‘Marxism in a Lost Century: A Biography of Paul Mattick’ reviewed by Thom Workman

Marxism in a Lost Century: A Biography of Paul Mattick

Brill, Leiden and Boston, 2015. 342pp., €119,00 / $154.00 hb
ISBN ISBN 9789004227798

Reviewed by Thom Workman

About the reviewer

Thom Workman teaches philosophy and political economy in the Department of Political Science at the …


As its title suggests, Gary Roth’s biography of the intellectual Paul Mattick is set against the backdrop of the 20th century – with the leading intimation of a century of socialist decline amidst rising human misery and chronic political turmoil. Marxism in a Lost Century relates the life of an indefatigable revolutionary struggling within the increasingly hostile counter-revolutionary climate of the last century. The suggestive title surely contains a kernel of truth, yet the overwhelming impression of the life of Paul Mattick upon reading Marxism in a Lost Century is that of a Marxist interstitially suspended between most of the leading political and intellectual polarities that marked the radical left in the 20th century. It is the biography of a man who never quite fitted in; a defiant thinker and revolutionary who was never astride of the times; a perennial outsider in a century that was also “lost.” Through extensive interviews, a thorough survey of Mattick’s writings and an exhaustive perusal of his correspondence, Marxism in a Lost Century pieces together the compelling account of an intellectually and politically principled man who was rarely at home in the world. Mattick was a resilient council communist at a time when the left had become broadly dominated by struggles between the 3rd and 4th Internationals and the rise of the New Left; a falling-rate-of-profit crisis theorist at the height of Keynesianism and the rising popularity of monopoly capital and world systems theory; a German émigré residing in the United States at a time when nativist suspicions abounded; a committed left radical who was active as an anti-Communist political pall settled over Cold War America; a Marxist who retained a resolute faith in the proletariat at a time when many left intellectuals had begun to write the working class off as a force of history, and a well-read autodidact with limited formal education who was never fully embraced by left academics.

Marxism in a Lost Century is the compelling biography of an intellectually and politically principled man forever at right angles to the world. Roth first introduces us to a young, apprenticing worker during the revolutionary upheaval that gripped Germany in the immediate aftermath of WWI. It was there that the seeds of Mattick’s life-long commitment to council communism were sown, especially his abiding democratic faith in the proletariat. But such enduring convictions, especially for a radical emigrating to the United States in the 1920s, meant that Mattick’s political orientation was inevitably outside the prevailing political worlds of the 20th century; particularly the ascendant tug of war between the 3rd and 4th left Internationals in the post-WWII period. His enduring commitment to council communism also insured that the development of the New Left in the 1960s would be thoroughly “at odds with Mattick’s understanding of the world” (278). Mattick retained this principled commitment to the democratic impulses of the working class throughout his life. And so we learn that as political realities in parts of Europe rediscovered the richness of post-WWI revolutionary Germany in the early 1970s, intellectual succour was found in Mattick’s political writings espousing the democratic ideals of council communism. It might be said that a fragment of the left came back to Mattick decades later. In the United States, in sharp contrast, such life-long commitments were destined to remain utterly isolating as the anti-Communist pall settled over Cold-War America.

Mattick’s refusal to fall into political line in the post-WWII left was complemented by an even deeper theoretical isolation. In the early 1930s, he was profoundly affected by Henryk Grossman’s The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System, a resonating experience that Roth describes as an “epiphany” for the younger German émigré. The Frankfurt scholar’s emphasis on the immanence of capitalism’s death spiral had struck a powerful theoretical chord for Mattick, and the two would exchange letters over the ensuing years. Mattick’s gravitation towards the falling-rate-of-profit crisis theory, however, would again position him awkwardly against the dominant intellectual currents of radical political economy, including the rising influence of left Keynesianism, the hegemonic theoretical fortunes of the monopoly capitalism school, and the expanding influence of world systems analysis and dependency theory. In varying ways, these traditions abandoned Marx’s commitment to an organic essentialist ontology (the social relations of value as capitalism’s way-of-being-in-the-world) and its corresponding generative phenomenology expressed as laws of motion. This is the very Marxian scientific tradition that Mattick sought to preserve in his writings. At a time when innumerable left critics were pluralising Marxist crisis theory, Mattick remained resolutely committed to preserving the integrity of the analytical project initiated by Marx and furthered by Grossman. It is worth recalling that his sobering introduction to Marx and Keynes, composed as post-WWII capitalism passed through its so-called Golden Age, accordingly warns readers that Marxist crisis theory is even more relevant when economies are doing well, that the Keynesian “solution to the economic problems that beset the capitalist world can be of only temporary avail,” and that capitalism’s immanent tendencies towards crisis would inevitably present themselves just as they had done in the 1930s owing to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (Mattick 1969, viii). Mattick’s correspondence lets us see that he was acutely aware of the theoretical gulf between his critical analysis and the prevailing Marxian political economy of the day, especially in the US. Of Baran and Sweezy’s exceedingly popular Monopoly Capital, for example, he would write that “Marxism has been thrown overboard altogether” and he chided its authors for having succumbed to Galbraith’s illusions about the “affluent society” (273). Mattick’s first wife Frieda captured this theoretical isolation sportively when she hinted that her marriage had “suffered because of the falling rate of profit” – a reference to both his unpopular intellectual commitments and the perennially “perilous state” of their family finances (218).

