Each age has its myths, and the Marxist myth of the revolutionary working class has overshadowed the political thinking of the industrial era. The heroic figure in overalls, erect upon the barricade, sledge-hammer in one hand, red flag in the other, has enlivened the fantasies of the left and haunted the nightmares of the right.
The expectation of the Marxists, that the workers will come to accept their objectives if not their theory, derives from the doctrine which Marx formulated in the Introduction to a Critique of Political Economy: ‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.’ In The Communist Manifesto Marx shows how development of the. methods and relations of production results in the presence of a class of propertyless labourers, obliged to sell their labour-power to the capitalists for wages; he takes this to be their social existence and predicts that having the same social existence they will develop the same consciousness. He does not balk at a phrase but carries the argument straight through: ‘this organisation of the proletarians into a class and consequently into a political party‘ (emphasis added). That prediction was made over one. hundred and thirty years ago; it has not been fulfilled. The workers have not come to form one political party, they remain divided; only a minority have aligned themselves with the Marxists and there is no good evidence that many more are likely to do so.
Marxism claims the workers, and since Lenin also the peasants, as its power base; and these two classes together are in a majority all over the civilised world, but Marxist movements have not been everywhere voted into power. When matters get beyond the ballot-box, when the guns come out and the barricades go up (or whatever may be the nuclear-age equivalents of these traditional activities) and the revolutionaries get to grips with their opponents, the fight is not between overalls on one side and top-hats on the other. When Lenin defined a bayonet as a weapon with a worker on each end he was speaking of wars between nations, but the remark applies equally well to violent revolution. In Russia, China, Cuba and Vietnam the anti-Marxist forces, just as much as those which supported Marxism, consisted overwhelmingly of members either of the working class or of the peasantry.
The movements opposed to Marxism do not consist exclusively (or even mainly) of the bourgeoisie and Marxism does not consist exclusively of workers and peasants; it finds supporters among the bourgeoisie, and the origins of many of the Marxist leaders place them at a distance from the wearers of overalls and the wielders of hammers and sickles. Karl Marx himself came from a professional family and his wife belonged to the nobility. His collaborator, Friedrich Engels, was a wealthy industrialist; Lenin’s father belonged to the superior bourgeoisie, Castro’s owned a large cattle and sugar estate, Trotsky’s family were farmers, employers of labour, and Hyndman, who introduced Marx’s work to English readers (he omitted to ascribe it to Marx by name, which did not make for good future relations) was a financier. One of the more newsworthy British Marxists of recent years, Anthony Blunt, was a knight and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, while others – Philby, Burgess, McLean – held high position in the Civil Service.
Marxism is not the movement of a down-trodden proletariat. It is not the working class militant. What is it?
Marxism makes its entrance in The Communist Manifesto, a work written in the expectation that future social development would intensify the poverty of the workers, driving them to rise in a Marxist revolution. That may have been a reasonable expectation in 1848 but even then it did not provide any good explanation for the existence of Marxism. In the Manifesto Marx distinguishes between the Marxists (he calls them Communists) and the proletariat: ‘they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.’ He says that this group with special understanding includes: ‘a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.’
The Manifesto offers no explanation for the presence of a minority that clearly understands the objectives of the proletarian movement and a majority that does not. It offers no explanation for the behaviour of the bourgeois ideologists who, contrary to Marxist theory about the effects of social existence on political behaviour, associate themselves with the proletarian movement. In short, it offers no explanation for the presence of Marxism. Whatever other features of society the Marxist theory of classes may be able to account for it provides no explanation of Marxism itself.
Through the more philosophical works of Marx and Engels – the opening pages of The German Ideology are a good example – there runs a hammering insistence that they begin from ‘reality,’ from ‘real premises,’ from ‘material conditions,’ from ‘actual material life,’ while to their opponents are ascribed illusions, speculations, dogmas and mystification. Yet when one tries to define the difference, whether between Marx and his opponent Feuerbach or between Marxists and their opponents today, it is not found in any particular material conditions or any special relation to actual life. Marx’s social existence was no more real and no closer to actual life than that of Feuerbach, and the social existence of a Marxist worker today is no more closely based on material conditions than that of a non-Marxist worker. The significant distinction between Marxists and their opponents past or present, philosophical or political, lies not in their respective social existences but in their thinking. We may know all about the class position, the occupation, the education, family history, training, income, marital status and other features of the social existence of a group or a person and none of it will help us in the least to know whether they are or are not Marxist; that knowledge comes only as we acquire information about their beliefs. Marxism is defined by its beliefs, and when it is considered as a set of beliefs, without the presupposition that these must be an expression of the interests of a particular class, then more adequate explanation for its presence begins to appear.
