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Goldner's Marxism

Loren Goldner, Vanguard of Retrogression: "Postmodern" Fictions as Ideology in the Era of Fictitious Capital, Queequeg Publications, PO Box 672355, New York, NY 10467, 2001. Paperback, $10.

Reviewed by Cyril Smith

THE STARTING-POINT for this volume is the rapidity with which the ’60s wave of radicalism evaporated:

"By 1971, it was clear that the whole culture of the previous 30 years was fading away. In New Left bastions like Berkeley, people, who only 1-2 years before had wanted to be ‘professional revolutionaries’, were now scrambling to be just ‘professionals’: lawyers, doctors, academics, but, of course, ‘in an entirely new way’."

Many of those who had thought of themselves as "Marxists" decided that they had been totally deluded and that it was time to grow up. Others clung to their old slogans and beliefs, while refusing to ask themselves what had happened in the real world. Loren Goldner decided that neither of these approaches was right. Instead he began to re-examine the traditional ideas of the Left and to analyse the new trends which had taken their place.

His new book is a marvellous antidote to that intellectual complacency which prevails on the so-called "Left" today. In a series of essays which have appeared over the past twenty years, he confronts a wide variety of problems to test out how the ideas of Marx can take them all on. As he explains in the introductory essay – it is the latest to be written, since he prints them in the reverse order – the contributions were written "against the grain" of much of the ideology of the past 50 years, above all in its "left" and "far left" guises, that might be summarised with the term "middle class radicalism".

He counterpoises this kind of radicalism to the politics of Marx, especially on the issue of freedom: "Middle-class radicalism conceives of freedom as ‘transgression’, as the breaking of laws, the ‘refusal of all constraints’, as the Situationist International put it 30 years ago, whereas the Marxian project of communism conceives of freedom as the practical solution of a problematic which evolved theoretically from Spinoza and Leibnitz to Kant, Hegel and Feuerbach as the transformation of laws, up to and including the physical laws of the universe."

This way of posing the question demands the re-examination of a multitude of political, economic and philosophical questions, covering centuries of thought. Goldner is not afraid to take up this task.

Scathing about the kind of single-issue politics which replaced all consideration of the transcendence of capital in the ’80s and ’90s, he demonstrates it to be the background to the ludicrously-named "postmodernism". This is what replaced thinking as the excuse for mindless politics, and his savage and uncompromising onslaught on these tendencies will gladden the heart of many a reader. Read, in particular, the 1993 essay, "The Nazis and Deconstruction: Jean-Pierre Faye’s Demolition of Derrida", and the 1989 one on "The Universality of Marx".

Several important themes recur throughout the book, and a brief review can do little more than refer to them. In a number of places Goldner pursues the postmodernists into the realm of literature and "cultural studies", in one essay showing how this followed the virtual eclipse of American literature in the 1960s. Two 1998 essays take up the question of the origin of the concept of race. Goldner shows how this coincided with the period of the Enlightenment, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This shadow on the Enlightenment runs directly counter to the old Marxist story about the bourgeois revolution. In this connection, study also the 1991 piece called "Multiculturalism or World Culture: on a ‘Left-Wing’ Response to Contemporary Social Breakdown".

In 1993, Goldner had written about "The Renaissance and Rationality: The Status of the Enlightenment Today". Here, he carefully separates his critique of the Enlightenment from its fashionable postmodern rejection. Even more important, he revisits the tradition of Hermetic and heretical thinking which the Enlightenment thought it had buried for ever. What is needed, he believes, is the rehabilitation, in suitably contemporary form, of the outlook of Paracelsus and Kepler, not of Voltaire and Newton, which the left requires today, for a (necessarily simultaneous) regeneration of nature, culture and society, out of Blake’s fallen world of Urizen and what he called "single vision and Newton’s sleep".

Two papers, one written in 1983 and one in 1979, deal with the history of the natural sciences from this angle. In them, Goldner points out, in a startling and stimulating way, links between ideas which would not ordinarily enter the same head at the same time.

Each of these chapters raises a multitude of questions, often without pausing to attempt to answer them. On all these issues, a huge amount of work is needed. If we are to see a regeneration of the international workers’ movement, these are the problems which have to be tackled, and Goldner’s book should be an invaluable spur to this work.

Terrorism and Religion

Mark Juergensmeyer, The Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, University of California Press, updated edition with a new preface, 2001. Paperback, 315pp, £19.90.

Reviewed by Y.S. Rassool

THE TERROR in the Mind of God explores the seemingly inexplicable horrors confronting us today. The main thesis of the book is that religion seems to be connected with violence everywhere, and that there is a "dark alliance" between religion and violence. However, Juergensmeyer qualifies this stating that: "This does not mean that religion causes violence … but it does mean that religion often provides the mores and symbolism that make possible bloodshed – even catastrophic acts of terrorism." He questions the viewpoint that tries to explain away the link between religion and violence as merely an aberration. He sees more complexity and looks for explanations in "the current forces of geopolitics", including the terrorism perpetrated by the US during the Vietnam War and the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He maintains that in order to understand the presence of religious terror in the world it is necessary for us to understand why such acts occur. Instead of relying on commonsense understandings and the clichéd views that prevail in journalistic parlance, he problematises the concept of "terrorism". He argues that "… the term makes no distinction between the organizers of an attack, those who carry it out, and the many who support it ‘both directly and indirectly’". He asks, "are they all terrorists?"

Juergensmeyer expresses the view that all religions are "inherently revolutionary" in that they provide "the ideological resources for an alternative world order". Juergensmeyer disagrees with some observers who regard fundamentalism as a "mutant" form of religion. He argues that there are those who take religion seriously, and might have a spiritual conviction so strong that they are willing to kill or be killed for moral reasons. He observes further that whilst some activists involved in religious terrorism may have been troubled by mental problems, others are people who appear to be normal and "socially caught in extraordinary communities" and share extreme world views. He refers to Baruch Goldstein, who killed over thirty Muslims at prayer at the Tomb of Patriarchs in Hebron on 25 February 1994. Goldstein was a physician brought up in a middle class community in Brooklyn and trained at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. His commitment to an extreme form of Zionism brought him to Israel, and he did not, says the author, appear to be irrational or vicious. It was his conviction that his community was profoundly assaulted that compelled him to a "drastic and tragic act". On this basis he questions the appropriateness of labelling Goldstein as a terrorist; to label him a terrorist prior to the massacre implies that he was a terrorist by nature, and his religiosity a mere charade.

He builds his argument around data collected in interviews conducted with people across the world who had been convicted of terrorist acts associated with religious-political beliefs. He cites, amongst others, the instance of the Lutheran pastor convicted of the bombing of an abortion clinic. According to the pastor, he employed violence for a purpose, and regarded "these events as defensive actions". Similarly, the political leader of Hamas, whom the author had interviewed, justifies the suicide attacks as (military) "operations".

In the second part of the book, he identifies patterns within the cultures of violence, and tries to explain how religion and violence are linked. In Chapter 7 he explores the idea that acts of terrorism are undertaken for a symbolic purpose. In Chapter 10 he explores the way religious violence provides a sense of empowerment to alienated individuals, marginal groups and visionary ideologues. In the final chapter he asks the question why anyone would believe that God could sanction terrorism, and why the rediscovery of religion’s power has reappeared in such a bloody way. In a postscript written after 11 September, he argues that "the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center must have created a heady illusion of power to those who conspired to bring them down".

Juergensmeyer’s attempt to provide a comprehensible answer to the tragic violence associated with religion is laudable. Terror in the Mind of God is, in my mind, essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the spate of religious violence that has erupted across the world over the past few decades.

Coltrane: The Last Concert

John Coltrane, The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording. Impulse! CD 589 120-2, £12.99.

