A Spectre is Haunting Buddhism, or: Give Marx Some Credit
Posted by Glenn Wallis on March 7, 2013
I want to start at the end, and state my conclusion at the outset, so that it doesn’t get lost in the supporting text that follows. Conclusion: x-buddhism leaves its politics unthematized, and therefore hides it from (1) itself and (2) its acolytes. We should, of course, expect this degree of unconsciousness from a form of thought that is grounded in faith in an abiding absolute such as The Dharma (not to mention its zombie-like persistence in positing a transcendent Self.) Affective and cognitive conditions ensue from such faith, and these conditions breed an unthinking political subject. I have in mind in particular the conditions of x-buddhist specularity, whereby the world becomes x-buddhism’s self-reflective mirror, and the Principle of Sufficient Buddhism, whereby nothing other than The Dharma need be thought.
How else might we understand the lack of political awareness exhibited by our x-buddhist communities? Does, say, Jon Kabat-Zinn, give thought to the real-life political implications of his rhetoric of “non-reactivity” and “non-judgmentalism”? Weren’t those qualities on full display during George Bush’s build-up to the American war in Iraq? Does Sharon Salzberg understand the political implications of her many comments along the lines of “We learn and grow and are transformed not so much by what we do but by why and how we do it”? Right, Sharon. The Koch brothers would like to offer you a job in their PR department.
I asked this before, in Extrapolating Equanimity, to virtually no response, “what kind of political philosophy might we extrapolate from x-buddhist teachings?” For instance, can “equanimity” be seen as a buddhacized version of “political complacency”? Now, we also have to ask that question about the project on this blog: what are the implications of the non-buddhist critique for political thought and action?
So, to the beginning.
As so often happens, several matters came together to form the critical mass of a new post. The first matter in the present case concerns the interplay on this blog between the theoretical-practical discussion of x-buddhism and that of political thought, specifically marxism. Many readers seem to find the two topics unrelated. So, I started to give it more thought. Then, second, in his comment to Craig’s recent post “Practicing in Delusion,” Patrick posed a bunch of probing questions directly related to that theme. For instance:
Various factions within Marxism contest many of the elements of Marxist theory and practice.
Therefore: Which ‘Marxism’?
Can one adapt the project of non-buddhism and retain an allegiance to capitalism and capitalist ideology?Can one adopt the project of non-buddhism and hold allegiance to an ideology critical of capitalism but overtly anti-Marxist?
Does the adoption of the project of non-buddhism require that one should also adopt the project of non-marxism as a method of decommissioning one’s allegiance to ‘the network of Marxist postulation’?
Then, third, I got into an e-mail spat with a well-known Zen teacher. This morning I received a mass-mailed message from this teacher’s community that he is looking for “a volunteer” to create an index to his new book. I wrote to the teacher that I felt not paying the person a fair wage is “shameful.” He wrote back with an explanation (the proceeds go to the zendo, not to him), and added that my “talk of shame is inappropriate here.” I replied:
Not paying someone a fair wage is shameful, pure and simple. And that is true regardless of where the proceeds eventually end up. … Exploitation comes in many sizes and varieties. Zen Buddhism has a long, sad history of teacher-student exploitation. We need new, and better, examples.
On reflection, our disagreement struck me as being about a political arrangement, that between authority and its productive labor, so to speak.
So, how did all of this come together? I should explain that the reason Patrick mentions marxism in particular is two-fold. First, the person who has shown the most passion for the political on the blog, Tom Pepper, places the discussion within a marxism/capitalism framework. Second, I have said (here) that there is indeed a close relationship between non-buddhism and marxism:
Some people may see these discussions on marxism and communism as tangential to the blog’s topic, x-buddhism. But given that the initial inspiration in formulating (if not conceptualizing) non-buddhist theory came from Laruelle, they make perfect sense. Many of Laruelle’s most important concepts are derived from Marx. And many of these ideas have relevance to our critique. For instance, just a few off the top of my head: determination in the last instance; force of thought (of labor); Humans (Man); relative autonomy; Science-of-men; material; performativity (the criterion of practice), and others. We also now have a strong influx of Badiou’s ideas in the mix. [Badiou is a communist]. Finally, given our recognition of the unavoidable necessity of thinking through the ideological nature of x-buddhism, we began looking to Marx’s twentieth-century student, Althusser, for some guidance, and we have stuck with him.
But does this affinity between the theory being worked out on this blog and marxism imply an inherent necessity? As Patrick says, we’d have to first discuss “which marxism.” And that would be quite a detour. It is one that we’ll have to make at some point. Whether we like it or not, our ideas always imply a politics. I am acutely aware of this fact. That fact and my awareness of it are precisely why my theoretical work begins and ends with Marx’s “first premise,” in The German Ideology:
The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals (163).
That’s all I want to say for now. Maybe everyone can actually read a bit of Marx the thinker before we talk more about it. And as you read, maybe you can ease your mind of the judgement that history has wrought by considering Marx’s own statement: “If anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a marxist.”*
* Reported by Engels in a letter to Eduard Bernstein. Original: “What is known as ‘marxism’ in France is, indeed, an altogether peculiar product — so much so that Marx once said to Lafargue: ‘Ce qu’il y a de certain c’est que moi, je ne suis pas marxiste.'” (Source.)
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