Has Western Europe Lost Its Soul?

(An earlier version of this paper was given at a Sinology conference in Beijing at the beginning of November, 2018)

Has Western Europe lost its soul?

Before beginning, let me set a more personal context. My parents emigrated from the Netherlands to Australia in the late 1950s, so my nationality (or ethnicity) is Dutch, although my citizenship is Australian. To add to these personal connections, my education is in European classical languages, biblical criticism and Western European (and Russian) Marxism. Thus, at many levels I am steeped in the European tradition.

Closed Borders and Closed Minds

Some years ago, a change began in Western Europe. In one country after another, the confidence of the 1990s began to dissipate. With the supposed ‘rolling back’ of communism in Eastern Europe and Russia, many had thought the Western liberal tradition had triumphed. But just as it seemed to do so, it lost confidence. Whereas once such countries welcomed foreigners, now they became suspicious. Stricter controls began to appear on the borders, immigrants and refugees were increasingly seen as threats (to jobs, welfare, culture and so on). The targets are only peoples from the Middle East and North Africa – but also Russia, Eastern Europe and even southern Europe. Old denigrations took on a new currency, border checks became routine, more and more people were rejected.

With this gradual closing of the borders – about which much more can be said – came a closing of the mind. True, many Western Europeans have for long held a view of the world that places themselves at the culmination of history. But something has changed. Whereas in the past this attitude may have appeared as a distinct confidence, if not (colonial) arrogance, in more recent years it has evolved into a fearful view of the rest of the world as a threat.

Part of the reason – but only part – may be found in the profound geopolitical shifts that have become clear in the last decade or more. The North Atlantic financial crisis of 2008 brought to the fore a process that had been underway for much longer (think of the Reform and Opening Up in China since the late 1970s). Not only did the shakiness of the ‘world order’ that had been established after the Second World War become apparent, but the financial crisis marked most clearly that the centre of global economic and political power was in a process of shifting. We can use the metaphor of a seismic shift, in which the continental plates shift, grinding away until a series of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions make clear what is already underway. Too late has the ‘West’ realised what is at stake. The frantic efforts – for example – by the United States to reassert its splintering hegemony comes far too late. The horse has already bolted, to use another metaphor. But this situation creates a profound sense of unsettlement in many people. Whether they liked the previous order or not, they had become somewhat comfortable. Not now.

‘Living Well’

All the same, these developments may be seen as external factors, however important they might be. Let me now turn to more internal features, of an individual and collective nature. To begin with, one notices a profound lack of purpose in many parts of Western Europe and North America. I think not so much of drive to make short-term profits at the expense of the long-term future, but of the purpose of life itself.

Let me give an example from the Netherlands, although it could be replicated again and again. The only remaining sense of life is to ‘live well’. You may ask: what is the problem with this? It all depends on what ‘living well’ means. It comes down to nothing more than eating at expensive restaurants, having a nice home, travelling to selected destinations, and if one is no longer able to ‘live well’, opting for euthanasia. Further, if anyone else in the world who is not able even to find enough food for a day wishes to share a little of this ‘well-lived’ life, then they are rejected and reviled.

Research Projects

Perhaps there is indeed an awareness of something amiss. Of late, an increasing number of research projects have begun to dig back into Western European history to identify what is unique about this culture. The history may not be as long as many other parts of the world, but signs of a search have begun.

For example, a very large project, funded by the European Council, examines the origins of the idea of ‘privacy’. This is a large team project based at a leading European university, with eye-watering funding and a somewhat new approach that turns on privacy as both a quality and a risk: too little privacy threatens the individual while too much may ruin society. While the project claims to be ‘international’, a careful look at its focus reveals that the term ‘international’ refers to countries in Western Europe, in terms of both its research scope and team.[1]

Clearly, the project sees privacy itself as a distinctly Western European discovery, although its agenda is to find a new way to trace the emergence of privacy. While the project risks a Euro-centric view, it also indicates that the very idea of privacy in this framework is specific and culturally determined. In other words, it is part of a European tradition that cannot simply be transposed and imposed elsewhere.

Further, the time period under investigation is telling: 1500-1800, precisely when capitalist market economies emerged in Western Europe, liberalism began its long road to dominance and this part of the world emerged from its backwardness to global colonialism. This is when Western Europe as we know it began to take shape not so long ago. With this focus, the project reveals a desire to re-anchor a relatively short cultural tradition that many sense has lost its way. What is it that makes Western Europe unique? Is it worth recovering and, if so, how?

In order to do so, a thorough reinvestigation of the role of religion in Western European culture lies at the core of the project. Tellingly, the project may be interdisciplinary to some extent, but it is based in a Faculty of Theology.

