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.

January 22, 2014

Luciano Canfora and the Question of Democracy

Posted in Book Review, Europe, History, Politics, Theory tagged , , , , , at 17:43 by Matthijs Krul

This is a repost of my review of Luciano Canfora and Amadeo Bordiga’s concepts of democracy, first posted on The North Star.

In The North Star, and the left more widely, the question of democracy is one avidly debated. While many of the classical distinctions within the radical left remain valid, such as about whether or not one should participate in parliamentary elections and what the attitude towards voting should be, this is only part of a larger problem. One of the biggest issues that distinguishes the different ‘strands’ or ‘tendencies’ of the left is precisely the underlying question of what each mode of socialist thought thinks democracy is, and whether this is a good thing — in short, what does it mean for something to be democratic? Are the ‘liberal democracies’ of our time simply stunted democracies, or are they not democratic at all and should they become so? And what of the left communist critique of democracy, as found in the works of Amadeo Bordiga and similar writers?

Luciano Canfora’s book Democracy in Europe1 is essentially a history of the concept of democracy within European political thought and practice, and therefore gives a good opportunity to explore this question a bit further. Written with much wit and a certain historical flair, befitting an iconoclastic scholar of Greek history as Canfora is, the book identifies as the central problem for any left discussion of democracy the question of what is actually meant by that term. Indeed, more often than not socialists tend to proclaim their support for democracy, the need for more democracy in society (especially economic democracy), and criticize the inadequate democracies of our time. Especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, adherence to ‘democratic socialism’ (or sometimes ‘socialism from below’) has become something of a watchword for entry into the ranks of the homines bonae voluntatis. But what does this ‘democratic’ mean, and what should it mean for us?

Canfora approaches this question through a kind of reasoned history, a rough chronology of political forms that, in each case, posited the question of democracy in a new way. One must of course begin with classical antiquity, for it is there that ideologically the notion of democracy began: even now, many ‘Western Civ’ textbooks and the like promote the idea that democracy is a quintessentially Western invention, and that it originates in ancient Greece, more specifically in classical and archaic Athens. This view has been criticized by a good deal of classical historians, and Canfora is of course no exception. As we know, the ‘democracy’ of the Athenians was based on mass slavery (four or five slaves to every freeman) and on the exclusion of foreigners and women citizens from the political process. Moreover, what Canfora does not mention as much, the Athenian community was constituted in religious and tribal terms in the same way that the Roman was and its medieval European heirs, and therefore democracy as a secular sovereignty of the people was wholly absent. The frequent use of sortition by lot for the most important positions, including the executive power, had a strong religious significance. It presupposes the equality of citizens; but for the ancient Athenians it followed that therefore the candidates among them were chosen by the gods, not by men.

More important and useful perhaps than this familiar critique is Canfora’s main approach, which is to examine the uses of the concept of democracy in these times. As Canfora shows, democracy (demokratia) was almost always used negatively, by the opponents of the Athenian system during the period between the Tyrants and the defeat in the Peloponnesian War: a term to describe something akin to our concept of ‘mob rule’. Even some of its defenders, such as the commander Pericles, are hesitant about using the term too readily — for the opposition between democracy and liberty was the argument of the classical aristocracy, and to accept the former appeared to concede the latter. Equally, the concept of democracy in Athens and in the classical world generally was predicated on a narrowness of citizenship, and any attempt to actually extend it — such as in the emergency of the impending defeat by the Macedonians — to slaves, outsiders, and so forth, was immediately rejected by the Athenian assembly precisely in the name of democracy: it could only exist by sustaining a wider elite than the oligarchy, but not by abolishing it.

It is these oppositions and meanings of democracy, Canfora argues, that have structured the concept up to the period of the rise of socialism. Democracy was for most reform-minded philosophers and intellectuals a negative term, so that even as Enlightened a figure as Kant rejects it in his Perpetual Peace, and De Tocqueville’s analysis of democracy is predicated on the concept that the slow victory of democracy is the death of liberty. There is here, as Canfora shows, a kind of double irony. One is the opposition between democracy and liberty, whereas in the modern West these are generally concepts claimed to go together. But there is also the vigorous opposition by aristocracies and elites, Enlightened or reactionary, against the ‘democratic’ movements of their time, when these democratic movements themselves could only be democratic in the Athenian sense: that is to say, democratic in the sense of extending oligarchy to a wider (middle) range of people. Yet often there were also people who sought a democracy in a different sense, one not based on oligarchic rule at all, with a totally new formulation of citizenship — democrats against the democracy. This is the central conflict of Canfora’s history.

