George Walford: The Transparent Mask of Marxism

The Transparent Mask of Marxism by George Walford

Suggested by the paper by Peter Rollings entitled: THE FACES OF MARXISM AND WHAT THEY CONCEAL, presented to the Walsby Society in March 1975.

The paper by Peter Rollings, THE FACES OF MARXISM AND WHAT THEY CONCEAL, has one quality in common with every serious political study. It leaves the reader feeling that however many questions it answers, it raises even more. The paper was read to the Walsby Society, and in discussing Marxism as a movement it raises a question which must have bothered everybody who takes Harold Walsby’s work seriously enough to compare his statements with what really goes on in the world. How can we reconcile Walsby’s statement, that those in favour of a classless society based on common ownership and democratic control are necessarily in a small minority, with the fact that Marxism, in one form or another, dominates a very large part of the world? I want to suggest that the answer is to be found by following up a distinction drawn by Peter Rollings. On page 3 he distinguishes between “the underlying substance” and “the external appearance” of Marxism, and in paragraph 4 on page 2 he distinguishes between Marxism “as a set of concepts” and Marxism “as a set of activities, as a movement, whether wielding power or not.” I think we are justified in regarding these as two versions of the same distinction; we may identify the set of activities, the movement, with the external appearance, and the set of concepts with the underlying substance. It is, after all, the activities and the movement which appear externally, the concepts only becoming evident when we penetrate beneath the appearance to the underlying substance.

External appearances are notoriously transient, and it is evident enough that the external appearance of Marxism has changed in the past and is still changing today. The appearance of Marxism in its early days (say at the time of Marx’s death) was very different from its appearance now, when Marxist and non-Marxist powers divided the world bewteen them in something approaching equal division. Marxism has at one time associated itself with Nazism, at another time violently opposed it. Marxism sometimes supports self-determination for small nations, at other times and in other places extinguishes their independence. It sometimes supports reformist movements, sometimes repudiates them. Almost everything that Marxism as an organisation or a movement has supported, it has at another time or in another place opposed. Its external appearance varies widely.

Through all these changes the “underlying Substance,” the “set of concepts,” of Marxism remains recognisably the same, the more so as we consider the more deeply underlying substance and the more purely conceptual set of concepts. If we would understand any object, material, social or political, if we would know what it is, in order to predict its behaviour, then we must not confine ourselves to external appearances but study also underlying substance.

So when Peter Rollings says of Harold Walsby: “… his account of how and why individuals come to adopt the point or points of view characteristic of Marxism is actually an account of how they come to be attached to dialectical materialism and revolutionary socialism, rather than an account of how they come to be specifically Marxists as such” (p. 2), he is saying that Walsby concentrated upon the enduring features of Marxism. We may go further. It is often only by means of these underlying features that we can identify Marxism at one time and place with Marxism at another time and place. When for example it operates through “front organisations” then its various manifestations have, in their external appearance, not even so much as a name in common. To describe Marxism as it appears at one time and place and Marxism as it appears in another time and place, without reference to dialectical materialsim or revolutionary socialism, would often be to describe two entities having no perceptible connection one with another. It is, and it is only, these (or similar fundamental ideological features) which are the “points of view characteristic of Marxism” in any extended temporal or geographical sense.

None the less, when all this has been said, the main point which Peter Rollings is making here remains valid. Marxism does [not] exist only as an intellectual system but also as a movement, and as a movement it displays features which do not obviously correspond with what Walsby’s work may lead us to expect. In particular, the behaviour of Marxists is not always on a high intellectual level, and they are not always in a small minority.

Harold Walsby was a careful writer, and he does not say, in The Domain of Ideologies, that Marxists (or “Socialists” or “Communists”) are, or must be expected to remain, in a small minority. What he says is:

That section of opinion which regrds a classless, stateless social system (based on common ownership and democratic control of social production) as inevitable, necessary or desirable, and which is explicitly opposed to the present system of private ownership [is associated with] a small minority of people – The Domain of Ideologies pp. 26-27

Walsby is speaking of what Rollings terms the “underlying substance,” the “set of concepts” of Marxism. The “external appearance,” the “set of activities,” the “movement,” is something different. It does not exhibit the same ideological qualities as the underlying substance and accordingly does not suffer from the same limitations upon its power to attract support. But it does, as we shall see, suffer from other limitations which are at least equally crippling.

On his following page Walsby shows that the groups holding the beliefs set out in the paragraph quoted above are intellectuals; such beliefs are not the direct and necessary consequence of our daily experience, they are attained only by prolonged analysis, independent thinking, dispassionate criticism of the social structure, in short by the exercise of sophisticated intellect.

The appeal made by Marxism as a movement is not of this nature. It does not greatly concern itself with these long-term, fundamental, highly generalised issues, but rather with whatever problems are directly facing those to whom the appeal is directed. It is active in Trade Unions, agitating for higher pay and better conditions; it often supports movements toward national independence; it works to expose the multiple injustices and oppression of present society. All these are laudable activities and we would by no means oppose or criticise them. But they have little connection with the underlying substance of Marxism, they do not greatly tend toward the establishment of a system of common ownership and democratic control. Indeed it may well be argued, and sometimes is argued by Marxists themselves, that by softening the contradictions of capitalism they rather tend to perpetuate than to destroy it.

