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

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Bertrand Russell in 90 Minutes
By Thomas Riggins

This short book [Bertrand Russell in 90 Minutes by Paul Strathern, Chicago, Ivan R. Dee, 2001] of 92 pages is one of many (24 at the time it was published) in Strathern’s 90 Minutes series. If you know absolutely nothing about Russell, perhaps the greatest English speaking philosopher (bourgeois) of the 20th century, you could begin with this book – but you will need more than it provides to really understand Russell.

Russell (1872-1970) was both a technical philosopher in the empiricist tradition (Locke, Hume, Mill) and a socially engaged activist – most famously in the “Ban the Bomb Movement”, co-founded with Einstein, of the 1950s and 1960s. He also co-chaired, with Jean Paul Sartre, the war crimes tribunal that exposed the Nazi like criminal behavior of the US in Vietnam, although Strathern doesn’t mention this. Russell got the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950. His best known popular works A History of Western Philosophy (1945), “Why I am Not A Christian” (1927), and The Problems of Philosophy (1912).

Strathern’s short introduction made me a little cautious since he refers to Wittgenstein as “the philosopher who succeeded to his mantle.” This is not an apt comment as Wittgenstein was the moving force behind a philosophical school not endorsed by Russell. No one really succeeded to Russell’s mantle.

Strathern does point out the three great passions that Russell always said drove his life, “the longing for love, the quest for knowledge, and heart-rending pity for the suffering of humanity.” He also points out that Russell’s philosophy was rooted in a scientific world outlook. I think, however, he misrepresents Russell when he writes that he “sought to establish a demonstrably certain logical philosophy....”

Russell always maintained that philosophy, like science, was always provisional and dealt with probabilities not “demonstrably certain” knowledge. I think Strathern confused Russell’s empirically based philosophy with his early attempt to deduce arithmetic from logic in Principia Mathematica (co-authored with A. N. Whitehead). Russell was one of the founders of modern mathematical logic.

The heart of this book is the 63 page essay “Russell’s Life and Works.” Strathern describes how Russell, who was educated at Cambridge, revolted against the prevailing neo-Hegelian idealism he found at the university and developed a philosophy based on logical analysis which he later called “logical atomism” because it stressed the discreteness of things rather than seeing them as all interrelated parts of the neo-Hegelian “Absolute.”

The best part of this book is Strathern’s explanation of Russell’s Paradox and his Theory of Types. He presents these technical topics that Russell dealt with in mathematical class theory in an easily understandable way so that lay readers can follow the arguments that took place in early 20th century philosophy of mathematics and logic.

Unfortunately, Strathern does not present Russell’s mature philosophy. After the excellent mathematical exposition he gives an overview of Russell’s thought based on works from which he later diverged. This is especially the case with the 1912 The Problems of Philosophy. Strathern should have consulted Russell’s 1959 My Philosophical Development where he gives his final views on many of the topics discussed in the 90 Minutes book. Russell may need more than ninety minutes!

Strathern barely mentions Russell’s political views just noting The Theory and Practice of Bolshevism, Russell’s diatribe against the Russian Revolution, and he never points out Russell’s misreading of Hegel and Marx which mar his reputation as an historian of philosophy.

He also relies too much on Ray Monk’s biography of Russell – which he calls “superb, possibility definitive” without pointing out that most Russell scholars react negatively to Monk’s work.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Jacques Derrida 1930-2004

Remembering Jacques Derrida
By Thomas Riggins
[from 2004 archive]

One of the late 20th Century’s most influential thinkers died last Friday (Oct. 8) in Paris. Jacques Derrida’s philosophy of "deconstruction" has influenced religion, psychotherapy, feminism, law, Marxism, literary criticism, architecture, art and cultural studies.

Derrida’s deconstructionist career began in the 1960s, peaked in the 1980s, and is now, it seems, in decline. Deconstruction may turn out to have been only a fad that was nurtured by bourgeois "radicals" who were looking for solutions to the problems generated by the economic and social contradictions of late capitalism but shied away from traditional Marxist analysis.

What was Derrida’s deconstructionist philosophy? He began with a critique of Structuralism which was a wide spread philosophy popular in French intellectual circles in the 1950s and 60s-- displacing Existentialism as the dominant mode of thinking. Hegelians and Marxists can relate easily to the major premiss of Structuralism, namely that, as Franz Hugdahl writes, the "object under consideration is the system that is comprised of the reciprocal relations among a series of facts, as, opposed to the study of particular facts in isolation."

Structuralists believe that after a proper investigation of your subject matter (linguistics, anthropology or whatever) you can attain meaning and understanding by revealing the structural relationships of the concepts and ideas (and their real world counterparts) under consideration. This understanding is expressed in words with definite meanings put forth in speaking or writing.

This was challenged by Derrida who maintained that references associated with words are so numerous and even contradictory that any explanation, view or text can be "deconstructed" to show that whatever you might have thought the text was saying, you could find that it said something else as well and therefore there was no privileged interpretation, no canonical reading, to which you will be forced to adhere.

This way of thinking never caught on in philosophy, but was the rage, for a while, in English (and French) departments and in literary and cultural studies. The beginning of the end for "deconstruction" came in 1987. That year marked the fourth anniversary of the death of Derrida’s most important American proponent, Paul de Man, who had been a professor at Yale. De Man could take any text and argue (usually fallaciously by logic chopping, using puns and word play, taking words and phrases out of context, etc.)that it had more than one, and perhaps several, different (and even contradictory) interpretations none of which could be claimed to be the "correct" one.

De Man, four years after his death in 1983 was exposed in the New York Times as having been a Nazi sympathizer in his native Belgium during World War II. He wrote anti-semitic articles for a Nazi paper supporting the Nazi cause and proposed deportation as a "solution to the Jewish problem."

