Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Correcting the problem of a dearth of self-taught Marxists

Yet one of the things I liked about the SWP was that, despite the branch culture which I have just described, there were also comrades who were self-effacing, articulate and principled. I think of well-known figures such as Duncan Hallas and Paul Foot, but the real strength of the SWP was far below, in the branches, almost every one of which had an autodidact Marxist, a worker who had never gone to university, a person who would quote obscure ideas of Marx or Lenin and use them to relate events happening in the world outside and to the tradition of the workers’ movement.

David Renton
The reason this decline of self-taught working class Marxist intellectuals in the SWP has happened is overwhelmingly for objective reasons - the defeats the working class movement has suffered in Britain over the past 30 years under Thatcherism and then Blairism and now neo-Thatcherism, and the resulting wider decline of the revolutionary Left and its wider cultural institutions in society. It would have been more incredible and surprising in a sense if the regrettable shift that Renton describes had not happened in such circumstances.

One thing I would like to mention is that it is still possible to be a self-taught Marxist. Have access to an Internet connection, even if it's crappy? Check out the Marxists Internet Archive, which has full-text books available in HTML format - free, and easily downloadable. Need some free instruction? David Harvey has plenty to offer, including video lectures as a companion to Marx & Engels' Capital. Start with the classics, and work your way from there. For those wanting to venture a bit further, Ebookcollective has been compiling all sorts of reading material over the last couple years - first at Tumblr, and currently on Blogger. All it takes to become an autodidact is a commitment of time, if you're willing.

Some good starting points:

The Manifesto of the Communist Party - Marx & Engels

Capital Vol. 1 - Marx & Engels

What is to be Done? - Lenin

State and Revolution - Lenin

Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism - Lenin

Obviously, there will be some disputes as to what constitutes the canonical works that should be read and discussed by any Marxist, especially in the aftermath of the last few decades, and if Hobsbawm toward the end of his life is correct, there may never again (as there appeared to be prior to the mid-20th century) be widespread agreement on what should be considered canonical works, but the above should be ones that most of us will end up agreeing on as essential.

As something of an autodidact myself, I am quite used to keeping an online dictionary and Wikipedia handy, on the occasions where a bit of jargon gets tossed out by one of these authors  that I need defined quickly. The more academically oriented theorists and activists will naturally point out the disadvantages to being self-taught, and they probably do have some valid points. However, very few of us have the luxury of attending the universities that would offer the necessary specialized coursework. So, we do what we can.

But before I really begin to ramble, the main thing is to just dive in and read. The resources are conveniently at our fingertips, and with a little effort quite accessible regardless our socio-economic and educational backgrounds. Some of the blogs can be of use (and others will offer little more than mental masturbation). Bottom line is that we can learn at our own convenience, and on a shoestring budget. There really is no excuse, and now is as good a time as any.

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