Revolution #165, May 24, 2009
RUMINATIONS AND WRANGLINGS
On the Importance of Marxist Materialism, Communism as a Science,
Meaningful Revolutionary Work, and a Life with Meaning
[Editors’ note: The following is the third excerpt from the text of a talk by Bob Avakian, earlier this year, which is being serialized in Revolution, beginning with issue #163. Part 2 appeared last issue, #164. The text of the talk has been edited and footnotes have been added for publication. The entire talk can be found online at /revcom.us/avakian/ruminations/BA-ruminations-en.html]
Going back to how individuals in society exist not purely as individuals, but in a more fundamental sense as part of social groupings, and how this is grounded in certain definite social and fundamentally production relations, I want to return to some points that have to do with what Marx sharply gets at in his essay The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, specifically on the question of democratic intellectuals and their relation to the petite bourgeoisie (the "middle class"). Let's begin with the following from the polemic against K. Venu ("Democracy: More Than Ever We Can And Must Do Better Than That") which was written more than 15 years ago now but remains very relevant (this polemic is also included as an appendix in the book Phony Communism Is Dead...Long Live Real Communism!—in the second  edition of that book). I will first give the passage in full, and then comment on certain parts of it which are particularly salient in relation to what is going on today:
"Here the following insights of Marx are very relevant. Commenting, significantly, on a variant of petit-bourgeois social-democracy that, in a different context and somewhat different form, also advocated 'the transformation of society in a democratic way, but a transformation within the bounds of the petite bourgeoisie,' Marx goes on to say that:
"'...one must not form the narrow-minded notion that the petite bourgeoisie, on principle, wishes to enforce an egoistic class interest. Rather, it believes that the special conditions of its emancipation are the general conditions within the frame of which alone modern society can be saved and the class struggle avoided. Just as little must one imagine that the democratic representatives are indeed all shopkeepers or enthusiastic champions of shopkeepers. According to their education and their individual position they may be as far apart as heaven from earth. What makes them representatives of the petite bourgeoisie is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social position drive the latter practically. This is, in general, the relationship between the political and literary representatives of a class and the class they represent....'" (See Phony Communism is Dead...Long Live Real Communism!, 2nd (2004) edition, pp. 209-210, emphasis in original)
In examining this further, let's focus first on the very insightful observation by Marx that the petite bourgeoisie "believes that the special conditions of its emancipation are the general conditions within the frame of which alone modern society can be saved and the class struggle avoided." How often nowadays, much to our frustration, do we see this phenomenon played out in politics and other spheres of society? The petit bourgeois, and in particular the petit bourgeois intellectual, continually gravitates toward, and gives expression to, the notion that the narrow interests, and illusory "solutions," that correspond to the spontaneous strivings and inclinations of people in this ("middle class") position can somehow be imposed on all of society, and will fix society's ills, or at least ameliorate and mitigate the objectively profound contradictions which rive society and repeatedly give rise to antagonistic conflict, in which this "middle class" generally finds itself caught...in the middle.
And Marx goes on: "Just as little must one imagine that the democratic representatives are indeed all shopkeepers or enthusiastic champions of shopkeepers." Marx is a dialectical, not a vulgar, materialist. He makes clear:
"According to their education and their individual position they may be as far apart as heaven from earth. What makes them representatives of the petite bourgeoisie is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions..."
Note that: to the same problems and solutions. Not only the same solutions, but the same problems and solutions. Even with regard to how they see the problems, as well as the solutions which they believe they have found, these democratic intellectuals come up with ideas and theoretical propositions which ultimately are in line with where "material interest and social position drive the latter [the shopkeepers] practically."
