'Classical Marxism' and grasping the dialectic

Reviews: John Rees - The algebra of revolution: the dialectic and the classical Marxist tradition London, 1998, pp314, £16.99 David Renton - Classical Marxism: socialist theory and the Second International Cheltenham, 2002, pp174, £14.99

These two books have to a limited extent a common theme in the idea of ‘classical Marxism’. They have a common method in approaching the history of Marxism through the history of the ideas of leading individuals in the movement. And they have a common thesis - the bankruptcy of the ‘Kautskyan’ centre group in the Second International in the 1890s and 1900s due to its mechanical, or inadequately dialectical, approach to Marxism. It has to be said that Rees has a lot more to say than this. Both attempt to draw lessons about the question: what Marxism for our times?

Renton’s book is shorter and more superficial. The first two chapters give brief introductions to the history of the Second International and to post-Marx Marxism. The bulk of the book is made up of equally brief biographies and introductions to the ideas of the French socialist, Paul Lafargue; the English socialist and trade union activist, Tom Maguire; the German ‘revisionist’ - ie, anti-Marxist - socialist, Eduard Bernstein; Karl Kautsky, leader of the centre in the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD) and ‘pope of Marxism’ in the 1890s and 1900s; the Polish revolutionary Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg; the American left syndicalist and later communist, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn; and the Russian revolutionary leader, VI Lenin.

Renton admits in his preface that many other leaders of the period have been excluded. He points in particular to English socialist William Morris; Russian Marxists Leon Trotsky, Georg Plekhanov and Julius Martov; French syndicalists Pierre Monatte and Georges Sorel; Italian Hegelian Marxist and socialist-syndicalist Antonio Labriola; German Marxist Rudolf Hilferding; German Marxist and later communist Clara Zetkin; and Austrian socialist Otto Bauer. One could point to others - the Marxists Internet Archive (http://www.marxists.org/index.htm) is a wonderful resource of diverse Marxist writings, including a good deal from this period. In a book of this type selection is unavoidable, but it is far from clear that the selection Renton has made actually gives us a real picture of the “socialist theory” - his subtitle - of the Second International.

An even briefer conclusion (pp144-47) identifies the Second International as fundamentally divided between left and right. The centre was bankrupt: “If socialism is most fundamentally a doctrine of change,” we are told, “then the very worst Marxists were those of the centre, who went into battle most determined to find that the terrain was what they expected. When the ground changed, they were lost” (p146). Conversely, “The most impressive Marxists of all those discussed in this book were undoubtedly Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin. What both shared was a sense that the world was changing, and that in a new political period people would have to rethink their politics anew. In Lenin’s case this process was bound up with his immersion in Hegelian dialectics” (pp146-47).

Rees’s book is more narrowly focussed and much deeper. After an introduction addressing the “contradictions of contemporary capitalism” and giving an outline of Rees’s understanding of the dialectic, successive chapters address the dialectic in Hegel, Marx and Engels; the “First crisis of Marxism” (covering Bernstein, Kautsky, Plekhanov and Luxemburg); Lenin; the Hungarian communist Georg Lukács (and the Italian Antonio Gramsci); and Trotsky. In relation to each author or group of authors the use of dialectical argument is explored, together with the context in which the author is using it. A final brief conclusion deploys the work done in the book to criticise very briefly French Stalinist theorist Louis Althusser, the ‘post-modernist’ theorists who took Althusser’s critique of Engels as a starting point and the ‘analytical Marxists’ Gerry Cohen and Jon Elster.

Rees’s book is, I think, quite clearly the best currently available introduction to the Marxist dialectic in English, as well as being a serious study of controversial issues. Here the biographical method enables Rees to make philosophical ideas clearer by putting them in the contexts of their authors’ times and political engagements. There are problems, which I will address later, but I would still recommend the book as fundamental reading for Marxists.

