Why Not Join the Labour Party? A Personal Reply to Owen Jones and the Labour Left

The errors of the giants of revolutionary thought, who sought to raise, and did raise, the proletariat of the whole world above the level of petty, commonplace and trivial tasks — are a thousand times more noble and magnificent and historically more valuable and true than the trite wisdom of official liberalism, which lauds shouts, appeals and holds forth about the vanity of revolutionary vanities, the futility of the revolutionary struggle and the charms of counter-revolutionary “constitutional” fantasies.

Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 12, p. 378.

I am not usually fond of the obligatory Lenin quotes in socialist articles, but this particular phrase stood out in the context of what has been called ‘the defeat of the left’, and the struggle between social-democratic and radical responses to it. Lenin is dead; but the question of political strategy and socialist potential is alive. Unusually for members of the committed and serious left involved in Labour Party politics and activism, Owen Jones actually took the trouble, about a year and a half ago, to write an argument why the left should be in Labour. Of course, many such appeals for Labour get written by fake leftists, careerists, right social-democrats and think tank idiots from time to time, but such appeals make ‘the left’ into such an amorphous entity that these hacks can pretend there is a commonality of viewpoint and tradition between Emma Goldman and Luke Akehurst. The Labour left in the proper sense – those who are committed in one form or another to a substantive socialist vision opposed to capitalism and who are serious about the possibility of achieving it – rarely write such apologetics. That is a shame, because it is an argument worth having. Between the old, ossified clichés of the various ‘three letter parties’ on the Marxist left and the blatant opportunism of those using Labour as a vehicle for ‘achieving aspiration’, the arguments for party strategy are currently not well developed. Yet this is a crucial decision in theory as well as practice, and goes beyond a mere immediately tactical choice. It concerns the question of what you consider the core of what ‘the left’ should be about, for it to be worthy of its name and accomplishments.

In such a fundamental question, there are inevitably going to be both objective and subjective arguments involved. By this I mean: partially it can be debated in terms of arguments that are universalizable and general, and would apply in any similar situation for anyone, and partially it is a matter of personal commitments, priorities, and theoretical ‘intuition’, which may not wholly escape the boundaries of personal experience and idiosyncrasy. It seems fair then that in this reply I shall produce both, and I emphasize that I speak only for myself and my own considerations in this; ones which may of course change over time, besides. The question is made all the more complicated because, as anyone who has ever engaged with radical left micro-sects is aware, much of it depends or appears to depend on the reading of history in one particular way or another, and therefore it quickly gets mired in historiographical quicksand. This can’t be entirely avoided, but it is important in my view to be able to tell the difference between analytically major and minor issues. On the left altogether too much strife and confusion abounds simply because of an inability on the part of many writers to clearly state what to them is a premise and what to them is a conclusion. Explicating this will not necessarily lead to more agreement, but can make disagreement at least more productive and perhaps clear some old obstacles off the path. Continue reading “Why Not Join the Labour Party? A Personal Reply to Owen Jones and the Labour Left”

Excursus on Marxism and Religion II: On Liberation Theology

In my previous article on Marxism and religion, I argued the general theoretical case Marxism makes both for understanding religion as a social phenomenon and for arguing against it. In a sense, this could rightly be accused of ‘kicking in an open door’ (as we say in the Netherlands), as it expresses a view widely spread among the radical left today. As secularization has progressed, not even just in Western countries, left and liberal forces have by and large in their theoretical writings cut down reference to religion and spiritual revelation to negligible amounts, and practically it becomes a question of political mobilization more than one of the practice of belief. However, the counterexample often cited by those on the radical left inclined to a more sympathetic stance towards religion (organized or otherwise) is the case of ‘liberation theology’, the explicitly socio-economically radical, pro-poor interpretation of (Catholic) Christianity that established a strong ideological foothold in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s. The concerted efforts of the Vatican to stamp it out and the fall of the Soviet Union – threatening to relegate Central and South America once more to the United States’ unruly back garden – have seriously reduced its ideological and political power, but as a phenomenon it is worth exploring more systematically from the point of view of Marxism. After all, it is not often one finds pro-religious sentiment and radicalism combined in such a theoretically reflective manner, and it has done much to affect the traditionally strongly secularist tendencies among Marxists in both the First and Third Worlds. Continue reading “Excursus on Marxism and Religion II: On Liberation Theology”

Book Review: Mary Gabriel, “Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution”

The genre of the personal biography, when applied to famous historical figures, more often than not falls in the traps of sensationalism, moralism, or hagiography. This is not least the case when it comes to persons of considerable political controversy, such as Karl Marx and his friends and family. However, Mary Gabriel’s personal biography of the Marx-Engels clan studiously and brilliantly avoids all cliches and all sensationalism, portraying the characters ‘warts and all’, sympathetically but without making saints of them. Its almost 600 pages are unflaggingly interesting, intelligent, and informative even to those who are very well acquainted with Marxism’s theory and the chronology of its origins. But what’s more important is that it is virtually unique in its emphasis on the personal life of Karl and Jenny Marx, their children, their friends (not least of course Engels), and their many associates.

