Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Book review: Adventures in Marxism by Marshall Berman

Ten years ago, in 1996, something quite extraordinary happened to me that I still do not quite fully understand. I was sixteen years old and I read a book that changed my life completely, utterly - The Communist Manifesto, written in 1848 by two German revolutionary socialists, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Quite why it blew my mind (when millions of people worldwide have read this book and remained apparently quite unmoved) would require me to fill you in with a fair few personal details sprinkled with a few shaky hypotheses - which you will be thankful I will not bore you with. Doubtless to say I was looking for some sort of better explanation for the catastrophic state of the world than I had previously been given so far - indeed I am pretty sure I had decided before I actually read the book that The Communist Manifesto was going to blow my mind...

I can still remember the buying the book quite clearly. The place was upstairs in WH Smiths. Penguin had just began their little 60p classics series and had a big display with many titles - and when I saw that The Communist Manifesto was included - the whole thing in one little tiny pocket sized book! - I knew it had to be mine. However, there was a problem - how would I buy it? I looked around to make sure there was no one else watching, then I quietly and with a look of perfect innocence on my face quietly approached the counter. I was terrified as I handed over the little book to the young woman behind it. I stuttered something like 'Can I buy this, please?' - I think I was seriously expecting sirens to go off or something as I tried to buy it. I couldn't quite believe that it was for public sale - and for only 60 pence! What were the capitalist class thinking of! Perhaps it was just a clever trap to lure out us young anti-capitalists into the open and she would just calmly notify my school and the police after my sweaty little hand had handed over my little one pound coin? Anyway, buying The Communist Manifesto for me was I think my first political act - my first statement in public that I was, yes, a 'Communist'. The poor shop worker in WH Smiths almost certainly had no idea as she handed back my forty pence change the significance - for me at least - of what had just taken place.

About fifty years before me, at a bookstore in New York, another young man - Marshall Berman - went through a similar experience with another book by Marx - his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 - that was for sale in a ridiculously cheap edition thanks to the USSR which (about the only good thing it did do) while it existed published cheap copies of Marx, Engels and Lenin's writings. 'It was midnight blue, nice and compact, a perfect fit for a side pocket in a 1950s sports jacked. I opened it at random, here, there, somewhere else - and suddenly I was in a sweat, melting, shedding clothes and tears, flashing hot and cold. I rushed to the front: "I've got to have this book!"' In fact Berman ended up buying twenty copies. 'I felt like I was walking on air. For the next several days I walked around with a stack of books, thrilled to be giving them away to all the people in my life: my mother and sister, my girlfriend, her parents, several old and new friends, a couple of my teachers, the man from the stationary store...I try to imagine myself at that magic moment: How did I get to be so sure of myself? (Never again!) My intellectual impulse-buying...the exuberance with which I pressed myself on all those people; my certainty that I had something special, something that would both rip up their lives and make them happy; my promises of lifetime personal service; above all my love for my great new product that would change the world'. I felt the same about my Communist Manifesto - I carried it around with me in a pocket for about a year after that and try and engage all and any one who would listen - I remember even having a futile chat with a guy who felt he was God's gift to the Conservative Party (think of a young David Cameron) about what Marx said in the Manifesto about what would happen to the family in a future Communist society...

I suppose in a sense for me (and possibly also it seems for Berman) it was a little like a religious experience - my 'conversion to Communism'. A few years later, while stewarding at one of the yearly SWP conferences, 'Marxism', I found myself briefly standing next to Naomi Klein, author of No Logo, of all people. After brief pleasantries, and given she seemed quite impressed with the turnout to the event, I asked her half jokingly whether she had been 'converted' to Marxism yet. She hadn't - but repeated the word 'converted' - as though that word alone explained why she was not a Marxist. At the time, I didn't quite understand her response - I thought this a reasonable enough question to ask her - but now I can understand more about what she was reacting against. There is a tendency within Marxism that comes close to - indeed almost overlaps into - religion (indeed a few members of the Bolshevik Party openly proclaimed their belief in God - see Alexander Blok and his poem - I think it is called 'The Twelve'). One of the articles in Berman's Adventures to Marxism - 'Georg Lukacs's Cosmic Chutzpah' - discusses in detail how for Lukacs - who became possibly the most important Marxist philosopher of the Twentieth Century - becoming a Communist clearly was a religious conversion. When he was in prison in 1920, after the collapse of the short lived Soviet Republic of Hungary of which he served as Commissar for Education and Culture, his former tutor Max Weber wrote to him asking 'was that your "calling" or whatever'?

