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Progress and Ideas with Value

In a previous post I cited Samir Amin's comment from Class and Nation regarding the value of ideas.  That is, Amin's claim that people who want to change society generally have better ideas than people who want to preserve society as it is––this is because, as Amin goes on to note, "society changes."  And thus, those who refuse to recognize change and turn their back on historical progress are also those who are out of step with reality.  I like this quotation and I think about it a lot whenever I encounter ideas that are either reactionary––that are so out of step with social development that they really belong in a by-gone era and are thus utterly valueless––or ideas that are banal reflections of status quo ideology.  The quote sometimes reminds me that I shouldn't be too annoyed by common-sense liberal ideas because, being unremarkable, they'll hopefully be relegated to the proverbial dust-bin of history.

For example, I recall reading a debate in which Malcolm X was involved regarding [I think, my memory is hazy, and maybe an intrepid reader will provide the reference] the Congo.  I'm not sure what was going on in the Congo at the time, because I cannot remember the specifics of this debate, but I do recall that Malcolm X was debating a variety of academic experts, at least one of which who took issue with his characterization of Belgian colonization.  One academic, in fact, attempted to castigate Malcolm X for speaking of colonial genocide and went so far as to argue, because it was "common sense" at the time, that Belgian colonization under Leopold was humane, that it was meant to civilize Africans––in short, all of the colonial myths that were an intrinsic part of a now discarded discourse of the European "civilizing mission."

And this example is apt because it is no longer "common sense" to claim that colonization was what the eurocentric "civilizing" imagined it to be, and one would be hard pressed to find a well-regarded academic historian who would argue in the same vein as those academics who debated Malcolm X.  It seems to me that any historian who now tried to argue, so many decades after the Congo's decolonization, that the Belgian-Congo under King Leopold was "humane" and "civilized" is a historian who would never receive tenure, whose books would be treated as backwards tripe, and who would be at home amongst honest white supremacists.  The liberal and common sense discourse now might argue that imperialist intervention is necessary in regions such as the Congo, but it is not a discourse that would demand a return to a settler-colonial regime.  History has moved on, the narrative has changed, and the academics who argued with Malcolm X are now considered nobodies whose work is without value––they were already behind the times, their ideas worthless.

Despite the fact that these common sense ideas that accrue under capitalism will not be completely abandoned until another socialist rupture, it is still somewhat comforting to recognize that there are small moments of progress––daringly seized through micro-revolutions––that force the constellation of normative ideas to change.  When I look at the composition of my university students, for example, I cannot help but notice that more than fifty per cent of them would have never sat in the same classroom several decades earlier.  And so those who think it is "radical" to challenge the supposedly "totalizing" notion of progress need to take this reality into account: it is irresponsible to pretend that no progress has been hard-won by the blood of our predecessors whose ideas were worth more than those who set themselves against progress.

Here again we need to speak of the concept of the advanced guard.  Despite the disparagement of "vanguardism" by those leftists who seem to have no idea what it means, the concept definitely makes sense in the realm of ideological struggle.  Do we tail the valueless ideas of "common sense" that are hegemonically prevalent or do we back the ideas of an advanced guard that challenge the status quo?  Are there not factions within this realm of ideological struggle who represent an advanced guard, who push for progress, who refuse to wait for some spontaneous shift in normative ideology––who are agitating for a counter-hegemonic war of position?  Just as ideological struggle must reflect and intersect with practical struggle, so too the rejection of an advanced guard on the level of practical struggle will reflect a rejection of advanced ideological struggle: a movementism in the streets is a movementism in ideology.

In any case, sometimes I like to think that those liberal academics whose ideas are "common sense" will be academics who are forgotten in a few decades, just as the academics who argued with Malcolm X about the Congo are forgotten.  Now anyone who abides by these ideas are part of a reactionary population that even common sense opinion treats as backwards––not that we shouldn't worry about those people whose politics are a reaction to progress (i.e. white supremacists, the Tea Party, other fascists, etc.) but we can combat them on the same normative grounds that anyone who doubts the enlightenment demystification of the world can be combatted.  The point, however, is to push this combativeness forward and to struggle, parallel to concrete struggle, for those ideas that are tantamount to coherent and articulate revolution.


  1. Agree with the general thrust of this post, but I think the example of the Congo also raises the issue of regression in consciousness. In the early 20th century, the atrocities of Leopold's private regime in the Congo were well known, most famously documented in the Casement Report, which was commissioned by the British parliament (Casement was radicalized by his experiences in the Congo, South Africa, and Peru, and became an Irish Republican, later executed for treason). That academics decades later would try to rehabilitate the memory of Belgian colonization speaks to the step backwards bourgeois apologia took in the context of the Cold War and decolonization. But this is just my nitpicking, in general I agree with the sentiments above.

    Cam H

    1. I'm not sure if the pro-colonial sentiment counts as "regression" considering the time in which it was common. This was also a time where white academics could still be seen as respectable while supporting racial segregation–-this wasn't some reactionary lapse but quite ideologically commonplace at the time.


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