Monthly Archives: September 2014

Marginalia on Marx, Dialectics and Socialism (Part 2)

Marginalia on Marx, Dialectics and Socialism (Part 2)

Dialectic of Whole and Parts

The whole as the totality (the “exponent”) of its interacting and intermediating parts. Each part is mediated by the whole. The whole is mediated by each part and the intermediation of the parts. The whole is the “summation” of the parts and yet it is qualitatively more than this. The life and development of the object arises from the conflict of opposites within itself. Each object is the ‘exponent’ of this “summated” opposition. It is an identity that is a product of this opposition and yet, as a whole, it is qualitatively different and distinct from it. This is an example of what Hegel refers to as the ‘Identity of identity and difference’ in the Doctrine of Essence.

If we consider the object as a whole, each part of the whole develops only in relation to the movement of the whole and is connected to every other part through this whole movement. The parts are distinct from each other and from the whole only by virtue of their inseparable relation to it and to each other. Therefore, in the identity of the whole and the parts, each is distinct from the other. The movement of the whole conditions the relative movement of the parts which, in their turn, influence the whole movement. Each part has its own distinct characteristics whilst, at the same time, being continuous with and intrinsic to the life and development of the whole. In their interrelations, each part asserts its independence whilst reflecting and determining the whole movement i.e. it reveals its dependence simultaneously. Whole and parts mutually condition each other’s movement. Their relation….

contains the independence of the sides and equally their transcendedness, and it contains both in one relation. The whole is the independent and the parts are only moments of this unity; but equally they too are the independent and their reflected unity is only a moment; and each is its independence just something relative to the other. Thus, this relation is itself immediate contradiction and cancels itself (Hegel. Science of Logic Vol. 2., p.144., Unwin & Allen, 1929).

Elaborating further, Hegel concludes that…

The whole and the parts therefore condition each other; (…….) the whole is the condition of the parts, but also (…..) is only in so far as it has the parts for presupposition (Ibid p.145)

The whole is qualitatively distinct from the parts. In the totality of its movement, the whole displays dependence upon, and yet its distinct independence from and conditioning of, the movement of the parts. The relationship between the whole and the parts is such that…

Whole and parts are indifferent to each other and have independent persistence, but also they are essentially related and constitute only one identity. The relation therefore is the antinomy that the one moment, in freeing itself from the other, immediately introduces the other (Ibid p.148)

Each side – the whole taken in opposition to the parts and vice versa – in repelling the other side from itself simultaneously relates itself to it in a process of identity with it. Each side, in asserting its independence, reveals its dependence and necessary connection to the other side. Each side can only exist in a state of unity with the other because they are in relation to each other as discrete moments in the continuity of their relation.The whole is a complex dialectical totality. Not a “one-way street”, no matter how “heavy the traffic is”.

The whole is a totality of intermediating contradictions. In the life of the whole, these contradictions are simultaneously “external” and “internal” to each other. Their relationship is organic; a unity in which the whole develops as the “exponent” of their dialectical interrelations. Within the movement of the whole, each part is continuous with the others but within this continuity each part maintains its determining and determined discreteness. The whole is a complex of discrete yet continuous parts so that what is determined is simultaneously determining. The autonomy of each part is simultaneously its negation and therefore the positing of its opposite. What is autonomous is also determined and determining as the product of relation and being in relation. The autonomous is “infected” with dependency and this dependency imparts a relative autonomy to its related parts and determinations

When we study Marx’s Capital, for example, he starts with the commodity and the contradiction between use-value and value. We can see that the commodity is the “cell of capitalist economy”, the “cell of bourgeois society” (Lenin, Volume 38, Collected Works). Henceforth, in his exposition, the word ‘commodity’ is mentioned on nearly every page of all three volumes. It subsists as an essential moment in the reproduction of capital. But the category of ‘capital’ remains a more concrete category than ‘commodity’. Marx shows that the principal, more concrete category is ‘capital’. Capital cannot be grasped simply within the nature of the category of ‘commodity’. In this undeveloped form, capital cannot be understood as category and therefore as real social relation. The whole is more concrete than the part because it is the unity of the many and diverse parts and determinations which historically have served to constitute it as the whole per se.

Feudal Relations

When Marx writes that “the Middle Ages could not live on Catholicism” he was merely articulating his materialist conception of history in relation to feudalism. Under feudalism, social relations were more directly and transparently “political” because of the transparent character of these social relations. Both serf and lord knew exactly how much necessary and surplus labour time was accruing to each. The Church – itself in fief and subinfeudated to the Crown – served as a directly ideological and political mechanism for maintaining and perpeuating these relations.

In feudal society –where the dominant mode of labour was bond labour – the serf was compelled to perform labour duties on the lord’s land. The mode of appropriation of this form of labour took a very direct, transparent form in that there was a fragmentation of labour time between the serf’s plot of land and that of the feudal lord. Essentially, labour on the lord’s land was appropriated directly as surplus labour in the form of material produce for direct consumption by the lord’s retinue. Later, the increasing encroachment of commodity production and exchange (and hence money economy) increasingly forces this appropriation in money payments so that as this stage opens up and unfolds (in England, roughly the 14th and first half of the 15th century) feudal economy is already irredeemably sinking into the quicksand of history.

One of the major demands of the revolt of the English peasantry in 1381 was the abolition of serfdom. An irreversible process had commenced within which the peasantry were not only starting to work as agricultural day wage-labourers on the lands of a rising class of agricultural landowning commodity producers but sections of the peasantry had themselves started to develop into a self-employed, opposing petty bourgeoisie independently of the guild system in the towns. The continuation of feudal obligations merely interfered with the development of this unstoppable historical process and hence the clamour during the 1381 revolt for the abolition of feudal obligations. It was this nascent petit bourgeoisie that led this revolt in the towns and countryside, especially in the more developed south-eastern region of the country at the end of the 14th century. The revolt of 1381 was not the attempt to overthrow firmly established feudal relations – despite the demand for the end of serfdom – but was rather a clarion call to proclaim that these feudal relations were already dead and that the age of capital and wage labour was beckoning.

The spatio-temporal division of labour time characterises bond labour on the lord’s land as ‘thine’ and the time in which the serf reproduces his needs on his plot by domestic subsistence labour as ‘mine’. The political hierarchy of crown, church and nobility which evolves on the basis of these feudal relations (the triadic parasitic excrescence and expression of these relations) confronts the class of serfs as divinely ordained and instituted in hostile opposition to them. Here Catholicism plays its historical ideological role.

Labour is that form of human energy which creates value but it only does so – as a generalised and dominant social process – under those historical conditions created by capital; conditions which it has created and reproduces daily in order to serve the constant augmentation of its value (valorisation) and accumulation. Labour creates value but itself as a form of human energy has no value. Under different conditions this form of human energy can serve different ends where objectification ceases to take alienated form.

