Morgan Philips Price, Dispatches from the Weimar Republic, Edited by Tania Rose, Pluto Press, London, 1998, pp240, £20.00
John Reed, Shaking the World: John Reed’s Revolutionary Journalism, Edited and Introduced by John Newsinger, with a Preface by Paul Foot, Bookmarks, London, 1999, pp287, £11.95
THE fact that journalists appear to have as little integrity as the politicians they fawn upon does not necessarily mean that journalism is a contemptible occupation, as these two compilations make clear. And revolutionary journalism is an impressive literary form in its own right, and is not at all the same as historical writing or theoretical analysis.
However, readers who enjoyed the previous collection of Philips Price’s reports from the Russian Revolution (cf Revolutionary History, Volume 7, no 1, 1998, pp232-3) are in for a disappointment with this one. For a start, it should really be called Tania Rose’s history of the Weimar Republic, for out of 240 pages, only 81 of them are by her father. Even the selection made is extraordinary, for amongst Price’s extremely rare reports of Hitler’s early rise, she entirely omits the most valuable of them, that published in The Daily Herald in August 1923 and quoted at length in Price’s My Three Revolutions (p200). And her account of the Beer Hall Putsch (pp171-4) is not even by Price at all, but by Sir William Seeds, a career diplomat who was then British Consul General in Bavaria. And whilst some of us might not see much difference in veracity or function between Palme Dutt’s Labour Monthly and Foreign Office archives, you would have thought that someone who worked in the Ministry of Information in the Second World War might well think otherwise.
Nor does it appear that an apprenticeship in wartime propaganda has equipped the editor with the necessary historical rigour, as George Orwell might have put it. The fate of Germany was not determined by the Versailles Treaty ‘in 1918’ (p1). Lenin’s Left Wing Communism does not consist of ‘theses’, nor is it normally subtitled in English An Infantile Sickness, nor was it published in May 1920 (p80). The dictatorship of Primo de Rivera in Spain was certainly not ‘Fascist’ (p209, n13). The criminal responsibility of German Stalinism for sabotaging the struggle against Hitler, in the ‘Red Referendum’, the Berlin Tramway Strike and other atrocious actions, boils down to a bit more than an innocuous remark about Nazis and Communists being ‘unlikely parties in operating a blocking majority in the Reichstag’ (p184). And if Price himself was unaware of the sinister secret Russo-German arms deal that formed part of the Treaty of Rapallo (pp122-3), as were so many others at the time, it was surely the responsibility of any modern editor to point this out.
Moreover, the excerpts, such as they are, are curiously terse and episodic. Price’s verdict on Radek’s dubious behaviour in prison is noted (p199), but his disgust with the Schlageter propaganda, and his conclusion that Radek was ‘quite unreliable and an arch-intriguer’ are nowhere to be seen. This is because the development of Price’s analysis of the period is completely neglected. It began by being the same as that of Radek and the German Communists, but then diverged quite markedly as he witnessed the events. To begin with, as he notes in his My Three Revolutions, ‘I thought that Germany was in a “Kerensky” period of the revolution, that is, a transition stage to something more radical, that just as in Russia, so now in Germany the transition stage would pass and a second social and economic revolution would take place, as the October Revolution had come in Russia.’ (p163) But by 1921 he had come to the same conclusions as Paul Levi, and believed that ‘the attempt of the Moscow Communists to stimulate revolution in Germany by their tactics of sporadic revolts was a complete fiasco’ (p193). Not surprisingly, Price distanced himself from the Communists shortly afterwards, and then came out in public in defence of Trotsky against Stalin.
So what we have here is a disjointed and curiously incoherent book, which it would be quite unjust to blame upon the honest and talented writer whose name appears on the title page. Pluto Press would have done far better to have reissued his Germany in Transition published at the time, hopefully edited by someone else.
By stark contrast, our second book is a wholly praiseworthy production. Reed’s immediate and vivid forms of expression were bound to grip the imagination more than Price’s writing, and his Ten Days that Shook the World will have already prejudiced many of us in his favour. Some of his pen portraits, of ordinary workers as well as of such luminaries as Big Bill Haywood (pp5-6), Karl Liebknecht (pp105-6) and Trotsky (pp118-20) are real gems. But Price more than compensates for this by his graceful prose, his cool appraisal and his sense of balance. The real reason this is a better book is simply because Reed is allowed to speak for himself in complete pieces, however short, and is not chopped up into small gobbets to be fitted into someone else’s analysis.
At the same time, where the Price book is compactly organised around one theme, this compilation is more diffuse, taking in American labour disputes, the Mexican Revolution, the First World War and the Russian Revolution. This makes it less easy to digest, even if the longer period covered allows us to chart the impact of Russian Marxism on previously existing Socialist thought. The early essays show that, as opposed to the situation in some of the non-English-speaking emigrant communities, Marxism had barely made an impact on native American radicalism at all before 1917. Reed’s sympathies lie definitely with the Industrial Workers of the World at home and populist revolt abroad, and not at all with Marxist political action, which he invariably identifies with reformism, even to the extent of opposing the call for an American labour party (p184). For all his sympathy for working people, Reed’s support for Woodrow Wilson as late as 1916 shows that the differentiation between liberalism and Socialism was proceeding slower on the American continent than elsewhere. At the same time, whilst the earlier reports are full of vigorous and direct popular expressions, much more jargon (‘proletarian republic’, ‘bourgeois counter-revolution’, etc) begins to creep in after 1917, along with more rhetorical exaggeration.
But the book crackles with interest from start to finish, and nothing but congratulation is in order for John Newsinger’s selection and editorial work. And it is no less fitting that it should be introduced by one of the few journalists not to disgrace the profession today.