March 23, 2015

Book Review: Adam Tooze, “The Deluge”

Posted in Book Review, Economics, Europe, Fascism, History, Imperialism, Int'l Trade tagged , , , , , , , , , at 01:33 by Matthijs Krul

“Liberalism is the only thing that can save civilization from chaos – from a flood of ultra-radicalism that will swamp the world…” These are the words of Woodrow Wilson aboard the SS George Washington in December 1918, reflecting on the tasks confronted by the United States and her allies after their victory in the First World War. It is also the fundamental thesis of Adam Tooze’s The Deluge, the long-awaited followup to his brilliant discussion of the political economy of Nazi Germany (for a discussion of which, see here and following). Applying his profound talent for combining political economy with international relations, Tooze’s central subject is the aftermath of World War I and the challenge of creating a new world order amidst the ruins of the old European powers. This challenge, as he presents it, was a dual one. On the one hand it involved the recognition by all European powers, victors or vanquished, that the United States was now the pre-eminent economic power in the world, with the potential of translating this tremendous advantage into equivalent military and political power on the world stage; and on the other hand it involved the attempts by Woodrow Wilson as American President to effect this transformation of the world balance of powers while simultaneously disentangling the United States from a war alliance that he had never wanted in the first place, and which threatened to perpetually constrain the freedom of action the Americans needed to make this potential a reality.

The main dynamic through which this contest was fought out, in Tooze’s economic historical telling, is the question of debt and credit. While Tooze emphasizes that the American contribution to the Entente victory in the military sphere was modest at best, the main American contribution lay not in manpower or materiel, but in the financing of the war effort. The Entente victors ended the war owing the United States a vast sum in inter-Allied debts, and the Americans – Democrats and Republicans alike – were intent on making good on these claims and in so doing subjugate the British and French permanently to a world order of American dominance. However, what complicated the picture was the demand for reparations established by the Entente powers against (especially) Germany, which was perpetually unable to actually pay these. The efforts of international diplomacy and politics in the period 1916-1930 therefore became a veritable pyramid scheme with the United States on top, and each debtor below attempting to recoup their own losses before the whole collapsed under its contradictions. In order to forestall such a collapse and to obtain the necessary leverage combined with the equally necessary flexibility, the Entente powers attempted various means of political institutionalization of the debt and credit relations, from the League of Nations to the series of international agreements between Versailles (1919) and the Young Plan (1930).

Tooze’s narrative, while complex and providing a wealth of substantive detail on everything from the Soviet-Polish War to the internal dynamics of Japanese interwar parliaments, can roughly be summarized as follows. Wilson’s politics, Tooze argues, have wrongly been portrayed as a naive or ‘idealist’ internationalism. Instead, what Wilson recognized was that the only possibility to prevent another such political crisis as 1914 was the establishment of a new liberal order. This order must be based on the fact of American hegemony (which naturally Wilson favored), and in order to achieve this, it was necessary to avoid permanent alliances between the US and European powers, instead favoring ‘peace without victory’ in World War I. When this failed, Wilson shifted to a strategy of using the inter-Allied debt leverage to enforce his vision, seeking to use this constraint on the freedom of the victorious European powers to prevent them from any further 19th century style inter-imperialist rivalry. Instead of the old balance and rivalry of powers, there was now to be a world based on the ‘Open Door’, the freedom of the seas, and the liberal international institutions like the League of Nations. This would guarantee a world where liberal-democratic principles could slowly embed themselves in all the major states and where American economic superiority could be peacefully translated into political dominance without the need for further intercontinental entanglement.

Tooze’s tale, however, is not one of success but of failure. The two central theses he develops out of his narrative are the observations that 1) this liberal-democratic new order was the only possibility to prevent the twin radicalisms of Communism and fascism from taking hold in a serious way, and 2) that it failed to come about due to the incompatibility of the demands of the winners and losers of the post-WWI settlement and due to the repeated failure of American diplomacy to effectively cajole the main powers into a ‘peace without victory’. The result was the ‘second Thirty Years War’, as some historians are now describing it, that we are all familiar with. This approach involves a convincing reinterpretation and rehabilitation of many aspects of the period often dismissed in later years: Wilson’s internationalist vision, both less naive and less successful than often portrayed; the Versailles Treaty, a necessary step in institutionalizing the “chain gang” that bound the losing powers to the winning powers and the winning powers to the United States; and even the much-condemned Clemenceau and French foreign policy, whose supposed revanchism against Germany appears very defensible in light of the damaged and exposed position of the postwar French state.

The strength of Tooze’s narrative, besides his admirable command of source materials and the logic of international macroeconomics, is to replace the usual psychologizing narratives of WWI and its aftermath (Clemenceau’s revenge, Lloyd George’s deceit, Wilson’s naivete, Lenin’s devilishness, etc) with a plausible model that explains the diplomatic continuities across parties of the period in terms of economic and political interests. In that sense this work definitely represents the ‘realist’ approach in international relations at its best. But it is not wholly shorn of discussions of ideology and the domestic conflicts of parties and factions either: an important part of Tooze’s discussion of the would-be liberal global dispensation is the domestic opposition between the liberal-internationalist politicians, oriented towards the United States, and the radicals of left and right, seeking to prevent the former from bringing about this order. In this model it therefore makes less difference what individuals or even political ideologies were involved, but mainly what position they took vis-a-vis this “remaking of global order”, as the book’s subtitle puts it – hence the convergence between a bourgeois radical like Clemenceau and a rightwing nationalist like Stresemann. Yet both the oppositionalism of left and right radicals and the opportunism of this expansive ‘center’ meant that those in the “chain gang” failed to come to terms with the new order sufficiently to make its institutions work. The result, Tooze suggests, was the stillbirth of democracy in much of the world and the victory of the radical forces over the liberals, so that another world war became inevitable.