Under the conditions of the domination of capital, the human source of this energy is compelled to alienate it. The potentiated form of this energy – labour power – is a commodity. It becomes reified as a material component in the composition of the total value of capital with all its dehumanising consequences for the labourer. The social relation between wage labour and capital is reified as ‘a relationship between things’, material components which enter into the process of the production of material ‘goods’ which are simply ‘sold’ on the market ‘place’ for that ‘thing’ money, hopefully at a profit. These historically-determinate, social relations become buried under a dungheap of reification and take on the appearance of being laws of Nature. This is a source of the opaqueness of these relations under capitalism and a reason why their political manifestations do not have the same degree of immediate clarity as they did under the feudal mode of production.

Hegel’s “Universal Permanent Capital”

Hegel writes of the “universal permanent capital” in the Rechtsphilosophie. Hegel’s “End of History”. Here we have a direct expression of the conflict between Hegel’s method and the product of that same method. The conflict between a revolutionary method, on the one hand, and the erected edifice of a conservative system, on the other. This concept of the “universal permanent capital” finds its fullest correlation and expression in the system of globalised capital today. In this sense, Hegel is the ideologist par excellence of this system of globalising capital of the 21st century. This “universal permanent capital” as the Weltgeist of the 21st century

The Specificity of the Natural and Social Forms of Contradiction.

Contradiction is not an irrational foible of mind. It is real. The world is – taken as a totality – a paradox of countless, innumerable paradoxes. The world (Nature) is immanently dialectical in its infinite variety and multiplicity of forms and relations. Dialectical thinking merely reflects this in thought itself.
Dialectic is not simply a “logical shadow” or “ghost” of Nature’s forms. But these forms are the real instantiations of dialectic itself expressing the absolute identity of natural form and dialectic independently of their scientific reflection in thought.

Every phenomenon, formation, thing, relation, etc, is a paradox of countless paradoxes. The infinitude of the finite. Things as being “infinitely complex and inexhaustible in their actual content” (Lenin). Our conceptions can only appropriate the thing approximately, relatively, historically. There is always more to know. Knowledge as an abyss into which we forever, eternally sink. The contradictions in the physical, chemical, biological, etc, are interrelated and mediate each other. But we cannot reduce one to the other. Each has its own distinct contradictions. We are dealing with different levels of complexity. Dialectics opposes reductionism in all its forms. It would be absurd to reduce the social to the natural, for example, or the biological to the chemical.

Contradiction animates its own development and disappearance. Its very dynamic is this unfolding and resolution. To be alive is itself a living contradiction. At any given moment, one is both extending one’s life whilst at the same time approaching closer to death. Anabolism and Catabolism involve each other simultaneously. Metabolism is the unity of these two opposed cellular processes. Death is the transcendence of this contradiction which animates life itself. Whilst alive, one is both living and dying at the same time. But death is the extinguishing of this contradiction and is beyond its dynamic.

The contradictions in any individual formation are its particular instantiated contradictions which are specific to it and expressed in its own individualised forms. For example, the contradictions of US capitalism are related to those of British capitalism (they are both contradictions of capitalism) and yet they are different because they are specifically the contradictions of US and British capitalism. If we state that “France is capitalist”, this identifies the individual with the universal. The individual is the universal and yet the distinction between “France” and “capitalist” is maintained. This is why every mathematical equation and every sentence contains dialectics. The specific character of the object determines our approach to it in practice. Each sphere (and aspects of the given sphere) require different approaches or variations and modulations in approach, etc.

What Hegel revealed to us – in abstracto – is the internal structure and dynamic of all forms of contradiction. In this regard, Hegel is important in Method. But, of course, contradiction takes specific historical form. Because Hegel develops his dialectic in the form of the exposition of the “Idea”, starting with Being, it presents itself as an unfolding process, a progression from the abstract to the increasingly concrete. Each succeeding category embodies and expresses the total antecedent exposition sublated within itself.

Contradiction drives the life and vitality of the object and its continual return into itself. Negated negation is found in the study of the determinate character of things. In their continual movement beyond (negation) themselves and return into themselves in re-affirmation (negated negation) of their positive existence as “this particular thing”, etc. A return to the old which is an irreversible advance beyond it. I wake up this morning. I go through the day. I wake up the following morning. I have returned to “myself” but I am not “myself” since I have also moved beyond that “self” of the previous morning, etc. So this return is also an advance. The seasons come and go and return the following year. But the Summer of this year is distinct from the Summer of last year, etc.

Each side of any contradiction mediates each other (intermediation). It is this intermediation which constitutes ground [the identity and unity] of the contradiction and the mutually determining and negating conflicting sides of the contradiction. In this unity, each side is what it is only in so far as each side mediates the existence of each other. The world exists as a unified, unfolding process of development animated by contradiction in its different social and natural forms. The world is precisely these contradictory determinate forms animated by their immanently contradictory character.

The Twentieth Century

“In the twentieth century the objective conditions for the social revolution had in fact not matured; and this is contrary to what many of us – not without cause – believed. They were coming to maturity only over (say) the last quarter of the century – in today’s conditions of the onset of capitalism’s structural crisis and globalisation”

[C. Slaughter., Not Without A Storm, Chpt 8, Index Books, p.286]

It is within this context that we can locate and understand the whole nature of capitalist development within the twentieth century. And, more importantly, our response to it and our activities as communists in the course of this past century’s development. Moreover, we can proceed – with a more concrete degree of adequacy – to seek to grasp the underlying conditions which led to defeats and betrayals of one kind or another in which millions of people perished under the rule of capital. We can also fully grasp why Social Democracy and Stalinism were capable of delivering millions into the hands of Fascism and the Gulags. Today, as capital’s structural crisis broadens and deepens, the roadblock of Stalinism to the emergence of new forms of revolutionary agency has vanished with the fall of its historical basis since 1989. Stalinism has done significant damage to the struggle for socialism but its fall has removed an obstacle – to that same struggle – the significance of which cannot be overestimated. Those forces which led the “anti-imperialist struggle” in the 20th century have now become transformed into the agents of globalising capital at the start of the 21st century. Only now – as the global crisis of capital deepens and unfolds in the course of the 21st century – does Luxemburg’s dictum of “Socialism or Barbarism” (Junius Pamphlet, 1916) truly and fully come into its own. The deepening and sharpening of the contradictions of the global capital system in crisis starts to comprehensively destroy the social and natural conditions for the new society. But in this unfolding crisis it also drives the necessity for the movement towards socialism (as the dominant historical tendency which is implicit in this development). It heightens the possibilities of the growth of this socialist movement against capital. But, as we can see, it is a contradictory development. Socialism is not the inevitable outcome of the present stage. It only becomes an inevitability when all the conditions for the elimination of capital and its state powers have been assembled to be replaced by socialist society. The further descent into barbarism is equally posible without the positing of these necessary conditions. The turn is to the global proletarait. We cannot wait for the apple to ripen and simply fall from the tree. The tree must be shaken with all our might and power, audacity, ruthlessness, energy, through the requisite agencies of global social revolution. Only then will the apples fall in order to be harvested.

