Using Historical Materialism February 6, 2006 by RedStar2000
Historical materialism is a tool for "making sense" of the past and the present. It places our accumulated knowledge of specific events into an organized framework of understanding.
Its core is perceived material interest -- people act the way they do because they rationally expect their acts to result in some anticipated material benefit.
Thus we look beneath all the "universalist" rhetoric of this or that social group to discover who benefits...or at least who imagines they will benefit.
From the time of Marx himself, historical materialism has broadly classified human society into distinct epochs of production based on the technology available to a given society at a given time.
We assume that a given technology causes certain classes to exist that are necessary to the fruitful use of that technology. And we further assume that those classes will elaborate ideologies that reflect the perceived material self-interests of those classes.
This is a decidedly deterministic paradigm. It strongly suggests that what has happened in human history had to happen...even if some of the details might have differed markedly.
Thus it was not "inevitable" that Russia develop modern capitalism through a long interval of state monopoly capitalist despotism under a Leninist "vanguard party".
What was truly inevitable was that Russia had to progress to modern capitalism by one means or another.
When we look at the present and attempt to anticipate at least the near future, we try to "place" a given situation on the historical materialist continuum. What "epoch of production" is this particular country "in" and how much has it "progressed"? What "ought" to happen next in this particular country?
So we're saying that there are, loosely speaking, "laws of history" to which every country is subject.
They are not "laws" in the same sense as the laws of physics or chemistry, of course. They've never been reduced to mathematical formulas, for example, though there are some young mathematicians who want to try.
But if you look at the "grand sweep" of human history, it does seem obvious that "something's going on"...it's really not just a jumble of random events based entirely on chance and going "in no particular direction".
This is a very controversial approach to things, as you will see.
Since when does "people are responsible for what they do" mean "people are responsible for what everyone before them did to make the world they were born into?"
That was not my meaning.
I am only saying that people are born into a specific set of material and cultural circumstances...and that constrains both what they think it is "possible" to do and what they can actually do.
None of us can stand "outside of our own history"...even though we often imagine that we can -- because it is so easy to stand "outside" the history of others.
For example, we can imagine the possibility of the abolition of wage-slavery because we live in a period with the cultural apparatus that we call "history"...and we know that other forms of slavery have actually been abolished.
Someone who grew up in "the age of slavery", no matter how "brilliant", would find such a concept "unthinkable". Ancient slave revolts, where they actually had some brief period of power, proceeded at once to enslave their former masters...at least the ones they didn't kill outright or who were able to escape.
To use a more modern example, I think it could be argued that much and possibly even most of the Russian working class of 1917 overthrew the Czarist despotism because it was an incompetent despotism...it had brought unmitigated disaster to Russia and seemed totally unable to do anything constructive.
When the Bolsheviks appeared offering the implied promise of an effective and competent despotism, I think this "struck a chord" with many Russian workers.
Order would be restored and things would be run by people who were "much better at running things" than the despised aristocracy...and, moreover, run "in their own interests" rather than the interests of nobles, capitalists, and other useless scum.
While there were undoubtedly exceptions, I don't think most Russian workers really thought it possible that "they could actually run things themselves".
They couldn't think that.
Not because of Bolshevik "villainy" but because of the specific historical circumstances of the Russian working class of 1917.
"Communism" means "the struggle of the poor against the rich."
Well, no, it doesn't. In fact, such a "fuzzy" definition makes the word almost meaningless.
Communism has, in my opinion, a specific meaning.
What is Communism? A Brief Definition
One is always free to re-define a word in the interests of greater utility.
But I don't see how using the word communism to mean "the struggle between the poor and the rich" is useful.
In fact, what you're really saying is that communism is simply a synonym for class struggle...which ignores all the differences in kinds of class struggles throughout recorded history.
If the discussion of past uprisings is simply to repeat historical accounts, we will always "prove" that the poor "really" fight only to change one oppression for another. However, this argument is false for today's struggles. Why? Because we find lots of lower-class activists in the here-and-now who energetically refute it.
I'm not sure to whom you refer here.
There may quite possibly be struggles talking place today where people sincerely say that they want some kind of "different system" without any kind of "oppression" at all.
Only when we examine their specific material and historical circumstances can we determine, at least in principle, the "limits of the possible".
But there are limits.
Some things are not possible to do...no matter how much people may "want to do them".
Hundreds of thousands of generations of our hominid ancestors survived nonetheless. Obviously the past was not as horrible as "ape-man" movies make it out to be.
Strange. I would surmise that "ape-man" movies would portray a rather "sanitized" version of our life as savages.
But I'm not a "movie-buff" so I don't really know what sorts of things they show. A really graphic depiction of ritual cannibalism seems unlikely...but I suppose it's possible. *laughs*
First posted at RevLeft on December 15, 2005
But the argument is speculative. It cannot be used to support or oppose a thesis.
Well, much of what I have written is, perforce, speculative. I do try to always make it clear to the reader when I am speculating and when I am arguing on the basis of historical experience.
When we speak of a classless society, we're really talking about something completely different from all of recorded history...which is necessarily speculative.
I think such speculation has a practical use...it helps us clarify what we really want and what we don't want at all.
We will not be alive to shape the future "in detail". But if we can establish some minimum standards that become widely accepted, then we will have "done our part" to "accelerate the train of history".
It is much better to use well-agreed-upon views about working-class struggles that we are very familiar with, and construct theories that are logically true about current conditions (but that also seem to fit with what we know about the past).
A truism, I think...but controversy emerges when we get to the details. Sometimes, things "well-agreed-upon" are, in fact, completely wrong. Sometimes there is even wide disagreement on "current conditions".
Trying to figure out how to practically yet effectively "change the world" may be the "hairiest" problem there is.
The theory is ordinary deductive logic and it is based on very few premises.
I think the word "theory" dignifies what is actually a very superficial observation. Yes, every class society is, in many important respects, shaped by the struggle between the wealthy and powerful elite minority and the oppressed and exploited majority.
But to say or imply that such struggles "are communism" or "could result" in communism is just wrong.
It's so misleading, in fact, that I can only speculate about the motives of whoever "thought it up". Did they think that Marx was "too rigid" or "too deterministic"? Did they have some kind of romantic "attachment" to pre-industrial societies?
Or were they just repulsed by Leninist dogmatism...a possibility that can never be ruled out. *laughs*
In any event, you are free to "use" the concept as much as you like...but at the risk of being consistently misunderstood by most of the people on this board.
The things that are impossible to accomplish are the things we never attempt.
I have rather the opposite perception. It appears to me that humans often attempt the impossible...because we are purposeful entities.
We think, as someone put it once, that if we can imagine something, then it "must" be "possible".
It's only through "trial and error" (usually!) that we discover what is really possible and what is not.
If you had to organize for communist revolution, how would you do it?
Well, here are three more of my speculations on the subject...
A New Type of Communist Organization
Demarchy and a New Revolutionary Communist Movement
First posted at RevLeft on December 16, 2005
The theory of communism through "superabundance" was all the rage when I was young. Now it has fallen into disrepute.
Indeed? "Superabundance" is, to all intents and purposes, a material prerequisite of communism.
To be sure, that doesn't necessarily imply the absurd levels of conspicuous consumption that prevail among the "western" upper classes.
But those who would suggest that communism "requires" some sort of mass "vows of poverty" are just kidding themselves.
Whether or not communism is "technically possible" at the level of contemporary technology is controversial. My own opinion is that "we're getting close"...on a historical scale.
Another "century or two" should do it...and maybe sooner.
The assertion is unprovable. But you treat it as if it is true, and use it as a central premise of your hypothesis (about material conditions for communism). Since you use an invalid operation to develop a central premise, your hypothesis is not proven. It is logically false. Communist revolution does not depend on any material conditions other than the existence of property classes.
Word-chopping...and not very good word-chopping at that.
My assertion may indeed lack direct written confirmation...but we do know what actually happened.
It is hardly "illogical" to assume that what happened bore some relationship with what people "wanted to happen" or at least what they thought "was possible to happen".
Your assertion, on the other hand, totally lacks any real world confirmation at all. It may "sound logical" to you...but it still fails to tell us anything useful except "Go ahead and try because any outcome is possible under any circumstances".
Well, if you want to, go ahead. But I don't think you'll find many people to follow you.
