Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Marxist Theory Today: Feuerbach, The German Ideology and historical materialism

Humphrey McQueen

Marxist historian Humphrey McQueen is presenting a series of lectures on Marx on Melbourne’s 3CR radio.  This year is the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth.  We are publishing below the main part of McQueen’s talk on the contributions of Ludwig Feuerbach to the Marxist philosophy of historical materialism.


Last year, we focused on Das Kapital for its 150th. Our next three sessions will delve into how Marx became Marx. We’ll do so through three pieces of writing between 1845 and 1848. They’ll introduce historical materialism, political economy and revolutionary politics. We’ll tie each session to developing a revolutionary practice for today.


Let’s get underway with The German Ideology from 1845-6. This one’s something of an oddity. It wasn’t published until 1932 when it ran to 500 printed pages. In 1859, Marx wrote that he and Engels had “… abandoned the manuscript to the gnawing criticism of the mice all the more willingly since we had achieved our main purpose – self-clarification.”

The Left in Australia needs some of that. The German Ideology provides a sound starting place.
Before moving into those substantive matters, we need to say a couple of more things about the text itself. First, I wouldn’t encourage anyone to read the lot. The essential part takes up fewer than 80 pages, and deals with Ludwig Feuerbach. Feuerbach’s ‘offence’ had been to argue in the 1840s that human beings keep on making Gods in our own image and likeness – not the other way around.
Feuerbach’s name will sound familiar to 3CR listeners even to those who may never have heard of The German Ideology. One reason is because in 1886, Engels wrote a 20,000-word book review which became Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of German Philosophy. This pamphlet is a necessary supplement to what he and Marx had written about Feuerbach thirty year earlier.
I’ll give just two reasons from the natural sciences. In 1857, a chemist, William Perkin, made the first coal-tar dye. Engels used this industrial process to knock down one of the props for the Philosophical Idealism of Immanuel Kant:
“If we are able to prove, Engels writes, the correctness of our conception of a natural process by making it ourselves, … then there is an end to the Kantian ungraspable ‘thing-in-itself’.”
Two years after Perkin’s chemical dye, Darwin and Russell proposed that natural selection could explain qualitative changes between species.
These upheavals in chemical practice and in the life sciences were but two of the transformations of which materialists had to take account. Yet, in 1886, Engels protested that even the most brilliant of the natural scientists were what he called ‘shame-faced’ about materialism. They kept slipping back into forms of Philosophical Idealism, leaving room for God-bothering and even spooks.

However, there is another passage from Engels in 1886 which demands our full attention – which it too rarely receives around the Left. It connects to another reason why ‘Feuerbach’ rings a bell, namely, Marx’s ‘Theses on Feuerbach’.

Activists who’ve never read a line of Marx’s ‘Theses’ or of Engels’s pamphlet can sprout some version of ‘Thesis Eleven’: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world differently, the point is, to change it.”
There’s no arguing with that. The danger comes when this truth is reduced to a slogan and then used to insist that revolutionaries have to make a dumb choice: either interpret the world or change it. If we learn anything from Marx and Engels, it is that we can’t succeed at one without the other. The more we find out how to change the world in the ways we want it to change, the better able we are to interpret its hidden workings. That’s what Engels said about our ability to make artificial colourings.
Equally, the more scientific we make our ways of interpreting the world, the more effective our efforts at changing it are likely to become. Neither comes easily. In the ‘Preface’ to the French edition of Capital (1872), Marx reminds us:
“There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.”
It should go without saying that we won’t reach even the foothills of Marx’s scientific analysis if we can’t get past parroting ‘Thesis Eleven’.
Here Engels again rides to the rescue. When he discovered the ‘Theses’ in an old notebook, he published them with this warning:
“These are notes hurriedly scribbled down for later elaboration, absolutely not intended for publication, …”
Surely it’s daffiness to build a revolutionary practice on a few scribbled notes?
A solution is at hand. Engels went on to say that those scribbled notes were “invaluable as the first document in which is deposited the brilliant germ of the new world outlook. “
So, put the ‘Theses’ aside until you’ve studied the chapter on ‘Feuerbach’ in The German Ideology. Only after we have absorbed its historical materialism will we be able to ‘interpret’ the Theses’. Indeed, Thesis Three’ reminds us why we should do so: ‘the educator must be educated.’
Here’s a further example of why it’s essential to read the ‘Theses’ through the chapter on Feuerbach. In 1999, the philosopher Peter Singer published a slim book called The Darwinian Left. He claims to be offering an alternative to the Marxist Left. His builds his case against Marx on a few words torn out of Thesis Six:
“… the human essence in its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.”
On the basis of this ‘scribbled note’, Singer accuses Marxists of ignoring the connections between our species and the rest of the natural world.
Three comments are called for.