‘Classical Marxism’

It should be apparent from what is has been said so far that Renton and Rees are operating with different definitions of ‘classical Marxism’. For Renton it means the Marxism of the Second International. For Rees, in contrast, it means ‘classical’ Marxism as opposed to the ‘mechanical’ Marxism of Kautsky, the ‘official Marxism’ of the USSR, and in modern times the ‘Hegelian Marxism’ of Raya Dunayevskaya, CLR James and of recent authors like Tony Smith and Ian Fraser; and also as opposed to the ‘western Marxism’ or ‘humanist Marxism’ favoured by the 1960s new left, to Althusser’s ‘structuralist Marxism’ and to ‘analytical Marxism’.

Rees’s version comes close to being a ‘thin red thread’, as the truth about the ideas of Marx and Engels is successively rediscovered and reapplied by the favoured authors (Luxemburg, Lenin, Lukács, Gramsci, Labriola, Trotsky). The sense of a ‘thin red thread’ is reinforced by the extent to which Rees favours, where he can, citation from authors within the International Socialists/Socialist Workers Party tradition, of which he is a leading member (there is some potential embarrassment here, as some prominent authors in this tradition in the 1960s and 1970s - for example, Alex Callinicos’s Althusser’s Marxism (1976) - opposed the use of dialectical analysis, which was then a speciality of Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party). A danger in this approach - which is also present in Renton’s argument - is that there is some risk of dialectical analysis appearing as a sort of philosopher’s stone which turns dross into gold: this was certainly how Healy used it. Thus, though Renton’s book is rather superficial, his starting point - the Marxism of the late 19th and early 20th century - may be more helpful.

Second International

The bankruptcy of Kautsky and the centre grouping in the Second International which he led has been a commonplace of communist politics since the publication of Lenin’s The Proletarian revolution and the renegade Kautsky (1918), where we can also find a very summary version of the claim that Kautsky’s non-dialectical approach accounts for this bankruptcy: “As far as the philosophical roots of this phenomenon are concerned, it amounts to the substitution of eclecticism and sophistry for dialectics. Kautsky is a past master at this sort of substitution” (chapter 1). The result is a ‘standard communist’, or at least Trotskyist, narrative of the history of the Second International as failing due to “mechanical Marxism”. Renton’s book and Rees’s chapters 3 and 4 provide slightly varying examples. In fact, this account severely oversimplifies the history of the Second International and the political tendencies in the European workers’ movement before 1914.

The Second International was founded in 1889 as a federation primarily of socialist political parties, based on the growth of socialist parties generally, and in particular the strength of the German SPD, and the less striking but still real progress of the French Parti Ouvrier Français. The anarchists participated in it until 1893, when the Zurich congress passed a resolution excluding all non-trade union bodies which did not recognise the need for parliamentary action.

Trends in the workers’ movement

By the middle 1890s it is possible to distinguish five different trends in the international workers’ movement:

(a) Right syndicalists or ‘non-political’ trade-unionists. The most important element was the right wing in the British trade union movement, but the trend was also found elsewhere in Europe, and within Germany under the banner of the SPD, as well as in the catholic and other trade union organisations. The Russian ‘economists’ were ideological representatives of this trend with a Marxist coloration. This tendency held that it was sufficient to defend the immediate economic interests of workers in the direct struggle with their employers - primarily through trade union action, but also through seeking pro-worker legislation.

(b) Non-Marxist socialists. The usual ‘representative figure’ is Bernstein, because he was an ex-Marxist, relatively ‘sophisticated’ in his writings and engaged in argument by the German centre and left. In fact Bernstein is not particularly representative: there were various other forms of non-Marxist socialism, like those of the English Fabians and Independent Labour Party or the semi-Radical trend in France led by Jean Jaurès. This tendency argued, on very various grounds, that the task of the movement simply was to fight within the existing state order for reforms which shifted society towards socialist ‘values’. Its direct inheritors are the modern socialist parties.

