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Wheen’s Karl Marx: The Man Rather than the Revolutionary

Francis Wheen, Karl Marx, Fourth Estate, 1999. Hardback, 441pp, £20.

Reviewed by Bernard H. Moss

FRANCIS WHEEN’S Karl Marx has been the talk of the town in London. Who would have imagined that a biography of the obscure German philosopher-activist vilified and discredited by the British establishment since his death, and again entombed with the collapse of Communism, should arouse such public interest and sympathy?

The book benefits from a Marxist revival of sorts. Marx has been rediscovered as the prophet of globalization and the technological revolution. The collapse of Communism has left exposed the running sores of inequality and misery caused by capitalism and has freed its critics from Cold War inhibitions. It is almost as though the collapse of the one tangible alternative, the Soviet Union, once an inspiration but latterly a counter-model for most activists, has left capitalism without real legitimacy.

Wheen’s biography adds another dimension, the human one. He shows that Marx was neither an ogre nor a saint, but a multifaceted, complex human being, loving, domineering, jealous, bilious, and convivial, suffering from carbuncles and from the death of his children. We learn that he went on a drunken spree on Tottenham Court Road just like us, romped with his family on Hampstead Heath and sent his daughter to a South Hampstead finishing school as socialists are not supposed to do.

However prone he may have been to gratuitous polemics, vendettas and rumour-mongering, Marx is shown to be far more honourable than such erstwhile movement rivals as Lassalle and Bakunin. The book debunks many scholarly myths about Marx, including his alleged anti-semitism, anti-worker elitism or social Darwinism. It is written in a rather fussy and self-conscious literary style – "the politics of flibbertigibbets"? – that is more evocative of Victorian than present-day London.

But the human sympathy for Marx comes at the expense of an analysis of his contribution as a revolutionary, the fighter for the working class who was the subject of the classic biographies by Mehring and Nicolaievsky. Not that Wheen is uninformative about Marx’s work and politics. The book contains insight into the Communist Manifesto as a guide to action in 1848 and into Capital as a work of Hegelian art and paradox that has proved less useful as a practical guide. But Marx is largely dissociated from the working class movements to which he contributed and especially from his legacy in Social Democratic and Communist parties. This means that he is relieved of responsibility for the Russian Revolution and everything that followed.

One has only to look at the British Labour Party, which was almost devoid of Marxist influence, or Marx’s own German Social Democrats where the Lassallean legacy was strong, to see that socialist parties would have emerged without Marx. Indeed, the young Marx derived his politics of class struggle and socialism from histories of the French Revolution and such republicans as Louis Blanc and Auguste Blanqui (background influences ignored by Wheen), and the first socialist workers’ revolution, the Paris Commune, took place under the aegis of the First International without Marx’s intervention.

However, it is very hard to imagine a successful Russian or Chinese Revolution without Marx and Lenin. Whether that is to Marx’s credit or dishonour, it is this practical connection to the real world, the unity of theory and practice, that made Marx so special as a writer and thinker. Marx alone lent his name to the great political movements and revolutions of this century. This is doubtless why he was recently chosen in a BBC Online poll as the thinker of the millennium.

The human dimension explored by Wheen raises the problem of Marx’s fallibility. Personal traits and circumstances, his health, the need to earn a living, his impatience with rivals, influenced what he did. He wasted much time in feuds with obscure rivals like Herr Vogt. Rather than abide competition from Willich in the communist International in 1850 or from Bakunin in the workers’ International in 1872, in each case he quit the organization. To earn money in the 1850s he wrote many journalistic articles on Palmerston’s diplomacy that lacked a class perspective. His liver ailment interrupted his defense of the Paris Commune. If Marx never made an impact on the country in which he spent most of his adult life, Britain, it was due in part to the fact that he was a heavy-accented foreigner in a country with no fondness for Continentals.

But even the unity of theory and practice was only approximate and problematical. Marx never wrote, as Wheen points out, theoretical treatises or doctrinal catechisms. Most of his theoretical works – with the exception of Capital – were really written for the purpose of self-clarification. They were also partial approximations of the truth that reflected particular influences, circumstances and periods of his life: the Feuerbachian essentialism of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, the almost reductionist materialism of The German Ideology, the Hegelianism of the Grundrisse.

Even if the broad distinction between the young and mature Marx is accepted, one must still account for the sharp breaks in Marx’s political strategy that occurred as the working class movement developed: the creation of a communist International with Blanquists in 1850, followed a few months later by fourteen years of political inactivity, the formation of the workers’ First International in 1864 and its abandonment in 1872, and finally Marx’s sponsorship before his death of directive parties led by middle class intellectuals, Jules Guesde and his son-in-law Paul Lafargue in France and Henry Hyndman in Britain, that ran rough-shod over working class traditions.

