“In total contrast to German philosophy, which descends from heaven to earth, we here ascend from earth to heaven.” – KARL MARX (1846)
Walking down the streets of a big city, are we aware that we are like fishes swimming in an ocean of History? Do we realize that tall buildings, concrete roads and old churches, just to mention a few items of the urban landscape, have been erected by human labour throughout the centuries?
One of the advantages of wandering around with the brain fueled by Marxist ideas is a certain transformation of perception in which History ceases to be something buried in books and museums. History is alive and kicking: while I drift through the metropolis, I bump on it everywhere.
This awareness may be much more intense in a visit to what’s properly called an “historical city” like Québec, founded in 1608, whose Citadelle, Château Frontênac and monuments to European conquerors (such as Jacques Cartier and Samuel Champlain), gives one the strong impression of past-still-present. Generations ago, humans who are no longer among the living, built this awesome castle on the top of the hill, facing from the height the Saint Lawrence River below, and now those who are among the living – myself included – can’t help but notice how the Québec of nowadays is actually a product of History. It’s History incarnate.
That’s how I’m coming to understand better what Karl Marx meant by his doctrine of Historical Materialism: the material world isn’t simply a world of “natural” objects; the material world is nature transformed by human endeavour; it’s the result of the productive activities of mankind, what necessarily includes the labour of bygone generations.
One of the commonest antithesis in the history of philosophy opposes Materialism to Idealism. To even attempt to describe this controversy, in all its subtleties and historical developments, is a Herculean job that I feel unable to cope with (this task would take a much larger knowledge of the history of philosophy than I presently have). My intention in the present scribbling is merely to share some Marxist ideas which, it seems to me, enlighten the matter of Historical Materialism quite vividly. It’s well known that Karl Marx’s philosophy is accurately described as a “Materialist Conception of History”. Its inception and development seems to be one of the endeavours to which Marx and his comrade Engels devoted theirs lives to accomplish.
It’s worth remembering that the so-called “Young Marx” was already deeply interested in philosophical Materialism, so much so that Marx’s 1841 Doctorate was a thesis about the philosophies of nature of two of the most important Greek materialists, Democritus and Epicurus. It’s also well known that Marx, despite having been deeply influenced by Hegel, was far from being an orthodox disciple who would preach the Hegelian gospel like a conditioned parrot. Marx’s sharp powers of criticism and scorn were also directed against “The German Ideology”, guilty of an idealism that’s incarnate in the tradition of Kant, Fichte and Hegel. In Robert C. Tucker’s Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx (Cambridge University Press, 1961), we can find some help in understanding the “materialist-idealist antithesis”:
“The idealist starts from the ‘heaven’ of theory and attempts to descend to the ‘earth’ of practice. He proceeds from man’s ‘sacred history’ or thought-process in the effort to comprehend the historical process as a whole. The materialist, on the other hand, begins with the ‘real life-process’ or ‘practical developmental process of man’. He takes his stand on ‘earth’ and adopts man’s ‘profane history’ as the starting point for theory. Abandoning the vain effort to descend from heaven to earth, he rises from earth to heaven. He treats the sacred history as a mental reflex of the profane one, the history of mental production as an epiphenom of the history of material production. His underlying principle is that ‘Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.’ Marx defends it on the ground that man cannot think, and cannot live at all, without producing the material means of life. Here is the doctrine of economic base and ideological superstructure, better known in Marx’s later formulation in the preface to his Critique of Political Economy: ‘The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.” (TUCKER, p. 179)
Materialism, after all, doesn’t deny the existence of ideas and ideals, of phantasies and imaginations, of all those contents that can be said to pertain to the life of the mind, to subjective space or to the psychological realm. It’s undeniable, for example, that religious ideas do exist, but not as abolute or objetive truths, but as concepts produced by the human brain. The idealist, usually infected by theological ideologies, confuses a creature of his own brain with something that exists outside himself – a critique expounded in detail by Feuerbach’s highly influential The Essence of Christianity (1841).
