Skip to Content

Book Reviews: 'How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World', & ''Marx and Anglo-Russian Relations'

Global March of the Gurus

'How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World', by Francis Wheen, Fourth Estate, 2004.

A few years ago Wheen had a critically and commercially successful biography of Karl Marx. This survey – A Short History of Modern Delusions, as the book’s subtitle puts it – takes 1979 as the decisive year. In that year two key events occurred that shaped the modern world: Margaret Thatcher came to power in Britain and Ayatollah Khomeini returned to dominate Iran.

The link between the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism is uncontroversial. The Shah of Iran was a stooge of western governments, there to guarantee oil supplies. The ideology used to remove him therefore took the form of an anti-western Islam. This ideology then spread through the Middle East and beyond. But Wheen’s interpretation of Thatcher’s rise and the global spread of free market fundamentalism is less convincing. In Wheen’s account, the old status quo (which he clearly favours) was overthrown by New Right zealots spouting mumbo-jumbo. Or put another way, the post-war consensus on the mixed economy, guided by government intervention and Keynesian economics, was supplanted by monetarism, privatisation and the worship of market forces. Of course these facts are not in dispute and Thatcherite/Blairite ideology is mumbo-jumbo dressed-up as common sense (“we are all ‘Thatcherite’ now,” said Peter Mandelson, Labour MP, in 2002). However, what Wheen fails to appreciate is why the post-war consensus was so easily swept away. In the 1970s the long post-war boom had come to an end and the Keynesian status quo was perceived to be a failure in dealing with recession and high unemployment. Hence the spread of free market mumbo-jumbo.

Wheen sets great store by the Enlightenment values of reason and progress. This book is far more wide ranging than space here permits us to discuss. Cults, gurus, irrational panics and post-modernists are all subject to a withering criticism very much in the style of George Orwell. Despite the reservations above, this is a superb piece of work and it will be an invaluable resource for socialists.


Embarrassing Marx

'Marx and Anglo-Russian Relations and Other Writings', by D. B. Riazanov. Francis Boutle Publishers, 2003, £10.

Marx’s views on the Russia of his day have, to be frank, always been a bit of an embarrassment. Not that they cannot be explained, and even to a certain extent understood, in their historical context, but it is still rather hard to take from the pen of Marx arguments about Russian Tsarism wanting, like Genghis Khan, to conquer the world and that it had been plotting to do so for centuries or talk of a threat to Europe of “Mongol rule” and “Eastern barbarism”, let alone constant calls for war against Russia. This was unacceptable even in Marx’s day, and we have said so on many occasions.

The historical context was that, for most of the 19th century, capitalist economic and particularly political forms were not all that securely established in continental Europe where the army of Tsarist Russia was a constant threat to them. This led Marx and other revolutionary democrats to regard Russia as the main enemy, to be contained and countered. In the 1850s when Marx was earning a precarious living as a journalist, some of the articles for the New York Tribune putting an anti-Russia position came to the attention of David Urquhart, a former Tory MP and Russophobe. Urquhart encouraged Marx to write more in the same vein published them in his papers which in 1857 he republished as a pamphlet entitled Revelations of the Diplomatic History of the Eighteenth Century, republished in 1899 as The Secretary  Diplomatic History of the Eighteenth Century.
 In these Marx tried to show how British foreign policy under the Whigs had always been pro-Russia. He also ventured some ideas on the origin of Tsarism and on Russian history.

In a special supplement to Neue Zeit, the theoretical organ of the German Social Democratic Party, in 1909, the Russian Social-Democrat David Riazanov analysed in detail Marx’s theories of Russian history and of British foreign policy towards Russia and, respectfully, argued that they were largely mistaken. This lengthy article makes up three-quarters of this 200-page book (the rest being two other pre-WWI articles by Riazanov, on Marx and Engels on the Polish Question - they wanted an independent Poland so there would be a buffer between Russia and Europe - and on the Balkans). It is well worth reading as an application of the materialist conception of history to Anglo-Russian relations from the 16th century onwards.

Riazanov in fact applies this better than Marx did in this instance, bringing out the importance of changing trade conditions which Marx had neglected in favour of purely political considerations. Riazanov’s article reflected a growing understanding amongst second-generation Marxists that the situation regarding Russia had changed since Marx’s day in that Tsarist Russia was no longer capable of being “the gendarme of Europe” but was now itself threatened by overthrow by internal forces; and that therefore it was no longer the main enemy. Even so, those members of the German Social Democratic Party who backed their government in WWI still quoted Marx’s anti-Russia stand as a justification for their position.

At the time Riazanov wrote this work he was not a member of  Lenin’s Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democrats but he did join the Bolshevik Party in July 1917. He became the leading Marx-scholar of his day, setting up the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow in 1921 to track down and publish the collective works of Marx and Engels. He was dismissed from this by Stalin in 1931 and sent into internal exile. During the purges he was arrested and shot in 1938.