Wheen touches on these breaks in a fuzzy artistic way. Marx was good at strategy but poor at tactics, in politics as in chess, he says. "Marx’s adult life has a tidal rhythm of advance and retreat, in which foaming surges forward are followed by a long withdrawing roar." Marx spent the 1850s passively awaiting a crisis that would revive the working class movement. One could say that Marx was only following the objective rhythms of history, the advances and retreats of the workers’ movement, but there is the question of tactics and timing, the uneven development of the movement in different countries, the preference for a theoretical advance that anticipates the future – the communist turn of 1850 prefigured the Soviet Revolution – over gradual progress, that remain matters of judgment rather than of science.

If Marx like Lenin was a revolutionary of circumstance and not dogma, then he too was, as Wheen recognises, susceptible to error. But of course Marx was not merely a genius of circumstance, as Wheen is inclined to believe. Despite shifts in Marx’s philosophic discourse and political strategy there is still a constancy in Marxism and its method that makes it the most radical and thus the most scientific approximation of human history.

US Marxism: The Poverty of Theory?

Brian Lloyd, Left Out: Pragmatism, Exceptionalism, and the Poverty of American Marxism,1880-1922, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Hardback, 456pp, £35.

Reviewed by Jason Schulman

IT HAS often been asked, as the title of the book by Werner Sombart put it, why there is no socialism in the United States. What is really being asked, of course, is why is there no mass social-democratic or labor party in the US. What has more rarely been asked, however, is why have so few radical thinkers in the US contributed anything of value to socialist – or, specifically, Marxist – thought. For historian Brian Lloyd, the real failure of the American Left is not the lack of a well-established reformist party, but "the surrender of the ideological ground upon which a genuinely anticapitalist campaign could be visualized, let alone actually fought", a failure to which European radicals provided an equal contribution.

Lloyd’s book Left Out: Pragmatism, Exceptionalism, and the Poverty of American Marxism deals specifically with the thought of the self-described Marxist theoreticians of the Debs-era Socialist Party. Lloyd’s judgement of these men is quite harsh; all of them, he claims, owed far more to John Dewey, William James, Herbert Spencer, Thorstein Veblen or revolutionary syndicalism than they did to "the Marxism of Marx". Debs-era socialist intellectuals often lined up with competing visions of pragmatist philosophy which either corresponded to the outlook of the imperiled petty bourgeoisie (a la James), or to the "great promise in the cooperative and social character of industrial America and modern science" (a la Dewey). The former amounted to what Marx disparaged as "petty bourgeois socialism", the latter a version of Eduard Bernstein’s thesis that capitalism was "collectivizing" itself and automatically "growing into" socialism. American socialists who embraced "revolutionary Darwinism" agreed with Herbert Spencer’s ordered sequence of social development, but were optimistic rather than pessimistic about the supposedly "inevitable" collectivist direction of history.

In Lloyd’s analysis, both Spencer and Veblen – who thought the lower classes hopelessly conservative but believed that trade unionism would naturally "pass over" into socialism – provided American socialists "a way to get revolutionary consciousness without revolutionary theory, class struggle without the political-economic concepts that alone make class a tool of concrete social analysis". American socialists across the left-center-right spectrum embraced a "hayseed empiricism" which led them to expect socialist ideas to emerge "without the mediation of conscious or reflective thought".

Indeed, one of the great strengths of Lloyd’s book is his abandonment of the narrow left-center-right categorization of SP positions which most historians have favored. Lloyd is correct that "this categorization is useless for illuminating (1) the major theoretical events of the period, especially the reception and translation of Marxism; (2) the cohesiveness of the SP, which after all withstood until 1912 the centripetal forces unleashed by factional disagreements; and (3) the varying responses to World War I and the Bolshevik revolution, which emphatically do not correspond to the right-center-left alignment". Moreover, Lloyd writes, every variety of American Marxism during this period "was a species of economism", seeing industrial unionism as innately anticapitalist and automatically and unconsciously working its way towards socialism.