Historical materialism aims to understand the world around without supposing for it a divine origin or an ideal which serves as its foundation. Rather, historical materialism aims to describe the sensuous external world – that which our senses have access to – as a “materialization of all past productive activity of the human race. The sensuous world around man is a nature produced by history, or in Marx’s words ‘an historical product, the result of the activity of a whole succession of generations. He criticizes all past doctrines of materialism for the failure to grasp the external material objects as materializations of human activity.” (TUCKER, op cit, p. 182)
We’re like fishes swimming in a sea of History, but also fishes who are born into a certain stage of the process of Nature’s transformation by human labour. Each one of us has a consciousness, or an “ego”, which can only be understood as something necessarily determined and conditioned by its situation in a certain historical epoch, in a particular web of social circumstances.
Even when we presume to be witnessing Nature in its purity, we may actually be witnessing Culture and History. This is one of the cleverest criticismsMarx shoots against Feuerbach: when facing a cherry tree, Feuerbach believed it to be a sensuous object from the natural realm, but he failed to grasp that “the cherry tree was transplanted to Europe by commerce only a few centuries ago, and solely by virtue of this historical fact is it given to Feuerbach’s senses.” (TUCKER, op cit, p. 182)
“The Day India Burned – Partition“, produced by BBC, is a devastating documentary about the 200 years of British rule in India, which ended in 1947 with a hasty and shambolic carve-up of the land between India and Pakistan. Sadly for those there at the time, harmony gave way to mob hatred and many lives were lost.This documentary looks to piece together the reminiscences of eyewitness. The accounts of the huge massacres are particularly chilling. Of course, with such a heavy subject, the mood of the show is grim, powerful, but nevertheless fascinating. The events that unfolded in the last throes of the Empire are still resonating today, making this show a must-see.” – Banglatorrents* * * *
“The two self-governing countries of India and Pakistan legally came into existence at the stroke of midnight on 14-15 August 1947. The partition of India was set forth in the Indian Independence Act, in 1947, and resulted in the dissolution of the British Indian Empire and the end of the British Raj. It resulted in a struggle between the newly constituted states of India and Pakistan and displaced up to 12.5 million people, with estimates of loss of life varying from several hundred thousand to a million. The violent nature of the partition created an atmosphere of mutual hostility and suspicion between India and Pakistan that plagues their relationship to this day…” – Synopsis of BBC’s The Day India Burned (watch full doc above)
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“Documentary about the effects of Britain’s withdrawal from India in 1947 which triggered one of the biggest migrations in history. 15 million were displaced and more than a million lost their lives. The story is told through the testimony of people who lived together for centuries, but were forced out of their homes as one of the largest and most ethnically diverse nations in the world was divided. Dramatized reconstructions evoke some of the mistrust, violence and upheaval that ensued.
Partition of India and provides a good overview of the fateful events leading to that cataclysmic decision by the British and the catastrophic suffering of ordinary people caught in the crossfire of communal hatred.
It describes in detail: British motivation for leaving India after World War 2 in a quick and face-saving manner; the underlying distrust of Hindus and Muslims of each other despite centuries of living together; Muslim educational and economic backwardness relative to Hindus and their fear of Hindu domination in a united India; the failure of the March 1946 Cabinet Mission in Simla on account of Nehru’s refusal to a agree to a decentralized Subcontinent.
The beginning of the Hindu-Muslim communal riots with Jinnah’s call for Direct Action in Calcutta in August 1946; the desperate attempts made by Gandhi to effect Hindu-Muslim unity via appeal to their humanity; and the pressure exerted on most Princely States to agree to ascension to India.
It also describes: the manipulation of people by political leaders in the name of religion; the slaughter, looting, raping, and mayhem among different communities at the village level; the deep reluctance of people to abandon their generational homes; the brave attempts of certain individuals to save their neighbors of other communities from forcible ethnic and religious cleansing; the horrific price paid by women for defendingtheir honor;
The utter lack of governmental preparation for a mass migration of people; the needlesshuman carnage caused by Mountbatten’s decision to expedite the planned Partition; and the decline of hitherto culturally rich and cosmopolitan cities like Lahore by loss of othercommunities.” – Top Documentary Films
Jared Mason Diamond (born September 10, 1937) is an American scientist and author best known for his popular science booksThe Third Chimpanzee (1991), Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997, awarded a Pulitzer Prize), Collapse (2005) and The World Until Yesterday (2012). Originally trained in physiology, Diamond’s work is known for drawing from a variety of fields, including anthropology, ecology, geography, and evolutionary biology. As of 2013, he is Professor of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles… [+]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jared_Diamond
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What can we learn from traditional societies?
