Notes from an armchair revolutionary

cursory thoughts, unfiltered drivel and the occasional slur

Month: February, 2014

Drink up, Citoyens!

February the 4th, 220 years ago, the decree to end slavery in the colonies was issued by the committee. The same year, Robespierre wrote his defence of the use of terror.

History is always written for the present. This is not a novel idea, or a particularly exciting one, but it bears repeating. Which history books top the best-seller list is always a good indicator of our present woes. I can’t even count the times I’ve seen the  “Don’t forget the Gulag!” as an injunction against radicalism, most recently in a Swedish newspaper editorial about Greece, with a picture of the Greek communist party, and a reference to Anne Appelbaum’s “Gulag”. Presumably we should “never forget the slaughter of Native Americans”, “never forget colonialism” or “never forget the Transatlantic Slave-trade” as a similar point against liberalism, yet I’ve never seen this, curiously enough. History is important to study because it’s so often abused and employed for spurious reasons.

The French revolution, once thought of as a fraternal brother to the American revolution, is these days considered a precursor to Stalinism, with Robespierre and the committee for public safety taking his place, and with some lazy reference to the Bonapartist crusades as the 19th century equivalent to the Bolsheviks. Simon Schama, a good historian, is a perfect illustration. His Citizens thesis is essentially a rehash of the proto-Stalinism case. The fact that the Jacobins placed such signs as “death is an eternal sleep” over graveyards is obviously where Mao’s cultural revolution came from.

I think the shift happened somewhere around McCarthyism. Before that, even liberal historians would praise the French revolution, embracing at least such safe figures as Danton and the original gang of ’89. Good historians like Albert Mathiez, or Jean Jaures, showed how the French revolution ended slavery in the French colonies, and that the Jacobins were an obvious inspiration for the Haitian slave-revolt and the anti-imperialism of Simon Bolivar. They often pointed out that the terror was perhaps a cruel necessity, and that the worst excesses happened as a consequence of invasion. Once it became clear how obsessed Trotsky and Lenin were with the French revolution, suddenly a shift happened. 

The ideas which animated the Jacobins and the revolution in general served as a reminder to despots not to overstep the mark, and enshrined the ideal, if not the practice, of popular sovereignty. 

So drink up, Citoyens! The struggle goes on. If I had a wig like Robespierre’s, I would wear it today as a mark of respect.



Some excerpts from the life of Marx and Engels (courtesy of F. Wheen: Life of Marx 2001)

I find this adorable and hilarious. Some quotations from Francis Wheen’s biography of Marx:

They had no secrets from each other, no taboos: if Marx found a huge boil on his penis he didn’t hesitate to supply a full description. Their voluminous correspondence is a gamey stew of history and gossip, political economy and schoolboy smut, high ideals and low intimacies. In a letter to Engels on 23 March 1853, to take a more or less random example, Marx discusses the rapid increase in British exports to the Turkish dominions, Disraeli’s position in the Conservative Party, the passage of the Canadian Clergy Reserves Bill through the House of Commons, the harassment of refugees by the British police, the activities of German communists in New York, an attempt by Marx’s publisher to swindle him, the condition of Hungary – and the alleged flatulence of the Empress Eugénie: ‘That angel suffers, it seems, from a most indelicate complaint. She is passionately addicted to farting and is incapable, even in company, of suppressing it. At one time she resorted to horse-riding as a remedy. But this having now been forbidden her by Bonaparte, she “vents” herself. It’s only a noise, a little murmur, a nothing, but then you know that the French are sensitive to the slightest puff of wind.’

Engels served Marx as a kind of substitute mother – sending him pocket money, fussing over his health and continually reminding him not to neglect his studies.

His living conditions might have been expressly designed to keep him from lapsing into contentment. The furniture and fittings in the two-room apartment were all broken, tattered or torn, with a half-inch of dust over everything. In the middle of the front living-room, overlooking Dean Street, was a big table covered with an oilcloth on which lay Marx’s manuscripts, books and newspapers, as well as the children’s toys, rags and scraps from his wife’s sewing basket, several cups with broken rims, knives, forks, lamps, an inkpot, tumblers, Dutch clay pipes and a thick veneer of tobacco ash. Even finding somewhere to sit was fraught with peril. ‘Here is a chair with only three legs, on another chair the children have been playing at cooking – this chair happens to have four legs,’ a guest reported. ‘This is the one which is offered to the visitor, but the children’s cooking has not been wiped away; and if you sit down, you risk a pair of trousers.’
One of the few Prussian police spies who gained admission to this smoke-filled cavern was shocked by Marx’s chaotic habits:

He leads the existence of a real bohemian intellectual. Washing, grooming and changing his linen are things he does rarely, and he likes to get drunk. Though he is often idle for days on end, he will work day and night with tireless endurance when he has a great deal of work to do. He has no fixed times for going to sleep and waking up. He often stays up all night, and then lies down fully clothed on the sofa at midday and sleeps till evening, untroubled by the comings and goings of the whole world.

