Hermann Duncker 1925

Book Review

Max Beer: "General History of Socialism and Social Struggles"

Sources: International Press Correspondence, Vol 5, No. 36, April 23, 1925, pp. 481-482; Daily Worker, Vol. 2, No. 119, June 1, 1925, p. 6.
Online Version: Marxists Internet Archive 2021
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Note - The terms socialism and Communism are here used interchangeably.


A HISTORY of socialism has been a long felt and urgent want in the modern working class movement However, it quickly proved itself to be an undertaking demanding great preparatory study and above all the possibility of prolonged and undisturbed scientific work. When even bourgeois writers in their peaceful studies have not been successful in completing such a work how is it to come from the ranks of a fighting party? In the beginning of the nineties the at that time still revolutionary German social-democratic party had already made a great step towards the issue of a comprehensive history of socialism. It as to represent the collective work of the best Marxists of the International. Plechanov, Lafargue, Kautsky, Mehring, Bernstein and others were won for the idea, but the work remained a torso, though a very valuable one. Kautsky's "Pioneers of Socialism" and Mehring's "History of the German Social Democracy" developed later from this.

There existed also various historical monographs - very unequal in their execution, dealing with persons, events and movements in the history of socialism in the German language (with which we are exclusively dealing here, but there was lacking a comprehensive history of socialism, setting itself the task of following the whole development of socialist Ideology and social revolutionary movements thru the history of mankind.

Condemns S. D.'s

BY extremely industrious and conscientious work in the years 1920-23 a work has been completed which fills this gap. M. Beer, known as a Marxist writer by a series of capable works upon the history of socialism, has issued a "General History of Socialism and Social Struggles" in five volumes published by the Verlag fur Sozialwissenschaft (Berlin). In I924 these five parts were issued in one volume of 540 pages.

This work which we can conscientiously recommend to all comrades, caused one or two surprises in the form of its appearance alone. First of all it is astonishing that precisely the Verlag fur Sozialwissenschaft in the midst of the trivialities with which it is in the habit of feeding the book market, and having regard to the social democratic camouflage maneuvers, with which this house usually accompanies its publications, should have issued such a serious and scientific work. But much more astonishing is the fact that this publishing house, behind which Parvus and other fiery anti-Communists stand - a semi-official publishing house of the German social-democratic party - presents in the Beer book a positively annihilating Communist criticism of the German S. D. P. and the Second International.

"Money Doesn't Smell"

WE do not know whether perhaps the Barmat orgies in Schwannenwerder or such like pleasures indulged in by the publishing house directors, and with them the whole party leadership of the German social-democratic party, have so much fogged their brains that they simply failed to notice what a Bolshevik cuckoo's egg was being hatched in their otherwise so respectable nest, but for this good joke we are prepared to forgive Comrade Beer for having so long delayed in taking up an open attitude for Communism and the Third International!

It is also possible that the directors of the publishing house, in the atmosphere of corruption which surrounds the German social-democratic party, simply said to themselves: "Business is business; we shall get a profit on the book even if it should expose our political sins. Non olet, money doesn't smell!" Beer is right when he speaks in his book of "the internal moral weakness of the social-democratic party" (Page 500) or of the "unprincipled and opportunistic Second International" (Page 514).

The work of Beer - to a certain extent a world history from the Communist point of view - deals, in a capably arranged division of material, in the first and second parts with ancient society and the middle ages, whilst the three last parts are devoted to socialism in the later ages (from the XIV century on). Although not all the sections are dealt with in the same manner from original sources, yet important epochs are seen in a new light by the arrangement of the material and apart from this Beer has worked detailed original studies into his book.

On Ancient Society

THE presentation of pre-historic and ancient society is the least satisfactory. The origin of private property and above all the class tendency of certain forms of special property should have been more clearly dealt with (for Instance page 4-35). Military conflicts between the tribes precede the formation of classes within the tribes. It is an exact reversal of the process when Beer says of slavery (page 17): "in the beginning it was compatriots who were made slaves and later prisoners of war." In the utilization of the material supplied by antiquity, Beer makes too little distinction between saga and legend and actual historical facts, (See for instance Lycurgus, Page 40, or Christ, Page 101, and others). The psychology of the people has always had a tendency in looking back on social movements to regard them in the light of the heroic actions and wonders of superhuman personalities. The social historian has, therefore, the extremely agreeable task of presenting such legends attaching to personalities once again from their original sources as "legends."

Beer does justice least of all to the Platonic social critic. He contends that the "Politeia" is no utopian description (Page 52). But Plato with his "ideal state" nevertheless tried to hold the mirror to his generation. It is by no means an accident that even in the middle ages Communist thinkers and poets returned ever and again to Plato "Politeia" (Campanella, More, Muenzer and others). On the other hand Beer has represented in this first part many movements with the care and accuracy of the Marxist, for instance, the prophets' movement in ancient Palestine, the descriptions of Catalina and particularly of Spartacus.

Beer presents very basic studies in his description of the social thought of the middle ages and the social-heretic movement from the IV to the XIV century. The author has dealt with this religious ideology in an astounding and living manner (see the proof for the connections with the Gnosis). The economic foundation is however dealt with rather too briefly. It is just as actually present as the "earthly aims" in the Chiliast and ancient Christian tendencies. It has been argued recently (see A. Wittfogel!) that the word Communism cannot be extended to movements which strive only for a Communism of consumption. Certainly, scientific, Marxist Communism begins first with the slogan of the socialisation of the means of production and the recognition of the class struggle. But there exists nevertheless also a "development of socialism from utopia to science!" And thus Beer is right when he describes as Communism those efforts and systems of thought in economic epochs in which the struggle of modern Communism could not be conceived of, but in which nevertheless a "new society" was demanded in which the common property or the social control over the necessities of life should ensure the well being of all.

Modern Communism.

COMRADE BEER has been most successful in the history of socialism since the dawn of modern times. "We are given in bold outline the first great German revolution from 1516 to 1535, in which Beer sets forth the reformation, the movement for national unity, the peasant wars and the Anabaptist movement. That the fine sense of Beer for the economic and moral history of England would ensure him success in those chapters dealing with the history of socialism in England was obvious (see the chapters dealing with the English utopians and the English social critics etc.). Beer's studies also draw other persons and movements into the history of socialism in an original manner. We do not agree with Beer who stamp the historian of the Babeuf conspiracy Buonarotti as the leading spirit of the movement, so that finally it is somewhat unintelligible why the chapter is still entitled "The Conspiracy of Babeuf and Comrades" (Page 342). Beer is however right when he unearths the leader of the German enlightenment movement, Professor Weisshaupt (1748-1830), and also the social criticism of the Rhinelander Gall in the year 1825, and other similar material. Thus for instance, amongst the older French socialists, Pecqueuer receives a detailed valuation. Pecqueuer, like the Gorman Moses Hess, is often unjustly ignored.

We then come to the presentation of the socialism of modern times (up to 1920). Beer gives us in an exemplary manner, always upon the basis of historical and economic sketch, the history of ideas and the political movements. A great amount of material and reflection is presented in the smallest space. Everything is clearly and correctly dealt with in the light of the materialist conception of history. Only upon one point must we take up a definite attitude against Beer, and that is in his judgment of Engels (Page 240). Beer should do justice to the significance and unique spirit of Engels precisely because of the extraordinary modesty with which Engels always placed himself behind Marx. The original form of the Engels foreword to the "Class Struggles" and many letters show clearly that Engels cannot be counted among the "reformists." For the rest, Beer presents the gradual victory of reformism in the German working class movement and the progress of the German S. D. P. towards a petty-bourgeois party very well.

"THE Second international could not stand the great test; nationalism and revisionism bound it to the existing order and dragged it into the vortex of war." (Page 514.)

And of the period following the war Beer says just as succinctly and appropriately: "The socialist party of Germany ruled, but militarism, bureaucracy and capitalism were dominant." Beer shows the internal dissolution of the socialist party of Germany, how it "paved the way for the reaction," unfortunately, however, he pays too little attention to the building up of the new Communist movement in the Communist International. Let us hope that Beer will still deal in detail with this most important period in the history of socialism.