Workers' Liberty #53  


Karl Marx, revolutionary democrat by Edward Ellis
From Communist to CIA man by Barry Finger
Mixed feelings by Cathy Nugent
The truth of Stalingrad by Jim Denham

Karl Marx, revolutionary democrat

Karl Marx, by Francis Wheen. Fourth Estate.

Francis Wheen is best known as a newspaper columnist whose speciality is dredging up the skeletons in his enemies' closets to expose their pomposity and hypocrisy. His usual targets are right-wing buffoons and Blairite politicians. It is no great shock, therefore, that his focus in this biography is on Marx "the man", his relations with family, friends and colleagues (almost all of whom sooner or later were to become enemies and the butt of his vitriolic wit), and his life-long hopelessness with money.

Still, Wheen gives a fair account of Marx's ideas, and defends him from detractors past and present over the most important questions in his life. Wheen stresses Marx's intensely democratic commitment, defending him (usually) against charges of undemocratic practice. The account of the battle with Bakunin for control of the International Working Men's Association is unsparingly critical of the Russian anarchist, and perceptive about Marx's concern to hold together a somewhat disparate and tentative step towards international working class co-operation.

Marx's point of departure was radical democracy - he was a democrat before he was a socialist - and the socialism to which he devoted his life was always conceived as "winning the battle of democracy", not negating it.

Before Marx, socialist ideas took many forms, but the most revolutionary-minded socialists were small groups of conspirators who planned one day to carry out an insurrection, impose a benign dictatorship, and bring in a somewhat ill-defined Utopia.

Marx's background in radical philosophy and revolutionary democracy, mixed with an understanding of the importance of the young working class movement in France and Britain, formed the basis for a revolutionary new theory of social change. The working class, he thought, was a class with "radical chains", a class whose liberation would mean the liberation of the whole of humanity from private property and capitalist misery. This was the significance of the Communist Manifesto, which Wheen calls "the most widely read political pamphlet in human history." It tied the revolutionary ambition of the earlier communists to a social force, the working class, and defined the role of socialists not to be secret conspirators, but a political force linked to, and learning and growing with, this working class, the agent of change.

Looking back at the 150 years since the Manifesto was written, the profundity of Marx's insight is staggering. Who else in the 1840s thought that this fresh, youthful social force would play such a role in subsequent events? By the end of the century, the working class had formed powerful mass movements across Europe and elsewhere. As the new century dawned, mass strikes and new forms of working class democracy rocked the Tsarist empire. In 1917, the working class took power in Russia. Everywhere the working class existed, it formed mass organisations to prosecute its struggle for justice, and frequently political parties based or linked to those organisations which proclaimed, even if hypocritically, their commitment to socialism.

This is a phenomenon which has showed no sign of abating as the 20th century ends. Capitalist development in South Korea, the jewel in the crown of the "tiger economies", produced a working class which soon began to exercise its industrial strength, then form independent unions, then step towards creating its own party - all as Marx suggested.

Wheen gives a rather odd and half-hearted defence of Capital, somewhat overdoing his reading of it as, more or less, a work of fiction, full of satire and irony worthy of Swift. Marx's work was not "economics" in the sense of modern textbooks. It was a "critique of political economy", an attack on the ideological confusions of bourgeois economic theory, exposing the social reality beneath the surface appearance. Once more, Marx's detractors should consider those areas of his thought which have been vividly confirmed by later developments. As Wheen notes, there is much about the world today - capitalist globalisation, for example - which would not have surprised Marx; this could hardly be said for those who ridiculed him.

The Marxism of Marx therefore has enormous relevance to the new millennium. Will the collapse of Stalinism allow this genuine Marxism to be rediscovered, free of its totalitarian misrepresentations? Wheen's ambition in writing this book is to present Marx - critically but sympathetically - as a human being, to break with the traditions either of hagiography or demonisation. It is a good ambition. As Wheen demonstrates, Marx himself was anything but a dogmatist, and would have hated the idea of his work being treated as a kind of sectarian Bible.