On this note, let me use another example. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a number of Western Marxists turned to the Bible and theology to find a new revolutionary model. Their names may be familiar to you: Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, Terry Eagleton – to name only the most well-known – turned or returned to the Christian tradition to find new ways to speak about the revolutionary tradition. The specific contributions may differ in the details, but the underlying claim was the same: Christian theology, and especially the Bible, provides the origins of the idea and practice of revolution. In other words, this is a uniquely European discovery and needs to be reclaimed.

Rather than pass judgement on this effort (which is highly problematic), we need to ask why they did so. Here the date of 1989 and the ‘fall of the Berlin Wall’ had a profound effect. We have not yet realized the full impact in Europe of this development, but one feature was the sense of crisis many Western Marxists felt. Although many had already given up on actual socialism further east, the breakup of the Soviet Union led to them to believe that all the old models were no longer workable. So they began to seek out a distinctly Western European model – based on theology.

Cultural Products

My final example concerns cultural products, such as films, novels and so on. More and more of these products attempt to recover what is distinct about the Western European tradition. For example, a recent German film – called Ich bin dann mal weg, translated as I’ll Be Off, Then – tells the story of a successful comedian who collapses on stage. Aware that something is missing in his unhealthy and pointless life – he drinks too much, smokes heavily and makes much money – he decides to set off on a pilgrimage.

His destination is Santiago de Compostela, a distance of some 800 kilometres. He follows one of the ancient routes – known in English as the Way of St James – to the cathedral in the city. Dating from the ninth century, the pilgrimage was popular in the Middle Ages, only to see a gradual decline with the onset of modernity. Tellingly, since the end of the 1980s it has once again grown in popularity (note again the importance of this period).

At first, the film’s character is not quite sure why he has undertaken the pilgrimage. He continues to smoke, pays for an expensive hotel, catches a taxi and then a bus in order to avoid walking. Gradually he comes to spend time with a couple of other pilgrims, who learn to help each other. Now he walks, stays in hostels, and begins to ask questions about the meaning of life, if not God. By the time they reach the cathedral in Spain, they have come to an awareness – partial though it might be – of what a full life might actually mean.

The examples could be multiplied (The Dutch film Tulipaner is another), but in many ways the film functions as a European allegory. The man in the film stands for a Europe that seems to have lost its way and is searching for a soul. That this search inevitably involves religion – especially in light of the complex intersections between religion and European culture – should not surprise us.

Conclusion

Let me examine the implications of this distinct loss of soul. To begin with, looking back can have many functions. Obviously, historical investigation is necessary and important for charting a path into the future. But it can too easily fall into a conservative search for the mythical lost Golden Age – politics in the United States is an excellent example. In the case of Western Europe, it is more about a sense that something has been lost. Whether what is lost is valuable or not is another question.

A significant part of this loss concerns religion, for the obvious reason that Western European culture cannot be imagined without religion – as the examples of research projects, cultural products and the work of some Western Marxists indicates. But here we face a paradox: on the one hand, the churches are virtually empty and few see religion as important in their lives; on the other hand, in the face of perceived threats the Christian nature of European culture has been increasingly asserted. I leave aside here the more intriguing suggestions for answering this problem (such as the sinification of religion), for the paradox itself witnesses to my main point.

What are the implications? These thoughts were originally part of a paper delivered at a Sinology conference in Beijing. To my surprise, the paper generated much discussion, for it obviously has implications for Sinology, let alone China in the world. Let me identify three implications.

The first is negative, with the small club of ‘Western’ nations closing their doors out of fear and rejecting the rest of the world, apart from sporadic efforts at neo-colonialism.

The second is more intriguing, for – as was very obvious to these participants – the developments I discussed witness to the distinct nature of the Western European tradition, which must be understood but cannot be transposed to other cultures without serious disruption.

Third, are their other models where a purpose is quite clear? The Chinese project, with Marxism at its core, is an obvious candidate. Observers from different backgrounds – from the Vatican through to a small but growing number of Western Marxists – have become aware that Chinese Marxism does provide a clear purpose and goal, if not a soul that has been lost elsewhere. This is not to say that Chinese Marxism should become a new global hegemony, and thus a false universal, but that it can perhaps provide a model for how one might shape such a soul in a new way.

[1] The project focuses on eleven case studies deemed important for the development of privacy: Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Dresden, Westminster, La Rochelle, Helmstedt, Chatsworth House, Versailles, Altona, Glasgow and Arc-et-Senans. Clearly, all are in Western Europe.

