A Marxist culture free from the taint of Stalinism

In the first of two articles, Paul B Smith argues that Marxism must be distinguished from Stalinism if a new generation of anti-capitalists fighters are to be properly educated. The starting point must be Marx's 'Capital'

There are signs of a revival of interest in Marxism. These are visible beyond the boundaries of disintegrating leftwing groups and the specialities of an academic division of labour. I offer a lecture on Capital recently as evidence. Over 20 people paid £10 each to attend a two-hour session on Marxism.

I subscribe to Critique. This is a journal of socialist theory edited by Hillel Ticktin in Glasgow. Whilst in Glasgow, I helped form a supporters’ group to promote ideas from the journal. The group initiated the Campaign for a Marxist Party five years ago. This was an attempt to bring socialist or communist groups together on the basis of a shared political project.

The CMP was short-lived and proved unable to meet various challenges. These included differences over the nature and urgency of adopting a political programme; impatience over involvement in electoral campaigning; suspicion and distrust between members with Labourite, Stalinist and Trotskyist heritages; and an indifference to (some might say celebration of) ad hominem argument.

The failure of the CMP does not mean that every attempt at reconciliation and fusion is impossible - nor that the challenges of resolving the problems of party, programme, electoral involvement and mutual distrust cannot be successfully met. This will take place within a Marxist environment. I argue below that this does not yet exist. The crucial reason is the destructive intellectual, political and moral legacy of Stalinism. Collusive with this is the continual effort to keep commodity fetishism alive in reality and as ideology.

Few people today distinguish between Marxism and Stalinism. I define Marxism as the knowledge the proletariat needs to rule and create the conditions for a democratically planned, classless society worldwide. At the centre of this is political economy. Stalinism produced no knowledge of any worth. It attempted to destroy Marxism in the name of ‘Marxism’. The fact it failed is a tribute to the work of a few relatively isolated individuals.

The CMP’s motion committing the group to Marxist education pointed in the direction of the culture needed to overcome the challenges facing socialists or communists today. It symbolised the reality that there are revolutionaries who might be persuaded to make the teaching and learning of Marxism within and outwith higher education a priority. Organising around education is the means to creating a Marxist culture. Efforts to build a mass working class party based on the working class and a Marxist culture are complementary and mutually reinforcing.

I had two brilliant Marxist teachers when I studied at Glasgow University’s Centre for Socialist Theory and Movements from 1985 to 1988: Scott Meikle and Hillel Ticktin. Their influence is evident in the text that follows. The latter embodies an understanding of a world emerging out of the cold war. This is based on my reading of the pristine Marxism these teachers tried to advance. The simplification, distortions and mistakes are my own.


Capitalism is experiencing its gravest and deepest crisis since the 1930s. The near collapse of the world’s banking system in 2008 led to huge government bailouts. These included nationalising various banks and injecting large amounts of public money into the financial system. In the UK alone, the government used £200 billion of state revenue to buy financial assets through so-called ‘quantitative easing’. The US government is spending a further $600 billion in this way to try to kick-start a sluggish economy. Meanwhile in this country, the government has announced cuts in public expenditure that will mean between 500,000 and a million job losses over the next four years. This is at a time when official unemployment figures in the UK are two and a half million and there are eight million people who are defined as “economically inactive”.

Since 2008, journalists, politicians and academics have written a number of books describing the events leading up to and during the crash. The stories these books tell have passed into popular culture with Hollywood films such as Wall St: money never sleeps. They focus on the activities of greedy bankers, corrupt politicians and deluded economists.

The tendency in the literature has been to seek scapegoats for the crisis. The bankers are to blame for having a misplaced confidence in speculative forms of investment; politicians for failing to regulate the banks; and economists for giving the politicians and bankers the information and ideas to act on. For example, Gordon Brown was supposed to be the most economically aware prime minister the UK has ever had. He stated that Britain’s previous history of economic instability - of booms and busts - was finally over. Economists had deluded themselves into thinking that unregulated markets were supremely efficient. They thought that individuals’ economic behaviour was always rational and the only phenomenon needed studying was the movement of prices.

