History and Redemption
MARTIN:I don’t know if we can really go too far with this [theme of redemption] right now, and the subject will get taken up a little bit, I think, in the discussion of the secular and "redemption" and mourning—those sorts of themes. A whole other dimension of this question is, if we have a revolution in the United States, we’re still going to be, one would hope, most of the people who are part of the United States now. Suppose we had a revolution today, most of the people who are part of the United States now will be part of the United States, or whatever it is, tomorrow, and the debt we owe to the people of the world is enormous. On some level it’s even unpayable. The things that capitalism and those of us who grew up in imperialist societies and especially the more privileged strata, owe to the world in some sense is even unpayable, but which, according to an old Jewish precept, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t start paying it. Just like these arguments concerning reparations for slavery, on some level you can make that argument on perfectly bourgeois grounds in a lawsuit for lost wages or whatever. On another level, it’s conceptually impossible that there could ever be reparations for slavery. What does that mean? But it’s also, I think, a just demand and it’s a demand that exposes the nature of the system.
MARTIN: And so, even though I think it’s, there are problems with it, I also think it’s a just demand and that the larger sort of question is that as people restructure society, we have to address those historical wrongs and those historical imbalances, and on a global scale, it’s even much greater.. .
AVAKIAN: Well, here...
MARTIN:. and to me that, to be crude about it, has to be thrown on the balance sheet of our discussion of interests, what motivates us, what could make us create a better society and.
AVAKIAN: Well, here’s an example, just briefly, that I think speaks to what you’re getting at. Let’s take the situation of Native Americans. Now you had this whole juggernaut coming at them—the expanding slave system as well as the expanding capitalist system, competing with each other but also both rolling over the Native peoples, sometimes all but literally exterminating them—genocide and everything else. Two points. Was it foreordained that this juggernaut was bound to win out? No, there were efforts by people like Tecumseh and others to rally all the different tribes; had he succeeded, it might have changed the whole course of everything. There were difficulties in doing that. There were reasons why things turned out as they did. Again, it goes back to what I was trying to express earlier about the dialectical relation between contingency and necessity. There were reasons why Tecumseh had difficulty rallying the tribes, but it wouldn’t have been impossible; and if he had, again, they might have been victorious. It might have changed everything, and then the course of development in North America would have been very different. Whether it would have eventually led to a "Native capitalism," I don’t know. That would have to be examined concretely. We may never know, because things didn’t go that way. So, the question is: was it inevitable? No.
Two, should we have supported that juggernaut because it brought about capitalism, even though for a while that included this mix together with slavery? No. In other words, I don’t think that you can—or should—say, well, this is a higher mode of production, therefore, it will all come out in the end. It’s all good.
MARTIN: That’s why I use this word "theodicy"—in other words, retrospectively, it’ll all be justified.
AVAKIAN: Right, well.
MARTIN: And that’s what we don’t want.
AVAKIAN: Yeah. That’s not what I think of and what I understand when I talk about—what I understand to be—dialectical materialism.
AVAKIAN: I don’t think there was that kind of inevitability, nor do I think there was that sort of justification. All that didn’t have to go on "so we can get to communism" in what I think would then be a teleological sense, or history with a big "H." So, to me, that’s an example of where I don’t think it was either inevitable that things happened that way, or "historically justified." On the other hand, there were reasons why it happened the way it did. There were factors favoring one side as opposed to the other. That’s not the same. well, to put it simply, there’s neither inevitability nor justification.
AVAKIAN: I think if we examine.
MARTIN: What do you make of that word "justification"? I mean, I agree with all of what you just said, I’m for it, but.
AVAKIAN: What do I make of the word "justification"?
MARTIN: Well, in other words, that’s a bit of the language of ethics, that even if the European invaders were bringing a more advanced quote/unquote mode of production, it couldn’t possibly be justified that they would come and wipe out the native population of the Americas.
AVAKIAN: No, it wasn’t justified. I think, we.
MARTIN: Because it was wrong. I mean, is that the reason why it’s not justified, because it was wrong? And then where do we get our sense of that wrongness?
AVAKIAN: Well, I do think we get this sense of right and wrong from our historically evolved and socially developed sense of what corresponds to where we want humanity to go.