(c) The ‘Kautskyan Marxist’ centre, mainly based in the SPD but also found in France (where the most prominent leader was Jules Guesde) and elsewhere; the Russian Iskra tendency around 1900, and hence both the Bolsheviks and part of the Mensheviks, were part of this tendency. This tendency had generally Marxist reference points. It foresaw a decline of capitalism and a revolution at some point in the future, but was ambiguous as to the role in this of the parliamentary-constitutional state. Its main focus in practice was on ‘preparatory tasks’: ie, building up the organised workers’ movement, including trade unions and cooperatives, but particularly building an organised workers’ political party which would take on all political questions posed for the society as a whole.

(d) A ‘Hegelian Marxist’ and semi-syndicalist left tendency within the International. Prominent leaders or writers included Antonio Labriola in Italy, Herman Gorter in the Netherlands and Rosa Luxemburg in Poland and Germany. This tendency argued that the International should not merely prepare for the revolution, but should fight for it by promoting strike action and the general strike, which was seen as the means by which the proletariat escaped from the dynamics of commodity fetishism and began to emancipate itself; it tended to deprioritise or reject electoral and parliamentary activity. Luxemburg’s pamphlet The mass strike is part of the ongoing polemics of this tendency against the right and centre round the ‘strategy’ of the general strike. Trotsky seems to have been intermediate between this position and the centre.

(e) Outright left anarcho-syndicalists were outside the International, but, as can be seen from (d), their ideas had significant indirect influence within it; they were strongest in Italy, Spain and France (another Hegelian Marxist, Georges Sorel, was a theoretician of revolutionary syndicalism in France). They were also present in the USA and Britain (International Workers of the World and De Leonist Socialist Labour Parties).

We can thus see a ‘right’, ‘centre’ and ‘left’ of the workers’ movement. The Bolsheviks, however, were part of the centre. With Kautsky, they emphasised the construction of workers’ institutions under capitalism and especially of a workers’ political party, which should attempt to take the lead in all the questions affecting society as a whole and hence should fight for political goals and make whatever use it could of parliamentary, etc, institutions. They did not adhere to the ‘general strike’ strategy, or to the Hegelian ‘voluntarism’ (insistence on the role of the subjective and the ‘act of will’) of the left, as can be seen in Lenin’s Materialism and empirico-criticism (1909).

World war

The outbreak of war in 1914, of course, changed all of this. The majority of the leaders of the centre - notably Kautsky and Guesde - went along with the rightwing trends, particularly the right-syndicalists, to form pro-war majorities in most socialist parties. Socialist opposition to the war came mainly, on the one hand, on pacifist grounds from part of the non-Marxist socialists - notably Bernstein and the British ILP - and, on the other, to the left from the anarcho-syndicalists and the Hegelian Marxist semi-syndicalist left socialists. Only a minority of the centre, of which the Bolsheviks were the strongest organised component, opposed the war.

It was in this context, and not merely because of the war, that Lenin turned to the study of Hegel. In Lenin’s polemics against Kautsky and Plekhanov and accounts of the causes of the political collapse of the Second International in 1914-15 (CW Vol 21) we begin to find references to Kautsky’s and Plehkanov’s defective dialectics, and to the voluntarist turn of phrase, the “unity of the will” of the working class. There is here an implicit, partial, self-criticism of Lenin’s political alignments in the International movement before the war. The Communist International, when it was founded, grouped a section of the old centre which had moved to the left ... but also an important part of the old left, including elements from the old left syndicalists who had never been part of the Second International. The result was a tendency to downplay the historical differences between the Bolsheviks and this tendency. These, however, resurfaced in 1920-21 as ‘new’ differences between the majority and the ‘left’ communists on participation in parliament, attitudes to the trade unions, the party question, etc, discussed in Lenin’s Leftwing communism, an infantile disorder (1920).

Fate of the left’s strategy

Once we see that the Hegelian Marxists before the war represented a distinct international political tendency linked to left syndicalism, we are forced to make a balance sheet of the strategy of this tendency. The conclusion is simple. It failed miserably in the face of revolutionary crises, both in Germany in 1918-19 and in Italy in 1919-21. Similar strategies have failed repeatedly in similar situations between 1921 and the present date.

