The Marx Dictionary: A good, but not perfect, introduction to Marxism

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Marx Dictionary
By Ian Fraser & Lawrence Wilde
Continuum, 2011
223 pp., $39.99

“A is for Alienation, that made me the man that I am, and B's for the Boss who's a Bastard, a Bourgeois who don't give a damn.” So goes Scottish folk singer Alex Glasgow’s witty song, “The Socialist ABC”, which is a succinct introduction to Marxism.

However, for a slightly more rounded alphabetical introduction this volume is very good. In it the authors manage to condense quite readable explanations of some of the Western intellectual tradition’s most challenging concepts.

Everything is cross referenced so that reading one entry naturally draws the reader backwards and forwards through the book, studying more and more facets of Marx’s thinking.

Surprising facts are brought out, such as in the entry on education. I was aware that Marx argued for free, universal education for people of all ages. But I hadn’t known before that he believed that the state should not provide it.

The authors explain that in an 1869 speech to the General Council of the First International, Marx said that the state should legislate education standards and regulate teacher qualifications.

But neither the state nor the church should provide education, he said and he reiterated that line in the Critique of the Gotha Program six years later.

While nearly everything in this book is straightforward, there is one inexplicable wrinkle: the authors posit that Marx eschewed revolutionary uprisings in favour of the ballot box.

The claim pops up in the introduction where they state the 20th Century revolutions, starting with the Russian Revolution, were not in line with Marx’s thinking.

It is further explained in the entry on Revolution, where they refer to Marx’s 1872 speech in Amsterdam, in which he said that it was conceivable for the workers to take power peacefully in countries where political democracy was being advanced.

The spin Fraser and Wilde put on this is: “It was clear to Marx that the proletarian revolution could only be advanced through politics rather than by following the insurrectionary model.”

To put it mildly, that is an overstatement. Marx was smart enough to support any action by workers that advanced their cause, no matter how partial. But he certainly did not limit his understanding of politics to voting.

“For Marx was before all else a revolutionist,” Engels explained at Marx’s gravesite. “His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the modern proletariat, which he was the first to make conscious of its own position and its needs, conscious of the conditions of its emancipation. Fighting was his element.”

For Marx, the struggle will be the final decider of history. Or as Alex Glasgow put it: “For X, Y, and Zed,…will be written on the street barricades.”

Alex Glasgow’s "Socialist ABC".

From GLW issue 948

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