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.

December 15, 2013

Theory and the Left: A Nighttime Reflection

Posted in Communism, Personal, Philosophy, Politics, Theory tagged , , , , at 21:06 by Matthijs Krul

Introduction
In this post, I intend to do something perhaps unpopular among the contemporary left: that is, to provide a conditional defense of Theory, with a capital T, and by implication the academy from the point of view of the radical left and its critiques. While the first part of this reflection will focus on the latter, this sets the stage for my discussion of the former; it is the need to defend theory for its own sake, the virtues of abstraction, and the recognition of the nature of knowledge and what this means for a radical view that animates my thoughts.

Much has been written about the ‘academic turn’ within Marxism – and radical thought more widely – as a corollary of the decline of a radical workers’ movement. Everyone is familiar with the way in which Marxism besides moved increasingly within the domain of professional theorizing from its previous points of emphasis: economic history, economic theory and political theory are less and less Marxist, whereas (at least in the Anglosphere) many Marxist academics have either abandoned it altogether or sought refuge in the ‘safer’ domains of literary criticism, cultural studies and so forth. This is, however, in a certain sense a battle within the academy, and takes its institutional framework for granted. While I believe that this shift is a major part of the defeat of Marxism in the 20th century, both as cause and effect, this is not the view in many parts of the contemporary left. Rather, it is often questioned whether academia itself is a worthwhile thing for Marxists to pursue and to engage with, and more strongly, whether Marxism today does not suffer from an excess of theory compared to a paucity of practice. The academic left is easily blamed for this perceived state of affairs; not just individually as Marxists, but especially as those responsible for perpetuating Marxism’s academic turn in the first place. Everyone is probably familiar with the exasperated activist’s complaint that all these supposed Marxists are just writing abstract stuff in the ivory tower and that they should come down to join the streets for a picket or a placard instead. Read the rest of this entry »

October 2, 2013

Comrade Molyneux Separates the Sheep from the Goats

Posted in Book Review, Communism, History, Politics, Theory tagged , , , , at 22:47 by Matthijs Krul

The tradition of the dead generations

What is the real Marxist tradition? This is one of the seemingly big questions that causes endless argument among Marxists, usually creating more heat than light. Especially certain ‘tendencies’ or ‘traditions’ of Marxism, often ones who identify themselves in those terms and are associated with particular sect-parties, are keen to separate their own Marxism from all the others by a process akin to product differentiation. If one were cynical, one might venture that the main purpose of such activity is to stake a claim to a particular territory of ideas within Marxism, preferably one that sounds impeccably orthodox while not yet claimed by others, and in so doing to capture the few students and union members that, at least in Western countries, wander into such a wilderness every now and then. But one could also read it more charitably: no doubt for many of the intellectuals engaged in such questions on behalf of this or that micro-party it is a real question of the life or death of the organization whether their programmes and organizational rules accord with their view of the real Marxist tradition, whether or not this might require some ‘retcon’ operations to make it so.

I’ve written plenty previously about my objections to the sect form and the sects’ obsessions with organization, as well as their failure to analytically separate strategy and theory. That is not what I will do here. What I will do instead is focus more on one specific way the sects mobilize theory in dishonest and self-serving ways. One of the most important, or at least pervasive, of these is the talk of real and false Marxist ‘traditions’, and indeed to think of Marxism in terms of a ‘tradition’ or set of traditions. This is the stock in trade of many of the sects and a major intellectual component of the institutional and strategic conservatism of virtually all of them. With traditions, inevitably, comes traditionalism: the notion that the main task of the revolutionary organization is to separate the real tradition from the heretics, the pedlars of false prophecies, that will lead the sheep astray, and to defend this tradition and ‘win the argument’ (or worse, the ‘line struggle’) for this tradition against all comers.

