Hella Marxist Buddhism

Loving the first reading from a new Socially Engaged Buddhist study group that’s getting started this month: chapter 11 of Nalin Swaris’ book The Buddha’s Way To Human Liberation: A socio-historical approach. Swaris argues that karma is not properly understood (either in terms of actual functioning, or in terms of how the historical Buddha explained it) as an individual inheritance of bad or good deeds committed in past lives that determines one’s social station in this birth. Such commonplace/hegemonic conservative interpretations are basically ruling-class ideology, serving to legitimize the group(s) in power. “You were born a brahmin/king/rich light-skinned dude? You must’ve accumulated lots of merit in past lives. You were born ugly/a woman/poor/Black? You must’ve done some bad shit in a past life.”

Instead, Swaris defines karma as the inherited social and material conditions fashioned by previous generations of humans as a group, which then delimit but do not determine individual and collective actions in the present. Essentially, he locates Marxist historical materialism and dialectics within the original teachings of the Buddha. Dope! And kind of hilarious, in a makes-me-giddy-but-I-take-it-seriously sort of way.

Human Agency – A Species Potential

To understand what is meant by the ‘species nature’ of humans, one must turn to Karl Marx who introduced the concept. This recourse to Marx may seem like an attempt to read into the Buddha’s teaching on interpretation of kamma which has no basis in the canonical scriptures. I ask the reader to bear with me, follow the theoretical clarification and see its relevance to understand the Buddha’s extraordinary elucidations of human nature and human agency.

In contrast to a teleological or predetermined movement of history, Marx insisted that humans make their own history under specific conditions they have inherited. There are no ‘iron laws’ of history working independent of humans who think, plan and act. The totality of human activity may not always achieve the intended goal. The uniqueness of human beings, writes Marx, may be variously defined, theologically or philosophically, “[But] they themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence” (German Ideology MECW 5. 31). Humans are unique because of their action in the world. All other living beings are circumscribed by their environment. Their lives are naturally adapted to suit their environment, whereas humans have historically adapted their environment to suit their own ends. They are culture producing animals. There is no such thing as ‘pure nature’ once humans become architects of their own environment. Marx clarifies the difference between humans and animals as follows:

A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver and a bee puts to shame many an architect. But what distinguishes the worst of architects from the best of bees, is this, the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourers at its commencement (Capital,.l. 174).

Spiders have not changed the webs they weave or bees the hives they build. Every generation mutely repeats what was done by the previous generation, whereas humans have changed their life conditions during a long process of cultural evolution. It is this ability to produce effects in the world that vests human action with a moral quality. This ability, Marx points out, is not due to an abstract essence,

The human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its it is the ensemble of the social relations (Theses on Fuerbach, VI. MECW, 5.7)

For Marx, society does not exist ‘alongside’ or ‘outside’ nature – “Nature is the inorganic body of human beings… humans must remain in continuous metabolic interchange with nature if they are not to die”. (EPM, MECW 3.276). The totality of social relationships is in fact a social division of the species nature or capacity of human beings. In other words, it is a diversification or a branching out of the same species potential. With social division of work, humans begin to produce for, and to serve each others needs. It is through social co-operation that the primitive human group survived and it is through social co-operation that humans have historically enhanced their life-conditions,

The fact that the need of one can be satisfied by the product of another, and vice versa, proves that each of them reaches beyond his own particular need, as a human being, and relates to one another as human beings; that their common species being [Gattungswesen] is acknowledged by all (Marx, Grundrisse, 1973:243, emphasis his)

I produce the need of an other because I know it from my own natural needs. This type of production does not happen in the animal world. Writes Marx, “It does not happen elsewhere that elephants produce for tigers, or animals for other animals” (Grundrisse, ibid).

Animals are diversified into different species. From generation to generation they act according to their natural instincts. A bee hive may seem to be bustling with collective activity, but all the bees perform the same task for the same purpose – building hives in order to produce honey. Century upon century has passed but bees have not changed the architecture of their hives. “A hive of bees comprises at bottom only one bee, and they all produce the same thing” (Grundrisse, ibid). All the bees perform the same task to produce the same thing – honey. They do not have a social division of labour and do not produce different things. The lives of animals are adapted to their environment. The have not and do not adapt their environment to suit their needs. Human beings have and continue to adapt their environment to satisfy their needs. History is the process by which humans over hundreds of thousand of years progressively adapted the resources of their environment to suit their needs. Thereby they have changed their relations to their environment and to one another. But always under specific conditions.

The division of labour which began as an expression of social cooperation became exploitative and a source of suffering when one group – a minority – began to live off the work or the expended life-energies of other human beings. Social exchanges ceased being characterised by balanced reciprocity and become negative and unequal. To maintain these unequal and exploitative relationships, ideologists developed the view that the labouring masses belonged to a species different to that of the privileged few and that they could be exploited in the same way an ox or an elephant is exploited for production.

The way Swaris ends the chapter totally flummoxed me, which maybe I’ll talk about after the study group meets up to discuss the text. But for now, enjoy your daily (don’t I wish) dose of Buddhist Marxism. :)

One thought on “Hella Marxist Buddhism

  1. Leora May 5, 2011 / 5:37 am

    blowing my mind!! wanting to talk!! thank you! send me more.

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