As to why the strategy failed, the answer is equally clear. The Hegelian Marxist left neglected the preparatory work, especially the construction of a workers’ political party under the existing regime, which the Kautskyan centre insisted on. They did so due to their over-reliance on the spontaneity of the mass movement to solve political problems. Their radical-left refusal of the struggle for political leadership in relation to pre-revolutionary political problems left them politically disarmed when revolutionary crisis actually broke out. This is not to say that they did not organise at all, though this is perhaps true of the German left before 1914. The problem is just as much that they tended to organise small sects - and their descendants, the ‘libertarian left’ and ‘council communists’, continue to do so to this day. There is more than a trace of these vices in the history of the Trotskyist movement, including that of the SWP.

Mesmerised by the ‘dialectical logic of Capital’

What is interesting for present purposes is why there should be a correlation before 1914 between Hegelian Marxism and semi-spontaneist or semi-syndicalist politics. The answer is that Hegelian Marxism involves a way of reading Marx’s Capital as a closed dialectical system fully explanatory of capitalism. This involves tearing abstract capitalist political economy out of the context of the larger claims of (‘Engelsian’, ‘Kautskyan’) historical materialism and hence of the larger social-historical totality, which involves interpenetration of pre-capitalist, capitalist and post-capitalist forms.

In this closed dialectical system capitalism produces commodity fetishism - things at the immediate level have values, when at a deeper level these values express social relations between people. Rees gives a good explanation, discussing Lukács’s sophisticated version (pp210-225). As a result of commodity fetishism, the proletariat as a class is apt to have bourgeois consciousness. It represents a contradiction only insofar as it is compelled by the wage-relation to struggle with the bourgeoisie and actually enters into struggle (strikes). Socialist political parties are thus doomed to evolve into another element of capitalist management of the society, except insofar as they attempt to generalise the workers’ immediate strike struggles. Hence the strategy of the general strike.

The converse of these views - since the working class out of immediate struggles is apt to have bourgeois consciousness - is that the revolutionary Marxists are naturally a small minority. But they are a small minority which can expect that when the workers enter large-scale strike struggles their ideas will, through a dialectical reversal, suddenly seize the minds of millions. Efforts to create a mass workers’ party outside crisis conditions are therefore futile. The most that can be done is to organise the small minority which sees clearly, and wait for the mountain (the masses) to come to Mohammed (the revolutionaries); or, alternatively, by the acts of will of the minority to attempt to trigger the mass strike which will enable the masses to move (the ‘general strike strategy’). Equally, since the dialectical logic of capital is over-determining, contradictions in the society which are not simply reducible to the logic of the contradictions of capital - like the struggles of peasants against landlords, and national struggles - disappear from the analysis or become marginalised. This is transparent in Luxemburg’s work.

Lenin and the united will

Lenin’s turn to Hegel helped him link up with the anti-war left in the international socialist movement. It also may have assisted his grasp of the fluidity of the political situation in Russia between February and October and his ability to formulate concrete political lines to deal with it. There was, however, a price. When the Bolsheviks took power, they inherited a collapsing economy and society and war conditions, and they were forced to emergency measures operated from the top down. Any other government would have had to do the same or preside over a continuing collapse into local warlordism. The problem was that they over-theorised these emergency measures as general features of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

An element in this over-theorisation was a shift in the concept of the party towards the idea that the general interests of the class are represented by the party, which forges a united will of the class through constructing its leadership. This sub-Hegelian idea is already present in Lenin’s 1914-1915 critiques of Kautsky.

It resurfaces in March 1918 in Lenin’s critique of workers’ control and argument for one-man management: “Large-scale machine industry - which is precisely the material source, the productive source, the foundation of socialism - calls for absolute and strict unity of will, which directs the joint labours of hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of people. The technical, economic and historical necessity of this is obvious, and all those who have thought about socialism have always regarded it as one of the conditions of socialism … this is the only way in which strict unity of will can be ensured …” (VI Lenin CW Vol 27, pp267-69).

