How can a Marxist read Tolkien? Or: ‘An Unreliable Narrative’, part II.

Not long ago, I found myself in a bar in Germany with two comrades, and force of circumstance brought up the writings of Prof. J.R.R. Tolkien. As a known fan of his works, I found myself inevitably confronted with the question, why someone with Marxist convictions and such a different world outlook than Tolkien’s own would enjoy his works, beyond the mere love of a good tale. I found it difficult to answer this question in an effective way, even though it was hardly the first time I was asked this. The easiest, and in some respects best answer is to simply say: De gustibus non est disputandum. This ancient principle is easy to defend as the essence of all debates about whether the enjoyment of a particular work of writing – or for that matter of film, or music, or any other medium – is ‘problematic’ and whether one should care. There’s no accounting for taste. More importantly, one should not want to account for taste in this sense: while the question where tastes come from, what economists would call the determination of preference, is interesting from a social science viewpoint, it helps not at all in resolving the interminable arguments about ‘problematic’ works. Such debates begin and end with a dialogue along the lines of: “But X is bad for such and such reasons!” “Yes, but I don’t care, because it’s fun”. And such a waste of energy is best avoided in the first place.

In this essay I do not, therefore, want to indulge overmuch in an argument of that kind. It’s not about whether it is ‘okay’ for a leftist, indeed a radical, to enjoy Tolkien’s works, despite their author being as far from a left-winger as it is politically possible to be. That Tolkien was indeed not even just a conservative, but properly a reactionary, in the full sense of that often abused word, is well known to anyone who has investigated his life or views in to any degree. What I want to do here is to go beyond that mere observation and the intractable arguments about politics versus taste in one’s choice of reading material: I want to investigate what I get out of Tolkien’s works, despite being so opposed to his politics, his religion, and indeed much of his worldview, and in so doing perhaps contribute also to an understanding among radicals of how his work can even so fulfil a need that is not met by any avowedly left-wing work, not even in the genre of left-wing fantasy. Indeed, this also means engaging with some of the extant critiques and evaluations of Tolkien’s works, but not at the level of apologetics or to join the critics, but for the purposes of getting a better grip on what, in my view, his contribution is really about. More than that, I hope to do so in a different way than most commentary on Tolkien has done: by going beyond The Lord of the Rings in examining his ‘Legendarium’, the total of his life’s mythopoeic work, of which the story of the hobbits and Mount Doom is only a relatively small component. The Legendarium, taken as a whole and as a single project, is I think the proper subject for understanding Tolkien. So the purpose of this essay is not to convince you that you should like Tolkien if you do not do so already. That would be ridiculous. But it is to suggest how he can be appreciated, if one does, from the viewpoint of a Marxist.

Note that I assume the reader has a basic familiarity with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, its characters and structure, such as could be gleaned from reading either The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, or from watching the films.

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Book Review: Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, “Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work”

I have for some time been looking forward to reading Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. Not just because I know both well enough to expect insightful commentary from them, but also because their recent political writing has been an important component in the trend to re-evaluate leftist strategies (back) towards consciously future-oriented, optimistic, technology-friendly and generally ‘modernist’ approach. In these respects, this book did not disappoint. The work consists essentially of two parts. The first few chapters are devoted to a critique of existing strategies and ways of thinking as identified by Srnicek and Williams, approaches they deem to be harmful to the prospects of the left and in need of overcoming. The second part is concerned with developing an alternative proposal for the (radical) left’s political orientation, buttressed by more empirical discussions of political economy and technological change. Although in that sense the book is multi-layered and ambitious in scope, it is throughout an easy read: Srnicek and Williams have found, I think, the right tone for popular political writing that seeks to deal with abstract problems without relying on tedious jargon. If at times it seems a little dry, a bit lacking in the spark one expects of a directly political tract, it makes up for it in combining a light touch of vocabulary with analytical seriousness.

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Book Review: Adam Tooze, “The Deluge”

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

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

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.

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Comments on renewing the left in Britain

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

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