Stalin, social being and consciousness

Ralph Dumain rdumain at igc.apc.org
Mon Mar 13 23:41:53 MST 1995


>could be taken to absolve Marxism from any connection to
>Stalinism, which I don't think was his intention

Maybe it's not his intention, but it's mine.  It is utter banality
to blame Marxism for Stalin, and that applies not only to Marx,
but also to Engels, and even to Plekhanov.

>but it does point to the ambiguities involved in invoking the
>idea that "social being determines consciousness".

There are ambiguities, yes!  Why?  Because everybody cites this
phrase, thinking its meaning is obvious, but not a soul has ever
bothered to analyze it.  Its meaning has been so thoroughly
tacitly stalinized, people have forgotten some basic issues,
though I thought them out years ago privately.  The fundamental
faulty assumption that people have, I note thusly: 'BEING
DETERMINES CONSCIOUSNESS' DOES NOT MEAN THAT THE DETERMINED
CONSCIOUSNESS IS AN APPROPRIATE OR ACCURATE REFLECTION OF SOCIAL
BEING!

>Did class origin "determine" Marx's outlook, or Lenin's?

They turned traitor to their class of origin.  Yet, I would say
that the answer is still yes!  One can analyze the process whereby
a person takes up the social cause of another class.  It is a
Stalinist conceit ONLY that proletarians have automatic class
loyalty.  How did this conceit arise?  Alvin Gouldner saw the
reason: this notion was necessary for the vanguard party to
terrorize and intimidate "individualistic" middle class
intellectual party members into submission.  This is the briefest,
most simplified answer I can give.  You are asking a question
about the formation of personal identity, which I believe can be
answered.

>Is there some way of distinguishing the class background of an
>intellectual who chooses to side with the oppressed, from that
>of those who choose otherwise?

No.  That's not where to look for the answer.  One has to
fine-tune the analysis of the social being of the individual's
development more carefully.  How could one make aggregate
statements about different types of individuals within the
aggregate without looking at the differential factors within their
general situation?

>Is there something in the social being of workers....

Same question, similar answer.  Is it a mystery why some workers
have the value system of the capitalist system which forms their
upbringing and pragmatic reality?

>Am I asking the wrong questions?

You're asking the right questions the wrong way.

>And when it comes to helping explain the phenomenon of
>Stalinism, I am even less sure that "social being determines
>consciousness" is helpful.

Au contraire, it is most obvious.  The phenomenon has been
analyzed to death.

>Let us not forget that Stalinism dominated large and influential
>working class parties in most of the capitalist world.

You're trying to figure out the logic behind this.  It's a long
story.  Among other texts, I recommend two books by CLR James:
NOTES ON DIALECTICS and STATE CAPITALISM AND WORLD REVOLUTION.

>then the social being that "determined" the consciousness must
>have been permeated by contradictory elements as well.

Very good!

>It is here that I tend to rely on some of Bhaskar's
>contributions.

This time I don't want to put off such a sincere inquiry on your
part by being overly sarcastic.  I wonder if you are so impressed
by Bhaskar because he is so insightful or just because you haven't
read other Marxist literature and he is the first person you came
across who dealt with these issues.  I am still open to taking
Bhaskar seriously as a philosopher of science, but these examples
you cite from Bhaskar of Marxism's defects smack of superficial,
dilettantish fakery disguised by pretentious terminology.  Every
word you cite by Bhaskar on voluntarism, etc., is already
contained in much superior form in early Marx and Engels, but
without philosophical terms like voluntarism and intentionality.
In fact, Marx and Engels explicitly recognize intentionality.  But
men (people) don't make history in the circumstances that they
choose, and their intended individual actions have unintended
structural antecedents and consequences.  This is the Marxist
dialectical view of human agency obscured by Stalinist and
social-democratic economism.  A lot of people know this already: I
feel bad nobody let you in on it.  It is a terrible failure of
Marxist education.

Believe me, I don't want to insult you or sound superior.  In all
sincerity I think you owe it to yourself to consider that you are
being sold a bill of goods on the defects of Marx's Marxism and on
the original perspicuity of Bhaskar.  But you are indeed asking
the right questions, and it is a condemnation of the horrible
introductory literature on Marxist philosophy that none of it
clearly and adequately explained to you the Marxian view of human
agency.


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