Debs-era socialists’ distortions of Marxism led to helplessness in the face of imperialism, Lloyd claims. As they had "no strategy for making concrete their abstract commitments to internationalism, they seized the ever-handy logic of nationalism. Theoretical poverty engendered complicity in the foulest of practical deeds", i.e. support for US entry into World War I and opposition to the Bolshevik revolution. Those who opposed the war "did so as demonstrators and agents of conscience, not as soldiers in a nascent anticapitalist army"; those who embraced the revolution had no understanding of the Marxism of Lenin. American Leninism was stillborn, in Lloyd’s words, because it was "founded by anticapitalists who never grasped the difference between Marxism and syndicalism, between orchestrating a seizure of power and building a militant trade union movement". Louis Fraina, the lone theorist of US Leninism discussed by Lloyd, would eventually end up alongside his former opponents in the SP in the general milieu of New Republic redistributionist liberalism, patriotic Americanism, and hard anticommunism.

Lloyd appears convinced that if US socialists had simply embraced the "orthodox" Marxism of Lenin in toto, their theoretical poverty would have been wholly alleviated. But Lloyd is forced to admit that Lenin’s Marxism was not without its flaws and contradictions; Leninism had technocratic aspects which "reflected the persistence within Bolshevik theory of Second International, productive-forces determinism", aspects which Lloyd disparages Max Eastman for embracing. Furthermore, one sometimes wonders what Lloyd’s motive is in writing such a vehement critique of long-forgotten American Marxists; even if they all really were ultimately liberals who quoted Marx so as not to be considered "renegades", it is not as if there are many present-day defenders of John Spargo or William English Walling.

That aside, Left Out is an excellent piece of intellectual history. If it does no more than to remind us that "without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement", it will have served a useful purpose.

A Revolutionary Social Democrat

I. Kh. Urilov, Martov: Politician and Historian, Moscow: Nauka, 1997. 472pp. (In Russian.)

Reviewed by Boris Kagarlitsky

YULIY MARTOV is usually considered one of the most tragic figures in the history of the Russian Revolution. With Lenin, he was among the founders first of the St Petersburg Union of Labour for the Liberation of the Working Class, and then of the Social Democratic Party.

From 1903 he was Lenin’s constant political adversary and critic. However, relations between Lenin and Martov cannot be reduced to simple hostility. During a series of dramatic political struggles, they lined up on the same side, even while continuing a furious polemic against one another.

In the years of the First World War, both broke with the majority of European social democrats, and took part in the Zimmerwald conference of socialist-internationalists. Finally, Martov not only supported the slogan "All Power to the Soviets" in July 1917, when the Petrograd workers had come onto the streets, but also remained on the side of the soviets after the Bolsheviks had come to power.

"You must understand", he explained to his comrade Axelrod, "that we have before us a victorious uprising of the proletariat. Almost the whole proletariat is behind Lenin, and is waiting for the revolution to bring social liberation. Meanwhile, the workers understand that these developments have summoned all the anti-proletarian forces to battle. In these circumstances not to be in the ranks of the proletariat, even if in the role of an opposition, would be almost intolerable."

While remaining true to the principle of class solidarity, Martov never renounced his other principles. He conducted an incessant polemic against the Bolsheviks, warning that they would discredit socialism. He denounced the red terror and demanded that democratic freedoms be respected.

Martov has attracted little attention from historians. This remains true even now that formerly "closed" Soviet archive materials have become available. The demand for new research into the past has run up against the new orthodoxy of post-Soviet society; liberal historians, like Stalinist hacks before them, argue that Marxism cannot permit any methods apart from terror, the one-party system, hyper-centralised planning and the suppression of dissent. In such circumstances the Mensheviks, who polemicised constantly against Lenin but who defended their own interpretation of revolution and Marxism, have been regarded at best as uninteresting.

During the period of liberal euphoria from 1989 to 1995, Martov and his co-thinkers were again, posthumously, in something like the situation they occupied during the Civil War. On both sides people either ignored them or were ready to pound them into dust. The author does not hide the links between his work and the ideological struggle under way in post-Soviet Russia. In his view, Russia in the early 1990s let slip its second chance to create a mixed economy and is moving away from pluralist democracy toward a new authoritarianism. Nor does Urilov conceal his sympathy for Martov; in his commentaries on Martov’s polemic with Lenin, he constantly stresses his view that the former was correct.

The question of the degree to which the society that was constructed in the Soviet Union was "Leninist" is beyond the scope of this discussion, but it is obvious that the defeat suffered by communist ideology in the late 20th century represented an extremely heavy blow to the Leninist tradition, however it is interpreted.

In this sense, the predictions by Martov and Kautsky that the Soviet experiment would collapse and that the red terror would objectively prepare the way for bourgeois counter-revolution were borne out. It is a quite separate matter that the bearer of counter-revolution turned out to be not White Guard reaction, but the Soviet nomenklatura that had been schooled in "Leninist traditions".

