Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Spinoza (A Book Note)

Thomas Riggins

SPINOZA AND SPINOZISM by Stuart Hampshire, Oxford University Press, 2005, 206 pp.
Reviewed by Avishai Margalit in "The New York Review of Books" October 20, 2005.

This is a reworking of the book "Spinoza: An Introduction to His Philosophical Thought" with some revisions and new interpretive introductions. Hampshire died last year at 89 and the original version of the book was published back in 1951.

It is important to know something about the philosophy of Spinoza as he was the great grandfather, as it were, of Marxism (Hegel being the grandfather). Engel’s famous definition of freedom as the recognition of necessity comes from Spinoza, for example.

Spinoza (1632-1677) is usually associated with Descartes and the scientific revolution. He has been called the first secular thinker in modern Europe. His philosophy is even more important today because it is not based on any appeal to religion or supernatural causes. Theologians like to say the universe was created by God but God is uncreated – being the cause of himself.

But Margalit says, "Only nature as a whole, according to Spinoza, is the cause of itself, meaning that nature should be explainable by what actually happens in nature and that no appeal to a transcendent reality, or separate God, is necessary for explaining its existence." Our friends the fundamentalists are four hundred years behind on their reading lists.

Margalit also points out that Spinoza "was a prime mover in shaping the European Enlightenment," and "that his skepticism about divine authority radicalized a generation of intellectuals in the last years of the seventeenth century." This opinion is based on J. Israel’s "Radical Enlightenment" (Oxford, 2002). Spinoza is thus the great grandfather of the modern secular outlook as well as of Marxism.

Hampshire, who thinks that biology rather than mathematics, was the inspiration for Spinoza’s thought, is quoted as saying Spinoza "believed his contemporaries could not even try to understand his thought, because its conclusions were evidently incompatible with their deepest religious loyalties and moral prejudices." Those conclusions were that the universe is all there is and that the traditional religions are illusions based on over active imaginations that have abandoned "the critical power of reason."

Today the fate of the world is in the hands of people who have abandoned reason and science for the delusional reality of their imaginations. In this world, the more we can learn about Spinoza the better. Hampshire’s last book is a parting gift to us and a welcome introduction to Spinoza’s "Ethics" and "Tractatus Theologico-Politicus" (one of the best explanations of the Bible ever produced).

Friday, November 28, 2008


BOOK REVIEW: The Mind of Egypt
By Thomas Riggins

BOOK REVIEW: The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharoahs
by Jan Assmann (translated by Andrew Jenkins)
New York, Metropolitan Books, 2002.

You might think the Ancient Egyptians too remote in time to be anything other than intellectual curiosities for us. Jan Assmann, the great German Egyptologist, thinks otherwise. Early on in his masterful reconstruction of the Egyptian mind set, he tells us that "ancient Egypt is an intellectual and spiritual world that is linked to our own by numerous strands of tradition." A brief review can only barely touch on the topics discussed in this book, but I will try to give some examples of Assmann’s conclusions with reference our links to the Ancient Egyptians--they may be more extensive than you might think.

Take for example the ancient work "The Admonitions of Ipuwer" from the thirteenth century B.C., (around the time of Ramesses II) which describes "the nobles" as "full of lament" and the "lowly full of joy." Bertolt Brecht was so impressed by this work that, Assmann says, "he worked part of it into the ‘Song of Chaos’ in his play ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle.’" Ipuwer was lamenting the overthrow of established order by the lower classes-- so long has the specter of Communism been haunting the world (not just Europe) that Brecht could sense the presence of comrades over three thousand years ago! Brecht made a few slight changes, Assmann says, and the Egyptian sage’s lament became "a triumphal paean to the Revolution."

A useful Egyptian concept to know is that of "ma’at" which Assmann defines as "connective justice" which "holds for Egyptian civilization in general." Basically "connective justice" is the idea that all of actions are interconnected with those of others such that it "is the principle that forms individuals into communities and that gives their actions meaning and direction by ensuring that good is rewarded and evil punished."

Assmann likens this concept to what he calls the "connection between memory and altruism." Looking at our own times, he says this Ancient Egyptian concept is manifested in the ideas of Karl Marx (and also in Nietzsche’s "Genealogy of Morals"). He quotes Marx who wrote that [Private] "Interest has no memory, for it thinks only of itself." This is a quote from issue 305 of the Rheinische Zeitung, Nov. 1, 1842 (not as cited by Assmann issue 298 Oct. 25, 1842).

The point being that the State should look to the collective good of all citizens and not be used to further private or individual interests. It must have "memory" directed toward the general good. This is also the point of ma‘at. The Egyptian Middle Kingdom work "Tale of the Eloquent Peasant" makes this point. This implies that we could find basically "Marxist" social values being discussed in Egypt!

As Assmann points out, "Ma‘at is the law liberating the weak from the oppression at the hands of the strong. The idea of liberation from the oppression caused by inequality is informed at least to a rudimentary extent by the idea of the equality of all human beings." It should be noted that the picture many have of ancient Egypt as a repressive slave state is the result of the Old Testament tradition. That tradition does not represent the actual state of affairs with respect to the functioning of the Egyptian state.

An examination of the literary remains of the Egyptians themselves shows an entirely different society than that portrayed in Biblical propaganda. "The Egyptian state," Assmann writes, " is the implementation of a legal order that precludes the natural supremacy of the strong and opens up prospects for the weak (the ‘widows’ and ‘orphans’) that otherwise would not exist.

Besides Biblical misrepresentations of Egyptian thought there were also the misunderstandings of the classical writers. For example, the Greek Diodorus, who left behind a description of the "Judgment of the Dead", presents the "facts" in contradiction to what we know is described in the Egyptian "Book of the Dead." In fact, Assmann avers that the Egyptian account is similar to the 25th Chapter of the "Gospel According to St. Matthew" where the reward of going to the "House of Osiris" is "replaced by the Kingdom of God." In fact, I think, many so-called Christian values and beliefs actually have their origin in Ancient Egyptian religious and ethical concepts.

We should remember that the first "monotheist," after all, was the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten (r. cir. 1352-1338 B.C.) who stood "at the head of a lineage very different from his predecessors’, one represented after him by the Moses of legend, and later by Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed," according to Assmann. As a truth seeker he also differs from the three aforementioned in that as "a thinker, Akhenaten stands at the head of a line of inquiry that was taken up seven hundred years later by the Milesian philosophers of nature [i.e., the Greeks] with their search for the one all-informing principle, and that ended with the universalist formulas of our own age as embodied in the physics of Einstein and Heisenberg." Assmann has a very high opinion of Akhenaten!

Unlike earlier Egyptologists who think the ideas of Akhenaten were repressed by his successors (due to their--Akhenaten's ideas that is-- "deism" rather than "theism" characteristics), Assmann maintains that they were "elaborated further and integrated into" the religious teachings of the age of Ramesses and his successors. From here they eventually influenced Plato, and, since Plato was the basis of the thought of Augustine, Christianity. Although, Christianity ended up the mortal foe of the Egyptian religion and ultimately destroyed it and the culture that produced it.

Today we know more about the civilization of Ancient Egypt than has been known since its own time. We must come to grips with his new knowledge, and especially with the recovered literature of the Egyptians and "attempt" as Assmann says, "to enter into a dialogue with the newly readable messages of ancient Egyptian culture and thus to reestablish them as an integral part of our cultural memory."

This review has only skimmed the surface of this important book. I hope it inspires you to read the book itself.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at pabooks@politicalaffairs.ne

Monday, November 3, 2008


Catholic Cardinal Gets it Right on Evolution [PA Archives]
By Thomas Riggins

Ultimately the life of a man is of no greater importance to the universe than the life of an oyster-- David Hume

Two pieces in the Times last week (“Finding Design in Nature” by Christoph [Cardinal] Schonborn, July 7, 2005 and “Leading Cardinal Redefines Church’s View on Evolution: He Says Darwinism and Catholicism May Conflict” by Cornelia Dean and Laurie Goodstein, July 9, 2005) finally resolves, for me at least, the question of the relation between a scientific outlook on the world and the outlook of the Catholic Church.

Cardinal Schonborn is the archbishop of Vienna and chief editor, the Times reports, of the official Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992). His understanding of science seems to be based on the works of Aristotle. The Cardinal begins his essay critical of “neo-Darwinian dogma” (I admit that the Cardinal is probably an expert on dogma if not Darwinism). He says the Darwinists have misinterpreted Pope John Paul II (another noted scientist) who said in 1996 that evolution is “more than just a hypothesis.” They think this means that Darwinism is “somehow compatible with Christian faith.”

They are wrong, says the Cardinal. I think he has it right. I will even go a bit further. Not only is Darwinism incompatible with the Christian faith (as interpreted by the Catholic sect), but any scientific understanding of the world at all is incompatible with it and any other system claiming to have some timeless absolute knowledge based on revelation rather that testable empirical investigations.

The Cardinal grants that there might be “evolution” in the sense of “common ancestry”-- we might indeed all come out of the primal ooze -- but not in the Darwinian sense of “random variation and natural selection.” He quotes the eminent evolutionary biologist, and sect leader, John Paul II, who said, “The evolution of living beings, of which science seeks to determine the stages and to discern the mechanism, presents an internal finality [there is NO scientific evidence for this] which arouses admiration. This finality which directs beings in a direction for which they are not responsible or in charge, obliges one to suppose [it does?] a Mind which is its inventor, its creator.”

Cardinal Schonborn says we must note that the term “finality” is a philosophical term which means “final cause, purpose or design.” Well, at least he agrees that it is not a scientific term. We should also note that modern philosophy, at least since the sixteenth century, has rejected any type of “finality” in this sense. The Cardinal is using a term confined almost exclusively to sectaries, who need it to justify their otherwise outlandish beliefs.

