Tainted Left III: Good as a Crystal Ball, Research Time, 21/07/2016

Continued from last post . . . When I was reading Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks a couple of years ago, I noticed a frequent target of his criticism. It was the idea that history’s development was inevitable. 

A little more detail. History developed according to a logical order: the creation and reconciliation of contradictions. This is the Hegelian vision of history, the necessary development of progress. The marxist reading was that history inevitably progressed to the terminal crisis of capitalism and the emergence of communist institutions and society.

From a march of Italy's many different communist parties,
in solidarity with Greece's Syriza and other resisters to
the European Central Bank's austerity regimes.
Notice, I said ‘marxist,’ without capitalizing, or referring explicitly to Karl Marx. That’s because, as Gramsci repeated and Louis Althusser demonstrated through some intense analysis, Marx himself didn’t think this way about history at all.

Gramsci found many of his fellow Communist Party activists in Italy frustrating because they had essentially become quietists. Not because they had given up on building a new order in society, but because they believed that it would come about through the superstructures of capitalist human society. And not through any direct doings of their own.

Now, it’s not as though any subversive activity at all would do. Fyodor Dostoyevsky could teach us the futility of subversion done in the wrong way, in the wrong place, in the wrong time, or just plain stupidly. That was the story of both his own life and his classic novel Demons

His own anti-Czarist campaigning was at the wrong time. Stepan’s intellectual democracy activism was in the wrong place, under the condescending dotage of the Russian aristocracy. His son Pyotr’s violent revolutionary terrorism was the wrong way, needlessly killing people and burning down neighbourhoods because he believed it would provoke mass unrest. 

And they were all stupid about it, Dostoyevsky implies. I mean, they got so much wrong. 

Where does this historical necessity come from? It’s a false necessity, of course, but it’s still a concept, and so we can ask about its mechanics. There’s no ontological necessity involved in this vision of reality – no clockwork parts here. 

Instead, the ontology of a necessary path for history’s development flows from a philosophical principle – the principle of history’s narrative on the Hegelian account.* Basically, it’s the notion that history has a single dominant narrative at all. That there’s a story of human history and society that is literally THE story.

From the 2014 television adaptation of Dostoyevsky's
Demons, directed by Vladimir Khotinenko.
* At least the bog-standard Hegelian account that most of the Communist Party activists in whose circles Gramsci and Althusser moved believed. It's not Hegel’s own thinking, which is much more complex than a lot of its most enthusiastic inheritors conceived. It’s the Hegelian idea of history’s logic reduced to dogma.

I’m not even sure I should have separated that last footnote, because its central idea works just as well in the main text of this post. When a complicated philosophical concept or idea gets turned into a dogma, it’s reduced to platitudes, too-simple matters of faith, the emptiness of common-sense truths. 

A dogma no longer provokes thought, but simply has to be believed. And that’s kind of what happened to Karl Marx’s very complex engagement with Hegel’s and the Hegelian concept of history’s logic. 

When a complex philosophical concept is barmy and ultimately unworkable – like Hegel’s concept of history’s logic – becomes a dogma, we end up with a movement of people making themselves into idiots. As in the quietist revolutionaries of Gramsci's Italian Communist Party.

In super-short form, the concept of history’s logic runs like this. Hegel developed a structure of logic – simple concepts (like Being and Nothing) contradict each other, but you can resolve that contradiction to create a more advanced concept. This process keeps going until you reach a single concept that includes the entire range of human knowledge and potential, the absolute.

Hegel’s Logic mapped this progression. He wrote it concurrently with The Phenomenology of Spirit, which mapped this progression of concepts onto human history and psychology. He found embodiments of these ideas and movements all over human existence. Of course he did – he was looking for them.

Hegel mapped his Logic onto human existence through abstraction. He reduced a complex and complicated human self-consciousness of a given event, society, or era to the pure abstract of a philosophical diagram. It understood reality along very clean lines, but that understanding no longer had anything to do with real life.

So how are you going to act in the world if your thinking is no longer connected with the messy complexity of real life? Let alone change the world? . . . To be continued

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