My name is Marc Mulholland. I am a Fellow (lecturer and tutor) in the History Faculty of Oxford University. My College is St Catherine's. I come from Ireland.

This is a blog relating to my book published in 2012 by Oxford University Press, Bourgeois Liberty and the Politics of Fear: From Absolutism to Neo-Conservativism.
Now on sale here and here. If you want 20 per cent off the price, I can arrange that! Send me a message or leave a comment, and I'll tell you how.

The thesis my book is examining was rather pithily summarised by Leon Trotsky in 1939: "Wherever the proletariat appeared as an independent force, the bourgeoisie shifted to the camp of the counter-revolution. The bolder the struggle of the masses, the quicker the reactionary transformation of liberalism." [Context is here]

However, my book isn't a defence of Trotskyism, or indeed any particular ideology. It's a study of an idea that took shape in Left, Right, and Centre variations.

This blog has tid-bits not included in the book, and other thoughts that occur.

You can see book details at the
OUP website.



Wednesday, 19 June 2013

On Socialism in One Country

In my review of the Sperber biography of Marx, I have a bit of a go at the 'impossibility of socialism in one country' meme, which is now virtually a truism for the hard left. I say:

In our pessimistic age much of the Marxian left combines hopeless nationalism in its defence of unreformed welfarism and labour market rigidity, with hopeless internationalism in its insistence that only global socialism may hope to prosper.

Arguing that socialism in one country is impossible (I prefer 'social republicanism', but that's a different matter) is a handy way to dismiss the failures of the planned economy in the USSR as somehow contingent on the failure of revolution to spread internationally in the Red Years of 1918-1920. As an idea, it is most closely associated with Trotsky, and popularised I'd guess by Isaac Deutscher.

The better to differentiate himself from Stalin, Trotsky in exile more or less came to wear Stalin's charge that he had objected to the notion of building 'socialism in one country' (Sotsilizm v Odnoi Strane). In donning the caricature, Trotsky effectively adopted utopian obfuscation.

The initial Bolshevik assumption in 1917 and the few years afterwards had been that unless the revolution spread from Russia it would be crushed by intervention or blockade. This turned out not to be so: the regime survived, if only on the basis of war and Terror.

But while the Bolsheviks had hoped for immediate military and political solidarity from a spreading revolution, they never expected that international revolution would solve their domestic problems of Russian social and economic backwardness.


The idea that Russian Sovietism would have flourished economically and democratically if only Germany had fallen to Sparticism makes no sense. There was no realistic prospect for a socialist Marshall Aid Plan. International revolution in 1918 would have meant (as Trotsky and Lenin said) a Europe prostrated by civil war. There was never an option of workers in advanced countries, having thrown out their governments, cheerfully handing over huge surpluses for Russian modernisation. Socialist modernisation to be credible had to be endogenous, certainly  not reliant on a deus ex machina.

Trotsky's position in the 1920s was indeed sensible (in some respects): that the USSR's development required serious engagement with world markets. He was then opposed to Stalin's autarchic notion of 'socialism in a separate country' (Sotsilizm v Otdel'noi Strane). This was not utopianism.


Trotsky's 1930s position, when he adopted the idea that socialism could not be built (not completed) in one country, was the rhetoric and metaphysics of defeat. It served as an alibi for the Bolsheviks taking power in a country that clearly did not have the requisites for a humane socialist experiment. Trotsky didn't want to acknowledge that if Stalin was wrong, the Mensheviks were right. Russia's legacy of backwardness could never have been simply wished away by international revolution.


In this regard, Trotsky's legacy is one of pipe-dreaming on the part of the post-war ultra-left: everything will be fine so long as revolution is international across much of the globe; otherwise nothing can be done. Day-dreaming replaces economics.



Marx and the Educative Dictatorship

I've written a a looong review of Jonanthan Sperber's new biography of Marx over at Dublin Review of Books. Why not read and share!

