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A "Humanist" Reading of Marx

Marx at the Millennium, Pluto Press, 1996. Paperback, 182pp, £12.99.

Reviewed by Bob Pitt

THE AUTHOR of Marx at the Millennium was for many years a leading theoretician of the political tendency led by Gerry Healy, which became the Workers Revolutionary Party. This was an organisation in which intellectuals were required to play a particularly discreditable role. Theoretical articles had to be written in a tone of arrogance appropriate to a cult which believed itself to be the sole repository of revolutionary Marxism, while at the same time remaining on a extremely abstract level for fear that they might actually impinge on practical politics. ("Philosophical method" was an especially popular subject, being sufficiently removed from any direct practical implications.) Political practice itself was a field monopolised by the WRP’s glorious leader who, unhampered by the slightest understanding of (still less concern for) Marxist principles, combined a fundamental and ingrained sectarianism with whatever pragmatic manoeuvering was necessary to keep the show on the road. The result of all this was theory divorced from practice and practice divorced from theory.

It was not that theory and practice were entirely separate, however. The theory served to cover up for the lousy politics. Thus in 1974, when the WRP’s political perspectives were characterised by hysterical nonsense about imminent military coups and confident predictions that the newly-founded "party" was about to emerge as a mass revolutionary force, Cyril Smith was on hand to produce an erudite article on Marx’s Grundrisse for the WRP’s theoretical journal. Ordinary WRP members or supporters, naturally assuming that there was an interaction between the theory and practice of the organisation, and confronted with an article whose intellectual sophistication was some way over their heads, were inclined to lose confidence in their own political judgement and accept Healy’s ultra-left ranting as good coin.

This anti-Marxist relationship between theory and practice is not, of course, restricted to the Healyite tradition. The Socialist Workers Party, the largest far-left organisation in Britain today, has for years produced a quarterly journal, International Socialism, which contains theoretical contributions of a generally high standard (much higher than the WRP ever managed). Yet in 1992 the SWP’s guru Tony Cliff woke up one morning and announced that the campaign against pit closures required an all-out indefinite general strike – at a time when industrial militancy in Britain was at a historic low. And this political idiocy was apparently happily endorsed by the same intellectuals whose learned and heavily-footnoted articles fill the pages of International Socialism.

A central requirement for rebuilding a genuine Marxist tendency, therefore, is the restoration of a creative relationship between theory and practice. When the WRP collapsed in 1985, however, Cyril Smith chose a different tack. One of his first contributions to the discussion that broke out after Healy’s expulsion was an attack on the WRP’s former assistant general secretary Sheila Torrance, who had been rather nasty to him in the past. Accusing Torrance of treating party members as "things", he declared that such an approach was (I quote from memory) "incompatible with our aim of building a truly human society". From a hardened Healyite, Cyril Smith had apparently turned into a whingeing humanist.

When I read this in 1985, it did strike me that it was a shame we couldn’t put Cyril in a time machine and send him back to revolutionary Russia during the Civil War to try out his new humanist philosophy there. You can imagine the scene. Trotsky is sitting at his desk in the carriage of his armoured train, about to sign an order for the execution of Red Army officers who have deserted the front line. Suddenly there is a puff of blue smoke and Cyril Smith appears at his side. "But, but, Lev Davidovich", Cyril cries plaintively, clutching at the great revolutionary’s sleeve, "is this compatible with our aim of building a truly human society?"

Marx at the Millenium continues and deepens Smith’s humanist misreading of Marxism. As you might expect, he places particular emphasis on Marx’s writings of the Paris Manuscripts period. Not that we get a serious analysis of the disputed question of the relationship between the early and late Marx, though. Smith simply claims without any real attempt at substantiation that there is no distinguishable difference between the two. Thus he quotes a passage from the 1844 Note on James Mill and asserts that it "embodies – of course in undeveloped form – the whole content of the Grundrisse and Capital" (p.101, emphasis in original). According to this interpretation, the result of Marx’s Herculean intellectual labours in the British Library was merely to discover (albeit in a more "developed" form) what he knew already! Later in the book Smith has a lot to say about Marxism and science. He should ask himself – what kind of scientific method is it that has already reached its conclusions when the process of study has barely begun?

Smith’s attempt to read the categories of Marx’s early work into his later writings sometimes produces unintentionally comic effects. On pages 88-9, for example, Smith quotes the famous distinction between base and superstructure from Marx’s 1859 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and comments: "I think he means that when our social relations are strangers to us, our enemies, we do not control our lives." Oh, does he really? It seems to be a general rule that when an author tells you he wants to "establish what were Marx’s real ideas" (p.19), what you get is an exposition of what Marx’s ideas would have been – if Marx had shared the ideas of the author.

