On your marx, get set, humanise

Marx at the Millennium
November 1, 1996

Cyril Smith's aim is to disentangle Marx from "the Marxists'' who have distorted his writings, and to address Marx's fundamental question of what it means to be human. Smith begins with a powerful indictment of the way we live now. For many decades, "a major part of scientific and industrial activity has been devoted to fabricating the means to kill, torture and maim human beings''. We live in a world in which "many millions of the better-off sections of the population have nothing to do with creating anything useful at all'', devoting, for example, "their skill and effort to . . . persuading people to buy things they would otherwise not have thought they needed''. "Bribery, involving massive sums of money, has become a leading feature of world economic and political life." Mafia-type gangs, drug-trafficking, pornography and prostitution thrive and billions of "narco-dollars'' yield big profits for "respectable'' financial institutions. Without all this, the system could not function, and, accompanying it all, is mass unemployment and hunger, with one and a quarter billion men, women and children living below subsistence levels. At the same time, "a high-tech tabloid 'entertainment' industry, completely motivated by the drive for profit, churns out a highly polished and debased product for the masses of every continent''.

Smith repudiates the widespread belief that it is unthinkable for us to live any other way. Far from burying Marx for good, Stalinism represented in fact "a gigantic and tragic historical detour''. Marx's project was not the brutal dictatorships characteristic of the former Eastern bloc, but the participatory democracy of the Paris Commune of 1871.

One of the commonest criticisms of Marx's vision of a future society, free of exploitation, is that it involves the introduction of some new, previously nonexistent social form. However, the problem is not the creation of a new set of relations, but rather how to break out of the shell which denies what we already are, how to reveal an existing humanity. "Somehow, amidst all the corruption and fragmentation of the modern world, we have remained . . . human."

I would stress that realising the already-existing potential of satisfying the needs of all depends on workers developing class consciousness. The transition of the working class from a "class in itself'' to a "class for itself'' was and is the motor of Marxism. Like the serfs and the slaves before them, workers should not fall into the trap of thinking that it is not possible to live in a society defined by a different mode of production.

Smith argues passionately that, rather than the critique of capitalism, Marx's essential aim was to discover just how humans could live in a way "worthy of their human nature''. It might be more accurate to suggest that his aim was rather to show the connection between the two. What is missing from Smith's book is how to integrate Marx's humanism with the structural constraints of capitalist societies.

Mike Cole is senior lecturer in education, University of Brighton.

Marx at the Millennium

Author - Cyril Smith
ISBN - 0 7453 1001 X and 0 7453 1000 1
Publisher - Pluto Press
Price - £40.00 and £12.99
Pages - 182

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