Through this route we arrive by 1920 at the theory that the dictatorship of the proletariat is by necessity the dictatorship of the vanguard party (VI Lenin, ‘The trade unions, the present situation and Trotsky’s mistakes’ CW Vol 32, pp20-21), and, in turn, that the struggle for iron unity of will requires the banning of factions within the party.

The dialectical trap here is in the last analysis the same as that which the Hegelian Marxist lefts fell into. If we treat Hegel’s Logic as a guide to the Marxist dialectic and argue, as Lenin did, that “It is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic” (CW Vol 38, p180; cited by Rees, pp13, 185), we will imagine that the Marxist dialectic is, like the Hegelian, a theory of knowledge. We will then believe that the world can only be known by grasping the totality. The result is that we will grasp at prematurely closed totalities, and neglect concrete mediations - which can only be known from empirical evidence. In the Hegelian Marxist left this premature closure is on the inner dialectical movement of capital. In Lenin in 1918-1920 it is on the will and on the party as a totality, with the result that the concrete mediations in the construction of the party and the relation of party and class - especially factional struggles, but also the decision-making capacity of local organisations and trade union fractions and the resulting feedback to the centre - are sacrificed in a false abstract unity.

Bankrupt centre

To make these criticisms of the Hegelian Marxist left is not to legitimate the Kautskyan centre. In truth, if we put the question of Kautsky’s ‘failure to grasp the dialectic’ on one side, the errors of the centre become much more transparent. They are, in essence, the legacies of the 1875 Gotha Congress, which founded the SPD by fusing the Marxists and the Lassalleans on an unprincipled basis.

In the first place the centre was ambiguous on the question of the existing state and whether the working class could conquer power simply by winning a parliamentary majority and passing legislation. This ambiguity was a direct inheritance of the 1875 compromise with Lassallean state socialism, and supported passive ‘legalism’.

Secondly, the centre was committed to preserving organisational unity with the right at the expense of political compromise. The effect was to give the right - which was willing if it came to it to cause a split - a veto over the party’s political positions. Before the outbreak of war this arrangement was consistent with a good deal of formal Marxism, provided the left and centre did not organise a fight to exclude the right from party and union office. Once war came, the subordination of the centre to the right became transparent.

This picture is, of course, familiar. It is the traditional practice of the Labour lefts. Kautsky’s ‘undialectical’ claims that the victory of socialism was inevitable did not cause this practice, but merely provided an ideological cover for it. It is not at all clear that Hegelian Marxist dialectics would actually inoculate leftwingers against it: after all, we might suppose that the mass of the class, when it begins to move, will spontaneously marginalise the right (as Luxemburg seems to have imagined).

Conversely, the Bolsheviks between 1903 and 1914 were not Hegelian Marxists. But they were clear on the need to overthrow the existing state and fight for the democratic republic; and they were not prepared to allow the splitters on the right of the party to dictate policy. These concrete, political differences were enough to allow them to project a revolutionary policy in 1905 and down to February 1917.

Rees’s dialectic

Rees’s account can be said roughly to straddle Hegelian and non-Hegelian positions (an example is that, in spite of Rees’s explicit critique of the modern Hegelian Marxists, Callinicos in the blurb characterises the book as “written from the standpoint of Lukács’s ‘Hegelian Marxism’”).

On the one hand, Rees takes seriously Marx’s and Engels’s critique of Hegel. He draws heavily on this aspect of their The German ideology and The holy family in chapter 2. He makes an explicit critique of the modern Hegelian Marxists (pp108-114). He uses the concept of mediation as a road to the concrete, and thus stresses throughout the book the need for dialectical analysis to grow out of detailed study, making effective use of empirical evidence, as opposed to Hegel’s speculative method. He takes from Marx and Engels a strong sense of dialectical analysis as being concerned with the analysis of change, and thus necessarily with time and concrete history. On the other hand, the book shows a series of slippages in the direction of Hegelian Marxist conceptions.


