Mike Ely: On Real Limits and Real Value of Our Theory

hammer_and_sicklehammer_and_sickle_warholFirst posted in May.

By Mike Ely

TNL writes:

We need to "sink roots." Certainly a crucial problem with the existing left is its lack of roots -- its lack of traction among real people and on the real political stage.

But in seeking to make connections, I think we should be very careful not to encase our own feet in stone -- i.e. to assume we "know" where things will "break out" -- and get ourselves so emmeshed in that prediction that we are not flexible and mobile when the wave breaks in an unexpected way.

I think that a great deal of thought needs to go into conjunctural unpredictability (including some critical appreciation for Badiou's theory of event) -- precisely because i think we should assume that the world will erupt in unanticipated ways, but that this will (in important ways) also play itself out through faultlines and contradictions that are known (including class contradictions).

There is more to say on this....

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  • Guest - Chuck Morse

    Hi Mike,

    I guess we’ve been over this before to some extent, but I believe that Marx was a teleological thinker (which is different from being “predictive”).

    In any case, you seem to view Marxism as tool which can and should be abandoned if it does not serve your aims. That is certainly a legitimate perspective, but I think that Marx made far more sweeping claims about his work and of course it also begs the question: how do you determine your aims?

  • Guest - Tell No Lies

    This is little bit of a digression, but has anyone here done any serious reading of Mariategui? I've read a little (basically sections of "7 Essays") but I'm presently reading a history of Marxism in Latin America that gives an account of his thinking on this very question. Perhaps more than anywhere else Marxism in Latin America, particularly South America was very heavily influenced by positivism. Apparently Mariategui's "Defense of Marxism" is in many respects a polemic against this positivistic Marxism and in defense of a more deeply dialectical one. Along the way however Mariategui apparently tangles with the problem Chuck poses: "how do you determine your aims?" And Mariategui's answer, and again this is second hand, is basically that the aim of communism is essentially a matter of dogma, that it is simply impossible to derive it methodologically from anything, but that you need it anyway. But coming from a culture steeped in Catholicism Mariategui's response to this fact is not to toss it out but to basically embrace the neccessity of a little dogma, but then to argue also for the critical "right to heresy." All of this basically in the late 1920s. Apparently Mariategui was familiar with and influenced by a number of Italian communist theorists including Gramsci decades before he attracted international acclaim.

  • Guest - emil

    this is a good article. but i bring it up again and again- IS Marxism a science? IF it is, what do we mean by science? also, the issue of the party need to be discussed. do we need a party in the 21st century and what kind of party will it be? the old ML democratic centralist parties have, for many people, really failed. ( i have had enough experience with parties to never want to join one again...) but this is a good article and brings up many things.

  • Guest - Rosa L.

    Mike, as usual, produced here a lot of "food for thought."

    I do not think we have a clear understanding of what is science or what concept of science we use to claim that "marxism is a science." If we do not have a clear understanding of the practice of scientists and the production of science, how can we have a theory of science?

    We use the term science with such a lack of rigorous understanding that it becomes an empty word to give authority to a discourse. You can see the abuse of the term science in Avakian and RCP but also in many MLM organizations in general to the point of making the use of the concept ridiculous.

    I once spoke with a real scientists who after listening to Avakian's CDs, found his discourse pathetic and characterized Avakian as defending an obsolete concept of science close to positivism rather than more recent understanding of science.

    The repetition of the slogan that "marxism is a science" that we constantly hear in RCP and other MLM organizations, is a rhetorical devise to give credibility and legitimacy to what is in reality a very weak and poor analysis of the concrete reality. This slogan ("marxism is a science" or "we are scientific because we are marxist") is like a mantra repeated "ad nauseam" to hide the lack of a truly scientific analysis.

    Moreover, there is an old debate among marxist between those who think that marxism is a philosophy of praxis vis-a-vis those who think that "marxism is a science." This is an unsolved debate and it would be interesting to explore this debate in KASAMA... Tell No Lies, why not say: Gramsci is the Mariategui of Europe?

    Mariategui, founder of the Communist Party of Peru, spent several years in the late 1910s in Italy. There is no evidence of an encounter between Gramsci and Mariatgegui. But if you compare their interpretation of marxism they were both very close to each other. This has raised speculation about an encounter among each other. Maybe they did meet each other and it would be difficult to say who excercise an influence over who. If you read Spanish, there are two collection of essays published by Editorial Ayacucho in Venezuela on Mariategui: one is his classical "Seven Essays" and the other is a collection of essays on many subjects. The introduction to both volumes was done by Anibal Quijano and they are masterpieces towards a decolonial marxism. Anibal Quijano is today probably the main inheritor and most creative Mariateguian thinker developing Mariategui's work to new levels.