London Real (Full Interview)
Synopsis: In the past decade, grassroots social movements played major roles in electing left-leaning governments throughout Latin America, but subsequent relations between the streets and the states remain uneasy. In Dancing with Dynamite, award-winning journalist Benjamin Dangl explores the complex ways these movements have worked with, against, and independently of national governments. From dynamite-wielding miners in Bolivia to the struggles of landless farmers in Brazil and Paraguay, Dangl discusses the dance between movements and states in seven different Latin American countries. Using original research, lively prose, and extensive interviews with workers, farmers, and politicians, he suggests how Latin American social movement strategies could be applied internationally to build a better world now.
By Benjamin Dangl
“Throughout much of the 1970s and early 1980s, South America saw a wave of military dictatorships come to power that crushed labor unions, political dissidents, students and regular citizens. Tens of thousands of people were tortured, murdered, or disappeared by regimes in a coordinated effort between dictatorships spanning the continent. This Washington-supported nightmare officially ended for many countries in the 1980s. Though the dictatorships were gone, their economic policies remained.
While dissidents at the time condemned the overt violence of the regimes, many protested the equally torturous effects of pro-corporate economic policies. In a letter investigative journalist Rodolfo Walsh sent to the Argentine junta immediately before his murder in 1977, he condemned the dictatorship’s violence against Argentines. After describing the crimes of the dictatorship – including murder, torture and disappearances – he said “the greater atrocity” was the regime’s economic policy, which “punishes millions of human beings through planned misery.” He was referring to neoliberalism.
Neoliberal economic recommendations involve slashing government spending on public works and services, such as education, healthcare, and transportation, and advocating for the privatization of public-owned services and businesses. (…) This ideology spread with the help of willing elites and leaders in South American governments, as well as pressure from international lenders such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which played a vital role in using debt to force crippling neo-liberal austerity measures on governments.
Therefore, many of the South American presidents’ actions, today and in the past, against social movements were due in part to the constraints they found themselves in as leaders of states enmeshed in global capitalism and beholden to Washington, the financial market, military powers, corporate interests, corrupt officials, bureaucracy, and the stranglehold of debt, among other factors.
While neoliberalism appealed to some South American policy-makers, the results for most people were disastrous. Throughout the 1960s and beyond, nascent neoliberal economists (like Milton Friedmann) used South America as their laboratory. In recent years, South Americans have lived the results. Instead of promised jobs, economic mobility, and expanded freedoms, neoliberalism has increasingly concentrated wealth in the hands of a few and impoverished millions. The region’s shift to the left in the recent decade is largely a response to this devastating economic ideology: voters sought an alternative, and presidential candidates promised to provide such alternative.”
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“Utopia is on the horizon. I go two steps, she moves two steps away. I walk ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps ahead. No matter how much I walk, I’ll never reach her. What good is utopia? That’s what: it’s good for walking.” – GALEANO
THE BLACK JACOBINS
From the author’s preface:
“In 1789 the French West Indian colony of San Domingo supplied 2/3 of the overseas trade of France and was the greatest individual market for the European slave-trade. It was an integral part of the economic life of the age, the greatest colony in the world, the pride of France, and the envy of every other imperialist nation. The whole structure rested on the labour of 500.000 slaves.
In August 1791, after 2 years of the French Revolution and its repercussions in San Domingo, the slaves revolted. The struggle lasted for 12 years. The slaves defeated in turn the local whites and the soldiers of the French monarchy, a Spanish invasion, a British expedition of some 60.000 men, and a French expedition of similar size under Bonaparte’s brother-in-law. The defeat of Bonaparte’s expedition in 1803 resulted in the establishment of the Negro state of Haiti which has lasted to this day.
