The Early Days of a Better Nation

Thursday, November 23, 2006



More Marx

Dave Osler has picked up on my post below about Marxist intellectuals. (Soi-disant does not mean what you think it means, Dave.) One of his commentators takes a more appreciative view of Althusser, and (having done actual research on the matter) tears into Kolakowski's response to E. P. Thompson. I had no idea that Kolakowski was personally well acquainted with Thompson: what had seemed to me an understandable misunderstanding of Thompson by Kolakowski now looks more like a hatchet job.

Last week I came across in two widely separate places - Jamie Whyte's excellent Crimes Against Logic, and a 1970s or 80s kids' book on the Victorians that I flicked through in a charity shop - a clear and definite statement that I've read or heard countless times before. It is that Karl Marx predicted that the first socialist revolution would be in advanced capitalist England, but instead it happened in backward feudal Russia.

(Let's leave aside the odd idea that Russia in 1917 was feudal.)

A glance at the Communist Manifesto shows that Marx and Engels expected, in 1847, that the first proletarian revolution would take place in Germany - the bourgeois revolution in Germany is imminent, and they expect a proletarian revolution to immediately follow it. Turning back a few pages, we find them proclaim in the 1882 preface to the Russian edition that 'Russia is in the vanguard of revolutionary action in Europe' and conclude: 'If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point of a communist development.' Not quite how things worked out, of course, but a shrewd sentence for all that!

My point here, though, is not to show that the commonly-repeated statement is false. What I'm curious about is how it arose and persists. Marx and Engels made many over-optimistic predictions, and it wouldn't surprise me to find such a pronouncement among them. But, as far as I know, it doesn't exist. I've never seen an actual citation by anyone who repeats the common, confident statement that 'Marx predicted that the revolution would come first in England, and would have been very surprised that it happened first in Russia.'

T. A. Jackson, writing about this same canard in the 1930s, blamed it on H. M. Hyndman, whose Marxism was often the cause of great exasperation to Marx. But Hyndman's influence has surely faded. I suspect we're dealing here with a meme. It's not alone. Bertram D. Wolfe wrote that Marx had updated all the statistical tables in Capital with each new edition, except for the table showing real wages - because that table showed real wages increasing instead of declining. This idiocy has been guilelessly repeated by Professor Anthony Flew more than once. Its force in turn rests on another oft-repeated canard, that Marx held that real wages under capitalism must decline. The evidence that Marx held no such theory was compiled by the English Stalinist Bill Bland (quite accurately and conscientiously, whatever one may think of Bland's view of how the theory came to be foisted on Marx, or Bland's views on anything else).

The good and great Professor Flew is also fond of repeating Wittfogel's claim that Marx silently dropped the notion of an 'Asiatic mode of production' or 'Oriental despotism' because the idea of a bureaucratic ruling class not based on private property was theoretically unthinkable and/or politically embarrassing to Marx. This is an accusation whose utter mind-boggling gormlessness is glaring to anyone at all familiar with Marx's and Engels's writings on pre-capitalist and non-capitalist societies, and has been exposed as such at great length in Hal Draper's Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution, Vol 1: State and Bureaucracy. The possibility of exploitation based on state or communal property has never been denied by anyone other than servants of the ideological state apparatuses of communist states (curiously enough). It's surprisingly rare to come across a critique of Marx that doesn't attack a straw man: I've read three, those by Thomas Sowell, David Conway and David Ramsay Steele. Most of the others are almost as unscrupulous with Marx as the creationists are with Darwin.

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