Spirit versus Letter: On interpreting Marx

One of the more fascinating aspects of reading carefully through Stalin’s writings is what may be called the scriptural dynamic of spirit and letter. As 2 Corinthians 3:6 puts it, ‘the letter kills, but the spirit gives life’. Stalin is clearly on the side of the spirit through the letter in interpreting the texts of Marx and Lenin. Thus, Marx’s thought applies to emerging capitalism, while Lenin’s thought is Marxism in the age of imperialism. To emphasise his approach, he tells a story provided by Swedish socialists:

It was at the time of the sailors’ and soldiers’ revolt in the Crimea. Representatives of the navy and army came to the Social-Democrats and said: “For some years past you have been calling on us to revolt against tsarism. Well, we are now convinced that you are right, and we sailors and soldiers have made up our mints to revolt and now we have come to you for advice.” The Social-Democrats became flurried and replied that they couldn’t decide the question of a revolt without a special conference. The sailors intimated that there was no time to lose, that everything was ready, and that if they did not get a straight answer from the Social-Democrats, and if the Social-Democrats did not take over the direction of the revolt, the whole thing might collapse. The sailors and soldiers went away pending instructions, and the Social-Democrats called a conference to discuss the matter. They took the first volume of Capital, they took the second volume of Capital, and then they took the third volume of Capital, looking for some instruction about the Crimea, about Sevastopol, about a revolt in the Crimea. But they could not find a single, literally not a single instruction in all three volumes of Capital either about Sevastopol, or about the Crimea, or about a sailors’ and soldiers’ revolt. They turned over the pages of other works of Marx and Engels, looking for instructions—but not a single instruction could they find. What was to be done? Meanwhile the sailors had come expecting an answer. Well, the Social-Democrats had to confess that under the circumstances they were unable to give the sailors and soldiers any instructions. “And so the sailors’ and soldiers’ revolt collapsed.” (Works, volume 9, pages 97-98)

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The cure for Marx’s carbuncles: stout, port and claret

Marx’s first carbuncle appeared in 1863, growing from a boil on his back to the size of a fist. Eventually the doctor was called. He cut widely and deeply into Karl’s back, letting loose an immense amount of blood and pus. For convalescence, the doctor prescribed the following:

– one and half quarts of stout (1.7 litres)
– three to four glasses of port
– half a bottle of claret daily

This was daily. One assumes he didn’t feel as much pain this way.

Marx the strong-loined paterfamilias

Early in 1851, Marx wrote to Engels one of his many letters, this one concerning ground rent. Early in the letter, he informs Engels:

An inverse relationship of the fertility of the soil to human fertility must needs deeply affect a strong-loined paterfamilias like myself, the more so since mon mariage est plus productif que mon industries (MECW 38: 274).

Jenny was pregnant with their fifth child. To add a slight complication, Lenchen (Helene Demuth), the real head of the household, was also pregnant, although probably not by the same paterfamilias.

Was ik maar weer in Bommel: I wish I was back in Bommel (Marx)

Karl Marx ‘was half Dutch [half Nederlands was]’, wrote his daughter Eleanor in 1893. Why? The first hint begins with her recipient, who was none other than Franc van der Goes, a family member. But the full story is that Marx’s mother was Henriette Pressburg, and her sister Sophie was married to Lion Philips. The Philips family – which provided the basis of Philips electronics – lived in Zaltbommel. Even more, Marx’s father, Heinrich (Herschel) was connected with a number of Dutch Jewish families.

So the genealogical link was close, but so was the personal. More than fifty letters survive of the correspondence between Marx and his Dutch relatives, letters that are very open in discussing politics, philosophy, culture, personal matters and so on. Lion’s brother, Auguste, also assisted Marx with the publication of the French translation of Capital. With all these connections, it is not surprising that Marx visited the family in Holland on a regular basis, and that Lion helped him out with money when he was short (a frequent occurrence for a man who was hopeless in personal finances). Indeed, Lion’s son Eduard, remembered that Marx wrote part of Capital while he was there. He would walk back and forth furiously, smoking away, until an idea came to him. Then he would leap on the chair and write away. Of course, there is also the intriguing ‘closeness’ with his cousin, Nanette Philips, leading come to speculate on a possible affair. Probably not, but they did enjoy each other’s company.

All this and more can be found in J. Gielkens (red.), ‘Was ik maar weer in Bommel’, Karl Marx en zijn Nederlandse verwanten, Een familiegeschiedenis, bezorgd en ingeleid door Jan Gielkens, uitg. Stichting beheer IISG, Amsterdam 1997. You can also find a summary by Jasper Schaaf.

Marx’s courting advice

When Paul Lafargue was living with the Marxes in 1866, he made his intentions regarding Laura quite plain so that the whole family knew. Marx was not so impressed, so he wrote:

If you wish to continue your relations with my daughter, you will have to give up your present manner of ‘courting.’ You know full well that no engagement has been entered into, that as yet everything is undecided. And even if she were formally betrothed to you, you should not forget that this is a matter of long duration. The practice of excessive intimacy is especially inappropriate since the two lovers will be living at the same place for a necessarily prolonged period of severe testing and purgatory. I have observed with alarm how your conduct has altered from one day to the next within the geological period of one single week. To my mind, true love expresses itself in reticence, modesty and even the shyness of the lover towards the object of his veneration, and certainly not in giving free rein to one’s passion and in premature demonstrations of familiarity. If you should urge your Creole temperament in your defence, it is my duty to interpose my sound reason between your temperament and my daughter. If in her presence you are incapable of loving in a manner in keeping with the London latitude, you will have to resign yourself to loving her from a distance. I am sure you will take the hint (MECW 42: 307-8).