We humans like to at least imagine that we know "what the hell we're doing" and how practical it is to try...and you really can't deal with that except by saying "anyone can do anything if they really want to badly enough".
I don't think that's going to fly...except among a small group of people who think that ideas can "change the world".
That's not what you said two years ago
I'm always flattered to be quoted...but the context is sometimes important.
Here's the full passage...
If this deplorable situation is to be rectified in the new century, I think the duty falls upon real communists to make it clear what communism really means.
It does not mean the nationalization of the means of production. It does not mean a "strong state", democratic or autocratic. It does not mean participation in bourgeois electoral charades or any other formal mechanisms of "conflict resolution".
Communism means the working class "takes matters directly into its own hands".
Obviously, I was speaking of communism here both as a "movement" and a "working society"...and you may fairly reproach me for thus engendering some confusion in my choice of words.
So let me make myself as explicit as I can.
Real communists urge the working class to advance beyond the mechanisms of "conflict resolution" established by the capitalist class and take matters into their own hands.
A communist society is one in which the working class has actually done that successfully!
I hope that's clear.
First posted at RevLeft on December 16, 2005
The result is the idea that communism must be defined as an abundance--or at least an adequate supply--of the goods and services that result from 'work.'
Maybe that's how some define it...but not me. Nowhere have I said or implied that "abundance" in and of itself was the "definition" of "communism".
It is the material foundation for communism. It is what makes communism possible.
A "communism of deprivation" would be inherently "unstable" and could probably be maintained only by a ferocious despotism.
Marx contemptiously dismissed such potential "societies" as "Prussian socialism" and "barracks communism".
If you want to live in something like that, be my guest.
First posted at RevLeft on December 17, 2005
An ongoing system of social relations can be either communist and peaceful or propertied and violent.
I would not dispute your contention that violence (or the threat of violence) lies at the "root" of all class societies...even when they appear superficially "peaceful".
But violence is a tool to maintain property -- not "the other way around".
Those who "have not" will take from those who "have"...unless they are intimidated by violence or the threat of violence.
This is a consequence of material shortages...class societies are not productive enough to produce enough for everybody.
In the "west", capitalism is (in my opinion) approaching the point in which it will actually be technically possible to produce enough for everybody.
What communist society's future generations will think "enough" is conjectural -- but I have little doubt that what they will consider the "decent minimum standard" will be substantially above present-day norms. As technology continues to advance, that standard will continue to rise.
Communism is the well-reasoned concern for one's self as an inseparable part of the community, as opposed to a cunning, competitive calculation of "mine" and "theirs." Communism is thinking and doing for the well-being of everyone--knowing that each of us came from and always will be a part of that everyone. Communism uses the method of people sharing things, regardless of how abundant or scarce those things may be.
Yes, I expect a communist "culture" will articulate those "values" and that most people most of the time will "act like that".
But watch out if people feel "shorted" of what they really need. If you're hungry and there's no food, it is no comfort to know that "everyone is hungry".
If you are a young strong male, you can use violence to obtain whatever food is available...up to and including killing and eating some weaker human.
Humans seem to have a "natural impulse" to share that which we have in abundance...but an equally strong "natural impulse" to hoard that which we think vital to our survival and is clearly in "short supply".
Since I was actually in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina, I can speak with some first-hand experience here. In the first 48 hours or so, people did share food, water, cigarettes, etc.
But then it began to dawn on people that "this was serious" and things were not going to "go back to normal". So some young males banded together to take what they wanted by violence...and the weak perished.
That's when I fled!
This could all be "explained", of course, by the "every man for himself" mind-set that, of necessity, permeates capitalist society.
How people would react to "catastrophic shortage" in a communist society is necessarily conjectural as well. A cultural mind-set doesn't "instantly" collapse.
But if such a shortage is protracted, I would anticipate the worst. Perceived material deprivation usually "brings out the worst" in people.
That's why communism requires material abundance in order to remain viable.
And, by the way, it's also the reason why the most rebellious members of a class society don't usually come from the "very bottom" of the "social pyramid"...those folks are overwhelmed with the problem of survival for another day. That's all they can think about.
Being determines consciousness.
Redstar2000, just repeating and repeating "material conditions" and "material foundation" doesn't even qualify as a mockery of proof. You are not fulfilling your obligation to prove the "material conditions" theory--much less prove one of its premises: that struggle "can't" become aware of its goals.
I regret that my arguments are unconvincing to you and confess that I don't even grasp what you might accept as "proof".
The materialist basis of history appears to me to be "self-evident"...whereas your own hypothesis just "hangs up in the air" without any connection to the real world that I can see at all.
Have you examined the practices of the Hutterian Brethren? They are religious agrarian communalists (a kind of primitive "communism")...and might appeal to your proclivities. They are distant descendants of the great German peasant rebellion of the 16th century and consciously do all they can to preserve the heritage of Thomas Münzer.
It's a hellish life for women, of course, and probably pretty bad for kids as well. But it looks like a pretty good life for adult males...who don't mind lots of physical labor. I'm sure it beats the hell out of serfdom.
And they seem to welcome new recruits...possibly because their kids are "drifting away".
Just a suggestion.
First posted at RevLeft on December 17, 2005
The foundation of human psychology and socialization is the mother-child relation.
Well, up to a point, I suppose. As soon as the child is old enough to interact with its peers, things get a lot "more complicated".
The communities who survived to produce us had at least the minimum material conditions to support their biological and social functions.
Yeah...but just read about them! They were shit!
From the real-life experience of being a working-class person, I have learned that the only thing I really need is to care for others, and to allow others to care for me.
I'm sorry...but this sounds like something written on a "Hallmark Card". It does not, even remotely, reflect what life is like in class society.
Indeed, it sounds almost...well, Christian.
There is another problem with "care" -- what you might interpret as "caring behavior" may be regarded quite differently by the recipient...from damn meddling to intolerably oppressive!
Consider what it's actually like to be in a hospital, for example.
No books, no internet, no decent food or drink, no smoking!
People have instinctive feelings of revulsion, regret, and embarrassment about causing hurt. These instincts help the species survive.
Most people do most of the time.
When facing a tough situation, people are usually very frightened. Especially young people. They don't reason well. They tend to overreact. However, as they survive different types and different degrees of hardship, they develop confidence in their abilities to cope. When they face situations in which they might perish, they discover the basic truth of mortality. Everything that lives--dies.
You would seem here to be promoting "resignation" in the face of potentially lethal adversity.
Some people do react like this.
It is my experience that those with the most luxuries and advantages are the ones who can think of nothing but themselves.
One of the "lessons" of capitalism is the uncertainty of wealth. I think it's always in the "back of our minds" -- no matter how much wealth we have accumulated -- that it could all be gone tomorrow.
What would happen if I lost my job? What would happen if I lost my health insurance? What would happen if my pension plan went bankrupt?
We know what happens, under capitalism, to people without any wealth at all...and it's not anything pleasant to contemplate, much less experience.
So yes, all of us spend some portion of our time concerned with the possibility of future catastrophe.
In a communist society "of abundance", this kind of worry will largely "wither away"...because the possibilities themselves will have largely vanished.
First posted at RevLeft on December 18, 2005
Humans are animals like any other.
Um...no, not really "like any other" at all.
We have developed an enormously complex cultural apparatus...something no other animal has ever done (though some other primate species do show a rudimentary form of "cultural behavior").
And we've done this fairly quickly from a historical standpoint. The human species is now thought to be no more than 200,000 years old and class society perhaps 10-15,000 years old.
On an evolutionary scale, that's pretty close to instantaneous.
Non-destructive adaptation of the environment was natural human ecology.
That's one way to put it, I suppose, but it is also kind of misleading.
Savage humans did little or even no damage to their environment not because they "thought" that would be "a bad thing" but simply because there were too few of them to have any measurable impact and also the fact that they had no tools to make any significant alterations to their natural environment.
As soon as their numbers significantly expanded and both herding and agriculture were invented, their impact on their "natural environment" exploded.
And so things have gone ever since. We humans always seek to alter the environment to suit our purposes and, of course, those alterations can sometimes be very negative indeed.
It is idealism not materialism to say that some survival is "good" and other survival is "bad."
Yes, all "value judgments" are "idealist" by definition. We subjectively develop a series of preferences based on life experiences, reading, etc.
In fact, it is modern civilization that allows us to make such judgments on a far more informed basis than was ever possible before.
