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While Elections Come and Go, Marx Remains

It is never not the season for Marx-bashing among the high-flown successors to the New York Intellectuals of decades past. Louis Menand (or Mundane, as he is sometimes called) steps up to the proverbial plate, in a recent New Yorker (Oct.10) to remind readers that Marx the “Scientific Socialist” helped bring totalitarianism into the world, and that he also had a lisp, for which he was evidently compensating.  Marx had an answer to the ongoing human and, it turns out, ecological crises of capitalism, Menand himself wisely has no real answers. But the old prophet evidently meant well, and since Thomas Piketty has made such a splash with criticisms of growing poverty and class division, we are advised that some things in Marx must still, after all this time, be attended to. If not, matters may go badly for the likes of Menand’s circles, although mainly in the realms of prestige.

As the New Yorker eagerly girds its collective loins for a new president and her new wars, it may be wise to recall the thread of socialism, not really Marxism, represented by “revisionist” Eduard Bernstein and so much resented by Rosa Luxemburg, a century ago. The optimistic, empire-building Bernstein urged German colonization of Africa, indeed insisted upon national responsibility to bring the backward peoples and their rich trove of natural resources into modern world, at whatever cost. They might suffer, but in the long run, they would better for the civilizing influence. A Menand and New Yorker sort of fellow, although closer to the bombs-and-invasion enthusiasms of George Packer.

Samir Amin (Russia and the Long Transition to Capitalism, Monthly Review Press, $23) is by contrast clearly an heir to the Luxemburg tradition, also one of the world’s distinguished critics of Empire, now well past his eightieth birthday. Global scholar and currently the director of the Third World Forum in Dakar, Senegal, Amin surveys the struggles of anti-imperialists from the inside, as a former participant in the once-heroic Non Aligned Movement still around to tell the stories. There are so many small gems of insight offered along the way that this collection of essays written over several decades cannot be summarized adequately, but the general drift is clear.

“The three great revolutions of modern times (French, Russian and Chinese) are great precisely because they looked forward beyond the immediate requirements of the moment. “ (p.79) For these sweeping world events, Samir urges us to grasp, “Thermidor is not the Restoration.” (p.79). That is, things move ahead, for worse (very often) as well as for the better, because the global capitalist market dominates along with the assorted weapons of war… but still, and whether we like it or not, things adjust.

As C.L.R. James used to remind readers, Stalinism was not a bad idea but rather, with all its degradations, a part of evolving reality. Samir wants to press home the point that something has changed, irrevocably, in our own past century, and not only for the winners. He insists we see that the crucial errors of Communists in state power can be found above all in the forced march of the peasantry toward expanded output, thus breaking the alliance with the working class that had made revolution possible, and confirming bureaucratic misrule in later decades. That oft-repeated misjudgment misrule, by no means restricted to Leninists, must also be seen in its own complexities, and with its own far-reaching consequences.

The Russian regime turned Stalinist built itself up sufficiently, at enormous sacrifice, to defeat the Germans. Thereafter, and mainly for the sake of survival against a West determined to turn back the clock, Stalin and his heirs almost unwillingly offered third world revolutionaries assistance in freeing themselves from the formal bonds of colonialism. The ongoing decline of the Soviet system, like the built-in limitations of Maoism, doomed the Non Aligned Movement (launched in 1955) along with other efforts at true economic independence and egalitarian solutions. Nationalists with spurious claims to socialist traditions—Samir naturally brings Egypt’s Nasser to mind—retreated at the first threats to their power, tightening grips on the political system around them, and ultimately insuring their own downfall.  “Populism” (we should use the word carefully) of what we might call a quasi-Trumpian, nationalistic variety that had arisen across much of the Middle East in particular, promising redemption both of native pride and of centuries of suffering, crashed sooner or later.  The forced austerity that accelerated, following the Soviet collapse, finalized matters, or, seen differently, reset the systems for the cycles of crises to come.

Amin rightly fears the signs on the horizon. The US and its allies evidently now intend a decisive reconquest, in one way or another, of the Middle East and far beyond. They will clearly stop at nothing to do so, with populations and ecosystems at risk in new and horrible ways. Russia of the “market economy” is a poor foe at best but who knows, perhaps neither Putinism nor complete capitulation to the West that leaders like Hillary Clinton in particular seek, will be the end of this story.

