Monday, 15 August 2011

pandisciplinarity and the class struggle

Pandisciplinarity and the Class Struggle

Penny Bun writes:

You write at one point that "all hands to the pumps" is essential if an impending catastrophe is to be avoided and that this will necessitate a crossing of academic divides, with the study of history being an essential if not the central element to the enterprise. I recognise the important role of historical study in coming to an understanding of our present predicament; without it we can have no knowledge of how we got here and consequently how we might resolve the crisis. Natural science can inform us of some of the whys of environmental destruction and ways in which catastrophe might be averted, that is, technical fixes, but natural science will not tell us why and how the social formation which underpinned the emergence and the blossoming of the anthropocene age happened (unless one believes there was/is a biological determinism, a Darwinian evolutionary agent leading humanity to the anthropocene). What the natural sciences cannot supply the study of history can, or at least can take us some way to identifying social forces driving towards particular ends (both intended and unintended). Which takes me to my point: "all hands to the pumps", I can see that the call for pandisciplinarity could well receive a significant response in the academic world; however, the real problem might be in how such a level of intellectual agreement can be translated into action. Political action, informed by historical knowledge and natural science, this is surely the goal. Whether the moral imperative of "action now else we are all doomed" is sufficient is at the very least debatable. Of course one could respond that the meetings of minds is an intellectual forum within which contending solutions might fight it out with the possibility for example that free market economics could confront class struggle as the solution. If this is so does pandisciplinarity take us much beyond where we are today?

This is a welcome but troubling question. Let us begin with the response given to it in the book Minutes to Midnight, where several pages are given to the ‘classic’ exposition of the class struggle in The Communist Manifesto of 1848. As Marx and Engels put it: ‘political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another.’ Ultimately, after the proletariat had taken power from the bourgeoisie’, the new order would consist of ‘an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’ In comments on the major work, Capital, the book suggests that Marx ‘had shown in some detail how capitalism was on the rise, but had not spelled out in such detail how it was to fail, still less what was to replace it. His great achievement was to analyse the process by which the development of technology far beyond the dreams of James Watt promoted a new economic system and accompanying social changes. However, he could not foresee the extent to which a managerial, technocratic stratum would become a substantial part of the bourgeoisie, and the manner in which a substantial part of the proletariat would become integrated into a consumer, service economy.’ (38-9) The beginnings of these developments helped to lead in industrial societies advancing through the nineteenth century to the aim of compromise with capitalism rather than its overthrow.

In the twentieth century, the Russian Revolution of 1917 was widely advertised by Lenin and his adherents as the victory of the proletariat, yet the arrival of Stalinism persuaded many Marxists to turn to Trotskyism or some other alternative. A great debate ensued in the 1960s, adherents of Marxism arguing among themselves as well as with a newer ideology – Maoism. Some of the debate was esoteric: Perry Anderson, an acute analyst of Western Marxism, emphasised its ‘lack of internationalism’ and remoteness from ‘actual masses’. (102) At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Istvan Mészáros was both calling for a radical transformation to be brought about by a mass party of the working class and writing about capital in a manner that most of its members would find difficult to grasp. (126)      

One of the most prominent Marxists in the Western world is Eric Hobsbawm, the author of remarkable works on history from the end of the eighteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first and frequent commentator on the political scene. In his autobiographical Interesting Times; A Twentieth-Century Life, London: Abacus, 2002, Hobsbawm writes ‘I belonged to the generation tied by an almost umbilical cord to hope of the world revolution, and of its original home, the October Revolution, however sceptical or critical of the USSR.’ However, he soon gave up the attempt to add Russian to his many other languages, coming to the conclusion that he was ‘a purely western intellectual’, a view reinforced by his single visit to the USSR, from which he returned ‘politically unchanged if depressed, and without any desire to go there again.’ Instead, he made frequent visits to the USA, learning ‘as much about the country in the first summer I spent there as in the course of the next decades’. (111, 200, 218, 403) Hobsbawm’s How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism, London: Little Brown, 2011, does not give much of a pointer to how to effect a global transformation. More erudite than instrumental, the book contains a considerable amount of exegesis of Marxist texts including The Communist Manifesto, but very little on how to advance the process prescribed by it, almost nothing about how to pursue the class struggle in the post-Soviet period, when the hope of a world revolution spreading from its original home had come to naught.

Where is the class struggle today, then? Social disturbances in the developed world show little if any Marxist class consciousness, more frustrated consumerism, while Maoism is proclaimed in Nepal and central India, to mention two examples in the developing world.

Academically, ‘class struggle’ comes under the heading of the social sciences, which form a bridge between history and other humanities on the one hand and the natural sciences on the other. Not only Politics and Sociology are involved here but also Psychology – the workings of the minds of individuals as well as groups, about which we are continually learning. Back in conclusion to pandisciplinarity. Intellectual arguments by definition are often without influence beyond the ivory tower, but this circumstance does not negate them. Moreover, the most urgent conflict today is between those who accept that we are confronted by an ecological crisis far deeper than economic meltdown on the one hand and those with a vested interest in renewed growth (both producers and consumers) that amounts to more pollution who deny it on the other. Of course, so to speak, as the Titanic approaches disaster, we are all in it together, even though a few travel first class and most are in steerage or service. But this time, there will be no other ships coming to the rescue: hence, ‘all hands to the pumps’.  

