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.

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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.

 

Making everything new: the collectivisation revolution

Some of the most fascinating material in Stalin’s Works (from volume 11 onwards) concerns the theoretical debates over collectivisation. The campaign, of course, remains the butt of much anti-communist ranting, with assertions that it ’caused’ the famines of the 1930s, that it curtailed the natural incentive of private property and farming, indeed that it was nothing more than a return to medieval patterns of indentured labour, if not outright slavery.

All of that avoids dealing seriously with the actual issues at stake. To begin with, the furious process of industrialisation in the 1920s had to do so in a new way. The USSR was unable to plunder colonies for industrialisation, as had happened in Western Europe, and it did not wish to rely on foreign loans (it pretty much couldn’t anyway, since it had simply annulled the debts racked up by the tsarist autocracy). So the whole industrialisation process had to rely on internal, or socialist accumulation. Large-scale industrialisation needs massive injections of funds. But where to get those funds? The government decided to set higher prices for manufactured goods, as a type of super-tax that would flow back into industry. This was despite the increasing abundance of such goods. Meanwhile, prices on agricultural goods were set lower, even if there were occasional shortages. Obviously, this went directly counter to the supposed ‘iron law’ of supply and demand. Obviously, it led to not a little speculation by the kulaks, or wealthy farmers, among others. Most importantly, it produced the first layer of economic contradiction.

The second layer was between the rate of industrial change and the rate of agricultural change. The furious pace of industrialisation (the proverbial unleashing of productive forces) left agriculture far behind, so that an ever larger gulf opened up between them. The ‘super-tax’, or ‘scissors’ approach would not hold out forever in such a situation, so something had to be done in relation to agriculture. Stalin toyed with the idea that the small farmers should be fostered, since their approach had been tested over centuries. But in the end, he and the government opted for the very Left approach of collectivisation as a way of dealing with the growing contradiction between industry and agriculture.

As some have suggested, and as the editors of Stalin’s Works also point out, the collectivisation drive was the most difficult task since the conquest of power. In short, it really was an other revolution, a massive undertaking never quite seen before, achieved in a breathtakingly short period of time and not without a few unexpected side-effects.

In this context, Stalin reflects on such revolutionary changes in a letter to Gorky from 1930. He is discussing the responses of young people to the turmoil:

It cannot be the case that now, when we are breaking the old relations in life and building new ones, when the customary roads and paths are being torn up and new, uncustomary ones laid, when whole sections of the population who used to live in plenty are being thrown out of their rut and are falling out of the ranks, making way for millions of people who were formerly oppressed and downtrodden—it cannot be the case that the youth should represent a homogeneous mass of people who sympathise with us, that there should be no differentiation and division among them. Firstly, among the youth there are sons of wealthy parents. Secondly, even if we take the youth who are our own (in social status), not all of them have the hardiness, the strength, the character and the understanding to appreciate the picture of the tremendous break-up of the old and the feverish building of the new as a picture of something which has to be and which is therefore desirable, something, moreover, which has little resemblance to a heavenly idyll of “universal bliss” that is to afford everyone the opportunity of “taking his ease” and “basking in happiness.” Naturally, in such a “racking turmoil,” we are bound to have people who are weary, overwrought, worn-out, despairing, dropping out of the ranks and, lastly, deserting to the camp of the enemy. These are the unavoidable “overhead costs” of revolution (Works, vol. 12, p. 180).

Arkady Plastov - Collective-Farm Festival,   1937 (320x195)

Collectivisation and Philosophy

Whoever would have thought that collectivisation would generate so much in terms of philosophy? Volume 11 of Stalin’s Works is of course the great collectivisation volume, when attention turns from the ‘Opposition’ (Trotsky et al) to the apparently mundane issue of grain procurement. Some of the best theoretical material appears in ‘Plenum of the C.C’, from July 1928.

To begin with, Stalin points out that the need for collectivisation arises from the internal contradictions of soviet economic reconstruction. The industrialisation under way at the time differs from industrialisation in capitalist countries, since capitalist industrialisation relies on external appropriation. He writes:

In the capitalist countries industrialisation was usually effected, in the main, by robbing other countries, by robbing colonies or defeated countries, or with the help of substantial and more or less enslaving loans from abroad.

