Thursday, September 5, 2013

Marx as our non-contemporary (2013)

Book Review from the September 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life by Jonathan Sperber (Liveright Publishing)

In this new 600-page biography Jonathan Sperber states from the outset that he aims to portray Marx as a 19th century figure rather than as ‘our contemporary.’ Fair enough. It is his basic ideas – his analysis of capitalism, his theory of history, and his insistence on the need to win control of political power to change society – that are still relevant, not the details of his personal life or the political stance he took towards the events of his day.

Marx, who was born in 1818 and died in 1883, was, says Sperber, typical of  certain radical, university-educated Germans of the period (though his father had been born in a German-speaking part of France and his mother was Dutch). He was born and brought up in Trier, a German provincial town on the Moselle, which was in a part of Germany, the left bank of the Rhine, that had been annexed to France until 1815. Following the defeat of Napoleon it was handed over to Prussia.

Prussian rule of the Rhineland was unpopular with its inhabitants. At university in Bonn and Berlin Marx became influenced by radical, atheist followers of Hegel’s philosophy and became one of them. In 1842 he got a job as a journalist and editor of a newspaper in Cologne, the main city in the Rhineland. This was the mouthpiece of the local liberal-minded bourgeoisie, who financed it, and who wanted free trade and a liberal constitution in place of authoritarian rule of Prussia and its Kaiser. When the paper was suppressed by the authorities in 1843 Marx left to live in Paris where he came under the influence of communist ideas (as socialist ideas were then called).

Expelled from France, Marx moved to Brussels, in Belgium, where he was active in exiles’ radical-democratic and communist circles until 1848, a year of popular uprisings all over continental Europe. European radicals and communists had seen it coming and Marx had been delegated to write a manifesto for the Communist League of Germany. This of course was the Communist Manifesto. The Manifesto illustrates the extent to which Marx is and is not our contemporary. The historical part about the origins and development of capitalism and the working class is still relevant, but the practical part about the programme the Communist League would implement if it had come to power at that time and its relations with other parties and movements is of historical interest only.

Bourgeois revolution

When the unrest spread to Germany Marx hurried back to Cologne where, again with the financial support of the radical section of the local bourgeoisie, he edited a newspaper. It may seem strange that a socialist should be editing a radical-bourgeois paper putting forward their demands, but this was in accordance with the perspective set out in the Manifesto that ‘the bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.’

Marx insisted on a bourgeois revolution first and fell out with other communists in Cologne who wanted the working class to take a hostile attitude toward the bourgeoisie. Marx had already fallen out in 1846 with another German communist, Wilhelm Weitling, over the same issue. Sperber writes of this incident:

‘Weitling, in his letter to Hess, explained their differences: Marx had insisted that ‘at the moment there can be no talk of the realization of communism; the bourgeoisie must first take control’.’

This is one illustration why Marx is not our contemporary as far as his practical political stances are concerned. He may well have been right that communism was not an immediate possibility in the 1840s and that a period of bourgeois rule (in place of authoritarian dynastic rule) was needed first, but this is not the case today and has not been for at least a century. Even so, at the time, Marx still thought that the period of bourgeois rule would be relatively short.

According to Sperber, Marx’s conception of two revolutions in a relatively short period of time was coloured by what had happened in the French Revolution: beginning as a bourgeois revolution in 1789 with the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, it developed in a more radical way when in 1793 the Jacobins came to power, proclaimed a republic and executed the king. Sperber’s view is not implausible when you consider that the French revolution had taken place only sixty years previously and that there are still people today who look to the Russian Revolution of over ninety years ago as a model.

Things did not turn out that way in Germany and not even the bourgeois revolution took place. Marx had to go into exile again, first in France but there too the reaction had triumphed and then in August 1849 to England, where he lived for the rest of his life. Within a few years a split occurred in the Communist League, again over the issue of whether or not the aim should be an immediate communist insurrection. Marx was against and eventually gave up involvement in exiled Germans’ politics, getting a job as an overseas correspondent of the New York Tribune. In fact, in so far as Marx had a profession it was journalism.

War against Russia

Previously, Sperber points out, Marx had relied on a war against Russia sparking off the bourgeois-democratic revolution that was to be followed by a proletarian one. Now, he looked to an economic crisis to do this. Sperber quotes an amusing anecdote on this (which shows that for some Marx is their contemporary):

‘As Wilhelm Leibknecht remembered, Marx’s constant expectation of an economic crisis became a standing joke among his London friends and associates.’

Even so, when the Crimean war broke out in 1853 Marx was an enthusiastic supporter of the Franco-British-Turkish side. Opposition to Tsarist Russia was common amongst European radicals, so Marx was no exception here. It was a position he maintained for the rest of his life. But it became an obsession for him. He even wrote a book, best forgotten, The Secret Diplomatic History of the Eighteenth Century, which advanced the conspiracy theory that Palmerston was a Russian agent and that his Whig predecessors in the previous century had been too. Much of his other immediate ‘foreign policy’ stances were shaped by this: his support for Polish independence and for Austria in its war with France in Northern Italy in 1859. Sperber argues that towards the end of his life Marx had more sympathy for the Tories than the Liberals because of their anti-Russia stance. Certainly, he wrote an anonymous article for the Daily Telegraph denouncing what he saw as Gladstone’s pro-Russia stance.


