Europe & Freedom: A Response

Loren Goldner

PAUL BUHLE’s LETTER to the editors (ATC 46), in zeroing in on my assertion of the dynamism and superiority of early (16th and 17th century) Western capitalism to its main rivals at the time (and especially its immediate rival the Ottoman empire), points to, and objects to, the central point of my article “Post modernity and World History” [ATC 45]. For the rest. Buhie’s letter is based on a misreading of my article. I would like to respond to both his objection and to his misreading.

I will say it again, and even more clearly: the European capitalist society which appeared in the post-1450 Renaissance and Reformation eras, prior to and during the early phase of Western world ascendancy, was a revolutionary society without precedent which posed as a (still unfulfilled) potential the realization of a kind of human freedom, indissolubly social and individual, superior to and more truly humane than anything realized in previous or then-contemporary Old World state societies (Islam, India or China) or in New World state formations (Mayan, Aztec, Inca).

(I leave aside for the moment the question of stateless, or so-called “primitive” societies, which in decisive ways are humanly superior to any social formation which will exist prior to the attainment of communism. One need only look at the captivity narratives of Puritan women who lived in American Indian societies to see this.)

As Buhle knows, Marx’s view of historical progress, in contrast to liberal Enlightenment views, is not linear but “helical,” with every progress entailing retrogression until the final reintegration of a classless society, the “stone age returned on a higher level” (Origin of the Family), which recaptures the lost dimension of earlier phases.

The most important ideological expression of the new vantage point attained by the early modem West was articulated by the neo-Platonist Nicholas of Cusa, and shortly thereafter by Giordano Bruno, who argued, against all ancient and medieval (Christian, Jewish, Moslem) philosophy for the possibility of an actual infinity. Cusa’s and Bruno’s actual infinity is the direct philosophical precursor of Hegel’s “concrete universal” individual and of Marx’s social individual: the individual who concretely takes into his/her concrete daily existence the universal powers of the human species, and whose individual creativity is immediately social activity.

The leisured philosophers of Greco-Roman antiquity, with their aristocratic disdain for all manual labor, expressed their “horror” of the infinite, and the theologians and philosophers of the three medieval monotheisms rejected an actual infinity as highest heresy. The appearance of an affirmed “actual infinity” in early modern Europe expressed a new, unprecedented possibility of individual realization and the revolutionary dynamism of the new society relative to feudalism.

This unique potential of individual realization posed as a social project by early modem Europe, in a radical break with all previous societies, was of course posed initially on an abstruse philosophical or even theological level (which did not prevent Bruno from being burnt at the stake for his troubles). It passed into a conscious theory of society only with Hegel and Marx. (Buhle, better than most knows how much Hegel and Marx owe to the 17th century radical mystic Jacob Boehme.) It had no counterpart in the other state societies encountered by the West in its rise to world hegemony. With all the horrors unleashed by the ensuing five centuries of history, it remains the potential of the world communism now possible.

We know of no Aztec, Mayan, lncan, Arab, Indian or Chinese thinker who elaborated such an idea, for the simple reason that the societies in which they worked did not pose such a realization as a practical social project. The West unleashed this potential on world history just as surely as it unleashed the honors of primitive capitalist accumulation, both in Europe and everywhere else; and it would be criminal of us, today, to forget the one or the other. (The post-modernists remember only the other.)

Nearly a century of decadence and senescence, in which capitalism long ago became a positive obstacle to the development of humanity, makes it a leap of imagination and memory to recall what a revolutionary society early modem capitalism was, how totally it undermined early corporative social identities in which generations accepted their inherited (and subordinated) social lot as inscribed in stone.

As for the remaining thrust of Buhle’sletter, I feel that he has misread my article when he says “it would be truer to say that conquest or domination requires only superior force.” I went out of my way to note that the West was a rather singular case of simultaneous conquest and cultural hegemony, whereas many conquests involved the rapid acculturation of the conquerors by the conquered. And I specifically cite the Mongol invasions, which Buhle also mentions, as the more common kind of mass destruction bringing no culture to the conquered, quite the contrary (as in the Middle East or China in the 13th and 14th centuries).

My point, missed by Buhle, is precisely that Western cultural hegemony is historically unusual in not resting on force and domination alone, as the post-modernists like to say. I was recently disturbed to learn that the departure of a massive Saharan caravan of one of the non-Western cultures I most admire, the nomadic Touareg (of southern Morocco) was delayed for two weeks so that the Touareg could watch two crucial installments of “Dallas” that their TVs would not pick up in the desert If only such developments were the result of force….

As for the environmentaland ecological devastation Buhie cites, I never said that modem imperialism was “progressive,” nor did I say that an affirmation of the historical achievements of early modem capitalism means an affirmation of its crimes, and still less of the crimes of its decadent extension in the 20th century.

The fragmentaiy writins of the older Marx on non-Western societies (in the Ethnographic Notebooks) and on the Slavic and Germanic communities (best expressed in his famous correspondence with Vera Zasulich), in which he moves away from the some of the one-sided assertions of his earlier years, are among the most vital parts of his legacy.

Marxism now, and for a long time to come, must pay a heavy price for its transformation, beginning in the Second International, into a one-sided, actually Eurocentric discourse of civilization, in which those writings were ignored or actively suppressed. The complacency of the post-modernists, who have created the climate in which it is necessary to restate certain elementary truths, feeds on the collapse of that kind of Second, Third and Fourth International Marxism and its “steeleater” eulogy of the productive forces.

That complacency also feeds on, and to some extent articulates, the increasing barbarism unleashed by a social formation in accelerating decline. But none of this should make us forget the uniqueness of the world historical breakthroughs in human freedom articulated by Cusa and Bruno, and transformed into a social theory of human emancipation by Hegel and Marx, expressing a new practical potential of the individual in society which it is our task to fully realize in today’s material conditions.

The very articulation of such a project is for the cynical post-modernists a tota itarian “master discourse.” The fact that Cusa, Bruno, Hegel and Marx were “white males” is as contingent to their breakthroughs as the skin color and gender of earlier, subsequent and future contributors to the eventual triumph of self-conscious humanity.

November-December 1993, ATC 47