Monthly Archives: June 2014

Vitezslav Gardavsky/God is not yet dead

NB: This will be an exploration as much as it is a review.

With Pope Francis playfully linking communism and Christianity the dispute has not yet been settled between the materialist ethos of Marxism and the transcendence of orthodox religion. The supposed antagonism between Marxism and spirituality is much more complicated than meets the eye. Marxists are firmly, didactically against any spiritual balm, following Marx’s precept that religion is the opium of the masses, an illusory balm for the otherwise oppressed. This dictum is largely left unchallenged, even with the rise of liberation theology. Gardavsky attempted to explore this rift in the late sixties, and to envision what can be reconciled in the adversarial relationship between Judeo-Christianity and Communism, and genuinely locating the bedrock of the two belief-systems. In his criminally forgotten work, God is Not Yet Dead, Gardavsky boldly deciphers the monuments of mainstream worship, and the communist response.

God is Not Yet Dead is deceptively simple, evidencing the professorial background of Gardavsky, a Czech intellectual who briefly rose to prominence during the aborted Prague Spring. This is a far more approachable slice of philosophy than the previously reviewed A Study on Authority’ by Marcuse. Gardavsky relies on a writing style that is clear and concise, rather than the theoretical blather that constitutes much of Marcuse’s work. Gardavsky’s focus is also a major departure from authority studies – the essence of God is Not Yet Dead deals with liberation, not with the voluntary enslavement that formed the bedrock of A Study On Authority.

Gardavsky is also much more interested in the freedom of choice found in the orthodoxies of Communism and Christianity. It is clearly influenced by existentialism and humanity’s search for meaning and transcendence – the reader can understand why Gardavsky was blacklisted following the crushing of the Prague Spring by Soviet troops. Existentialism was viewed as heresy by the Soviet orthodoxy of the sixties, especially considering existentialism’s emphasis on the individual rather than the mass. Gardavsky’s heresy confronted mindless “atheism” of the traditional left. He was himself a full-on atheist Communist, but the mere mention of (to say nothing of teaching) the heretical French philosophy was as dissident as burning images of Lenin on Red Square.

All that Gardavsky attempted to analyze was the fundamental roots of religion as well as thoughtful (not knee-jerk) rejection of the same. The study is roughly broken in half, with Judeo-Christianity at the beginning and the atheist response constituting the later chapters. Gardavsky stresses the individual in his examination of both sections – rather than making blanket statements about entire movements, Gardavsky maintains a sharp focus on individual and representative actions within the greater context of the movements in question.

This is especially true of the monotheism section. If you’re looking for big names and key philosophers, you’ll get them, but within context. Gardavsky time and again places the individual within their social milieu, but individual choices are given preference. The exploration of monotheism, like the rest of God is Not Yet Dead, is interested in the choices made to transcend oneself, the search for an unknown omega of existence. The dialectical relationship between the individual and the big Other is the hallmark of these studies; the interaction between the individual and the essence is mediated by the divine in monotheism, while this search is more elusive for the atheist. God is not anthropomorphic in any event – divinity and the indefinable Higher Essence form the rough shape of godliness, even with the God-man of Jesus Christ.

Gardavsky makes the contentious point that it is harder to be an atheist than it is to be Christian; by this he meant a genuine atheist, someone who has sought alternatives to faith in the divine when considering the motor of existence. Atheism is easy when it takes the form of literal anti-clericalism or the sloppier life of the agnostic. Once again, humanity is looking for the essence, the true transcendence of oneself with what can be termed a higher plane of consciousness. The interaction is the same as monotheism, but the self-reflective atheist has to make do without the aid of a god to help out with the dialogue. This can lead to an existential crisis, as the thinking person confronts the eternal infinite of the universe and humanity’s place in the cosmos.

There is a way out of this dilemma, and that is via a realistic appraisal of the interrelations between individuals and their concrete community and the consciousness of a given community influencing and supporting the individual search for meaning in a greater whole. Greater society has far more meaning and concrete impact than the uncaring infinity of the cosmos; society is both the by-product and producer of our own search for meaning, and the work that we accomplish within the interrelations will lead to a more concrete knowledge of oneself. This community also buoys up and defeats the tragedy of mortality – Death, while being a physical certitude, is marred by the individual’s place within a progressive society. The individual is finite – human society is not, not at this point anyway.

