stalin/Marx

Howie Chodos howie at magi.com
Fri Mar 17 16:06:38 MST 1995


Philip Goldstein wrote:

>I don't agree with Chodos' kantian belief that there is a reality out there
>independent of our beliefs and that that reality, unknowable in itself,
>ensures our objectivity, but I do think that, as Althusser has argued,
>science is a historical matter of Marxist theory and its history.

I can't say to what extent my views are Kantian or not, though I do think
that there is much of value in "The Critique of Pure Reason". I do want to
say however, that I do not endorse all the views which Goldstein attributes
to me. There are two parts to his statement above. First, that there is a
reality out there which is independent of our beliefs. I take this to be the
core realist assertion and I wholeheartedly subscribe to it. Second, and
this is where Goldstein misconstrues my position, that the existence of this
subject-independent world can "ensure our objectivity". Nothing can ensure
our objectivity.

I have been arguing for a position which recognises a necessary
epistemological relativism, in that the extent of our individual knowledge
is always bounded by biological, social, cultutral, linguistic limitations.
But I also want to affirm that despite its provisional character, despite
its cultural bias, despite its locatedness, this knowledge can also be about
a world which exists independently of us, and in this sense can be objective
(an interesting and persuasive defense of this kind of objectivity from the
perspective of feminist epistemology can be found in Sandra Harding's "Whose
Science? Whose Knowledge?", and I found Norman Geras' interrogation of
Richard Rorty on these matters in the current New Left Review to be on the
mark as well). This also means that there are ways to distinguish between
better and worse knowledges of that reality and that reference to
"correspondence" with the world out there will be one of the criteria which
will allow us to decide which are the superior versions. This is not an easy
matter, and I do not want to be interpreted as defending an un-nuanced
"correspondence" theory of truth. But I think it is part of the story.

Kenny Mostern wrote:

>My claim has been precisely the reverse of "without marxist theory, no
>Stalin".  It seems to me obvious that Stalin is hardly the only "Stalin"
>of the 20th century.  What that indicates is not that you need Marx to
>have Stalin, but that, like many many other "authors" (in the sense of
>Foucault's "What Is An Author?", if you must know), Marx's work is
>sufficiently versatile that when a given Stalin arises (or a given
>social formation permits an individual like Stalin to take power) he may
>make use of it.  Indeed, he may even arise fully intending and believing
that he is >bringing about "Marx's" will.  But in fact, understanding his
success requires not
>looking at "Marx"--least of all the historical Marx--but looking at 20th
>century history and politics.  And self-described marxist writing this
century (which >also refers to "Marx") has been quite good at that.

If Marx's work is sufficiently versatile that it can be used by anyone from
Stalin to Pol Pot, shouldn't we, who also want to use it today to build a
better, freer, world be a bit worried that we too will (intentionally or
not) misuse it? There can obviously be no guarantees. The use of Marxist
rhetoric, no matter how violently shouted or abusively hurled, is no
guarantee that one is right. That much, at least, the history of
Marxist-inspired movements has proven. Nor is it any guarantee that one is
going to contribute to building a better world. (BTW, I, for one, would not
want to be associated with a project which lined people up against the wall
and shot them for their ideological beliefs, of whatever kind; this is
Stalinism, no matter what its proponents say.) The absence of guarantees is
something that we must live with. It forms one of the givens of action in an
open-ended social world.

What constrains our use of Marxism, what establishes its usefulness to
projects of social change, and this links my comments on Mostern to those on
Goldstein above, is precisely its relation to "the world out there". It is
not fidelity to a putatively definitive version of the Marxist canon that
can help distiguish potential Stalins from the genuine article, but rather
the content of one's proposals for change in today's world.

But this also means that in thinking about the crimes committed under the
banner of various versions of Marxism, we need to examine very carefully the
implications of *all* the key propositions of the tradition. Nothing can be
taken for granted, so all we have to rely on are our own faculties, our own
knowledge, our own experience. Clearly it can never be a matter of the
simple application of a true theory to an uncomplicated reality. The trick
is to understand that reality sufficiently well so that what we do to try to
change it has a good chance of producing the results that we hope for.

In this sense, I think that a commitment to democracy is one of the elements
which needs to be in place in order to minimise the dangers of a misuse of
Marxist theory (should we ever get to the point where it once again informs
decisions that really do change the world), since it allows (amongst many
other features) two things. First, a sharing of knowledge and experience on
the basis of procedural epistemological equality. Second, the right to
dissent. Democracy in and of itself is not a guarantee either, of course.
The majority can exercise tyranny. The majority can be wrong. But input from
a wide variety of sources can help us to be wrong less often. And the right
to dissent can ensure that when the majority is wrong (as I think most on
this list would agree that the majority of people in this free market era
are wrong about capitalism) that there are voices around to say as much.

Gotta stop for now, except for a quick comment on Erin Desmond's post. All I
can say is that, in my relatively limited experience of this list to date,
most people do consider the implications and consequences of what they say.
This is what has made it valuable to me in the short time that I have been
active on it, and I hope that you can see your way clear to ignoring the
chaff. Allowing people the option to not take responsibility for the impact
of their statements may be the price we have to pay for a truly open
exchange. Is this a cop out? I don't know.

Howie Chodos





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