Reviewed by Phil Watson

THIS RECORDING comprises a concert John Coltrane gave to the Olatunji Center of African Culture in April 1967. It represents the last recorded performance of Coltrane before he succumbed to liver cancer in July 1967. The other musicians on the date were Pharoah Sanders (tenor saxophone), Alice Coltrane (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass), Rashied Ali (drums) and Algie DeWitt (batá drum). Coltrane himself contributed tenor and soprano saxophones.

Of course, "Coltrane’s final years" has been turned into something of an industry by the Impulse! label, and David Wild’s liner notes for this latest release are not shy of mining the potential meaning of a definitive last statement: "Last words. All cultures honour them, see them as something special, a last attempt at communication by one who will soon be beyond contact. They become epitaphs: for some a final restatement of what was central and valued in the life past, for others a glimpse of what might yet have been."

Unfortunately, these mythical templates rarely account for the nature of artistic production. Coltrane’s final recordings show a man in movement, experimenting with new forms, some of which are successful, some of which are not. Indeed, one book has Coltrane complaining to a fellow saxophonist towards the end of his life that he couldn’t find anything new to play (Ian Carr, Miles Davis: The Definitive Autobiography, 1999, p.210). Judging by Coltrane’s recorded output in his latter years, there is an element of hyperbole to this statement, but it does sum up the frustrations of the artist – a perpetual striving for the new. Searches for definitive statements, last words and the like are merely representations of a culture distinctly uncomfortable with flux and incompleteness.

It is these qualities that are evident in Olatunji, which includes two pieces, "Ogunde" and a blistering deconstruction of "My Favourite Things". The most engaging (and, it must be said, the most difficult) passages of the concert are the intense interplay between the saxophones of Coltrane and Sanders and the drum work of Ali. Often working at the extreme ends of the saxophone range, Coltrane and Sanders’ playing is continually provoked into further forays by Ali’s multi-directional barrage – bringing this recording into close proximity to Coltrane’s studio duets with Ali (captured on Interstellar Space). Sanders in particular is in magnificent form. The way he trades fierce screams with Ali’s shattering, but strangely subtle pulse on "Ogunde" moves this music significantly beyond any of our conventional understandings of jazz.

And then the claustrophobic tension is all but lost as Alice Coltrane pitches in with a beautifully conceived, but contextually odd-sounding piano solo. John Coltrane had admitted to interviewers that he had been struggling to find a place for the piano in his later groups and judging by the results here, that struggle was rooted in the evolution of his music. McCoy Tyner had of course left Coltrane a couple of years previously, complaining that the music had become just a noise (Ascension is an interesting record of the way Tyner was obviously having problems adapting his playing to Coltrane’s more abrasive direction). For much of the concert, Alice Coltrane plays second fiddle to the harsher tones of Sanders and her husband. Similarly, Jimmy Garrison’s bass solo in the introduction of "My Favourite Things" sounds dated. The range and sonic scope of the instrument simply does not complement the explosive force of the saxophones and drums. The music has moved on and certain configurations cease to make creative sense.

Such an analysis emboldens the earlier point that this recording cannot in any sense be treated as a last word on Coltrane’s music. A last live experiment maybe.

But where does this leave a critical understanding of Coltrane’s music in relation to the society he lived in? Fundamentally, such problems are processed through the artistic form. The disintegrating American society of the 1960s does become enmeshed in questions of bass solos, pianos and extreme pitch, at least in so far as one would seek to do justice to a work of art. Indeed, one could argue that the transcendence that Coltrane had begun to explore in A Love Supreme is a far better way to understand the evolution of his music. The horror of Vietnam, racial persecution and a facile, neurotic "American way of life" are all encrypted in the sound of Olatunji, but then they are torn-up, whirled around like litter, fragmented and destroyed by the occasional sonic force that Coltrane, Sanders and Ali exude. This is music that is going somewhere else, somewhere new.