Engels, to whose intellectual contribution Wheen gives due credit, comes over in these pages as a pretty good bloke, down-to-earth, sensible and ludicrously patient. The effort to "humanise" Marx leads Wheen to devote a lot of energy to describing Marx's chronic inability to manage his finances - in particular because of a Victorian need to keep up middle-class appearances (piano lessons for his daughters, maid and personal secretary to be paid for, and so on). We are treated to lavish accounts of the painful carbuncles on Marx's bum (and penis), his drinking sprees down Tottenham Court Road, crazy feuds - including pistols at dawn - with his enemies, and several pages on the old controversy about whether or not he fathered a child by the maid, Helene Demuth. There are also many discomforting accounts of Marx's sexism and racism, by contemporary standards. He called Ferdinand Lassalle "the Jewish nigger", and there's plenty of other stuff along those lines, like his disappointment that his daughters wanted to marry Frenchmen.

Wheen points out, however, that Bakunin's claims that Marx was leader of a world Jewish conspiracy, and that the Jews should be exterminated, were of a different order to the casual Victorian bigotry into which Marx sometimes lapsed. I think Wheen sometimes gets carried away with his own knockabout, light-hearted style, and is more dismissive than he necessarily intends. Still, this is a friendly enough portrait of a great thinker, warts (or carbuncles) and all.

Edward Ellis

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From Communist to CIA man

A Covert Life: Jay Lovestone, Communist, Anti-Communist and Spymaster, by Ted Morgan Random House.

One ex-leftist reviewer of this volume has claimed, without the slightest hint of irony, that: "the great untold story of the 20th century... is the story of the heroic anti-Communist left - the romance of leftists and radical trade unionists who recognised that Communism was a catastrophic byproduct of their own movement, and who mobilised themselves, before anyone else thought to do so, to bring the Communists down."

In fact Jay Lovestone was not a socialist avenger, rescuing the dream of self-emancipation from its Stalinist despoilers, but a backroom manoeuvrer curiously devoid of any palatable social vision beyond Stalinophobia.

He was an early leader of the Communist Party of the USA who later led his own dissident "Right-Communist" group and then became a prominent right-winger in the US trade union bureaucracy. Unsurpassed in their zeal to rid the nascent American Communist movement of Trotskyists, Lovestone and his associates ultimately came to grief by their failure to distance themselves from Bukharin on the eve of his ousting from the presidency of the Comintern.

Not that the Lovestonites were animated in any way by Bukharinite principles. Their subsequent virtually uncritical endorsements of the social policies of Stalin within the Soviet Union during the early 1930s, including the forced collectivisation and the first Moscow Trials, belied such ideological scruples. Rather, they lost control of the American party as victims of their own miscalculations.

Called to Moscow in the Spring of 1929, while in undisputed control of the American Party, Lovestone and his cohorts were denounced and stripped of their power. Having barely escaped with his life, Lovestone returned to New York, refused to accept expulsion and fecklessly organised an external faction to force readmittance into the Party. The self-justifying theory of "American Exceptionalism" (the right to national autonomy within the Comintern) became their hallmark and their only lasting "theoretical" residue.

By that time the American Communist Party was a wholly-owned subsidiary of the emerging Russian ruling class. But the Lovestonites denounced Stalinist factionalism in the Comintern not as the means of power-consolidation on the part of the bureaucracy, but as sowing chaos and confusion in the ranks of the constituent parties and thereby weakening the Comintern as an agent of revolution. Their blindness towards the connection between the internationalisation of the purge and the reconfiguration of class politics in the Soviet Union only ended with the suppression of the POUM in the Spanish Civil War and the execution of Bukharin.

With the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, the Lovestonites finally and irreparably repudiated the Communist International, began to rethink the Russian Revolution and were openly in search of a new ideology. By December of 1940, they had folded.

