Marxism: Last Refuge of the Bourgeoisie?. By Paul Mattick. Edited by Paul Mattick, Jr. M. E. Sharp., $25; $13.95 paper.

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Paul Mattick may not be the greatest 20th century Marxist theorist (actually, I think he is), but he’s certainly the most unfairly neglected, at least in the United States. In Western Europe he was recognized as the last eminent representative of a libertarian communist tradition that included his friends and comrades Rosa Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek, Otto Ruhle, and Karl Korsch. But in America, where he arrived in 1926 and spent the rest of his life, he was as near to unknown as it’s possible for a prolific writer and busy agitator to be. Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, when a number of transplanted European Marxists (most notably Marcuse) were rediscovered and lionized, he was never once invited to lecture on an American campus. Like Marx in his Soho exile, Mattick was important to radical intellectuals on the Continent while practically invisible to his Anglo-Saxon neighbors.

Also like Marx, he turned to theory after taking part in a failed revolution: in Mattick’s case, the German workers’ movement of 1918. From that mo and especially from his association with the groups around Luxemburg and Pannekoek, came one of his two main themes: harsh criticism of both reformist bureaucracies and vanguard revolutionary parties. Against both Leninists and social democrats. Mattick maintained that state power was of no use to socialists, except to run capitalism more efficiently. Socialism meant self-management, i.e., a society run by workers’ councils. No one has fully worked out the council concept yet, but eventually someone will—or a whole post-revolutionary society will—and meanwhile Mattick helped keep it alive.

His principal subject, like Marx’s, was economic crisis. In most of the theoretical (rather than tactical) disputes among Marxists, the central issue has been: is there a tendency toward periodic crisis in capitalist economies, and if so, how do we account for it? Marx thought that in competitive market economies the rate of profit had a cyclical tendency to decline and so to precipitate crises. Most Marxists have disagreed, either denying that capitalism is intrinsically unstable or attributing that instability to an avoidable, correctable imbalance between profits and wages—“underconsumption” in neo-Marxese. Keynes had likewise diagnosed capitalism’s problem as inadequate demand; and during the long noontime of postwar prosperity, Keynesianism became official doctrine among policymakers and mainstream economists. The essence (and much of the appeal) of Keynesianisim lay in modifying the effects of the market system while retaining its basic mechanism. Even many Marxists came to think this a good idea: if enlightened government intervention could avert depressions, then surely what was required were enlightened socialist governments. Mattick demurred. His major work, “Marx and Keynes” (1969) applied the theory of “Capital” to the “mixed economy” and predicted—accurately, it appears—that Keynesian solutions would prove limited and temporary.

“Marxism: Last Refuge of the Bourgeoisie?,” edited by Mattick’s son, begins by reaffirming his “orthodox” and now decidedly unfashionable theory of capitalist break- down. But the longer and more interesting half of the book is a rueful, disenchanted survey of Marxism’s ignoble history. The chief function of official Marxism has been to rationalize the pacification (by reformist trade unions and Social-Democratic parties) or repression (by Leninist governments) of the working class. Mattick knew better to blame this reversal of early socialist hopes on “betrayal” by timid or self-serving leaders. “Socialist” institutions, like all ether institutions, will do what they must to survive, and that has meant adapting or disguising their revolutionary ideology in a nonrevolutionary world. With majestic irony, he propounded a historical-materialist interpretation of Marxism’s fate.

I’ve called Mattick the greatest 20th century Marxist theorist. That wants explaining: there would seem to be a lot of distinguished competition. Gramsci, Lukács, Sartre, Marcuse, Bahro, and others have produced original and valuable social theory. But there’s something latitudinarian about calling most of it “Marxist.” By concentrating so rigorously, so austerely, on the theoretical core of “Capital”, Mattick hints at the limits of that epithet’s applicability and implicitly provides a gloss on Marx’s famous outburst: “I know this—I’m not a Marxist!” Mattick’s Marxism is something more and less than the loose, baggy secular cosmology that many of us piously, if somewhat vaguely, profess. We are all Marxists now, but not in Mattick’s (or Marx’s) sense. Restating that sense, stubbornly, perhaps quixotically, was the point of this obscure, exemplary career.


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George Scialabba