There are lots of other reviews on-line: some very interesting, some a bit predictable. Richard Overy in Literary Review is very interesting (it's an omnibus discussion of Sperber and Hosfeld):

Neither Hosfeld nor Sperber brings out clearly enough the role of consciousness in Marx's theory. This he borrowed from Hegel and never lost sight of. Consciousness - Vernunft in Hegelian terms - was not mere understanding (Verstand), but a deeper appreciation of the existing reality of the material world whose actual conditions would determine the possibility of revolutionary transformation. Workers who developed this conscious apprehension of the real world were the communists of the Communist Manifesto, who saw further and more deeply than their proletarian peers. The whole purposes of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' (a term Marx first used in 1850) was not to impose the harsh dictatorship of characteristic of the 20th century. rather, it was a moment of transition while those with heightened consciousness educated those who had little or none.
I don't agree that Marx meant by the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' an 'educative dictatorship' (it's an argument made by Hosfeld - page 47 - which is maybe where Overy got it from). It seems clear to me that Marx wished to suggest an urban and plebeian intimidation of the counter-revolutionary soldiery and constitutionalist waverers. This comes across in his writings for the Neue Rheinische Zeitung in 1848. As I put it in my book:
Marx and Engels were concerned that the Frankfurt Parliament, being located in a relatively small city and thus isolated from the revolutionary crowd, would be timid in the face of counter-revolutionary aggression. In essence, they hoped that the urban revolutionary crowd would harass the Frankfurt assembly in order to counteract the pressure of the princely governments and armed forces: ‘Intimidation by the unarmed people or intimidation by an armed soldiery - that is the choice before the Assembly.’ (p. 72)
This is what Marx meant by popular 'dictatorship', and as the proletariat matured it would be 'proletarian dictatorship'. If education was to happen, it would be in the course of struggle. Take his rebuke to August Willich in 1850: "we say to the workers: you have 15 or 20 years of bourgeois and national wars to go through, not merely to alter conditions but to alter yourselves and make yourselves fit to take political power". Or his comments in Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875):
Elementary education by the state" is altogether objectionable. Defining by a general law the expenditures on the elementary schools, the qualifications of the teaching staff, the branches of instruction, etc. ... is a very different thing from appointing the state as the educator of the people! ... the state has need, on the contrary, of a very stern education by the people.

I don't want to prettify 'dictatorship of the proletariat': it clearly implied the suspension of the rule of law. But the idea of an educative dictatorship was Blanquist rather than Marxist.

But my main point is that I'm very interested by Overy's distinction between Vernunft and Verstand. Does anyone know if Overy writes on this elsewhere? Or where else I might look?

Monday, 4 March 2013

He's Behind You!

This would have been a nice cover for Bourgeois Liberty and the Politics of Fear. Imagine it as an alternate cover by which to judge the book. It's from Der Wahre Jacob, a satirical magazine, poking fun at ruling class fear of the proletariat:


Tuesday, 9 October 2012

The Revolutionary Ethic

Here's Sir James Mackintosh’s riposte to Edmund Burke's counter-revolutionary tract, Reflections on the Revolution in France:
Has any moralist ever pretended that we were to decline the pursuit of a good which our duty prescribed to us because we foresaw that some partial and incidental evil would arise from it? (Vindiciae Gallicae, 1791)
Nicely put. It's an understanable ethic of the revolutionary, recognisable from the Jacobin, through the Bolshevik, to the Neo-Conservative. I certainly wouldn't demur on principle. It does, however, rather leave open accepting all kind of 'incidental evils', or collateral damage as we now might say.

Friday, 5 October 2012

How to Get a Free Book

If anyone is connected to a journal, and would like to review my book, Bourgeois Liberty and the Politics of Fear, drop me a line and I can ask OUP to send you out a copy for free (except for the price of reading & reviewing it, obvs).*

Also, I could do this kind of thing, but I think I had better not. But if you would like to post up a warm Amazon review, I'd be far from complaining.


* This offer does not apply to anyone who hates me and wishes me excoriation and public humiliation.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

First, Short Draft of my Book.

Well, today's 4 October 2012, and my book Bourgeois Liberty and the Politics of Fear: From Absolutism to Neo-Conservatism is officially published. Yay!!!

It's had a long gestation. In fact, the first inkling of a serious work emerged way back in 2006 when I delivered a professedly light-hearted talk to St Catherine's John Simopolous Dinner.

This is a bi-annual event designed to get students and tutors of the college chatting to each other across disciplinary boundaries. Over posh grub, students of all the subjects we teach are commingled - so a Historian sits beside a Chemist, a Lawyer beside a Physicist. You get the picture.

Someone gives a brief talk relevant to their specialism, but accessible to everyone. It was my turn to give this talk, and I came up with an ironic discussion of what George W. Bush owed to revolutionary Marxism.

