Cyril Smith, Marx at the Millennium, Pluto Press, London, 1995, pp182, £12.95

THIS BOOK can be read in two ways. First and foremost, it is a heart-warming personal testimony, in which the author charts his journey from the arid desert of doctrinaire ‘Marxism’ to the source and soul of Marx’s subversive message: his revolutionary humanism. He tells us about his gradual and painful realisation that the ‘Marxist’ tradition, in which he was immersed, ‘had... lost sight of the connection between class struggle and the struggle for humanity’ (p94).

His aim in writing the book is declared at the outset:

‘I try to show that all of Marx’s major works — not just the work of “the Young Marx”, as some have thought — contain an investigation of questions such as: What is it to be human? In what ways are we estranged from our humanity? How can we live humanly? What must we do to make this possible? How must we think about the world to find answers to these questions?’ (p16)

The thesis that Marx’s views on these questions are central to all his work is by no means new. As the author himself reminds us, a broadly similar thesis was advanced in the 1920s by Lukács and Korsch, and then in the 1930s by the Frankfurt School. But those heresies were marginalised and virtually silenced by Stalin’s executioners in the Soviet Union, and by the ‘Marxist’ establishment elsewhere. All that was, of course, before our time (the author’s as well as mine). Nevertheless, the radical humanist (or, as some would claim, ‘ultra-left’) reading of Marx never quite died out; more recently, it came back into prominence in the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s, and enjoyed quite a vogue amongst the radicalised academics of that period.[1] At first, traditionalist ideologues such as Althusser were able to respond, with some semblance of credibility, that the radical humanism newly rediscovered in Marx did not apply to his mature writings but only to the youthful ones, which do not really count. As a matter of fact, careful reading of Capital and other long-known late works reveals quite a few expressions of ‘Young Marxian’ ideas, but these are dispersed in the vast text, so a biased or careless reader could ignore them.[2] However, the argument was clinched, intellectually speaking, when Marx’s Grundrisse, a draft of Capital dating from 1858, became widely accessible.[3] This mature work of Marx contains many long passages similar in both content and style to his early Paris manuscripts of 1844.

Whilst the rediscovered Marx was causing quite a stir on the New Left, his impact on the more traditional and tightly-organised Leninist groups was not nearly as great. At that time Cyril Smith had the misfortune of belonging to a party that can best be described as Stalino-Trotskyist: Stalinist in style and mentality, Trotskyist in doctrine. This no doubt explains why the effect on him of the disinterred Marxian humanism was delayed and gradual, a sort of slow-motion double-take. His book has come out 25 years after Ollman’s — Can it be so long? How time flies! — in a totally different climate: the new wave of the left is a receding memory, and interest in Marx has waned.

This is not at all to the book’s discredit — quite the contrary: in the present political climate such a book is all the more needed and deserving of our welcome. Moreover, due to its particular circumstances, this book has two advantages over its precursors. Firstly, as a personal account rather than an academic scholarly discourse, it is an easier and more pleasant read. This ought to make it accessible to a wider potential audience. Secondly, thanks to its long gestation, this book is considerably more topical than those earlier books. The capitalism of the 1960s and 1970s — mistakenly categorised by some as ‘late capitalism’ — was actually a transitional, relatively benign form, buoyed (at least in the advanced countries) upon the last swells of postwar prosperity. Internally, within the metropolitan homelands, the inhumanity of capitalist relations of production was mitigated by the welfare state. Overt barbarity was primarily directed outwards, to the ‘Third World’, in late imperialist slaughter. The moral outrage of that generation was exercised more about Vietnam and the Bomb, and not so much about capitalist exploitation as an internal relation. In the 1990s, the internal iniquity and impersonal inhumanity of capital have become manifest; globalised, blind, merciless market madness rules. For this reason, Cyril Smith is able to make a direct connection between Marx’s revolutionary humanism and the immediate concerns of our time. He does so very well, and the passages in which he does it are by far the best in the book.

I said at the outset that the book can be read in two ways. The second way that some readers may approach it is as a guide to what Marx actually said, and what he thought about what he was saying. Regarded in this way, however, the book must be stamped with a serious health warning. I am afraid I will need to spend quite a bit of space on this, although I will not attempt to cover all the author’s errors — that would take far too long — but concentrate on two or three issues. The reader should not take the length of my critical remarks as a measure of the balance between the book’s virtues and its faults. It is simply that praise can be brief, whereas refutation requires detailed arguments.

