The Expropriators are Expropriated

Review of ‘The Expropriators are Expropriated’ and other writings on Marxism By Tom O’Lincoln (Melbourne: Interventions Inc).

Tom O’Lincoln’s The Expropriators are Expropriated is a collection of talks and essays from his political career in socialist organisations in Australia from the early 1980s. Tom’s writing is immensely readable and easy to understand. In this collection, he delivers complex Marxist theory in accessible presentations. Topics range from dialectics, theories of economic crises, the trade unions, and more.

The pieces collected here are insightful, accessible and reflective. Most can be read in one-sitting, so it’s perfect introductory reading. For those wanting to find out more, each chapter contains detailed endnotes and there is a bibliography detailing Tom’s other writing.

Tom’s chapter on ‘Dialectics: the power of negative thinking’ is refreshingly clear: “Dialectics is built up into a big mystical affair, an impressive array of mumbo jumbo to intimidate people. And so it’s no wonder people sometimes come up and ask me: just what the hell is dialectics?” Tom sketches the link between Hegel and Marx’s understanding of the dialectic and draws out four important principles. The idea that everything is in constant flux; that we’re not bound by formal logic; that everything gives rise to its opposite; and that gradual quantitative change can at certain moments lead to qualitative change. He ends the chapter quoting Lenin linking the relevance of dialectics with revolutionary practice.

His chapter on ‘Base and Superstructure’ is also useful. Again, Tom takes a fundamental Marxist theory and punctuates the basic understanding to give nuance or pose problems with current understanding or practice of the theory. He starts by talking of the common practice within socialist groups that try to practise this theory in internal conferences: “at conference, we start with economic trends, then we look at the class struggle, and then from there we move along to politics, and this seems broadly compatible with the idea of an economic basis to society which determines other things”. He then goes on to draw out the limitations and dangers of the idea of base always determining superstructure, which “can give you a world completely devoid of human freedom, with people the slaves of economic trends”.

The collection also includes an important polemic Tom made regarding the nature of Russian capitalism. British socialist Tony Cliff argued that Russia was ‘state capitalist,’ in other words, a version of capitalism not socialism. This was distinct from other socialist currents that thought Russia was neither capitalist nor socialist because the state was the only employer. Tom contends that Cliff’s analysis, while correct overall, gets hung up on the idea of labour having to be ‘free’ of the means of production, and that the labourer is ‘free’ to sell their labour power to the owner. How to account for this ‘freedom’ in a country where there was no choice of employer? Tom goes back to Marx’s Capital to argue that getting tied up in whether workers are free to sell their labour power is talking about the “area of exchange of commodities … rather than the process of production.” The significance here, Tom argues, is that “the realm of exchange is the realm of all the illusions of bourgeois society”. He elaborates that “their role is primarily one of mystification, establishing the appearance of “free labour” while concealing the labourer’s “economic bondage”. Thus the consideration of Russia having only one employer is “hardly the central one.” “The central matter” is the “separation between labour and the means of labour” which “forces (the labourer) to sell his labour power.”

The longest and most significant chapter is on ‘Australia’s “Militant Minority” – an in depth article that unearths the Communist Party of Australia’s inroads in establishing fighting unions in Australia. It traces the party’s twists and turns as it tries to toe the Moscow line during the “Third Period”, which designated social democrats as “social fascists.” But due to the particular situation within Australia, this proved not to be so much of an obstacle. The MM began to organise among the unemployed working on public works projects at starvation wages. It bypassed union officials and stressed rank-and-file control, and won several strikes despite the workers having limited bargaining power. So the story offers no simple lessons. Tom gives us a portrait of a group of militants trying to build a rank-and-file approach.

Tom’s The Expropriators are Expropriated is a wonderful introduction to the fundamentals of Marxism with the depth, nuance, and breadth necessary for understanding the modern world.