Three centuries ago, and a century before Darwin, the great Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) described what the “finality” of the world looked like to human reason unprejudiced by viewing the world through the prism of superstition. “Look around this universe,” he wrote: “What an immense profusion of beings, animated and organized, sensible and active! You admire this prodigious variety and fecundity. But inspect a little more narrowly these living existences.... How hostile and destructive to each other!... The whole presents nothing but the idea of a blind nature, impregnated by a great vivifying principle, and pouring forth from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimed and abortive children”(quoted from Will and Ariel Durant, The Age of Voltaire).

This is not what Cardinal Schonborn sees when he looks at the universe. He sees with the eyes of “the authoritative Catechism of the Catholic Church.” He then quotes his new boss (Benedict XVI): “We are not some causal and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.” Does that even make sense. How can you look at the heaps of skulls left behind by Pol Pot, or by the genocide in Rwanda and now in Dafur, or think of the thousands of children killed by the US in the name of “freedom” in Iraq, Central America and Vietnam, or think of the people lost in the Tsunami -- or contemplate the babies born with hideous birth defects or with AIDS or cancer-- how can any of that jive with being a loved and willed thought of God?

Only in your religious dreams can you hold the Pope’s ideas-- but let us not, as the Cardinal does, confuse this with “human reason” or “science.”

The news article, by Dean and Goodstein, gives some reactions by scientists and others to the Cardinal’s ideas. As might have been expected religious fundamentalists and proponents of design in nature theories are very happy with the essay. On the other hand “some biologists and others said they read the essay as abandoning longstanding church support for evolutionary biology.”

“‘Unguided,’ ‘unplanned.’ ‘random’ and ‘natural’ are all adjectives that biologists might apply to the process of evolution, said Dr. Kenneth R. Miller, a professor of biology at Brown and a Catholic. But even so, he said, evolution ‘can fall within God’s providential plan.’ He added: ‘Science cannot rule it out. Science cannot speak on this.’” There is a lot of conceptual confusion here. Just what kind of “providential plan” is “unguided,” “un-planned,” and “random?” What is clear is that all this talk about seeing design in nature is a lot of pre-scientific twaddle left over from the Middle Ages.

In closing, we should note that it is not just Darwin with which the church has difficulty. The church still can’t make up its mind about Galileo. Here is a quote from Benedict XVI when he was still just Cardinal Ratzinger and the head of the Inquisition: “At the time of Galileo the Church remained much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself. The process against Galileo was reasonable and just.” And the Sun goes around the Earth.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at pabooks@politicalaffairs.net.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


REMEMBERING PAUL RICOEUR: 1913-2005 (French Philosopher) [Political Affairs Archives]
By Thomas Riggins

The May 24 New York Times has reported the death of one of Frances’s most famous philosophers (“Paul Ricoeur, 92, Wide-Ranging French Philosopher, Is Dead” by Margalit Fox”). Many of Ricoeur’s ideas are interesting even when they clash with the Marxist philosophical outlook. We can always learn from those who don’t share our philosophical commitments.

Fox quotes Dr. C. E. Reagan who said about Ricoeur, “In the history of philosophy, he would take positions that appeared to be diametrically opposed, and he’d work to see if there was a middle ground.” In that spirit I propose to see what middle ground Marxists might be able to share with Ricoeur ( I don't think we will find too many-- but at least two come to mind: peace is better than war and democracy is a postive good)) whose philosophy, forbiddingly, is a species of “phenomenological hermeneutics.”

This is not as bad as it sounds. Phenomenology is the “science” of how we experience the world and hermeneutics is a fancy word for “interpretation.” It comes from the Greek for ”interpret” (originally used for interpreting the Bible) and ultimately from the name of the Greek God “Hermes” (Roman Mercury) who was the messenger of Zeus.

Christopher Norris (The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, ed. by Ted Honderich) wrote that Ricoeur found in his “middle ground” way of thinking a “kindred dialectic” with Marxism. Norris points out the double aspect of interpretation (it has a “positive” and “negative” moment). His interpretation of Freud is one example: the negative-- psychoanalysis looks for the past repressed information in the unconscious mind in order to find the positive-- a cure to repression and a new possibility for the future. He also sees this in Marxism: the negative-- class struggle, oppression, revolution leads to the positive-- a new society of human equality [hopefully].

G. B. Madson (The Columbia History of Western Philosophy, ed. by Richard H. Popkin) tells us that Ricoeur comes out of the tradition of the German Fascist philosopher Martin Heidegger(this sounds bad and it is bad but not as bad as it sounds). This tradition breaks with the mainstream of modern philosophy from Descartes through Russell and their contemporary followers (almost all philosophers but not professors of literature and cultural criticism).

The first part of the break is not so bad. Modern philosophers have a tendency to start with the isolated consciousness of a particular person, the ego, and then try to see how this ego can get to an external world independent of its own thinking mind. We can agree with Heidegger that human beings find themselves, “always already”, as Madson says “in a world.” Madson quotes Ricoeur: “The gesture of hermeneutics is a humble one of acknowledging the historical conditions to which all human understanding is subsumed in the reign of finitude.” No problem. We awake to find ourselves always already in a specific historical context-- e.g., I’m a French worker or a German bourgeois, etc. Let’s agree not to start with the ego. But we are going to go downhill from here.

We all agree with the historical consciousness as a starting point. We do not need Heidegger or his followers to tell us this. It is a basic core belief of Marxism already. Let us assume that I am a sugarcane cutter in 1950’s Cuba. My consciousness is determined by what Ricoeur calls its “historicality.” Madson says, “As Ricoeur characterizes it, effective historical consciousness is ‘the massive and global fact whereby consciousness, even before its awakening as such, belongs to and depends on that which affects it.” In other words, Mr. Cutter belongs to and depends upon the world dominated by Mr. Plantation Owner and overseen by Mr. President Batista (and globally Uncle Sam).

Ricoeur continues, “The action of tradition [effective history] and historical investigation are fused by a bond which no critical consciousness could dissolve without rendering the research itself nonsensical.” This leads to the conclusion, Madson says, that the Enlightenment is wrong in thinking effective history must be overcome in order to really understand the “truth.” When Ricoeur proclaims that truth is historical you begin to think he must be on to something. But wait!

We are informed that this way of thinking rejects the “correspondence theory of truth”. This is the theory accepted by Marxism. A proposition is true if it corresponds to a state of the external world. “My car is red” is true if and only if my car is red. But we find out, says Madson, that “a core tenet of philosophical hermeneutics is that genuine understanding is not representational but essentially transformative.”

Mr. Cutter has been reading the Communist Manifesto and has decided that there is no correspondence between a just society and the world of Mr. Plantation Owner. He is told, “I’m sorry, but we don’t use the correspondence theory anymore.” What does it mean to say truth is transformative. Well, you read the Manifesto and it transforms you, you “appropriate” it and interpret it in your historical context-- Cuba 1950”s-- very different from Germany in 1848.

Mr. Cutter objects. He thinks the Manifesto is appropriate for any class society, that Marx and Engels had it mind to lay down general truths corresponding to the entire historical epoch of capitalism. Well then, we have missed “one of the most distinctive tenets of philosophical hermeneutics: The meaning of a text is not reducible to the meaning intended by its author.” Its meaning is now what you make of it.

Ricoeur is quoted: “The text’s career escapes the finite horizon lived by its author. What the text says now matters more than what the author meant to say, and every exegesis unfolds its procedures within the circumference of a meaning that has broken its moorings to the psychology of its author.”

This may be going too far. Original intent is important. We must first understand the text’ before we can interpret it. How to make sense of the phrase “what the text says now’? This means to Ricoeur something like “what it says to me”. But this sounds like relativism. Anyone can read Marx, etc., anyway s/he chooses. It is not relativism, says Madson. Philosophers in this school reject dogmatism and “maintain that it is never possible to demonstrate conclusively the validity of one’s interpretations, they also maintain, against all forms of relativism, that it is nevertheless always possible to argue for one’s interpretations in cogent, nonarbitrary, reasoned ways [the Enlightenment lives on!]. In other words... if our interpretations can reasonably lay claim to being true, they must adhere to certain argumentative criteria, such as coherence and comprehensiveness.”

Mr. Cutter decides that the Manifesto is both coherent and comprehensive and runs off to the mountains to join Fidel. Was he right to do so? Our philosophers, following Ricoeur, think that the purpose of interpretation, of understanding, of finding the “truth” is ultimately to better understand ourselves [the return of the ego]. They reject “objectivism” and want to suborn it to “communicative rationality.” People, Madson says, “reason together in such a way as to enable them to arrive at common agreements or understandings (however provisional) that enable them to live together peacefully, whether as members of a particular scientific discipline or as members of society.” A revolution would seem to be a breakdown of "communicative rationality." The war in Iraq would be another breakdown.

But Mr. Cutter and Mr. Plantation Owner can’t reason together. They don’t have a “human” relation-- only an exploitative economic one. What this philosophy represents is bourgeois liberalism. It represents “none other than the core values of liberal democracy.” Remember “truth” is not “objective.” It really is for these thinkers, “subjective.” Madson quotes Ricoeur: “The truth is... the lighted place in which it is possible to continue to live and think.” That really doesn’t say anything! Madson continues, “Ricoeur has asserted that “democracy is the [only] political space in which [the conflict of interpretations] can be pursued with a respect for differences”-- that is to say, with a respect for the pursuit of truth on the part of each and every individual human being. When all is said and done, the basic tenet of philosophical hermeneutics is that there is only one truth, which is the democratic process itself.”