Marx was anti-Prussian too throughout his life (which makes the title of an earlier biography of him, The Red Prussian, an absurdity). Prussia for most of Marx’s life was only one of a number of German states and statelets. Sperber points out that many non-Prussian German-speakers wanted a united Germany but not under Prussian dominance. Marx, like many other radical Germans, was one of these, and wanted to see a united German democratic republic. To that extent, he was a German nationalist.

This was the basis of his opposition to Lassalle, an early would-be leader of the German workers’ movement. Lassalle allowed himself to be used by Bismarck against the bourgeoisie who were demanding a liberal constitution. Marx regarded the bourgeoisie as the lesser evil to Bismarck and the Kaiser, denouncing Lassalle’s followers for describing all other classes than the working class as ’one reactionary mass’.

In all these respects, then, Marx was not our contemporary but someone politically active in a period which was quite different from ours today. Socialists today are not called upon to defend the positions taken up by Marx, and we haven’t. In fact we have criticised him for taking sides in wars. His actions in the International Working Men’s Association, on the other hand, where he encouraged trade-unionism and emphasised the need for working-class political action, are more to our liking.

Marx the Man

Sperber is sympathetic to Marx the man, defending him against critics who judge his behaviour and attitudes by 20th and 21st century standards, including his bourgeois life-style and alleged anti-semitism (and indeed alleged Jewishness). As an expert in 19th century European and German history Sterber is well-placed to situate Marx in his time. He does this well, to the extent that his book is also a history of the time. His summaries of Marx’s philosophical and political views are accurate enough, though when it comes to his economic views there are a few errors (concerning the rate of profit, particularly its averaging and tendency to fall).

All in all, though, this is a good, scholarly biography of Marx, to be read alongside the other recent one by Francis Wheen.
Adam Buick

Water, Waste and War (2013)

From the September 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

UN data predicts that by 2025 more than half of countries will be either under water stress or have outright shortages. Many rivers are overtaxed, for example the Nile, Jordan, Yangtze and Ganges; and underground aquifers below growing urban areas such as New Delhi, Beijing have falling levels. World population is rising and there is also increased demand by people for water as part of rising living standards. The minimum requirement per person is 1,000 cubic metres per year for drinking, hygiene and growing food (Marlin Falkenburg of Stockholm International Water Institute -and others).

The International Assessment of Agriculture Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) conclusion on worldwide water quality is that conditions appear degraded in almost all regions through extensive agriculture and other developments; with pollution as a growing problem and faecal contamination serious in developing countries. It is estimated that half of wetlands have been lost during the last century. The land has been converted to agricultural or urban use – or filled in to combat diseases  – with the resultant adverse effect on flood control, storage and purification of water, and habitat for biodiversity. There were differences in the damage caused by the December 2004 tsunami on shores protected by functional coral reefs, and shores where reefs had been degraded (IAASTD 2008 P36).

It is not just developing countries that face difficulties. Parts of the United States have suffered severe droughts; northern parts of Georgia and large areas of the South west. Global climate change can increase aridity and reduce supply. Then there is the problem of waste disposal – things like releases of industrial pollutants, fertilizer run off, and coastal influxes of salt-water into aquifers as groundwater is depleted. As has happened in Almeria in the South of Spain where there are some 20,000 hectares of greenhouses in a desert where they consume 5 times more water than the region gets in rainfall (The Sahara Forest Project 2008).

There is plenty of information about the problems including warnings about the urgent need to make changes in the way critical resources are used. At the World Water Week in Stockholm in August 2011 a report issued jointly by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said that water limits are close to being reached or breached in many of the world’s breadbaskets (including the plains of northern China, India’s Punjab and the Western United States); that 1.6 billion people already have inadequate access to freshwater. The report An Ecosystem Services Approach to Water and Food Supply calls for a more sustainable approach to food production requiring co-operation and co-ordination between the various agricultural and environmental interests. However the kind of co-operation called for between ‘international, national and local level’ decision makers in order for them to ‘embrace an agro-ecosystem approach to food production’ cannot overcome the competitive nature of market production.

International organisations earnestly strive to resolve problems related to food security and the environment – the IWMI and its partners in the CGIAR (consultative group on international Agricultural research) are developing a multi-million research programme that will look at water as an integral part of the ecosystem. However governments act on behalf of their national agricultural and industrial business interests which means concerns about profit and cost have a higher priority than any ecosystem.  It is reckoned that up to 90 percent of China’s freshwater has been contaminated as have 40 percent of US rivers and lakes – in spite of stricter environmental laws.