Only gradually thereafter did I decide that, actually, I should write a book on this theme. It's much more of a survey of two centuries, and much less of a jokey riff. Still, I think the original talk can still be found therein.

Anyway, here's the VERY FIRST DRAFT of the book, if you like. It's some 175 times shorter than the final product.

(As a reminder, if you'd like the real thing for 20 percent off, drop me an e-mail, facebook message, of a comment in the blog, and I'll tell you how. It's very easy).



Simopoulos Talk – 16 November 2006

Traditionally, I’m told, the John Simopoulos address is an iridescent display of wit and learning lightly worn. It is supposed to be funny.

Such a higher form of stand-up is beyond my meagre abilities. I propose, therefore, to advance an absurd thesis so that, if you are not inclined to laugh with me, you may at any rate laugh at me.

I shall argue that our world is being run by zealous revolutionaries, a cadre of the insurgent middle class.

Now, the respectable middle classes, it was long remarked – from 1848 to our own time - had abandoned their heroic role as vanguard of the fight for liberalism. As Marx had noted as early as 1848, fear of Red Revolution inhibited the middle classes, led them to collude with reaction, and thus aborted the democratic revolution of that year and since.

For much of the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth century, it is certainly the case that bourgeois commitment to democracy was markedly attenuated by their fear of the socialist, communist or simply turbulent masses. For a period and for some respectable burghers, even fascism seemed preferable to democracy as a bulwark against communist subversion. During the Cold War, the USA again and again preferred for its client states solidly anti-communist dictatorships to the perils of democratic self-determination.

John F. Kennedy's famous commitment to "support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty" was obviously an argument for supporting despotic regimes and opposing revolutionary movements if doing so furthered the cause of the ‘Free World’ in the global Cold War.

But the story has taken a new turn. The roll-back of popular socialism and the collapse of communism have restored many of the conditions of the French Revolutionary era. As the US Neocons have concluded, democratic revolution can be encouraged in the sure knowledge that socialist revolutionary movements will not be sparked amongst the mobilised working class. From the Philippines to Ukraine, it has been the Statue of Liberty rather than the Red Flag that inspires the masses. We live in a "climate of revolution".

There is something not only revolutionary but even really quite Marxist about Neo-Con language. It’s an almost self-consciously bourgeois Marxism.

On 6 November 2003, for example, George W. Bush, addressed the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) on its twentieth anniversary. No doubt ventriloquising his speech-writer, Bush celebrated the 1982 ‘Westminster Speech’ of his predecessor, Ronald Reagan. This speech, Bush said, conjoined US foreign policy in solidarity with ‘revolutionary’ forces subverting communist dictatorships. This is seen by Bush as epochal: the establishment of a kind of Bourgeois Comintern, funded by Washington, rather than by Moscow Gold.

As an aside, a Congressional audit only now being completed has found NED monies set aside for the anti-Castro struggle in Cuba being spent on leather coats and gameboys for the activists. Perhaps not so unreasonable if consumer goods are indeed the artillery of liberal free-market democracy.

The context of the NED’s establishment was a generalised revolutionary crisis (we might say, a bourgeois 1917 – 21): the ‘third wave’ of democratisation beginning with fall of Mediterranean dictatorships in the 1970s, spreading to East Asia, Latin America, the Communist bloc and in the 1990s, Africa. “In the early 1970s”, Bush remarked, “there were about 40 democracies in the world. … As the 20th century ended, there were around 120 democracies in the world … We've witnessed, in little over a generation, the swiftest advance of freedom in the 2,500 year story of democracy.”

Now, why did this happen? First, says Bush, there was the pre-eminent geo-political position of the US which “created the conditions in which new democracies could flourish”. (This is similar to the logic behind the at times universal solidarity on the left with the USSR against its bourgeois critics; it was objectively the ‘fatherland of international socialism’, its fall would hurl back the world’s socialist movement).

So the USA is the bourgeois Soviet Union. But Bush also identified a ‘revolutionary class’:

“Historians will note”, he argued, “that in many nations, the advance of markets and free enterprise helped to create a middle class that was confident enough to demand their own rights.”

Secondly, he pointed out that this class could act as the vanguard of the ‘nation’. It had been found that “the prosperity, and social vitality and technological progress of a people are directly determined by extent of their liberty. Freedom honors and unleashes human creativity -- and creativity determines the strength and wealth of nations.”

