Christianity, postmodernism and Internationals - reply to Jeff

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at tomaatnet.nl
Sun Nov 16 18:25:21 MST 2003


Hi Jeff,

I am not "Mr. Bendien" except to a bourgeois, terms such as Mister or Master
refer back to the master-servant or master-slave relationship, a status
difference which we seek to abolish, and moreover connotes a rejection of my
personal identity, a formality of being a "Mr" among other "Mr's", fine
perhaps insofar as it distinguishes me from a "Ms" or "Mrs" but nonetheless
an abstraction from my personal identity rather than a confirmation of it.

I said:

> I think it is characteristic of modern christianism to try a capture a
> monopoly of moral discourse

You replÿ:

That's not really true (although you can be forgiven for thinking it, since
it is said a lot with much feeling); firstly, the suggestion that European
civilization, including its radical elements, is founded upon Christian
morality is much more defensible than most intellectuals today would like
you to think.

Maybe so, but it just so happens that references to Christian morality do
not explain very much about human behaviour, which, for all the
love-they-neighbour stuff is shaped by the exigencies of competition, class
conflict and psychological factors unknown to the founders of the faith.
Christianity provided the moral cement of European feudalism, the form
through which human nature expressed itself. Capitalist marketisation
gradually dissolves that morality, "all that is solid melts into air", and
poses the challenge of going beyond Christian morality, but as we cannot do
it, we shrink or sink back into Christian morality and feudalism. But as we
cannot turn back the clock of history either, we cannot recapture that
Christian morality either, live it in practice, we are stuck with a
commercial society that invades every pore of human life, and therefore we
are essentially left with a moralism and a preaching about beneficial
beliefs. Through the prism of that moralism, we can of course detect
"enternal and unchanging constants" in our culture, but that is a product of
the moralism itself, not an objective assessment of historical reality,
because if we were to make that assessment, we would clearly see that the
very meaning of Christianity has be subject to profound transformations
through the centuries, and that ultimately the only thing that is really
constant is a quest for a transcendent faith, the confirmation of that
faith, the validation of that faith, and the extension of the faith. But
were Marx to probe this question, he would immediately ask, what gives rise
to this quest in the first place, what is the real object of that quest,
what mediates it and provides it with its form of expression ? Certainly,
that transcendentalism is a powerful personal impulse in revolutionary
psychology, but the real question is: why do you seek change, rather than
accept things as they are ? That is the real "crux" of the matter, the
motive, but the point here is, you might not have any choice about it, even
if you imagine that this is so in your ideological consciousness about
freedom. But supposing that you really seek change, a transcendent faith is
neither necessary nor necessarily helpful (it could  be, but not
necessarily), it is just a question of correctly cognising the circumstances
which require change and the means needed to bring about change. If people
create hell on earth, then one could of course propose a reconciliation with
that hell through a trasnscendent faith, but that is only a palliative, a
reaffirmation of positive intentions. Then, as people say, the road to hell
is paved with good intentions, and thus we must move on from there. The real
task is to understand why hell is created on earth, and to undertake steps
to change that, with the ultimate goal of creating heaven on earth. And if
that is the path you pursue practically, then the quest of personal
transcendence is practically resolved in the practical aspiration to turn
the hell into heaven. This idea is at the root of the Enlightenment, which
affirms that is is not the belief that provides the answer, but the
knowledge gained through the practical realisation of the belief, i.e. we
test out our beliefs to obtain knowledge about the limits of their validity,
for the purpose of improving a human existence which is not pre-ordained by
a supreme being. But as soon as we have recognised that beliefs are testable
and verifiable with respect to their validity, then we have left the realm
of metaphysics and entered the realm of scientifically informed, practical
transformation of reality, and beliefs are no longer static and eternal, but
subject to change and improvement. That creates the possibility of a better
vision of human beings, but by the same token, a regression is also
possible, and there the ideology of the previous mode of production is a
kind of moral backstop. The same would apply to any society, except that of
course there the previous mode of production might not be a christian
feudalism, but something else.

You wrote:

Secondly, as you go on to say in your very fine comment on Luxemburg, the
market is an abstraction; but I will say, *pace* Luxemburg, that for
purposes of comparison it can be a good abstraction or a bad abstraction
(that's the kind of "split-universal" thinking a lot of postmodern
types favor) -- it can be amoral compared to substantive values which
sustain life, or amoral compared to substantive values which destroy life.

