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“A Textbook of Marxist Philosophy”


This “Left Book Club” publication is a translation of a volume prepared by the Leningrad Institute of Philosophy “as a textbook in Dialectical Materialism for institutions of higher education directly connected with the Communist Party and also for use in the Technical Institutes which correspond to Universities in Great Britain”—except that the opening Historical section has been “condensed and entirely rewritten” by the English editor (John Lewis, B.Sc., Ph.D.), who also contributes an Introduction designed to bring “dialectic” into relation with theories more familiar to the Western student. Actually it is too journalistic to effect much enlightenment, but the book as a whole might introduce the Science student, embedded in the morass of up-to-date theories, to problems he had overlooked; it would hardly benefit the Philosophy student who is already conversant with Hegelianism and does not wish to have its confusion worse confounded. As a textbook the book is grotesque—a laboured application of selected categories to phenomena, a closing down, not an opening up, of questions. But, as showing how, in the name of education, actual thinking is prevented in Russia at the present time, it has its importance.

The outstanding fact here is the political character of its polemic; each “philosophical” point made is used to drive home the attack on Trotsky or some other opponent of the official creed, It will, of course, be argued that this is in accordance with the “unity of theory and practice”; Lewis (p. 21) compares the contact to “that between the research department of a medical school and the hospital”. But we should not think much of a research department which gave long disquisitions on the state of the healthy and confined its descriptions of the sick to a few dogmatic utterances. The book bristles with quotations from Hegel, Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin; these philosophic authorities (along with Plekhanov, though in his case the references are few) are given a special section in the index. But quotations from the various “deviators” would occupy no more than three pages of the entire work, and from Trotsky, who is repeatedly criticised, not a line is quoted. Denunciation covered by vague generalities—that is the recipe for the treatment of philosophico-political error.

The book, one gathers (p. 303), was written in 1932; to-day the denunciation would be more violent and even less supported. But it is interesting to observe that while, as far as the reviewer can determine, all the references to Trotsky are inaccurate, in a few crucial instances they carry their inaccuracy on the face of them. Thus we read (p. 297) that the Trotskyist opposition marked (masked?) its real counter-revolutionary character by making use of ultra-Left phrases. “‘Permanent revolution’ for all lands without exception, according to one recipe; a socialist conversion at one blow, ‘of planetary dimensions’, etc., etc.—what are these but ultra-‘Left’ phrases, the only effect of which is to hamper real revolutionary activity?” Again (p. 339): “The idealistic philosophy of absolute wholeness serves Trotskyism as a basis for its ‘Left’ talk of ‘permanent revolution’, to be accomplished at one stroke on a planetary scale. It is not mere chance that Trotsky echoes the Hegelian, Lassalle. The theory of the absolute isolation of the proletariat, which all other classes, including the peasantry, confront as a ‘united reactionary mass’, the theory of revolution which arrives suddenly at the end of an epoch and signifies the victory of the working class—these theories of Lassalle were based on the idealistic doctrine of absolute breaks between qualities. It is easy to recognise in the permanent revolution of Trotsky these same Lassallean features.” And, once more (p. 354): “The dialectical unity of the nodal line of measurements in the Leninist doctrine of strategy is replaced by Trotsky by the abstract metaphysic of the single blow. It is quite clear that this conception of strategy is for Trotsky the foundation on which he justifies the armed Bolshevik rising of 1917. But this revolutionary strategy, which became necessary at the transition from bourgeois-democratic revolution to socialist revolution, was for Lenin the realisation of a single line that had been thought out and expounded long before, the logical growing of one stage of revolution into another, Trotsky, however, declares this change of strategy to be a change of principles, and is subsequently compelled to set in opposition to the Bolshevik dialectic the metaphysic of his own ‘permanent revolution’.”

One need not dwell here on the pedestrian style, characteristic of the soap-boxer turned pedant, on the confusion of thought which includes a “change of strategy” in the “realisation of a single line”, on the absence of any evidence to show (what any student of his writings knows to be false) that Trotsky's position is fairly stated here. The important point is that the criticisms do not make sense. What on earth are we to understand by “permanent”, if it is a question of a single blow? Obviously, the revolution, on Trotsky's view, has to be permanent because it is not accomplished at a single blow; it has to be carried on through successive phases which together constitute a single line, and the “logical growing” of one phase into the next is precisely its permanence. And this succession is conditioned by the fact that the proletariat is not confronted by a single “reactionary mass”, but has to make adjustments (form alliances, engage in struggles) with various other forces at various times.