The scapegoating of economists is paradoxical. Economists have tended to conceive of society as the product of the decisions of a collection of separate individuals. Individuals engage with one another because it is in their self-interest to do so. Blaming economists for this belief, however, only reinforces it. It reverses the notion that the pursuit of self-interest is rational into its opposite - self-interested motivation is immoral or corrupt.

The blame game is a distraction. It reduces the task of explaining and predicting tendencies within an evolving political and economic system to individual psychology. Karl Marx commented on the psychology of economists over a hundred years ago. He wrote in Capital that economists were no longer concerned about whether their doctrines were true or false. All they were interested in was whether they were useful or harmful to the accumulation of capital - whether they were expedient or inexpedient, or whether they were or were not politically dangerous.

A neglected masterpiece

Marx’s Capital is a masterpiece of world literature. Yet the book’s contribution to world culture is neglected. Among the reasons for its neglect is that it is not useful to the accumulation of capital. The ideas in Capital cannot be used to manage the present crisis. The book will not help people who want to see capitalism come out of it stronger and healthier. Moreover, the study of the book is no longer central to the culture of anti-capitalist critics and activists - including some people who call themselves socialists or communists.

In Michael Moore’s latest documentary Capitalism: a love story, Moore offers viewers a humane and witty critique of the system. He sees capitalism clearly as a cause of economic oppression. He notes correctly that those who benefit from it act within an oppressor role and those who lose out are oppressed and victimised. However, when investigating the nature of the system, he ignores Marx, Marxist intellectuals or members of Marxist political groups. Instead he turns to the Roman Catholic church. He interviews radical priests who condemn capitalism as evil and inhumane.

Christianity’s denunciation of those who make money out of money is ancient. Readers familiar with the Christian New testament will recall the story of Christ’s overturning of the tables of the money-lenders in the temple. They will remember Paul saying that the love of money is the root of all evil. The ancient prescription against usury condemns the attempt to make money out of money. It can be found in all the major religions. Basing a critique of modern capitalism on it is highly limited. A religious form of anti-capitalism tends to view the present crisis as a crisis of morality. Moral failure or sinfulness is the cause of unemployment, exploitation, alienation and dispossession. The remedy is religious revival, not socialist revolution.

Religiously inspired anti-capitalism looks back to the pre-capitalist past fondly. Prior to capitalism, the surplus product did not take the form of value. Markets were for the exchange of consumable goods, not for making money out of money. Criticism of interest-bearing capital helps anti-capitalists target finance capital. However, it ignores the historical origins of finance capital. It ignores its attempt to escape an engagement with living labour in the productive process. Moreover, small businesses are exempt from condemnation. During crises, they are more often than not oppressed by the banks and lose out in competition with larger companies. They are victims too. Applied to the contemporary world, a religious critique of capitalism is partial and inadequate.

A full critique both negates the system as a whole and poses a positive socialist alternative. Rightwing politicians describe all forms of government interventions as ‘socialist’. They associate socialism with the former Soviet Union and tyranny. This is a point Michael Moore ridicules in his film. Both advocates and critics of capitalism share the fear that an alternative to capitalism might turn out to be worse than its survival in a declining and decaying form. I shall argue here that this is the chief reason for the neglect of Capital as a work of socialist theory.

Capital is a large book. It has four volumes - the last of which, Theories of surplus value, consists of three sections. Marx supervised the editing of the first volume only. The later three volumes were edited by his friend and ally, Friedrich Engels. It is the first volume only that we find in the bookshops for sale. The edition most of the educated public are familiar with is published as part of the Penguin classics series. For this article, I have used Trotsky’s selected readings from volume 1. This was first published in 1939 and republished in 2006 with the title The essential Marx.[1]