Shaun May

September 2014



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Marginalia on Marx, Dialectics and Socialism [Part 1]

Marginalia on Marx, Dialectics and Socialism [Part 1]
Criterion of Truth

Lenin refers to practice (Marx : “activity”) as the ultimate criterion of truth. He writes that this criterion is sufficiently definite to give us a relatively truthful conception of Nature but sufficiently indefinite to prevent us falling into dogmatism. The conditions of what is or is not possible for human beings to know are not fixed but historically mobile and a function of the theoretical-technical stage at which scientific research has arrived. For example, we could not have elucidated the structure of DNA in the nineteenth century because our techniques and theory in the Natural Sciences had not sufficently advanced to the required stage. Engels writes of human knowledge being limited in its actuality but unlimited in its potential and disposition. Here Engels is referring, implicitly, to the fact that the conditions for the possibility of knowledge are historically posited and negatable in their specificity to higher stages of human scientific praxis.

The Conception and the “Thing-in-itself”

Lenin and Trotsky criticised Kant’s idealism. That the synthesis of the “Categories” creates the world we perceive is what Lenin critiqued Mach for in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. He wrote that Mach converged to Berkeley’s subjective idealism in such a conception. Mach was asserting that the electron was only “our idea of the electron”. Lenin (in Volume 38) wrote that the logical categories are the “shadows of the real world” but are not this world per se. But our scientifically verifiable (in practice) conceptions of the electron, for example, correspond to its real character but are not and never can be fully exhaustive of the reality of this aspect of Nature. For example, we can predict its approximate behaviour under specified conditions on the basis of our scientific conception of it. But the correspondence of its behaviour to our prediction is only approximate.

Category of Appearance

Marx wrote that if “appearance” always corresponded to the “essence of things” there would be no need for science. Appearance is a contradictory presentiment because it can serve simultaneously as both “veil” of essence and “gateway” to essence. The function of science is to go through the gateway beyond the veil and descend down into a never ending abyss of human knowledge. The asymptotic character of human knowledge is determined by the ontological nature of its objects of investigation in Nature itself. Nature is a bottomless pit as far as knowledge is concerned. Our conceptions of Nature can only appropriate it relatively with a historically alterable degree of concreteness. This must mean that these scientific conceptions are subject to their own abstract-concrete dialectic in the actual development of their conceptual content.

Hegel’s “Transition” from “Being” to “Nothing”

Hegel begins with the “logical” category of Being. This is why the beginning of the ‘Logic’ is highly problematic. He begins with Being indeterminate which is Being without any determinate content and hence pure being as the most abstract of categories which is equal to “isness”. By starting with the Being of the “Idea”, Being and Nothing are posited as absolutely identical. This means that Being is posited without any determinate content (and therefore necessary mediation) in order to take us from Being to Nothing. To make the transition from Being to Nothing. How can we move from one category to another without mediation of content? Mediation implies distinction between the posited category and the derived category in terms of animating content. But since both are absolutely identical – with no differentiating content to mediate in the first part of the ‘Logic’ – this implies that Hegel actually imports ‘Nothing’ rather than deriving it. The “mediation” between Being and Nothing is strictly formal and hence is no real mediation at all. The dialectical logic of Hegel commences with a formal logic. Studying the relevant sections of the first part of the ‘Logic’, we see that the so-called transition from Being to Nothing is simply a formalised identification which immediately posits “Becoming” (Werden) without any mediation. In a certain sense, Hegel simply starts with the whole complex because he cannot derive pure Nothing from pure Being. There is no mediating content which enables him to do so. This, of course, is because he is working within the realm of the abstract “Idea”. In other words, Hegel is with God ab initio. The god of Parmenides (Eleaticism) (Being) + the god of Buddha (Nothing) = the god of Heraclitus (Becoming). And the consummation of this indeterminate formal beginning is the realised “Absolute Idea” which is the revelation and immanence of God.

Hegel’s Doctrine of Essence

The summa summarum of the Doctrine of Essence is the concept of dialectical relation. All things are only self-related insofar as they are in relation-to-other and vice versa. Self-relatedness is simultaneously relation-to-other and vice versa but in this identity each relatedness is distinct from the other. Spinoza was influential here. For example, capital and wage labour, particle physics “symmetry”, etc. The class struggle. Opposites, each of which can only be what they are as a result of their mutual relation and negative relation to each other. In this negative relation, they posit and reaffirm each other. Reciprocality in relation is the central conception in the Doctrine of Essence. Hence relation can only be dialectical. Never formal. Interpenetration and mutually conditioning and determining opposites. i.e., the unity of conflicting opposites.

Actual and Possible

The mediated totality is the unity of the possible and the actual in which each is continuously becoming transformed into the other. Actuality (its conditions) is the ground of possibility and possibility consumes these conditions in its becoming actual and therefore positing a higher actuality. A higher actuality becomes posited out of the consumption of the conditions of actuality. This is the transformation of the possibility into actuality on the consumption of the conditioning grounds of its own existence as the possible. Thus Hegel : “when all the necessary conditions are actually present, the thing enters into existence”. i.e. the possible becomes actual.

Mediation, Contradiction and Return

The posited passes beyond itself into its other (absolute negativity) and in this other abides in itself and this other is contained within itself i.e. abides within the originally posited (intermediation). But this relation is contradiction per se in which one is simultaneously other and not other and other is simultaneously the posited one and not the posited one. In their contradictory relation each is simultaneously posited and the negative of the posited other (+/- = -/+). But as determinate point of departure, the aboriginally posited returns into itself out of negation (negated negation) as return to the old yet irreversible advance beyond the old at the same time. Accordingly, the contradiction is resolved at a higher stage of existence whilst aspects of what is resolved are preserved (sublated) into this higher form of determinate being. Determinate things always return into themselves as long as the conditions are operative for this return. Their internal contradictions operate and unfold within the constraining conditions of the actual existence of the thing. This is why “things” appear not to fundamentally alter because they are always in process of returning into themselves. When these conditions alter beyond certain limits, dissolution sets in and the thing starts to perish. To enter its period of decay and transformation.
“The power of the negative” is the contradictory source of the posited always returning to itself and reasserting itself. However, this same power mediates as “portent” (Hegel : “The portentous power of the negative”) i.e. as announcing beforehand the imminent dissolution of the seemingly eternal positive. The negative never sleeps and must, sooner or later, ominously presage (foreshadows) the downfall of its ground and therefore of itself as “negative” of this determinate ground. (Latin : portendere = to stretch beyond oneself, itself, etc). Beyond a certain point or limit, the negative creates the conditions within the formation for its dissolution and transformation. [Hegel’s category of Measure : quantity and quality, transformation.] Why does the bubble burst? Why does the bridge suddenly collapse? Why does the elastic band snap when stretched beyond a certain point or tension? Transgression of the conditions for its existence as bubble, bridge or band. Beyond the “nodal point”.

Hegel’s ‘Logic’ and Development as Concentration of History (Enrichment)

In Hegel’s ‘Logic’, each succeeding category is more concrete than the preceding one because it contains the wealth of all the antecedent development sublated within itself. There is always abolition but the resulting positive content is always richer because it contains this entire history dialectically superseded within itself. The river at its mouth is always richer than the river at its source. Development ‘concentrates’ its own history so all development is a process of self-enrichment.