Marx’s reluctance to go to bed seems eminently reasonable, since his whole ménage – including the housekeeper, Helene ‘Lenchen’ Demuth – had to sleep in one small room at the back of the building. How Karl and Jenny ever found the time or privacy for procreation remains a mystery; one assumes that they seized their chances while Lenchen was out taking the children for a walk

The word made flesh… or how I learned to stop worry and love the word capitalism.

Given the somewhat narcotic effects of the rhythms of the Annales school of economic history, with its penchant for minutely-researched anecdotes, supposedly signifying millions of lives, and repetitious phraseology “means of production…surplus value…internal contradictions” I entered a sort-of sleep-like state, my head drooping over Braudel, my thoughts in a trance, and the reply to Lenin’s eternal question “What is to be done?” seemed clear. Whatever it was, when I regained consciousness, it was gone. Why is it that the piece of the puzzle always seems to be within grasp? It’s like we on the left have studied this phenomenon (ugly word, I know) called capitalism for an eternity—we know why it’s awful; our moral critique is correct, it’s an untenable, wasteful, irrational system, and some form of democratic planning should be put in its place. Are we hallucinating? Is everybody having a splendid time and we’re just trying to spoil it? Is the pain and suffering of being forced by the logic of capital accumulation to treat our fellow humans as beasts of burden imagined?

Reading Braudel I happened upon a passage about the history of the word “capitalism” that I thought I’d share:

Capitalism: a very recent word

Capitalism…has been pursued relentlessly by historians and lexicologists. According to Dauzat, it is to be found in the Encyclopedie in 1753 , but with a very particular meaning: ‘The state of one who is rich’. Unfortunately, this statement seems to be inaccurate; the text quoted cannot be traced. In 1842, the word occurs in the Enrichissements de la langue francaise by J.-B. Richard. But it was probably Louis Blanc, in his polemic with Bastiat, who gave it its new meaning when in 1850 he wrote: ‘ . . . What I call “capitalism” [and he used quotation marks] that is to say the appropriation of capital by some to the exclusion of others. ‘ But the word still occurred only rarely. Proudhon occasionally uses it, correctly: ‘Land is still the fortress of capitalism’ , he writes – and indeed this was one of his major theses. And he defines it very well: ‘Economic and social regime in which capital, the source of income, does not generally belong to those who make it work through their labour. ‘ Six years later however, in 1867, the word was still unknown to Marx. In fact, it was not until the beginning of this century [20th cent. my remark] that it fully burst upon political debate as the natural opposite of socialism. It was to be launched in academic circles by Werner Sombart’s explosive book Der moderne Kapitalismus (1 st edition 1902) . Not unnaturally, this word which Marx never used was incorporated into the Marxist model, so much so that the terms slavery, feudalism and capitalism are commonly used to refer to the three major stages of development defined by the author of Capital. It is a political word then; hence perhaps the ambiguous side of its career. It was long banned by the economists of the first years of the century – Charles Gide, Canwas, Marshall, Seligman, Cassel – and only appeared in the Dictionnaire des sciences politiques after the First World War. It did not receive an article in the Encyclopedia Britannica until the 1926 edition; and appeared in the Dictionnaire de I’ Academie francaise only in 1936 and then with this ludicrous definition: ‘Capitalism: sum total of capitalists’ ( Capitalisme: ensemble des capitalistes) . The new definition of 1958 is not much better: ‘Economic regime in which the goods of production (les biens de production) belong to private individuals or firms’ – what is wrong with ‘means of production’ (les moyens de production)? In fact this word, which has become loaded with meaning since the beginning of the century and in particular since the Russian Revolution of 1917, clearly causes many people embarrassment. A reputable historian, Herbert Heaton, has suggested simply abolishing it: ‘ [Of all] the “isms” . . . the greatest noisemaker has been capitalism. That word unfortunately has acquired such a motley of meanings and definitions that one may justly plead that capitalism, like imperialism, is a term that should be cut out of the vocabulary of every self-respecting scholar’. Lucien Febvre himself felt it could be dropped, since it had been over-used. But if we were to listen to this not unreasonable advice, we should start missing the absentee immediately. As Andrew Shonfield says, ‘one . . . justification for the continued use of the word “capitalism” is that no one, not even its severest critics, has proposed a better word to put in its place’. Historians were perhaps most tempted of all by the new word, in the days when it did not yet have a whiff of brimstone about it. Blithely disregarding anachronism, they opened up the entire field of historical prospecting to it, from ancient Babylon to Hellenistic Greece, ancient China, Rome, the European Middle Ages, India. All the great names of yesterday’s historiography, from Theodore Mommsen to Henri Pirenne, dabbled in this sport, which later occasioned a virtual witch-hunt. The imprudent were rebuked, Mommsen first of all and by no less an authority than Marx himself. And rightly so perhaps: capital cannot simply be used as a synonym for money. But the mere mention of the word seems to have been enough reason for Paul Veyne to berate Michel Rostovtsef – the outstanding expert on the ancient economy. J. C. Van Leur insisted on seeing only ‘pedlars’ in the economy of South-East Asia. Karl Polanyi is full of scorn for historians who have dared to refer to Assyrian ‘merchants’ – and yet we have thousands of tablets bearing their correspondence; and so on. In many cases, the aim of the assault is to reduce everything to a post-Marxian orthodoxy: we are not allowed to talk about capitalism before the end of the eighteenth century, in other words before the industrial mode of production. Well this is really a question of terminology. I need hardly point out that no historian of ancien regime societies, a fortiori of ancient civilizations, would ever, when using the term capitalism, have in mind the definition Alexander Gerschenkron calmly gives us: ‘Capitalism, that is the modern industrial system’. I have already indicated that capitalism in the past (as distinct from capitalism today) only occupied a narrow platform of economic life. How could one possibly take it to mean a ‘system’ extending over the whole of society? It was nevertheless a world apart, different from and indeed foreign to the social and economic context surrounding it. And it is in relation to this context that it is defined as ‘capitalism’, not merely in relation to new capitalist forms which were to emerge later in time. In fact capitalism was what it was in relation to a noncapitalism of immense proportions. And to refuse to admit this dichotomy within the economy of the past, on the pretext that ‘true’ capitalism dates only from the nineteenth century, means abandoning the effort to understand the significance – crucial to the analysis of that economy – of what might be termed the former topology of capitalism. If there were certain areas where it elected residence – by no means inadvertently – that is because these were the only areas which favoured the reproduction of capital.