All this brings us back to the old and inescapable trope, “what didn’t Marx anticipate, etc etc?” Fifty or for that matter a hundred years ago, for the great majority of European and American Marxists of any variety, the unanticipated factor was undoubtedly “nationalism.”  Otherwise, why did (most) socialist leaders and followers accept their own sides in the First World War as justified, and direct their minions to into battle slaughtering each other? In recent generations, the questions of war and nationalism have turned toward empire, and with a contrast of views that has become familiar in the recent discussions of what Marx (and Engels) said and what they might have said if they had not run out of time. Scholars like Kevin Anderson, examining the late-life writings (often scribbled notebooks) of Marx, have offered further details and analysis of the master’s observations about the non-industrialized world and the possibilities, however problematic, of the old communalism leaping out of the imperial grasp and over into a newer form of collectivism.

But there is another line of thought as well. If race, class and nation are the key issues in question and the writings of Marx and Engels to be examined anew, why not look to the American Civil War, a subject taken up by the pair in younger years, at considerable length? Why not, indeed. Such a text has now appeared under the (renewed) title of The Civil War in the United States. (219pp, $14.00.) The same title was used in 1937, during the golden age of International Publishers, affiliated with the Communist Party USA.  This venerable press, now on hard times and (mistakenly) rumored to be closing, has made a memorable contribution with the new edition, thoroughly reworked, reedited (with much material missing from its precursor) and annotated by Professor Andrew Zimmerman who teaches at George Washington University.

(A little pained levity: the original editor called himself “Richard Enmale,” i.e., Engels, Marx, Lenin.  Herbert Morais, a Brooklyn College instructor, felt the need to hide behind a nom de plume, probably for good reason: he was caught in the roundup of college reds in 1941 and fired anyway.)

This is powerful stuff. Marx and Engels faced hard, disillusioning days during the 1850s, with the revolutions of ’48 behind them and the formation of the (First) International well ahead. Marx certainly needed the money, but both wrote for the New York Tribune, a reform-minded daily that Abraham Lincoln, out in distant Springfield, Illinois, read with the greatest interest. During the aftermath of the European uprisings, in 1849, Marx was already seeking to define black slavery, not as a carryover from some distant and more barbarous time, but as a precise consequence of advancing capitalism in certain circumstances. Marx and Engels’ exchanged correspondence excerpted here, over the following two decades or so, drives the point home. They were often pondering the ways in which slavery in America mirrored British colonialism in India, amidst the modernizing web of empire and race.

The two men had no doubt about the reasons for the outbreak of the Civil War, i.e., the frustrated Southern effort to expand slavery into the West, and the inevitable result of Northern victory in the abolition of slavery. Along with the Tribune pieces, the ongoing correspondence highlights the international implications of the war crisis. The working class of Europe could not fail to be involved–and not merely implicated.  The British aristocracy of blood and commerce (notably the cotton mills) naturally inclined toward the slave South. The fate of the North, of the potential abolition of slavery, arguably depended upon the actions of working class communities in Lancashire and elsewhere.

We know that Lincoln regarded the solidarity actions of British working people, palpably against their own material interest, to be among the highest expressions of idealism anywhere. Marx for his part had bitterly criticized Lincoln’s hesitations, but as the War went on, welcomed the president pressing the war toward a victorious conclusion. Marx and Engels the radical democrats, the militant anti-racists, come out strongly and unmistakably here. In the famous phrase, white labor could not be free until black labor was also free.

This commentary, published and unpublished at the time, ends with the close of the war, or nearly that.  Why no commentary on Radical Reconstruction? No one knows, really. Perhaps they were leaving the subject for W.E.B. Du Bois! But at an intelligent guess, they ran out of time and energy, as they soon faced the challenges and promise of…the Paris Commune.

Future generations, including our own, have challenges both unique and familiar, but none unrelated to the insights that Marx and Engels offered. I am tempted to give away the ending of a neglected genre novel, The Marx Sisters (“A Kathy and Brock Mystery”) published in the UK in 1994. Author Barry Maitland, a Scotsman relocated to Australia, offers us crimes committed….to keep the secret and unpublished Marx manuscripts hidden….for a future generation.  Where are those manuscripts when we need them?##

More articles by:

Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.

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