For Derrida and other deconstructionists this was a major embarrassment as they thought their new movement, poststructuralism, was radically progressive-- empowering marginalized elements of society by allowing them to read their own stories into the texts and traditions of Western civilization. As Jim Powell points out, "those given to deconstruction had always thought of themselves and their approach as revolutionary, iconoclastic and anti-totalitarian."

Derrida rose to the defense of de Man by publishing an article "deconstructing" the anti-semitic and pro-Nazi texts of De Man’s newspaper articles. Derrida claimed that while on the surface these texts looked Nazi, nevertheless, he could detect in them subtle anti-Nazi traces and meanings. This basically dishonest application of deconstruction (in an attempt to rehabiliate de Man not the Nazis) revealed that it was a useless method with which to try and discover "meaning" as it was only the subjective desires of its practitioners that were being projected onto the text and nothing revelatory was necessarily produced at all.

So what is left of "poststructuralism"? Not much I think. But neither should the foolishness of some of Derrida’s late productions ("Like the Sound of the Sea Deep within a Shell: Paul de Man’s War") obscure the importance of his early work. His 1967 Of Grammatology remains a classic critique, for better or worse, of Structuralism, and, as Christopher Johnson points out, its lesson "is that one cannot simply step outside of a philosophical tradition and reason independently of it." Well, maybe not "simply."

In closing I would be remiss not to point out that Derrida had progressive tendencies as a person and that he was a supporter of the anti-Apartheid movement and of the rights of North Africans living in France. R.I.P.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Relevance of Confucianism

By Thomas Riggins

"I have always heard that a gentleman helps the needy; he does not make the rich richer still."-- Confucius

Daniel A. Bell and Hahm Chaibong have edited a book called Confucianism for the Modern World (Cambridge, 2003). In their introduction the editors discuss the contemporary relevance of the Confucian tradition (the purpose of the book). The question is – is Confucianism a dead tradition or is it meaningful for the contemporary world?

There are five questions which they say must be addressed. I don’t think they are formulated quite rightly so I shall amend them slightly. The first is what Confucian values "should be promoted in contemporary East Asian societies?" This I think is too narrow. The "modern world" encompasses more than just East Asia. I would maintain that Confucianism has useful traditions that societies other than the traditional Asian ones can benefit from studying and applying.

The second question is, "How should this be promoted?" The third is, "What are the political and institutional implications of ‘Confucian humanism’?" Confucian "humanism" can be summed up by saying that for a good Confucian the slogan "People Before Profits," that we on the left are very familiar with, would not sound out of place.

The fourth question is "How do the practical implications of modern Confucianism differ from the values and workings of liberal capitalist societies?" The editors have added "modern" as a modifier for good reason. The values of traditional Confucianism can, I think, be brought into line with those of socialist or communist humanism but they can only be adapted to the values of capitalism, liberal or otherwise, by doing violence to their core ethical commitments. I think this question also reveals one of the purposes of the book is to try and use a warped and mutated "Confucianism" as an apologetic for East Asian capitalism.

The last question deals with the adoption of Confucianism to this project (conformity to liberal capitalism) and if it can "be justified from a moral point of view." I don’t think that it can be, but I think the editors of this book think that it can. Here are two examples.

One of the contributors, Gilbert Rozman, argues that Confucianism can be adapted to support "decentralization," "regionalism" and "localism." But to what purpose? Some of his examples suggest that purpose is to further the interests of corporate globalization and not Confucian "humanism".

For example, his reading of modern "Confucianism" might convince China to respect "Taiwan’s right to autonomy." He also suggests that it is a good counter balance to "Anglo-Saxon liberalism" [Rozman’s term for monopoly capitalism] on the one hand, and "Soviet-launched socialism" on the other. The former represents "individualism," the latter "statism." He maintains East Asia has a third system – some type of "familyism." Actually, with the exception of China, Vietnam, the DPRK and Laos [statist in Rozman’s terminology], East Asia is firmly in the control of monopoly capitalism. Rozman thinks attempts to counter "U.S. influence endanger the gains achieved through trans-Pacific economic and security ties," The WTO is cited as a "gain." He forgot the IMF and the World Bank. This is, to my mind, merely using Confucianism as a cover for the trans-national imperialist exploitation of Asian peoples under the guise of "humanism" and decentralization.

Daniel Bell, one of the editors, in his contribution, explicitly states that he assumes "some form of capitalism is here to stay for the foreseeable future and any realistic defense of economic arrangements in East Asia needs to take this fact into account."

Since I am not interested in using Confucian philosophy in order to make a "defense of economic arrangements in East Asia" but rather to see what the logical implications of its humanistic values are, I cannot agree with Professor Bell’s use of Confucianism.

I agree with him that the material welfare of the people is one of, if not the main duty of the state according to Confucianism, but disagree completely when he says, "There is no doubt that Confucians would... oppose Soviet-style planned economies." I say this because the reason he gives for saying that, "Absolute private property rights" might be justified if they provided for "the basic means of subsistence." This argument from instrumental grounds also applies to a planned economy.

In fact, I think Confucian humanism is completely compatible with a Marxist interpretation and totally incompatible with the theoretical and practical functioning of capitalism with the possible exception of some capitalist inspired market reforms guided by a desire to strengthen a socialist state.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Puppet and the Dwarf

Slavoj Zizek and Perverse Christianity
By Thomas Riggins

In a recent book, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek puts forth the view that Marxists can no longer make a frontal attack on the institutions of imperialism, thus a feint under the cover of Christianity is necessary. Zizek calls himself "a materialist through and through" and believes that Christianity has a "subversive kernel" which can only be demonstrated by a materialist analysis. But he also holds that the relationship is so intimate that "to become a true dialectical materialist, one should go through the Christian experience."

