Marx at the Millennium by Cyril Smith


I suppose you could say it has taken me about 50 years to write this book. I certainly didn’t know I had begun when I started to think about’ socialism as a schoolboy in a strongly Labour household at the end of the Second World War. The election of the 1945 Labour government seemed to promise a new world, but I soon became disillusioned with the sordid compromises of the Attlee administration, so clearly betraying the hopes of millions of its supporters.

So I started to read the works of Marx and, after arriving at University College, London in 1947, I began to attend meetings of the Communist Party. Here, at last, was a systematic way to understand the world. However, this was at the time of the Cominform attack on Tito, and the Biometry Department, led by J.B.S. Haldane, was in an uproar about the Lysenko Affair. I began dimly to realise that Stalin’s followers might not be telling the truth, either to me or to themselves.

Then it became obvious that they were lying their heads off, especially about the history of the Russian Revolution, the fate of its leaders and the nature of life in the USSR. I turned with excitement to the works of Leon Trotsky, and learned something about his struggle to continue the work begun in 1917. Now here, I thought, was the real theory of socialism, completely worked out. All we had to do was to ‘put it into practice’.

Leon Trotsky, I learned, was the most important of those who fought against Stalin’s betrayal of the Revolution. He condemned the idea that, just because its industry was state-owned, Stalin’s Russia was socialist. In the struggle which eventually cost him his life, he demonstrated that the brutality, corruption and lies of the Soviet state apparatus were in direct opposition to the transition to socialism. In any case, socialism was not possible in a single country.

He never ceased to believe in the theoretical foundations of the Communist International in its early, Leninist days. This led him to predict a future trajectory for the USSR which was not home out after the Second World War. We Trotskyists thought we could fit the developments of that time into the theoretical framework of Trotsky’s struggle, that is, of the outlook of the Communist International. We reprinted his works and tried as hard as we could to propound his ideas in the changed post-war world. I thought that this outlook represented the fundamental conceptions worked out by Karl Marx, what we knew as ‘scientific socialism’.

Looking back at many decades of this work, I think it was by no means the worst way to proceed, however grotesque some of our ideas and actions may look today. But in 1995 it is worse than useless to go on patching up the old notions. The events of the past few years have seen the world change so much, and contradict our picture of it so profoundly, that something much more drastic is required.

In the main, Marxists responded in one of two ways to the sequence of events which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states. Some heard the report that ‘Marxism is dead’, accepted the news as reliable, and just gave up. Others carried on as if nothing had happened, or pretended that it was all precisely what they expected.

I don’t know which of these two attitudes is more in tune with the cynicism and corruption of the 1990s: either to maintain with heroic dogmatism that anything we once said must be true, simply because we once said it; or to throw away the entire work of the ‘Marxist’ tradition as simply a delusion. Each of these approaches – and they actually have a great deal in common – is a dishonest evasion of the real problems of our time. Instead, I think, those of us who adhered to one or other version of the ‘Marxist’ tradition are now obliged to re-examine the entire history of the fight for socialism and the body of theory’ that grew out of it.

This task must be undertaken with scrupulous objectivity and with the greatest respect. Men and women like Lenin, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg, and millions of working people who followed them, battled for a way out of the brutal mess which is bourgeois society in the twentieth century. They refused to believe that the world of capitalism could possibly be worthy of our human nature. They devoted their fives to finding the road to a better form of society. They tried with all their intellectual powers to comprehend their own revolutionary activity within a systematic framework.

This history of struggle is of lasting value. But if you want to preserve that value, the system of ideas which is its legacy has to be subjected to rigorous criticism. Otherwise, you insult the founders of Marxism, turning their work into Holy Scripture. What is needed is a careful re-examination of the entire body of ‘Marxist’ doctrine, opening up all the notions which we used to assume were incontestable and asking questions which we believed were unaskable.

This process is painful, involving serious restructuring of the inside of one’s head. But, after all these decades, I have been driven unwillingly to the conclusion that this thoroughgoing reassessment of the work of Karl Marx must now be undertaken. I don’t believe that other people who talk about this have gone nearly far enough.

Some readers might think that in the course of these pages I have exaggerated the gulf between the ideas of Marx and the body of doctrine called ‘Marxism’. If so, please excuse me, but I am convinced that it would have been a far more serious error to understate this gap.

As I re-read the works of Marx over the past few years, it came as a shock to discover just how far his insights had been distorted. But then it began to dawn on me that keeping Marx and ‘Marxism’ quite separate from each other provided the chance to see the world more clearly. It was a world which had altered dramatically from the days when the categories of ‘Marxism’ seemed to be able to illuminate all problems. If Marx can be disentangled from the ‘Marxist’ doctrine, I believe his insights into the problem of his time become startlingly relevant to those of our own.

Even in the 1960s, when I used to talk to audiences of workers and students about Capital, I recall feeling that I was not being strictly ‘orthodox’. I had read the Paris Manuscripts of 1844 when an English translation appeared in 1959, and it was obvious that their author was no ‘Marxist’; but then, I told myself, he was a young man when he wrote them. However, in 1973, the publication of Grundrisse shook me far more deeply: Marx was forty years old when he wrote this work. I produced an essay, 1 which tried uneasily to give a ‘dialectical materialist’ account of what I had found in this amazing work.

In my lectures in the 1970s, I was obliged to turn more and more towards the understanding that Capital was about neither ‘Marx’s economics’, nor ‘capitalism’. Whatever else it included, it was chiefly about communism, a truly human society. At the end of that decade, I dropped out of political activity. In the early 1980s, almost my only involvement was to help to edit a volume containing an English translation of Marx’s work on mathematics. I thought this was far enough from real life to escape the doubts which assailed me. I was wrong!

