Che: A Graphic Biography

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I’ve never really read much about Che Guevara, but have always been curious about his life and politics. I’ve been interested due both to his iconic status–his image is everywhere–as well as his influence on the so-called “New Left” in the United States in the 1960s. Spain Rodriguez’s Che: A Graphic Biography provides a quick-and-easy introduction to Guevara’s life that gives biographical details, historical context, and political analysis.

Che: A Graphic Biography helps to explain why Guevara has become a world renowned figure. Ultimately, Rodriguez concludes that Guevara’s celebrity status owes to his life becoming a symbol of standing up to U.S. imperialism. Before presenting that conclusion, Rodriguez describes the important chapters of Guevara’s life, discussing his tour of Latin America and the influence it had on his political development, his involvement in the Cuban revolution, his work spreading revolutionary politics in Africa and Latin America following the Cuban revolution, and his death while attempting to organize a revolution in Bolivia. Throughout this history, the book inevitably discusses the tension between Guevara and Cuba’s Marxism and the free-market capitalist ideology of the United States. It does a good job talking about how the United States sought to suppress revolutionary movements in Cuba and Latin America generally while also touching on Cuba’s attempts to forge alliances with Marxist governments around the world. If there is one downfall of the book, it is that Marxism is receives relatively little detailed exploration and that there is only limited critical assessment of Guevara’s politics.

While the book is short at around 100 pages and can’t get into all of the details of Guevara’s life and times, it more than makes up in it for its readability. For someone not terribly well versed in Latin American politics and history, the book successfully presents enough information to give a sense of what was happening while at the same time keeping the narrative flowing. Moreover, the brilliant illustrations present Guevara in a compelling light, making it easy to follow and breaking up the text for less than frequent readers.

The book also contains an essay by Sarah Seidman and Paul Buhle titled “Che Guevara, Image and Reality” that looks at the commodification of Guevara’s influence and his relationship to revolutionary politics. It looks at how Guevara influenced and was used by a variety of anti-imperialist movements while also providing a critical look at how his image has been used outside of its political context on a range of consumer products.

Overall, Che: A Graphic Biography is well worth reading for those curious about why Guevara has become such an iconic figure and for those interested in learning about revolutionary movements.

Spain Rodriguez, Che: A Graphic Biography, (Verso Books, 2008).

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Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography

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This is part of Atlantic Monthly’s series: “Books that Changed the World” in which several different authors write biographies of influential books. I don’t know about the other books in the series, but this book was very short (144 pages). I was able to read through the whole thing in just a few days.

Wheen is also the author of a biography of Marx, and as with his biography of Marx, in his work on Das Kapital Wheen spends a lot of time making fun of Marx’s personality quirks, but ultimately comes down on Marx’s side on most of the issues.

Wheen blows up a lot of the mythology surrounding Marx on both sides by focusing on his all too human foibles (very much similar in tone to Mark Steel’s lectures on Karl Marx–viewable on Youtube here). Far from being a dedicated evil genius or a revolutionary Jesus Christ, Marx had a terrible time writing this book. He procrastinated endlessly, constantly lied to his publisher and his friends and told them it was almost finished when it wasn’t, and generally showed a remarkable inability to just buckle down and finish the thing.

As a result, only volume one out of an intended six volumes was completed during Marx’s lifetime. Therefore, as Wheen emphasizes, despite the tendency of Marx’s disciples to make dogma out of his work, no complete bible of Marx’s theory exists.

Another one of Wheen’s main points is that Marx intended Das Kapital to be a work of art rather than purely a work of economics. Instead of simply writing a straight forward economic text, Marx throws in so a great deal of humor, irony, literary and poetical allusions. I’ve got to say, based on Francis Wheen’s description of it, Das Kapital doesn’t sound half bad as reading material.

Lastly, as you would expect, Wheen spends a significant amount of time analyzing the ideas in Das Kapital.

Wheen believes that although Marx may have failed as a prophet, he was extraordinary as an analyst. That is, although the communist revolutions may not have happened exactly as Marx had predicted, Marx was still able to give an excellent analysis of how capitalism functioned, and what it’s inherent instabilities were.

Wheen goes on to assert that although Marx’s theories have been unfairly maligned in the West, much of Marx’s analysis has been subsequently vouched for by mainstream economists. In fact Wheen argues that Keynesian economics, with it’s belief that capitalism unregulated and left to its own devices is inherently unstable, is very similar to Marx’s own analysis.