Zizek maintains that for "intelligent Marxists" the most interesting questions are not those about change and development – but about permanence and stability. Why has Christianity persevered from ancient times? We "find it in feudalism, capitalism, socialism..." etc. The clue is to be found in the writings of the Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton who wrote that despite the rigid ethical and moral demands of the Church and its priests, an inhuman "outer ring", it actually protected the masses of people where one would find "the old human life dancing like children and drinking wine like men; for Christianity is the only frame for pagan freedom." Pagan freedom is here another term for joy in living.

This may explain the persistence of Christianity, but why must Marxists have the Christian experience? This is too unrealistic a claim. Do Asian Marxists from non-Christian cultural backgrounds have to convert to Christianity in order to have the "Christian experience" before fully understanding dialectical materialism?

Other religions have also been persistent. Hinduism, for example, is older than Christianity, as is Buddhism, and has adapted to the modern world. Zizek does discuss some of these other religions but is on shaky ground. He seems to think, for instance, that "Bodhisattva" is the name of a person rather than being a title used to describe Mahayana Buddhist deities.

Zizek’s "materialism" or at least his "Marxism" is also all mixed up with categories borrowed from Lacanian psychoanalysis. And here a digression based on W.L. Reese’s work. Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) was a French psychoanalyst who thought the unconscious Id expresses itself in language because it is structured like a language. The Ego should recognize the depth and plurality of meanings of the Id. This is hard to do as the Ego = our personal identity, our conscious self which is only composed of the info allowed through by the Censor. Lacan wants to subvert not strengthen the Ego. The Ego is a mess due to problems in infancy and it is this screwed up infantile Ego, surviving into adulthood, that must be subverted by the usual psychoanalytic methods.

Using this Lacanian world view plus "Marxism," Zizek decides that by using a "perverse" version of Christianity leftists can smuggle in, as it were, progressive ideas and put them into play in our society. Having concluded that Marxism cannot get a hearing in our culture this is really the only way that we can advance the revolutionary cause. Marxists in Christian clothing.

No doubt that because Christianity originated among oppressed national minorities and slaves there are many features of progressive social justice that can be deduced from it. The battle against the Christian right could be more easily waged by showing that its political and social formulations are contrary to Christian teachings and the logic of Christianity.

In this respect Zizek has a point. But it is not necessary for Marxists to go through a Christian moment themselves. By the way, the "puppet" in the book’s title is Christian theology – we will use theology to forward our secular ends – the dwarf will use the puppet.

People interested in philosophy and religion will want to read this book. I have only scratched the surface in this brief article. At the end, Zizek says the point of his book is to show that Christianity at its core reveals the secret of the passion of the Christ (one that Mel Gibson missed).

When Christ dies after asking his Heavenly Father why He has abandoned him, the historical secret is that there is no Heavenly Father. There is no "Other" to judge us. We are responsible. This is the perverse core of Christianity and Zizek takes us on an interesting tour of the history of Western thought to get there. You might not like all of the stops along the way, or even the final destination, but you will enjoy the trip.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Philosophical Reflections on "Socialism Betrayed"

Book Review - Socialism Betrayed, by Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenney
By Thomas Riggins

In Socialism Betrayed, Keeran and Kenny discuss the collapse of the Soviet Union (SU). While I think they fail to accomplish their aim they have produced a narrative history of the last years of the SU. Their thesis is the SU collapsed "because of the policies that Mikhail Gorbachev pursued after 1986." This is reminiscent of the Great Man Theory of history put to rest by Plekhanov’s "The Role of the Individual in History."

The book relates the Byzantine intrigues of the Politburo and a dozen or so men in the leadership. The authors’ heroes are Stalin (some qualifications are offered for his darker policies), Molotov, Malenkov and the early Brezhnev (who in his last five years "played no active part in state or Party life") and Andropov and finally Yegor Ligachev. The "axis of evil" that betrayed the SU runs from Bukharin through Khrushchev to Gorbachev.

These two trends were representative of two trends in the economy. The authors’ heroes represented the first economy – i.e., the state-controlled industrial economy. The "axis of evil" represented the illegal second economy, which was a black market in consumer goods: articles of clothing, household articles, sunglasses, rip-offs of Western "pop music" and knickknacks. How the knickknack market found representatives on the Politburo and was able to overcome the socialized industrial sector makes up a large part of the book.

This struggle is reduced to rivalries among the Soviet elite. The working class is barely mentioned in the recounting of events. Why this emphasis on individuals rather than historic forces always take a back seat to great personalities? Why hasn’t the Soviet working class more voice or participation in this book?

Economic problems, political and ideological stagnation and imperialist pressure did not cause the collapse, the authors say. That was the result of "the specific reform policies of Gorbachev and his allies" (as if the problems and stagnation were not the cause of the reform policies). They hold this view because they believe "the subjective factor is vastly more important in socialism than in capitalism." Elsewhere in discussing the economic problems of the Brezhnev era they write: "Even more important than the objective problems were the subjective ones: the problems of policy...." But policy is a reflection of objective reality. Policies are the result of objective circumstances and can never be "more important." In fact, "wrong" policies themselves have an objective basis.

The authors end by discussing six alternative explanations of the collapse and then their own. The six explanations they reject are 1) flaws of socialism, 2) popular opposition, 3) external factors, 4) bureaucratic counter-revolution, 5) lack of democracy and over-centralization, and 6) the Gorbachev factor. Most agree that one and two were not factors. The remaining four, I think, should not be approached as independent categories. All four of these explanations should be seen as a dialectical unity. The external factors (imperialist pressure) plus the backward initial economic conditions led to a lack of democracy and over-centralization which resulted in an isolated Party leadership: a leadership that became bureaucratic and ultimately counter-revolutionary. The seeds of the collapse do not just go back to the Khrushchev era (or to Bukharin), but are to be traced back at least to 1919 and the failure of the revolutions in the West.

The authors maintain they have a different explanation. But the thrust of the book places it in category six – the Gorbachev factor. They write: "What caused the Soviet collapse? Our thesis is that the economic problems, external pressures, and political and ideological stagnation challenging the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, alone or together, did not produce the Soviet collapse. Instead it was triggered by the specific reform policies of Gorbachev and his allies."

