Bookworms and Fieldworkers

From The Nation:

In the years leading up to the outbreak of the 1905 revolution in Russia, Eduard Bernstein—the spirited German advocate of socialist revisionism—warned his Marxist colleagues about the dangers of an “almost mythical faith in the nameless masses.” More skeptic than firebrand, Bernstein worried that Karl Kautsky and other leaders of the international socialist movement placed too much confidence in the spontaneous emergence of an organized and disciplined working class: “The mob, the assembled crowd, the ‘people on the street’…is a power that can be everything—revolutionary and reactionary, heroic and cowardly, human and bestial.” Just as the French Revolution had descended into terror, the masses could once again combust into a violent flame. “We should pay them heed,” Bernstein warned, “but if we are supposed to idolize them, we must just as well become fire worshippers.”

Among the votaries of European socialism, Bernstein has seldom enjoyed much acclaim, not least because he symbolized the spirit of pragmatism and parliamentary reform that ended up on the losing side of the debates that roiled the socialist movement in the decades preceding the Bolsheviks’ victory in 1917. For historians who are less partisan, however, the time may well seem ripe for a new appraisal—a revision of revisionism—that casts Bernstein and his reformist wing in a more favorable light.

This is the ambition of Christina Morina in The Invention of Marxism, recently translated into English by Elizabeth Janik. A study of Bernstein, Kautsky, Lenin, Jean Jaurès, Rosa Luxemburg, and other early Marxist luminaries, the book bears a rather breathless subtitle—“How an Idea Changed Everything”—that is far too ambitious for any author, but it is nonetheless a searching account of Marxism’s early days. Although it offers no certain answers as to what the “idea” of Marxism really consists in, it does provide a welter of personal and biographical detail that enriches our sense of Marxism’s varied history and the lives of its party leaders.

How should we write the history of Marxism? Over the past century, when political opinion has been sharply divided on the meaning and legacy of the socialist tradition, historians have felt compelled to choose one of two modes of narrative: either triumphant or tragic. Both of these approaches are freighted by ideology, yet neither has permitted a truly honest reckoning with the political realities of the Marxist past.

Morina, a scholar whose training reflects the methods of social and political history associated with the University of Bielefeld in Germany, where she now works as a professor, has set out to write a history that avoids strong ideological verdicts and places a greater emphasis on the sociology of intellectuals and the details of the Marxists’ personal lives, a method that also draws inspiration from the new trend in the history of emotions pioneered by scholars such as Ute Frevert. No doubt the book also reflects her own experiences as a child in East Germany, where she witnessed the “absurdities and inhumanity” of an authoritarian state that was arguably socialist in name only.

The fruit of her efforts is a group biography that explores the fate of nine “protagonists” from the first generation of the European socialist movement following the death of Karl Marx in 1883. Morina weaves together their personal and party histories with unusual skill, though without quite telling us “how an idea changed everything.” Perhaps the key difficulty is the method of prosopography itself, which fractures the book into individual life stories and leaves little room for a continuous political narrative. Those who are not already familiar with the broader history of European socialism will find it difficult to understand how the various national parties (in France, Germany, Austria, and Russia) all participated in a common struggle. But there is a case for her approach nonetheless, as it leads to some unique insights. By examining how personality and emotion shape one’s political commitments, Morina paints a portrait of Marxism less as a specific theory than as a shared language and a set of informal dispositions that spawned a variety of competing interpretations. Her nine protagonists were not, she explains, gifted with a sudden revelation of the truth. Each underwent a slow and emotional process through which the ideas of Marx became a common framework for explaining and evaluating political events.

While we now take this framework for granted as Marxist doctrine, Morina notes that the creation of Marxism was itself “a vast political project” that developed only gradually. The term gained “ideological meaning and political heft” only in the 1870s and 1880s, as works by Marx and Engels spread across the world in various editions and translations. For Morina, this means that the task of the social historian is to understand how those works were received, often on a case-by-case basis. The result is a book that tells us a great deal about these early Marxists as individuals, though much less about Marxism as a comprehensive theory or idea.

. . . .

If Marxism is an idea, it’s only because of the intellectuals who carried it forward and helped ensure its longevity—and many (though, of course, not all) of these intellectuals were by origin and education members of the bourgeoisie, not members of the working class lionized in Marxist theory.

