#OtMA Why George Washington was a Revolutionary (according to Marx) and Why Marxists Just Don’t Get It
This is my second response to JMP, who answered my previous response, #OtMA: A Reply To JMP, with the following statement: “Oh it’s all fine and good to call yourself an historical materialist, but if you make bizarre statements about the American Revolution, fail to understand its class content or the theory that was actually and HISTORICALLY used to structure said revolution, then you’re not a historical materialist. You’re an idealist and your “historical materialism” is the historicism of Hegel, or at least Feuerbach. Furthermore, when you ignore the content and meaning of world historical revolutions––those locomotives of history which form the principle of change for the historical materialist––then you are disappearing even further into the idealist universe. To be an historical materialist is not to wax eloquent about what you think the theory is, but to engage the crude matter of history in an historically materialist manner: which that article failed to do in any way shape or form. One must engage concretely with history and draw concrete concepts, not simply declare positions already proven erroneous by the momentum of revolutionary history.”
This is my response to JMP’s argument:
As long as we are both working from the premises of historical materialist methods, I am pretty sure we can come to a compromise formulation of Lenin’s statement. What we have here is a chicken-egg problem in which the question is: Does a movement have revolutionary character because of its ideas about itself? Or, does this revolutionary character depend on its historical action, no matter its ideas of what it is trying to do? I take it from your statement that you agree with me it is the latter: the workers’ movement is an objectively revolutionary movement despite the ideas held by the participants in that revolution.
A revolutionary theory, therefore, is one that makes explicit what is already implicit in the movement itself — its own revolutionary character. It discloses to the participants the revolutionary character of their own actions, and makes them consciously aware of what it is their actions are already accomplishing. It does not impart a revolutionary character to those actions but merely pulls the veil of mystification from those actions. Theory can make the working class aware of the revolutionary nature of its own actions, and, once aware, the working class can further refine its actions and increase the “lethality” of those actions against the capitalist regime of wage labor.
I think we both agree on this. My own grasp of the role of theory is certainly enhanced by this formulation. (Don’t be fooled: I am by no means trying to pass myself off as an expert on historical materialism; I am grappling with it just like every other communist.)
So, let us apply this to several of your arguments:
One point you raise is your bewilderment about my reference to George Washington not being guided by Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought. The implication of my statement, of course, is that Washington was a revolutionary despite this historically obvious lack. I want to state my example had nothing to do with Washington’s fidelity to the ideals of the French Revolution or the Enlightenment, or that he even used these ideals as anything more than a veil to pursue his filthy predatory commercial interests. Again, it is not what the leaders of the American Revolution believed they were doing, but what they were actually doing that should be the focus of our attention.
Although it is possible I misunderstand your summary of his argument, Samir Amin appears to be stating the revolutionary impact of the American Revolution consists entirely of the bourgeois platitudes with which a bunch of slaveowners flattered their predatory impulse. It has nothing to do with opening new territories to exploitation by the most modern instruments of production, expanding the world market, drawing on ever larger populations of dispossessed small producers, and fashioning them into massive engines of social labor. Samir Amin’s argument — at least as you stated it — is that the content of the bourgeois revolution consists entirely phrases like “liberte’ egalite’ fraternite’”, and the French did that so much better than the Americans.
So, how does Samir Amin’s argument fit in with historical materialism? Not very well, I am afraid. In the German Ideology, Marx states the premise of a historical materialist analysis of capitalism this way:
“We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”
Frankly, nothing “abolishes the present state of things”, like the capitalist mode of production — except communism, of course. Two hundred years ago, more than 90% of the American population was engaged in some sort of individual subsistence farming — today, less than 0.5% are in agriculture. In the People’s Republic of China, thirty years ago about 75% of the population were living on rural communes — now less than 40% are enjoying a life of rural idiocy.
But, according to Samir Amin, the American Revolution and Deng Xiaopeng’s turn toward capitalism weren’t “revolutionary” because… what? Only the proletariat can make revolution? It goes without saying that the American Revolution “was simply a war between brothers, the younger of whom wanted the right to exploit…” But, capitalism is pretty much a continuous war among “brothers” over divisions of the spoils of working class exploitation. During periods of expansion, Marx argues, this fratricidal conflict is expressed in the operation of the law of the average rate of profit. During downturns, he argues, this fratricidal “competition then becomes a fight among hostile brothers.”
One capital kills many, is how he put it in Capital, Volume one.