Here is another quote from Ricoeur, from Le Monde [2004] (via BBC News):

If I had to lay out my vision of the world... I would say: given
the place where I was born, the culture I received, what I read,
what I learned (and) what I thought about, there exists for me
a result that constitutes, here and now, the best thing to do. I
call it the action that suits.

This is an interesting quote, but what does it mean? This is true for everybody, including cats and dogs. It sounds like fatalism-- my actions are the result of my past history. A strange quote from someone associated with the exitentialist movement. Why not try thinking outside the box? Anyway, who cares what Ricouer meant? I can interpretet this to suit myself as long as I am coherent and comprehensive.

Mr. Cutter was right to run off to the mountains. In this class riven world where profits come before people this was the action that suits. The thinking of Paul Ricoeur cannot lead to the liberation of humanity from the bestial reality of monopoly capitalism and imperialism. We will have to evaluate him again when we live in a classless society. R.I.P.

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at pabooks@politicalaffairs.net

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Reviewed by Thomas Riggins

This book is one of a kind. Tatakis published it in French in 1949 and it had to wait until 2003 before an English edition appeared. The wait was worth it. This is the only book in English that covers the development of the history of philosophy and its intersection with Christianity during the entire course of the history of the Eastern Roman Empire from the fall of Rome and the Western Empire to its own fall in 1453 A.D.

Americans and Western Europeans are familiar with our local history-- Rome falls, then the Middle Ages dominated by Latin Christianity (Catholicism), the Renaissance, Reformation, and modern times.

Our way of looking at politics and religion was born out of this sequence. Marxism, is in fact, the logical outgrowth of just this history. It is sometimes difficult to understand other types of Marxisms, i.e., I mean those that have developed in the non-Western European context. Think of “Marxism with Chinese characteristics” or “the Juche Principle.”

What we learn from Tatakis’ book is that a different Christianity (Eastern Orthodox) and a different philosophical development was taking place in the Greek speaking half of the Mediterranean world throughout the entire period we in the West associate with our Middle Ages. The eastern world, dominated by Constantinople (the second Rome), retained its high level of civilization to the end. Its culture forms the background of Russia and other East European cultures.

If we want to understand Soviet Marxism we may have to look at it through the lenses of Byzantine philosophy rather than just assimilating it to the Western tradition. Even if this turns out not to be the case, this book is still a good read and opens up a world most of us have missed out on with our parochial education.

Tatakis seems not to have a secular outlook, but this rarely intrudes in his history. Early in the book we can see the coming fight between philosophy and religion (Christianity) – that is, between reason and faith. Two great schools of early Christianity were duking it out in the first couple of centuries of the Christian era – one in the great city of Alexandria, the other in Antioch. Alexandria stood for mysticism and a dogma “inaccessible to human reasoning” while Antioch stood for a non-mystical analysis of religious texts just as one “would scrutinize any human text, thus,” Tatakis says, “the reader falls into the trap of scientific rationalism.” Well, we certainly wouldn’t want that to happen! Antioch lost this fight – the Byzantines remained mystical by and large. (Note: Byzantium was the name of the little town upon which Constantinople was built so the Eastern Romans are called, by us, “Byzantines” – they called themselves “Romans”).

In the chapter on the sixth and seventh centuries we come across a bad attitude developing in Christianity that we can see is still with us. This is that “revelation” is better than our human type of “observational knowledge” and therefore “every advance in human thought” is viewed “as promoted by the devil.” Technology was OK (needed for warfare) but science as a way of explaining the world was neglected.

Nevertheless, there were some philosophers who tried to carry on the classical tradition of rational thought while being Christian at the same time. John Philoponos is especially important as his works on Aristotle, along with Aristotle, were translated into Syrian (and later into Arabic) and he was “an important agent in the formation of Syrian-Arabian philosophy.” We all know that the Arabs had a great and flowering civilization while we in the West were flea ridden barbarians – but they got it from (and added to it) the Greeks of the eastern Empire.

The next chapter covers the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries. A new attitude to government developed – called “Caesaropapism” – that is, the emperor, not the pope (or in this case the Patriarch) runs the show. This reversed a 300 year tradition initiated by the thinker Themistios who taught that “virtue and piety cannot be coerced”. He convinced the emperor Valens of this and Valens allowed “everyone the freedom of choosing whatever religion he liked.” The good old days

Caesaropapism was eventually defeated by the Church. A work called “The Epanagogy” was adopted (ninth century) “which stated that the emperor, as the executor of the law, becomes the common bond for all the subjects and distributes rewards to all with perfect objectivity and according to their merits. In the Patriarch [of Constantinople], the image of the living Jesus [the Pope wouldn’t like this], being that he is committed in a profound sense to truth in acts and speech, resides the right of interpretation.”

In later times the Russians adopted this work and “it became the standard from which [they] regulated their political and ecclesiastical life.” Substitute “the party” for “the emperor” and “General Secretary” for “Patriarch” and “Marxism-Leninism” for “Jesus” and maybe we can see the cultural background upon which Soviet Marxism was built-- maybe.

Since the emperor and the Patriarch tell us all that we need to know and do (which self love should make us want to accept) this leads “to the responsibility of not allowing heretics to prevent one’s salvation.” The defenders of the faith are noted for “fanaticism and inflexibility.”

We should note that Byzantine philosophers in the eighth century, by concentrating on the study of the classical Greeks and their culture, laid the foundations for what would become the Renaissance in Italy. There was always contact between the Latin West and Greek East and westerners were always coming to study at the great schools and universities in Constantinople. The East was always ahead of the West, however.

In the chapter on the eleventh and twelfth centuries we meet Michael Psellos (1018-1096) who wrote about the philosophy of Plato and became “the promoter of philosophical movement in Byzantium, an initiative that continued from the 11th through the 15th century and was disseminated by Plethon and Bessarion to the Italy of the Renaissance and then to the rest of Western Europe.” Tatakis ends this chapter by saying, “it is not enough to say that in the 11th and 12th centuries speculative thought in the Latin West runs on the same track as it did in Byzantium. We must acknowledge that in all of the essential points of this intellectual movement, Byzantium led the way.”

We will end this review with the chapter on the last three centuries with some comments about George Gemistos Plethon (c.1360-1450) who came to live in Italy. Plethon was very advanced and definitely put philosophy in the first place ahead of religion. In “his most important work, The Laws,... [he says] philosophical thinking... reveals the naked truth to the spirit that has been liberated from dogmatism and compels the person, every person, to accept it ‘with one accord and with the same spirit.’ The position of the enlightenment philosophers would not be very different.”

We should feel some solidarity with Plethon even 550 years on as, Tatakis says, he believed “happiness emanates from the organization of the state” and in his memoirs, he “emerges... as the forerunner and anticipator of many socialist and other modern concepts.”
Does this sound like “From each according to his abilities to each according to his work”:
I mean his view that “the right to wealth is proportional to the services each person renders, a principle that secures social justice and elevates the value of labor.”

I certainly hope we won’t have to wait another 550 years to see this come about!

by Basil Tatakis
translated by Nicholas J. Moutafakis
Hackett Publishing Co., 2003. 424pp.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Pope Benedict XVI’s Perplexing Logic [Political Affairs Archives}
By Thomas Riggins

What can progressives expect from the new pope? Not much I’m afraid. The New York Times ran an article on Sunday (4/24/05), "Turbulence on Campus in 60’s Hardened Views of Future Pope," which gives those of us who are not seasoned Vatican watchers some glimpse of how the former head of the Inquisition (previous name for the Congregation of Doctrine of the Faith) thinks.

The article reveals some perplexing logical jumps in the reasoning of the pope while he was still just Joseph Ratzinger. He was supposedly a moderate liberal until he encountered feisty student protesters at Tubingin University.

We know what caused the protests. Students wanted more democratic control of the campus, plus they were against the Vietnam War and US bases in Germany. In other words they were demanding peace and freedom. This reminded Ratzinger (a former member of the Hitler Youth) of the Nazis despite the fact that "peace and freedom" was not a slogan usually associated with Hitler and the Nazis.

He didn’t really like the Nazis the article says. He grew up in Bavaria, a very Catholic area in Germany and also home to the Nazi Party. These were the good old days when being a German Catholic and anti-Semetic were almost coterminous. Having seen the local Catholic population going nuts for Hitler he "became convinced that the moral authority based in Catholic teachings was the sole reliable bulwark against human barbarism." Well, Catholic moral teachings had been around in Bavaria for a long time – so where did all these Nazis come from? Catholic moral teachings, and Protestant as well, did not seem to be much of a bulwark.

Nevertheless, Ratzinger’s "deep reading" of history, philosophy and theology allowed him to connect student peaceniks with the Nazis. He decided the way to fight the student movement that he saw as "an echo of the Nazi totalitarianism" (which he "loathed") was to insist upon "unquestioned obedience" to Rome (i.e., the Pope). That’s right folks – the way to fight Nazi totalitarianism was with Papal totalitarianism. It seems to me that the Nazis also had a leader what advocated "unquestioned obedience." You might think that the young Ratzinger, with all his deep reading, would have concluded that "unquestioned obedience" was probably not a good idea, but you would be wrong.

He was tipped off that there were big problems in the Church by his experiences in Vatican Two (the council called by John XXIII in the 60’s). The article quotes his autobiography: "Very clearly, resentment was growing against Rome and against the Curia, which appeared to be the real enemy of everything that was new and progressive." Well, he was certainly right about that!

