From October 1843 to August 1844, having recently arrived in Paris to serve as co-editor of a newly formed German-French journal, twenty-five-year-old Karl Marx encountered the Parisian proletarian movement. During this time, Marx also obsessively studied the science of political economy, taking him beyond his previous doctoral study of German philosophy. These experiences were the basis of a profound intellectual and moral conversion. And they provided the experiential foundation for the insightful imagination of a critique of political economy from the proletarian point of view. Beginning with the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and continuing for the rest of his life, Marx proceeded to formulate a critique of political economy and an analysis of human history. In doing so, he moved European scholarship beyond the limitations of a bourgeois point of view (see McKelvey 1991, especially Chapter Five, “Marx’s Intellectual Development”).
More important than Marx’s conclusions, which necessarily were shaped by his time and social and geographical place, was his example. He provided a model for a method of seeking to understand, a model that is particularly relevant for intellectuals and academics who pertain to relatively privileged positions in a social system. The method involves encounter with the social movements forged from below, by the exploited, superexploited, and excluded sectors. Marx did not formulate the method explicitly; rather, he expressed it implicitly through his writings on the proletarian point of view and by the example of the approach that he used as he sought to understand.
During the course of the twentieth century, the philosophy of social science would arrive to understand that knowledge of social dynamics is rooted in the social position of the person who seeks to understand. The Catholic philosopher Bernard Lonergan moved beyond this formulation. He showed through study of human understanding in various fields that the limitations imposed by social position can be overcome through personal encounter with persons of different horizons, taking seriously the understandings of these persons. We can reformulate Lonergan with attention to the example of Marx: persons in relatively privileged social positions can arrive to a universal understanding by encountering social movements that are formed by the excluded and exploited.
In the 1970s, Immanuel Wallerstein, on the basis of his encounter with African nationalism in the 1960s, came to the insight that what historians and social scientists must understand is not the “society” but the “world-system.” Taking the world-system as his unit of analysis, Wallerstein traced the historical development of the world-system from its origins in the sixteenth century to the present. He revealed the colonial foundations of the world-system; and he recognized that the colonized have formed social movements in opposition to the world-system, although he did not systematically encounter these anti-systemic movements during the course of his career.
Marx, Lonergan and Wallerstein teach us a fundamental epistemological insight: knowledge of the world-system is attained through personal encounter with the movements formed by the colonized. The knowledge that we attain through this method, which I call “cross-horizon encounter,” is not certain, because there always is a possibility that relevant questions have not been asked. Nor is it eternal, because future economic and social development will give rise to new insights. But it is universal, in that it does not reflect the vantage point of any particular social position, inasmuch as it takes into account relevant questions that emerge to the consciousness of persons of different social positions. It transcends particular social position defined by one’s nations, class, ethnic group or gender. As a universal understanding that transcends particular social position, although it is neither certain nor eternal, it represents the most advanced form of knowledge of which humanity is capable in the current stage of human economic and social development.
With such an understanding of understanding, we can move beyond pluralism and multiculturalism. These currents of thought rightly exposed European pretensions to universal knowledge as ethnocentrism, central to the justification of European domination of the world from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, and of the prevailing structures of exploitation that emerged from this domination. But pluralism and multiculturalism left in doubt the possibility of affirming the true and the right as applied to all. Our people have been ill at ease with its implicit moral relativism, especially with its most extreme form, post-modernism. So the people fight back, seeking to regain a more secure world in which everyone understands the difference between right and wrong, even if we do not always adhere to it.
Like the peoples of the North, the peoples of the Third World were never comfortable with an implicit moral relativism. As Sara Rosales, founder of a women’s organization in Honduras, said to me in 1996, “Our children do not have enough beans to eat. This is wrong, and everybody knows that it is wrong.”
As the Third World project evolved from 1955 to the present, it reflected a practical commitment to the proposition that there are universal truths. The Third World project formulated principles that ought to guide humanity, based on the self-evident truth that colonial domination has no moral justification, and the equally self-evident truth that no social system can ignore human needs. These principles that ought to guide humanity include: all nations have a right to sovereignty; all peoples have the right to self-determination; the powerful nations should not interfere in the affairs of the nations of the world; all persons have social and economic rights, including access to nutrition, shelter, security from violence, health care, education and cultural formation; and the state plays an important role in protecting the sovereignty of the nation and the rights of persons.
For those of us who are academics and intellectuals of the United States, the important contributions of Marx, Lonergan and Wallersein form part of our intellectual legacy, and the dignified behavior of Third World charismatic leaders is part of our global reality. Our intellectual legacy and the powerful example of the colonized provide a context that makes it possible for us to move social scientific and historical knowledge beyond Eurocentrism. They enable us to do something like what Marx did, namely, encounter the Third World movement of national and social liberation, and on this basis, formulate a critique of the capitalist world-economy and human history from a vantage point that takes into account the insights of the colonized.
Such intellectual work, seeking a truly universal understanding, must be tied to practice. Our goal is to educate our people, so that leaders will emerge among them, leaders who can point to a new direction for our nation and our people, casting aside imperialism and neoliberalism, envisioning a state that acts decisively in defense of the needs of the people, and that works in cooperation with other nations in creating a just, democratic and sustainable world-system.
Such intellectual work tied to political practice must reject, ignore or get around the rules and assumptions of the bureaucratized university, which has been shaped to serve the corporate class, imperialism, and the national security state. It requires fidelity to truth and social justice, sustained by the hope that, regardless of what sanctions are applied, one will endure and will continue to develop the capacity for principled intellectual work in service of human need.
In following fidelity rather than bureaucracy, intellectuals can find freedom to study the various Third World revolutions and their charismatic leaders. Discovering relevant questions through encounter with the charismatic leaders and national and social liberation movements of the Third World, intellectuals of the North can acquire the capacity to move beyond the theories and assumptions of the societies of the North, incorporating into their understanding the experiences of the Third World revolutions, which constitutes an important part of the experience of humanity.
Such cross-horizon encounter can enable intellectuals of the United States to defend the nation, by debunking the false dominant narrative, and formulating and disseminating an alternative narrative that sees the strengths and limitations of the democratic quest of US popular movements, and that understands the search for democracy in the United States as one example of a universal human thirst for social justice.
Such is the basic method of intellectuals in privileged social positions in the nations of the core. For the colonized peoples, it is a question of being organically tied to the movements of one’s own people, ignoring the rules of the bureaucratized university, imposed by colonizer. Such organic connection of intellectuals of the colonized world includes people of color in the United States.
A powerful example of intellectual work tied to the needs of the African-American community is the life and work of Jacob Carruthers, who was my academic adviser in the early 1970s at the Center for Inner City Studies in Chicago, today known as the Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies. Before being called to the Center to teach political theory and serve as assistant director, Jake spent ten years working in the US Postal Service, a punishment for his previous violation of the rules of the university. I have never forgotten Jake’s way of calling us to fidelity to our mission as intellectuals in service of humanity: “You always have to be ready to go back to the post office.”
McKelvey, Charles. 1991. Beyond Ethnocentrism: A Reconstruction of Marx’s Concept of Science. New York: Greenwood Press.