Marx and Lenin both liked a joke. So they would have appreciated the irony that, since the ongoing financial crisis began, their analyses of unstable, destructive capitalism has been spectacularly confirmed at the same time that the movement they ostensibly inspired (and for a time, involuntarily gave their names to) lies powerless and moribund. All of capitalism’s house journals have run some obligatory article since 2008 asking: “Was Marx right?” but the proletarian revolution has singularly failed to rise in response.
There have been very exciting, even epochal outbreaks of revolt, but whether democratic pan-Arabism or internet-assisted student autonomism, they don’t threaten capitalism itself. These two short books don’t explore this irony, but, in the absence of the movement, they offer challenges to our received ideas about communism.
Of the two, Why Marx Was Right, by prolific academic populariser and scourge of English letters Terry Eagleton, is the less controversial. As he acknowledges, our age of no-strings-attached state handouts to banks and punitive cuts to social services has embraced a form of capitalism so grotesque that it resembles the caricatures of the most leaden Soviet satirists. Eagleton presents his book as the fruit of “a single, striking thought: what if all the objections to Marx’s thought are mistaken?” In order to demonstrate this, each of the chapters of this erudite yet breezy (occasionally too breezy) tract begins with a series of assertions about Marx and Marxism, which Eagleton then proceeds to debunk, one by one.
One virtue of this book is how believable, and in a sense how serious, these opening denunciations are. These are not the arguments of straw men, but substantial intellectual and political objections: Marxism imposes limits on human freedom; it is violent and undemocratic; it is obsessed with an obsolete notion of class; it is “totalising” and conceited in its sense of historical inevitability; and, when tested politically, it resulted in one of the greatest tyrannies in history. Eagleton deflects these through excursions into philosophy, political practice and literary analogy.
He owns up to the accusation of Marx’s belief in historical inevitability, but points out that few Marxists now subscribe to it. With reference to the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, the idea of Marx as an opponent of liberty is easily dismantled; and an account of his political practice and advocacy of the ultra-democratic Paris Commune makes nonsense of the common misreading of the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat”. In the most polemically charged and enjoyable sections of the book, Eagleton points out that the “working class” – both in the sense of those without property, who are forced to sell their labour, and in the sense of those working in factories mass-producing goods – is far larger than it was in Marx’s time, and is growing worldwide; he also soundly ridicules the contemporary cliché of class as a sort of ethnicity (as in the pernicious phrase “white working class”).
Yet economics is largely absent. Most posers of the question “Was Marx right?” have focused on his claim that capitalism is inherently prone to crisis, and guiltily replied: “Yes.” Yet Eagleton largely avoids the critique of political economy, assuming that he already has the reader’s agreement.
Most defenders of Marx have a tendency to dismiss curtly objections based on the Soviet experience before moving swiftly on. Eagleton takes this still raw history a little more seriously. The reasoning is convincing: communism, befitting a school of thought that hails capitalism’s achievements more than most capitalists do, was envisaged as taking hold in a developed, industrial, international economy. Attempting such a thing in the tsarist empire’s war-devastated, desperately impoverished, semi-feudal expanse created a despotic parody of socialism.
So what of the political leader who launched this doomed project? While the odium attached to the name of Marx is beginning to wear off, Lenin is quite another matter. Lars T Lih’s short biography (Lenin, 240pp, Reaktion, £10.95) is hardly “Why Lenin was right”, although it is no less dramatic for that. Lih advances some seldom-heard historical and political arguments in an unassuming, informative way.
His Lenin is not the secular saint that old-school communists and sentimental Trots take him to be, nor the bloodthirsty monster of the liberal, anarchist and conservative imagination. In fact, Lih gives practically all recent accounts of the man’s life and work extremely short shrift. His account denies that Lenin’s thought and practice entailed “a worry about workers”, encapsulated in his alleged conception of an elite, centralised party raised above the masses. He argues, with an assured command of his sources, that Lenin was an incorrigible optimist about working-class organisation: his overarching aim was to encourage it through education, agitation and exemplary, heroic action, rather than acting on the workers’ behalf. So in 1917, the socialist revolution was justified not so much by the teleology of history as by the – fairly indisputable – fact that the workers of St Petersburg and Moscow wanted it. That the Russian workers’ “heroic” (a word often used by Lih’s Lenin) act didn’t inspire a successful Europe-wide revolution left Lenin and the Bolshevik regime looking “like a cartoon character who keeps walking in mid-air even though he has left the cliff behind”.
The thinker and politician uncovered here is doctrinaire, to be sure – always justifying his drastic political shifts with recourse to the chapter and verse of Marxist orthodoxy – but also an unusual combination of romantic and pragmatist. The key question that anyone who has absorbed the work of Robert Service, Dmitri Volkogonov, and other historians Lih abhors will ask, is: “Didn’t Lenin wilfully create a dictatorship, replacing one tyranny with another?” Lih is not squeamish, and so duly gives excerpts of Lenin’s most notorious decrees advocating public execution and terror – then reminds us this was during a savage civil war in which every side was practising comparable or worse brutalities. It’s not a justification, but a reassertion of the usually excised historical context. Lih sees Lenin not as some euphoric millennarian, but as a compromiser who tries to make deals with private farming as early as 1919, and who spends his final years raging against the new, composite tsarist-communist bureaucracy. In 1922, we find him fuming: “Departments are shit; decrees are shit.”
Yet what really endures here is the sense that, for Lenin, a revolutionary leader has a duty to lead the working class into revolution, and all the theory in the world won’t help if the political and economic conditions are missing. Lenin believed that the first world war offered a real chance to destroy capitalism, and when – in 1919, as revolution briefly engulfed Europe – he seemed to be proved right, he felt vindicated, even relieved. He learned his mistake, and died deeply troubled by it. This excellent book advises us not to congratulate ourselves on our hindsight.
21 May 2011
Owen Hatherley’s A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain is published by O Books.