The first general criticism that I must make is that on some crucial topics the book is long on mere assertion and allegation, but short on evidence and argument. A good example of this is the author’s treatment of Plekhanov. On page 38 he tells us that ‘it is clear that Plekhanov... thought [of the dictatorship of the proletariat] in terms of this [state] apparatus in the hands of a determined and benevolent minority’. No evidence whatsoever is offered for this allegation, not even a reference to a work by or about Plekhanov. I have no wish to be Plekhanov’s paraclete, and I don’t know whether he is guilty as charged; but I am certainly not prepared to accept such a serious accusation on the mere say-so of Cyril Smith. Then, a few pages later (p47), we are told: ‘As we have seen, it was Plekhanov who introduced the notion that this “dictatorship” was to be exercised by a devoted minority, in a state form opposed to that of “democracy”.’ Seen? Where have we seen? We have seen nothing of the kind! All we have seen is an unsubstantiated rumour.

Plekhanov and Kautsky are attacked as the originators of ‘orthodox Marxism’, which the author regards as a total falsification of Marx’s ideas. Unfortunately, his arguments for this claim are few and inconclusive. We are told (pp34-5):

‘He [Kautsky] saw the movement to socialism as being guaranteed by the operation of “laws of history”. These resembled laws of nature, in that they operated independently of human will and consciousness. They applied universally and used human beings as their instruments. Their study was science called “historical materialism”, or the “materialist conception of history”.

‘Kautsky had already reduced Capital to a set of “economic doctrines”, completely unconnected with the idea of Communism. He believed these doctrines showed how the economic expansion of capitalist production brought about both the development of technology and the growth and concentration of the proletariat. Armed with the scientific doctrines of “Marxism”, the “Marxist Party” had the task of bringing the truth to the masses. The Socialist intellectuals would teach scientific Socialism to the workers.’

Although the only evidence given for these statements is a single very general reference, I do not think that they greatly misrepresent Kautsky’s views. But, contrary to Cyril Smith’s claim, Kautsky did not totally make up all these ideas: much of the ‘orthodox Marxism’ ascribed to him is in fact derived from Engels,[4] and some of it even from Marx himself.[5] Of course, Kautsky went much further than Marx or Engels, and thereby distorted their message. If that were Cyril Smith’s charge, I would have no quarrel with it.

It seems to me that the main weakness of the book is that it attempts to replace the one-sided myth of Marxist orthodoxy by its direct opposite, which is no less mythical and quite as one-sided. Traditionalist orthodox Marxism tore the heart out of Marx. Cyril Smith wants to keep the bleeding heart, but nothing else. Consequently, he too is afflicted by selective blindness: the image of Marx he presents is almost the exact photographic negative of that presented by orthodoxy.

I am not accusing him of conscious distortion or intentional falsification. I know he is not being dishonest. But he is victim of a common failing, which philosophers of science have called ‘theory-laden observation’: a phenomenon akin to optical illusion, which leads you to ‘see’ not what is actually there, but what your strongly held preconceptions tell you ought to be there.

But the result, albeit unintended, is misrepresentation and misinterpretation. It begins with apparently small details. For example, on page 128 we are told: ‘When Marx derives a ratio between two quantities and calls it “the rate of exploitation”, he is deliberately not being “theoretical”.’ But the point is that Marx does not call it ‘the rate of exploitation’! This term has indeed been used — by others, but rarely, if at all, by Marx.[6] Marx’s normal term is ‘rate of surplus value’. And the reason why he habitually uses this term rather than the one ascribed to him is the direct opposite of the incorrect reason given for the incorrectly ascribed term. Whilst Marx never hides his moral attitude to the economic realities he analyses, he wishes to maintain a reasonable measure of scientific objectivity, which he is careful not to compromise by a facile use of morally loaded pre-judgmental terminology.

On page 136 there is a more serious misreading of Marx. Paraphrasing a key passage from the famous Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,[7] the author says: ‘These social relations of production were “independent of their will”, imposed on them [humans] from the past, unfree. Their consciousness of these relations “corresponds to” legal, political, religious and philosophic forms which make up a “superstructure”, built on top of this set of relations.’ Here Marx is alleged to have made the banal and virtually tautologous statement that humans’ consciousness ‘corresponds’ to the superstructure. This is of course a complete travesty. What Marx actually says is:

‘The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real basis, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life process in general.’

