Marginalia on Radical Thinking: Interview with Rosa Lichtenstein
Rosa Lichtenstein is a “Wittgensteinian Trotskyist” who runs the website Antidialectics.
Skepoet: Your larger project seems to be aimed explaining how Hegelian readings of Marx, starting with Engels, have had major philosophical and political problems for working class politics. When did you start to see problems in Dialectical Materialism?
Rosa Lichtenstein: I began to read Hegel back in the 1970s, but when I started a degree course in Philosophy — which was delivered largely by leading Fregeans and Wittgensteinians, who introduced me to Analytic Philosophy — I soon rejected not just Hegel but all forms of traditional Philosophy as a “house of cards”, to paraphrase Wittgenstein.
In the early 1980s I began to take an interest in Marxism, particularly after reading Gerry Cohen’s book, since I saw that one could accept Historical Materialism (a theory that had interested me years earlier, but which I rejected because of Hegel’s influence) without any reference to Hegel, or his ideas. I then drifted into revolutionary politics for a few years, joining a party which, at that time, seemed to me to be the least affected by Engels’s philosophical theories. However, soon after joining that party it did an about turn and began to push Engels’s ideas. This both dismayed and alarmed me. Despite this, I found I could still agree with their political line (and still do), so I just ignored this regrettable development.
Unfortunately, in the early 1990s, in the fight against the UK Poll tax, the party began to change. As a result, I was able to witness at first-hand the baleful effect that Dialectical ‘Logic’ can have on revolutionary politics — in this case, on local party activists. Several of the latter (in the run up to the defeat of that tax, and the under direction of the party leadership) began to behave in a most uncharacteristic and aggressive manner, especially toward less committed comrades.
These activists now declared that ‘dialectical’ thinking meant there were no ‘fixed or rigid principles’ in revolutionary politics. Everything it seemed had now to be bent toward the ‘concrete’ practical exigencies of the class struggle. Abstract ideas were ruled-out of court — except, of course, for that abstract idea. Only the concrete mattered, even if no one could say what that was without using yet more abstractions.
In practice, this novel turn to the ‘concrete’ meant that several long-standing members of the party were harangued until they either abandoned revolutionary activity altogether, or they adapted to the “new mood” (as the wider political milieu in the UK was then called by this party). In the latter eventuality, it meant that they had to conform to a suicidally increased rate of activity geared around the fight against the Poll Tax, whether or not they or their families suffered as a consequence. At meetings, one by one, comrades were subjected to a series of grossly unfair public hectoring sessions (in a small way reminiscent of the sort of things that went on in the Chinese Cultural Revolution — minus the physical violence). These were conducted with no little vehemence by several party ‘attack dogs’ until the ‘victims’ either buckled under the strain, or gave up and left the party.
‘Dialectical’ arguments of remarkable inconsistency were used to ‘justify’ every convoluted change of emphasis, and counter every objection (declaring them one and all “abstract”), no matter how reasonable they might otherwise seem. Comrades who were normally quite level-headed became almost monomaniacal in their zeal to search out and re-educate those who were not quite 100% with the program. For some reason these comrades left me alone, probably because I was highly active at the time, and perhaps because I knew a little philosophy and could defend myself.
In the end, as is evident from the record, the Poll Tax was defeated by strategies other than those advocated by this particular party, and the “new mood” melted away nearly as fast as most of the older comrades did — and, as fate would have it, about as quickly as many of the new members the party had managed to recruit in the meantime. I do not think that the local party has recovered from this period of “applied dialectics” (from what I can tell, it’s about a half to a third of its former size, and thus nowhere near as effective). Indeed, the national party is a fraction of its former size, too.
I have discovered since that this sort of thing is endemic in all forms of Dialectical Marxism, and has been for many generations.This series of events set off a train of thought. As is apparent to anyone with unblinkered eyes, so I thought, Dialectical Marxism is one the most unsuccessful major political movements in human history. Given its bold aims, its totalising theory and the fact that it is supposed to represent the aspirations of the vast bulk of humanity, the opposite should in fact be the case. But it isn’t. The record of Trotskyism is, if anything, even worse; in fact, it’s disgraceful. And I say that as a Trotskyist!
Although at the time I had no way of proving it, these events suggested that an allegiance to Dialectical Materialism might have something to do with this wider, but suitably ironic “unity of opposites”: the long-term failure of a movement that should in fact be hugely successful.
The thought then occurred to me that perhaps this paradoxical situation — wherein a political movement that avowedly represents the interests of the overwhelming majority of human beings is ignored by all but a few — was linked in some way to the contradictory theory at its heart: Dialectical Materialism.
