Organic Marxism and Ecological Civilization
The Promise of "Constructive Postmodernism" in China
by Jay McDaniel
Organic Marxism combines a commitment to social justice with agrarian values and classical Chinese traditions to help build sustainable communities and ecological civilizations. It is not simply a philosophy but also, and more deeply, a way of living available to people of many different religions and no religion. People in other parts of the world have much to learn from it. The address below, offered at a banquet in April, 2016, in Claremont, California, offers a brief introduction.
We are gathered here tonight to celebrate a common hope, shared by Chinese and Americans alike.* It is that the people of our nations, and we ourselves, can become worthy of the Earth which is our source and our home. We become worthy of the Earth when we let it become what it has been for millions upon millions of traditional farmers throughout the world: our friend and our teacher as well as our source of livelihood.
Some people might look at things differently. They might say that the Earth is not a friend or teacher, but merely a collection of resources which we are to use for whatever purposes we can image. Our task, they might say, is to turn the Earth into an amusement park.
There is a small bit of truth in this. The earth is, after all, a resource to be used for human ends. As every farmer knows, The Eartth is a source of livelihood. The American writer Wendell Berry, a farmer himself, speaks of our need to use the earth in a kindly way for uniquely human ends. We till the soil, we build shelters, we move mountains; we are indeed engineers. There is nothing wrong in being an engineer; other creatures, too, manipulate their environments for their well-being and perhaps even their amusement.
But still more deeply, in our time of global climate change, recurrent injustice, violence and warfare, we Chinese and Americans share a common dream, not yet realized. We want to learn to think about ourselves in a new and fresh way -- not as dominators of the planet who engineer their way into world where everything is seen in terms of human ends, but as friends of the earth, and friends of one another, who help build what we call ecological civilizations.
For our Chinese friends tonight, the way toward such civilizations is called Organic Marxism. It is not the stale Marxism of rigid orthodoxy, or totalitarianism, or atheism. It is much wiser and deeper. In the remainder of my talk I want to say more about it.
1. Organic Marxism carries the hope for a new kind of civilization: a democratic socialism that includes poor and powerless people, but also the hills and rivers, the plants and animals, within its ethical and spiritual horizons. Such a society is, in effect, a biocracy. A biocracy is a society in which the perspectives and voices of all living beings are taken into account in decision-making. In this kind of society, the measure of well-being is not quantity of goods but quality of life, human and non-human. The well-being of life is its norm.
2. The building blocks of a biocratic society are local communities in rural and urban settings that are creative, compassionate, participatory, ecologically wise, humane to animals, and spiritually satisfying – with no one left behind. If these kinds of societies are to emerge, public policies must be directed toward the building of these kinds of communities: policies dealing with urban design, rural development, transportation, law, and education, for example.
But these policies are not enough. People themselves must cultivate habits of mind and heart – qualities of character – that enable them to build and live within these communities. In a Chinese context, these habits of mind and heart are found, not in science alone, but in the wisdom of traditional agrarian life and also in wisdom from classical Chinese traditions.
3. Five agrarian values that are especially important: (1) creative frugality, a capacity for living simply once basic needs are met, (2) a focus on local relationships, (3) an impulse to cooperate with the earth and natural systems while farming, (4) natural knowledge, or a knowledge of plants and animals; and (5) a sense of the earth’s aliveness. In many farming villages in China, these five values have taken the form of embodied wisdom: that is, wisdom that comes with living on and with local lands in practical, bodily ways. They are quite important for China and the world.
4. Additionally, there are five transitions toward a new civilization that can be enriched by a reclaiming of classical Chinese traditions. If Chinese and others are break out of the confines of merely industrial, western thinking, there must be (1) a shift from isolated individualism to person-in-community, as emphasized in Confucianism, (2) a shift from anthropocentrism to naturalism, as emphasized in philosophical Daoism; (3) a shift from short-sighted compassion to inclusive compassion, as emphasized in the bodhisattva vow of Chinese Mahayana Buddhism; (4) a shift from sense-bound empiricism to a more holistic approach to the body and human knowing, as emphasized in traditional Chinese medicine; and (5) a shift from mechanistic approaches to the earth toward a recognition of the life force in the whole earth, as emphasized in the traditional philosophy of Qi.
5. As Organic Marxists help Chinese reclaim agrarian and classical wisdom, they can help build a new and better China. Their work will parallel work done by other people in other settings, likewise indebted to a reclaiming of agrarian and traditional wisdom, which, as combined with science and technology, is the common hope of humanity.
6. As a way of combining science and technology with these forms of wisdom, the organic philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead is especially helpful; the traditions of “process philosophy” and “constructive postmodernism” show how the ten themes above can be scientific, spiritual, and practical, all at the same time. This is why the work of the Institute for a Postmodern China is so important, not only for Chinese but for the world. What is needed today is a collective commitment to the kinds of values named above, as embodied in practical wisdom that enables people to live lightly on the earth, gently with one another, and kindly with animals – for their sake and for the world’s sake.
7. This is the most relevant hope we have as a single human family dwelling on earth, our common home. To be honest, it is the only worthy hope. This is why we are gathered here tonight. We are each, in our respective ways, channels of this better hope.
This is a banquet address offered at the Tenth Annual Forum on Ecological Civilization held at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, April 29-30, 2016. The aim of the Forum is to contribute fresh reflections on Ecological Civilizations from both constructive postmodern and Marxist perspectives. For more on constructive postmodernism and Organic Marxism, see Organic Marxism, Process Philosophy, and Chinese Thought and Creative Socialism: It's What Happens when Humanity Grows Up. For more on the Institute for Postmodern China see the article see The Institute for Postmodern China or click here for their website.