On the development of early Chinese Marxism

Among other things, I am reading a book called Chinese Marxism by Adrian Chan. It is a bit thin in parts, especially in terms of the Russian Revolution, but the core of the book is excellent. In a devastating chapter, he demolishes what has become a standard position among Sinologists and ‘authorities’ on Chinese Marxism: the early theorists and members of the CCP were deluded and did not understand Marx properly. And since those early leaders became the teachers of Mao, he too misinterpreted Marx. That is, the adoption of Marxism was opportunist and that approach was used as a convenient screen for nationalist and specifically Chinese concerns.

Let us have a closer look at Chan’s points. The key text here is Benjamin Schwartz’s Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao (Harvard, 1951), which set the agenda and became an ‘authority’. In discussing the key early figures Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, Schwartz proposes that they were opposed to socialism until quite late, they were ‘Manchester Liberals’ even after founding the communist party, they read little Marx, what they read they misunderstood (focusing on peasants rather than workers), their late turn to a misunderstood Marxism was inspired by nationalist resentment after the May 4th Movement, as well as direct Comintern intervention, and they passed on this distorted approach to Mao. That is, they simply used Marxism as a convenient screen for their own political agenda and lust for power. Schwartz’s basic position soon became authoritative, adopted by others, such as Maurice Meisner, Carrère d’Encausse and Schram, and even Arif Dirlik’s The Origins of Chinese Communism (1989). And we see it today in the common position among the Left that Chinese communists are that in name only, using Marxism as a convenient ideology for their own very different agenda.

Chan thoroughly demolishes Schwartz’s position, showing that he was highly selective in what he used from these early Chinese Marxists, altered their texts, left out crucial sections of those texts and attributed works to them that they had not written. And as Chen points out, Schwartz had been appointed to Harvard by both the Departments of Government and of East Asian Studies. The head of the latter department, John King Fairbank, made it quite clear that the purpose of Asian Studies at Harvard was to train ‘capable’ intelligence officers, who would ‘contain’ and resist the ‘disaster’ of ‘modern Asian totalitarianism’. That sounds strangely familiar today, echoed in quarters as apparently different as Rick Santorum and Slavoj Žižek.

Dirlik is particularly interesting, since he at least claims to be a Marxist. Yet his 1989 book makes many of the same Cold War assumptions: the Chinese turn to communism was a direct result of intervention by the Comintern (based in Moscow and decidedly Bolshevik); they misunderstood communism as social democracy; they did not understand Marxism ‘in its totality’. Apart from the fact that Marxism is not a total philosophical system, Chan also points out that in the early decades of the 20th century some key texts by Marx and Engels had not even been published (Grundrisse and the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts), so no-one would have been able to know it in its ‘totality’.

Here I would add Eagleton’s recent Why Marx Was Right (2011), which carries on this venerable tradition. Holding to a romantic Marxism, in which the true revolution is yet to come, Eagleton argues that the Chinese communist revolution – along with all of the others from Russia to Vietnam – was deluded and misdirected. Why? A proper communist revolution should take place only in an advanced capitalist context. Given that the Chinese revolution occurred in a largely pre-capitalist, agricultural country, it was both a travesty of Marxism and bound to ‘fail’. Obviously, it has been a while since Eagleton seriously read Marx.

Back to those early Chinese communists: the reality is, of course, quite different, for Chen and Li and others engaged in intensive study of Marx and Engels well before 4 May 1919, using the library under Li’s direction with over 70 works by our good friends, engaging in active translations, and publishing items on Marxism in very influential journals from 1915. They worked closely with texts such as The Manifesto of the Communist Party, Capital, The Civil War in France and the introduction to A Contribution to the Critique on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. And they were particularly interested in the points made by Marx and Engels that there was never a ‘master-key’ based on a supra-historical and ‘general historico-philosophical theory’. Rather, the path to communism will take very different forms, depending on particular historical, social and economic factors, or, in their words, ‘on the historical conditions for the time being existing’.

How to think, talk and write

Marx, for one, would pace up and down the room. Paul Lafargue notes that Marx would rest by doing so, while Henry Hyndman observes: ‘Marx had a habit when at all interested in the discussion of walking actively up and down the room, as if he were pacing the deck of a schooner for exercise’. Engels had the same habit. Imagine the scene, especially after Engels managed to escape the ‘huckstering’ of the family firm in Manchester: Marx would pace in one direction, puffing on a cigarette, Engels would pace parallel to Marx but in the opposite direction, puffing on a pipe, while both would engage in animated discussion.

As for Lenin, Krupskaya notes: ‘When writing, he would usually pace swiftly up and down the room, whispering what he was going to write’. Then he would leap into the seat at his desk and rapidly write down what he had just whispered to himself. 45 volumes of Collected Worksthat’s a lot of whispering.