Wednesday


marx4

Red is the universal symbol of socialism, communism, and Marxism, but it could just as well be green, for collectivist sentiments will always remain evergreen; they represent a perennial form of thought that will always find expression in every age. While the particular form that collectivist thought takes in a given era is specific to that era, it is a perennial tendency of thought and will in every era exhibit perennial properties. Since Marxism is a particular form of a perennial feature of thought, it can be expected to be historically viable. (There is a general principle implicit in this general claim, but I will leave this for another time.)

Since the nineteenth century, Marx has been the primary source of collectivist thought, and Marx will continue to be the primary representative for collectivist thought probably for some centuries to come. Not until another thinker of comparative stature emerges in the coming centuries to re-formulate a powerful collectivist vision on a level with that articulated by Marx will Marx himself be superseded.

The continuing relevance of Marx is attested to in last Saturday’s Financial Times, in which a review by Tony Barber of three books (The Rise and Fall of Communism by Archie Brown, The Frock-Coated Communist by Tristram Hunt, and Marx by Vincent Barnett) was titled Red Alert: Communism has long been discredited — but is there still mileage in the theories of Marx and Engels?

While with the end of the Cold War it became fashionable to speak of Marx being discredited or “proved wrong,” just as today, in the wake of the present financial crisis, it has become fashionable to dust off the tomes of Marx and seek their renewed relevance to the world situation, these twin events — the end of the Cold War and the present financial crisis — ought to have no special claim on our theoretical understanding other than the fact that they are important events that happened to have occurred during our life time. Other events will certainly occur in the future that will make Marxism seem more or less relevant, just as events have occurred in the past that made Marxism seem more or less relevant. The personal perspective on history is a kind of distortion, and one must work against being too much swayed by the events of one’s own time.

In my Globalization and Marxism I argued that Marxism has still not received its experimentum crusis, and may in fact never be subject to a crucial experiment that could decisively and definitively determine the truth value of Marxism’s most fundamental propositions.

A couple of days ago in Marcuse on the Post-WWII settlement I mentioned Marcuse’s post-World War Two reflections on Marxism and the probability (or lack thereof) of proletarian revolution and what Marcuse called “orthodox Marxism” (of which he apparently considered himself a representative).

The “33 Theses” referenced in the above-mentioned post makes for fascinating reading, and I hope to return to this work by Marcuse in future posts. Marcuse takes the post-World War Two condition of Europe as his starting point, and at that point it is apparent that he already at that time considers orthodox Marxism to be defeated (or, at least, not a force to be reckoned with at that time in history). The Soviet Union at that time, even for orthodox Marxists, did not seem to present any hope for leading the vanguard of worldwide proletarian revolution.

Several of the pieces in Marcuse’s Technology, War and Fascism, Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, Volume One, are similarly prescient; his orthodox Marxism has not impaired the rigor and objectivity of his scholarship. There is much to be learned here, still today, as there was much that could have been learned from it in Marcuse’s time that would have made the “Red Scare” that much less scary. But this is a large topic that cannot be adequately treated with an extemporaneous remark like that.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Monday


Herbert Marcuse (July 19,1898 – July 29,1979) was a German philosopher, political theorist and sociologist, and a member of the Frankfurt School.

Herbert Marcuse (July 19,1898 – July 29,1979) was a German philosopher, political theorist and sociologist, and a member of the Frankfurt School.

Progress of empire, especially in contest with other empires, passes a technological threshold such that without communications, transportation, and armaments of a given degree of sophistication, an empire cannot survive the onslaught of its rivals. This turning point was especially in evidence with the European arrival in the Americas at the end of the fifteenth century, and European colonialism in Africa and Asia in the following centuries.

Empires that did not have a minimal degree of technological sophistication were simply swept away, and could do little to save themselves. Unlike empires, however, peoples are resilient, and peoples the world over quickly adopted and adapted the technology of those who swept their empires aside, and were soon fighting as near equals against the European onslaught. But the crucial historical moment had passed. The peoples were not defeated, but their empires were defeated, and the subsequent empires were derived from or otherwise indebted to the European model even when the imperialists were no longer Europeans.

Before the revolution in mechanical technology — of which the Industrial Revolution was a moment within a larger development — the contests between peoples could be decided by vigorous exertion. Virtually any people could establish an empire by expending sufficient effort. This is parallel to the fact that before the Technological Revolution the interest prohibition was no great impediment to peoples or individuals, since most of that to which peoples or individuals aspired could be secured through sufficient effort (i.e., largely independently of any technical expertise in finance). This is no longer true. In those regions of the world most affected by the Technological Revolution, the age old calculus of ambition has been utterly transformed. Will, effort, and exertion alone are not sufficient for a people to found or expand an empire or for an individual to attain social status.

This has been expressed in — of all places — a posthumously published manuscript of Herbert Marcuse:

“Capital has created (not only in the fascist states) a terroristic apparatus with such striking power and ubiquitous presence, that the traditional weapons of proletariat class struggle appear powerless beside it. The new technology of war and its strict monopolization and specialization turns the arming of the people into a helpless affair.”

This quote comes from Marcuse’s Technology, War and Fascism, Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, Volume One, edited by Douglas Kellner, London and New York: Routledge, 1998, p. 218. The quote is taken from “33 Theses”, thesis #6, dated February 1947. The manuscript shows Marcuse struggling with the dilemma of revolutionary Marxism during the post-war period. For Marcuse, both opposed camps of the Cold War, Soviet and American alike, were hostile to revolution, for which he still held hope. Marcuse refers to these theses in letters to Horkheimer in 1946 and 1947, discussing plans for publication that never came about.

Marcuse was right for his particular cause (Marxist revolution undertaken by the proletariat) at his particular place and time (Europe after the Second World War). The achievements of military technology had far outpaced anything that could be achieved by “the arming of the people”.

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