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Cleansing Ideology in Method

In Marxism, when thought as well as applied, there often appears the hope that in pursuit of true ideology, any method can be cleansed. Lenin, Stalin, and Mao come to mind—as long as they had the proper utopia in mind, any amount of sacrifice could be exacted from the people. Trotsky wrote:

Dialectic materialism does not know dualism between means and end. The end flows naturally from the historical movement. Organically the means are subordinated to the end.

This, historically, has been at the root of revolutionary Marxism’s performative failure. The tragedy of accomplishing revolution has far outweighed its benefits, and we no longer want to continue. What Marxism has taught us, however, and what has made it arguably a force for more good in the academy than in government, are the tools of critique against ideology. We live in a world of dangerous ideas, says Marx, which almost imperceptibly serve to reinforce the injustices that pervade society.

The Wikipedia article from which Trotsky comes to us reads my mind exactly. It quotes Gandhi.

They say, “means are, after all, means.” I would say, “means are, after all, everything.” As the means so the end…

Satyagraha, Gandhi’s theory of nonviolent action, reverses the Marxist equation. In it, the means are the end. Method, not ideology, is the cleansing agent. Nonviolence as method is so powerful, Gandhi hoped, that it could give rise to an India fundamentally different from the Britain that oppressed it. Nonviolence could reverse the noxious effects of nationalist ideology because, by its very nature, it would not permit them.

Marxism is not the only political doctrine that has claimed a beautiful end to justify ugly means. A cynic could argue that, in fact, that this is the very definition of politics to begin with. We certainly know it all too well in the era of the Bush Doctrine, where the higher purposes of spreading democracy and preventing terrorism became rallying cries for devastating military adventures. Always, in one way or another, shadowy means do not disappear whether the ends are met or not. So is Gandhi’s theory any different? Can the utopia of nonviolent method escape being co-opted by association with the vicious ideologies it might come into contact with? This question is of major importance if we are to ponder the possibility of a nonviolent state.

I would want, as a regular reader of recent posts might predict, to answer yes. Nonviolent method should soften the edges of ideology because, by focusing precisely on method above all else, it leaves the ends unfixed. It insists on being open to ends in the future that the present can’t even begin to conceive. It might be interesting, though, to try a Marxist ideological critique of nonviolence theories and see what happens.