Review of Marxism in a Lost Century: A Biography of Paul Mattick by Garry Roth (Haymarket Books/Historical Materialism Series).
Summary of the book
This biography of Paul Mattick, which was published in 2015, describes itself on the back cover as a history of the “Radical Left” during the 20th century, a century which it sees as lost to Marxism.
Although it does accurately catalogue Mattick’s experiences throughout the German revolutionary upheavals following World War I the general background to these events is not explored and the later theoretical work of Mattick is not emphasised. This is a deliberate omission and Garry Roth advises us to read Mattick’s own publications to pursue these issues. This detracts from the book and makes some of the developments in his life less easy to understand. It is not, for this reason, a history of the “Radical Left” which we are promised. Roth concentrates on three main theses, the first being Mattick’s status as a self-taught worker theoretician. He left school and was apprenticed at the age of 14. The second is his difficulties in getting his work published, the most flagrant example of this being his book Marx and Keynes which he completed in 1953 but no publisher would touch until the upheavals of the late ‘60s. It was finally published in 1969! The third theme is his contacts with revolutionary figures from the 1920s both in Germany and elsewhere in Europe and his later attempts to collaborate with a lot of these people when they turn up in exile in the US. There is a wealth of detail about his interaction with these people, including quotations from his letters, which is interesting and not available elsewhere.
Most of his life Mattick was swimming against the political tide. The fact that he argued that Russia was state capitalist and saw capitalism in all its varieties as historically doomed, and that he said so clearly in his writing, explains the enormous difficulty he had in getting his work published. It was only in the late 1960s when the capitalist accumulation cycle started to collapse that his work found publishers and a wider readership.
Mattick was a clear and far sighted analyst of capitalism. While the post war boom was in full swing Mattick showed this was based on the destruction and devaluation of capital which took place in the war. He torpedoed the Keynesian theory that state intervention had solved capitalism’s crisis tendency which he predicted would follow the reconstruction period as it in fact did. Today as capitalism’s crisis deepens, for precisely the reasons Mattick outlined, his works remain relevant. In addition the battles he fought have not been won. The theorists he derided for imagining capitalism has solved its crisis tendency, such as Sweezy, Baran, Marcuse and others have their followers today, such as the “Monthly Review” school and academic Marxist theorists like David Harvey who are influential and widely read.
Summary of his life
While the book gives a full account of Mattick’s life for those who prefer a quick read we provide a brief summary of its key events.
Mattick had a difficult start to life. Both parents, not fully literate, were part of the massive migration from the countryside to Berlin around the start of the 20th century. They lived in a 2 room apartment in Berlin supported by his father’s job for Siemens, 10 hour day 7 days per week, and his mother’s income as a laundress.
Mattick’s formal schooling ended in 1918 when he was 14 and he became an apprentice at Siemens; again 10 hours a day 6 days a week. His father had joined a socialist union and encouraged his son Paul to join the Social Democratic youth group. In 1918 the German state collapsed following the Kiel mutiny and Mattick was thrown into the maelstrom of revolution. Employees would simply walk off the job to attend demonstrations and meetings. Mattick was elected as the apprentices’ representative on the workers' council and began writing and distributing a youth paper Junge Garde. His youth group sided with the anti-parliamentary and anti-union section of the German Communist Party (KPD) when they were expelled from the KPD in October 1919.
When the Communist Workers' Party (KAPD) was formed after the Kapp putsch collapsed, Mattick and his youth group joined en masse. At this point he was only 16 years old! He now started writing for the KAPD youth paper Rote Jugend. His apprenticeship at Siemens ended when he was caught expropriating (stealing) from the company to finance the youth paper. He had to flee Berlin to avoid a gaol sentence. During the revolutionary period he took tremendous risks, attempting to steal weapons during the Kapp putsch which resulted in being beaten unconscious by the police. Breaking into factories to try and bring workers out on strike during the 1921 March action, planning to spring gaoled KAPD leader Jan Appel from custody, and burying weapons for the armed group “proletarian hundreds”.