Throughout this article, I refer to two contributing factors to the neglect of the book. The first is the influence of living and working within a capitalist society - in particular our exposure to what Marx called commodity fetishism. The second is the absence of a vital socialist movement. I explain the latter as a result of the influence of Stalinism. Stalinism is the doctrine that it is possible to build socialism in a backward country, separated from the rest of the world. The doctrine was realised in the anti-human and totalitarian regimes found in countries such as the former Soviet Union, eastern Europe and China. These regimes killed millions of good men and women, among them thousands - perhaps hundreds of thousands - of Marxists. A theme I want to develop here is Hillel Ticktin’s description of Stalinism as “anti-Marxism dressed up as Marxism”.[2]

I argue the book is relevant to understanding the world today. I do not think Capital is too hard to understand. This complaint is not new. Its rehearsal as a reason for avoiding the text is, however, relatively recent. Marx, himself, recognised that the first chapter would be the most difficult part for the reader. He attributed this not to a lack of transparency (or poor expression), but to the fact that people had been trying to understand the value form with no success for thousands of years.

The value form

Marx mentioned that the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, had tried to grapple with a problem. How could one commodity or quantity of commodities have a value equivalent to another commodity or sum of commodities? Marx quoted Aristotle and used the same examples as Aristotle. How could it be, for example, that five beds could equal one house in value? And how could it be that five beds could equal a certain quantity of money? What was it that made things so different as a bed, a house and money commensurable as values? Aristotle grappled with these questions, but could not come up with any answers. He gave up.

Marx, however, not only gave an answer, but also an explanation for Aristotle’s problem. Marx answered that the substance commodities and money had in common was socially equalised human labour. The form socially equalised human labour takes in capitalism is what Marx called ‘abstract labour’. He believed the doubling of the form of social labour into concrete and abstract labour within a commodity-producing society was - along with his treatment of surplus value - the most important of his discoveries.

Marx explained that Aristotle could not conceive of abstract labour as the substance making commodities commensurable, because his society was based on slavery. Slave-owners such as Aristotle assumed that individuals were naturally unequal. Surplus produce was not generated through exchange. It was pumped out of slaves through force. Marx, on the other hand, was able to make the connection because he lived in a society based on generalised commodity production. Everyone was an actual or potential commodity owner. For example, even if the only commodity they possessed was their capacity to work, as commodity owners workers had equal rights in law with their employers. The equalisation of labour-time was therefore built into the system.

Marx called workers’ capacity to work ‘labour-power’. Like other commodity owners, workers entered into a contractual relationship with a capitalist. They sold their labour-power as a commodity. In return for the capitalist’s use of their labour-power for a certain length of time, workers received a wage. People accepted the formal equality of individuals as an unquestioned assumption. Unlike slavery, within capitalism, surplus produce took the form of value and was pumped out of workers. Workers were slaves to a wage, not to a particular master. They were legally free, but coerced and oppressed economically. They had little or no control over the product or process of their labour. As a result, the capitalist could make workers work for hours they had not been paid for - an unequal exchange. In other words, workers were alienated and exploited.

These ideas are in the first few chapters of Capital. The question is whether they are too hard to understand. If they are difficult, maybe this is because they are unfamiliar. For example, the commodity has become such an all-pervasive part of everyone’s everyday existence that many workers do not question why people exchange something as obvious as their ability to work within a certain length of time for a definite sum of money. Many people take for granted that this has always been the case and will always continue to be the case. They think that a world without commodities would either be contrary to human nature or an unrealisable utopia.

Other workers may be horrified by the commodification of such things as sex, the human body and the daily pressures to consume. Yet they might still be surprised or puzzled when asked to think about what it is that makes a commodity equal to another in value.

The idea that money is a commodity too and that what makes all commodities capable of being equated with each other is the human labour expended on them is not obvious. The term ‘market forces’ is familiar, but it is not associated with the idea that commodities are exchanged according to the socially necessary labour expended on them. Workers may not know that prices can oscillate above and below values. They may also find the idea that money and capital are expressions of social relations, not of things, hard to grasp. Much of the knowledge on the relationship between value and labour has been lost or forgotten.

The fact that Marx admitted that the first chapter of the book is difficult to understand is, on the other hand, no excuse for giving up. Each reader must make his or her judgement as to whether it is worth pursuing Marx’s arguments to their conclusion. Marx wanted readers who were willing to learn something new and therefore to think for themselves. The problem readers have today is the kind of support they can expect to get in helping them to understand difficulties when they arise.

