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

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@telfort.nl>
Date: Sat Apr 04 2009 - 17:00:44 EDT


Thanks for your comment. The puzzle is how there could have been an age of "classical Marxism" when at the time most socialists were hardly familiar with Marx's own ideas and the context in which they were formed.

The idea of an era of "classical Marxism" suggests that there was a time when Marxism flourished to potential, in way that its essence was clearly defined, typified or "branded" in an exemplary way, to the highest standard. This kind of Marxism would be an authentic continuation of the ideas of Marx and Engels. This then contrasts with other, later kinds of Marxisms, which contained innovations which were not consistent with what Deutscher called "the grammar of classical Marxism". For example, the innovation of "socialism in one country" was, according to Deutscher, not consistent with classical Marxism; Stalinism was a sort of mongrel Marxism in his view.

Now, in point of historical fact, there is really very little historical evidence to support this sort of interpretation, and Deutscher's idea is essentially ideological and eschatological. He propagates a myth, in the same way that conservatives project a "golden age" in the past when things were supposedly so much better than they are today, an age to which we should return. It was impossible for a classical Marxism to exist, because most socialists had read mainly just Engels's Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, and Kautsky's The Class Struggle, or his Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx, and possibly the Communist Manifesto (bear in mind that radical literature was banned in most countries).

The function of the myth is essentially apologetic and inspirational: Deutscher wants to convey that originally Marxism had intellectual creativity and moral-political integrity, but then it took a "wrong turn" and became debased into an instrument of tyranny. Roughly speaking, "classical Marxism" supposedly existed from about 1847 to 1924, or, if you want to exclude the founders of the tradition, from 1896 to 1924, 1924 being the year Lenin died (you could possibly extend the turning point to 1926, when the era of workingclass militancy began to wane).

So in this theory you had about two decades which were the "glory days" of Marxism, associated with the rapid growth of a unionized labour movement, which began to form its own political parties and engaged in militant action. After that things turned bad, and rational-scientific discussion became impossible.

In the real world, in real history, the debate with Bernstein was at the time not really all that politically significant, and indeed not very widely known outside the middleclass leftist intelligentsia. It is just that in the aftermath of the first world war, it became much more significant, because it seemed to say something about the intellectual roots of crucial decisions which had ended up affecting the lives of millions.

In 1914, for example, there were few people who knew and read about the speeches of the Zimmerwald conference attended by Lenin and Trotsky. But in retrospect, their condemnation of the leadership of the Second International became highly significant. It was just that with the victory of the Russian revolution, the new Russian government could disseminate a lot of printed material casting things in a different light.

If you believe that Kautsky supported the vote for the war credits, you are simply WRONG.

In reality, although Kautsky was himself not even a member of the Reichstag, he was invited in August 1914 by the Reichstag fraction of the SPD to attend a discussion about whether to vote for the war credits or not. Kautsky advised AGAINST it - with the suggestion of the possibility of an abstention from the vote - but he lost. Like Marx, Kautsky articulated the "conscience of the Left", but politically he was pretty useless.

On 4th August 1914, the complete SPD parliamentary fraction with no exception, voted FOR the war credits. This in fact meant the end of the centrist political perspective Kautsky had elaborated in the previous 35 years, and the end of his political influence in the SPD.

In reality, Kautsky TOGETHER with Hugo Haase and Eduard Bernstein in 1916 began to oppose the war policy of the SPD majority politically.

This led to a split in the SPD in 1917, and the creation of the USPD (Independent Social Democratic Party) which in turn meant that Kautsky also forfeited his position as chief editor of the SPD journal Die Neue Zeit, which he had held since 1901 (in fact he was sacked by the SPD bosses at the very moment he was editing the issue of 5 october 1917).

The end of the the first World War led to the abolition of the German Empire and the establishment of a German republic, in which Friedrich Ebert formed a joint SPD/USPD government (the "council of people's delegates"). In this government, Kautsky fulfilled political functions for the first time in his life.

Together with Walther Rathenau and Joseph Schumpeter, he was part of a commission which was supposed to investigate the possibilities for "socializing" private companies. He was also appointed secretary of state for foreign affairs, charged with the task of selecting and publishing documentation relevant to the outbreak of the world war; it was expected Kautsky would show who had been responsible for the outbreak of war.

However, shortly after Wilhelm Solf, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, was sacked for complicity in a conspiracy to a conservative coup, Kautsky resigned his function, together with three other USPD members, in protest against the bloody suppression of a mutiny of sailors on 23-24 December 1918.

Yet he continued his work on war documentation, publishing a set of four volumes of war documents in 1919 (an English edition appeared in 1924, with assistance of the Carnegie Endowment). Subsequently he wrote his own book, "Wie die Weltkrieg entstand", which was translated in English as "The Guilt of Wilhelm Hohenzollern" (1919). In that book, he aimed to prove that the polity and military leaders of the German and Austro-Hungarian empires aimed for war without consideration for the civilian population; in other words, not the German people were guilty, but their leaders.

As regards Plekhanov, as Z.A. Jordan notes in his "The origins of Dialectical Materialism", Plekhanov was actually quite innovative, transforming historical materialism from a viewpoint on human history into a geographical theory and into a grand philosophy of "dialectical materialism".

The kind of Marxism you propose makes sense as a student Marxism, where most students don't have a lot of responsibility and work experience, and ideas mooted may have little consequence, but not as a Marxism of people in the workforce. When you are in the workforce, you realise that some people really do know things and are capable, and other people do not know things and are not capable - this has direct effect on your own work. Thus, in the workforce, "authorativeness" gets a very different meaning. Academic-managerial brilliants drift in and out of the office all the time, but it doesn't mean that they necessarily really improve things, beyond adding a line to their CV.

Personally I ditched the perspective of Isaac Deutscher, Tariq Ali and Perry Anderson on the history of Marxism. It doesn't make sense of the historical facts, and it didn't make sense of my own experience either. Deutscher's "Classical Marxism" and Anderson's "Western Marxism" are convenient myths, and the NLR just propagates the myth some more in its prettified language. The conclusion I arrived at was that Marx & Engels have been taught in a totally wrong way, and you have to rid yourself of the Marxist misleaders. Once you no longer have to bother with the Marxist school of falsification, it creates a tremendous peace of mind.

I am not especially a fan of Kautsky, but he is morally superior to the American Left, which doesn't even call for so much as a commission of inquiry into the Iraq genocide and the chain of events which led to it.


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Received on Sat Apr 4 17:07:56 2009

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