Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Thoughts on Marx

(Geek Warning: I go on about things probably of interest only to me)

Like many other “leftist wannabes” I’ve tried reading Marx before but got scared off by the heavy philosophy. “Communist Manifesto” was a struggle to get through. I didn’t even try “Das Kapital.”

But the Gifu Prefectural Library has collections of Marx’s political writings (published by Penguin Classics). These are a lot different and easier to read than his philosophical writings. Depending, I suppose, on how your brain is wired. My brain has a hard time digesting philosophy, but the political and historical readings are very interesting, and pretty easy to read as well. I’m really having a hard time putting it down once I get into it.

It’s interesting to see a different side of Marx than the philosophical side we are so used to hearing about. In the political writings, he emerges as the “Noam Chomsky” of his day. Contrary to what most people believe, Marx wasn’t the first socialist. He didn’t invent Socialism or Communism. But he was able to express the ideas of the socialists and communists better than any of the other intellectuals of the time, much perhaps like Chomsky today.

I’ve recently been reading Marx’s writings on “The Franco-Prussian War” and “The Civil War in France” and it strikes me as extremely similar to Chomsky’s writings. Aside from the fact that one is history and one is current events, they could almost be interchangeable. Just like Chomsky does, Marx has an ability to cut very cleanly through the hypocrisy and expose the ridiculousness of whatever position he is arguing against, whether he is arguing against the Second Empire in France, the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine by Germany. When England was considering intervening in the US civil war on the side of the South, Marx was influential in organizing demonstrations against it. And, of all the things Marx got wrong, there is one passage where he predicts World War I with shocking accuracy way back in 1870.

“Whoever is not completely deafened by the clamour of the moment, or does not have an interest in deafening the German people, must realize that the war of 1870 is just as necessarily pregnant with a war between Germany and Russia as the war of 1866 was with the war of 1870. I say unavoidably except in the unlikely event of a prior outbreak of revolution in Russia If this unlikely event does not occur, then a war between Germany and Russia must be considered a fait accompli….If Alsace and Lorraine are taken, then France will later make war on Germany in conjunction with Russia. It is unnecessary to go into the unholy consequences.”

I suppose it is probably much easier just to illustrate by quotation than by explanation, so here are some of his arguments against the German expansion:

“They dare not pretend that the people of Alsace and Lorraine pant for the German embrace; quite the contrary. To punish their French patriotism, Strasbourg, a town with an independent citadel commanding it, has for six days been wantonly and fiendishly bombarded by ‘German’ explosive shell, setting it on fire, and killing great numbers of its defenseless inhabitants! Yet the soil of those provinces once upon a time belonged to the whilom German Empire. Hence it seems the soil and the human beings grown on it must be confiscated as imprescriptibly German property. If the map of Europe is to be remade in the antiquary’s vein, let us by no means forget that the Elector of Brandenburg, for his Prussian dominions, was the vassal of the Polish republic.

The more knowing patriots, however, require Alsace and the German-speaking part of Lorraine as a ‘material guarantee’ against French aggression. … But, in good faith, is it not altogether an absurdity and an anachronism to make military considerations the principle by which the boundaries of nations are to be fixed? If this rule were to prevail, Austria would still be entitled to Venetia and the line of the Mincio and France to the line of the Rhine, in order to protect Paris, which lies certainly more open to an attack from the north-east than Berlin does from the south-west. If limits are to be fixed by military interests, there will be no end to claims, because every military line is necessarily faulty, and may be improved by annexing some more outlying territory; and moreover, they can never be fixed finally and fairly, because they always must be imposed by the conqueror upon the conquered, and consequently carry within them the seeds of fresh wars….History will measure its retribution, not by the extent of the square miles conquered from France, but by the intensity of the crime of reviving, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the policy of conquest!

But, say the mouthpieces of Teutonic patriotism, you must not confound Germans with Frenchmen. What we want is not glory, but safety. The Germans are an essentially peaceful people. In their sober guardianship, conquest itself changes from a condition of future war into a pledge of perpetual peace. Of course, it is not Germans that invaded France in 1792, for the sublime purpose of bayoneting the Revolution of the 18th century. It is not Germans that befouled their hands by the subjugation of Italy, the oppression of Hungary, and the dismemberment of Poland. Their present military system, which divides the whole adult male population into two parts—one standing army on service, and another standing army on furlough, both equally bound in passive obedience to rulers by divine right—such a military system is, of course, a ‘material guarantee’ for keeping the peace, and the ultimate goal of civilizing tendencies! In Germany, as everywhere else, the sycophants of the powers that be poison the popular mind by the incense of mendacious self-praise.”

It goes on like that for several pages, but I think this serves as a good taste. After reading this, several thoughts spring to mind.

1). Marx wasn’t just sitting around waiting for the Revolution. He was involved and had opinions on contemporary events like international politics and the balance of power in Europe.

2). This is a lot different than the philosophical Marx most of us are used to, who goes on about abstract concepts and talks about confusing things like the relationship of capital to workers. Here is talking about very concrete easy to understand simple political concepts. And he’s sounding very reasonable and clear headed doing it.

3). And what’s more, he completely demolishes the other side here, doesn’t he? It’s hard to imagine anyone still being able to argue that Germany should be given the Alsace-Lorraine after reading this.

I don’t necessarily consider myself a Marxist, and I agree with the traditional Anarchist criticism that Marx’s philosophy of “dictatorship of the proletariat” led to some of the horrors in the Soviet Union. But man, did he ever kick the Bismarck’s ass in this essay.

Marx was always being asked to draft this or that resolution by this or that committee, and it’s easy to see why. He could argue very clearly and very convincingly. Just like we usually think to ourselves “I wonder what Noam Chomsky has to say on this or that…” so the 18th century radicals must have been eagerly awaiting Marx’s word on new political developments. Add to the fact that Marx himself was of German origin, and was arguing against his own native land, and the comparison between him and Chomsky becomes even more striking. (And both are secular Jews, although I suppose that’s really here nor there).

My point in bringing up all of that stuff is simply this: As Noam Chomsky advances in age, I hear a lot of people worry about what will happen to the movement after he’s gone. But it strikes me that every age has had a Noam Chomsky of some sort, and that undoubtedly someone else will rise to fill Chomsky’s shoes after he is gone.

For more Marx looking very Chomskyesque, be sure to check out "The Civil War in France"

Link of the Day
I suppose after giving all this time to Marx, I should probably link to some Anarchist stuff.

Bakunin also wrote a piece on the Paris Commune (Civil War in France), but, I hate to say this, its not near as good as Marx's piece.

There's a lot of stuff online these days about the Anarchist movement in Japan, but this article seems to be the most thorough.

And I'm sure most of you heard of the death last week of famous Chinese Anarchist Ba Jin.

Also, along the same lines of the video linked to last post, be sure to check out the following Aw Dude video:
This is a clear war crime, and one that begins with the commander's stated intent in the operations order. The pilot's exclamation of satisfaction, 'Aw dude!' at the end just underlines how this casual sadism comes to dominate the psyches of those who are part of a military occupation force, and how the ground reality become 'race war.'"

Video Version

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