The Limit Does Not Exist

An interview with Marxist philosopher Joshua Moufawad-Paul about the science of revolution at a time when socialism is supposedly becoming mainstream

Art by The Designers Republic

There is no question that a revolution is needed, but neither is there any certainty that it can ever be obtained. Even the best who ever practiced revolution eventually encountered an obstacle they were not able to overcome. If we are able to approach the history of proletarian revolution as a science problem, can we move beyond its limits? Joshua Moufawad-Paul (JMP) is a professor of philosophy at York University in Toronto; his authorial work is as a Marxist philosopher. This discipline views itself as a category of rational activity akin to the historiography of the sciences. Marxist philosophy follows theoretical—or, scientific—practice; it documents and organizes the historical events of revolutionary movements. JMP’s 2016 book Continuity and Rupture: Philosophy in the Maoist Terrain argues that the techniques used to seize and maintain power by the people of the Chinese Revolution are proved “true” in the same way as any natural experiment: Repetition shows that the results can be produced in any context. And yet there were obstacles encountered that led to China taking the capitalist road, so it is evident that its model carries certain dangers. The scientific approach to revolution is precisely to reproduce what was successful and experiment with approaches to avoiding history’s pitfalls. It would be necessary to first attain the heights of our historical precedents for us to surpass their limits.

In the context of a growing American social-democratic movement masquerading as socialist, I wanted to talk to JMP about the science of revolution. Specifically, I wanted to problematize how a scientific outlook approaches history and consider what role philosophy has in waging class struggle.

MARC.— What do you mean when you make the distinction between philosophy, science, and theory in your work?

JMP.— Philosophy by itself doesn’t establish truth. Theoretical terrains, the sciences being the most coherent of these, establish truth. Philosophy intervenes and tries to clarify the meaning of truth claims. One of the mistakes I think philosophers have made, historically, is seeing themselves as establishers of truth, even to the point of establishing a truth beyond and beneath science. The idea that philosophy is the founding of science, for example, goes all the way back to Plato.

What do we mean by scientist? This word has several senses even in relation to the so-called “hard” sciences. Are we talking about the scientist who works in the laboratory? The scientist who is involved in groundbreaking new research? Or the scientist who now mainly teaches and/or writes about science? When it comes to Marxism, the way we can define the scientist is in the first two senses: to see class struggle as the laboratory with the scientist being mass movements or cadres in those movements—that is, theorizing and engaging with the movement itself while experimenting with making revolution. At the root of this science we call Marxism is the notion that history is the history of class struggle. That’s its law of motion.

Radical theorists, particularly in Foucault’s tradition, talk about the “totalizing and exclusionary” nature of the scientific worldview. In this account, scientific discourse is but one of many self-contained, essentially fictitious constructions. Science is particularly maleficent because it positions itself as a metatheory that will account for everything, including other types of discourse. This forces a continuity between things that have nothing in common. If historical materialism is a science, then it is similarly “totalizing” in forcing a continuity between historical events. What are your thoughts on this critique of the scientific approach?

JMP: When it comes to the criticism that Marxism is flawed because it is wagered as a science, one of the claims is that it excludes—because it comes out of Europe and the European Enlightenment—other ways of living and other ways of knowing. There is a truth to this criticism, since Enlightenment thought as a whole has excluded other ways of thinking, and it would be wrong of us to say that the people developing Marxism didn’t get things wrong because of the problem of Eurocentrism and the history of violent colonial and capitalist relations that the Enlightenment developed alongside of. The historical-materialist method itself explains why we get things wrong—because we’re limited by the social relations that we find ourselves in when we’re investigating the world.

There are a lot of Marxists who do think that other knowledges and ways of living are important to incorporate into historical materialism. Historical materialism is quite flexible in that it has been able to do that. Look at the way that it developed through the Chinese Revolution: You see the universal aspects of it being adapted to quite clear, particular contexts and thus developing successive notions and conceptions based on the actualities of China.

Just like any scientific study, Foucault’s genealogical method, which he adapts from Nietzsche, is based on empirical data. Foucault and the scientifically minded Marxists are both methodologically committed to theories of marginalization that challenge conventional understanding. Where the two historical approaches diverge is at the level of historiography: A materialist history uses matter as the common element that provides a consistent context to explain change. Foucault does not believe that there truly is any such consistency in history; he offers the concept of “power” as a substitute for the being that exists in history. What is seemingly an advantage of this genealogical approach is that its edginess is perhaps more metaphysically sound, but furthermore it claims a greater theoretical respect for diversity. Foucault’s work is based on the study of empirical data, so it follows the scientific method in that regard. His method is based on carrying out case studies of marginalia, so it is also at least nominally radical. What do you think of the genealogical challenge to historical materialism?

Historical materialism claims that history to date can be understood according to class struggle, which is what Foucault would call a metahistorical claim that attempts to force a coherence on history when in fact there are no real origins or destinations. For Foucault, to claim that history can be understood by scientific axioms is to distort history. So for him the only thing to do is to trace the line of descent between historical phenomena, but it’s just a tracing, and it’s usually found in texts, discursive frameworks.
Another quote from his essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” about this that I think we can turn to is: “Genealogy . . . seeks to reestablish the various systems of subjection, not the anticipatory power of meaning but the hazardous play of dominations.” The fact that he sees genealogy as this history of contingent moments of power, and displacements of power, means that there’s no value more meaningful than another. Historical materialism, though, holds that you can talk meaningfully about the past, that abstraction from historical data is not necessarily murderous, and that everything is not contingent. There is necessity just as much as there is contingency; there are things to be valued and things to be condemned. And according to the genealogical method, once you start valorizing a notion such as class struggle, and creating categories such as “proletarian” and imposing them on what survives of historical memory, you start distorting history by excluding what does not fit into these categories.
One of the best ways that I can begin to address these problems is through Spivak’s critique of Foucault. Her famous piece “Can the Subaltern Speak?” actually begins by defending Marx’s approach against Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari and in fact using aspects of it to critique them.
She says, for example, that the problem with Foucault is that his entire approach is as exclusionary as, if not more so than, what he critiques in approaches such as historical materialism. Understanding questions of subjectivity concerning what Spivak calls the “non-European other” is beyond Foucault because, she says, he reduces Marxist political economy to a social text, when in fact it’s actually explaining very real economic processes. And, in the process of this reduction, Spivak indicates that Foucault’s genealogy, which claims to be about recognizing what is marginalized, doesn’t grant the marginalized a voice either. In fact, it takes away their voice by in fact mistaking the “macrological” approach that concretely explains why they are marginalized for a totalizing narrative of exclusion.

There is a reason why there is an English translation industry around Foucault, in contrast to other Marxist social theorists who were writing at the same time in France (e.g. the Marxist authors grouped around Althusser, many of whom only started to get published in English decades after they broke from Marxism). Foucault’s publishing industry—and the same with Derrida and other so-called “postmodern philosophers”—is massive. And now we know why: Gabriel Rockhill (an associate professor of philosophy at Villanova and the author of Counter-History of the Present) has done this whole study on it, based on declassified U.S. intelligence documents. The CIA was involved in pushing the over-translation of Foucault because they felt it was critical enough to be enjoyed in academia but was the kind of theory that would also undermine the popularity of Marxist theory. Of course this doesn’t mean Foucault is a CIA stooge—he would have despised these people and would have been horrified about what they were doing with his work— but it does indicate that counterinsurgency forces understand that there’s something more dangerous about the Marxist approach to making revolution than other theoretical traditions.

When I read your last book, Continuity and Rupture, I was struck by how the new model of a Maoist revolutionary party that you described was built to be fluid in a way that seems very modern. I think this appeals to a righteous expectation of people in general, which is for their technology of social organization to develop in relation to other technological developments. The challenge for a revolutionary party has been to maintain a coherent vanguard identity, and at the same time safeguard itself against the kind of internal corruption that you write about as endemic to Leninism.