Although this book was originally published back in November of 2007, one year ahead of the economic meltdown, recent events have made this subject much more relevant now than it was when it was first published. In fact, Time magazine, of all places, just recently published an article that raises the question: Was Marx’s critique of capitalism right after all? And here in Japan, Marx’s Das Kapital is enjoying renewed popularity as a Manga.

(Also, anyone interested should check out the NPR interview with Francis Wheen about this book.)

Francis Wheen, Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography, (Grove Press, 2007).

A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman

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Outside the United States, social movements of the left have used a variety of creative techniques–posters, puppet shows, songs, and art–as popular education tools to convey their collective goals and aspirations. Unfortunately, for much of the left in the United States, we have tended to focus our efforts on producing lengthy books and dense articles that are read by only a small number of people already sympathetic, thereby limiting the left’s outreach. Sharon Rudahl’s Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman is an important piece of popular education–taking Goldman’s autobiography, reducing it from its 1,000 pages and illustrating it. Rudahl’s work, by virtue of its accessibility, should help people learn more about Goldman–one of the more inspirational figures from anarchist and left history.

Emma Goldman’s story should be common knowledge, but unfortunately, she is rarely mentioned in mainstream history books used in high school and college classes. While those books might mention her in relation to anarchists–usually involving bomb throwing–they often fail to convey her dedication to her ideals. Turning to anarchism after the Haymarket incident in the 1880s, Goldman spent years advocating anarchism, organizing, publishing, writing, and agitating for a better world. She toured the country numerous times lecturing on topics ranging from anarchism to theatre and gained a reputation as the United States’ “most dangerous woman.” She served time in prison for her beliefs and actions and was ultimately deported from the United States for organizing against World War I. Once deported, she went to her native Russia and was an early critic of the Bolshevik revolution. She continued to write and be active on the left until her death in 1940.

Emma Goldman’s story is one that should be inspirational to us all. She dedicated her life to the struggle for a more justice world and linked a variety of issues–women’s liberation, free speech, antiwar organizing, and access to birth control–under the common banner of anarchism. While the climate in which Emma Goldman organized is considerably different than the present, we continue to see the harsh effects of capitalism. There have been some improvements in the past 100 or so years that have moderated or hidden capitalism’s harshest aspects, but in many ways Emma Goldman’s critique remains vivid today. A Dangerous Woman presents Emma Goldman’s life and work in a new and exciting way and hopefully it will inspire more people to take action in their own lives.

Sharon Rudahl, Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman, (The New Press, 2007).

Karl Marx: An Intimate Biography

In the past year I have read Karl Marx: His Life and Environment by Isaiah Berlin and Karl Marx: A Life by Francis Wheen. Because my interests are more historical than philosophical, I tend to look for a book that tells the interesting events in Marx’s life without bogging the reader down in the specifics of German Hegelianism. And although I enjoyed the previous two books, this was the book I was looking for.

Ultimately this probably comes down to personal preference, but if, like me, you are interested in biographical and not philosophical details about Marx, then this is the book for you. Although Marx’s philosophical works are mentioned, very little understanding is asked of the reader.

Not that this book is perfect. There were several interesting incidents and fascinating biographic details found in the first two books that were not in this book. Or at least not fully elaborated on in this book.

The style of the book at times is very easy to understand and text book like, making for a fast read. It does get a little dry at times however and one senses Saul Padover is not having as much fun with his subject as contrasted with the light tone of Francis Wheen or Isaiah Berlin.

But this book gives a very clear outline of all the events in Marx’s life. It does a very good job of explaining, for example, all of Marx’s (albeit limited) role in the revolutions of 1848.

Although the book is largely chronological, the last 20 years in England are divided up into chapters by subject. For example one chapter is on Das Kapital, on chapter is on the rise and fall of the First International, one chapter is on the Paris Commune.

In reality of course all of these subjects were intertwined. For example one of the reasons Marx got so little work done on Das Kapital (and never got around to finishing the subsequent volumes) was because of his involvement in the First Communist International. And the event that thrust the Communist International into the public spotlight was the Paris Commune.

I wouldn’t go as far to say this is confusing because Saul Padover’s style is very clear, but it does make the story lose some of its forward momentum. Also it makes many of the events in Marx’s story anti-climatic. For instance in a chapter on Marx’s children, Padover mentions the death of Marx and Engels. Then later he has to go back and retells the story in his final chapter.

Quibbles aside though, this represents a very concise, clear, biographically focused and easy to read introduction to the life of Karl Marx. A great starting point for anyone wanting to learn more.

Saul Padover, Karl Marx: An Intimate Biography, (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1978).