First, it is slovenly even for a Professor at Princeton to try to construct an edifice on so slight an acquaintance with an author. Yet, Singer’s doing so is commonplace among scholars. Many never bother to go to the original source but quote from a quotation in some one’s else’s book.
Secondly, when Marx speaks of a ‘human essence’ he is playing with the vocabulary of Feuerbach’s 1843 bombshell, The Essence of Christianity. Singer carries on as if Marx were as ignorant as he is that ‘Essence’ is a technical term among German philosophers. Feuerbach uses it to oppose the ‘abstract’ thinking that places ‘the essence of nature outside nature, the essence of man outside man …’
Thirdly, Marx and Engels, over and over, stress that humankind is part of the natural world. Unlike Singer’s talk of the rights of animals, they proceed from ‘other animals’.
Hence, Singer’s criticism falls flat.
Marx and Engels welcomed Darwin’s Origins of Species even as they criticised its one-sidedness. The basis of their criticisms is in The German Ideology where the ‘brilliant germ’ for historical materialism finds its first expression. Marx opens with a typical piece of satire:
‘Once upon a time’ he writes, ‘an honest fellow had the idea that people drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this idea out of their heads, say by stating it to be a superstition, a religious idea, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water.’
It’s now all too easy to feel superior to this ‘honest fellow’. However, comparable instances of Philosophical Idealism are rampant around the Left.
Perhaps the most frequently heard example is that ‘Neo-liberalism is a big, bad idea which goes around the globe doing evil.’ As a set of ideas, Neo-liberalism has been a very good idea for the global corporates and their warfare states.
In the social domain, there are no intrinsically ‘good’ or ‘bad’ ideas. Ideas are either good for workers or good for bosses. Neo-liberalism as an idea does have effects in as much as it provides a focus and hence confidence for the agents of capital. And it helps to confuse the rest of us.  

The same false start applies to how the Left is responding to other kinds of ‘wrong thinking’ – racism, chauvinism, populism, reformism – the list goes on.
The first point to make is the one that Theodor Adorno made about anti-Semitism:
“People are not so stupid as to respond to the brazen wink of propaganda unless it strikes some chord in their own experience.”
Bad ideas arise from social practice. That applies to Islamophobia as much as it does to joining the Happy-Clappies.
What does Marx tell us about how to rid ourselves of religious illusions? We need to alter the conditions that make those illusions necessary. The only way to do that is through self-emancipation. No one can do it for us. To suppose that we can change anyone’s mind by abusing them through a megaphone is one more instance of Philosophical Idealism.
Not believing in ‘God’ is no certain defence against God-structured thinking.  It is hard to accept that there’s no purpose in the universe. Many atheists find it impossible to accept that there’s none in human existence. We give purposes to living out of our social action. We can set goals for ourselves as individuals, as a class and as a species. But those purposes are not innate in our minds and they don’t drop out of the sky. They come from social practice and from it alone, to quote Chairman Mao.
There’s nothing inevitable about socialism or communism. If we ever get there, it will be because of ceaseless struggle.
The Marxist biologist Stephen Jay Gould exposes evolution as ‘perfect adaptation’ as god-structured thinking for atheists. No, evolution produces a series of ‘rough fits’. Even the human eye is a bit of a mess – which is why it fails the test of design as proof of a benign creator.
A further instance of Philosophical Idealism is our activating the categories. How often do we slip into saying something like:

“History tells us …   Science proves …. and closer to home, The Accord did this, that and the other bad thing …?”
No. History and Science do nothing. The Accord did nothing. Only real living human beings make history, make discoveries, or take profits.
We’re all struggling to keep our noses above a supersaturated solution of bourgeois bullshit. The more we think that we’re immune to Idealisms, the more likely we are to fall victim to one or other of its manifestations.
Every worthwhile idea in Marx and Engels is grounded in historical materialism. That’s why our critique of political economy and our revolutionary practice depends on absorbing the first 80 pages of The German Ideology. Once we’ve done that, we can ‘interpret’ the ‘Theses on Feuerbach’.

In particular, we shall have deepened our grasp of the First Thesis which sets down that we can understand reality only by engaging with it ‘as sensuous human activity, as practice’. Now that is ‘Thesis Eleven’.
Humphrey McQueen
Solidarity Breakfast,  3CR
 24 February 2018

Monday, March 26, 2018

Australia hosted ASEAN Summit to serve US anti-China agenda


Political leaders who attended the recent ASEAN Special Summit in Sydney in March signed a counter-terrorism agreement together with other considerations.