Advertisements

False Universals: Why Alain Badiou Misunderstands China

After researching this material more than a decade ago, I did not think I would return to it. I speak of the curious philosophical positions of Alain Badiou – an old French philosopher (older than me) in whom some people happen to be interested. Recently I ran a small seminar on one of his first books to be translated into English, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism. It took place at Renmin University of China, in Beijing, by request of some masters students who were trying to understand Badiou. There is also a Chinese translation, made directly from the French, so we were able to compare both translations.

Much could be said about the book: it is not so good upon a rereading; it suffers from a central contradiction, namely that the paradigmatic truth-event of Paul the Apostle is based on an event Badiou sees as a fable (the resurrection) – even though he tries mightily hard to tear it away from this basis; it is one of the more extreme statements of the sheer spontaneity of the event (to borrow a term from the Russian Revolution), which cannot be planned, expected or counted; it has a constitutive myopia concerning socialism in power; it suffers from a profound sense of crisis, common among Western European Marxists at the time; and it is in a curious way deeply conservative, if not imperialistic.

I will pick up some of these issues in a moment, but let me begin with a feature that the seminar participants saw as particularly nonsensical. Badiou suggests that the site of an event is necessary but not determinative. This proposal comes to the fore in the chapter on death and resurrection: death is the necessary site for the resurrection, but it does not determine the resurrection. I leave aside the theological problems with this strange reading, as well as the refusal of dialectical analysis (and thereby a refusal of Marx, Mao and Xi Jinping, to name a few). Instead, the seminar participants were interested in why Badiou tries to reject the determinative nature of the site or situation.

The obvious philosophical point is that it qualifies the universal, but Badiou has a particular target in mind. Repeatedly through the book he polemicises (and sneers) at identity politics, with its more immediate post-structural heritage. A longer view would see such politics as arising from the liberal tradition, with its emphasis on individual choice – a tradition with a distinctly Euro-American trajectory. We may agree or disagree with him on the criticism, but my point is that it arises from a specific context, a distinct site.

In fact, the way we examined this feature of Badiou’s thought in the seminar was to do what he rejects: examine the situation from which it arises. Any reader soon notices how thick the allusions and references are to specific French issues, let alone to the whole tradition of Western European culture and its philosophy.

More to the point, the book is one of a number of products by Marxist philosophers that witness to the profound crisis caused by 1989, for which the symbol is the ‘Fall’ of the Berlin Wall (or Anti-Fascist Rampart Wall). While many ‘Western’ Marxists had already fallen into the myopia that saw them ignore developments in the Soviet Union, let alone Eastern Europe, there was still at least a lingering presence of communism – in Europe and the Soviet Union. But now it had ‘collapsed’ or even ‘failed’. What was to be done? Apart from suggesting that Lenin and the Communist Party were now obsolete, Badiou (and some others) dug into what they saw as the ‘Western’ tradition. They sought a deeper model for revolution, a rethinking of communist politics. And it was to the Christian tradition, especially the Bible to which they turned.

On the one hand, we may see this as an unexpected recovery of the Christian communist tradition, but the move came at significant cost. The implication was that revolution came to be seen as a distinctly European-Christian invention, which was then exported to other parts of the world. By now it should be obvious how – and not only from a Chinese perspective – this implication is somewhat imperialist.

Further, the post-1989 crisis in Western Europe was part of a larger dynamic: in the very moment of apparent ‘victory’ over communism, the European tradition experienced a crisis of legitimacy, a loss of soul, if you will. This is a much larger topic into which I cannot go here, but it includes the closing of borders and minds, research projects and cultural products that increasingly seek to identify what is unique about Western European culture and tradition. And it includes a collection of Marxists who turned to the Christian communist tradition to recover some authenticity for Marxism itself. In this respect, it was a distinctly conservative turn.

The third upshot of 1989 – the ramifications of which we have not yet fully understood – brings me to the subtitle of this piece: how Badiou misunderstands China. It seems to me that the rise of the misperception that China has abandoned Marxism has much to do with 1989. If communism had ‘failed’ in Europe and Russia, then it obviously had failed in the global ‘peripheries’. The Eurocentrism of this view should be obvious.

Of course, it also has longer seeds in the curious phenomenon of European Maoism, of which Badiou was for a time the last living champion. That his pronouncements on Mao and China have gained some currency more recently is, however, due to the post-1989 phenomenon I have tried to outline. But it is a strange and non-dialectical Mao (how one can read Mao in this way is curious indeed), a Mao of the Cultural Revolution and not the much richer Chinese Marxist tradition, indeed a Mao strangely divorced from his context. For example, I have yet to find anywhere in Badiou’s work a careful engagement with Deng Xiaoping, subsequent leaders, or indeed the rich development of Marxist articulations of the reform and opening up. A few passing shots are hardly sufficient. The Chinese are usually very generous with someone like Badiou, calling him a maozhuyizhe, which can be translated as ‘Maoist’. But they know that he is really a maopai, a distinctly negative term that designates a Mao sectarian or factionalist.

