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Let a Hundred Schools Contend
It has become quite common to cite Marx’s saying in the early 1880s – protesting the mechanical application of his theory by Guesdists, German social democrats, and Russian economists – that he wasn’t a Marxist and didn’t like Marxists. Most people stop there. Voilà! The old man was anti-party and anti-professor, like me! Yet here we need to be a bit more Nietzschean and prepared to look into the abyss. That is, stare at the truth however difficult it may be. Who did Marx like if he didn’t like Marxists? Brace yourself: Marx liked terrorists.
This fact has had a long cover up of a kind worthy of the people who have guarded the secret of Coca-Cola. A key participant in the cover up is Lenin, who followed here the lead of his one-time mentor Georgi Plekhanov. The young Lenin wrote elegant essays – that remain good reads to this day – about how one should organize, form parties and periodicals… but not (or at least rarely) shoot down Tsarist officials and get hanged for it. Terror was a thing to be handled gingerly, usually avoided.
This well-worn tradition comes down to us over the years. The Salvadorean poet Roque Dalton once observed that members of communist parties seem to think that Lenin’s critique of the left – via the essay Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder – is the alpha and omega of political wisdom. It is easy to discern that their exaggerated desire to bring the enfants terribles in line speaks more for the paternalistic character of so many card-carriers than any real interest in molding a revolutionary party, which cannot take disciplining the left fringe to be its central activity.
Marx himself thought differently. While growing increasingly exasperated by the German Social Democratic party and its ambition to plod (and pact) itself toward a peaceful victory through the tireless accumulation of forces, he found a breath of fresh air in the character of Russian pistol-bearing narodniks whom he called “terrorists.” These folks knew how to live with brio and die with dignity. They had a revolutionary ethic and thought creatively. They read and studied Marx but did not take him to be the last word. Perhaps the twentieth-century figure most like them is the young Fidel Castro.
This mostly unrecognized preference of Marx for the Russian narodniks is worth bringing to attention today to prod the imagination a bit. This is because the left is now falling into a consensus not unlike that of the plodding and mechanical Second International – made up of many of the very social democratic “Marxists” that Karl disliked. The last fifteen years of struggle in Latin America have produced a new, more or less spontaneous dogma about the importance and centrality of elections and the pacific road to socialism which might be called the “Caracas Consensus.” The recent opening of Cuba to capitalism and the possibility that the FARC will soon have to cast its lot with this new tendency are just the most recent brush strokes.
It is beyond doubt that this constellation of ideas has produced marvelous results. The problem is that it seems to have come to a standstill for reasons that have as much to do with internal obstacles as external ones (imperialism). For example, any honest assessment of the current quandary in Venezuela should recognize that the most important factors are internal ones – lack of unity, bad direction, loss of morale – more than external ones. This conclusion follows logically from the fact that the right-wing parties and imperialism have never ceased to conspire since Hugo Chávez took power a decade and a half ago; therefore the new element must be the incapacity to find one’s own road and to confront the conspiracy.
If the “Caracas Consensus” is reaching its limits, does this mean that one should simply turn to terror and violent struggle? No, that would constitute too superficial an assessment of the preference that Marx expressed for the terrorist narodniks of his moment. Perhaps more important (for him and for us) than their use of violence is the reason they used violence. The narodniks of the People’s Will Party used violence because they did not see history as a linear universal progression in which all must follow the same route. They felt that the Russian people were sitting on potential socialism and socialist potentialities. The violence was the means to release these potentialities.
Sometimes it is useful to go back to basic patterns and structures of thought that were worked out in a finer manner by theologians well before modern revolutionaries turned their coarser minds to the task of crafting theory. Judeo-Christian theology tends to favor the long march: forty years in the desert and the benificiaries will be the children of one’s children. Perhaps this represents simply the typical thought patterns of nomadic peoples. By contrast the subversive Kabbala, dreamt up in the winding streets of Castilian and Catalan cities at the dawn of modernity, says that salvation is right here among us, among scattered sparks of light (from the “Breaking of the Vessels” in the Lurianic tradition) that only need to be released from their Kelipot shells to bring salvation. The time for this redemptive activity is not some unimaginable future but now.
Marx operated with both mindsets. Sometimes, as in the Critique of the Gotha Program, he presented the birth of the new society as a “long and painful” process. However, a central theoretical finding of Marx is that the accumulation of productive forces in capitalism opens a modern epoch in which natural, absolute scarcity disappears; meaning that an alternative modernity – based on this potential abundance – is just waiting to be released. It is likely that the hegemonic influence of progressivist, evolutionist thought during his century caused Marx to sometimes adopt, in spite of himself, the gradualist view. Then, encountering the narodniks, he came face to face with his real belief and preference: in effect, theirs were the conclusions that his theory really called for.
What lessons does this hold for us in the left, most specifically in Latin America? One is that any consensus is dangerous for the left: useful consensuses can emerge in conditions of victory, and the left is far from having achieved victory. In concrete terms the left needs to maintain a lively debate in which there is room for different positions. A corollary is that there should be space for the revolutionary (as opposed to progressive) belief that an alternative modernity now exists, if only as a potentiality, in our midst. This idea, which has all the weight of positivist thinking and the wisdom of dogmatic universal time-lines against it, applies today even to Latin American countries, where people starve and waste their capacities in the midst of great riches, and many are still homeless while surrounded by unused apartment space.
The very essence of revolutionary thought is to recognize this condition and to open the possibility – relatively new in the course of human development – that in moments of crisis, one can sometimes step on the accelerator rather than always delay and prepare oneself for an ever longer march. Too deny the former option as a possible response – as seems to be happening in Latin America as one project after another signs on to a completely undefined “Chinese socialist model” – would be to rule out revolutionary thought altogether.
Chris Gilbert is professor of Political Science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.