ZEN-MARXISM 101: PHILOSOPHICAL ORIGINS

The question of freedom and determinism — or, in Rosa Luxemburg‘s prescient query: “Reform and Revolution” — is what got me started writing my zen-marxism series of pamphlets, of which the philosophical chapters in “The Fight Against Monsanto’s Roundup: The Politics of Pesticides” are the most current outgrowths.

If conditions freely determine, can we be determined to be free?

If we’re robots, how do we know we’re robots, unless programmed to seek out that knowledge.

I wrote my very first zen-marxism essay on this question back in 1974 off-campus at SUNY Binghamton, where I was living on a mattress on the floor in the back room of an office on Clinton Street with three others — no shower or kitchen. That office served as a base for teams of students I’d recruited to organize farmworkers in the Finger Lakes region into the Eastern Farmworkers Association. Fresh out of a 4-month sentence in prison the previous summer for participating in antiwar demonstrations at SUNY Stony Brook, that philosophical question plagued me, tortured me. I tried talking about it to those around me and they were oblivious to what I considered to be a major philosophical problem.

That meditation started with:

Between Descartes, Hegel, Marx, Percy Shelley, Rosa Luxemburg, and Einstein there is an abyss, a chasm that each came to and was not able to cross — the question of Freedom, and the separation of subject from object. That Cartesian dualism plagued the Left for many years, even as we took actions against the policies of U.S. imperialism. How do I know that I’m not being “programmed” to do whatever it is that I’m doing?

By the end of the 20th rewrite of the essay and many mescaline trips (and political arrests) several years later, I’d figured out how to use dialectical philosophy to indeed bridge that chasm and answer that question: By making the subject under discussion — in this case the relationship of freedom and determinism — itself into the object of scrutiny — that is, making it a “meta-object”, freely studying the relationship of freedom and determinism (subject and object) and how to build radical organization based on that understanding.

That’s what Kurt Gödel analyzed in his own way — fascinating stuff! Bertrand Russell actually BANNED Gödel’s recursive thoughts from his work on mathematics, which Gödel threw into chaos. Douglas Hofstadter‘s encyclopediac work, “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid,” explored these questions in depth and occupied me for more than a year, plaguing my housemates as I alternated between quoting from Hofstadter and also Abbie Hoffman‘s book “Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture,” and antiwar and anti-apartheid protests,

My Karma Ran Over My Dogma

It was gravity that pulled us down
Destiny that tore us apart
– Bob Dylan

When I went to college, the torrent of new experiences replaced the torment of these inquiries. I got an “F” in Philosophy 101 my first semester when I was 16 and wanted to kill Sternweiss, the odious professor. I hate therefore I am. (I actually went back to Sternweiss’s class many years later when I felt much more sure of myself and “got even” …. )

Three years into my “career” at Stony Brook, I and the rest of the Independent Caucus of SDS (and later the Red Balloon Collective) began reading Karl Marx. Marx and Engels, we read, made the important distinction between utopian and scientific socialism. They did not say, “This is how the world should work.” (utopian) Instead, they examined the motion of capitalism from within its own premises and processes (scientific). They showed where the motion of capitalism was taking it and where human beings might intervene to influence its direction. (The idea is that Leftist human interventions serves as acupuncture needles re-orienting the energy flows of history!)

 

KARL MARX LAUNCHES HIS CRITIQUE

of capitalism NOT

by positing an ideal world and wishing for it

nor by establishing a Communistic plot

(he’s buried in one!)

but by unraveling

the way

the system unfolds

inevitably, globally,

propelled by its own

internal contradictions.

 

What

does all that mean,

every word coiled in

its history

ready to spring!

Where

will it first collapse?

Will

there be

a future worth living in?

a planet to live on?

Who

is in position

to take action?

How

must we organize ourselves

to achieve

the revolutionary new society we seek?

When

will loneliness evaporate

and love take root?

It was as though Marx and Engels were talking directly to me, about my whole childhood! My coming to Marx and Engels was not solely about politics, per se. It was extremely personal, and to some degree remains so. They gave me tools for understanding and explaining this huge philosophical conundrum that I had been unable to make sense of and had trapped myself in!

I had been unknowingly utilizing what Engels called a Utopian” framework; that’s why I couldn’t figure out how to validate my method for validating decisions I’d come to. What a relief, to have a label to affix to my “illness”! So, someone else had thought about all this before. I am not alone, maybe there’s a cure! I was just beginning to be able to put this dialectical thought into words: There can be no fine distinction between how we view the world and how the world has shaped each of us to view it — and that includes the desire to view “how the world has shaped us to view it.”

This was my starting point in addressing the same dilemma that has plagued Western philosophy since Descartes (and me, ever since I was a kid, and later in that first semester Philosophy 101): If my ideas and desires are conditioned by the world, how is it possible to even ask myself whether my ideas and desires are conditioned by the world, unless some outside force wants me to do so? Or, as I put it at the time, Am I not a robot? And if I’m not, how can I prove it?