The Lovestonites, and Lovestone in particular, became the hired guns of the social democratic opponents of Stalinism centred within the needle trades of the American Federation of Labor. Lovestone's talents came to the attention of George Meany, who was later to lead the AFL and ultimately the AFL-CIO.

When, in 1944, Meany and William Green set up the Committee for Free Trade Unionism to revive unions in war-ravaged Europe and Japan and to resist the Stalinist WFTU (World Federation of Trade Unions), Lovestone was the natural candidate for executive secretary. He had past ties with the members of the Communist opposition of the 1930s, and retained a coterie of loyal comrades conversant with the inner workings of the Stalinist movement abroad.

One of Lovestone's chief lieutenants, Irving Brown, once philosophised that "he would [have] prefer[red] to fight Communism by building genuine mass movements overseas - unions, student groups, women's councils, peasant organisations." But, if that primary strategy of building mass movements failed, then the Lovestoneites thought they had the duty to suppress communism by whatever means were at hand, including American militarism. Eventually there was to be little or no discernible trade union content whatsoever to Lovestone's machinations.

Right-wing Socialists, Catholics, and even strike-breaking Marseilles waterfront gangsters, were sought out and financed with sufficient seed money to break away from Communist trade unions and organise anti-Communist labour federations. (Force Ouvrière in France, for instance, was maintained for decades on an AFL-CIA dole. Their opposition to the student-worker strikes of 1968 was a point of particular pride to Lovestone.)

Not only Communism, but increasingly neutralism, revolution and radical nationalism were all seen to be enemies of the West and therefore of the American trade union movement.

A convergence of world views led increasingly to a merger of the foreign operations of the AFL, and later AFL-CIO, with the counterintelligence sections of the CIA, under the paranoiac leadership of James Jesus Angleton. Millions of dollars were siphoned into Lovestone's operations through this source. At times no one knew if it were Lovestone who was guiding the CIA's labour operations, or Angleton's cadre who took the lead. It was a difference without a distinction. Where there was a Communist dominated union, the goal was to disrupt it and to find supine, reliable - that is, all too often, reactionary - trade union leaders to lead breakaways. The point was to neutralise Stalinism, not to advance an independent, left-wing alternative.

Though this volume is silent about Lovestone's meddlings in Latin America, the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) - a joint project of management, government and labour in educating pro-business labour leaders - was most certainly financed in large part by the CIA. Lovestone, in his dotage surely one of the slowest learners in the Establishment, was among the staunchest cheerleaders for the war in Vietnam and remained so until the bitter end.

Had half the resources and ingenuity put into such efforts by Lovestone and others been invested in building a fighting labour movement dedicated to the ideological, organisational and political independence of workers here and abroad, American labour might truly have something to celebrate. Instead we are left virtually at ground zero, combatting a legacy which insists that capitalism is the only vehicle for the extension of democracy and that there is no realistic program for social reconstruction other than free markets. This is the nightmare that Stalinophobia on the left helped to consolidate.

Barry Finger

Mixed feelings

Why Feminism, by Lynne Segal. Polity Press.

At the end of the '80s Lynne Segal wrote Is the Future Female? as a critique of the cultural feminism of Andrea Dworkin, Catherine MacKinnon and others. Why Feminism? is a critique of the academic feminism of the '90s. Where Is the Future Female? was an unambivalent repudiation, Segal's new book seems less certain of the prospects for an alternative, socialist, feminism and less critical of its subject.

The new '90s feminism is a mishmash of fashionable (but not new) social theories, and is particularly influenced by post-structuralism. Feminism now is not about women fighting for equality with men but about deconstructing womanhood. The context for this feminism is a cultural climate where commentaries about gender uncertainty abound: about the disintegration of the family, the decline of the male breadwinner, the rise (and fall) of the lone mother, for instance. There have been ostentatiously right-wing responses to the same social changes and Segal spends some time trashing these.