Here the word ‘which’, in both of its occurrences, clearly refers to ‘the real basis’, that is, ‘the economic structure of society’. So the profound and far from tautologous statement that Marx actually makes is that the legal and political superstructure rises on the real basis of the economic structure; and that forms of social consciousness correspond to this economic structure (not to the superstructure).

Ironically, on the very next page (p137) we are admonished: ‘In order to evaluate the “Marxist” tradition, we must try to read what Marx actually wrote, not what we imagine he wrote, or what we think he ought to have written.’ In my native language, Hebrew, there is a word for this: chutzpah. There is no direct English equivalent, but a rough paraphrase would use words such as ‘glasshouse’ and ‘stones’; ‘pot’ and ‘kettle’.

Cyril Smith’s reading of the whole passage is fundamentally wrong. He complains: ‘“Marxism” in its cruder forms managed to read this as a description of changes in consciousness being caused by the action of production relations.’ (p89) But this is exactly what Marx is saying: there is a causal connection, a causal interaction, in which the dominant and dynamic factor is the economic structure made up by the productive relations (which, in turn, correspond to the stage of development of the material productive forces). If this is ‘crude Marxism’, then Engels is a crude Marxist, because this is precisely the interpretation that he offers on several occasions. And so is Marx himself — how else are we to understand the sentence that comes shortly after the passage quoted above: ‘With the change of the economic base the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed.’ Not ‘before’, but ‘with’ and ‘more or less rapidly’ — as effect may lag behind cause. Marx also says: ‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.’

How can you explain this away? Well, if you are sufficiently determined, and your reading is determined by a preconceived idea, then you can explain it by saying that Marx was not describing here how things really are, but only how ‘alienated social life appears to those who live it’ (p90, my emphasis). I leave it to the reader to determine whether this alternative reading of Marx is convincing.

But the author has a still harder task. He must deny that Marx was an economist, a man of science[8] concerned with economic theory:

‘Marx was not a sociologist or an economist or political scientist of any kind, if by science we mean giving a logical account of something. For he was quite sure that the world he was trying to grasp was not logical. He regarded the enterprise of producing an elegant, smoothly working model of this mess as being itself an illogical dream, an attempt to rationalise the irrational.’ (p73)

This is, of course, nonsense. First of all, it contains an elementary logical howler. To give a ‘logical account of something’ is not at all the same as giving an account of something logical. If that were the case, it would be impossible to conduct a rational logical enquiry into ‘things’ like the effects of alcohol on the brain, mental illness, or even aberrant readings of great texts — not to mention the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia, Stalinism and Nazism.

It is difficult to read even a single chapter of Capital without realising that Marx is engaged in giving a coherent, rational and logical account of the working of the capitalist (or bourgeois) economy. Of course, this is not the only thing he is doing, but it is definitely a major part. How can Cyril Smith deny this and say that ‘Marx is not describing how goods are produced inside a “capitalist system of production”’? The arguments he produces are very meagre indeed.

Chief amongst them is the observation that the subtitle of Capital is Critique of Political Economy, the implication being that Marx is not actually doing political economy but only criticising it. But this is a misreading of the subtitle. Marx’s style and mode of expression, especially when writing in German, were formed in the German intellectual tradition, particularly that of German philosophy. In this tradition, a ‘critique of X’ did not mean anything like ‘a polemic against X’, but ‘a critical discourse concerning X’. Thus, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Critique of Practical Reason were discourses about pure reason and practical reason, not polemics against them. Marx expected his German readers to take such things for granted.[9] And this is what Capital is: a critical scientific analysis of the capitalist economy.

This is not only what it actually is, but also how Marx himself regarded what he was writing. Thus, for example, in a letter to Lassalle, dated 22 February 1858, in which Marx asks Lassalle to find a publisher for his book,[10] he describes it as a ‘critical presentation of the system of bourgeois economy’. And I defy any unbiased reader to deny that the whole of Marx’s Preface to the first edition of Capital is an explicit and conscious presentation of the book as a work of science, the science of political economy: ‘... and it is the ultimate aim of this work, to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society...’.