    Mariategui has the originality of being the first marxist in the Americas to apply marxism in a creative and original way to the concrete reality of a country, in this case Peru. He developed a very sophisticated theory of the relation between class and race that was not reductionist nor simplistic. In the context of Peru, where 80 percent of the population were indigenous people, it was not enough to say that they were all peasants. For Mariategui, the racial hierarchy of Peru was entangled (to use a concept use in this page by "josetheredfox") with the class hierarchy. In Mariategui, you cannot disconnect one from the other. Both hierarchies are mutually constitutive and overlapped with each other.

    In the 1920s, these were original ideas that many Comitern Eurocentric and Class reductionist Marxist did not understand. Mariategui participated in the late 1920s Comitern meeting held in Uruguay between Latin American communist parties and was misunderstood by the most dogmatic and Eurocentric marxist of his time that were applying ML in a mechanical and dogmatic way to the reality of Latin America. The main leader of the meeting, Codovilla (leader of the Argentinian Communist Party), attacked Mariategui and basically expelled him from the meeting. To read Mariategui today, is not only an inspiration but also a source of original and creative ideas for a rethinking of the questions Mike is raising in this essay.

  • I am glad to see Mariategui's contribution come up, and would urge those interested to read his <a href="/http://www.marxists.org/archive/mariateg/works/1928/index.htm" rel="nofollow">Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality."</a>

    And, like Rosa L, I was taken (each time i read them) with the subtle and very real interplay of class, nationality and a historical sense of their development. It is an example of proceeding from reality (and having a deep grasp of the actual particularity of contradiction) -- something that clashed sharply with the more "authoritative" Marxism of those times, which relentlessly (and onesidedly) stressed the universality of its ideas and themes and schema.

    It is worth noting that the Shining Path of more recent Peruvian history was a short form for the phrase the "Shining Path of Jose Mariatequi." I.e. the PCP of Gonzalo claimed to be a reestablishment of mariategui's earlier party. And, perhaps ironically, the Shining Path (i.e. the PCP) was remarkably reductionist on precisely these matters where Mariategui was not reductionist.

    The PCP insisted (in its theoretical work, as far as I can tell) on viewing the people in strictly class categories (i.e. workers and peasants, etc.) and not entertaining mariategui's important point that the Peruvian nation is (essentially) a nation of indigeneous people, and that as a result Peru's national liberation and the emancipation of the Indian people are closely linked (and the development of an emancipated national culture, freed from colonialilsm is linked to the overthrow of centuries of distain and even hatred of the Native people, their languages and culture).

    While we are on the subject, i think we can sketch a similar issue in the Marxism of India... where a reductionist strain of marxism insisted on seeking the social structures of Indian in strictly class categories -- underestimating the importance (and relative autonomy) of three other issues: caste, nationality and gender. At some point it would be worth excavating the history of the struggle over caste in particular (which some marxists saw, almost jealously, as a matter that subtracted from and blurred the clarity they saw in their class analysis.)

    And, need we add, a similar struggle has gone on within the movement in the U.S. over how to understand the Black Liberation struggle -- the relative autonomy of national oppression and its link to class analysis. As with castelike oppression in India, the U.S. "color line" connected class boundaries (of slavery in particular) with ethnic distinctions (i.e. African origin). And this was then continued (<em>aufgehoben</em> to use the German philosophical term of Hegel and Marx) into capitalist society -- where Black people were long maintained in castelike conditions (by jim crow in semifeudal society, and within the bottom tiers of the working class in capitalist relations).

    The eruption of the self-conscious Black nationalist movement in the 1960s placed a blunt and shattering choice before Marxists: how to move beyond a reductionist approach so characteristic of the CP's "black and white, unite and fight." (Though, it has to be said the CP had at times and places a different and more nuanced approach that was essentially defeated by the 1960s). The question posed had to do with the righteousness of self-determination and the relationship of national struggle with class struggle.

    Those line questions too are valuable for us to revisit, both to actually reconceive our understanding of position, oppression and role of Black people within coming radical movements, and also to get a sense of the ways reductionism has been embedded within Marxism and also fought within Marxism.

    Finally, I think one of the burning questions that confront us is to rediscuss Mao's view that some forms of patriotism in oppressed countries are "applied internationalism." It is not focused on the particular question of internally oppressed nationalities and groups (indigenous people, castes, the Black nation, etc.) but it does raise the question of how (dialectically) things are connected, and it represents an important flashpoint of theoretical dispute that has not yet been clearly or correctly worked out.