I would just like to note that all of the above is a gross simplification of Gardavsky’s philosophy. God is Not Yet Dead may be out of print, but used copies can be gathered. Considering the emphasis on the continuation of existence within a conscious community, it would be frightful if this work was left to moulder on some shelf.

The brutal suppression of the work and the destruction of its creator marks the essentially counter-revolutionary stand-point of latter day Soviet ideology. Just mentioning Christianity, even within the framework of a defense of Marxist atheism, was enough bait for the bureaucrats of the Soviet bloc to invite total reaction and rejection. Gardavsky was banned from teaching his heretical (but still fundamentally Marxist) views, and it would be a shame if this was left in the dustbin of history.

This is such an important text that I’m tempted to transcribe it and put it online as a PDF; let the community of ideas judge and interpret it. This is a welcome synthesis of Marxism and existentialism, and far more approachable than the indecipherable French school.

Irony contains the seeds of its own destruction

We are living in the cultural vacuum that post-modernism created in the 90s. Post-modern thought was/is a question without an answer, and while post-modernism can deconstruct everything in sight, it is incapable of providing anything authentically “new” in its wake. The very notion of anything “authentic” or “genuine” (i.e. objectively real) is rejected by post-modernism.

These days the main proponents of post-modernism (in its purest form) have dwindled to a handful of academics who are currently hiding out in their own ghettos. However, this has not prevented a diluted version of post-modernism, namely irony, from being an ever-present constant in everyday life.

The living embodiment of irony is the hipster, a borderline nihilistic individual who has a large disdain for everything he/she deems below them. Their attitude and enjoyment of any given thing/person/band/whatever has no relation to commonly accepted “taste”. The hipster will embrace anything regardless of context or objective worth, based wholly on whim. Some cultural artifact is favored, genuinely or with a bracing shot of irony. Hence an inherent embrace of the recent past and an ironic fondness for whatever signified a certain era a few decades ago.

The idea of anything being intrinsically good is deemed completely subjective. The rejection of grand narratives have leaked from academia into the hipster’s complete disbelief in anything . How can anyone judge anything as genuinely “good” or “bad” when everything has been filtered through a convoluted maze of personal taste – personal taste which varies from the subjective view of the individual?

As mentioned in the intro for this blog, acceptance of the notion that everything is subjective, everything is narrative, does not limit people to the rabbit hole of irony and post modern disdain. If everything is a narrative, if everything is a subjective story that we tell ourselves when we view anything, than why not whole-hardheartedly embrace the narrative that fits you the best? The subjective individual has nothing to lose, as long as she/he is aware of other narratives and subjective points of view.

As a radical socialist, I embrace my narrative as it explains and contextualizes the world in a manner that speaks for me, in a manner that basically jives with my own viewpoints and ethical compass. Irony ceases to exist when we throw ourselves into the narrative of our choosing. You are no longer wearing a crucifix or a Che t-shirt because it’s hilarious; you really believe in the structure underlying these images.

This is a far cry from the weird, backwards snobbishness of irony which is incapable of viewing any given object without disdain. Irony forms a series of images and spectacles to be laughed at; its’ total rejection of structure means that it is also not capable of providing any suitable belief-system. Irony at its most superficial level is unable to draw conclusions or offer alternatives. It is a a tool which can be used to explode narratives mentioned above (and in doing so, create narratives that are useful for the individual) or it can simply remain a joke without purpose.

There is nothing ironic about laying down your life for your beliefs and your comrades. No one has ironically built a barricade or participated in violent upheaval. Narratives often run against each other, and the recognition of your belief-system as one of many does not prevent you from defending your narrative.

Hipsters are universally despised by everyone that is not them. Their destruction of all belief-systems is itself a belief-system, whether they recognize as such or not. And the farther away from 90s laconic disdain, the more irony is seen as a lazy and not particularly strong defense system. If you want to hang around a bunch of 40-year-olds wearing “ironic” Yanni t-shirts, you, like them, are living in the past.