Of course, one could argue that this is a necessary evil in a certain sense. Does not everyone seek to defend as orthodoxy that which they think is true? It is no more inherently invalid to defend something seen as orthodox than to defend something because it is heterodox, and indeed it is no worse to defend whole, coherent theories (‘world outlooks’) than piecemeal, ad hoc propositions about the world. I want to emphasize this: grand narratives are no more inherently invalid than petty narratives, certainly not for being ambitious, and equally it is not wrong to insist on theoretical coherence and precision and to reject ‘eclecticism’. In fact, the latter is often more intellectually honest if done in a spirit of constant self-improvement. But equally, it can sustain one indefinitely in stale orthodoxy that is defended for the sake of being orthodox, and this is what the talk of traditions in Marxism more often than not leads to (and no doubt, in other political schools as well – as demonstrated by a Lewis or a Chesterton).

It is therefore not to violate Mao’s fifth stricture against liberalism, to seek a personal quarrel, that I pick on comrade John Molyneux in this article, but because I happened across his booklet and it serves as such an excellent example of the poverty of argument and above all of critical spirit towards one’s own position that characterizes the tradition-mongerers. One wonders when the word ‘tradition’, or its counterpart in opposing ‘revisionism’, became such a positive term in the history of an intellectual movement dedicated to the “ruthless critique of all that exists” and a political movement that “is the real movement that abolishes the present state of affairs”. Whatever it was, I suspect it was a mistake, and the occasional invocation of Engels’ argument that Marxism is not a dogma, but a guide to action is not sufficient to make it so – that has to be proven by the arguments used and the spirit of critical thought, not just asserted. Again, this is not because whatever the orthodox view is is necessarily wrong. On the contrary, I find myself often in agreement with precisely those ideas in Marxism or those Marxist thinkers long derided by the sophisticated as dogmatic and orthodox – insisting on the absolute necessity of Marx’s theory of value, for example, or seeing much merit in the historical ideas of G.V. Plekhanov. But they are no more right because they are orthodox than they are wrong because they are, and talk of traditions encourages such thought.

The other thing about the question of the ‘real Marxist tradition’ is the notion of separating the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats. One of Marxism’s greatest strengths, it has always seemed to me, is that it is self-reflective. Unlike liberal or conservative thought in most cases, it can justify and explain its own existence as a historical phenomenon. For historical materialist thought and especially the Marxist kind, it is no surprise that Marxism came together out of its famous three components in the mid-19th century when it did: the rise of the industrial working class, the internationalism of the first great industrial globalization period, the intellectual legacy of left-Hegelianism and of the utopianism about the working class derived from Enlightenment critiques, the apogee of classical economic theory with its strengths and limitations in value theory, and so forth – it has taken many Kolakowskis worth of writing to explain it, but it clearly can be done in fully internally consistent terms. Whereas the Whig-liberal tradition, for example, has never been able to get quite beyond the notion that its concept of freedom was always a normative presence in history and for contingent reasons, whether to do with human frailty or with the pervasiveness of market failure, simply failed to emerge in most of history, and now has. It can only take an Archimedean point outside history and judge historical progress by this ahistorical standard.

Unfortunately, too much of Marxist writing coming out of the tradition-mongerers does just that and thereby weakens, to my mind, Marxism at an important strong point. It is understandable enough to want to place oneself in political opposition to this or that historical Marxist party, leader, or theorist and to explain why one disassociates oneself politically from them. Nothing wrong in such a move, and especially for the micro-parties it is essential because they need to undertake this kind of product differentiation to attract recruits. (Perhaps public choice theory should be let loose on the history of Trotskyism sometime? But I won’t tease too much.) Serious problems arise, however, when this becomes a wholesale operation to distinguish the true Marxism from all the pretender Marxists. Especially in popular Marxist writings, such as John Molyneux’s What is the Real Marxist Tradition?, this condemns one to one of two major errors. (1) Either one decides that all the false Marxisms were never part of the history of Marxism to begin with – but then how did they come about and why were they ever popular? Such an approach can always be followed in its arbitrary criteria of distinction until the only true Marxism, conveniently, is precisely that practiced by the micro-party the author is a member of (the British SWP, in Molyneux’s case).

