My top ten Marxists
To celebrate breaking through the 100,000 unique hits counter on Histomat, I have decided to put together my top ten Marxists of all time. I expect this may well be quite a controversial affair - but it is a personal list and I have five minutes to spare so here goes. Feel free to suggest people who are more worthy of 'top ten status' - I am sure there are plenty (Bukharin, Kautsky, Plekhanov, etc. etc.)
10. Isaac Deutscher - His three volume biography of Trotsky remains an inspirational classic, even if Blair likes it too.
9. C.L.R. James - 'a towering intellectual of what has come to be known as "the black Atlantic" and also one of the outstanding anti-Stalinist Marxist theorists of the 20th century' - International Socialism. Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the publication of The Black Jacobins - see here.
8. Tony Cliff - The only Marxist listed here who I had the fortune to meet. I never actually spoke to him personally - but I attended quite a few student meetings he spoke at before the end of his life. Firstly, it was clear he was an outstanding 'populariser' of Marxism -after hearing him speak you felt really confident as though you now grasped the essence of what Marx was saying however little you had actually read. And yet secondly, as a perfect compliment, I remember him clearly imploring us students to 'read, read, and read' - he did not want us to take what he was saying on trust - he wanted us to discover why this was the case for ourselves. And his theoretical writing was of course of vital importance for classical Marxism in the post-war world, particularly his magnum opus, State Capitalism in Russia.
7. Georg Lukacs - I like his literary criticism as well as his Marxist philosophy. I recommend reading Michael Löwy, Georg Lukacs - From Romanticism to Bolshevism (London, 1979) - or indeed anything else by either Michael Lowy or Georg Lukacs.
6. Antonio Gramsci - 'The violent conquest of power necessitates the creation by the party of the working class of an organisation of the military type...capable of wounding and inflicting grave blows on...the bourgeois state apparatus...at the decisive moment of struggle.' - Antonio Gramsci to a fellow prisoner of Mussolini in the early 1930s. You tell 'em, Antonio. None of this 'reclaim Labour' nonsense for him.
5. Frederick Engels - 'The people that fought and won on the barricades is an altogether different people from the one that assembled before the castle on 18 March to be enlightened about the meaning of the concessions obtained, by the attacks of the dragoons. It is capable of altogether different things, it has an altogether different stance with relation to the government. The most important conquest of the revolution is the revolution itself' - Engels defends the German Revolution in 1848. Respect to Engels.
4. Rosa Luxemburg - 'In Rosa Luxemburg the socialist idea was a dominating and powerful passion of both heart and brain, a truly creative passion which burned ceaselessly. The great task and the overpowering ambition of this astonishing woman was to prepare the way for social revolution, to clear the path of history for Socialism. To experience the revolution, to fight its battles – that was the highest happiness for her. With a will, determination, selflessness and devotion for which words are too weak, she consecrated her whole life and her whole being to Socialism. She gave herself completely to the cause of Socialism, not only in her tragic death, but throughout her whole life, daily and hourly, through the struggles of many years ... She was the sharp sword, the living flame of revolution.' - Clara Zetkin.
3. Leon Trotsky - His whole life was shaped by the rise and fall of the Russian Revolution - as well as being one of its leaders he remains the definitive historian of that Revolution. 'For forty-three years of my conscious life I have remained a revolutionist; for forty-two of them I have fought under the banner of Marxism. If I had to begin all over again I would of course try and avoid this or that mistake, but the main course of my life would remain unchanged. I shall die a proletarian revolutionist, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist, and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist. My faith in the communist future of mankind is not less ardent, indeed it is firmer today, than it was in the days of my youth. Natasha has just come up to the window from the courtyard and opened it wider so that the air may enter more freely into my room. I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence and enjoy it to the full.' (Trotsky's testament, 1940).
2. Vladmir Lenin - leader of the Russian Revolution - Lenin was a highly original thinker who probably added more that was new to Marxism than any other Marxist after Marx. 'It is more pleasant and useful to go through the "experience of revolution" than to write about it', he noted in 1917 at the end of his classic The State and Revolution, 1917. His understanding of the need for a Revolutionary Party to overthrow capitalism was particularly important but it is also the most misunderstood aspect of his thought. As John Molyneux notes:
'What was distinctively Leninist was a new conception of the relationship between the party and the class. This conception was not arrived at by Lenin in a single moment of theoretical inspiration, nor is it systematically set out in any single Lenin text. Rather it was developed in practice, by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, before it was expounded theoretically. With hindsight we can say that this conception rested on the combination of two key principles:
-The independent organization of a party consisting wholly of revolutionary socialists
-The establishment and maintenance of the closest possible links between the independent revolutionary organisation and the mass of the working class.
What Leninism brought was the idea that the revolutionary left should separate from the reformist right and the vacillating centre, and organize independently. What was really at stake here was the role of the reformist leaders. Marx and Engels and the young Luxemburg and young Trotsky were all revolutionaries, not reformists, but they tended to assume that once revolution broke out the reformist and centrist leaders would either be swept along with the movement or swept aside by it.' Lenin rightly made no such assumptions. Also read John Molyneux on Lenin's What is to be done?.
1. Karl Marx - the Daddy. 'Whereas for the conspirators and the Utopians change was to brought about from above, for Marx change was to come from below, made by the workers themselves. "The emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class itself", he wrote.'. For an introduction, read Alex Callinicos's The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx, but better still, read some of Marx himself. I quite enjoy his history of the 1871 Paris Commune, The Civil War in France.