Friday, 29 August 2014
Random Thing #3
And one more. Please bear in mind, this is a fragment.
Marx saw creativity as essential to human nature. He famously once said that “Milton produced Paradise Lost in the way that a silkworm produces silk, as the expression of his own nature”. The difference is that Marx saw such creativity as a potential in all people, and believed that class society stunted such potentials in the majority by forcing them to do work that was alien to their natures.
Yet there is some truth to the idea of progress in the history of class society. Marx is quite comfortable – sometimes a little too comfortable – with the idea that the accumulation of capital can also be the accumulation of progress, that even the imperialistic development of class society can push people ‘forwards’. It’s just that he also sees horror in the process, eventually calling the ‘progress’ that British imperialism and capitalism brought to India as resembling a “hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.” This is far from an unproblematic way of putting it, but the point stands.
It is a point later taken up by Walter Benjamin in On the Concept of History, in which he describes history as both a triumphal procession and a great piling up of wreckage and horror.
Moral progress is only found when the increase of power and knowledge is used to make life fairer or better for common people (i.e. the majority), and this is the exception rather than the rule. And when it does happen, it isn’t a trickle-down effect. It is the result of struggle from below. And even the accumulation of power and knowledge in the hands of the rulers can only come from the unrequited labour of the masses. Even when a genius makes an individual discovery, he usually sits on top of a great pyramid of unacknowledged workers. Charles Darwin was only able to spend years in his study working and thinking and writing because he had servants, inherited wealth, and a wife who was related to the Wedgewoods. And that’s the history of class society at its prettiest. At other times it looks like Alexander, invading and slaughtering. Alexander was one of those potentates who poured the fruits of human labour into makewaste vanity projects like wars and great opulent buildings for the top people. Contrary to the assertions of classicists (who tend to assume that they would be reincarnated in the past as fellow aristocrats) Alexander achieved little to better mankind, even if he was taught by Aristotle, one of the undoubted ‘great men’ of history. But then Aristotle himself defended slavery in his Politics, as he had to, given that his leisure to sit around all day thinking depended on it.
Terry Eagleton has frequently pointed out that the Marxist view of history as simultaneously progressive and barbaric is a Tragic one, as Tragic (with a capital T) as Othello. He asks (rhetorically) if even communism (as Marx envisaged it) would justify the necessary slog through class society. Would it all have been worth it, to get us there?