It is interesting to observe that in his Introduction (dated January 27, 1932) to What Next?, Trotsky

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criticises the Stalinist policy in Germany (the policy of the “third period”) precisely for making the Lassallean error. “Marx and Engels lashed the German liberal bourgeoisie no less sharply than Lassalle did, and their criticism was more profound than his. But when the Lassalleans dumped the feudal counter-revolution together with the liberal bourgeoisie into ‘one reactionary mass’ Marx and Engels were justly outraged by this false ultra-radicalism. The erroneous position of the Lassalleans turned them on several occasions into involuntary aids of the monarchy, despite the general progressive nature of their work, which was infinitely more important and consequential than the achievements of liberalism. The theory of ‘social Fascism’ reproduces the basic error of the Lassalleans on a new historical background. After dumping National Socialists and social democrats into one Fascist pile, the Stalinist bureaucracy flies headlong into such activities as backing the Hitler referendum; which in its own fashion is in no wise superior to Lassalle's alliance with Bismarck.” It is not to be expected that the budding politico-philosophers of Russia would know Trotsky's views or would learn to answer what he says. But it is rather hard on them to be forced to swallow stuff that carries its own refutation with it.

The vital question, of course, is that of “Socialism in one country”, and, while the whole argument is in the vein of apologetics, it is to getting a philosophical justification for this policy that the book is principally directed. And it is because he alone has consistently pointed out the incompatibility of this policy with the doctrines of Lenin that Trotsky is principally attacked—and, at the same time, not quoted. Trotsky, we are informed (p. 160), “did not understand the essential character and specific nature of the development of the basic contradiction of Capitalism in the imperialist epoch, he did not understand the law of uneven development. This is the first reason for his denial of the possibility of a victory for socialism in one country. According to Trotsky the contradiction between the proletariat and peasantry in the U.S.S.R. is the same sort of contradiction as that between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie in a capitalist economy, and, in his opinion, is to be resolved in the same way as the second—by international revolution”. This may be usefully compared with a passage from the eighth chapter of Trotsky's Terrorism and Communism (issued in English as The Defence of Terrorism; author's Introduction dated May 29, 1920), embodying material from his report to the Third All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions. “Needless to say, under no circumstances are we striving for a narrow ‘national’ Communism: the raising of the blockade, and the European revolution all the more, would introduce the most radical alterations in our economic plan, cutting down the stages of its development and bringing them together. But we do not know when these events will take place; and we must act in such a way that we can hold out and become stronger under the most unfavourable circumstances—that is to say, in face of the slowest conceivable development of the European and the world revolution” (pp. 147, 8). Trotsky, it appears, did not regard the internal and the external problems as of the same type; nor did he consider that it was a question of a “single blow”. But it is curious that he could propound his principal “heresy” without arousing protest—apparently, indeed, with official sanction.

In these days of Stalinism, however, “theory” is directed to finding support for the Leader's policies, and the main line that can be traced through the intolerable verbiage of this book is the defence of a doctrine of self-sufficiency, of development from internal resources and not from external action. It is not surprising that Hegel is largely drawn upon in support of such a philosophy of “internality”; the difficulty is rather to show where the doctrine departs from Hegel. We learn (p. 140) that, having set up the basic law of development (viz., self-movement rooted in the strife of opposites), “the idealist Hegel inevitably distorted and limited it. He held that the movement of the objective world is a form of movement of absolute spirit, and subordinated the development of objective processes to a system of categories, made up in his own head”. But, curiously, it is just these “made-up” categories that the authors employ, and they give no reason why the “self-sufficient” or Absolute should be described as matter any more than as spirit. The really serious difficulty is how, on such a view, there can be any externality at all; and if the Marx-Leninist dialectic “proceeds from the idea of an indissoluble connection of all processes of actuality” (p. 201), the only process it can consider is the development of the internal resources of the Whole—not of the Soviet Union, or of anything else existing in an environment.