The other possibility is to declare that they were false Marxisms, but popular due to their appeal for a certain class base or some other political foundation that doesn’t ‘count’ for true Marxism but was significant in its time – this is the more commonly chosen one, and the one Molyneux follows. But this requires no less an Archimedean point than the first one does. In both cases, one sets up the true Marxist tradition against the actual history of Marxism, which whether one likes it or not shows both a great diversity of theories and strategies and a clear refusal on the part of the majority of the world working class to actively line up with any of them (although some more than others). One separates the sheep from the goats from a standpoint outside history, one that allows you to know for past, present, and future what the correct position would have been or will be.

This begs the question: real or correct by what norm? Usually, the standard applied here is that of the ‘guide to action’: i.e., whatever brings about international proletarian revolution the fastest. But, needless to say, all Marxism whatever fails by this standard if used absolutely, for we are undeniably still stuck with capitalism. So it then becomes a question of applying it to what the author thinks the opportunities for revolution were and where and how they were missed – a highly speculative endeavour leaning heavily on counterfactual history. This is hardly a guide to action at all. What it entails is taking history, especially 20th century history, and exercising some preconceived set of normative judgements on it that, because of their counterfactual nature, can only be self-justifying. They are valid insofar as any such judgement is roughly as good as another, but that does not help us very much. At the least, one would then expect from the tradition-mongerers some degree of humility about which of these judgements is the ‘real’ and which the false Marxist one, but precisely the opposite is the case.

Comrade Molyneux’s Marxism and ours

Comrade Molyneux’s book is a perfect illustration of precisely all these errors committed by those whose Marxism in practice consists of separating the sheep from the goats. His What is the Real Marxist Tradition? was published by Bookmarks in 1985, after a 1983 publication of the same in International Socialism (2:20). This is, admittedly, a long time ago, but because it is so representative of these kind of sect-based popular works in Marxism, promoting true traditions against false ones (see also my essay on package-deal Marxism and canon-building), I will engage with it nonetheless. I believe that the practice of many Marxists has changed little, certainly in how Marxism is presented to the novice members of the micro-parties.

Why does comrade Molyneux worry about the real Marxist tradition, and why should we? Well, he tells us, it is a fact that Marxists have often been found on different sides of the barricades, fighting each other not just with words but with weapons. Besides, did Marx not say that he was not a Marxist? (This favorite cliché of every liberal interpreter is considered by comrade Molyneux to be a “neat dialectical joke”. (2)) For these reasons, then, we should wish to know who the real Marxists are – already from the start Molyneux smuggles in the implication that because of past political struggles, we must discover for each of these struggles the correct ‘side’ to retroactively support, whatever that might do. He then goes on to strengthen the argument for this ‘practical’ enterprise by emphasizing its necessity for political action. “There are”, he says, “those who would reject the question altogether, denying that the search for a ‘true’ Marxism has any meaning and simply accepting as Marxist all those who claim the label. On the one hand this is a convenient response for the bourgeoisie and its cruder ideologists… On the other hand it also suits the academic Marxologists, enabling them to produce numerous profitable ‘guides to the Marxists’, offering cribs to every school of thought from the Austro-Marxists to the Althusserians. Such an approach is essentially contemplative… Political action requires decisiveness in theory as well as practice. Marxists who want to change the world, not just to make a living from interpreting it, have no choice but to face the problem and to draw a dividing line between the genuine and the false.” (p. 8)