The last pages of this book reveal a deeper cause in the bureaucratic counter-revolution theory. The authors maintain the collapse was not inevitable but was the result "of a triumph of a certain tendency within the revolution itself. It was a tendency rooted at first in the peasant nature of the country and later in a second economy, a sector that flourished because of consumer demands unsatisfied by the first economy and because of the failure of authorities to appreciate the danger it represented and to enforce the law against it." They end where one must actually begin. Why couldn’t the first economy satisfy the need for consumer goods, why did the bureaucracy foment counter-revolution? These are the important unanswered questions the international movement is still grappling with. I would also add that one of the weaknesses of this book is that there is no reference to the views of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. In any event the discussion of why the SU collapsed has not been put to rest by this book.

Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union.
By Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny
New York, International Publishers, 2004.

--Thomas Riggins is book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

Saturday, June 7, 2008


Lenin Goes to Market
By Thomas Riggins

In 1891 the Russian economist V.Y. Postnikov published "Peasant Farming in South Russia." Two years later, while living in Samara, the young Lenin studied and reviewed Postnikov’s work. The resulting study, "New Economic Developments in Peasant Life", is Lenin’s earliest surviving work. Lenin’s interest in peasant farming was motivated by the desire to understand the capitalist relations penetrating the Russian countryside.

In his review, Lenin described the relationship of the market to capitalist relations of production. With regard to the prosperous peasants of South Russia, Lenin wrote that they "possess considerably more than the average quantity of means of production," and their labor is "more productive, [they] are the principle growers of agricultural produce in the district, and predominate over the remaining groups." Lenin considered their economic organization to be "commercial in character" and "largely based on the exploitation of hired labour."

In his review of Postnikov, Lenin observes that "the soil in which the above described phenomena grow is production for sale." At the root of "the struggle of economic interests arising among the peasantry is the existence of a system under which the market is the regulator of social production."

This early review of Lenin sheds light on the discussion of the socialist market economy. Two recent articles in Political Affairs indicate that more clarity is needed on the concept. For example we read that "The socialist market economy is designed for transition from an early capitalist or even pre-capitalist society and the focus is to create the prerequisites for socialism." But an observer of the situation in China, the leading proponents of the socialist market economy, state to the contrary that "China is already a socialist society."

One of the sources of this lack of clarity may be that some people base their notion of the socialist market economy on "classical" Marxism and may thus be very likely to view the socialist market economy as a euphemism for capitalism. But the Chinese Communist Party states that "Socialism with Chinese characteristics is based on yet different from [my emphasis] socialism as defined by Marx." Thus using only the "classical" theories of Marxism-Leninism the socialist market economy as practiced in China will not appear to be socialist. This conclusion is, I think, borne out by the following analysis of Lenin’s work on the market question.

Soon after his study of Postnikov in 1893 Lenin moved to St. Petersburg and became involved with a group of Marxists who called themselves "the ancients." Here he wrote his second major work On the So-Called Market Question. Krupskaya, Lenin’s future wife, tells us this work made a profound impression as the views being expressed in the Marxist study groups at the time were taking on abstract and mechanical characteristics. According to Krupskaya "The question of markets had a close bearing on the general question of the understanding of Marxism."

Early in this essay Lenin reminds us that Marx, in Capital, has established "that in capitalist society, the production of means of production increases faster than the production of means of consumption." But what is this "capitalist society" Marx writes about? In a brilliant sketch of its development, Lenin maintains that capitalism is the stage of commodity production in which, as discovered by Marx, human labor power becomes a commodity.

There are two stages in this development of capitalism. The first is the evolution of the natural economy developed by the producers themselves into an economy of commodity production. This first stage is the result of the division of labor. The second stage is the further development from commodity production into capitalism: an economy where commodities are specifically produced for a market where competition results in the ruin of weaker commodity producers, the creation of wage-workers from the ranks of the losers, and the growth of monopoly.

Lenin stressed the development of capitalism because the major social critics of his day were spokespersons for the interests of the peasantry – the so-called Narodniks. This term was a nickname for various groups attempting to prove that Russia would by-pass the capitalist stage of development and move into some form of peasant socialism based on primitive communal land ownership.

In his analysis of the "market" Lenin makes three conclusions and two observations still relevant to contemporary discussions. First, the division of labor and the market are necessarily linked together. Thus we see that the market is the center of the economic system arising from commodity production which has, up to now, been called "capitalism."
Second, capitalism is based on the labor market and it produces, of necessity, an impoverished mass of actual and potential wage workers from the small producers who have been ruined by the growth of monopoly. This bloated labor market, where there are more workers than jobs, keeps labor costs low, leads to the enrichment of the capitalists, and an expansion of the market.

Third, due to ruthless competition between the capitalists they are forced to expand their system and gain control of new markets.

After drawing these conclusions, Lenin remarks that there are two supplemental points which must be noted: 1) the market needs the workers to buy the commodities it produces and at the same time it forces as best it can the worker’s wages down – that is, the market wants to pay as little as possible for the worker’s commodity – labor power. Marx called this one of the most fundamental contradictions of capitalism. 2) Even though the market impoverishes the workers, this is relative since as capitalism advances it must satisfy, more or less, the rising expectations of the population "including the industrial proletariat."

When Lenin wrote On the So-Called Market Question the Russian Revolution was 24 years in the future, but the progressive intellectuals could see that the Russian autocracy was doomed – it was politically and economically anachronistic in comparison to the general level of European development. What type of system would replace it was an open question. What Lenin clearly saw, even at the age of 23, was that before speculation on the future of Russia could be profitably indulged in, a thorough and accurate understanding of the real nature of Russian socio-economic conditions had to be mastered. Thus, without in-depth knowledge of the social conditions of the peasants, any transfer of Western models, especially the Marxist model, would be fruitless. Nor, on the other hand, would it be possible to refute the "home-grown" models of the Narodniks.