I have also had a number of discussions concerning Badiou’s cancelled visits to China. To date, he has been invited on three occasions, only to cancel at the last moment for a variety of reasons. The sense here is that China today would really be Badiou’s ‘Real’, challenging his philosophical system to the core. If he did come to China, he could of course hammer on, oblivious to the reality around him. Or he might stop, listen and learn. He would find a communist party strong, secure and energetic, a leadership for whom Marxism is the guiding principle of all that happens in China today, indeed that the reform and opening up is a deeply Marxist project, let alone the extraordinary unfolding of the anti-colonial project (so Losurdo) now seen in the Belt and Road Initiative, African cooperation, and so on. But he has never been to China.

By now it should be obvious that Badiou’s situation is indeed deeply determinative of a philosophical system that seeks to negate such a situation. This approach to Badiou resonates deeply with Chinese assessments of Badiou, identifying his obvious shortcomings but also his potential insights.

All of this leads to the final point, which concerns nothing less than universals. One aspect of Chinese debates deals with what I would like to call the difference between false universals and rooted universals. A false universal is one that forgets or denies its specific location and asserts that the universal applies to all, irrespective of location or context. The European tradition has more than enough of such false universals. By contrast, a rooted universal is one that is always conscious of the context and culture in which it arises. This means that one is always aware of its insights and limitations. They are genuine universals, precisely because of their specific contexts. This distinction not only surpasses the very European opposition between absolute and relative, but it also very helpful in relation – for example – to human rights, where the rooted universal of the European tradition leads to civil and political rights, while the rooted universal of Chinese Marxism leads to the primacy of the right to economic wellbeing. In this case, specific contexts can contribute to a richer notion of the universal in question.

How is all this relevant for Badiou’s philosophy? He risks all too often a false universal, dismissing regionalism (in a very European fashion) and thereby rejecting socialism in one country and socialism with Chinese characteristics – a distinctly strange suggestion. All the same, there is potential in his thought for a rooted universal, specifically in terms of his rejection of ‘the One’ and the argument for a multiplicity of universals. I may have missed it, but I have yet to find any such argument in Badiou’s texts. If he did, he would realise that the Chinese situation and its rooted universals arise from a distinct historical rhythm and philosophical tradition, where Marxism has been transformed – or ‘sinified’ – in a Chinese context (makesizhuyi zhongguohua). Deng Xiaoping was not the first to propose this approach, for it comes from none other than Mao Zedong.

The Passing of Domenico Losurdo

On 28 June, 2018, Domenico Losurdo passed away after a brief period of brain cancer. He was only 76 and his death is a shock to many who have come to appreciate his work and his person. An official announcement from the secretary of the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) can be found here (see also here). Indeed, Losurdo enthusiastically joined the re-established the PCI, after it had been dissolved back in 1991.

Many are the dimensions of his contribution to Marxist philosophy and history, with the best outline of his core positions provided in an article by Stefano Azzarà (he has also published a book building upon Losurdo’s work). I do not wish to cover all of these issues here, but rather focus on the significant contribution Losurdo has made to my thoughts. I do this not in terms of a self-serving enterprise, but as a recognition of the insights of which he was capable.

The first book of his I read was Stalin: The History and Critique of a Black Legend. Initially published in Italian in 2008, it has been translated into German, Spanish and French (not English – I will return to this anomaly). I read the French translation and it was a stunning experience. Here was the account of how Stalin’s reception moved from widespread appreciation of the practical and theoretical contribution he had made to the construction of socialism, to one of systematic demonization. Given the framework in which many perceive Stalin today, the book may initially seem like a one-sided effort in praise of Stalin. It is far from such a work, for it is no air-brushed account. Instead, it makes a careful and balanced assessment of not merely mistakes made on the way but more the significant achievements – which are so often just forgotten or dismissed.

But let me come back to the lack of an English translation of the Stalin book. Some works have indeed been translated, on Hegel, Heidegger, liberalism, class struggle, non-violence and war and revolution. They have been well-received, with their careful research and withering criticisms. But when a petition was launched to request one or two of the major left-wing publishers to produce an English version, it was met with the comment that it would ‘tarnish’ Losurdo’s reputation. So a sanitised version of Losurdo is fine, suitable for a curiously imperialist version of ‘Western’ Marxism, but one that actually represents his work is not. Indeed, by the time of his death he had published scores of books in Italian, of which only a handful have made their way into English. The time will come when most of his material is indeed available to a wider audience in what has become – for a time and for specific historical reasons – the lingua franca. Then perhaps his full impact will be felt, shaking up many ‘orthodoxies’.