As for Marx not being ‘a scientist of any kind’: this of course directly contradicts Engels, who in his Eulogy refers to him pointedly as a ‘man of science’. Quite correctly, Engels hastens to add that ‘this was not even half’ of what the man was, ‘for Marx was before all else a revolutionary’. However, there can be no doubt that Marx regarded himself as a man of science, amongst other things.

On at least one occasion Marx explicitly described himself as an ‘economist’. As a matter of fact, we know the place and date: Brussels, 15 June 1847. You can find this in the Preface to The Poverty of Philosophy. Cyril Smith quotes several times from that book, and the passage in question must have flashed more than once before his unseeing eyes: a clear instance of theory-laden observation, or in this case non-observation.

I do not wish to end this review on a harsh note. That would in any case be quite unfair. I have accused Cyril Smith of distortion and misrepresentation, albeit unintentional. But I feel compelled to add that in my view his mutilation of Marx is far less heinous than the atrocities committed by the dogmatic orthodox ‘Marxists’. This is so for the simple reason that by the nature of things a sound philosophy and a great ethical doctrine are far more durable than the best scientific theory. Parts of Marx’s economic theory are, in my opinion, untenable or outdated (although much is still valid); but his philosophy and revolutionary humanism are as fresh today as they were 150 years ago.

Moshe Machover


[1].      A good, but by no means isolated, example of this trend is Bertell Ollman, Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society, Cambridge, 1971. Let me stress that I am not claiming that Cyril Smith’s views are identical with Ollman’s (or indeed with those of Lukács, Korsch or the Frankfurt School), but they all point in a broadly similar direction.

[2].      A particularly striking example, which has nevertheless been largely overlooked, is Marx’s use of ‘individual’ — always as a term with positive connotations, especially when put in contraposition to ‘private’. Thus in one of his most important texts, the beautiful chapter on the historical tendency of capitalist accumulation (Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 32), he says that under petty commodity production, means of production had been not only private but also individual property, ‘based on the labour of the proprietor’. Capitalist property is ‘the first negation of individual private property’: it is private but no longer individual. Communism will negate capitalist private property, but give the producer ‘individual property’! This is echoed four years later, in Marx’s 1871 address, On the Civil War in France, where he says that the Paris Commune ‘aimed at the expropriation of the expropriators. It wanted to make individual property a truth [!] by transforming the means of production, land and capital, now chiefly the means of enslaving and exploiting labour, into mere instruments of free and associated labour.’

[3].      This draft was first published in Moscow during the Second World War, but was virtually unobtainable in the West until 1953, when it was reprinted in East Berlin. An English translation (published by Penguin) only appeared 20 years later.

[4].      See, especially, his Anti-Dühring and the Eulogy at Marx’s graveside. In the latter Engels says: ‘Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history... But that is not all. Marx also discovered the special law of motion governing the present-day capitalist mode of production and the bourgeois society that this mode of production has created.’

[5].      For example, in his Preface to the first edition of Capital, Marx says: ‘Intrinsically, it is not a question of the higher or lower degree of development of the social antagonisms that result from the natural laws of capitalist production. It is a question of these laws themselves, of these tendencies working with iron necessity towards inevitable results. The country that is more developed only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.’ And later in the same Preface: ‘My standpoint, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them.’ And in the famous Chapter 32 he says: ‘But capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation.’ That is, Communist society.

[6].      I am unable to recall even a single occasion on which Marx uses ‘rate of exploitation’, but I am prepared to believe that he may have done so. At any rate, this is not his normal usage.

[7].      This is mistakenly referred to as the Introduction to the Critique of Political Philosophy. Since I am not a great believer in Freudian slips, I am prepared to accept that this is a mere typographical error.

[8].      The word ‘scientist’ was probably invented around 1840, but was not in general use during Marx’s lifetime.

[9].      The reader may object that my reading of the subtitle of Capital is refuted by the title of Marx’s other Critique — Critique of the Gotha Programme, which certainly is a polemic against the Gotha programme. But this title is apocryphal: Marx’s original title was Marginal Notes to the Programme of the German Workers’ Party.

[10].    Lassalle did find a publisher, and the book, a precursor of Capital, appeared in the following year under the title Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.