Although Gabriel makes sure to make clear the significance and substance of the various works Marx, Engels, and the family wrote or worked on during their life, this is not yet another political-romantic biography of the theoretical heroes of socialism. On the contrary, this book is a chronicle of their private hopes and pleasures, their struggles, and their difficulties. Also uncharacteristic for the many biographers of the Marx-Engels extended family is Gabriel’s courageous and timely decision to emphasize the significance of the lives and work of the women of the group: Jenny Marx, Karl’s wife; their three daughters, their only children to survive infancy; Freddy Demuth, the illegitimate son of Karl Marx; and the daughters’ partners, children, and friends. In the usual biographies of Marx and/or Engels, his wife appears merely in the background and his daughters are a footnote, but in Gabriel’s biography, they come into their own as serious and dedicated revolutionary thinkers and doers in their own right. In the process Mary Gabriel finally also clears up a number of small errors and confusions that have been copied from one biography to another, and she is to be commended for the great thoroughness with which she has conducted and presented her research on a topic many would think has been too fully mined to lead to any new gold.

In an era when both Marxism and the cause of women’s equality seem more under attack than ever before, and yet are more needed than ever, it is fitting and just that a great new biography should revive the founders of Marxism as human beings in all their glories and failings, and that for the first time the women in the family should play an equal role in the narrative. While the political and theoretical histories of Marx and Engels’ lives tend to be a story of triumph against adversity, Gabriel’s book makes it clear that this cannot by any means be said of the private lives of the family. More than anything else, it stands out clearly for the first time what a sad, difficult, and often despairing life they led, the women of the family especially. It has often been remarked on, but it only becomes clear from this work why the Marx women all died early, several to suicide; and it is clear that their lives were not as happy or as fulfilling of their own great talents, no less than those of the men, as they should have been.

Two great forces of their age made their lives more confined and more frustrated in its potential than anyone ought to accept of any society: on the one hand, Victorian moralism and the enduring power of patriarchal values; on the other hand, the more physical but no less destructive power of disease. The former held the women in restricted positions, endlessly sacrificing their wishes, their talents, and their very happiness to the cause of the men; the latter robbed them – the men no less than the women – of their strengths, energy, and future. In Gabriel’s book, there is rarely a moment that some member of the great Marxist family is not gravely ill. Many of Marx’s children as well as of his grandchildren died in childhood of vague diseases, caused by the poverty and inequality of their times, and incurable by the low level of medical expertise and the difficulty of affording it. In a time when both these great hostile forces, patriarchy and disease, are the prime enemies of the emancipation of humanity in most of the world, it is a sad but useful reminder of their impact to read how they destroyed the Marx family. Marx himself may well have lived longer and been much more productive, to the lasting benefit of our knowledge of socialism, had he not been perpetually ill and taken such medication as mercury and arsenic, never mind much alcohol, to alleviate it.

Love and Capital is therefore not necessarily a happy read. But it is a fascinating read, full of lively detail, engaging writing, and sound judgements. It does without the hypocrisy or moralism of many hostile biographers but also free of the pretense that the Marx family was flawless in their personal life. The author also does not shy away from the real revolutionary commitment of all the participants, not just Marx and Engels but their wives, Marx’s children and husbands also, and does not try to reinvent them as ‘democratic’ egghead theorists or irrelevant Victorian ranters. If one has to have an objection, it is some very minor errors and that the copious endnote apparatus often contains no further explanation of the many interesting and illuminating details first mentioned in the text. But those are just quibbles. On the whole, this book by a respected Reuters editor (of all people) is of enormous benefit to our understanding of the historical reality of the founding family of Marxism, and in particular of the real contribution of Marx’s wife and daughters to setting this great movement of history in motion. It deserves to be widely read and will surely become a classic in the history of Marxism.

Book Review: István Mészáros, “The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time”

If Hungarian Marxist philosopher Istvan Meszaros is indeed Hugo Chavez’s favorite theorist, as implied by the book cover, the President of Venezuela must be a patient man indeed. The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time appears to present Meszaros’ philosophy of history, and because of the high regard he is held in by many (as shown also by the enthusiastic introduction from John Bellamy Foster), this seems promising enough. But in reality, the book is a mere collection of essays, articles, and occasional pieces, by and large on the same topic. As a result, the argument, the content and even the quotations are extremely repetitive, an effect which is worsened by Meszaros’ ineptly abstract, obscurantist writing style. When all is said and done, The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time introduces few new ideas to the body of socialist theorizing about the historical course of capitalism and the transition to socialism. Continue reading “Book Review: István Mészáros, “The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time””

Unions and the West: The Scott Walker Affair

Following a headlong confrontation over the Governor of Wisconsin, the reactionary Scott Walker, and his direct assaults on the public sector unions and their legislative achievements, much of the US left is now abuzz with the resounding failure of the campaign to recall him. In what had been seen as one of the last great revivals of the labor movement in the United States, workers officially and unofficially organized against Walker, even going so far as to occupy the Capitol building and to make the functioning of the Wisconsin legislature impossible. There were massive campaigns for opposition against the anti-union onslaught, and it was seen by many in organized labor as a decisive battle on whether the fight for union rights could be won in America. Laws undermining the public sector unions had already passed without much difficulty in Indiana and Missouri, but were defeated in Ohio. In this way, Wisconsin became something of a battleground, befitting a state which has a reputation for supplying leading politicians of both the left wing and the right wing, relative to American standards. But the Democratic Party took the leadership of the campaign together with the unions, and supplied a weak centrist called Tom Barrett against Walker – a candidate who, as mayor of Milwaukee, failed to even endorse unequivocally the union position, and who had lost the election against Walker in the first place. In the end, Barrett added about 150.000 extra votes, but Walker added 200.000 extra votes, and therefore won by a larger margin than before. For all the union efforts, the Democratic Party nationally put in no real support for the campaign, and President Obama could not be bothered to do more than post a Tweet about it. This despite his pledge, during his own campaigning, that in case of an attack on union organizing he’d “put on a pair of comfortable shoes and join them on the picket line”. Continue reading “Unions and the West: The Scott Walker Affair”