of his work seen as a whole, but also serves to refute many of the objections traditionally raised to his ideas.
If we take the tendency of the rate of profit to fall as an example, we can see how this works. Marx explained this feature of capitalism in Volume 3 of Capital, but importantly, he also devoted a long section on counteracting tendencies also present. The value of his analysis therefore, has never lain on the bearing out of a prediction that the rate of profit would inevitably fall so long as the capitalist mode of production continued to exist, but rather in its ability to understand much of economic and social development as a struggle between this tendency and its counteracting forces, a struggle whose outcome is determined by human beings and their conflicting interests on this question.
The same also applies to Marx's famous theory of the 'immiseration' of the proletariat. In fact as predictions, both this 'theory' and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall have survived better than most critics have granted, as any quick glance at the world today will bear out, but this is to miss the point. In Marx's eyes, whether the entire working population was reduced to a state of abject poverty was something to be determined by the intervention of human beings, in this case the working class and its supporters, in preventing what was otherwise an inevitable result of the workings of capitalism if left to its own devices.
It was no accident then that Marx hailed the passing of the 10 Hour Bill in the British Parliament as the first 'victory of working class political economy'. Between his own intellectual labour of demystifying the nature of capitalist social relations and the activity of the working class movement he saw no difference - they were one and the same.
If Marx's ideas are seen in this light, as Cyril Smith suggests, then his entire relationship with later developments in philosophy and social theory must also be looked at again. On this topic Cyril Smith's book gives only the smallest hint, but it is clear that important implications follow from his argument. For if Marx is liberated from the 19th century positivist and scientist interpretation his followers gave to him, then it is no longer so far fetched to see his ideas as compatible with important intellectual developments such as existentialism and phenomenology, and even with aspects of post-structuralism and post-modernism today. Jean Paul Sartre held a similar view, as did Marxists like Georgi Lukacs, who engaged in a constructive manner with the predominant intellectual trends of their day and clashed with Marxist orthodoxy in so doing.
Our own view is that Marx's ideas, understood properly, remain an extraordinarily rich source for understanding the world as it is today and seeing how it could be transformed. And communism, as Marx imagined it, still retains a tremendous capacity to inspire movements against the monster that is global capitalism with the vision of a truly humane society.
To do this, it is vital that Marxism is seen, not as a closed system with all the answers, but rather as an important milestone in humanity's understanding of itself and the distance between present social reality and what such an understanding demands of society. An engagement between Marx's ideas and later developments in philosophy and social theory can without doubt be as productive as the combining of Marx's vision of communism with the real movements and struggles on the part of the victims of capitalism today.
Of course, exactly what all this means is impossible to say in advance. Cyril Smith's book can not be recommended highly enough. Probably of more interest to older Marxists trying to reorient themselves in the face of today's challenges than to a younger generation for whom the 'Marxist tradition' he criticises does not hold much attraction, this book will allow the reader who does not have the time or patience to plough through the Grundrisse or Capital to gain a good appreciation of Marx's purpose in writing these works, while for the serious student of Marx's ideas it provides an important clue as to what to look for in his writings.