Ferreiro’s reply to Guillamón’s critique of his essay on Spain, in which he accuses Guillamón of being prejudiced and incapable of understanding Ferreiro’s perspective, reiterates his position on the subjective deficiencies of the Spanish proletariat in the context of a culturally and economically backward capitalist regime, and maintains that “It is not the defeats of the past that will lead us … to victory in the future. It will be the historical development of the subjectivity of the masses of individuals … determined by the class struggle and the conditions of life, both in its dimension as a socio-political process as well as in its psycho-mental dimension”.
Response to Agustín Guillamón’s Critique of “Critical Notes on the Text, ‘Spain 1936. The Exorcism of the Ghost of the Revolution’ by A. Devesa” (BALANCE. Cuadernos de historia, No. 34) – Roi Ferreiro (Comunistas por la Autoliberación Integral)
1. I shall begin by explaining why Agustín’s critique of my commentaries on Devesa appear to me to be completely prejudiced. Nowhere do I see any of the “modernist and elitist jargon” that he denounces, just an inability on his part to really grasp my worldview because, instead of trying to understand what I said, he read my text from the viewpoint of his prejudices about “jargon” and from the perspective of his own limited view of history.
My commentaries on Devesa do not purport to solve the “fundamental question” that Agustín seeks to address. Their overall approach was characterized by the critique of the contemplative approach to studying history separate from making it, because it leads to diverting attention to different matters and also treats information differently. Since Agustín seems not to be aware of the fact that this was the objective of my critique, what he does is project his own preconceptions about my text and then register his disappointment that it does not meet his expectations.
In this respect, as with the reiteration of the clichés that Agustín calls “Marxist theory”, one discerns little seriousness in the objective of the text, all the more so when my commentaries on Devesa were not elaborated for the journal, BALANCE, that Agustín edits, but that he took the text in which they appear, at his own initiative, from the archives of the CICA (today known as Comunistas por la Autoliberación Integral, the CAI), where more than adequate context is provided for my text, which is presented with many others that provide a much more complete clarification of my positions. Instead of investigating the thought of the author, however, Agustín’s procedure consists of addressing the text in a decontextualized and personalized way.
2. His basic lack of understanding of my thought is expressed rather coarsely in Agustín’s claim that, “For Ferreiro the revolution failed in 1936 because there was no party”, that is, an organized revolutionary minority. What I actually said, however, was that this was yet another consequence of a lack of social historical development, which found its expression in the shortcomings with regard to the development of revolutionary subjectivity and the consequent practical contradictions:
“Under these circumstances, the way I look at it, it was just a matter of time before one of the empirical factors that were opposed to the revolution would be able to impose its power, thus assuming the guise of the determinant cause. Behind these factors, however, there was always the lack of revolutionary development of subjectivity itself, which never advanced very far beyond attempting to make a change in the material conditions of its life, but not a qualitative change in its life as a whole. That is, to create a general social well being that was unattainable in a backward capitalist country and which therefore was expressed in the form of mutually contradictory rationalizations. In such conditions, the most radical revolutionary ideals do not have behind them the corresponding concrete practical consciousness that could transcend the parameters of capitalism.”
“The fact that the openly revolutionary process was cut short after a relatively short time and was weighed down by the war in every respect, did not of course make it any easier for people to become aware of these contradictions, which was practically an isolated phenomenon and in addition much too late (The Friends of Durruti, etc.).”
But Agustín seems to have absolutely no idea what I am talking about, maybe because he is incapable of framing the problem of the revolution within the perspective of the psycho-social processes of the constitution of subjectivity. Instead, he reduces this process to a matter arising from the development of class struggles. But if there is a dominant methodological concept in my text, it is the stricture that the psychological dimension of subjectivity must not be separated from its social and practical dimension. Here, once again, we discern the subjectivist treatment to which Agustín subjects my text, which yields the result of a false and useless critique.
Furthermore, Agustín seems to attribute to me an “elitist” concept of the role of revolutionary minorities, which is utterly without foundation and only demonstrates his lack of interest in understanding the person he is criticizing. The fact that such behavior is evinced by someone who edits a journal whose subtitle is, “History Notebooks”, makes this a very serious matter.
3. As a consequence of his subjectivist reductionism, Agustín does not grasp the fact that my entire text highlights the interrelation between consciousness and practice, subjectivity and social development. He therefore dares to authoritatively declare that:
“Ferreiro tells us that ‘it is not a matter of knowing history, but of making history’, and once again says that theory and practice must not be separated. But when Ferreiro says that it is not a matter of knowing history, but of making it, he is separating theory from practice.”
This is the most extreme display of the decontextualization and lack of seriousness to which Agustín stoops. For me, “making history” is praxis, and praxis is the dynamic unity of thought and action. Which leads me to infer that Agustín does not have the least interest in understanding the person whose work he is reading, and that he has only requested permission to publish my text in his journal for spurious and ulterior motives.
The above quotation continues as follows:
“Who makes history for the current generations, other than those who write it? Ferreiro is speaking, of course, of active engagement in history, separating action from theory. Ferreiro does not understand that knowing, disseminating and extending the knowledge of revolutionary history, refuting the fallacies and distortions that are written by bourgeois historiography, revealing the authentic history of the class struggle, writing from the point of view of the revolutionary proletariat, is already in itself a form of combat for history. It is a battle that forms part of the class struggle….”
Here, Agustín adopts the same perspective as Devesa, but from the basis of more radical ideological-political assumptions. For writing is a form of praxis and of class struggle. What I am talking about, however, is the way of writing, precisely because I begin from that basis. What I was trying to say in my text was that theoretical activity and practical activity must not be dissociated, but must remain united. This unity involves a different way of approaching the study of history, a way that is always consciously bound to the problems of the present—since every investigator of history is conditioned by the present, whether or not he is aware of it, whether he explicitly acknowledges it or not, and whether or not it is incorporated as a methodological element in his whole approach to history.
Agustín’s problem, like that of so many others, seems to be that he is incapable of conceptualizing such things as the separation of practical activity and theoretical activity, due to the very fact that he feels comfortable in his position as a specialist in a particular area of intellectual study and reflection. Meanwhile I am not, nor do I claim to be a specialist; defending the need for practical activity and theoretical activity to encounter their living unity in real proletarians, who need to act and to think in order to struggle for their needs and to change their lives. My own interest in history is linked to this problem of the present.
4. Therefore, from my point of view, the so-called “battle for history” is an ideological representation derived from specialization, just like the struggle against the “domestication of memory”. Proletarians do not “battle for history”, they battle by making history. And memory does not exist in a vacuum, but as the content of concrete subjectivity, pertaining to real individuals; it depends for its existence or development on the psychological and social constitution of individuals as creative agents of their own social lives, subjects of a real historical praxis.
In other words, for me it seems pointless to worry about the lessons of history, or about the recovery of historical memory, when the prevailing proletarian subjectivity is characterized by such a degree of self-alienation that it is incapable of, or averse to, perceiving the usefulness of such thoughts, since it conceives of its life according to the parameters of the reproduction of capitalism. As a result, the revolutionary challenge of this era consists in stimulating the subversion of this alienated behavior of the working class, and to achieve this, the really crucial thing is not knowledge of the past and its dissemination, but the understanding and practical solution of the problems of the present, relative to the development of the class struggle and of proletarian subjectivity. It is not that historical knowledge is useless, but that it must be consciously viewed from that perspective which, at the same time, frames its importance in the proper perspective. Because the problems of the present have to be solved on the basis of an analysis of the conditions of the present and not from an extrapolation from the lessons of the past. People really do learn from history, and not merely extrapolate from it, only when they learn to conceive for themselves—and therefore to effectively resolve—their practical problems in the present.
In conclusion: if it really is a matter of battling by making history, as I said above, then knowledge of history must not be defined, as Agustín does, as the “theorization of the historical experiences of the proletariat”. It must be defined as the theorization of the historical actions of the proletarians. This is because, as Marx had already explained, it is the present that allows us to understand the past, and not the other way around. This, translated onto the terrain of the class struggle, means that studying and conceptualizing the past in the light of the conditions and needs of the present—the dissociation between the contemplation of the past and the prefiguration of the actions in the present is itself inadmissible from this point of view.
This perspective naturally implies that all the individuals who live in the present have the necessary basis for autonomously developing their historical consciousness, and that from this basis they can investigate the past and thus expand and deepen their consciousness. It means that the specialists and their theses have a marginal role in the class struggle, which, we need not say, is a struggle of the masses.
It is not the defeats of the past that will lead us, by understanding them, to victory in the future. It will be the historical development of the subjectivity of the masses of individuals, such as it is determined by the class struggle and the conditions of life, both in its dimension as a socio-political process as well as in its psycho-mental dimension. It is as a function of this historical development of subjectivity that the conditions are created whereby learning about the past acquires interest and practical meaning for real individuals. The way to consciously act on this historical process, in order to favor the constitution of revolutionary subjectivity in the proletarians, is by means of action in the present, and not by means of speeches about the past; by stimulating and consciously contributing to the development of the autonomous praxis of the proletarians, not by means of the “battle for history”. The most important thing is not that the consciousness of the proletarians should change, but rather that they should learn how to think for themselves.
Agustín also says that:
“Existence precedes consciousness. Without a theorization of the historical experiences of the proletariat there is no revolutionary theory….”
It is precisely because “existence precedes consciousness”, however—or rather, because consciousness is a property of existence—that the theorization of historical experiences has to be preceded by the historical praxis that creates them. In the beginning was the deed. What is therefore important is not elaborating theory on the basis of the past, but developing praxis on the basis of the present. Without this, historical materialism is reduced to an ideology of “critical” intellectuals. For me, however, historical materialism is a theoretical formalization of the process that results from the development of consciousness in connection with practice. What characterizes the historical-materialist perspective is not understanding the present in connection with the past, but understanding the present as the process of becoming that redefines the past and creates the future.
March 2, 2010
Translated from the Spanish in November 2013.
For an English translation of Andrés Devesa’s text referred to above, see: http://libcom.org/history/exorcism-ghost-revolution-andr%C3%A9s-devesa
For an English translation of Roi Ferreiro’s original critique of Devesa’s text, see: http://libcom.org/history/critical-notes-text-spain-1936-exorcism-ghost-revolution-andr%C3%A9s-devesa-roi-ferreiro
For an English translation of Agustín Guillamón’s critique of Ferreiro’s critique of Devesa, see: http://libcom.org/history/theorization-historical-experiences-agust%C3%ADn-guillam%C3%B3n