Marxism Versus New Fabianism – Part Two

[This article] is reprinted from the International Socialist of May-June 1953, and it defends the Marxist view on the question of morality. At that time, with the post-war boom beginning to accelerate, the capitalist class and their ideological representatives in the labour movement discovered a new-found confidence in their system. Right-wingers, writing for example in the New Fabian Essays, sought to demonstrate that the ideas of 'class struggle' and 'capitalist crisis' were no longer applicable to the modern 'welfareist' state. Grant's defence of socialist theory in the field of economics has already been dealt with in Chapter Five.

But the right wing also regurgitated the pompous middle-class philosophy of the earlier, Victorian Fabians, dismissing the alleged 'crude materialism' of the Marxists and basing themselves instead on a more lofty Christian morality. In the golden age that capitalism seemed to promise in the 1950s, it was the middle class, and not least the careerists and place-seekers in the labour movement, who were guaranteed their place in the sun before all others. Many of the latter became senior Labour ministers, before betraying the Party as it moved left.

Having been granted their personal 'socialism', therefore, the philosophers of the right wing were uneasy living with the radicalism of the post-war years and still less comfortable with the memory of the bitter class struggles of the inter-war period. The political 'morality' they advocated, as Ted Grant explains, was in 'reality no more than a 'reflection of their own middle class prejudice; it was shallow, and vague, lacking either consistency or method. Today, unfortunately, the same muddle-headedness characterises much of the political 'theory' of sections of the labour movement. Grant's critique of Richard Crossman's essay, therefore, although written thirty-five years ago, is still one of the most modern articles in defence of the Marxist method and the morality of the socialist movement.

– From Introduction to The Method of Marxism

Two Moralities Counterpoised

The second main thread in all the New Fabian Essays is a criticism of the totalitarian regimes in Russia, China and Eastern Europe, and the identification of Marxism with Stalinism. Here it is necessary to steer between two fatal mistakes. The one typified by the mixed group of fellow travellers and miscellaneous pro-Stalinists who are active in the Labour Party and who maintained long and discreet silences about the crimes of Stalinism, with only the faintest trace of 'criticism' (criticism which sounds like an apology); and those who fail to make a distinction between the political regimes of Stalinism and the basic economic revolution on which the Stalinist bureaucracy and its satellites base themselves. Either mistake can be fatal for the developing left wing in the Labour Party.

The attitude of the new Fabians is expressed in its sharpest form by the essay of Crossman. Events have forced him (and the new Fabians) to reject the cosy optimism of the Victorian Fabians, with their illusion of gradual development, of an inevitable progression slowly towards a better and better world. A 50-year epoch of wars, crises, upheavals, fascism and Stalinism has brutally crushed this dream of peaceful development. (Marx, by the way, forecast precisely such an epoch of turbulence for capitalism). The possibilities of frightful reaction and even a plunge into barbarism through atomic war, have forced their way into the consciousness of everyone who tries to think out the future course of the evolution of society.

Crossman and the other new Fabians recognise that the lack of theory within the movement has driven it into its present impasse and crisis. But, while rejecting the former empiricism of the old Fabians and of those who are the present leaders of our movement, they do not replace it by any coherent and worked out philosophy. The prejudice against Marxism after all is only a prejudice of ignorance and lack of study. Theory is the summing up of the experience of society and the labour movement past and present, in order to uncover the laws of its development and so provide a guide for the policies of the movement; as far as possible avoiding the mistakes of the past, and preparing an easier transition to the future society.

The philosophy of the new Fabians, summed up by Crossman, is in no way superior to that of the old and present day leaders of the labour movement in Britain. Bits and pieces of ideas borrowed from everywhere, a pious adaptation of Christian morality mixed up with some socialist ideas, a borrowing from the shades of Liberalism and to cap it all the pessimism of the philosophers of decadent capitalism. This is the half-cooked stew of ideas which is presented as an alternative to 'outmoded' Marxism.

