From Socialist Worker Review, No.73, February 1985, pp.26-27.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
TIMES are bad; the consolation is they have been worse. In periods of despondency we can comfort ourselves in the knowledge that we will never have to bear what Karl Marx had to endure. He developed the basic principles of socialism in the. 1840s. In a letter to F.A. Sorge written in 1872, he confessed that no British person had yet under stood his ideas.
The 30 lean years that followed the 1848 revolutions did not arise because Marx was politically lazy, expressed himself without clarity or was inept. Rather it happened because, to most people, the world seemed to be walking in the opposite direction to Marx.
Capitalism had entered into a long period of rapid expansion, of rising living standards and lessening class tension. In other words, Marx found himself functioning in the most profound and prolonged downturn ever experienced by the socialist movement.
That is why he laboured so hard, spent so many years and ruined his health writings Das Capital. In an important sense, his great work is an impressive compliment to capitalism. It is a grudging recognition of its liability and durability, If it had been obvious the collapse of the system was imminent, then it would not have been necessary to go to such extraordinary lengths to prove it possessed inherent inner contradictions. It was the fact that the overwhelming majority of people regarded the existing system as natural, inevitable and everlasting that spurred him on to puncture, at least theoretically, the balloon of overweaning self-confidence.
Assuredly, today nobody will have to repeat Marx’s Herculean efforts. Now there is almost universal acceptance that capitalism is crisis-ridden. Even those who fondly believe Reagan or Thatcher have the answer to present economic ills, do not consider we are on the threshold of an era of tranquility and progress. The certainty of stability which prevailed in Marx’s day has vanished. The system feels unsure of itself, under threat.
This, in my opinion, illustrates a highly significant philosophical truth, one that gives us grounds for optimism: correct ideas do not merely move reality, but reality moves towards correct ideta, thereby giving the ideas an added power. Expressed like that it may seem rather obscure. So let me illustrate it by taking a couple of quotations from Marx, plucked almost at random.
The first is the well-known ending to the Communist Manifesto ‘Workers of the world unite’. When considered in its historical context, this initially seems to be a wildly impractical utterance. For in 1848, in five of the six continents, the working class was either infinitesimally small or non-existent. The vast majority of Africans and Asians would not have agreed with the Manifesto even if they had possessed the ability (which they did not) to read it. Their experiences and problems found no connection with its pages.
As for the sixth continent – Europe – the position there was only slightly better. Large tracts remained stuck in rural backwardness. Britain, the most economically developed, has correctly been termed ‘the first industrial nation’. Yet the Britain of 1848 was hardly promising. Its working class was still small and immature.
The Chartist movement constituted the vanguard of the class. For several years, one of the main preoccupations of this proletarian vanguard had been the Chartist Land Plan, an impractical scheme to turn back the economic clock. It had visions of resettling factory workers back on the land, giving them two acres and a cow. Is it realistic to think a socialist society could be built by people still hankering after private ownership, the dream of returning to a peasant past?
Nevertheless, all this did not and does not invalidate Marx. His thought was essentially dialectical, seeing things in terms of being and becoming. He accurately discerned the trends. What has happened since simply confirms his judgement. There has been the growth of the international economy, enmeshing people throughout the world, making their destiny mutually interdependent. Simultaneously, multinational companies have emerged. As a result, all have become imprisoned in the same exploitive relationships. Consequently, unlike 137 years ago, the same basic problems exist internationally – and can only be solved internationally.
What is equally vital for that solution, a working class has grown up throughout all six continents. This means, for example, that a country like South Korea, which had no working class in 1848, now has one that is bigger than the British working class was in 1848. Today, therefore, Marx’s writings, have relevance to the predicament of the typical Korean, a wage labourer like most people in other industrialised countries. No longer did they have to remain mysterious and incomprehensible to him; his own liberation depends on a realisation of the truth of the final sentence in the Manifesto.
But before the erroneous conclusion is reached that everyone can sit back and leave it all to the red mole of history, burrowing away and undermining capitalism’s foundations, let me turn to the second quotation.
In 1856, the People’s Paper celebrated its fourth anniversary with a public meeting. James Watson, a veteran Chartist from Newcastle, made the first speech. It was along traditional lines: knowledge is power; the People’s Paper spreads knowledge; therefore, the People’s Paper is good.