Essentially an economic and corporate-based organisation, ASEAN has always dealt with defence and security considerations.

Reading between the lines of media releases, however, reveals a curious drama being played out in the Asia-Pacific region with highly deceptive language and terminology.


Nothing, it would appear, can possibly be taken at face value.

In March the Turnbull Coalition government hosted a Special Summit for the political leaders of ASEAN in Sydney. Behind the bonhomie and social networking of their large entourages lay three important factors to be considered: it was the first time ASEAN leaders had attended a meeting in Australia; Australia is not even a member of the organisation; ASEAN was established as a classic Cold War body.

The fact ASEAN political leaders were hosted in Australia has revealed the significance of the country within US-led defence and security planning. Now implemented, the US-led Global Transformation of Defence and Security (GTDS), linking Japan as a northern hub for 'US interests' with Australia as a southern counterpart, has direct contact with the Pentagon through vast electronic warfare (EW) networks. The GTDS rested on previous, less sophisticated military planning. The specific aim of the triangular military plan is also not new. It is directed toward containing and encircling Chinese influence throughout the region and globally.


Modern-day China, however, with its dramatic rise and displacement of Japan as the second biggest economy in the world, has now altered the balance of forces. US imperialism has now been placed on the defensive, regarding China as a threat to its traditional hegemonic positions. Present day US military planning is not, therefore, defensive, but aggressive. The recent change of US Secretary of State and sacking of Rex Tillerson with elevation of Mike Pompeo to the position, together with Gina Haspel as new leader of the CIA, and John Bolton as Ambassador to the United Nations is evidence of a more aggressive stance taken by the Trump administration. 


Australia has no need to join ASEAN, its regional position has been achieved through US defence and security provision with the GTDS, resting on previous military planning. Diplomatic media releases noted Australia was 'the main key partner' with the regional body. (1)


ASEAN, moreover, has developed significant economic growth and development in the Asia-Pacific region. It has been noted by the business-classes as 'an economic powerhouse with booming cities and an expanding consumer class'. (2) US imperialism therefore, seeks to control ASEAN through tutelage to prevent it becoming a threat to 'US interests'. They also have military planning to use the body as a potential counter to China. 


To understand the present dynamic, it is important to consider the reasons for the establishment of ASEAN and its evolution through subsequent decades.


ASEAN was established during the 1960s at the height of the Cold War and 'its aim was to give Australia leadership in the region'. (3) It evolved from a number of earlier organisations which included those with links to the Australian-based National Civic Council (NCC), a shadowy, conspiratorial, anti-communist grouping used by the intelligence services and corporate sector for covert operations. (4) It is not difficult to establish the complicity with state power. Bob Santamaria, NCC leader, was a lifelong friend of Ted Serong, who was ‘Australia's man inside the US intelligence services', serving 'in various capacities with the CIA and the Pentagon'. (5) 


From early days Australia provided diplomatic support for ASEAN and was 'the first country the bloc turned to when it began developing its external relations', revealing the importance of Canberra for US-led regional military planning. (6) The period was marked by the Vietnam War and US military planning to prevent hostilities spilling over into the wider region. As contemporary history has evolved into the present day, however, ASEAN still remains an important regional organisation for US-led hegemonic ambitions.


When the chairman of ASEAN, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, stated on the eve of the Special Summit that 'the US remains the key anchor for regional security in Asia' it was a hallmark of traditional hegemonic positions, now rapidly changing. (7) When Australian Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, addressed the part of the Special Summit dealing with counter-terrorism, a curious and seemingly highly duplicitous drama taking place in the region was revealed. 


The anti-terrorist part of the agenda of the Special Summit included the signing of a 'transnational agreement to share cyber intelligence and policing resources'. (8) There was also provision for a regional forensic task-force together with the sharing of intelligence 'modelled on the five eyes pact Australia is involved in. (9) The five eyes agreement links Australia with the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand, for intelligence gathering and sharing. The aim is to now expand intelligence gathering with 'senior defence officials from the six South-east Asia nations supposed to meet every two weeks to trade information on terrorists'. (10) The outcome will also provide the Pentagon with greater access into the domestic political situation in the Asia-Pacific region through Australian involvement.


Dutton then turned his attention to the current situation in the Middle East, stating 'despite military successes in Iraq and Syria in defeating Islamic State in its strongholds' there were problems wider afield with 'the presence of the terror group's supporters in communities in Australia and neighbouring countries'. (11) He also drew attention to 'around 220 Australians' being involved with jihadists and concerns about 'those individuals returning to our shores' with terrorist attacks. (12)


If the problem of terrorism does, however, arise in Australia it might be due to US evacuation procedures of their 'intelligence assets' from war-zones in Syria. In late August, 2017, a US Air Force helicopter evacuated two Daesh (Islamic State) field commanders of European origin with family members from Deir Ez-Zor. Two days later a further twenty field commanders were evacuated and airlifted to northern Syria for further unspecified deployment elsewhere. (13) The evacuations were filmed and shown on Russian television.