It has often been remarked that the movements of the left tend to be more governed by theory than those of the right. The observation is valid and it offers one entry to an understanding of the origin of Marxism. As one moves from extreme right to moderate right and on through moderate left to extreme left, respect for theory increases at every step. Lenin declared, in What Is To Be Done?, that without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. The remark gives theory an importance not accorded to it by any movement to the right of Marxism; only Anarchism, so taken up with divisions on points of theory that it is unable to act at all as a united movement, goes further than Marxism in this respect. Arranged in order of their concern for theory the major political movements form a series in which Marxism is located just short of the theoretical extreme, with only Anarchism beyond it. This by itself might well be of only academic importance; its significance begins to appear when it is seen that other features also increase in strength as one moves from extreme right through the moderate positions to the extreme left.
With each movement leftward the changes sought in the principles on which society operates become deeper, sharper and more extensive. The freedom from supernatural influences which humanity is believed to enjoy grows from non-existence to completeness; at the extreme right “blood” and “race” are held to override all human intention, while among Anarchists no supernatural influence at all is recognised. Repudiation of hierarchy and of military force become stronger as one moves along the range, and the valuation placed upon independent thinking, negative at the extreme right, becomes highly positive at the extreme left, Marxism again being exceeded only by Anarchism.
The indications are that when the major political movements are arranged in this order they form not only a series but a developmental series, with Marxism arising as its penultimate term.
Unlike Marxism itself this theory, even in the bare outline given here, offers the beginnings of an adequate explanation for the presence of Marxism. It does not, however, mean that society as a whole is following, or is going to follow, this course of development, coming to conform in time with Marxist ideas and then moving on to Anarchism. Development in political and intellectual sophistication is accompanied by a reverse development; as sophistication increases so numbers diminish. The extreme right, not interested in political theorising, not seeking to alter the principles on which society operates, ascribing determination of behaviour to luck, or character, or race rather than to rational factors, often appears (as in Britain and in America today), less as a distinct political movement than as a widespread social tendency, but it is no less powerful for that. It is a tendency enjoying such massive numerical support from all classes, even in the most advanced countries, that the struggles of the left against it never achieve more than local, transient and partial Success. Even in the states which have for generations been under control of groups flying the Marxist banner, in Soviet Russia and the People’s Republic of China for example, it is still the beliefs of the right, rather than those of the left, that govern the functioning of society. Gaining their first official acceptance in Soviet Russia with the New Economic Policy of 1923 these beliefs became dominant in the organisaticn of Soviet society under Stalin, and since his death the thin facade of Marxist theorising has been weakened even further; they are now being openly recognised. (A similar change is occurring in the People’s Republic of China; under the new “Responsibility System” the attempt to establish communes has abandoned, family and private enterprise formally accepted). There are more Christians in the USSR than members of the Communist Party, and after two generations of Bolshevik rule the Soviet people show themselves to be still identified with the attitudes and beliefs of the right rather than those of the left. They are interested in the direct pursuit of private economic advantage (a right-wing tendency) rather than working for the benefit of the community. (This is demonstrated at length by Caroline Humphrey in Karl Marx Collective, published by Cambridge University Press in 1983).
There is nothing mysterious about the continuing predominance of right-wing tendencies; it is an example of survival by adaptation. A society that behaved differently, devoting its main energies to reforming and revolutionising its own structure and not to maintaining itself against the environment, would ensure its own elimination. A massive majority not interested in revolution or reform, a majority concerned not to criticise society but to maintain and develop it, is a necessary condition for the presence of a society able to maintain critics, reformers and revolutionaries. That majority will continue to be necessary so long as society exists in an environment which is at best indifferent and sometimes actively hostile.
Over the centuries political thinking has developed; every thoughtful Marxist or Anarchist now is familiar with facts and theories unknown to Plato and Socrates, to Hobbes, Bentham and Adam Smith. But this development has not entailed a transition, by the general body of the people, from old political and social attitudes and beliefs to new ones. Its process has been the growth of new attitudes and new sets of beliefs out of the old (sometimes in reaction against the old) while the old persist and continue to enjoy majority support. It has resulted in the establishment of what may be pictured as a pyramidal political structure, with the more sophisticated sets of ideas (those of the left) toward the top and the larger numbers of people with the right wing on the lower levels. The expectation of the left, that the general body of the people will come to support their objectives, is constantly disappointed, and since influence on social life goes with numerical support society continues to be dominated by the beliefs and attitudes of the right, by nationalism, militarism, hierarchy, belief in supernatural powers and economic competition,’ rather than by their contraries.
When Marxism is seen as an advanced stage in the development of thinking about social and political affairs then its presence and the position it occupies become comprehensible. The apparent discrepancy between its theoretical sophistication and its lack of popular support disappears, the one coming to be recognised as a consequence of the other. Whether, this being so, Marxism can still hope to reach its objectives, remains to be seen; this short essay attempts investigation, not prophecy. One conclusion which does seem to be unavoidable is that the expectation of a
Marxist revolution with the working class behind it finds no support in study of the present and past structure and functioning of society. Marxist minority movements may succeed in future, as they have succeeded in the past, in using the occasion of social disorder to seize control of the powers of government. That is a different issue; here I need only point out that it is a procedure which has not so far produced the liberated and humane society Marxism proclaims as its objective.
from Ideological Commentary 13, September 1984.