Socialist Register Online

by Harry on May 22, 2006

I discover, via Chris Brooke, why my dad was able to pick up a full set of the Socialist Register for me at a Labour Party jumble sale. It’s all online now. Lots and lots of gems. To single out one, not at random, but for its interest to bloggers, try Norman Geras’s Our Morals: The Ethics of Revolution (pdf). I don’t know how it holds up today, but it had a big influence on me at the time (along with Geras’s Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend), showing why socialists needed a moral theory and glimpses of what it might be.



Chris Bertram 05.22.06 at 4:08 pm

Andre Gorz in 1968 … starts by asserting that there will be no revolutionary general strikes by the European working class in the forseeable future. Came out just before May, I believe.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.22.06 at 4:42 pm

Thanks so much for this information. I’ve always found Geras worth reading. By the way, the rudiments of a ‘moral theory’ of socialism might be gleaned from Jon Elster’s essay, ‘Self-realisation in work and politics: the Marxist conception of the good life,’ in Jon Elster and Karl Ove Moene, eds. Alternatives to Capitalism (1989), and Michael Luntley’s (somewhat neglected) The Meaning of Socialism (1990). Less directly, but perhaps no less important, I suspect one would need recourse to David Miller’s Market, State and Community: Theoretical Foundations of Market Socialism (1989) and David Schweickart’s Against Capitalism (1996).


Aidan Kehoe 05.22.06 at 5:28 pm

Chris: You have a problem with that? A wild disconnect with observed reality in what one says has not in general been regarded as a problem in any movement that called itself Socialist (with the possible exception of social Democracy).


Aidan Kehoe 05.22.06 at 5:35 pm

Hmm, are there author-specific feeds for Crooked Timber? I find moderation tedious, if making an arbitrary comment is going to incur that tedium, I’m only interested reading a limited number of authors here. The feed link associated with, for example, is for the site as a whole, not for Tom in particular.


DC 05.22.06 at 7:25 pm

Yes, Geras’s “Our Morals” is excellent – elegant and convincing. Also good is his essay on Marx and justice, which is at the site. Don’t know if that overlaps at all with “Marx and Human Nature” or not.


harry b 05.22.06 at 7:45 pm


that was a bit opaque. You object to me being moderate? Or Chris? Or to us moderating comments? Was this your first comment? After the first, which waits awhile, subsequent comments appear quickly.


neil 05.22.06 at 7:46 pm

Or, to single out another article not at random but for its interest to bloggers, here’s one from the very first edition in 1964: “The Alliance for Progress”, by David “Yes, That David Horowitz” Horowitz.


snuh 05.22.06 at 7:54 pm

#4: your link is to a bunch of articles by tom, so far as i can see.

also, reading old essays by david horowitz never ceases to be entertaining.


neil 05.22.06 at 8:49 pm

Aidan, if you’re talking about RSS feeds, you can find a feed for just Tom at this link. And I wouldn’t worry about subjecting authors to the tedium of moderating your comment — they probably want to read all the comments, anyway.


charlotte von stein 05.22.06 at 10:30 pm

Of course, if one disagrees with Geras’ reading of Marx on morality – if one takes Marx to be the moral anti-realist he says he is when he explicitly talks about it – then one won’t find “Our Morals” entirely convincing either, with its attempt to plug the supposed gaps in Marxist normative theory. I find the interpretation of Marx’s views on morality defended by Allen Wood much more convincing than Geras’.


Aidan Kehoe 05.23.06 at 1:39 am

Harry B: It wasn’t my first comment, but it was the first time I’d seen the “Your comment is awaiting modernation” message. I don’t object to your being moderate, I don’t object to Chris, I don’t object to your moderating comments.

I try to keep away as much as I can from fora where posts need moderation to appear, because inevitably I will post something that the moderator doesn’t let through, and then I’m in the aggravating position of arguing with the ref in a game without a rule book. If someone’s writing is in general good enough, then I’ll read the forum anyway. I accept that you may have good reason to put in place such moderation, it’s just not a style I enjoy dealing with.

Neal: Thank you!


Chris Bertram 05.23.06 at 2:30 am

Most posts go through unmoderated. Sometimes something in a post triggers the software to put a comment in the moderation queue. Often I have a hard time working out why. We let through nearly everything which isn’t overtly racist, homophobic, or trollish (and probably quite a lot that is). OK?


gromp von bladet 05.23.06 at 4:50 am

Every time I change my “name”, with everything else (including IP-address) constant, I get remoderated. Including a link is often also a trigger.