There are so many astounding judgements in this small paragraph that it is necessary to unpack them, just to see how preposterous they are. Firstly, one wonders what comrade Molyneux imagines the profits of producing academic texts are for the academic – is he not aware that, the occasional bestselling popular history aside, virtually all profit such a book is likely to generate (and it is likely little) will be pocketed by the publishers? Secondly, he was and is a member of a party whose acknowledged political and intellectual leader is none other than Alex Callinicos, Professor of European Studies at King’s College, London. Does he not “make a living from interpreting” Marxism and much else beside? And what is so bad about a guide to the Marxists? If Marxism is indeed an intellectual tradition, true or false, is it not the common practice in the history of ideas to inclusively and objectively present all that falls under the ‘family resemblance’ of a particular ‘tradition’, such as Marxism, or liberalism, or analytical philosophy, or postmodernism? But this is sheer contemplation, comrade Molyneux objects! One should not just write guides to the Marxists, offering cribs on rival schools of thought. This is why he wrote What is the Real Marxist Tradition?, which instead… offers a guide to the real and false Marxists, offering cribs on rival schools of thought. That, indeed, makes one contemplate – the tremendous hypocrisy of the author. But perhaps this book is distinguished because it is “decisive in theory” as well as practice, whatever that means. So let us continue.

Molyneux discusses two other approaches for distinguishing true and false in Marxism. One is the possibility of judging it by “faithfulness to the word of the master”. This, he rightly objects, leads to scholasticism – although perhaps a better objection would be to say that it begs the question, as indeed the notion of a ‘true Marxism’ presupposes that this philological certainty can be achieved in the first place. Rather, he emphasizes once more, Marxism must be a guide to action, and circumstances change. The other option is that of Lukacs: defining Marxism by method, entirely independent of its substantive content. This, comrade Molyneux tells us, is impossible. His counterexample runs as follows: if capitalism had evolved “into a new form of world bureaucratic society without internal competition and contradictions, which precluded the possibility of either socialism or barbarism, then clearly Marxism would be refuted” (p. 9) and Burnham, Rizzi, and others proved right. It is a good Popperian practice to give some contraindications, to let skeptics know what it would require for the theory to be proven wrong – which indeed must be possible if it is to be scientific. However, Molyneux’s example is typically unhappily chosen. Marxism itself, it could well be argued, precludes the possibility of a society without contradictions, and the operative concepts – socialism, barbarism, contradiction, competition – have not yet been defined and indeed nowhere in the book are defined, so that as a thought experiment it is fully inert. This is not unique to Molyneux; it is not so easy to think what a disproof of much in social science would be. But it is absolutely destructive when making a scientific proposition about Marxism such as this to not clearly analytically separate what is descriptive, what is normative, what is political and what theoretical, and at what level of abstraction one is speaking at any given time. This lack of self-reflective rigour is characteristic of the potted histories provided by the party Marxists, and also of their package deals in Marxist theory.

What, then, is comrade Molyneux’s solution to the problem? Well, to state that Marxism is both: a method as well as “certain essential analyses and propositions”. Hard to argue with, and more sympathetic to my approach than the philosophizing of Lukacs. However, it begs the question as well. He appears to recognize this when he writes that here lurks the danger of sectarianism, simply reducing Marxism to “the correct line on everything”, so that any deviation from this correct line is not Marxist: “Luxemburg was not a Marxist when she disagreed with Lenin about the party, that Lenin was not a Marxist when he maintained the bourgeois nature of the Russian Revolution, and so on.” (p. 10) Rightly, Molyneux recognizes this would be a purely sectarian reading of history, the kind of history-as-proxy-for-politics that I have argued against before. But what then? Nothing remains than the old saw: Marxism as a totality, which he settles on as a solution, and which forms his approach to separating the real from the false.