The revolt is the only successful slave revolt in history, and the odds it had to overcome is evidence of the magnitude of the interests that were involved. The transformation of slaves, trembling in hundreds before a single white man, into a people able to organise themselves and defeat the most powerful European nations of their day, is one of the great epics of revolutionary struggle and achievement. Why and how this happened is the theme of this book.”
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From The New York Times:
“Mr. James is not afraid to touch his pen with the flame of ardent personal feeling – a sense of justice, love of freedom, admiration for heroism, hatred for tyranny and his detailed, richly documented and dramatically written book holds a deep and lasting interest.”
Download e-book in english (PDF, 19 mb)
New York: Vintage Books.
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“The belief that the proper performance of a sacred formula of symbols or sounds is the means by which man achieves contact with divine powers is a basic principle not only of Voudoun, but of every religion. Such formulae were known as mantras in ancient Sanskrit, and this is still the term for all such ritual action, whether the chants of the Muslim muezzin or the saying of the Catholic rosary. The use of mantras is as ancient and as universal as man’s desire to improve his condition and secure his destiny. It is as prevailing as the proud conviction of each man that his weaknesses and inadequaceis are, by and large, common to all men and that, consequently, the power which is sufficiently superior to sustain and fortify him is one which is superior to man altogether. In times of need a man may seek to enlist such assistance by magic means. (…) If the songs and drumming achieve the compelling power which I believe is represented in this album it is because the microphone, lashed to the center post of the ceremonial peristyle, has captured a record not of men and women at play, not of their relaxed spontaneities, nor of their effort to create an art work for other men or for the satisfaction of any employer. It is a record of labor, of the most serious and vital effort which a Haitian makes, for he is here laboring for divine reward, addressing himself not to men but to divinity. They are singing for the gods. It is a privilege to have overheard and to have recorded it.” -Maya Deren
a1- Creole O Voudoun (yanvalou) 5:02
a2- Ayizan Marche (zepaules) 3:23
a3- Signaleagwe Orroyo (yanvalou) 3:37
a4- Zulie Banda (banda) 3:09
a5- Ibo Lele (ibo) 1:16
side two:b1- Ghede Nimbo (mahi) 4:39
b2- Nogo Jaco Colocoto (nago crabino) 2:50
b3- Miro Miba (congo) 2:59
b4- Po’ Drapeaux (petro mazonnei) 5:49
The Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti
Full Documentary. Directed by Maya Deren.
The Conquest of America and the Imperialist Siphon
Eduardo Carli de Moraes
“In 1492, the natives discovered they were indians, discovered they lived in America, discovered they were naked, discovered that Sin existed, discovered they owed allegiance to a King and Kingdom from another world and a God from another sky, and that this God had invented the guilty and dress, and had sent to be burnt alive who worships the Sun, the Moon, the Earth and the Rain that wets it.” – EDUARDO GALEANO
I’m speaking to you from America, a continent that was “discovered” more than 500 years ago, thus finally beggining its relations with the so-called Old World. Or at least it’s told so in tales written by Europeans… The first thing that we tend to forget or overlook when we get hypnotized by history as written by European White Christians is this: the name this continent was given by the ones who have “discovered” is clearly European, a tribute to a conquistador, señor Américo Vespúcio. The second thing that brings awe to my conscience is to discover that, during the whole Imperialist/Colonialist epoch, a huge magnitude and diversity of procedures that we nowadays deem utterly imoral and unnaceptable were employed in mass scale. Not only did the Europeans sucked out the wealth of these invaded lands, they used slave labour and genocide of indigenous populations to do it. Not only did they try to force their civilization and culture on the native populations, they brought along in their ships not only their Bibles and crosses, but also their guns and their germs.
Many historians, sociologists, anthropologists and artists have argued – Uruguyan writer Eduardo Galeano or Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, for example – that the Industrial Revolution in Europe got kick-started by the wealth that was shipped out of colonies in America. Capitalism is basically born out of robbery. Just think of all the tons of gold that were taken from Minas Gerais, in Brazil, or all the silver who was extracted from Potosí, in Bolívia, and then shipped to Europe, being pocketed by enriching capitalists and noblemen. The people who originally lived in this Land for millenia prior to the White Men Invasion, the people who had lived since time immemorial in this land that afterwards its conquerors would baptize “America”, they didn’t get a chance to choose their own path, nor could they remain faithful to their own past. Europe imposed on the indigenous populations not only its culture, its civilization, its moral values, its religious beliefs; it acted as a material force of great power, conquerors by force, who left a shockingly huge trail of blood and death while imposing their modes of production.