I don’t think I’ve ever managed to get a comment unapproved; as Chris says, you’d have to really work at it.


John Quiggin 05.23.06 at 5:44 am

Aidan, your problem might be that the word So-cialis-t triggers a lot of spam filters. If only there were MED drugs called publica or stapun!


John Quiggin 05.23.06 at 5:46 am

Of course, I forgot to avoid the spam filter myself, so I’ll say it again, l33t-style.

Aidan, your problem might be that the word So-c1@1is-t triggers a lot of spam filters. If only there were MED drugs called publica or stapun!


Barry 05.23.06 at 7:24 am

Or ‘bertaria’. That, right there, would reduce the load on the internet.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.23.06 at 8:38 am


Wood may indeed be correct in interpreting Marx in the latter’s own terms, such that Marx’s ‘anti-moralism is a perfectly coherent and well-motivated view.’ Hence Wood provides us with a plausible explication of a ‘Marxian’ belief (i.e., one that can safely be attributed to Marx himself). Geras might be understood as providing us, on the other hand, with a ‘Marxist belief’ about morality, the distinction owing to Paul Thomas: ‘A Marxian belief is one that can safely be attributed to Marx himself. A Marxist belief may also be a Marxian one, but not necessarily. A Marxist belief is one held by anyone, academician or political stalwart, who thinks or can persuade others the the belief in question is in accordance with Marx’s intellectual or political legacy. It would be tempting to overdraw and simplify this relationship by saying that all Marxian beliefs are Marxist ones but that not all Marxist ones are Marxian. This temptation should be resisted with all the power at one’s command. It is indeed the case that not all Marxist beliefs are Marxian; there are far too many of them for this to be possible. But it is definitely not the case that all Marxian beliefs are Marxist, for the good and simple reason that when Marxism developed, knowledge of what Marx wrote was inadequate. We might wish to bemoan this fact for any number of reasons, but the point remains that as I write, there is no Marxism that be regarded as a straightforward exposition (let alone extension) of Marx’s own views.’

That said, I think one might agree with Wood’s interpretation, yet subscribe to something along the lines proffered by Geras, G.A. Cohen, or even R.G. Peffer (in Marxism, Morality and Social Justice, 1990). In other words, let’s grant that Marx saw morality–of his time, and perhaps morality as such–as tainted by ideology and irrelevant or insufficient by way of grounding a ‘scientific’ critique of capitalism. Nonetheless, with Jeffrey Reiman, I think it is true that ‘Marxist moral philosophers must develop a coherent and defensible moral theory with moral ideals that can account for the Marxian critique of capitalism as well as the Marxian endorsement of capitalism and communism. This will require supplying Marxian morality with an independent justification.’ As Reiman proceeds to note, this entails explaining how Marxism’s moral theory ‘escapes the taint of ideology.’ Intriguingly, and perhaps ironically, Reiman states, ‘frankly, I do not see how this can be accomplished unless the apparently moribund project of establishing some moral doctrine as rationally necessary can be revived.’ Perhaps ironically because Wood himself has been involved in articulating, after Kant, the rational necessity of morality! Or, as Jon Elster says, ‘the critique of exploitation and alienation remains central. A better society would be one that allowed all human beings to do what human beings can do–to create, to invent, to imagine other worlds.’ Hence the value of a Marxist moral critique of capitalism that simultaneously involves employment of moral criteria in articulating the lineaments of any socialist alternative.

[references for quotes provided upon request]


DC 05.23.06 at 10:54 am

“the Marxian endorsement of capitalism and communism”

Typo, or an “endorsement” as against feudalism?


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.23.06 at 11:13 am

Whoops, this was typed PST and I was just beginning to drink my tea so…: ‘endorsement of socialism and communism.’ Thanks for that.


Charlotte von Stein 05.23.06 at 12:07 pm


True, an interpretation of Marx along Wood’s lines can certainly co-exist with attempts to develop a Marxist moral theory. Wood himself says that “if Marx’s deflationary accounts of justice and morality seem incompatible with the moralistic form such a reaction [to exploitation of labour and dehumanisation of workers] takes in us, it is natural to reject these analyses as excessively reductive, failing to capture everything we mean by justice and other moral properties.” Wood also indicates that this is how he feels about Marx’s position himself.

On the other hand, his interpretation makes it clear, I think, that Marx’s anti-moralism doesn’t necessarily have to be seen as an inconsistency or a gap to be filled. It would be a justifiable Marxist attitude to take this anti-moralism on board.