Karl Marx: His Life and Environment

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Given the interesting details of Marx’s life, it’s a shame there are not more good biographies about him: his banishment from one country to another, his participation in the 1848 revolutions, the numerous petty squabbles he had with other 19th century revolutionaries, his involvement in the politics of the International, and his last great fight against Bakunin.

Many biographies focus on the philosophical instead of the historical, and Isaiah Berlin’s Karl Marx: His Life and Environment is a good example of this. For anyone who wants a biography that focuses more on the narrative, I would recommend Francis Wheen’s book, Karl Marx: A Life.

Isaiah Berlin does a good job of summarizing Marx’s life in under 300 pages, but most of the book lingers on Marx’s philosophical development, with whole long chapters devoted to topics such as “The Young Hegelians” and “Historical Materialism.”

One thing Berlin does which I thought was very interesting was that he emphasized the paradoxes in Marx’s legend. For example Marx lived during the age of romantic revolutions in which popular revolutionary figures like Herzen, Mazzini, Blanqui, and Lassalle commanded almost religious like followings. Marx spent most of his life in obscurity in the London library, and yet today his name is still known by almost everyone on the planet. Marx’s central thesis, that historical material conditions and not ideas influence history, has been undercut by its very success.

Or how the German and Austrian communists, who followed Marx’s advice about organizing from the bottom up, were eventually overwhelmed by the fascists, where as the Bolsheviks, who committed the most un-Marxist act of a revolutionary coup, was the first (and for a time the only) successful Marxist revolution.

Bakunin, as seems to be the case with any biography vaguely sympathetic towards Marx, comes off a bit badly here. I suppose that’s to be expected. In most biographies of Bakunin, Marx comes off badly.

There is no denying that Bakunin had his flaws. Anyone who has read any piece of analysis by Bakunin knows he didn’t have the brilliance of Marx’s pinky. He was a romantic without a clear ideology, and he didn’t share Marx’s horror for Revolutions that went off half-cocked with no chance of succeeding. And, as every biography of Marx makes clear, he was an anti-Semite.

And yet, he was right (well, not about the anti-Semite part). But history has shown all of Bakunin’s criticisms of Marx to be true. And, to his credit, Isaiah Berlin does include some of Bakunin’s extended quotations:

We believe power corrupts those who wield it as much as those who are forced to obey it. Under its influence, some become greedy and ambitious tyrants, exploiting society in their own interest, or in that of their class, while others are turned into abject slaves. Intellectuals, positivists, doctrinaires, all those who put science before life defend the idea of the state and its authority as being the only possible salvation of society-quite logically, since from their false premises that thought comes before life, that only abstract theory can form the starting-point of social practice they draw the inevitable conclusion that since such theoretical knowledge is at present possessed by very few, these few must be put in control of social life, not only to inspire, but to direct all popular movements, and that no sooner is the revolution over than a new social organization must be at once be set up; not a free association of popular bodies working in accordance with the needs and instincts of the people but a centralized dictatorial power concentrated in the hands of this academic minority, as if they really expressed the popular will .The difference between such revolutionary dictatorship and the modern State is only one of external trappings. In substance both are a tyranny of the minority over the majority in the name of the people-in the name of the stupidity of the many and the superior wisdom of the few-and so they are equally reactionary, devising to secure political and economic privilege to the ruling minority, and the enslavement of the masses, to destroy the present order only to erect their own rigid dictatorship on its ruins.

Berlin gives a surprisingly hostile account of the Paris Commune, which he appears to have based completely off the Bourgesious press. And he also advances the interesting idea that Marx actually opposed the Paris Commune because it was more along the lines of Bakunin’s revolutionary ideology, but once it was clear the Commune was going to fall, Marx embraced it for the cynical reasons of the desire to link his name with the most infamous revolution in Europe at the time. Berlin is the first writer I have come across who claims this, and while it certainly is not an impossible conclusion, it would be nice if he gave some more evidence for it.

Isaiah Berlin, Karl Marx: His Life and Environment, (Oxford University Press, 1963)

Murdered by Capitalism: A Memoir of 150 Years of Life and Death on the American Left

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Subtitled “A memoir of 150 years of life and death on the American left,” John Ross’ Murdered by Capitalism both a memoir of his own life and experience as an activist and how his actions fit into a larger tradition of the left in the United States. His book blends the events of his life with the history of the left through a frequently amusing, off-and-on dialog with Edward Bernhardt Schnaubelt, an anarchist who was killed in 1913 by a landowner and whose tombstone is inscribed with the phrase “Murdered by Capitalism.” Ross engages in a fictional dialog with Schnaubelt at his gravesite and as the two exchange stories of their participation in radical politics, Ross shares the stories of his life and activism and those of the greater left.

