The Paris Commune and Historical Materialism

In an earlier post, frequent visitor L. Raymond had this to say about the Paris Commune.  For those of you who have never heard of the Paris Commune (for shame!), some basic information can be found here.

I often enjoy sparring with L. Raymond, because this is someone who is virtually always polite, makes carefully considered comments based on actual knowledge, and more than once has said things that made me think.  This was one of those occasions.

I had a strong emotional reaction to the comment because (as should surprise none of you) I feel an intense loyalty to the memory of the Communards, so I had to take some time to consider whether I had any genuine, principled disagreement, and, if so, what it was.  It should also surprise none of you that, after consideration, where I ended up was a difference of method.  In brief, Raymond’s argument seems to be that the failure of the Commune was because of bickering and squabbling among its leaders.

Now, what first leapt to mind is an incident from the aftermath of the US Civil War.  There was considerable argument among Southern Apologists as to what mistakes led to their loss at Gettysburg, and, above all, who should be blamed: Lee, Longstreet, and A.P. Hill being the leading candidates.  At one point, someone asked George Picket his opinion, and he said, “I thought the Yanks had something to do with it.”

So, yeah, when Will Shetterly talks about the butchery of at least 30,000 Paris workers by the capitalists, his point is valid.  And, yet it doesn’t actually address the substance of the dispute.

This is the significant thing that, in my opinion, L. Raymond’s comment is overlooking:

Those disagreements came from somewhere.  Yes, I have a distaste for those who look back from the tall mountains of history and say, “Do you see how stupid those people were? They should have done this other thing.”  But distaste, as my father would have said, is unscientific.  What is more significant is that each position, each dispute, each element in the complex and contradictory process that was the developing leadership of the Commune, was a reflection, not of the ego of the individual (which provided the expression but not the substance), but rather of genuine social forces.

Let me say that again.  The disputes among the leadership of the Communards reflected actual, real differences: liberal democrats spoke for the the most advanced sections of capital.  The communists spoke for the interests of the working class (Marx’s program–nationalizing the National Bank and turning toward the peasantry of rural France–would, in my opinion, have made success of the Commune possible). Other elements spoke for the wealthier peasants, others for certain privileged sections of the working class, and so on.

Here is my point, and here is why I actually want to address the issue: As a materialist, I believe that political ideas represent, are the products of, actual social relations.  To concentrate on the disputes and squabbling that prevented the unity of the Commune is to miss the point that these disputes themselves were a product of the early, undeveloped state of the French working class at that time. If we begin our analysis with the correlation of material forces, we can understand where the ideological disputes came from; if we begin with the ideological disputes as if they were the random products of individual egos, we will understand nothing.

That is why this post is about method: it provides a perfect, shining example of how the materialist approach differs from the idealist approach to history. And I should point out, in case someone missed it, that the argument occurred in a discussion of how to be an optimist.  If you start with material conditions and consider how changes in ideas can flow from those, there is plenty to be optimistic about; if you just look at ideas at a given moment, you’re liable to give in to despair.

The Paris Commune was, in the end, a tragedy.  But to those of us on the Left, it is also an inspiration: after Paris, no one could doubt the power of the Working Class.  And we did not despair; we learned from it and went forward.  Those who saw merely the ideas, attitudes, and mistakes of individuals have nowhere to go except a descent into cynicism.


How To Be An Optimist In A Fucked-Up World

If you’re a middle-class American with a conscience, it is easy to look around and say, “No one cares.”  It certainly can seem that way.  It might seem like you and your immediate circle of real-life and internet friends are the only ones who notice there’s a problem.  The very idea of alleviating systematic oppression–much less solving it–might appear to you like a pipe dream.  Perhaps you find yourself cursing the greater portion of humanity, calling them stupid, decrying their apathy.

Here are a few things to consider:

1. The USA is not the world.  Greek workers have shown resistance.  They are fighting the US-backed dictatorship in Egypt.  The Palestinians, in spite of overwhelming odds and unconscionable brutality, haven’t given up.  And so on.  So, first step, read some international news: people are fighting back against oppression.  It is happening.  And, regarding the USA, we are living more and more in a world where what happens in one part affects everything else; the working class in this country cannot help but be affected by international events.

