Wednesday, 10 November 2010

War and Revolution, Karl Marx

This is a collection of short journalistic pieces by Marx from the 1850s and 1860s.  They speak with the somewhat unfamiliar voice of Marx the reporter and commentator rather than Marx the historian and philosopher.

Some of what the father of communism has to say is fairly unsurprising.  He didn't like British rule in India (or, indeed, traditional Indian society, despite never having visited the place).  He backed the Union against the Confederacy in the American Civil War.  He didn't think much of the contemporary press, and he approved of strikes in Britain, because of their political importance rather than their economic objectives.

Other elements of his writing are more counter-intuitive.  He supported tax reform and smaller government, albeit in the specific context of Spain in the 1850s.  He spoke very highly of the United States and its Republican administration.  Sometimes he is simply wrong: he thought that a largely forgotten crisis in China in the 1850s was going to lead to an international revolution.

For all Marx's rigid dogmatism, these pieces cannot quite be dismissed as partisan rants.  While at times one can detect echoes of modern-day hard left journalism - and the old boy is not exactly writing without an agenda - Marx's reportage is distinctly different from the monochrome ideological whinges of our own dear John Pilger and Seumas Milne.  Marx's ideology gives a palpable shape and context to the reportage and the facts, but does not usually overwhelm them.  For that sort of thing, one has to turn to his more overtly political and philosophical works, in particular The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital.

The pieces in this book are of purely historical interest.  They are little more than curiosities, and not especially curious ones at that.  They neither give any detailed insight into Marx's broader political ideas nor shed much light on the events on which they report, unless perhaps one happens to know the background already.  It is no more than mildly interesting to read Marx's thoughts on, for example, the Trent Affair or the details of life and politics in the Ottoman Empire.  It is not clear how the contents of the book were selected, but a better choice could surely have been made.  At the end of the day, the old fanatic ends up coming across as rather dull.