By Kumar David –
Lenin and Rosa: Conflicting imperatives on the National Question – Lenin: The incarnation of Kant’s categorical imperative
They were both born today (22 April); Kant in 1724, Lenin in 1870. Kant lived 80 productive years, Lenin died at the comparatively young age of 54. There are interesting themes relating Kant to Lenin, and to Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) of Polish nationality and in the judgement of most the true intellectual heir of Marx. Lenin and Rosa had enormous regard for each other but were conflicted on some issues; the one most relevant to Lanka’s misery is the national question. The latter part of this essay will turn to this.
Since Kant is a birthday boy a simplified account of the highlights of what he was up to is appropriate. It has been said: “You can philosophise with Kant or you can philosophise against him, but you can’t philosophise without Kant”. This is an exaggeration, which is true only of Aristotle, but shows the regard in which he is held. The big deal is that Kant rescued philosophy from the battering inflicted by the British Empiricists whose savage assaults came to the brink of emptying classical philosophy of all content. I don’t know why they are called empiricists because their thinking was absolutely opposed to what we scientists call empirical. Locke was a reasonable chap and did not go all the way to solipsism (nothing exists except me and my mind; knowledge is no more than my own consciousness; the external world is unknowable), but Bishop Berkeley and David Hume denounced materialism and advocated ‘myself and me alone’ philosophies which brought Western Philosophy to a standstill and seemed to vanquish materialism and the external world.
Kant’s great breakthrough was to substantiate the thesis that matter and mind both existed and interleaved in certain ways. Mind was not a tabula rasa (a blank sheet) on which experience and the outside world wrote. Mind was a creative and independent agent which organised and ordered the stuff of experience into knowledge. Certain things belonged exclusively to mind – Kant called them a priori – the concept of number, the rules of pure mathematics, geometry, logical ordering. He even said that space and time, through which we ordered experiences, belonged to mind but this claim has been controversial. He postulated ‘categories’ which belong exclusively to mind and play a role in collating knowledge. Examples of categories are Quantity, Quality, Relation (e.g. the concept of cause and effect) and Modality (e.g. possibility, necessity). These were the processes through which mind ordered experience and built knowledge. Kant never doubted the importance of the material world and to that extent he was a materialist, despite which, he is called the founder of German idealism.
(Young people familiar with computers can think of it like this. The interface Inputs data to the Processor, which runs the Algorithms, and Outputs the findings. Now compare Input to human experience, Processor and Algorithm to brain and mind, and Output to knowledge).
Kant abolished Cartesian Dualism: ‘Which comes first, mind or matter?’ He also deflated Descartes’ cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) which asserts the primacy of mind over matter. A modern materialist neuroscientist would, of course, respond to Descartes “You have a gangly blob of soft tissue in your skull, that’s why you can think”. Book-learned philosophers will be hopping mad at the way I am simplifying things; forget these coots; what have done for you all these years?
All this is in Kant’s hugely influential Critique of Pure Reason (Kritik der reinen Vernunft – 1781). He wrote a second boring book (he wrote many) which was not as influential. This was about morals not philosophy, but it is my tongue in cheek transition to Lenin. In Critique of Practical Reason (Kritik der praktischen Vernunft – 1788), he developed the concept Categorical Imperative (CI). He said there are two types of motivation that may make us do good things; the lesser motivation he confusingly called Hypothetical Imperative (HI). This is when you do something good because it makes you feel good or it makes someone else happy.
On a dark night you find a satchel with lots of money and return it to the owner whose phone number you find in the satchel because it makes the owner happy and pleases you to be a fine chap – that’s HI. On the other hand, CI is if you return it because it is morally right to do so; maybe you don’t even meet the owner, or just leave it at the police station for collection. The reason for your action is moral law, your inner character, righteousness. It depends on your inner metal, your upbringing, the values you learnt at your mother’s knee, etc. For Kant CI is morally superior to HI.
On a hike though the nature trails and hills of Hong Kong an environmentalist explained why we should preserve the ecosystem and endangered species. Forests and species may contain plants and creatures which may one day be found to have medicinal or useful properties he explained. I objected: “So if useful properties were absent, is it ok to destroy the environment? No, we must protect nature because we have to do so; we are driven by something inside us”. The chap said, approvingly, that I was influenced by a categorical, not a hypothetical imperative. I got the point very well that day.