 

 

Herbert Marcuse/A Study on Authority

It’s not that I have anything particularly against philosophical texts. I’ve read Althusser, I’ve read Lenin, I’ve read Lukacs’s take on Lenin, I’ve even read Mao. But the key difference is that all of those aforementioned writers fall under the rubric of political theory, rather than abstract navel gazing  “pure philosophy” or critical thought. Marx once said that the point of philosophy is to not only view the world, but to change it. I can’t imagine anyone getting fired up after reading Herbert Marcuse’s A Study on Authority.

Herbert Marcuse was a member of the German left-wing intelligentsia,and along with the rest of the Frankfurt School, Marcuse was forced to flee to America when the Nazis took power in 1933. Somehow, he wound up in California, teaching at an insignificant institute, UC Santa Cruz, just south of San Francisco. Marcuse also became the great white hope of what is now termed the New Left in the States; i.e. leftists who remained left wing but abhorred Stalinist excess. That differentiation wasn’t noted by The Man, and during the early sixties Marcuse was nearly run out of the country for being a) French and b) a possible commie. This made him more heroic and martyred in the eyes of the nascent counterculture in the States.

Having read this text, it’s difficult to see how anyone with revolutionary impulses would find anything worth getting excited about during a reading of Marcuse – unless that theoretical rebel was a Philosophy Major. This is the worst of the so-called Ivory Tower of academia; A Study on Authority is utterly meaningless unless you have a good college education, and even then there’s a lot of baffle-gab that you have to swallow before he gets around to making a point. Marcuse nearly outruns Kierkegaard in the Opaque Championships.

Ostensibly A Study on Authority is meant to unravel the very mechanics of authority and coercion, and to some degree Marcuse is successful, when he tries to make himself legible. The book moves from those old reprobates Martin Luther and Calvin, to Kant and Hegel, forward through the counter-revolutionary years that followed the 100 Day rule of Napoleon; Marcuse naturally ends the book with a treatise on Marx. You can’t really say that the man is an intellectual fraud; Marcuse is nothing more than what he is, an academic preaching to the converted left-wing intellectuals out there. He makes some interesting points regarding the role of property in our understanding of freedom (the proverbial Mine and Thine of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries). But too often Marcuse falls into the trap of making a point, criticizing that point, arriving at a new point, then putting together a synthesis of ideas which often make absolutely no sense when considering everything else he wrote.

This is the same problem with current belle de lettres Slavoj Zizek. When Zizek bothers to try (usually with his shorter works and the intros that he’s written for Verso), he’s intelligible, well spoken. But leave him to his own devices, and he gets truly, utterly post-modern and scattershot. You have to be deeply familiar with French philosophy (especially Lacan and that intellectual hack, Derrida) to understand a word that Zizek writes, and you could play a drinking game for every time that he mentions “The Other”.

When I finished reading The Making of the English Working Class by E.P. Thompson, I felt a profound sensation of relief. Yes, I’m enlightened, but I’ll never, ever read that tome again. This is precisely the feeling of reading Marcuse – relief, and the firm belief that you’ll never have to read this pseudo intellectual blathering ever again. A Study on Authority is only 100 pages long, but it’s as dense as coal and just as fun. Avoid at all costs.

Next week we’ll be looking at the far more accessible God is Not Yet Dead, a tome far more approachable and clear-sighted than the title implies.

Ho Chi Minh/Down with Colonialism!

Down with Colonialism! (gotta love the exclamation mark) by communist activist Ho Chi Minh is a part of Verso’s wonderful Revolutions series, which present key texts from classic revolutionaries(ranging from Mao, Trotsky, Thomas Jefferson, Jesus Christ, Mary W. Shelley, Fidel Castro), as introduced by contemporary revolutionary thinkers. Each of these volumes are beautifully illustrated (Trotsky looks like a Manga character), and because Verso has a wonderful distribution scheme in place, you can find them anywhere. Just grab one and start reading.

