Saturday, 13 January 2018

Why I am not a Marxist

I love Marxist thought. Always have, at least as long as I've known what Marxist thought is. Perhaps it is because of a grandfather who deeply respected the "Reds," as he called them (he fought in the Second World War, and I don't think that he ever got his head around the idea that Soviet Russia stopped being our allies afterwards), and in fact traveled to the USSR in the early 70s, at the height of the Cold War. Perhaps it is because I could recognize that at their best Marxists are deeply concerned with matters of justice that also deeply concern me. For a number of reasons I would not identify as Marxist, but I nonetheless recognize that as a result of that genuine concern with justice, Marxist thought has generated a host of genuine insights that enrich our understanding of our shared reality.

So, that all said, why wouldn't I identify as a Marxist?

In order to answer that question, I need to take a bird's eye view of the last two centuries or so. Starting around 1800 or so, western knowledge of the ancient past and also of the non-western world exploded. During the course of the 19th century we learned how to read Sanskrit (this actually began a bit earlier), ancient Egyptian, ancient Sumerian, etc. For the first time we really came to seriously study the religions of India. The foundations of scientific anthropology took hold. During that century our understanding of the many different ways of being human--past and present--increased exponentially, up to and including our awareness that humanity isn't even necessarily self-identical with the species that we call Homo sapiens sapiens (were Homo habilis or Homo erectus or Homo sapiens neanderthalensis any less human species than ourselves?). Marx's achievements--spanning much of that period--represent the fruit of those discoveries. But the discoveries were not finished when Marx passed away in 1883 (and being only 64 when he passed, neither was his planned work. In particular, one can only wish that he had managed to write somewhat more about the connections that he saw between his own work and that of Darwin. Such deeper reflections of one of the modern world's most influential thinkers upon the thought of another such thinker would be invaluable). As is inevitably the case with any thinker of Marx's calibre, his thought requires correction by subsequent developments. I have become persuaded that such correction alters Marx's thought on foundational levels, such that what remains can no longer be properly described as Marxist but rather as something informed significantly by Marx.

In particular, I continue to come back to a problem flagged by Lonergan: in Marx, the cause of and remedy for inequity are virtually identical. The cause of inequity is class struggle. The remedy is class struggle. The problem is bourgeois rule. The remedy is to replace this with proletarian rule. The difficulty, as Lonergan noted, is that the remedy simply reproduces the problem. This isn't a new insight: the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin recognized this during Marx's own lifetime, and predicted (correctly, as the twentieth-century proves) that the vaunted communist revolution would simply lead to new forms of oppression. (The split between anarchists--not this Orwellian appropriation of the name by modern Randians but rather the actual anarchist tradition that emerged following the work of Godwin and Proudhon--in fact was over precisely this matter). I would argue that to build upon Marx in the wake of twentieth-century totalitarianism is to recognize that in fact something more radical than Marx's own remedy is needed. Class itself must be opposed as a concrete aspect of what Lonergan describes as group bias. In fairness to Marx, he grasped that class itself is the problem, but I don't know if he fully apprehended the consequences of that insight. I would argue that he erred in thinking that the ascendance of one class over the currently ruling class could bring us closer to a post-class society. In effect, instead of enabling those who built upon him to better combat group bias he enabled them to better promote their own group at the expense of others. (Again, in fairness to contemporary Marxist thought, reflection upon the twentieth-century has led to an increased awareness of this problem. I would simply argue that any genuine correction would so radically change the bases of Marxist praxis as to functionally create something other than Marxism).

Incidentally, my interest here has to do with how to understand the "revolutionary" dimensions of the biblical tradition. Marxist and Marxist-informed scholarship has correctly noted that the biblical tradition is often quite critical of the ruling classes in ancient Israel and Judea, as well as in the broader Near East and (later) the Greek and Roman worlds. The question for me is whether they the people who produced these texts were simply critical of the ruling classes or more basically of class itself. My sense is the latter, which of course remains an instance of the "preferential option for the poor," as opposition to class itself entails necessarily the conviction that there ought to be a more equitable distribution of resources. Perhaps the greatest contribution by liberation theology, with its interest in rehabilitating Marx for theological discourse, has been to recognize that in all-too-often opting preferentially for the rich the church has debased itself by a failure to apprehend that class division impoverishes the ruled materially but the rulers spiritually.

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