He became "deeply troubled" by "the idea of an ecclesiastical sovereignty of the people in which the people itself determined what it wants to understand by church." What a shocking notion. The people must be protected from itself by "unquestioning obedience" to the leader. I wonder where he got those ideas from?

To top off what he saw at Vatican Two, he then had to put up with those over zealous student demonstrations on his college campus.

"Marxist revolution kindled the whole university with its fervor, shaking it to its very foundations." Good! That just what it needed. Nevertheless, the notion that a Marxist "revolution" had broken out in Tubingen is a bit of a stretch. He should have to moved to Paris in ‘68!

Ratzinger fled to Regensburg University where he was remembered by Gustav Obermair, the university president: "People of his age and background [the Hitler youth?] panicked at the thought that a new, radical, dictatorial and totalitarian regime might come out of the ‘68 uprising. Of course, this was a complete misreading of the ‘68 movement. But that is what they thought."

It doesn’t bode well for the Church that its new leader has a tendency to "completely misread" what is going on about him in society. His ideas are said to have been shaped by St. Augustine, St. Bonaventure, and Plato. I don’t think Plato should be blamed for Ratzinger’s ideas. Plato subjected all ideas to the test of argument and debate, maintaining that you had to follow the argument wherever it led. The idea of "unquestioning obedience" would have been anathema to him.

Here is a great argument from Ratzinger – given at an anti-abortion meeting in 1986. "It is force that establishes right and thus, inadvertently for the many, the very bases of any authentic democracy are threatened." If you think this sounds like mumbo jumbo you are correct. In the 1985 "Ratzinger Report" the good cardinal "condemned abortion, contraception, homosexual relations, sex without marriage, ‘radical feminism’ and transsexuality." A real party pooper!

But what are his "reasons." He condemns the above because those ideas and practices, according to him, come about when people unlink sex from motherhood and marriage. This leads to activities that "uncouples man from nature." It seems homosexuality is not natural, nor is sex without marriage, but life long celibacy is ok.

Vaticanistas say he is open-minded: "He is willing to go with the best idea." But this can not be true. "Going with the best idea" is not compatible with "unquestioning obedience." What should be said is that he supports instrumentally those ideas, which further his preconceived prejudices and beliefs.

Ratzinger is quoted as having said, "I have to obey the pope. The pope told me that it is my biggest religious obligation not to have my own opinions." How anyone can have a "deep" understanding of philosophy and say such things is incomprehensible. Now that he is Benedict XVI will he demand that Catholics not have their own opinions? Anyway, how is it even possible not to have your own opinions?

Saturday, October 11, 2008


The Illusion and Reality of Siddhatta Gotama, the Buddha
By Thomas Riggins

Karen Armstrong’s Buddha, published as a Penguin paperback in 2004, is not only a bestseller but has been praised as "invaluable." Armstrong is well known as a popular writer on religious history and this book is one of many she has written for a lay audience. All of her books are well written and enjoyable to read but not always historically reliable. This is, unfortunately, the case with her book on the Buddha. I am afraid that people going away after a reading of this admittedly enjoyable book will have no real understanding of either the Buddha or his religion.

The problem is that she has somewhat indiscriminately mixed up primary and secondary sources as well as credited and discredited theories about religion in general and Buddhism in particular. As an example she gives equal weight to both forms of Buddhism – i.e., the original, or at least the older, Theravada tradition (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia) based on the Pali texts, [her book is, however,based mostly on the Pali texts] and the much later Mahayana tradition that developed in North India (written in Sanskrit rather than Pali) and spread to China, Korea, Tibet, Vietnam and Japan. This second tradition, influenced by contact with Persia and incorporating Zoroastrian elements, and seeing the Buddha as "an object of worship" is very different from the original teachings of Gotama who was himself inclined towards atheism and was more this worldly than other worldly.

Armstrong is well aware of the difficulties of writing a "biography" of the Buddha. The man Gotama died in the 5th century B.C. and all we know about him has been mixed up with legends and later traditions to such a degree that what we say concerning him "cannot satisfy the standards of modern scientific history." The Buddha that emerges in her book is, as she says, an "archetypal figure" that she has more or less constructed out of the Pali canon which is the earliest and most reliable source available on the life and teachings of the Buddha.

There are two annoying features of her interpretation that will not go down too well with Marxists. First she uses, as a framework for comparisons, the discredited notion of the "Axial Age" put forth by the German existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers. This is the notion that from around 800 to 200 B.C. the ancient world from Europe, thru Iran and India to China created the "ethos" that "has continued to nourish men and women to the present day." This fantastical "Axial Age" only works by selectively including and excluding, as well as misinterpreting the functions of the individuals who are supposedly the most important thinkers of this period.

She includes Socrates and Plato (but not Aristotle) as well as "the sixth-century Iranian sage Zoroaster." Zoroaster’s dates are notoriously difficult to determine, but the modern consensus places him four or five hundred years earlier than the sixth-century – this messes up the "Axial Age" because Iran drops out of the picture. It should also be noted that Confucius was a thoroughly secular teacher and was not involved in reforming "the religious traditions of China." "People," she writes, "who participated in this great transformation were convinced that they were on the brink of a new era and that nothing would ever be the same again." A period that lasted 600 hundred years can hardly be called a "brink", nor, not having read Jaspers, would people from Europe to China even be aware of a "great transformation" taking place, especially since it was artificially constructed only recently.

Second, she refers to the economic system in Buddha’s day as a "market economy." This is very confusing terminology with relation to the mode of production in ancient India. The ancient economy was based on the exploitation of village agriculturalists in a semi-feudal system that had recently developed in Buddha’s day (in northeast India where he lived) when state structures had evolved out of tribal systems into kingdoms and then empires. There was a large merchant class, as in Rome, but it is a stretch to say the cities and empires were "dominated by a market economy." Ancient India was not a capitalist state.

Buddha, as we know, saw life as a big drag – suffering, etc., and his new religion, was based on the Four Noble Truths (all is suffering, suffering has a cause, suffering can be overcome, the sacred eightfold path is the way to do it.) To escape suffering you needed to follow Buddha’s new rules of life. He founded an order of monks who could follow his path and attain enlightenment and escape from rebirth, and thus another round of suffering, to "nirvana" – a state of being or nonbeing never really spelled out.

Armstrong gives an interesting account of all the trials and tribulations of the Buddha and the founding of his Order – but her explanations are almost exclusively in terms of inner struggles and spiritual development. This is all very well and good but will not satisfy Marxists who want to understand the rise of Buddhism in terms of class struggle and other Marxist categories. None of this is in Armstrong’s book. So Marxists will not get much out of her book. She lacks the necessary jaundiced eye when looking at religion which Marxists regard as an "illusion" and, as Marx said, brings the people only an "illusory happiness."

The question for Marxists is – what were the social and economic conditions prevailing in Buddha’s time that allowed his religion to survive and prosper? The answer to this question is to be found in the works of the great Bengali Marxist philosopher Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya. The short answer is that in Buddha’s time the old democratic tribal associations were being replaced by newly emergent military states. The tribes had been governed by councils who appointed the leaders by democratic methods. Buddha came from such a tribe, the Sakyas. He witnessed the destruction of these tribal organizations by the new states and the consequent enslavement and murder of the tribal peoples. The source of the suffering world.

In his Order he recreated the primitive democracy and interpersonal solidarity of the tribal ethos and thus presented, on a spiritual level, the illusion of freedom and meaning to life that had actually been lost in the real world.

This is the real story behind the rise and development of Buddhism but you won’t find it in Armstrong’s book.

Karen Armstrong, Buddha, Penguin, New York, 2004
Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Indian Philosophy: A Popular Introduction People’s Publishing House, Delhi, 1964
Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Lokayata: A Study in Ancient Indian Materialism, People’s Publishing House, New Delhi, 1959 (7th ed. 1992)

Sunday, October 5, 2008


Inequality is a Law of Nature? [Political Affairs archives]
By Thomas Riggins

Science and the Rich

New Scientist, the British science magazine more or less equivalent to Science News in the US, but a step down from Scientific American, has a wonderful article in its March 12-18 ‘05 issue. The article, by Jenny Hogan, is headed "There’s one rule for the rich... Anyone trying to redistribute wealth in a market economy may be up against a law of nature."

A law of nature? That would certainly make economic reform in favor of the poor a rather more difficult task than the left has envisioned. On the other hand, it favors those who want to abolish the market altogether.

What is Hogan talking about? A remarkable discovery has been made as a result of studying the US economy. Hold on to your hats, but scientists have found out that "The rich are getting richer while the poor remain poor." This astounding fact has emerged from a study of the US economy since 1979. In that year the income gap between the top one percent of the population and the bottom 20 percent was 33:1. By 2000 it was 88:5.

Hogan says that this gap will likely grow if the scientists (physicists) are correct with the new model of capitalism (the market economy) they are drawing up based on the laws of physics holds true.

A new science is in the making – a blend of physics and economics called "econophysics" and Hogan’s article is a news account about the conference to be held this week in Kolkata, India, a first for the new science.

She quotes Sudhakar Yarlagadda from the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, which is located in Kolkata, who is concerned about "understanding whether there is some kind of social injustice behind this skewed distribution" of wealth. Let’s hope not! If the US showed signs of social injustice what in the world would be going on in Kolkata, Bombay and New Delhi? India might have its own problems with "skewed distribution." But if this is all due to a law of nature what’s to be done?

Well, even if some people are confused about the "injustice issue" others are not, or at least they think society is "unfair." Hogan quotes Robin Marris a retired economist from the University of London. He says, "People on the whole have normally distributed attributes, talents and motivations, yet we finish up with wealth distributions that are much more unequal than that."

