A Marxist look behind history's angels and demons

Angels & Demons: A Radical Anthology of Political Lives

By Tony McKenna

Zero Books, 2018

263 pp, $16.99

The role of individuals in history has been a long-standing bone of contention within the Marxist tradition.  Stalinism, with its mechanical historical understanding, relegated individuals to the anonymous mass to be manipulated by Great Leaders, who shone like the Sun.

Reacting to that, thinkers like Jean Paul Sartre and Louis Althusser produced a voluntarist philosophy (Sarte) or a view of history that eliminated human subjects all together (Althusser).

Karl Marx had a far more subtle understanding. People make their own history, he wrote, “but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”.

British Trotskyist Tony McKenna has selected a most diverse collection of political and cultural figures to illustrate this Marxist understanding.

He assembles his subjects into two categories: angels and demons. 

The “angels” are: Victor Hugo, Hugo Chavez, Rembrandt, Andrea Dworkin, William Blake and Jeremy Corbyn.  The “demons” are Christopher Hitchens, Arthur Schopenhauer, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

To put it mildly, his selection is eclectic. But he succeeds in showing how each person was shaped by the dynamics of the age or, as McKenna puts it, how each mediates “the most significant contradictions within the capitalist order at different stages in its development”.

His 10 subjects are not, he says, “reducible to mere abstract cyphers, the personal representatives of mechanical, anonymous historical forces, but rather their art and activity, their interests and individuality, only resonates its full uniqueness and meaning in the context of the historical epoch, and the underlying social and political contradictions which set the basis for it.”

McKenna has a great command of the English language and can write beautifully. However, he overdoes it at times, spilling into florid, single-sentence paragraphs of hundreds of words.

But, never mind, this is a good read.

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