“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)
* * * *
“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
* * * * *
You might also enjoy:
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.”
* * * * *
You might also enjoy:
“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.”
* * * * *
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.
* * * * *
* * * * *
“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.