However, the major insights for me have come from his observations on China. I do not mean the tendency in some quarters to focus on Mao Zedong as the last true Chinese communist (you can find this still today among some ‘Maoists’ or maopai as the Chinese call them, with a distinctly negative tone). No, I mean his deep appreciation and understanding of Deng Xiaoping and the ‘reform and opening up’ – now celebrating forty years. Above all, Deng Xiaoping was deeply Marxist in a Chinese context and there are significant continuities from Mao to Deng. How is the ‘reform and opening up’ Marxist? There are many aspects, but at its core is the shrewd assessment that thus far the means of production had been relatively neglected in China’s effort to construct socialism. Most efforts had been directed at the relations of production, focusing on socialist equality and collective endeavour. This is all very well, but if everyone is equal simply because they are poor, few would see the benefit. So Deng and those working with him began to emphasise another dimension of Marxism: the need to unleash the forces of production. The results have truly been stunning, with a socialist market economy, the lifting of more than 700 million out of poverty (the World Bank puts it at 850 million), and so on. In an interview published in 2013, Domenico mentions the sustained anti-poverty drive as part of the ‘incredible success’ of Deng’s policies: ‘infrastructures worthy of a first world economy, growth in the process of industrialisation from its coast areas to its inland areas, rapid incrementation of salaries for several years and a growing concern for environmental issues’. He goes on: ‘By focusing on the key role of the achievement in the safekeeping of independence and of national sovereignty, and by encouraging the old colonies to pursue their own economic independence, China can today be seen as the centre of the anti-colonial revolution – which began in the 20th Century and is still in process under its different guises to this day. And by reminding ourselves of the pivotal role the public sphere should play in any economy, China constitutes an alternative in opposition to the economic liberalism and to the consensus dictated by Washington’.

It is all very well to read such thoughts, but the point came home to me in a conversation we had in Shanghai less than two years ago. In the midst of the bustle, traffic, advertising, shops, and clear economic drive of the place, Domenico said, ‘I am happy with this. This is what socialism can do!’ To my quizzical look, he replied with a smile, ‘I am strongly in favour of the reform and opening up’.

Ultimately, it was the conversations we had in September of 2016 that remain with me. Many others knew him far better than me, but I had invited him to participate in a conference on Chinese Marxism in Beijing, after which we travelled together to another and very different conference in Shanghai. While the first was constructive, with scholars from China and abroad engaging in creative discussions, the second was divisive, with most of the foreigners feeling they could come to China and tell these ‘wayward’ Chinese Marxists how they had it all wrong.

So Domenico and I talked. We did so on trains, buses, walking, a cup of tea (which he prefers because of tea’s inherent slowing down of time, inviting you to sip and talk and pour another). He had noticed my review of his Stalin book, so we discussed the Soviet Union. He told me he had first visited China in 1972, as the leader of a young Italian ‘Friends of China’ group. He liked to come here as often as possible, pleased indeed to see the construction of socialism leaping ahead. As we came to realise how much we had in common, he pointed out, ‘We are of the mainstream, but we must be patient’. Yes indeed, the mainstream, from Marx and Engels, through Lenin and Stalin, to Mao, Deng and indeed Xi Jinping. Part of a living tradition. Which of course means that the myopia of ‘Western’ Marxist efforts to excise many parts of the mainstream smacks a little too much of utopian revisionism (as his final book did indeed argue).

At one point, he asked about my daily patterns, for we both enjoy writing immensely. I spoke of quiet days of writing, at whatever home I happened to be, of ocean swimming, of Chinese study. He said, ‘I usually go for a walk of an hour or two, around the countryside, and perhaps talk with some friends. After I return home, I answer mail and I write’. He smiled, ‘I am a bit of a stakhanovite when it comes to writing’.

But he also said his life feels very ‘provincial’, with all of the European associations. ‘We prefer to speak of the countryside or “the bush”’, I said. ‘I am a country boy, from “the bush,” and I much prefer it to the city’. He said, ‘Yes, that is a much better word, countryside – “the bush”’.

We will miss him, as will ‘the bush’ around Urbino.