In all the tradition-mongering, this appeal to the ‘totality’ is decisive: it allows on the one hand to create whole organic ‘traditions’ in Marxism, canons of the saints, irrespective of whether the authors and politicians in question agreed with each other much or responded to the same theoretical and political problems: in this way the Trotskyist canon, which Molyneux sets out in the next chapters, can neatly include such diverse figures as Luxemburg, Lenin, Gramsci, Lukacs, and Victor Serge (all of whom are explicitly included in the text), and yet exclude ‘the late Bukharin’, Stalin, Mao, and pretty much all of the Marxists outside the First World. Indeed, in Chapter 4, the concluding chapter, he even ranks the various figures in importance, with Lenin and Trotsky at the top, then a mid-tier including Serge, James Connolly, and John McLean, but also Clara Zetkin, with finally “hundreds of thousands of working class fighters” (p. 63). History as canon, and canon as league table! That is indeed one way of seeing Marxism as a totality.

It is telling that this concluding chapter talks virtually nonstop of tradition, where it is not establishing a Great Books canon. (Just to clarify: I do not inherently object to a canon in terms of texts, but do object to how it comes about, and how it is mobilized. Perhaps one should distinguish a canon from a reading list.) In just one and a half pages (65-66), Molyneux uses ‘tradition’ ten times. How does he then justify this tradition opposed to the others? Merely listing names ex post facto, as if one were a Mormon posthumously baptizing the dead in the ranks of the saints, is not really an answer to the question posed by the title. Sadly, the answer is as circular and weak as one would fear. We are told that this tradition “is our tradition”; that it is based on nothing less than the world working class; that it belongs to the SWP and its affiliates; and that it is not monolithic, but full of debate, yet cumulative, etc. etc. Lots of self-praise, in other words, but little historicism: precisely the Marxism without self-reflectivity that characterizes the sect mentality. Not one moment does comrade Molyneux have to worry what Alfred Rosmer, Antonio Gramsci, Victor Serge and Lenin would have thought of being thrown into one tradition, let alone if the size and pluralism of this tradition is then inversely proportional to the significance of the micro-parties that carry it, like the SWP with its 1000-2000 members at best. These grand incorporations combined with the puny nature of the ‘tradition’ in actual empirical terms, that test of practice that we are assured so often is the criterion of a ‘guide to action’, make one feel as if comrade Molyneux and similar writers are looking at the history of Marxism through a telescope held upside down.

It is therefore all the more characteristic, if no less jarring, that the bulk of a rather small popular booklet is spent fulminating against the false Marxists, and that those should turn out to be in particular the ones with an empirically verifiable mass following of some sort. The Second International and its mass party building is dismissed in Chapter 1 as “Kautskyism” and is, we are assured, “a bourgeois position at bottom.” (p. 40) To see this movement, with its millions of working members, as a part of Marxism is to “mistake form for content” – did not Kautsky write in 1932 an obituary for old Eduard Bernstein, the archfather of reformism, in which he said they had agreed on all matters of importance?(3) Guilt by association is not beneath comrade Molyneux, is indeed so weighty an argument that one need not further examine any of Kautsky’s own works or that of any others in the Second International (exactly one text by Kautsky is actually cited) – working class support or no. So much for the practical test of Marxism! The Archimedean judgement prevails.

A similar process happens with “Stalinism”, which is a mirror image of Trotskyism in its historical-theoretical practice, so that each becomes a bogeyman of the other (the latter also includes “revisionism”). Stalinism gets the full treatment of the usual Trotskyist clichés about it: socialism in one country as central philosophy, “having formally inserted nationalism into Marxism”, and its class basis in the ‘bureaucracy’, whose nature and relationship to the social productive forces is nowhere explained. Again, judgements and denunciations do the work of explanation here as in so many texts (just as true for ‘Marxist-Leninists’ writing about Trotskyists in turn). Simultaneously, we are told that Stalinism is much closer to Kautsky than to Marx and even Lenin (p. 49), because of its theory of ‘socialism in one country’ – Molyneux of course going through no trouble to actually prove that there was such a theory or that it was central to a tradition called Stalinism and its influence worldwide. (Comrade Molyneux is honest enough to note that Stalin was “realistic” about the prospects of socialism in Russia and elsewhere and that for him, “the bureaucracy was not”, in fact, “a class”.) (p. 45, 47).

