April 24, 2013
Each body has its art, its precious prescribed
Pose, that even in passion’s droll contortions, waltzes,
Or push of pain—or when a grief has stabbed
Or hatred hacked—is its and nothing else’s.
Each body has its pose. No other stock
That is irrevocable, perpetual,
And its to keep.
- Gwendolyn Brooks, “Still Do I Keep My Looks, My Identity…” (1944)
The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
This is my page for English B.
- Langston Hughes, “Theme for English B” (1951)
In this article I want to make some critical comments about what has been called the politics of identity and of privilege. I am certainly quite sympathetic to many of the emancipatory projects that are undertaken in its name, and have taken part in a fair number of them myself. At the same time, I have some theoretical as well as personal issues with it, at least in the ways I have often encountered it. This is – one might say ironically – a purely personal experience and reflection on the subject, both in its theoretical and its personal dimensions. It’s driven by both some very bad experiences I have had with the socially corrosive and psychologically destructive effects that ‘privilegetalk’ can have, as well as some theoretical concerns with how it seems to be a somewhat undertheorized kind of language – something that sounds like a theory but is not really a theory.
I may be wrong about this, and to some extent this will no doubt remain a matter of dispute, but my strong feeling is still that the potential universality of its language is the absolute premise of any emancipatory project that goes beyond the subjective, the personal, and its limitations in time and space. It is not a hankering for science in the masculinist-positivist sense of the 19th century (although that amuses me somewhat in Jules Verne and similar books), but it is an Enlightenment desire to go beyond the personal and the particular, however justified one’s ideas are in personal experience, toward the universal and the general as the prerequisite for emancipation. (Of course, this is only one side of the Enlightenment legacy, but it’s the one I think is good.) Without this, I fear, one is forever bound to one or another form of parochialism, solipsism, or a culturally relativist paralysis, which ultimately proves to be much more harmful to real emancipatory causes of all kinds than the alternative. Read the rest of this entry »
April 3, 2013
I have been doing an email interview with comrade C.D. Varn on new ideas and developments in Marxist theory and prospects for the future. It can be seen on the website of The North Star, here.
June 26, 2012
If Hungarian Marxist philosopher Istvan Meszaros is indeed Hugo Chavez’s favorite theorist, as implied by the book cover, the President of Venezuela must be a patient man indeed. The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time appears to present Meszaros’ philosophy of history, and because of the high regard he is held in by many (as shown also by the enthusiastic introduction from John Bellamy Foster), this seems promising enough. But in reality, the book is a mere collection of essays, articles, and occasional pieces, by and large on the same topic. As a result, the argument, the content and even the quotations are extremely repetitive, an effect which is worsened by Meszaros’ ineptly abstract, obscurantist writing style. When all is said and done, The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time introduces few new ideas to the body of socialist theorizing about the historical course of capitalism and the transition to socialism. Read the rest of this entry »
April 14, 2011
Many Marxists have been great theorists. Equally many, perhaps more, have been great practical men and women: great organizers, trade unionists, and practical politicians. Unfortunately, what has been most rare are the people whose genius resides in their grasp of the intermediate field, the field of understanding the implications of general theory for a particular case. This field, what one might call applied theory or political interpretation of theory, is perhaps the most difficult of all. For that reason, insofar as it has been done at all it seems to have been the domain of leaders of petty sects and mini-parties. Their obvious lack of success has led many to think that there is nothing to it: either that one cannot make general rules about the application of Marxist theory in a specific case, or that it is a matter of the individual genius of particular politicians, e.g. Lenin. The latter seems hard to reconcile with the principles of historical materialism and tends to lead to cults of authority, something Marx and Engels always despised and which tends to impede the communist movement. The former is more defensible, but while flexible seems to dangerously underutilize the long experience of Marxism as a tradition and movement. After all, ‘best practice’ is important in any learning, and internationalism demands that we look to experiences of other countries in other times to see how we can improve on ourselves. It is also useful if there is a coherence to our approach, not in the last place with the aim of showing how Marxism can actually help a workers’ movement. Moreover, Marx and Engels themselves were highly active in the political organisational matters of their time, and so were many of the great theorists after them, whether Rosa Luxemburg or Lenin or even Huey Newton. For these reasons, it is interesting to study better the materials that exist on the interpretation of Marxism, in particular the ‘Marxism’ of Marx and Engels themselves, to the level of practical politics, the kind that is reported upon in the newspapers and debated in the parliaments. Read the rest of this entry »