That is not to say that the kinds of attempts by Geras and the more recent GA Cohen, which reject Marx’s own view (as Wood reads it), are in a deep way anti-Marxist. However, one cannot but wonder why it happens that moralistic formulations of Marxism which use concepts like “rights” or “justice” often end up looking like a de-fanged version of Marx’s revolutionary vision. And in the case of Geras, one would perhaps not have to be entirely paranoid to see in a piece like “Our Morals” a foreshadowing of his more recent Eustonite effusions.


abb1 05.23.06 at 12:50 pm

All I know is that the Marxist doctrine is omnipotent because it’s true.


Dell Adams 05.23.06 at 2:37 pm

Thanks, Harry, for linking to “Our Morals”–a wonderful essay, which I had never read before. I would go farther than Charlotte and say it plainly shows that Geras already thought human rights more important than revolution.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.23.06 at 5:44 pm


‘one cannot but wonder why it happens that moralistic formulations of Marxism which use concepts like “rights” or “justice” often end up looking like a de-fanged version of Marx’s revolutionary vision’:

Well, I suppose one could live with a less carnivorous revolutionary Marxist vision (and so, perhaps, might many of those killed in the name of this or that putatively Marxist revolution) lest our means cruelly distort and disfigure our ends. It should be stated categorically: the end does not justify the means. This is why I would concur with Peffer that ‘If both a relatively egalitarian theory of social justice…and a minimal set of Marxist empirical assumptions are essentially correct, then our natural duty to support and promote just institutions (on both an national and international level) would seem to require us to do our fair share in supporting and promoting various working-class and progressive causes within our own societies and, if possible, on an international scale. (Perhaps the most efficient way to support such causes on an international scale is to monitor and, if necessary, alter our own societies’ foreign policy, investment and aid policies, etc.)’ [I’ve assembled a bibliography on the ‘ethics, economics and politics of global justice’ for carefully thinking about what such ‘monitoring’ and ‘altering’ entail]

As to the role of intellectuals here, I subscribe in large measure to Jean-Paul Sartre’s admonitions:

In ‘A Plea for Intellectuals’ [three essays delivered by Sartre in Kyoto, September-October 1965], Sartre memorably explained how the intellectual is ever at risk of having his ‘class particularity’ vitiating ‘over and over again his efforts as a theoretician,’ in other words, of being stucturally liable to debilitating ideological interference with his proper ethico-political obligations and tasks, he must, therefore, engage in ‘perpetual self-criticism’ and a ‘concrete and unconditioned alignment with the actions of the underprivileged classes.’ The former entails striving ‘to remain aware of the fact that he is a petty-bourgeois breaking out of his mould, constantly tempted to renourish the thoughts of his class,’ while the latter involves, among other things:

1. the ‘struggle against the perpetual rebirth of ideology amongst the popular classes;’ [on this, Erich Fromm is worth consulting, as well as Amelie Oksenberg Rorty’s essay, ‘Imagination and Power, Social Sciences Information 22 (1983), pp. 801-816]

2. the use of ‘the capital knowledge acquired from the dominant class in order to help raise popular culture–that is to say, to lay the foundations of a universal culture;’

3. the need to ‘form technicians of practical knowledge within the under-privileged classes…in the hope that they will become organic intellectuals of the working class…;’

4. recovering the intellectual’s ‘own ends (universality of knowledge, freedom of thought, truth) by recovering them as the real ends sought by all those in struggle–that is, as the future of man;’

5. endeavoring to ‘radicalize actions under way, by demonstrating the ultimate objectives beyond immediate aims–in other words, universalization as a historical goal of the working class;’ and

6. serving as a ‘guardian for the historical ends pursued by the masses, against all political power, including the power of mass parties and apparatuses of the working class itself.’ [Sartre here relies on a rather untenable notion of ‘political power,’ although in other places he assumes a rather different conception that to some degree has been elaborated upon in the Gandhian theory of nonviolence and in post-structuralist anarchist thought: see, for instance, Raghavan Iyer, The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi (1983 ed.) and Todd May’s The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism (1994)]

I realize the Sartrian take on things is not too fashionable these days but I still find it, like the bulk of the Marxist critique of capitalism, both perspicuous and perspicacious.


abb1 05.24.06 at 4:22 am

Communism is the Soviet rule plus electrification of the whole country.


abb1 05.24.06 at 6:04 am

As to the role of intellectuals here, I subscribe in large measure to Jean-Paul Sartre’s admonitions…

