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).

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).

The Meaning of Marxism

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Paul D’Amato’s The Meaning of Marxism is an important contribution to Marxism and the left in general. While many dismiss Marxism as a dead theory, D’Amato uses insight gained as the managing editor of International Socialist Review to argue for the revolutionary transformation of society from below.

The Meaning of Marxism is an easy to read introduction to the complexities of Marxist thought, a feat that is an accomplishment in and of itself. D’Amato skillfully presents the intricacies of Marxist theory and analysis in a manner that is easy to understand. He explores the origins of Marxism, Marx’s materialist method, and Marx’s view of history, while explaining Marx’s insights into how capitalism functions. Throughout the text, D’Amato incorporates Marxists who have expanded on Marx’s original analysis and weaves in contemporary examples of the relevance of Marxism. In an appendix, D’Amato offers an extensive list of additional readings for those wishing to further investigate Marxism.

The book’s major strength is its argument that a revolutionary transformation is a necessity in contemporary society. Whereas many writing on Marxism focus on narrow ideological or historical debates, D’Amato draws upon Marxism to offer a compelling argument for radical social change. In addressing a variety of topics ranging from poverty to racism, D’Amato explains the relevance of Marxism to contemporary social movements seeking to eradicate systems of oppression. The book convincingly argues that capitalism is at the base of many of these systems of oppression and that it benefits from the continued functioning of racism and sexism. These arguments are coupled with extensive citations of statistics on wealth and poverty both at the national and international effort, that support the D’Amato’s assertions that society produces enough for everyone and that inequalities are due to capitalism.

Of course, the major weakness of the book is its raison d’etre–its advocacy of Marxism. Marxism has been repeatedly attacked and criticized from both the right and the left for the past hundred years and has largely failed as a means of transforming society. D’Amato’s defense of Lenin–despite his repudiation of Stalinism, Maoism, and the ultimate outcomes of the Russian Revolution of 1917–will likely not sit well with many readers coming to the text from an anarchist or anti-Marxist perspective. Moreover, while there is some defense of Bolshevism, there is little discussion of how Marxist parties operate within contemporary social movements. Nevertheless, the book promotes a less sectarian and authoritarian form of Marxism and indeed such a theory is a legitimate framework to consider.

In a similar vein, the chapter “But What about…? Arguments against Socialism” is useful for Marxists and other leftists who face the inevitable questions about the feasibility of the revolutionary transformation of society. D’Amato presents well-constructed counter-arguments to frequent arguments against socialism or anti-capitalism, taking on the idea that capitalism is more efficient than socialism, that people are naturally competitive, that the United States is predominately middle class, and that the working class no longer exists.

D’Amato’s The Meaning of Marxism is a helpful introduction to both those seeking more information about Marxism as well as those seeking to enhance their understanding of the various “left” theories of social transformation. It is easily readable and understandable, making it an essential introduction to Marxism.

Paul D’Amato, The Meaning of Marxism, (Haymarket Books, 2006).

History of the Paris Commune

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This book is regarded by Marxists as the official history of the Paris Commune. The author, Lissagaray, participated in the Paris Commune and fought on the barricades although, in his own words, he was “neither member, nor officer, nor functionary of the Commune.”

Following the fall of the Commune, Lissagaray was one of the lucky ones who escaped the massacre and he spent the next 6 years writing his History of the Paris Commune of 1871. In exile in England, Lissagaray became part of Karl Marx’s inner circle. The English edition of History of the Paris Commune was translated into English by Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor Marx, and Karl Marx himself expanded and corrected some of the analysis for the English edition.

(Interestingly enough, although Karl Marx approved of Lissagaray’s historical work, he strongly disapproved of Lissagaray personally, and was greatly distressed when his daughter Eleanor became engaged to Lissagaray. Among other books, Karl Marx: A Life provides a fascinating look at the intense drama this doomed engagement caused the Marx family.)

It is for this reason that the publisher’s introduction recommends that for full effect this book be read in combination with Karl Marx’s The Civil War in France. However, having read The Civil War in France, I think I can safely say that the reading of one is not essential to the understanding of the other by any means, although it is interesting to see occasionally some of the exact same phrases in both books.

