The end of the story part 1

Continuing from my post last night.

I resist the teleological interpretation of Marx – that all of Marx is there in every text, and if a text seems to say something that contradicts all-of-Marx, then we just have to either categorize Marx’s works to shunt it to the side – it was polemical! – or decide that it was an unfortunate collateral gesture. On the other hand, I’m not sure that my idea of Marx as constructing his all-of-Marx-ness in his text really purges the teleological impulse completely. Take the issue of the notebook, or the draft. We have these things. They were preserved. But the facile notion that Marx, too, having these things, goes back over them suffers both from lack of proof and automatic assumptions about research and writing that I have found, both in my personal experience and as an editor of others, to be false. I have found, instead, that one’s vital discoveries tend to fade and change and be renewed – that old intentions get submerged by new ones. Yet characteristic themes and inclinations will assert themselves, and the repressed will return.

This is why I favor the problem-based approach to reading monumental texts. For any theme or thesis carries with it both the problems it responds to and the new problems it creates. A problem is as much a token of memory as a thesis. Stripping a writer of his problems – translating his text into something like a list of answers such as you can find in the back of the math textbook - trivializes him.

This returns us to the thesis of necessity and revolution, a combo with a high visibility career in Marxism and twentieth century communism.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx gives the impression that the proletariat will inevitably overthrow the capitalist social order. In a letter to Joseph Weydemeyer dated March 5, 1852, Marx seems to affirm that interpretation:

“Now as for myself, I do not claim to have discovered either the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me, bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this struggle between the classes, as had bourgeois economists their economic anatomy. My own contribution was 1. to show that the existence of classes is merely bound up with certain historical phases in the development of production; 2. that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; [dass der Klassenkampf notwendig zur Diktatur des Proletariats fuehrt] 3. that this dictatorship itself constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition [Aufhebung] of all classes and to a classless society. Ignorant louts such as Heinzen, who deny not only the struggle but the very existence of classes, only demonstrate that, for all their bloodthirsty, mock-humanist yelping, they regard the social conditions in which the bourgeoisie is dominant as the final product, the non plus ultra of history, and that they themselves are simply the servants of the bourgeoisie, a servitude which is the more revolting, the less capable are the louts of grasping the very greatness and transient necessity of the bourgeois regime itself.”[Translation from MECW Volume 39, p. 58]

The dictatorship of the proletariat has, of course, a different coloration for readers in 2010, who are distant both from the experience of the 19th century and who are conscious that Stalinism and Maoism were formed under that slogan, among others. In Marx’s time, he could look around the world and see no society that allowed women to vote, no society in which blacks were allowed to vote, and few societies in which there was anything close to democracy in any real sense. Until 1913, in the U.S., the Senate consisted of white men appointed by state legislators. In the UK, the percentage of eligible voters out of the total population put the country on the level of a free medieval German town. According to Frank Thackeray, only about 15 percent of British males were eligible to vote up until the reforms of 1867, after which only one in three males - and all women - were excluded from the vote.In France, before 1848, suffrage was limited to about a quarter of a million voters - out of a population of 34 million. I am, of course, outlining democracy according to its thinnest definition. In the U.S., as is well known, anti-democratic measures were inscribed in the constitution - some of which, like the electoral college, are sill valid. Suffrage was more extensive for white males there, though. Never, until the dissolution of the empire, did Britain’s colonial subjects have any right to vote in Britain’s elections. In 1852, of course, the four hundred million people of India were held, by main force, in the clutches of an old British monopoly, the East India company, which existed as a quite open Mafia, a protection racket. Given this reality, the projection back into the England of Marx’s time of ‘representative institutions’ – such as delight the late Cold Warriors and those who, like Francois Furet, represented some kind of new "anti-Marxist left' in France – will always turn out to be the purest charlatanism, projecting the hard won virtues - such as they are - of the modern state back through its history - as though the Civil Rights marches of 1965-1968 are a good description of the state of ‘civil rights” of Dixie in 1848. Here one sees ideology at its most pathetic. The dictatorship of the bourgeoisie was the literal truth of Marx's time; of course, Marx and the worker's movements had a lot to do with destroying that state of affairs. That the Western "democracies" owe this to Marx does make the ideologues grumble and moan, since, essentially, they are the ardent workers for bourgeois dictatorship.

Given these cardinal points, the dictatorship of the proletariat would, of course, have been more democratic, even in the 2 percent milk sense of ‘democratic’, than the political arrangements of Marx’s day. If there was a specter haunting Europe in 1852, it was not that the dictatorship of the proletariat would lead to totalitarianism, but that it would upset the system of monarchs, upper bourgoisie and great landowners whose power was woven out of a complex of rotten boroughs, slavery, a bribed press, a servile judiciary operating as an instrument of the executive, and the hocus pocus system of colonial administrators oppressing the great mass of mankind on the ‘periphery’. Capitalism would not have survived real democracy – a point that was clear to all observers, who tended to call real democracy ‘anarchy’ or ‘communism’.

However, I am more interested in necessity as it appears in the Weydemeyer letter. What is ‘necessary’ in history? And what is the relation between revolution – the overthrow of the current system in response to its level of unbearability – and historical necessity? As we know, these questions found their political correlate in the 1880s, as the Socialist party in Bismark’s Germany organized itself as a parliamentary party. Doesn’t necessity find its own instruments? If the new society choses the path of reform to overturn the old society, do we need revolution? Isn’t revolution an outmoded cult, worshipping the past – particularly the French revolution – with the same pathetic vigor Marx skewers in the 18th Brumaire, when he observes that revolutionaries in the past donned the masks of some chosen predecessor and its dead language in order to perform their work?

Guizot, one of the French historians Marx read attentively, produced a theory of civilization based on a primitive bi-polar dialectic. This dialectic captured the positivist sense of what was meant by ‘progress’ in the first half of the 19th century. In the lectures collected in ‘The history of civilization in France”, (1828-1830) Guizot writes:

“I researched what ideas attached to this word [civilization] in the good common sense of people. It appeared to me that in the general opinion, civilization consisted essentially in two facts: the development of the social state (l’état social) and of the intellectual state (l’état intellectuel); the development of exterior conditions in general, and that of the interior, personal development of man; in a word, the perfectioning of society and humanity.”

Perfectioning was still the preferred verb among the liberals in 1828, like some last unexploded bomb from the French revolution. Progress – that ameliorating word, that half and half word that the God of Revelations would surely have spewed from his mouth – just as Marx spewed it from his – had not replaced the icy utopian glitter of the perfect with the tradesman’s bonhomie of profits accrued, year by year.