Mechanism Confused with Materialism

Instead of thinking things out, Crossman takes a step backwards even in comparison with the Victorian Fabians when he says:

"This materialist conception of progress was based on assumptions about human behaviour which psychological research has shown to have no basis in reality, and on a theory of democratic politics which has been confused by the facts of the last thirty years. There is neither a natural identity of interests nor yet an inherent contradiction in the economic system. The growth of science and popular education does not automatically produce an 'upward' evolution in society, if by 'upward' is meant from servile to democratic forms; and the apocalyptic assumption that, after a period of dictatorship, a proletarian revolution must achieve a free and equal society is equally invalid. The evolutionary and revolutionary philosophies of progress have both proved false. Judging by the facts, there is far more to be said for the Christian doctrine of original sin than for Rousseau's fantasy of the noble savage, or Marx's vision of classless society." (emphasis in original)

He tries to find consolation in a supra-historical morality, beyond time, class or space, for the cruel and savage world of conflict which faces us. But this explains nothing and solves nothing. Marx was, to put it gently, a little too familiar with the differing currents of social relations, to put forward the naive views attributed to him by the new Fabians. First, as far as capitalist reaction is concerned, Marx had already analysed Bonapartism, the forerunner of fascism, in many works. (A pity Crossman and other denigrators do not take the trouble to read Marx in order to refute him). In them, he showed the power vested in the state machine used even against the class which it represents under given conditions.

Then again Marx did not at all believe that the overthrow of capitalism in one country would automatically solve all problems for the working class. On the contrary he explicitly repudiated the theory of 'Socialism in One Country' which was later to be developed by Stalin. The developments of the Russian revolution are not at all to be explained by the 'morality' or lack of 'morality' of the Stalinist bureaucratic rulers of Russia. On the contrary the opposite is the case, the morality of the bureaucracy can only be explained by the developments in Russia. And this is precisely in accordance with Marxist doctrine. Says Crossman:

"The Soviet Union is the most extreme example of managerialism because its Stalinist rulers consciously repudiate the primacy of morality over expedience, and so destroy the possibility of an active social conscience, which could save them from the corruption of power. The capitalist class never did that, and this is why capitalist development did not fulfil the prophecies of Marx. No capitalist country was ever so theoretically and methodically capitalist as Russia is Stalinite today. This is also the reason why, judged by European standards, the USA is a better form of society than the USSR. In America, a liberal and Christian morality and a constitution and political tradition derived from it, have frustrated the full development of capitalism and still put up strong resistance against totalitarian tendencies. To reject America as a capitalist country and to treat the Soviet Empire as an example of socialist planning is to make a nonsense of every one of our ideals. In reality they are two great examples of the modern managerial state, the one consciously and systematically managerial, the other moving towards the same end under the pressure of the Cold War."

In every line of this paragraph there is an error, sometimes two or three. However, let us try and disentangle the main threads. The Russian revolution led by Lenin and Trotsky was begun with Marx's ideas and Marx's methods. The idea behind it was to establish the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' (another name for the democracy of the working class). It should be noted incidentally that even the freest capitalist democracy remains a veiled dictatorship of the capitalist class, because the capitalists, apart from the ownership of the means of production, in Crossman's words, 'control the media of mass communication and the means of destruction (propaganda and the armed forces)'. According to the Marxist ideas of the leaders of the Russian revolution, Russia was to begin, Germany, France and England were to finish the job. However, for many reasons which cannot be entered into here, the Russian revolution remained isolated. But Russia being one of the most backward countries in Europe, the material basis for socialism had not been prepared within its borders. The revolution can only be understood as part of the international revolution. The isolation and gross material factors it embraced, not the subjective wickedness and the amorality of Stalin and his parasitic caste (however revolting this may be) explain the development of the Stalinist bureaucracy, including its vile morality.

But such is in accordance with the Marxist theory and not with that of theology. Engels explains the rise of classes in society by the low development of the productive forces and the needs of the division of labour.

Marxists insist on democracy - real democracy - in the transition to socialism and the full participation of the masses in industry and the state, precisely because 'conditions determine consciousness', because when art, science and government remain in the hands of the few, they will inevitably use and abuse their position (and incidentally create a morality and psychology to justify it) to further their own interests against those of the class they are supposed to represent.