Smith sets great store by the idea of a "human essence", a term which appears in Marx’s early writings, having been adapted from the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. But whereas the Marx of the Paris Manuscripts believed that this essence was to be found in human labour, Smith identifies it with the much vaguer category of humanity’s "creative powers" (p.68). The opportunity for sentimental mysticism which this opens up is illustrated by the following passage:

"Somehow, amidst all the corruption and fragmentation of the modern world, we have remained – not much, not always, generally unknown to ourselves and with many mistakes and distortions – human. At the back of our minds, we still know it. If this were not the case, there could be no language, no science, no philosophy, no politics, no poetry, no love. These activities – twisted and perverted, organically entangled in their inhuman wrapping as they are – still do exist. That tells us that humanity does indeed survive, but bound up with, and hidden by, its direct opposite, in forms which simultaneously give us this message of humanity and deny it" (p.73, emphasis in original).

In any case, by the time of the Theses on Feuerbach (1845) Marx had effectively abandoned the idea of a "human essence", having concluded that it was nothing other than "the ensemble of the social relations". Smith quotes this passage (p.64), but goes on to write as if there were a human essence which is distinct from (even if organically connected with) existing social relations. He tells us that Marx "strove to understand modern society in terms of the way the human was buried inside inhumanity" (p.69, emphasis in original), which would certainly come as news to Marx himself. Elsewhere (pp.103-4) Smith informs us that "estrangement, egoism and violent antagonism are the denial of humanity". But they’re not. They are some of the specific forms that human existence takes in a system of generalised commodity production.

Smith doesn’t just attribute his own muddled views to Marx; he denounces what he terms "Marxism" (in ironic quotation marks) for failing to recognise the truth about Marx’s ideas which he, Cyril Smith, is alone privileged to understand. In this category of "Marxism" he includes Stalin (!), Lenin and Trotsky, and Kautsky and Plekhanov, and claims to have identified the connection between them. The theoreticians of the Second International were mechanical materialists who misinterpreted Marx; Lenin and Trotsky failed to overcome this theoretical legacy; they thus paved the way for the rise of Stalin, who "exploited to the full every weakness contained in the outlook of Lenin’s party" (p.26).

As was predictable back in 1985, Smith ends up with a complete repudiation of the Bolshevik tradition. He condemns "loose talk among ‘Marxists’ ... about a ‘revolutionary party making a revolution’" (p.106), attacks the seizure of power as Blanquism (ibid), tells us that Trotsky’s Terrorism and Communism should carry an "ideological health warning" (p.28) and dismisses the October Revolution as "an excursion down ... a blind alley" (p.165). And as an alternative to this tradition we are offered a return, not to Marx, but to a pseudo-Marxism of Smith’s own invention.

To reject Smith’s arguments is not to stand for uncritical acceptance of everything the Bolsheviks did. Indeed, one or two of Smith’s points are perfectly valid – notably his rejection of Lenin’s view, outlined in What Is To Be Done?, of socialist ideology being brought into the working class "from without" (p.37). But Smith’s evolution is a typical one. Having adhered for decades to a political tendency which proclaimed itself to be Trotskyist (while in practice ignoring virtually every political lesson that Trotsky taught), he automatically assumes that in breaking from that tendency he has broken from Trotskyism. So he now opts for the wholesale rejection of a Leninist-Trotskyist tradition which he never understood in the first place (otherwise how could he have remained in Gerry Healy’s organisation for all those years?)

Typical of the procedure which Smith adopts is his attempt to drive a wedge between Marx’s concept of "the dictatorship of the proletariat" and the idea of a "workers’ state". But what is the proletarian dictatorship other than a form of state in which the working class holds power – in other words, a workers’ state? True, Marx and Engels, drawing on the experience of the Paris Commune, believed that this state would involve the widest popular participation and would immediately begin to "wither away" – but then so did Lenin in State and Revolution. Smith claims that, in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution, "as the brutality and desperation of the wars of intervention and the Civil War swept away all such notions, these ideas were once more forgotten" (p.47). In reality, the idea of the Commune State simply proved unworkable in the specific conditions of post-revolutionary Russia. As Smith knows perfectly well, far from it being "forgotten", Trotsky devotes a substantial section of The Revolution Betrayed to this very question.

Smith’s assertion that Marx (as opposed, by implication, to Lenin) "was devoted to democratic forms and had no time for centralised and disciplined political organisations" (p.20) is another case in point. This characterisation of Marx’s views would certainly have been disputed by Bakunin and his supporters within the First International, who accused Marx and Engels precisely of trying to turn the International into a centralised and disciplined organisation and of using undemocratic methods to achieve it. But even if Smith’s contention is true, it still leaves out the question of what form of political organisation Marx did support, what solution he proposed to the inevitable conflict between democratic principles and organisational realities, and what lessons can be learned for building a socialist organisation today. Such mundane practical issues are of no apparent interest to the author of Marx at the Millenium.