From the Archimedean point of view, socialism in one country and the parliamentary, cumulative buildup of power before revolution of Kautsky and the SPD are essentially the same thing – the convex lens has narrowed much more. The decisive thing, however Stalinism may appear empirically, is however this: “on the fundamental question, the international workers’ revolution, the self-emancipation of the world working class, they [the forms of Stalinism] are united in their opposition.” No need to demonstrate that the ‘Stalinists’ actually believed this – from the Archimedean point, comrade Molyneux has omniscient powers – like those of a novelist making his characters think this or that… Imagine, though, if one were to say the same thing about the ‘genuine Marxist tradition’, with its utter failure to draw any mass of workers at all! The outrage at such slander would reverberate throughout Professor Callinicos’ lecture rooms.

The final historical dismissal goes to the “Third World Nationalists”. Here, too, an ideal type is produced by reducing a ‘tradition’ once more to a single slogan, in this case “guerrilla war for national independence”, of which we are told China and Cuba are the purest examples (p. 56). This not only relieves comrade Molyneux of the need for historical and geographical specificity, but just as with ‘socialism in one country’ allows him to falsely represent responses to historical necessities – you know, those empirical tests as a guide to action, etc. etc. – as ideological points d’honneur in the same style as the list of theoretical ‘achievements’ of the real ‘tradition’ he treats us to.(4) These movements are then dismissed as idealist, for believing that the political line is more important than the economic circumstances, as evidenced by trying to make revolution in mostly peasant countries like China and Cuba; although this is of course not idealism when Lenin does the same thing in mostly peasant Russia (p. 57-58).

There is no attempt to read or explain any of the arguments for their actions used by such figures as Mao, Castro, Sankara, Cabral, or any list of other people one could point to (including theorists like, say, Fanon and Rodney). Rather, everything has to be read in such a way as to make them seem ridiculous, with no reference to context, and to misrepresent their intentions – just like the ‘Stalinists’ and Maoists etc. do with the Trotskyists in turn, all this to the despair of any intellectually honest person trying to learn about Marxism. For example, we are treated to Mao’s injunction on his forces not to mistreat the peasants, not to steal or force them to labor, and so forth. In comrade Molyneux’s hands, this is yet another sign of the misdeeds of Maoism: “What has to be grasped here is the power relationship between peasant and guerilla that makes these moral injunctions necessary because in reality it is a continual temptation to behave otherwise.” (p. 61) How much more honest the academic Marxist’s list of “Austro-Marxism to Althusserians” would be than this kind of ‘reading’ of history! Did Trotsky’s need to write Terrorism and Communism prove that in reality Communists are like terrorists, because of the strictures against it, because there is a continual temptation to behave otherwise? In this manner, comrade Molyneux manages to dismiss literally every Marxist movement, irrespective of success or flaws, that did not originate in the First World – yet , for all the talk of the problems of nationalism, not a word on Eurocentrism!

The use of sources throughout this book is also characteristic of the tradition-mongerers’ approach. A narrow and canon-building Marxism, one bent on ‘traditions’ and maintaining them, is going to use a narrow and canonical set of sources and has no intellectual ambitions beyond this, or even the honesty to state as much. It is the routine practice of such writings to cite overtly hostile contemporary or historical political sources as evidence of empirical or factual claims, despite every single rule of decent historiography absolutely forbidding such a practice. No serious historian nowadays would ever cite, say, Suetonius as proof that the decadence of the early emperors is historical fact – at least not without extensive discussion of source reliability, just like no-one would take Samuelson at his word that Marx was a “minor post-Ricardian” or claim on the basis of conquistador texts that the Aztecs and Incas were all brutal barbarians. Let alone that one would believe that the Russian Revolution was a coup by a small conspiracy of Bolshevik fanatics, because Kerensky said so!