The obvious strengths of this explanation are also its weaknesses. Much more than in his rightly lauded previous work, The Wages of Destruction, the worldview expressed in the book seems that of a contemporary ‘muscular liberalism’. Tooze truly believes in the liberal hierarchy of nations supervised by the United States, and wishes it could have been established earlier. This necessitates some political judgements that are, to say the least, debatable. He does not hide the fundamentally imperialist nature of Britain or France after WWI or their futile efforts to combine the new internationalism with a stronger grip on their colonies. But he never quite reconciles the enduring imperialist adventures he describes – from the colonization of Egypt in 1919 to the Japanese efforts to divide and rule in China or the Franco-British schemes in the Middle East – with his repeated assertion that the new world order was based on the recognition that the ‘old imperialism’ (which Tooze argues only really started in the 1880s anyway) was no longer possible in an era of mass mobilization, and that the era of global competition was over (287). He is therefore unjustifiably sanguine about the “liberal imperialism” and its supposed moral advances over the previous era.

Tooze is honest enough to report the contradictions: “Liberal visions”, he writes in a discussion of the British suppression of Indian national liberation between the wars, “were necessary to sustain empire in the sense that they offered fundamental justifications. But they were always likely to be reduced to painful hypocrisy by the real practices of imperial power…” (391). Very true. But how are we to reconcile this hypocrisy with the seemingly self-evident desirability of the liberal order over that of the ‘radicals’? A similar problem appears in the omission of any discussion of the racial dimension. Again, Tooze honestly reports on Wilson’s white supremacist views, and how the latter’s politics were founded on his hatred of the Reconstruction period. He regularly mentions the usage of racial categories and language by the diplomats of the Entente nations, and the hasty rejection of Japan’s motion for racial equality in the Treaty of Versailles. But the connection between these views of racial hierarchy and the content of what he sometimes calls the “liberal imperial order” – even had it succeeded – is not made explicit.

This stands in strange contradiction to the importance he attaches to the racial-colonial dynamic of Nazi Germany’s war strategy in The Wages of Destruction, where precisely the importance attached to this dimension gives his narrative such an added explanatory power. Japan’s defection from the liberal order towards fascist military adventurism is portrayed as a consequence of the Great Depression, which there as elsewhere robbed the liberals of their main (economic) arguments to hold the revanchists at bay. This is true enough as it goes; but might it not also have something to do with the statement by Victor Wellesley of the Foreign Office on Chinese policy, which was founded on the observation that “the prestige of the European races has been steadily declining in the Far East… and it has suffered a severe blow as a result of the Great War” (406)? Do not the repeated expressions of racial contempt for Slavic peoples, for the ‘Jewish degenerate’ Bolsheviks, and the horror stories about the Senegalese forces in French service, combined with the white supremacist policies of the Americans, perhaps matter more than incidentally for the shape the postwar order took and the inspiration of fascism? In his previous book Tooze was clear about this; in the present it seems much more muddled.

Radicalism, for Tooze’s liberal IR realism, is all of one kind and necessarily leads to war and destruction without clear advantages. The book throughout equates Communists, fascists, anarchists and other radicals in the political sphere, making it a matter of diplomatic indifference whom one is dealing with; he equally applauds Gustav Noske’s repression of the Spartakusbund as the failure of the Beer Hall Putsch. The Soviet Union is treated with nothing but scorn and contempt, and Lenin appears as nothing but a deluded adventurer who destroyed Russian democracy (the Constituent Assembly, which gets a great deal of space) and became a puppet of German interests. (Given Tooze’s main sources on the Russian Revolution and its aftermath appear to be the works of Richard Pipes and Orlando Figes, his lopsided and absurd judgements are perhaps not so surprising.) The repeated repression of the workers’ movement, from the French miners to the revolutionary moment of 1919-1920 all the way to the UK General Strike of 1926, is virtually without fail applauded by Tooze. For him, Noske is a responsible statesman, Clemenceau a “pragmatic reformer” who was “demonised” for repressing the miners’ strikes with armed force by the “doctrinaires” of the French Socialist Party, and the Entente intervention against the October Revolution a defense of democracy. The ‘Red Scare’ and Palmer raids in the US after WWI, often seen as precursors to McCarthyism, are a mere “carnivalesque distraction” (354). The minor welfare programmes and high taxes of the Lib-Lab policies in Western Europe after the war, however, represent “immense new burdens” (250), and the pensions and compensations for war veterans a dubious “new notion of entitlement” (359).

Although Tooze repeatedly admits that the liberal imperial order he favors did not really – beyond the persona of Wilson – have the support of the great majority, he sticks to defending it without fail as “progressive” or the “progressive center”, even putting ‘imperialist’ between scare quotes when applied to its protagonists, despite his own descriptions of the fundamental accuracy of that term. In distinction to this progressivity, the radicals can never be right – that Weimar Germany or Soviet Russia attempted to come to understandings with defeated or colonized powers like China, or indeed each other, is depicted as “self-indulgent nationalist fantasy” (436). Sinn Fein’s independence movement was an expression of “apocalyptic radicalism” (377), and the repeated “political concessions to nationalism” forced upon the British empire (the only one examined in detail) are discussed with more than a hint of regret. One will find little patience with national liberation ideas or radical politics of whatever stripe in Tooze’s book: it’s the American way or the highway as far as the peace of nations is concerned.

This also generates difficulties for him in describing the deflationary policies that have become so notorious in retrospect. Whereas an economic historian like Barry Eichengreen represents mainstream opinion in (probably overly simply) seeing the crisis caused by the deflationary policy and the subsequent dissolution of the liberal-imperialist interwar order as the result of bad economic theory, Tooze is more ambivalent. He explains the virtual universality of the deflationary attachment to the gold standard as the expression of the desire to be part of the new American-led order of ‘Open Door’ international relations, surely a much more plausible explanation than simple error. However, the difficulty is that this deflationary economics undeniably was a major factor in the crisis of 1920-1921 as well as that of 1929; and these crises, in turn, destroyed the world order Tooze so favors. It therefore appears both as the necessary result of liberal internationalism and its destruction, which raises the question whether – just as with the notion of ‘liberal imperialism’ in India and elsewhere – the strategy was not too internally contradictory to have ever been a plausible historical outcome to begin with.

