Zizek & Machiavelli, Not Hegel (was Re: Montesinos)

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at SPAMosu.edu
Mon Oct 9 05:18:40 MDT 2000


Hi Gordon:

>But I do like "revolutionary defeatism" even if its outlines
>are vague.  Defeatism against all states, governments, parties
>and bosses, by means of subversion, seduction, sabotage,
>deflection, absence, negation, dancing in the moonlight, or
>talking a walk.  Hence my visceral opposition the the war
>against Serbia (or Colombia or Vietnam).  Those defeatism fans
>had the beginning of a good idea.  Victory is death.  Defeat
>opens the possibility of life, of beauty.

It delights me to hear from you (who is an anarchist and does not
share much of my theoretical framework) that "revolutionary
defeatism" appeals to you.  In what you say above, you are reading
Lenin against the grain of Lenin and putting it to an anarchist
purpose, but the conclusion you come to with regard to what we _in
rich imperial nations_ should do ("visceral opposition the the war
against Serbia [or Colombia or Vietnam]") is absolutely correct
(which shows, in my view, that anarchists and marxists in rich
nations at this point in history should be friends, not enemies).
Please keep in mind, however, that Lenin meant his counsel for
_leftists in rich nations_, not those in the periphery (though even
in the periphery his counsel may apply if wars do not involve
self-defense against imperial aggression).

A great deal of what (and how) Lenin wrote cannot be directly applied
in our political practice (since we do not live in the same
conditions, and history does not repeat itself, not even as a farce),
but this principle of "revolutionary defeatism" is, I argue, one that
all leftists -- even anti-Leninists -- in imperial nations can &
should take to their heart.  (Had all socialists in imperial nations
followed his counsel during the World War I, the twentieth century
would not have been so barbaric, and we would not be today wrangling
over Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Chechnya, etc. at all.)

> > In other words, "revolutionary defeatism": it is "the duty of
> > Marxists in imperialist countries to oppose the war efforts of their
> > own governments," as Ken Lawrence reminded us a while ago.  The
> > leftists who have failed to do so energetically in the case of the
> > Yugoslav affairs, in my opinion, are beautiful souls (if they are not
> > cruise-missile liberals, that is).
> >
> > Yoshie
> >
> > P.S.  BTW, Machiavelli has a better position on necessity and
> > morality than Hegel, William Blake, etc.  What Machiavelli says is
> > that what is necessary may be nevertheless unjust (whereas, for
> > Hegel, what is historically necessary is rational and justifiable).
> > This is about moral & political responsibility.  ...
>
>Alas, Machiavelli merely begs the question.  In the end one
>chooses not against beauty but one beauty (greatness, Realpolitik,
>power, maybe) against some other (vague idealism or a caricature
>thereof).  In the end, one still mysteriously says "Behold
>_to_kalon_" or "God wills it" or "This is what _I_ will."
>Some additionally utter the word "reality" with the sound of a
>man drawing a pistol, although the _to_kalon_ folks are fond
>of having the servants do it for them.
>
>William Blake was the most concrete:  he said that one could
>do another good only in minute particulars.  Think innumerable-
>globally, act minutely.  That was _his_ beauty -- he liked
>sharp outlines.

Principles, be they ethical or philosophical, necessarily lack
concrete details.  Possession of correct principles does not
guarantee correct applications of them (btw, the meaning of the term
"dogmatism" is that the "dogmatist" applies correct principles
incorrectly).  Even our attempts to apply correct principles
correctly do not guarantee that we will be judged by our posterity to
be moral.  First of all, we are not omniscient -- to err is human.
One may even go further and turn Hegel against Hegel.  We must be
prepared to err wholeheartedly, instead of pursuing the perfection of
wisdom _now_ in a vain hope of covering our moral ass.  The owl of
Minerva flies at twilight.  History has yet to come to an end, so it
follows that wisdom is denied us.  In the end, all of us may turn out
to be asses.

