As anyone who has experienced an arts degree well knows, reading for pleasure or personal intellectual fulfilment outside the parameters of one’s course is is faced with several barriers. There is, of course, the temporal barrier; time is a precious commodity for anyone undergoing the rigours of the essay cycle and who wishes also to have any semblance of a well-balanced social existence. Then there is a spatial barrier; initially I travelled to university by boat and car so space was not so much of an issue but subsequently I have had to rely on the restrictive dictates of budget airlines and have even resorted to posting books to myself in a cardboard box. Finally, there is the monetary barrier which presents itself as a consequence of me not having any regular source of income. Nevertheless, I relish the summer months as a time to catch up on some personal reading. As I am not alone in this, I thought it would be useful to list some of the books which have caught my attention over recent weeks and readers should feel free to recommend their own.
The first thing I read this summer was ‘Results and Prospects’ by Leon Trotsky. One of the earliest expositions of the theory of the Permanent Revolution, this short work combines a theoretical and historical analysis which, in my mind, has stood the test of time, at least in its broad contours. Trotsky wrote this pamphlet in 1906 whilst in prison, having been incarcerated for his role in the revolution of the previous year. Borrowing a phrase which first appeared in Marx’s vocabularly in 1850, Trotsky wrote:
“”The permanent revolution, in the sense which Marx attached to this concept, means a revolution which makes no compromise with any single form of class rule, which does not stop at the democratic stage, which goes over to socialist measures and to war against reaction from without; that is, a revolution whose every successive stage is rooted in the preceding one and which can end only in complete liquidation.”
Marx used the phrase after the failure of the revolutions of 1848, a failure most catastrophically demonstrated in Germany. A rising of the German masses- peasantry, artisans and the nascent proletariat- in March of that year did not advance beyond the democratic stage towards social revolution and, as such, led to the temporary installation of the German bourgeoisie in a position of state power. However, the experience of revolution was so frightening to bourgeoisie that when the reactionary absolutists regrouped over the summer, the majority of the Liberals sided with absolutism rather than the radical movements and never again had recourse to revolutionary methods. For the historian, Trotsky’s chapter ‘1789-1848-1905′ attempts to set his theory in a broader historical context, as I tried to do, and is well worth a read.
In Trotsky’s view, therefore, when the bourgeoisie is unable to carry out the tasks of overthrowing pre-bourgeois social systems and regimes, only the proletariat and the peasantry are up to the job. This was most spectacularly proved to be the case in Russia where bourgeois democracy never seriously looked like a likely reality; in the negative, the failure of the Chinese Communist Party- hesitantly following Stalin - to maintain independence from Chang Kai Shek’s Kuoumintang led to the tragic massacre of Chinese communists in 1927.
The second book worth mentioning is Edmund Wilson’s ‘To The Finland Station.’ Wilson, an American literary critic writing in the first half of the 20th century, produced this masterpiece in 1940. The book is essentially a panorama of the Left, and starts with the great French historian of the Revolution, Jules Michelet, before tracing the degeneration of the bourgeoisie’s revolutionary spirit from Hippolyte Taine through to Anatole France, and then following the contemporaneous development of Marxism, from Marx and Engels via Lenin to Leon Trotsky. Wilson is not a Marxist, and as such has some sobering yet constructive criticism of Marxist political philosophy. His chapter on the Dialectic is particularly challenging, alleging quite plausibly that in some incarnations the presence of dialectics in Marx’s dialectical materialism is an unwelcome hangover from the process of philosophical gymnastics which led Marxism from Hegelian German Idealism via Feuerbachian materialism to its current state.
Thirdly, Marshall Berman’s book ‘Adventures in Marxism’ is a fascinating little collection of essays from a writer who has a well-earned reputation as a leading theorist of modernity. Although his famous essay ‘All That Is Solid Melts Into Air’ from the book of that name compromises a large section in the middle of this work, it was of interest to me more for the breadth of its commentary and coverage of other areas. For instance, it was through this book that I learned of Edmund Wilson’s book and the first chapter contains a touching personal account of how the author discovered Marx. It also contains some interesting perspectives on art criticism, especially in the essays on Walter Benjamin and Meyer Schapiro. Berman represents a very open and pluralist position, in marked contrast to some of the smaller sects in the United States, to the extent that I am not sure whether he is involved in any particular political party or movement. His writing is positive, optimistic and combines clarity with a fantastic prose style. Highly recommended.
In keeping with the focus on Trotsky, I recently finished the second volume of Isaac Deutscher’s amazing biography of the man himself. Deutscher’s book, ‘The Prophet Unarmed’ , gives a fascinating glimpse into the grim and Machiavellian power-struggles which seized the upper echelons of the Bolshevik party after, and even before, the death of Lenin in 1924. The sinister machinations of Stalin at times defy belief, being restrained neither by scruple nor any moral system known to man. Almost as unbelievable, however, is the tactical naivety of Trotsky, arising perhaps from a certain aloofness and a refusal to believe that Stalin, ‘the grey blur’, could succeed in the factional struggle until it was too late. Compounding this sad state of affairs was the opportunism of Kamenev and Zinoviev, and the complete blindness of Bukharin to the true nature of Stalin until the Left Opposition was safely scattered across the world. Deutscher combines a warm sympathy for Trotsky with an admirable objectivity in assessing the man’s foibles and errors. On the strength of this fantastic volume, I look forward to reading the rest of the collection.
Finally, I am in the process of reading David Harvey’s ‘The Enigma of Capital.’ Harvey trained as a geographer at Cambridge and before long established himself as one of the most original and eloquent Marxist theorists of the late twentieth- and twenty-first- century. In this new work he returns to Marx to elucidate some of the fundamental systemic reason for the current crisis of capitalism. Harvey has been teaching Marx’s ‘Capital’ for decades and uses his intimate understanding of Marxian economics to provide an original critique of the dominant economic system. Building upon his analysis of neoliberalism, he argues that the current crisis has little to do with a lack or excess of regulation, nor an abnormal outbreak of greed, nor any of the other dominant interpretations we are so used to reading in the pages of respectable newspapers. Rather, the destruction of the power of labour by capital over the last three decades depressed real wages in the interests of boosting profitability to such an extent that increasing consumption rested on an unstable foundation of massive indebtedness. This explains, too, the runaway expansion of finance and fictitious capital with which we all know so much about since 2008.
At the centre of his thesis is the contention that capitalism never really solves its crises but moves them around, spatially and temporally, leading to a new level of crisis; the crisis of profitability led to the crisis of effective demand as wages were repressed, which in turn led to the the current crisis of finance which is as we speak being converted into a crisis of sovereign debt. This innovative analysis contains a geographical component as it analyses the barriers to capital accumulation and the uneven effect of the crisis on a variety of communities and countries. For an deeper understanding of the current crisis you may look no further than here.
So, these are the books I have been reading lately. Feel free to disagree with my interpretations of them and to add your own summer reading below!