How are we to explain all this? Hogan tells us that there is some sort of "power law" (mathematical powers) at work that was discovered by Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) that explained why the rich people in Europe ended up with most of the wealth.

Who was Pareto? Excuse me for this small digression. He was an economic philosopher who came up with an idea now known as "Pareto optimality" as a measure of the efficiency of an economic system. This, and not his "power law," is the real basis of his philosophy.

That system is optimal when it can’t be changed in anyway so that to help a person B a person A will be hurt. So it is not efficient if, in order to abolish slavery, the slaves benefit at the expense of the masters. Any income redistribution would violate this optimality of the system.

Pareto’s system was very status quo. It favored free trade, economic elites (about three percent of the population as calculated by his "power law"), and authoritarian governments. While Pareto lived in Switzerland and was apolitical, he had a big fan down in Italy by the name of Benito Mussolini who adopted many of his ideas and gave him many honors. But as one author says (Peter Winch), "since he died after only one year of the fascist regime, his considered attitude to it must be a matter of conjecture." Hmmm.

Now back to Hogan. She says that while the rich are governed by Pareto’s law (fascists and their friends will protect the "efficiency" of the system for the benefit of the ruling class) the rest of us, including the poor, have been found to be subject to "a completely different law." We act like atoms in a gas.

How does this work? Hogan turns to a physicist at the University of Maryland, Victor Yakovenko, who after researching Internal Revenue Service statistics concluded that Pareto was correct about the upper crust three percent. His "power law" rules this group (and limits it numbers – not four percent or ten percent – the rich are three percent – actually between two and three).

The rest of us, just as atoms in a gas exchange energy when they randomly collide with one another, are randomly interchanging economically with a host of other people – only we exchange money for services and goodies, etc. Just as the gas/atom system has the same amount of energy in it after all the random collisions (conservation of energy), so does the economy regulating the 97%. When the day is done and we are all back home after dealing with the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, and they are done with us, money has been redistributed but the amount of money is the same – just in different pockets. We are different from the elite because they are also creating wealth which trickles down to us. That is why we should not mess with them.

"This, along with research data from other countries," Hogan concludes, "suggests that there are two economic classes. In one, the rich grow richer while in the other the poor stay poor." This is an amazing scientific discovery. Who would have thought of this? This should go a long way to increase the credibility of science with the Bush administration. Left wing malcontents are simply anti-scientific and refusing to except a law of nature.

The good news for millionaire wannabe’s is that because the system is random it is possible for a member of the masses to jump into the elite once in a while (the lotto factor). But, Yakovenko warns, any type of social policy designed to redistribute the wealth of society to help the poor would be ill-advised. His atom/gas model, plus Pareto’s theories indicate trying to transfer the goodies from one class to another (from rich to poor that means) "will be very inefficient short of getting Stalin." Yikes!

Well I’m glad that’s settled. There is no arguing with science. I just wonder if there is a mad scientist somewhere on the verge of discovering a system where the wealth is actually being transferred from the poor to the rich. What kind of system would that be like?

On Sartre (Archives Thomas Riggins Blog)

[Source: www.Sartre.org]]

Sartre at 100

By Thomas Riggins

The French are honoring their most famous 20th century thinker – Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). The French National Library in Paris is mounting a major exhibition dedicated to his life and works. Although Sartre had a rocky relationship with the French Communist Party he considered himself a "Marxist" of sorts. The New York Times has even weighed in with some opinions about this ("To Honor Sartre, France Buffs A Pedestal the Writer Rejected" by Alan Riding, 3/16/05).

I can’t say that Riding’s article is always informative. Take this observation, for example, regarding Sartre’s image as a "Left Bank intellectual." "Even for many French people, his embrace of Communist causes placed him on the wrong side of history." This was at a time when a fourth of the French were voting for Communists, so its also true that many French people (and not only the French) think he was on the right side of history.

Those causes, by the way, were for world peace, anti-racism, anti-imperialism, and freedom for the colonial peoples. Whatever may have happened to Communism – these were (and are) the right causes. As for "causes," we can learn something from Sartre when we reflect on his statement that "if I ask myself ‘Will the social ideal as such, ever become a reality?’ I cannot tell, I only know that whatever may be in my power to make it so, I shall do; beyond that, I can count upon nothing." You can’t be on the wrong side of that.

Riding observes that Sartre’s reputation is approaching that of the great French pantheon (which he may soon join) of Voltaire, Hugo and Zola. But Riding shows his true colors when he states that as "political visionaries," Raymond Aron (the conservative pro-US cold war intellectual) and Albert Camus "stand taller because their view of freedom was untainted by association with Stalinism or Maoism." Guilt by association! While Camus couldn’t bring himself to back the right of the Algerians to throw the French out, Sartre risked his life (he survived a bomb plot) speaking out against French repression in Algeria. So much for standing tall!

Camus died young, while he was still developing, so I don’t want to be too judgmental about him. But Aron was a typical conservative. He supported the so-called "Free World." He is dead so I don’t know how he would think about the "freedom" we are bombing the people of Iraq into.

Riding asks "is Sartre remotely relevant today?" He seems to think not. But this is a difficult question. He seems to base his judgment on the fact that Sartre is no longer fashionable or as fashionable as he once was. This is a different question from relevance. Sartre was both a popular writer and a philosopher. His big philosophical tomes (Being and Nothingness: The Critique of Dialectical Reasoning) were never best sellers. He articulated a philosophy of human freedom known as "existentialism" and tried to hook this up with Marxism. I think as long as there is a struggle to attain a more just and free world, and as long as society is dominated by class struggle and exploitation, serious people will find Sartre’s philosophy relevant even if they do not ultimately accept it.

Riding briefly outlines some of Sartre’s politics but his readers will get the wrong impression from his presentation. He writes that Sartre played no political role until after the liberation of Paris and that he "cheerfully" produced his plays and books during the German occupation after having been a prisoner of war for "a few months." The implication is that Sartre did not do his duty. Riding fails to mention that Sartre did have a role in the Resistance during the occupation. He ended up with a minor role because the Resistance was practically run by the Communist Party and Sartre was unwilling to commit himself, as pointed out by Thomas Baldwin (The Oxford Companion to Philosophy) to the Party or the Gauillists. After the war no one thought Sartre derelict in his duty.

Riding next wishes to put Sartre "in the dock." "Placed in the dock today," he writes, Sartre would face two charges: between 1952 and 1956, he was a fellow traveler of the French Communist Party, albeit breaking with it after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956." The charges should be amended. Sartre was more than a "fellow traveler." According to Baldwin, Sartre was member of the French Communist Party having joined during the Korean War. While he left the Party over the 1956 Hungary issue, his final break with it did not occur until 1968.

What about this first charge. Only a typical right-wing anticommunist knows nothing would want to put Sartre in the dock on this charge. Throughout France and Italy the Communists were extremely popular in the years before the invasion of Hungary. Europeans knew to whom their liberation from Hitler and his Nazi armies was due. We Americans like to say we saved the French, that we defeated the Nazis, etc., and carry on as if we should get most of, or even all of, the credit.

You would think it was the Battle of the Bulge that decided the war. But 80% of the German forces were in the East confronting the Soviets. That is where the war was won. D-Day was a mopping up operation in comparison. Throughout Europe everyone knew it was the Communists who were the main force in the resistance movements against the fascists. For Sartre, who had committed himself to anti-imperialism, to peace, and to the working class as the most progressive class in society, it was only natural that he should join the Party.

The second charge was that in the years 1970-1974 he "supported French Maoists." This is a bogus charge, and Riding knows it. It was Voltaire, one of Sartre’s fellow pantheon members, who said "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." And Riding says Sartre’s "counsel" could claim "he was defending their right to exist more than their views."

Riding reports on four more of Sartre’s positions – on which "time favored him." Independent intellectuals can often mess up – even with good intentions – and Sartre was no exception. I say this because I think he made errors in two of the four positions mentioned by Riding. But first the positive. One, he was one of the first to support the right of Algeria to independence. This took a lot of courage as French fascists tried to assassinate him for being so outspoken, Two, he was an opponent to the US war against the Vietnamese people. Riding could have elaborated a bit here. Sartre co-chaired (with Bertrand Russell) the International War Crimes Tribunal that exposed the acts of war crimes in Asia by the US (still, as usual, going on in Iraq and elsewhere.)

Now the negative. Three, he went to Cairo in 1967 and made a speech on the right of Israel to exist. That is all well and good but he should have also called for the creation of a Palestinian state. But this was before the 1967 war and the take over of the West Bank and the true nature of Zionism was not so clear to many European intellectuals. Finally he broke with Fidel and Cuba (1971) over the perennial question of "persecution" of dissidents. I can only say that Sartre was too shrill. He forgot that the full force of US imperialism was (and still is), as far as possible, being directed against Cuba and in order to survive it is only natural for the Cubans to take corrective action against those they perceive as helping the US against them internally. Sometimes Voltaire has to take a back seat until we can create the conditions to seat him front row center.

He had two other worthy actions according to Riding. He stood with the students in May 1968 and, near the end of his life, he supported the demand that Vietnamese boat people be given refuge in France. One should also note that he refused, in 1964, the Nobel Prize in Literature. Riding quotes him: "a writer should refuse to be allowed to be transformed into an institution."

