The Philosophy of Communism

A Summary by Michael Edwards

Working Copy: First published London 1933 Faber & Faber, 96 pp.

I Origins
II General Principles of Marxian Theory
III The Validity of Communist Theory
IV Practical Issues

In a relatively recent newspaper report Macmurray was described as having been ‘a communist who became a Quaker’, as if he had been a rabid atheist with blood dripping from his hands until the Quakers took him in hand at the age of 68. In reality, he was a Christian from the beginning, whose religion developed and matured, but one who, since the First World War, felt unable to participate in any form of institutional Christianity while he remained in public life. On retirement he applied for and was granted membership of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). I had earlier read of him described as the Red Professor of Gower Street. This was no doubt a journalistic epithet on an analogy with the Red Dean of Canterbury (Hewlett Johnson). He was a mild entry on the secret list of untrustworthy Cold War propagandists which George Orwell sent to his Foreign Office friend Celia Kirwan in 1949 (Guardian Review, 21 June 2003). Macmurray had taken an interest in the Christian Left of yesteryear. And he had read and critically assessed Marxist and communist writings. This little book is one of those assessments. What does it tell us about Macmurray’s stance vis a vis Marx and communism? In brief, the following:

1. Marx was right to value Hegel’s dialectical logic as one which could handle organic process and development in a way that traditional ‘either/or’ logic could not.

2. Marx was right to reject Idealism. Action is more fundamental than thought. Not the other way round.

3. Although functional hierarchies could have their legitimate place in that aspect of our relations which Macmurray dubs Society, class divisions have no place in the fundamental community of mankind. To this extent communism (and Christianity!) with its talk of classlessness was on to something.

4. Marxian sociological/economic analysis was scientific in as far as it was aimed at a society that was operating blindly, when men were merely reacting to stimuli, rather like a colony of animals. As soon as men took to understanding and operating society scientifically with full self-conscious intention (i.e. as persons) then Marx’s analysis ceased to apply to fully human life as a whole.

5. When communism relied on force to seize the apparatus of government it aligned itself with and turned into fascism. And fascism isn’t a different sort of politics. It is the negation of politics.

The above conclusions, with others, were displayed in Macmurray’s book by means of the following structure: The first chapter is devoted to the consideration of the origins of the philosophy of communism, the second to a consideration of the most important characteristics which differentiate it from other philosophical systems. And in the last two chapters he tried to estimate its value and to point out some of its more important practical bearings. (He started by clearing away some misconceptions which I have not the space to reproduce here.)

Marx never worked out a philosophical system. He used other people’s theories in a new way. An obvious predecessor was Hegel, whose philosophy rested on three assertions:

1) All organic processes are dialectical
2) Reality is an organic process
3) Reality is idea

Marx accepted 1), probably did not accept 2), and definitely rejected 3). Orthodox communism of Macmurray’s day did accept 2) under the description of the philosophy of dialectical materialism.

1) is a logical principle. An organic process is never ‘wholly A’ or ‘wholly not-A’. It is a process of development. It is not a state of ‘being’ but ‘becoming’. It cannot be adequately handled by traditional logic based on the law of contradiction. Macmurray writes a useful Note on Dialectic at the end of the chapter.

2) is a metaphysical principle which could be used to interpret reality as a whole. However, it is not necessarily implied by the logical principle 1). The principle which Marx did supply was a sociological principle – the assertion that the process of human society is an organic process and, therefore, only to be understood dialectically.

3) is an axiological principle i.e. a principle of valuation. In plain language, it asserts that thoughts are more important than things, that the significance of the world lies not in itself but in our idea of it. Macmurray makes some rather plausible suggestions as to how this somewhat counter-intuitive principle comes to get established.

