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Tuesday, November 25, 2014


And so, in my preparations for my course next semester, I come today to a re-reading of the Manifesto of the Communist Party.  What is there to say?  Everything!  My God, but that man could write!  The Manifesto begins with the chilling words "A spectre is haunting Europe," and ends with the immortal call to action:  "The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.  They have a world to win.  Working men of all countries, unite!"

The central structural idea that organizes the Manifesto is the schema of an historical succession of socio-economic stages leading ineluctably to the supplanting of capitalism by socialism.  This thesis, elsewhere given by Marx and Engels the label "historical materialism," is one of the most powerful analytical ideas ever advanced.  We have all of us so completely incorporated it into our thinking that it is an effort of resurrection to remind ourselves of its origins.

Once again, we must repair to the Good Book.  The Judeo-Christian story unfolds in a sequence of religio-metaphysical stages, foreseen, ordained, and stage-managed by God.  The story begins with the Creation, followed [textually] almost immediately by The Fall.  Now, there are many alterations between the first and second stages:  sartorial [nothing before, fig leaves after], locational [Eden before, the world after], occupational [effortless ease before, labor after].  But these are, as it were, merely ephemeral.  The real, the objective change is from a condition of blessedness to a condition of sinfulness.  A man and woman living after The Fall might be so deluded as to suppose that by shedding their clothes, living at ease off the labor of others, and christening their pleasure palace Eden, they could thereby return to the metaphysical condition of Adam and Eve before The Fall, but they would be sadly mistaken, as would be made clear to them at The Last Trump.

The Fall is followed by the Covenant or Testament forged between God and Abraham and renewed with Noah, then by the Giving of the Law to Moses, then by the Word or Law Being Made Flesh in the Incarnation, and then by the Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of the Son of God.  The unfolding of the religio-metaphysical story will be completed by the Second Coming and the Last Trump, after which time itself will end.

The central idea to take from this story, which infuses so much of Western Civilization, is that an individual's spiritual and metaphysical standing is entirely determined by where in this story his or her life takes place.  If you live in the time of the Old Testament, under The Law, your  condition is utterly different from what it is if you live after the Word has been made Flesh, in the time of the New Testament.  Nothing else matters.  That is why those living in the sixteenth century saw nothing anomalous or anachronistic in a painting of Old Testament characters dressed in Flemish clothes.  They understood, perhaps without even bringing that understanding to consciousness, that a Noah or David or Judas garbed as a burgher of Amsterdam is no less situated in his religio-metaphysical period for that fact.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel immanentized that story.  The succession of stages defined and imposed by God on His Creation became the immanent unfolding of Mind or Spirit within History.  Whereas each stage in the Judeo-Christian story is defined by Man's relation to Salvation, each stage in Hegel's story is defined by the degree to which Spirit has come to a Self-Understanding.  Each stage of history differs in this regard from what went before and what follows, and -- this is crucially important -- everything at a given stage of history is related to, exhibits, exemplifies that degree of the unfolding of Spirit or Mind.  [It is in this sense that Hegel is an Idealist.]  Each aspect of the civilization of a stage can be understood and characterized by this central Ideal character.  Thus we can speak of the Classical Period of Ancient Greece and Rome, and mean by this equally the character of its politics, its philosophy, its law, and also its architecture, statuary, and literature.  We can speak meaningfully of Baroque music, of Medieval sculpture, or of Romantic poetry, or, with Jacob Burckhardt, of Renaissance Man.

As readers of this blog know, I don't like Hegel, but give credit where credit is due.  This is a brilliant idea.  It is also the immediate origin of Marx's idea that the History of Europe exhibits the succession of a series of stages in the development of the social relations of production, each stage defining a distinct period of the human experience.  Primitive Communism, Roman Slavery, Medieval Feudalism, and Bourgeois Capitalism are to Marx as the Eden, The Fall, The Giving of the Law, and the Incarnation are to the Christian.  And Communism, like The Last Trump, will bring History as we know it to a conclusion, after which, as the old communist slogan has it, we will all eat peaches and cream.

It is worth noting one of the immediately obvious implications of this schema:  There can be no skipping of a stage.  Without the Fall, there can be no Covenant with Abraham and Noah, without the Giving of the Law no Word Made Flesh in the Incarnation.  So too, as Marx makes brilliantly clear and persuasive in Capital, it would have been impossible to institute full-fledged capitalism in twelfth century feudal Europe, or [somewhat closer to home] to skip over the full development of advanced capitalism and go directly to socialism, as the French, German, and English utopians desired.

This issue became immediately [and bloodily] urgent in Russia in 1917 when a revolutionary Socialist vanguard seized control of a huge nation of serfs in which the very beginnings of capitalism were emerging in the Western regions.  The Bolsheviks were educated men and woman, and they knew full well the problem of "skipping a stage."  Indeed, they debated whether such an anomaly was possible.  The obvious answer was of course "no," but it was too much to expect those who had risked their lives to turn to whatever nascent capitalists they could find and say "Okay, it is your turn now.  We will be back when you have fully developed bourgeois capitalist social and economic relations, in a generation or two."  And so, we had State Capitalism, better known as The Soviet Union.

Clearly, there is going to be a great deal to say at the second meeting of my seminar.


Michael Llenos said...

Plato and Wallace Shawn may say they are socialists but is it practical to have a country based on socialism? I've heard one person say that when the 20th century Cold War ended, some middle class Russians declared that Marx knew everything about capitalism but almost nothing about communism. During the 1st century BCE Cicero, himself, mocked Cato the Younger because he lived in a socialist fantasy world in which he treated his fellow senators like they were living in Plato's Republic--meaning, Cicero did not find the book practical enough for real world use. The Republic (although I haven't read it all) is a masterpiece, I agree, but I believe some of those same socialist ideas can be better implemented in a democratic-republican style of government. Although, I realize I am just generalizing all of my points.

Chris said...

Proof socialism can work and scale upwards and outwards