What did a slave, a serf, a 19th century illiterate factory hand, know of "other cultural options"?
As close to zero as makes no difference.
Things are different now. We know a hell of a lot more than our forefathers.
And things appear to be speeding up...some of the youngest adolescents on this board know more stuff than I did at 30!
I realize that there are people who want very much to "go back to the good old days"...with various definitions of what that phrase "good old days" might entail.
I've heard that one of them wants to "abolish language entirely". *laughs*
But such people are simply cranks -- no one "takes them seriously" or ever will.
As for myself, I think that there are a few "old things" that might usefully be revived and a few "modern things" that communist society might well greatly diminish or even do without entirely.
But that's simply my own subjective opinion. Everything I see around me points to an insatiable human appetite for novelty.
Innovation comes as naturally to us as breathing.
Many poor people believe some of the propaganda about "pride" and "self-sufficiency" that interferes with their allowing others to care for them.
Capitalism does permit the illusion of "self-sufficiency" because it can disguise our interdependence with cash.
On the other hand, this illusion promotes yet another illusion: individual autonomy.
Paradoxically, that second illusion may promote the attitudes required for social innovation.
If class society "invades" my autonomy, that "opens my mind" to a critique of class society itself.
Who are those bastards to tell me what I can and can't do?
Perhaps we could say that the illusion of freedom is necessary before real freedom is possible.
Churches, charities, social workers, military recruiters, police, and other selfish causes use the word "care" to mean whatever they want. This also causes poor people to have misunderstandings and reservations about the whole idea of "care." Marx took advantage of these misgivings to win worker-activists to the pro-capitalist concept that workers fight for "self-interest."
Well, I agree with Marx. In fact, it's not just "workers" who "fight" for "self-interest"...it's everybody.
Even someone like yourself who wants "only" to "care for" and "be cared for" feels that way because you perceive it to be in your self-interest to live under such an arrangement.
From your link...
quote (Dave Stratman):
In the Marxist view which Kane presents here, working people have no values within themselves as individuals which contradict capitalist values of selfishness and competitiveness.
I am not familiar with the writings of Mr. George Kane...but if he holds the views that Mr. Stratman imputes to him, then his "portrayal" of the Marxist paradigm is shallow indeed.
Certainly Marx himself never uttered such nonsense or anything like it.
What Marx did imply in his analysis is that human behavior is determined by perceived material self-interest.
The "perceived" part is important. It doesn't necessarily correspond "perfectly" with "objective self-interest". There's a "time-lag" involved because it takes humans time to learn what is actually in their objective self-interests.
This has nothing to do, of course, with abstractions like "competition" or "cooperation" -- we pick one of those options as a matter of practical utility.
Cooperation is often of tremendous practical utility to those on the lower levels of the "social pyramid". And Marx anticipated that eventually the "workers of the world" would unite...as a matter of practical self-interest.
Continuing to support a caste of parasites would be self-evidently contrary to our material interests.
And we'd refuse to put up with it (or them) any longer!
It also is extremely demoralizing, and puts the left in the position of hoping that things get worse and worse for working people so that they will finally "become revolutionary."
Marx did not "hope" that things "would get worse" for working people "so that they will finally become revolutionary".
He predicted that capitalism -- towards the end of its life as a viable form of class society -- would make things worse and worse for working people.
One is still free to reject this prediction or argue that it was "falsified" by the reformist accomplishments of the first half of the 20th century.
I think it's starting to "look pretty accurate", myself.
I don't see how anyone could dispute the fact that working class standards-of-living have stagnated or even slightly declined over the last three decades.
And all those wonderful reforms? The ruling class is in the process of dismantling them even as the "need" for them grows. Capitalists say "they can't afford them" anymore.
Much to the dismay of the professional reformists, even the working class itself seems to be growing indifferent to reformism.
What's the point in "fighting" for something that can no longer be won?
The Marxist paradigm is profoundly anti-democratic; it cannot lead to the liberating revolution which Marx himself desired. "Genuine communism" in the Marxist paradigm will always require a party elite to rule in place of the working class and to remold workers from the "competitive, selfish behaviors of capitalism" so that they are "cooperative and act to promote the common good." Authoritarian rule in the Soviet Union and China has its roots in the Marxist paradigm and the Marxist view of people.
By now, you have been on this board long enough to recognize that Stratman is simply expressing the vulgar bourgeois view that "Marxism = Leninism".
And you know better than that!
You as a self-described "Marxist" are using vulgar meanings of the key economic terms "wealth" and "accumulate."
Yes, I usually prefer ordinary language. Substitute whatever terms you may feel appropriate; it would not alter the sense of my meaning.
Because of the built-in uncertainties under capitalism, we can never have "enough" money.
First posted at RevLeft on December 19, 2005
In the same post, you defend vulgar meanings when they serve your purposes, and oppose them when they do not.
Of course I do. Whenever the "common sense" meaning of a word "will do", I use it. Whenever a more "precise" term is more useful, then I'll use that.
Language is made by humans for human use; humans did not evolve to "fulfill" the "purity" of language.
The meanings of many words and phrases are already well established by their usage in previous and recent working-class struggles.
So they are. You'll note that I objected to your unique definition of "communism" on that very basis.
But I am no more a slave to "common usage" than you are...or any other human.
I regard Stratman's vulgar equivocation of Leninism and Marxism as profoundly stupid...and I don't give a rat's ass if the entire planet presently thinks otherwise.
Make of that whatever you wish.
Working-class families accumulate nothing because they consume their incomes in the reproduction of labor. I will not budge one inch on this issue.
So don't budge. The empirical fact that many working class families actually have accumulated some wealth in late capitalism need not disturb your slumbers.
The chances are that this was a temporary phenomenon anyway...and may already be grinding to a halt.
Hundreds of millions of lower-class people were involved in organized, self-aware class struggles in the 20th Century.
In a manner of speaking. But to speak of the "self awareness" of half-starved Russian or Chinese peasants is really not saying much.
The problem is that "Marxists" have a "time lag" in accepting facts that refute conclusions they have already decided upon.
So we have often been charged.
I have no idea, of course, what "facts" you imagine have "refuted" us...as your posts seem mostly concerned with the uses of language and logic.
You rather remind me of some of our "strident" agnostics.
You can't be an atheist until you absolutely prove that all possible gods do not exist.
You can't absolutely prove that historical materialism is absolutely true, therefore it's false.
Have it your way...why should I care?
The only thing certain in life is that we will all die. Life is uncertainty.
But whenever humans have the opportunity, they nearly always choose certainty over uncertainty.
Why do you suppose that is?
Therefore, workers and capitalists have the same interest.
No, that doesn't follow from all your premises unless you also posit that workers and capitalists "are members of the same class".
I think even you would balk at that.
In this way, we can "prove" that workers and capitalists alike are interested in the current system of accumulation of fixed capital, and docile variable capital, to produce and circulate goods and services.
Well, that does seem to be the case at the present time, does it not?
As long as capitalism "works well" and "delivers the goods" as far as most people are concerned, why "fix" what "ain't broke"?
Marx said this would "inevitably change" for the worse.
Was he right? I think so.
But we'll see.
I clearly state what I advocate.
I'm afraid that your "clarity" escapes me. I frankly have no idea of what sort of future post-capitalist society you would like to live in...except for your odd proposal to "dismantle cities" and occasional hints that you find "abundance" distasteful.
Something that makes no sense to me at all.
First posted at RevLeft on December 27, 2005
The "crude" answer is that even being conscious of such an idea as the "democratic control of the means of production" requires a very high level of technology...even higher than we have now.
If you accept the "peak oil doomsday" hypothesis, then you should prepare yourself for "life" under feudalism...at best.
In fact, I wouldn't at all be surprised by the restoration of slavery.
Consider what happened in New Orleans when the power went off. There's the consequence of "peak oil" scenarios.
As it happens, "peak oil" is bullshit.
Canadian oil sands: Vast reserves second to Saudi Arabia will keep America moving, but at a steep environmental cost
The central thesis of historical materialism -- which many anarchists find "difficult" to accept -- is that the ideas that people can have are fundamentally dependent on what they can do.
Exceptions to this are not "impossible"...but they prove to be very brief in duration. If the survivors of a "peak oil catastrophe" set up a "communist village" with feudal technology, the result would be the emergence of feudalism...probably within a single generation.