AVAKIAN: That does get us back to the Kant question. I think that’s where we get it from—from historically and socially evolved criteria—and when we, standing here, read back into history, that’s the way we look at it, and rightly so. There were people at the time who opposed it also, from a different standpoint, for whatever reasons—religious reasons, whatever reasons—but our basis for opposing it would be different than that: we’re looking at it from the point of view that the society we want to bring into being and believe can and should be brought into being is one that depends on people, above everything, in other words, above technology and above mechanical forces, whatever you want to say. This is not the same as humanism in the sense that it’s not ahistorical.
AVAKIAN:. but it does have that element of recognizing the role of people, and you don’t bring about that kind of world by wiping out people. That’s not to say you don’t have to have wars to bring it about, people are going to have to die, but that’s different than genocide. On the other hand, obviously, I’m thinking of Mao’s.
MARTIN: But how often do you hear Marx talking that way? See, that goes back to when we were trying to frame that in terms of "Is this something we can really get out of the Marxist framework? or do we need to work on it a little bit, at least?" I don’t know whether it’s a supplement that’s really something else that we are adding to it. I would hope that it could come out of Marx, but Marx did not tend to talk that way and, I think of that famous passage about the people who shed crocodile tears over imperialism/colonialism in India and maybe his views evolved on this, but there was a certain point where he was basically saying, "They’re just naive about how history really works."
AVAKIAN: Well, let me raise two points here. I think it is within the scope of Marxism. You made the point, in something you wrote in preparing for this conversation, that communism is bigger than Marx or Lenin or Mao. And I agree. It’s bigger than any individual or any group of individuals at a given time.
AVAKIAN: And it’s a developing, evolving thing. That’s my understanding of communism. And what we’re talking about is encompassed by what I understand to be communist philosophy and methodology.
AVAKIAN: That’s one point. The other thing is, again, to be fair to Marx, Marx made some analyses that were just incorrect (I think you were pointing this out) based on incorrect information about what was happening in some of these societies, before and after British colonialism got there.
AVAKIAN:.and the nature of these societies. They were more complex and contradictory than he recognized. That’s the nature of things, that people make mistakes, both because they don’t have all the information and/or because they make methodological mistakes, which is not to say we should embrace their mistakes, but on another level that’s part of what happens.
AVAKIAN: Secondly, it’s like the Irish question. Marx, as he learned more, he did change his mind about some of these things.
AVAKIAN: What he said about the Irish question, I believe also applied in India—that he thought for many years that the Irish question would get settled by the proletarian revolution in England, then he came to recognize that there would never be a proletarian revolution in England without taking up the Irish question, that is, the question of the emancipation of the Irish from England. The other thing is, even Mao, who was, if anything—he was certainly not soft on imperialist depredation in the Third World, if anything maybe he sometimes had somewhat nationalist inclinations in relation to some of that, although not essentially, but he was certainly not soft on it. In his essay "The Chinese Revolution and the Chinese Communist Party" he talked about all the things that imperialism did to China, but he also said it did, on the other hand, bring into being, or hasten and accelerate, the development of the proletariat, which made possible a different kind of revolution in China. And I don’t think he was being determinist.
AVAKIAN: I don’t think he was saying that’s the only way they could have had a proletarian revolution there, or that’s the only way China could have gotten out of feudalism—if imperialism came in.
AVAKIAN:. but I think he’s saying, "This did happen." To me there’s a fine line there, but I think it’s a real line, between saying, "Okay, this is the only way that something could have happened, therefore it’s good"...
AVAKIAN:. and saying, "This did happen and it divides into two: on the one hand it did all this—it brought all this depredation and suffering—and, on the other hand, it did bring certain conditions into being, and now we can do something with what it has brought into being."
AVAKIAN: And, I don’t know, maybe I’m drawing a line that isn’t a real line, but to me there’s a fine line but a real and important line between those two statements.
MARTIN: Uh-huh. Yeah, I think, on Marx the one thing I would come back to though, sort of the two things but it’s on the one thing. I could imagine one of my postcolonial theorist friends saying, "I guess that’s a great step in the right direction where Marx got it right on Ireland, but gee, after all, it’s too bad he only came around to that with northern Europe and not the south of the world, so to speak." I don’t know that he really fully developed a whole lot in terms of understanding that and yes, look, I understand that this divide was opening up in new ways and opened up even much more after he died, and you can only ask so much. I never want to throw out the baby with the bathwater here, but the other thing is that, yes, there are the facts and maybe he had some of his facts wrong, maybe there were ways the methodology should be extended, but I don’t know if we want to dig up his passage, we probably don’t really have to, but I know I quote it in my Impasse book, there’s also actually the tone of voice. What I mean—it was kind of a sneering tone toward these people who are showing concern for what England is doing in India. I mean, it really has this sort of, and you can say, "Well that’s the tone, why do we make that a point?", but there really is a sort of, "They’re just sentimentalists"-tone to it.
