Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 12, 2013

Marx’s Lesson for the Muslim Brothers? Groucho’s, I assume.

Professor Sheri Berman

It is not every day that you find an op-ed piece in the NY Times proffering what appears to be Marxist advice. In this instance I am not speaking of Paul Krugman’s endorsement of Michael Kalecki that amounted to dipping his big toe into the Marxist pool. After all, there is some question as to how to categorize Kalecki, some seeing him as a post-Keynesian rather than a Marxist. Krugman reflects this uncertainty when he writes: “Kalecki was, after all, a declared Marxist (although I don’t see much of Marx in his writings)”.

In this instance I am referring to Sheri Berman’s op-ed piece in the Sunday, August 11, 2013 NY Times titled “Marx’s Lesson for the Muslim Brothers”. Since Berman is an unabashed social democrat on the editorial board of Dissent, I am not sure she is the best medium for channeling Karl Marx. It is a bit like reading an op-ed piece by Richard Dawkins on what lessons Marxists can draw from Islam. Despite Sheri Berman’s erudition as a Barnard professor, which certainly must entail an ability to quote chapter and verse of Karl Marx, she seems mainly dedicated to convincing the world that he is a 19th century relic—a theme unsurprisingly that serves as the backbone of her op-ed piece.

Berman begins by analogizing the Egyptian mass movement for democracy with the 1848 revolutions that swept Europe:

In 1848, workers joined with liberals in a democratic revolt to overthrow the French monarchy. However, almost as soon as the old order collapsed, the opposition fell apart, as liberals grew increasingly alarmed by what they saw as “radical” working class demands. Conservatives were able to co-opt fearful liberals and reinstall new forms of dictatorship.

Those same patterns are playing out in Egypt today — with liberals and authoritarians playing themselves, and Islamists playing the role of socialists. Once again, an inexperienced and impatient mass movement has overreached after gaining power. Once again, liberals have been frightened by the changes their former partners want to enact and have come crawling back to the old regime for protection. And as in 1848, authoritarians have been happy to take back the reins of power.

To start with, Berman leaves out the relationship that existed between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood after Morsi assumed office. Rather than advancing “radical” demands, even of an Islamist nature such as Sharia law, there was evidence of a united front against the real radicals—the Egyptian underclasses. A Juan Cole blog post dated December 12, 2012 highlights the partnership against democracy:

Faced with the prospect of substantial public resistance to his scheduling of a referendum on a Muslim Brotherhood-tinged constitution on December 15, Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi has turned to the military. (The green in the title is a reference to political Islam, not the environment).

Morsi has ordered that the Egyptian army guard government buildings (and presumably the offices of his own party, Freedom and Justice, which have been being attacked by protesters). They spent Sunday putting up a blast wall around the presidential palace in Heliopolis, Cairo, which protesters invaded last Tuesday.

He also gave the military what he said were temporary powers to arrest civilians.

Now, of course, there was an eventual falling out among thieves. Inspired obviously by the neoliberal privatizing tendencies of the AKP, Morsi sought to detach Egyptian state industries from what amounted to military ownership. This measure can hardly be deemed “radical” unless you interpret economic measures heartily endorsed by the IMF et al as having something to do with 1848. ALMonitor, a rightwing online newspaper, summed up the conflict:

Mammoth tasks lie ahead for Egypt’s new, democratically elected civilian authorities. They will need to change how the state-owned commercial sector and public enterprises work in order to unlock the national economy’s potential for sustained and equitable growth.

Despite her familiarity with Marx’s writings (am I assuming too much?), Berman has a tendency to overlook class criteria when making her argument. For example, she writes about the 1848 events: “When it became clear that workers and socialists might win, liberals balked, and many of them turned back to the conservatives, seeing the restoration of authoritarianism as the lesser of two evils.” When she refers to “liberals” balking, you have to ask what that means in class terms. Let me be more specific. Corey Booker would describe himself as a liberal; so would many Black working-class voters in New Jersey. But when push comes to shove, Booker will defend the interests of big capital. Ultimately, what counts in Marxism is a class analysis—something Professor Berman seems averse to.

