Archive for June, 2010


practical historical materialism

June 24, 2010

Recently, I’ve been granted the privilege of free time. I consider the time to choose a book and read it entirely to be a privilege. It implies that I have had the time and adequate funds earned from my labor to sit. It means I was able to own some of my time myself, rather than selling it to provide for my livelihood. It also implies I’ve had enough education to read, comprehend and process the texts which I’ve chosen for myself. I feel very grateful to be at a position which grants these privileges to me. It is with this thankful mind, that I feel a necessity to make my privilege a productive accomplishment.

My most recent choices were Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, and Wobblies and Zapatistas, coauthored by Staughton Lynd and Adrej Grubacic. Both works engaged me in a deeper understanding of the concept of solidarity. Solidarity is more than an action, state of being or words of encouragement. True solidarity requires a very grounded understanding of yourself, those you wish to express to and the conditions that each participant exists within. Pedagogy focuses on the importance of language and dialogues between subjects. The ways in which we express ourselves can mimic the inherent problems and inequalities of modern life. An open dialogue which demands listening and thoughtful speech can create a better understanding and enhance consciousness. One cannot explain and dictate the way to a new collective state of mind, rather we will reach it together through continuous dialogue.

“To divide the oppressed, an ideology of oppression is indispensible. In contrast, achieving their unity requires a form of cultural action through which they come to know the why and how of their adhesion to reality it requires de-ideologizing. Hence, the effort to unify the oppressed does not call for mere ideological ‘sloganizing.’ The latter, by distorting the authentic relation between the Subject and objective reality, also separates the cognitive, the affective, and the active aspects of the total, indivisible personality.” (174)

In my personal experiences, there are often calls of solidarity extended to other struggles. These struggles are (mostof the time) most definitely connected via capitalism and its tools to dismantle those with similar interests. But is it enough to simply say “we also support this too”? Does this gesture decrease the meaning of our solidarity in struggle? Instead, should we not attempt to have a real understanding of how our common goals interact and can be mutually achieved? For example, the movement around budget cuts to higher education can relate specifically to students affected by increasing racism towards immigrants. Students who are immigrants do not have the same privilege of others who choose to raise their voices for budget justice. Rather than telling them how to engage for justice while ‘in their place’ – how may we dialogue and create the best solution for a common struggle. A struggle in which the budget cuts movement may return the favor of a true dialogue. In turn, how do we use a dialogue to create a better integration with veterans in an antiwar struggle, homeless who also face budget cuts and the face of education as we know it?

In Wobblies, Staughton Lynd gives many accounts of his own practical solidarity in struggle. His engagement changed over time as he progressed into the legal field. Lynd and Grubacic find intersections between anarchism and marxism, at one point, they discuss the importance of guerrilla history. To maintain a history of these examples of practical solidarity, a record of a collective struggle. In a question to Lynd, Grubacic poses a question which, to me, takes on some of Freire’s ideas about dialogue and the power of language;

“When you say that guerrilla history views history through the eyes of its ‘victims,’ are you not afraid that we might here be taking some of the agency away from the ‘poor’ or from the ‘victims’? I sometimes wonder if this language is the most appropriate one. A related question in writing guerrilla history, a question which you have touched on before, is whether people need historians. People do tend to write history themselves. Are we, radical historians, then guerrillas who lost their way in the jungle? What is our contribution?”

Grubacic brings to light the importance of perspective. We can not recall events for anyone other than ourselves. Humans are not omnipresent – there are no singular truths. A radical history, from my perspective, is one that has been told through a participation of many. We each experience events differently, the variance in understanding creates a more rich picture, one that is easier to learn from in a holistic manner. I think back to my experience in the December 9th occupation at SFSU. Imagine if we complied experiences of all who were there for parts of the day. What a colorful and full view we could all experience!

Both of these texts have brought forth the significance of dialogue. It holds importance with each word that passes our lips, each key and pen stroke. We should seek to have all dialogues be with value. The value, of course, is not merely within the words we personally produce, but also the meanings we take in and understand from the other participants in our conversations. Beyond this, our words carry the truths of our ideas. There is a value to differences and a clear understanding of others perspectives. Stubbornness and narrow foci have an ill stench and stillness about them. An open and flowing dialogue about ideological, personal or political differences has the potential to flow into a synthesis. In a dialectical world, synthesis of oppositions is progressive. It allows for something entirely new to be created. This new synthesis can become something that has a new opposition, or perhaps, has no opposition and exists as its own collective entity.

Though it is not the main focus of either of these texts, I gained a new understanding and respect for historical materialism. Both my privilege of reading and life experiences furthered my understanding of this concept. History exists as a record of change in the lives of humans and their ways of being. What drives history? God? People? Dialectical relationships and their struggles? Marx writes in the Critique of Political Economy that

“It is not the consciousness of men that determine their existence, both their social conditions that determine their consciousness.”

This is not to say that autonomy and personal consciousness are non-existant. Instead, they are limited by the conditions of the present moment. You may recognize your class position, potential for change and possible solutions. It does not mean that everyone else will recognize this, or be in a place where this sort of contemplation is necessary.

As an example, take the concept of democracy and mass consciousness about it. This is seen as a central construct for American society and structure, however most of our society is not run democratically. Unions hold internal bureaucracies which keep collective decision-making difficult. Though we may all vote (if you’re a legal citizen without past crimes with the ability to take off work to vote) it is rarely through this process that we witness large changes to society. Instead, capital is the factor that manipulates much of our lives. Whether it is lobbyists who affect those we elect or the working poor who lose social services during economic crisis. Democracy is not about any of these things though. Democracy is about collective decision-making and collective power. Democracy is a method for dialogue and an attempt at fairness. It should make sense that mass perception about democracy is skewed, democracy does not exist within American material conditions. (Aren’t I participating democratically by taking part in this facebook poll?!?!?!)

While hearing someone else give that example (much more) eloquently, I began to see the value in using historical materialism as a practical lens. Take my own personal life. I have become horribly indecisive. I get anxious thinking about what’s to come, but have a difficult time deciding how to approach it. My mind can race with millions of possible outcomes while passively waiting, doing nothing. I took a moment the other day to look at this logically. There is nothing wrong with my indecisive nature, as long as it doesn’t keep me from finally choosing action. It is better, I think, to wait and not make decisions too hastily. I will never know how to plan for something months from now, and it’s quite impossible to do so. The best decisions will be made by looking at all of the history of your experiences up to that very moment. Take these lessons from your own radical history – and apply the material conditions of your present life. When looking at my choices this way, decisions seem to make themselves.

In terms of organizing and building to change things, how can we use this? The importance of open and thoughtful dialogue has been stressed (not only by myself). Within these dialogues and syntheses of ideas, we must also be mindful or present conditions and the history that brought us to this moment. More importantly, this teaches us patience. Not everything moves exactly as planned. History often teaches that change is painfully slow.

all of these things are easier said than done. personally, i’m trying to learn to shut my mouth more. to take in the full condition of human existence within the scope of history and our material conditions.