Genocide and ethnic cleansing were enduring historical realities in this land after the Europeans for the first time reached these beaches with their ships. The wealth produced in the continent by means of forced-labor, either from people kidnapped from Africa or enslaved native populations, was sent away, shipped abroad, to feed the greedy bellies of European kings and queens, landowners and cardinals, the “cream” of the European aristocracy. Can we understand History rightly if we forget this colossal event, I mean, the massive stream of wealth that went from America to Europe in the centuries following “Discovery”? Welcome to the birthplace of modern Capitalism!
The so-called Discovery of America (what an euphemism!) is actually something else: the continent wasn’t simply “discovered”, it was invaded, conquered, plundered. Tzvetan Todorov very aptly calls his excellent book on the subject The Conquest of America. When the Catholic kingdoms of Spain and Portugal set out to cross the ocean and reach the continent later to be called America, they weren’t arriving on virgin, inhabited land. According to estimates by researchers such as Pierre Clastres and Todorov, there were 80 million people living in the continent in 1492, when the population of planet Earth was of about 400 million. Of these 80 million indigenous inhabitants of pre-Columbian civilizations and tribes, how many survived the invasion of foreign white europeans? Todorov estimates that, only in Mexico, there were 25 million people prior to the invasion; a century later, in 1600, there were only 1 million left. It’s a genocide of such proportions that our minds almost refuse to fully realize it. But if we take America as a whole, the numbers are worse – and even more shocking: prior to the Europeans’ invasion, there were 80 million people living here; one century later, 90% had been wiped out. This is not only genocide, but ethnocide – to apply a distinction made by Clastres in a excellent article in Archeology of Violence. What ensued from the Conquest was not only the murder of individuals in massive scale, but the death of whole cultures and civilizations, with all its temples and buildings, its mythology and its history, all tramped underfoot by the Europeans’ unmerciful quest for profit.
John Berger, in his book (and BBC Series) Ways of Seeing (1972), has something quite interesting to say about this theme. He remembers his school days, when he was taught about “heroic voyages bringing human civilization to all the world”. “It tends to be forgotten”, reminds us Berger, “that these voyages were the start of the European slave trade, and the traffic which began to siphon the riches of the rest of the world into Europe.” (BERGER, J. 3rd Episode) I consider these remarks very bright, especially for the image they evoke, that of the siphon. Europe really did exactly this: it sucked out, with its Imperial Siphon, the fruits of labor produced in this newly-discovered land. An immense transfer of wealth ocurred: from the authentic producers of these wealth – that did all the work and received none of the pay – to capitalists in Europe. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, there’s another very pedagogical metaphor employed by Daniel Day Lewis’ character, when he explains a process by which he stole oil from the properties of others: imagine a milkshake with two drinkings straws. One is for its legitime “owner”; the other from an intruder. Europe’s drinking straw is the intruder’s, and the Europeans can be understood, from 1492 on, as stealers of the milkshakes of wealth they enslaved others to produce.
It’s then that I start to suspect – a suspicion that gives me shivers of indignation and disgust… – that slavery was so present in the dawn of the Commercial-Industrial society because one would be impossible without the other, one is the condition of the other. Slavery and Capitalism: haven’t they “evolved” together, like siamese twins? And when slavery was officially abolished from all colonies, what happened them? Did the system underlying it get utterly transformed? Or the same system went on, with just a little reformation in secondary elements of its machinery, only with slaves being substituted by underpaid wage workers? And can it be said that in the 21st century Imperialism is dead and gone? Or does it live on, masked and disguised behind the new vocabulary that capitalism developed? Are “Free Trade” or “neoliberalism” just techniques for some corporations to plunder the wealth produced by empoverished workers, just ways to keep on opression, inequality and obscene concentration of capital in few hands?