Unfortunately within capitalism the solutions are seen in terms of return on investment. The massive spending required on infrastructure in order to cope with the increasing demand for water and resolve some of the disputes over access to water sources is seen as providing ‘economic opportunities’. The water industry is worth $480 billion and is growing at a rate of 6 percent a year (Global Water Intelligence quoted in Money Week 20.04.2012). However analysts have estimated that the world will need to invest $trillion a year to ensure water supplies through 2030 (Annual military expenditure worldwide is $1.6 trillion.

It was observed in 2008 that investment in water facilities as a percentage of GDP had dropped by half since the late 90’s, and that if a crisis comes it would not be for the lack of know-how but from an unwillingness to spend the money. New technologies do not need to be invented “we must simply accelerate the adoption of existing technologies to conserve and enhance the water supply.” (Scientific American, August 2008).

Technologies exist …

Technologies  – ways in which water resources can be better conserved and used  – are already known. However the proposed solutions and predictions all assume the continuance of the present system and the calls for better water management that work with nature may only be applied where economic advantage can be demonstrated.

Among useful ideas are the underground storage of water in sub-surface reservoirs to limit evaporation loss. Such ‘water banks’ are operating in Arizona and California and being proposed for Singapore. Drip-irrigation systems minimise consumption, and there is 'investment' in new crop varieties that tolerate drought conditions and saltish water. Hygiene and sanitation facilities could adopt dry, low water use devices. Technologies exist which not only use less water but can convert waste material into an organic compost. There are pilot projects for example in the Gebers Housing Project in a suburb of Stockholm.

As well as saving water there is also the possibility of desalination to increase supply. Only 3 percent of water is fresh the rest is salty. Large scale desalination plants have been built for example in Singapore. More energy efficient technology has meant substantial savings in the cost, and scientists are working on reverse osmosis filters composed of carbon nano tubes with the potential to lower the costs still further (Experiments are also being conducted on forward osmosis and biomimetics with the same object the results of which are expected to be ‘on the market’ in 3 to 5 years). Despite improvements the technology is still energy intensive.

A more promising method is The Seawater Greenhouse which uses solar energy, seawater and the humidity of the surrounding air to provide desalination and cooling- and fresh water for plants. It is seen as a sustainable way of cultivating high quality crops in hot, arid coastal regions. The process produces 5 times more freshwater than is needed for the plants and it is claimed could have reversed the environmental damage caused by the greenhouses in Almeria. There the authorities looked at diverting the Ebra River but have chosen instead to build twenty large scale desalination plants on the coast. Trials have been taking place in Tenerife (1992), Abu Dhabi, UAR (2000) and Oman (2004) and have shown how well crops of salads and vegetables have grown in hot desert areas. The first commercial seawater greenhouse farm is situated near Port Augusta in Southern Australia and is on degraded land that would not be suitable for agriculture. Using only seawater and sunlight the farm produces a variety of vegetables and salt. It has a brine cooking facility which produces ‘gourmet salts and nutrients.’

But profit comes first

Even new technologies will not resolve the problems inherent in a social system where profit and cost provide and qualify the motivation for action, and fuel the rivalry over resources. For example where river systems cross national frontiers countries upstream have the advantage when it comes to harnessing the waters for hydroelectric power or irrigation which can interfere with the access to water for territories downstream. Water is an aspect of Chinese occupation of Tibet – the continent’s watershed. China has built many dams on Tibet’s river systems, and more large dams are planned and under construction for example on the Salween. On the Upper Mekong dams have “dramatically altered the flow of the river” affecting five countries downstream (The Epoch Times March 22, 2010).

A US intelligence agencies report commissioned by the Department of State warns that during the next ten years many countries “important to the US” will experience water problems that will contribute to instability and state failure. This is seen as a danger threatening American interests (Money Week 20.04.2012).

Some of the unstable areas where there is competition for waterways are managed by special commissions.

The Indus Waters Treaty was signed between India and Pakistan in 1960. Water is a core issue in the dispute over Kashmir but the treaty has held good even when those countries have been at war; and the severing of diplomatic relations has not prevented the treaty stipulated Indus Waters Commission having amicable meetings and sharing hydrological data (Slate newsletter Aug 4 2011). It remains to be seen how well the treaty can stand up to the pressure of increasing rival demands for the vital resource. An added factor is of shrinking glaciers in the region –at least 30 percent of the Indus waters comes from glaciers. It was suggested 60 years ago that the whole Indus system should be operated as a single unit.

The logical conclusion is for the whole world to be considered as a single unit. The best framework for dealing with the effects of climate change and the increasing pressures being put on water supplies by growing populations, and the demands made by agriculture, is to have resources owned in common and democratically controlled by the whole world community. So that agricultural production, and indeed all production, would be solely for the use of human beings and not for sale and profit. This would mean worldwide co-operation and co-ordination so that sustainable agricultural practices which have proper regard for biodiversity would be the normal way of providing for the needs of people. Measures now suggested for the more efficient use of water in agriculture which include stopping up leaks, and implementing low loss storage would simply be the commonsense way of doing things.
Pat Deutz