Reply to Bob Gould on nationalism: a note on colour theory

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at
Mon Jul 21 00:58:23 MDT 2003

Bob Gould wrote:

"The erudite chit-chat about the exact details of the Lenin-Hegel-Goethe
quote are of considerably less importance than the political issues raised
by Ed George. In my view, Ed George's contribution on the national question,
and nationalism in general, is of great value."

Bob, I don't think you are being quite fair here. As far as I remember,
Louis originally kicked off the discussion and then Tom and myself developed
a few strands of it. Then David contributed to it.  My own position is
basically the same as what Ed George said, except that I didn't go into the
Marxological quotology (I don't have the LCW here etc.), and tried to make
sense of it in ordinary language, from the point of view of somebody alive
today, looking at the methodology behind the words, whereas Ed supplies
chapter and verse about what Lenin's reasoning was (thank you, Ed).

My complaint was, that Tom was trying to imply that you could support the
rights of oppressed nationalities to self-determination, without making any
concessions to nationalist sentiment whatsoever within a
bourgeois-democratic framework, and by disregarding the genuine appreciation
of their country that people often have. To me, this seems a bit like trying
to make love with a woman without anybody taking their clothes off. It's
possible, but not usually very convincing, at least not where I live.

Tom seemed to be saying, "nationalism is evil, you always got to be against
it", later he talks about "concretising" what we are talking about, but, I
considered that, in moving from the axiom about a political evil that he
had, to the concretisation, what he was really just doing, was providing a
concrete justification for the axiom he had, a bit like the pope in Rome. I
have no problem with that, but, in that case, we might as well just talk
about the axiom, the concrete justification does not add anything much.

Marx's own method was more like, let's survey empirical reality, then
abstract out its most salient features to grasp the essence of the question,
and then rationally reconstitute that essence in thought, applying theory,
in order then to coherently reintegrate the various aspects of the analysis,
so that a rational understanding of empirical reality results which tells us
what to do, from the point of view of advancing the socialist movement. But
in the finish, basically Tom, Ed, David and myself are really not so far
apart anyhow. We might disagree about emphasis and nuance, but the debate is
really more about the confusion of programmatic, strategic and tactical
levels. Lenin is talking primarily about a strategy which must be
implemented with correct tactics, but the strategy must be coherent and
principled, the means must promote the ends, otherwise "anything goes", and
we depart from ethical politics, then it is just opportunism. And so
programme, strategy and tactics must be correctly related, so that the link
between general and specific goals is clear, and the link with the means to
achieve them is clear.

The concept of Goethe's saying, "Theory is grey, green is the everlasting
tree of life" or a variant of that, is important, and you need to reflect on
what it means, as a way of looking at reality, rather than dismiss it. It's
not a joke, and I specifically posted to show how George Bush's diplomatic
mission had these very old trees physically cut down in Senegal, along the
imperial route. Bush is saying, "Theory is Grey" and the Senegalese are
saying, "But green is the tree of life." So Bush says, "let the trees be cut
down, there might be a terrorist sniper hiding in those trees, and we have
to root them out, hunt them down, and smoke them out".

If theory is "grey", it is not a simple black-and-white, it is not a simple
yes-or-no, it is not a simple right-or-wrong issue; theory nuances,
relativises, contextualises, generalises our experience with more or less
subtle distinctions, a lot of the time "after the fact" when we can place
the object of theory in better perspective. At the end of our lives, we go
grey, we are able to relativise, contextualise etc. everything, but the
variety of colours has gone out of our vision, we have "seen it all", we
have gone from many colours to getting it down to black and white, and then
gradually the mediations between black and white just provide shades of

If, as Trotsky frequently said, theory means generalisations from
experience, then we have to have the experience first, in order to be able
to generalise from it. But in these discussions, often we do not start from
our own experience, but from generalisations of the past, and then we try to
assimilate our experience today to that theory from the past. This is not an
illegitimate procedure, you always have to have background theory, but it
has its pitfalls because it might actually mean an inability to generalise
from our own experience, a lack of confidence to generalise from our own
experience, we try to stick our own experience in an intellectual
straightjacket inherited from the past. A lot of orthodox stupidity is about

This is precisely why Lenin was fond of quoting Goethe, because he is very
aware of the problem of dogmatisation, i.e. that a political line developed
in the past is stuck to dogmatically, and cherished sentimentally, even
though it is a fat lot of use today, because changing circumstances require
a new political line, and we need to get rid of that rigidity, which
consists in dogmatically mouthing the line from the preceding phase.

If the "everlasting tree of life" is "green", not grey, it means that from
the same basis (or "trunk", which may have a grayish bark) there develop
new, fresh, living phenomena, new branches, new leaves, new aspects which do
not fit into a carefully crafted category, which maybe cannot be relativised
or contained with existing theory, which go beyond it. What Lenin is doing
here, is focusing on the conflict between old theory, old generalisations,
and new experience, new living experience, and he is saying, the proof of
political success is the ability to apply and develop theory, without
dilletantism or dogmatism, through thinking dialectically, making a specific
analysis of the specific situation. In order to achieve this, you have to be
open-minded, open to new experience, but not so "open" that your brains fall
out. We can have this whole theoretical apparatus of conceptual distinctions
with which we can give every phenomenon a neat little category in a nuanced
way, but in so doing we may only be engaging in description and miss new
phenomena by a mile, and be unable to develop a new line adequate to the new


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