Cyril Smith 1929-2008
By David Black
Cyril Smith was one of those rare radical thinkers: one who, after many decades of commitment to a particular Leftist cause, could face radical changes in the world by radicalizing his own ideas. Cyril, in fact, wrote his best works after his retirement (from teaching statistics at the London School of Economics) in the early 1990s. His book, Marx at the Millenium (1996) was a devastating and at times witty attack on what he had previously upheld as “Marxism.” In the positive sense it was a renewed interpretation of Marx as a “revolutionary humanist.” The book shocked as many of his erstwhile Trotskyist comrades as it delighted his new readers and reinvigorated the best of his old friends.
Summarising his critique of the “Marxists” in his last book, Karl Marx and the Future of the Human (2005), he wrote, “They developed a ‘theory of history’ called ‘historical materialism’, an ‘economic doctrine’, sometimes referred to as ‘Marxist economics’, and a philosophical outlook, called ‘dialectical materialism’. None of this was to be found in the writings of Karl Marx…”
Marx, Cyril argued, conceived of humanity as “socially self-creating.” This conception is not a ‘doctrine’ or ‘theory’, which separates the 'teacher' from the ‘ordinary’ person being taught. In doctrines, such as political economy, “entities like money, capital and the state are crazily accepted as subjects; at the same time, we treat each other and ourselves, not as free, self-creating subjects, but as if we were things. So we are necessarily cut off from understanding ourselves.”
In Marx at the Millenium Cyril probed the problem of how the alienated dogmas of “scientific socialism” were inextricably linked with bourgeois “natural science” - a problem that had assumed greater importance with the claim that the latter has triumphed over the former. Cyril tackled recent issues concerning Artificial Intelligence and Sociobiology and concluded that “Marxism,” like “science,” is concerned only with the study of various kinds of objects – whether “productive forces”, brain cells or genes – but “cannot see the one nearest home – ourselves.”
In Karl Marx and the Future of the Human, Cyril traced the origins of “self-creation” in pre-Enlightenment thought and showed how it re-emerged in the dialectical thinking of Hegel and Marx (and the visionary poetry of William Blake). The scientific-rationalists and their “Marxist” inheritors had seen the natural world “in terms of mechanically interacting particles of matter and humanity as a collection of individuals.” Cyril contrasted this view with the pre-Enlightenment “mystics, Hermetics and magicians,” for whom the human is only an aspect of the natural and vice versa:
“… Hegel takes the side of the magicians on this issue: the movements of nature, history and psychology all express the unfolding of Spirit. But what about Marx? Does human self-emancipation, a task for humans to tackle in practice, require any specific conception of the universe? In the inhuman shell of private property, money, capital and the state, Marx uncovers the source of the mystery of self-creation. Once that ‘integument has burst asunder’, relations within a free association of producers, truly human relations, will be transparent and thus so will the relationship between nature and humanity as a whole.”
Unsurprisingly, Cyril’s new thinking attracted the attention of Marxist-Humanists who, like him, wish to emphasize the unity and totality of Karl Marx’s thought; and are exercised by the inadequacies of post-Marx “Marxists” (beginning with Engels) as continuators; and investigate the relation between Marx’s dialectic and Hegel’s. Cyril discussed these issues at Marxist-Humanist meetings in London, and met with several US Marxist-Humanists in London, New York and elsewhere. His contact with the Americans led to publication of Karl Marx and the Future of the Human by Lexington Books as part of the Raya Dunayevskaya Series in Marxism and Humanism.
Our debates with Cyril, whether in person or by email, or in the pages of Hobgoblin and News and Letters were serious, enlightening, often maddening and never ever dull. If there was a sticking point it was that Cyril refused to accept our projection for a unity of Philosophy and Organisation. Cyril would agree with Raya Dunayevskaya on the need to uproot capitalist production and reunify mental and manual abilities in the individual. He would not agree that philosophy, for our own time, might be other than a contemplative or formalist theory of external objects and events. Deleuze and Guattari wrote "We cannot imagine a great philosopher of whom it could not be said that he has changed what it means to think—those who do not renew the image of thought are not philosophers." But Cyril would not accept this. He wrote “Throughout its history, philosophy—has been the highest expression of private property, class division, state power, and other alienated social forms" (Karl Marx and the Future of the Human, p. 49).
Peter Hudis disagreed with him, responding:
“Philosophy is distinct from theory in that it recognizes the profound relation between the subject and the world in seeking to grasp the nature of the ‘thing itself’. And the ‘thing itself’ refers not only to external objects but also to the categories which underlay human cognition. Philosophy is different from theory as it is traditionally understood... Philosophy subjects everything to self-examination, including its own premises—not for the sake of simply tearing things down (that would be mere sophistry!) but as part of creating something new.” [Working out a Philosophically Grounded Vision of the Future, News and Letters Bulletin August 2005]
But on this sad occasion we should give the last word to Cyril Smith. We can do no better in celebrating his life, and recognizing that our differences with him concerned key issues for future development of revolutionary thought, than republishing below his article on Raya Dunayevskaya from 2000.