It’s funny how this returned in 1992 around the 500th anniversary of the Columbus invasion. In fact it’s our old friend Christopher Hitchens, if you recall, who was, I think, being reactionary then as well, so it’s interesting that he’s really come out much more fully here around 9/11, where he was saying—how did he put it?—he was referring to, who was the guy who wrote From Yale to Jail , he was an early antiwar activist, anti-Vietnam War activist, I’m trying to remember who that is again. It’s a name we’ll all know if we could think of it. [The name we were looking for was David Dellinger.] He wrote this book called From Yale to Jail that was part history and part biography. Anyway, Hitchens said, "My dear old friend so and so, he’s waxing sentimental about this Columbus invasion, but doesn’t he know that’s just how history moves forward" and really sort of repeating this whole. He’s actually even trotting out this whole "Doesn’t he know that if you want to make an omelet you have to break some eggs" sort of thing and I guess you can credit him with sort of laying it right there on the line but.
AVAKIAN: He’s got a bad case of white man’s burden, Hitchens. [ laughs ]
MARTIN: [ laughs ] That’s an interesting way into the question.[both laugh ] I don’t know, I don’t know, I sort of wonder if he ought to have a bigger case of white man’s burden. well, not a white man’s, oh the white man’s burden of.
MARTIN: Yes, the "civilizing mission."
MARTIN: I guess I was thinking some more white man’s guilt might help him. but I mean the return of that same tone that I saw in that passage of. he’s quoting Goethe in that passage, Marx is, and there’s just this sneering tone and I think it is exemplary of a certain view toward, and it’s well known, there was this whole period where there was a spate of books on Marx and ethics, like Steven Lukes’s book, and whatever the strengths and limitations of those. I mean, they almost all began by pointing out how Marx tended to sneer or laugh whenever anybody would talk about ethics. We could save some of this for later, and I know it divides into two, and I did say I think it divides into two in terms of laughing at bourgeois moralizing. But I think he also thought, "Hey, get real, that’s just not really part of how things fall out," and if we’ve changed our view on that, I know I have, and what I hear from you is, the ethical is a real thing, if I can put it that way. I guess we could have a whole other debate on what its metaphysical or ontological status is, but it’s real, it’s meaningful, it’s something that we have to answer the call of, that we have to have responsibility to. We have to have responsibility, then that’s a different language than you find in Marx and maybe there’s a way to build a bridge from Marx to that language and I’d like to think so, I’m happy to think so, but it’s just not the way Marx tended to talk.
AVAKIAN: I think you can make an analogy to Darwin, for example. That was a world-historic breakthrough that Darwin made: it’s still exciting to ponder it, especially in the face of these reactionary—I want to say medieval, but whatever—attacks on it. But there were things that Darwin didn’t understand about evolution and there were things that are yet to be "worked out" about it—more to be learned about the reality of how it works, how it has worked, how it is working. But we, the people who uphold this and want to continue to learn about it, are working within the tradition and the framework, in a broad sense, established by Darwin, even if we don’t agree with him on everything. We may end up disagreeing with certain important particulars that Darwin raised—and Darwin had his shortcomings, certainly socially and politically, which were not minor, but he established a certain new framework, which enriched our understanding of a very important part of reality. I look at Marx the same way. Marx saw the revolution coming out of Europe—he saw it coming in more immediate terms than it’s been, unfortunately. And I think that, to the degree that there is truth to what you’re saying—and, frankly, I’d like to not only think about it but actually read more to try to understand better to what degree I think there’s truth in what you’re raising and to what degree that Marx. I remember reading things where he did condemn the British East India Company and British colonialism in pretty sharp terms with regard to India, so it wasn’t like he just celebrated it, but I think there may be an aspect to what you’re saying in Marx—and I’m just thinking out loud here—that to the degree there was, he was sort of expecting this revolution to come sooner: You’re expecting it to come quickly in Europe, and your view is that this will take care of things, in the sense that these are the advanced countries, where the proletarian revolution will first succeed, and once these become socialist, then the rest of the world will be transformed and "the problems of history will be cleared up."