The keynote of the book, then, is the attempt to admit environment and yet discount interaction. Thus, while the mechanical conception of development is that it proceeds by external action, the dialectic conception is said to express “the essence of movement as the unity of opposites. It demands a penetration into the depth of a process, a disclosure of the internal laws which are responsible for the development of that process. This conception seeks the causes of development not outside the process, but in its very midst; it seeks mainly to disclose the sources of the ‘self-movement’ of the process. To understand a process means to disclose its contradictory aspects, to establish their mutual relationship, to follow up the movement of its contradictions through all its stages” (p. 135). Bukharin is criticised as a mechanist (pp. 172, 3), because, instead of inquiring into “the internal contradictions of a process”, he seeks only for independent forces which act on one another. “Such a reduction of an internal process to a conflict of independent forces inevitably leads to the seeking of the cause of change outside the process, in the action of its environment.” Now we may reject at once the confused conception of “determinism” according to which a thing's history is determined entirely by the influence of outside things, as if they could act, but it could not; we may admit that how a thing is influenced depends on what it is, that the same environment affects different things differently, and that a thing can remain indifferent to certain environmental changes. But it is only observation of the interrelation of independent forces (including those within a given thing) that can tell us how things will proceed, and if we relied not on such “mechanical” laws but on the “internal identity of opposites” and the like, we should be reduced from science to the merest guesswork. It is only insofar as they describe specific types of action in specific situations

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that Marx and Lenin are scientific; and it should be noted that the above description of the “dialectic” conception is full of expressions (penetration, source, mutual relationship) which are intelligible only as asserting external relations. It is impossible to show that “the relations of things flow out of their inner nature” (p. 253), if the “inner nature” itself can be expressed only as a situation in which different things are related; and if it could not, there would be no conditions under which any change took place—it would be a sheer miracle.

Thus, to deny the possibility of Socialism in one country is not to deny that Russia has “internal forces”; it is simply to take a certain view of the interactions between economies. The authors, of course, wish to make a certain allowance for externality; they admit (pp. 203, 4) that the contradictions between the capitalist and socialist systems do influence the development of socialist relationships in the U.S.S.R. “But socialist society is developing on the basis of internal laws, on the basis of internal contradictions and not on the basis of the external contradictions between the capitalist world and ourselves. The development of the U.S.S.R. is by no means subordinate to the development of capitalist world economy as Trotsky thinks. Economic and financial blockade, the refusal of credits, the blocking of Soviet exports, the different forms of diplomatic pressure, etc.—all are in some degree reflected in the development of socialism in the U.S.S.R., but the character and degree of the reflection are determined by the internal contradictions in our country…In fact, the degree in which our movement can be hampered by international capitalism depends in the last resort upon ourselves, upon the internal conditions of the country, and it would be completely untrue to attribute the rate of transition or the forms of transition to the varying influences of the capitalist world upon the Soviet Union”. Thus external influence is admitted only to be denied, and the facts previously mentioned, that a thing is not affected by the environment in the same way as another thing would be, and that it may remain unaffected by certain environmental changes, are turned into the falsehood that a thing (e.g., a society which goes in sufficiently for boosting) can rise superior to any environmental conditions.

“A clear proof of this proposition”, the gifted authors continue, “and one which upsets all the assertions of the Trotskyists, is to be found in the fact that the world crisis of capitalism has not fundamentally affected the U.S.S.R. This crisis undoubtedly brought with it a number of complementary difficulties for our task of construction (the worsening conditions of credit, the fall of prices for our exports, etc.), but it has had no decisive significance for the construction of socialism”. The method is clear, the “proof” is overwhelming. We may admit, for instance, that nearly half the livestock perished, but we can always say that this phenomenon is not “fundamental”, its significance is not “decisive”: our resources still retain their wonderful “internality”. Thus, if we lay down any programme, if we assert, e.g., that “the contradiction between the proletariat and the peasantry in the conditions of the U.S.S.R. is to be resolved by industrialisation of the country and by the collectivisation of the agricultural economy, which leads to the liquidation of classes” (p. 160), we can triumphantly conclude that “practice has gloriously confirmed the theory of the possibility of a victory for socialism in one country”. It is true that, with the multiplication in these latter days of shootings for treason and sabotage, the glory is somewhat tarnished; but it is to be remembered that these crimes are due to the intrigues of foreigners who have never learned the principles of internal development. The fact, too, that the theory simultaneously admits and denies external influence renders it admirable for purposes of denunciation, and we do not know whether to be more struck by the scoundrellism of Deborin, who, in criticising the mechanist theory of reduction, “proceeds from abstract conceptions and therefore reaches a conception of quality as something isolated in its uniqueness—whence his kinship with a number of semi-vitalist and sometimes even purely vitalist currents of thought”, or by the stupidity of the whole school of Menshevist idealists, whose tendency “to understand a leap as an independent act shows that they, too, separate qualities from each other and fail to understand the mutual penetration of continuity and discontinuity, the internal unity of quantitative and qualitative changes” (pp. 338, 9).