Morina is acutely aware of this irony, and it informs all of her judgments in the book, some of them subtle, others overt. Running through The Invention of Marxism is a powerful current of unease about the “abstraction” of theory and the great distance that separated some of Marxism’s most esteemed theorists from the world they wished to understand. Although they were passionate in their principled commitment to the working classes, they often knew little about the workers’ actual lives, and at times they responded with revulsion—or at least discomfort—when exposed to the real suffering of the proletariat for whom they claimed to speak.

Morina takes special care to note that many of the party theorists in her tale enjoyed the rare privilege of a university education at a time when less than 1 percent of secondary school students in Western Europe went on to study at university. Karl Kautsky, a leading member of the German Social Democratic Party, was born into a home of writers and artists, and his parents were highly committed to his schooling. Victor Adler, a leader of the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Austria, was a practicing physician as well as a publisher—he founded Gleichheit (Equality), the first socialist party newspaper in the Hapsburg Empire. Rosa Luxemburg studied at the University of Zurich and was by all reports an exceptionally precocious child whose parents grew prosperous thanks to her father’s success as a timber merchant; her theoretical acumen and political passion elevated her to prominent seats, first in the German Social Democratic Party and later in the Independent Social Democrats, the Spartacus League, and the Communist Party. Jean Jaurès, born in the South of France, rose to the top of his class and attended the École Normale Supérieure, where his classmates included Émile Durkheim and Henri Bergson, before he emerged as the most influential leader in the French Socialist Party.

The other protagonists in Morina’s tale enjoyed equal or even greater advantages. Vladimir Ulyanov (later Lenin) was born into a prosperous Russian family that owned estates; his father, a liberal teacher elevated to the post of school inspector, was eventually granted a title of nobility, while his mother came from a family of landowners with German, Swedish, and Russian origins and spoke several languages. Georgi Plekhanov, the “father of Russian Marxism,” had parents who owned serfs and belonged to the Tatar nobility; following the Emancipation Edict of 1861, Plekhanov’s family fell into financial decline, but thanks in part to his mother, he enjoyed a very strong education. Only two figures in Morina’s book were not the beneficiaries of wealth and education: Jules Guesde (born Bazile), later a major figure in French Marxism and socialism and an opponent of Jaurès; and Eduard Bernstein, whose father was a plumber and who never attended university and worked as a bank employee to support his activities in the German Social Democratic Party.

These protagonists, most of them members of the middle class, belonged to what Morina calls a “voluntary elite.” Her group study, though often engaging, remains poised in an uncertain space between intellectual history and party chronicle, without ever truly resolving itself into a satisfactory version of either. Needless to say, this ambivalence may be baked into the topic itself, since Marxism is perhaps distinctive in its contempt for mere theorizing and its constant refrain that we must bridge the gap between theory and practice. After all, has there ever been a Marxist who did not insist that their ideas were not correlated with material events? Morina, though hardly a Marxist in her methods, suggests that her study exemplifies the genre of Erfahrungsgeschichte, or the “history of lived experience.” Experience, however, is itself a concept of some controversy, since it hints at some bedrock of individual reality beyond interpretation and deeper than mere ideas. And this would seem to be Morina’s point: By turning our attention to the biographical and emotional history of the European socialist tradition, she hopes to remind us that Marxist intellectuals were not bloodless theoreticians but human beings caught up in the same world of passions and interests they wished to explain.

Link to the rest at The Nation

PG suggests that the only definitive accomplishment of more than 100 years of Marxism/Communism is to demonstrate that Communism is an excellent way for a dictator to gain and hold power.

The poor become poorer and the productive middle-class is decimated in part because talents and accomplishments in any field other than politics are only rarely a path to any sort of security. It’s a soul-crushing environment for anyone who isn’t a thug.

2 thoughts on “Bookworms and Fieldworkers”

  1. Their near-absolute power is used, it seems, exclusively to keep a small contingent of lucky or well-connected people at the top, with all the goodies.

    I have nothing but contempt for their destructive and corrosive action, everywhere it surfaces. Yes, the peasantry was oppressed before the Communists – but it is exactly Animal Farm, every single time. They DON’T care about the poor or uneducated – they just see them as convenient and stupid patsies, easy to turn against the rich, and then victims again.

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