Are these reflections on the Russian peasantry and the market, now over 100 years old, still relevant? Is impoverishment going on in China today? A recent New York Times article observes that up to 200 million peasants have to find supplemental employment in China’s cities – but many are cheated out of their wages without any means of obtaining their rights. These workers, responsible for about 40 percent of the income in the countryside have been cheated out of $12 billion in wages.

At the same time the productive forces have developed dramatically. But Lenin recognized that this is just what capitalism is all about. He stated that living standards (requirements) do improve by the development of the market – at least for some sections of the population.

Is the socialist market economy a reversion to capitalism or the first step in the development of a new kind of socialism making classical Marxist theory obsolete? I don’t have an answer to this question but I hope the above observations concerning Lenin’s views on the market question will lead to further discussion

Friday, June 6, 2008

Was Lenin Defective ?

Annals of Ideology:
Lenin's Theory of Imperialism and Panitch & Gindin's Critique

By Thomas Riggins

In a recent booklet, by Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin (P&G), "Global Capitalism and American Empire," Lenin’s theory of imperialism comes in for some heavy criticism. Let’s see if it is justified.

The authors, in a section entitled "Rethinking Imperialism," caution against considering "globalization as inevitable and irreversible." They quote the Communist Manifesto as follows: "The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe." Curiously, they think Marx and Engels were exhibiting "prescience" when they wrote this – which they call a description "of a future that strongly matches our present."

But Marx and Engels were not prophesying the future. They were describing the historical reality of their own day – so manifest, already by 1848, was the imperial drive of capitalism. Incidentally, the fact that P&G can take an 1848 description of capitalism for a future prediction strongly matching the present explains one of the reasons why the classics of Marxism have not become outdated.

P&G look at history and discern three "great structural crises" in capitalism: 1) Post 1870s colonial rivalry leading to World War I; 2) the Great Depression, leading to World War II; 3) globalization rapidly advancing due to economic problems of the 1970s. Because the contours of these crises and the results produced by them could not be predicted in advance, P&G contend that globalization is "neither inevitable" re: classical Marxism, "nor impossible to sustain." Since Lenin’s theory of imperialism implies the opposite conclusions, the authors think his theory is mistaken.

Lets take a closer look. Lenin’s theory, according to the authors, made the "fundamental mistake" of assuming "capitalist economic stages and crises." Lenin was "defective" in his "historical reading of imperialism" as well as his understanding of capital accumulation and, lastly, his view that "inter-imperialist rivalry" was "an immutable law of capitalist globalization."

After having asserted all this, P&G conclude that, contrary to Lenin’s ideas, "A distinctive capitalist version of imperialism did not suddenly arrive with the so-called monopoly or finance-capital stage of capitalism...."

P&G accuse Lenin of "reductionism" in equating monopoly capitalism with imperialism. They maintain that "capitalism" and "imperialism" are independent of each other ("two distinct concepts"). History tells them that imperialism can be traced further back than the 1870s: that it goes at least as far back as mercantilism. This is just playing with words. The Romans were imperialists as far as that goes. Lenin was not discussing some universal ahistorical "imperialism" but the specific historical imperialism of his own epoch based on the domination of financial capital.

Lenin saw that after 1873 (as a result of crises) monopoly capitalism began to consolidate and replace so-called competitive capitalism: the imperialism of Lenin’s days was a direct outgrowth of this new type of, a higher type in his words, of capitalism.

We can, without accusing Lenin of having a defective historical understanding, agree with P&G that it is false to maintain that "the nature of modern imperialism was once and for all determined in the kinds of rivalries attending the stage of industrial concentration and financialization associated with turn-of-the [19th]-century monopoly capital."

But of course they are correct. No Marxist, especially Lenin, would maintain history gets frozen at a particular stage of its development. Lenin says of his definition of imperialism that it is convenient to sum up the principle aspects of the phenomena he is describing but "nevertheless inadequate" because all definitions [and theories based on them] are "conditional and relative" because all historical social events and formations are in flux.

P&G would have a better grasp of Lenin’s theory if they understood it in its own terms and did not misrepresent it as a "once and for all" statement of the nature of imperialism. Their mistake is in thinking Lenin’s view of imperialism in terms of an evolution of economic stages and crises within capitalism was itself a mistake.

P&G also deny that imperialism is the "highest stage of capitalism." They do this because they are historically situated in the 21st century phase of "globalization" and Lenin’s theory, now almost a century old, dealt with the capitalism of his era. Therefore they maintain that what he was observing was "a relatively early phase of capitalism." They could have saved themselves a lot of unnecessary Lenin criticism had they been more historical themselves. Capitalism is not going to go back to a previous stage of independent national capitalisms. It will continue to internationalize itself through the process we call "globalization" and what Lenin was describing was a relatively early phase of the highest stage of capitalism. What we call "globalization" is just a euphemism for the domination of the world by a handful of powerful states dominated by financial and monopoly elites that continue to plunder the world in their own interests. Lenin saw that this system was really a transitional system to an even higher form of economic development – namely socialism. This transitional nature of the "highest stage of capitalism" is presently obscured by the temporary world dominance of US monopoly capitalism.

We should be absolutely clear about this, Lenin meant by "highest stage" not that the historical features of capitalism in his epoch were fixed for all (capitalist) time, as P&G seem to imply, but only that capitalism had, as capitalism, no higher stage to evolve into that would renounce the need to export capital (finance capital especially) and find markets abroad. Globalization is just the latest stage of monopoly capitalism as it has transformed itself and developed since the days of Lenin, but it is still the logical outcome of the situation described by Marx and Engels in 1848.

It is also, I think, an error to hold, as do P&G, that Lenin and like minded theorists of the past did not recognize the role of the state in relation to the market: that they failed "to appreciate the crucial role of the state in making ‘free markets’ possible and then to make them work."