Throughout the book the authors show the same ignorance of the nature of proof; they are constantly establishing positions by merely asserting them. Thus it is said (p. 158) that “Lenin and Stalin have shown the full possibility of a victory for socialism in our country”, and this is followed by a quotaton from Stalin: “What is meant by the possibility of the victory of socialism in one country? It is the possibility of resolving the contradictions between the proletariat and the peasantry by the internal forces of our country, the possibility of the proletariat's gaining power and making use of that power for the construction of a full socialist society in our country, accompanied by the sympathy and support of the proletarians of other countries, but without a preliminary victory of the proletarian revolution in those countries”. The authors then predict the resolution of “this basic contradiction” at the end of the second Five-Year Plan; but, beyond Stalin's statement of the possibility, they give not the slightest indication of the proof of it. Again, in dealing with the “self-movement of matter”, they give examples of processes on which the continued existence of certain things depends (as an animal's life depends on its breathing), and go on to say: “The process of socialist industrialisation is a form of struggle with both internal and external class enemies. The Right-opportunists did not understand that. In their fear of the difficulties of the reconstruction period they proposed to suspend the class struggle, to reduce the pressure on the kulak, to weaken the control over the middle peasantry, to slacken the tempo of industrialisation. If the Party were to listen to the Right-opportunists, if the working class were to cut short its struggle against the exploiting class and no longer to direct the peasantry, proletarian dictatorship would cease to be proletarian dictatorship and capitalism would be re-established” (p. 245). The general consideration that there are conditions of the continuance of anything is one which nobody “Right” or otherwise, would dispute; but it does not show what are the conditions of the continuance of proletarian dictatorship in particular, and it would be just as easy for Stalin's opponents to say (as, no

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doubt, some of them have said) that the line he adopted was such as to destroy proletarian dictatorship and let in capitalism again. Similarly, the fact that a new quality may create a new quantity, that a new quality of work, e.g., may achieve results previously unobtainable, does not prove that such a change “is to be brought about by fulfilling the six conditions of Stalin (viz., rationalisation, payment by results, personal responsibility for the job, technical education, encouragement of the intelligentsia and business accounting), by studying the qualitatively unique conditions and possibilities of every branch of production, by showing a creative initiative in the organisation of every qualitatively unique matter” (p. 326). We can see how the appeal to “uniqueness” here gives a cover for arbitrariness, but in no case can the logical premise justify the political conclusion; the theory of “new qualities” would be unaffected even if none were brought about by Stalin's conditions.

It would be tedious to pursue the authors through their equally lame discussions of the “Negation of the Negation”, the “Nodal Line of Measurements” and all the rest of it. It should be clear that, whatever may be their peculiar confusions, the same main criticisms apply to anyone (Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky) who believes in “dialectic”. It is no more absurd to treat Russia as, for all practical purposes, unenvironed than, as Marx does, to treat Society in that way; it is equally impossible in either case to treat progress, if it occurs, as arising from the “indissoluble connection of all processes of actuality”, as exhibiting “the development of objective actuality itself” or “the endless passing from the lower to the higher”. It is necessary, says Lenin (p. 263), “to unite, to connect, to combine the general principle of development with the general principle of the unity of the world, of nature, of movement, of matter, etc.”; but, the answer is, it is not possible. One of the most striking features of the book is the feeble pedantry of Lenin's attempts to think in the Hegelian fashion; for example (p. 258): “Every concrete thing, every concrete something, stands in different, and often contradictory relations to everything else, therefore it exists as itself and as something else”; or (pp. 278, 9): “The finite is…something regarded from the viewpoint of its immanent limit—from the viewpoint of its contradiction with itself, which contradiction pushes and carries it (this something) further than its bounds.” There is not, in fact, a single clear and memorable statement in the whole array of Lenin quotations; it is all the same pedestrian stuff. It may be objected that what has been done is to resurrect from his notebooks material he never intended for publication. But when we remember the violence of his polemic in his published work and his desire to force such doctrines on a whole society, we cannot acquit Lenin of responsibility for the present barbarism. Making all allowance for his economic knowledge and his political acumen, we cannot regard him in his philosophical pronouncements (and the same applies to his incursions into aesthetics) as other than an uneducated man who attacked what he did not comprehend.

