The future stretches on for a long time

by Mike Ely

The discussion of israeli’s USA policy raises the idea that we need to consider the relative autonomy of ideas, policies, and decisions operating within the frameworks of specific social formations and specific class societies. We may identify (or think we have identified) the interests of a specific ruling class (say, in regard to the middle east) — but the leap from that presumed interest to the enacted policies should not be seen or expected in a direct, reductionist, or linear way. Often political bodies make decisions that are at odds with what we might perceive their interests to be, sometimes they disagree internally over what their interests are, sometimes they are caught in political conundrums that force decisions that are (from their class interests) short-sighted or flawed. And sometimes political bodies make decisions that can be seen (with hindsight especially) to have been suicidal (such as Napoleon’s or Hitler’s decisions to invade Russia, or countless other fiascos large and small). George Bush himself is a living monument to the fact that leading political representatives high in the power structure don’t necessarily (or directly) reflect the best ”interests” of the class or system they serve. there is a lot of play for ideology, personality and accident in the way things actually work out.

Bob H then comments:

“This question to my mind suggests some validity to the ‘four networks’ model of power proposed by sociologist Michael Mann. As outlined here, this states that power structures are composed of overlapping networks in the ideological, economic, military and political realm. There seems to be some relevance to the critique of historical materialism as too narrow, at least in this instance, where ideology seems to trump economic and political factors. Anyone know of any Marxist critiques of this approach?”

Surely Ideas Often Trump Economics (in Many Specific Moments)

I would like to urge readers to look at three rather famous discussions of how and when ideology “trumps” economic and political factors.

A point in passing: Marxism is often portrayed as identical to the most turgid economic determinism — as if marxism say “money and economic interests explain why people do anything — and explains politics, wars, revolutions etc.” And then, it is quite common to see a “criticism of marxism” based on propping up that straw man.

Just to be clear (and to restate what is obvious to many): Marxism (and historical materialism) does NOT hold that the economic always “trumps” the ideological.

It says that the relations of production and the forces of production form an influencial “base” of human societies, upon which develps the framework which human politics and ideas find their context and constraints.

There are ways in which (ultimately) the economic base defines what is possible and what is emergent and what is impossible…. but that “ultimately” is not linear, or direct. But there is no “moment” when the base (or the economic) shows up and says “Ok guys, this is where I trump you.”

For starters it is valuable to look at Marx’s own path breaking analysis of these relations, and then to look at how some more recent, anti-mechanical communist thinkers have tried to deepen and refine these understandings (in polemic with those who reduce historical materialism to a mechanical schema).

Karl Marx

Karl Marx wrote in the famous preface to his 1859 book A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure. In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.”

Louis Althusser

One especially valuable place to look at this is Althusser’s study of “Contradiction and Overdetermination” — where he polemicizes specifically against the view that the base somehow crudely or directly calls the shots. He argues for a layered analysis, where the various layers of the social formation (the base, the stucture, the superstructure) interact in a dynamic way.

I will insert just one crucial passage from this work:

“How else should we summarise these practical experiences and their theoretical commentaries other than by saying that the whole Marxist revolutionary experience shows that. if the general contradiction (it has already been specified: the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production. essentially embodied in the contradiction between two antagonistic classes) is sufficient to define the situation when revolution is the ‘task of the day’, it cannot of its own simple, direct power induce a ‘revolutionary situation’, nor a fortiori a situation of revolutionary rupture and the triumph of the revolution. If this contradiction is to become ‘active’ in the strongest sense, to become a ruptural principle, there must be an accumulation of ‘circumstances’ and ‘currents’ so that whatever their origin and sense (and many of them will necessarily be paradoxically foreign to the revolution in origin and sense, or even its ‘direct opponents’), they ‘fuse’ into a ruptural unity: when they produce the result of the immense majority of the popular masses grouped in an assault on a regime which its ruling classes are unable to defend. Such a situation presupposes not only the ‘fusion’ of the two basic conditions into a ‘single national crisis ‘, but each condition considered (abstractly) by itself presupposes the ‘fusion’ of an ‘accumulation’ of contradictions. How else could the class-divided popular masses (proletarians, peasants, petty bourgeois) throw themselves together, consciously or unconsciously, into a general assault on the existing regime? And how else could the ruling classes (aristocrats, big bourgeois, industrial bourgeois, finance bourgeois, etc.), who have learnt by long experience and sure instinct to seal between themselves, despite their class differences, a holy alliance against the exploited, find themselves reduced to impotence, divided at the decisive moment, with neither new political solutions nor new political leaders, deprived of foreign class support, disarmed in the very citadel of their State machine, and suddenly overwhelmed by the people they had so long kept in leash and respectful by exploitation, violence and deceit? If, as in this situation, a vast accumulation of ‘contradictions’ comes into play in the same court, different sense, different levels and points of application – but which nevertheless ‘merge’ into a ruptural unity, we can no longer talk of the sole, unique power of the general ‘contradiction’. Of course, the basic contradiction dominating the period (when the revolution is ‘the task of the day’) is active in all these ‘contradictions’ and even in their ‘fusion’. But, strictly speaking, it cannot be claimed that these contradictions and their fusion are merely the pure phenomena of the contradiction. The ‘circumstances’ and ‘currents’ which achieve it are more than its phenomena pure and simple. They derive from the relations of production, which are, of course, one of the terms of the contradiction, but at the same time its conditions of existence; from the superstructures, instances which derive from it, but have their own consistency and effectivity from the international conjunctivity itself, which intervenes as a determination with a specific role to play. This means that if the ‘differences’ that constitute each of the instances in play (manifested in the ‘accumulation’ discussed by Lenin) ‘merge’ into a real unity, they are not ‘dissipated’ as pure phenomena in the internal unity of a simple contradiction. The unity they constitute in this ‘fusion’ into a revolutionary rupture, is constituted by their own essence and effectivity, by what they are, and according to the specific modalities of their action. In constituting this unity, they reconstitute and complete their basic animating unity, but at the same time they also bring out its nature: the ‘contradiction’ is inseparable from the total structure of the social body in which it is found, inseparable from its formal conditions of existence, and even from the instances it governs; it is radically affected by them, determining, but also determined in one and the same movement, and determined by the various levels and instances of the social formation it animates; it might be called over-determined in its principle.”

This is one, of several, serious attempts to unravel the “relative autonomy” of the superstructure (ideas, politics, politics, personality) from the base (the economic mode of production), or what is a side question: the relative autonomy of political decision from “objective” interests (whether geostrategic in the case of an empire, or class interests in the case of a movement of the oppressed).

Althusser’s Lonely Hour of the Last Instance

And let’s turn for a moment to Louis Althusser and discuss his answer to mechanical views on the relationship of base and superstructure.

Althusser writes in “Contradiction and Overdetermination”:

“Here, then are the two ends of the chain: the economy is determinant, but in the last instance, Engels is prepared to say, in the long run, the run of History. But History ‘asserts itself’ through the multiform world of the superstructures. from local tradition to international circumstance. Leaving aside the theoretical solution Engels proposes for the problem of the relation between determination in the last instance – the economic – and those determinations imposed by the superstructures – national traditions and international events – it is sufficient to retain from him what should be called the accumulation of effective determinations (deriving from the superstructures and from special national and international circumstances) on the determination in the last instance by the economic. It seems to me that this clarifies the expression overdetermined contradiction, which I have put forward, this specifically because the existence of overdetermination is no longer a fact pure and simple, for in its essentials we have related it to its bases, even if our exposition has so far been merely gestural. This overdetermination is inevitable and thinkable as soon as the real existence of the forms of the superstructure and of the national and international conjuncture has been recognised – an existence largely specific and autonomous, and therefore irreducible to a pure phenomenon. We must carry this through to its conclusion and say that this overdetermination does not just refer to apparently unique and aberrant historical situations (Germany, for example), but is universal; the economic dialectic is never active in the pure state; in History, these instances, the superstructures, etc. – are never seen to step respectfully aside when their work is done or, when the Time comes, as his pure phenomena, to scatter before His Majesty the Economy as he strides along the royal road of the Dialectic. From the first moment to the last, the lonely hour of the ‘last instance’ never comes.
In short, the idea of a ‘pure and simple’ non-overdetermined contradiction is, as Engels said of the economist turn of phrase ‘meaningless, abstract, senseless’. ”

Mao Zedong

Mao argued strongly fore the relative autonomy of the superstructure — and also (for the dialectical back and forth of base and superstructure). He said that while the base conditions the epoch of revolution, that revolution itself is made in the superstructure, and FROM THE SUPERSTRUCTURE acts back and transforms the base. (revolutionizing the relations of production and giving great spur to the forces of production.)