But that is exactly what I have argued numerous times, at least, if I
understand you correctly. The generalisation of the value form Marx
identifies implies not just the reduction of value to abstract labour, but
ultimately the destruction of all moral absolutes and fixities because they
can no longer be lived, and we are left saying things like "we are all
human, imperfect, limited" and so on. To repeat myself for the nth time: the
market provides no morality of itself beyond the requirements for concluding
a transaction. It is rather than the market operates within a moral
universe, which it tends to corrode because it inescapably counterposes
individual interests against collective interests and general human
interests, entraps human beings in endless social contradictions, and those
who fail to see it, suffer from market blindness, they are blinkered by
commercialism and lack any framework for evaluation that can rise beyond it.
But that merely proves my point about "all that is solid melting into air."
As regards the idea of postmodernism, it has its good and bad sides, but
basically it is just the grand narrative that there are no more grand
narratives, and thus ultimately an epistemic restriction on what human
beings can be, leading to the hypothesis of the "end of history", whereas
Marx would only refer to ""the end of the pre-history of humanisation", i.e.
a certain increase in the self-awareness of the human species has been
achieved, and now we must move on, if we are to retain our conquests rather
than sink back into barbarism, if we are to stop crawling in our own shit
and walk upright. Ultimately, postmodernism is conservative, a ragbag of
themes lifted from the past and converted into a new concoction, preventing
new coherent theory and a new morality, it succumbs to the global
irrationality of capitalism. But in that case all we are left with is a
platitude Goethe already articulated a long time ago, namely that "happiness
means cognising your limits and living within them." In this sense, John
Milton's narrative is less boring, because he explores the loss of happiness
and the regaining of happiness more profoundly. And of course there is the
faith, the belief in the happy ending. Postmodernism cannot define any happy
ending, because any happy ending is subjective and relative, and your
happiness isn't mine. Ultimately, it just fudges every vital question every
posed by the human species in its historical evolution, because it is unable
to transcend Benthamite hedonism and specify objective criteria for human
progress. But as a friend of mine used to say, "human life in the material
world does contain some absolutes, and when you're dead, you're dead".
Exactly. Some conditions make the flowering of human possible, others
prevent it, and we can specify just what they are, without a shred of
mystique.

But the disturbing thought is that the fraction within the bourgeoisie whose
discontent objectively corresponds with the pressing needs of the workers
may not be the "friends of the people".  I am not quite being a third-period
Stalinist here, as I do not feel that fascists consider themselves to be
anything but friends of the people, but I am being a little ornery for a
number of reasons because it is actually my feeling that the fraction of the
bourgeoisie which will enable social revolution in a desirable sense (and
transition is more complicated than you may think) actually may not be bound
at all to proletarian morality (if that is not a pleonasm).

This is not a disturbing thought, but an objective truth. Lenin sought to
come to grips with it, but why take your inspiration from the Jacobins ? You
see, here again you get a regression of thought to past revolutions, this is
not true historical thinking because it fails to distinguish the old and the
new, continuity and discontinuity. The concept of "proletarian morality" is
suspect, because a class morality is welded together consciously, and not a
sociological entity or spontaneous appearance. The question is whether the
political leadership can unite the working class and the progressive
bourgeois elements in a constructive way for the purpose of realising the
socialist goal, but that is a practical question, and the only "disturbing"
factor is, if this cannot be achieved successfully for contingent reasons.
The moral dimensions of this problem are explored by Hal Draper in his essay
"The two souls of socialism", which however needs to be rewritten and
updated to make more sense and so that the implicit dualisms can be
overcome, rather than posed as an eternal conflict. Before getting lost in
moral disputes, however, we ought to look at the class forces operating
beyond the moral disputes and return to practical reality, drawing our light
from the actual moral battles that occur, and not hypothetical ones.

As regards a Fifth International, I do not subscribe to that idea, because
it is conservative and traditionalist, it neatly abstracts from the fact
that there exists no real functioning International now,  by means of
references to a glorious tradition, plunging us all back into justificatory
disputes, rather than building the damn thing out of practical reality. It
is not a question of Fourth or Fifth International either, that is just a
vacuous dispute for intellectual sentimentalists with time on their hands.
The real question is how you organise an effective International, as such,
and not whether you can count up to five. You need much more for that than
the ability to count up to five.

Jurriaan



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