August 2011        

Books

Marx without Lenin


Kieran Allen, Marx and the Alternative to Capitalism (London: Pluto Press, 2011).

In the present global crisis of capitalism, for which none of the establishment economists can offer any explanation or solution, a short introduction to the ideas of Marx is most timely. The Thatcherite slogan “There is no alternative” has penetrated people’s consciousness to the extent that they accept that not much can be done to resist the onslaught on living standards that is capitalism’s response to the crisis. The ICTU’s plea that “there is a better, fairer way” is only seeking a softer policy within the system.
     To understand capitalism, and, even more so, to challenge it, we need to start with Marx. As Kieran Allen puts it, “as long as there is class division and social inequality, Karl Marx will be the most relevant social thinker of the twenty-first century.” He gives an account of Marx’s theory of surplus value, introduces Marx’s ideas on alienation, and explains historical materialism. He intersperses this with a discussion of how capitalism operates in the modern world, and how the pervasive capitalist ideology works to keep working people in order.
     The connection is not always totally obvious. The ideas and the examples are rather haphazardly joined together, partly because the author tries to cover too many aspects of Marx’s work in a short introduction but, more importantly, and more seriously, because there is no treatment of the changes in capitalism since Marx’s time.
     Lenin, in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, famously described the growth of monopolies and the interpenetration of finance and industrial capital. Finance capital has since become even more dominant, to the extent that financial profits are many times those of manufacturing. The super-exploitation of the subject peoples of the colonies enabled the bourgeoisie to meet some of the demands of the working class. Indeed Lenin quoted Cecil Rhodes to the effect that imperialism was necessary to stave off unrest.
     Neither colonialism nor the struggles of the nations against it feature in this book, nor the continuing struggle against the hegemony of the imperialist powers of North America, Europe, and Japan. James Connolly wrote a century ago of the identity of the cause of Ireland and the cause of labour, an idea that has still not got through to some Irish socialists.
     I am not suggesting that the book should be longer, but the author keeps jumping from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first, without considering what happened in between. A historical consciousness could have made his explanations shorter and clearer.
     The Egyptian scholar Samir Amin describes the socialist revolutions, primarily the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, and the breaking of direct colonial rule as the two great waves of the twentieth century. Their successes and achievements, he says, are far more significant than their failures and weaknesses.
     Kieran Allen does not agree. The one wave he ignores, as he has no concept of imperialism; the other he just sneers at. The system in the USSR, he says, was not “actually existing socialism” but only a form of capitalism. He and his party for long chanted “Neither Washington nor Moscow, but international socialism.” So who’s a dogmatist, then?
     The hurler on the ditch was always dogmatic. Never mind that the hurlers on the pitch had to fight a brutal civil war, while fourteen foreign armies invaded Russia to “strangle Bolshevism in its cradle,” in the words of Winston Churchill; that they had to give priority to the rapid industrialisation of a very backward country, in a forced march to catch up with the advanced countries; that they bore the brunt of the Second World War and “tore the guts out of the Nazi army” (also Churchill’s words), at a cost of more than twenty million lives.
     They did not emerge from these struggles uncorrupted or unscathed, nor was actually existing socialism any kind of ideal, but they did achieve a great deal, which the bandit capitalism that has taken its place has set out to destroy.
     To advance to socialism, socialists have to learn from our historical experience, not from myths and dogmas. We cannot develop a strategy for building 21st-century socialism by mechanically rejecting the experience of 20th-century socialism but by learning from it.
     As Samir Amin says, Marx’s work is incomplete: after all, he planned to write six volumes of Capital but lived to see only volume 1 published. Amin says: “To be a Marxist is to continue the work that Marx merely began. It is not to stop at Marx but to start from him” (The Law of Worldwide Value, Monthly Review Press, 2010).
     Kieran Allen in this book sets out to give an account of some of Marx’s ideas, with varying success, but then tries to relate them to the present day without taking into account either theoretical development or historical events, therefore not doing full justice to Marx or to Marxism. Nevertheless, it does show that there is an alternative to capitalism, which is socialism, and which is worth fighting for.
     It does introduce readers to Marx. Next the reader needs to be introduced to Lenin, and to Connolly.
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