Friday, December 07, 2012

Cultural values and historical materialism---not necessarily opposed

A strange thing started to happen in the Communist movement after Stalin's death. Folks in third world countries who were leading revolutions suddenly were given the freedom to pursue roads to socialism that partook of their country's own unique conditions. Kwame Nkrumah, in Ghana, was free to pursue and advocate a particular African road to socialism, outlined in his book "Conscienism", although not one as purely cultural as Julius Nyerere of Tanzania's "Ujamaa". Other countries followed suit, and there started Arab roads to socialism as well as others. The Soviet Union had retreated from a fundamentalist approach to Marxist theory in its overseas component, although not at home, and was willing to let some of the strict materialist thinking go, to be replaced by semi-autonomy for the cultural sphere, although the cultural sphere would eventually be encouraged to become materialist as well, as time went on.

I don't think that this was purely an instrumental move on the part of the USSR, but represented a temporary ascendency of currents that had been previously underground that were less mechanically Stalinist than others.

The same flexibility can be seen in Maoist movements abroad, although not in China itself. Even though Maoism in China became inflexible and murderous, abroad, by necessity, there was more flexibility, as can be seen in some tendencies in India. These, while not putting cultural values forward, were at least not committed to completely destroying unique Indian culture, although they were of course opposed to caste, potentially seeing such a complete destruction, as opposed to a transformation, as having much in common with cultural imperialism.

Fundamentally, the difference in approach to the transition to socialism between the Soviet Union's foreign policy and that of Maoist China was that the Soviet Union still advocated a series of transitions to take a country from an undeveloped, pre-capitalist, situation, to a socialist one, while China believed that a direct transition could happen. The Soviet Union, then, saw the development of these particular tendencies as a necessary consequence of the need for the development of a bourgeois ideology that could then be transformed into a socialist one, while in the Chinese model everything was sort of thrown together.

I don't want to overestimate the Chinese commitment to this, because many Maoist movements really were about shocking a pre-capitalist culture into socialism through force, but, still, dealing with peasant ideology, the more liberal of them were willing to compromise in the transitional strategy. The Zapatistas, for instance, are thought to have partially come out of a movement started by Maoist New Leftists from Mexico City who went into the mountains to organize the revolution with the peasantry. They changed their perspective, and adopted one that drew on the indigenous ideology instead of trying to destroy it.

There have also been isolated attempts at such a melding in the third world itself not connected to the big power blocs, for instance Jose Maria Mariategui in Peru presented a very interesting synthesis of Marxist socialism and Anarchism, with additions from early 20th century European philosophy, that simultaneously drew on the cultural and ideological traditions of the Inca and their descendants in Peru in order to propose a Peruvian way to socialism. Mariategui, though, unlike others cited such as Nyerere, was a theorist and a movement leader but not someone who ever gained power, not by a long shot. His ideas can be profitably compared with those of Guzman of the Shining Path, Maoist group also in Peru, which pursues a fundamentalist Maoist line on both culture and everything else, completely materialist, completely as unforgiving as the ethos of the Cultural Revolution.

So the idea that seeing importance in cultural values, in itself, is not incompatible with historical materialism. All the thinkers cited integrated the two trends very well, and while they ultimately subordinated culture to material conditions, perhaps because of the colonial experience of oppression they were less likely to want to discard what was unique in their experience entirely as being "primitive" or "backwards".

There's no reason why this general trend has to stay contained within the third world, although some caution has to be taken to not let the emphasis on cultural values completely overpower the awareness of the historical situation and development of society. 

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