Thursday, July 09, 2020

Kevin B. Anderson - Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity & Non-Western Societies

Karl Marx is popularly seen as an economist. His writings are often reduced down to an economic analysis and critic of capitalism. However, as this important book shows, Marx was a revolutionary thinker who, through his life, developed a sharp critique of the way that capitalism remade the world in its own image. In doing so Marx took up issues relating to racism, colonialism and non-Western communal social forms, that he considered essential for the socialist movement to understand as part of the struggle for a Communist society. Anderson writes:
In the 1840s, he [Marx] held to an implicitly uni-linear perspective, sometimes tinged with ethnocentrism, according to which non-Western societies would necessarily be absorbed into capitalism and then modernised via colonialism and the world market. But over time, his perspective evolved toward one that was more multi-linear, leaving the future development of these societies as an open question. By 1881-82 he was envisioning the possibility that Russia could modernise in a progressive non-capitalist manner, if its peasant-based revolutionary movement could link up with the working-class movements of Western Europe.
Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto begins with a celebration of capitalism over previously existing societies - the way that it had unleashed productive forces hitherto inconceivable. Marx writes of these forces "battering down" Chinese walls, drawing "even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation". Capitalism, they continue, "compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image."

While the Communist Manifesto does then continue to highlight the barbarity of "Civilisation" it is not particularly detailed on what "creating a world after its own image means" in terms of the impact of colonial countries, indigenous peoples and so on. But one of the central points of Marx at the Margins is that Marx's thinking on these issues evolves through his lifetime. As Anderson explains,
By 1853, Marx has begun to overcome the one-sidedness of the treatment of non-Western societies in the Manifesto... people from within non-Western societies are now credited with the potential of 'throwing off the English yoke-altogether' and self-starting the 'regeneration' of their societies and cultures. This regeneration would not, however, any more than the struggle of the Western working classes, be aimed at a return to the precapitalist past. It would retain the achievements of capitalist modernity.
A great deal of Anderson's book explores how Marx (and Engels) acted upon this understanding. Firstly he draws out neglected and ignored parts of their writing to show the extent to which an anti-colonial politics was at the core of their work for much of their active careers. Some of this is based on works like Capital and the Grundrisse, but some of its is also based on Anderson's knowledge of the much less well known works of Marx, including the detailed Ethnographic Notebooks. One reason that these works are less well known is that Marx archivists didn't consider them as important as his economic work. Marx's work on historic societies, indigenous people, non-Western societies and colonialism get relegated to secondary importance or worse. One editor of Marx's works, in 1925, for the MEGA project complained "why did he [Marx] was so much time on this... inexcusable pedantry".

But as Anderson shows, Marx's pedantry was not because of distraction, but because he was increasingly aware of the importance of these wider issues to his understanding of capitalism and the strategic ambition of the socialist movement.

Secondly Anderson shows how Marx's awareness of issues of colonialism and racism, were a key part of his activism. The question of Irish independence was never far from Marx's heart and Anderson draws out the key role of Marx and Engels in placing opposition to British colonial rule in Ireland within the politics of the First International. As Anderson shows, it was directly as a result of Marx's work that the International supported a position on Ireland that broke with "decades of prejudice and hostility of the British towards the Irish".

Equally important was opposition to slavery and, reading this as I was during the Black Lives Matter movement's re-emergence in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, I was struck by the importance of Marx's work on slavery to understanding the current situation in the United States. Anderson shows how despite their rulers' support for the South, British workers sided with the North during the American Civil War, "This was not only because they were antislavery, but also because European workers saw the US as the most democratic society of the time, virtually the only country were even white male workers enjoyed full suffrage". He quotes Marx:
As long as the English cotton manufactures depended on slave-grown cotton, it could be truthfully asserted that they rested on a twofold slavery, the indirect slavery of the white man in England and the direct slavery of the black man on the other side of the Atlantic. 
Time and again Marx celebrates the workers opposing the slave states in the US Civil War, and he and Engels engage in detailed discussions of the pursuit of the war and Lincoln's failure to encourage a revolutionary strategy.

Marx drew important revolutionary conclusions from his understanding of the close link between colonial oppression, resistance to colonialism and the contemporary socialist movement. A country that oppressed another, couldn't itself be free. So the importance of the British working class movement (and the left) in supporting the struggles of oppressed peoples' was key to the success of the struggle in the imperial nations. "[Marx] was placing Ireland at the centre of British revolutionary and labour politics. In both Cromwell's time and the 1790s he now held, the collapse of revolutionary possibilities in Britain was receded by British suppression of the Irish people."

But this itself was a position that developed. As Marx wrote to Kuglemann,
I have become more and more convinced - and the thing now is to drum this conviction into the English working class - that they will never do anything decisive here in England before they separate their attitude towards Ireland quite definitely from that of the ruling classes, and not only make common cause with the Irish, but even take the initiative in dissolving the Union established in 1801... Every movement in England itself is crippled by the dissension with the Irish, who form a very important section of the working class in England itself.
Marx was also shaped by the resistance movements themselves. The Indian Rebellion of 1857 for instance, meant that Marx "attacked British colonialism far more sharply" than he did in his 1853 writings.

Two final points from Kevin B. Anderson's work must be highlighted. Firstly the question of the development of capitalism. Marx's writings on primitive accumulation hold that the West followed a distinct process that saw capitalism arise out of feudal relations. This was often read "as a global and unilinear process of capitalist development, with England exhibiting the 'classic form'." But Anderson shows how Marx was constantly developing this position, and by the time of the later French edition of Capital he'd reached a more nuanced position, where (in Anderson's words) Marx's "narrative of primitive accumulation was meant as a description of Western European development, nothing more, and hardly a global grand narrative". Its this that forms the basis of Marx's writings about the peasant communes in Russia and their potential to move direct to socialism, without capitalism. Such ideas no doubt influenced Russian revolutionaries like Leon Trotsky in his work on combined and uneven development.

The other point I wanted to conclude on is Marx's "racism". In place, Anderson repeatedly notes, Marx did use language that we would see as highly ethnocentric and, on occasion, racist. For instance, Marx uses in several places the "N word". Interestingly Anderson points out that in modern editions of his work this has often been replaced with the word "blacks". Does this mean Marx was racist? Anderson argues that Marx was "using racist language in an anti-racist way", in other words his language was on occasion racist but his use of the terms was always in the context of confronting racism and colonialism as part of a wider project of the emancipation of all.

As I hope I have shown in this review Kevin B. Anderson's book is a highly important work for many reasons. The first of these is to rescue Marx as a wide-ranging anti-capitalist author, not simply a revolutionary economist. The second is to show Marx as a committed anti-racist activist who put opposition to Empire and colonialism at the heart of his theoretical and activist work. Thirdly to show that Marxism has a great deal to contribute to contemporary debates about the legacy of colonialism, slavery, imperialism and Empire today - particularly an understanding of the origins of racism. Finally Anderson indicates that many of Marx's lesser known works can contribute to important discussions around issues as diverse as indigenous struggles and historic communal societies. The book is well written, engaging and detailed and it is a must read for radical activists today.

Related Reviews

Gonzalez - In the Red Corner: The Marxism of José Carlos Mariátegui
Patterson - Karl Marx, Anthropologist
Burkett - Marxism and Ecological Economics: Toward a Red and Green Political Economy
Marx - Capital Volume I
Marx - Grundrisse

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