Tainted Left IV: History Without Logic, Research Time, 22/07/2016

Today is a late post simply because I came home from work so tired yesterday that I could only watch some TV with GF and go to sleep. Today, I’m feeling a little better, but I still woke up in the middle of a dream.

I was wandering around a huge bookstore looking for their sci-fi section. But all they had were rack on rack of too-mainstream pablum, enormous technical cartography books (one of which was written by Ernob Bal, a name too similar to an old friend), and expensive history hardcovers whose texts were scrapbooked handwritten notes recollecting the events themselves. Even from hundreds or thousands of years ago.

And the bookstore’s mascot was a two-foot-tall yellow slug with the personality of a puppy. I have weird dreams. Anyway, what about history?

Could any coherent law of historical development have
predicted any of this? Really?
Continued from last post . . . So what is the antidote to this too-simple version of history as having a necessary logic? The appeal of that philosophy is that it offers us a simple science of human history. 

The logic of contradiction and progressive reconciliation gives us a basic law by which we can understand humanity’s development. The problem is that the real events of history develop differently than that simple law would show. History is contingent, the world a cobbled-together assemblage of conflict, peace, and general confusion.

Given last night’s formal ascension of Donald Trump to the top of America’s Republican Presidential ticket, I don’t think anyone in our age can have any doubt that history has no fundamental or predictable order. I think no one would have said 20 years ago that America would seriously face the possibility of a spectacular dictatorship within a generation. But here we are.

When you read Althusser as a theorist about the contingent nature of history, he draws on different examples than I can, of course. He was writing in the early 1960s from the position of a French Communist activist and researcher. He also died in 1990.

So he was speaking to what was, at the time, the primary historical event for the position of Communist Party members in Western Europe – the Russian Revolution. Because according to all the simple laws of history’s logic that marxist activists embraced at the time, it shouldn’t have happened.

Trump's style of spectacular leadership
actually has its closest precedents in the
post-communist dictatorships of
central Asia. Trump has a personality
quite likely to build a giant gold statue
of himself that rotates to face the sun.
Like this statue of Turkmenistan
dictator Saparmarat Niyazov.
The first communist revolution was supposed to have come in an advanced industrial state, where capitalism had advanced to such a point that its own logical contradictions couldn’t stand together anymore. Yet the first successful revolution was in Russia, a mostly rural country whose society in 1917 still operated more like feudalism.

Althusser derives his new theory of contingent history from this example, as the result of decades of reflection in the marxist community about its meaning. The first starts with Lenin himself, with his concept of “the weakest link.”

Basically, revolution happens not where logic says it must, but where circumstances say it can. A communist revolution isn’t a collision of logical premises, but of material conflicts. Communist revolution in the real world didn’t find its potential in any direct element of capitalist industry. Its key condition had to do with the world’s greatest conflict of imperialist politics: the First World War.

The war turned the social conflicts of the participating countries up to a terrifying intensity. The Russian situation was the most vulnerable, least able to handle such intense social destabilization.

The war fuelled democratic political pressure against the Czarist system – the Russian people were suffering terribly in the war, and everyone knew it was a battle of imperialism. 

With more knowledge about the wider world coming to people, even uneducated people, from the industrialized societies of Europe, they knew what they were missing out on. And people knew the imperial elite kept them from that kind of prosperity because it would mean giving up their immense wealth.

There was also a conspiracy of the Russian aristocracy against the monarchy at the same time, again exacerbated by the war. These anti-monarchist aristocrats saw the economic devastation the First World War was wreaking, and were turning against the Czar.

Lenin’s own revolutionary organization was also the best organized group of communists in Europe. There was also a lot of groundwork for revolutionary activity in Russia, thanks to the previous attempt in 1905 that failed. These are all contingent conditions that are rooted in the particular situation of that place and time. 

So what does a theory of history that embraces contingency completely even look like? . . . To be continued

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