[Marxism] Is History A Coherent Story By Helena Sheehan
mdriscollrj at charter.net
Sun Dec 30 11:02:21 MST 2012
Critical Legal Thinking – Law & the Political –
Is History A Coherent Story?
By Helena Sheehan
Professor Helena Sheehan is an academic philosopher, historian of
science, and writer on communication studies, politics, and
philosophical (particularly Marxist) subjects. Sheehan teaches as a
member of the Communications Department at Dublin City University and
has been a visiting professor at the University of Cape Town.
Is history a coherent story? This is not the sort of question that is
likely to be either asked or answered in the milieu I normally inhabit.
In the universities of Europe and North America (and much of the
rest of the world as well), the agenda has veered away from asking such
big questions. Academic attention is focused on much narrower and
more practical concerns in a scenario where both teaching and
research are more and more precisely aligned to the demands of the
market. Commercialisation is the strongest force shaping the
evolution of universities to devastating effect. Major academic
disciplines, such as history and philosophy are being increasingly
marginalised. In some institutions it has gone as far as abolition.
In those institutions, where history and philosophy survive, there
is not likely to be much attention given to philosophy of history
either. History departments tend toward the small canvas rather than
the larger one and historiography is a minority pursuit. The
intellectual currents dominating philosophy departments,
varieties of neopositivism and postmodernism, tend to
repudiate big questions and historical narratives, even that of
the history of philosophy. Postmodernism, with its proclamation
of the end of grand narratives, has represented a
crystallisation of this tendency. However, the prohibition on
overarching historical schemes has been a feature of most other
philosophical currents of the past century: logical positivism,
linguistic analysis, pragmatism, existentialism,
Standing opposed have been the surviving grand narratives of the
premodern era, predominantly those of the great world religions,
such as christianity and islam. There has also been the formidable
grand narrative of the modern era: marxism. These have been, not
only under external attack, but subject to tendencies eroding them
from within, but they still stand and frame the conceptualisation
of historical experience for their adherents.
Nevertheless what dominates the world’s universities is a
discourse that is moving from querying and undermining large scale
historical narratives to proceeding with another agenda while
ignoring them. How has this happened?
The rise and fall of grand narratives
Let me retrace my steps. Let me tell the story of how I have related to
the question: Is history a coherent story? Let me unfold a
narrative of the rise and fall of grand narratives.
I was born into a grand narrative, a spectacular one. No one asked
if history was a coherent story in that world, because it was simply
assumed that it was. It was unthinkable that it wasn’t. God created
the world. He made us to know, love and serve him in this world and to
be happy with him in heaven. Christ died for our sins, even before we
had time to commit them. The Catholic Church was the repository of
absolute truth. Moreover, we lived in the USA, the greatest country in
the history of the world. A good catholic was a good american.
Communism was the enemy. Communists rejected God and democracy.
Communists were evil, not only in a political sense, but in a
cosmological sense too. They had to be defeated. God was on our side.
There was no questioning, no doubt, about any of this in the world in
which I grew up. No one I knew thought otherwise. No one I knew raised
any question about it.
Then it began to unravel. Critical questioning began to undermine it
for me. For Goethe, the greatest theme of human history is the
conflict of scepticism with faith. It was not only the trajectory
of my own intellectual development, but, fortunately for me, it
coincided with a surge of critical questioning in the wider
culture. One force was Vatican 2 catholicism, which had the effect
of relativising what was thought to be absolute. I took this process
far further than the church intended, with one doctrine after another
falling away, and then I turned to the question of the existence of
God. I went through all the arguments and struggled to continue to
believe, until it was no longer possible. This brought my whole world
view into severe crisis.
It was not only the orthodoxies of the church, but the orthodoxies
of the state too, that had to questioned. Here my own questioning was
boosted by the rise of the new left. The civil rights movement at home
and Vietnam war abroad set my loyalties off on another course. A new
vocabulary came to our lips when we spoke of the nation now, words we
never used when we were growing up, words not spoken in our schools:
imperialism, capitalism, racism, sexism, patriarchy.