In a cloudy way Crossman and the other essayists recognise this in drawing the balance of the experience of the nationalised industries - in their criticism of bureaucracy and the demand for participation in management and control by the workers.

But this does not clear up the puzzle. Crossman criticises those who maintain that Russia remains a workers' state. He looks only to the 'primacy of morality over expediency'. Poor fellow! Churchill and the capitalists of Britain (together with the churchmen - conscience and all) yesterday supported Franco, Mussolini and Hitler as saviours from Bolshevism and looked the other way from the concentration camps, where their opponents were being 're-educated'. The day after that they sighed (at least in public) in an ecstasy of admiration for the 'Great Warrior Stalin' and overlooked such trifles as slave camps and other horrors. The American capitalists and government despite 'liberal and Christian morality' did the same thing under the liberal Roosevelt. Christian morality did not prevent Hiroshima, or the vile treatment of the negroes in the South.

Definition of Morals

Crossman expatiates: 'The socialist measures this progress of social morality by the degree of equality and respect for individual personality expressed in the distribution of power and in the institutions of law and property within a state. This standard indeed, is what we mean by the socialist ideal.' He does not see that all these ideas are the reflection of the development of society, in its turn the result of the development of the productive forces in the past. The 'Christian morality' to which Crossman appeals, as against the amorality of Stalinism, did not at all find itself in conflict with but on the contrary justified the institution of slavery under the Roman empire. Under the feudal regime it found nothing immoral in the centuries of serfdom of the peasantry. It justified and continues to justify the veiled slavery of capitalism. Doctor Malan(1) finds it not at all in conflict with his Christian conscience to support the 'God-ordained' oppression of the South African blacks by the whites. The Christian Franco with the blessing of the Pope, finds it not at all incompatible with the doctrines of the Church to maintain his totalitarian regime in Spain.

Christian ethics therefore cannot provide a reliable standard of morality for the socialist movement. Nor does Crossman's particular 'definition' fare any better.

From the point of view of Marxism, whatever conduces to the material, social and intellectual development of the masses is moral; whatever assists this process in the direction of socialism is moral; whatever assists towards the organised and conscious activity of the masses for the overthrow of capitalism is moral. Contrarily whatever hinders or hampers this process is bad and immoral. These are the rules of conduct for those striving for socialism. But in and of itself such a definition must have a material basis. The class position and the interests of the proletariat within capitalist society and in the transition to a classless society are the material base for such a morality. This will disappear with the dissolution of class society into socialism. Capitalist morality or amorality in its various grades and manifestations is also a reflection of the class interest of the capitalist class in a class society. Stalinist morality or amorality reflects the interest of a particular caste within the given society.

Although Crossman is not aware of this the morality which he puts forward also has its class roots. It is the morality not at all of eternal verities, but of a variant of middle-class morality and a reflection of the position of the intellectual and professional elite within the labour movement.

Marxist socialists, beginning with Marx and Engels have always supported democracy as against any form of despotism. Thus they have supported republicanism against monarchism, capitalist democracy against capitalist dictatorship. But they always recognise the limitations of the above. Crossman contradicts himself when he points out that the very democracy which he extols so much is the fruit of revolution in Britain and of the civil war in America in the past. He says, 'Even in Western Europe, the destruction of feudalism did not take place under the forms of representative government.'

However, it is true that all the forces of capitalism-imperialism in all its stark reaction never achieved full fruition except perhaps in nazi Germany. But that is in the tradition of Marxism, not at all against it. The crude mechanical materialism or economic determinism which Crossman and the others assail have not the slightest resemblance to the real doctrines of Marx.

The reason why capitalism in America has taken the particular form it has, lies in the history of the country - its richness and resources, its origins and beginnings, its traditions, the War of Independence, the Civil War and the way it developed, the rise of the trade-union movement - and all the conflicting forces struggling against each other in the given society.