David Black 29/5/08
Philosophic dialogue on Raya Dunayevskaya’s ‘Critical comments on notes on Hegel’s Smaller Logic’
By Cyril Smith
It is nearly half a century since I first saw some of the writings of Raya Dunayevskaya. Alas, I was too narrowminded then to see what she was trying to do. Only recently have I started to study her work seriously and come to appreciate her pioneering work in uncovering Marx's humanism and investigating its relationship to Hegel's philosophy. The publication by NEWS & LETTERS of this work is a great contribution to the task of regenerating the international movement for socialism.
However, as is the fate of all pioneers, history unfolds and overtakes even the most farsighted of thinkers. So I offer some critical comments, occasioned by the 1961 lecture on Hegel's Smaller LOGIC which you have recently published, only with the greatest respect. I believe that, during the quarter of a century which still remained to her after that lecture, Raya herself began to move in some of the directions I point to here. I contend that it is necessary for us to continue this process, rather than leave the subject where she left it at the time of her death.
Like many of her generation and ours, Raya Dunayevskaya started with Lenin's study of Hegel in 1914-15. With the indispensable help of his rough notes and of Marx's 1844 Manuscripts—not, of course, available to Lenin—she began her own independent study of Hegel. Only later did she begin to see the severe limitations of Lenin's struggle to break out of the falsifications of Marx's ideas in the Second International.
That, I think, is the significance of her emphasis on Hegel's opening chapters of the Smaller LOGIC, the three "Attitudes to Objectivity." In my opinion, these pages reveal sides of Hegel's logic of which Lenin had no conception. Hegel is not describing a special "method," which can be detached from his notions of reality, or his conception of history and the state. Rather, he is presenting the essential heart of the relations of bourgeois society and the forms of consciousness which reflect these relations. No mere philosophy can do more. What Marx accomplished went beyond any philosophy.
That is why I cannot accept Raya's admonition, following Lenin, that we must "constantly deepen" Hegel's content, "through a materialistic, historical 'translation'." To try to do this, I think, is to miss the point of Marx's "Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic and Philosophy as a Whole," the most important of the 1844 manuscripts. Here Marx shows that Hegel stays within the confines of philosophy, and thus remains at home within what he called "estrangement." He also attacks Hegel because he "posited man as equivalent to self-consciousness."
In the first of his Theses on Feuerbach (1845), Marx praises idealism - here that means Hegel - for "abstractly setting forth the active side," and condemns materialism. However, he also says that idealism "does not know real, sensuous activity," only spiritual, mental activity. No philosophy, whether "materialist" or "idealist," could ever grasp "the significance of "revolutionary," of "practical critical" activity.
Marx's two-sided attitude to Hegel leads me to be cautious about Dunayevskaya's statement about the last section of the LOGIC, which she thinks is "the philosophical framework which most applies to our own age." After all, she quotes quite correctly Hegel's statement that "the truths of philosophy are valueless apart from their interdependence and organic union." But that implies that we can't pick out those bits of Hegel's work which appear to fit in with our own revolutionary ideas. We must take him as a whole. Remember that Hegel clearly situates his massive system of thought within the historical context of his own time and place, in the aftermath of the French revolution in backward Germany. "Applying" it to the 21st ce ntury, it seems to me, is to do it injury, and to blunt Marx's critique.
I believe that Dunayevskaya's refusal to attend to Hegel's PHILOSOPHY OF RIGHT, illustrates this mistaken attitude. Marx actually made this book the startingpoint for his lifelong struggle with Hegel, when he wrote his 1843 "Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of the State." I know that the old "Marxist" story about Hegel "upholding the Prussian State" was always nonsense. (Marx and Engels never went along with it.) And I am not excusing Hegel's dreadful racism and sexism. But this, his last book, plays a vital part in the Hegelian system. Look at his summary of it in the Philosophy of Mind, the section called "Objective Spirit."
As I see it, we should see Raya's work on Hegel as one stage of the struggle of revolutionary humanism to emerge from the shadow of the Russian revolution, the Stalinist degeneration and the only partially successful attempt of Trotskyism to grasp its meaning. Almost unanimously, the Second International ignored Hegel, and clung to a positivist falsification of Marx. Lenin and his followers broke with the opportunism of the old International, but in my opinion they remained trapped within its philosophical framework. Their "attitude to objectivity" took the form of an uneasy combination of empiricism and subjectivism.
Above all, they were unable to approach Marx's conception of freedom, of "universal human emancipation." Revolution came to be seen as the work of a "leadership," rather than the self-conscious work of the proletariat as a whole. Dunayevskaya's "Marxist humanism" was a breakthrough precisely because it drew directly on the work of Marx and Hegel. Now we have to take that work further, grasping in particular the critical relationship of these two thinkers.
As the new century opens up, a new generation, free from the effects of past defeats, enters into global struggles. Not surprisingly, these young people start with all kinds of confusion and illusions. In freeing themselves from these problems, will they have to follow the same tortuous path which we had to negotiate? I don't think they will. Instead, I believe that they will find their own way to discover and surpass the liberatory notions of Marx. The priority today is to help them in that task.
This article appeared in News and Letters July 2000
Cyril Smith's major works are online at The Cyril Smith Archive:http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/smith-cyril/index.htm