Those old ahistorical Marxists

This article on the French and British Enlightenments reminded me of a thought I had when I was reading Aden Arabie by Paul Nizan, a Communist and friend of Sartre’s from the ’30’s who certainly appears, to my admittedly not authoritative eyes, to have pretty much formulated the so-called “existentialist” theory of action which Sartre gets all the credit for, a full 15 years at least before Being and Nothingness appeared. Anyway, the book is a semi-propogandistic autobiographical account of his intellectual conversion to commitment to revolution during a trip to Arabia. At one point in which he is ranting about how declaring publicly that one wishes to live as a human being would get one arrested in France, and how no one actually lives as a human being there, I got to wondering what he would actually define as a human being. At this point, an essential difference between what in this context you might call the French (anti-religious/communist/revolutionary/authoritarian) and British (capitalist/reformist/skeptical) Enlightenment models sprang to mind. The capitalistic economic theories of Adam Smith, for example, or the political sentiments of Edmund Burke, are often, when supported, lauded for being realistic and paying heed to the vulnerabilities and capacities of humankind, while revolutionaries are considered more idealistic as well as abstract and impractical. But it seems to me that the British model, to the extent we can talk about it as a unified phenomenon, is actually more idealistic than the French. What strikes me about the revolutionary model as embodied by Nizan, Voltaire, etc. is that the revolutionaries seem to view the world, and human society in particular, as essentially a zero-sum game. Uplifting the poor inevitably implies depriving the prosperous; instituting the cult of reason necessites consigning religion from public life. Supporting some ideal state of human existence requires that one stigmatize current life as inhuman. It’s not hard to see why the pursuit of ideals in this case is almost inherently violent.

The reformists, by contrast, seem to imagine a world of almost undefined possibility. The poor can be uplifted not by depriving others but by creating new wealth. Reason can come to bloom in human society not by shoving superstition out, but rather by complementing it in adding a new realm of reflection and thought (and action) which had not previously existed. Actual human existence contains the kernel for future dreams, which can be built upon, rather than being demolished. It is not necessary to go along with this philosophy to perceive that there is something more fundamentally hopeful and ambitious about it than in revolution. Of course, the one regard in which it cannot compete, let alone surpass, the revolutionary model is in the maintenance of equality. It’s true that equality is a more marginal consideration, and a more accidental by-product, of the British than the French conception. However, without going into an overly lengthy discussion at the moment, I think it is very necessary to consider whether levelling the top, or caving in to the middle, is what one any of us really value as a social or philosophical ideal, whether it can ever be distinguished from homogeneity, and whether it is not merely the province of envy.

p.s. My title, while intended to be ironic, might require a word of explanation. Marx, as you might guess, was pretty much the paragon of zero-sum revolutionary thinkers. Although idiots like Louis Althusser may believe that it was he that single-handedly brought history into philosophy and culture, it seems that his thinking, and by implication that of his intellectual descendants, is profoundly ahistorical. The opposition between worker and owner which existed at his historical moment in the mid-19th century, which he admittedly perceived very clearly, was to be imposed on the entire history of mankind and on its future. I don’t think he could imagine a true cultural and economic revolution, nor today, in our world of stock options, mutual funds, self-employed people, etc. could even a Marx probably be able to delineate exactly the boundary between worker and owner. Or, to take another example, when I was staying in Oxford several weeks ago, talking with a friend of mine and several other students, one of whom was a die-hard Marxist planning on studying in Japan, the subject was broached as to why no strong Marxist-type revolution or revolutionary movement had broken out in Japan despite its intensely hierarchical society and its monopolistic business model seemingly taken straight from the 19th century. I suggested that maybe the Japanese had simply never in aggregate identified themselves along economic class lines. The idea was not dismissed, but it did not seem to have occured to them before.

One Response to “Those old ahistorical Marxists”

  1. Dave Says:

    Marxism never really made much headway in Japan, or in any industrialized countries, except among the “intelligentsia� who would be quickly be gotten rid of if communists did take over. Those clever capitalists always bought the working class off by bribing them with a prosperous economy. Japan, a very hierarchical and paternalistic country was able to industrialize rapidly without slave labor camps always required by communist regimes. I just don’t understand why they didn’t want to be like North Korea, Soviet Russia, China, North Vietnam and Cambodia. That would be much better than American imperialism with all that phony freedom of speech, freedom of association, and civil rights in the post WW II era. Communists had a fair shot at converting the masses in Japan, but they remained a fringe group. The only real traction they could get was anti- Americanism, which is the only remains of Marxism. (I recently read Paul Robeson’s obsequious eulogy to Stalin, written in 1953. It sounds like one of those diatribes routinely parroted by campus radicals today. Jane Fonda’s speeches delivered in Vietnam sounded the same, just substitute Ho for Stalin. Today the same speeches today would be half as long, all anti-Americanism, no Stalin or Ho.) With the fall of the Soviets and capitalism now taking over in China, and Vietnam, where do Marxists look to for guidance, North Korea? I don’t understand why these dunces still populate our campuses. Maybe your friend can explain it to me. Ref; (Pardon the background sounds. Just read the speech.)

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