Such a scenario could not have occurred even to the most radical critics of Bolshevism in the years from 1917 to 1920, although Martov long before Trotsky posed the question of a ripening Russian Thermidor.

As Urilov notes, the question remains unresolved of why, in 1917, "the ’bad’ Lenin was victorious, while the ’good’ Martov lost". This might, to some degree, be explained by the dynamic of polarisation of a society that was sliding toward civil war, and in which compromise variants, democratic coalitions and intermediate positions were destroyed by the very flow of events.

In Urilov’s book one also finds another explanation, this time drawn from the writings of Martov himself. In 1917 Martov laid a substantial share of the blame for his party’s defeat on the most right wing social democrats, the Menshevik-"defensists", whose opportunism repelled the masses not only from the Menshevik party, but also from the idea of a democratic and parliamentary road to socialism. Urilov sums up Martov’s views as follows: "The bankruptcy of the politics of the Menshevik-defensists and of the supporters of the coalition led to the defeat of Menshevism as a whole, including the internationalists."

It should be noted that the polemic carried on by the right wing social democrats against Martov in 1917 was no less aggressive than that of Lenin in other years. The prospect loomed of a split between the left and right Mensheviks, but at the crucial moment Martov and his supporters did not make the break.

In this case the left Mensheviks fell into the same trap into which left wing social democrats have blundered repeatedly in the years since. Recognising that the policies of the right wing leaders of the party were fatal, but unwilling to break with them, they shared eventually in the party’s defeat, opening the road to power for more radical forces. In 1917 these radicals were of the left, but there is no guarantee in such circumstances that the radicals will not be from the ultra-right.

Martov fully merited a description which Russian socialists in the early years of the century often applied to themselves: he was a revolutionary social democrat. Nowadays this formulation sounds as absurd and contradictory as "dry water" but it fitted Martov precisely.

If he were among us today, he would hardly be pleased to find the correctness of many of his positions belatedly recognised, since the cost of these lessons has been a profound ideological crisis of socialism and the political disorientation of the labour movement. Still less would he be pleased to find himself grouped together with the present-day leaders of western social democracy who at times invoke his name.

In his book Urilov tries to expose as groundless charges of "Hamletism" and "irresolution" (Trotsky called Martov "the Hamlet of democratic socialism"). But a sense of Hamletian tragedy is always present in this biography.

Urilov argues that Martov never wavered when his principles were at stake, even taking the risk of finishing in total isolation. Both friends and opponents recognised his absolute honesty and enormous personal authority. But it was precisely in the contradiction between firm principles and the demands of a particular epoch that Martov’s tragedy consisted. At times, ideological firmness dictated he abstain from action, leaving the political stage free for other actors whose principles were less rigid.

Martov shared a general goal with Lenin, but was convinced that this goal could and should be achieved through fundamentally different methods. This was the reason behind Lenin’s pained personal reaction to the speeches of his old comrade. Despite their unceasing ideological conflict these two men felt a certain bond with one another. It was not by chance that in 1923 the news of Martov’s death was concealed from the dying Lenin.

Debate will continue on whether the political views of Lenin or Martov were correct, and on the significance and potential of reformism and revolutionary action. But the question of whether a reliable source exists, providing a basis for judging Martov’s life and ideas, can finally be regarded as settled.

Urilov’s book allows us to see the life of the ideological leader of the Mensheviks as it really was, and not as specialists in the correcting of history would like to present it.

This article was posted on the Green Left Weekly Home Page. For further details regarding subscriptions and correspondence please contact greenleft@peg.apc.org

An Honest Bourgeois Account of the IRA

Toby Harnden, "Bandit Country": The IRA and South Armagh, Coronet, 2000. Paperback, 416pp, £6.99.

Reviewed by Jonathan Trautman

THE TERM "bandit country" originates from Merlyn Rees (then Northern Ireland secretary) in the mid-1970s and according to the author he has never backtracked on it. Harnden also quotes Tory MP David James asking Harold Wilson in the Commons whether it would be possible to approach the Irish government about swapping South Armagh for the northern end of Monaghan. Wilson thought the Irish government wouldn’t agree but "should the government of the Republic show enthusiasm, it is a matter that we should not be slow to follow up". This should give you a good idea of what South Armagh meant to the British establishment.

This book is not a political analysis but rather a detailed account of the troubles in South Armagh. Harnden, who was the Irish correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, has talked to people on both sides about the military campaign and what it was like in South Armagh during the conflict. He says his aim is to strip away myth and propaganda from both sides. He certainly makes a good attempt, and much of what he details in the book will not square with what Telegraph readers are used to reading about the conflict.

