On that dreadfully reactionary eastern European thinker, Lunacharsky notes perceptively:
Platonism was an aberration of the life instinct (Religion and Socialism, vol 1, p. 219)
By contrast, Marxism is an affirmation:
31 March, 2013
3 March, 2013
‘Are you really sure you want to eat that?’ she asked.
‘Why not?’ I said, pointing to the picture menu. ‘It looks like a delectable dish of tofu’.
‘Stinky tofu?’ she said. ‘Not many foreigners like it’.
‘How can I not eat stinky tofu?’ I said.
I was about to engage in what is arguably one of the most pleasurable experiences in China: a meal with a colleague from Fudan University’s Centre for the Study of Contemporary Marxism Abroad. Why so pleasurable? Apart from the food, it is because my colleague has one of the quickest and sharpest minds I have encountered in a very long time, often leaving me floundering. We share many interests, so we push each other to new thoughts, dipping and weaving in a free play of the mind.
We spoke of Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) and the metaphysics of Marxism; of Anatoly Lunacharsky (1875-1933) and God-building in the Russian Revolution; of revolutionary enthusiasm and calm analysis; and of vulgar Marxism and its dialectical form. All this turned out to be a knot more complex than at first appears to be the case. How so? That knot presents a series of overlapping but apparently irreconcilable oppositions. These oppositions begin with the warm and cold streams of Marxism, but then move on to include fiery passion and careful reason, subjective and objective conditions, and vulgar and ruptural approaches to the dialectic. Let me begin with the warm and cold streams, which will then enable me to engage with the other oppositions.
Lunacharsky and Bloch (who is many respects the heir of the former, even though he was not aware of Lunacharsky’s work) were both proponents of the warm stream of Marxism. By the warm stream I mean the importance of revolutionary passion, of the appeal to the emotions, of a political myth in which one can believe despite the most devastating of setbacks, of a Marxist metaphysics that is able to bring about an Aufhebung of religion. Both Lunacharsky and Bloch were responding to what may be called the cold stream of Marxism, in which rational analysis of the objective conditions of history was the key. All one needed was a greater knowledge of the objectively existing laws of history, especially of the phases of historical development, so that the path to revolution was clear. For Lunacharsky, who was a central figure in the Russian Revolution and to the Left of Lenin, the Second International was the embodiment of this approach, in which Hegel was a bad influence and in which his residue needed to be excised from Marx’s thought. Bloch too found this mechanistic approach troublesome – he had lived long enough to know a little of the Second International, but then also the resolute ‘history is one our side’ approach that continued to bedevil Marxism into the midst of the twentieth century.
So far, this is relatively straightforward: they want a more vibrant, warmer Marxism that touches the heart as well as the mind. They wish to restore the enthusiastic, subjective and moral dimension of Marxism. At this point, one may object: is this not the stuff of demagoguery? Does not such an approach leave one open to the traps of deploying specific techniques to fire up the emotions of the masses? That is, does not this approach leave one open to the charge of ‘vulgar’ Marxism, especially if we understand ‘vulgar’ in its Latin sense of ‘crowd’ and ‘common people’?
Now our knot of problems becomes much more interesting, for Lunacharsky and Bloch (and indeed the Frankfurt School and their inheritors) were profoundly suspicious of ‘vulgar’ Marxism. It all turns on what one means by ‘vulgar’. For them, vulgar Marxism is precisely the coldly rational Marxism I mentioned earlier. Here is the mechanistic, causal understanding of history, which may be broken down into carefully defined stages that lead inexorably to a socialist revolution. But vulgar also operates with the slogan of ‘the base is to blame’. The base or infrastructure provides the real and material cause of all that is; all that is of the superstructure – culture, philosophy, politics, religion, ideology – may be regarded as excretions or epiphenomena of the base. These two elements work smoothly together, for once you know the mechanisms of the base, once you know the socio-economic causes of all that is, you may be able to predict the course of history.
A further question needs to be asked: who is responsible for this vulgar Marxism? Given that it is the exercise of reason over the emotions, the use of cold theory, of calm and calculated analysis and discussion, vulgar Marxism is actually the domain of intellectuals. In other words, this type of Marxism is an intellectualist development.
Its obverse is the warm Marxism I mentioned earlier, the Marxism of emotional engagement, of powerful political myth, of the heart rather than the mind. At this point, the dialectic comes into play. The intellectualist, cold stream of vulgar Marxism is a version that flattens the dialectic inherited from Hegel. Here we find the triads of thesis, antithesis and synthesis; here is the Hegel of the progress of history in grand stages. The other Hegel is somewhat different. Now he becomes the proponent of a ruptural dialectic, one of breaks in continuity. Here subjective intervention creates history, over against the objective unfolding of history. This is the complex and sophisticated dialectic that enamoured Lenin so and was a major factor in formulating the revolutionary strategy that led to the success of the October Revolution.