Crossman thinks nothing through to the end. Some correct ideas are mixed with utter balderdash but never linked with a clear conception of the historic process or the role of the conscious socialist within it. He can say correctly, 'Living in an age not of steady progress towards a world welfare capitalism but of world revolution' He wishes to fight the forces of Stalinism on the one side and the forces of American imperialism on the other, mightily armed like a modern Don Quixote witha socialist ethic!

Possibilities of capitalist totalitarianism or of socialist democracy are vested in the forces at present latent in American capitalism. In the conflict which looms ahead, the liberal Christian mask will be dropped by its masters as it was in Germany, in an endeavour to save the capitalist system. Christian morality will not prevent the massacre of the negroes, as it did not that of the Jews by nazis in Europe, if the forces of reaction gain the ascendancy in America. The Constitution and the political tradition deriving from it, no more than that of Weimar Germany, are obstacles in themselves to such a development. In America, as in Britain and the world, only the working class is the guardian of democracy and freedom, because these are the vital conditions for its development - for the achievement of economic and political emancipation. In this gross material fact is rooted proletarian morality.

Social Morality

According to Crossman, 'Social morality, freedom and equality do not grow by any law of economics or politics, but only with the most careful cultivation. So far, therefore, from viewing history as a steady advance towards freedom, we should regard exploitation and slavery as the normal state of man and view the brief epochs of liberty as tremendous achievements.' From whence do they spring then? Do they drop from the skies or from the magnanimity of intellectuals such as Crossman, who apparently have a mission as the keepers of the public conscience? Are these eternal laws of morality which curiously enough are found to obtain different meanings in different epochs by different classes at different times? Religious people at least maintain that their morality is given by divine providence beyond time and space. Crossman tells us that his 'morality', 'freedom' and 'equality', like that of Christians, does not grow by any law of economics or politics, but only by the most careful cultivation. The only question is, who cultivates and how? And what do they cultivate? Any farmer will tell him that seed cast on stony ground will not sprout. The conditions must be there before these ideas can receive powerful support. But unless the economic and political conditions have been developed, ie the material conditions prepared, the most careful cultivation will produce no result.

There is nothing mysterious about the fact that slavery and exploitation of man have been the 'normal' condition and the epochs of 'liberty' been brief. It arises neither out of the absence nor the need for a supra-morality but out of the class structure of society. This despite the fact that at certain periods an equilibrium could be maintained between the classes (without open oppression and force) because of temporary sufficiency and the relationship of class forces at a given time.

This constant harping on an amorphous social conscience which seems to exist in the stratosphere, leads Crossman precisely into the error for which he condemns Stalinism. After strong moral condemnation of Stalinist elite society he finds the cultivators of his moralityonly in an 'elite'!

Society, Crossman says, must be '...policed (our emphasis) by the social morality which can only reside in a minority of citizens'. Here we have confusion of mind developed to an extreme. Crossman makes this worse by declaring that 'The school, the press, the radio, the party machine, the army, the factory, are all instruments through which man (what kind of man?), unless checked by social conscience armed with sanctions, will exert power over the minds of his fellow men.' What sanction and what man? What morality and how and by whom is it determined?

Amorality is not something new in history. It takes shape usually in a period of breakdown of the old social system, and the transition to a new social system. With the loss of function of the old ruling class, the moral codes pertaining to its rule also break down. And similarly in a period of transition, the new morality based on new relations of production also takes time to emerge.

Thus abominations similar to that of Hitler and Stalin took place in the period of decline of the Roman slave system and the transition to feudalism. Who has not heard of Nero and his court? Again in the transition from feudalism to capitalism, despite the glories of the Renaissance we have the spectacle of the Borgias(2). Thus we have no need of mystical theories to explain these events but can only explain them on a materialist basis.

But understanding them does not justify either the Borgias or the modern Borgias in the court of the Kremlin. It does not mean that they are not to be condemned. History, said Marx, is a cruel goddess to whose chariot are tied hecatombs of human skulls. Stalin, the modern Genghis Khan, has surpassed all his predecessors. Notwithstanding all this and in spite of Stalinism there has been an unprecedented development of the productive forces in Russia. This in its turn, due to the contradictions it develops, prepares inevitably for the time when this excrescence will be cast off in a mighty movement of the Russian proletariat and all the ugly and repulsive features which disfigure the regime will disappear with the regime itself and be replaced by a regime of workers' democracy, this time on firm economic foundations due to the material progress that has been made.