  • Guest - Eddy Laing

    Rosa L. wrote:

    <BLOCKQUOTE>
    I do not think we have a clear understanding of what is science or what concept of science we use to claim that "marxism is a science." If we do not have a clear understanding of the practice of scientists and the production of science, how can we have a theory of science?
    We use the term science with such a lack of rigorous understanding that it becomes an empty word to give authority to a discourse. You can see the abuse of the term science in Avakian and RCP but also in many MLM organizations in general to the point of making the use of the concept ridiculous.
    </BLOCKQUOTE>

    There is the 'science' that scientists do and then there is the 'science' that is the object of enlightened devotion. Both are bound to include prejudices and mistakes.

    However, when Marx and Engels used the term 'scientific' to refer to their study of society, they were referring to methods of study and analysis that proceed from material reality in its process of development (a reality of transformative social relationships). That stands in sharp contrast to almost all social theory that came before them (and most of what has come along since).

    All 'science' is of course social practice and as such is cultural. There is no science that stands apart from the social relationships (economic, political, ideological) that produce it.

  • Guest - Rosa L.

    Eddy Laing, you are right in what you said but this is not enough. The new sciences (new physics, new evolutionary theory, new neurobiology, quantum physics, and computer sciences) revolutionarized what we understand today by science. We are not anymore in the 19th century empiricist model of science nor in the 20th century positivist model of science. We are now somewhere else (some people characterize our era, for lack of a better word, post-positivist era). That "somewhere" else" is what needs to be synthesized. There are some excellent work out there on both Philosophy of Science and on Scientist practitioners understanding of what they are doing. What is "material reality" also further developed with the work produced by the new sciences. What was called "material reality" in 19th and most of 20th century science is not the same as the "new sciences" definition of material reality. Lenin's Materialism and Empiriocriticism is obsolete because it was based the scientific developments of his time that are today outdated. Moreover, his reading of Hegel's Logic also transformed his philosophical understanding of the relation between consciousness and materiality... I really like Mike's comment on Mariategui's contributions. Mariategui is a revolutionary marxist absolutely underestimated in many contemporary debates. I also like Mike's point about how it is ironic that Shinning Path defended the legacy of Mariategui but "was remarkably reductionist on precisely these matters where Mariategui was not reductionist." There are not many articles online on Mariategui. One of the few available that merits discussion is:

    "Mariátegui, the Comintern, and the Indigenous Question in Latin America" by MARC BECKER published in IENCE &amp; SOCIETY
    Science &amp; Society, Vol. 70, No. 4, October 2006, 450–479
    http://www.yachana.org/research/s&amp;s.pdf

  • Guest - Eddy Laing

    <blockquote>
    Eddy Laing, you are right in what you said but this is not enough. The new sciences (new physics, new evolutionary theory, new neurobiology, quantum physics, and computer sciences) revolutionarized what we understand today by science. We are not anymore in the 19th century empiricist model of science nor in the 20th century positivist model of science. We are now somewhere else (some people characterize our era, for lack of a better word, post-positivist era). That "somewhere" else" is what needs to be synthesized.
    </blockquote>

    Optimally, recognizing that 'reality' is more complex than one initially thought prompts further consideration of how one then describes it, certainly. This is an ongoing social, dialogic process. It may provide the basis of an experimental approach, for example.

    I agree that positivism and empiricism are inadequate worldviews for developing 'accurate' interaction and cognition (within and of society and the larger universe).

    However, if your argument is that the theory of historical materialism -- as one important example of Marxism -- is insufficient or is '19th century empiricist' or '20th century positivist', well, you'll have quite a bit of arguing to do and quite a lot of evidence supporting HM to contradict.

    As for 'post-positivism' or 'post-modernism' in general, I agree with the critiques argued (in different fields) by Bourdieu, Harvey and Eagleton (for three examples) that such relativism is more aligned with the 'neoliberal turn' which privileges the bourgeois/capitalist individual over society as a collective and, as such, requires the dissolution ('privatization') of any 'commons' including in the sciences.

    What in evolutionary biology, to pick one of your examples, has overturned materialism?

  • Guest - Rosa L.

    Eddy Laing, Let me just clarify that post-positivism is not equivalent to post-modernism nor to relativism. You are collapsing here different "animals". It is true that within this label there are post-modernist and relativist. But this is not the dominant trend today... My argument is that what used to be called "material reality" in the 19th century is very different from what the new sciences call today "material reality." The materialist principle continues but with a very different conceptualization. Physicalism was a materialist principle in the 19th century and for most of the 20th century. Today the reductionism of physicalism is considered an obsolete perspective. What you have instead today are sciences of complexity.