In case you’ve been asleep for the past sixty years, the Vietnamese fought for the better part of the twentieth century against colonialism. They successfully engaged and defeated the French twice in a row (not that that’s difficult), they defeated the Americans (and yes, that was a defeat, not a “strategic withdrawal”), and when the time came, they overthrew Pol Pot and ended his reign of terror (something that neither the UN or the US was willing to deal with, despite the US’ complicity in the rise of Pol Pot). They survived the choking collar of French colonialism (again, twice in a row), they survived an endless carpet bombing during the Vietnamese war, they survived having their harbors mined and their hospitals bombed, and they survived a transitional period which saw them at odds with their neighbors, the Chinese.

Behind most of this was Ho Chi Minh. He was born and raised in the worst period of French Mastery, absorbed the ideals of Leninism, specifically Lenin’s internationalist leanings and the need for pragmatism, and formed the nascent Indochinese Communist Party in the early twenties. Some (white, privileged, North American) academics have pointed out that a) Ho was not a theoretician, and b) he fraternized with class enemies. This deserves addressing: Ho was, above everything else, an activist, not a theorist. Most of his philosophy can be directly linked to Lenin, Mao and Marx. It’s an irrelevant complaint – Mao and Lenin themselves have pointed towards the need for direct proletarian experience in a specific context. You can’t just wander into the jungles of Vietnam with a copy of Das Kapital and expect results. One has to be steeped in the mechanics of exploitation, something that no amount of theorizing can provide for you.

Secondly, Ho Chi Minh was also a pragmatist, not an ideologue. If something wasn’t working, if some element of communist action was failing to take place, he would admit the error, make the necessary changes and move on. As for the fraternizing comment, this too can be linked with Lenin’s own notions; Ho, being a pragmatist, was willing to work with any national self-determination group, provided that group wasn’t hostile to the Communists. Lenin may as well have had a tattoo on his forehead that read “By all means necessary”, and Ho Chi Minh shared this mentality. He was far removed from the orthodox fanaticism of Stalinist apparatchiks.

It could be said there was no overall Ho Chi Minh philosophy, but Down with Colonialism and studying his actions will demonstrate that, other than Lenin, Castro and Mao, Ho was one of the key proponents of anti-colonialism/post-colonialism. Ho Chi Minh correctly identified certain facts, such as the need for fraternity between the proletariat of the motherland and the proletariat of imperialism’s client states. He built on Lenin’s notion that imperialism was the zenith of capitalism, that imperialism unwittingly empowered their colonies with industrialization, which lead to a dawning of proletariat class consciousness. Finally, Ho Chi Minh also correctly identified the fact that communism was intended to be a worldwide phenomenon, not simply linked to the rich white industrial heartlands of the Western Empires.

Vietnam has bounced back, and the world did not end with American withdrawal. Vietnam is a rapidly modernizing country, no thanks to a great many imperialist efforts to do otherwise. The country owes a debt to the valiant efforts of the Vietnamese anti-colonial organizations, and it’s wonderful to have a written account of those organizations’ mentality during the heat of a seemingly endless series of conflicts. And Ho Chi Minh City is just as good a name as Saigon.

Fidel Castro/Declarations of Havana

It’s difficult to write about a revolution posthumously, after the dust has settled and the new state/society has been established. I believe that’s what gives the pro-Palestine movement its oomph; the revolution has yet to be actualized, and there’s still that radical, anti-establishment fervour to be found amongst its proponents. This is perfectly embodied by Cuba – there’s an ocean of difference between the young Castro, the muckraking lawyer and revolutionary, and the doddering, aging dictator of today. Really, there are two different Castros, and one can still draw inspiration from the firebrand of the fifties, while ignoring the fossil of today. The Declarations of Havana is an example of that initial, defiant phase of Castro’s life.

Castro began life as a left-wing lawyer who led an ill-fated, quixotic attack on some barracks in Batista-era Cuba. He was duly tried and imprisoned, and then for reasons known only to Batista himself, Castro was granted amnesty and fled the country for Mexico. At that point he hooked up with Che Guevara (you may have heard of him), as well as a handful of equally embittered Cuban radicals who were heartily sick of their country being the sole province of the United Fruit Company, the American mafia, and Batista. Heading back to Cuba in the mid-fifties, this ragtag group headed for the mountains, where they gathered support from the indigenous Cubans who were also sick of essentially being serfs for the UFC. It did not take long, or require much effort, to overthrow the Batista regime. The Cuban revolutionaries were wildly popular, and the dreaded one percent fled the country for Miami.