The Significance of the “Concept” in Hegel for Dialectics in General

The Concept (Begriff) in Hegel as Being which, in process of passing beyond itself into its opposite, is only passing into itself. In the positing of this its opposite, the aboriginally posited does not become anything distinctly different in isolation from it but rather remains, in this opposition, completely identical with itself. This is a return of this Being to itself. The one, in engendering and determining its other, is simultaneously self-determining. And the other likewise in its reciprocal relation to the one. They mutually interpenetrate. But since the one has given rise to its other out of itself, it is in identity with this other and returns into itself out of the otherness of this negation with the negation of this otherness. It reaffirms itself as the aboriginally posited. This posited ab initio abides within itself whilst simultaneously going beyond itself. It returns to itself as rejuvenated old which is therefore yet an advance beyond this old. Accordingly, the “concept” is the forever recurring and forever animating structure (relationship) of all forms of development in Nature, society or thought, etc. For Marx, it is not a pantheistically posited ghost or “spirit” (Geist) but rather absolutely identical to the real, given, specific forms of development. This is Marx’s dialectical monism. In Hegel, this takes the idealist form of the concept unfolding itself in the multiplicity of its otherness in order to concentrate itself by returning into itself as unity out of this multiplicity and knowing itself to be so in Self-Consciousness. But in Hegel – because the “Concept” is identical to Nature in its difference from it – a theological teleology animates his whole doctrine.

Shaun May

September 2014

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The Historical and the Transhistorical in the Conception of Class.

The Historical and the Transhistorical in the Conception of Class.

“Classes are large groups of people differing from each other by the place they occupy in a historically determined system of social production, by their relation (in most cases fixed and formulated in law) to the means of production, by their role in the social organisation of labour, and, consequently, by the dimensions of the share of social wealth of which they dispose and the mode of acquiring it. Classes are groups of people one of which can appropriate the labour of another owing to the different places they occupy in a definite system of social economy”.

[Lenin, June 28,1919. Collected Works, Volume 29. p.421]

Lenin’s conception of class here is transhistorical. It could be used to describe the character of class relations in all societies divided into classes. Societies in which a surplus is produced by labour which affords a ruling section or stratum of society the means of avoiding the performance of this labour.

The first great human civilisations of the world’s mighty river valleys – Nile, Euphrates, Indus, Ganges, Yangtze, etc – were societies based on the production of an agricultural surplus and the rule of a priesthood which managed and controlled the extraction of this surplus and lived off it parasitically.

But to appropriate a more concrete grasp of class relations in the different, particular class societies, we need to identify the parameters and criteria which differentiate class in these specific societies. For example, class relations in the society of the late Roman Republic, of Feudal England in the 12th century, of America at the start of the 21st century, etc.

It is sometimes thought that ownership and non-ownership are the fundamental criteria in all class societies which differentiate classes from each other. Under capitalism, of course, this is the base criterion. The capitalist class owns the means of production and distribution in the form of capital and the proletariat only owns the commodity of labour power which it must sell to the capitalist class in order to survive. In the aforementioned river valley civilisations, neither the land nor the infrastructure of state was privately owned. The animating criterion determining the relationship between populus and priesthood in these societies was control of land and production; not ownership. Control does not necessarily imply ownership. And even onwnership does not necessarily imply absolute control when the state itself can lay down conditions and regulations in regard to the use and operation of the means of production and distribution, etc.

Historically, in different epochs and under widely differing conditions, the intrinsic, endogenous socio-historically posited paradigm against which class relations are determined and measured will always vary but sometimes be repeated in different social forms throughout human history. For example, in the Roman Republic, this paradigm mediating the determination and relationship of classes was ownership, and specifically of land. The mediating criterion of ownership recurs, of course, under capitalism. We have already mentioned this.

But in the high period of English feudalism, ownership – not even of land – was not the mediating criterion. The Crown owned all land but land was not alienable – could not be bought and sold generally and only by the Crown if required and if a buyer could be found – because feudal society was not a society of buying and selling owners but a society of subinfeudated tenants. Land was parcelled out from the Crown at the apex in a process of investiture and subinfeudation down to the villeins and serfs at the base of the feudal pyramid.

Hence, in English feudal society, the class relations within the body of the feudal structure were not determined by the criterion of ownership. They were determined by the control of production for use on tenanted land (fief). The relationship between Lords and Vassals gravitated around this fief in which the grant of land was conditional on labour obligations and other forms of service. The relationship between Crown and Nobility took the form of the granting of land in exchange for military obligations and political support, etc.

When we describe the class relations of any class society we are incorporating Lenin’s transhistorical conception within our historical conception of the specifically animating criteria (ownership, control, etc) which determine the character of different classes and their interrelations and conflicts within a given society in a particular epoch.

Shaun May

September 2014

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Marx and Engels in the 1840s

Marx and Engels in the 1840s

The 1840s was a revolutionary decade for both Marx and Engels in terms of the elaboration of their whole conception. An incredibly rich and contradictory period for them which gave impulse and vitality to their developing outlook. It was a period of conflict and turmoil for both Marx and Engels in terms of their theoretical and political development. We can see this from a survey of the transition from the Doctoral Dissertation on Democritus and Epicurus to the Manifesto. Their conception did not emerge ready-made and fully-formed from their heads in 1841. Marx and Engels had to constantly grapple with all manner of conflicts within their conception in this decade before arriving at the more ‘mature’ conception found in the Manifesto. Their struggles in this decade moved them on to their conception articulated in the Manifesto.

For the rest of his life, Marx was constantly reviewing and re-assessing his own work. Leaving this behind. Taking that onboard. Overthrowing here. Returning to this there, etc. Marx’s conceptions were also subject to the dialectic. He moved on. For example, Marx was still referring to the “value of labour” in 1846-47 (Poverty of Philosophy) but post-Manifesto it had gone, to be replaced by the scientifically correct “value of labour-power”. Marx had moved on, arriving at the conception that “living labour” itself is the creator of value but “living labour” itself (like land) has no value. Labour-power has both value and price. But living labour and land both have price but no value. The price of land is equivalent to the capitalised rent.

In my opinion, the pivotal work in Marx’s approach in Capital is to be found in the Grundrisse. The notebooks for Capital. Everything he had done previous to this was once again re-assessed and put through a critical fire in order to re-forge it in the pages of Capital. Even the 1859 Contribution was subjected to the same revolutionary criticism. Marx wrote that revolutions constantly subject themselves to a critique as they unfold (and this becomes an intrinsic part of their dynamic). Marx did the same with all his work. The Grundrisse was that critique, a critique of political economy which included all his own previous work.

Of course, there are limits in drawing contrasts between the earlier Marx of the 1844 Paris Manuscripts and the later Marx of Capital. However, it would be absurd to deny the tremendous and determinate developments and leaps which took place between the two and to imply that, in terms of overall conception, there was not a far richer and more concrete and more comprehensive conception in the later period. The development of the totality of Marx’s thinking was an entirely sublative process.

Engels wrote that The German Ideology was written for “purposes of self-clarification” submitted for publication but was in fact left unpublished to “the gnawing criticism of the mice” [1859 Preface] and not published in full until 1932. The work was an indispensable part of both Marx’s and particularly Engels’ development (mostly written in Engels’ handwriting) in the 1840s. It would be misguided, in my opinion, to approach any of their work divorced from the historical conditions under which they were thinking and writing.