May I suggest a shorter quote from Lenin’s letter to Maxim Gorky: “They [intelligentsia] fancy themselves the nation’s brain. In fact they are not the brain but shit”.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.24.06 at 8:31 am


While the contextual brevity of your snippet leaves it unclear as to motivation: humor (of a kind), sarcasm, cynicism, what have you, I’ll proceed under the principle of interpretive charity:

The above quote is hardly representative of Lenin’s understanding of the role of the intelligentsia (a term in the Russian context with different connotations than ‘intellectuals’), or else one could not make sense of (Jacobin) ‘Leninist vanguardism,’ among other things. Carl Boggs elaborates: ‘From Lenin’s earliest writings on political strategy in Iskra, through formation of the Bolshevik party, the October Revolution, and the postrevolutionary consolidation of power, Leninism rejected the idea of unmediated popular self-activity and pushed for a flexible, combat-style organization that could sieze power. [….] For Lenin, everything hinged on the notion of an imminent and cataclysmic struggle for power. [….] If for Leninism the siezure of state power was the first priority, the party state–led by revolutionary intellectuals–was destined to impose its hegemony over an amorphous and fragmented population. [….] The democratization of authority relations was to be undertaken only by the vanguard itself, that is, by a Marxist intelligentsia–a contradictory agenda bound to perpetuate the gulf between state and civil society that had long typified Russia as a whole. A cohesive group of professional cadres now became the main vehicle of socialist ideals, which reproduced two levels of discourse, two distinct realms of political activity–one through the esoteric culture and language of intellectual-activists, the other through the manipulated responses of the popular strata. All of this corresponded to the Kautskian-Leninist thesis that Marxism was a peculiarly intellectual phenomenon that would have to be brought to the workers from outside the class struggle, through the intervention of a Jacobin elite.’ From Boggs’ Intellectuals and the Crisis of Modernity (1993).

To drive home the point, Boris Kagarlitsky reminds us that a young Lenin wrote in What Is To Be Done? ‘that the revolutionary consciousness of the proletariat can be elaborated only by the intelligentsia and then “brought to them from without.” At that time Lenin said that “the intelligentsia are so called just because they most consciously express the development of class interests and political groupings in society as a whole.” Plekhanov even blamed Lenin for such statements, saying that for him “the masses are merely inanimate raw material, upon which the intelligentsia, signed with the seal of the sacrament of the Holy Ghost, carries out its operations.”‘ From Kagarlitsky’s The Thinking Reed: Intellectuals and the Soviet State from 1917 to the Present (1988). For yet another invaluable treatment, please see Rudolf Bahro’s book that led to his imprisonment in the GDR: The Alternative in Eastern Europe (English tr. 1978). [Bahro: ‘Marxism is a theory based on the existence of the working class, but it is not the theory of the working class.’ Of course Bahro later became one of the leading fundi Green theorists in West Germany.]

Needless to say, not a few Marxists have ever since sought to precisely delineate the role of intellectuals in the struggle against capitalism in a way that overcomes the anti-democratic Jacobin legacy of Leninist vanguardism, hence Sartre’s treatment above. Broadly speaking, Marxists are dealing with a problem whose pedigree goes back to Plato’s Republic.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.24.06 at 9:02 am

Incidentally, I might have mentioned that the quote from Lenin is accurately transcribed as follows:

‘The intellectual forces of the workers and peasants are growing and getting stronger in their fight to overthrow the bourgeoisie and their accomplices, the educated classes, the lackeys of capital, who consider themselves the brains of the nation. In fact they are not its brains but its shit.’

As is clear, and for better and worse, Lenin is distinguishing the ‘intellectual forces of the workers and peasants’ from ‘the educated classes’ that act as ‘lackeys of capital.’ Lenin here sees himself as fighting the ‘good fight’ against counter-revolutionary forces….

Again, Sartre’s essay, reprinted in Between Existentialism and Marxism (1979 pbk. ed.), is useful for its discussion of the contemporary contradictions of the intellectual vis-a-vis the powers-that-be and his suggestions for ‘overcoming’ them….


abb1 05.24.06 at 11:30 am

The ‘not the brain but shit’ quote is from 1919; this is when push came to shove there – with war on 5 different fronts, no food, no heating, no ammo, nothing but pure willpower. At times like this everything becomes clear. It seems to hint (to me, at least) that revolutionary Marxism may be in practice incompatible with your typical garden variety intellectual activity; revolution is more of a gut thing.

Anyhow, I don’t have much to say here, this is way over my head.

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