On that note, one final aspect of the work should be noted. It does not escape Tooze, of course, that parallels can be found between the institutionalization of international debt and credit relations between the wars and the construction of the European Economic Community after them; nor the significance of the League of Nations, the Kellogg-Briand Pact and other treaty forms of American-led international pacification for the United Nations of today. Indeed, Tooze emphasizes such continuities, suggesting that he seems to regard the present order and its problems as comparable to those of the internationalist liberalism of the Wilsonian vision. Even the role of (Soviet) Russia is perceived in this way, where German policy is portrayed as a necessary response to its inherent threat after WWII as much as before the Great War: it was the “very real threat of a Soviet takeover”, we are told, “that drove West Germany willy-nilly into the arms of the West and kept it there” (276). (In fact, Stalin repeatedly offered the possibility of a neutral and united Germany, which the West, including West Germans, declined.) For Tooze, the ad hoc alliance between the Entente nations presages NATO and the Marshall Plan, equally defined by the opposition between liberal democratic internationalism and the violent revanchism of radicals. But as the present Eurozone crisis demonstrates, the straitjacket or “chain gang” such ‘internationalism’ of debt and credit represents can do at least as much harm as the radicals, and moreover helps to bring radicalism about – a similar contradiction today to that that frustrated the Wilsonian order.

These political considerations aside, one is unlikely to find a better treatment of the intersection of global economics and diplomacy between the wars than Adam Tooze’s The Deluge. As with his previous work, it certainly helps to have a basic grasp of macroeconomics and international trade, as monetary policy, trade deficits, and budgetary constraints carry a lot of explanatory weight and the author does not pause to explain their basic mechanics. The great virtue of this work is to make reason out of folly: to make sense from the perspectives of the participants of what is often simply portrayed as naive errors of economics and politics. That is to say, at least from the perspectives of the supporters of the Wilsonian order. The tale of the rise and fall of ‘liberal imperialism’ and ‘liberal internationalism’, frustrated by the incompetence of Wilson himself, the opportunism and economic weakness of the postwar European powers, and the opposition of radical political factions, is fundamentally strong and merits a serious reading. However, Tooze’s political perspective does not allow him to tease out the inherent contradictions in these concepts and the reality of what such an order actually did and does entail, not least for those at the bottom end of the “chain gang” hierarchy. And that limits the explanatory scope of the work compared to his deeper perception in his previous book.

March 19, 2015

Book Review: Jonathan Sperber, “Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life”

Posted in Book Review, Communism, History, Theory at 02:18 by Matthijs Krul

Does the world really need another Marx biography? As a fan of the man as thinker and (to some extent) as historical figure, normally my answer would always be ‘yes’. However, recent years have seen a spate of new Marx and Engels biographies that have been thorough and substantive on all aspects of their lives. Tristram Hunt’s irreverent but sympathetic biography of Engels (The Frock-Coated Communist, 2009), Francis Wheen’s fine overview of Marx’s life and thought (Karl Marx, 2000), and especially the brilliant study of the intersection of the private lives and public convictions of the whole Marx-Engels clan (including children and domestic servant), Mary Gabriel’s commendable Love and Capital (2011) have provided well-researched 21st century retrospectives on the lives of the great revolutionaries. Add to that the solid biographies I would consider the ‘standard classics’ from the previous generation, David McLellan’s Karl Marx: His Life and Thought (first edition 1973, now on the fourth) and J.D. Hunley’s underappreciated study of Friedrich Engels (The Life and Thought of Friedrich Engels: A Reinterpretation, 1991), and it becomes a truly daunting task to add much new content to our view of either man.(1)

Nonetheless, Jonathan Sperber has persevered, and while the work is not an overall success, it certainly has some merit of originality of approach. Sperber’s speciality is 19th century German history, especially of the various mid-century radical factions and figures around the 1848-1849 revolution, and this shows. The subtitle “A Nineteenth Century Life” puts his cards directly on the table, as does the introduction to the book: Sperber is convinced that Marx was fundamentally a figure of that period, never escaped the limitations of the mid-19th century worldview, and has very little to offer to anyone living in later times. This is the burden of his biography, quite contrary to virtually every other biographer (friendly or hostile), and Sperber throughout portrays all developments with an eye to making this case. Unfortunately, the argument is simply not plausible, and it leads to not just an at times rather contemptuous treatment of the subject, but also to some very odd shifts of emphasis and context.

Sperber cannot be faulted, it should be noted, for striking inaccuracies of fact or historical detail. He only occasionally slips up (The Hague is not the capital of the Netherlands, 512), and in some small respects he even manages to add more information and correct some previous biographers, such as Marx’s relation to Feuerbach or in the supposed controversy of his marriage to Jenny von Westfalen. One can see that Sperber is best at home in the Germany of the 1830s-1850s, and the sections of the book devoted to Marx’s adventures in (Young) Hegelianism and away from it again, as well as Marx and Engels activities around 1848 leading to the birth of the Communist Manifesto are the best of the book. One of Sperber’s justifications for the new biography is the “unprecedented access” to the new MEGA2 scientific editions of Marx and Engels’ collected works vaunted by the publishers, and likely some of the matters of biographical detail corrected in this biography are to be found there. Much has been made in certain Marxological circles, especially German-speaking ones, of the great significance of the MEGA2 project and the wholly revised view of Marx’s life-work it would present; but Sperber’s biography can be taken as evidence to the contrary. Where Sperber varies from the established insider view in any major way, it is in matters of interpretation and opinion rather than of fact and chronology, and indeed very little by way of new theoretical or political advantage is gleaned from these archives in this work or others I have seen.

Those specific matters of interpretation and opinion that make this biography stand out, and not altogether in a positive way, relate to Sperber’s insistence on Marx as a ‘nineteenth century life’. There is of course nothing wrong with historicising Marx; indeed, little sense can now be made of many of the allusions, jokes, references, claims, proposals, and polemics of his life without a fairly solid grasp of 19th century politics (and economic thought), from Napoleon III to the ‘True Socialists’. But Sperber opens his work with a series of bold, unsupported assertions: that Marx’s idea of the social revolution to come was essentially a rerun of the French Revolution’s Jacobin moment; that Marx’s view of capitalism described only the capitalism of the early to mid 19th century and that none of his crucial insights apply to the modern day; that the bourgeoisie Marx by turns excoriated and exhorted has nothing to do at all with the capitalist or bourgeois class of today; and that Marx essentially foresaw nothing of lasting importance for the future. Marx is not Gandalf the Grey, Sperber mocks (xiii) – a rather amusing comparison, given Gandalf’s foresight in his older guise was decidedly limited, whereas his recurrence in greater power and foresight in a later period of the war of the ring makes this analogy difficult for someone who insists a similar return of Marx (be it in the realm of ideas) is not possible. “The view of Marx as a contemporary whose ideas are shaping the modern world has run its course” (also xiii), Sperber insists – a tall order indeed, not least when even now millions belong to political parties and movements invoking his name and several countries are ruled by those, rightly or not, claiming his inspiration.

