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The Soviets maintained that Lenin’s thesis on the inevitability of war was no longer valid in the post World War II era.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."