Wisdom in communism

Wisdom in communism
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  HM talk November 2013 1 Johan Siebers Wisdom in Communism Then we went to bed. But I did not sleep, I lay awake. I thought about who could help. I racked my brains for a solution. The book I had  been reading bore the title: The Robbers' Cave in the Sierra Morena or The Angel of All the Oppressed  . When father had come home and fallen asleep, I climbed out of bed, stole out of my bedroom and got dressed. Then I wrote a note: 'You shouldn't work your fingers to the  bone, I'm going to Spain; I'm going to get help.' I put this note on the table, put a piece of dry bread in my pocket together with a few  pennies from my skittles money, crept down the stairs, opened the door, drew another deep sobbing breath, but quietly, quietly, so nobody would hear, and then went down into the market-place with muffled steps and out along the Niedergasse, the Lungwitzer Weg which leads via Lichtenstein and Zwickau to Spain, to the land of the noble robbers, the helpers in need.  Karl May, Mein Leben und Streben (Quoted in Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope , p. 352.) In this talk I would like to consider the place of wisdom in the renewal of communism. This theme may seem to be a niche interest, at best, and to stem from a reactionary desire at worst. In the writings of Marx and Engels the word ‘wisdom’ is really only used as a polemical tool, to ridicule the prejudices of others who are misled by the presumed final truth of their own falsehoods. The idea of wisdom, initially, belongs in the critique of ideology, along with the ideas such as morality and religion. It indicates blindness to the materialist basis of our thoughts, dreams, experiences. Wisdom, in one word, is idealism. In the classical philosophical tradition (Plato and Aristotle) a distinction was made between  practical wisdom and theoretical wisdom. Both senses of wisdom imply the ability to identify what is important and to stick to it in practice. Both are not innate or a matter of talent, but require a deliberate practice of training and discipline. This means that wisdom, in both senses, can in principle be achieved by everyone. In the practice of gradually acquiring wisdom, the human being takes hold of herself and comes to lead her life by will and insight, riding the waves of appetite and emotion without being enslaved by them. Wisdom is a form of autonomy. Yet practical wisdom differs from theoretical wisdom. Practical wisdom is a matter of prudence (sophrosune), something that can only be learned by doing it in practice. Theoretical wisdom, for classical philosophy, is a contemplative activity, Plato and Aristotle call it theoria , which comes about on the basis of an insight in and acquaintance with the absolute, with unconditional being. On the one hand this contemplative praxis requires certain intellectual insights, into the nature of being, the forms of the reality, the necessary existence of an absolute being and so on, on the other hand it is itself a form of unconditional existence. When we are engaged in theoria  - intellectual wisdom is not a state but an activity  –   we are, infosar as humanly possible, one with the unconditional dimension of existence. We become like God; we become God. Aristotle says in his ethics that the life of theoria  is the highest  HM talk November 2013 2 happiness that is available to human beings, even higher than the happiness afforded by a life lived with practical wisdom, with sophrosune. The life of theory is what is called  sophia . I do not have to repeat here the analyses of this way of thinking that have shown how this contemplative idealism is a reflection of the slave owner society (Marx) or of the circulation of money (Sohn-Retel), or of a patriarchal superego structure (Freud). Also the distinction  between vita activa and vita contemplativa has been criticized as well as loosened up by Arendt and by Bloch. In one word: philosophers have up until now only interpreted the world, the point however is to change it. It is not so much the case that we have to dismiss entirely what Aristotle is talking about when he speaks of theoria; the historical materialist stance is to say that the realization of it requires the abolition of class society and the abolition of class society is the realization of it. ‘Philosophy can only be realized with the sublation of the  proletariat, the proletariat can only be sublated with the realization of philosophy’ (Marx). The lingering with or returning to a discourse of sophia is, for the historical materialist,  philosophy keeping itself alive because that moment of its realization was missed (Adorno). But this is precisely what has happened. It is the situation in which we are trying, now, to renew the communist hypothesis. Badiou describes the attitude we have to employ today in remaining faithful to the communist hypothesis in terms of courage, a courage that draws its inspiration for another experience of time than the one afforded by capitalism: [C]ourage, I would suggest, is the principal virtue in face of the disorientation of our own times. (…) The virtue of courage constructs itself through endurance within the impossible; time is its raw material. What takes courage is to operate in terms of a different durée  to that imposed by the law of the world. 