Neither in his introduction nor in the work itself does Sperber find a real justification for this view. He rightly notes, of course, that Marx failed to observe many things that would become especially important in the 20th century West: the rise of the ‘social movements’, the enduring importance of nationalism, the Russian revolution, or even the rise of neoclassical economics. But this has been noted by many others; and they have also noted, as an ample secondary literature attests, that Marx and Engels did have at least some things to say on all these topics, and that often these few things have proven remarkably useful and enduring in 20th century social science’s attempts to grapple with these phenomena. Indeed, on page 289 Sperber himself quotes the famed anthropologist Levi-Strauss, who – while by no means an orthodox Marxist – is cited stating “I rarely broach a new sociological problem without first stimulating my thought by reading a few pages of the 18th Brumaire…”!

In the face of this, Sperber resorts to two strategies for sustaining his dismissal of Marx’s posthumous relevance. Firstly, his book throughout treats Marx’s political, theoretical, and organisational commitments and shifts in a remarkably psychologizing and subjectivist manner. For him, it seems every decision of Marx (or Engels) on whether to support this or that movement or whether to participate in this or that organisation is largely determined by Marx’s mood and illnesses at the time, by his personal relations with the characters involved, by whether he was poor or in a period of relative comfort, whether he thought to gain something by it, and so forth; in short, by any criterion at all except a serious commitment on Marx and Engels’ part to undertake what they claimed to undertake, a ‘scientific socialism’ that – successful or not – had the ambition of both scientifically sustaining the possibility of a communist revolution and showing the way towards that revolution.

There is no doubt of course that both gentlemen went through several phases of thought in their lives, and that they were by no means always consistent or single-minded on every question, as Sperber aptly shows. But he overeggs the pudding by refusing to consider first whether an apparent arbitrariness or inconsistency over time could not be explained in theoretical or strategic terms, such as to make sense of the whole of their views to a greater degree, before simply assuming the decisiveness of personal quirks. Marx and Engels were both men of great personal conflicts and of at times domineering attitudes, but this need not dominate our explanations any more than Darwin’s work and his changes of view are best explained by his personal feelings about the peoples of Tierra del Fuego or about race relations.

Sperber’s approach has the merit, to be sure, of not making the opposite mistake: unlike some biographers on the other end of the spectrum (not least politically), he does not assume beforehand to study Marx in “the unity of his thought”(2), nor that any complete consistency of approach and ‘method’ is to be found in Marx’s work throughout his life. Indeed, it is a welcome reminder in some senses that the enduring problems of the left – how to relate to certain nationalist movements, whether it is better to pursue communism in larger states or to support self-determination for minorities first, how to engage with gender and race questions, how to separate personal sectarianism from principled differences, how to approach elections, reform measures versus revolutionary adventures, etc – were just as much problems Marx and Engels had trouble solving and had inconsistent views on. Indeed, more often than not all sides in these debates have been able to find quotes from the masters in their favor, which should be telling.

Also, for all Sperber’s occasionally dismissive attitude to the substance of Marx’s thought, he is fairly accurate in representing it. Even the section on Marx’s economic thought, often a stumbling block for unwary biographers, is acceptable enough. But this is mitigated by the second aspect of Sperber’s historicising strategy: in line with his own specialisations, Marx’s actual theoretical thought – especially that of the later period after the US Civil War – is treated in a very summary way compared with the great attention to the details of interpersonal relations among various more or less obscure Victorian radicals. To be sure, the author has the requisite discussions of the views of the Manifesto, of Marx’s efforts in Capital, his historical and journalistic writings, and so forth. But most of these warrant a few pages of loose description at most, and generally with a focus on their significance for Marx’s relations to existing radical movements and figures, rather than any serious discussion of their substance.

This fits the notion that these theories are now mere historical curiosities and that the main point of reading about Marx is the entertainment value of Victorian polemics (certainly not to be underestimated). But it can equally be accused of being a biased presentation that assumes what it needs to prove: that these theories have little to offer to today’s world. Something similar goes for Sperber’s undue emphasis on Marx’s ‘accelerationist’ support for free trade over protectionism, which he comes back to time and again; an interesting observation, no doubt, but one suspects only highlighted here because it will look odd compared to the views of most later Marxists. Whenever actual revolutionary theories come to be discussed, Sperber quickly dismisses them as being really about a Jacobin type coup, a statement not anywhere substantiated and dismissed by virtually every specialist on Marx’s revolutionary thought. Sperber’s historicising allows him to avoid overly ‘retconning’ interpretations and allows him a more nuanced discussion of e.g. the claims about Marx’s ‘anti-Semitism’ and Marx’s enduring, at times paranoid, hostility to Russia (in that sense the equivalent of modern leftist attitudes to America). But in this way it also effectively disappears the significance of works like the GrundrisseTheories of Surplus Value and Marx’s notes on marginalism (which, contra Sperber, he was aware of). This approach portrays Capital as merely a scholarly, not very revolutionary post-Ricardian corrective (here and in the discussion of the ‘transformation problem’ Sperber seems to owe more to the followers of Sraffa rather than of Marx) and ignores how Marx also wrote it “to put a weapon in the hands of workers”, as Harry Cleaver put it(3).