One of the more troublesome paragraphs in a troublesome article is this:

The 1848 fiasco strengthened the radical elements of the socialist movement at the expense of the moderates and created a poisonous and enduring rift between liberals and workers. After liberals abandoned democracy, moderate socialists looked like suckers and radicals advocating a nondemocratic strategy grew stronger. In 1850, Marx and Engels reminded the London Communist League that they had predicted that a party representing the German liberal bourgeoisie “would soon come to power and would immediately turn its newly won power against the workers. You have seen how this forecast came true.” They went on to warn, “To be able forcefully and threateningly to oppose this party, whose betrayal of the workers will begin with the very first hour of victory, the workers must be armed and organized.” This is not the lesson anybody wants Islamists to learn now.

Perhaps it is just a function of trying to pack several years of history in a single paragraph that yields an abundance of confusion or perhaps that was Berman’s intention to start off with. We see a kind of reductionism with “radicals” endorsing violence and liberals abandoning “democracy”. In reality, the situation after 1848 was a lot more complex. Those who fought against absolutism were united in their commitment to democracy—a tautology that is worth emphasizing. In the bourgeois reign of terror that followed the defeat of the movement, many democrats fled Germany in the same fashion that Pinochet’s coup produced a tidal wave of émigrés. They became known as “48’ers” and included Joseph Weydemeyer in their ranks. Weydemeyer, a Marxist, came to the United States and began publishing socialist periodicals.

General John C. Frémont recruited Weydemeyer to the Union army on the strength of his background as a Prussian military officer. Under Frémont’s command, Weydemeyer supervised the erection of ten forts around St. Louis and then went on to become a lieutenant colonel commanding a Missouri volunteer artillery regiment that fought Confederate guerillas in southern Missouri in 1862.

So what do we make of Joseph Weydemeyer? In the U.S. he pretty much followed the same course that Marx advised to the London gathering of German exiles in 1850: to arm the workers and be organized to fight for democracy. Democracy, of course, in Marxist terms means the rule of the majority—the same thing indicated by its Greek origins. Democracy means rule by the people—the demos. For Berman, it means one thing and one thing only: to participate in elections even if big capital has the right to guarantee the outcome through its stranglehold over the outcome on the basis of its disproportionate wealth.

Even on the basis of this criterion, the Marxists in Germany decided to put the armed struggle on the back burner once the situation after 1848 had stabilized. Through its class appeal to the overwhelming majority of society, the German social democracy went from strength to strength. No matter if it had been capable of taking control of the state and peacefully leading a transition to socialism, this would have not assuaged Berman’s obvious distaste for such a “radical” outcome. Her preference was for Eduard Bernstein’s implicit partnership with the German ruling class. In the name of socialism, it was as unprincipled in its way as the Muslim Brotherhood’s alliance with the Egyptian military.

In an interview with PBS, Berman described Bernstein’s breakthrough: “He saw classes that did not have the kind of conflicts that Marx and Engels predicted, and more importantly seemed to be able to work out many of their differences by using the political system.” In other words, get a PhD, work for a prestigious institution like Barnard, and write meretricious think pieces for the NY Times, the newspaper no real estate baron or hedge fund manager could live without.

As a bastardizer of Marxist theory, Bernstein obviously taught Berman how to use Marx’s writings against Marxism. In a January 5, 1898 article titled “The Struggle of Social Democracy and the Social Revolution,” Bernstein makes the case for colonial rule over Morocco. Drawing from English socialist Cunningham Graham’s travel writings, Bernstein states there is absolutely nothing admirable about Morocco. In such countries where feudalism is mixed with slavery, a firm hand is necessary to drag the brutes into the civilized world:

There is a great deal of sound evidence to support the view that, in the present state of public opinion in Europe, the subjection of natives to the authority of European administration does not always entail a worsening of their condition, but often means the opposite. However much violence, fraud, and other unworthy actions accompanied the spread of European rule in earlier centuries, as they often still do today, the other side of the picture is that, under direct European rule, savages are without exception better off than they were before.

Am I, because I acknowledge all this, an ‘adulator’ of the present? If so, let me refer Bax [Belfort Bax, the British socialist who denounced Bernstein as an apologist for colonialism] to The Communist Manifesto, which opens with an ‘adulation’ of the bourgeoisie which no hired hack of the latter could have written more impressively. However, in the fifty years since the Manifesto was written the world has advanced rather than regressed; and the revolutions which have been accomplished in public life since then, especially the rise of modern democracy, have not been without influence on the doctrine of social obligation.

