R. Page Arnot

Real “Economic Science”

Source: The Communist Review, January 1924, Vol. 4, No. 9.
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: Chris Clayton
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

A Short Course of Economic Science, by A. Bogdanoff.
Tanslated: J. Fineberg.
391 pp.
Labour Publishing Company

THERE is a remarkable contrast in this country between the eager desire of the workers to be filled with a knowledge of the basic process of society—essentially an instinct to understand their exploitation, and to get rid of it—and the awful sawdust of “economics” with which they are stuffed. Educational class after educational class turns away from the allurements of studying “literature,” or “architecture,” or “the history of art,” or any other of the university pastimes, and demands instead an understanding of “economics,” or “economic history,” or “economic geography,” or “industrial history.” For under one or other of these labels they hope to find the thing they want. What do they get? In each case they get, not what they want, but a narrow view of a portion of it.

By a narrow view, I mean a view that is unrelated to the whole life of mankind, past and future. Because it is not so related, it is misleading. Therefore, in each case, the workers are not helped to an understanding, but are misled.

“Economic history” turns out to be a mere record of the social changes in England (sometimes in Europe) from the Manorial system to the present day, without any attempt to show the forces that caused the change, and were the mainspring of events. These forces are reserved for a separate study, “economics” to wit, which either treats of an abstract “capitalism,” with the minimum of historical reference, or, if it is the variety called “descriptive,” describes the workings of bourgeois civilisation with the proud manner of a prison chaplain showing a Fabian around the cells.

In the case of “economic history,” the last 1,000 years of England is so fascinating, even as a mere labelled collection of events and systems, that the workers—who are beginning to suspect “economic”—go on studying this history without any idea of how much more meaning and use could be found in it. They are exactly in the position of the naturalists of the 18th century. The mere survey of the varieties of animal and plant species was an interest in itself. But it was as nothing to the vision of life that was opened out to evolutionary biologists in the next century. In the same way there is the possibility of learning the past life of mankind in such a way as to understand how and why one kind of society grew out of another; and by this means to foresee the possible future of the workers and be moved to strive for it.

How is it, that in Britain this possibility has been withheld from the working-class? How is it that when an intelligent middle-class Socialist like Bernard Shaw wishes to take up his parable against Marxism, he is reduced to criticising, as the only available book, a contemptible production like Hyndman’s “Evolution of Revolution.” How is it that until Phillips Price’s recent book on the class struggle in Germany there has never been a decent piece of historical or economic analysis written by an Englishman?

The answer is to be found without going into deeper causes, first, in the miserable mental poverty of the British bourgeois historians (on whom the Marxist reinterpreter must to a certain extent be dependent, unless he knows other languages), and secondly, in the character of those Marxian reinterpreters.

The calibre of the British university historian has been extraordinarily low. An exception occurs once in a century, like Gibbon or Maitland. But the ordinary don has been, in technical scholarship, far below the level of other European countries. His disability is due not to laziness or an inferior British brain—he can be as indefatigable and dry-as-dust as any—but to a profound lack of any conception that history is the study of mankind as a whole, or that the main factors in human history can be abstracted and analysed. Consequently, once our historians had ceased to accept the simple view of Macaulay, that history consisted in boosting the Whigs and the manufacturing bourgeoisie as the zenith of civilisation, they were utterly at a loss. Some of them, in despair, have even turned again to GOD under the impression that these three letters of the alphabet can somehow be linked up with the fruits of their historical researches. Some, like Acton, have taken comfort in the belief that some “principle” (variant of GOD) such as Liberty is at the bottom of it. But the majority have flatly abandoned any pretence of thinking at all. Mankind does not exist for them; only a particular set of problems in a particular epoch—juridicial, ecclesiastical, mensurational or what you will.

They know history, as a flea knows human anatomy.

Nowhere does their incapacity appear more than in their attitude to the Materialist Conception of History. Here is a unifying conception, about which there might be agreement or disagreement. Yet I have never met, I have never even heard of a modern professional historian who has taken the trouble to understand what this conception is. Instead, we hear an alarmed cackle, about “material and spiritual,” or “economics doesn’t explain everything,” or “the driving force of idealism,” or any other similar phase that will serve as a cloak for intelluctual sloth and cowardice.

Mr. Lloyd George’s speech on “the wild and poisonous berries of Karl Marxism,” may have been laughed at in the college Common Rooms, but it expressed their view, none the less. Perhaps some instinct warns these bourgeois historians, that, for their own sakes, Marx must not be understood. At any rate, their barbaric ignorance, alike of the meaning of history or the meaning of Marx, remains invincible. They are exactly like those African chiefs of the ’nineties who, not having the remotest conception of the enormous mechanism of a rapidly developing imperialism, held fast to the simple idea that everything was due to a Great White Queen.

But if the bourgeois historians are a sorry lot in Britain, the Marxists of the past 40 years have been also to blame. Of all the books that were written and circulated so widely between 1885 and 1905, there is not one than is widely read nowadays. Nor is there any reason to suppose that those more recently written will not meet the same fate. The reason is that I have already indicated. There has been going on this fractional distilling of Marxism, and with the happy result of being able to produce a variety of distillation products, to suit every purse and palate. But in the distillation there is broken up the whole spirit of Marxism, the unifying conception that could enable a struggling class to see and strike at the weak points in the defences of its enemy; and at the same time to realise its relation to the rest of mankind, and to know that in every conflict it fulfilled a historic mission.

It is, therefore, important for the workers in this country to have every opportunity of reading books wherein the significance of economic science and its wide scope are fully appreciated. This book by A. Bogdanoff, for instance, is called a Short Course of Economic Science; and “Economics,” as it is usually understood, is only brought in as subsections in a survey which runs from primitive society, and feudal society, past the cul-de-sac of slave-owning society, and through serfdom up to merchant capitalism and present finance-capital. Human organisation begins with a struggle of man, in small groups, against the overmastering powers of nature. This is natural self-sufficing society. It is succeeded by commercial society, wherein the struggle of man is now against the overmastering strength of the social relations. This society is marked by the development of exchange, the growth of exchange fetishism, and internal class struggles. It is finally succeeded by socialist society, wherein, class struggles over, the struggle against nature is resumed by mankind organised freely in a group, that covers the whole world. The synthesis is achieved. The prehistoric period of man comes to an end.

This has been the textbook of study groups in the Russian Communist Party since the late ’nineties. It is now translated for the first time. When a second edition is called for, or rather some considerable time before that event, the Party should make arrangements to have the book thoroughly edited, so that an index is added and, if possible a list of a few books of reference at the end of each chapter.