RE: [OPE] The puzzle of Deutscher's "classical Marxism"

Date: Fri Apr 03 2009 - 18:03:59 EDT

> In various writings, Isaac Deutscher introduced the
> idea that there once existed a political era or intellectual
> culture of "classical Marxism" which was superseded by another era of
> Marxism-Leninism as state policy. In some respects, this idea of classical
> Marxism was close to the beliefs of the Menshevik tendency in Russian
> social democracy. But anyway, what Deutscher fails to explain is, how there
> could be a "classical Marxism" if, by his own admission, most of the so-called
> Marxists at that time had only read just a few of Marx's own writings, and were
> strongly influenced by social democracy and christian socialism?
> Any thoughts?

Hi Jurriaan:
I don't quite see what the "puzzle" is: each new generation of Marxists
has re-interpreted Marxism in the light of changes in capitalism,
experience in different historical struggles, and the availability of
works by Marx and others which were previously unavailable. For
instance, the publication and, later, translation of Volume III of
_Capital_, the _Theories of Surplus Value_, the _Paris Manuscripts_,
the "Marginal Notes on Wagner", and the _Grundrisse_ influenced
different generations of Marxist scholars.
"Classical Marxism" does not have to interpreted as a "fundamentalist
interpretation of Marx", does it? In some ways, "classical Marxism"
could be thought best as a "classical" _period_ in the history of Marxism,
a period in which German-Austrian and Russian Social Democracy were
mass workers' parties. If there was a seminal moment in the development
of that intellectual tradition, it was in the debate with Bernstein
over "evolutionary socialism" in German Social Democracy. If that is
the case, then Kautsky could be seen as the leading figure at the
heyday of "classical Marxism". For that reason, Lenin was particularly
vicious in his venom towards KK when he supported the "yes" vote in the
Reichstag for war credits: i.e. it was seen as a "betrayal" of
revolutionary principles by the person who earlier had represented
in the (2nd) International the "classical" revolutionary Marxist
tendency which Luxemburg, K. Liebknecht, Lenin and others in the
leadership of the Bolsheviks still embraced. In Russia, one could
see Plekhanov as the leading figure in "classical Marxism" prior
to the Menshevik-Bolshevik split in Russian Social Democracy.
If you think of "classical Marxism" was a historical period in the
development of Marxism, then it is easy to see how these social
democratic political parties could be influenced by Christian
socialism and by some aspects of Jewish culture (in regards to the
latter, it should be remembered that a large percentage of the
"intellectuals" in German and Russian Social Democracy, and later
the Bolsheviks, were strongly influenced by the struggles, history,
and political movements within Eastern European and Russian Jewish
Only a small number of people within these mass parties had read
much - if anything - of Marx. Do you think that's surprising?
Placed within historical context, I don't find it surprising in the
least. But, there is a serious issue here for socialists *today*:
how can we move beyond a de facto hierarchy of "authorities",
i.e. "Marxist scholars", to a more empowering model without
_over-_simplifying concepts and encouraging atheoreticism. The
experience of, for instance, the "Little Red Book" (i.e. "Quotations
from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung") shows possible dangers. "Quotations
from Karl Marx" would be equally problematic and potentially
dangerous. and the alternative of saying "read _Capital_" isn't
going to fly either: most workers don't have the time (even if they
wanted to) to undertake a serious reading of Marx's works. Yet,
it would hardly be progressive for us to tell them "we're the
authorities/scholars, read what we have to say" either, would it?
At the risk of sounding self-assured and slonganist, the answer
to these questions will be found through practice. As scholars
(and educators) I think we would be better off raising questions
and participating as equals in struggles rather than trying to impose
our answers on other socialists and communities. Really revolutionary
movements require _respect_ on the part of its members for the
experience and perspectives of other revolutionaries, activists, and
workers. This is not a "classical Marxist" perspective but
"horizontalism" has a lot going for it, imo.
In solidarity, Jerry
ope mailing list
Received on Fri Apr 3 18:08:48 2009

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