There have been occasions in the past where peasants attempted to establish "Biblical communism" (drawn from the few scraps about the Jerusalem Church in the Acts of the Apostles).
They devolve into despotisms fairly quickly; the only exception that I've ever heard of are the Hutterian Brethren.
Their "communism" works...since, after all, it's "commanded by God". But everything else about them is just as primitive as you might imagine -- women are "baby factories", for example.
A lot of anarchists "don't like" the deterministic element of historical materialism...they seem to feel as if people can just "do anything they want".
Well, no...that's not true.
First posted at RevLeft on December 28, 2005
Oh, and I'm still looking for the historical materialism stuff.
In a "non-Marxist" sense, I think you'll find it in almost any modern work by a reputable historian.
"Popular histories" (like the History channel) may still talk about "great men" or "great ideas" as if they were "significant".
And, of course, it's generally considered unacceptable in academia to "dwell too obviously" on the role of class struggle.
But a historian that simply "passed over in silence" the material basics of a given historical narrative would likely be regarded as a "poor" historian by his/her peers and would suffer a consequent loss of prestige.
Indeed, without a materialist analysis, history is just a jumble of random events...as the pre-materialist Gibbon put it, "a dreary tale of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind".
If you look at the workers' councils during the Russian Revolution, the CNT-FAI during the Spanish Civil War, the factory occupations during the May '68 rev. in France, the factory recuperations in Argentina, etc., it looks to me like large groups of mostly ordinary people (not intellectuals) have been able to grasp the idea and put it into practice.
Yes they did...sorta.
They managed what I would call an embryonic understanding of the concept.
How far short they fell is at least partially illustrated by their reactions to those who took the factories back.
It was something that they thought was "maybe a good idea"...but not something they were ready to "go to the wall with".
Like Russian workers, soldiers, and peasants were ready to "go to the wall" with the idea of deposing the Czar and his aristocracy in February 1917.
Russia was ready for a bourgeois revolution and there was "no fooling around" about it.
The genuinely working class initiatives that you list all shared, I think, a reluctance on the part of most workers to actually seize power.
There was still a kind of "built-in" deference to the capitalist class...or to petty-bourgeois radicals who came from that class.
It's "not enough" to simply occupy a factory...that's just a kind of "first step".
What is really required is that the working class must be convinced "in their guts" that they are fit to rule. And that the old ruling class is unfit to rule. The old "habits of servility" must be burned away in the fire of hatred for everything the old ruling class stands for.
The historical materialist hypothesis is that only a very "high tech" form of capitalism can generate this level of consciousness.
One can dispute this, of course, since it "hasn't happened yet".
But I think it "makes sense" as an explanation of why working class insurrections have not yet been really successful in ending class society.
Certainly, it makes more sense to me than "Bolshevik villainy" or "Stalinist intrigue" or "lack of vanguard leadership" or any of that History channel crap.
Will you applaud them and help them out, or will you try to tackle them to the ground so as to force them into the procrustean mold of your theory and prove your theory correct?
Like many of my critics, you vastly over-estimate my "powers". *laughs*
Nothing I or any individual says is going to make any measurable difference in how these events "turn out".
Will there be a fully developed proletarian revolution in Argentina that will actually begin to build a communist society?
You imply that this will happen "soon" or is even "already happening".
My "theory" (historical materialism) suggests that this is highly unlikely...and that Argentina -- like a number of Latin American countries -- is entering "the age of reform" that we in North America and Europe are currently leaving behind.
This would seem to be a "stage" of modern capitalism that all countries need to "pass through".
If you are a Spartan helot slave, and a socialist activist from the 20th century visits you in your field and explains in simple terms why it is in your best interest to abolish your master and work your fields for yourself or cooperatively with others, as needed...
The vocabulary of the helot slave has no words for the ideas that you are attempting to convey.
Indeed, I think even an Athenian "intellectual" would find it very difficult to grasp your meaning.
If I were a real "scholar" in the traditional sense, I would "prove" this by attempting to translate a couple of paragraphs of the Communist Manifesto into classical Greek...and demonstrate that it can't be done.
Since I lack such skills, I can only assert that it can't be done...at least in any way that would actually make sense to someone from that era.
"How" people think about things is historically contingent...human brains don't exist "up in the sky" free to think about "whatever they want to".
I think that illusion is actually a product of the emergence of capitalism. It was only in the northern trading cities in Italy c.1300 or so that such a thing as a "secular intellectual" became possible...we call it a "renaissance" because it became possible for people to think about "new things".
As technology and then science began to develop, more "new things" could be thought about and even discussed (with risks!).
As capitalism rose to dominance (19th century), the idea of "pure thought" able to "conceive anything" that "might become real" dominated European intellectual life.
Only Marx and Engels contested this view...and they won very little acceptance of their dissent during their lifetimes.
To this day, any kind of "formal acceptance" of the proposition that ideas reflect material reality is not easy to find -- even though, as I said, modern historians "take that outlook into account" when they sit down to construct a historical narrative.
And even among those who consider themselves revolutionaries or even "Marxists", the illusion persists that "people can do whatever they want" if they can be "convinced to want to do it".
If Marx was right, that cannot possibly be true.
But there are a lot of "Marxists" who sincerely believe that Marx "got that one wrong".
I am not one of them.
Historical materialism might say that the peasantry [in Brazil] isn't ready for democracy and socialism, but would it be necessarily impossible to convince those peasants of the desirability of socialism for the enrichment of their lives and explain to them methods they could pursue to achieve it?
Yeah. I think the most you could "convince" them of is that you had their "best interests" at heart and thus they should follow you.
But when the time came to actually construct your post-revolutionary "socialism", you would have to do all the work.
What you convinced them of was what they were capable of grasping: that you will be a "benevolent despot" who will smash the power of the landed aristocracy and redistribute land to the individual peasant.
Lenin managed the "trick"...no reason you (or others) can't do the same.
In similar material conditions!
And if you are saying democratic control of the means of production isn't possible right now...why are you a revolutionary leftist right now?
Because I think we are approaching the time when it will be possible.
My guess is that western Europe could build a working communist society before the end of this century.
It might even be possible in North America...though I'll admit that is more problematic.
Like all of us, I wish the train of history ran a lot faster than it does.
But I see nothing to be gained by pretending that we are a lot further along than we really are.
First posted at RevLeft on December 29, 2005
People can have any idea that they like.
No matter how often this is asserted, it remains untrue.
Furthermore, I think that systems such as feudalism, socialism, etc., are based primarily on social relations and can occur at any 'technological level'.
Then you have to explain why that doesn't happen.
Why wasn't there a "People's Republic of Athens"?
No "vanguard party" to show the "way"? No version of "Marx" or "Bakunin" to explain "the next step"?
Just plain bad luck?
There is a "school" of academic historians who do insist on the primacy of chance...to them, nothing was or is "inevitable" and pretty much "anything" can "happen" at "any time".
Human societies are like the "unknowable mind of God" in medieval Christian theology.
Such an outlook is a "perfect defense" of the bourgeois concept of "free will"...it is logically impregnable.
It's just useless for explaining anything.
So, I suppose you would deny the possibility that mere ideas, or mere activists spouting ideas, could have imbued those workers with revolutionary will and confidence and a sense that they were "fit to rule"?
Revolutionary words only have an effect on people with whom those words "resonate".
When I first read Marx (at the age of 20 or so), what I remember was a feeling of "Why, of course!". What he had to say put into coherent words what I was already thinking and feeling.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that's what conscious revolutionaries really do when they speak to people...they make explicit what was already implicitly there.
So we do have a "role" to play...but it depends entirely on what people are really ready to listen to.
And I think that, in turn, depends on the technological level of a given society.
So, at least in Catalonia the working class had developed a revolutionary will and confidence that they were "fit to rule."
Well...almost. Anarchists still lament, with good reason, the failure of the CNT to disperse the old state apparatus in Catalonia...to simply remove it entirely from the political scene there.
Instead, it was allowed to remain and gradually re-gain its strength until it became a sword in the back of the CNT...while the fascists were advancing!
I attribute this to the fact that as sincerely revolutionary as the working class was in Catalonia, it still retained a "lingering respect" for the "old order of things".
If I am not mistaken, Catalonia was the most advanced -- "Europeanized" -- part of Spain...and I think this was why it was "the heart of the revolution".