Mattick’s political and theoretical isolation was exacerbated by an acute professional isolation. In the tumultuous revolutionary era of post-WWI Germany, his formal education had barely extended into high school. The politically experienced revolutionary nevertheless became a well-read autodidact in a manner that recalls Gramsci’s notion of an “organic intellectual.” His reception among left academics, however, was always tepid. At one time or another the self-taught Mattick associated with the doyen of critical intellectuals in the 20th century including Karl Korsch, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Howard Zinn, Gabriel Kolko and Noam Chomsky. Although they typically admired Mattick, they tended to maintain an arms-length scholarly distance. Roth tellingly summarised this dynamic between the organic intellectual and the scholarly community as “respect and non-recognition” (274). The “respect and non-recognition” theme, that of a self-taught intellectual enjoying the confidences of the academic left privately while receiving relatively poor concrete support or public acknowledgement, surfaces continuously throughout the biography. Indeed, in one of the most striking moments of the study we learn that his critique of Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, a critique that vigorously argued that the celebrated study was mistakenly premised on the notion that capitalism had overcome its immanent tendencies towards crisis, had received the nod of approval from none other than Marcuse himself: “… as far as your critique of my stuff is concerned …”, Marcuse wrote in private correspondence to Mattick, “I told you before that yours is the only central criticism” (275). This professional marginalisation was compounded by Mattick’s struggles with the English language. At a time when English was fast becoming the lingua franca of the scholarly world, with so many leading German intellectuals commencing their career in their parent tongue and ending it in English (Cassirer, Arendt and Marcuse to name three quickly), Mattick struggled with the linguistic transition. These factors insured that Mattick always had great “difficulty placing his work” and typically failed to secure research grants (276). The sorry saga of his repeated failure to secure a Guggenheim Fellowship epitomised Mattick’s scholarly travails.

Mattick the political, theoretical and professional outsider — yet we learn of a man with uncommon resilience in the face of adversity. “For his closest friends,” Roth writes tenderly, “Mattick’s most admirable trait was the ability to avoid bitterness, despite life’s difficulties and disappointments” (252) Mattick’s status as an outsider coalesced in his arduous struggle to publish his celebrated Marx and Keynes. The manuscript went through incessant revisions and repeated rejections for more than two decades, and a book contract finally emerged in 1967. Mattick then reworked Marx and Keynes one final time – softening its commitment to Grossman’s breakdown theory of capitalism while retaining an analytical commitment to the notion of capitalism’s immanent tendencies towards crisis – and the work was finally published. It met with rapid success in Europe, went into widespread translations across the continent, and sold thousands of copies in Germany alone. Mattick’s extraordinary perseverance finally seemed to be resulting in wider recognition. By the early 1970s he became something of a publishing phenomenon in Germany with three books and countless articles, pamphlets and journal articles in three short years. The resurgent interest in the council communist tradition in Europe had helped rekindle interest in all of Mattick’s writings; he was finally receiving a thrum of recognition as factions of the whirligig European left rediscovered the political richness of post-WWI revolutionary Germany. Marx and Keynes even became something of a “best seller” in Denmark. Yet this modest recognition later in life would be circumscribed by the radical left’s oceanic divide in the 1960s and 1970s. In addition to limited sales in the United States, Roth notes that Marx and Keynes was panned in by the Marxist journal Science and Society, dismissed as a “humdrum textbook” in the American Political Science Review, and ignored entirely by Monthly Review (298).

Just as all good biographies transcend their immediate subject matter and illuminate more enduring truths, so too does Roth’s recounting of Mattick’s life disclose much about the biases and prejudices within intellectual and political circles on the left, both then and now. At the outset of the biography Roth transparently claims that “all left history functions as a form of nostalgia” and that he is using Paul Mattick’s story “to retell the history of the radical left in the twentieth century” (1). But that history has a carry-forward that continues to shape the present, and our divisions on the radical left today are more or less the same as they were at the mid-point of the 20th century. Marxism in a Lost Century illuminates as much about ourselves and the world within which left intellectuals circulate today as it does about the world of this remarkable Marxist thinker. The intellectual scaffolding of Marx’s Capital, for example, continues to be attacked by analytic traditions ranging from positivist and post-positivist philosophy of science through to the postmodern demotion of science, so much so that the very notion of a Marxist scientific orthodoxy can invite provincial reminiscences that often seem as punitive and dismissive today as they did in Mattick’s time. Marxism in a Lost Century richly reminds us that we continue to be plagued by the unshakable question that bore down on Mattick and his 20th-century colleagues: “What is the takeaway from Marx?” As we pass through the first epochal crisis of this century, that decisive question persists, and the search for a definitive answer seems just as elusive.

23 July 2016


  • Mattick, Paul 1969 Marx and Keynes (Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers)

One comment

  1. I’ve just read this book, and what disappoints me with it is that there is next to no discussion of Mattick’s ideas. The author states in the foreword why he does this, that Mattick’s works are largely in print or on the internet and therefore there’s little point in going through what are available texts, but we are left with an account of the life of a noted Marxist thinker with very little outlining let alone appraisal of his actual thoughts. Can one really imagine, say, Isaac Deutscher’s Trotsky trilogy without any discussion of the theory of permanent revolution? Moreover, considering that after the late 1930s, Mattick wasn’t particularly involved in active politics and spent most of the time writing, this gap in the account makes this a rather peculiar and somewhat unsatisfying biography.

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