Ultimately, all this forces Sperber into making some bizarre statements to dismiss its current validity, such as the claim that Marx’s Capital did not foresee the existence of ‘services sector’ employees (456) – what of the pawnshops Marx regularly visited? – and that it failed to “take change over time into account” (435). When Marx does in such works make statements pointing out revolutionary implications – such as his questionable claim that corporations were a capitalist embryo of the socialist future – this is presented by Sperber as an idea that some early French socialists also had, and therefore proof of the “backward-looking nature of Marx’s economic views” (455-456). This kind of ‘reading’ can damn any author, to be sure. Marx is said to have “fervently endorsed the actions” of the Narodniks (536), when a more fair portrayal would note he did indeed applaud the death of the Czar but called their tactics a “‘specifically Russian and historically inevitable method about which there is no reason… to moralise for or against”(4). One can doubt whether the 19th century was truly “more gentlemanly” (528); whether Marx “downplayed the importance of crises for the end of capitalism” (433); and whether Marx’s engagement with the German and international workers’ movements was “accidental” and “fortuitous” (355).

Typically, Sperber notes Marx’s growing interest in rural affairs and in the possibility of revolutions outside the industrialised world in the late period, but sees this as an oddity impossible to explain on the basis of Marx’s “long-held theories of social development”. Marx in this way gains no credit for shifting views, only discredit: he is portrayed as backward looking and inconsistent where many others have seen an increasingly anti-Eurocentric and anthropologically engaged perspective (Marx’s anthropological interests appear not at all). Similarly, Sperber observes how Marx had an interest in agricultural chemistry but views this as a marginal hobby, not noting the great foresightedness in direction of Marx and Engels’ interest in agricultural transformation and ecological constraints, nor the importance of their comradely relations with Justus von Liebig, the greatest organic chemist of the 19th century. A more theoretically engaged view might have noted the significance of these pastimes, not as an inability to deal consistently with Malthus, as Sperber on one point suggests, but as important for the “abolition of the contradiction between town and country”, and indeed as empirical evidence that Malthus’ approach was not justified. But this may also be because Sperber indulges the usual fulminations against Engels, whom he accuses (!) of having invented the image of Marx as a ‘scientific socialist’ and who is to blame for all the ‘positivism’ in his thought.

This is not to say the book has no interest to people familiar with Marx. There are some intriguing details, such as Marx’s love of chess and the influence of Eduard Gans on his early formation. More significantly, Sperber’s book is good if one is mainly interested in Marx’s personal connections and relations to the various movements of ideas and politics of his time. Sperber has some useful things to say about the enduring ambiguity between what he (not very helpfully) calls ‘positivism’ and Hegelian approaches in Marx and Engels’ thought, and he is also good in relating the difficulties Marx and Engels had with the various claims of nationalist movements; although on the latter e.g. Hal Draper probably offers a more politically aware treatment. However, on the whole his work is vitiated by an unwillingness to separate major and minor elements in Marx’s life, guided by the polemical treatment of Marx as a figure who a priori cannot be read through any lens that might imply theoretical relevance.

1) Incidentally, McLellan wrote his own review of the present book here.

2) As a famous study of Lenin’s theoretical development described it. Georgy Lukacs, Lenin: A Study in the Unity of his Thought (1924)

3) Harry Cleaver, Reading Capital Politically (1979)

4) Letter to Jenny Longuet, 11 April 1881. Sperber does note Marx’s disapproval of terrorist tactics in Germany, 537.

February 4, 2015

Comments on renewing the left in Britain

Posted in Class Struggle, Crisis, Europe, Greece, Politics, United Kingdom tagged , , , , , , , at 13:08 by Matthijs Krul

Since the electoral success of the left social-democratic Syriza coalition in Greece, and the immediate challenge to austerity and the rule of finance capital in Europe that it represents, many people are understandably keen to consider how this could be repeated in the UK. While it is clear to everyone that Syriza is not presently a revolutionary outfit and not seeking to become one in the short term, it is equally clear that for a sustained left challenge to the politics of the last few decades to emerge from this countermovement requires a deepening of political organization of the left across Europe. The northern European left has an important role to play here because of the very real possibility of isolating a left confined to Greece alone, or even just Greece, Portugal, and Spain. If we are to break the back of the intellectual coalition between the neoliberal social imagination and the economic policies of austerity and debt enforcement, it is of the greatest importance that the left in the creditor countries makes a priority of making the enforcement of such regimes by their own governments impossible – not just domestically, but internationally. In the current European context, internationalism is not just a desirable principle but an absolute precondition for success.

Given this problem, it is worth looking at some of the analysis of Syriza’s success and the possibilities of replication elsewhere that has been making the rounds. One starting point is the discussion by comrade Pierce Penniless of what it would mean to renew the left in Britain, taking inspiration from Syriza. This discussion is based on a series of discussion points raised by a certain ‘Alexander Trocchi’, attached to the post. The main points for Trocchi of why Syriza succeeded was the combination of its ability to become the electoral weapon of the social movements, and its integration of both ‘horizontalist’ and ‘bolshevik’ elements on the basis of uniting behind a (fairly moderate) programme for the short term. However, Trocchi also points to a few other points of significance: the funding of political parties in Greece, allowing membership to more effectively lead to large-scale mobilization, the collapse of the extant social-democratic party, and its charismatic leadership in the person of Alexis Tsipras (and perhaps we should now add Yanis Varoufakis too).

However, as Pierce also points out, quite a few of its claims as to what it would take to replicate such dynamics in Britain are contestable, to say the least. I agree certainly that some of the strengths of Syriza derive from its ability to become the electoral front for a variety of social (and political!) movements, and this is something for which potential on the British left scene exists and is not currently realised. Other points are also surely right but not easy to replicate – one cannot for example engineer the collapse of the Labour Party just like so; on the other hand all European social democracy has for a long time been suffering a slower version of the death that is now described as ‘Pasokification’.