Similarly despite all the wars, massacres, conspiracies, blood and cruelties, the Renaissance was a period of preparation of advance in all fields of human endeavour - in industry, art, science, technique andin morals! After all, the nineteenth century advance of which Crossman speaks, and its attitudes towards democracy and freedom, were predicated on the tremendous upsurge of the productive forces in capitalism's period of ascent. This it was that gave the illusion of illimitable progress under the regime of private enterprise.

Despite Crossman's lumping of America and Russia together he says 'We can co-operate with the Americans as allies, influencing their policies despite their superior strength. It would be folly to expect such a relationship with the Soviet Union. Co-existence, yes. Mutually beneficial agreements, yes. But never co-operation.' Where does Crossman find the reason for this? In his socialist morality or in the Christian ethic of America? He forgets that both Britain and America did not find it impossible to co-operate with Stalinist Russia during the war - when it suited the interests of those countries. Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia co-operated also for a while in the Nazi-Soviet Pact, when it suited the bureaucracy in Russia and the nazi imperialists in Germany. In reality none of the agreements had anything to do with 'morality' or 'freedom', but everything to do with the interests, at various stages, of the classes and castes involved. No different is the co-operation between capitalist Britain and capitalist America at the present time. It is the interests of Wall Street, not Christian morality, which are paramount in the deciding of American imperialist policy.

The interesting question arises as to who Crossman has in mind when he refers to 'we'. Who is this 'we'? Is it the capitalist class or the working class? Is it some mythical national interest separate and apart from these classes? It is precisely this lack of precision which is typical of all this mish-mash (Christian ethic and all) which Crossman wants to palm off in place of the clear ideas of Marxism.

He says that the managerial society (he includes in this both America and Russia) can be civilised into democratic socialism. How? By the might of his 'socialist ethic' perhaps? Like his ethic the question is left hanging in mid air without a material base.

America - a Contrast

In America, despite the freedoms, in reality the productive forces have stagnated since 1929 in the contradictions of private ownership. Temporarily, only on the basis of war, war production and preparation for war, has there been an important development of the productive forces.

But sooner or later crisis will intervene and we will see the Christian morality (of the capitalists) cast off as a thin veneer and the ugly inner essence of imperialism reveal itself. Then either the workers will recognise the problem and take power, nationalising the means of production, or face a new slavery, and a new barbarism, on the part of capitalism.

In returning to the problem of Russia we recognise the case as somewhat different. Notwithstanding the waste, chaos and inefficiency of bureaucratic dictatorship, nevertheless, on the basis of state ownership and planning of the means of production, we have a continuous development of the means of production. This despite the setbacks occasioned by war, and the mistakes and crimes of the leadership, such as forced collectivisation and the great purges. Notwithstanding the existence of slave labour (also a feature of transition of society in the past) and the other depraved features of Stalinist society, we have a steady rhythm and development of the productive forces. The contradictions are the opposite of those under capitalism. The bureaucracy is compelled to maintain a totalitarian terror, with its amorality etc, not by accident but because its privileges can only be maintained thereby.

Under capitalism, the capitalists were necessary and had a necessary function, with the private ownership of the means of production, acting as the repositories of the means of production, or in the words of Marx as 'the trustees of bourgeois society'.

In Russia the state acts as the repository of the means of production, and like managers and technicians under capitalism from the viewpoint of their economic function in production and the state, all the bureaucracy is entitled to, is the wages of superintendence and management. But they consume far more than this and in order to do so act as economic parasites on production. It is this which explains their role and their morality.