This does not mean that they do not ‘carry forward and over’ today but we must also read them within context in order not to fall into the trap which the dogmatist and doctrinaire sets for us. I think we need to study the Doctoral Dissertation within this context of the historical development of Marx’s conception which was not immune to the alterations and shifts which the dialectic inevitably asserts. We do not, of course, subscribe to a “disorienting historical relativism”. However, we do not lift Marx out of determining historical conditions and simply quote him without any necessary, specific qualification which may or may not be required depending on the stage at which he had reached in his unfolding and progressively ‘concentrating’ conception.

Soon after Marx’s Doctoral Dissertation, Feuerbach published his Essence of Christianity (1841) and Principles of the Philosophy of the Future (1843). On reading Feuerbach, Engels wrote later that..

we were all momentarily Feuerbachians. How enthusiastically Marx greeted the new interpretation, and how greatly – despite all critical reservations – he was influenced by it, we can read in The Holy Family (Ludwig Feuerbach, Dietz, 1946, p. 14).

We can also see the influence of Feuerbach in the Paris Manuscripts of 1844 [Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844] which is not to assert that a critique of both Hegel and Feuerbach had not already begun. [for example, in the critiques of Hegel’s doctrine of the state and of the Rechtsphilosophie., 1843-44]. However, personally, I think to quote Marx’s doctoral dissertation now is more than idiosyncratic unless, of course, it is part of a study of the early development of Marx’s thinking.

In relation to the development of Marx’s approach to his work, I think that the Theses on Feuerbach were highly important. They are an incredibly rich, concrete and ‘concentrated’ result of Marx’s studies in the 1840s. If we evaluate the “methods” of various “Marxists” in the light of these theses, we start to gain real insight into the character, and especially the deficiencies and shortfalls, of these “Marxist methods”.

Shaun May

September 2014

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Priesthood and Bureaucracy : Modern Echoes of Ancient Relations.

Priesthood and Bureaucracy : Modern Echoes of Ancient Relations.

The rise of priesthoods – differentiated from the broader populus – in the river valley civilisations of antiquity was the first social expression of the beginnings of the differentiation of human society into antagonistic social classes or strata. The priest-caste was at first neither property-owning nor hereditary. It owned neither land nor the material infrastructure associated with its activities. Its emergence as a ruling stratum took place on the basis of the production of a surplus in agriculture which liberated a section of society from the need to labour. Land and infrastructure was owned by the whole of society. This form of land ownership was a carry over from the older tribal relations. Private ownership of land comes later with the emergence of a land-owning aristocracy.

It was, of course, no accident that the first great civilisations arose in river valleys. The high degree of fertility of the soils of their flood plains combined with the immediacy of a source of irrigation constituted the natural pre-conditions for the rise of such societies. Archaeologists have found – contrary to previously pre-conceived notions of ‘primitive tribalism’ – that even the Amazon Basin at one time hosted such a society, or perhaps its beginnings. Only its collapse ushered in a reversion to the previous modes of tribal life. In the Amazon, a process of soil enrichment was practiced which increased and maintained the fertility of the soils. Even today, these ‘black soils’ remain extremely fertile. The general thesis here is that the first great human civilisations arose within the mighty river valleys of the globe where all the natural and geographical conditions were favourable to their emergence and subsequent development.

The production of this surplus in agriculture must have resulted from innovations in technique and labour organisation and the consequent increase in the productivity of labour flowing from such changes. Such developments necessarily imply developments in human knowledge and their technical application. The fragmentation of earlier tribal societies (based on the common tribal ownership of the land) into a priesthood and populus was a prelude to their later differentiation into antagonistic social classes.

The ruling priesthoods of these societies (for example, in the ancient river valley civilisations of the Nile, Euphrates, Tigris, Indus, Ganges, Yellow River, etc) did not own the means of production as such. We still find echoes of this earliest social differentiation and arrangement in the caste system of India today. And it is still asserting its legacies. Very recently, an extremely reactionary and backward ruling of the highest court in India, in 2007, ruled that “caste” is inherited and unalterable.

From an initial position of being elected by the tribal councils, the priests gradually established themselves as a permanently ruling and privileged stratum with the transition from elected to hereditary status as the primitive communistic democracy of the early human communities was superseded. This also brought in its wake differentiation of the populus into different castes and sub-castes. The new status of this priesthood enabled them to pass on their positions of power and authority – associated with knowledge of engineering, mathematics, etc, and the processes of agriculture and material infrastructure – to their offspring. The caste system became hereditary and transfigured into justificatory forms of religious conception, practice and ritual.

The productivity of labour had risen beyond a critical point resulting in the production of a surplus over and above the immediate needs of the whole populus. The need for everyone to engage in the manual labour process became unnecessary. The priesthood gradually separated itself from manual labour and came to monopolise the management and direction of production, preoccupying itself with the mental side of labour. The further division of labour of society gave rise to different castes pre-occupied with specific tasks. For example, the different prescribed roles of the various castes and sub-castes in India and other parts of the world.

Caste organisation predated British rule in India. However, British colonialism exploited the social distinctions as a means of ‘divide and rule’. [1] The colonial regime codified and ossified the distinctions in the same manner as the Apartheid regime in South Africa did in relation to racial and ethnic differences. The British administration strictly enforced caste distinctions and regulated its hierarchy so that discrimination became more deeply entrenched. Naturally, the British colonial power used it as a lever of its rule by ‘elevating’ some castes and ‘criminalising’ others into pariah status. The old Roman tactic of ‘divide et impera’ applied to the British Empire. [2]



The priesthood could live off the surplus product created in the course of production by the labour of the populus. In ancient Egypt, the chief priest, of course, eventually became the Pharoah with his royal entourage, retinue and attendants. Even today the Christian priesthood lives off the surplus created by wage labour.

With the rise of these social relations, a whole series of practices, justifications and prohibitions were carved out and instituted in order to socially legitimise the parasitism of the priesthood and the role of other castes in society, especially that of the producers. The ideologies which had their roots in pre-class societies now became modified and transformed in both content and form in order to express the interests of this ruling priesthood which now differentiated itself from the mass of the populus.

With further social development – for example, the taking of prisoners of war to be used as labour and inroads into communal ownership of the land – the priesthood eventually becomes a slave-owning and land-owning patriciate, giving it the wealth and state power to break up the remnants of any communal ownership of the land and acquire it as land privately-owned and worked by slaves who were themselves the property of this new ruling class.

The populus did not necessarily become slaves but they did take on the new status of a subjugated and ruled class with labour duties and obligations to the new ruling class. The emergence of the priesthood therefore stands historically as a transitional form between classless tribal society and the fragmentation of it into classes, rooted in the growth in the productivity of labour with the consequent production of a surplus in agriculture. The differentiation of the egalitarianism and fraternity of tribal relations into an hereditary ruling priesthood and ruled populus was therefore the first historic expression that such a social transition was actually taking place.