2.  Even in this country there are definite signs.  Most of us are outside the circle where these things are happening, making them easy to ignore.  The Occupy movement may have been ineffective, but it tells us there is outrage, and this outrage, when organized, can turn into action.  And we are just now seeing the first, early stirrings of the labor activity, in spite of the horribly fucked state of the US union movement.

3. Take the long view.  Over the course of human history in general, and US history in particular, the trend has been for more equality, more justice.   As a species, we are still in our infancy, yet we’ve made amazing progress.  On the one hand we have the entire sweep of human history, and on the other the current, temporary, limited (and possibly just wrong) view of what some group is thinking at the moment; to which one ought we give more weight? Progress is a thing.  It can be very hard, and certainly there is backward movement at times.  But there is no good reason to believe progress will stop.

4. Related to the above, and perhaps most important: Study history.  We have done amazing things.  We have built up productive forces to the point where there is no need for anyone to be hungry, or homeless, or without health care.  Democracy and equality–though frighteningly threatened–are broadly considered natural rights now.  Take some time to study the details of how we got there.  Notice how often great individuals appear when they are needed, and accomplish amazing things; notice how often the consciousness of the masses takes huge leaps and accomplishes even more amazing things.  Fight to understand the laws that guide these processes.  These laws are still in operation, and that is good news.

5. Science.  Just…science.  Look what we can do, what we can build, how much we understand.  We are beginning to understand even ourselves a little–and one thing about us human monkeys: when we understand things, we use that understanding, and (generally) use it to make things better.  And remember that the more we turn to science–the effort to understand the laws of motion of the objective world–to understand social processes, the more we will be able to use that knowledge to direct those processes.  Yes, such things are subject to abuse; what isn’t? But having more and better tools available is a good thing.

6. Do not forget human culture in the narrow sense, by which I mean the arts.  We’ve done amazing things, things that fill us with pride in being part of the species that did them: Hildegard, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Mozart.  And we’re still trying to do more, to create joy, beauty, and understanding that can be shared across cultures.

7. If you, like me, believe the way forward for humanity is through the destruction of capitalism, remember that every revolution in history has come as a complete shock to those who were not one of the main contending classes, and usually to those who were–even those who were most consciously preparing for it.  I don’t know what will happen, or when it will happen, but I predict that everyone, especially me, will be caught off guard when it does.

8. Democracy is the most efficient form of government–fewer police, cheaper in general. The ruling class would prefer to be able to exercise their dictatorship using democratic forms as much as possible, rather than having to support an immense infrastructure of domestic spying, national police forces, prison systems, censorship, and bureaucracy.  If the ruling class is trying to destroy democracy, it is a sign of weakness.  It means they’re scared.  And that means they have something to be scared of.  And that is good news for us.

So we keep our collective and individual chins up, support each other, do our work, fight to make sense of things, and try to make the world better.  The more we understand, the less reason there is for despair.

On the Concept That “Science is Just Another Religion”

Why do people say “Science is just another religion?”  Any time you’re trying to see inside the head of someone who disagrees with you, you’re in dangerous territory.  But two weeks ago we were driving through the mountains of British Columbia, and I’m kind of missing dangerous territory, so here goes.  If this appears to be an attack on a particular individual, I apologize; sometimes the best way to address the general is through the particular.  It isn’t intended to be personal.

There is a lovely bit in Trotsky’s Their Morals And Ours: “…to the Roman pope Freemasons and Darwinists, Marxists and anarchists are twins because all of them sacrilegiously deny the immaculate conception. To Hitler, liberalism and Marxism are twins because they ignore ‘blood and honor’. To a democrat, fascism and Bolshevism are twins because they do not bow before universal suffrage. And so forth.”   When you say X and Y are the same, you are generally saying little about X and Y, and a great deal about your own method and ideology.

When someone says, “Science is just another religion,” it is worth asking, “Of exactly what does this ‘just another’ consist?”

In the previous discussion, one commenter wrote, “Science, whether it falls under a precise definition of religion, certainly has a lot of features of one – including tenets, rituals, and zealots.”  Therefore, we may conclude, the existence of tenets, rituals, and zealots is the most vital matter in analyzing the nature of beliefs.  The question of how well a belief system can be used to explain and consciously change the objective world, its willingness to change itself when contradictory evidence appears, its effort to draw the laws of motion of nature from facts rather than imposing them on facts–none of these, it seems, matter. What matters is that there are tenets, rituals, and zealots.

