1980s >> 1981 >> no-926-october-1981

Marx, according to the Telegraph

  Earlier this year the Daily Telegraph carried an article by Robert Miller entitled “The Unacceptable Face of Marx”. In this article Karl Marx was depicted as a racist, a sexist, a proto-Nazi and an advocate of revolutionary terror. Although the Socialist Party of Great Britain has no sacred texts and makes heroes of no-one, we do hold that Marx has made a significant contribution to humanity’s understanding of the world and we have always been prepared to defend him when his views have been distorted or unjustifiably belittled.
We therefore wrote to the editor of the Daily Telegraph asking that, in the interests of fairness and objectivity, he publish a reply to Miller’s article from the SPGB. This request was refused, on the grounds that our reply was sent too long after the appearance of the article. This is true; the article was published on April 19 and our reply was sent on July 20 but we wonder, from our experience of the press, whether had we been prompter, we would have been given space. We doubt it.
At all events, we think it worthwhile to publish a slightly edited version of our letter to the Daily Telegraph so that our readers can judge for themselves how acceptable was Marx’s face.

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On April 19 the Daily Telegraph contained a “Personal View” of Karl Marx written by Robin Miller. It portrayed Marx as a racist: a proto-Hitler figure who wished to sec “reactionary peoples” such as the Slavs physically annihilated and who hated Jews to the extent of viewing capitalism and all tyranny as a Jewish conspiracy. It claims that he considered negroes as “degenerate human beings” and advocated the nationalisation of women. It ended by making Marx a supporter of revolutionary violence. We should like to set the record straight.

It is true that in 1848-49 Marx and (in particular) Engels did speak of “reactionary peoples” who were destined to disappear from the face of history. But all their comments and advice on “revolution” at this time refer not to the socialist revolution but to the bourgeois-democratic revolution which was then being attempted in Germany. Marx and Engels thought this should be supported as it would establish capitalism as the dominant European system and would quickly be followed by a workers’ revolution. As their model for this bourgeois revolution they took the French Revolution, especially the Jacobin phase after 1793 with its emphasis on revolutionary wars, terror and a strong centralised state. Their remarks on “reactionary people” applied to the people mainly Slavic speaking – who did not support the bourgeois revolution but who lined up behind, or allowed themselves to be used by, its opponents. Needless to say. they were to “disappear” not by being physically liquidated but by being absorbed and assimilated into the German nation-state.

Taken in its context this is the meaning of the statement about “reactionary’ peoples” disappearing “from the face of the earth” which Robin Miller considers worthy of Hitler and which was not in fact made, as Mr Miller confidently asserts, by Marx but by Engels (in Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 13 January 1849).

The “national question” is one of the issues on which socialists totally disagree with Marx, but we can understand why he regarded nationalism as a progressive force in nineteenth century Europe. He saw it as helping the development of capitalism at the expense of feudalism. What he failed to see was how powerful a reactionary and anti-socialist force nationalism was to become once it had helped capitalism to become the dominant world system. Looking back now we can see that it was a mistake for socialists to have encouraged it in its early stages.

Marx the anti-Semite is a more common criticism than Marx the Slav-hater but is equally baseless. Marx’s writings on the Jewish Question from which Miller quotes are a philosophical critique of the Jewish religion and in any event support the political emancipation of the Jews — the granting of the same civil rights to Jews as to Christians within capitalism. Modern socialists too are critical of the Jewish religion just as they are of every other religion, but this by no means makes them anti-Semites and supporters of fascism, any more than criticism of the Catholic religion makes us supporters of Ian Paisley.

The passage about “every tyrant backed by a Jew” comes not, as Miller implies, from the Jewish Question but from an unsigned article in the New York Herald Tribune of 4 January 1856, which was not written by Marx but has been wrongly attributed to him.

It is true that in his private letters Marx sometimes used a language quite unacceptable for a socialist and which we can only condemn. To call Lassalle a “Jewish nigger” is quite inexcusable (even if Marx was something of a “Jewish nigger” himself, being descended on both sides from long lines of rabbis and, for his dark skin, being nicknamed “the Moor”).

His view of blacks is in fact far different from that portrayed by Miller. Marx did read Pierre Tremaux’s Origin and Transformation of Man and Other Animals (1865) and did say, quite mistakenly, that Trcmaux had taken “a very significant step beyond Darwin”. But this was not in support of Tremaux’s supposed argument that negroes were “degenerate human beings” (what Tremaux actually said was that modern negroes had degenerated from a higher race of negroes) but for his view of the influence of geological elements (especially the soil) on human development which Marx considered interesting for a materialist explanation of evolution.

As to Marx’s attitude to the emancipation of the slaves in America, he was an enthusiastic supporter of this and, from a retrospective socialist point of view, a too enthusiastic supporter of Abraham Lincoln and the North in the American Civil War. (The socialist attitude is that this was a war between two sections of the ruling class in America, in which the working class had no interest in taking sides and certainly not in killing one another.)

Marx’s support of Sir Henry Maine’s quoted statement about “the separation between the Aryan races and races of other stocks” is not particularly significant either. It merely reflects the confusion which existed at that time, in scientific circles, between language and “race”. There is no suggestion that those who speak Aryan languages (who include by the way the majority of the inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent black people) were superior to those who speak non-Aryan languages.

Marx was quite opposed to racialism and always insisted that “the emancipation of the productive class is that of all human beings without distinction of sex and race” (1880 preamble drafted by Marx to the programme of a French workers’ party). And if he was opposed to negroes, why did he not object to his daughter marrying Paul Lafargue who, as Mr Miller informs us, “had negro ancestry”.

Marx did indeed have an illegitimate son with his servant. But what has this to do with what Miller terms “extreme male chauvinism”? As to Miller’s claim that Marx advocated the nationalisation of women, the passage he quotes is not Marx’s view but a summary of the view of those Marx himself called “crude communists”, which he roundly condemned (sec the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 in Marx’s Early Texts, ed. David McLellan, Oxford, 1971, p. 146).

Finally Marx’s reference to revolutionary terror, which, according to Miller, “makes him still one of the great enemies of civilisation”, is quite definitely not to be taken as the ultimate expression of his views. Indeed it reflects an early immature phase of his thought which, as all serious students of Marx know, is far removed from the attitude he adopted later when he had fully worked out his theory of society. The mature Marx was quite clear, as are socialists today, that where electoral machinery exists a class-conscious majority can use the vote to take over the state preparatory to a changeover from private ownership and commodity production (capitalism) to a system of common (not state) ownership and free access (socialism).

The real “enemies of civilisation” are those forces, from Lenin and the Bolsheviks onwards, who have created their own vulgar forgeries of Marx and in so doing have thickly obscured the important implications for social progress contained in his thought.

Howard Moss