The opposition between popular-democratic movements and the aristocratic-oligarchic movements in the early modern period then appears as something like the struggle between the Roman populares and optimates, where both were essentially factions of elites fighting over the control of a captured Roman plebeian clientele. The real secret of the Roman ‘proletariat’ was that it ultimately could play its client role and act due to its reliance on the exploitation of slave labor and the conquered territories abroad (especially Egypt) — and the same is true for the revival of this democracy in the early modern age. The victory of the Parliamentarian party in the English Civil War was a defeat for the old oligarchic faction, but was a victory of the oppressors of Ireland and the gentry class, not a victory of those who took democracy in our modern earnestness, like Diggers or Levellers. The Puritan and Parliamentarian notion of democracy is again one of the Bible, and of the equal but limited citizenship of those in the ‘English nation’ that were not dependent on others for their income — whatever Rainsborough and others tried to argue.

A similar phenomenon holds for the revival of classical democracy and its virtues in the garb of the French Revolution, as Canfora shows. Rightly, he pays much attention to the often too easily overlooked significance of the Jacobin faction’s view of democracy: namely, that despite their adaptation of classical garb, they understood it radically differently from the traditional view of what democracy meant. Indeed, as Canfora suggests, their reading of the classical period was worse compared to their counter-revolutionary colleagues, the more they moved beyond the classical meaning of ‘democracy’ — especially in their firm conviction that liberty and the equality of democracy could and should co-exist.

This is shown by the great events of the 18 Pluviôse, when Danton, Robespierre and others got the Convention to pass a decree abolishing slavery not just on French soil, but in the colonies — something unimaginable in Britain or the United States, the bulwarks of ‘liberty’. For the Jacobin speakers at the Convention, it was impossible that slavery should continue in the colonies, for this would mean they had failed to “raise themselves to the standard of liberty and equality”. For the Jacobins, maintaining slavery was the policy of l’aristocratie. Canfora suggests it was this, more than anything else, that aroused wide hostility towards the Jacobin wing of the revolutionaries and precipitated their downfall.

The Thermidorean counter-revolutionaries, who would eventually culminate in the dictatorship of Napoleon I, were imbued with the classical view of liberty, and therefore saw a democracy that would go beyond its sense of ‘extended oligarchy’ as insupportable. It is equally no coincidence that the revival of the aristocracy after Thermidor also sees a revival of slavery and a revival of the religious basis of citizenship, which the Jacobins had sought to destroy. When the celebrated philosopher Benjamin Constant then inaugurates the modern view of liberalism, its Whiggish history, in his Comparison of the Liberty of the Ancients with that of the Moderns, he praises the liberty and peace that exists in that time — the year 1819, after the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, a year before the alliance of absolutist powers in the Congress of Vienna! Such is liberty against democracy.

Of course, the traditional Western view then depicts all these as tragic moments in our distant past, but democracy as a system ‘returning’ in the 19th century, with the extensions of the franchise. However, Canfora gives us much material — if very ambivalently argued — to undermine this depiction. For the victory of democracy in the 19th century is much exaggerated, and has much more in common with the oligarchic notion of democracy than with the positive. The late 19th century certainly sees the rise of mass politics, in particular with the formations of the first political parties in the modern style, integrated organizations with political and electoral strategies inherent in their programme, rather than loose alliances between elite individuals and ‘notables’ following their own sense of liberty or their moral compass. These arise especially there were universal suffrage became a real potential, the first sense of a democracy that would go beyond the classical form: in the German Empire after its founding, with the rise of the social-democratic party (SPD), and briefly in mid-19th century France, around the person of Napoleon III in his use of referenda against the oligarchic, ‘constitutional’ democracy of the 1848 revolution. Of course, in the latter case this false universality did not last, for Napoleon III immediately got rid of it.

