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"We have not yet passed beyond class morality…"

Recently I have been reflecting on an anecdote at the beginning of Mobo Gao's The Battle For China's Past regarding a presentation on the Cultural Revolution at a conference in South Korea.  After one presenter attacked the Cultural Revolution because of her parents' negative experience, an audience member stood up and asked the presenter about her family's background.  When the presenter admitted that her parents were members of a privileged intellectual class––a class whose privilege was targeted during this confusing period––the audience member replied, "So no wonder.  My father used to be head of the production team leader in my village.  He still recalls the Cultural Revolution with fond memories because that was his most brilliant years.  Those were years when the farmers felt proud and elated."  Gao's overall point was that our understanding of the past, and how we assess significant historical moments, is always filtered through our social position and the consciousness this position produces.

Furthermore, our ability to make moral judgments about the past and present––to call something like the Cultural Revolution, despite its clear failures, the high point of revolution, or to dismiss it as either a lamentable tragedy or heinous "abuse of human rights"––is never objectively separate from our class position or consciousness.  If we morally side with mass movements on behalf of the oppressed than we have to side with those great revolutions that empowered the oppressed masses and disempowered the exploiters and oppressors; if we morally side with business as usual, and accept that the liberal capitalist state of affairs is not synonymous with terrible violence and oppression but is in fact "liberating", then we will always be drawn to those liberal and conservative historical accounts that morally condemn this century's world historical revolutions.  As Engels argued in Anti-Duhring:
"[A]ll moral theories have been hitherto the product, in the last analysis, of the economic conditions of society obtaining at the time.  And as society has hitherto moved in class antagonism, morality has always been class morality; it has either justified the domination and the interests of the ruling class, or ever since the oppressed class became powerful enough, it has represented its indignation against this domination and the future interests of the oppressed. […] But we have not yet passed beyond class morality.  A really human morality which stands above class antagonisms and above any recollection of them becomes possible only at a stage of society which has not only overcome class antagonisms but has even forgotten them in practical life." (Engels, Collected Works of Marx and Engels vol. 25, p. 88)
So when we make moral assessments and judgments we are always making them according to a class position and to believe otherwise is to imagine that there is a morality outside of history, Platonic notions of the good and the just, rather than to understand that ethics is eminently historical.  If we can speak of ethical universality, and I think we can, then it has to be based on a socio-historical understanding of the material nature of the human species, and since humans are currently not outside of class conflict, or free from historical structures of oppression, then we have to accept that such a universal understanding of ethics is an ethics in development, a morality that only become "really human" once humanity has been freed from the oppressive structures it itself has produced.

And yet there is a common sense understanding of morality that, often naturalizing liberal moralism, imagines there can be objective ethical judgements.  Amnesty International, regardless of what it sometimes is able to accomplish, functions according to the dogma of "human rights", a liberal understanding of morality based on the notion of individual rights bearers, calculating death statistics, and relying on dubious sources that they imagine to be objective.  The fact that Amnesty representatives in Nepal during the height of the Peoples War were seen as collaborators, supported the Royal Army, is something ignored when people assessed the statistical reports Amnesty produced during that period: believers in liberal morality did not ask questions about the sources, about whether or not an organization like Amnesty could really exist outside of the imperialist world system, or critically engage with the possibility that NGOs work, to greater or lesser degrees, in propping up global capitalism.  The organization can pass as "neutral", as if there can be neutrality in class war, and its statistics as "scientific", as if they were produced in a laboratory, under a microscope, by an observer who was not embedded in the larger class-divided ethical terrain.