And I don't see how any rational person could deny the role of anarcho-syndicalism as an ideology in the spontaneous anti-fascist uprising.
The Spanish Communist Party had only a few thousand members and was simply not a factor in 1936.
Take that, Leninists! *laughs*
Later on, the Trotskyist POUM and the syndicalist "Friends of Durruti" emerged as the "left wing" of the "revolution"...but it was "too little" and "too late".
Catalonia is the "brightest star" in the anarchist firmament...the place where they "came closer" than any other.
And the very fact that they consciously refused to set up a "revolutionary despotism" makes that star shine all the brighter.
But they succumbed to the "disease" that plagues all kinds of revolutionaries.
Fearing to "go too far", they did not go far enough. They did not smash the old bourgeois state apparatus in Catalonia...much less "march on Madrid" with the explicit purpose of overthrowing the bourgeois republic.
I don't think that was due to "incompetence" (much less "villainy" as the Leninists charge)...but rather to the fact that they could not grasp what really needed to be done.
And even if they had grasped it, would the Spanish working class have understood it?
I think the answer is no.
So it is that in my opinion the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists collectively played the role of Oliver Cromwell's movement in England. Cromwell's people could have made a bourgeois revolution in England and nearly did...but the emerging English bourgeoisie was simply "not yet ready to rule".
The Spanish anarcho-syndicalists nearly made a proletarian revolution in Spain...but the Spanish working class was "not yet ready to rule".
And thus the end of a very sad story.
First posted at RevLeft on December 30, 2005
As with any other idea, historical materialism must be proven, or else it is false.
It seems to me that the vast preponderance of the evidence favors the historical materialist paradigm...though I would certainly grant that proletarian revolution and communism remain at the hypothetical level.
They "logically follow"...but until we actually see them happen, we can't say that it's "proved" that they "must happen".
I am obviously not in any position to summarize the hundreds or even thousands of books that have been written using the tools of historical materialism to investigate past societies...or how well those books explain why things happened the way they did.
In a limited way, I can use those tools myself. On occasion, I have been challenged on this board to explain various historical events using those tools...and I think I've done a pretty decent job for an amateur.
But, alas, I do have my critics.
Redstar, writing is a form of work, like any other. It has rules that we must learn and follow. Argumentation/debate is also a form of work. Its rules are spin-offs from the rules of logic. Working-class people learn these forms of work as they practice them. The more we do it, the better we get. After some decades of using formal written English and formal logic, it becomes second nature--like driving.
I am hardly "qualified" to speak on these matters. Nevertheless, it seems to me that formal logic/argumentation is very much like a computer.
Garbage in; garbage out.
Consider the computer game called, I believe, Sim City. The developers of the game made certain assumptions (consciously or unconsciously) about social reality while they were writing the code.
Thus, for example, if you tax businesses too vigorously, the businesses all "leave your city" and your city "dies". The option of running all your enterprises as "municipally owned" doesn't "exist" in that "universe".
Thus it is that when someone says that I have "violated" some "rule" of "logic", I look for the "hidden assumption".
Because I know from experience that people don't bring that sort of thing up out of a "pure-minded devotion to abstract rational thought".
Like me, they have an agenda...and more often than not, it's opposed to mine.
Thus I prefer to bring that out -- the merits or lack of same of opposing agendas.
You simply do not get much opportunity to discuss politics with workers who demand that you use logical reasoning and formal English. That's why you think it's OK for you to use vulgar meanings, while others shouldn't--and so on.
It's certainly true that I am "out of touch" with academia...and, in fact, have never really been close to such people at all. A professor who visited my site would probably be very critical of it for all sorts of "academic" reasons...including my preference for "ordinary" (non-academic) language.
I do not say that others "cannot" use ordinary language...only that they must use it accurately.
Only someone entirely ignorant of Marxism, for example, would propagate the conflation of Marxist theory with Leninist practice.
Leninists don't call themselves "Marxists" because they think "Marx was right". In fact, Leninist theory is largely devoted to "explaining" why "Marx was wrong" and "Lenin was right".
But Marx does have a "towering reputation"...and the Leninist pose of "Marxist" is really nothing more than the desire of dwarves to dress in the robes of giants.
Which, as you must be aware, has finally attracted public attention...and ridicule.
You're totally uninterested in the logical and semantical aspects of the issue. I think that's because logic and semantics aren't second nature to you. So the whole thing is bogging down on the question of: is logic "reasonable" and are semantics "useful words?"
Sometimes they are and sometimes they aren't.
If your logic is like "iron" and your semantics are "pure" and yet you still arrive at a conclusion that makes no sense...then something has to be wrong.
There has to be one or more erroneous assumptions "built-in" that result in that wrong answer.
Without admission of error, there is no learning--just repetition of error.
No doubt...but so what? If one has not been convinced that one is in error, why then make a "false confession"?
Where's the gain in that?
First posted at RevLeft on January 5, 2005
I've read before that you support third world Leninist groups in order for them to create their own native bourgeoisie/industrialize, etc. This seems logical to me but why is Vietnam not progressing as fast as say India?
I think Vietnam is industrializing...but at this point it all seems to be "light industry" funded by foreign direct investment.
After independence, India did embark on a program of state-sponsored industrialization (with a lot of technical assistance from the USSR) and they do have heavy industry now...and an emerging modern bourgeoisie.
It may well be that countries like Vietnam (and Cuba) are simply too small to effectively make the transition to modern capitalism without becoming hopeless dependents on foreign capital.
Or it just may "take somewhat longer" for some small countries to reach a "take off" point.
Historical materialism points the way to the stages that countries "must" go through...but it doesn't "dictate" the methods that "must be used" or the "exact way" the process "must" take place.
Vietnam, for example, may have to pass through a century or so in the same relationship to Japan as Cuba was to the U.S. and then to the USSR. If Cuba succeeds in becoming a "player" in the international medical drug market (which is what they're aiming for), then a modern bourgeoisie can emerge on that foundation.
What Vietnam needs is a "high tech" industry...it's not going to make it growing coffee and doing sweatshop manufacturing. I have no idea what that might turn out to be...but they should be able to figure something out over the next century.
After all, Vietnamese people are "just as smart" as everyone else...so once they learn a few things about modern technology there's no reason why they can't build on them.
Just like the Japanese, the Taiwanese, the South Koreans, and the Chinese have done.
Reply to email written on January 10, 2006
Some odd stuff coming out in this thread.
As I've said, 90% of workers in the 'first world' are motivated by greed and materialism of varying degrees and thus have no interest in overthrowing capitalism.
As long as capitalism can "deliver the goods", why should they?
But it looks self-evident that capitalism is not doing that as well as it used to.
If Marx was right, that situation will worsen.
Traditional communal structures that exist within much of Asia and Africa as well as parts of Latin America can be transformed into the basis of a communist society.
Poo! The normal development of domestic capitalism in those places will either destroy those formations or render them completely irrelevant.
In addition to this peasants have repeatedly proved themselves to be the most revolutionary class in the world...
Yes...on behalf of land reform.
Not in any other sense.
This is more than can be said for [the] proletariat of the 'first world'...well...ever actually.
The revolutionary tasks of the proletariat are far vaster than the acquisition of a patch of dirt to scratch out a miserable "living".
To overthrow 10,000 years of class society takes quite a bit more than a rifle and a willingness to die.
The only way to do this is to have the 'third world' unite under the banner of communism against the 'first world'
They wouldn't know communism from rheumatism. All they need to "unite" under is the banner of anti-imperialism.
That's something they can manage. Peasant societies are xenophobic anyway...especially when they perceive the foreigner as a threat to their land or as an obstacle to them getting some.
Capitalism is not suicidal.
If Marx was right, it is "suicidal". It does reach a point where it cannot reform -- and I think in western Europe and North America that point has been reached.
The "age of reform" is over.
If the leadership and direction starts to significantly hurt the capitalists then the leadership and direction will be changed. More over, if the capitalists see that this conservatism is waking the population from their decadence induced coma then they will stop it. I've never really bought into determinism.
Well you should. If you think capitalism is a matter of "correct leadership", the capitalists themselves might agree with you.
But it ain't true.
When a social system has reached "the end of the line", all of its "leaders" are "incompetent".
That's not "bad luck", it's a reflection of objective material reality.