More dubious are the claims ‘Trocchi’ makes about ‘identity politics’ as a major inhibiting factor for the British left, or for that matter the presence of ‘Islamic leftism'; I do not know enough about Greece to say for sure, but I rather doubt that identity issues are irrelevant there, and I do not in any case know of any evidence that either of these political phenomena have been a problem to forming a more fundamental left political organization. Rather the opposite: so-called identity politics often acts as a mobilizing factor, stemming from the confrontations people face on an everyday basis with the structures of social and economic life, and are in that sense as good as any union in the classical Marxist analysis: namely in generating the awareness of conflict between the fulfilment of human needs and the organisation of society. Equally, I don’t think that George Galloway’s opportunistic coalitions are particularly significant for the left as a whole. His modest successes have had little to do with some kind of fundamental religious defect in the British left, but rather with his campaigning on a consistent antiwar platform, combined with his Labour Party skills at mobilising local ‘community leaders’ and ward bosses to his advantage. Generally, one of the problems of the author’s analysis is the use of rather straw figures for contrasting the Greek situation to ours – ‘horizontalism’, ‘Bolsheviks’, ‘Islamic left’ etc. are not really defined, nor is it evident that their counterparts do not exist in Greece as well.

In a sense this expresses one of the actual problems of the British left, namely its rather stubborn refusal to first analyse the political and economic situation empirically before deducing what mechanisms and ideologies have most salience within it: something more than a little ironic given the long British tradition of excessive empiricism. Having said that, I want to add a few critical notes both to ‘Trocchi”s claims and to Pierce’s discussion in somewhat the same style as the original, since the question itself is really worth asking, and I think it is right to discuss the various answers that have been given to it in a straightforward way. So here are some provocations intended to sharpen this discussion a bit, written on purpose in a kind of ‘stream of consciousness’ fashion that hopefully stimulates discussion more than it suggests definitive answers.

1) There is I believe no prospect whatever of the Labour Party splitting into a left and right wing any time soon, nor are British unions at all interested in generating such a situation. People have been talking for years about how ‘when the Blairites take over’ the party would split and the opportunity for alliance with the Labour Left would come. But this is illusory. The party is already firmly in the hands of the right and in fact almost always has been in the history of its existence, and more often than not the unions have firmly preferred it that way. British unions are too weak to challenge even the rule of its ‘business wing’ even within their own party, let alone at a national level; and they are timid beyond even what is justified by their weakness. The lesson they have learned more than any other from the confrontation with Thatcher is that when an open war breaks out between their side and that of capital backed by the state, they will lose. If this was true in the 1980s, it will be true a fortiori now, and they know it. Simultaneously, they are too conservative and nostalgic in their social base and political outlook respectively to attempt any kind of regeneration based on new kinds of unionism, direct action, and so forth. The only split that can occur in the Labour Party is the split of the right from the left, not vice versa, as exemplified by the SDP and by the expulsion of the RMT. And unless the right massively overplays its hand in this, the result is simply the isolation of the left. The Blairites have proven to be competent enough not to overdo this, as shown by their willingness to indulge Ken Livingstone even after his direct challenge to Labour’s official policies and candidates in London. This being the case, there is no immediate collapse of Labour on the horizon, and talk of ‘general strikes’ is especially illusory. If Labour fails to win the upcoming election, this will probably strengthen the right over the centre (David Miliband over Ed Miliband), but these kind of factional shifts in a fundamentally centrist party are not where we should seek our own opportunities.

2) It does no good to accuse Syriza or its supporters of ‘electoralism’. Generally, the accusations of electoralism and the subsequent back and forth about parliamentary power give more heat than light. Of course the power to control the capitalist state ultimately resides in the combination of the property relations that are the legal foundation of capital and the social relations of production that are its material foundation, plus the use of violence to enforce and reproduce these relations. Parliamentary power can affect the property relations to some extent, but the amount of leeway that exists there is very variable and ultimately depends on extra-parliamentary struggle and confrontation. But this is obvious: everyone knows this. When Lenin suggested that Communists take part in “even the most reactionary Duma”, this was not a sign of his belief that the limited franchise talking shop created by the Czar’s advisors was the instrument of revolution. Equally, neither Syriza nor its (radical) supporters think this is the case: indeed Syriza functionaries have several times said the contrary. The only relevant question about electoral participation, in Britain or Greece or wherever, is whether the ability of socialists to advance social revolution, which itself depends on the class struggle in general, is increased or decreased by it, all things considered. That being said, I think there are relatively few situations in which parliamentary participation is worse than abstentionism, and I certainly do not think that this is true in Greece. Even for morale reasons alone the victory of Syriza is significant in stemming the tide of austerity, and I do not see any a priori reason to believe that it would weaken the larger social struggle in Greece.

3) In any case one observes that generally the social struggle reaches a peak very soon after the imposition of the worst reactionary measures, and then dies down within a few years at the visible level – but retains or even increases its radical potential even when seemingly slumbering in the lap of civil society. This pattern is visible in the UK and in Greece as well, where great solidarity and cooperation at the everyday level, as well as some cases of heroic strikes and occupations, have gone together with a very weak level of larger organised movement of opposition in the recent period. The Greek unions have, as far as I can tell, as little capacity to affect things in Greece as they do in the UK.

4) One factor that is relevant in electoralism that is not mentioned in the analysis often is the impact of the voting system. There’s no reason at all to think that the Green ‘surge’, if it were to materialize, would affect anything as long as the net outcome is at best a gain of 1 MP. The room for any party to be an electoral weapon of left parties and movements is much narrowed in countries that have highly restrictive voting systems like the UK does, and for this reason this is a matter of significance beyond policy wonks and LibDem naifs. It is worth pointing out that Syriza obtained its result under conditions of a more proportional representation, and that in fact its actual seat tally is an overrepresentation of Syriza MPs compared to its share of the vote – a ‘bonus principle’ introduced by previous governments of the Greek establishment precisely to keep a radical challenge out and to diminish the necessity of working with such a party! This has now backfired because of PASOK’s complete collapse.

Nevertheless it underlines that the restrictions on the possibility of electoral action in the UK greatly limit relatively the potential for a Syriza-type formation to translate a broad membership base into an equally significant electoral and institutional front. This goes also for the funding of parties based on members, something which is favorable to radical parties with a greater activist base – a fact used to its advantage by Syriza, but also for example by the Socialist Party in the Netherlands. Since the UK allows neither of these possibilities to be used, the electoral strategy must be correspondingly different: trying to maximize the number of candidates standing, for example, or using electoral participation as a means of gaining short-term political traction is probably hopeless.