The farce of the ‘freedom of the seas’: Concerning the South China Sea

On 12 July, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague made a non-binding ruling concerning the Law of the Sea. The former regime of the Philippines (under Aquino) had made a unilateral application to have the Nanhai Zhudao (South China Sea Islands, known in English as the Spratley Islands) declared rocks rather than islands and therefore solely under its jurisdiction. The tribunal found in favour of the Philippines, which has led to the inevitable flurry of arguments back and forth. China indicated from the beginning that a ruling either way would have no impact or force. Taiwan has rejected the finding as well, since it lays claim to some of the islands, as does Vietnam. Of course, spokespersons in the USA and Australia are huffing and puffing about the ‘law of the sea’ and ‘freedom of navigation’.

So let us backtrack a little to get some perspective on the so-called ‘freedom of the seas’. The argument dates back to the ingenious Dutch jurist, Hugo Grotius (1583–1645). He was called upon by the Dutch East India Company to find some way of justifying the capture of the Portuguese carrack Santa Catarina by the Dutch captain, Jabob van Heemskerck, on February 25, 1603. The seized cargo was sold in Amsterdam later that year for no less than three million Dutch guilders. It increased the coffers of the Company by fifty percent.

Obviously, much was at stake. Grotius musters all his legal, philosophical and theological to pen De jure Praedae (Commentary on the Law of Prize and Booty). Two elaborate and key arguments were made with relevance to the current situation.

First, using all his Eurocentric assumptions, Grotius argues that possession of land and sea could only be claimed if there was evidence of human activity involving construction or the definition of boundaries. Wharves and jetties on shore may be fine, but on the open seas it is another matter entirely. Crucially, this argument is part of a much longer effort to retell the story of Genesis 1-3 so as to show that God willed and ordered private property and a universal ‘natural law’.

Second, he argues – good Armenian theologian that he was – that an individual is responsible for good and evil. This also means that an individual can punish evil and recompense good, subject of course to the universal principles established by God. Thus, Dutch mariners on their gunboats-cum-merchant ships were justified in seizing Portuguese ships. He does not mean a fleet of Dutch war ships under the direction of the government but individual captains working for a private company in the distant seas of the Indies, far from the practices of Western European customs and laws. As rational, free-willing actors, the Portuguese had willingly violated the laws of nature by claiming the seas as their own, but the Dutch captain also acted in accordance with those principles by punishing them for such an act.

What did the hard-headed directors of the Dutch East India Company make of all this? They were somewhat nonplussed by the deft philosophical, theological and legal arguments, peppered with quotations from classical Greek and Roman authors. Instead, they seized on a section and published it in 1609, with the title Mare Liberum (On the Freedom of the Seas). Another 250 years had to pass before the whole text was accidentally discovered.

These directors saw clearly that all of Grotius’s complex arguments were really propaganda. ‘Freedom of the seas’ really meant that the gunboats of the Dutch East India Company could sail where they wanted and seize who they wanted. A convenient argument that has been used ever since, whether by the British Empire or now the declining American Empire.

To return to the current situation concerning the South China Sea. Back in 1603, the Santa Catarina had been on its way from Macau to Malacca, laden with Ming porcelain, Chinese silk, musk and so on. Heemskerk seized the ship just off Singapore, after it had passed through the South China Sea. Further, the ship may have been Portuguese, but at the time Portugal was part of the Spanish Empire. And it was the Spanish who colonised the Philippines in 1565.

In 2016 we have China, a former Spanish colony (the Philippines), and the South China Sea, where a significant portion of the world’s shipping once again can be found. And the ‘arbitration’ takes place in The Hague, the Netherlands, where the Dutch East India Company first sought to develop the international law of the ‘freedom of the seas’ for its own purposes.

I cannot help thinking of Marx’s observation, ‘Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce‘.

Time for philosophy to flourish: Chairman Xi Jinping

How often do you hear a leader of a world power, a socialist one at that, say this? ‘It is time for philosophy to flourish’. The People’s Daily reports that Chairman Xi addressed a gathering leading philosophers and social scientists on 17 May, 2016.

President Xi Jinping held a rare, high-profile symposium on Tuesday on building up philosophy and the social sciences, marking Beijing’s latest effort to beef up its soft power and push for a larger say on the world stage.

He called for ‘more independent and innovative theories and ideas’ that will take root from China’s reality. ‘While China undergoes the most extensive and sophisticated social reform in its history,this is an era that needs theory and gives rise to theory, this is an era that needs thought and gives rise to thoughts’.

And you have to love this: he urged the scholars to follow the guidance of Marxism, to base their work on national conditions, and to draw on achievements from foreign countries and history.

 

Lenin’s political and intellectual biography

Lenin’s biography – both intellectual and political – is, as is well known, a site of ideological struggle. We may delineate at least six less and more persuasive approaches to Lenin’s intellectual-political biography.