That the American Revolution expressed this ongoing fratricidal conflict within the ruling class is not some new piece of information. It does not, in any fashion, negate the revolutionary impact capitalism has on the productive forces of society. And, this revolutionary impact does not, in any fashion, depend on the ideas or aims of the individuals who undertake them. Their action, historical materialist method assumes, has an objective quality independent of these ideas or aims. SInce you are already familiar with Marx’s argument against Marxists in the Critique of the Gotha Program, I need only remind you how he corrected his own “followers” who called the proletariat the only revolutionary class, and theoretically dumped the capitalist into a pile with feudal aristocrats — calling them all “one reactionary mass”. By contrast, he referred to the capitalist class as revolutionary – “the bearer of large-scale industry”. This revolutionary character clearly had nothing to do with the ideas of this class of parasites.
This was the point of my reference to George Washington.
Clearly, if we can make an objective analysis of a class of parasites like the capitalists and acknowledge their objective role in the social revolution as the bearers of large-scale industry, we should be able to make an objective analysis of such social movements as the Tea Party and Occupy, without merely castigating them for lack of theoretical clarity, liberal illusions, racism, and other symptoms of ideological mystification regarding their own activity.
It is true, in the Occupy movement folks are more or less guided by an ad hoc theory which is an eclectic mixture of progressivism, good government liberalism, naive or more developed (Chomsky) anarchism, and so forth. Some folks were even attracted from the disgruntled and frustrated participants within the Tea Party, and come with their own strong beliefs in limited government, public fiscal probity, constitutional illusions, and libertarianism. Both the Tea Party and the Occupy movements were sudden eruptions of outrage by a large mass of working class people, directed at the corruption and filth of Washington politics. These movements have left their marks, and I do not think they are going away anytime soon.
What do these movements show? I think they show that, despite the near absolute ideological hegemony of the fascist state, its absorption of all former genuine working class organizations into the state machinery, and the collapse of virtually all critical theory of the existing state, the mass of the working class is and remains deeply dissatisfied with its position in society, and prone to unpredictable expressions of this outrage at any moment. Each outburst is an expression of this deeply discontented condition and the material expression of its absolute antagonism to capitalist relations of production. At the same time, this outrage is being expressed in ad hoc ideological forms already in existence and readily available to it.
The point of my post Occupy the Marxist Academy is the complete detachment of these theorists from these movements and their barren scholastic approach to the question of theory. It was not a demand for less historical materialism but a demand for real attention to historical materialist methods of analysis — a method which focuses on the real activity of society, not meaningless categories of political-economy. A method that doesn’t simply ask. “Must money be a commodity in Marx’s theory?”, but examines the implications of worthless dancing electrons to the mode of production as it now exists. The Marxist Academy are theorists who practice careerism, try to convert the working class movement into their intellectual property, and shut themselves off from the working class in their cloistered study circles.
Finally, let me state it is true my argument in large part reflects “the same banal and confused claims certain sectors of the directionless left have been making for years.” And, it is true, “Repetition [of these claims], however, does not make something correct.”
But. let me ask you: What are those claims? We could state those claims this way:
“Theory is unimportant to what we do in the streets.”
“History has nothing to teach us.”
“Theory is a description of the past and offers no insight into what comes next.”
I think you would agree that these are the sorts of sentiments that can be found in the common rejection of theory among working folk. But, is this their problem, or a public judgement against those who claim to be theorists? Theorists whose theory is indeed useless when folks are in the streets; whose history really does teach nothing; and, whose theory amounts to no more than a list of past events and offer no insights into the implications of that theory for what we are doing now?
My Occupy the Marxist Academy is not about theory, it is about theorists who can tell us in minute detail everything that Marx wrote, but cannot tell us why the fuck gold and dollars disagree on a chart. It is about theorists who can replicate stale recycled analysis that is applicable to any time and place, but cannot tell us right now what makes this crisis different from all previous crises. It is about theorists who can rattle off quotes from Lenin, and detail what happened in 1920s Russia, but can’t give any concrete useful insight into what is happening right now in the Occupy or Tea Party movements.
Marxism, Marxism-Leninism, and all the silly variants out there are turnkey operations where once you master a few specialty phrases, like “proletariat”, “labor theory of value” and “negation of the negation”, you can set yourself up as a expert, produce articles and books, and still not have the slightest fucking clue what it is you are describing.
That sort of “theory” is indeed completely useless to anyone.