5) It is worth pointing out that Greece has not suffered the worst austerity regime ever – this dubious honor surely goes to Russia in the 1990s. It is to Syriza’s credit, and indeed more so to the credit of the Greek people, that the political results of this have been considerably better there. That said, one aspect of Syriza’s reformist tactics that is underappreciated is the fear of fascism: Yanis Varoufakis has said multiple times that his desire to save the European Union and even the Eurozone within it is motivated not by love for these institutions, but because for him saving the EU as such against the New Right in Europe is an essential precondition for the survival of the left. Whether this is true and whether their tactics are helpful or counterproductive in this regard is debatable, and a discussion that should be had intensively in the coming months. But it should be understood as part and parcel of the peculiar combination of radical intellectuals and reform-oriented short term policies of Syriza, and if it has merit, it should be kept in mind elsewhere also.

An important dimension here is the dimension of time: Syriza’s reformist tactics are aimed at the very short term, whereas the question of ‘Grexit’ and its potential consequences, or the possibility of an alliance with left parties elsewhere (if they should win), arises in the short to medium term. Equally, the KKE’s critique of Syriza, namely that over time their reformism can only disappoint the hopes and radical potential of the situation, must be kept in mind: what is good in the short run can become actually an aid to the radical right (as the ‘real alternative’) in the longer run.

6) Coming to the point of mass organisation: the first observation is that Syriza is, in fact, a ‘lash-up’ of a number of divergent Communist parties (sects) from Maoists to Eurocommunists, plus elements of the left of social-democracy. This coalition came together a considerable time ago to form an electoral front of the left outside the more classically Marxist-Leninist KKE, in particular to make the connection between party organisation and the electoral and organisational possibilities this offers and on the other hand the significance of the ‘social movements’. The original formation of 1989 actually consisted of an ad hoc coalition between the KKE and the various Communist factions that had left the KKE or were outside it. The KKE left the coalition after the fall of the USSR when it made a turn towards ‘fundamentals’, following party congresses in 1991 and 1996 which focused on rebuilding the party (very damaged by the collapse of the USSR) according to traditional Third International lines, quite contrary to the general rightward trend of other ‘official’ Communists. This meant the loss of the largest and most organised faction of this coalition, but the alliance of the other groups endured.

What is significant here is to point out that throughout the 1990s this coalition remained in existence while achieving virtually nothing at the level of electoral results, membership growth, or other kinds of impact based on size. After the departure of the KKE, the coalition (Synaspismos) never achieved over 5% of the vote, usually hovering around 3% or so in national elections. In 2004, this extant ad hoc coalition then merged with more independent left-wing groups, including the DEA – formerly the UK SWP’s sister party in Greece. The charisma of its new young leader, Alexis Tsipras, certainly helped, but even so the new Syriza coalition did not get beyond the usual numbers for far left groups in continental parliaments. It is only with the current crisis and the great economic, social, and political changes it entailed that Syriza suddenly rocketed upwards into its current position.

The reason I discuss this is because this is exactly the type of narrative that many on the British left do not consider possible: that various sects can coalesce in an ad hoc way, achieve very little in the short run, and yet by the sheer fact of sticking together and forming the alternative over the long run can come to play a historic role in national politics (even if just as a political instrument). The sheer fact of party organisation does undeniably play a role here, despite the understandable skepticism of the ‘horizontalists’. While formations like Left Unity and similar groups are easy to sneer at (and there is perhaps reason to do so), it is worth observing the fact that Synaspismos and even Syriza started out in no way organisationally or politically differently to these. What seems to have made the difference is to a small extent the willingness to keep a more or less broad and nonsectarian party form going that could be identified as a ‘pole of attraction’ and the basis for communication and organisation with social movements, and to a greater extent simply the seismic shift in economic and social conditions.

Here I am afraid that the primacy of historical materialism must be recognised: the success of Syriza, such as it is, is much more the product of historical and economic factors outside the control of any of the parties or activists than it is the result of any merits or demerits of Syriza itself. Even the collapse of PASOK is the symptom of a major shift in the allegiance of the Greek working class that resulted from the falling away of old patronage networks under the pressure of austerity: a sequence of causal relations not in any way brought about by Syriza, but instrumental for its current significance. Something similar applies to the experience of the KKE, whose economically superior and more radical programme has nonetheless totally failed to bring about any reinforcement of its political or social ability to intervene: even of the unemployed vote in Greece no more than 5.4% went to the KKE.

Therefore if we want to take Syriza as a model – and there should certainly be debate about whether one should – then it may actually make more sense to have a Left Unity type organisation than it may seem, despite the evident inability of such a party to affect events in the short term. (It is generally, I suspect, the case that the British left has a rather short-termist perspective and is liable to swing wildly from one panacea to another; something perhaps the result of the lack of a large ‘official’ Communist party historically, so that the strategies and possibilities for the radical left have never been properly ‘tested’ on a mass basis.) One must then allow that such a party can only justify its existence by operating in the long run, rather than expecting any results in the here and now, so that the emphasis should be rather on playing Syriza’s role as ‘weapon of the social movements’. That this is likely to produce a rather left-reformist outlook must then be accepted as the necessary consequence of present European conditions, as Syriza has (but the KKE has not). Equally, these conditions themselves must be understood as constraining the possibilities in addition to the political-institutional limitations peculiar to the UK that I described above. By this I mean that the only meaningful ‘base’ for such a party is not the working class as such, but rather at the electoral level all those whom one can draw away from Labourism into a more principled oppositional social-democracy, and at the organisational level only those sections of the population for whom something more radical than Labour is a real economic interest (plus, perhaps, leftwing intellectuals like Syriza has in great numbers). The worst delusion of the British left in this regard is always to expect that a rich imperialist nation like the UK will somehow produce within 10 years a class conscious working class that is interested in a revolutionary programme. If the KKE’s programme cannot do this in Greece, a considerably poorer country with a long legacy of leftwing resistance to imperialism and dictatorship, then it is certainly for a long time outside the reach of the British radical left.