Perhaps this was part of the reason why all revolutionary groups remain small, fragmentary, and lack significant influence, I thought. Could this theory also be related to the unprincipled (if not manipulatively instrumental) way that Disciples of the Dialectic tend to treat, use or abuse one another?
Other questions soon followed: Could dialectics be connected with the tendency almost all revolutionary groups have of wanting to substitute themselves for the working-class –, or, at least, excusing the substitution of other forces for that class, be they Red Army tanks, Maoist guerrillas, Central Committees, radicalised students, or ‘sympathetic/progressive’ nationalist leaders — on the grounds that it is certainly contradictory to believe that forces other than the working class can bring about a workers’ state?
But, hey, that’s dialectical logic for you. It should be contradictory!
Indeed, I wondered, was this theory also used to justify and/or rationalise all manner of opportunistic and cynical twists and turns (some of which took place overnight) — like those we witnessed in the 1920s and 1930s in the manoeuvrings of the CPSU and the CCP –, and which helped destroy several revolutions, dismantle and dissipate workers’ struggles, indirectly helping to cause the deaths of millions of proletarians in the lead up to WW2 and the fight against Hitler, and, indeed, since?
It seemed to me that researching these and related questions might also help explain why revolutionary socialism has been so depressingly unsuccessful for so long. And my researches since have confirmed these suspicions, and much more.
It’s worth adding, though, that I do not blame this theory for all our woes. There are objective reasons why the ruling class still controls the planet. But this theory must take some of the blame. It seems ludicrous to me to believe that, if truth is tested in practice and practice has failed us for so long, our core theory, materialist dialectics, has nothing whatsoever to do with this.
S: What do you make of other non-Hegelian Marxists such as that of G.A. Cohen and the “analytical” Marxists or the Althusserian “structural” Marxists?
R.L.: Well the Analytic Marxists certainly weren’t analytic enough, in my view, and, except for one or two of them, weren’t even recognisably Marxist! However, as I pointed out above, Gerry Cohen’s book is for me a landmark work (if we ignore his Technological Determinism and his Functionalism), not least because of the clarity of his argument — an approach other academics would do well to emulate.
Unfortunately, I have no time for Althusser (or for those who look to him for inspiration). It seems to me that he/they are still mired in a traditional approach to philosophy.
S: Why do you think that dialectical materialists refuse to abandon dialectical materialism?
R.L.: There are at least three main reasons, all of which are inter-related, I think. The first is rather complex: The vast majority of those who have led the Marxist movement or who formed its core ideas weren’t workers; they came from a class that educated their children in the Classics, the Bible, and Philosophy. This tradition taught that behind appearances there lies a ‘hidden world’, accessible to thought alone, which is more real than the material universe we see around us.
This way of viewing things was concocted by ideologues of the ruling-class. They invented it because if you belong to, benefit from or help run a society which is based on gross inequality, oppression and exploitation, you can keep order in several ways.
The first and most obvious way is through violence. This will work for a time, but it’s not only fraught with danger, it’s costly and it stifles innovation (among other things).
Another way is to win over the majority (or, at least, a significant section of ‘opinion formers’, bureaucrats, judges, bishops, ‘intellectuals’, philosophers, teachers, administrators, editors, etc.) to the view that the present order either: (1) Works for their benefit, (2) Defends ‘civilised values’, (3) Is ordained of the ‘gods’, or (4) Is ‘natural’ and so can’t be fought, reformed or negotiated with.
Hence, a world-view that rationalises one or more of the above is necessary for the ruling-class to carry on ruling in the same old way. While the content of ruling-class thought may have altered with each change in the mode of production, its form has remained largely the same for thousands of years: Ultimate Truth (about this ‘hidden world’) can be ascertained by thought alone, and therefore can be imposed on reality dogmatically and aprioristically.
Because of their petty-bourgeois and/or non-working class origin — and as a result of their socialisation and the superior education they have generally received in bourgeois society — the vast majority of the individuals who have led the movement or who have been central to forming its ideas have had “ruling ideas”, or ruling-class forms-of-thought, forced down their throats almost from day one.
So, the non-worker founders of our movement — who had been educated from an early age to believe there was just such a ‘hidden world’ lying behind ‘appearances’, and which governs everything — when they became revolutionaries, looked for a priori ‘logical’ principles relating to that abstract world that told them that change was inevitable, and was thus part of the cosmic order. Enter dialectics, courtesy of the dogmatic ideas of that ruling-class mystic, Hegel. The dialectical classicists were thus happy to impose their theory on the world (upside down or the “right way up”) since that is how they were taught ‘genuine’ philosophers should behave.
[You can see comrades (and others) regularly doing this sort of thing over at the Facebook site you help set up (and across the internet on various discussion boards and blogs), and right throughout academia. Such individuals scarcely devote any thought to how or why they can so effortlessly derive fundamental theses, true for all of space and time, about 'Being', 'consciousness', 'subjectivity', 'essence', etc., from a handful of words, in the comfort of their own heads. Unfortunately, as Marx noted, the ideas of the ruling class always rule.]
