We tend today to be influenced by post-modern tendencies and to view truth as relative. We tend to think that understandings, in both the realms of fact and value, are shaped by culture, social position, and personal experiences. Among the bewildering variety of truth claims that exist in the world today, which have the most validity? Out tendency is to believe that it depends on your point of view. In accordance with this belief, we often assume that all truth claims have equal epistemological standing, and that all grand narratives unavoidably distort. With such relativist assumptions, we have no epistemological basis for challenging the historical distortions and the moral decadence of the Trump project.
Not that the Trump project is a radical departure from recent and historic trends in U.S. history. Since its establishment as an independent nation, the United States has taken a road of aggressive, ethnocentric nationalism, justifying it through ideological distortions. It conquered the indigenous nations and peoples as well as Mexico, ignoring their rights and claims. It built its economic wealth through commerce related to slavery, in both the U.S. South and the Caribbean islands. It turned to imperialist policies in the twentieth century, using a variety of interventionist means to gain access to the natural resources, human labor, and markets of various regions of the world, especially Latin America, thus fueling its economic growth. These various stages of conquest and exploitation were justified with blatant and subtle forms of racism. Following the Second World War, the United States turned to the permanent militarization of its economy and society, accompanied by the ideological distortions of the Cold War. And in subsequent stages, it expanded the militarization with the conservatism of Reagan, the neo-conservatism of Bush II, and the neofascism of Trump, at first justifying it with the Cold War ideology and later with the so-called War on Terrorism.
The Left did not have an effective response to the aggressive, ethnocentric nationalism of the United States, even before relativist tendencies dulled the Left’s epistemological reflections. With the deepening of the crisis that humanity confronts during the last forty years, the emergence of post-modern and relativist epistemological assumptions forms part of the problem. Post-modern assumptions provide justification for personal indulgence and retreat from social responsibility, and they promote a sense of hopelessness with respect to the possibilities for the development of a more just and truly democratic world. They undermine possibilities for the formulation of a scientifically informed grand narrative that effectively calls the people to the construction of a more responsible, just, and truly democratic nation.
Trump does us the favor of making clearer the urgency of the situation, and thus calling us to self-critical reflection. Can we of the Left not now see that we need to reconstruct our discourse and our strategies?
Our reconstruction must begin at the foundations, addressing the philosophical question of how we know. What is the basis for distinguishing what is true from what is false in both the realms of fact and value?
As we have seen, Marxism-Leninism has taken the lead with respect to the development of scientific knowledge (see “The significance of Marx” 2/16/2018). This legacy of the Left, unfolding on a global scale, is an important dimension of the necessary reconstruction of the Left in the United States. With pedagogically effective methods, we must teach our people that, although the universities claim to be centers of knowledge, they have in fact developed forms of philosophical, historical, and social scientific knowledge that are fragmented and Eurocentric. The universities, with the encouragement of their rich benefactors, have evolved in this manner in reaction to the wisdom that was emerging from the movements of the people. The universities have effectively disseminated among our people the false epistemological claim that Marxists and Leninists are ideologues, when it fact it is the universities that have cast aside the quest for truth in the defense of particular interests, which is precisely what ideology is.
Marxism-Leninism, as it has evolved in the Third World, provides an alternative narrative that pertains to the realms of fact and value and that provides a foundation for a universal human knowledge. It has empirically demonstrated that the modern world-system is constructed on a foundation of colonial and neocolonial domination, and as a result, the logic of the system requires the negation of the true sovereignty of nations and the social and economic rights of the people. Marxism-Leninism has shown, in theory and practice, that an alternative, more just, democratic, and sustainable world-system is possible and necessary (see various posts in the category Marxism-Leninism and its evolution).
The evolution of Marxism-Leninism to this understanding has dovetailed with tendencies in Christian epistemology and theology. Many years ago, I encountered black nationalist thought, and I could not overlook the fundamental differences in assumptions and understanding between white social scientists and black scholars. This led me to an investigation of the problem of the social foundation of knowledge, and to the question of whether objectivity in the social sciences is possible. In the pursuit of this question, I arrived to Fordham University, where two Jesuit priests, sociology professor Joseph Fitzpatrick and philosophy professor Gerald McCool, introduced me to the cognitional theory of Bernard Lonergan. The eminent Jesuit scholar was investigating whether or not there was any basis for affirming the validity of Thomist philosophical and theological claims in the modern era, and this led him to an investigation of the various forms of human knowledge. He arrived to the understanding that an objective knowledge is possible, not a knowledge that has certainty, but a form of knowledge in which claims of truth have a high probability of being correct, if the person seeking to understand were to explore all relevant questions through personal encounter with persons of different social positions and cultural horizons. Knowledge formed in this way, although not characterized by certainty, has far greater validity than claims formulated in a form that ignores historical understandings and disregards understandings that were emerging in other cultures and societies. True knowledge, for Lonergan, is a continually evolving understanding that transcends cultural differences, and it pertains to the realms of fact and value, that is, it includes understanding of both the true and the right (see “What is personal encounter?” 7/25/2013 and “What is cross-horizon encounter?” 7/26/2013 in the category Knowledge).
Lonergan’s investigation of human understanding did not include study of the work of Marx. But as Father Fitzpatrick sent me on my way, he counseled that my next step should be a study of Marx, with attention on epistemological issues. In my subsequent study, I found that Marx had followed an epistemological method that illustrated the validity of Lonergan’s cognitional theory. Marx systematically studied forms of knowledge that were beyond his native horizon of German philosophy, in that he obsessively studied British political economy and French socialism after his arrival in Paris in October 1843 (see “Marx illustrates cross-horizon encounter” 1/7/14 in the category Marx). Marx gave cross-horizon encounter a class dimension: he encountered the working class, or more precisely, the social movement in Paris organized by artisans, workers, and intellectuals in defense of the working class. Marx here discovered the key to the evolution of understanding in an integrated philosophical-historical-social science: encounter with the social movements of the dominated, taking seriously their insights and their vantage point, thereby discovering questions relevant to the issues at hand. This epistemological foundation established by Marx’s pioneering work was ignored by the universities, who organized study in a form that constrained the evolution of knowledge of social dynamics. Such structural limitations on understanding were consistent with the interests of the dominant class, inasmuch as understanding of the dynamics of domination and exploitation constitute the foundation for the emancipation of the people. As has been noted, the evolution of understanding from the foundation established by Marx proceeded from the practice of revolutions in Russia, China, and the Third World, at the margins of the Western universities.
Therefore, in our day, the alternative epistemology and political philosophy that is the foundation of the Left’s response to imperialism, neoliberalism, and neofascism must be discovered and developed through encounter with the Third World revolutions, whose key insights have been most fully and clearly articulated by their most outstanding and committed leaders. But the Left in the North, by and large, has not done so. How many Leftist intellectuals and activists of the North have studied the speeches and writings of Lenin, Mao, Ho, Fidel, Chávez, Correa, and Evo? How many have sought to understand the dynamics that were shaping the achievements and setbacks of the revolutionary processes of Latin America, Asia, and Africa?
The reconstruction of the discourse and strategies of the Left, necessary for effectively responding to emerging neofascism, must be based on a foundation of learning from the popular revolutions that have been forged by the neocolonized peoples of the earth. The leaders and intellectuals of the movements of the neocolonized peoples constitute the vanguard of the struggle for human emancipation, as were the intellectuals and workers of the Western European working class movement in the time of Marx.