And then follows a very important conclusion: "This is, in general, the relationship between the political and literary representatives of a class and the class they represent...." Here again, Marx is putting forward a correct understanding of the way in which ideas are a reflection of material reality and more specifically of a certain social position—but they are not crudely that, they're not that in a reductionist, one-to-one sense. Ultimately, he stresses, the ideas of the democratic intellectuals do not escape the bounds within which the practical petite bourgeoisie, if you will, is confined by its economic interests and its social position. This is a very profound and very important point. But, again, this is not a linear "one-to-one" relation. To help illustrate this, it is worthwhile referring to a report I read of a discussion relating to how I had applied this statement by Marx to the role of someone like Amy Goodman. In this discussion, one person said, "Well, Amy Goodman, she's a shopkeeper." No...a-a-a-h [laughing, making the sound of a "buzzer" in a game show, when a wrong answer is given]. That misses the whole point. The point is the relation between democratic intellectuals and shopkeepers—the dialectical relation—and how, in the working out of their ideas, these intellectuals may proceed very differently than how the shopkeeper thinks about practical problems all day long, or even the way the shopkeeper thinks about politics, but that the democratic intellectuals—as representatives, in the realm of ideas, of the petite bourgeoisie—don't escape the framework, and the limits, within which the (if you will) more practical activities of the petite bourgeoisie are confined. And this, in its full meaning—and its living application of dialectical materialism, as opposed to mechanical materialism and idealism—is extremely important to understand.
The next paragraph from Marx's "Eighteenth Brumaire," which is also cited in "Phony/Real," further elaborates on and sheds further light on this point. This paragraph begins: "But the democrat, because he represents the petite bourgeoisie, that is, a transition class, in which the interests of two classes are simultaneously mutually blunted, imagines himself elevated above class antagonism generally."
Here Marx is speaking to the fact that the petite bourgeoisie is a class which has no future, as such, and is incapable of ruling society, as such, although representatives of the petite bourgeoisie may actually come to preside over society, or lead society, on behalf of the proletariat or on behalf of the bourgeoisie—"moving over," so to speak to take up the class standpoint and interests of the one or the other of these two fundamentally and antagonistically opposed classes. This is why Marx refers to the petite bourgeoisie as a transition class, in which the interests of two classes—that is, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat—"are simultaneously mutually blunted." It is for this reason that the petit bourgeois democrat "imagines himself elevated above class antagonism generally."
How often have we heard this viewpoint expressed, including in relation to the recent election and the triumph of Obama in that election?! For example, recently someone wrote to our newspaper complaining about our exposure of Obama and declaring: I think people are in a mood more for healing than they are in a mood for conflict.
This is a classical expression of the class outlook of people in the petite bourgeoisie—who, as Marx so graphically and insightfully puts it, commonly imagine themselves "elevated above class antagonism generally." They imagine that they can wave the magic wand of petit bourgeois idealism and eliminate objective class conflicts and the antagonism and struggle to which these conflicts give rise, repeatedly, in one form or another.
Marx goes on:
"The democrats concede that a privileged class confronts them"—you see, Marx is very sophisticated and nuanced in his understanding—"The democrats concede that a privileged class confronts them, but they, along with all the rest of the nation, form the people. What they represent is the people's rights; what interests them is the people's interests. Accordingly, when a struggle is impending, they do not need to examine the interests and positions of the different classes." (emphasis in original)
Once again, this is extremely insightful and extremely important. It is very worthwhile going back to this repeatedly and drawing more and more out of it, precisely in relation to developing reality and the ways in which this constantly gets posed—including the ways in which it is posed in very sharp terms now. While this phenomenon finds repeated expression every time there's an election in a bourgeois democracy—and in the U.S. in particular—it has been very acutely expressed with this recent election, around Obama, which has had by far the highest quotient of illusion, deceit and especially self-deceit of any election in quite a long time. It has set a very high standard for illusion, deceit and self-deceit, even for bourgeois elections.
Along with this, the following quote from the Grundrisse, also cited in "Phony/Real," penetrates beneath so much of the outer appearance of things and the obfuscation by so many (consciously or not) of fundamental and essential reality:
"In the money relation, in the developed system of exchange (and this semblance seduces the democrats), the ties of personal dependence, of distinctions of blood, education, etc. are in fact exploded, ripped up (at least, personal ties all appear as personal relations); and individuals seem independent (this is an independence which is at bottom merely an illusion, and it is more correctly called indifference), free to collide with one another and to engage in exchange within this freedom; but they appear thus only for someone who abstracts from the conditions, the conditions of existence within which these individuals enter into contact (and these conditions, in turn, are independent of the individuals and, although created by society, appear as if they were natural conditions, not controllable by individuals).... A closer examination of these external relations, these conditions, shows, however, that it is impossible for the individuals of a class etc. to overcome them en masse without destroying them." (Marx, Grundrisse, translated with a foreword by Martin Nicolaus, Penguin Books/New Left Review, "The Chapter on Money," pp. 163-64, emphasis in original.)
