The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The lonely hour of the last instance

The only people to learn anything from the collapse of the Soviet bloc have been the Communists. Everyone else was merely proved right.

Tony Judt reviews three books on Marxism: two by Leszek Kolakowski and one by Jacques Attali. Attali hopes, and Judt fears, that Marxism might yet revive. Kolakowski has long since escaped its orbit, after writing a three-volume survey (its reissue in one volume is one of the books reviewed) that is, Judt thinks, unlikely to be bettered. Judt shares with Kolakowski a roster of who the important and influential recent Marxist intellectuals were, even if all they deserve is Kolakowski's brisk dismissals. Gramsci, Lukacs: interesting. Ernst Bloch: weird. Goldmann, Marcuse: even less interesting than they were back in the day.

My copy of The Breakdown is under the shifting stacks or on the shelf of a charity shop, but that's more or less how I recall it. I forget if he mentioned Althusser, but Judt does, here and in his latest book, Postwar. E. P. Thompson gets a well-deserved thrashing for his ill-judged 'Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski', which provoked Kolakowski's stinging reply 'My Correct Views on Everything'. Judt is right to say the 'Open Letter' was Thompson at his worst. He's wrong to say that no one who reads Kolakowski's reply (pdf) will ever take Thompson seriously again. First, because by picking a few burrs from Thompson's wool-gathering ramble, Kolakowski (understandably) misunderstands him. Second - what about Thompson at his best?

E. P. Thompson's influence didn't come from his political interventions (apart from his surprise bestseller, the pamphlet Protest and Survive) but from his historical writings, centrally The Making of the English Working Class, and from polemics that arose out of his understanding of history as a discipline. 'The Peculiarities of the English' and 'The Poverty of Theory' can be read and re-read, and are worth it. (I've just checked. Yep.) The 'Open Letter' is a pain to read once. (Yep, again.)

Who were the really influential Marxist intellectuals? This is a question that non-Marxist intellectuals nearly always get wrong. (Roger Scruton, in his venomous but scintillating Thinkers of the New Left, got it right. His shafts are somewhat blunted by his targets' biographies at the back, which show that almost every man jack of them who was adult at the time of the Second World War was a patriot when it mattered, but never mind.) I've never read more than a few pages of Marcuse or Althusser, or any of the famous 'Western Marxists', apart from (not enough) Gramsci and Lukacs. You know why? Because they're very difficult to read. Gramsci and Lukacs had excuses for obscurity. The rest didn't.

No, the really influential Marxist intellectuals are those wrote well and clearly. They weren't philosophers or Critical Theorists but historians and economists - and Trotsky. A lot of Trotsky's influence can be attributed quite simply to the fact that he couldn't write a dull page. It was Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution that first interested Paul Sweezy in Marxism; likewise C.L.R. James, who went on to write one of the greatest Marxist histories, The Black Jacobins. (Not a dull page, and not a careless or undocumented word.) Paul A. Baran was a pupil of the Left Opposition economist Preobrazhensky, another lucid writer. (It's just struck me that Preobrazhensky might be a key to the whole Monthly Review school. Hmm.) When you add up the influence of Paul Sweezy, Paul A. Baran, Leo Huberman, Harry Magdoff, Maurice Dobb, Ernest Mandel; Isaac Deutscher's biographies; C.L.R. James, Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, and, yes, E.P. Thompson; Gordon Childe; J.B.S. Haldane and J. Bernal - you've gone a long way to account for the intellectual influence of Marxism in at least the English-reading world. All of them wrote for readers who weren't Marxists. And non-Marxist, indeed anti-Marxist, readers have profited from their work ever since. Some who weren't Marxists when they opened a book by any of these guys were at least half-way to being Marxists when they closed it. Who ever became a Marxist as a result of reading Althusser?

One of the few pages I read of Gramsci, from his prison letters, was the one in which he relates how he was able to learn even from the rubbishy novels and fascist tracts which were all his jailers allowed him. Anything was raw material for historical materialism. I was stuck with very limited reading material at the time, and I determined to put Gramsci's claim to the test. I picked up, almost at random, a book on the Great Disruption of 1843: the great split in the Church of Scotland, which resulted in the founding of the Free Church. Amid all the theological differences between moderates and evangelicals, the issue turned on patronage: should the minister be chosen by the congregation, or by their landlord? Being more spiritually minded and less careerist, the evangelical ministers tended to be closer to their parishioners than to the landlord, and therefore less inclined than the landlord would like to preach submission to the Clearances.

The 'relative autonomy' of spiritual and intellectual life, and (nevertheless) its 'determination in the last instance' by 'the economic movement' was one of the points of clarification insisted upon by Engels, in an old man's dismay at younger men's follies. Althusser, in a vivid but vacuous pronouncement, claimed that 'the lonely hour of the last instance never comes.' In that study of the Great Disruption, I felt I had found one of those moments when, as Thompson puts it, the lonely hour of the last instance actually came.


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