He moved around Germany doing odd jobs and joined the General Workers' Union (AAUD) where he became a shop steward. He was arrested in Cologne and moved back to Berlin. Here a friend whose life he had saved during the Kapp putsch introduced him to a different world. The friend’s mother was a literary critic and encouraged Mattick to read more widely and to improve his writing by isolating issues and themes and also to write creatively himself. He began to write for the KAPD’s paper the Kommunistische Arbeiter Zeitung (KAZ) and the AAUD’s paper Kampfruf. Mattick ran a bookstall in Cologne which consisted of getting books from publishers on account and selling them and never paying the publishers. This brought him into contact with the expressionist poet Rheiner and his talented wife Frieda who was also immersed in Cologne’s radical art scene. Many of the artists and avant-garde were in the AAUE1 (General Workers Union-Unity Organisation) and encouraged Mattick in his writing. Mattick had no problem moving between the AAUD and the AAUE, however, the encounter with Rheiner was to completely change his life.
Rheiner died in 1925 leaving his wife Frieda facing having her two children taken into care. To prevent this Mattick married Frieda but this brought an end to his itinerant revolutionary life. He now had a family to support which precipitated his move to the US in 1926. After an initial job making milk cartons, he moved to Chicago to work as a mechanic at Western Electric where he worked until made redundant in 1931. Mattick could not speak English properly but this was not an immediate problem because of the massive number of German immigrants in Chicago and New York.2 He continued writing for the German papers KAZ and Kampfruf in Germany and later revived a defunct Chicago German paper, Chicagoer Arbeiter Zeitung (CAZ) which also allowed him to write in German. He also published work in a weekly German periodical Der Freidenker produced by the “free thought league” of America. This journal had a limited circulation but continued to publish his work throughout the ‘30s. Mattick only started to write in English is 1933.
In practical politics Mattick joined the unemployed struggles of the early ‘30s which, in Chicago, were very inventive in their tactics which are well described in the book. It is interesting to note, however, that the movement was undermined by Roosevelt’s New Deal which implemented many of the unemployed organisations’ demands. Nazis coming to power in Germany impacted on the radical scene in the US as many of the well-known leftists and left-communists who were hounded out of the country ended up in the US or Mexico.3 Many also ended up in concentration camps and communist publications were closed. In 1933 alone 60,000 people fled Germany. Grossman and Korsch4 ended up in New York and in 1935 the Frankfurt school itself relocated to New York.
After being made redundant in 1931, Mattick tried to earn something from his writing, however, his political isolation is illustrated by the failure of these attempts. He approached Guggenheim Foundation and the Frankfurt school for stipends to produce books a number of times but both refused. Grossman and Korsch both received stipends from the Frankfurt school and supported Mattick’s proposal but the school refused not only the stipend but also refused to publish anything by Mattick or even a review of his work. The school was apparently extremely cowardly after it located to New York and its publications refrained from publishing anything using the words Marxism or communism.5 Eventually it isolated both Grossman and Korsch.
Mattick helped found the United Workers' Party and in 1934 launched its journal International Council Correspondence (ICC). It functioned on a high theoretical level with contributions from Canne Meijer6 a Dutch councilist behind the Dutch publication Ratekorrespondenz, Korsch, Pannekoek and others. The lack of money meant it was a duplicated publication and never able to produce more than 1,000 copies. In 1937 Korsch, who had recently arrived in the US, took an active role in the ICC and his energy and connections made a difference. The following year its name was changed to Living Marxism and became a printed magazine. ICC and Living Marxism became Mattick’s main outlet in English during the ‘30s.
Mattick earned almost nothing from his writing until the late ‘60s. During the ‘30s he survived on relief and Frieda’s earnings, but in 1939 he split up with Frieda and was forced to return to work. He worked first in a bookstore, and then returned to factory work in 1942. He took up with a German émigré Ilse Hamm who had worked smuggling Jewish children out of Germany before fleeing herself in 1938. Their son Paul Mattick Jr was born in 1944. The war saw publications fold or drastically reduce circulation. The ‘50s brought the reconstruction of capitalism and the post war boom which made it even more difficult for Mattick to get his work published. As he commented, “to be against the status quo in East and West closes almost all publications for one’s work”.7 However, he continued to oppose current attempts to revise Marxism to take account of the booming US economy. He prepared a pamphlet length critique of Sweezy’s Monopoly Capitalism which he concluded had thrown Marxism overboard altogether.