The whole grand narrative within which my life had been lived until
then was shattered. What to do? At first this experience was so
devastating that I was at a loss. I felt in free fall, deprived of
all traditions, devoid of all meaning. Existentialism spoke to
this alienation, this facing into the abyss, and kept me going for a
time, but I needed something more positive, more systemic. I did not
accept the arguments against philosophical systems, against
historical schemas. I could not live my life without a picture of the
world in which I was living it, without being able to see my story
within a larger story. I had to ask, if the world did not come to be in
the way that I thought, how did it come to be? If my country was not
what I thought it to be, what was it? What alternatives to it existed
or could be envisaged? The answers to these questions were not
immediately evident, but thankfully I lived in a time and place
where others too were searching. I studied philosophy, history,
politics, sociology with extraordinary intensity and I
participated in the great movements of my time with great passion.
It was a time of great ferment, a time when hegemonic narratives
were met by counter-narratives. I discovered history from below. ‘Who
built Thebes of the 7 gates? asked Bertholt Brecht in his great poem
Questions from a worker who reads. I looked again at the history we
had been taught and turned it upside down. I discovered the history of
class struggle from the experience of the peasantry and
proletariat, the history of patriarchy from a point of view of
women, the history of colonisation from perspective of the
colonised, the history of slavery from the position of slaves, even
the history of thanksgiving for the indians and even the turkeys. I
looked at the whole history of the world from the point of view of
those who labored from below, as opposed to those who ruled from above.
I needed a new world view, a framework for putting everything I saw
into perspective. I needed a new grand narrative, a plot within
which all subplots fell into place. It was not enough for the story to
be coherent. It had to be credible too. Once my inherited story came
into contact with alternative stories, there was a new process
underway. It was so complex. Not only did one coherent grand
narrative have to weigh up against other coherent grand narratives,
but the question of criteria of credibility came into play. Adding
to the complexity were theories that no historical schema could be
credible, theories that history was not a coherent story,
theories that we had come to the end of grand narratives. It was
just ‘one damned thing after another’ with no rhyme or reason. It was ‘a
tale told by an idiot signifying nothing’. Paradoxically, these
too were grand narratives.
I could not accept this. I could not live my life without a sense of the
story with which I was living it. But what was the story? How did the
world come to be? How had our species appeared on the scene? Why did
human societies transform themselves from one era to the next? Were
there forces of history underlying all disparate data of times,
places and events? Was there a rhythm, a pattern, a plot or was it
really just a surreal play of particulars? I was searching for
foundations in a milieu hostile to foundationalism. I sought the
grounding for a new synthesis amidst multiple pressures against the
very idea of a new synthesis.
The sheer complexity of contemporary experience has produced a
plethora of philosophical movements eschewing in no uncertain
terms the very idea of such a synthesis. I read and considered all
such arguments and argued vigorously against their exponents, but I
did assimilate whatever I believed to be of value in logical
positivism, linguistic analysis, pragmatism, phenomenology,
postmodernism and refined my own concepts in the process.
Nevertheless, I believed that any philosophy lacking the thrust
toward totality ultimately became part of the problem rather than its
solution. Up to a point, such philosophies highlighted the
complexities and difficulties in coming to terms with the
intricacies of contemporary experience, but beyond a certain
point, they obstructed a deeper coming to terms and inhibited a more
daring grasp of its meaning.
Marxism as philosophy of history
What did impress me was marxism. What set marxism apart from all other
modes of thought was that it is a comprehensive world view grounded
in empirical knowledge and socio-historical process. History has a
plot. It is a more or less coherent story. All economic policies,
political institutions, legal codes, moral norms, sexual roles,
aesthetic tastes, thought patterns and even what passes as common
sense, are products of a particular pattern of socio-historical
development rooted in the transformation of the mode of
production. It is not a pre-determined pattern or a closed process.
Although there is a determinate pattern of interconnections, the
precise shape of socio-historical development is only discernible
post factum, for history is an open process, in which there is real
adventure, real risk and real surprise, a process in which there are
no inevitable victories. History is intelligible, but not
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