Miller & Motives

Robert Peter Burns rburns at scf.usc.edu
Thu Nov 9 11:07:45 MST 1995


I think James Miller is confusing what people's
_motives_ might be for a course of action with
what might be their _objective class interests_.
Precisely *because* people often don't know
their own objective class interests, the two
can and do come apart.  Since religion tends
to throw some Marxists out of kilter, let's take
a contemporary non-religious example: the Boeing
machinists' strike.  These folks' motives are
*correctly* described <most of them, anyway, I imagine>
as wanting to preserve their jobs, benefits,
etc against management cutbacks.  Their motives
*are* largely *economistic*.  Now Jim and I would
agree that their objective class interests go
beyond these trade unionist demands, and we
would both regard the strike as objectively
a form of class struggle.  But while there
may be some highly class-conscious workers
among the strikers <my point doesn't depend
on the details of the Boeing situation>, it
would be a misuse of the English language to
say that the Boeing workers as a whole are
therefore, ipso facto, _motivated_ by
considerations of the class struggle.  A bit of
class struggle may indeed be going on there, but
we can only attribute class struggle motivation to
the strikers as a body if they are indeed a highly
class-conscious lot <and for the purposes of my
point, I am assuming most of them are not--not yet, at least>.

So, returning to abolitionism: the abolitionists may
indeed have been furthering and solidifying a liberal
bourgeois political/economic order as a matter of objective
fact, as a matter of the objective effects of their actions.
But that does not rule out their motivation having been
a religious one.

Jim might reply that people can have unconcious motives.
I would accept that in principle this is possible.  BUT
it does not follow, and we should not accept, that for
any action X, and any agent A, and any objective consequences
of action C, that if A did X with consequences C, then achieving
C was the real <though possibly unconscious> motive of
A in doing X.  Just because abolitionism led to the
consolidation of a liberal bourgeois regime, it does
not follow <and is not necessarily all that likely>
that the abolitionists had this as an even unconscious motive.

"Marxist materialism" and "Christian idealism" are
weasel words.  I prefer to think of some Marxists
being vulgar materialists, some Christians being
naive idealists, and some Marxists and some Christians
both being dialectical realists--it's the last lot
against all the rest, mate.

Peter Burns SJ
rburns at scf.usc.edu


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