"Sweezy thinks, like Marcuse, that capitalism has solved its crisis tendencies and is now characterised by an overabundance of productive capacity. The nonsense of the affluent society is being taken seriously while in reality it is an armed camp and murder from all sides."
As mentioned above the collapse of the post war boom and the radicalisation following the French struggles of 1968 brought a sea change for Mattick. In Germany the student movement discovered him and between 1969 and 1971 three books, several pamphlets, essays and other work was published in Germany. Marx and Keynes generated a huge amount of interest. Half a dozen publishers were now trying to publish his work, and Mattick himself was visiting Europe and giving lectures and meeting the generation of radicals emerging from the uprising of ‘68. Throughout the ‘70s more of his works were published and translated. Speaking tours and debates in Europe took place. Mattick was even given a lecturing post at a new Danish university, which meant a move to Denmark. In America his work was less well received though he gave a number of talks to students at various universities and did a lecture tour in Mexico. In the late ‘70s his health started to fail and he died in 1981.
When Mattick arrived in the US he began, for the first time, to read systematically, studying Marx’s Capital, and works by Rosa Luxemburg, Nikolai Bukharin and later Henryk Grossman. He attended and organised Marxist discussion circles and kept up his writing for the journals which would accept his work. Grossman’s book The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System had a seminal influence on Mattick. The work was universally rejected in Marxist circles, where the general view was that capitalism suffered from a crisis of under-consumption as theorised by Luxemburg. Mattick, however, wrote a positive review of the book in CAZ which became the start of correspondence between him and Grossman. When he lectured at Roskilde University in Denmark one of his students commented that he could explain three volumes of Capital in 90 minutes. Mattick himself could not believe that he was now being paid to talk about ideas which were the most important for him.
Mattick – a council communist
Today we consider Mattick’s economic writings the most important part of his work. His economic analyses remain essential for understanding the present state of global capitalism.8 However, his political writings are also very sharp. Generally his analysis is excellent and much of it is incorporated in the platform of the ICT and other left communist organisations. The weakness we criticise is his rejection of the need for political parties and the belief that capitalist conditions on their own will compel the working class to form workers’ councils which in turn will overthrow capitalism and build communism. In his essay on council communism he writes:
"Spontaneous action of dissatisfied masses will, in the process of their rebellion, create their own organisations, and that these organisations, arising out of social conditions, alone can end the present social arrangement. … As an organisational frame for the new society is proposed a council organisation based on industry and productive process, and the adoption of the social average labour time as a measurement for production, reproduction and distribution."9
While we agree with the second part of this statement it is the first part we take issue with.
Mattick’s own experiences in the German revolutionary period of 1918 to 1923 and the subsequent decline of the revolutionary movement as capitalism stabilised in Germany and in Russia, clearly determined this viewpoint. Workers’ councils, formed in 1918, gave up their power to bourgeois democracy and a bourgeois parliament instead of fighting for “all power to the councils.” This capitulation leads, in his mature writings, to a bitter critique of social democracy and the so-called workers’ movement which informed the consciousness of the councils. The social democracy became indistinguishable from the bourgeoisie and it drowned workers’ revolutionary efforts in blood. After the Second Congress of the Comintern this critique is extended to the Comintern as well primarily because of its demand for participation in parliament and trade unions. Mattick saw this a demand for an accommodation with capitalism and Lenin’s pamphlet "Left-Wing" Communism: An Infantile Disorder as an attempt to destroy left communism. As Gorter10 wrote of the Bolsheviks
"…your real fault … is to have foisted a counter-revolutionary programme and tactics on the world proletariat, and to have rejected the really revolutionary one which could have saved us."11
But the question of political consciousness is one which Mattick does not properly answer. Why were the German councils saturated with the ideology of the social democracy? Were the social conditions insufficiently harsh? Conditions in Germany at the end of the war were extremely harsh, rationing, lack of fuel, etc. Mattick himself, as a youth, went out at night to steal vegetables and coal to keep the family from starvation, and his subsequent actions, which nearly cost him his life, show he thought revolution was still possible at least until 1921. Yet in his later writings he simply assumes workers’ immiseration will generate the consciousness required for revolution. But his entire life activity, not just the heroic revolutionary period in Germany, can be seen as a contradiction of this.
