Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Thursday, May 17, 2007

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.

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17 Comments:

At 4:46 pm, Anonymous Travon said...

What about Jimmy Carter? Or Hillary Clinton? Heck, why not throw in Castro, Stalin, or Mao Zedong?

 
At 5:01 pm, Blogger DJN said...

It's not too controversial, though Cliff's inclusion will no doubt send some into hysterics. And perhaps placing Deutscher ahead of Bukharin is a mistake, though I understand Bukharin didn't grasp dialectical materialism - and, of course, really sucked during the 20s.

If you want real controversy, you should make a top ten of living Marxists! That would be interesting! Or a top ten list of over-rated Marxists. Bring on the sectarianism!

 
At 5:31 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Yeah - placing Deutscher above Bukharin, Plekhanov and Kautsky does seem rather odd with hindsight. Still, I put it together in five minutes as I said. I like the idea of top ten overrated Marxists - but top ten living Marxists - ouch! - rather you than me dude...

 
At 6:02 pm, Blogger DJN said...

A top ten living Marxists is something I think would work better at Through the scary door and Lenin's Tomb where outlandish statements and controversy find comfort.

 
At 9:35 pm, Blogger Roobin said...

Aw, work! I've been busy and it's nine at night.

 
At 9:59 pm, Blogger Roobin said...

Someone should write an up to date bio of Lukacs. He IS the story of the third international, a bourgeois philosopher; a romantic anti-capitalist swept into the workers movement by its momentum; one of the very few original to have come out of the comintern (as opposed to refugees from the previous international); a man who compromised with stalinism and reaction and fell from grace (to borrow a phrase) never able to recover his genius.

 
At 2:07 pm, Blogger Keith Watermelon said...

coming soon to through the scary door - the top ten crap marxists

 
At 2:23 pm, Blogger DJN said...

I'd love to see that, Keith!

Bernstein and the turd who ran the KPD (Hitler first, then us) come to mind.

Can you really include Stalin, though? He's no Marxist!

 
At 11:59 pm, Blogger paddington said...

I thought Marx wasn't a Marxist blah blah blah.....

I'd add a couple of the Frankfurt School - maybe Marcuse and Adorno. Of course, some would claim that they weren't really Marxists at all - which, obviously, is why this could get very sectarian.

Surprised that James isn't higher for you. Am reading (well, dipping in and out of) a book of Lukacs dialogues with Brecht, Benjamin, Bloch and Adorno on art, class, revolution etc. I must admit, his arguments against modernism don't convince me at all ; but I've also just read a chunk about "reification" which I found very good.

 
At 9:29 am, Anonymous naz said...

I agree with you upto number six with two excemptions : Engles should be number two before Lenin. Mao Tsethung should be at number four with Troskey moving down to five.

Marxist theory is different from Marxist revolutionary. If you place greatest Marxists revolutionaries : Lenin, Mao , Trotsky , Stalin and Che will definitely appears at the top.

With all their mistakes, Mao and Stalin should not be dismissed away.

 
At 2:30 pm, Anonymous Keith Watermelon said...

I'd love to see that, Keith!

Bernstein and the turd who ran the KPD (Hitler first, then us) come to mind.

Can you really include Stalin, though? He's no Marxist!


we're not including mass murderers - that would be too obvious. bad luck, then, for mao, stalin et al.

 
At 9:10 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Naz, - you write that 'With all their mistakes, Mao and Stalin should not be dismissed away'.

Blairites say the same thing of Blair - 'for all his mistakes over Iraq, his domestic achievements should not be dismissed' sort of thing. Yet the historic crimes of Mao and Stalin (and Blair) were not 'mistakes' - they were the logical result of their ultimate position as representatives of their respective ruling classes. So Mao and Stalin were basically bureaucrats building up the 'primitive accumulation of capital' in their countries in order to compete with nation states which were their economic and military rivals (which even included each other). Blair's 'moral imperialism' (as er, Margaret Hodge once called it) flows from the interests and stategy of a section of the British ruling class.

Both Mao and Stalin did tremendous violence to the very ideas of socialism and Marxism - I wish revolutionary socialists today could just 'dismiss them' - unfortunately our enemies will always try to use them against us. Yet as Trotsky put it, there is a 'river of blood' between Stalinism (and Maoism and Blairism) and revolutionary socialism.

 
At 10:54 am, Blogger Snowball said...

See also the article 'Russia: What Went Wrong' by John Molyneux here

 
At 1:28 pm, Anonymous naz said...

Hi Snowball,

Thanks for responding to my comment.

First of all, there is no room for Blair here. Blair belongs to the imperialist camp and is supported by capitalist almost all over the world. Stalin and Mao, on the other hand are condemned and in fact demonized by capitalists all over the world. Mao is still considered as a danger in corporate world.

Chinese revolution is a huge event in the history of communist movement. There is nothing comparable with it, except the October revolution. It is easy to stand at this end of the history and dismiss Mao and his revolution or Stalin and his effort to institutionalize the Russian Revolution. Marxist cannot ignore these non- capitalist experiments happened in such a large scale for long duration. In fact we need to study different aspects of life of these non-capitalist societies. We feel the economic coercion in every minute in our life, don’t we need to know how the life was in Soviet Union or in China with out such coercion. At least, how the health care system worked there. Capitalist want us to ignore all those, but a Marxist cannot afford loosing lessons from such experiences.

In fact the figures of those who killed by Stalin and Mao are exaggerated. The imperialists manufactured the ‘truth’ - Just like the Apollo 11 lunar landing. Death rate had been coming down through out the period in Soviet Union. No one can deny that material conditions of general public improved in a great extend under Stalin.

If Russians were so torturously oppressed, why the Nazis could not get any support even when they conquered most parts of Russia? Compare this with Nazi conquest of France. Stalin definitely enjoyed support from vast majority of the population, especially peasants and workers. Bourgeoisie could not digest how a system which violently oppressed and killed its enemies (even friends) could obtain such a popular support. To digest that one need to understand the urge of the people to grow out of the class oppression of thousands of years. Stalin may not have created a class less society, but it was a non-capitalist society. And at least intended to build a class-less society. ‘The dictator Stalin’ is created by situation in Russia – failure of revolution in Europe, immediate need to survive the revolution and improve the living conditions of the people, extremely hostile domestic and international situation.

How do we exclude the top leaders of the proletarian revolutions ever happened, from the list of top ten Marxist revolutionaries? But I will not include Stalin in the list of great Marxist. I can concede him only as a top Marxist revolutionary.


You wrote: “unfortunately our enemies will always try to use them against us”. That is because of our inferior mindset these enemies are killing more people that those two Marxist revolutionaries. Why don’t we project the positive side of such non-capitalist societies? I think many facts about those societies are still thrilling to a large portion of global populace especially those in the periphery. Hunger and hardship still rein all across the periphery. Let us have the courage to tell our enemies that “You and they (Stalin and co) killed many people; yet it is they who could eliminate hardship and hunger; you guys could not. First eliminate hunger and hardship from the globe, then start demonise Stalin.”



With warm Regards
Naz

 
At 10:08 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Hi Naz, cheers for coming back on my comments. I will try and deal with your arguments one by one, briefly.

'First of all, there is no room for Blair here. Blair belongs to the imperialist camp'

When Stalin's regime joined the League of Nations in 1934, sold oil to Fascist Italy in 1935, signed the Nazi-Soviet pact and invaded Finland in 1939, and then sent tanks into control Eastern Europe, putting down workers risings in Hungary in 1956 and others elsewhere, to say nothing of Stalin's treatments of the Chechens and other oppressed nations of the former Tsarist Empire, were they not also acting as Imperialists?

'Blair is supported by capitalists almost all over the world. Stalin and Mao, on the other hand are condemned and in fact demonized by capitalists all over the world. Mao is still considered as a danger in corporate world.'

Well, with respect to Stalin yes, but it is my understanding Mao is considered a national hero by the rulers of the new corporate China...

'Chinese revolution is a huge event in the history of communist movement. There is nothing comparable with it, except the October revolution. It is easy to stand at this end of the history and dismiss Mao'

Yes - the Chinese Revolution was one of the greatest and most significant social revolutions in the twentieth century and so Mao and his role is of utmost historical importance. However was it a Communist revolution in the classical Marxist sense? As Cliff noted in Deflected Permanent Revolution, the working class in China at this time were passive - the Chinese Revolution was a peasants revolution led by the radical middle class.

'Marxists cannot ignore these non- capitalist experiments happened in such a large scale for long duration. In fact we need to study different aspects of life of these non-capitalist societies. We feel the economic coercion in every minute in our life, don’t we need to know how the life was in Soviet Union or in China with out such coercion. At least, how the health care system worked there. Capitalist want us to ignore all those, but a Marxist cannot afford loosing lessons from such experiences.'

But if, as I suggested, those regimes which you call 'non-capitalist' were in fact ultimately bureaucratic state capitalist regimes, in military and economic competition with other capitalist states, then their high level of welfare spending while still worthy, is not qualitatively different from say the establishment of the NHS in Britain.

'In fact the figures of those who killed by Stalin and Mao are exaggerated.'

All mass murderers try to deny how many they have killed - look at the way Bush and Blair squirm over the number of Iraqi dead.

'No one can deny that material conditions of general public improved in a great extend under Stalin.'

Er, not for the millions of peasants who were brutally starved to death during 'collectivisation' under the First Five Year Plan they didn't...

'If Russians were so torturously oppressed, why the Nazis could not get any support even when they conquered most parts of Russia? Compare this with Nazi conquest of France'

The Nazis never conquered 'most parts of Russia though' - whereas they did conquer all of France.

'Stalin definitely enjoyed support from vast majority of the population, especially peasants and workers. Bourgeoisie could not digest how a system which violently oppressed and killed its enemies (even friends) could obtain such a popular support.'

Any foreign invasion tends to lead people to rally around the existing regime, however tyrannical - so Winston Churchill enjoyed the heights of his popularity during the war even though he was a hated Tory Imperialist and regarded as such before the war. That is why Stalin remains so popular in Russia - he was the great national 'war leader'


'‘The dictator Stalin’ is created by situation in Russia – failure of revolution in Europe, immediate need to survive the revolution and improve the living conditions of the people, extremely hostile domestic and international situation....I can concede him only as a top Marxist revolutionary.'

I would argue 'the dictator Stalin' came from his role as the person who rose to the top during a period of counter-revolution in Russia and his Terror was similar in some respects to that Terror which accompanies other counter-revolutions in History - utterly brutal and largely irrational in its character.

'Let us have the courage to tell our enemies that “You and they (Stalin and co) killed many people; yet it is they who could eliminate hardship and hunger; you guys could not. First eliminate hunger and hardship from the globe, then start demonise Stalin.”'

If Stalin and Mao had managed to eliminate hunger and hardship during their reigns of power then you would have a point. Tragically, they did not. We need to learn from Marx and the revolutionary tradition of Marxism concieved as 'socialism from below' - a tradition both Stalin and Mao perverted and and then murdered in their own respective countries.

 
At 8:05 am, Anonymous Naz said...

Has Stalin betrayed their dreams? No, he had not gone for an unviable world revolution with the fruits of extreme labour of Russian workers. Revolution cannot be exported, it should be spontaneous. (many marxist still don’t care to read Rosa Luxemburg ) Stalin preferred to build a nation for the children of Russian workers: That was the Russia in 1960s. Working hours in Soviet Union during 1960s is not more than 8 hours per day. People have guaranteed health care, leisure and education. Do you challenge it?

I am not stressing Stalin’s role. In fact the first generation workers of Soviet Russia have built a better society for their children. Stalin was just an instrument. Had it not Stalin, some one else!!! But the point is that they made a good society(I concede not excellent) for the next generation first time in the history!!! We should not discredit it. The whole propaganda of Stalin’s killings is to put this glorious effort of Russian masses in shade. Stalin definitely deserve a portion of the credit.

 
At 8:08 am, Anonymous Naz said...

Dear Snow ball,

I could not copy the entire content in my previous reply. Please ignore it and read this.

Sorry for the delay in responding. Our discussion is interesting and your posts are informative.

Answering your arguments need bit more preparation. Until then let me clear out few misunderstandings which can arise from your lines.

1. You wrote “ (Stalin's regime) ….putting down workers risings in Hungary in 1956 and others elsewhere “
But Stalin died in March 1953.

2. You wrote “but it is my understanding Mao is considered a national hero by the rulers of the new corporate China...”
This sentence hides many facts. In fact Mao and the and the “new Corporate China” stood at extreme ends regarding the path China should take to advance towards socialism. Mao called others as “with capitalist path” and deprived them of all powers and even encouraged public (or his followers) to humiliate them as greedy. Deng Ziao Pengg, the theorist of ‘the new Corporate China’ was among those who are humiliated.Only after Mao’s death Deng remerged as the leader and the ‘capitalist path’ emerged.

