“Old Gods, New Enigmas – Marx’s Lost Theory,” by Mike Davis, 2018
Davis’ new book is a another varied academic work that deals with a number of issues, and whose title is partially inaccurate. The first part deals with the history of Marx’s neglected political thought about, not just the full-time proletariat, but classes and sections of classes like the ‘informal proletariat.’ The second part is a long, exciting history of labor ‘agency’ from mostly 1838 to 1921, which puts the present U.S. labor and progressive movement to shame. The last chapters are about the dark environmental situation – with Davis’ pessimistic and optimistic responses. As much as he tries to present the latter, he leans to the former. Wedged in is an analysis of Marx's views on nationalism, which is the 'lost' theory that Davis is talking about.
|Available at May Day Books|
The most valuable piece is Davis’ investigation of Marx’s various ideas on the different socioeconomic strata of France, and how they acted based on their class or social interests. Given the whole panoply of Marx’s work is now known, far more detail has been unearthed by scholars. While some people have accused Marx of having ‘no political program,’ here Davis shows that Marx took into account the views of ‘class fractions’ – and of the peasantry, small urban businessmen and farmers, individual tradesmen and artisans and others in constructing how the proletariat should move forward amongst all these different claims. What Davis is getting at is that the complex economic strata in various capitalist countries is not a new thing – and that a successful political strategy involves gaining allies from other classes or sub-classes. Marx, unlike Engels, clearly saw that the peasantry and small businessmen would side with the proletariat if the latter took up the causes of debt and tax relief.
Marx was well aware of the ‘precariat’ that people like Guy Standing have suddenly discovered. Many workers had precarious existences in the 1800s, and could be hired and fired based on the recessions and depressions that continually occurred under capital. Home piece work was generalized. There was a huge group of domestic servants (which Marx called ‘modern domestic slaves’). A pauperized working class existed, which now has its parallel in the global South. Even autoworkers in the U.S. in the 1930s prior to unions had precarious existences where they could be fired easily. Precariousness is nothing new.
Even the ‘land question’ comes into play, as the Social-Democratic Party of Bela Kun in the 1919 Hungarian / Budapest Soviet refused to call for ‘land to the tiller’ - breaking up the large Hungarian estates mostly owned by nobility. Instead the rural areas became a base for Horthyite reaction. A revolutionary program would have allowed the bulk of the peasantry to come over to the side of the Social Democracy. Davis also defends Lenin from people (like Samir Amin,) who thought Lenin too ignored the peasantry like Stalin. Lenin’s consistent conception of the Russian revolution was based on an alliance with the peasantry and breaking up the landed estates. This is no secret if you can remember Lenin’s convoluted phrase about the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.’
In this book, Davis makes these additional points:
- Marx understood that the hesitant bourgeoisie and localized peasants were not capable of making a through-going democratic revolution against the nobility, and showed this through his historical studies. Only the working classes could make this so, which was one of their great historical contributions to society.
- Marx did not believe in the ultimate success of an alternative society based on cooperative / artisanal principles in the face of large capital.
- Marx and socialists during this time did not discuss in depth the role of the city, war or women’s issues.
- Marx did not believe industrial workers would be a majority in society. He himself said: “the increase in the productivity of large-scale industry …permits a larger and larger part of the working class to be employed unproductively.” (No kidding...)
- In what might be relevant today regarding rural politics, the Marxist historian Hobsbawm said: “peasant consciousness tends to be entirely localized or constituted in abstract opposition to the city, often in the language of millenarian religion.”
- “Auschwitz was quite literally an IG-Farben company town.”
- In Engels' look at the English working-class, he was always surprised by how religion had almost no hold on the English and London proletariat.
- Davis, like David Harvey, understands the combined power of the neighborhood and the worksite – the productive and the geographic – both sources of exploitation and resistance.
- Gentrification was going on in Paris and in Europe in 1872, according to Engels in “The Housing Question.”
- English workers froze during the war winter of 1916, as all coal went to war industries.
- Davis illustrates how cities incubated resistance and revolution across Europe, through culture, buildings, societies, cooperatives, sports, neighborhoods, etc.
- The class struggle actually pushes the capitalists to develop new technologies to raise productivity and reduce labor’s power.
- The Russian Revolution led to the success of the 8-hour day movement across Europe.
- Alexander Rabinowitz described the Petrograd Bolshevik Party during 1917: “…internally relatively democratic, tolerant and decentralized structure and method of operations, as well as its essentially open and mass character… within the Bolshevik Petrograd organization at all levels in 1917 there was continuing free and lively discussion and debate over the most basic theoretical and tactical issues.”
- Davis asserts that national planning in the past was very difficult, but with present modern software, databases and supply-chain structures, national and even international planning would be easier.
- Marx’s ostensible lost theory concerns nationalism. Davis cites the work of Erica Benner, who defends Marx against his opponents on this question.
- Nationalism according to Marx was an ‘opium’ for two quasi-classes – urban shopkeepers and rural smallholders. The magic of the ‘nation’ abolished class struggle and imagined that all social classes were equal.
- On the issue of nationalism, Davis (and Marx) contend that the working class can win these ‘quasi-classes’ to follow the national leadership of the working class if their demands against debt, mortgages and taxes are dealt with. (Taxes, as we might remind Democrats, are not all ‘progressive.’)
- But then Davis insists that “martial nationalism was an essential fuel for social revolution, as well as a precondition for socialist leadership of the peasantry and the lower middle classes.” What ‘martial nationalism’ means is unclear. Certainly Davis himself brings up SDP support for ‘war credits’ in 1914 as one possible example. But the other example is that one side of a civil war can be progressive (like the U.S. Civil War, the Cuban or Nicaraguan revolutions) or in wars of national liberation (for instance, Haiti's fight against France, China's struggle against the Japanese or Mexico's resistance to the U.S.)
- Marx said that the exploitation of peasants “differs only in form from the exploitation of the industrial proletariat.”
- In his environmental chapters, Davis praises the anarchist Kropotkin’s geologic travels and ground-breaking research into climate change, which showed that landscapes changed over time. Davis notes that it was common knowledge that the middle-east and east Asia at one time were ‘well-watered.’ He quotes Engels to the effect that ‘nature takes revenge’ on every human victory. He cites Nils Ekholm in 1901 as the first scientist to recognize the ‘greenhouse’ effect. Davis points out that the mega-drought in Syria between 2007-2010 played a role in the uprising there. And that the whole ‘Fertile Crescent’ is probably heading to desiccation by century-end.
- Davis holds hope that ‘the city’ can somehow be a new ‘ark’ - a center of ecological sustainability. He endorses the concept of the “Anthopocene,’ though driven by capitalist profiteering. He seems to be unaware of the concept of the 'Capitalocene." He concentrates on the impact of global warming on the global South where it is most severe, and skims over any impacts in the global North. Which perhaps is not the best tactic for a mostly northern readership.
This book, given its multi-contents, deserves a mixed review. At times useful and informative, at times repetitive (do we need another familiar contribution on the environmental issue?), at times exciting, you could do worse.
Other books related to this review: “The Precariat,” “In Praise of Barbarians,” “Anti-Fascism, Sports, Sobriety…” and books on Marxist theory.
And I bought it at May Day Books!
August 11, 2018