On the one hand he presents a mechanical view of class consciousness being directly determined by material conditions as in the quotation above. The deepening of capitalism’s economic crisis will create a change in consciousness amongst the workers. Conditions will deteriorate to such an extent that workers cannot live as before, leading to the formation of workers’ councils. The councils would assert working class demands directly conflicting with the interests of capital. Hence a direct conflict with bourgeois power would result leading to the overthrow of capitalism by the councils and councils implementing communism. On the other hand Mattick’s life work is a refutation of this scenario. While he sees political parties as unnecessary for the generation of revolutionary consciousness, his whole life is spent in and out of political organisations, addressing public meetings and organising Marxist study groups, setting up political journals, writing political or economic analyses, pamphlets and books. All of this, which provided almost no income, was directly aimed at influencing working class consciousness. In 1929 Mattick even tried to bring about cooperation between the IWW, the KAPD and the AAUD acting as the go-between in discussions. This is an attempt to create a stronger international organisation to influence social developments which goes against a mechanical view of the development of class consciousness.
Terrible conditions on their own do not lead to revolution. The key problem in Germany was that communists did not get a hearing in the councils and this was because they were not an organised political force separate from the social democrats. They remained a section of the social democrats until a couple of weeks before the Spartacus revolt of January 1919, and workers were unable to distinguish their political stance from that of the social democrats.12
Development of consciousness is a dialectical process. It is primarily influenced by material conditions, as Mattick argues, but understanding and reflection on those conditions in the light of social and historical factors is the subjective influence in the development of consciousness. The objective together with the subjective factors lead to revolutionary consciousness and revolutionary action. A social and historical understanding of the material developments of capitalism needs to be collective and is, we argue, expressed in a political organisation which acts on the basis of a programme to intervene in the class struggle and propagate its views. This is what was lacking in Germany. It is a contradiction that it was clearly this subjective factor that Mattick spent his life trying to influence even though he, as a council communist, tried to downplay its importance.
- 1AAUE’s principal founder was Otto Rühle. Many of his texts were published in the avant-garde journal Der Aktion. Mattick himself published a fictional account of the bolshevisation of the German KPD in this journal.
- 2There were half a million German speakers in Chicago at this time.
- 3Otto Rühle ended up in Mexico but kept providing Mattick work for publication.
- 4Korsch was the author of Marxism and Philosophy. He fled to England after the Nazis came to power, but was expelled moving first to Sweden then to the US.
- 5The school was nervous about their émigré status, their Marxism and their Jewishness. E.g. Theodor Wiesengrund changed his name to Theodor Adorno.
- 6Canne Meijer helped found the Dutch version of the KAPD. Originally trained as a machinist but later became a primary school teacher.
- 7The British New Left Review also refused to publish Mattick’s work when Perry Anderson was editor because it was too critical of the Soviet Union.
- 8Today a number of academic Marxist economists, such as Fred Moseley and Guglielmo Carchedi, acknowledge their debt to Mattick. See our reviews of Money and Totality by Moseley and Behind the Crisis: Marx’s Dialectic of Value and Knowledge by Carchedi.
- 9Mattick “Council Communism” in Anti-Bolshevik Communism.
- 10Gorter wrote an open letter to Lenin answering "Left-Wing" Communism: An Infantile Disorder.
- 11Quoted in World Communism.
- 12A Hundred Years On: Lessons of the German Revolution