Mao pointed out that in great revolutions, the eruption may have been framed by a growing contradiction over the relations of production, but that the revolution itself was a great engine for transforming them in new ways: The French Revolutoin may have been a bourgeois revolution, but the mode of production most associated with capitalism (industrial factory production with wage labor and proletarians) developed AFTER THE REVOLUTION (not before).

In other words, in Mao’s view, there is an elevation of the superstructure, a recognition of its relative autonomy, and of its ability to deeply transform the base through nterprenetration of these opposites. All of this was in rather sharp contrast to the one-way determinist linearity with which the marxism of the stalin era often posted this relationship. In mao the base giving rise to an epoch of revolution (or as he put it “tools learn to speak through men”) but revolutionary changes in the superstructure reacting back on the base in profound ways (restricting the base, retarding things, or in radical times, leading them through giddy transformations.)

In on contradiction, Mao wrote:

“When Marx and Engels applied the law of contradiction in things to the study of the socio-historical process, they discovered the contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production, they discovered the contradiction between the exploiting and exploited classes and also the resultant contradiction between the economic base and its superstructure (politics, ideology, etc.), and they discovered how these contradictions inevitably lead to different kinds of social revolution in different kinds of class society.

“When Marx applied this law to the study of the economic structure of capitalist society, he discovered that the basic contradiction of this society is the contradiction between the social character of production and the private character of ownership. This contradiction manifests itself in the contradiction between the organized character of production in individual enterprises and the anarchic character of production in society as a whole. In terms of class relations, it manifests itself in the contradiction between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

“Some people think that this is not true of certain contradictions. For instance, in the contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production, the productive forces are the principal aspect; in the contradiction between theory and practice, practice is the principal aspect; in the contradiction between the economic base and the superstructure, the economic base is the principal aspect; and there is no change in their respective positions. This is the mechanical materialist conception, not the dialectical materialist conception. True, the productive forces, practice and the economic base generally play the principal and decisive role; whoever denies this is not a materialist. But it must also be admitted that in certain conditions, such aspects as the relations of production, theory and the superstructure in turn manifest themselves in the principal and decisive role. When it is impossible for the productive forces to develop without a change in the relations of production, then the change in the relations of production plays the principal and decisive role. The creation and advocacy of revolutionary theory plays the principal and decisive role in those times of which Lenin said, “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.” [15] When a task, no maker which, has to be performed, but there is as yet no guiding line, method, plan or policy, the principal and decisive thing is to decide on a guiding line, method, plan or policy. When the superstructure (politics, culture, etc.) obstructs the development of the economic base, political and cultural changes become principal and decisive. Are we going against materialism when we say this? No. The reason is that while we recognize that in the general development of history the material determines the mental and social being determines social consciousness, we also–and indeed must–recognize the reaction of mental on material things, of social consciousness on social being and of the superstructure on the economic base. This does not go against materialism; on the contrary, it avoids mechanical materialism and firmly upholds dialectical materialism.”

This second paragraph here contains an extremely important insight: that the fundamental contradiciton between socialized production and private appropriation has TWO MODES of expression: not just as the class struggle, giving rise to revolution (the way it was often presented by the mechanical assumptions of the Comintern years), but also as the contradiction between anarchy and organization in the character of production itself (i.e. it gives rise to war and capitalist crisis).

And the third paragraph, presents Mao’s thesis that the superstructure can be determinant over the base in many moments of historical change — in fact the great changes and transformations and leaps in the base that happen in revolutionary times (overthrow of slavery, ending of serfdom, changes in forms of property, emancipation of working people through socialist revolution and transformation) all of these things happen as political and ideological developments in the superstructure act “back” on the base.

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