But this basic rule of history-writing can be safely ignored if one is ensconced within the towers of the ‘tradition’. For controversial empirical statements such as “the Chinese Communist Party continually held back the spontaneous peasant struggle for land in order to maintain the national coalition in the war against Japan” (p. 61), we are given as a source none of the above, but rather… one text by Tony Cliff, founder of the SWP, and one by Nigel Harris, prominent member of the SWP! In the footnotes for the entire section on Maoism, Harris is cited as authority four times, Tony Cliff six times, and Molyneux even cites himself, besides various other Trotskyist sources. On the other hand, in the whole section on Maoism, nowhere is Mao directly cited in bibliographical terms. In fact, only one Maoist is ever cited at all, namely Bettelheim. No historical standard work or accepted mainstream text on Chinese history is cited. In a similar vein, for his analysis of ‘Kautskyism’ Molyneux relies strongly on the hostile political works of Lenin; for the Russian Revolution and Stalinism, mainly on Trotsky. The one more or less independent source is Massimo Salvadori’s book on Kautsky and his legacy – every single other source is either a political intervention or explicitly Trotskyist in origin. So much for a Marxism that is not a dogma, but a guide to action.

Conclusion

Do I say all this to mock comrade Molyneux individually? Not at all. No doubt hundreds of similar writings could have substituted for this example. Molyneux has just done what was expected of him in contributing to the canon-building of the sects; many have gone before him and probably many will follow. But it is in its brevity a compact and clear example of the combination of dogmatism, arrogance, narrow-mindedness, intellectual dishonesty, historical ineptitude and total lack of self-awareness that characterizes so much of this kind of party Marxism and tradition-mongering, and which to my mind is, within the realm of ideas at least, the main obstacle to a renewal and reinvigoration of Marxism as a serious and committed theory, one that desires a revolution in politics and a scientific analysis to make it possible. In this, I would use some of the ‘genuine Marxists’ against comrade Molyneux and all who write texts along these lines (not remotely limited to Trotskyists, I might add – they’re just admirably open about it).

The first is to say, with Lenin, “better fewer but better”: let’s not require every Marxist party politician to write another pseudo-book setting out once more the same ‘tradition’ on the basis of the same narrow set of sources and judging from the same ahistorical Archimedean point the actions of the past. This tradition-mongering is as futile as it is dogmatic and achieves no ‘guide to action’ whatsoever, as is evidenced by the very fact that it has not helped any of these people, whether in the SWP or in the CPGB (M-L), or their equivalents in any other country, come anywhere near making a revolution of any kind whatever. Indeed, this problem is remarkably handwaved away by comrade Molyneux towards the end. That this ‘tradition’ has been, in its rejection of most of the mass activity of the 20th century, “the tradition of a tiny minority”, we are told is “unfortunate but unavoidable”. Why? Because “the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class and the mass of workers reach revolutionary ideas only in revolutionary struggle”. In other words, the sects should be small, because if they were large, they would be bourgeois, except in times of revolutionary consciousness. When does this happen? Well, when revolutions happen. When do those happen? When the workers join the revolutionary party… Needless to say, such a reasoning can justify any sect, and leads us no further to understanding their contribution to this revolutionary struggle, other than as a cheerleader of their own ‘tradition’ in it.

Secondly, we must not be led into personal or sectarian fights with the members of this or that micro-party. It is not the fault of comrade Molyneux, or even of comrade Callinicos; no doubt they are as much “sincere workers who had joined their parties to overthrow capitalism” as the former charitably (?) describes the members of the CPs (p. 50). But it is clear that if Marxism is indeed to be a scientific socialism, that is to say not just a set of political demands but also an understanding of the empirical facts and trends of history read in such a way as to make the political demands possible from the current state of affairs, and to do so in a way that is intellectually honest and self-reflective with regards to its practice, then works of this kind simply will not do. If someone with limited historical qualifications like me can point to glaring holes in the methodology and to obvious fallacies, imagine how badly such a Marxism would survive the real (if limited) tests of socio-historical science.