Sitting next to Watson on the platform was a strange, bearded character, who spoke with a strong foreign accent. A newspaper report described him as ‘Dr Carl Marx, the well-known German émigré’, and his message was somewhat different. Mercifully Marx did not mention the obscure Hegelian principle of the interpenetration of opposites although it underlay his remarks. He described what he thought were the essential features of existing society:
‘On the one hand, there have started into life industrial and scientific forces, which no epoch of the former human history had ever suspected. On the other hand, there exist symptoms of decay, far surpassing the horrors recorded in the latter time of the Roman Empire. In our days everything seems pregnant with its contrary.’
Today, paradoxically, we can understand what Marx meant better than Marx did himself. In 1856 he could not have foreseen the creation of H-bombs, laser weapons, star wars, the restriction of food output while millions starve. Even if, by some magical means, he had predicted these things, none of his audience would have believed him. They would have considered him insane, a prospective inmate for Dr Tuke’s lunatic asylum, where Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor had been put. But we, having hindsight, can see that the social system is insane, not Karl Marx. His prophecy looms as an ever-more menacing warning so long as capitalism survives.
But political and ideological forces are operating, sometimes subterraneously, to undermine the established order. Accompanying the growth of a working class throughout the world has gone industrial strife and manifestations of political discontent in places which were unknown or quiescent 25, 50, 100 years ago. These struggles require socialist theory and practice, and as we have already seen, Marxist theory has gained in power as the world more closely approximates to it. Consequently, when a crisis eventually detonates mass discontent – as it inevitably will – then it will be much more widespread, much more profound than it was after the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia.
Prior to the October Revolution, it is worth recalling there also had been a political downturn. The crushing of the 1905 Revolution had left Russian socialists demoralised and exceedingly weak. Some of them went in for the craze of God-seeking. Most just dropped out of activity. By 1910, in Moscow the Bolsheviks had been reduced to eight members, seven of whom were police spies.
It is interesting to compare the attitudes of Lenin and Trotsky to the downturn. Trotsky was the optimist. He had developed his theory of permanent revolution. This gave him confidence. Irrespective of Tsarism’s apparent power and invincibility, his analysis revealed conclusively its downfall was ultimately inevitable. In exile, he always had his bags half-packed, expecting a call to resume his chairmanship of the Petrograd Soviet.
By contrast, Lenin was much more the pessimist. Only a few weeks before the February Revolution of 1917, ironically he told a meeting of young Swiss socialists he did not expect to see socialism in his lifetime. His economic analysis was not as accurate as Trotsky’s. Nevertheless, in one respect he was much more correct. He liked to quote the great Russian novelist, Tolstoy, who had once seen a man squatting in a doorway making strange gestures. At first glance he seemed to be a madman. Then on closer inspection, Tolstoy discovered the man was doing a perfectly sensible thing – sharpening a knife on a stone.
To an outsider, the heated arguments, factional struggles, splits that convulsed the Russian left in the 15 years before 1917 must have seemed like a particularly severe form of insanity. Yet, Lenin realised this was a necessary process, the sharpening of the revolutionary knife upon a stone. Without Bolshevism, the mass discontent would eventually be dissipated: Bolshevism was the vital murder weapon that struck the fatal blow to the old system.
In my opinion, this has an important lesson for us today. What we must combine is the optimism of Trotsky with the organisational realism of Lenin.
Looking back on 43 years of political activity, I see the socialist movement today has a bigger and harder core but less flesh than it did in my youth. Then a deep-seated anger existed among many sections of the British working class determined, after the sacrifices of the war, not to return to the dole queues and hopelessness of the Thirties. Our message then reached receptive ears. In 1945 I remember meeting an old age pensioner, Dai Thomas of Merthyr, who sold 312 copies of the Socialist Leader each week. The Trotskyists, roughly 400 strong, got rid of as many as 20,000 copies of their fortnightly Socialist Appeal. Even the most dedicated comrade now would not achieve the same result. The reason is the periphery has shrunk.
However, it would be wrong to look at those 43 years negatively. In various respects, considerable progress has been made. Today there is a much greater store of knowledge and experience. The theoretical level is generally higher. Also, organisationally there has been progress. The Independent Labour Party, the largest body on the left, had a membership in 1945 of less than 3,000. While some of them were revolutionaries, like the group around Reg Groves and Hugo Dewar, at the same time there were many more who believed in the parliamentary road. In fact, the ILP had sunk in the swamp of centrism, equidistant between reform and revolution. As for the Trotskyists, dedicated and good comrades, although wrong on a number of important points, they had a size of less than a tenth of the present day SWP.
So, in these circumstances, I do not consider that there is any reason to be disheartened. As Marx wrote in Capital: ‘New forces and new passions spring up in the bosom of society.’ The downturn will not continue forever. And, when the upturn comes, socialists will be better placed than ever before to achieve their objective.
Last updated: 28 March 2010