August 27, 2006

Apostasy from Marxism

There's a guy with the implausible name of Louis Proyect who blogs as "The Unrepentant Marxist." I forget why I happened upon his blog, but he's in some ways an acute observer in spite of his claim still to adhere to that philosophy. So I read him.

Recently the UM posted about a Senegalese film, Xala. UM makes the film, which is about the downfall of one of the postcolonial new rich, seem quite interesting.

The review ends, though, with this postscript:
Once again I am reminded of the quote from Engels’s “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State” that I incorporated into my review of “Mandabi”:
The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules… Within the family, he [the husband] is the bourgeois, and the wife represents the proletariat.
This coda seemed to me a bit gratuitous, and I commented thus:
This post, including the quotation from Phoebe Koch, makes me want to see the film, and captures some of the ironies and complexities of life among the waBenzi of postcolonial Africa.

What puzzles me is the quotation from Engels at the end, which seems to me disconnected from everything that went before. In some times and places, no doubt, the wife pays more than the husband of the costs of what Marxist jargon rather coldly calls “social reproduction,” Engels’s metaphor (husband is to wife and bourgeoisie is to proletariat), however doesn’t seem to me correspond to the lives more subtly portrayed in the movie (as described in the review).

I won’t undertake the almost certainly futile and thankless task of trying to lure you into apostasy, but in this particular instance, if the coda fits the composition, I don’t get how.
Another commenter responded:
GOM, it’s really annoying for you to suggest that abandoning Marxism is “the next and final step” in political consciousness. Whether it is or isn’t there are enough substantive critiques in here of the heavy price many people pay for the sake of profits.

If your belief system finds that ‘collateral’ damage acceptable, fine. Some of us don’t. This is simply a question of one’s personal morals and how much they are willing to affect the lives of others in whatever way.

Tell me — seriously — if Afghanistan wouldn’t have been, in the long run, better off being run by a group that put the first man in space versus the acid-in-face-throwers. It was your side that made that decision for them.

I can’t help but think that you feel any Marxist revolutions that take place around the world are unjustified, as opposed to people voting with their lives.
I tried twice to respond in the comment thread, but the internet or the blog software ate my comment twice. I am therefore reduced to responding here.

First, annoyance is inevitable when basic political and philosophical differences emerge. I promise to avoid being snarky (repeat three times, hand on heart). Marxism, despite its many faults and errors, can be a serious system of thought, when it's not turned into slogans, and when offered seriously, merits a serious response. Read this guy, for example.

To respond, I invoke Marx's chestnut that "Capitalism is revolutionary." It is. And especially when it's new, the consequences aren't pretty. Some, or course, are positive, like vaccination, imported food in time of famine, and sewers. And even mature capitalism has many effects that are unpleasant or worse.

If we are looking at consequences, we can't flinch at looking at the consequences of self-proclaimed socialist revolutions: oceans of blood, bureaucracy, droughts, famines, and gulags. It's what happens when declassé intellectuals mobilize masses of people to change society according to a blueprint in someone's head, or from a book.

As for Afghanistan, which wasn't capitalist, even in the sense Bolívia, a provider of raw materials, has been. Just Google Pushtunwali. One could write an alternative history in which Brezhnev and Najibullah win. Would the 2006 chapter resemble Kyrgyzstan or Chechnya, Iraqi Kurdistan or Somalia?

No one knows, but we do know it wouldn't have been the rocket scientists, but the KGB that would have run the experiment.

As for Marxist revolutions, if there are any around, the question is not whether the anger and hope that drove them was "justified," but whether, in the middle and long run, they are wise.

I think not.

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