Segal finds post-structuralist feminism partially appealing. She says - almost explicitly - that she wants to create a synthesis between this sort of feminism and her own. As a psychologist, she is curious about what constitutes and constructs female identity at any given point in history. At the very least this book is an attempt to point out possible insights in the new feminism by way of a critique.

The end result is an erudite, thoughtful, but sometimes confusing text. The confusion may be mine alone of course, but I think there is a real problem. Segal seems infected by her own sadness about the lack of a socialist feminist current: "I wasn't confident I could manage to write at all any more: no longer sure of whom I would be writing for, or why," she says in her acknowledgements. Her case for an openness to the new areas of study is reasonable, however: "When wider questions of social inequality and gender justice are posed alongside problems of identities and belonging, the domain of feminism immediately expands". Who could disagree with that?

The problem is that the overall impact of the new feminism is very bad. Once you accept that humankind can no longer construct an over-arching theory of social reality, it implies an indifference to attempts to reorganise the world. To some of the new feminists the only reality is micro-reality, interactions between individuals, or their own individual lives.

Segal is impressed by "queer theory" (lesbian and gay academic studies of the late '80s) because these sparked off some interesting ideas and championed what could be seen as "dissident" sexualities. Sexuality and gender were seen as fluid. The self-descriptions of "pushy femmes, divas, queens, butch bottoms, transsexuals, lesbians who sleep with men..." in themselves challenged gender stereotyping. Segal is not uncritical of the post-structuralistesque relativism; it was too blasé, it had a "disdain for the psychic pain, fear and potential disintegration which so often accompanies gender uncertainties" (for instance for people who are transsexual).

This is a book that takes in many areas of study, including the latest controversies for psychologists about the legacy of Freud. In many ways Segal is revisiting everything that she has written about over the last 10 years, including that hot topic - the "crisis of masculinity".

At the end of the century many women in the advanced capitalist West may have achieved greater equality. While welfare cuts and low pay continue to constrain women's lives - Segal is absolutely clear about the importance of these issues - there are also other, more personal problems. If gender or sexuality are so integral to our sense of self, what it means to be human, how do we stop these things from constraining us? Confusion and frustration over male and female roles causes real problems (and not just for middle class women). Here are the roots of domestic violence, misogyny, homophobia and mental ill-health.

Segal's concern to analyse culture, language and psyche is admirable. There are not, and Segal did not set out to give us, many definite answers here.

In the end the answer she gives to her question is a simple one. Why feminism? Because the world still needs to be a better place, not just for some women but for all women.

Cathy Nugent

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The truth of Stalingrad

Stalingrad, by Antony Beevor. Penguin.

As well as being the decisive turning-point in World War Two, the battle of Stalingrad remains to this day a cornerstone of Stalinist myth, summed up in Soviet propaganda at the time: "The morale of an army depends on the socially just and progressive order of the society it defends."

Antony Beevor does not dismiss the genuine anti-Nazi determination that lay behind much of the incredibly dogged Russian resistance within Stalingrad itself. But he also notes that approximately 50,000 Russians fought for the Germans, and 13,500 Russian soldiers were shot by their own side for treachery, drunkenness, cowardice and "anti-Soviet agitation" - which could include any form of criticism of the regime. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Russian resistance was motivated as much by terror as by anti-Nazi fervour: the consequences of hanging back would be as bad - or worse - than going forward. The evidence of Russian soldiers' letters in any case suggests that morale only really began to improve after the tables were turned and the German Sixth Army surrounded.

Beevor demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that Stalin's commitment to his pact with Hitler very nearly handed the Nazis victory on a plate, as the Soviet dictator ignored repeated warnings over the previous eight months of what Hitler was planning. Stalin's savage secret police, the NKVD, spent far more time spying upon the Red Army than it did watching the Nazis. For sure, the victory of the Red Army owed nothing to Stalin, whose constant meddling in military strategy reduced his generals to despair.

This horrible, fascinating story of a monstrous war of attrition fully deserves its "bestseller" status.

Jim Denham

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