The problem of support divides into two overlapping parts. The first part assumes that readers are students struggling to learn within the academic division of labour. The second part assumes that they are struggling to learn in order to improve the clarity of their thinking on how to change the world. They overlap because there are academics who want to change the world through their intellectual work and because there are people on the left who see the importance of organising around socialist or communist ideas outwith the limits of higher (or other forms of adult) education.

Another way of putting the problem of finding support in reading Capital is to state that, at present, it does not exist. One reason is that the survival of a few tiny leftwing groups does not constitute a movement for socialism. Another reason is that, as I mentioned previously, the doctrines found in Capital are not capable of being used to manage capitalism. It is difficult, therefore, to justify the teaching of it to undergraduates. Thus, apart from a few maverick academics, the teaching of Capital within higher education is non-existent.

Political economy

Marx’s subtitle for the book is A critical analysis of capitalist production. In some editions this is paraphrased as A critique of political economy. Modern political economy developed in parallel with the growth of capitalism in the 17th and 18th centuries. Capitalism, or ‘commercial society’, was its object of study. It emerged from a branch of moral philosophy called jurisprudence - now called the philosophy of law. The 18th century Scottish author of the Wealth of nations - Adam Smith - described political economy as the science of the legislator. Political economy was the body of knowledge that the newly triumphant capitalist class required to rule.

Prior to the French Revolution and the emergence of the new doctrine of socialism, intellectuals made honest attempts to understand the new political and economic order. Adam Smith, for example, defined the concept of class according to the sources of revenue groups of people gained. He identified three classes. The capitalist class derived a revenue from capital. The landowning class got its wealth from rent. The working class was the class dependent on wages.

Smith’s investigation into productive labour - the labour that produced value - contained an anticipation of the notion of surplus value. This was value added to the commodity in the process of production. Moreover, Smith identified a tendency within capitalism to destroy workers’ creative and intellectual capabilities. According to Smith, daily exposure to repetitive and mind-numbing work was harmful. Workers therefore needed state education supplied free or at a cost they could afford.

For Smith political economy was an inquiry into the origin of wealth. He stated that labour was the chief source of wealth. He understood ‘labour’ to be the total aggregated work of a nation within a social division of labour and ‘wealth’ as the total amount of material products or articles of consumption. He studied production, exchange, consumption and distribution and their relationships to law, customs and governments both past and present.

Marx assumed his readers had a basic knowledge of political economy. Unlike today, most educated capitalists and workers in the 19th century were familiar with the idea that labour was the source of wealth. Socialists in Britain, France and Germany used this idea to criticise capitalism and argue for a rationally planned, alternative society. Marx, however, was different from Smith in three crucial aspects.

The first was that Marx intended Capital to be a contribution to proletarian science. This was the body of knowledge the working class needed to rule and create the conditions for a classless society. Marx wrote the book to assist proletarian emancipation. It is a work that unmasks capitalist ideology and shows how a reorganisation of Capital’s combination of machinery, time and labour could lead to a rationally planned society. Capital is therefore a major contribution to socialist theory.

The second defined political economy as the inquiry into how the surplus product was extracted from labour. Marx wrote in Capital that the essential difference between the various economic forms of society - between, for example, a society based on slave labour and one based on wage-labour - was the way in which surplus labour is extracted from the labourer.

The third was to identify the form of surplus labour with the commodity in its dual aspects of use-value and exchange-value. The source of surplus labour was both abstract labour - commoditised labour-power measured by its labour-time in the process of production - and concrete labour - labour of the particular kind required to produce the desired product. Labour therefore had a dual form - one of which, abstract labour, produced surplus product as surplus value. This was specific to capitalism and would end with it. Freed from the value form, useful labour characterises the rationally planned future society.