AVAKIAN: Well, I don’t want to sound too. pragmatic, but I think there is something to the truth that, once you begin to get a longer view of things, two things stand out to you. One, proletarian revolution is not coming, at this stage at least, mainly from Europe—or, to paraphrase that saying from the sixties, "Revolution is coming from a black thing," revolution is not "coming from a European thing." That doesn’t mean there’s not going to be a revolution[laughs ] in Europe, or the U.S., but it’s not coming from a European thing.
AVAKIAN: And second of all, we’ve gotten a longer view of history and we understand more the complexity and variegated nature of history over the past, but we also see that this epoch we’re in is a much longer epoch than Marx anticipated. And not only does that tell us things about the nature of this epoch, in a certain sense it gives us, I think, a different perspective on past epochs and even on the beginning of capitalism. I still think capitalism divides into two, but maybe to the degree that, provisionally, let me say, there is an aspect of this in Marx. I would like to look into it more, but my sense, provisionally, is that there is this aspect in Marx, not single-mindedly, or not unilaterally—there is the other side to it, he did condemn a lot of these colonial depredations—but to the degree that there is, I think it has something to do with what I was just trying to sketch out in my head here, just thinking out loud—maybe it has something to where he was in the process and how he saw it and how he saw these problems were going to get "cleaned up" from history, and from that perspective sort of saying, well look (I’m exaggerating here) why cry over spilt milk? Here’s where we are; we’re going to clear all this up now, so let’s not read back through history and focus on or be preoccupied with these things that happened, because they were part of getting us to where we are now.
AVAKIAN: And I think where we are now, 150 years later or whatever, we understand more about what the reality in these countries was and what actually happened, but also more about the fact that it isn’t just going to be like we’ll have a revolution and we’ll just—let me put it this way, we’ll just go forward—but instead maybe we’ll have a revolution and we’ll go to the side as well as going forward, and maybe we’ll even go back a little bit to take in some of these historical problems. It’s not that we can go back and undo everything that’s been done.
AVAKIAN:.but this gets to your debt point. You have to, in going forward, take into account and, in a certain sense, compensate for what was done in the past, as part of your going forward—not in order to go back—it’s one thing to criticize that crude metaphor about the reel of history, but you can’t actually, literally rewind the tape and I wouldn’t be in favor, frankly, of trying to. It would be impossible, and I wouldn’t be in favor of it. We can’t recreate the world of 500 years ago.
AVAKIAN: If you read about the history of the Roman Empire, for example, you see how one people, or an amalgamation of peoples, in the Steppes of Asia gets pushed west by another one, and they in turn push another one—and there’s sort of this concatenation, almost like a domino effect.
AVAKIAN:. that then impinges on the Roman Empire and impinges on Europe. You can’t go back.
MARTIN: Right. Before the Aztecs there were Toltecs.
AVAKIAN: Yeah, you can’t go back. But what we can do is say, "Okay, things were done here, they have consequences"—and, yes, viewed in that sense there is right and wrong and there are obligations that do stem from that.
AVAKIAN: We’ve tried to envision that in our Draft Programme , and I’m sure that’s something that can and should be strengthened, but I think the basic position we’re taking there is a correct and important one, that we have to take into account this history and we have to do something about the consequences of this history.
AVAKIAN: So, I don’t know, to me.
MARTIN: To me, that’s.
AVAKIAN: I think Marx probably was looking at this from a little different vantage point, and coming out of Hegel, too.
AVAKIAN:.if you want to talk about things methodologically, he’s coming out of Hegel. He’s negating Hegel but, you know how it is, he’s carrying.
MARTIN: Well, I think one element of Hegel that’s very clear in his perspective about Europe, and that’s been addressed somewhat in the discussion of Darwin and the whole idea of punctuated equilibrium, is: Where does change ultimately come from? Does it really come from the center or from just kind of growing and growing until it breaks out of the center, or does it actually come mainly from the margins? And, I think that is a good example of where, I don’t want to say we’re with Marx and against Marx, we’re coming out of Marx but we’re seeing that that transformation and the understanding also has to be made and it’s imperialism that especially forces us to make that development.
AVAKIAN: I mean, in accordance with the same principles we’re talking about, we could have had a revolution, a socialist revolution in Europe or in some of these European countries. That would have changed the course of history, too, and some of these problems would have been dealt with in a different way. It wouldn’t have changed the essential principles, but things would have been dealt with in a different way—the whole history would have been unfolding differently.
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Marxism and the Call of the Future
Conversations on Ethics, History, and Politics
By Bob Avakian and Bill Martin
ISBN 0-8126-9579-8 • $37.95 • 350 pages •paperback
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(Also available in bookstores March, 2005)