Essentially, before the emergence of an hereditary aristocracy, there was no private ownership of land or infrastructure in these societies. The tribe owned the land as “its” land vis-a-vis other tribes but internally it belonged to “the tribe” as such. Its land was not privately owned. However, later, we see the actual control and direction of production and distribution in the hands of a priesthood. It was this control – and not any form of ownership – which enabled this privileged stratum to appropriate, assign and manage the distribution of the surplus produced by the agricultural labour of the populus.

Control of production affords this privileged layer the right to appropriate a disproportionate share of the socially produced surplus but it does not afford it the right to do as it pleases with the means of production if control is not simultaneously based on ownership. It was only when actual ownership of land passed to this priesthood that it later became an hereditary aristocracy and slavery itself started to emerge. Then, of course, we have the emergence of class societies proper – based on actual ownership – and the development of ideologies to help to maintain the position of the ruling classes. Then the new rights and conditions afforded to it as a class mean it can alienate property since this property is now privately owned.

Thus, control of the means of production is not necessarily ownership of them. This control affords certain privileges but not comprehensively as in the case of ownership. It is worth mentioning that even ownership does not necessarily give complete control since, later on, state regulations can limit what owners could do with their property, taxation, building and land-use statutes, etc.

There are historical parallels in the relationship between the former Soviet bureaucracy and the dominated “socialist” peoples, on the one hand, and in the relationship between the ancient priesthoods of the river valley civilisations and populus of these societies, on the other. We can also see this type of relation replicated in the relationship between the trade union bureaucracies of capitalist countries and the rank and file members of the trade unions. These bureaucratic relations [Soviet and Trade Union Bureaucracy] rest on, and are mediated by, the existence of the wider class relations in existence. They could not subsist without the latter.

Of course, the comparison and analogy is not simple. History is temporally specific. But the parasitism of both the Soviet and trade union bureaucracy and the early priesthoods contains certain striking and remarkable similarities. None own the resources which they control. Each stratum has a privileged position in relation to peoples, members and populus respectively. Bureaucracies do not have the right to alienate the resources which they control for their own personal enrichment as with property-owning classes. That is, they cannot sell these resources with a view to the full compensation of their total value. However, they hold the position where they can manipulate these resources to ‘take their cut’ of the proceeds of the management and direction of them. Such bureaucracies are – as with the ancient priesthoods – ruling strata within their own social and organisational orbit. Unlike property-owning classes, they owe their position and privileges to control and not to ownership.

It may, in passing, be interesting to note here that the feudal nobility were tenanted. They were not “owners” as such. By a process of investitute and subinfeudation, they were awarded land as tenants of the Crown and then they proceeded to subinfeudate and dole out the land until it reached the stage of the serf’s plot at the base of the feudal pyramid. Feudal society – in England at least – was a society of tenants, not owners, in which lord and tenant were bound together in a mutualised system of rights and obligations.

The securing of a ‘position’ in these bureaucracies – a ‘career move’ – is usually dependent on satisfying all the conditions laid down which serve to maintain the privileged position of the stratum as a whole. The priesthoods had conditions and rituals for the accession of others to its body. In other words, once established, priesthood and bureaucracy develop and cultivate a consciousness of their own interests (separate from, and antagonistic to, those over which they rule) and which is embodied (or rather disembodied in alienated form) in a “code” or “rule book”, etc, which is separate from, and confronts, the current members of the priesthood and bureaucracy itself. It often seems that ‘constitutions’ and ‘codes’, etc, are not representational of its interests. Rather it seems that they represent the interests of ‘the whole organisation’. The truth of such ‘constitutions’ is soon revealed when conflicts of interest develop between the top stratum and the people or members. Without exception, the ‘top’ seeks to maintain them at all costs. And points to these codes and constitutions as a means of maintaining its own distinct interests as a ruling stratum.

You embrace the code when you become part of the structure. If you do not or cannot, then you are excluded from the structure. Paradoxically, it can operate unconsciously but is operative nevertheless and arises directly out of the social character, structure and relations of priestly and bureaucratic organisation itself. People come and go, pass in and out, up and down, join and retire, go through, etc, the structure, but the structure itself, its organisation as socially congealed privileged, remains in place. Its determinate character is not fundamentally altered. The old adage that ‘it is who you know and not what you know‘ sometimes applies in climbing the ladder of the structure. The children of the priests become the next generation of priests or, at least, are provided with the ‘benefits’ of their parents’ position and experience. Leading figures in a bureaucracy “edge” their children – by hook or crook – into the bureaucracy and set them on an ascending path. Here we have resemblances to the inheritance or passing on of class privileges. Nepotism is already pre-established and arises directly out of privileged ‘position’.

The trade union leaders today manage and control strikes (if they must call them) – never forgetting their own indispensable caste interests whilst doing so – in a parallel way in which the priesthoods controlled agricultural production and infrastructure construction in ancient times and the Soviet bureaucracy controlled the state economy of nationalised property prior to its break up after 1989. The general secretary of the Trade Union Congress being the Pharaoh of organised labour and the general secretary of the CPSU being the Pharoah of the nationalised economy.

Because bureaucracy controls but does own the resources which it manages, it is not a property owning class. Likewise, the ancient river valley priesthoods were not property-owning but rather controllers of the social property. The Soviet bureaucracy controlled the nationalised property but did not own it. As a stratum, it owned nothing but controlled everything. All the resources in the old Soviet system, the land, factories, infrastructure, etc, were owned by the state as social property and could not be bought or sold by bureaucrats no matter how ‘big’ or ‘influential’ they were. In a similar way, all the resources of a trade union are owned by the trade union itself. The trade union is run by a bureaucracy but this stratum does not actually own the resources of the union. It controls them as a ruling group. It cannot sell them in order to fill its own pockets like a property-owning class could. And it is this control that affords this layer its privileged position in the same way that the position of the Soviet bureaucracy secured its privileges vis-a-vis the rest of the population. The restoration of capitalism after 1989 has essentially taken place by means of the bare-faced theft of state property dressed up as a purchase of shares. It was the bureaucracy itself that engineered and drove forward this period of appropriation with the devastating consequences on the lives of millions of people.

The Soviet system was, according to Meszaros, neither “capitalist” nor “state capitalist”. Trotsky himself (1936, Revolution Betrayed, Chapter 9) insisted that the Soviet system was not a form of “state capitalism”. In this respect, Meszaros and Trotsky coincide. Later some so-called “Trotskyists” described it as “state capitalist”. And this description was proffered not that long after Trotsky wrote Revolution Betrayed. Trotsky remarks (I paraphrase) that the characterisation of the Soviet Union as “state capitalist” was an attempt to squeeze the living reality of the historically novel and unfamiliar into the formal categories of the familiar in order for metaphysical thinking to comfortably apprehend and ‘box’ the nature of the Soviet Union. In this way, the living reality of the Soviet system eluded their conceptual grasp.

There is not a single, convincing analysis and discourse of the late Soviet system which gives us an adequate characterisation of it being a form of “state capitalism”. Moreover, there is no legitimate and ‘sound’ historical study of how it was, ab initio, or became, “state capitalist” either before or after Trotsky’s study in his 1936 Revolution Betrayed.

