All that is rational is actual, and all that is actual is rational.
—Hegel, Philosphy of Right
I’m going to borrow, at least to jump off, from Pinkard’s great explanation of what this widely misunderstood phrase means according to Hegel. Now, I like Hegel and have another blog that just happens to be mostly about his works, so you’d think I would side with idealism. I’m not going to get into bothering with philosophical idealism here, but rather I want to just address this to the common meaning of idealism, that is, an abstract dreaming and moralizing which is ungrounded in an actual possible path to realization.
Our good ol’ Marx himself seems to be much in agreement with Hegel here:
Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence. —Marx, The German Ideology
I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.— Marx, Letter to Arnold Ruge, September 1843
It is no secret that the Left is generally held by the public to be idealist in this common sense of the word, but there is unfortunately a truth to this jab at the Left. One would think that there is at least one section on the Left that would not fall victim to actually being idealist considering its explicit rejection of idealism—that being the tradition of Marxists. Marxists consider themselves quite ‘materialist’ in theory and practice, and quite proudly flaunt the history of mass activism and revolutions their ideology once generated. However, we live in a time where communists in general are generating a whole lot of nothing in action despite generating a whole lot of theory.
If what is actual is what is effectively actualizing, it is that which has a basis in what is and is already a tension of potential already leaping into motion. If communism is the ‘real movement,’ then it must already be a potential in movement of actualization, and it cannot be an abstract theoretical positing awaiting in hope a future in which it is yet to be real. If communism is the real movement, then it is actual in this very day. However, where is this movement? It was a movement in the past: the worker’s movements, the peasant movements, the national liberation movements, the October Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, etc. There is, in general, no such mass movement today in any core country, at least not under a ‘communist’ banner. In core countries, communists are not ascendant but instead quite dead, and in the periphery they are stronger yet still a minority. The communist guerrillas in India, in the Philippines, and other places are real movements, albeit they are far off from their goals. Social democracy, the Central and South American Pink Tide, was the largest real movement in the last few decades. This is the real movement—the actual process of the arising of consciousness and its mobilized action, the real movement which undoes the present state of things, the state of capital and property as absolute.
Marx never proclaimed the real movement to be in his head or to be his theory, though his theory is itself part of the real movement, a product of capitalism’s own self-negation. It is, then, most peculiar that most Marxists of all people seem to believe precisely that their theoretical beliefs are the determinant judgment of what the real movement is rather than what the real movement comes to show. For every movement that arises, these Marxists slightly rise from their armchairs and lean forward ever so slightly, their bums hovering an inch above their seat in anticipation—the anticipation of the theoretical kill. They smile with glee upon protestors, activists, the fooled masses. Little do they know, little could they intuit, that the Marxists long ago foresaw their fate with the might of pure theory and dialectics. They open up their tomes, frantically flip through pages, and at last find the desired and sufficient passage which in mere words will prove the unreality and futility of action. They open their mouths, and utter:
“You see, my dear comrades, Marx here says and shows that you are all mistaken and wasting your time: communism is the only answer, and unless you immediately act to make it real and release yourself from the chains of its value form in one fell swoop you are doomed and going nowhere regardless of how many concessions the capitalists give you. You may gain a better world you may call socialist, but not REAL socialism. If you listened to me, then we would get real things done! Until you act for real communism I shall not lift a finger to aid you.”
The armchair, however, is so high above that the masses walk by and hear but hints of a whisper; so powerful and so meaningful is the cry of these Marxists.
Teenagers on YouTube and old people who think the USSR is a model to follow always seem to know more than anyone else, and one must wonder why no one will just give them the reigns of power so they can fix everything. If they know so much, one wonders, how come they’re so useless? Where is the fountain of praxis which should spew from the holy hole of such powerful theory? Is it not the case that in science what is true is also practical? Does not the theory of gravity allow us to launch the cannonball with little error? Does not the knowledge of the relation of the heart to the brain allow us to kill with precision? Well, apparently for the Left, the knowledge of the proletariat does not give it an inroads to them—instead it seems to make them completely useless. Perhaps it should dawn on our fellows that they in fact know little of the proletariat they speak of, that rather than being concrete materialists they are the most poor of abstract idealists.
To stand on the sidelines from our armchairs and condemn any real movement as wrong, as useless, as unworthy of our consideration because it does not conform to our presupposed theory of the world is to be the Bible thumping idiot on the corner yelling at people that they need Jesus, yet there should be no mystery to anyone about why most simply walk by. Jesus and communism may be nice, and the tale of a society without a value form may be sweet as goat’s milk, but if you have no determinate way to get there from here you’re selling dreams and demanding real payment. The aether of theory is not the same as the morass of matter; the world, comrades, is not so simple that you’ll solve it on the level of an abstract theoretical game. Today, one cannot realistically demand that any single country have a revolution via reform or overcoming of the state. To overcome what one calls ‘economics’ in any state is to not deal merely with internal problems, but with external problems. The economy is a world economy—the reality of material and political stability is in context of a world system. There can be no socialism in one country which can stand and survive without being severely disfigured and mangled by force of circumstances.
With communism, as Marx rightly saw, it is all or nothing. This all, however, is not an abstract and immediate affair of history. It is a long drawn out process—a process with a result which is not the mere abstract negation of capitalism, but the sublation of it. Every movement which aims to chain and negate capital is a real movement, an immanent reaction and development to the determinate reality, an opposing antithesis posited by the very thesis which proclaims itself absolute. The civil rights movement, the anti-imperialist movements, the anti-liberalism movements, the LGBT+ movements—they too are parts of the real movement, albeit they are one sided parts which need proper order and unification. The role of any competent Left is not to condemn such movements wholesale—rather, it is to give critical support, to reveal the hidden one-sidedness of such movements, and to unify them in their truths as one explicit and concrete conscious real movement towards the dissolution of unfreedom and the generation of the societal structures of real freedom.
Let us follow Hegel’s and Marx’s insight in practice: let us be rational and offer actual program goals and action.