Realistic Metaphysics and the Materialist Conception of History

A six-week reading and discussion series with Shane Mage

“This cosmos, the same for all, was not made by any of gods or men. It always has been, is, and will be, an ever-living fire kindling in measures and going out in measures” (Herakleitos of Ephesus, fr. 29 [ed. Wheelwright])

It can scarcely be doubted that the human civilization, pervasively capitalist, has entered a period of absolute crisis in the most literal sense: a condition that, if not resolved by a radical return to survivability, will quickly result in its death.  Of course, Marxists and many other radicals had long seen the capitalist system (the present form of class society) as crisis-prone, marked in its processes over centuries by an increasingly severe succession of wars and economic collapses. But the system had recovered from each crisis and resumed, ever more powerfully, its seeming industrial growth. The present crisis is different. Its dominant feature, global heating (among symptoms of which are the COVID19 pandemic and the growing threat of atomic holocaust) is evidently integral to capitalist industrial growth . However, in the Marxian view, industrial growth is itself the manifestation of something much deeper: the contradictory form of productive labor and technological development in class society. “The growth of productive forces,” is seen as the driving force in the evolution of humanity itself. As such, it far transcends the few centuries of worldwide capitalism and comprises the whole history of the human species. We are, declared Marx in an early text, “species beings.” This should be taken to signify that while we, like all animals, carry our species history in our bodies and subconscious minds, we also, in our evolutionarily acquired capacity for structured symbolic communication, preserve (and even can recover by proper research) important parts of that history in our explicit memories. Therefore the historical crisis of human society is necessarily and simultaneously the crisis of human consciousness.

Marxists have always recognized the centrality of consciousness to the communist project. But marxism’s central preoccupation has been that of *class* consciousness. Marx spoke of the working class’s need to transform itself from a class *in itself* (en sich) into a class *for itself* (für sich). After two decades of revolutionary defeats and counter-revolutionary triumphs Trotsky described the situation as “the crisis of proletarian leadership.”

But these were prescriptions, now plainly further from realization than ever. In describing the proletariat as the “universal class,” Marx projected that by establishing its dictatorship (ie., radical democracy) in the proximate interest of all its members, the proletariat begins the human historical project of complete transcendence of class society. The present crisis, however, demands that this concept of “universal” be deepened and enriched. The politics based on consciousness of proximate material interest must give way to the politics of a *planetary* consciousness. The final line of our anthem, “l’Internationale sera le genre humain,”  should now be taken literally.

If you and I are to be effective agents in the development of that consciousness we should be able to offer radical answers, even though necessarily tentative and incomplete ones, to two fundamental questions: How Did We Get Here? And (what Immanuel Kant considered perhaps the most important of questions): What Can We Hope For?

These are basic philosophical questions, and to deal with them demands an adequate metaphysical basis, an account developing from fundamental assumptions underlying cognition of our world, its history, its reality, its prospects. Marxisms have approached this in terms of two words: “dialectics” and “materialism,” but these terms are almost always used vaguely or–worse—polemically. Their application, the materialist conception of history, should be understood in terms of the long philosophical tradition starting in ancient Greece, with the seemingly contradictory but actually complementary dialectics of Herakleitos (change) and Plato (structure)—the tradition whose varying protagonists include Plotinus, Spinoza, Diderot, Hegel, Marx, and Whitehead (“all philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato”) plus, in parallel to it, the Madhyamika dialectic of Nagarjuna and the Sufi teachings of G.I.Gurdjieff.

The series of discussions we offer will center on that tradition leading, hopefully, to a new coherent cosmology symbolized by the enneagram. A bibliography of readings from Herakleitos, Plato, Diderot, Hegel Lenin, et al will be posted soon.

Shane Mages’s dissertation was on Marx’s theory of the tendential fall in the rate of profit (Columbia U. 1963). Shane taught economics and philosophy at Brooklyn Polytechnic U and Grand Valley State U. He was senior editor for social sciences at Collier’s Encyclopedia through 1994. Among Shane’s publications are a pamphlet “Velikovsky and his Critics;” articles on “Plato and the Catastrophist Tradition” and “Jeroboam and the Israelite Revolution” in KRONOS magazine; articles “Communism” and “Economic History of the USSR” in Collier’s Encyclopedia; and (unpublished still) “The Pilate Papers,” an essay presenting a “Roman” view of the gospel story. At present he is working on a novel (“The Seducation of a Femtaur—a Bead Game”) set in the present and near future with a philosophical theme and elements of science fiction and magical realism.

 

Archive That Comrade!

Left Memory Politics, Toxic Fame and the Populist Archive
A talk with author Phil Cohen

“Don’t mourn, organize!” was a favored campaign slogan of the old Left, part of a commitment to struggles of long duration against social injustice and a belief in the ultimate triumph of socialism. But with the rise of identity politics, the importance of memory work, of recording and celebrating hitherto hidden and ignored life histories, has been widely recognized along with a nostalgic tendency in some quarters to mourn the “world we have lost” where working class culture, tied to the labor movement, was a major and progressive political force. But are the do-it-yourself archival practices of the me-too generation really an effective tool for building a shared sense of culture and community in which feelings of anger and loss can be addressed, so that grief does not have to be sublimated in grievance?

By the same token, how successful has the New Left been in challenging the multi-media apparatus of fame and celebrity which has come to dominate the politics of public commemoration? How far can the rise of the populist archive, designed to communicate ‘positive images’ of maligned minorities, be seen as a response both to the death of the collective hero, and as a reaction against the competitive individualism promoted by the fame academy?

In this talk Phil will address these questions by looking at some recent controversies surrounding public memorials, monuments and archives in both the UK and USA and by arguing for an alternative democratic politics of the archive.

Phil Cohen is a scholar activist who has worked for over 40 years with working class and immigrant communities in the East End of London as they respond to the impact of large scale demographic and socio-economic change linked to globalization and de-industrialization. As an urban ethnographer he is especially interested in how political and cultural values are transmitted between generations—or not. Among his many books are Knuckle Sandwich: Growing Up in the Working Class City (Penguin 1978), Re-thinking the Youth Question (Palgrave 1998), Reading Room Only: Memoir of a Radical Bibliophile (Five Leaves 2013), Graphologies (Mica Press 2015) and Archive That Comrade: Left Legacies and the Counter Culture of Remembrance (PM Press 2018). Website and blog: www.philcohenworks.com

Tickets are sliding scale. No one is turned away for inability to pay.