I was again reminded of this failure to understand morality as a class-contested terrain when, a couple nights ago, I was talking to a comrade about the Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path) and she was rightly complaining about a classmate who was presenting the normative North American mainstream media understanding of this organization.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Peru produced a thorough report human rights report about abuses in Peru during the Peoples War and, representing itself as an "independent" body, concluded that the Sendero Luminoso was responsibility for the majority of the violence.  And yet, a cursory investigation of this Commission should indicate, to anyone who is critical enough to examine the source they repeat without reflection, that it was far from "independent"––in fact, it was even less independent than other class-embedded Human Rights groups.  The Commission's chairman, for example, was Salomón Lerner Ghitis, a Peruvian businessman and politician who would eventually become Peru's Prime Minister.  And the rest of the Commission was stacked with former Peruvian military representatives (including an Airforce General), conservative Catholics, and Evangelical Missionaries.  There is no representation of the Peruvian peasantry in this commission; they were a priori barred since the majority of them (who make up the majority of Peruvian society) supported the Senderistas.  So trusting such a group to honestly assess a revolutionary war, when the majority of its members were anti-communist, is like filling an "independent commission" with members of the IDF and Kahanist settlers and then asking them to give us an accurate assessment of the Palestinian Intifida.

I am not arguing that the Sendero Luminoso was beyond reproach.  I think the organization degenerated in various areas due to an erroneous political line on the national question, and the cult of personality around Abimael Guzman ("Gonzalo Thought") that actually served to prevent the Sendero Luminoso from winning the Peoples War.  Nor am I arguing that they were not responsible for excesses.  What I am arguing, however, is that to use the supposedly "independent" Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a rational measurement of the activities of the Shining Path is in itself an ethical judgment made from a position of class.  Moving away from the Sendero Luminoso example, I would argue that so many leftists make this type of ethical judgment without even realizing they are ethically deciding to side with the morality of the ruling class which will *always* present every failed revolution as a crime against human rights––human rights understood, in this context, as a violation of the rights of the oppressor by those masses who don't want to be oppressed.

Even worse, so many people rely on these ruling class sources without even understanding what sources they are using.  Whenever I argue with irate liberals about Mao and the Chinese Revolution, I am shocked by how many of them do not understand that they are relying on the anti-communist, and extremely dubious, arguments originally made by John Foster Dulles (and later repeated, without any other sourcing, by Chang and Halliday), one of the pre-eminent USAmerican Cold Warriors (known for his "domino theory" of East Asia and for engineering the Shah's coup in Iran).  The source is forgotten, the argument normative because it is an argument that defends the state of the world as is––it is part of the common sense that treats capitalism as the end of history.  I have always argued that without investigation there should be no right to speak: if you're going to uncritically accept the ethical position of the ruling class, at least know your sources.  Simply arguing something is "common sense" only means that it is common sense for the moral sensibilities you have uncritically adopted––it is not common sense for those of us who support class revolution, it is not common sense for the majority of the world's oppressed populations who still believe that your villains are their heroes.

None of this is to say that the left should not be critical about its mistakes, failures, and excesses, let alone to simply accept every act of revolutionary violence as "moral".  But if the point is to critique from the left rather than the right, then we also have to critically engage with the necessity of revolutionary violence from the standpoint of the oppressed's morality.  This engagement, however, not only teaches us that the greatest violence is what is made normative by global capitalism––and that all revolutionary violence is primarily a tragic response to a context of ongoing terror––but forces us to ask difficult questions that are not always easily solved, are not clear-cut in the way that liberal ethicists would want them to be, and do not rely on the uncritical acceptance of bourgeois morality.  So when we understand that the oppressor at every stage of history has charged hir rebellious slaves with being "oppressive" and "violent" and "immoral", and that this charge is an insult for the slaves who make history, we will begin to understand ethics.