This ‘allowed’ the founders of Dialectical Materialism to think of themselves as special, as prophets of the new order, which workers, alas, could not quite understand because of their defective education, their dependence on ordinary language and their reliance on ‘banalities of common sense’.
In which case, dialecticians are not going to relinquish the pre-eminent position adherence to this theory bestows on them — as High Priests of the Revolution.
The second reason is a bit more down-to-earth: Because Dialectical Marxism has been so catastrophically unsuccessful, and for so long, revolutionaries have had to convince themselves that (a) this isn’t really so, and that the opposite is in fact the case, or that (b) this is only a temporary state of affairs. In view of the additional fact that they also hold that truth is tested in practice, they are forced to adopt either or both of (a) and (b), otherwise they’d have to conclude that history has refuted their theory.
Now, because dialectics teaches that appearances are “contradicted” by underlying “essences”, it is able to fulfil a unique role in this regard, motivating and/or rationalising (a) or (b): things might appear to be going wrong, but those invisible underlying ‘essences’, that dialecticians alone can access, tell them the opposite. Alas, this prevents them from addressing the serious theoretical problems that afflict Dialectical Marxism. [That is, if they even acknowledge there are any problems!]
In this way, dialectics provides comrades with much needed consolation in the face of long-term failure, convincing them that everything is in fact fine with their core theory, or that things will change for the better — one day. This then ‘allows’ them to ignore the long-term failure of Dialectical Marxism, rationalising it as a mere “appearance” and hence either false, or illusory. So, confronted with 150 years of set-backs, defeats and disasters, and in the face of their belief that truth is tested in practice, revolutionaries almost invariably respond with a “Well that doesn’t prove dialectics is wrong!”
So, just like the religious, who can survey all the ‘evil’ there is in the world and still see it as an expression of the ‘Love of God’ — and who will make all things well in the future –, dialecticians can look at the last 150 years and still see the ‘Logic of History’ moving their way, and that all will be well in the end, too. This means that the theory that prevents them from facing reality is the very same theory that prevents them from examining it, inviting yet another generation of failure by masking these facts.
Apparently, the only two things in the entire Dialectical Universe that aren’t interconnected are the long term failure of Dialectical Marxism and its core theory!
So, just like the religious, dialecticians are not going to let go of their source of consolation, and cling to it like terminally insecure limpets.
The third reason is connected with the other two: Just like the Bible, which provides its acolytes with ample excuse to accuse others of not ‘understanding the Word of God’, Dialectical Materialism, with its sacred texts, provides its adherents with an obscure theory that ‘allows’ them to claim that other theorists do not ‘understand’ dialectics — or that they ignore and misuse it — and that only they can truly comprehend it. This then ‘allows’ them to anathematise and castigate other comrades as anti-Marxist. In short, it puts in the hands of inveterate sectarians (of which Dialectical Marxism has had more than its fair share) an almost infinitely pliable, ideological weapon capable of proving almost anything at all and its opposite (often this is done by the very same theorist!) — simply because it glories in contradiction.
Abandoning this theory would deprive our ‘leaders’ of the use a very powerful ideological tool which helps them to control the movement by, oddly enough, keeping it small, and thus easier to control. Hence, despite the fact that we have witnessed over 150 years of comrades devoted to ‘building the party’, very few can boast membership rolls that rise much above the risible. The only thing we seem to be good at is falling out with one another, and splitting. Hence the apposite nature of that Monty Python sketch (about the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, etc.). Dialectical Marxism is now a standing joke among workers and the wider populace.
S: Do you think this theory had a direct affect on Marxist politics in the Soviet and Sino-Communist systems, and not just as a sui generis rationalization mechanism for acting against Marxist principles?
R.L.: Well, it certainly helped the leaders of the communist movement sell contradictory tactics and strategies to the cadres, and thus to the whole movement. No theory (other than perhaps Zen Buddhism) can so readily be used to derive any conclusion you find politically expedient and its opposite (often this is done by the very same individual, sometimes on the same page, or even the same paragraph — or, in Stalin and Mao’s case, in the very same speech! — I give numerous examples at my site). So, it’s an ideal weapon in the hands of opportunists of every stripe.
As I noted earlier, it also helped the leaders of the communist movement rationalise their own substitution for the working class. After all, what can be more contradictory than a Workers’ State where the working class has no power, and is oppressed and exploited for its pains? But, that’s dialectics for you…
S.: Do you think that lingering Hegelianism affects the early chapters of Capital or do you think that is where the clean break begins?