With the collapse of the Soviet Union progressives around the world are being forced to rethink the Marxist tradition. Sartre wrote, "I consider Marxism the one philosophy of our time which we cannot go beyond and.… I hold the ideology of existence and its ‘comprehensive’ method to be an enclave inside Marxism, which simultaneously engenders it and rejects it." Whether Sartre is relevant or irrelevant will depend on how interested students of the future are in engaging with his thoughts on Marxism.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


By Thomas Riggins

With all the talk of Red State religious reaction and the Republican-Evangelical alliance, I thought it time to bone up on Theology. A good place to start is David F. Ford’s Theology: A Very Short Introduction all the information you will ever need (unless you’re born again) packed into 175 pages. Anyway, critics of Marxism have often taken to calling it a type of religion-- a secular religion-- so maybe this book will reveal if there are any parallels. I don’t myself think Marxism is a religion, but that is not to say that some of the actions of the ultra-left don’t confuse the issue. This book, by the way, is basically about Christian theology.

We are informed early on that there are five different ways to practice this discipline (based on the work of Hans Frei). The first way (the order is arbitrary) is to take some current philosophical position and use it to explain and interpret the Bible. Right-wing Evangelicals won’t go for this unless they want to explain the Bible in terms of the Republican national platform instead of vice versa. I can see using Marxism in this way, however. That is, to explain the Bible in terms of class struggle, false ideological reflections of consciousness based on the primitive production processes of nomads, etc. This type of theological endeavor approaches religion from the outside. Ford considers this an extreme position to take.

Another extreme position, he tells us, is to interpret everything in terms of "classical" Christianity. We are talking about a "fundamentalist" position. Interestingly, Ford brings up the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein in this context. Wittgenstein’s notion of "language games" is discussed. Let me explain. Just as Chess is a game with a set of rules-- to play Chess you must follow the rules, so you can look at Fundamentalism as a language game (this is not how fundamentalists look at it). The game of Fundamentalism has as its rule "the Bible has to be defended as always right and correct about everything." To be a fundamentalist is to use this rule to interpret everything going on in the world about you. An atheist can play this game if she wants to, anybody can. A Wittgensteinian would also see Marxism as a language game. The rules of the Marxist language game are to explain things using the labor theory of value from Das Kapital plus Lenin’s views on party building, revolution and imperialism (if you are playing the Marxist-Leninist game). There are variations on this game--i.e., the Trotsky game, the Mao game, etc. Marxists won’t accept this philosophy, of course, but maybe it has heuristic value.

After discussing these "extreme" positions, Ford comes to three other types which he calls "mainstream." One of these is illustrated by the theology of Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976). He took Existentialism as a model and used it to explain what he took to be the deepest meaning of the New Testament. Here we take a modern philosophy which is relevant to how (some) people attempt to understand life and use it to make sense of the Bible. This is very academic and has no broad mass following. The other two kinds of theology are also academic. This differs from the first type because it is inside Christianity, as it were, and not approaching it from the outside. While Marxism can use Christianity in the first type, it would be Christianity using Marxism in this type. By the way, Liberation Theology was a popular non-academic example of this type of theology (in my opinion, Ford does not discuss it.)

The next type is called by Ford "correlation" theology-- practiced by Paul Tillich (1886-1965). Here we try to correlate Christian ways of thinking and doing things with other systems as ways to enhance dialog and understanding. This is something Muslims, Jews and Christians should be doing. Marxism amd Liberation Theology could also play a role in this type of thinking.

Finally, the last type discussed by Ford, is a milder form of fundamentalism. That is to say, it assumes the basic truth of Christianity but is interested in the community of Christians and how they relate to other traditions. It differs, it seems , from fundamentalism in being more liberal and open minded and not so 100% literal. Ford suggests that Karl Barth (1886-1968) exemplifies this type. It should be noted that these types are not all mutually exclusive and that a Marxist outlook may be compatible (at least politically) with all but those associated with fundamentalism.

There is a chapter on Jesus Christ which is very revealing as far as the status of theology as a science goes. The point of this chapter is to try to answer the following question: "is the historical probability of the testimony to Jesus in the New Testament sufficient to sustain the plausibility of the Jesus Christ of Christian faith?" For Marxists this boils down to what is the plausibility that a person can walk on water. If you can believe that you can believe anything.

Ford goes over the Biblical account of the life of Jesus and concludes that it is "not falsifiable"-- which is very different from "its capable of proof."

Ford also reads the gospel with a 21st century sensitivity to political correctness. The New Testament is very clear in portraying Pontius Pilot as not wanting to kill Jesus. He finds no fault with him, washes his hands, etc., "When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said His blood be on us, and on our children." Matthew 27:24-25.

For the politically correct David Ford, who does not see to it, this becomes: "It was the Romans who condemned and crucified him as a rebel because of the political threat." Anyone can read the New Testament in any way one likes.

The life of Jesus is "not falsifiable" but history is not the issue. When you read about Jesus in the Bible you are reading testimonies of what his followers believed and this will "challenge readers in far more radical ways than could a set of verified facts." What use have we for the facts?

The conclusion I come up with after reading this book is, as a Marxist, it is a waste of time to argue about religion (there are no verified facts so what's to argue about) and time is better spent trying to get people to take an interest in the problems facing all of us with respect to the exploitation and suffering all around us and that needs to be addressed by progressive political involvement.

David F. Ford, Theology: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2000.

Monday, July 14, 2008


Remembrance of Things Past: Marcuse 1961
By Thomas Riggins

Now that the Soviet Union has passed into history many people are writing books and articles trying to explain what happened. Perhaps some books written before the event are more enlightening then many written after it.

One such book, I would like to suggest, is Herbert Marcuse’s Soviet Marxism: A Critical Analysis. This book was originally published in 1958 and was roundly condemned both by pro-Soviet progressives and by the cold warriors of anticommunism.

Marcuse thought he must have gotten to the heart of things when both sides interpreted him as supporting the other. The truth, however, is that Marcuse was trying to be "objective"-- within the limits imposed by the political conditions of the 1950s.

This little review will only discuss Marcuse’s 1961 preface to the Viking paperback edition. Its point is to suggest that we can learn a great deal from a critical engagement with Marcuse, especially with respect to understanding the future prospects of a revitalization of the international working class movement. This is a hopeful article in the "it is always darkest before the dawn" tradition.

Marcuse wrote about the historical tendencies in the Soviet Union of Khrushchev. Now, almost forty five years later, we are in a position to evaluate his understandings of these tendencies.

One of the first things he discusses is the dispute over "peaceful coexistence" between the Soviets and the Chinese. Both sides accepted the need for peaceful coexistence but their reasons were very different-- in fact they were dialectically opposite so we might have expected that they would get together (a synthesis). We know this didn’t happen. The Soviets, in fact, were simply negated.

The dispute centered on the nature of imperialism-- and if you get this wrong you lose.

The Soviets maintained that Lenin’s thesis on the inevitability of war was no longer valid in the post World War II era. Both sides agreed that the "essence" of imperialism had not changed. The Chinese also conceded that it was possible to avert war.

So what was the problem? The Soviets maintained that the growing strength of the world socialist movement had weakened the imperialists and they were now not likely to want to engage in warlike activity. They needed peace to consolidate their weakened position and could be best contained in a non-confrontational matter through diplomacy and compromise-- meanwhile the ever growing power of the socialist world, in conjunction with the national liberation struggle in the third world, would make the imperialists behave themselves. The Chinese wanted a more militant struggle. This was an argument over tactics. The Chinese agreed that the balance of forces were now (the 1950s) tipping against the imperialists, but they thought this would make them even more, not less, likely to engage in warlike activity-- out of desperation.

The Vietnam War seems to show that the Chinese were correct. And even though that war ended in a great victory for third world peoples and a major imperialist defeat, the world balance of forces did not end up tipping against the imperialists. It now looks like they are in control.

But are they? What is the war in Iraq if not a desperate and foolish bid to try and dominate the middle east and its oil reserves by force ? The imperialists are squabbling among themselves and ever more areas of the world are beginning to stand up to them-- the DPRK, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos and China are not under their control, and countries such as Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and South Africa are moving out of their orbit (we might also add Syria and Iran). There are also indigenous revolutionary movements in Nepal, Columbia and beginning in Bolivia and Equador which challenge the notion of imperialism’s unchecked dominance. So, while the Chinese no longer practice the militant foreign policy advocated in the 50s, it still seems to be correct.

Now Marcuse makes a very interesting point. He says a society should try "to satisfy the vital material and intellectual needs of all its members with a minimum of imposed labor," and this "requires planning and control of the economy with a view to this end; it also requires re-education with a view to exchangeability of functions and a transvaluation of values, subverting a repressive work morality."

The real world is very far from this state of affairs, it is full of privation, misery and exploitation as well as alienation. Marcuse says realists might dismiss the above as utopian and unrealistic blathering. He uses the word "eschatological" to describe his depiction of a society based on material freedom. The interesting point is that contemporary western societies based on capitalism do not even aim at creating such a society. It is also the case that the Soviet Union did not itself reflect such a society on the ground, as it were.

Nevertheless, according to Marcuse, the Soviet Union is a qualitatively (I should say "was") different type of industrial society than capitalism because its eschatological vision was precisely to create the above described society of material freedom. It held out this goal as an attainable reality only hindered by the historical conditions of backwardness and capitalist encirclement.

In 1958, Marcuse saw the possibility that the Soviet Union might be able to further develop its technological base so that "it may militate against the further use of technology for perpetuating individually unnecessary labor" this could lead "to the elimination of scarcity and toil."

Although Marcuse realized that he would be charged with utopian fantasies, he also maintained that compared to the the status quo (unacceptable human exploitation and alienation), the eschatological vision provided by the Soviet Union held out to humanity, and kept alive, the notion that another world was possible.

Even though the Soviet Union was destroyed by counterrevolutionary forces engendered by both its internal contradictions and its situation in a hostile capitalist encirclement, the vision of a just and humane society remains. It is up to us to keep it alive for the future.