  1. The Shining path had little support in Peru too:

  2. Moreover, they weren't that kind to Peasants:
    "In response, in April the Shining Path entered the province of Huanca Sancos and the towns of Yanaccollpa, Ataccara, Llacchua, Muylacruz and Lucanamarca, where they killed 69 people, in what became known as the Lucanamarca massacre. This was the first time the Shining Path massacred peasants. Similar events followed, such as the ones in Hauyllo, Tambo District. The guerrillas killed 47 peasants, including 14 children aged four to fifteen.[23] Additional massacres by the Shining Path occurred, such as the one in Marcas on August 29, 1985.[24][25] In addition to occasional massacres, the Shining Path established labor camps to punish those who betrayed the "forces of the people." Those imprisoned were forced to work the lands and the coca fields. Hunger and deprivation were commonplace, and attempting escape was punishable by immediate execution.[26]"

    From here:

  3. And yes, there were Ronda,but I don't think that's any excuse for killing civilians.

  4. JM... first of all, the Sendero initially had massive support in Peru (I'm sorry, quoting Wikipedia, like I tell my university students, doesn't count) otherwise, logically speaking, how the hell were they able to nearly topple the state? You can't do that with a small group of people. And even the wikipedia entry on the Shining Path, as bad as it is, admits that they nearly overthrew the government. The contradiction between that admission and saying they had "little support" is glaring.

    Secondly, if you read what I was actually saying, I pointed out that I *agree* there were excesses and that the organization degenerated. And I've had this argument, where I pointed out instants precisely like the one you cite, with uncritical Sendero supporters as reasons to hold them up to criticism. My argument was that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which claims the SL was responsible for the vast majority of the massacres during the Emergency, is the worse possible source. So if you think I'm excusing the killing of civilians, you really have to read what I'm saying. (And by the way, the wiki source about the violence you cited comes from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an already dubious source to begin with.)

    Finally, as I've argued so often (and even in this piece), civilians do get killed during revolutions and, though this should be criticized, to pretend that revolutions are peaceful affairs without any messiness, and to ignore the historical fact that when the most oppressed are armed and in a state of rebellion there are always excesses. Look at the Haitian Slave Revolution... because of the excesses there, and those excesses were far worse on an individual-to-individual level than anything practiced by the SL, do we suddenly say that the Haitian Slave Revolution was "bad"? These are the most simplistic and liberal moral judgments that are easy because they reify the normal state of violence. Yes, these excesses should be criticized--I would go so far as to say that the fact that the SL degenerated in the way it did spoke to a lack of revolutionary discipline around violence and that is, yes, a serious problem--but I am not going to critique the SL from the right.

  5. Okay, you're right they did have peasant support until they turned and decided to commit the Lucanamarca massacre.

  6. @JM:

    The PCP came so close to toppling the fascist regime in Peru due to the fact that it appealed not only to the most marginalized sectors of Peruvian society -- women, indigenous people, the peasantry, with its land reforms, attempts at gender equality, etc -- but in general broad sectors of the masses. The PCP had even infiltrated the armed forces. What happens when the oppressed realize its potential in transforming society is that they often go overboard (take note of Mao's essay "Report on an Investigation of the...".) Revolution aint no dinner party, right?

    As for whether or not the PCP had support or not, well, ask yourself whether an organization can go so far without the support of the people? What organization has gone around massacring people and suddenly gained the trust, respect and participation of the masses?

    If you'd like more concrete examples, Gary Leupp (Monthly Review, March 1993), quoting a Peruvian sociologist, notes that the PCP was the largest political Party in Peru with about 100,000 members. A PCP generated trade union, the MOTC, lead most of the strikes in Lima. Who knows how many participated in the mass organizations generated by the PCP -- the womens, peasants and student organizations had mass participation. The PCP controlled huge swathes of the countryside as well.

    But really, even if they ultimately failed (for now), the contributions of the PCP have extended way outside of Peru. They're responsible for the formulation of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism instead of "Mao Tse-tung Thought", the theory that People's War is universal (which the PCR-RCP clearly takes note of), and were basically the chief influence of the CPN(M), who, back when they were Maoists, constantly spoke of revolution from the Andes to the Himalayas.

    But yeah, forget that -- let's instead take heed of what bullshit anti-communist reactionaries like Orin Starn or the TRCC had to say.