For Descartes, the idea of reflexive thought — that is, the ability of an individual to think about how she is thinking — is so convoluted and so huge that he concluded in his Meditations that he could not have thought this up on his own. Consequently, it could only have been planted in his mind by an evil demon or some opposite and even more powerful force that stood outside his thought process and which he called “God”.

Descartes could not explain where the idea came from to “think about thinking” (and to actually do it) — the idea of the Idea. In much the same way that I had invented a procedure for answering questions over which I had no control (racing a closing door before it slammed shut), so too did Descartes invent a mechanism that could not be validated by his own first premises concerning rational thought. The name of that mechanism, for Descartes, was “God,” and it stood outside the quagmire of rationality that had entrapped him.

V.I. Lenin argued for a similar mechanism in What Is To Be Done? Since socialist consciousness does not arise out of working class relations on their own under capitalism, he wrote, it must come from outside the working class movements. Consequently, some mechanism, Lenin said, must be created to bring socialist direction into movements that on their own (he claimed) could never go beyond the narrow economic self-interest of trade unions.

For Descartes, that mechanism was God, coming from outside the process of thought applied to itself. For Lenin, it was the “vanguard party,” which was to come from outside the motion of the working class in itself. The function of the Communist Party would be to lead the working class to escape its economistic role under capitalism as an object and become conscious of and fulfill its historically determined potential as the free revolutionary subject of history.

Whether through Descartes’ God, Lenin’s party, or my racing of a slamming door, each of our approaches came up against the limits of rationality; they each required a mechanism that came from outside the process of reflexive thought. By standing outside and apart from the separated, fenced-off realms of objective and subjective, parts and wholes, each of these mechanisms (or rational approaches) strove to serve as bridges across the same philosophical abyss, and were therefore utopian constructs. (For me “utopian” meant you couldn’t get there by adding on rational steps. It required a Leap)

The separation of subject from object, “self” from “other” (what’s “in our heads” from what’s “out there”) is at the root of all dualisms. It confounds linear logic The moment we think to apply rational thought to itself, to its own premises, we’ve trapped ourselves.1 That “separation” (alienation) plays out through many “secondary” (but crucial and complex) dualities involving seemingly unbridgeable abysses: freedom and determinism, cause and effect, the whole and the parts, quality and quantity, universal and particular, abstract and concrete, absolute and relative, form and content, mechanisms of conditioning and independent consciousness, fact and value, reason and emotion, sadism and masochism, revolution and reform, mind and body, thinking and being, production and consumption, education and direct action, vanguard and mass, opportunism and adventurism, and, spontaneity and organization. These are all false dualities rooted in Descartes’ approach, reflecting, from different angles, the same severed Unity. Ultimately, all revolutionary strategy in the U.S. and Europe is and has always been about creating the means to bridge that chasm.

Every major philosophical question is propelled by our attempts to understand how our lives and thoughts came to be dominated by the separation of subject and object, and our efforts to re-unite them.2 The “idea” to investigate the Idea’s own existence — the taking of a subjective process and making it the object of scrutiny — is the first step in transcending that chasm in a dialectical manner.

For the New Left, every single facet of everyday life — our ways of seeing, thinking, acting, relating, eating, having sex, producing and loving– offers a window onto the totality of capitalist and, I would add, patriarchal relations. We see that totality refracted through the particularities of our lives, a mosaic of seemingly disparate parts and events. The ways in which we relate to each other and to nature, and the questions that go along with them — Do we compete over scarce resources? Do we see ourselves through the lens of isms, particularly religions, and the ideology of nationalism and the nation-state? — generally go unnoted, taken for granted. Who among us rejects the religion of their parents and adopts a different one? Very few. Who among us rejects identifying with the country they grew up in, at least in terms of how we view ourselves? (“We’re at war!” And exactly WHO falls within the embrace of that identity moniker “we“?) How can we create the kind of society in which people treat each other as full human beings and not as commodities or things?3

Once again, the “isms” through which we see and experience our own lives and the world around us generally go unnoted, taken for granted.

While Abbie Hoffman, the New Left’s most visible advocate, declared that we needed to make every ism a wasm, Karl Marx explained why that was exceedingly difficult to do:

The materialist doctrine that people are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed people are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is people who change circumstances and that the educator must him or herself be educated.4

And so, the question persists: How can anyone change the circumstances that have shaped their thought and actions, ways of being that maintain, enhance and protect the very circumstances they need to change? The vicious circle continues.

NOTES
1That is why Bertrand Russell argued so strenuously against what I’m calling “reflexive” processes in his Principia Mathematica and in fact banned them outright! That’s also why Kurt Gödel’s conclusions, which were drawn from his mathematic logic, were so powerful in undermining Russell and indeed the Cartesian basis of Western philosophy.

2Subjective & objective, parts & wholes, are, as I argue throughout Zen-Marxism, false dualities which western society has created by severing “subjective” from “objective”, and the “parts” from the particular whole they’re part of.

3See, for instance, Mitchel Cohen, What Is Direct Action? New Left Lessons in Reframing Revolutionary Strategy, (Zen-Marxism #4), Red Balloon publications, 2013.

4Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, Number 3.

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