So we have arrived at an unexpected juncture: vulgar Marxism is the simplistic, intellectualist tendency; ruptural Marxism is the sophisticated, complex dimension. On the side of the former may be gathered cold theory, the exercise of reason and the mechanistic understanding of the stages of history. On the side of the latter do we find warmth, myth, inspiration, and above all the revolutionary break.
Do we then take sides, preferring one or the other in light of our predilections? No, for both are actually part of, and necessary to, the dialectical Marxist tradition. I speak not of an Aristotelian golden mean, with a dose of sober theory functioning to dampen too much revolutionary ardour; or perhaps some fire and zeal in order to counter the killjoy rationalists. Instead, I speak of a dialectical tension between them, the one needing the other in order to make the movement viable. In this tension may be found the classic merger theory of the Erfurt Program of 1891: socialism at an organisational level is the merger of intellectuals and the masses, both of whom learn from one another and are changed in the process. It was certainly not a process of some advanced intellectual lifting workers and peasants to a new level of consciousness.
In this tension may Lenin’s thought and practice be located, between a mechanistic vulgar Marxism and a deep awareness of the ruptural possibilities of the dialectic. Lenin often moves between one and the other, but at his most luminous moments the two are juxtaposed against one another. And here do we find Marx’s own thought (let alone that of Engels), who could outdo the best of the vulgar Marxist themselves in his formulations. At the same time, he was by no means unaware of the depths and complexities of a ruptural appreciation of the dialectic.
 For the English translations, see www.germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/pdf/eng/513_Erfurt%20Program_94.pdf. For the German: www.marxists.org.
20 February, 2013
At long last, after almost four years of couch-surfing, hanging about in odd corners, taking up floor space … MEGA has a home. Since 2009, I’ve been collecting, borrowing, begging and possessing the available volumes of the Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe.
It took a bit of work, especially finding pieces of wood (which I never buy) long enough for a high bookshelf.
It reaches almost to the ceiling:
But it does mean that instead of sorting through piles of books, I can simply walk over to the shelf and find what I need:
That is, if it is in the volumes of MEGA published thus far (about half out of 112 double volumes):
I guess that’s why the Werke is across the room:
8 February, 2013
Lyrics (Russian translation):
Heute hab ich dir gebracht
Schöne Blumen in der Nacht
Keine Röslein legt’ ich dir ins Bett
Weiße Pracht, zarter Strauß
Kam mit Maiglöckchen ins Haus
Auf dem Kissen lagen sie so nett.
Du bist die Stadt roter Blumen,
Aber ich mag nur weiß.
Keine Schrillheit in der Blüte
Steigt der Duft uns ins Gemüte
Bringt uns jetzt den Frülingszauber
Als ob ein weißes Lied erklingt
Als dein erster Hochzeitsring
Als ob deine erste Liebe, glaube ich.
Du bist die Stadt roter Blumen,
Aber ich mag nur weiß.
5 February, 2013
I have just returned from one of the best events in which I have participated for a very, very long time: the Garage Blackboard Lectures. I am told that they started when a few students got drunk one night and thought, hey, let’s have some lectures in our beaten up old garage. And so it began.
The setting provided a very different and welcome feel:
As you can see, a good crowd turns up – attentive, relaxed, with sharp minds and sharper questions:
And this goes on for hours (I was there for more than six hours). Two speakers, each for an hour or so; plenty of discussion … and a keg:
In the break we all had soup:
No tired old positions here, since everything is up for debate and rethinking. This is where new ideas and practices happen.
The biggest surprise for me – on the question of Marxism and religion – was the number of theological questions: on grace, miracle, predestination, God, creation …
Thankfully, we were encouraged on our way by a Chinese revolutionary poster:
15 December, 2012
Apart from the four constituent items of Berlin life – moustaches, a beer in hand while walking down the street, dogs on trains and in shops, and the omnipresent cigarette (Germany would have to have the highest number of smokers, apart perhaps from Bulgaria) – a number of other items have caught my eye.
Toilets are few and far between, which explains the frequent yellow patches in the snow – which has been falling for over a week. So when a public toilet turns up, it is a rather glorious affair. A cause for celebration:
Of course, you have to pay for the damn thing.
And then, up north while visiting the Wulfshagenerhütten Basisgemeinde, a Christian communist community (thanks Anthony), I came across some stunning ice trees:
Not the warmest place if you happen to be a bird.