Berman concludes her article with this:

A century after 1848, social democrats, liberals and even moderate conservatives finally came together to create robust democracies across Western Europe — an outcome that could and should have happened earlier and with less violence. Middle Eastern liberals must learn from Europe’s turbulent history instead of blindly repeating it.

Well, not really. There was nothing “robust” about these democracies other than the fact that elections were held every few years and even then the same sort of abuses that took place in Germany in the 1880s against the social democracy would now take place against Communists. It is really beyond the scope of this article to detail the iron fist that was concealed in the velvet glove in these “robust democracies”, but I urge my readers to have a look at Paul Ginsborg’s “History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988” where they will see what really happened. Here is a brief excerpt on how imperialism intervened to block a Popular Front victory, one that included the very social democrats that Berman extols:

THE 1948  ELECTION

The first months of 1948 were entirely dedicated to the election campaign. Never again, in the whole history of the Republic, was a campaign to be fought so bitterly by both sides, or to be influenced so heavily by international events.

American intervention was breathtaking in its size, its ingenuity and its flagrant contempt for any principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of another country. The US administration designated $176m of ‘Interim Aid’ to Italy in the first three months of 1948. After that, the Marshall Plan entered into full operation. James Dunn, the American ambassador at Rome, made sure that this massive injection of aid did not go unobserved by the Italian general public. The arrival of every hundredth ship bearing food, medicines, etc., was turned into a special celebration. Every time the port of arrival was a different one — Civitavecchia, Bari, Genoa, Naples — and every time Dunn’s speech became more overtly political. Whenever a new bridge or school or hospital was constructed with American help, there was the indefatigable ambassador travelling the length of the peninsula to speak in the name of America, the Free World and, by implication, the Christian Democrats. Often the goods unloaded from the ports would be put on a special ‘friendship train’ (the idea was the American journalist Drew Pearson’s) and then distributed with due ceremonial at the stations along the line. And just in case the message was not clear enough, on 20 March 1948 George Marshall warned that all help to Italy would immediately cease in the event of a Communist victory.

From the States itself the large and predominantly conservative Italo-American community devised all manner of propaganda initiatives in favour of the Christian Democrats. Hollywood stars recorded messages of support, rallies were held, and more than a million letters were dispatched to Italy during the election campaign. The letters all stressed the Communist peril, often contained a few dollars, and were for the most part not even addressed to relatives. On 17 March Cardinal Spellman, in the presence of President Truman, declared: “And one month from tomorrow as Italy must make her choice of government, I cannot believe that the Italian people will chose Stalinism against God, Soviet Russia against America — America who has done so much and stands ready and willing to do so much more, Italy remains a free, friendly and unfettered nation.”

If all else failed there was always military intervention. The American government studied various plans of action in the event of the Popular Front’s victory. Truman hoped to convince part of the Socialists to destroy the unity of the left, but if this did not succeed there were proposals for encouraging an anti-Communist insurrection, with financial and military assistance to clandestine groups, and for the direct military occupation of Sicily and Sardinia. As it was, the Americans strengthened their Mediterranean fleet, and in the weeks preceding the election their warships anchored in the waters of the main Italian ports.

14 Comments »

  1. Lou, I guess you didn’t see the correction. The Op-Ed was by Shelly not Sheri Berman. Good to see he’s back to doing stand-up after all these years.

    Comment by John Halle — August 13, 2013 @ 4:04 pm

  2. It is fair to say that the 19th Century remains a challenging, difficult subject for US academics.

    Comment by Richard Estes — August 13, 2013 @ 6:05 pm

  3. Is it fair to say there’s some wisdom to writings or authors who to this day are being sneared at by the intellectual class?

    Comment by Pandora — August 13, 2013 @ 8:48 pm

  4. The point of an analogy is to draw out the similarities, not argue that two things are identical. The 1848 analogy as it was framed in the piece seems sound to me.