John Ross has led an interesting life and has participated in most of the popular social change movements for the last fifty years. Born to radical parents, Ross was an early critic of the Cold War, participated early on in the civil rights movement and was arrested for the first time at a protest in San Francisco, and was one of the first to participate in draft resistance during the Vietnam War. Ross has also worked as a freelance journalist, extensively covered the Zapatista uprising in Mexico, traveled to Palestine to participate in direct action protests in solidarity with the Palestinians, and participated as a human shield during the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Despite the extent of his participation in various movements, Ross remains a humble and never speaks as an elitist, instead relating his experiences in a realistic and human way. Ross never shies from admitting his mistakes, including the fact that he spent much of the late 1960s in a drug-induced haze after aligning with the ultra-dogmatic Progressive Labor movement.

The history of the left in the United States is often forgotten, both by those who identify with the left and its opponents. The current left is weak and has accomplished relatively little in terms of sustained victories since the 1960s, but the left in the United States does have a proud history, especially with the struggles in the early 1900s. Ross relates this history through a bizarre series of exchanges during which he goes to the graves of the men hung for their role in the Haymarket bombing and has a dialog with Emma Goldman, Lucy Parsons, Albert Parsons, Volteraine de Cleyre, Bill Thompson, and other famous anarchist, labor, and socialist organizers. Although Ross frequently gets historical details mixed up, most notably with his calling de Cleyre by the incorrect name (de Clyves), the exchange between the numerous radicals buried in Chicago’s Waldheim Cemetary humorously relates many achievements of which radicals can be quite proud—extensive organizing efforts, concrete changes in living and working conditions, opposition to war and imperialism, and a host of others. In relating the experiences of his own life Ross shares the history of the left post-1930, bringing the reader through the depression, the Cold War, the Vietnam era, and the 1980s, all with an a humorous style, albeit occasionally neglecting various historical nuances.

Of course, it is the sections of his book that discuss political bombings and revolutionary violence that will generate the most controversy. Through the fictional ramblings of the aforementioned Shnaubelt, there is praise for “the Weather boys” referring to the Weather Underground and their bombing campaign of the early 1970s and Ross’ own assertion, Murdered by Capitalism argues that dynamite can be an equalizer in the class struggle. As Ross points out, dynamite has been frequently used by the left in the United States, becoming “good bombs” in the fight against the ruling class and their “bad bombs” which are used to target innocents and popular movements around the world. An argument can certainly be made about the necessity for revolutionary violence within specific political contexts, but such conditions have probably never existed within the United States, and such an argument is poorly articulated in Ross’ book and instead comes off as simply the unorganized ranting in which anything of substance will be overshadowed by the silly and unnecessary mention of bombing the United States government for their invasion of Iraq.

Despite its flaws, Murdered by Capitalism is an engaging and entertaining read. While a better effort could have been made to adhere accurately to history, Ross is able to link the popular movements during his life to those of the greater American left and creates a sense of memory, albeit a romantic memory, that is absent for most on the American left. Coupled with a general understanding of US history and the history of the left, Murdered by Capitalism is among the more enjoyable political memoirs around.

John Ross, Murdered by Capitalism: A Memoir of 150 Years of Life and Death on the American Left, (Nation Books, 2004).

Living My Life

I would argue that Emma Goldman’s Living My Life is the most important contribution of United States anarchists to the global anarchist canon. In terms of both her dedication to promoting anarchism and feminism, and the extraordinary life she led, Emma Goldman’s autobiography is unparalleled among other writings by anarchists from the United States. I also think this book can be read as a challenge to present anarchists. Who among us can honestly say that have put forth a genuine effort to make anarchism an issue as it was at the time of Emma Goldman and her contemporaries?

Moreover, this book, by virtue of Goldman’s extraordinary life and her accessible writing style, should appeal to non-anarchists who are simply interested in history, especially those seeking to move beyond the limited scope of history taught in high schools and universities. For those of us who have read about the radical and reform movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Emma Goldman’s book is an entertaining look at various radicals, as she encounters Eugene Debs, Jane Adams, Johann Most, Voltaraine de Cleyre, and numerous others, and that is just in the first volume.

I highly recommend reading both the first volume, which focuses primarily on her life in the United States, as well as the second volume, much of which is dominated by her experience in Russia after the Bolshevik revolution and her subsequent disillusionment.

Emma Goldman, Living My Life, (A.A. Knopf, 1931).