Capital existed in the Soviet system in a different mode to the way it exists in capitalist society. In the Soviet system, it existed as an overarching “mode of control of the whole social metabolism” which is distinct from its existence under capitalism itself as a more intrinsic, organic and more widely and deeply embracing and economically entrenched controlling “social relationship of production” which also incorporates within itself this latter function of “metabolic control”.

[See Istvan Meszaros, Beyond Capital, Political Power and Dissent in Post-Revolutionary Societies, p.898. Merlin Press, 1985. And specifically, section 6. Breaking the Rule of Capital, pp. 911-914 where he gives a fundamental characterisation of the nature of the Soviet system.]

The emergence and consolidation of the rule of the Soviet bureaucracy expressed the resistance of capital in the struggle for socialism. The differences between priesthood and bureaucracy reflect differences in concrete historical conditions and circumstances. However, both were essentially parasitic and neither owned the means of production and therefore were not property-owning ruling classes as such. In the same way, the trade union bureaucracy is not a property-owning ruling class but a controlling bureaucratic caste.

In the Soviet system there was, as in the first stages of the river valley civilisations, no private ownership of the land, production, infrastructure, etc. But the Soviet state bureaucracy controlled and directed production and lived a privileged existence off the surplus created and extracted from the producers. The producers had no control over their product which was controlled and directed by an alien body hovering over society. The fundamental question in the Soviet system was one of control and not of ownership. And this corresponds to the conception that the controlling collective in that system was not constituted as a property-owning class but rather as a controlling caste. This bureaucracy did not own but controlled.

The bureaucratic system of control was in dissonance with the post-capitalist forms of ownership or its historic tendency of development beyond these forms of ownership. Either restoration of capitalism, on the one hand, or taking the whole system beyond the constricted form of bureaucratic control which corresponded to, or resembled, capitalist forms of control, on the other hand, was the contradictory pivot on which the whole Soviet system precariously balanced. 1989 and after gave the impetus to the process of restoration. If the forms of ownership and control do not correspond to, and compliment, each other, the whole social structure becomes animated with a structural contradiction which has to be resolved one way or the other i.e. either control has to bow to the developmental tendencies of ownership or ownership must be reversed in favour of the character of the forms of control.

The way forward for the producers in and beyond the Soviet system was to rid themselves of bureaucratic control so that it was they who not only produced but also controlled and directed production and distribution rather than an alien state bureaucracy hovering menacingly above society. A system of state management which still connected Soviet society to the age of capital, threatening restoration of capitalism. And, of course, after 1989 this is what has actually proceeded. The Russian Revolution – as a result of the impact of world capital and its state powers on it – never resolved the posited conflict between ownership and control. Under such circumstances, the possibility of capitalist restoration was always a mediating factor animating the whole social structure.

In the Soviet system, the state form of ownership of the means of production and distribution corresponded to the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and pointed beyond the age of capital. However, because these means of production and distribution were controlled and managed according to the norms and parameters of a system of capitalist production, their operation, but not there ownership, corresponded to the rule of capital. This is not to assert that the means of production and distribution in the Soviet system were capital. Only in their state management and control could they possibly be described as exhibiting the characteristics of capital. Only in their external bureaucratic mode of state management from the “outside” so to speak. The extraction of a surplus and its distribution were carried out under the concerted direction and control of the bureaucratised state structures but not, as in capitalist countries, under the private ownership and control of a distinct ruling capitalist class and its state power. The ruling echelons of the state bureaucracy were not a new ruling property-owning class but rather a ruling controlling stratum. Under capitalism, a fundamental pre-condition for the operation of the productive forces is the continual expansion and augmentation in their value, i.e. valorisation and accumulation are an actual precondition for their actual existence. This was not the case in the Soviet system.

The Cuban system, dominated as it is by a privileged bureaucracy, exhibits more or less the same structural characteristics as the old Soviet system. And now recent events in Cuba (February 2012) – especially in the ranks of the Communist Party – are indicating that restorationist trends are emerging in both party and bureaucracy. The origin of these trends, of course, are to be located in the deepening of capital’s global crisis. The opening of an offensive by the Cuban proletariat to wrest control of production and distribution from this bureaucratic caste would undoubtedly accelerate the trends towards restoration.

Of course, the capital relation (commodity capital and money capital) actually operated in pre-capitalist societies just as commodity production and exchange did. It was not, of course, capitalist commodity production in these societies. The capital relation did not (and could not) reach its ‘classical’ form until capital became the dominant relationship of production. In antiquity and in the feudal period, merchant and money capital emerged and developed in the form of trade and usury. For example, the oft-quoted example is Carthage in the Mediterranean but trading and usury were common amongst the other developed peoples such as the Greeks, Romans, etc, and in the ‘interstices’ of feudal society. In feudal society, the Jews were excluded from the feudal order itself and lived by trade and usury.

However, what distinguishes capital in antiquity and the feudal period from its existence in contemporary society is that it was not the dominant/preponderant relationship of production and distribution. It was merely a subsidiary, peripheral aspect of these societies which were essentially subsistence societies with the ruling classes living on the extraction of a surplus from the labour of serfs/villeins, slaves, coloni or conquered peoples or from the plunder, tribute and taxes in kind or coin arising out of such conquests. The parasitism of the ruling classes was founded upon their ownership and/or control of the land or the military domination of the subjugated populations. The general form of labour was not wage labour but rather slave or bond labour. And this simple truth necessarily meant that the means of production, even those utilised to produce commodities, were not forms of capital.

Extraction and distribution of the surplus in the Soviet system was controlled and managed politically. But that, in itself, does not render the means of production ‘capital’ any more than the extraction of a surplus by the priesthoods of the ancient river valley civilisations from its populus rendered the land privately owned by them as a ruling layer. Private ownership would have made them a propertied class rather than a controlling caste. Here, as in the Soviet system, the controlling relation was political and not economic. In other words, in the Soviet system, the appropriation of the surplus by the state was not based on, did not arise out of, the operation of capital as the controlling social relation of production and distribution in the same mode as it does under capitalism. Rather this appropriation of a surplus arose on the basis of the direct political domination of the state bureaucracy – backed up by military force – over the producers. The means of production and distribution were controlled and managed according to capitalist norms [“the mode of metabolic control”] but this, in itself, did not make them forms of capital. The fundamental contradiction was between the form of ownership and the form of control. In a similar fashion (not identical, of course), the ancient (non-property owning) priesthood of the ancient river valley civilisations extracted its surplus from its human hinterland. It did not need to actually own the land in order to carry this out.

The forms of appearance serve to furnish some with the conception that the Soviet system was ‘state capitalist’. As if the means of production in the Soviet system were owned and operated on the same basis as the former nationalised industries in Britain before their privatisation by the Thatcher governments. Further investigation would reveal that the relations of ownership of the nationalised industries in pre-Thatcher Britain were fundamentally different in their characterisation to the forms of ownership of the means of production in the Soviet system. In Britain, before privatisation, these were actually forms of state capital in their very nature whereas in the Soviet system the means of production were only managed according to capitalist norms but were not subject to the relations of capitalist ownership either by state or capitalist class.