Penultimately, just around the corner and up the Karl-Marx Allee is an old friend:
Although he still has to contend with Friedrich’s cigar smoke:
But I am sure Friedrich, the great connoisseur of beers, would have found the following useful:
21 June, 2012
At Deane’s request: was Marx a vulgar ‘Marxist’?
The answer is yes and no. Marx could be as vulgar as the best of them. Let us take the example of religion. He writes in The Holy Family:
The figments of his brain assume corporeal form. A world of tangible, palpable ghosts is begotten within his mind. That is the secret of all pious visions and at the same time it is the general form of insanity (MECW vol. 4, p. 184; MEW vol. 2, pp. 195–6).
Then in Capital I, Marx makes the much-cited crass and ‘vulgar’ point that the ‘religious world is but the reflex of the real world’. He is talking about Roman-Catholicism, which is an external religion and appropriate for a monetary system, in contrast to Protestantism, which is the appropriate reflex of the internalised world of credit and commodities (MECW vol. 35, p. 90; MEW, vol. 23, p. 93). This opposition also turns up in the third volume and Capital and Engels follows suit (MECW vol. 20, p. 267; MEW vol. 16, p. 247). It is in fact an old argument, appearing first in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (MECW vol. 3, pp. 290–1; MEW vol. 40, pp. 530–1).
Too many have cited such passages as though they expressed Marx’s quintessential position, in which the ‘base is to blame’ (a slogan once used for a ‘Vulgar Marxist’ group I organised). But Marx can also turn out the most dialectical assessment, which seems to stand in stark opposition to the vulgar Marx. Once again, on religion:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering but also the protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people (MECW vol. 3, p. 175; MEW vol. 1, p. 378).
Of course, the last sentence, the famous opium statement is usually taken as an example of Marx’s vulgar approach to religion. So it is worth noting that in contrast to our own associations of opium with drugs, altered states, addicts, organised crime, wily Taliban insurgents, and desperate farmers making a living the only way they can, opium was a much more ambivalent item in nineteenth-century Europe. Widely regarded as a beneficial, useful and cheap medicine at the beginning of the century, it was gradually vilified by its end by a coalition of medical and religious forces. In between debates raged: it was the subject of defences and parliamentary enquiries; its trade was immensely profitable; it was used for all manner of ills and to calm children; it was one of the only medicines available for the working poor; it was a source of utopian visions for artists and poets; it was increasingly stigmatised as a source of addiction and illness. In effect, it ran all the way from blessed medicine to recreational curse.
Marx too was a regular user, along with those other useful medicines, arsenic and creosote. As he slowly killed himself through a punishing schedule of too much writing and smoking, too little sleep, and an inadequate diet, Marx would use it for his carbuncles, toothaches, liver problems, bronchial coughs and so on. As Jenny wrote in a letter to Engels in 1857:
Dear Mr Engels, One invalid is writing for another by ordre du mufti. Chaley’s head hurts him almost everywhere, terrible tooth-ache, pains in the ears, head, eyes, throat and God knows what else. Neither opium pills nor creosote do any good. The tooth has got to come out and he jibs at the idea (MECW vol. 40, p. 563; MEW vol. 29, p. 643).
All of which means that a Marxist approach plays off vulgar and dialectical dimensions, as Lenin saw so well. Lose the vulgarity and you lose the Marxism; but so also with the dialectics.
11 June, 2012
Among other things, I am reading a book called Chinese Marxism by Adrian Chan (20o3). It is a bit thin in parts, especially in terms of the Russian Revolution, but the core of the book is excellent. In a devastating chapter, he demolishes what has become a standard position among Sinologists and ‘authorities’ on Chinese Marxism: the early theorists and members of the CCP were deluded and did not understand Marx properly. And since those early leaders became the teachers of Mao, he too misinterpreted Marx. That is, the adoption of Marxism was opportunist and that approach was used as a convenient screen for nationalist and specifically Chinese concerns. Sound familiar?
Let us have a closer look at Chan’s points. The key text here is Benjamin Schwartz’s Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao (Harvard, 1951), which set the agenda and became an ‘authority’. In discussing the key early figures Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, Schwartz proposes that they were opposed to socialism until quite late, they were ‘Manchester Liberals’ even after founding the communist party, they read little Marx, what they read they misunderstood (focusing on peasants rather than workers), their late turn to a misunderstood Marxism was inspired by nationalist resentment after the May 4th Movement, as well as direct Comintern intervention, and they passed on this distorted approach to Mao. That is, they simply used Marxism as a convenient screen for their own political agenda and lust for power. Schwartz’s basic position soon became authoritative, adopted by others, such as Maurice Meisner, Carrère d’Encausse and Schram, and even Arif Dirlik’s The Origins of Chinese Communism (1989). And we see it today in the common position among the Left that Chinese communists are that in name only, using Marxism as a convenient ideology for their own very different agenda.