Berman's Adventures in Marxism is another book that I guarantee will make you change the way you think about things. If you are not already a Marxist then it will present Marxism in a modern voice for a modern age, and it certainly has more chance of convincing you than anything I can write. If you are already a Marxist, then Berman's humanism will enthuse and inspire you. When it came out in 1999, even Christopher Hitchens was impressed, though that is not to say Berman's Marxism is perfect. In her review of the book,
Anne Alexander took a more critical look at some of the problems that tend to rise with many 'Marxist humanists' when asked the question Lenin asked - yes, capitalism sucks but what is to be done? That said, I think Berman's evoking of Marxism as an adventure - 'a special kind of human experience, different from ordinary life, joyful, liberating, thrilling, but problematic, scary, dangerous' is admirable. Indeed, before I even read Adventures in Marxism , I had decided to use the phrase as the the title for this blog. As Berman notes, the title was 'open-ended: it suggested a future that could offer more Marxist adventures'. The possibilities are surely endless -
favourite saying after all was 'Nihil humani a me alienum puto' ['Nothing human is alien to me'].

Modernity and Marxism

At the heart of Berman's whole work is the close relationship between Marxism - a political movement - and modernism - a cultural movement. This is a big topic - Berman indeed has devoted a whole book to it All That is Solid Melts into Air - but he handles it very convincingly to my mind - something I will go into in detail in another blog post. In short, modern capitalist society is full of enormous contradictions flowing from its inbuilt drive for profits.

Modern Life is Rubbish:

The relentless competition between capitalists to accumulate profits means that people end up divided and turned against each other because of the company they work for, the industry they work for, etc. Everyone has to compete against other people for jobs, which you need in order to survive. But work under capitalism brings only survival (though the recent deaths of thirteen miners in West Virginia remind us that work can also mean death) - not a life worth living. Marx shows how the worker is 'alienated' from what they produce at work -the worker 'mortifies his body and ruins his mind' and 'feels himself only outside his work, and in his work...feels outside himself', the worker 'is at home only when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home. His labour therefore is not free but coerced, it is forced labour'. Worse than that, the drive for profits forces companies to exploit workers - if they do not and decide to pay a decent wage, the pressure of the market will drive them out of business. The growth of the market means a growing 'concentration and centralisation of capital' and the rise of big business means closer and closer links between business and the state. Ultimately economic competition for markets between giant global companies becomes military competition between nation-states - which leads to imperialism and war. The whole system seems out of control - like a Frankenstein's monster now beyond human command - or perhaps like a runaway train.

Isn't Modern Life Brilliant?

However, fortunately, the misery created by capitalism is only half of the story. Modern capitalism also means that humans now have the potential to solve what seemed like previously unsolveable puzzles. The tremendous productive power unleashed by capitalist development allows us to imagine a world without famine and poverty and deaths through diseases associated with malnutrition and dirty water. No longer do we have to see things like this as simply 'Acts of God' about which we are powerless to do anything about. As Marx put it in 1848, 'the bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation or rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground — what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?' Above all, today capitalism has created a new global workforce - the vast majority of the world's population are now completely united through the world market or else dependent on what that world market does. The other side of the coin to competition - is the other great contradiction of capitalism - cooperation. More and more people globally are being brought into workplaces where they find they have more in common with each other than they previously thought. Throughout capitalism's history, workers have organised themselves into trade unions, cooperatives - and ultimately political parties - based around the interests of labour as opposed to those of capital. Today, even British Tories have to claim to be committed to a free NHS if they are to have any chance of getting workers votes. But the great lesson here is this - capitalism is not beyond human control, it was created by humans, it is sustained by the tiny actions of millions of human beings each day, and if we as human beings decide we can do a lot better than capitalism then we can collectively decide to do something about it. We have the power - and the growing global anti-capitalist movement proves indeed that 'another world is possible'. The last words deserve to go to Berman himself, writing in 1999:

'The 1990s began with the mass destruction of Marx effigies. It was the "post-modern" age: we weren't supposed to need big ideas. As the 1990s end, we find ourselves in a dynamic global society ever more unified by downsizing, deskilling and dread--just like the old man said. All of a sudden, the iconic looks more convincing than the ironic; that classic bearded presence, the atheist as biblical prophet, is back just in time for the millennium. At the dawn of the 20th century, there were workers who were ready to die with The Communist Manifesto. At the dawn of the 21st, there may be even more who are ready to live with it.'

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At 3:33 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

linda foto

At 10:23 am, Blogger Martin Wisse said...

I'm sort of experiencing that rush right now, after finally having read Chomsky's Manufactoring Consent, as it explained things I had been noticing myself so clearly and well it was as if lightbulbs went off in my head.

At 11:08 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would recommend checking out chomsky a bit further...


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