1. Lenin was not really a Marxist at all, deriving all of his thought and political perceptions from Chernyshevsky. This position has been argued by Nikolai Valentinov, who was at one time sympathetic but then broke with Lenin(Valentinov 1969 [1954]; 1968 [1953]: 64-76) and in part by Agursky in a curious study (Agursky 1987: 71-80). The latter stretches the material well out of shape to suggest that used Marxism as a cover for Russian (revolutionary) nationalism, while Valentinov attempts to stress Lenin’s ignorance of Marx and that all of Lenin’s ideas came from Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? (Chernyshevsky 1989 [1863]). This novel, written in prison, tells the story of a small group of men and women who attempt to create new forms of communal living and work in the midst of tsarist Russia, with all the trails and limits posed by that situation. That this novel was massively influential for the Russian Left is well known, that Lenin read it avidly when he was a young man is also clear, but that he borrowed all of his ideas from it is far-fetched indeed.

2. A more common position is that Lenin was primarily a practical operator, shunning theory, either leaving it to others (Plekhanov) or happy to remain thoroughly unoriginal. Yet he was full of political instinct, able to pinpoint crucial political moments (Wilson 1972: 390; Donald 1993; Zinoviev 1973 [1923]: 44-5; Plamenatz 1975 [1954]: 221, 248)?[1] The problem with this position is that it makes little sense of the repeated insistence by Lenin on the importance of theory (throughout his works (all 45 volumes!)).

3. So we find the obverse position: Lenin was thoroughly impractical, unable to read a situation properly. Instead, he was theoretical and abstract. Although not a common view, put forward by the unaffiliated socialist Sukhanov (Sukhanov 1955 [1922]: 290-2),[2] it has a nice twist: for Lenin was brilliant, persuasive and ended up being invariably correct.

4. A fourth position has been held by a consistent minority from Lenin’s wife, Nadhezda Krupskaya, to the recent work of Lars Lih (Krupskaya 1960 [1930]; Tucker 1987: 39; Lih 2011).[3] This position argues that Lenin was thoroughly consistent and faithful to Marx throughout his life, operating with a grand socialist narrative that moved from the merger of the working class with intellectuals, to the revolution and then to the glorious construction of communism. The problem with this position is not only that it must end with a narrative of disappointment, for Lenin found after the revolution that events did not turn out as expected, but also that it must smooth over the many times Lenin took an unexpected direction.

5. So we find a fifth and very common position, namely, that Lenin was an unprincipled opportunist, a politician of compromise, confused even and throwing aside his convictions whenever needed and moving far from Marxism. In short, he was a politician but no philosopher (Service 1985-95, 2000; Lichtheim 1961: 325-51; Pearson 1975; Plamenatz 1947: 85; Lincoln 1986: 426-53; Agursky 1987: 71-80)[4] Although the proponents of this position do recognise the many shifts in Lenin’s political-intellectual biography, they are usually very unsympathetic to Lenin, arguing that he merely used Marxism as a convenient tool to achieve power, as an abstract means to legitimate all manner of inconsistent political positions, and was perfectly willing to discard it when needed or alter it beyond recognition. This position may be traced back to Menshevik opposition to Lenin in the early 1900s, which was taken up by Luxemburg and Kautsky (without actually reading much Lenin). From there it made its way into Western scholarship.

6. In light of all these possibilities, as well as a thorough reading of all Lenin’s works, the best approach is that Lenin was a principled and theoretically motivated opportunist. This position recognises the many shifts in Lenin’s political and intellectual development, while also identifying a consistent theoretical core. In this light, Lenin constantly reworked his (dialectical) Marxist heritage, burrowing ever deeper into its theoretical nature, in order to make sense of and intervene in ever-changing conjunctures. Those who have taken this position include Neil Harding in his Lenin’s Political Thought, Georg Lukács’s brief but excellent Lenin, Rabinowitch’s The Bolsheviks Come to Power, a brilliant study by Kouvelakis and even by the first Commissar for Enlightenment after the revolution, Anatoly Lunacharsky (Harding 1996: 5-6; Rabinowitch 2004 [1976]: 168-78; Lukács 1970 [1924]; Lunacharsky 1967; Kouvelakis 2007; Michael-Matsas 2007; Anderson 1995, 2007).

Obviously, the political stakes of such biographical disagreements are high, for they reflect varying perspectives on the Russian Revolution itself, for which ‘Lenin’ then stands as a slogan.

References

Agursky, Mikhail. 1987. The Third Rome: National Bolshevism in the USSR. Boulder: Westview.

