[xmca] Child soldiers [was 'Summer reading']

From: Martin Packer <packer who-is-at duq.edu>
Date: Tue Jul 24 2007 - 14:04:50 PDT

I know that we are starting a discussion of Michael Roth's paper, but I
would like to keep a thread trailing on the topic of child soldiers
(previously 'Summer reading'), because I've had a number of individual
messages about this topic, and I know I at least would benefit from a
collective discussion of some of the issues. (And who knows, it will
probably turn out to have connections to Michael's paper!)

To recap, the general idea is to conduct useful research on kids who have
returned to 'mainstream' society after being combatants with militias or
guerillas. The messages I've received have described parallels to kids drawn
into the drug trade in Sao Paulo, and the truth and reconciliation hearings
in South Africa. All important issues, and to me they raise complex

A few messages back I proposed thinking of what happens as a movement
between two communities of practice. Emily suggested the notion of
'transmediation' was relevant. Paul recast this as 'multi-literacy,' and
offered the example of Andean indigenous forms of recording information.

One of the challenges for me in Vygotsky's writing is that he doesn't offer
an easy way to think about cultural differences. His treatment of
'primitive' cultures is more nuanced, I believe, than Luria's in, for
example, "Ape, Primitive, Child." He describes primitive cultures not simply
as deficient but as having a richness which is lost with advancement. It's a
nostalgic account, but there's little doubt which form of culture is more
developed. The underlying problem, I think, comes from the Marxist/Hegelian
account of history, at least as it's usually interpreted. The traditional
marxist view of indigenous cultures has been that they are historically less
developed, and that they must pass through inevitable stages of economic
development before a socialist state can be achieved. So here in Mexico, for
example, the way the left treated indigenous groups was to try to make them
members of the proletariat as quickly as possible. Now, fortunately, the
kind of "Intercultural bilingual education" that Paul is involved in has
come to the fore. It's not without problems, but it seems to me a clear

So I've been reading with interest about the 'ethnological notebooks' that
Marx was writing towards the end of his life. He was beginning to change his
mind (or clarify his position) about the inevitability of the stages and the
sequence of economic formations that would lead towards socialism. This was
the time when he replied to a question from Russia that perhaps a socialist
revolution was possible there, despite the fact that the peasant communes in
Russia seemed relatively undeveloped economically. And this involved
rethinking the multilinearity of development, and the transition from
'archaic' to 'civilized' societies. He read and annotated the books of Lewis
Henry Morgan and others. It seems that in the American Iroquois, for
example, he saw a society of equality and personal dignity that was in many
ways more developed than contemporary capitalism.

For those who want to read something about this, Franklin Rosemont's
pamphlet is available online:
<http://www.geocities.com/cordobakaf/marx_iroquois.html> It is titled 'Karl
Marx and the Iorquois,' and begins "There are works that come down to us
with question-marks blazing like sawed-off shotguns, scattering here and
there and everywhere sparks that illuminate our own restless search for

Rosemont suggests that Marx saw "the true complexity of 'primitive'
societies as well as their grandeur, their essential superiority, in real
human terms, to the degraded civilization founded on the fetishism of
commodities." And so "this does not mean that Marx adopted, in all its
details, the so-called 'unilinear' evolutionary plan usually attributed to
Morgan - a plan which, after its uncritical endorsement by Engels in The
Origin of the Family, has remained ever since a fixture of 'Marxist'
orthodoxy. Evidence scattered throughout the Notebooks suggests, rather,
that Marx had grown markedly skeptical of fixed categories in attempts at
historical reconstruction, and that he continued to affirm the multilinear
character of human social development that he had advanced as far back as
the Grundrisse in the 1850s." Marx saw clearly that "such peoples could make
their own contributions to the global struggle for human emancipation."

So this is as far as I've come. Marx was exploring an alternative to the
linear conception of history which orders cultures in a line from
'primitive' to 'advanced.' How to move from this to an analysis of a child's
movement from one culture to another is not clear to me. And of course I am
not trying to suggest that a guerilla group has grandeur or superiority. But
I do think it is important in research not to unquestioningly adopt the
values of one cultural group when studying another. (George Marcus has
written thoughtfully about the complexity of the 'moral complicity' when
conducting fieldwork with groups such as neo-Nazis in Europe...)

What do you think?


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Received on Tue Jul 24 14:04 PDT 2007

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