A strange accusation to make against someone who viewed the state as the executive committee of the bourgeoisie and thought that it functioned to further the interests of the capitalist class and its struggle to, among other things, build, acquire, and maintain markets both domestic and foreign.

It is true that Lenin could not foresee the specific historical development that has resulted in "neoliberal" globalization dominated by one "superpower." But it is also true that the theory laid out by Lenin in Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism remains the best starting point for any attempt to understand the contemporary world.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Marxism, Liberalism or Communitarianism

By Thomas Riggins

Reflections on Thomas Nagel's critique of Michael Sandel's book Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics ("Progressive but Not Liberal," THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, May 25, 2006)

Thomas Nagel entitles his essay on the social philosophy of Michael J. Sandel "Progressive but Not Liberal." Non-liberal progressives are most often to be found in socialist and communist organizations but not Sandel who is a professor of government at Harvard and referred to as a "communitarian" by Nagel. Nagel is happy to be a liberal and takes Sandel to task for having "defective" views about "liberalism." Nagel in fact defends the liberal cause by his critique of Sandel. I intend to analyze Nagel's critique from a Marxist perspective.

Nagel points out that the political system in the US is more volatile and heterogeneous than what one would find in Western Europe. The US is, in fact, "radically divided over issues of war, taxes, race, religion, abortion, and sex." He maintains that these differences are deep rooted and about "ultimate values." Yet these divisions do not threatened the stability of our political system. He says that "the cohesion of American society is stronger than its divisions" can be seen by the fact that people with radically incompatible basic value systems cohabit in a common political system and strive to express those values legally through open political processes. And, he maintains, this can be done "only because of a general commitment to the principles of limited government embodied in the Constitution."

Nagel goes on to divide the US political universe into two broad sections—based on how they respond the the problems listed above-- i.e., war, taxes, race,etc.

The conservatives, we are told, "are more interested in enforcing moral standards [and they think their standards are the only right ones--tr] on the community and protecting private property, and less interested in protecting personal liberty [libertarian conservatives would dispute this--tr] and reducing inequality." It is just the opposite with progressives, he says.

Progressives have to decide how to pursue their principles-- as "first" or "second" order principles. First order principles are those deeply held "fundamental beliefs" or core principles. The second order principles are those "concerning what kind of first order-principles may be used to justify the exercise of political and legal power". For example, should we try and have the state outlaw capital punishment based on the first order principle that all killing by the state is immoral, or should we use a different principle such as the corruption of the legal system or the racism in the sentencing procedures without calling into question the ultimate moral status of capital punishment itself.

Nagel allies himself with liberalism which he identifies more or less with the political philosophy of another Harvard professor, the late John Rawls author of such books as "Political Liberalism" and "A Theory of Justice."
According to Nagel liberalism tends to rely on second order principles and not confront the conservative positions with head on challenges of first order magnitude. Nagel says, for example that gay rights can be defended by liberals on the principle that the government should not be controlling "private sexual conduct" without getting into the issue of the moral status of homosexuality.

The target of Nagel's article, Sandel, represents another school of progressives which Nagel says is "not liberal." These progressives want to argue their positions on first order principles and duke it out with the conservatives on core values. Sandel wants to replace "liberalism" with what he thinks the "communal" republican spirit of the early US was, which he contrasts with the present day liberal concern with "individualism." What Sandel is interested in is (his word) "soul craft." Nagel explains this as "the cultivation of virtue in the citizenry by the design of political, social and economic institutions."

Wait a minute! This sounds familiar. This sounds like a species of the program of social engineering embarked upon in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and subverted and fought with tooth and claw by the big capitalist powers, first with their rebellious cat's paw Hitler, then continued as the Cold War by Hitler's anti-communist successors. Nagel senses this as well, as we shall see.

More immediately, however, Nagel attacks Sandel for having a "defective" understanding of Liberalism and misinterpreting the social philosophy of John Rawls. Nagel tells us that there are many forms of "Liberalism" but he contrasts only two-- European and American. The former is characterized by "the libertarianism of economic laissez-faire" (which sounds to me suspiciously like current neocon thought) while the latter represents "the democratic egalitarianism of the welfare state" (the owl of Minerva really does take flight at dusk, someone should tell Nagel that the welfare state is history).

But, he tells us, "all liberal theories have this in common: they hold that the sovereign power of the state over the individual is bounded by a requirement that individuals remain inviolable in certain respects, and that they must be treated equally." Basically this means equality before the law and equal political status (one person one vote, unless you are Black or Hispanic and your votes are tossed) and in American Liberalism "equality of opportunity and fairness in the social and economic structure of the society." I don't know what planet Nagel is from, maybe a parallel universe where Sweden is the only superpower, but US definitely does not fit this description. Well, maybe not, but those are the goals to be reached and John Rawls represents this kind of Liberalism which stresses "distributive justice that combats poverty and large inequalities perpetuated by inheritance and class." Yes, Liberalism wants to combat poverty and inequality based on the observation that "the poor ye shall always have with you" but Marxism, unlike Liberalism which wants to tinker with the bad consequences of Capitalism without ever questioning the system itself, wants to eliminate poverty , not just combat it, by getting rid of the economic system that breeds it, i.e., capitalism.

Sandel rejects Rawls "Liberalism." He has, as Nagel says "spent his career" opposing Rawls and Rawls’ form of "egalitarian liberalism." What he contests is "Rawls’ central claim that individual rights and principles of social justice should take precedence over the broad advancement of human welfare according to some standard of what constitutes the good life." This is wrongly framed from the Marxist perspective. We certainly are in favor of "broad advancement of human welfare" but not based on some bourgeois idealist concept of "the good life" but based on what we claim to be a scientific understanding of the motive force of the capitalist system, its directionality and the real possibility of restructuring of society in such a way that classes are abolished and all people will truly escape from the realm of necessity to that of freedom. This may sound utopian, but it is actually more realistic than the schemes of Rawls, Nagel or Sandel.

