Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Embarrassing Marx (2005)

Book Review from the January 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

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. 
Adam Buick

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