Herbert Marcuse, Soviet Marxism: A Critical Analysis, New York, Vintage Books, 1961

Thursday, July 10, 2008


A Meta-review
Thomas Riggins

THE FUTURE OF HEGEL: PLASTICITY, TEMPORALITY AND DIALECTIC by Catherine Malabou, Routledge, 2004 reviewed by Peter Benson in Philosophy Now, February/March 2006.

While not an "intro" to Hegel, the reviewer thinks this book "offers brilliant clarifications of some of the more opaque aspects of Hegel’s thought." Good, people reading Hegel need all the help they can get! Let’s look at some of these clarifications. Hegel called his philosophy "speculative" but did not mean that it was just "speculation." Benson points out that Hegel distinguished two types of propositions: "predicative"— "in which predicates are externally attached to a fixed subject" and "speculative"— "in which predicates are gradually unfolded from the concept of the sentence’s subject." Attentive readers, by the way, will recognize this as the method used by Karl Marx in developing the notion of capitalism in his masterwork Capital. "This gradual unfolding," Benson says, "is the essence of Hegel’s philosophical method."

Hegel thought that we could find in language the preserved forms of previous thought which we needed to understand and pass through to arrive at the truth. His most famous word was "Aufheben" which means both to overcome and abolish something and yet at the same time preserve and develop it. There is no word for this in English. "The movement it names," Benson writes, "(each stage of thought both retained and transcended) is that of the Hegelian dialectic." It is also the basis of the Marxist dialectic. Socialism both abolishes capitalism as a system yet preserves the productive capacities and scientific advances that it created. This also allows us to understand how profoundly disastrous and un-Marxist the Chinese "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" was in attempting to destroy all vestiges of China’s cultural history as "feudal" and "bourgeois."

Malabou also stresses another word she found Hegel using a lot. This is the word "Plastiche" or, in English, "plastic" in German the word has two meanings, as Malabou points out, according to Benson, namely "capable of shaping" and "capable of being shaped." Benson says the key to Malabou’s interpretation of Hegel is to be found in how she relates the concept of plasticity to his thought.

Hegel, according to Benson, considered Greek sculpture the highest form of the plastic arts by its perfect molding of the human form. He also liked Aristotle’s ethics of "molding one’s character, as a sculptor shapes stone, by the deliberate adoption of habits which thereby become a second nature." He then gives a quote from the book: "Human characteristics are not a given, they emerge as the result of a process of formation of which art is the paradigm." Marxists would consider the labor process as the paradigm.

At this point the review begins to morph into theology as Malabou discusses Hegel’s ideas about ’God" and why Christian theologians reject them. The role of "God" in Hegel’s system is very complicated but I think it is safe to say Hegel’s "God" is very unlike anything normally religious people would recognize. In fact we can leave "God" out of Hegel’s system and thus avoid a lot of theological twaddle.

The review then discusses Hegel’s views of history and compares Hegel’s real opinions with those of Alexandre Kojeve who in the 1930s "inaugurated French Hegelianism" and who thought that history ended with Napoleon and also with those of Francis Fukuyama who thinks history ended with Ronald Reagan. Needless to say, history still seems to be clunking along.

Malabou, however, endorses " the view that ’history is over.’" She also thinks, as a consequence, that the major problem facing humanity in our time is that we have too much "free time" due to "technological simplification." Maybe the French do have too many vacation days! Benson says, "Perhaps only a highly-paid professor of philosophy at a prestigious French university (i.e., Malabou) could possibly imagine that the major problem facing most of the world’s population today is how to fill their endless free time!" No comment necessary.

Benson also faults the book for neglecting politics and Hegel’s views on this subject. Despite these criticisms he gives the book an overall positive evaluation— an "otherwise excellent book."

Sunday, July 6, 2008

A Preview of Jared Diamond's "Collapse"
By Thomas Riggins

Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Guns, Germs and Steel, is coming out with a new book called Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. PA will provide, hopefully, a full review when we receive it. Now we have a preview based on Diamond’s huge op-ed summary ("The Ends of the World as We Know Them") – taking up almost the whole page – published in The New York Times on 1-1-05.

Why do some societies thrive and last for thousands of years (Japan) while others die off (the Maya)? This is the question that Diamond sets out to answer. We shall see what he has to say and, most importantly, how relevant it is to our own society.

Reviewing civilizational collapses throughout history (he mentions Easter Island, the Maya, the Polynesian culture on Pitcairn and Henderson Islands, the Anasazi in the American Southwest, the Greenland Norse, Ancient Middle Eastern societies, the Khmer of Angkor Wat, and the Moche of Peru among others), Diamond comes up with five dialectically related factors responsible for the demise of these cultures.

It is important to stress that he is dealing with cultures that died out on their own and not with those that fell victim primarily to conquest or destruction by their neighbors. I say primarily because conquest or destruction could be a secondary factor ending a once prosperous society that became weakened by inherent degenerating factors within the doomed culture itself.

What are these five factors? They are 1) not protecting and taking care of the environment; 2) change in the climate; 3) enemies; 4) problems with your trade partners; and 5) how the culture deals with the irst four factors.

In some cases all five factors will be at work, in others a lesser combination two or three or even one. The Easter Island culture fell primarily due to bad environmental practices, for example. We all know about the giant statues of heads on Easter Island. There was a powerful agricultural society that produced them based on fertile soil protected by thousands of trees covering the island. Over the centuries the islanders cut down all the trees and denuded the island. The fertile soil was lost and the society collapsed.

This was not rational behavior from our point of view – but neither is ignoring the Kyoto Treaty and allowing the ozone layer to deteriorate, or allowing air pollution to increase. We understand that capitalism strives to maximize profits and grow and increase its capacity and markets and will do this because its the nature of the system – it can’t help but destroy our environment because it is motivated solely by the profit motive. What factors were at work on Easter Island? Surely the people recognized that destroying all the trees, leaving only a rocky landscape was fatal to their society yet they did it anyway!

The Maya did the same thing. They denuded their forests in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and other areas of Central America. The environmental destruction resulted in droughts, soil erosion and the collapse of their civilization. The Maya rulers insulated themselves from the masses whom they exploited. Diamond says the rulers "were able to insulate themselves from the problems afflicting the rest of society." By so doing," the elite merely bought themselves the privilege of being among the last to starve."

There is a lesson here for us as well. The elites of today in their gated communities, their private schools, their private protection agencies are isolated from the rest of society and increasingly uninterested in the public funding of schools, hospitals and police and fire departments.

Diamond gives us a "blueprint" for social collapse. That is if the ruling elite cuts itself off from "the consequences if its actions." Global warming, for example, and other attacks on the environment currently being pursued by US and other capitalist forces may not have ultimately fatal consequences for many decades, or even generations so that by ignoring them now present day elites are ultimately laying the bases for the future collapse of our civilization.

Diamond is more optimistic than this. He sees that America is not responding rationally to the long term problems facing the world. "Historically," he writes, "we viewed the United States as a land of unlimited plenty, and so we practiced unrestrained consumerism, but that’s no longer viable in a world of finite resources." Nevertheless, we have not changed our habits and behavior. The war in Iraq is a case in point. It is driven by the desire to control the world’s oil supplies so we can maintain cheap fuel prices to support an ever increasing pollution based economy.

Why is Diamond optimistic for the future? Because he says that these problems are entirely human made. We can solve all the social problems leading to collapse if we only have the "political will." We can learn from the mistakes of others. This is very optimistic indeed. History may actually be teaching us that the most difficult problems to solve are exactly those that are "man made."

Monday, June 30, 2008


Who John Stott Is [Archival Material]
By Thomas Riggins

This people draweth nigh unto me
with their mouth, and honoureth me
with their lips; but their heart is far
from me.-- Matthew 15:8

David Brooks, my favorite ultra-right New York Times op-eder, asked "Who is John Stott" in his 11-30-04 column. John Stott is an Anglican evangelical homophobic bigot of whom Mr. Brooks recommends politicians, "especially Democrats," take note. Brooks is upset with Tim Russert for having Jerry Falwell and Al Sharpton on "Meet the Press" ("these two bozos") to talk about religion and politics. Later he includes Pat Robertson (a third bozo?).

These people do not represent the real world of evangelical Christians, according to Brooks. If the blue staters want to open up to "people of faith," to appeal to them, they will have to concern themselves with someone like John Stott who is "actually important."

The Rev. Mr. Stott is an important evangelical voice – with over 40 (nonsense) books to his credit. Brooks finds his voice "humble and self-crtitical, but also confident, joyful and optimistic."

Brooks evidently finds of some of Stott’s teachings, such as his rejection of homo-sexuality "as a legitimate life style", his support for the death penalty, his anti-choice and anti-abortion positions, examples of optimistic humility. With views like these it is no wonder Stott maintains "that the central message of the gospel is not the teachings of Jesus." Not the teachings of Jesus? No indeed! What is important is the Passion, the life and sacrifice of Jesus. We don’t want to be burdened with any inconvenient teachings. The golden rule might get in the way of good Christian homophobia, or make our hands shake when we need to administer a lethal injection.

The most important part of Stott’s teaching may be his rejection of any idea that he could not know just what the Truth is (yes, with a capital T). Down with the notion that different religious traditions or other faiths could have a share of the Truth. "Truth has been revealed."

How lucky for us. Was it revealed in the Koran? Don’t even ask!

Confronted with these views, Brooks has the nerve to exclaim that there has "been a lot of twaddle written recently about the supposed opposition between faith and reason."