I do recommend, however, that Lissagaray’s work not be read as an introduction to the Paris Commune. It was written only 6 years after its fall, and as a contemporary history assumes the reader is familiar with many of the names and events in the book, and is seeking only a greater analysis of what happened.

The ideal reader of this book is already familiar with at least the basics of the Paris Commune and its place in history. Some knowledge of the geography of Paris is a plus (although I was able to struggle through without any). The ideal reader is also interested in both military and social history. He or she wants to know exactly what ideological issues divided the members of the Paris Commune as well as what order the barricades fell during the Versailles invasion.

This is not a light read, but for the historically minded willing to put in the effort to engage it, it will yield a wonderful treasure of knowledge that will take the reader directly into the meetings of the Communard government and also right into the thick of the street fighting. It is hard to find a more detailed work on the Paris Commune, and Lissagaray even goes so far as to explore in detail the short lived Communard uprising that rose up in French provinces at the same time, a subject usually neglected by contemporary histories.

The lessons to be drawn from the book are numerous, and the book is just as heavy with analysis as with details. The reader learns very quickly that in Lissagaray’s vocabulary being called a “leftist” or a “liberal” is not a compliment. Right from the September 4th republican revolution, where Lissagaray begins his history, he shows how the left had no courage at all, and the men who claimed to represent the Paris working people (Louis Blanc, Leon Gambetta) consistently betrayed them. This theme is carried throughout the book, and Lissagaray demonstrates again and again how the left not only abandoned the people, but also the bourgeois liberal representatives in Versailles actively supported many of that government’s atrocities.

However if the bourgeois left is crucified in Lissagaray’s writings, the radicals and representatives of the Paris Commune do not always come off better. Although an obvious partisan of the Paris Commune, Lissagarary’s purpose in writing was not to enshrine the members of the Paris Commune in revolutionary saint hood, but provide an unflinching look at where they erred. As Lissagaray writes in his introduction, “The child has the right to know the reason of the paternal defeats, the Socialist party the campaign of its flag in all countries. He who tells the people revolutionary legends, he who amuses them with sensational stories, is as criminal as the geographer who would draw up false charts for navigators.”

Some members of the Paris Commune are criticized more than others. Most of Lissagaray’s venom is directed against Felix Pyat and Gustave Cluseret. Felix Pyat is shown as a loudmouth who is more concerned with scoring points against his political rivals inside the Paris Commune than protecting the revolution against Versailles. In fact Lissagaray lays the blame for most of the divisions among the Communards at the feet of Pyat. At one point in the book, another member of the Commune tells Pyat, “You are the evil genius of this revolution.”

Cluseret, charged with the defence of the Commune, is portrayed as being incredibly arrogant and criminally negligible, and personally responsible for many of Versailles early victories.

Other members of the commune are treated with much more respect, (although no one completely escapes criticism). Charles Delescluze emerges as one of the heroes of the commune, and his heroic death on the barricades is reported with great reverence and apparently even witnessed by Lissagaray himself.

The great tragedy of this book, also emphasized again and again by Lissagaray, is that the Paris Commune did not have to fail. If the Commune leaders had been able to better defend Paris, or if the Commune uprisings in the provinces had been better organized, the revolution could have succeeded. It was not for lack of popular support, either in Paris or in the provinces, that the revolution failed, but as a result of first the leftists betraying the people, and secondly the radical leaders bungling the task.

The last third of the book is dedicated to the fall of the commune, the mass execution of the communards, the kangaroo trials of the survivors, and the fate of the exiles in New Caledonia. The vicious cruelty of the bourgeoisie displayed here in these chapters almost has to be read in its entirety to be appreciated. Lissagaray shows very clearly how little the life of the working poor is worth, and contrasts the moderation and humaneness of the Commune with the massacres sanctioned by Versailles. The Commune did execute 62 hostages, but this was an act of desperate mob fury not sanctioned by the Commune government. The Versailles government engaged in a planned systematic massacre of the proletariat of Paris. Lissagaray also demonstrates how the priests and nuns of Paris approved and aided in this massacre.

Prosper Oliver Lissagaray, History of the Paris Commune of 1871, (New Park Publications, 1976). *

* While this book is out of print, is available from numerous online used book sellers. It can also be read in its entirety online.

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)