One myth that is dealt with effectively is that the Republicans haven’t got mass support in the area. Far from adopting the conventional right wing view of the IRA as mere criminals with no popular base, a lot of the soldiers accepted that the local population gave the Republican forces help during operations. Harnden quotes Nick Lewis, a captain in the Coldstream guards, on living at Crossmaglen and Forkhill. While the locals got on with their daily business, the tightest security had to be constantly maintained for fear of attack: "It made us wonder whose freedom was being constrained." A mark of Republican confidence in the area is a mock advertisement in a field near where the South Quay bomb was mixed: "Richardsons Fertiliser. Tried and tested at home and abroad by PIRA."

Harnden is also dismissive of the level of understanding of the Irish question on mainland Britain, and the trivialisation of political issues by the media. He gives the example of Rats, a mongrel dog who followed Royal Marines patrols and got injured in a couple of attacks on the patrols. The British media caught on to the story and Rats was an instant hero, even being flown to London to appear on Nationwide.

The book also contains interviews with soldiers who have a certain admiration for the IRA. After Clinton had described on IRA sniper attack as a cowardly crime, Major M commented: "The sniper tactic was clever and the attacks carried out beautifully. It was face-to-face contact with a superior force all of whom are armed." After describing what actually is involved in a sniper attack, he concludes: "It wasn’t cowardly in the slightest."

There are also details of the Mountbatten assassination, the Docklands bomb and other major South Armagh operations. The cross-border relations are discussed with some quite surprising details and the author examines how the IRA got their arms from abroad.

On the back of book it says that this is "one of the most compelling books of the troubles". This is most certainly true.

Capitalist Crisis and How to Resist It

Michael Barratt Brown, The Young Person’s Guide to the Global Crisis and and the Alternative, Spokesman, 1999. Paperback, 111pp, £9.00.

Reviewed by Matthew Willgress

THIS USEFUL book shows that the ideas of Blairism and social partnership that we are struggling against in the labour movement express the interests of international capitalism. It points out that the economics of globalisation and the neo-liberal offensive are considered now as common sense, but this has not always been the case. False assumptions, like the idea that full employment must mean high inflation and that public ownership is always ineffective and inherently bureaucratic, are exposed. Even in the post-World War II period Soviet Union planning could be quick and effective despite the restraints that were put upon it. The success of Cuba (once again despite the harsh conditions it has been faced with) in areas such as health and education when compared with similar countries is another example of how free market economics isn’t the best way forward at all.

For millions of people throughout the world, Rosa Luxemburg’s alternative of "socialism or barbarism" is currently a living reality. Barratt Brown looks at the reasons behind the crises in South-East Asia, Russia and Latin America over the last few years. He adds that although we have not had a recession as such in the West, there is always the possibility of an economic slump under capitalism. Indeed, the US stock market bubble will have to burst at some point, although the depth of the crisis will depend on a number of factors.

The author then goes on to promote an "emergency programme" as an attempt to deal with the effects of the crisis where it has already struck and as an attempt to avoid a harsh crisis where it has not yet occurred. These demands which the international labour movement should be mobilised for include a Tobin tax, progressive income tax/redistribution of wealth and a policy aimed at the creation of jobs. Here his central argument is that "the world crisis is a crisis of unequal development. The neglect of social concerns is not just a moral, but an economic question. The tendency in capitalism to polarise wealth and poverty must become in the end self-defeating". To stop this, "international action is required, and it will have to go beyond remedial measures, to have any countervailing influence on the in-built tendencies of the capitalist system".

How can we do this? This is my one major disagreement with the author’s analysis. Whilst he correctly recognises that our final aim is the overthrow of the capitalist system he seems to have some illusions in progressive possibilities for international capitalist institutions such as the EU. However, this does not stop him correctly pointing out that "changes of the kind proposed in this book will not come from the top downward". The task of socialists is to be the link between "a wide range of separate forces – trade unions, organisations of the unemployed and campaigning groups of all sorts", which combined with the politically organised wing of the labour movement could change the world. He concludes that "it is the great challenge of our time to build that alliance – not just in our country but world-wide". This is a perceptive analysis of the tasks we face – fruitless "party-building" exercises and sterile propagandism will mean that socialists will be isolated from both those movements that have emerged and those that will emerge.

If we can take up this task, giving the necessary leadership, without automatically thinking we have the right to that leadership, then the lessons of the movement in Seattle and the mass vote in the labour movement against privatisation in London are that we can gain support. Contrary to the "end of history" analysts, capitalism has not resolved its contradictions. The task of rebuilding socialism and the politics of class independence internationally is as relevant as ever.