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

pandisciplinarity and christianity

Pandisciplinarity and Christianity

Elsmie writes:
Clearly the scientific status of history is central to your project. One question: you write that the study of history as a science is validated by the extent to which it is ‘rational, global and evolutionary’; would it follow that espousal of Christianity which was coherent, rational and saw history as process from Creation to the Fall and on to an end, would this be scientific? Or are there other characteristics required to make world views scientific?
The short answer is that it is up to Christians to demonstrate the scientific qualities of their faith, of concepts such as ‘Creation’, ‘Fall’ and ‘an end’. The Pandisciplinarity blog is secular, literally in ‘relating to an age or period’ to give the derivation of the word from the Latin ‘saecularis’.

But the question deserves a longer response. To quote the book that led to this blog:
Since they involve supernatural phenomena, theological considerations cannot be included in secular discussion, particularly if we apply to it the words of the progenitor of Christianity as reported by St Matthew: ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s (Matthew 22:21). Caesar acts, God judges. The empire that Caesar helped to create attempted to impose its so-called Pax Romana upon as much of the world as possible, and to use this concept as an important part of its self-justification, confidently explaining phenomena by the purpose they served – might was right. A series of successors have acted in a similar manner, most of them making the additional claim of God’s support and sanction. Of course, Holy Writ is open to interpretation, and there has been no shortage of theologians acting as spokesmen for empire. Ultimately, however, as indicated by imperial decline and fall, Ecclesiastes would appear to have hit the nail on the head in the assertion that ‘all is vanity’ (Ecclesiates 1:2). Human history might well come to an end and God make his final judgement.
(Paul Dukes, Minutes to Midnight: History and the Anthropocene Era, London: Anthem, 1911, 8-9)
Christianity and other religions receive little mention in the rest of the book, although they are possibly included in its conclusion in an implicit manner: ‘At the present critical moment, from whatever quarter, we need all the assistance we can get, and it is therefore possible to envisage a pandisciplinary approach to our present predicament.’ (133)

Elsmie’s question prompts some further reflections. Unlike Christianity and other religions, science does not deal in certainties, but probabilities, especially when dealing with predictions of the future. Moreover, there are unknowns, even unknowables. Of course, the distinction is not that sharp since, as I understand them, Christians view Christ as ineffable, beyond words. Thus I hesitate to say more except that, essentially, religion is a matter of faith and belief, where doubt and the process of relentless questioning, which are the keys to a sound approach to the acquisition of understanding through both science and history, are not  normally to be found.

Instead, a few comments on the work of a historian who was also a committed Christian and wrote extensively about connections between his work and his faith. I happen to have had personal contact with him, too, listening to him on European history and receiving his hospitality. The overwhelming impression I formed of Herbert Butterfield was of his earnestness. However, neither in his lectures nor in his conversation did he say anything about religion. His writings appear to indicate a belief in three levels in the study of history: individual, social and providential. Great men like Napoleon, possibly lesser mortals too, could influence the course of events: individuals were more important than the political and economic aspects of history. The duty of the researcher was to scrutinise available sources to establish the social context in which individuals operated, always recalling that subsequent judgements were relative to time and circumstance. It was at this level, Butterfield argued, that the historian functioned in a scientific manner, which was for him above all technical. Beyond, there was the providential, about which, in his view, mere mortal researchers could say little. (See, for example, Herbert Butterfield, Writings on Christianity and History, Edited with an Introduction by C.T. McIntire, New York: Oxford University Press, 1979, especially ‘The Christian and Historical Study’, 151-71.)

Like all individuals, as he himself had said, Butterfield was the creature of his time and circumstance. He was born in 1900, and his early outlook was no doubt influenced by the First World War, his mature output – by the Second World War and the Cold War. He died in 1979 before ecological problems came to wider attention, and global, if not universal, consciousness began to grow along with the ecumenical movement. No blame can be attached to him for this, and he remains an inspiration to some of his successors, just as he in his turn was influenced by predecessors such as Lord Acton. That is the way of the study of history.

Today, there are good reasons for being familiar with the three Abrahamic religions, Moslem and Jewish as well as Christian, in a world in which they all exercise great influence. Other systematic belief systems, notably Buddhism, retain wide adherence. However, the apparent death of Marxism-Leninism since the collapse of the Soviet Union twenty years ago should not mean the end of the attempt to consider history as a secular science. A version of it remains the official ideology of the People’s Republic of China, merging to some extent perhaps with Confucianism and Taoism, whose ways, including a reverence for nature, remain indicative.

I was born in 1934, and have clear childhood memories of the Second World War. For example, I recall how we were encouraged to ‘Dig for Victory’ in gardens and allotments. All of us, however young or old, in whatever station in life, were adjured to do our bit for the great cause. Churchmen prayed for the triumph of Christian good over godless evil, often ignoring the fact that our staunch Soviet Allies were officially materialists (even though Stalin and his henchmen sought the support of the Orthodox hierarchy and their God against the Nazi Wotan).

Today’s slogan ‘Grow More’ echoes ‘Dig for Victory’, but we are faced with a greater challenge than that of 1939-1945: it may be less immediately evident, but the strong balance of probability supported by an ever more powerful body of evidence is that anthropogenic disaster awaits us if we do not radically change our behaviour. In this pursuit, we need help from whatever quarter.

So thank you, Elsmie, for your questions. I hope you find my answers helpful. Peace be with you!