What Dutton also did not include in his address was the jihadists concerned had been armed and trained by the US and their allies. A wealth of evidence exists. In Syria the US intelligence assets were then used to destabilise the Assad administration. While initially denied by the US, their position has become increasingly untenable; the armed opposition in Syria 'was under direct command of foreign governments' according to a 'leaked top secret National Security Agency document' from the Pentagon. (14)


In Iraq, jihadist forces moved into the vacuum created by the removal of traditional elites following the military incursion of the so-called Coalition of the Willing; pro-US forces, including Australia, willing to embark upon war-crimes for the spoils of war. The subsequent problems in Iraq with the failure to establish centralised administration and basic security was also highly likely part of the military plan to continue longer-term destabilisation of the wider region.


The diatribe Dutton delivered to the ASEAN Special Summit also included reference to 'military successes' in Syria without clarifying they were the direct outcome of Russian Federation involvement. In fact, the US Military Review publication has officially acknowledged the RF victory over the US-backed opposition. They also noted developments had resulted in a political victory, aiding Moscow to become a longer-term power-broker in the Middle East. (15) Dutton appeared oblivious to the development; Australian involvement included following US-led directives which included support for the jihadists, which were the losing side.


Furthermore, the Dutton contribution to the Summit also included highlighting supposed terrorist involvement in telecommunications networks with encryption. (16) Planning is already underway to coordinate regional police monitoring and surveillance procedures following revelations the messaging Whatsapp was used in the March 2017 terrorist attack on Westminster. (17) When Dutton stated 'cyber issues will be a central element of the ASEAN leadership summit this weekend', his own political position was soon undermined by the government of which he is a minister by those in more senior positions.


Following the ASEAN Special Summit, the Australian government announced they were following US directives to not use the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei due to national security concerns. Official media releases also noted 'Australia is now consulting other nations about their security concerns around Huawei'. (18) The moves took place following Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull being given a briefing about Huawei behind closed doors by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and Department of Homeland Security, Washington in February. (19)   


It was not noted, however, Huawei products and services are used in over 170 countries. Any serious move, therefore, to coordinate police monitoring and surveillance of terrorist communications and activity would appear seriously deficient if Huawei were not included, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. This seems to have been part of Dutton’s approach at ASEAN.


There are a number of possible explanations about the role of Dutton in the summit. As a former Police Officer he was used to accepting the views, judgements and directives of those higher up the vertical hierarchies. The pattern of behaviour has continued to the present day. Questioning and discussing such positions would not be usual for an underling, whether toward his own Prime Minister or those in Washington who provided the directive in February.


In conclusion, the ASEAN Special Summit anti-terrorist agreement was discussed and signed amid confusion. Whether those concerned were really dealing with threats of terrorism or a more clearly defined agenda of containing and encircling Chinese influence remains highly questionable. One aspect of the whole charade, however, has remained; both the role and function of ASEAN has been consistent from its origins to the present day.

1.     Trade war threat bonds Australia with ASEAN, Australian, 21 March 2018.

2.     Shared history of friendship and opportunities, Australian, 16 March 2018.

3.     Ted Serong, The Life of an Australian Counter-Insurgency Expert,  Anne Blair, (Melbourne, 2002), Page 133.

4.     Ibid.

5.     Ibid., and page 3.

6.     Australian, op.cit., 16 March 2018.

7.     US vital to region's security, says Lee, Australian, 16 March 2018.

8.     Dutton's terror alert for leaders, The Weekend Australian, 17-18 March 2018.

9.     Summit to seal deal on counter-terror, Australian, 14 March 2018.

10.   Ibid.

11.   Weekend Australian, op.cit., 17-18 March 2018.

12.   Ibid.

13.   US Aircraft Evacuates over 20 Daesh Commanders from Deir Ez-Zor, Sputnik News, 7 September 2017.

14.   Shocking Interview, Information Clearing House, 30 October 2017.

15.   Review: Official US Army Journal Concedes Russian Victory in Syria, Military Review, Journal of the US Combined Arms Center (USACAC), March/April 2018, Sputnik News, 3 March 2018.

16.   Weekend Australian, op.cit., 17-18 March 2018.

17.   Ibid.

18.   Huawei facing heat on all fronts, Australian, 22 March 2018.

19.   Ibid.