The Castle of Truth and Other Revolutionary Tales. By Hermynia Zur Muhlen. Edited and Translated by Jack Zipes for the series, ‘Oddly Modern Fairy Tales’. Princeton University Press, 2020.
Hermynia Zur Muhlen, born into the Austrian upper class in 1883, earned the sobriquet ‘The Red Countess’ by rebelling against her upbringing and embracing a left–wing outlook. She did, however, marry an Estonian/German baron and tried to convert his estates into a cooperative enterprise under the control of the workers. The project failed, but illustrates her acceptance, common amongst many left–wingers, that socialism is something brought to the workers.
A member of the German Communist Party, Zur Muhlen began to reflect on how children’s literature could change their socialisation. In 1921, her first book of radical fairy tales, What Little Peter’s Friends Told Him, was published. Many more followed, including the one that lends itself to the title of this collection, The Castle of Truth.
The first impression on reading these tales is the didactic nature of them. The rich are greedy and careless of the lives of their workers. Meanwhile, those workers are portrayed as being too dumb to see how they are being done down.
In The Carriage Horse (1924), militant unionism is expressed through the eponymous horse coming among the exploited farm horses and organising them to strike for better fodder. The strike is undermined by dumb oxen who take on the tasks of the horses, until they agree to stop doing so, but only through the threat of violence. The horses win their fodder rise, but remain essentially in the same situation they were at the beginning. The oxen remain dumb.
This theme runs through the stories. Even when a worker acquires the wherewithal to become a capitalist in Ali, the Carpet Weaver (1923), he quickly transforms into rapacious employer. The bloated plutocrat beloved of Bolshevik posters was an obvious model.
Another element becomes apparent when Ali gains that wherewithal through a good deed supernaturally rewarded. His eventual comeuppance also comes via the ‘Good Spirit’ who will return at some unspecified future point to judge all exploiters.
Although Zur Muhlen was a lapsed Catholic, perhaps, as is often claimed, Catholicism is never entirely set aside. Come the 1950s she was a lapsed communist, having parted company with the KPD during the rising Stalinism of the 1930s. She turned back to religion, if not Catholicism, which perhaps provides an alternative understanding of her tales.
Zur Muhlen does deal with a variety of political issues: the absence of concern for workers’ wellbeing (The Coals, 1921), critical thinking (Why, 1922), ideological myopia (The Glasses, 1923), technology (The Servant, 1923), nationalism (The Troublemakers, 1923), persistence of radical ideas (The Castle of Truth, 1924), religion (The Fence, 1924) and others exploring similar themes.
Twenty years later Zur Muhlen was writing in a more traditional mode of fairy tale. The Crown of the King of Domnonee (1944) involves an innocent younger prince betrayed by malevolent elder siblings that all resolves to a happy, royal, ending. The Story of the Wise Judge (1944) revolves around a poor but wise young woman who solves a number of riddles to prosper. The radical tropes have largely disappeared.
The politics of the 1920s stories are those of idealised Bolshevism, liberation being brought to the working class by the enlightened, or a reformed, more benign capitalism. Society is still one in which money plays a crucial part, just more fairly. There is no sense that capitalism, state or moderated, remains capitalism.
These tales, illustrated by George Grosz, John Heartfield, Heinrich Vogeler and Karl Holtz in the spare pen and ink style of the 1920s, were written for children. It is difficult to see the appeal in them for the young who would have to be old enough to appreciate the language and concepts, making them too old to be interested in fairy tales. A story read to two children aged 7 and 9, voracious readers both, did not make it to the end. Different times maybe, but were children more receptive a century ago?
That this collection comes from the Princeton University Press declares its academic interest. This it has in abundance for the insights it gives into Communist political thinking of the time, the identification of state capitalism with Soviet Communism and the issues outlined above. It sits within the ‘Oddly Modern Fairy Tales’ series edited by Jack Zipes, who has done a commendable job of translating Zur Muhlen’s tales.
If you are looking for a collection of fairy tales for children, this is not it. Should your interest be in the literary expression of political and historical ideas, then it is.
Food, Health and Capitalism. Covid-19 and Beyond. Published by the Anarchist Communist Group, June 2020. 45 pages.
The Anarchist Communist Group (ACG), formed in 2018 by former members of the Anarchist Federation in Great Britain, states its aim as ‘a complete transformation of society’, explained as ‘the working class overthrowing capitalism, abolishing the State, getting rid of exploitation, hierarchies and oppressions, and halting the destruction of the environment’. Among the group’s activities is the production of pamphlets arguing their case, the latest of which looks at the way capitalism produces food and the part this has played in the Covid-19 virus.