It was on the basis of this dual form of labour that Marx criticised Smith. Marx argued Smith had been unable to distinguish between the material-technical labour process required for every conceivable form of society and its historically specific form as value within capitalism. In other words, Marx’s political economy is concerned with the way in which value is extracted as commodified labour-power. It covers both the way in which capital uses workers to produce surplus value and how the class struggle challenges and transforms it.

Students who come to Capital within an academic division of labour face various problems. The first is that political economy is viewed as a dead subject - a topic to be studied as part of the history of ideas in general and the history of economic thought in particular. Neither of these disciplines gains much funding for post-graduate studies. To find them taught on an undergraduate course would be remarkable.

The second is that the concepts and methods contained within Capital are likely to contradict students’ working assumptions about individuals and society. Many young adults in Europe and the US have difficulty finding employment. Unless they have been involved in collective struggles against their employers or the government’s employment policies, they may think of the class struggle as something in the past rather than in the present. The revolutionary youth of Tunisia and Egypt have therefore given the notion of class struggle and the power of collective action a fresh injection of reality recently.

Moreover, even the most militant anti-capitalist activists will find their study of Capital hindered by living within a declining capitalism. A Stalinised political environment trapped a generation of older working class leaders. This generation prioritised practical activity over intellectual activity. It separated education from organising. The point, they stressed, was to change the world. There was no time to interpret it. The influence of unreflective activism lives on in the organisation of many of the small groups surviving today.

Commodity fetishism

In Capital, Marx identified commodity fetishism as the source of the ideology which keeps capitalism in place. He defined commodity fetishism as social relations between people taking the form of relations between things. Commodities, money and capital have a life of their own. They seem to operate independently of what people actually do.

The pursuit of jobs and profits dominates most people’s lives. Some people treat each other as things - means to material ends. The notion that there are market forces which operate independently of individuals’ actions; the idea that individuals are biologically determined to exchange and compete with one another; the assumption that capitalism has existed and will exist for all time; and the doctrine that workers are powerless when faced with economic reality - all are effects of commodity fetishism.

The ideology is pervasive. It preaches that, in an ideal form of capitalism, all production would be managed by separate commodity producers - not by society. Society would have no role in regulating the working activity of its members. It would have no role in prescribing what is to be produced and how much.

For example, at a time when the US government is about to inject $600 billion into the economy, the idea that the market knows best and that national economies are more efficient without government interference is transparently absurd. Yet it persists sufficiently to produce a powerful movement of popular dissent in the USA today - the Tea Party.

One result of commodity fetishism is that capitalism works on the basis that everyone is apparently independent of each other and of society. Workers are atomised - they compete against one another for jobs and wages. Capitalists, in turn, compete against one another for markets. To workers, capital is an alien force which hires them for a wage. To capitalists it is an alien force which drives them to make profits. In other words, all activity is focused on the production and consumption of value and surplus value - not on the actual and potential needs of people. It is a world in which, faced with trillions of dollars-worth of surplus capital to invest, bankers, politicians and economists collude to create fictional sources of short-term profit, whilst millions of children die of malnutrition each year. It is a world of ‘dog eat dog’ in which ‘greed is good’.

Students of Capital will carry many bleak assumptions about human nature into their reading of the book. They will find that Marx’s approach contradicts the notion that human nature is inherently selfish and vicious. For Marx, humans are essentially social animals. Humanity is a species with a vast creative potential. Humans are presently struggling to free themselves from their past. Marx was supremely confident that all the problems humans face - however apparently intransigent - can be solved swiftly and elegantly.

Moreover, many students are used to reducing social problems to problems of individual psychology. Marx did not do this in Capital. He did not condemn or blame capitalists for their behaviour. Nor did he idolise or praise workers for theirs. On the contrary, he expressed a deep horror that things have come to dominate, like monsters, the lives of workers. Thus he compared capital to a vampire - a form of dead labour that lives by sucking the life out of living labour. Similarly, he likened automatic machinery to a demon with countless arms, legs and organs, whirling fast and furiously around the worker.



  1. HH Ticktin, ‘What is Marxism?’ in Marxist Voice Vol 2, Issue 1, 2008, p15.
  2. L Trotsky The essential Marx New York 2006.