    Is it coincidental that it's generally activists in the west who go so far in denouncing the PCP (even more than denouncing the fascist dictatorship they fought against), while all of the major MLM Parties in the third world support and learn from them?

    P.S. I'm not some uncritical zealot when it comes to the PCP but I believe that principled Maoists need to defend the legacy of the PPW in Peru :)

  7. That as it may be but it's still not an excuse for a massacre and they eventually became unpopular.

  8. Their influence and early popularity doesn't matter: gaining you don't gain the support of peasants and then kill a village of innocent peasants as some form of disproportionate retribution four years later. That's just insane. Really.
    If communism is about unity and caring for the working class, then The Shining Path ain't it.

  9. JM: neither myself nor mf have argued that we want to go and join the Shining Path, or that we think they're above reproach, only that your critique of them (that you're still repeating regardless of the arguments we've made) is a rightist critique. And sorry, your comment about communism being about "unity and caring for the working class" is a very vague pronouncement that doesn't take into account the problem of revolutionary violence, which is a problem and a concrete issue that needs to be solved.

    Furthermore, *this* blog entry (which was not, btw, actually about the shining path) and others that I've written are about this precise issue - which you don't seem to get, instead relegating things to a very liberal "why can't we all get along" understanding of communism. You strike me as someone who would dismiss the French Revolution because of the Terrors, a position held by every reactionary historian.

    When it comes to the Shining Path you keep focusing on your wikipedia understanding of them despite the fact that mf just gave you other possible sources: so apparently your positivist understanding of sources is really nothing more than an acceptance of the bourgeois view of things––you ask for sources, but when they're supplied you keep repeating the same liberal and/or reactionary sources that you want to keep believing no matter what. Again, this blog post was actually *not* bout the Shining Path but about the attitude you've been demonstrating, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was used as one example.

    Your comments are now approaching trolling, especially since you keep repeating: a) charges that aren't true (neither myself nor mf have said we support the Shining Path only that we disagree with the rightist analysis of them); b) the same arguments you began with and are incapable of responding to counter-arguments. One of the reasons I have a comments policy and it's to filter out this sort of uncritical idiocy. If your comments continue in this trolling vein, they will be moderated: the bring nothing to the conversation except what I've heard a thousand times already, don't even respond to my actual position but a straw-person version of my position, and contribute nothing but the bourgeois view of business as usual.

  10. I'm sorry if I'm taking up too much space, but here's one last comment! :)

    @JM: The Peruvian PPW reached its climax during the strategic equilibrium (around 1990-1993), which was way after the "early years" you speak so much about. During that time open class warfare in the streets and regular armed strikes were a daily occurrence. The PCP became "unpopular" after drug-peddling revisionists started calling for peace talks -- this does not mean that those who led the PPW until Guzman's arrest were somehow unpopular. I don't think anybody here's supporting today's supposed leaders, such as "Comrade" Artemio.

    I'd like to ask you, if I may, what credentials you actually have when speaking about the PCP when clearly the best you can do are liberal knee jerk one-liners with references to Wikipedia, which is basically considered a joke and a very unreliable source? Stop talking about something you know absolutely nothing about.

    If you'd like to start somewhere, however, you can take a look at my website which has three good articles on Peru :)

    P.S. JMP who you kidding everyone knows that Maoists got *at least* a soft spot for (the true) PCP.

  11. mf: thanks again... Never said we didn't have a soft spot, just that it should be a critical soft spot.

  12. Money motivates neither the best people, nor the best in people. It can move the body and influence the mind, but it cannot touch the heart or move the spirit; that is reserved for belief, principle, and morality.

    1. This is a pretty random comment. Money is only a social relation; it's not the problem but only a symptom of the larger problem of capitalism and imperialism––just as it was also a symptom, in a different and less entrenched manner, of feudalism. And really, this comment about money has nothing to do with this article in any way shape or form: please do not spam this site, and if this is not spam please stay on topic and refrain from making banal insights.


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