But the workers, by and large, aren't calling for 'significant concessions'. They just want higher wages so they can buy a bigger TV. This the capitalists can cope with.
No, they are not "coping with it". Wages in the U.S. have been essentially stagnant since the early 1970s. That "middle class" standard-of-living now rests on couples who both have full-time jobs and a mountain of credit-card and mortgage debt.
There are many other models, many of them are no less plausible than that of Marx.
So I've been informed...but I've never run into one myself.
Marxism is not scientific, for the record- it's just not utopian.
What "special" definition of "science" are you using here?
It would have to be able to exclude Marxism but include biological evolution.
Not an easy task.
Besides, if something good exists then one should use it. The agrarian communes that exist...could provide the basic organisation for the majority of the world and could even be developed further and modified so that it could be applied to urban situations.
Why would anyone want to do that?
As opposed, for example, to the further "high tech" development of agriculture?
First posted at RevLeft on January 16, 2006
And the fact that Marx's theory is called dialectical materialism shows the emphasis on materialism, but also the lack of dogmatism that materialists like Feuerbach suffered from.
Well, as it happens, Marx never used the phrase "dialectical materialism" to describe his own method of investigation. I don't know who coined the phrase, though I've seen it attributed to Engels, to Plekhanov, and to some obscure German social-democrat in the late 19th century.
In my view, it's an oxymoron...the semantic equivalent of saying "idealist materialism".
Marx's Theses On Feuerbach was written in 1845...and is certainly a "milestone" in the development of Marx's thought.
But Marx does not criticize Feuerbach for "dogmatism"...but rather for the "abstractness" of Feuerbach's materialism.
Marx does say something which could be interpreted as implying an "equality" between material and non-material causation...
The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated. Hence this doctrine is bound to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.
I think this shows Marx "on the edge" of historical materialism but not yet "fully immersed".
Marx was 27 years old when he wrote the Theses on Feuerbach...with perhaps a "little more ground to cover" before his conception of the world was fully "Marxist".
It seems to me that "self-change" (in any significant sense) derives from changes in material circumstances...and not the other way around.
The reason we want to "change the world" is not because of an "abstract ideal" that just happened to "pop into our heads". We both experience and observe real material conditions and derive from those experiences and observations what seem to us to be "ideas" for rational improvements. Then we seek to implement those "ideas"...and our efforts, to the degree they are successful, will effect some change (not necessarily the intended one) in material conditions that will result in new experiences and observations, prompting new "ideas" on how things might be improved.
The process is not "dialectical", it's iterative. Material change -> change in "ideas" -> material change -> change in "ideas" -> material change -> change in "ideas" -> material change...etc.
What I think is crucial to understand is that in every stage of this process, it is the material changes (intended or unintended) that dominate the outcome.
But to say that material conditions always dictate ideas, and ideas never can even begin to manifest themselves again in the material conditions, is dogmatic, and, if it were true, would mean that the material conditions would never significantly change in regards to human evolution and history.
Now, I didn't say that "ideas never can even begin to manifest themselves again in the material conditions".
Technological innovation in the means of production can have a very strong effect on material conditions up to and including the complete overthrow of an entire ruling class and its replacement by a new one.
But that's not what's usually meant in this context. What is more or less implied in this sort of discussion is that "revolutionary consciousness" (however defined) can "overcome" material conditions if it's "strong enough".
And the Leninists actually go so far as to imply that such "consciousness" can be "manufactured" by the "correct" application of "dialectics" to strategy and tactics.
That's not wrong simply because it contradicts the historical materialist "dogma"; it's wrong because it contradicts historical experience.
Dialectics, again, isn't mysticism, it's a methodology for studying change and movement through conflict.
A modest ambition...but unfortunately, it furnishes no useful tools to carry out the project -- just arbitrary labels pasted on social (or natural) phenomena to serve someone's political convenience.
If you really want to explore the murky depths of this metaphysical swamp, I invite you once more to contribute to one or more of the threads on this subject in the Philosophy forum.
It's really no longer relevant to modern revolutionary theory.
So why don't you read a bit of Frank's book, instead of dogmatically denouncing it?
Because I don't have time for mystics.
First posted at RevLeft on January 16, 2006
Plus communism can be achieved before capitalism completely takes hold, in fact humanity has come far closer to 'true' communism in the 'third world' than it ever has in the 'first world'.
The Paris Commune? Syndicalist Barcelona?
Just to name the two "biggies".
If you are suggesting here that the hypothesis that we must "wait" until capitalism "develops the whole world" for communism to be "possible" is simply wrong, I agree with you in opposing that idea.
In my opinion, communism will first be possible in the "old" (or "senile") capitalist countries...and will actually arise there in the course of this century.
On the other hand, it's difficult for me to imagine a communist society in Afghanistan or Nepal before 2500!
That's how "far" they have "to go".
Many peasants do not want to become urbanised...
The empirical evidence points to the exact opposite conclusion. The "migration to the cities" has been one of the most consistent trends we've ever observed; it may be one of those "iron laws of history".
You may well hypothesize that with the end of class society, people will no longer do that and many urban dwellers may even leave the cities.
But I think that remains to be seen.
Urban life offers more possibilities for self-development than rural life...and people like that.
Urbanites do not listen to peasants because they see them as pig ignorant.
Well, isn't that the case? What is peasant life besides one of isolation from the accumulated sum of human knowledge?
Just look at the U.S. right now. Where do most of the volunteers for American imperialism come from? Where are the most fervently superstitious to be found? Where does open racism, sexism, and homophobia still flourish?
And our peasantry are "kulaks"...rich peasants that are, to all intents and purposes, fully petty-bourgeois in the classical definition of the word. They have electricity, television, internet service, etc. and they're still pig ignorant.
Granted, some of them have managed to learn a few things about the modern world; but there are others who would stone people to death for adultery if they thought they could get away with it!
From what I've read, the peasantry of the "third world" are mostly illiterate, deeply superstitious, profoundly and brutally sexist, and aside from their opposition to imperialism, just reactionary as hell.
I know there is a pronounced tendency among some western "lefties" to romanticize peasant life in distant and very backward countries -- perhaps stemming from our understandable alienation from the urban class society in which we live.
But I think if any one of us ever found ourselves in a peasant environment, we'd quickly realize the enormous magnitude of our error.
There's nothing "romantic" about it; it's a hellish existence.
Hobbes was right about it as an environment where life is "nasty, brutal, and short".
Most criticism you can level at peasants can be leveled at urbanites too.
I don't deny it; after all, many urbanites used to be peasants or are the sons and daughters of peasants. Peasant "consciousness" doesn't just disappear when someone "gets off the bus".
Indeed, I know from my own experience that moving from a small midwestern city to a real city like New York or San Francisco is "disorienting"...it takes some time to realize the new possibilities that have opened up.
And to clean all that old shit out from between your toes. *laughs*
You've never been to any rural areas have you?
Only visits...as brief as I could possibly make them.
As I've said, most left-wing revolutions of the last century were fundamentally driven by peasants, or would have been impossible without peasant labour and soldiers.
But those were all bourgeois revolutions.
Historically progressive and necessary, no question about it. But not "left wing" in any communist sense of the word.
And people in the 'first world' do?
I think there is a "pool" of knowledge about what communism could really be in western Europe.
One of the most common remarks I hear from politically unsophisticated American workers is: communism might be a good idea but human nature makes it impossible.
This is an echo of bourgeois ideology, of course. But it hints at some kind of "latent" appreciation of the concept among working people...a kind of "potential" revolutionary class consciousness that is waiting to be tapped.
Because peasants are too stupid and backwards to understand Marxism?
It's not a matter of "stupidity"...peasants are genetically just as much modern humans as we are.
But too backward to understand Marxism? Yeah, that's pretty much the case.
There's nothing in their class background to prepare them to understand the Marxist paradigm. When the old Leninist regimes tried to impose collectivization of agriculture on the peasantry, they ran into enormous opposition. In the Ukraine, the peasants preferred to starve themselves...that is, deliberately refuse to grow grain for the cities or even for themselves. Something like that may have been at least partly responsible for the great famine under Mao as well.
And what happens when the peasantry really "runs wild"? Cambodia, that's what.
Peasants are essential to any society because primary production is essential to any society.