Meszaros cites four basic pre-conditions by means of which “capital maintains its – by no means unrestricted – rule in post-revolutionary societies…” [p.913, Beyond Capital]. In none of them can we find any indication that what existed in the Soviet system was a new form of capitalist or state capitalist ownership but rather that capital exerted its control by means of a system of bureaucratic management and the prioritisation of ‘material imperatives’; through the continuation of the division of labour inherited from capitalism; through the ‘structure of the available production apparatus’ and the ‘restricted form of scientific knowledge’ and through the Soviet system’s ‘links….with the global system of capitalism’. It exerted its rule as a “mode of control of the social metabolism” but not as a fundamentally animating and governing social relationship of production and distribution – economically extracting surplus value – as in capitalist society.

Needless to say, the age-old division of labour will still be with us in a sublated, more fluid, form for a circumscribed period even after the capital relation and commodity production have been eliminated from society. Only the further evolution of society will see it progressively diminish and disappear. The ‘available production apparatus’ and ‘form of scientific knowledge’ will always be ‘restricted’ in the sense that both are historically conditioned and ‘limited in their actuality but unlimited in their disposition’ (Engels). To focus on these in order to provide evidential criteria for the “maintenance of capital’s rule” in the Soviet system is not fetishistic but it is somewhat departing from a characterisation of the nature of social relations in the Soviet system in order to explain capital’s continued “influence”.

Only points [1] and [4] [p.913., Beyond Capital] are really fundamental and are actually related and interconnected. If anything the ‘material imperatives which circumscribed (SM) the possibilities of the totality of life-processes’ were inextricably connected to the historical ‘links and interconnections’ which the Soviet system had ‘with the global system of capitalism’. The real “influence” of capital and the forms of state bureaucratic control and management corresponding to this “influence” arose from the daunting pressures of the world capitalist order on the Soviet system. From the very start, and before, this was the fundamental condition and reason why a technically isolated and capitalistically encircled ‘post-revolutionary’ society was degraded and degenerate in nascendi. It reinforces the overall conception that the commencement of the destruction of the global capital order and its state powers must be posited as nothing less than a continuously unfolding global process. And only temporarily halting when this is absolutely unavoidable according to conditions and expedience.

Shaun May
September 2014

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Critique and Socialist Comradeship

Critique and Socialist Comradeship

Genuine communists always welcome critique or reviews of their work as a possibility of its development into richer, more profound, theoretical and political domains. As an enrichment of the overall conception. We need to learn to re-assess and, if necessary, modify and qualify our work in the light of a genuine, legitimate revolutionary criticism regardless of the quarters from which it may arise. We need to have the courage to acknowledge that without such critique our conception may ‘ossify’ or could not ‘move on’ and be enriched in its content or even deservedly overthrown completely.

Without the critique of Hegel, Karl Marx would not have become Marx. Without the critique of Lamarck, Charles Darwin would not have become Darwin. Without the critique of one man’s work by another, there can be no scientific development. Accordingly, the absence of critique is, in rerum natura, historically impermissible and impossible. Those who call themselves “Marxists” and yet, politically and psychologically, react to criticism like priests or mullahs reacting to a ‘blasphemy’ are worse than useless as communist revolutionaries. They belong in a seminary or monastery and not in the class movement of the proletariat. This approach is characteristic of the self-important eminences of the sectarian groups and clannish grouplets and even of some leading intellectuals who sometimes deem themselves beyond critique and never ‘stoop’ to address the content of one. This attitude towards one’s own work is an affectation of the strictures of cult existence or of the hide-bound, study-bound, smug academic mentality of the university department.

If we are reluctant to critique the works of others (or we do so with trepidation), this necessarily reveals a certain relation between the ‘critic’ and the ‘critiqued’, the reviewer and the reviewed. We must never ‘guruise’ individuals, regardless of the importance of their contribution. Guruisation is the instant and painful death of revolutionary critique. The point of guruisation is also, simultaneously, the point of religious devotion.

I had first hand experience of this when I was a branch member of Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party from 1976 to 1985. I learnt my lessons well. Never again. The various sects, cults and clannish associations are typically averse to critiquing their leading figures, their gurus, because it introduces conflict and instability into such set-ups. To threaten the established dynamic of the cult is a cardinal sin, punishable by ostracisation or expulsion. Excommunication. Members are required to worship at the shrine of the cult guru. Not to subject it to a rigorous revolutionary criticism and even, divinities forbid, iconclasm. When you are a member of a Masonic Lodge, you must abide by its rules.

The focus of any critique is the historic interests of the proletarian class. We are referring to texts for social revolution. A revolutionary critique of such texts is not directed towards the stroking or beating of a writer’s ego. If writers and thinkers cannot psychologically dissociate themselves as human beings from a revolutionary critique of their work by others, then almost inevitably such a critique will bring an injured ego in its wake or a temporary glow of conceit.

Speaking personally, I think we must never allow friendship get in the way of an honest, candid, direct, open yet comradely critique. If the ties of friendship are not strong enough to withstand this, then so be it. If a man or woman cannot endure revolutionary criticism, for whatever reason, he/she must not put pen to paper or encapsulate concept in spoken word.

If we personally, psychologically, identify with what we have written down rather than seeing it as a document to be released into the class movement to critique as necessary, to investigate, for the use of this movement in its struggle to end the epoch of capital, then what sort of a way of proceeding is that? Are we writing in order to feed our own psychological needs or for the class movement regardless of these needs or our injured or petted egos? Being fondly indulged by sundry devotees must have its limits beyond which a terminal nausea must surely and irreversibly set in. Like being subjected to a neverending forced feed of something sweet and sickly.

And those who are their own best critics? : “I am my own best (or worst) critic”. How conceited is that? Forgive me for deploying this term (I think it is perhaps ‘postmodernistic’), but how ‘narcissistic’ is that? We may know what is, or what we think is, ‘wrong’ with our own work (in which case we really must modify and qualify it as soon as is possible) but those who read our work may wish to engage in a critique – or read a critique – to develop it for the inspection and possible interests of the class movement. The prophets and messiahs of the sectarian groups are very often characterised by this inordinate degree of narcissism. They crush critique. Disagreement frequently elicits intimidation. Different forms of violence have been deployed in various groups. Many are masters of various methods of control.

All this, of course, touches on the way in which communists address and relate to each other as ‘comrades’. It is, of course, a political question and not simply a personal one. What does it mean and involve, this ‘comradeship’ between communists? Is it simply a political concord? Or is it all closely associated with how we relate to each other as communist human beings? What is communism without this humanistic form of comradeship where comradeship is not simply an agreement on political perspectives? Theoretically and politically, we may have gone beyond the approach of the sects and cults, but if, in terms of ‘comradeship’, we are still with them, does this not still connect us meaningfully, humanly (or inhumanly), with this sectarianism, its methods and all its sundry baggage?

In my sincere opinion, interpersonal abuse and communist comradeship are incompatible. They are, in my book, not reconcilable. People who call themselves “communists” can mutually trade abuse but that automatically negates their comradeship.

Real comradeship is only found in struggle. Not in the ‘concord’ of the cult or sect.

Shaun May
September 2014

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