If you caught Lenin off guard and asked: “Comrade why do you want to make revolution?” I bet he would blurt out, “But I have to!” On reflection he will add practical reasons to this categorical imperative – peace, bread, land to the peasants, ending oppression and tyranny, and all that. That’s fine but the cat is out of the bag; the categorical imperative defines Lenin’s psychology. His “iron will” about the revolutionary party and about political power are two examples of what one might call his categorical imperative. The physiognomy of the Bolsheviks was organisation, discipline, ideology, democratic-centralism and a no-free-lunch commitment to action. This was validated in the maelstrom of 1917, however the post-script is that it is no longer relevant in most of the world; autocratic and repressive police states are found only in Middle Eastern monarchies and a few African and other dictatorships. The Leninist party was a perfect model – but for its day.
Lenin’s obsession with power has been the subject of libraries of books, but I intend to touch only on the national question and his dispute with Rosa. The kernel of ‘The Right of Nations to Self-Determination’ (RSD) is that minorities, if they are of size and geographic focus to be able to survive as a state, have the right to choose. Lenin does not offer blanket advice for or against separation; that depends case by case, one size does not fit all. Ceylon Tamils, Catalans, the Scots and the Taiwanese, need to be discussed individually. But RSD does say: “In the end, let the buggers choose themselves”.
Rosa wrote off all this as tosh. For heaven’s sake the party of world socialism, the beacon of the future, could not hark back to a pre-capitalist cave! We have to look forward to a world in which humanity pools its social and productive abilities (cultural and linguistic identities must be protected); socialism means global accord. She would have campaigned against Brexit and stood for a Socialist United States of Europe to replace the EU.
Lenin was a strategist, Rosa a visionary. Though the difference seems philosophical there was a tactical side. In vast Russia the proletariat was a minority, the huge peasant mass plus small nations a majority. For revolution – ending Tsarist oppression of workers, peasants and minorities – an alliance with the peasantry and the small nations (national minorities) was imperative. Hence land to the peasant, RSD for the nations. It worked; unsurprisingly not a single minority nation (Finland was a special case) chose to leave the union; all joined the USSR.
Tactical imperatives in Germany and occupied Poland were opposite to Russia. National unification, especially in Germany, was long complete. The task in the eyes of the German and Polish Social Democratic Parties and their famed leaders, Bebel, William Liebknecht and Rosa, was to go forward to a socialist order. Rosa in particular was adamant that Germany and her Poland are better off united. This crystal-clear vision was half a century before the European Union.
Political circumstances in Lanka pose both issues; national unification, that is reconciling all communities, and the challenges of development in a modern world. However, Lanka is at the stage where economic advancement to meet the needs of all peoples cannot advance without national unification – that is the lesson of a 30-year civil war. “Solving the national question” (to put in formula terms), the Leninist ring of fire, is what we must of necessity pass through before we can sight Rosa’s promised land.
We have an obstacle to surmount; the racism and atavism of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s bid for power; frontally, or from behind a facade. Feb 10 showed that about 60% of Sinhala-Buddhists (SB) identified electorally with MR and his double-agent Sirisena; the minorities rejected them tout court. On the other side were, say 35% of SB voters (more if you count UNPers who abstained ‘to teach Ranil a lesson’) and nearly 100% of all minority peoples. To cobble together an alliance to defeat an MR front-man at a presidential poll and secure an (at least) hung parliament is doable as all political actors are now alert. But this entails a conundrum; all the minorities plus a minority of the majority, defeating a majority of the majority. There is time enough to change this and secure a more even split of the majority community, but even otherwise the resulting state will be constitutionally lawful. It will also be politically stable if the government of the day is determined, committed to the categorical imperative of a plural nation and does not shrink. It will not work if it lacks an iron-will and pussy-foots, as it did in the last three years, trapping itself in the double-bind of playing both sides. Wonder whether Ranil, rid of the Sirisena pestilence, can show nerve on this last chance?