[Marxism] On Class Consciousness vs Americanism / White Male (Worker)'s world view

Sayan Bhattacharyya ok.president+marxmail at gmail.com
Sun Nov 5 13:28:26 MST 2006


I by and large agree with you. A minor quibble , though: I don't think that
the opposition to the Vietnam War in the "hub" region, that is in the USA,
was anywhere near as universal as you think it was. Blue-collar workers,
actually, were used fairly regularly to break up anti-war demonstrations.
Many  opinion-makers  (college students,  the cultural elite) did massively
turn against the war. So did many blacks, under the leadership of the civil
rights movement's growing opposition to the war (one recalls Muhammad Ali's
famous statement at the time that "No Vietnamese ever called me a n*gg*r").
But white blue-collar workers? I doubt that they turned against the War in
significant numbers. (But again, I atttribute this to the strength of the
ideological apparatus of the ruling class, not to any inherent problem with
the white working class, of course.)

When talking about the values of the Enlightenment, I think we often end up
conflating two separate things, which end up mysttifying the debate: the
values themselves, and the uses to which they have been, and are being,
put. In his recent, quite perceptive, book about Theo Van Gogh, Ayan Hirsi
Ali and the backlash against Muslims in the Netherlands, Ian Buruma seems to
have broached some of these questions. The following review of the book,
which appeared in _The Hiindu_, makes for interesting reading. The reviewer,
Rafia Zakaria, writes:

"One conclusion that emerges from Buruma's presentation of Theo Van Gogh's
murder is the pessimistic proclamation that the values of the Enlightenment
have become so politically tainted with the grotesque associations of
imperialism and racism that they can no longer be ideologically expedient in
promoting any sort of revolutionary changes. If history and political
context no longer influenced the reception of ideas, and if the
Enlightenment like Islam had not fallen prey to contemporary political
perversions, it would indeed make philosophical and ideological sense to
present it as the golden solution to the Dutch dilemma.

 **"In reality however, the ramparts of political polarisation in the
Netherlands have been drawn in such a way that even the most oppressive
tactics against Muslim women, ones Hirsi Ali rightfully denounces, have
become reinterpreted as marks of resistance that must be held onto as a sign
of loyalty to faith and culture. When the same voices that enunciate racial
taunts reinvent themselves as bearers of the virtues of the Enlightenment,
it comes as a scant surprise that the Enlightenment itself is rejected as
yet another imperialist tool of subjugation.

"As more and more Dutch Muslim women retreat behind claustrophobic black
veils and men like Van Gogh are brutally gunned down in the name of
misguided faith, the question Europe must confront is the reality of a
marred, disfigured Enlightenment denuded of its emancipatory potential by
the tainted hands of those who deliver it."
Full text of review: _The Hindu_, <

The challenge, then, is how to reclaim the values of the Enlightenment (and
I agree with you that these values are indispensable and necessary to
reclaim) and at the same time to dissociate these values from the ugly
associations with imperialism, colonialism, "whiteness", etc. etc. which
have been widely perceived to have contaminated these values.
We _must_ put man back at the driver's seat -- at "the center of the social
universe", as you rightly say. This is why we cannot do without
Enlightenment values for any project of human emancipation (and the Marxist,
socialist project is the most, probably the only one, viable among
emancipatory projects). The problem that confronts us in the present epoch,
however, is that that image of man in that driver's seat has come to be
seen, for historical reasons, as that of the white man, so to speak, thus
discrediting the project.

So, how to reclaim these values? Here, I think, (on an intellectual plane at
least), there are two things, two kinds of projects,  that need to be taken

1) Projects that locate Enlightenment values (or proto-Enlightenment values)
in non-western historical or social contexts: projects like the late
Debiprasad Chattopadhyay's (to find the materialist roots of Indian
philosophy) are extremely valuable for this reason. Rabindranath Tagore's
project, too, is very important here. Here was someone who was clearly an
Enlightenment thinker -- Tagore -- who however sought and located the roots
of his thinking firmly planted in Indian tradition WITHOUT however rejecting
the West. Amartya Sen's recent writings have also started to make a valuable
exploration of this, I think.  Gandhi, on the other hand, is precisely the
antithesis of this project, and may need to be respectfully but firmly
rejected. In affirming his Indian-ness, Gandhi had to turn his back upon the
Enlightenment. That route ultimately takes one into a dark place indeed.

2) Projects that look for other, more egalitarian, sources of the
Enlightenment within the European tradition itself: Here, thinkers like, for
example, Spinoza (remember his famous, proto-atheistic, reference to "God,
or nature"; his radical commitment to democracy, etc) can be more helpful to
think about as progenitors of the Enlightenment, than the usual suspects
such as Voltaire,  Locke or Kant. Here, I think Michael Hardt and Antonio
Negri's project to see a clear line running from Spinoza to Marx to Lenin is
quite useful (if we are prepared to bracket out Negri's Deleuze-inspired

But of course, these projects  are only intellectual responses to the
problem. At the level of praxis? On the ground? Who will bell the cat and
how? That's a much more difficult question, and I recognize the difficulty.
Life is not easy and there are no easy answers. One practical project that I
do see making an impact, though,  is to keep organizing around the issue of
better access to public education and also better public education (at all
levels).  More public education will lead to more white workers having with
the tools to ask critical questions.  It is not a coincidence that that the
ruling class wants to keep the masses dumb everywhere.


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