Despite its limited length, this is a well-researched and highly informative publication which outlines very effectively how the profit system, the driving force of today’s world capitalist economy, dictates an increasingly intensive exploitation of land and animals, leading to a ‘perfect storm environment’ for diseases which are likely to be infectious. It outlines the conditions of industrial farming that, after causing previous virus epidemics such as MERS, Ebola and SARS, have now led to the current Covid-19 pandemic which in its indiscriminate worldwide spread is causing panic and threatening social and economic breakdown. It explains how these viruses stem from a form of intensive agriculture, in which ‘the more you can produce with fewer inputs, the greater the profit’, with the effect on human health (not to speak of the welfare of animals) always a secondary consideration.
So, for example, both intensive factory farming of domestic animals and the slaughter, preparation and sale of an increasing range of wildlife in the Far East in crowded and insanitary conditions provide an ideal breeding ground for deadly viruses to ‘jump’ from animals to humans and then spread indiscriminately. In addition, the quadrupling of global meat production in the last half century has resulted in most land resources being used to feed animals destined for slaughter rather than to grow food directly for human consumption. This has led to an epidemic of obesity among some populations, but at the same time, as the pamphlet points out, in many parts of the world people die of starvation and, even for example in the UK, it quotes estimates that, even before the present virus hit, at least 3 million were going hungry, while 14.6 million were suffering from food insecurity. The entirely irrefutable reason given for all this is that, while some people get obese because of the cheap, unhealthy food that they eat, others go hungry because they do not have the money to buy enough food of any description. This, the pamphlet insists – again irrefutably – is quite simply the outcome of a system that puts profit before need. As it says, ‘capitalism has penetrated everywhere on earth in its search for profits’.
What remedy then does the ACG propose to resolve deadly industrial farming practices, food produced for cheapness rather than quality, and, even in the more economically advanced parts of the world, poverty amid plenty? It advocates ‘the need to create an agriculture system which is not based on the need to compete in the market economy and in which human need and health is the main priority’ and goes on to say that ‘instead of tinkering with the system… we need to get rid of it altogether and replace it with a food system that can truly meet the needs of everyone… the aim is for food to be free’. So far so good. This seems to mirror the aim of the Socialist Party, ie a society of free access with production for need not for profit. But then, this pamphlet, in its final section entitled ‘Basic Principles of a Revolutionary New Food and Agriculture’, seems to water down this objective advocating not a free access society as such but rather single initiatives such as ‘land reform’ ‘collectivising agriculture’ and ‘developing co-operatives for distribution and consumption’. All it seems within the framework of the current overall capitalist system, this being implicit in the characteristically reformist call to ‘begin to transform our society now’. A pity, because the way to truly transform society is not for individuals or groups to fight capitalism’s imperatives within the current system but to band together to persuade the majority of wage and salary earners to take democratic revolutionary action to usher out the whole framework of capitalism (profit society) and bring in socialism (a free access society based on the satisfaction of human needs).
Marx 200. The Significance of Marxism in the 21st Century. Edited by Mary Davis. Praxis Press. 2020. 120 pages.
This is a collection of the talks given at an international conference organised by the Marx Memorial Library to mark the bicentenary in 2018 of the birth of Marx.
The Marx Memorial Library was set up in 1933 by the Communist Party and fellow travellers and is still controlled by successors of that party. The contributions are a mixed bag. There are some interesting contributions on technology and on ecology. The political ones reflect the views of the organisers.
There are a couple of claims that need challenging. John McDonnell in the opening article makes the dubious statement that ‘from the earliest days the ideas of Karl Marx’ were part of the Labour tradition. This is not so. The Labour Party was set up as a trade union pressure group in the House of Commons. Most of its leaders were Liberals known as ‘Lib-Labs’. Even Keir Hardie explicitly rejected the class struggle.
The editor, Mary Davis, says in her contribution that, because women’s wages are on average lower than those of ‘white males’, ‘Women are clearly super-exploited, thus the increased surplus value yielded by their labour power greatly enriches the owners of the means of production.’ This is based on the widespread but un-Marxian misconception that the degree of exploitation is measured by the level of the wage a worker gets – if you get low wages that means that you are ‘super-exploited’ compared with those who get paid more.
However, a high or higher wage does not necessarily mean that less surplus value goes to the employer. It will if the job is the same; in that case an increase in wages would reduce the employer’s profits. A higher wage in a different job, on the other hand, generally reflects a higher grade of labour power as one that is more productive, both in the sense of producing more in a given period of time and of more new value created. In fact, it could be that the higher-paid worker’s wage is a smaller proportion of the greater surplus value produced than that of a lower-paid worker in another job, i.e., that the rate of exploitation is higher.
Women workers (not female capitalists and so not women in general), like all wage workers, are exploited and ‘equal pay for equal work’ is a sound trade union demand but this does not mean that those on low pay are more exploited in the Marxian sense than the rest of the working class.