Another source of Marxian thought was the philosophical anarchism of Max Stirner. Stirner was an apostle of Freedom. He observed that ideas held men in bondage. He therefore advocated the denial of the reality of ideas in order to achieve liberation. Marx agreed that freedom was what we were after but he condemned Stirner’s position as secretly idealistic. It implied that you could rid yourself of the tyranny of thought by thinking; that you could cast out Beelzebub by Beelzebub. Marx held that these ideas, which were social ideas, reflected realities in the world which were social, indeed economic. It was the economic realities of the world which limited human freedom and which needed to be changed.

In Chapter II: General Principles of Marxian Theory, Macmurray points out that the revolutionary theory of communist philosophy is that theory and practice are one. To accept the principle is to break with the whole tradition of European thought and to demand a completely new culture on a new social and economic basis. It is therefore important to understand the principle. There is an inescapable link between theory and practice. They are not always in harmony but they are always linked. If there is a contradiction between a man’s theory and his practice (of which he may or may not be aware) the reason for it will be practical. Practice determines theory. So, the first meaning of the principle of the unity of theory and practice is that if you want to know what people really believe study their behaviour. (Bernard Shaw was wont to say something very similar!) The second meaning is that theory and practice ought to agree. The folly of utopian social theories is analysed and the alternative shown to be a scientific social theory.

Medieval society and our society are not two instances of the same thing but two stages in the development of a single process. Any society is a stage in the development of Society. Society consists of persons in relation to one another. Development of society is change in social form i.e. the gradual change in the form of human relationships.

The common end which people in Society are co-operating to achieve is the provision of the necessities of life. Macmurray describes how this, according to Marxian theory, leads to the class struggle.

The conclusion of Chapter III was, as stated above, that Marxian theory was valid when applied to Society behaving organically but not if acting personally. Macmurray suspects that to an extent Marx, if not the communists, was aware of this, as indicated by Marx’s remark that when communism had been achieved then prehistory would end and history would begin. In other words, the economic interpretation of history is only applicable to the immaturity of social life.

Chapter IV deals with practical issues and in the course of it Macmurray makes some remarks which strike me as extraordinarily prescient and/or sharp for a British intellectual writing in the early 1930’s. I give some of these below, preceded by two from the previous chapter.

We cannot … assume that even the economic progress of Europe will go on … it might … relapse into a barbarism … it might even seem … that … Europe has played its part and that the next stage of social development should take place … possibly in the Far East. (pp. 70-71)

It is possible … that the will to freedom should subside and that through weariness of the struggle we should resign ourselves to defeat. (p. 71)

What strikes me most forcibly about current communist propaganda is the absence in it of true dialectical thought. Instead we find a kind of Marxian fundamentalism … (p. 82)

Communists still continue to expect that something like the Russian revolution will happen in the more industrialised countries of Western Europe. To expect this is to fail to think dialectically. (p. 83)

… it is more likely that the revolution should spread eastward to China, Japan and India than it should spread westwards to the industrial countries of Europe and to the United States of America. (p. 83)

… the success of a mass-movement [in a highly industrialised country] would produce … a national dictatorship in the interest of the maintenance of the national economic system. In other words it would produce a fascist dictatorship. (pp.84-85)

… the bourgeois habit of looking to the organised mechanism of political authority as the sole source of initiative in social development. (p.88)

… insist that there are aspects of human life which are of more importance than economics, and that freedom and equality must not be sacrificed to the demand for material power … of the capitalist class or of the working class. (p.93)

Hitherto the development of individualism has been possible only through the family … because women have been prepared to waive their claims to be free individuals. That claim cannot and should not be denied. But we must recognize that an individualism which embraces all individuals irrespective of sex means the disintegration of society into its constituent atoms. (pp.95-96)

And the last two sentences of the book:

Individualism and communism are opposite and irreconcilable. Individuality and community are correlatives. (p.96)

Related Macmurray Reading

(see corresponding mini-summaries)

Idealism Against Religion (The Essex Hall Lecture 1944, The Lindsey Press, 14 Gordon Square, London WC1, 22 pp.)