Chan thoroughly demolishes Schwartz’s position, showing that he was highly selective in what he used from these early Chinese Marxists, altered their texts, left out crucial sections of those texts and attributed works to them that they had not written. And as Chen points out, Schwartz had been appointed to Harvard by both the Departments of Government and of East Asian Studies. The head of the latter department, John King Fairbank, made it quite clear that the purpose of Asian Studies at Harvard was to train ‘capable’ intelligence officers, who would ‘contain’ and resist the ‘disaster’ of ‘modern Asian totalitarianism’. That sounds strangely familiar today, echoed in quarters as apparently different as Rick Santorum and Slavoj Žižek.
Dirlik is particularly interesting, since he at least claims to be a Marxist. Yet his 1989 book makes many of the same Cold War assumptions: the Chinese turn to communism was a direct result of intervention by the Comintern (based in Moscow and decidedly Bolshevik); they misunderstood communism as social democracy; they did not understand Marxism ‘in its totality’. Apart from the fact that Marxism is not a total philosophical system, Chan also points out that in the early decades of the 20th century some key texts by Marx and Engels had not even been published (Grundrisse and the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts), so no-one would have been able to know it in its ‘totality’.
Here I would add Eagleton’s recent Why Marx Was Right (2011), which carries on this venerable tradition. Holding to a romantic Marxism, in which the true revolution is yet to come, Eagleton argues that the Chinese communist revolution – along with all of the others from Russia to Vietnam – was deluded and misdirected. Why? A proper communist revolution should take place only in an advanced capitalist context. Given that the Chinese revolution occurred in a largely pre-capitalist, agricultural country, it was both a travesty of Marxism and bound to ‘fail’. Obviously, it has been a while since Eagleton seriously read Marx.
Back to those early Chinese communists: the reality is, of course, quite different, for Chen and Li and others engaged in intensive study of Marx and Engels well before 4 May 1919, using the library under Li’s direction with over 70 works by our good friends, engaging in active translations, and publishing items on Marxism in very influential journals from 1915. They worked closely with texts such as The Manifesto of the Communist Party, Capital, The Civil War in France and the introduction to A Contribution to the Critique on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. And they were particularly interested in the points made by Marx and Engels that there was never a ‘master-key’ based on a supra-historical and ‘general historico-philosophical theory’. Rather, the path to communism will take very different forms, depending on particular historical, social and economic factors, or, in their words, ‘on the historical conditions for the time being existing’.
2 June, 2012
Each time I go to China I enjoy it all the more, so much so that it is one of the places in the world where I can easily imagine living
This time we received something of a rock-star welcome to the Nishan Forum at Confucius’ home town:
The nuance was perhaps not clear to all … but more was to come:
When one drew near, they ushered one in:
At a few moments, I was able to catch the excited teenagers beneath:
Being the official Australian VIP representative at an event that was as political as it was intellectual, I made a mental note to let Julia G know I had not put in one good word for her.
But after a few days of rubbing shoulders with former presidents, advisers, ambassadors and communist government officials, of police escorts and road closures wherever we went, of a massive press battery filming and snapping, of being mobbed for endless photos with students (I kid you not), I had had enough.
I was keen on more ordinary life, whether with a group of old musos in a park at night:
Some local Shandong food from around the lake::
A lift in a beaten up motorised tricycle (the only suspension on them is what flesh you might have on your bum, although they will soon be a thing of the past):
Or indeed a glorious squat toilet on the slow overnight train I took from Jinan to Xi’an:
I was after some decent Chinglish:
The more esoteric, the better:
At one moment I realised I could no longer rely on pinyin, for in a quiet corner I found a toilet and stood bamboozled. No pinyin, no symbol for male and female; only Chinese characters. I guess you always have a 50% chance of being right, but I’d prefer to be able to read that script.
I must admit that I pondered whether the chubby ruling class women of the Tang Dynasty of 618-907 (for that was the aesthetic then) had very flat ears after sleeping on pillows like this:
By this time I was in the old imperial city of Xi’an, where I had to sing for my supper and accommodation at Shaanxi Normal University:
Supper consisted of a comprehensive walk along the endless ‘snack street’ – street food steaming, boiling, frying in all manner of fashions. Hadn’t dared until now, but my hosts tucked in. So I did too.
Finally I met an old friend who reassured me it was all perfectly good for you: