The Late Marx

Image: Stela Grespan


It is becoming evident that if societies and economies do not adopt ways of life other than those based on the unfair and limitless exploitation of natural and human resources, human life on the planet is at risk of extinction.

Consulting any dictionary of modern written language leads us to conclude that the vernacular and the utopian are opposing concepts. While the vernacular (from the Latin, vernaculus,) means the characteristic of a specific country, a place or a region, the utopian (from Utopia, title of the famous book by Thomas More [1516]) means what would characterize an imaginary government in no particular place. In a figurative sense, while the vernacular is the correct, pure, of the earth, the utopian is the fanciful, imaginary, chimerical. In this text, I try to show that, contrary to this apparent contradiction and the consensus of dictionaries about it, there is more complicity between the two terms than one can imagine, and that these complicities have become more visible in recent times.

The title of this text was inspired by the work of one of the most notable and most forgotten Marxist theorists of the last century, Teodor Shanin, who carried out pioneering work to rescue the richness, diversity and dynamic character of Karl Marx's thought (against all odds). orthodoxies, Marxists and non-Marxists). Shanin took particular care to show the importance of Marx's unpublished work after the publication of the first volume of Das Kapital in 1867 (the last major work he published while he was alive) until his death in 1883, the “late Marx”, no less than 30.000 pages of notes. Until the publication of The capital, and despite having read more than any other European theorist of his contemporary on the history of non-European societies, namely Asian ones, Marx analyzed them from a Eurocentric, evolutionary perspective, centered on the idea that such societies represented previous and irremediably outdated stages of the developed capitalist societies of Europe. Even in the case of these, the only one that he analyzed with impressive detail and lucidity was England, the most developed capitalist economy of its time.

Attentive to the revolutionary movements that were emerging in the middle of Europe and that were not compatible with the model of proletarian revolution that he had theorized, Marx began to give them privileged attention, instead of ignoring them or forcing them into his theory. If this is true of the Paris Commune of 1871, it is even more true of the peasant-based revolutionary populist movement in Russia, which was very strong in the 1870s and 1880s. studying Russian obsessively (as if it were “a matter of life and death”, as his wife complained in a letter to Engels, Marx's faithful companion and collaborator). From then on and until his death, the heterogeneity of histories and social transformations became a central fact in Marx's reflections. The theoretical consequences were immediate: there are no monolithic laws of social development; there is not one, but several ways to reach socialism, and the analyzes of The capital they are entirely valid only for the case of England; the peasants, far from being an obstacle or a historical residue, can, in certain circumstances, be a revolutionary subject. All of this sounded strange, theoretically impure and “un-Marxist” in the eyes of most Marxists at the end of the 1924th century. This evolution of Marx's thought came to be considered a sign of mental weakness associated with old age, and one of the four versions of Marx's letter addressed to a Russian populist, Vera Zazulich, was censored by Russian Marxists and was only published in…1905. Interestingly, the same criticisms of theoretical impurity were leveled at Lenin by his comrades after 7-XNUMX.

What, after all, were Marx's sins? There were two. On the one hand, having valued local, vernacular contexts and experiences, even though they deviate from supposedly universal standards. On the other hand, attributing a positive and even utopian value to what was old, apparently residual (the Russian peasant commune based on community property and grassroots democracy, although always under the supervision of the tsarist despotic state) and challenged, through its voluntarism and moralism, the objective (and amoral) laws of social evolution that he himself had discovered.

All this seems like a story from a distant past and without relevance to our present and future, but in fact it is not so. This kind of debate, about the need to look in traditions for energies and clues to better futures and, more generally, about the difficulties of pure theory, whatever it may be, to deal with reality that is always rebellious and always in motion, accompanied the entire last century, and I think it will accompany us in the current century. By way of example, I mention two very different contexts in which the debate was present (if it is not still present). I leave aside the fact that none of the revolutionary processes that stabilized in the last century were carried out by the working class in the precise terms foreseen by Marxist theory, from the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 to the Mexican revolution of 1910, from the Chinese revolutions of 1910, 1927 -37 and 1949 to the Vietnamese revolution of 1945 and the Cuban revolution of 1959. In all of them, the protagonist was the oppressed working people in the countryside and in the city, and in some of them the peasants played a decisive role.

The first context was that of decolonization in the Asian subcontinent (especially in India) and in Africa. In all independence processes, the dilemma was present between the fact that local realities were so far removed from the European realities studied by Marx that it was a difficulty or an opportunity that only with many adaptations could one imagine nationalist revolutions with a socialist vocation in a Marxist version. In the case of India, the debate was ignited within the nationalist forces: on the one hand, the position of Nehru, who associated socialism with the modernization of India, in terms close to those of European modernization; on the other, Gandhi, for whom the richness of India's culture and communal experiences offered the best guarantee of real liberation. In 1947, Nehru's position prevailed, but the Gandhian tradition remains alive and operative to this day. In Africa, the temporal arc goes from 1957 (the independence of Ghana) to 1975 (the independence of the Portuguese colonies). Under penalty of committing some omission, I think that the four most notable leaders of the anti-colonial liberation struggle were Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Julius Nyerere (Tanzania), Leopold Senghor (Senegal) and Amílcar Cabral (Guinea-Bissau). All of them intensely lived the debate on the value of the African vernacular and all of them sought, albeit in different ways, to neutralize Marx's Eurocentrism and imagine futures for their countries that valued African culture, traditions and ways of life. Each in their own way contributed to the idea of ​​African socialism that claimed the diversity of paths to development in which African humanism took the place of unilinear progress and at all costs, and in which ancestral experiences of community life had more priority than the class struggle. The possibility of transforming the local and ancestral vernacular into the mobilizing idea of ​​a liberation utopia was present in all of them. Obviously, as with the late Marx, whom none of them knew, the vernacular would have to be adapted to unleash its utopian potential.

When, in 1975, the then Portuguese colonies gained independence, the conditions of the debate had changed profoundly due to the external context and also to knowledge of the evolution of previous experiences of independence on the continent. Even so, the tension between the vernacular and the utopian manifested itself in multiple ways. To give just one example, in Mozambique, the Frelimo party began by having a hostile position towards everything that was traditional because it saw in it a past irremediably adulterated by colonial violence. It was thus hostile to the continuity of traditional authorities that administered justice informally, by community members and with recourse to African justice systems. However, the dismantling of this system of community authorities caused such a disturbance in the ways of peaceful coexistence in communities, where official justice did not reach anyway, that the government went back and legitimized, in 2000, these authorities, which today function in in parallel with community courts. Similarly, in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, the tabanca courts persisted under the name of zona tribunals.

The second context, very different and much more recent, took place in Mexico with the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, in 1994, and in Bolivia and Ecuador, with the constituent processes that followed the victories in the presidential elections of Evo Morales (2006). and Rafael Correa (2007). The Zapatista experience represents one of the most complex combinations between the vernacular and the utopian, combining to this day the ideals of social and political liberation with the appreciation of the culture and community experiences of the indigenous peoples of southern Mexico. A counter-hegemonic understanding of human rights ideals is articulated with a radical demand for self-government and constant innovation from the self and the ancestor. In turn, the two democratic experiences in Bolivia and Ecuador took place after decades of mobilization of indigenous peoples, in such a way that ancestral indigenous cosmovisions decisively imprinted their mark on the Constitutions of Ecuador (2008) and Bolivia (2009). ). The idea of ​​development was replaced by the idea of ​​living well, the conception of nature as a natural resource was replaced by the conception of nature as pachamama, Mother Earth who must be cared for and whose rights are specifically enshrined in Article 71 of the Ecuadorian Constitution. The articulation between the vernacular and the utopian, between the past and the future, captured the enthusiasm of urban ecologist movements in many countries who, without knowing anything about indigenous philosophy, felt attracted by the respect that emerged from it for the values ​​of caring for nature and nature. ecological awareness that mobilized them. As with the Zapatistas before, the new and innovative emphasis on the vernacular and the local created languages ​​that transcended the local and were integrated into cosmopolitan emancipatory narratives with an anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist and anti-patriarchal register.

This creative tension between the vernacular and the utopian did not end with the historical experiences I have just mentioned. I dare to think that it will accompany us in this century, certainly strengthened by the alternatives that open up in the post-pandemic period. It is becoming evident that if societies and economies do not adopt ways of life other than those based on the unfair and limitless exploitation of natural and human resources, human life on the planet is at risk of extinction.

*Boaventura de Sousa Santos is full professor at the Faculty of Economics at the University of Coimbra. Author, among other books, of The end of the cognitive empire (Authentic).



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