7) The real question is then the choice between the KKE’s approach and that of Syriza. For the KKE, the strategy is to build on the basis of its own unions and sections of the organised working class, and to maintain an explicitly revolutionary programme; but one combined with an appeal to an ‘Anti-Imperialist, Anti-Monopolies Democratic Front’. Effectively, this combines 1) party unionism, 2) a principled programme and 3) an old fashioned Marxist appeal to working class unity. Its effectiveness in Greece is very limited, and in the UK I suspect would be zero. Galloway’s experiences show that the significance of anti-imperialism and a strong antiwar programme should not be underestimated, but it is insufficient on its own. Chatter about ‘monopolies’ is jargon that belongs in the 1950s, and I doubt anyone will be much enthused by such calls for working class unity without an actual basis for such unity to exist – something less and less the case in the increasingly segmented labor markets of the West. Moreover, in the UK no real party unionism can exist as long as Labour maintains its current structure: this is shown by the total inability of the Socialist Party of England and Wales to translate the RMT union’s membership into votes for its electoral front (TUSC). The same thing applies, for that matter, to Scargill’s futile attempt at building a party based on the NUM left. Whether it may perhaps be possible to undertake such an approach in the longer run, especially given the cowardice and weakness of the existing UK unions, is worth discussing; but the anti-union legislation in the UK does not make the prospect encouraging.

Syriza’s strategy, on the other hand, is as described above: a coalition of left forces with a relatively weak immediate social base, but united on the basis of an explicitly reformist rather than revolutionary programme. The rise of Syriza really has come – as senior members themselves acknowledge – because of its principled rejection of austerity and its image as standing outside the existing power structures, which in the current Western political climate is extremely helpful. Precisely because its function as an electoral and organisational vehicle could accommodate a great deal of different groups and movements, combined with its reformist outlook corresponding to the reality of most Greeks since the crisis, it had the necessary flexibility and organisational knowledge to seize its moment. That the leadership and constituent parts consist mostly of much more radical members than its party programme is in this sense a help, because it gives (hopefully) the necessary theoretical and strategic overview over the complex relations of political economy that such a party needs in order to avoid serious mistakes. However, this does come at a considerable cost: as the KKE never fails to point out, such a strategy also makes the party itself in the longer run rather more a hindrance than a help to achieving actual social revolution, if it does not go beyond its ‘principled social-democracy’, for all the reasons the traditional critique of reformism provides. This is therefore a strategy justified under particular historical circumstances and with a certain temporality, and this must not be forgotten.

8) The bottom line therefore for me is that Syriza shows that a viable coalition of left forces is indeed possible, despite the pessimism of the British left on this point, and that the party form can indeed function as a weapon of existing sects and movements of social struggle. However, the question of time and circumstance is the most important. Syriza’s ‘Marxist social-democracy’ is justified in the short term by the circumstances of Greece and the possibility it offers, but it is not to be mistaken for a long-run strategy, either politically or organisationally. Equally, the potential of such a coalition of left groups is not to be measured in the short term, and its greatest enemy is the expectation of short term successes under conditions totally unfavorable to revolutionary militancy. Such expectations have historically in the British left immediately led to demoralization, splintering, and wild shifts of ‘line’. Rather, one must combine a longer organisational view with a willingness to adjust strategy to shifting economic and social circumstances – in particular a realistic assessment of the conditions of British unionism, changes in working class composition and outlook, the significance of British imperialism, and so forth.

This sounds obvious, but so often in the radical left the ‘wish is the father of the thought’, as the expression goes: whereas the expectation in the short and medium term must be that the room for maneouvre and the social base of such a formation is limited. To do the most within those limitations is more valuable than illusions of being a ‘mass party in miniature’. Since in the UK no immediate economic or political need exists to form another left-reformist outfit next to the Labour Party – at least as long as the Labour left remains within that party – there is no need at all to copy Syriza’s programmatic approach. Rather, the so to speak ‘propagandistic’ emphasis on principled opposition to war and austerity can be the most relevant strategy in the short term as long as this crisis endures, not least by emphasizing the contrast with Labour’s own approach in this regard. One does not for that reason have to undertake Syriza’s extreme short term rescue and repair operations, so that there is no reason why a more principled, perhaps even more direct action oriented programme could not be combined with wider appeals of the kind that have brought the SNP and the Greens into the spotlight in recent years. Ultimately, the potential of any formation of this kind will depend on the vagaries of longer term economic and social factors which are totally outside the control of any small left party, and therefore neither puffed up expectations nor sectarian ‘mass party’ ambitions are helpful. Being honest; not expecting too much; and combining wide appeals against the neoliberal order with strategic concentration on those segments where potential exists is probably the best recipe against demoralization, and the best way to keep a coalition together in the long run. “Tell no lies, claim no easy victories“.

May 24, 2014

No Blood for Oil? Some Thoughts on Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

Posted in Imperialism, Politics tagged , , , , at 16:36 by Matthijs Krul

Introduction

While virtually everyone on the left would agree on the importance of anti-imperialism in principle, it is by no means always clear what this means. (I will exclude the Euston Manifesto types from our hallowed ranks.) Anti-imperialism can only be effective to the extent that imperialism is defined and understood, and anti-imperialist strategy only works insofar as there is agreement on what imperialism is. Oddly, while the rhetoric of anti-imperialism is a commonplace of left activism and organisational campaigns, there is often a lot of vagueness about what precisely is meant by the term. The fate of the antiwar movements since the war in Iraq has been an illustration of this problem. Despite the unprecedented numbers agitating against the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ and its invasion of Iraq to remove the regime of Saddam Hussein, the antiwar movement has shown virtually no staying power. The election of Obama seems to have taken the wind out of the sails of the American activists, despite the extension of drone warfare to many countries and the war in Libya, and in Europe only the occasional Israeli threats against Gaza can mobilise any numbers at all. While the predominance of economic concerns since the crisis have a lot to do with this, I suspect there is also a wider strategic problem. The best example of this is the (unofficial) slogan of the movement against the Iraq war, the concept of “no blood for oil”. By examining the weaknesses of this concept, I will try to nudge the left debate on imperialism away from its usual obsessions and towards a different perspective on the means and scope of imperialism today. Read the rest of this entry »

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