“Mr. Armchair revolutionary, I believe?”

At the encouragement of other prominent bloggers, well just one actually, I thought I might dabble in a little off-the-cuff blogging when the mood strikes me. I will mainly be writing notes on what I’m currently reading, but try to present it as a readable and not entirely self-indulgent affair. I should state right off the bat that my leanings are off the normal political spectrum, at least as it pertains to the bourgeois press, and heavily Marxian. I have no interest in wonkery and being “taken seriously” – why would I seek approval from a system I abhor? At least that’s how I rationalize my marginalization and the empty feeling when I wake up in the morning, and notice that there’s no revolution today either.

I’m currently studying history, with a focus on economic history, though I’ve also done some journalism and studied literature, social theory etc. Please refrain from jokes about what my career is supposed to consist of. Again, I don’t have any interest in reproducing capitalism. Again, this is probably a rationalization.

My mother tongue is Swedish, but as is incumbent upon any person today, I think my English is quite good.

I received my training as a leftist at my father’s knee, and I’ve never veered off track, except for some weird teenage rebellion as an Oakshottian conservative; that didn’t last long though. I spent a brief sojourn in a Trotskyist cult, and learned some organizing and mainly handing out pamphlets deriding the state of the world. A quote from Claude Levi-Strauss has always seemed apropos of communism and self-questioning leftism:

“If men have always been concerned with only one task—how to create a society fit to live in—the forces which inspired our distant ancestors are also present in us. Nothing is settled; everything can still be altered. What was done but turned out wrong, can be done again. The Golden Age, which blind superstition had placed behind us, is in us.”

History is not a tally of reaction versus revolution, one of the two is not dominant, even if it might appear so, but they exist side-by-side.

A wonderful moment is recounted by Alexander Cockburn about when the French left Algiers after the revolution in 1962. Suddenly the TV-studios were empty, because they were run by the French settlers. And when people stormed the building and noticed they were on TV, and that people all over Algiers could see them on their monitors, they started dancing joyously, one of the only spontaneous moments of television, probably. As so often happens, this celebration of the triumph of the wretched of the earth was stopped when the police arrived.

With a little pull on the thread the whole thing can unravel and present new opportunities. I think, whatever occupy wall street started—in all its meekness for a Leninist like myself—it has just begun. Discontent is simmering. I shall now stop my pontificating and invite you to read along if you have the time and leisure. I’m currently winding my way through Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century, vol. 2, I’m also reading Albert O. Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests as well as Hobbes’ Leviathan and Oakeshotte’s comment on it called Hobbes on civil association. As is my wont, I’m also reading Alexander Cockburn’s newest book, A Colossal Wreck. Let’s remember Alex by asking ourselves if our hatred is really pure.

Watch this space.