The core of the problem is that Rees wants (see chapter 5) to adopt Lukács’s account in History and class consciousness (1922) of the non-revolutionary consciousness of the working class masses (outside of revolutionary crisis) and of the party. This is understandable, because Lukács’s argument can provide support for the SWP’s peculiar conception of the party grounded on organisational independence from the labour bureaucracy, rather than on a clear programme. This point surfaces twice, both in Rees’s criticism of Luxemburg (pp163-4) and in the exposition of Lukács on the party (pp225-228).

But Lukács’s account manages to combine both (a) aspects of the ideas of the Hegelian Marxist left, especially totality-determinations by the self-movement of capital, and (b) aspects of the most Hegelian version of Lenin on the party as representative of the class as a totality. There is therefore slippage back to Hegelianism Marxism elsewhere in Rees’s account of the dialectic. The clearest symptom of this is the recurring proposition that contradictions produce movement - found, accurately, in the account of Hegel (p50), but unhelpfully in the context of Marx and Engels (p85) and Lukács (p248). In Hegel’s system it is true that contradiction produces change. In the arguments of Marx and Engels, however, it is an inappropriate formulation. For them the world ‘just is’ processes of change - matter in motion: change is presupposed. Dialectical analysis is a way in which we attempt to grasp and influence these processes.

Capitalism abstracted from its prehistory

Another interlinked aspect is that Rees retains, albeit in a dilute form, the tendency of the Hegelian Marxists to make a radical separation between the proletarian and the bourgeois revolutions and so separate the experience of the proletariat under capitalism from the overall historical experience of the species. Explicit examples can be found on p84 (where the need of the bourgeoisie for clarity in its revolution is understated) and p89, where we are told that “for the first time in human history, the mass of the labouring classes have completely lost control over the means of production and the products of their labour” - a proposition which would lead us to suppose that (a) chattel slavery had never existed and (b) the petty producers (artisans, etc) have wholly disappeared under capitalism.

This separation of the bourgeois world from the concrete struggles which brought it into existence is reflected in chapter 1 in the banal and undialectical account of “the enlightenment” (pp14-20). This flattens into one theoretical tendency Thomas Hobbes, the defender of royal absolutism; John Locke, the democratic-revolutionary theorist and organiser; and David Hume, whose criticism of Locke is a criticism of political democracy.

Relativism and the proletariat as universal subject

Failure to get to grips with these pre-Hegelian philosophers leads, when Rees is discussing Lukács’s critics (pp234-36) to slippage between two different meanings of ‘relativism’. The first is what is also called ‘probabilism’, which is the (Lockean) belief that we cannot have absolute knowledge, but only better or worse knowledge. The second is the belief that all knowledge is relative to a ‘point of view’. This view is Humean in origin, but was adopted by the Stalinists. It was rigorously argued by Althusser, and is linked to the ‘Marxist rejection of human nature’ which Michael Malkin has criticised (Weekly Worker August 21, 28). Lukács’s Hegelian version sees the working class (and through it the vanguard party) as the Hegelian ‘subject’ of history, the bearer of consciousness and hence the class which can in principle attain true knowledge.

The point made by Lukács’s critics is that, once we assert this relativism, we have no ground to identify the ‘point of view of the working class’ and thereby avoid complete relativism (which surfaces as post-modernism). Rees slips between the two views to make a defence of Lukács, and comes up with the conclusion that the “historical experience of the working class” is summed up in theory (pp236, 237; the formula is repeated elsewhere in the book). This, in turn, brings us back to the SWP concept of the party as one which “centralises experience”, as opposed to fighting for a definite programme.

For all the strengths of The algebra of revolution, therefore, it is still a book which needs to be read with care and with an awareness that Rees’s theoretical arguments are intimately linked to his SWP politics.