There’s this old style of seeing the vanguard party as the general staff of the proletariat, as being top-down and commanding. And I think the Maoist conception of the vanguard party that emerges first in the Chinese Revolution is one that is connected to the mass line, the circuit from the masses and to the masses. This is still the notion of the vanguard; you still want to organize the most advanced elements first through the practice of the mass line. In order to do this there’s the idea of developing organizations around the party—some closer, some at a greater distance—which is the notion of the mass organization. Basically create and engage with all these small movements that meet people’s needs and try to bring people into a much more heterogeneous party-as-process, which uses mass organizations to renew itself.

Of course, I’m of the opinion that you still need to have a party apparatus that is both separate and involved with the movements it creates or absorbs, and this apparatus has characteristics scientifically learned from history: democratic centralism, and the concept of the vanguard, a clandestine aspect (if it’s trying to survive for very long and not get infiltrated to the extent that all its members are feds). But this party also needs to have multiple points of contact where it renews itself, or its dynamics can change because it’s held to account, where its members are also in these mass organizations or small movements that it calls into being. So that it can become a movement of movements, as I say. So that it can expand its sphere of influence in that kind of counter-hegemonic way.

A party that is constantly renewing itself through points of contact with the masses is more modern and appealing than a rigid Stalinist centralized institution; it even mirrors the development of state liberalism into the more agile neoliberal model, capable of meeting increasingly complex logistical demands. How does the “party of a new type” that you describe respond to the learned logistical and organizational experiences of making the two world-historical revolutions, in Russia and China?

When I conceptualize the party in the general way that I did in Continuity and Rupture, and other works, it is based on putting together a bunch of texts that come out through a certain region of Marxist theory, conceptions from the Communist Party of the Philippines or the Communist Party of Peru, for example.

The problems that led the bureaucratic apparatus that was established in the Soviet Union to defeat weren’t primarily on the level of productive relations and institutional development because, despite the kind of siege-socialist paranoia it endured, it still was productively impressive. There are good studies in this area, and I always instruct everyone to read what I think is the best of these: Charles Bettelheim’s Class Struggles in the USSR. Without being a starry-eyed account—its title is intentional and indicates the Maoist notion that class struggle persists within socialism—it does chart what was able to be accomplished while also getting into the limits of the economism that it criticizes.

This is where the Maoist notion of a party comes in, because I think the problems with the Soviet approach had less to do with its command over productive forces and more to do with the party’s inability to locate itself within the masses, which led to a commandism where it misunderstood the problems facing its development as mainly coming from external agents. It couldn’t conceptualize that bourgeois ideology lingered within socialism, internal to the society. Maoism conceptualizes line struggle (the notion that different political lines will emerge within a revolutionary organization during the course of struggle, and be either antagonistic or nonantagonistic, and that the course of the movement is determined by the vicissitudes of line struggle) and cultural revolution (the notion that the superstructure can obstruct the base and that classes and class struggle persist under socialism). Maoism thus holds that class struggle within socialist society generates the aforementioned problems. This is why Mao said that Stalin tended to treat non-antagonistic contradictions as antagonistic.

If we start imagining the way in which this idea of a vanguard party articulates itself through a whole plethora of mass organizations directly connected to what the masses want and need, we will also understand leadership among the masses and how to connect these masses with the party. I think this approach will produce an understanding of how to balance decentralization with centralization while also, in the course of making revolution, generating the germinal institutions and structures of socialist society. The struggle in this process will set up the possibility of a more substantial socialism.

What can be done, in the role of philosopher, to move revolutionary theory forward?

The idea of intervention and demarcation is important. Philosophy’s strength as a practice lies in forcing arguments upon the theoretical terrain—forcing particular positions, to make them stronger and encourage others to accept them. But, as I noted above, philosophers should be part of a mass movement and understand that their insights are worked out within such a movement. I think that every philosopher who cares about radical social transformation should be a kind of cadre connected to a mass movement, and using this connection to guide their practice, so that philosophy can function alongside a mass movement’s concerns. In this way, philosophy can present things with the kind of clarity and precision that movements need.