The Americans were alarmed, and following an aborted coup d’état at the Bay of Pigs, the US initiated a trade embargo which has lasted until today. The embargo pushed Cuba in the direction of the other major superpower in the world, the Soviet Union. Keep in mind that while Castro certainly leaned towards a socialist point of view, he had never been a communist. This embargo changed everything.

The first part of this magnificent book is a firebrand testimony given by Castro to a secret panel of judges, deciding his fate following the first aborted attack on some barracks in Santiago. Not only is it a magisterial defense of his actions, Castro also uses this opportunity to lay out, point by point, the agenda of the rebels. This includes but is not limited to a genuine rule of law, democratic elections, an end to foreign exploitation, equitable housing, a better education system, decent health care, etc. This is all stated without dogma or Marxist phraseology. It’s just simple common sense which the vast majority of Cubans also desire. It doesn’t hurt that he throws in references to Thomas Paine, Jefferson, Balzac and Rousseau.

The actual Declarations of Havana further explore what it means to be a revolutionary country, beset by the American hegemony. It should not be forgotten that the United States considered Latin America as their backyard; it was a proprietary position, one which viewed Latin America as nothing more than a source of cheap labour and resources. Interestingly, Castro does not call for the exportation of the revolution; rather, he would aim at a series of democratic republics which share the values found in revolutionary Cuba, almost a nationalist-socialist point of view.

The values are, in no particular order, transparency in government, equitable housing, healthcare and education, an end to the cronyism that could be found in virtually all Latin American countries, equal rights for women and minorities (i.e. better treatment that either of those groups received in America and abroad), and an end to the suckling of the American socioeconomic teat. While Castro remains more interested in fair play than obscure Marxist terminology, the references to Lenin and Marx have increased, possibly as a result of Cuba’s closer relationship with the USSR.

Castro is nearly dead, of course. Cuba has seemed to sink into a mire, although it’s a far cry from other revolutionary states (China after the Cultural Revolution comes to mind). Castro’s words and deeds live on, however. Despite the stagnation, Cuba has remained a beacon to countries like Venezuela and Bolivia. Early Castro deserves to be remembered, just as Guevara is remembered today. So light up a Cuban cigar, sit back, and enjoy the fact that Cuba was the first country to break free of its American shackles.

Tienanmen Square – 25 years too late

My first intro to Chinese politics was Tiananmen Square and the bloody crackdowns in 1989. I (along with every other leftist) have to square that disaster with my beliefs, in which brutal authoritarianism must be condemned along with bourgeois elitism.
It should be noted that China is not communist, nor has it been communist since Deng Shao Peng seized power in the late seventies. It is authoritarian, it is run by a bureaucratic elite with zero connection to the people they supposedly represent, but it is most definitely open for business. Does this sound familiar?
Your average Red Guard from the sixties would spit on the typical party head honcho of today. I feel that the Cultural Revolution has lessons worth learning, and at least during the first couple of years of the revolt, had something to be admired. It meant the cleaning out of fossilized party elitists who had acquired the same elitism of the Imperial days. Instead of landlords and gentry, you had party apparatchiks with the aforementioned zero connection to the masses of China. Again, does this sound familiar?
I actually own a Mao t-shirt, which I bought semi-ironically from Spartacus Books, a local radical collective. And there is absolutely no way in HELL that I would ever dream of wearing it in Vancouver, with its large population of Chinese émigrés who despise Chinese communism and Mao in particular. I have to keep my mouth shut during this period, as any feeling of admiration for the Cultural Revolution is equated with an admiration for mowing down thousands of people 25 years ago.
There is a disconnect between these events, and it goes beyond a simplistic adoration for all things Chinese. There are key differences between then and now, between the Cultural Revolution and the jackasses who currently run China. Unfortunately it gets marred with the same brush by people who don’t know their history.
Slavoj Zizek, in his own dithering way, was right when he said that totalitarianism is a simple method to round up disparate characters like Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, Mussolini, Hitler etc. The designation does not take into account the vast differences in context of this motley crew, or the ideological drift of their dominated state.
Was the Tienanmen Square debacle justified? Absolutely not. Were the protestors correct in their denunciation of the authoritarian state? Of course. But can comparisons be drawn between the Tienanmen Square movement and the purportedly communist Cultural Revolution? I would argue that yes, similarities exist, and that it is not only that the Chinese right to revolt, but also their duty.
I struggled with publishing this rant, as I know that any affection for Chinese communism automatically means that I somehow back tanks in Beijing. But the struggle against elite concentrated power has been part of the Chinese milieu in both the sixties and the eighties. As I posted on twitter, key phrases should be embedded with mass action in China – Smash bureaucracy, smash orthodoxy, smash elitism. An abusive regime remains the same entity in all situations, and it should be challenged.

