PM Press Blog, Review

What is Marxism?

By Howard Moss
Socialist Standard
July 9th, 2023

Book Review from the July 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

Critique of the Gotha Programme (translated and annotated by Kevin B. Anderson and Karel Ludenhoff, with a new introduction by Peter Hudis and an afterword by Peter Linebaugh, PM Books, 2023)

References to Marxists and Marxism are legion. China claims to be a Marxist state. So does North Korea. In the US many left-wing writers, academics and others say they are Marxists. Movements that don’t claim allegiance to Marxism, for example ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Me Too’ are nevertheless said by their right-wing opponents to be Marxist. The act of ‘taking the knee’ by professional footballers is deemed by some to be a ‘Marxist’ gesture. And Jeremy Clarkson is fond of using ‘Marxist’ as a term of abuse for just about anyone who disagrees with him on anything. So what do Marxist and Marxism really mean?

It surely stands to reason that such terms should at least have some connection to the individual from whom they derive, the nineteenth-century political philosopher and socialist revolutionary Karl Marx. But in reality, of course, it’s impossible to stop them being thrown around at random either as an insult or a beacon of pride, just as it’s impossible to stop terms like ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’ being used willy-nilly, often in ways far removed from their original meaning. Despite this, it still has to be worth carrying on doing what the Socialist Party and the Socialist Standard have been doing for well over 100 years – that is attempting to shed clear light on Marxism in terms of the ideas formulated and laid down by Marx himself in his writings.

In this connection a recent edition and new translation from the original German of one of Marx’s lesser known works is a useful aid, since it helps us to identify a particularly important aspect of Marx’s thought. The Critique is a short work, not much more than 20 pages long, written by Marx in 1875 as a confidential response to a ‘Unity Programme’ issued by the German Workers Party. Dating from close to 30 years after what is probably Marx’s best known work, the Communist Manifesto, it sheds light on the thought of the ‘mature’ Marx, in particular his ideas about the kind of society that he saw as replacing the capitalist system, which he analysed in detail in the three volumes of his famous work of economic theory, Capital. So what we have in the Critique is ideas about future society from Marx’s own pen, undisturbed by the later plethora of interpretations by commentators and critics, many of whom read little or nothing of what he wrote.

What stands out clearly from the Critique is Marx’s concept of ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’. As everyone knows, there have been and continue to be endlessly varying interpretations of what these terms mean. But here Marx describes as either ‘communism’ or ‘socialism’ (without making any distinction between the two) a future society based on the common ownership of the means of production and the consequent end of working for wages and producing for sale. This echoes his interchangeable use of both terms in his other writings, so thoroughly belying later attempts by commentators or regimes declaring themselves ‘Marxist’ to argue that Marxism propounds two stages of post-capitalist development, a ‘lower’ one called ‘socialism’ and a ‘higher’ one called ‘communism’.

A second important element that emerges from the Critique (and one that continues to be entirely relevant today) is Marx’s complete rejection of reformism, nationalism, and attachment to state institutions. He pours scorn on reformist demands such as ‘direct legislation’ and ‘popular rights’ and accuses the framers of the Gotha Program, the followers of Ferdinand Lassalle, of having ‘conceived the workers’ movement from the narrowest national standpoint’. All such positions, Marx declares, are ‘remote from socialism’.

The editor of this new translation, American academic Peter Hudis, who calls himself a ‘Marxist-Humanist’, prefaces it with an introduction and some notes, while Peter Linebaugh adds an ‘afterword’ to the text. Most of what they both write is helpful and difficult to fault. Hudis, for example, makes short work of ‘fake’ political Marxism by stating: ‘Neither the reformist social democratic version of socialism nor its revolutionary variant that was taken over by various forms of Stalinism and Marxist-Leninism succeeded in posing a viable alternative; instead, each morphed into some version of capitalism (in the case of Russia ‘state-capitalism’, elsewhere ‘a more equitable or efficient way of organizing exchange).’ Furthermore, he points out, the insistence of many in seeing the socialism talked about by Marx as referring to an earlier phase of social development, distinct from a later final form, communism, has meant that ‘the idea of freedom is pushed off to a far-distant future that never comes, while divesting the idea of socialism of its liberatory content’.

In this connection Hudis also explains that, though Marx avoids entering into the specific details of a future socialist/communist society other than seeing it as a moneyless global system of free access (‘the free and spontaneous allocation of goods and services’) and democratic self-organisation, he does this ‘on the grounds that communism is not a utopian ideal that one tried to impose upon the masses but is instead the result of the self-activity of the masses’. Above all, the editor goes on, ‘Marx aimed to show that capitalism is not an immutable part of human existence but a transitory phenomenon’ and ‘makes it clear throughout his writings that socialism or communism is incompatible with the state’.

There is, however, one area where we would call into question the views put forward by Hudis. This relates to his apparently unquestioning acceptance of the labour time voucher system Marx suggested might have been needed in 1875, even once capitalism had been transcended, the market system got rid of, and commodity exchange, alienated labour and classes eliminated, (until, in Marx’s words, ‘all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly’). In other words that society would have had to wait until the means of production had been built up sufficiently to allow the operation of a complete free access society of ‘from each according to ability to each according to need’,

Hudis fails to take into account that Marx was writing at a time which, compared with what came later and above all what exists today, was relatively undeveloped in terms of the resources and technology available. Clearly that has changed radically since Marx’s lifetime and there can be little doubt that there will be the means to establish very rapidly a complete free access society once the majority of workers decide to join together collectively to bring it about on a world scale. So no longer any need to go through a period of ‘labour-time vouchers’ (which, in any event, would have had drawbacks even in 1875).

No need either to spend time on the ‘reformist’ activities which Marx scorns in the Critique and which the editor too seems to agree is unnecessary. After all any such ‘in the meantime’ activity can only be time wasted, delaying if not putting off forever the ultimate objective, Given this, it is somewhat surprising that in spite of apparent agreement with and encouragement of the views expressed by Marx in the Critique, Hudis (also author of the 2012 book Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism) is on record in a recent essay (‘Democratic Socialism and the Transition to Genuine Democracy’) as supporting reformist activity, referring to such as ‘a political project that fights for and secures needed reforms while focusing on the long-term need to transcend capitalism’ (reviewed in this journal, April 2021). While we would argue that ‘long-term’ is effectively equivalent to never, at the same time, with respect to the kind of society to be aimed for, we do agree with Hudis that socialism, once established, will, as he puts it, ‘provide the space for individuals to discover themselves and freely pursue their destinies, now that such external impediments as class domination, statist control, and abstract forms of domination no longer stand in their way’.