Here, because Marx has put it within parentheses, it is possible to miss, or to fail to take full note of, an extremely important observation: In the developed system of exchange embodied in the money relation, the semblance of things—the outer and non-essential appearance of things—seduces the democrat into believing that the various individuals who are related to each other through this system of exchange are actually independent and autonomous, when in reality they are enmeshed, and confined, within definite production relations, of which the developed, money-based system of exchange is a subordinate expression. In a significant aspect—and this is true even while the degree to which this is consciously thought out varies—such democrats view the capitalist system, and its mode of exchange, in contrast with the feudal system, in which ties of personal dependence, distinctions of blood, education, etc., are openly determinants and markers of social status. By contrast, in capitalist society such non-market distinctions are, at least to a large degree and in essence, torn down and, as Marx puts it, personal ties all appear as personal, not as fixed by custom and tradition, or even law. This too is part of what "seduces" the democrat.
But what, really, is this much-vaunted independence and autonomy of people enmeshed in capitalist market relations? As Marx caustically characterizes it, this independence is more correctly called indifference, for capitalist relations not only allow but require and compel people to be fundamentally indifferent to the situation and fate of others—and the freedom people have, within these relations, is, as Marx puts it, essentially the freedom to collide with one another.
At base, as Marx also makes clear, the independence and autonomy that is so often proclaimed as an essential feature of bourgeois society, marking it as superior to all other forms of society, is an illusion. In fact, the situation people find themselves in, and the "freedom" they actually have, is defined, and confined, by "the conditions of existence within which these individuals enter into contact"—once again, fundamentally the relations of production of capitalism, and the corresponding relations of exchange and of distribution—which, as Marx emphasizes, are independent of the individuals. What the democrats typically do—again, reflecting the position and outlook of the petite bourgeoisie, understanding that in a dialectical, and not a mechanical, materialist sense—is precisely "abstract" the situation of individuals from these fundamental and essential relations and conditions. At the same time, they are taken in by the appearance that social conditions—conditions which are a result of the historical development of society and what that development has led to, the conditions and relations society embodies and is characterized by, at any given time—are "natural conditions," conditions which are simply "given" by nature, or which conform to the "nature of things," so to speak, and more specifically to a supposedly essential(ist) and unchanging "human nature."
How many times have we heard people say, "Yes, I agree with you, there are many things wrong in society—but that's just the way people are—that's human nature, that's why things are the way they are, and that's why they can never really be changed"?
For these reasons, the democrats—and others, so long as they adhere to this outlook—are not capable of recognizing this most fundamental truth: Not only are different individuals "situated" within a larger system of production and social—and, in class society, class—relations, which are historically evolved and fundamentally independent of the wills of individuals, as individuals, but even though some individuals may be able to change their social-class status within capitalist society, the masses of people—and in particular the exploited masses in the lower sections of the proletariat, and others in oppressed social groups whose oppressed status is integral and indispensable to the prevailing capitalist society—cannot do so within the existing conditions and relations. As Marx very correctly, and profoundly, insists, they can do so, en masse, only by destroying these conditions and relations—only by overthrowing the system which embodies, and enforces, these conditions and relations.
That, of course, is why a radical transformation of society, a revolution, is necessary in order for the individuals en masse—in other words, for the masses of exploited and oppressed people, trapped in these social relations—to overcome them and bring into being radically different social conditions and relations, a radically different economic base and superstructure: to advance to communism and achieve the "4 Alls."
So, from all this, we can see the extreme relevance of these statements by Marx, from the Grundrisse and "The 18th Brumaire," in relation to—and as dissection and refutation of—commonly held notions that prevail in society today, whether in the form of more developed theories and philosophies, or simply popular prejudices and misconceptions, about the nature of things, and "human nature" in particular, and about the possibility—or, as it is often spontaneously conceived, the impossibility—of revolution and communism.
To be continued.