He gives the examples of the British Empire and Germany, both of which industrialised by means of external plunder.

One respect in which our country differs from the capitalist countries is that it cannot and must not engage in colonial robbery, or the plundering of other countries in general. That way, therefore, is closed to us. Neither, however, does our country have or want to have enslaving loans from abroad. Consequently, that way, too, is closed to us (Works, vol. 11, pp. 165-66).

What approach was left? Internal appropriation. Funds for railways and industries can only come from inside the Soviet Union. But this created a structural tension. Industrialisation had been proceeding at a massive pace (with growth figures that outstripped even China until recently), but agriculture had not been keeping up. True, more grain was being produced than before, but it was by no means sufficient for supplying the needs of a growing work force. This tension was exacerbated by another: agricultural goods were sold relatively cheaply, while manufactured goods were relatively expensive. Farmers received relatively less for their produce while paying more for the products of industrialisation. In short, farmers were subsidising industrial expansion, providing the immediate source of internal accumulation needed. At the same time, this tension could not continue, so collectivisation was the solution. It was seen as the socialist solution to improving agricultural efficiency, since agribusiness and landlordism were out of the question.

Theoretically, then, collectivisation was the dialectical effort to deal with the tensions between industry and agriculture, generated through the mechanisms of internal accumulation. But how is this implicitly theological? This is where the kulaks come in. Kulaks were, of course, richer peasants who employed others, traditionally dominated village life, and – crucially – stockpiled grain to force up prices. Stalin deploys at least two strategies in relation to the kulaks.

First, the speculative practices of the kulaks were generated out of the specific circumstances of socialist reconstruction. That is, the Bolsheviks and their policies were responsible for producing the problem of the kulacs – rather than some evil nature among the kulaks as a class. That responsibility took the specific form of the New Economic Program and the tensions generated by internal accumulation.

Second, the emergence of kulak speculation was interpreted in terms of one of Stalin’s favoured modes of dialectical argument: the closer you come to the goal, the greater are the forces opposing you. This is worth an extended quotation:

The more we advance, the greater will be the resistance of the capitalist elements and the sharper the class struggle, while the Soviet Government, whose strength will steadily increase, will pursue a policy of isolating these elements, a policy of demoralising the enemies of the working class, a policy, lastly, of crushing the resistance of the exploiters, thereby creating a basis for the further advance of the working class and the main mass of the peasantry.

It must not be imagined that the socialist forms will develop, squeezing out the enemies of the working class, while our enemies retreat in silence and make way for our advance, that then we shall again advance and they will again retreat until “unexpectedly” all the social groups without exception, both kulaks and poor peasants, both workers and capitalists, find themselves “suddenly” and “imperceptibly,” without struggle or commotion, in the lap of a socialist society. Such fairy-tales do not and cannot happen in general, and in the conditions of the dictatorship of the proletariat in particular.

It never has been and never will be the case that a dying class surrenders its positions voluntarily without attempting to organise resistance. It never has been and never will be the case that the working class could advance towards socialism in a class society without struggle or commotion. On the contrary, the advance towards socialism cannot but cause the exploiting elements to resist the advance, and the resistance of the exploiters cannot but lead to the inevitable sharpening of the class struggle (Works, vol. 11, pp. 179-80).

Theologically: the more grace becomes apparent, the greater do the forces of evil strive to overcome grace. But their frantic efforts are signs that grace is triumphing. I guess you might also call this the theology of class struggle after the revolution. Stalin would use the same type of argument in relation to the Red Terror.

As for images, I can’t avoid the wonderful propaganda film on collectivisation, ‘Tractor Drivers’, from 1939. Full film here. It even has a Stalinets tractor:

Stalin tractor 01 (3)

One of the drivers in question is of course a hard-working woman, a topic which led to Arkady Plastov’s marvellous painting, also called ‘Tractor Drivers’:

Arkady Plastov - Tractor Drivers 01a (320x240)