But the "thoughtful" Rev. Stott belies this. Twaddle? What is the difference between Stott’s homophobia, anti-woman and pro-death penalty positions and those of Falwell and Robertson. I leave out Al Sharpton because he is definitely not in this company.

In his 1958 book Basic Christianity, Stott writes that God "is altogether beyond our comprehension." This didn’t stop the good reverend from writing forty books about him, but it takes "reason" off the table. You can’t reason about the incomprehensible. Stott still claims that "The Christian doctrine of revelation is essentially reasonable." More reasonable than the Islamic or Jewish? We are not in the house of reason when we make statements about religious fundamentalism.

Stott doesn’t want to submit religion to the scientific approach, but he does want to use the religious approach in science. "The empirical method is largely inappropriate in the sphere of religion," he writes. But what about science. There the empirical method has its rightful place – unless it contradicts revelation. Stott will go along with the "theory of evolution" – some type of evolution, but not Darwin! In Understanding the Bible he writes"any theory of evolution which is presented as a blind and random process must be rejected by Christians as incompatible with the biblical revelation...."

This is twaddle and implies that regardless of where the "empirical method" takes you in scientific investigation an extra-scientific dimension ("revelation") is the ultimate judge of truth.

So, enough of John Stott and and David Brooks’ twaddle. The point is that Christian fundamentalism in its conservative dress is what is being pushed. No one on the left should fall for Brooks’ position that by polishing up the rough edges of the Falwells and Robertsons with a classy substitute (the very British Mr. Stott) the attitudes and political consequences of evangelical fundamentalism are in any way changed.

There are plenty of progressive and mainstream Christians and even evangelicals who can be won over to left political programs. The notion, sanctioned by Brooks and proclaimed by Stott that "the teachings of Jesus" are not what is important should be a wedge issue for the Christian left. Those teachings are much more congruent with the socialist and communist world outlooks than they are with the capitalist world globalization movement that is being pushed by writers such as David Brooks.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


By Thomas Riggins

Eduardo Porter, writing in the Sunday (11/21/04) New York Times "Week In Review" section seeks to explain the theory that religion is so popular in the US due to supply-side economics. Just like any commodity competition the commodity of religion is so wide spread due to the competition between its suppliers. This is a new view, Porter says, replacing, perhaps, the older view that the more educated the more secular a country becomes.

The US, Porter maintains, is an exception to this rule which applies to Europe and Japan rather than to us. Studies show that for 80% of Germans, 88% of Japanese, and 89% of French people religion doesn’t play a very important part in their lives. As for the Dutch – 25% describe themselves as atheists. Porter quotes David Voas (University of Manchester) as saying, "If you take the United Nations’ Human Development Index and look at the top 20 countries 19 of those are very secular. We must be the 20th – with only 40% of Americans not thinking of religion as very important.

The question Porter asks is "Why is the United States, the world’s most prosperous and educated democracy, so religious?" I’m not even going to go into the "free-market" theory because there is, I think, a fundamental problem with the assumptions of the question itself.

The idea that the US is the most "educated" democracy is ludicrous. Compared to other developed countries, the American educational system is a sorry joke.

I want to consider the following facts, all from the Chapter "The Sorry State of Education" in Valdas Anelauskas’ Discovering America As It Is (Atlanta, Clarity Press, 2003). Valdas points out that a baby born in the US has a 20% chance of ending as an illiterate adult. This means a fifth of American adults can’t read! The US ranks 49th in adult literacy among the world’s countries

Also note that when American students are compared to students in other countries in the developed world they usually end up at the bottom of the barrel. "Americans are at or near the bottom in most international surveys measuring educational achievement." Even our best students come well behind those of the top ten countries when test scores are compared. We come in around 16th.

What this reflects is the appalling poverty rates for children in this country coupled with a blatant disregard by national, state, and local governments of the needs of schools and students. Valdas refers to studies by Richard Jaeger at the University of North Carolina that revealed "America’s rising childhood poverty rate, breakdown of families and all other social problems account for all of the disparity between American and foreign students’ achievement." So we are not only not the most "educated" we are not the most "prosperous" either.

Here is how "educated" our kids are. Number of forth graders who think the world is FLAT: 40% Number of sixth graders who can’t find the USA on a map: 20% Number of high school seniors lacking the most basic knowledge of American history (forget world history): 57%. Number of seventeen year old students who don’t know when the Civil War took place: 66% – 33% didn’t know who Abraham Lincoln was!

There is one encouraging result here, and that is that 25% of college seniors think that the slogan "from each according to his ability to each according to his need" is from the Constitution. This is no doubt due to effective campus propaganda by the Young Communist League.

Who benefits from the bad education given to American students? And its really bad. The US ranks 28th out of the 29 counties in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (we beat out Mexico) in the number of students who graduate from school (72%, compare Germany at 91%). The beneficiaries of this education system are the forces on the right and the religious fundamentalists who thrive in conditions of educational deficiency.

I therefore conclude that the "old-school" sociology, as Porter calls it, was correct in holding "that as nations become more prosperous, healthy, and educated, demand for the support that religion provides declines." The fact that so many of our citizens are religious is a mark of how backward the US is. So I’ll end with another quote from Anelauskas’ book, from a gentleman even more obscure than Abraham Lincoln, namely Maximilien Robespierre: "The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant."

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Motorcycle Diaries

Easy Riding to Revolution – Review of The Motorcycle Diaries
By Thomas Riggins

The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey has also been made into a major motion picture. I am only dealing with the book. It was written by Ernesto Guevara (he had not yet become "Che") from notes he made when he was 23 years old and traveling from Cordoba in Argentina to Caracas in Venezuela in late 1951 through the summer of 1952 with his friend Alberto Granado on the latter’s motorcycle La Poderosa II – which vehicle broke down and was discarded early in the trip (in the south of Chile) leaving both young men as vagabonds for the remainder of their journey.

The book is an enjoyable and brisk read. The adventures of the two young men, Guevara, a year away from graduating from medical school, and the slightly older Granado, a biochemist specializing in the study of leprosy, as they make their way up the Pacific coast through Chile to Peru and then inland to Cusco, the Amazon and on up to Bogota and finally Caracas by means of hitching rides, buses, steamships, a raft on the Amazon, and various other modes of transport, is an engaging tale.

But what makes it particularly interesting is the hints the book contains of the future "Che." It is this aspect on which I want to comment. The first seventy or so pages are devoted to describing the journey and the problems encountered along the way. But social commentary then begins. It first turns up when Guevara encounters a dying women in Valparaiso in early March of 1952 – three months into the trip. The woman is poor and suffering from diseases she cannot afford to treat, and of course, she can no longer work.

In her plight, Guevara sees "the profound tragedy circumscribing the life of the proletariat the world over." This leads him to the following reflection, somewhat mild considering what will come later. "How long this present order, based on the absurd idea of caste, will last is not within my means to answer, but it’s time that those who govern spent less time publicizing their own virtues and more money, much more money, funding socially useful works."

The two leave Valparaiso for Antofagasta by sea as stowaways on the freighter San Antonio. A hint of the travels of the future Che may be read into Guevara’s musings during this trip: "There we understood that out vocation, our true vocation, was to move for eternity along the roads and seas of the world. Always curious, looking into everything that came before our eyes, sniffing out each corner but only ever faintly – not setting down roots in any land or staying long enough to see the substratum of things: the outer limits would suffice." I wonder if a clue to the tragedy of Quebrada del Yuro is here foreshadowed?

A few days after they arrive in Antofagasta they make it to the great copper mine of Chuquicamata. Here Guevara meets communist workers. At this time the Communist Party was illegal and repressed. Communists were imprisoned, denied the right to vote and many had just disappeared "and said to be somewhere at the bottom of the sea."

"It’s a great pity," Guevara writes with reference to a worker he had met, "that they repress people like this. Apart from whether collectivism, the ‘communist vermin,’ is a danger to decent life, the communism gnawing at his entrails was no more than a natural longing for something better, a protest against persistent hunger transformed into a love for this strange doctrine, whose essence he could never grasp but whose translation, "bread for the poor," was something he understood and, more importantly, that filled him with hope." Needless to say, workers at Chuquicamata were in a living Hell.

It is interesting to note that the 1952 Chilean Presidential elections were about to take place. One of the candidates was Salvadore Allende. The winner was Carlos IbaƱez del Campo who was progressive and said he would legalize the Communist Party – which happened in 1958. "The biggest effort Chile should make," Guevara notes, "is to shake its uncomfortable Yankee friend from its back, a task that for the moment at least is Herculean, given the quanity of dollars the United States has invested here and the ease with which it flexes its economic muscle whenever its interests seem threatened."

I wonder if there may not be something subconsciously autobiographical in Guevara’s comments about the conquistador Valdivia. "Valdivia’s actions symbolize man’s indefatigable thirst to take control of a place where he can exercise total authority. That phrase, attributed to Caesar, proclaiming he would rather be first-in-command in some humble Alpine village than second-in-command in Rome, is repeated less pompously, but no less effectively, in the epic campaign that is the conquest of Chile." Caesar aut nihil.

From Chile the two friends head into Peru where they encounter the problems of the indigenous peoples. They soon make it to Bogota and find Colombia, then as now, the most repressive country of their tour. They finally end up in Caracas where they go their separate ways. Guevara flies to Miami for a few days and then flies back Buenos Aires and returns to his family in Cordoba. He is almost, but not quite yet "Che" – but he does see the future. "I see myself," he notes on the last page of his diary, "immolated in the genuine revolution, the great equalizer of individual will, proclaiming the ultimate mea culpa."

The Motorcycle Diaries
By Ernesto Guevara
New York, Ocean Press, 2004