But in none of these cases was a form of democracy found that would go beyond the oligarchic structure underlying its historical concept. What’s more, this remained true even into the 20th century. This manifested itself in two ways. One was the restrictions on the basis of wealth or education that prevailed within the widening scope of suffrage, such as in the UK, despite its two Great Reform Acts. When the great imperial powers went to war in WWI, a war Michael Gove assures us was a fight for democracy, the only country among all the combatants with universal male suffrage was Germany. In Italy, France, the USA and the UK, the suffrage was limited by either wealth or race. (In Russia and Japan, there was only a derisory imitation of elections.) Over time, however, these restrictions proved exceedingly vulnerable to attack, because they made explicit the oligarchic restrictions on a now increasingly positively depicted concept of ‘democracy’. They were of course justified in each nation according to the self-evident needs of the national interest, of liberty, or of the Germanic need for leadership, but after the carnage of the war and the revolution in Russia, this proved difficult to maintain.

Therefore, Canfora argues, a different approach was taken in response. The vote and the conception of citizenship was extended much more widely, now finally incorporating also the full half of citizens that are women — although it is no coincidence that this took the most ‘bourgeois republican’ nations and thus defenders of the classical legacy, France and Switzerland, the longest to do. This made ‘mass politics’ an inevitability, and meant the death of the old loose associations of notables constituting the friends of liberty. These mass politics then increasingly incorporated also the socialist parties, whether split into their Communist and social-democratic halves or not.

But, as early critics such as Bordiga noted, this sense of democracy as mass politics was by no means the overcoming of its oligarchic nature in effect. It would never have been possible without revolution if that were the case. Rather, what happened according to Canfora is that the major powers increasingly sought other ways to restrict the meaning of universal suffrage. Here Canfora’s own analysis becomes increasingly superficial, but we can attempt to extend its implications. One was by the genesis of mass media and the usage of it by economic and political oligarchies to influence public opinion, especially in the form of limiting the ‘range of the possible’, known as the ‘Overton window’. More importantly, and often underappreciated by the left (and here I think Canfora is quite right to give it a central role) is the use of electoral systems that are inherently oligarchic in nature. The replacement of proportional representation systems with one or two round majority vote systems guarantees wild distortions of the actual distribution of opinion, generally at the expense of ‘radical’ parties and of political or social minorities widely distributed. Gerrymandering, the reinvention of the ‘rotten borough’, which especially in the United States is a widespread and accepted practice, should be added to this.

The left has traditionally ignored these issues or minimized them, seeing them as minor problems of liberal practice or simply part of the scam that is voting anyway — but they mistake here the real nature of such restrictions. It is no coincidence that the most oligarchic countries, the one with their revolutionary content dating furthest back, are the most wedded to single district systems. The nature of such restrictions is precisely equivalent to those of ‘direct’ restrictions on voting by wealth, race, and so forth. In the United States, white conservative (or liberal) supermajorities are manufactured by aggregating all the black voters into one or two districts. In the UK and other countries with first-past-the-post voting, often a majority of the votes cast never has any effect on the outcome: a result no different than that of the ‘elections’ in the Roman Republic, where the aristocracy had so many votes that there was little point for most of the lower ranked citizens in even showing up. The ever-increasing rates of nonvoting are a clear sign of the nature of such voting systems. Add to this the constant threats of intervention or repression, whether McCarthyism or the American plan of invasion and sabotage if the PCI won the elections, or even De Gaulle’s quasi-coup and the West German ban on the KPD. If the form of democracy cannot be restricted outright, it will be restricted in other ways.

However, is all this to say then that the problem with liberal democracy is that we do not have enough of it? Canfora is unclear on this issue; for him, the legacy of the USSR and Eastern Europe is no more indication of the direction of democracy in the modern age than is the Western experience. But this is in some sense, as I indicated in the beginning, perhaps thecentral question dividing the left organizationally. Indeed, Canfora at least clarifies, through his historical analysis, two things. First, that democracy has always meant an extension of citizenship beyond the elite, but still on the basis of the oppression of others; and that liberalism, in the sense of the defenders of liberty as the highest value, has historically been hostile even to this. (A modern confirmation of this can be found in the hostility of neoliberal thinkers as well as the Austrian School economists to anything but the most superficial democratic forms.) Against both of these options, the third historical strand, the radicalism of ‘substantive democracy’ with a new formula of citizenship, also always makes an appearance wherever it can, but is generally defeated.