Meanwhile, while Rawls subordinates the "broad advancement of human welfare" to "individual rights", Sandel maintains that, in his own words, "Principles of justice depend for their justification on the moral worth or intrinsic good of the ends they serve." Nagel doesn't like this formulation. Sandel would ban Nazis from holding rallies but uphold the rights of people demonstrating for equality and against racism, for example. But, Nagel says, using Sandel's principle, people opposed to homosexuality ought to be opposed to gay people holding rallies. But it is the state that guarantees the rights of citizens and decides which ends are ultimately of "moral worth or intrinsic good." Nazis and KKK folk fail on both counts besides the fact that they would on principle end the rights of others to demonstrate if they could while gay people are not demanding the suppression of heterosexuals they are only asking for civil rights. So, I don think the analogy a good one to use against Sandel.

What Nagel really objects too is that Sandel thinks "the priority of right as being intelligible only if it serves the good." Liberals would "bracket" the question about if abortion, for example, was "murder" and defend the right to it on the grounds that a woman's right to choose should not be denied because of the "religious convictions of the majority." Sandel thinks that in order to approve of or support abortion we must "first determine that the Catholic position is false." This is a requirement for bracketing the question of its mortal status. 'The more confident we are," Sandel writes, "that fetuses are, in the relevant moral sense, different from babies, the more confident we can be in affirming a political conception of justice that sets aside the controversy about the moral status of fetuses."

Nagel says this is begging the question not bracketing it but this is because of how he has set up the question in the first place. Being a Liberal he is looking for a Liberal answer, based on a second order principle, and Sandel, not being a Liberal, looks for first order principles. I think Marxists are more akin to Sandel than to Nagel. Surely we want to decide if abortion is murder or not before we support it. Do women have a right to commit murder? What are the Catholic reasons for thinking this is murder? When we find out that the reasons are not based on science or an intelligent open minded examination of the evidence but only upon superstition and close minded adherence to dogma this surely must be the basis for our rejection the ant-abortion viewpoint. This way of thinking does not make Sandel's views of Liberalism "obtuse."

There are many behaviors that can be sanctioned by the state, Nagel says, that the state does not have to have an official position on with respect to their rightness or moral status. The state can be neutral in other words. But Sandel, says Nagel, "thinks justice and rights depend on what is actually good, and what rules and institutions serve those ends; he is not a relativist." This is also good Marxism. Marxists should, to the best standards available, try to determine the actual states of affairs they are dealing with and not bracket truth conditions. This would have prevented many of the catastrophes of the 20th century socialist project.

These different positions lead, as Nagel points out, to a "deep issue." Namely, "Do all moral standards derive from a single principle, or are there different principles for different kinds of entities?" Rawls and Sandel have very different views on this. Rawls does not hold that there is a common moral principle from which both personal rights and public rights derive. Rawls "thought that justice, which is the special virtue of social institutions like the state, depended on the distinctive moral character of the state itself, as an immensely powerful form of collective agency." In a Liberal democracy we are subject to majority rule. Actually, however, this has ceased to be the case in the US. The last two elections were most likely won as a result of vote fraud consciously carried out in disregard for any moral commitment to democratic values and solely to attain state power for the personal enrichment of corporate class entities at the expense of the majority of the population. This looks like a trend that may further develop.

Nevertheless, Rawls thinks in terms of a functioning bourgeois democracy with majority will "coercively enforced." But Rawls also believes in "fairness." This means that in addition to political and civil equalities the state must also "combat racial, sexual, and socioeconomic inequality." With regard to this duty of the state, Nagel says, "This is the fairness that Sandel derides." But I don't think that Sandel is for racial, sexual and socioeconomic inequality, nor do I think his social philosophy (or Marxism) entails any such consequences.

Nagel says that the state has no special moral status for Sandel. Sandel thinks once the people have decided on the ends to be sought (for Marxists this would be the abolition of property. classes and the state as well as the construction of socialism and communism) which for Sandel are ("seems to be" Nagel writes, which shows some confusion on this) "an unmaterialistic culture of closely knit communities and strong family ties" then the state will be used to construct this type of social reality (under socialism being eventually abolished or "withering away)."

But this kind of thinking will also lead, says Nagel "to theocracy, fascism or communism for those who accept alternative conceptions of the human good." Nagel thinks this is a telling point against Sandel but it isn't. The same thing can happen under the limited constitutional state that Liberals like Rawls and Nagel think can be constructed or maybe is even exemplified by the US today. Constitutions and philosophical models are not what guarantee freedom and rights. Only an informed, educated and alert citizenry can do that, and that is what we currently lack, and lack by governmental and corporate design, in the US today.

Nagel concludes by saying that "A hunger that demands more from the state [than "constitutional patriotism"] will lead us where history has shown we should not want to go." I am afraid we are on that road already and we have got on this road not only by reading direction signs put up by non-Liberal progressives, but by following those posted by Rawls and his followers as well. To halt the current slide towards fascism ("the national security state") we will need the combined forces of the progressive left as well as the center of the political spectrum that still believes in democracy and takes the Bill of Rights seriously. Rawlsian Liberalism alone will not suffice.

Monday, June 2, 2008


by Thomas Riggins

In any attempt to understand contemporary culture and its artistic manifestations in a progressive manner it is absolutely essential that we attempt to do so in the light of a Marxist critique. There is not, however, only one “official” Marxist approach to the understanding of art. Past attempts to force creative thought into a narrow official mold by means of state sponsored interpretations of Marxism resulted in a separation between genuine Marxist theory and the social reality that was bering presented. My purpose is not to present the “correct” theory of a Marxist philosophy of art but to attempt to lay down what I think to be the four basic features that anyone trying to work out a Marxist aesthetic must keep in mind. These four features will also be useful to those who propose to write Marxist criticism of both contemporary “pop culture” as well as so called “high culture.”

