Skip to main content

The Science of History (Part 4)

IV - praxis

We can understand the quality of any given Marxist theory by its relation to human praxis. Marx and Engels' writings are no exception. Marx’s occasionally bad work on India, so often criticized by post-structuralists, is the result of his disinvolvement with burgeoning anticolonial struggles in that country. If he had been working with these struggles, perhaps, Marx might have written a different analysis of India. Indian Marxists, after all, have developed their own historical materialist analyses. Knowledge, as aforementioned, cannot be divorced from one’s social position.

We should note here, however, that there is a general tendency to read Marx’s work on India and non-European regions/events through Edward Said’s quotations and commentary in Orientalism, which seriously distorts Marx’s original writing. Aijaz Ahmad, in his book In Theory, claims that “[a] striking feature of this portrayal of Marx as an Orientalist, based as it is on some journalistic observations about India, is that it never even refers to how those same observations may have been seen by India’s own anti-imperialist historians.” (Ahmad, In Theory, p. 14) Ahmad demonstrates that, while there are good critiques to be made about Marx’s work on India, Said has seriously distorted Marx. Baburam Bhattarai, a theorist of the Peoples Army in Nepal, has also found Marx’s work on India useful in understanding Nepal’s underdevelopment in comparison to India’s postcolonial situation in his book The Nature of Underdevelopment and Regional Structure of Nepal.

This is not to say that there are no problems in the work of Marx and Engels. We should note, however, that the criticisms leveled at these authors by postcolonialists possess a problematic dimension for three reasons: 1) they misread Marx or simply read him through Said; 2) while criticizing Marx for being “eurocentric” their own work is based on post-structuralist, European philosophy which, unlike Marxism, has usually been unpopular in the non-Western world; and 3) many of these critics (Homi Bhabha, for example) are detached from the anti-imperialist struggles in the non-Western countries that are, indeed, making use of Marx.

In any case, vulgar, orthodox, revisionist, and overly dogmatic versions of Marxism are mainly the result of bad praxis. (I say “mainly” because there are indeed people who’s praxis is [or was] good but who, at the same time, produce or accept a bad analysis out of intellectual laziness, or a quasi-religious devotion to pre-given categories. Trotsky, I think, is a good example of this type of theorist.) The more Marxist theoreticians are alienated from social struggles the more their theory suffers. Theodor Adorno is a good example of theoretical Marxism’s disconnect from the praxis that makes it robust. By the time Adorno wrote Negative Dialectics he was completely removed from the important historical struggles of his time. This is not to say that there is nothing important to gain from Negative Dialectics. We should recognize, though, that since this work is divorced from praxis, and thus divorced from the history of revolutionary Marxism, it veers away from concrete historical materialism. Moreover, Adorno is the type of Marxist that, even before Negative Dialectics, was uninfluenced by the theoretical contributions of Lenin. His historical materialism, then, was pre-Leninist and thus ultimately antiquated and retrograde. Thinkers like Adorno are similar to scientists who pretend that Einstein did not exist and choose to work inside a purely Newtonian worldview.

I am not suggesting that one cannot know anything about politics in general without involving themselves in some armed struggle. All I am claiming is that a prescience of contemporary political struggles, the history of struggle and theory emerging from struggle, and the critique of capitalism is, at the very least, an important starting point. I would also like to suggest that an historical materialist involved, both critically and actively, in a specific political struggle will have, in all probability, a more robust analysis of this specific struggle than an historical materialist on the other side of the world. (William Hinton’s analyses of the Chinese Revolution, for example, should be given more weight than Maurice Meisner’s.) Of course, someone outside of this struggle might, possibly, be able to offer an important critique. The point, however, is that if I am fundamentally ignorant of the history of, say, Nepal, and the practically lived life of the Nepalese peasants, how can I either comprehend or critique the Nepalese Maoist revolution in the most concrete manner? The best concrete critique/analysis will emerge from someone involved in this struggle. More importantly, the best developments in historical materialist theory have come from those people engaged in revolutionary struggles (ie. Lenin, Mao, Fanon, Hisila Yami, etc.).

Connecting oneself to political struggle in general, however, allows one to engage critically with similar struggles around the world. The above example of Adorno aptly demonstrates this point. As aforementioned, Adorno was not fully involved in political struggle. Neither could he comprehend the critical evolutions in historical materialist theory that were developed through struggle. In Adorno’s work there is no real comprehension or engagement with the theories of Lenin, Luxemburg, or Mao. In fact, he eventually relegates himself to neo-idealism, locking himself into a world of metaphysics.