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’.  

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