ontology and political commitment (+)

Justin Schwartz jschwart at freenet.columbus.oh.us
Mon Jul 3 20:25:05 MDT 1995

Leo is of course correct taht Marxism is, like all forms on intellecxtual
and practical inquiry, an ongoing and open-ended process with lots of
contradictory strands. If it ever stops bing taht, moreover, it's dead--we
should not regret taht Marx never "finished his system"--not taht it
wouldn't have been nice to have his views on lots of things, but it
wouldn't answer our questions or indeed necesasrily have saved us
(Marxists) from various catastrophe if he had. To think the contarry is,
first, ti substitute authority for thoughta nd second to commit idealism,
the view that ideas and not material forces are the mainspring od history.

So far, Leo 1, Jim 0. But Jim is right about Stalinism as a theory. The
langauge of Betrayal is not useful (although one can understand it in the
context of the Bolshevik party). But how about vulgarization, flattening,
deadening, fossilizing. Theoretically, Stalinism is bad Marxism in that
it's bad thinking. Hard questions are reduced to formula. Debate is
replaced by invective. Dissension is abolished by force. Consensus is
decreed froma bove. The result is an intellectual wasteland--quite UNLIKE
classical Marxism or Western or Latin American Marxism. I'm not talking
thrpough my hat--I've read a lot of official Marxism-Leninsm (for my
sins). As to practice, Stalinism replaces revolutionarys ocialist organing
from below with imposition of decrees from above.

OK, why did taht happen? What terrible worm in Marxism allowed this to
take place? A good question. But it must be contextualized. Maexism isn't
special. What terrible worm in liberalism allowed it to connive with
slavery from the time of Locke and (;ater) Jefferson to the US Civl War?
To underwrite the genocide of the Native Americans and the theft of a
continent? To participate in and justify imperialist crimes from the
Philippines to Vietnam and the Gulf? How can the language of inviolable
rights and universal human interests be turned into...lRobert MacNamara?
I'm not trying to whitewash Marxism. My point is taht its situation in
regard to be used to evil and to justify appalling crimes is far from

There's a Marxist explanation for this. Leo win't like it. History is
caused mainly by material forces--human actions, thesea re, but they are
struggles by human actors (ideologiaclly loaded, etyc.) over material
things. Ultimately, over who gets what, who works for whom. Ideolofy is
superstructual--it has its own dynamic, all right, but its content tends
to reflect the struggles as they play out in material spheres. Marxismw
ould expect atht any ideology (here uwsed ina  broad, neutral,
nonpejorative sense, meaning a system of ideas), including Marxism, can be
appropriatred, will be appropriated, by various forces in these struggles.
In the case of Stalinism, the language and general structure of Marxism
were appropriated by a new exploiting class of bureaucrats which arose in
the USSR on the wreckage of the a proletarian revolution in a war-torn,
developing country with a tiny working class, isolated internationally and
cut iff from the prospect of the sort of revolution the theory itself
demanded. What other language would they use?

Leo seems to think that we must interrogate the adbsences in Marxism. We
will find the secret of the rise of Stalinism in Marxis,'s reluctance to
sanction an official moarl meta=theory, or use of terms dictatotship of
the proletariat. etc. Now Marxists should welcome interrogattaion and
development of their concepts, but it's poltroonery to think that simply
getting those straight will stop bad men from using whatever language you
like for evil purposes if the alighnment of forces is such atht it's in
their intererestsa nd within their abilities to do so. There is absolutely
nothing special about Marxism in t his regard. Part of my pointa bout
liberalism was taht its high-minded language is soaked in blood, no less
than Marxism. And so with any ideology which has entered on the world
stage as an historical actor. Conceptuala nalysis will not help with that.
What we need are organized forces on the side of the true and the good and
a great deal of luck.

--Justin Schwartz

On Mon, 3 Jul 1995 LeoCasey at aol.com wrote:

> Jim --
> I am not going to over definitions of ontology and 'what Marx actually said'
> questions, because I don't think that we are about to agree, and I think that
> others will find the back and forth interminably boring.
> There are a few points, however, that may be of interest to others:
> 1. If you read what I actually wrote, you will see that I imputed nothing
> with respect to your views of Stalinism. I raised the issue to illustrate the
> importance of interrogating the Marxist tradition to try to understand what
> about that tradtion made it possible for a Stalinist state to be created in
> its name -- indeed, for a Stalinist state to incorporate a variation of it as
> the official state ideology. In that context, I criticized a general view
> that Stalinism was simply a betrayal of Marxism, and that we could therefore
> happily proceed without asking any difficult questions. Now that you have
> given your view -- and described it as Stalin "abusing" Marxist theory -- I
> must say that if there is a significant distinction between that view and the
> one I described, I don't see it.
> 2. You said: "The lacunae in Marxism -- the fact that it inspired a lot of
>  different views -- arise partly because Marx never finished his
> system." My premise is that all theoretical systems have lacunae; this is a
> function of the limited nature of human reason, and the constantly changing
> social world of humanity. Marxism is thus no different than any other
> theroetical system in its incompleteness and gaps. It has been such a
> generative, productive system ("inspired so many other views" is how you put
> it) not because it was incomplete, but because it contained very important
> and fruitful insights into the workings of social power, especially in the
> period up through the Great Depression, and those working in the tradition
> could build on those insights. Moreover, "Marx did not get around to it" is
> really not a very adequate explanation for gaps as major as detailed theories
> of the state, of the party and of communism itself. At a minimum, we must ask
> why such a prodigiously productive author did not consider these themes
> important enough for elaboration, and we might even ask whether or not there
> were structural elements in Marx's theory which made it difficult to address
> them. It is essential, I contend,  that we examine these lacunae in some
> detail if we are to understand, at a level deeper than the "abuse" of an
> ideal system, the development of a Stalinist Marxism.
> I have a book shelf full of looseleaf binders on notes of the interpretations
> of Draper, Et. Al., so I am not unaware of this type of Marxist
>  interpretation which you cite. But it really is time for us to apply the
> same standards we would use for other authors to Marx, to accept that there
> may be _unintended_ consequences that ensue from his work, and to investigate
> what they might be. The fact that his general vision was one of working class
> empowerment is not the end of the story.
> 3. I do not think I agree with your interpretation of Rousseau, if I have
> understood it correctly. If there is some interest among others on this
> count, it could be pursued.
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