It Ain’t My Revolution, Research Time, 02/03/2016

When I got to that part in Multitude, I couldn’t quite understand why Antonio Negri kept talking about peasants. This is a major section in the fourth chapter where he furiously critiques the conceptions of peasantry and peasants that left-wing revolutionaries have developed over the last century.

People have a lot of misconceptions about peasants. For
one thing, they weren't all organized as anarcho-
syndicalist communes.
I mean this seriously – he reads with a tone of exasperated frustration. It’s as if he’s just so angry that writers and politicians who he clearly respects so much just won’t stop making the same mistake. Over and over again. 

That mistake is making the peasant into a kind of revolutionary. A universal revolutionary, one for the whole world. Or else, as an ideal for the perfect communal life. 

I remember reading Peter Kropotkin discussing the medieval peasant villages this way. They were places where people could work for the subsistence of the community, there needed to be no strong authorities when everyone looked out for each other. 

These harmonious communities were eventually overrun as state armies, loyal to dukes and kings, came to establish their administrations. Then came centralized bureaucracies. Government management. The department of statistics so they authorities and their militaries and police could manage the populations. Freedom disappeared.

The ideal of socialist revolution in the 20th century was, in the minds of the idealists anyway, about restoring that kind of society. The reality was an even more pervasive and oppressive state apparatus than had ever existed – the omnipresent police and constant violence of Stalin’s purges. Or the hurricane of chaos that was Mao’s China of continual revolution.

The ideal of the peasant is a dream. Not even a dream, but a half-memory. The wish that we could live in a world without scarcity, where a community could live in harmony together without having to worry seriously about sustaining your life or keeping safe. 

Western revolutionaries rarely
understood that you couldn't make
a universal type from a peculiar
European tradition. They didn't
even understand that peasants
were only European.
It’s the land of do-as-you-please. It wouldn’t be so bad.

But to keep the dream alive, the writers and theorists who wanted to liberate humanity saw ghosts of that dream everywhere. The peasant of that peculiarly European community of small-holding farmers in medieval times couldn’t be found outside. Even if these theorists of humanity saw it in all the rural poor of China, India, and the tribal village networks of the West African coast. 

Read Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe’s memorial to the rural Igbo culture of Nigeria, the style of pride that killed itself rather than buckle down to the colonizers and missionaries. There’s a dignity to that life, and a nobility. But it’s not the peasantry that the marxists saw everywhere. 

Yeah, that’s who I mean. And it’s the object of Negri’s scorn. The marxist revolutionaries and theorists who thought the spectre of the peasant would be the beacon liberating humanity. They mistook a European peculiarity for a universal.

Anthropological science did the same thing, according to Negri. Sort of, anyway. Early anthropologists examined the rural indigenous cultures of the world as if they were a pure Other, a total alien compared to Western man. More often, the word was ‘primitive,’ the utter alien to ‘civilization.’

At best, those early anthropologists treated indigenous cultures as the most retarded humans. I mean that in its offensive, derogatory sense. Human civilization was popularly conceived as a single path of progress. 

That’s where the expression referring to Western civilization as the most ‘advanced’ came from. The indigenous, according to such an ideology, were societies that had the farthest to go to become truly advanced. To be the same as the West.

There was something of that attitude in even the most radical revolutionary marxism, according to Negri. The idea that there was a universal, single path to paradise, and that it was a Western path. 

But the anthropologists didn’t really learn anything about these people’s cultures by treating them as an Other, a primitive, or backward. Just as the marxists never founded revolutions to build the perfect society in their imagined universal worldwide peasantry.

You learn about people and peoples by understanding their singularity – the uniqueness that makes every personality and culture peculiar to its place, situation, and history. You learn when you ask someone who and how they are, not how they can teach you about yourself.

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