Deeply Re-examining Marxism

Cyril Smith

HAVING JUST READ Michael Lowy’s “The Centrality of Self-emancipation for a Critical Marxism”(in the Against the Current translation, which I received via the Internet), I agree strongly with many of Lowy’s remarks about the next steps for those who consider themselves to be followers of Karl Marx, now that the downfall of the Stalinist bureaucracy and its devotees has provided us with a wonderful opportunity for the re-birth of communist ideas.

Like Lowy, I believe that this work must center on Marx’s conception of human self-emancipation, and I particularly applaud Lowy’s statement that Marx’s thought did not bring forth a “science of history.”

I also like Lowy’s insistence on a “critical dialogue with [Marx’s] fundamental works,”and his statement that “to arrogate to Marxism a monopoly on science by casting other trends of thought down into the purgatory of mere ideology has nothing in common with Marx’s own conception.”

Certainly, it is right to consider Marx’s work as a “construction site.”But I do not think Lowy has gone far enough. I believe we have still to grasp just how radical was the innovation of Marx’s “project.”

When we met—in 1986, on a beach by the Aegean, Lowy may recall—I was just at the beginning of an attempt to reconsider everything I had ever thought before, in the wake of the explosion of the Healy Group [the Workers Revolutionary Party in Britain—ed.].

At that time I was still looking for a cleaned-up version of Trotskyism. A bit later, I began to see that we had to go much further. To the annoyance of my former comrades, who just wanted to get “back to business,”I decided that we had to re-examine the entire structure of bolshevism, the problem of the Party, the nature of the Russian revolution, the idea of a “workers’ state,”and many other questions.

Lowy says that “we can’t just `return to Marx,’ without. . . ,”and lists the main twentieth-century Marxists. But were these great fighters and thinkers really “drawing on Marx but going well beyond him”? They certainly tried, but I believe that, even before the end of the nineteenth century, indeed, even before Marx was dead, people had lost sight of his most fundamental conceptions.

I hope I am not being arrogant when I suggest that even Engels, for whom I have profound admiration and respect, might not really have got hold of the fundamental aim of Marx’s work. (I wrote a brief article on this, published last year in Capital and Class.) But that means we must investigate assumptions unquestioned by the entire Marxist tradition.

Socialism Is About Self-Emancipation

Look, in particular, at the fate of Marx’s main work. Did anyone on Lowy’s list of contributors to twentieth-century Marxism actually get to the heart of Capital? No doubt, many of them studied the book carefully, and some had important things to say about it. But how many of them grasped that it was not a book about “economics,”but about the self-emancipation of humanity? I know of none. And then are we not stuck with an abstract “science of history”?

I believe that the impact of Stalinism on all our thinking has been underestimated, and I have in mind especially the thinking of the Trotskyist movement. We were captivated, and so limited, by the certitude that 1917 provided us with the only possible “model”of socialist revolution and revolutionary leadership. We got it into our heads that it had produced a “workers’ state,”however degenerated, which would, one day, lay the basis for socialism, on behalf of the working class.

With that false notion as a fixed point of reference, it was impossible for us to get hold of what Marx meant by self-emancipation, or what role in that process was played by our own ideas and actions. That is why I think we must go much deeper in our criticism of all those whose thinking was based on such conceptions—including ourselves.

I agree that criticism of Marx is sometimes needed, but I don’t agree with the examples Lowy gives. For instance, is Lowy right to question the position of Marx and Engels on religion? As he knows, they refused merely to denounce religion as a ruling-class confidence trick. They understood well that we can’t combat false notions without revolutionizing the conditions they express. That is why I think it might be unfair to accuse them of “reducing religion and ethics . . . to relations of production.”

But this raises a more general problem: where do our own ideas come from? What is the relation between the thought of the revolutionaries and the process of revolution?

I believe that Lenin’s notion (taken from Kautsky), that “we”must bring socialist consciousness into the working class “from without,”Trotsky’s contention that “the crisis of humanity is reduced to the crisis of proletarian leadership,”must be questioned, if we are to grasp the lessons of the twentieth century.

These ideas all had a meaning, no doubt, in their historical context, but, deeply embedded as they are in our thinking, they are a powerful obstacle to the necessary task of re-examination of Marx.

Like Lowy, I think we should “revisit”some of the stages of development of socialist ideas, including those which we would have rejected in the past as “Utopian.”But is it right to say that Marx thought he had “refuted”them? Marx’s conception of communism owed much to Owen and Fourier, for instance, while it also involved a rejection of Utopianism, in principle.

Marx understood communism as the “real”movement,”not as the ideas of this or that reforming genius about how the world ought to be. The Utopians thought that their ideas originated outside that “real movement,”and that is what Marx “refuted.”We should certainly go back to and learn from the Utopians, but we ought to reject their Utopianism.

In his scientific work, Marx’s aim was not a set of particular “doctrines,”but the removal of the theoretical and practical obstacles to human freedom. He did not regard himself as an individual propounding a “theory”about an external object, society.

Rather, he was a human being struggling to express, in thought and in revolutionary practice, humanity’s growing awareness of possibilities for its own development, possibilities which have already, invisibly, been created by history.

I was surprised, too, to see Lowy’s remark about “a non-commodified political economy.”I am now assured that this was a piece of mistranslation, and that what he wrote referred to “a non-commodity economic policy.”[A technical discussion is omitted here. In brief, Smith points out that Marx’s “critique of political economy”is an analysis of bourgeois economic forms, hence a “non-commodified political economy”is a contradiction in terms—ed.]

Finally, while I have great sympathy with Lowy’s remarks about ecology, and the need to develop Marx’s ideas considerably on the issue of our relationship with nature, I think it is a bit hard on old Karl to accuse him of “a sharp tendency to embrace an evolutionism, a philosophy of progress, a scientism (modelled on the natural sciences) and by a wholly unproblematicised vision of productive forces.”(In particular, I think the common reading of the 1859 Preface is a misreading by the Marxist tradition.)

I am sure there is much work to be done here, but I feel it should be undertaken as an extension of Marx’s most basic conceptions on the nature of humanity as “a natural being,”which is at the same time “a human natural being.”(1844 Manuscript) [We take the liberty to refer our readers to remarks on the subject of Marx and ecology by John Bellamy Foster in our symposium on the Communist Manifesto, ATC 72 (January-February 1998, 15-16)—ed.]

I have tried to sum up my point of view in terms of the concept of the subject. Let me try to explain very briefly. For the Enlightenment, up to and including Kant, the subject was essentially the individual, with, of course, Hobbesian, Lockean, Cartesian, Rousseauan and Kantian variants. They might all be summed up in Marx’s phrase: “isolated individuals in civil society,”basically, the property-owners.

Increasingly sharper contradictions between the individual and the collectivity of society emerged. Hegel’s overarching historical subject, called “Spirit”attempted to contain these contradictions in a dynamically-reconciled whole.

Now, Marx’s triple critique of Hegel’s dialectic, of political economy and of Utopianism, could grasp all sides of the problem. Placing social labor at the center of his picture of humanity, he could understand that humanity existed within inhuman forms. Then the proletariat was revealed as—potentially—the self-constituted subject of history, actualized precisely in the act of abolishing itself.

Human society, when we get it, will be a free association of social individuals.

“Marxism”found all this too difficult. It tried instead—disastrously—to fabricate two other subjects: the “Party”and the “workers’ state.”That is how it lost the main basis for Marx’s understanding of communism, which Marx had identified with “true democracy.”The recovery of this understanding should be the starting-point for all our work.

ATC 76, September-October 1998