The final chapter of the book opens (p.153) with the statement that "in the ‘Marxist’ tradition, it was customary to end a book with a rousing answer to the question: ‘What is to be done?’" Well I suppose it would be, wouldn’t it? You don’t need to possess some profound understanding of "what Marx was actually trying to do" (p.16) to recognise that "the question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question", as the Second Thesis of Feuerbach has it. Or as Engels preferred to put it, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. So what practical conclusions does Smith draw from his humanist re-reading of Marx? The answer, basically, is that he doesn’t. "Maybe the day for conclusions like that will return some time", he writes, "but I certainly don’t know how to provide one now"!

In short we are back, at least in part, with the old Healyite tradition. We have the same arrogant claim to a unique insight into Marxism, only now it is not the "party" but Cyril Smith the individual who is the sole possessor of this insight. And there is the same abstract theory divorced from practice, with the difference that Healy is no longer around to decide what the practice should be, so now there is no practice at all. Perhaps Smith should come clean and admit that his aim is not the re-establishment, but the blatant revision, of Marx’s ideas. He could then rewrite the Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach accordingly: "The Marxists have tried to change the world in various ways; the point, however, is only to interpret it."

Maclean and "Madness"

James D. Young, John Maclean: Clydeside Socialist, John Maclean Society, 1996. Pamphlet, 47pp, £2.00.

Reviewed by Bob Pitt

Subtitled "A Reply to Bob Pitt", James D. Young’s pamphlet claims to answer my own pamphlet John Maclean and the CPGB, in which I analysed the opposition of the celebrated Scottish Marxist to the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain. The conclusion I reached confirmed the explanation put forward in the memoirs of one-time Communist MP Willie Gallacher – that Maclean suffered psychological damage as a result of his sufferings in prison and that his antagonism towards the Communist Party was fuelled by his paranoid delusion that the CPGB and its precursor the British Socialist Party had been taken over by spies and state agents.

Not surprisingly, this thesis aroused resentment in some quarters – particularly within the John Maclean Society, for whose members it has long been an article of faith that Gallacher was a liar who invented the story of Maclean’s psychological problems in order to destroy the political reputation of an opponent of the Communist Party. An extended debate ensued in the correspondence columns of the Weekly Worker with Gerry Cairns, the secretary of the John Maclean Society, while another prominent member of the Society, Paul B. Smith, subjected my pamphlet to a lengthy (and inaccurate) critique in New Interventions. The pamphlet under review here is thus only the latest instalment in the John Maclean Society’s counter-offensive.

It has to be said that James D. Young’s effort is by far the worst of the contributions so far. A small-scale version of his rambling and incoherent "biography" of Maclean, it amounts to little more than a stream-of-consciousness journey through various subjects linked to Maclean, interspersed with the occasional abusive remark about yours truly. Young is so convinced of the falsity of my arguments that he obviously hasn’t bothered to read my pamphlet properly. Thus we are told (p.20) that "despite ... the unimaginably reactionary attitudes of the prison doctors that Maclean encountered in jail, Pitt uses their ‘evidence’ to prove his contention that Maclean was ‘mad’. He acknowledges none of the evidence that contradicts his ‘thesis’ that Maclean denounced the leaders of the CPGB because of ‘insanity’". It would be difficult to pack more inaccuracies into a couple of sentences.

In fact John Maclean and the CPGB evaluates the evidence of Maclean’s prison doctors objectively, points out that medical opinion was divided between the view that Maclean was already insane when he entered prison in 1918 and the view that he suffered no ill effects at all from months of force-feeding and isolation, and therefore rejects the material from Maclean’s medical files as inconclusive. At no point in my pamphlet do I describe Maclean as "mad" – I argue that "if it would be an exaggeration to describe Maclean as actually insane, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that his mental state was seriously impairing his judgement". The evidence I use to back this up includes Special Branch reports of Maclean’s political activities, contemporary newspaper articles, the reminiscences of participants in the events, and Maclean’s own writings. Together these form a consistent picture of Maclean’s motives in opposing the CPGB, and James Young’s pamphlet makes no attempt to refute any of this evidence.

The sloppiness and dishonesty of John Maclean: Clydeside Socialist did not prevent Peter Fryer from giving it an uncritical boost in one of the last issues of the Workers Revolutionary Party’s now thankfully defunct paper Workers Press. Applauding Young’s pamphlet as one of the best recent publications he had read, Fryer endorsed the baseless accusation that I was guilty of suppressing evidence from Maclean’s medical files and claimed that I was "not so much replied to as annihilated". Well I don’t know about annihilated, but I’m certainly not replied to, as anyone who has read the two pamphlets will confirm. Anyone, that is, except Peter Fryer.

I’ve often wondered why Fryer, who has built up a reputation as a serious writer and historian, is willing to discredit himself by acting as a literary hatchet man for an unpleasant sect like the WRP (or whatever fraudulent front organisation it has now transformed itself into). I can only suppose that it’s the result of his early training in the Stalinised CP, where he acquired the habit of prostituting his journalistic talents in the service of rotten politics. Of course, Fryer has come down a bit in the world since then. At that time, by slandering the victims of Stalinist show trials, he had an impact on significant historical events. These days he’s reduced to slagging off the author of an obscure historical pamphlet.