What does this tell us?  That, to this individual, the search for objective truth is irrelevant–very likely, it indicates a belief that there is no objective truth.  But, if there no objective truth, how do we understand the world? By practical effect.  And practical effects, to a subjectivist, are personal and individual.  This gives the person the freedom to list “bad things” science has done and “good things” religion has done, picking examples that are meaningful to this individual and that just happen to put religion on top.  (Meanwhile, these people merrily use hardware, software, and infrastructure (including electricity and the shelter that, presumably, is over their heads), all of which are the products of science, in order to go onto the internet and explain that science is just another religion.)

Tim Minchin, in “Storm” (which I linked to in my previous post) says, “Every mystery solved so far has turned out to be–not magic.”  Yeah, there are mysteries we haven’t solved yet.  There are whole fields that science is only starting to look at.  And it is quite natural that some people will look at those mysteries and fields and put God there; after all, there isn’t any room for Him in the mysteries we’ve solved.  But to take the next step and use this to dismiss science requires a determined sort of ignorance.

The object of the game, in my opinion, is the creation of a better world.  That means, for starters, one without poverty, without war, with good health care for all, with full access to culture for all, with human liberty and equality for all.  The more we understand the world (both the “natural” world and the social world–two classes of knowledge that can be separated in our minds, but not in reality), the more effectively we can work to accomplish these goals.  There is a name for the effort to understand objective truth: we call it science.  If you believe the methods of science fall short in accomplishing this goal, then it is perfectly fair to propose ways in which science itself can be improved.  This is how the scientific method itself changes and adapts.  But dismissing it by labeling it a religion–that is, a set of beliefs no more or less “valid” than any other–is to work against our ability to understand the world, and thus is, ultimately, to support reaction.


A Few Brief Remarks about Atheism

A Twitter conversation about atheism has now passed beyond what Twitter can handle (at 140 characters, the bar is not set high).  Let me lay it out for you.  For the record, I don’t think anything here is particularly daring or outrageous; I just wanted to state it clearly.

I do not believe in God.  I do not believe in any non-material world.  I believe that people who pull the “you can’t prove a negative” stuff have an understanding of “prove” that is narrow and not appropriate to this conversation*.  I believe in science, and that includes taking a scientific approach to the history and effects of religious beliefs.

I believe many militant atheists are unscientific in their approach to religion.  I believe many of them are using atheism as a cover to justify racism and atrocities carried out by imperialism against Arab and North African peoples in the name of big oil.  I feel that twisting a scientific principle out of shape to use it to justify terrorism, the murder of children and other civilians, torture, and attacks on democratic rights is one of the ugliest, most evil things a human being can do.

Belief in God can, should, and (I believe) ultimately will be overcome by education and by the free exchange of ideas.  When religious groups attempt to interfere with science or with the exchange of ideas, or attempt to impose their beliefs on society in general or education in particular, they can, should, and must be fought.  But ignorance masquerading as science is horrid, whether it is creationism, or anti-Muslim hysteria with a faux-scientific cover.


*In itself, a fascinating question that I’ll have to talk about one of these days.

On Science and Religion

In the previous discussion, Derek Jarvis asks about the “side issue” I mention there, concerning the relationship between religious thought and politics.  I’ve been scowling at my computer, trying to decide if I want to go there; it is going to get messy, and very likely in a way I won’t enjoy.  On the other hand, it is a valid question, and it was a little unfair of me to bring it up and then ask people not to talk about it.

So I’ll make this as concise as I can, then dive into the nearest foxhole.

Some believe that science and religion have separate “spheres” and can comfortably co-exist. I do not; I believe the methods are in conflict, even if, at a given point, an individual may be unaware of the conflict.  I further believe that scientific analysis is the only way to understand society well enough to consciously change it, and that conscious change is objectively necessary.

Another aspect can be expressed by example. The Eighth Commandment forbids stealing.  I believe the only way to save civilization will require at some point (at some not very distant point) that we expropriate the means of production. As Engels said, expropriate is another word for steal.  Someone who believes in the Eighth Commandment, when faced with that sort of crisis, must make the choice between rejecting an element of theological principle, and rejecting a social necessity.  I make no claims about which way a given person will jump; only that the choice will be there.

Does that help clarify matters?