It's a thorny problem, but in my view communist cities will grow or manufacture most or nearly all of their own food. The technology to grow meat "in vats" is already under development. Fruits and vegetables could be grown in enormous greenhouses built where the suburbs are now. Urbanites would "commute" to those workplaces just as they would commute to any other workplace.
Most of the "countryside" would just be allowed to "go back to nature".
In addition to this, they tend to be arrogant and condescending, looking down on anything they deem to be inferior and by inferior, I mean anything that does not conform to their ideals.
I sort of expected something like this; it's not as if I haven't heard it before.
In the "post-modern" ideological climate, we're all supposed to pretend that "every way of life" is "worthy of respect". Nothing is really "better" than anything else. Blah, blah, blah.
Well, fuck that! Some ideas are more truthful than others. Some ways of life are really better than others. Some things are not worthy of our "respect" but are rather reactionary and contemptible.
If that makes me "arrogant" and "condescending", then so be it.
I'd be ashamed not to be!
In some places, yes. In other places, no.
I quite agree. The "age of reform" in the "senile" capitalist countries is over. On the other hand, the younger capitalisms in Latin America are just entering their "age of reform".
So ironically enough, in elections communists should vote for the most horribly right wing candidate possible.
Communists do not piss around in the muck of bourgeois electoral politics at all.
Yes, wages haven't changed much and both people have to work and so on and so forth. But all people do is moan a bit, they don't attempt to do anything to improve their situation. They sit down and watch the shopping channel.
In North America, that's largely true. In western Europe, it's not as true.
Must I remind you that because something is true at this time that it doesn't mean it will "always" be true?
Falsification. In order for something to be a science it must be theoretically possible for it to be proved to be conclusively false. You can do that with evolution, you can't do that with Marxism.
Sure you can. All you need is a sufficient span of time to make the Marxist hypothesis of proletarian revolution and communism so improbable as to be probably false.
Historical materialism has been demonstrated to be the most fruitful tool yet invented for investigating past societies and social change.
Nevertheless, if capitalism is still around and flourishing by, say, 2400...then I think the scientific conclusion would be inescapable: Marx was wrong!
It could even turn out that the "evolutionary psychologists" are right and class society is "in our genes". Horrible thought, that, but we can't yet rule it out.
The jury is still out.
Marx said that there should be an end to the distinction between town and country and to me that seems to indicate a decentralisation of industry, etc.
He did indeed say that, but I suspect he was wrong on that one. The "huge" manufacturing plants that were characteristic of the late 19th and early 20th centuries have been rendered technologically obsolete...mainly by the invention of the electric motor.
But the trend towards urbanization continues unabated. Indeed, I've read that we are now "on the edge" of the establishment of a world-wide urban majority...and that within a few decades, the absolute number of rural dwellers will begin to decline on the whole planet.
First posted at RevLeft on January 18, 2006
Kautsky (yes, Kautsky) correctly summed up the alternatives as socialism or barbarism.
This actually appears as a phrase at the end of a letter of Marx to Engels...a remark made "in passing".
But Marx made many passing remarks that he lacked the time or interest to actually develop and integrate into his own paradigm.
What happens is a matter of the outcome of events. Capitalism was more likely to survive to 2400 after 1923 than before 1916.
I don't see how this can be said. Historical materialism does not "rule out" contingency altogether...but it must be "big" to have a serious effect on the "big trends".
The material conditions for even a primitive "socialism" simply did not exist in the Europe of 1916. The German proletariat had power within its reach in the period 1918-23...and simply refused it!
Marxism has always contained the implicit recognition that capitalism could develop in ways that would mean socialism would not happen - if the class struggle failed.
I can't say that I see how that would be possible...barring global catastrophe and "the common ruin of the contending classes".
"End of the world" scenarios are fashionable these days -- from "peak oil" to "runaway greenhouse effect" to "world-wide pandemic" and a whole bunch more. To some extent this may reflect a vague (and correct) perception that "things cannot go on like this".
But the erosion of faith in "things as they are" is hardly enough to protect capitalism from future proletarian challenge...IF Marx was right.
Only if capitalism survives over the next several centuries and constantly raises world living standards and technological development will it be reasonable to say that "Marx was wrong."
Until then, I see no reasonable option but to "wait and see".
First posted at RevLeft on January 18, 2005
There is no limit to what the Marxist can achieve...
No...I'm afraid there are limits and fairly strict ones at that.
A Marxist in a "third world" country is in a very awkward position.
Contrary to the Leninist conceit of the last century, you cannot skip over a lengthy period of capitalist development...which may be done under the auspices of private capital, state capital, or a mixture of both.
So a "third world" Marxist who actually wanted to participate in a communist revolution would really have no reasonable choice but to take up citizenship in an "old" capitalist country and "go from there".
If that's not practical, then one "good thing" that a "third world" Marxist could do is attack all of the pre-capitalist cultural traits of his/her country.
The emerging proletariat in those countries is severely handicapped by superstition, patriarchy, racism, etc. A vigorous ideological attack on those reactionary formations will "help" (in the long run) that new proletariat become sufficiently advanced for communism to "make sense".
I don't think it makes much sense for a "third world" Marxist to get involved in bourgeois revolutions -- even if they manifest themselves under the "red" flag.
It's "demoralizing" work because a Marxist would know that the most that could come from it would be some sort of social welfare system..."easing the birth-pangs" of the modern capitalist system there.
On the other hand, the more damage that can be done to all the reactionary pre-capitalist ideologies, the sooner the time may arrive when proletarian revolution might become a practical possibility.
Better it should happen in 2300 than in 2500!
There has to be a point when you rally support and build a movement and that’s through democracy, vote for the working class party not the bourgeoisie.
This is actually what Marx and Engels advocated during the 19th century European bourgeois revolutions.
But we now know that such parties are incapable of passing beyond the horizons of "bourgeois right"...regardless of their "red" rhetoric.
I can't deny that it makes "a kind of sense" to vote for such parties in the "third world"...but I think it would be, again, demoralizing, to really get involved with them. You can't "make them" into more than what it's materially possible for them to be...except in words, of course.
I would like to tell you in advance, though, that redstar would surely propose that your country should establish capitalism first before going to socialism.
Close. It's not a matter of "should", it's what will happen. You can no more stop it from happening -- in one way or another -- than you can can stop a hurricane by issuing a weather report.
What should be the actions of a Marxist in a country like Brazil or Mexico?
Brazil and Mexico are not really "third world" countries any more...call them "second world" if you like.
In my opinion, those countries have already become sufficiently developed as to be entering their "Age of Reform"...where capitalism is modernized in preparation for those countries to become "players" in their own right. In fact, I expect them to become imperialist countries...perhaps by 2050 or even somewhat sooner.
What this means is that a Marxist in those countries will probably get "caught up" in reformist struggles...because it's actually possible to win real reforms. It will "look like" things are leading "in a revolutionary direction"...even though that's not really what's actually happening.
Unfortunately, proletarian revolution remains a century or maybe two centuries in the future there. A Marxist there could talk about communism...but it would sound completely wacko to 99.999% of his/her listeners.
I suspect, in fact, that Marxists in the "third world" and even the "second world" are few in number and brief in duration. A "western education" brings them into contact with Marx...but what Marx really writes about is alien to nearly everything they see around them.
They can borrow some of Marx's ideas and "adapt" them for use in their own countries. The developed part of Russia in Lenin's time bears considerable resemblance to present-day "second world" countries. And the "third world" countries look almost "ideal" for Maoism to "work".
But remember that Lenin's party only came to power in the wake of catastrophic military defeat and the overthrow of a truly hated aristocracy...something that doesn't apply to today's "second world" countries.
Maoism depends on a heavily exploited peasantry...but, slowly and surely, the "third world" peasantry is being urbanized.
So the prospects are not necessarily "bright" for those versions of "Marxism"...no matter how plausible they may look to a "Marxist" in one of those countries.
There's always the possibility that someone will come up with an entirely new version of "Marxism" adapted to "second world" or even "third world" countries.
But I don't see how any conceivable ideology will overcome the historical materialist reality...that real communism is only possible in a "high tech" society...which, by definition, "second world" and "third world" countries are a very long way away from achieving.
So it's a "tough" situation.
First posted at RevLeft on January 21, 2006
...even if the best possible system that could come out of a revolution is a system like Cuba has, that's still good enough to me.
Ask a Haitian if they'd much prefer a system like Cuba has (whatever you want to call it, of course I consider it socialist) to what they have now.