Anderson, Kevin. 1995. Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism: A Critical Study. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

———. 2007. The Rediscovery and Persistence of the Dialectic in Philosophy and World Politics. In Lenin Reloaded: Towards a Politics of Truth. edited by S. Budgen, S. Kouvelakis and S. Žižek. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 120-47.

Chamberlin, William Henry. 1987 [1935]. The Russian Revolution 1917-1921, Volume 1. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Chernyshevsky, Nikolai. 1989 [1863]. What Is To Be Done? Translated by M. R. Katz. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Donald, Moira. 1993. Marxism and Revolution: Karl Kautsky and the Russian Marxists, 1900-1924. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Harding, Neil. 1996. Leninism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Kouvelakis, Stathis. 2007. Lenin as Reader of Hegel: Hypothesis for a Reading of Lenin’s Notebooks on Hegel’s The Science of Logic. In Lenin Reloaded: Towards a Politics of Truth. edited by S. Budgen, S. Kouvelakis and S. Žižek. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 164-204.

Krupskaya, Nadezhda. 1960 [1930]. Reminiscences of Lenin. New York: International Publishers.

Lichtheim, George. 1961. Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Lih, Lars T. 2011. Lenin. London: Reaktion Books.

Lincoln, W. Bruce. 1986. Passage Through Armageddon: The Russians in War and Revolution 1914-1918. New York: Simon and Schuster.

———. 1989. Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Lukács, Georg. 1970 [1924]. Lenin: A Study in the Unity of His Thought. London: NLB.

Lunacharsky, Anatoly Vasilyevich. 1967. Revolutionary Silhouettes. New York: Hill and Wang.

Michael-Matsas, Davas. 2007. Lenin and the Path of Dialectics. In Lenin Reloaded: Towards a Politics of Truth. edited by S. Budgen, S. Kouvelakis and S. Žižek. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 101-19.

Pearson, Michael. 1975. The Sealed Train. New York: G.P. Putnam’s sons.

Plamenatz, John. 1947. What is Communism? London: National News-Letter.

———. 1975 [1954]. German Marxism and Russian Communism. Westport: Greenwood.

Rabinowitch, Alexander. 2004 [1976]. The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd. Chicago: Haymarket.

Service, Robert. 1985-95. Lenin: A Political Life. 3 vols. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

———. 2000. Lenin: A Biography. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sukhanov, Nikolai Nikolayevich. 1955 [1922]. The Russian Revolution 1917. Translated by J. Carmichael. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tucker, Robert. 1987. Political Culture and Leadership in Soviet Russia: From Lenin to Gorbachev. New York: Norton.

Valentinov, Nikolai. 1968 [1953]. Encounters with Lenin. Translated by P. Rosta and B. Pearce. London: Oxford University Press.

———. 1969 [1954]. The Early Years of Lenin. Translated by R. H. W. Theen. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Wilson, Edmund. 1972. To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History. London: Macmillan.

Zinoviev, Grigorii. 1973 [1923]. History of the Bolshevik Party – A Popular Outline. Translated by R. Chappell. London: New Park.


[1] Plamenatz is a complex case, since he argues that Lenin was an unprincipled opportunist, but that he was also a deluded opportunist who thought he was faithful to Marx while making crucial additions that distorted Marxism (Plamenatz 1975 [1954]: 222), or that he was confused and abandoned Marx when it suited him (Plamenatz 1947: 85), or that Lenin and Russian Marxism were consistently faithful to Marx (Plamenatz
1947: 83).

[2] Although Krupskaya generally adheres to the ‘consistent narrative’ position (number 4), she does note on occasion Lenin’s sheer impracticality. When the news of February 1917 broke, Lenin stayed up all night dreaming up impossible plans to get back home, such as flying a plane over to Russia or obtaining a Swedish passport even though they spoke no Swedish (Krupskaya 1960 [1930]: 337).

[3] Chamberlin offers a minor variation in an unsympathetic biographical sketch, suggesting Lenin was utterly consistent from a class perspective, but that he was not original or intelligent (Chamberlin 1987 [1935]: 134-5).

[4] Pearson bases Lenin’s opportunism on the unfounded assumption (first propounded by conservatives and liberals in Russia in 1917) that the German government, at the direction of the Kaiser, bankrolled the October Revolution. While Agursky also buys into a version of the ‘German gold’ myth (Agursky 1987: 141-57), he twists the position of unprincipled opportunism to argue that Lenin was not really a Marxist at all (position #1). Lincoln’s work is simply dreadful, full of petty bourgeois American moralising (Lincoln 1986, 1989).