This is *not* to say, however, that anything goes.  Offlist, my dear
friend Nestor wrote me that "I would suggest you to read Engles on
Hegels thesis again. There is a very important thing with the thesis:
if you look at it dialectically, not in a formal way, then what Hegel
is saying is simply that from the many 'reasonable ideas' that may
turn out to exist at a given moment, it will be the development of
historic facts that will decide which one was truly rational."
Nestor is, of course, right (especially when it comes to our attempts
to grasp historical transition from one mode of production to another
as well as current conjunctures).  Marx's rejection of the dualism of
noumena and phenomena draws upon the Hegelian criticism of Kant:
"What is rational is actual and what is actual is rational.  On this
conviction the plain man like the philosopher takes his stand, and
from it philosophy starts its study of the universe of mind as well
as the universe of nature" (Hegel, _The Philosophy of Right_).  Hegel
also insists: "To comprehend what is, this is the task of philosophy"
(Hegel, _The Philosophy of Right_).  This is important ethically and
politically, not just philosophically.  For "necessity narrows the
range of alternatives" (Bernard Crick, "Introduction" to Niccolo
Machiavelli, _The Discourses_).  Not to grasp this distressing fact
is to become the beautiful soul in the Hegelian sense, which is not
just _politically irresponsible_ but, more importantly, _ethically
negligent_.  My quarrel with Hegel is that Hegel went further than
this in his "history of progress" (recall Hegel's imperial thoughts
on Africans, Orientals, etc.).  Hegel's focus on "what is" comes from
his desire to promote our reconciliation with it ("The actual world
is as it ought to be...." [Hegel, _Reason in History_]).  Marx asks
us, instead, to comprehend "what is" through our political struggles
to change it: "The question whether objective truth can be attributed
to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a _practical_
question.  Man must prove the truth, that is, the reality and power,
the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice.  The dispute over the
reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is
a purely _scholastic_ question....Social life is essentially
_practical_.  All mysteries which mislead theory into mysticism find
their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of
practice....The philosophers have only _interpreted_ the world, in
various ways; the point, however, is to _change_ it" (Marx, _Theses
on Feuerbach_).

What of Blake?  I'm afraid that I cannot agree with him that "The cut
worm forgives the plow" ("The Marriage of Heaven and Hell").  Human
beings are not worms, and victims of historical progress, past and
present, did not and will not forgive victors & those of us who enjoy
the fruits of progress.  There is no forgiveness in nature and
history; for neither nature nor history is moral (recall Stephen Jay
Gould here).  This -- that human beings are not worms -- is what
Machiavelli reminds us, for all (or perhaps because of) his talk of
"virtu" in the face of necessity.  That is why he never says that
what is politically necessary is morally just:

*****   [Machiavelli]  "His aim should be to emulate Philip of
Macedon....Of him a writer says that he moved men from province to
province as shepherds move their sheep.  Such methods are exceedingly
cruel, and are repugnant to any community, not only to a Christian
one, but to any composed of men.  It behoves, therefore, every man to
shun them, and to prefer to live as a private citizen than as a king
with such ruination of men to his score.  None the less, for the sort
of man who is unwilling to take up this first course of well doing,
it is expedient, should he wish to hold what he has, to enter on the
path of wrong doing.  Actually, most men prefer to steer a middle
course which is very harmful, for they know not how to be wholly good
or wholly bad."

Such actions may be, in this conditional sense, necessary or, at
least, expedient, but Machiavelli will never call them good.  They
are neither good to Christians nor to any community of men.  Better,
by both moralities, to retire into private life; but do not think, in
such circumstances, that such actions can be avoided by someone.
(Bernard Crick, "Introduction" to Niccolo Machiavelli, _The
Discourses_)   *****

Conservatives read Machiavelli as if he were endorsing the crassest
of realpolitik for the sake of realpolitik, as Justin accuses me for
doing.  This conservative realpolitik, however, is the farthest from
what I advocate.  I agree with Justin that "even when realpolitik is
called for, there are limits" (on this question of limits, please
consult Norman Geras, for instance).  In fact, I go further than
Justin.  He says: "I have no doubt that if there is a socialist
revolution, it will have to be defended with rough and sometimes
doubtful measures. That's why, for example, I never blame Trotsky for
putting down the Krondstadt revolt--no society at war could tolerate
mutiny in the military like that, least of one that had, as it
seemed, a dim prospect of promoting the goals of our movement."  The
Machiavellian point is that Trotsky may have done what was
politically necessary, but it is vain for Trotsky (or us) to think
that those who died in the Krondstadt rebellion could or would
forgive Trotsky (and us).  For humans are not worms.  Reading
Machiavelli thus, I am turning Machiavelli against conservatives'
Machiavelli.

I'm afraid that in the course of the Yugoslav civil wars many Western
leftists either retired into private life or preferred "to steer a
middle course which is very harmful" by, for instance, issuing
contradictory statements ("the Serbs must be brought to justice and
punished by 'the international community' but I am a nice pacifist
person and object to NATO bombings, ground forces, and/or economic
sanctions"), which have been easily ridiculed by cruise-missile
liberals and leftists like Branka Magas & Bogdan Denitch.  The
anti-war movement against NATO was small, for most Western leftists
didn't know what to think or (much less) do.

Let us, yes, avoid conservatives' Machiavelli; let us, also, shun the
beautiful soul.  (As I said, however, I may overestimate Western
leftists -- they may be simply lazy souls, given the way they are
waiting for the mass media's framing of good and evil with regard to,
for instance, Chechnya.)

Yoshie






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