The Haitian would respond the same way as both of us! A "Cuba-style" regime there would be a "leap forward" of light-years.
Sad to say, I don't think such a regime would even be possible there for at least a century...unless an independent and very radical Quebec imposed it. Not "impossible" but pretty unlikely.
"Cuba-style" regimes would, in fact, be enormous improvements for most of Africa...where people are probably the most miserable and backward in today's world. Even basic literacy is a class privilege in those countries. Epidemic and very deadly diseases are routine...as is all sorts of incredible ethnic violence (often supported by external imperialists). Starvation is commonplace. And, as you might expect, superstition is rampant and frequently deadly.
Even historical materialism falters in the face of such utter wretchedness...you can't even make plausible conjectures about "what will happen" in those places.
Imperialism did (and is still doing) such a thorough wrecking job on Africa (and on Haiti!) that it's impossible to say when those countries will begin to develop "normally".
It's possible that the Union of South Africa will "mature" into a modern imperialist country by the end of this century...and spread "civilization" into the African interior -- in such a way that the profits will actually stay in Africa and develop the continent.
Or South Africa could develop a "Cuba-style" regime and spread it over the continent.
Haiti is Africa "writ small"...and I don't, at present, see any hope at all for that hapless land.
First posted at RevLeft on January 21, 2006
Let me ask you a different question. Do you believe that every capitalist country will eventually become an imperialist country? For instance, you say that now is Brazil's turn - will there be a Costa Rica's turn? A Paraguay's turn? A Somalia's turn? Will eventually all capitalist countries be imperialist, simultaneously?
That's two questions.
On its face, the idea of small countries eventually evolving into imperialist countries seems improbable.
But what happens when all the "big countries" have already become communist? Is it not possible that some small countries could turn a predatory eye on one another?
Recall that Holland and Portugal were small countries that built empires.
Historical materialism necessarily rules out the possibility that "all capitalist countries [could] be imperialist, simultaneously". The "oldest" capitalist countries will experience proletarian revolutions first, followed by the newer capitalist countries as their systems age, followed by the still newer capitalist countries...and so on.
The whole process might take three to five centuries to complete...but most of it should be over by 2300 or so. By then capitalism will be a marginal system confined to areas that we now (and will then) consider "especially backward".
In that distant era, Costa Rica will probably be communist, Paraguay might be approaching proletarian revolution, and Somalia would be doing really well just to manage modern capitalism.
Assuming that any of those entities still exist. I imagine that there will be a lot of "border changes" over the next three centuries...especially as so many "third world" borders were drawn by the "old" imperialist countries that will no longer exist.
For example, I rather doubt that there will even be a "United States" after proletarian revolution in North America.
Or a "Canada".
There might be a "North American Communist Union" of some kind...but it won't be a nation-state in the contemporary sense. It will be a set of functional groups set up for specific purposes that require co-operation on a continental scale.
The whole idea of patriotism will be as dead as all the other superstitions of our age.
First posted at RevLeft on January 24, 2006
Marx, of course, held no such position. He even sided with the U.S. in the Mexican-American War.
A new "gambit": Marx was "pro-imperialist" while Lenin was the first "real" anti-imperialist.
Well, let's try this one...
The contemplated intervention in Mexico by England, France, and Spain, is, in my opinion, one of the most monstrous enterprises ever chronicled in the annals of international history. It is a contrivance of the true Palmerston make, astounding the uninitiated by an insanity of purpose and an imbecility of the means employed which appear quite incompatible with the known capacity of the old schemer.
The Intervention in Mexico by Karl Marx, New York Daily Tribune, November 23, 1861.
This is a most interesting piece, by the way. Go through it and substitute a few names and it could be written about Bush, Iraq, etc. I think it shows quite well that Marx was very conscious of imperialism as a mode of behavior of the bourgeoisie...and "nothing special" in and of itself.
Well, how about Engels?
In America we have witnessed the conquest of Mexico and have rejoiced at it... It is to the interest of its own development that Mexico will in [the] future be placed under the tutelage of the United States.
The Movements of 1847 by Frederick Engels, Deutsche-Brüsseler-Zeitung, January 23, 1848.
Oh, Fred, say it ain't so!
Well, it is so. This early article is a tribute to the rising bourgeoisie and celebrates its triumphs of 1847. Why?
So just fight bravely on, most gracious masters of capital! We need you for the present; here and there we even need you as rulers. You have to clear the vestiges of the Middle Ages and of absolute monarchy out of our path; you have to annihilate patriarchalism; you have to carry out centralisation; you have to convert the more or less propertyless classes into genuine proletarians, into recruits for us; by your factories and your commercial relationships you must create for us the basis of the material means which the proletariat needs for the attainment of freedom. In recompense whereof you shall be allowed to rule for a short time. You shall be allowed to dictate your laws, to bask in the rays of the majesty you have created, to spread your banquets in the halls of kings, and to take the beautiful princess to wife — but do not forget that
“The hangman stands at the door!" (a line from Heine).
Marx and Engels would be regarded, in modern terms, as "Euro-centric"...they saw the spread of European imperialisms as a means of development for the "uncivilized" countries of the world.
They didn't know that imperialism distorts the development of capitalism in the countries it conquers; it hyper-develops a small sector of the conquered country's economy and leaves the rest to rot.
That's something that had to be learned from observed experience...which was not yet available to them in 1848 or even 1861.
In fact, I would argue that it's only been really clear since 1945 that this is the normal outcome of imperialism.
Lenin's Russia (1895-1917) was an early example of this...and it's certainly to his credit that he noticed it when so many of his contemporaries didn't. That is, he observed the enormous contrast between a few highly developed industrial cities and the abysmal backwardness of Russia as a whole.
In modern terminology, we might almost describe Lenin's Russia as a neo-colony of British and French capital. Nominally independent...but with an economy strangled by foreign capitalists and unable to develop "normally".
Which is why the first task of a colonial or neo-colonial country is to expel the imperialists!
There are a small number of cases where an imperialist country may permit the "normal" development of a domestic bourgeoisie for political reasons...South Korea is probably the outstanding example of this.
But if you look around the world at the panoply of countries that remain "undeveloped", you see economies that are wildly twisted and stunted along with ruling classes that are weak, dependent, and hopelessly corrupted.
Today, Marx and Engels would have been ferocious anti-imperialists precisely because imperialism blocks the road to the development of a revolutionary proletariat in the countries it dominates.
First posted at RevLeft on January 26, 2006
The logic of historical materialism suggests that a regime in which reform is no longer possible becomes one in which revolution is inevitable.
Because this statement sounds like, "the fate of the proletariat is communism and nothing can be done about it."
What are your propositions then in order for that hypothesis to be proven?
First of all, we've observed the fate of regimes which "ruled out reform".
Secondly, we've likewise observed the emergence and growth of a modern proletariat...and the fact that it struggles in its own perceived self-interest against the bourgeoisie.
Thirdly, we observe that the willingness of the bourgeoisie to make "concessions" (reforms) to the proletariat is visibly diminishing in the "old" capitalist countries. In fact, the "great reforms" of the period 1930-50 are being dismantled.
I assume, in line with Marx, that this behavior is a product of "the tendency of the rate of profit to fall over time". A "young" and vigorous capitalism can "afford" reforms; a "senile" capitalism cannot...and must more and more rely on rigid repression to remain in power.
Finally, we observe that "rigid repression" opens up an abyss between what the ruling class "thinks" is going on and what is really happening. A severely repressive ruling class is increasingly unable to rationally act in its own class interests...because it no longer has an accurate understanding of the real world.
Look at the Bush regime floundering around in Iraq like a "beached whale". I expect that's only the first catastrophe of many more to come.
It's quite possible, in fact, that a future American president will make "the Czar's mistake"...get into a war that will strain American capitalism to the point of collapse.
The Marxist hypothesis is that this will be followed by proletarian revolution and communism (not "socialism").
But this hypothesis still awaits empirical confirmation.
We could end up with a "socialist" despotism or a military dictatorship or even being conquered by younger and stronger capitalist powers...should they desire to occupy a continent full of rubble and corpses.
We cannot predict the future in useful detail.
Not even with "dialectics". *laughs*
Historical materialism can give us a "big picture"...but how things will play out in detail always remains to be seen.
First posted at RevLeft on January 27, 2006
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