Too British? Too Russian? Too German?

Submitted by Matthew on 5 September, 2012 - 11:20

At Ideas for Freedom 2012, Paul Hampton from Workers’ Liberty gave an instructive talk on the question “Is Marxism Eurocentric?”

The debate called to mind a controversy which raged in this country in the 1920s following the publication of Trotsky’s Whither England? in 1925. A slew of critics, ranging from the Independent Labour Party’s H N Brailsford to the philosopher Bertrand Russell, upbraided Trotsky for his alleged lack of knowledge and understanding of British conditions. Some went further, arguing that the theory and practice of Bolshevism was merely an untenable generalisation from Russian conditions and circumstances.

Trotsky did not fail to note the irony in the arguments of his British critics; Russian anti-Marxists of the previous generation had accused the Bolsheviks of transplanting the historical experience of British capitalism on to Russian soil without sensitivity to the particularities (and there were many) of the Russian Empire. “On every pretext”, wrote Trotsky, “we were reminded that Marx created his theory of economic development in the British Museum and through observing British capitalism and its contradictions”.

In both cases, the Russian and the British, those who were politically hostile to Marxism conveniently argued that there countries were, from one reason or another, exempt from its analytical reach. As Trotsky recalled: “Our own Fabians, the Russian Mensheviks and the so-called Social-Revolutionaries brought against us, all the same arguments which today we hear from Lansbury, Brailsford, Russell and their more right-wing colleagues, presented as the conquests of a pure British philosophy”.

Which is it to be? Marxism cannot both be a Eurocentric theory based on observations about nineteenth-century British capitalism and a doctrine applicable only in largely non-European societies with fragile political institutions and a weak civil society, such as Russia in 1917.

Either way, Trotsky did not fail to miss the political character of these critics’ objections: “In the final count resorting to the question of national peculiarities forms the last tool of any ideological reaction in shielding itself from the revolutionary demands of the time”.

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