So there is a revolutionary class, whose self-emancipation liberates all society. Non-market economies produce their own grave-digger. But it’s the bourgeoisie, not the proletariat.

The process, Bush argues, is teleological. In China, for example, the Communist leadership had realised that “economic freedom leads to national wealth”. They must inevitably conclude that “freedom is indivisible”. There’s that Marxist notion of total revolution, not reform.

However, if democratisation since the 1970s had been the work of ‘national’ forces, inspired by the example of the US and protected by the over-arching stability of its global hegemony, now America has a “new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East”

This was most evident in the forced regime brought about in Iraq. “The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East”, Bush insisted, “will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution.” Indeed: it has been Leninist America’s Soviet-Polish War.

Doesn’t all this sound like a kind of bourgeois Marxism? Even Bush (meaning his speech writer) seemed to see the parallel. The President defined democratic revolution as ultimately the “plan of Heaven” rather than (carefully chosen words) “some dialectic of history”.

Others have been less circumspect: Stephen Schwartz of the US think-tank ‘Western Policy Centre’ has described the neo-conservative strategy in the Middle East as the promotion of “bourgeois revolution.”

Now, however, the United States may be rowing back from the Bush Doctrine of supporting democratic revolution in the Middle East.

President Bush these days is regularly advised by Henry Kissinger, the consummate realist and admirer of Metternich.

Just over a year ago, Condoleezza Rice gave a major speech in Cairo signalling the watershed in US foreign policy. Past US pursuit of stability in the Middle East at the expense of democracy had, she said, achieved neither. Rice added: "We are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all the people."

One year on, though, and back in the Middle East, the US secretary of state is talking less about democracy and more about the "forces of moderation". The forces of moderation, of course, are the pro-western authoritarians; perhaps now even Syria and Iran.

Bolshevik Neo-Conservatism may have run its course: it remains to be seen – to mix my revolutions – what form the Neo-Conservative Thermidor shall take.

To end: I heard at 6.25 this evening, by the way, that the eminent economist and apostle of audacious capitalism – Milton Friedman – has died aged 94. This talk is therefore, I suppose, dedicated to him – if a little ironically.

Marc Mulholland
16 November 2006

Above: Me talking, around 2006.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Which Side are you on, Boys?

Eric Hobsbawm's passing away the other day - I wrote at obit over at Jacobin magazine - reminds us of another age. There's plenty we'd do well to regret in Hobsbawm's adherence to the Communist cause. His Cold War politics has little relevance now. However, as Corey Robin wrote sometime back in the London Review of Books, there was a price to pay for its passing:
For all its violence and misery, the Cold War had the virtue of imposing on Western intellectuals, Communist and anti-Communist alike, the duty of historical intelligence. ...  But [with] the collapse of Communism and disappearance of Marxism, [and] with the market – and now religion – displacing social democracy as the language of public life, writers are no longer compelled by the requirements of the historical imagination. Facing a new enemy, which does not make the same demands that Communism once did, today’s intellectuals wave away all talk of ‘root causes’: history, it seems, will no longer be summoned to the bar of political analysis – or not for the time being. Mimicking the theological language of their antagonists, contemporary writers prefer catchwords such as ‘evil’ and ‘Islamo-fascism’ to the vocabulary of secular criticism. Their language may be a response to 9/11, but it is a product of the end of the Cold War. When Marxism was banished from the political scene in 1989, it left behind no successor language – save religion itself – to grapple with the twinned fortunes of the individual and the collective, the personal and the political, the present and the past.
That's very well put. I'm not sure that serious work can avoid much of what made Hobsbawm's work so valuable. It's interesting that his putative successor - and I admire his work, particularly this - is Niall Ferguson. Here's what Ferguson has to say on class analysis:
[Hobsbawm] and I shared the belief that it was economic change, above all, that shaped the modern era. The fact that he sided with the workers and peasants, while I side with the bourgeoisie, was no obstacle to friendship.
 Here's Billy Bragg singing Which Side are You On? Also, have a look at this by Bhaskar Sunkara at Jacobin.

(I wrote my own book, so far as I was able, to avoid 'taking sides' as such. It was written in the History mode: " I [have not] written this book as an exercise in polemic or political advocacy. The models I employ I do so because I find them useful and interesting; they do not imply moral judgements one way or another. I am taking an argument and using it to make one kind of sense of a stretch of modern history.")