    Comment by Pham Binh — August 14, 2013 @ 4:31 pm

  5. Binh, you need to spell this out. Do you think that people like Marx, Schurz, and Wedermeyer would have cut deals with the Prussian military to draft an undemocratic constitution? The Muslim Brotherhood should not have been the victim of a coup but they had nothing in common with the movement for democracy in Europe in 1848. They sought to create a state like Turkey’s and were willing to arrest peaceful protestors to achieve such a goal. Unfortunately, Egypt has failed to see anything up to the tasks of creating a modern secular society with full democratic rights–the goal, for example, of the Russian social democracy in 1905 or the Garibaldists in Italy, etc. The Muslim Brotherhood had massive support–no doubt–but winning a majority of the vote does not mean that the election is a harbinger of genuine democracy.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 14, 2013 @ 4:51 pm

  6. A strange slant on Egypt, seen as the secularist, middle class ‘liberal’ elements are, as we chatter, busy massacring unarmed protesters, protesters who are demanding that the elected leader is reinstated. And you just know these middle class liberal secularist Egyptians will be spouting about democracy this time next year. Makes you want to puke really.

    A sharp contrast to the Syria articles on this site it must be said!

    Comment by SteveO — August 14, 2013 @ 7:15 pm

  7. SteveO, I invite you to write whatever comment you want about Syria here. I have pretty much banned all the idiots whose idea of an intervention is calling me a CIA agent or Zionist-Jew. I enjoy a good debate but have no tolerance for knuckle-dragging stupidity.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 14, 2013 @ 7:21 pm

  8. The thrust of the analogy is to point out the similarity in liberal behavior vis-a-vis absolutism and I find that to be a valid comparison.

    Off hand I can’t think of a good analogy for the Muslim Brotherhood’s behavior towards SCAF during their brief “rule” — but what more can we expect from reformist democrats? Morsi and co. were hardly repressive during their administration — for example, not one T.V. station was shut down for criticizing the president, a first in Egyptian history. The killings in places like Port Said were the work of fulool, not Morsi and co. despite what the Egypt’s hysterical left-liberals would have us believe.

    Comment by Pham Binh — August 14, 2013 @ 9:12 pm

  9. My only problem with the use of the term “liberal” was that it was too broad a category. What good is it to make an amalgam of al-Baredi and some college student or school teacher who goes out to protest the MB proposed constitution? In terms of being “hardly repressive”, I think this is worth a look: http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/10119/mohamed-morsi-mubarak_the-myth-of-egypts-democrati

    Comment by louisproyect — August 14, 2013 @ 9:30 pm

  10. Proyect,

    I don’t care if you are a closet CIA agent or Zionist-Jew. I actually think you represent something worse, i.e. a genuine leftist with perverted views. So you are on my side of the fence. I have no problem with this (other than having someone with your views on my side) but I retain the right to criticise fellow comrades.

    Your post on Syria clearly amounts to propaganda, and should not be taken as an honest attempt to portray events. Your posts on Egypt prove the point, the contrast is startling. You are an apologist for liberal/secularist backed tyranny and mass murder. If you were not you would react the way to events in Egypt like you have in Syria.

    In future refrain from criticising the brutality of Syria, Israel or whoever. Cut the moral concern, behind every leftist concern is leftist interest, to paraphrase.

    Comment by Steveo — August 15, 2013 @ 8:13 pm

  11. Your post on Syria clearly amounts to propaganda, and should not be taken as an honest attempt to portray events.

    This appears to be the conclusion of some earlier mustering of facts, data, etc. Maybe the NSA decided to delete your bits. Why don’t you try again so I can understand why what I wrote “amounts to propaganda”. Put up or shut up.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 15, 2013 @ 8:18 pm

  12. I have put up and you have waved your hands frantically, hoping the distraction works.

    I invite your readers to take a few minutes to trawl your articles, this will verify my position.

    Comment by Steveo — August 16, 2013 @ 8:39 am

  13. Everyone acknowledges that Morsi and the Brotherhood failed to tame the old state machine and yet somehow they are directly responsible for the killing of protestors during their short-lived administration by said machine? It doesn’t add up. I have not seen any evidence that Morsi ordered the use of torture or live ammunition against protestors.

    Comment by Pham Binh — August 19, 2013 @ 2:09 pm

  14. […] Marx’s Lesson for the Muslim Brothers? Groucho’s, I assume. (louisproyect.org) […]

    Pingback by On Socialism as a Faith–and the Ultimate Betrayal… – Truth60 — August 22, 2013 @ 2:59 am


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