Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory

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Many readers of Socialist Review will be familiar with Mike Davis’s work. His books have always been innovate, whether looking at the massive growth of urban areas in Planet of Slums, or the horrific havoc caused by the imposition of the market on Britain’s colonies in Late Victorian Holocausts.

Old Gods, New Enigmas begins with Mike’s own revolutionary history, a family friend who had been a member of the Communist Party in the US in the 1930s repeatedly encouraged the young Civil Rights activist to “Read Marx!” Mike ruminates that this is no easy task. “Where to begin?” is after all not an easy question to answer. This book then arises out of Mike’s re-engagement with Marxism later in life, after it had, in his own description, become “rusty”.

He notes that since his youth the works of Marx and Engels are much more accessible, and recently scholars have made great use of them to explore forgotten niches of Marx’s work — his ecological critique, for instance, or Marx’s “usually misrepresented views on nationalism”.

The book is divided into four chapters. The first, and most extensive, is an attempt to fully explore what Marx meant by revolutionary agency. Mike shows how Marx’s ideas developed through a close examination, and involvement, in workers’ struggles and, in particular, Marx’s experience of the failure of the German bourgeoisie to play a revolutionary role.

This chapter is full of detail about early workers’ struggles, the development of the trade union movement internationally and the debates that socialists engaged in. Mike is not afraid to criticise Marx and his followers, noting for instance, Engels’ scepticism about mass strikes that might encourage mass repression at a time when socialist organisation was taking major steps forwards, a position brilliant corrected by Rosa Luxemburg in her book The Mass Strike.

Mike examines Marx’s theory of nationalism in the first of the final three, shorter chapters, arguing that it has been rarely understood. The final two essays focus on the environment, a subject that has been rich for Marxists trying to re-engage with Marx’s writings in recent years. Unfortunately these two are the weakest parts of this book.

The first looks at the work of Kropotkin, a leading scientist and anarchist, and his forgotten studies on the “climatic interpretation of history”.

The second asks “Who will build the Ark?” and, as the title suggests, looks initially pessimistically at the prospect for dealing with environmental crisis (“In face of these dangers, human solidarity itself may fracture like a West Antarctic ice shelf”) and then more optimistically at the prospect of building a sustainable world. But the chapter is very dated. First published in 2010, it has no mention of Trump, the Paris Climate Accords or recent environmental struggles. While rightly arguing that the current system cannot feasibly deliver, it feels like an abstract intervention into current debates.

Mike Davis’s work is always insightful, but despite finding much of interest in this collection I struggled to find an underlying theme to this collection and was left disappointed.