The Trotskyist group to which I had belonged for three decades exploded in 1985, as did so many apparently disparate groups on the Left around that time. I returned to the fray, determined to find out what I had been doing for over half of my life. In 1987, I wrote a little booklet which – only scraping the surface – tried to look at the problems which faced ‘Marxist orthodoxy’.

Although I was only too conscious of the weaknesses of this work, I imagined that it would at least begin a discussion on the Left. Wrong again! To my astonishment and dismay, people I had worked with for twenty or so years stopped talking to me. They were intent on ‘reconstructing’ the movement on its old theoretical basis, and the noise of my digging only interrupted this activity. Although I was personally upset about this, it showed me that I had to dig much, much deeper. Re-reading works of Marx which I thought I knew well, I found that I didn’t know them at all.

There is a responsibility for transmitting the insights of Karl Marx to a new generation who will desperately need them. This does not mean that I believe he is always ‘correct’, or invariably consistent. I am not trying to rediscover a god-like, infallible and all-knowing Marx. Some of the huge volume of his writings is of historical interest at most, and some of his statements are simply wrong. Even when his most important discoveries are properly understood, they will be seen to be, not ready-made answers to our problems, but pointers to a better way to pose the questions. I shall try to show how, when looked at this way, they get to the heart of precisely those problems which face the world at the end of this century.

The book proceeds thus. Chapter 1 is a brief sketch of the world today, showing what a mess it is in. This may be pretty obvious, but what is more interesting is that everybody seems to find it inconceivable that there can be any other way to live. Why should that be?

I believe that, if we can find out what Marx was trying to do, he will help us to find a way forward. However, first, the heap of ideological rubble which has been dumped on top of Marx’s ideas must be excavated. In Chapter 2, I have traced the way that the ‘official’, ‘orthodox’ story of ‘Marxism’ arose to obscure the view of Marx.

The topmost layer, the Stalinist caricature, is easily disposed of But it erected its falsifications on the basis of a body of doctrine which had already distorted the essence of Marx’s work. This was largely the product of Karl Kautsky and Georgi Plekhanov, the theoretical leaders of the international workers’ movement before 1914, and it was accepted by those who formed the Third International. (I refuse to go along with the common allegation that the process of falsification of Marx was mainly due to Frederick Engels, whatever his weaknesses.)

After this, I begin to look at what Marx’s relevance for our time might be. Chapter 3 tries to show that Marx’s work was primarily concerned with grasping the nature of human beings, and the way that present-day society is alien to that nature.

In Chapter 4, I contrast Marx’s approach to humanity with the way that academic studies like philosophy, economics, sociology and the natural sciences investigate it. Marx, I believe, showed how each of these disciplines, in attempting to describe what humans are, both expresses and obscures their alienated life.

As an appendix to Chapter 4, I have included an article called ‘Science and Humanity – Hegel, Marx and Dialectic’. This first appeared, in Common Sense, journal of the Edinburgh Conference of Socialist Economists, Number 15, April 1994, and I am grateful to the editors for permission to reproduce it.

In Chapter 5, I try to show how these ideas of Marx, freed from their ‘Marxist’ wrappings, can be brought to bear on some of the problems of the present time. It would be presumptuous to pretend to provide answers’ to these problems. This is not only because I don’t know the answers, but also because that is not what Marx’s work is about. Instead, I think it attempts something more important: to clarify some of the questions which humanity will not be able to evade in the coming century. Any reader who yearns for a more prescriptive conclusion is invited to provide one.

I wish that at this point I could express my gratitude to old comrades in the Trotskyist movement for the help they have given me in the course of this work. Alas, I can’t. When they found out what I was up to, most of them stopped communicating with me, because I made them feel uncomfortable. Some exceptions must be mentioned, however. Tom Kemp disagreed with some of my conclusions, but continued to discuss them with me and to give me help and encouragement until his recent death. Geoff Barr has also commented helpfully on some earlier versions of sections of this work. Many discussions with Shiraz Kassam are reflected throughout these pages, but especially in Chapter 1.

Other people, coming from quite different directions, were very helpful. Don Cuckson, whom I first got to know when he was a member of the Communist Party and I was a fervent Trotskyist, has helped me a great deal. He is engaged in a similar voyage of exploration of his own past theoretical notions. Piero Pinzauti, who will dislike a large part of what I have written, nonetheless initiated some of the impulse to write it. His Florentine vehemence helped to jolt me out of the philosophical rut in which I was stuck.

Hayo Krombach, whose Hegelian views separate him widely from my standpoint, has given me invaluable assistance on the basis of his deep knowledge of Hegel’s work. Many hours of discussion with Ute Bublitz, whose own point of view will, I hope, shortly be published, have played an essential part in shaping my attitude to Marx’s ideas and their relationship with those of Hegel.

Comments and criticisms of drafts of the book by Ute Bublitz, Don Cuckson, Tony Madgwick, Felix Pirani, Ben Rudder and Towfik Shomar have been invaluable. I am sorry that I have not always been able to do what they wanted me to.

When I say that none of these people can be held responsible for the many deficiencies in this book, I am doing more than offer the usual formal disclaimer. In fact, each of them disagrees with some of what I have to say, and many of the ideas have emerged only in the course of sharp disagreements with them.

I am grateful to them all.

Cyril Smith January 1995

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