To answer some of these questions, let’s summon a powerful voice from Africa, Mr. Frantz Fanon (1925-1961). Writing after the II World War, when colonies in Africa were still struggling for their independences from European rulers, Fanon’s book The Wretched of the Earth is born out not only of theoretical thinking or historical research, but mainly from lived experience. In the context of the Algerians fight against French imperialism, Frantz Fanon speaks a language that White Men from the Developed World aren’t used to hearing – and his writings impressed and inspired important Europeans intellectuals, from Jean-Paul Sartre to Jean Ziegler. “Let us not lose time in useless laments and sickening mimicry. Let us leave this Europe which never stops talking of man yet massacres him at every one of its street corners, at every corner of the world. For centuries it has stifled virtually the whole of humanity in the name of a so-called ‘spiritual adventure’… Natives of all the underdeveloped countries unite!” This is the sound of Africa rising against centuries of foreign dominion and attempting to break its chains. This is the voice of someone who wishes to rewrite history in order to tell the whole truth, and not only the convenient fabrication of Europeans. This is the voice of someone who is quite aware, at the dawn of the 1960s, that Latin America and Africa have been systematically robbed, and that won’t forget that the opulence of the so-called Developed World is built upon exploitation, opression and slavery.
“We must refuse outright the situation to which the West wants to condemn us. Colonialism and imperialism have not settled their debt to us once they have withdrawn their flag and their police force from our territories. For centuries the capitalists have behaved like real war criminals in the underdeveloped world. Deportation, massacres, forced labor, and slavery were the primary methods used by capitalism to increase its gold and diamond reserves, and establish its wealth and power.
The European nations achieved their national unity at a time when the national bourgeoisies had concentrated most of the wealth in their own hands. Shopkeepers and merchants, clerks and bankers monopolized finance, commerce, and science within the national framework. The bourgeoisie represented the most dynamic and prosperous class. Its rise to power enabled it to launch into operations of a crucial nature such as industrialization, the development of communications, and, eventually, the quest for overseas outlets…
Today, national independence and nation building in the underdeveloped regions take on an entirely new aspect. In these regions, except for some remarkable achievements, every country suffers from the same lack of infrastructure. The masses battle with the same poverty, wrestle with the same age-old gestures, and delineate what we could call the geography of hunger with their shrunken bellies. A world of underdevelopment, a world of poverty and inhumanity. But also a world without doctors, without engineers, without administrators. Facing this world, the European nations wallow in the most ostentatious opulence. This European opulence is literally a scandal for it was built on the backs of slaves, it fed on the blood of slaves, and owes its very existence to the soil and subsoil of the underdeveloped world. Europe’s well-being and progress were built with the sweat and corpses of blacks, Arabs, Indians, and Asians. This we are determined never to forget.”
FRANTZ FANON. The Wretched of the Earth. Pg. 53 – 57.
“No doubt we take comfort in the dream that equality and fraternity will one day reign among men, without compromising their diversity.” – Lévi-Strauss, Race and Culture
SYNOPSIS: This film recounts the extraordinary career path of Claude Lévi-Strauss, the father of structural anthropology, whose theories made an impact also on linguistics, mythology, and even pop culture studies. Author of “Tristes Tropiques” and “The Savage Mind”, Lévi-Strauss is a man curious about the nature of all men, a confirmed ecologist, and a fierce defender of the diversity of cultures and people. A profound intellectual with the temperament of an artist and poet, Lévi-Strauss still dominates the landscape of Western thinking. Consisting of selected interviews, this film “Lévi-Strauss Par Lui-Meme” offers an intimate, inside view of the anthropologist’s life and times. Directed and edited by Pierre-Andre Boutang and Annie Chevallay. With the participation of Vincent De Baene and Frederick Keck. Produced by Arte France, Films du Bouloi and INA. France / 2008 / Color / 93 mins / Subtitles in english.
P.S. This is intended for non-profit commentary and educational purposes. No copyright infringement intended. Copyright Disclaimer Under Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, allowance is made for “fair use” for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favor of fair use.
FULL FILM – English Subs.
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Some of Lévi-Strauss major works (e-books in english):
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