First, it is well known that neither Marx nor Engels consciously worked out a philosophy of art as part of their general world view. Nevertheless, they made particular judgments on art and their overall positions on historical materialism (in conjunction with these judgments) have been appealed to by their followers in order to support aesthetic theories which were developed later within the context of the Marxist movement.

Second, based on the general notions of historical materialism, the social context of art takes on the most important aspect in any Marxist aesthetics. That is to say, approaching art in a materialist spirit, a Marxist philosophy of art bases itself on the social, cultural, and biological factors of human life as the foundation upon which art arises. This, of course, does not distinguish a Marxist approach from a materialist approach in general. This further determination can be made when we consider the following.

Third, the dialectical logic inspired by Hegel, as developed by Marx and Engels, and the notions of struggle, contradiction, and the overcoming of such at higher developmental levels are necessarily linked to the basic materialist approach fundamental to a Marxist aesthetic. In this we find the main difference between traditional philosophical materialism and Marxist historical materialism. Traditional materialism, while recognizing the primacy of matter, tended to interpret the world in unchanging mechanical categories. The materialist philosophers of the French Enlightenment, while disposing of religious, spiritual and mystical explanations for the events of the natural world, had no real theory of historical or natural change and development.

The materialist philosophy developed by Marx and Engels, on the other hand, by adapting the Hegelian dialectic to materialistically inspired categories of explanation, was able to provide a non-mechanistic explanation of natural and historical change, development and progress. In this combination of materialist philosophy and dialectical method can be found the difference between “materialism” and “historical materialism.”

The correct application, as well as understanding, of this dialectical method is one of the most vexing problems in the history of Marxist thought. Its abuse led to Marx’s famous comment about his not being a Marxist. I do not intend to go into all of the different interpretations which have been given to Hegel’s views on this subject. I will, rather, briefly outline what I consider a useful way of looking at the dialectic as used by Hegel and Marx and Engels and relate this to my claim that it is the basis of any Marxist philosophy of art by showing how one of the most original Marxist thinkers, Christopher Caudwell, employed dialectics in his great work on the origin of poetry: Illusion and Reality.

Let me begin by asking the following question: What happens when one makes a mistake in philosophical reasoning? One of the most common occurrences is that we have been guilty of over-generalization or have dealt with our subject without sufficient knowledge which might have effected the outcome of our reasoning. It is the presence of a contradiction in our reasoning which signals that this faulty way of reasoning has occurred. The function of philosophy is to deepen the analysis, make it less general, and overcome the contradiction while at the same time preserving what is true and valuable in the previous view. This method is then repeated on the new views, and on the views that replace them and is continued as long as we can. Hegel uses the German verb aufheben which means “to lift up,” “to cancel,” and “to preserve” to describe this process. No one English verb quite catches all these meanings. Contradictions are not therefore mutually exclusive after all. In The Science of Logic Hegel maintained it was very important to keep in mind that such seemingly contradictory opposites as positive and negative, virtue and vice, truth and error, and one could add, illusion and reality, only had their truth “in their relation to one another ; without this knowledge not a single step can really be taken in philosophy.” Ivan Soll puts it this way in his An Introduction to Hegel’s Metaphysics: “The dialectic preserves parts of putatively opposed categories as the necessary elements (Momente) of more concrete categories. But as necessary elements of a more concrete category their mutually exclusive character is removed or negated. These categories are both preserved and negated-- they are aufgehoben.”

This method was taken over by Marx and Engels and applied to the analysis of history as well as to natural phenomena. The difference in their materialist, as opposed to Hegelian application, is that, as Engels points out (The Dialectics of Nature), in the former the dialectical oppositions are derived from the actual study of history and nature while in the latter they “are foisted on nature and history as laws of thought.”

When it comes to Caudwell, we see his use of dialectics throughout all the major discussions of Illusion and Reality. According to David N. Margolies (The Function of Literature), “Caudwell had to take a fully dialectical view of literature, seeing literature not as static works but as a process. Literature and society exist in a dialectical unity and thus not only does social existence determine literature, but literature also influences society.”
But Caudwell uses dialectical thinking in other realms besides literature. For example, he takes Freud’s category of “the instincts” (the source of humankind’s free natural existence) and contrasts it with the category of “the environment” (the source of the repression and crippling of the instincts) and derives the higher category of “civilization” which, Caudwell says, was evolved “precisely to moderate and lessen” the conflict between the other two antagonistic conceptions.

We should further note that illusion and reality, which we create and study by means of art and science are not for Caudwell absolutely contradictory conceptions. It is true, he notes, that in many theories these concepts “play contradictory” even if intermingled roles but they are really unified and reflect different (but equally important) aspects of our common world. Our human biological make up and “external reality exist separately in theory, but it is an abstract separation.” Caudwell continues, “The greater the separation, the greater the unconsciousness of each.” By which he means the more distance we put between “art” and “science” the less we really understand either of them.

The dialectical method, as used by Caudwell, consists in the refusal to isolate the world into a system of mutually exclusive categories. What appears on one level of analysis as contradictory or exclusive is seen, on a higher level of analysis, to be complementary. He uses this method or argumentation and discussion when he deals with poetry, psychology, epistemology, language, communism, and in virtually every aspect of his philosophy. For this reason he can be located in the dialectical tradition of classical and contemporary Marxism.

Fourth, one last feature seems to me to be necessary for a Marxist philosophy of art. The fundamental purpose, the raison d’etre of Marxism is to be the leading philosophy of the worker’s movement in the class struggle to overthrow the economic system of capitalism. Therefore, a Marxist philosophy of art must, as I define it, link up with the class struggle, directly or indirectly, and, whatever else it may seek to do or explain, provide insights and guidance in that struggle.