Friday, November 21, 2008

historicism (2)

Another example of historicism: C.P. Fitzgerald writes in The Birth of Communist China:

"Confucianism was not, however, a dynamic creed. It looked back in a half-antiquarian spirit to a supposed golden age in the distant past. It did not attempt to arouse enthusiasm, to inspire the mass. It was quite content to let the "stupid people" worship any manner of god as and how they wished. The Communists being by definition the party of the people must make a religion which will satisfy the people, but which must be no more "superstitious" than the ethical system which used to be the privilege of the scholars. The people have no reason to think that they were happy in the remote past, any more than today, so the new heaven must be cast into the future, to which all may strive, even if few will see it come to pass.

The gods must be overthrown, since they promised nothing in this life and the Communists are only concerned with this world, to them the only reality. The people must also be aroused, given purpose and hope, simple ideas and clear manifestations of the improvements which the Communists seek to bring about. This is achieved by making the people into a God. The people are themselves God. They can do nothing wrong, because by their doing it it becomes necessarily right. They cannot be identified with any one or two fallible human beings; even the party, the chosen instrument, may make a mistake, may fail to do the will of the people. The fact that it has made a mistake is itself evidence that it has not done the will of the people, just as its triumph is evidence of the "correctness" of its line"


"Nothing against the will of the people can ultimately triumph"

Fallibility was formerly thought to especially afflict the common people: the labouring classes. Now it is understood to afflict the higher cadres; the labouring classes are no longer to be thought of as fallible, if not individually then certainly as a class.

This change in the way people think certainly does track a change in the way society is. But is this the same kind of historicism as the example from the textbook of European philosophy? Perhaps what C.P. Fitzgerald has noticed shouldn't be counted as historicism at all. But why not? The only reason to exempt it is that it's overly correct: the periodisation of history (empire - interregnum - communism) is obvious, and part of the mechanism by which ideas are reproduced obviously exists (CP indoctrination, for one thing). The underlying process is exactly the same in Fitzgerald's book and the Chinese textbook. The real difference is in the style employed. And the distinction between between what Fitzgerald writes and what we normally think of as historicism - fairly free speculations about human existance - is also stylistic. Fitzgerald is not in the business of writing after dinner paradoxes - that's it, mainly.

It is a matter of judgement, a weighing up of efficacy against accuracy, as to how far it is prudent to advance with speculative historicism. Onto thinner ice: it's noticeable that the new paradigm in Chinese political thought shows a marked similarity to European liberalism, with the minor variation of the market standing in for the people in liberal thought. The change in both cases tracks that slippery category, the advent of modernity (China had a modern bureaucracy for two thousand years but not a political structure subserviant to commodity production). It could be argued that with the advent of the commodity system (principally in the domain of the intellectual class), one no longer reasons by ordinary induction from human nature to social institutions but by a special kind of induction from social institutions to human nature. This, inevitably, is speculation.

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