“Dynamic” vs. “Superior”

Against the Current, No. 46, September/October 1993

Paul Buhle

LOREN GOLDNER’S “POSTMODERNITY Versus World History” Only-August 1993) is surely one of the most provocative theoretical pieces published in ATC, and the subjects it raises deserve continued discussion. I have only a single point to raise, although I consider it a serious one for Marxist theory and for our entire vision of socialism.

In hoisting a banner against the alltoo-frequent reductivism of the multiculturalist perspective, Goldner insists properly that the ‘West’ was shaped by the “East’ (one should perhaps say the “non-West”) as much as the other way around, from historical era to era. He goes too far, or rather off in the wrong direction, when he argues that some cultures are, in the context of world history, at certain moments more dynamic, in fact superior to others,” and the “West” the most dynamic and superior in the modern period.

“Dynamic” here is merged in “superior,” when it would be truer to say that conquest or domination requires only superior force. Sometimes it brings greater learning, but just as often in history—and increasingly in recent history—it brings a one-way catastrophe disguised as the advance of particular classes within societies that hardly knew of their existence previously, and gain little from their presence compared to the losses endured.

History is littered by such examples as V. Gregorian offers for the victims od the Mongol invasions, including mass executions of indigenous populations, devastation of food supplies and dwellings. It could be little consolation to the descendants of the survivors that the conquerors imbibed some of the existing cut. ture.(1) And so we might say of many Amer. ican Indian populations, such as the cliff-dwellers of the west, who had achieved an admirable balance of scarce natural resources utterly unlike the increasingly destructive economies to follow. Indeed, it would be difficult to point to examples of Europeans in North America Ieamin much of anything worthwhile (beyond the use, and later abuse through heavy pesticide dosing, of a few specific crops) from their geographical predecessors.

The “advance” of monocrop economies throughout much of Latin America, to take a single recent example, has created precious little wealth or learning for the mass of populations, but rathei the reverse. Knowledge of historical sub. sistence crops and forest goods is lost precious land cover is stripped and pesti. cides create notorious pockets of poison in which the hitherto timeless passage ol Migrating animals becomes impossible.(2)

Goldner may wish to untangle “more dynamic” from “superior,” and that would be a useful discussion. But as an elderly Marx had himself begun to doubt the “progressive” nature of imperialism and many Marxists have since regarded it as something more nearly approaching parasitism, so 1 think we have more and more reasons to be skeptical.(3) Judged from the viewpoint of human, let alone natural, history, a few centuries of industrialization and intensive agriculture are no more than the blink of an eye.

Environmentalists tell us that three-quarters of the bird species in the world – are now in sharp decline, and New Englanders such as Goldner and I can easily see that more than three-quarters of our native songbirds have vanished in a few decades. Worse lies dead ahead unless this “superior” civilization is stopped in its tracks. If multiculturalism is indeed an inadequate perspective, total cultural relativism and “identity politics” no more than the inverse version of traditional Marxist (the mirror of Western) hubris, then by all means let us move onward, ever further from the received ideas of the socialist past—not backward toward them again.


  1. Vartan Gergorian, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan (Stanford, 1989) Ch 1.
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  2. See two important recent books, The Struggle for Land and the Fate of the Forests (London, 1983), edited by Marcus Colchester and Larry Lohmann; and Daniel Faber’s Environmentalism Under Fire: Imperialism and the Ecological Crisis in Central America (New York, 1999).
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  3. John Bellamy Foster’s The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism (New York. 1986) and the discussion in Monthly Review and MR Press is the most stimulating source that I know of for this discussion.
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September-October 1993, ATC 46