From Socialist Review, No. 171, January 1994
Copyright © Socialist Review
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
For me an antidote to the poisonous boredom of school history is Leo Huberman’s Man’s Worldly Goods. He writes to be understood, asks questions, and answers them. For example, why can’t Roman Catholic priests marry? ‘One reason ... the church did not want to lose any church lands through inheritance to the children of its officers.’ Huberman tells how ‘good Queen Bess’ made a royal fortune from Drake’s pirating and encouraged slave trading. With clear strokes he outlines historical developments and shows how economic ideas were linked to the class interests of particular economists.
He explains that Marxists do not make a futile ‘appeal to the feelings and purses’ of the ruling class, but rely on the power of the working class to change society.
However, he falls at the last hurdle and reiterates the crude error of Stalin that by state planning socialism could be built in one country. Despite the last chapters, it is still one of my favourite books.
Memories of Lenin by his partner Krupskaya is a human account of the building of the Bolshevik Party, rich in details, ideas and anecdotes. We read how they had to operate as an illegal party writing letters with milk, using codes and evading police surveillance. Krupskaya explains with examples the difference between agitation and propaganda. She describes how they leafleted workplaces and how Lenin sought contacts everywhere, once recruiting a group of women Sunday School teachers.
We see the party being transformed to a mass party and Lenin in a recruitment drive reprimanding reactionary members saying, ‘do not invent bogeys, comrades.’ The book is urgent and energetic showing the link up between theory and practice, politics and economics. It helped me to make sense of our activities in the SWP. An easy and exciting read.
Much more difficult is Rosa Luxemburg’s Accumulation of Capital. Like Marx’s Capital it took me weeks to read, and I only had time because of a broken leg. The maths of the early chapters are a nightmare, and Luxemburg is wrong in her basic theory that capitalism without colonial development must collapse. But as in her little pamphlet What is Economics? there are chapters that tear apart mumbo-jumbo economics which only mystify.
The final chapters give a powerful history of imperialism across the continents, full of analysis and vivid detail. For example, unlike the ancient conquerors of India, ‘the British East India company ... did not make one spring accessible, did not sink a single well, nor build a bridge for the benefit of the Indians.’
She explains why money is sent around the world and the effects of such movements and hints at the importance of military and arms expenditure. I think there is a lot in this very neglected Marxist text.
For relaxation I pore over art books. They are often frustrating and involve leapfrogging to match text with pictures, so I just look at the pictures. One of my favourites is called Great Paintings edited by Edwin Mullins and published by the BBC. It groups pictures in themes, considers a wide range of artists, with the appropriate text next to the pictures.
Horrible people can write useful books. I like fell walking and use the beautiful guides of A. Wainwright, who was a horrible sexist reactionary. Similarly the hateful union leader Walter Citrine wrote The ABC of Chairmanship which is not a good read but invaluable in blocking the procedural tricks of the right wing in union meetings.
Last updated: 5 March 2017