The cynicism, hypocrisy and lies with which the bureaucracy rules on the one hand, while maintaining a totalitarian terror on the other, are an expression of its role in society. If under 'democratic' capitalism while the hypocrisy, cynicism and lies are just as evident, the methods are different because of the checks and balances provided by the forces contending within it. Remove the organisations and the rights won by generations of struggle by the working class and the result is seen in nazi Germany. The morality of the capitalists under Weimar, the nazi regime and today, were not really fundamentally different, only the conditions under which the regime functioned. Repression and lies are merely different sides of the need to maintain exploitation and domination over the masses. They are symptoms of a society shot through and through with contradictions. This explains the inconsistency and hypocrisy of Christian morality in a society based on class antagonism. Similarly, the morality of Stalinism is based on the contradictions within Russian society, which have not been solved merely by the destruction of capitalism. Its bestial morality is conditioned by the uneasy hold which they have in Russian and satellite society and the fear which springs from their insecure and artificially maintained vested interests - in their privileged hold on Russian society.

The mistake of Crossman and the other Fabians is not to recognise this contradiction and all that flows from it. A new revolution will be necessary in Russia, but a political not a social revolution, before there can be any steps taken anew in the direction of socialism.

From the Marxist view of the development of world history this should not at all disconcert us. Marx never declared that to one system of production only one form of superstructure or state pertained. The most superficial acquaintance with history would show that this was incorrect. To every system, a large number of political forms is possible, depending on a whole series of fundamental and secondary factors.

In modern times (with all the extremely important if secondary results) differing forms of dictatorship and democracy, but all on a capitalist basis, have revealed themselves. Fascism, military dictatorship, democracy, monarchy, republic and other variants. They were all the same type of society from the viewpoint of the economic foundations despite the extreme, sharp and striking differences, 'morally' and in every other way.

A real workers' democracy would have the same relationship to Stalinist Russia as Hitler's Germany to the Weimar Republic or to democratic capitalist Britain. Thus under all conditions the socialist workers should defend the state ownership of the means of production and the planned economy in Russia, while conducting an implacable struggle against the clique which has usurped control and transformed a workers' democracy (despite its limitations and shortcomings) into a totalitarian Stalinist state.

The Far East

The attitude towards the colonial revolution of the East is also somewhat different. Recognising the progressive character of the undermining of imperialism in the East, the new Fabians extend half-hearted support to this movement.

Undoubtedly in its potential for the future, the Chinese Revolution is the greatest event in history since the October 1917 transformation in Russia. It will result in the modernisation and industrialisation of China, which was stagnating under the capitalist-landlord regime of Chiang Kai Shek. However Mao Tse Tung and the Chinese Stalinists have taken the regime of Stalin, not that of Lenin, as their model. Given the backwardness of China, a similar regime in the long run will be installed.

If the democracy and freedom of the West are to be maintained, heightened and extended it can only be accomplished by the social revolution at home and internationalism abroad.

In the past internationalism seemed a utopian ideal. Now for the workers of Britain, Europe and the colonial world it is a vital economic necessity. Especially is this so in the case of Britain. With the loss of her imperialist overlordship of the world only decay and decline of her standards and rights open up before the working class on a capitalist and nationalist basis. Only a socialist United States of Europe and the world can guarantee culture, democracy, freedom and a rising standard of living, preparing the way for socialism. Crossman says correctly that the Cold War is the dominating factor in world relations at the present time. But socialism, revolutionary democratic socialism, can only find a way out in supporting the extension of the revolution and state ownership, while opposing the deformation of Stalinism.

Neither Washington nor Moscow has a way out for the working class. Only a militant socialist programme and policy can provide an answer to both. Not by rejecting Marxism but by basing itself on its fundamental tenets can the labour movement in Britain solve the problems of our time.

Go back to contents page or go on to next section, A Reply to Comrade Clifford


(1) Daniel F Malan was leader of the right wing Afrikaaner Nationalist Party. On becoming Prime Minister in 1948, he began the systematic introduction of apartheid as the basis of the South African state.

(2) A powerful Italian noble family from which several popes were elected during the 15th and 16th centuries. Their involvement in Italian and papal politics has become a by-word for intrigue and ruthlessness in the struggle for power.