Marxism as a movement does not suffer from the same limitations as does the set of concepts underlying it; it is better able to attract support, sometimes mass support. But that support adheres only to Marxism as a movement concerned with the problems of those who support it; it does not adhere to the underlying substance. Those who support Marxism because it struggles to satisfy their needs within present society are, precisely, those who are concerned to have their needs satisfied within present society. They are not concerned to abolish society and replace it with a different social system.

It was not by proclaiming dialectical materialsim, the materialist conception of history, the labour theory of surplus value, that the Bolsheviks attracted the mass support which brought about the Revolution in Russia. Their slogans appealed not to intellect but rather to immediate needs: “Peace, Bread, and the Land to the Pesants.” In this way they obtained power, but they have been able to retain it, and establish a system based on the suppression of private ownership of the means of production, only by rigorous suppression of political democracy, by appropriating to themselves all means of communication with the mass of the people and suppressing freedom of expression in political affairs. The continuing necessity for such action shows that even in the USSR, after more than fifty years – almost two generations – of Marxist experience, education and propaganda, the mass support for Marxism as a movement which made the Revolution possible has not been carried over to the underlying substance.

So far we have spoken mainly of the Marxist movement, a movement intended to secure mass support which may be used for the realisation in a social system of the underlying substance of Marxism. We must consider also the nature of the mass that movement is intended to attract.

The dominant features of the mass ideology are its economic individualism, its political collectivism and positive group identification. The mass individual tends to identify himself with the group constituted by the society within which he lives (which is, under present circumstances, usually the national group). Satisfaction of this ideological need requires an ability on the part of the group to acept and confirm the identification. This ability is never completely unrestricted, and when it is seriously limited, as in times of social collapse, then there arises a tendency, more or less widespread, to seek substitute identification with a group different from, even perhaps opposed to, the “natural” group. Thus, in the breakdown of Russia toward the end of the First World War large numbers, feeling themselves abandoned by the existing system, came to identify with Commuinists. In Germany in the 1920’s some people sought substitute identification, “comredeship,” “a sense of belonging,” with the Nazis; others, to satisfy similar ideological needs, joined the Marxists. Support of this kind is available at times to almost any movement which can present the appearance, even locally and temporarily, of being a united and relatively powerful group. The insuperable difficulty, for Marxism, lies in the conditions upon which support may be retained. These require that the group concerned should refrain from displaying exactly those features which define the underlying substance of Marxism.

The group involved may be other than that with which the identification of the mass is usually established, but the mass remains the mass. Those who identify themselves with Marxism as a substitute for the “natural” group have not thereby abandoned their mass ideology. Consequently, if the substitute group comes to behave in a way which conflicts with their ideological requirements, if its behaviour conflicts with their economic individualism and political collectivism, then the identification breaks down, the substitute group loses its mass support.

The tiny organisation which Hitler took over and turned into the Nazi movement had a constitution similar to that of a hundred other Left-Wing bodies in Germany at the time. As support for the movement grew under Hitler’s influence a dilemma arose: to enforce the socialist constitution would be to alienate much of the support. For Hitler this presented no problem: the constitution was ignored by and the movement continued to grow, its activities governed by the ideological requirements of its mass support. The Marxist movement cannot, wholeheartedly or for long periods, follow this path; if it did it would cease to be Marxist. Its underlying substance is dialectical materialism with all its ideological associations, including a commitment to economic collectivism and political individualism, to common ownership and to the intellectual independence of the individual. The commitment is not merely to a belief in these things but to the attempt to realise them in society. Proposals to this end, to use the Marxist movement for its intended purpose, conflict with the ideological requirements of the mass supporters. Proposals of common ownership conflict with their economic individualism, the fierce conflicts between the political individualists at the centre of the movement violate their need for identification with a stable group, and the mass support dies.

If, during the period in which they enjoyed mass support, the Marxists have managed to seize power, they may succeed in maintaining this position, even in eliminating private ownership, but only at the cost of establishing, as an ongoing necessity, rigorous political control, suppressing the political democracy which, equally with economic democracy, is an essential constituent of a system which fully expresses the underlying substance of Marxism. As Walsby pointed out, speaking generally of socialist, communist and anarchist theories:

… in no country in the world, so far, has there ever been a government (elected on the basis of universal suffrage and free choice of political party – the multi-party system) with a mandate for carrying out the fundamental principles of any of these theories. – The Domain of Ideologies, footnote to p. 26

This was written in 1947. It remains true today.

Wherever political freedom survives, permitting the mass free expression of its own ideology, then the attempt to use the mass support, sometimes gained by the Marxist movement, to establishing socialism, to embody the underlying substance of Marxism as a social system, results in the loss of that support. The external appearance of the Marxist movement diminishes, comes to coincide once again with the underlying substance. “Marxist” once more comes to mean one identified with dialectical materialism and revolutionary socialism, and Marxism appears, again, as a small group of intellectuals frustrated by their inability to attract enduring mass support for their own ideological assumptions.

April 1975
November 1975