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Harry McShane

The Socialist ABC

M is for Marx

(May 1980)

From Socialist Review, 1980 : 5, 18 May–14 June 1980, p. 36.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘Philosophers have interpreted the world in many ways, the point is to change it.’ One person who has been fighting to change the world for over 70 years, since his first involvement in the working class movement as a teenager, is Harry McShane. Harry was a member of the British Socialist Party during the First World War, a close collaborator of the famous Scottish revolutionary John MacLean, an early member of the Communist Party, organiser together with Wal Hannington of the hunger marches of the 1920s and 1930s, Daily Worker correspondent in Glasgow until he broke with Stalinism after the suppression of the East German rising in 1953. He is still an activist, a member of Glasgow trades council, an indefatigable speaker and propagandist. He writes on Marxism as he sees it.

* * *

It is now close on a hundred years since the death of Marx. Our opponents consider it more necessary than ever before to shy away from intelligent argument on the conclusions contained in his works. The occasional remark of a hostile character that escapes from the lips of Mrs Thatcher is in line with the bankruptcy of thought that prevails among the top leaders who would have us believe that they know the road to prosperity. They are prisoners of the capitalist order of society which, despite their hopeless predicament, they seek to preserve. It is easy to see why Mrs Thatcher gives priority to law and order.

Marxists belong to the one school of thought that points to a future for mankind. Marx wrote more about political economy than on any other subject, but it would be a serious mistake to conclude that he had a plan for the reconstruction of society. The aims of the bourgeois politicians, even if they could be achieved, are puny and dismal when compared to the vision of Marx on the future of man. The new society would be the result of creative labour by man himself freed from the restriction of human development imposed by capitalism.

When I was young we had access only to volume one of Capital. Concentration was centred on the early chapters of that work. It was there Marx brought out the fact that capitalism and all that sprang from it was based on the exploitation of labour. This was the most important discovery of Marx in the field of economics. It gave meaning to all that occurred within the system and had bearing on the thoughts and aspirations of the workers. It brings relevance to our present day struggles.

Marx attached great importance to the shorter working week as being connected with the struggle for freedom. Technological advance added to the efficiency of capital without bringing any benefit to the worker. That problem is still with us and stands as a greater threat to the workers than ever before. The need for living labour has not been eliminated but the army of unemployed continues to grow. That fact alone justified the call for a shorter working day. Marx, however, tied it up with the struggle for human emancipation.

He talked about the ‘realm of necessity’ and the ‘realm of freedom’. He wanted to reduce the time spent producing necessities by making full use of the powers of production so that more time would be available for human development. We know nothing about the potentialities of man. Marx talked about ‘wealth measured, not by labour, but by leisure’. That would be making real use of the technical development we boast about.

Mention is made of the fact that Marx had no plan for the new society. There can be no new society until capitalism is destroyed. Marx found within the existing social order the force to carry out that task. The real victims of capitalism are the workers. It is impossible for them to share the dream of perpetuating the system. They can see top politicians arguing about the kind of cuts they should impose on the people. Capitalism has nothing but frustration to offer the workers. Marx saw the proletariat as the creators of the new society. He based himself on initiative from below. This was in line with his concept of dialectics.

Marx was dead 34 years when the Russian Revolution took place, but he was alive at the time of the Paris Commune. There was no plan for what the masses did. He was full of praise for the initiative of the masses. He commented on mistakes which he thought they made. He said they should have marched on Versailles. No less than 25,000 men and women were slaughtered by government troops. Some socialist writers dealt with it in later years. None of them saw it in the same light as Marx. I possess an old pamphlet by James Leatham, a socialist journalist. He praised the Communards for their heroism but argued that struggles of that kind were no longer necessary.

Lenin did not forget the lessons of the the Commune. He called for all power to the Soviets. In his battle with Kautsky over the Russian Revolution he drew on what Marx wrote about the Paris Commune. The point is that both Marx and Lenin placed their faith in the masses. Marx tore capitalism to bits but he did not consider that it was his job to plan for the future. He did see beyond power in the hands of the workers and predicted the ‘withering away’ of the proletarian state.

The point made by Marx on ‘the withering away of the state’ is taken from his Critique of the Gotha Programme, written in 1875. It contains the same vision expressed in the Manuscript written in 1844 when Marx said, ‘Communism is the immediate necessity but not the final goal of man.’ This is important but it gives priority to the immediate struggle. Our philosophy is superior to that of our opponents but it entails struggle against every form of oppression.

Instead of being frightened by technology we must make it serve our needs so that all can give service to each, according to his ability and share the benefits. Political and trade union leaders seek to divide the workers and divert them away from the struggle against capitalism. The abolition of the House of Lords is long overdue but it will not have the slightest effect on the real aims of the working class. No programme prepared by the parliamentarians can meet our needs. If we must have plans for the future they must come from below. Mankind can be saved from the downward trend of modern society by revolutionary struggle.

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