Is this forgivable? Popularizing is important, and not every work has to be an academic text, to be sure. From the point of view of the micro-parties, it no doubt serves the purposes of limited recruitment. But the real criterion is not academicism, but whether it can stand on its own as a Marxism that critics could take seriously or that an honest observer could find convincing. After all, Marxism is exceedingly weak in our times, politically and even theoretically – precisely in the fields where its purpose is strongest, such as economics, political theory, history, and things like systems theory, we find Marxism pushed to the margins, while it blossoms only in cultural theory and literary criticism. I would therefore urge the tradition-mongerers and canon-builders to give up on these practices, for we can ill afford them, but not to give up on popularizing Marxism, which is all the more important. Here we must quote that genuine Marxist, Marx himself: “ignorance has never helped anybody yet!”

1) John Molyneux, What is the Real Marxist Tradition? (London 1985: Bookmarks). All page references are to this edition.
2) It was in fact no such thing. Marx used the phrase responding to a political tendency calling itself ‘Marxist’, perhaps the first one to do so, organized in France by Paul Lafargue. Marx was not too enamored, reports Engels, by some of the views and activities of this group and therefore distanced himself from them in these terms. There has never been any proof that it was intended to have meaning beyond that, aside from the fact it’s probably not a literal quote. See http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1882/letters/82_11_02.htm#356
3) As this published letter, located in the IISH archives, has not yet been digitized, we must take Massimo Salvadori’s word for this, who is the only source for this quote I could find.
4) These include, apparently, “the theory of deflected permanent revolution in the third world”, “the analysis of the arms economy boom and the new economic crisis” (long since deflated), and “the critique of the trade union bureaucracy” – hardly unique to this ‘tradition’, and besides nowhere in evidence in the practice of the SWP and such parties.

June 18, 2013

The Spirit of ’45?

Posted in Class Struggle, Communism, History, Politics, Social-Democracy, United Kingdom tagged , , , , , at 22:15 by Matthijs Krul

Leftwing filmmaker Ken Loach has launched a movie and corresponding campaign in the UK called “Spirit of ’45”. Already avidly promoted by the usual union and Labour left figures, the purpose of the movie is to have working people speak on behalf of the social-democratic achievements of the 1945 Labour government, and what these meant for them. This was the government that radically expanded and restructured the British social system, transforming it from a country of austerity conservatism into one of the main bulwarks of social-democracy – the pinnacle of course being the introduction of a healthcare system wholly free at the point of use, unprecedented then as it indeed still is now. Many left-leaning British people understandably have a certain pride in these accomplishments, and the Labour Party has been coasting on them in its claims to working class loyalty for practically all of the postwar period (“party of the NHS”). The purpose of the corresponding campaign is to revive this sense of pride and loyalty towards social-democracy, presumably in the hope that this will strengthen popular resistance against the attempts by the current conservative-liberal coalition to privatize swathes of the NHS, reduce or abolish elements of the ‘welfare state’, and generally to force market exchange where there was redistribution.

As a purely defensive campaign to mobilize for genuine reforms away from the basis of capitalist social relations, that is the mediation between working people through ‘free’ markets, and in favor of some manner of organized and collective solidarity, this is fair enough. Yet the spirit of ’45 is a ghost which, once conjured up, may turn out to do more than haunt the conscience of the coalition. The spirit of ’45 is first and foremost the spirit of nostalgia, a nostalgia for an idealized past of Labour governments and miners in caps speaking at union rallies. This makes it, as many of the commentators on the right promptly pointed out, little more than an extended political broadcast for the Labour Party. And this shows its limitations: not only would the Labour Party of Ed Miliband probably unrecognizable to the members of Attlee’s cabinet, but anyone whose political horizon is wider than that of Labour has little reason to be enthused by this. Read the rest of this entry »

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