1   Renewing the existence of the communist hypothesis requires, as Badiou explains, the long  breath of the courage to wait and prepare. Without t he availability of a time different ‘ from the time the world’ such a courage is impossible to muster. We need the distance theory affords in order to be courageous in practice. Badiou is not the first one to think along these lines. Also Zizek has claimed again and again that now is a time for thought, that our activism has first of all to create the ideas and language in which to speak our unfreedom. He speaks of a ‘communist absconditus’, invokes the apocalyptic horizon of the communist hypothesis in order to activate it for his own relentless style of the relentless criticism of existing conditions. For Zizek theory becomes the necessary preparation for a political and existential practice that takes the ideological scales from our eyes, even where those scales are not rose- but red-tinted. Communism has to learn to understand that it is grounded in an awareness of a  pervasive lack that holds us together if it is to renew itself. Badiou sees philosophy as a coordination of the excessive moments in science, art, love and politics  –   in other words in the  practices that make up our collective lives. Between a coordinating thinking of lack and of excess, the long durée opens up that can function as the trajectory along which we can find the courage we need to be communists today. 1   Badiou , ‘The Communist Hypothesis’,  New Left Review , 2008    HM talk November 2013 3 In renewing communism both thinkers employ an argumentative strategy that is familiar from another domain: the relation between the world and the church in the Christian faith. Moreover, they both orientate themselves on an unconditional dimension (the universal or absolute event here, the lack constitutive of subjectivity there) in their rethinking of communism. For Badiou it is even very clear that the practical wisdom of courage cannot exist without the intellectual wisdom of sophia: ‘the combination of thought processes—  always global, or universal, in character   —  and political experience, always local or singular, yet transmissible’ 2  Both thinkers can, from their individual procedures, open up a possibility or resistance  between structures of appropriation and alienation that are ultimately all ways of perpetuating domination. That is where their value lies. The difference between Badiou and Zizek is the difference between the Greek philosopher and the Christian apostle; the first relying on the rational insight into the nature of universality, crafting a praxis of wisdom on the basis of it; the second relying on the unavailable unconditional of love and being seen to be a fool to the world, as the Christian wisdom was always foolishness in the eyes of the world . Zizek’s works can be read as a remastered version of Erasmus’  In Praise of Folly . It would not go too far to see in Badiou the remnants of Dominican militant rationalism (in the words of the medieval pun, the Domini canes  –   the hounds of the Lord) and in Zizek the inheritance of the Franciscans, Christianity through the law of the heart; the one who gives it all away and who wears only the T-shirts given to him by airline companies. Precisely because the renewal of communism requires us to think about its invariants, in other words, we are almost automatically reminded of the that grand discourse of the invariant, the tradition of of intellectual wisdom, or sophia. In the history of Marxist thought there is, as far as I know, only one thinker, Ernst Bloch, who has gone back to the idea of Sophia in order to think about its relevance for us. In the time that remains I will briefly sketch some aspects of Bloch’s rethinking of Sophia. The blow which Brecht’s death inflicts on us is so ftened by Brecht himself. The poet met  both life and death with soberly profound, sonorously precise wisdom. Another West- Eastern Divan , completely new and equally ancient,  Eighteenth Brumaire and Lao Tzu in one encounter, the one reading and meeting its m atch through the other. The cloud, ‘quite white and very high above,’ of which Brecht’s ‘Remembering Marie A.’ speaks, will never vanish. He himself has become it, high and near, pure light and fully human. (Ernst Bloch, 14 August 1956, my translation) A short statement, written on the day Brecht died. Here we see a number of aspects of the concept of wisdom. Wisdom has to do with how we meet life and death. Wisdom has to do with depth but also with precision, and with sound (“Klang”). Depth, precision an d sound are aesthetic categories that indicate clarity and distinction  –   presence  –   as well as aura  –    possibility. Wisdom is new and yet ancient, it is a combination and mutual reinforcement of the West-Eastern Divan , Goethe’s Sufi -inspired love poems, the  Eighteenth Brumaire , Marx’s 2  Badiou 2008.  HM talk November 2013 4 classical analysis of ideology, and the Tao Te Ching  , the book of the way that pervades all  being  –   a topic to which Brecht also devoted one of his calendar stories. Wisdom in historical materialism and communism is no longer the domain of a master whose wisdom consists in authority, in self-sufficiency and spiritual leadership: that basic form of social structure we can now see as part of a past form which we can emancipate ourselves if we choose to. Wisdom now becomes an aspect of the life, and death, of the relating, loving, creative subject, critically aware of the interests that form and deform knowledge, in tune with the real tendency that is latent in the world. In the case of Brecht, this wisdom remains after his death, in the cloud that he has become. The cloud refers to Brecht’s well known poem  Erinnerung an die Marie A.  (  Remembrance of Marie A. ), in which a kiss between lovers is remembered by one of them only because his eye fell on a single cloud in the blue sky above as they kissed: Und über uns im schönen Sommerhimmel War eine Wolke, die ich lange sah Sie war sehr weiß und ungeheuer oben Und als ich aufsah, war sie nimmer da. ... Und auch den Kuss, ich hätt' ihn längst vergessen Wenn nicht die Wolke da gewesen wär. (Above us in the summer skies Was a cloud that caught my eye It was so white and so very high above And when I looked up, it had never been. …  And even that kiss, I would long since have forgotten it If the cloud had not been there) Bertolt Brecht,  Erinnerung an die Marie A . The cloud retains the fleeting moment in memory by interrupting it. It vanishes with the moment of the kiss, as if it had never been, but functions as both a negation and a promise or exp ectation. The poet’s work   has become such a negation and promise itself, an expression of what is missing; the unconditional or invariant under conditions of communism, only seen as the excess or lack of a situation. That is at the same time the existence of the communist hypothesis today. Here we have the core of ‘sophia for our time’. Brecht’s wisdom was on one hand new, it  brought the treasures of wisdom back from the other world into which tradition had stored them into this life and put them to use in living up to life and death. It was ancient on the other because Brecht gave voice to something that, for us too, remains unfulfilled. Wisdom is a ‘negative magnitude’, but only when it is seen as such does it become the motor of engaged resistance, the access to a time not of this world, to return to Badiou, from which the courage to remain faithful to the communist invariant becomes a real possibility for us.  HM talk November 2013 5 Bloch only addresses wisdom explicitly in one essay, entitled Über den Begriff Weisheit   ( On the concept of wisdom ), published in the journal Sinn und Form  in 1951. 3  In it, Bloch carries out the, for him typical, process of inheritance: hearing out what was left unfulfilled and hence future in a past that is no longer there. He identifies aspects of sophia that he re-interprets in a materialist vein: calmness, maturity, care, imperturbability, simplicity, tao, the contrast between experience and the ‘invariant of direction’, conformity of the will with the final cause and  –   importantly  –   humor. Finally, Bloch discusses the extent to which  philosophy has a role to play in mediating wisdom to communist practice and theory. For Bloch, the realization of philosophy does not mean its disappearance. It means that the unfulfilled core of existence, the lack in being, can become the experience from which we all live. Philosophy does not, as it has sometimes been portrayed in marixst thought, disappear with the end of ideology. It, too, has a core of unfinished business, the remembrance of the totum or totality ‘without which’, for Bloch, ‘no concrete praxis is possible any longer’.   Bloch’s essay was long in the making for it is already mentioned in the early 1930s, in a letter in which Bloch mentions that an essay by the same title had been accidentally thrown away  by the cleaning lady. Bloch says that he looked for it for hours in the trash containers outside his house, assisted by Adorno’s partner Gretel Karplus, but to no avail, and would have to write it again. Around the time of writing of this first version, Bloch was also working on the writings of Johann-Peter Hebel, in whom he saw a European and secular version of the idea of tao. But even earlier than that, in the collection of essays  Durch die Wüste  ( Through the desert  ), published in 1923, the motif of wisdom surfaces. 4  In an essay, dated 1920, which is entitled On the moral and spiritual leader, or the double way of the human face , Bloch criticizes the very idea of the leader, or master, and the group that follows him or her, an idea that has always been part of the traditions of wisdom and was also again at the time Bloch wrote this essay popular in Germany again, right after World War I; we can think of the youth movement of the time and, in literature, of the George circle, which Bloch mentions specifically. For Bloch, we live in the darkness of the lived moment. Our identity is as yet still masked, has not come out, is ‘half given’ to ourselves, and ‘half symbol.  This means that “In the end there 3   Sinn und Form  1951, vol. 3. Later the essay was included in vol. 10 of Bloch’s collected works . 4    Durch die Wüste , Berlin: Paul Cassirer Verlag 1923. The book was re-issued by Suhrkamp in 1964, and the essays were later included in vols. 9 and 10 of Bloch’s collected works. It contains essays written between 1910 and 1923. Some were published earlier in newspapers and journals or were part of the first edition of Geist der Utopie  ( Spirit of Utopia ) but were removed in the second edition of that book, and hence found their way into  Durch die Wüste . The title is a reference to the journey through the desert by the Jewish people and to a popular adventure novel of the late 19 th  century by Karl May with the same title. Karl May occurs as a constant reference in Bloch’s work for the utopian nature of popular culture. Both references together form the context for Bloch’s discussion of the ‘slow ending’ of the long road out of capitalism, which has been tried time and again for ‘four hundred years’ (1964 edition, p. 7) ; a long road to Spain, to the helpers in need; the warping of space that the utopian experience occasions is a prerequisite for the journey through the desert; Utopia is both near and far (an insight Bloch formulates as early as 1918 and which is taken up as a central motif by Adorno : ‘Allein erst äußerste Ferne ware die Nähe; Philosophie ist das Prisma, das deren Farbe auffän gt’( Solely the furtherst distance would be nearness; philosophy is the prism, in which its colors are caught),  Negative Dialektik  , Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag 1970, p. 66; tr. Redmond, amended). .
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