Book Review: ‘Beyond Marxism – The Faith and Works of Hendrik de Man’
‘Beyond Marxism – The Faith and Works of Hendrik de Man’, by Peter Dodge. Martins Nijhoff (The Hague). 29.70 Guilders (about 56/-)
The American author of this book, now Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of New Hampshire, believes that de Man’s once considerable reputation in the Belgian, German and other Labour Party and trade union movements, has been undeservedly obscured by the odium which fell on him during and after the last war. It is Peter Dodge’s hope to revive interest in what he regards as De Man’s important contribution to Socialist thought.
It is difficult now to recall the standing De Man had in the nineteen thirties, even in certain circles in Britain, where he was much less well known than on the Continent. When he published his Psychology of Socialism, acclaimed by Hermann Keyserling as “the most significant work in socialist world literature since Marx’s Capital,” it received various degrees of praise in the Manchester Guardian, the New Statesman, the ILP New Leader and from Alexander Gray in the Economic Journal (September 1929).
Of course, the fact that De Man was criticising what was popularly regarded as Marxism and proclaiming himself a reformist no doubt helps to explain the reception the book had among the reformists, who were gratified to find one who had called himself a Marxist declaring that “Vulgar Marxism is a living error; pure Marxism is a dead truth”.
Henri de Man (Hendrik is the Flemish form) was born in a well-to-do family in Antwerp in 1885. As a youngster he was (like William Morris, who had some influence on his views) shocked by the ugliness and callousness of capitalism and by the indifference of money-making capitalists to the architectural and artistic works of the Middle Ages. Like Morris, he saw that the life of the workers was not only poverty stricken but degraded by the work they had to do and by the conditions under which they lived. De Man threw himself into movements of protest and rebellion; trade union, ‘Young Socialist’, Flemish Nationalism, anti-conscription. He broke away from his disapproving family, joined the Belgian Labour Party (Parti Ouvrier Belge), worked on the German Social Democrat paper the Leipziger Volkszeitung where he became friendly with Kautsky, Franz Mehring, Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg and others. By this time he was a declared Marxist and opposed Bernstein’s revisionism. He spent a year in England, where he joined the Social Democratic Federation and helped in the campaigns at Shoreditch in two general elections in 1910.
It was, however, the “Marxist” Social Democratic Party in Germany which drew his greatest admiration and confidence. Like many others who had put their trust in that hollow movement and the equally hollow Second International, he was shattered in 1914 when those organisations collapsed and the erstwhile international comrades sided with their respective governments. De Man’s own anti-war attitude dissolved in face of the German invasion of Belgium and he volunteered for the army in August 1914, assuring himself with the hope that the military defeat of Germany would lead to a Socialist revolution.
Later on he was to regard his support of the 1914 war as a “desertion of principle” which he was determined to avoid in future. With the onset of World War II De Man urged the Belgian Labour Party to adopt an attitude of “neutralism”, and when Belgium was occupied by German troops and De Man was convinced of German victory over the Allied powers, he actively associated with King Leopold II in co-operating with the German authorities. This was, however, not entirely a question of accepting the facts of the situation for in 1941 (on May Day) he delivered a speech containing the following: ―
“I recognise that National Socialism represents the German form of Socialism and I recommend collaboration with Germany within the framework of a United Europe and a general Socialist revolution. But I am not a National Socialist, for the simple reason that I am not German, but Flemish and Belgian.”
Quite obviously, De Man had lost whatever insight he had once had into the nature of Socialism and the struggle against capitalism. In rejecting the German Social Democratic Party’s emasculated version of Marxism in favour of something he thought better (his own theories) he had ended up by seeing Socialism in German capitalist Nazism, just as he had also seen Socialism in Stalinist Russian State capitalism ― a delusion he shared with his Communist and Labour Party denouncers.
What then were De Man’s theories which were supposed to have revolutionised Socialist thought and thrown Marx and Marxism into the dead past? Essentially it was Keynesism. Faced with the depression of the thirties, which De Man regarded as a breakdown of industrial capitalism and the emergence of domination by finance-capital, the old trade union and reformist struggles seemed to him to serve no further purpose. What he thought was needed was planned capitalism based on a mixture of private enterprise and nationalisation, and government control of credit to secure full employment. It involved active trade union and Labour Party participation with the government. He got the Belgian Labour Party to endorse his plan.
How this works and where it leads we can see around UK in Britain to-day, in the spectacle of the Wilson government totally unable to alter the essential features of capitalism and locked in struggle with the growingly resentful trade unions.
De Man was influenced by the late G. D. H. Cole, as well as by Keynes and in 1933 he and Cole published, through the New Fabian Research Bureau, a pamphlet, Planned Socialism, outlining the plan and recommending it to the British Labour Party.
De Man was in truth a sort of continental Cole, showing the same facility for dressing up old reformist notions as new revolutionary discoveries. As for Marx, it is noteworthy that De Man rarely criticised Marx’s works at source, always concentrating his attacks on the distorted, popularised versions.
He claimed that Marx was wrong about class consciousness and nationalism and he instanced in support of his view, that workers failed to show international class solidarity or even solidarity with each other inside national frontiers. But Marx was well aware of this and foresaw it; the most that can be charged against Marx is that he expected the workers to learn the lessons of experience more quickly than has been proved by events. But there is still no other way.
Basically De Man did not believe in the capacity of the working class eventually to emancipate itself ― for him it would be a question of leadership and government by the “intellectuals”.
He did some useful work as in his study of the workers’ attitude to their jobs (published in English by George Allen and Unwin in 1929 as Joy In Labour) and in his criticism of workers who ape the values and vices of the capitalists; but the idea that De Man has rendered obsolete the invaluable work of Marx is an illusion.
Mr. Dodge has done his job admirably ― but it will not restore De Manism to life.