Now Mao is not taught in China, his books are not published. But his name is mentioned every where as part of bogus glorification. There are reports from China that those who publish Mao’s articles or anything about Mao are arrested.


3. You wrote about Chinese revolution. “However was it a Communist revolution in the classical Marxist sense?”

Was Russian revolution in that sense. Marxism is not a dogma. It is not a set of rules. Revolutions are being made by the masses. Masses have an urge to emerge and challenge exploitation and drain of value out of them. Political sciences like Marxism, had given insights and guidance in Russia and China and influenced the revolutions happened there. These influences resulted in reducing the exploitation of masses.

In our time too, economic exploitation is not transparent in Asian-African-Latin American courtiers. People definitely look up to the periods of Stalin and Mao among others to see how the collectivization and socialization liberated the masses from the market and wage slavery.

In the case of Mao as well as Stalin, there were errors. But these errors were related with the conditions they faced. Mao tried to solve problems with deep rooted material base by high morals of socialism. I personally respect Mao for addressing those problems. When the prospects of world revolution dimmed by late twenties Stalin put forward to build a society. He stressed the society into enormous level. Extreme exploitation of surplus value!!!

It is far away from the promises of Socialism in terms of freedom and human expression. Was the exploited value accumulated in the hands of few? I believe not.
Even though the managers have their living standards ten or 20 times higher than the workers, still vast majority of extracted surplus value left. Under Stalin, such surplus is not drained out of the country and invested in world capitalist system. But invested in improving the productive capacity of the nation, to produce items needed for consumption of the public. It improved the living conditions of the workers. It liberated them from the market by guaranteed food, health care etc. The ‘extreme exploitation’ even resulted in less work hours and more leisure. ( During Gorbechev years, the main complaint of the ‘party economists’ was about the lazyness of the workers not the extreme exploitation of workers.)

I just copy from an anti-communist web site.

“ The Soviet people also benefited from a degree of social liberalization. Females were given an adequate, equal education and women had equal rights in employment, precipitating improving lives for women and families. Stalinist development also contributed to advances in health care, which vastly increased the lifespan for the typical Soviet citizen and the quality of life. Stalin's policies granted the Soviet people universal access to health care and education, effectively creating the first generation free from the fear of typhus, cholera, and malaria. The occurrences of these diseases dropped to record-low numbers, increasing life spans by decades.
Soviet women under Stalin were also the first generation of women able to give birth in the safety of a hospital, with access to prenatal care. Education was also an example of an increase in standard of living after economic development. The generation born during Stalin's rule was the first near-universally literate generation “


4. In any country, if there is a revolution against wage slavery and market dominance, around 10% of the population opposes it and had to face oppression from the rest. They lose their living standards, which will make them mad and oppose the revolution with all possible means. This may result a large number of people being killed. It is rude to say about people who may be killed in a revolution. Yet around 3 or 4% of the people may be killed. Definitely with none of their mistake. !!!! Millions of poor workers dies every year with none of their mistake!!!!

On the other hand the workers and masses, thrilled by the revolution take more hardship to preserve the revolution. For an ordinary Russian worker, education and health care to his children is much more than additional 3 hours work. They dream a future for their children, which their parents or grand grand parent never can.
Has Stalin betrayed their dreams? No, he had not gone for an unviable world revolution with the fruits of extreme labour of Russian workers. Revolution cannot be exported, it should be spontaneous. (many marxist still don’t care to read Rosa Luxemburg ) Stalin preferred to build a nation for the children of Russian workers: That was the Russia in 1960s. Working hours in Soviet Union during 1960s is not more than 8 hours per day. People have guaranteed health care, leisure and education. Do you challenge it?

I am not stressing Stalin’s role. In fact the first generation workers of Soviet Russia have built a better society for their children. Stalin was just an instrument. Had it not Stalin, some one else!!! But the point is that they made a good society(I concede not excellent) for the next generation first time in the history!!! We should not discredit it. The whole propaganda of Stalin’s killings is to put this glorious effort of Russian masses in shade. Stalin definitely deserve a portion of the credit.

 

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