C. Wright Mills/Listen Yankee

NB – This review is part one of a series of two. Next week, we’ll be glancing at the originator of the Cuban Revolution, Senor Castro.

Once upon a time, there was an insanely brave white academic named C. Wright Mills. For whatever reason, this WASP from the Northeast of America decided in 1960 to head down to Cuba, right after the revolution, right after the US embargo, right after the Bay of Pigs debacle. In the process, he interviewed dozens of Cubans, high ranking or otherwise, and assembled a narrative Cuban identity, devoted to, amongst other things, why Cuba dislikes the US, why they’re delighted to be rid of Batista, why they’re looking forward to building a new, postcolonial state. Listen Yankee is the fruit of his interviews.

Of course, it’s easy to take a sneering attitude towards some of the proclamations made by the interview subjects, especially when viewing the state of Cuba today. Many of their utopian dreams failed to emerge, as utopias typically do, and we can look condescendingly in hindsight and see the nonsense for what it is.

The utopia dreamed of by the Cubans is only one piece of this puzzle however. Probably the strongest elements   of this collection of interviews are the direct, unapologetic attacks on the insanely corrupt Batista regime, the US companies like the UFC and Dole who essentially owned Cuba, and charming American exports like the Mafia. Their opulent lifestyle is clearly, eloquently juxtaposed with the utter misery that made up the living conditions of the average Cuban; slightly better off Cubans engaged in borderline slavery otherwise known as share cropping. There was a reason why this was a popular revolution. The right-wing Cubans living in Miami are the last remnants of the feudal upper class who got the hell out of Cuba when the revolution really picked up.

As for the utopian dreams of the revolutionaries themselves, one has to view revolutions as moments of emancipation, rather than a nice, predictable historical line. These explosions of freedom have to be viewed in then present state, rather than an event that can be judged in the grand tapestry of history. Even the Cubans were aware of the fact that society was changing at such a sensational rate that it almost outpaced the revolutionary leaders themselves. There was no time to sit around philosophizing different strands of outcomes. Work needed to be accomplished in an extremely short period of time.

The strength of the book lies in its condemnation of American interference, and rightfully pointing out the fact that identical politicians replace each other every four years, with extremely minute differences between the Republicans and Democrats, all of whom were eager to once again assume the reins of power in Cuba.

Another point worth mentioning is the “stooge status” of Cuba in relation to the Soviet regime. This is identifiably false when considering the vast ideological differences between Cuban revolution and the depressing grey façade of the Eastern bloc nations. While some revolutionaries may have been vaguely familiar with Marxism, the goal of national self-determination took precedence over theoretical musings.

That was the crux of Cuba’s warm relation with the USSR; Cuba needed a trade partner and technical experts, and the Soviet Union was happy to oblige. It was nothing compared to the Soviet Union’s interference of the Chinese revolution; there were no apparatchiks on this island community.

Listen Yankee is a wonderful series of essays, and it makes an easy introduction to the roots of the revolution of Cuba. One cannot help but compare the sense of freedom and joy of 1960 with the hot, oppressive regime currently governing the island. Perhaps another revolution is necessary to cast off the chains of the old society once again.