How then to solve this riddle? Even for Bordiga, it is clear that the first opposition, between the narrow oligarchs and the equalizers, and the opposition of both these factions to the third one, the radical democracy, cannot be conflated. “In its statements of principle, Marxist communism presents itself as a critique and a negation of democracy; yet communists often defend the democratic character of proletarian organizations… There is certainly no contradiction in this, and no objection can be made to the use of the dilemma, ‘either bourgeois democracy or proletarian democracy” as a perfect equivalent to the formula “bourgeois democracy or proletarian dictatorship’”, says Bordiga in The Democratic Principle. But the confusion between democracy in Canfora’s classical sense, and democracy as a critique of this democracy, has often led the left astray:

In order to avoid creating ambiguities, and dignifying the concept of democracy, so entrenched in the prevailing ideology which we strive relentlessly to demolish, it would be desirable to use a different term in each of the two cases. Even if we do not do this, it is nonetheless useful to look a little further into the very content of the democratic principle, both in general and in its application to homogeneous class organs. This is necessary to eliminate the danger of again raising the democratic principle to an absolute principle of truth and justice. Such a relapse into apriorism would introduce an element foreign to our entire theoretical framework at the very moment when we are trying, by means of our critique, to sweep away the deceptive and arbitrary content of “liberal” theories.

Our task, then, is to defend democracy against The Democracy, including the alliance of liberals and bourgeois Radicals (in the technical sense as referring to people like J.S. Mill or the left of the French Republicans — hence the capital letter) that until 1848 appeared to be willing allies of the democrats in the radical sense. It is in the split of bourgeois Radical liberalism from the socialist movement, as the embodiment of the radical democracy against the classical democracy, that the problem of left politics presents itself. In the West, where this split is complete, Bordiga’s critique is fully applicable — which does not solve more exact questions of electoral participation, etc., which can only be decided in each specific case and conjuncture. Outside the West, this alliance still exists to some extent, insofar as the conquest of democracy in the classical sense is — as both supporters and opponents of the subaltern project agree — itself a project that is either incomplete or has failed to get off the ground entirely.

Completely in conformity with Chibber’s critique of the subalternists, it is true both in the West and outside it that, as Bordiga says, “the socialist critique of democracy was in essence a critique of the democratic critique of the old political philosophies. Marxism denies their alleged universal opposition and demonstrates that in reality they are theoretically similar, just as in practise the proletariat did not have much reason to celebrate when the direction of society passed from the hands of the feudal, monarchical and religious nobility into the hands of the young commercial and industrial bourgeoisie.” However, the form of democracy has changed rapidly since he wrote this in 1922 (just as fascism was coming to power in Italy), and ‘liberal democracy’, as a carefully balanced mixture of real democratic elements and of oligarchic democracy, has become a completely dominant political form in the West where it has not in the rest of the world. Where we have the indirect oligarchy of district systems, Potemkin parties and the buying of votes, much of the world has these as well as the traditional impositions of the opponents of democracy altogether, the narrow oligarchy rather than the wide oligarchy — this changes the nature of their struggle compared to ours.

For us, then, a more ‘left communist’ posture is permissible in our strategy towards democracy than people in much of the world can afford. But ultimately, as Canfora and Bordiga both make clear in their own way, the form of democracy is less important than its content. The use of ‘democracy’ as a single concept has too often historically hidden that — through its many different forms — there have been two kinds of it: democracy as the equality of limited citizenship based on exclusion, and democracy as a radically new foundation of citizenship. Liberalism has been forced to make itself, against its will, compatible with the former, but only socialism is compatible with the latter.

1. Luciano Canfora, Democracy in Europe: A History (tr. Simon Jones). Oxford 2006: Blackwell.

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 »

December 1, 2013

Book Review: Sheila Rowbotham et al., “Beyond the Fragments”

Posted in Book Review, Class Struggle, Patriarchy, Politics, Theory, United Kingdom tagged , , , , , , , , at 21:00 by Matthijs Krul

Introduction
The collection of socialist feminist arguments and lectures collected in 1979 under the title Beyond the Fragments is due a re-read in our present times. After the crisis in the SWP and the lengthy debates on the relationship between Marxist organisation and the ‘social movements’, often as vituperative as they have been inconclusive, the need to go beyond the fragments of each individual movement and find resources for a common purpose is as great as ever. What is striking about this collection is therefore how little dated it is – the occasional reference to the influence of the CPGB or the rule of Callaghan’s Labour aside, most of it reads like it had been written last week. For this reason, it is worth revisiting especially the opening essay by Sheila Rowbotham, which takes up most of the book. While the other two essays, by Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright, emphasize also the practical and organisational significance of the women’s movement on the politics of the radical left, it is Rowbotham’s essay that most thoroughly gives a theoretical exposition of the flaws and failures of that radical left in taking up these lessons. Read the rest of this entry »

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