In opposing all this, we are not merely concerned to reject “totality”, to recognise that every environment is itself environed, to emphasise the dependence of prediction on a knowledge of casual laws, of the operation of “independent forces”, so that, in particular, it is a matter of empirical investigation to determine just how certain kinds of thing are affected by certain kinds of environment. The pluralistic view of things in general carries with it a pluralistic view of society, and the question is not of the movement of society (towards the “next higher stage”), but of a variety of social movements, variously allied and opposed. When Lenin says (p. 82) that “only that class among the oppressed classes which has been taught, united, disciplined, tempered by decades of industrial conflict, which has assimilated all the culture of urban, industrial large-scale capitalism and which has the ability and determination to defend, to preserve and further develop these achievements, only such a class can destroy the classes which it supersedes by its own dictatorship,” he is ignoring the fact that there is no such class; the attribution of all culture to the workers may be good demagogy, but it is bad politics, and it rather more than suggests Lenin's own alienation from culture.

The share of the working-class movement in culture will, in fact, be slight until it can emancipate itself from Marxism, and especially from the Hegelianism of Marx's early training—exemplified, here as elsewhere, in the misunderstanding of Kant, who receives, in the Historical section, half the space devoted to the French materialists in whom Marx's father happened to be interested. The aridity of it all is no doubt intensified, but is certainly not created by the atmosphere of Stalinist apologetics. Lewis's Introduction is rather livelier than the rest of the book, but it suffers from the same confusions. For example, in his consideration of Western movements of thought akin to “dialectic”, Lewis refers to the Vienna Circle as opposing metaphysics, but does not seem to realise that Schlick's contention (p. 18) that “each true scientific proposition expresses in some way the real nature of things”, is, in its acceptance of “natures” and their “expression” (conceptions constantly recurring in this book and in Marxism), precisely metaphysical. He finds it possible also to reject teleology and yet to affirm the ldquo;historic mission” of the working class. However, he indicates the “dialectic” way out of all such difficulties by the rejection of “fixed concepts”. Thus capitalism (p. 24) “is not a fixed concept. The capitalism of the nineteenth century was progressive…It has now become retrogressive”. And so with concepts like “democracy” and “man”. It is as if we were to say that, since different men do different things, there is no single sense in which we can call each of them a man. That position is the death of theory, but it is at once thoroughly Marxian and thoroughly opportunist. It is exemplified in Marx's attack upon, and incidental misrepresentation of, Proudhon for his attempt to found a general economic science, to distinguish what is permanent from what is transitory in social organisations; obviously, if there are no common features of the various things we call “societies”, we should not so describe all of them. but Marx's “totalism”, his conception of a single society passing from “lower” to “higher” stages, prevents him from appreciating this point. The misrepresentation in question (making Proudhon seek to preserve the “good aspect” and remove the “bad aspect” of any social phenomenon, when he actually seeks to determine what is permanent in it and therefore cannot be removed) is repeated in this book

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(p. 163). It would not be surprising if the authors were unaware of Proudhon's comments on Marx's criticism, since these have only recently been published; but it is characteristic that the criticism is repeated without any attempt to go back and find out what Proudhon actually said in the first place.

We cannot avoid the conclusion that this whole class of literature is divorced from scholarship, from independent thinking. The Bolshevik phase of the Marxist movement did indeed stimulate thought to begin with. And, while the insistence of Bolshevism on some of the worst features of Marxism has led to its own degeneration, it may be argued that this in itself has re-awakened criticism. But the cost has been terrific, and the prospect of such an alliance between scholars and workers as would lead to a general advance in culture may be considered remote. There is evidence (of which this book forms a part) that an increasing number of English and other intellectuals are succumbing to the unscholarly crudities above criticised. Still, the recognition of social pluralism, of scholarship as an independent force, of intellectual struggles in the present as against the staking of everything on the future, would prevent us from being unduly perturbed by these phenomena. We can see, at anyrate, that the criticism of Marxism, so far as it can be carried on, can only be of benefit alike to the scientific and to the working-class movement, in face of the corruption and tyranny which are inimical to both.

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