R.L.: Marx certainly held onto the jargon, with which he tells us (in the Postface to the second edition of Das Kapital) he merely ‘coquetted’.
However, in the very same Postface, he supplied his readers with the only summary of “the dialectic method” he published in his entire life. Sure, it was written by a reviewer, but he endorsed it as his method and “the dialectic method”. In this summary there is not one atom of Hegel to be found. No ‘contradictions’, no ‘unity of opposites’, no ‘quantity passing over into quality’, no ‘negation of the negation’, no ‘totality’, no ‘universal change’, etc., etc.; and yet he still calls this “the dialectic method”. So, “the rational core” of “the dialectic” contains no trace of Hegel. To put Hegel on his feet is therefore to crush his head. Marx’s dialectic thus more closely resembles the dialectic method of Aristotle, Kant and ‘The Scottish Historical School’ (of Ferguson, Millar, Robertson, Smith, Hume and Stuart).
I prefer not to call it a break, since that would imply I agree with Althusser over his ‘epistemological break’. Marx isn’t interested in epistemology, and it’s not hard to see why. But, maybe more about that another time.
S.: I know you have written on this in some detail on your site, but could you talk about the your view of the unexpected radicalism in Wittgenstein. Particularly on how you see Wittgenstein’s project as similar to Marx’s.
R.L.: I don’t think Wittgenstein’s project is at all the same as Marx’s; there are a few superficial similarities, but that is about as far as it goes. Having said that, there is evidence that some of Marx’s ideas filtered through to Wittgenstein via Piero Sraffa. In the early 1930s, after long discussions with Sraffa, Wittgenstein began to adopt an “anthropological view” of language, which connected it with how we have developed as a species and how it is used as means of communication, rather than as a means of representation (which is how he pictured it in the Tractatus).
Of course, this doesn’t mean we can’t use Wittgenstein’s ideas to help improve Marxist theory.
However, in another sense, his work is among the most radical ever to have appeared in the entire history of philosophy. That’s because, if he is right, his method brings to an end 2500 years of philosophical speculation, branding it as self-important hot air (my words, not his!). The only legitimate role for philosophy, as he saw things, is to help unravel the confusions we fall into when we misuse language, or when we confuse the means by which we represent the world for the world itself. Or, as I put it, when we fetishise language, so that what had once been the product of the relation between human beings (language) is inverted so that it becomes the relation between things, or those things themselves. Dialectical Marxists call this ‘reification’, but fail to see this neatly depicts what they have done with the concepts they unwisely inherited from Hegel.
By-and-large, traditional philosophy has always been seen as way of obtaining fundamental truths about ‘reality’, ‘being’, ‘god’, ‘consciousness’, ‘mind’, etc., — all derived from thought or language alone. This is indeed how it is still viewed today, especially in what is called ‘Continental Philosophy’. Even Analytic Philosophy has regressed and has now largely returned to occupying this traditional role. So, the main function of philosophy these days, it seems, is to produce a theory of mind, or of perception, or of language, or of ‘consciousness’, or of time, or of alienation, or of ‘agency’, or of ‘subjectivity’, and so on. Again, if Wittgenstein is right (and I for one think he is), this is completely misguided — which is partly why his work is so unpopular with academic philosophers (and dialecticians!). If his method actually caught on, they’d all be out of jobs.
S.: Why do you identity yourself as a Trotskyist given how much influence Hegel had on Trotsky’s writing? Do you think the historical record discredits non-Leninist Marxism, Maoism, and various forms of Stalinism in a way that it doesn’t discredit Trotskyism?
R.L.: I’m not too sure Trotsky was all that familiar with Hegel’s work, but, for the sake of argument let us suppose he was. Why do I call myself both a Leninist and a Trotskyist if I reject a theory that was central to the life and work of both Lenin and Trotsky? In answer, it might be helpful to consider an analogy: we can surely be highly critical of Newton’s mystical ideas even while accepting the scientific nature of his other work. The same applies here.
In answer to your second question, I think that Trotsky helped preserve the proletarian element in Marx’s revolutionary socialism — what Hal Draper called “Socialism from below”. The alternative, “Socialism from above”, is socialist in name only. The imposition of state socialism on the working class simply means that workers have to struggle against that imposition to create a classless society, one in which they are no longer exploited or oppressed — which is what we have seen, and are still seeing, in all those states set up by the Stalinists and the Maoists.
Now, I have much more time for some forms of non-Leninist Marxism, since they tend to emphasise the centrality of the working class in freeing itself from class oppression. I just disagree over the means by which this might be achieved.
S.: What do you make of the argument that the reason why James Burnham became a reactionary conservative was his rejection of the dialectic? It is obvious you would reject it, but what do you think the actual issues were with Burnham?
R.L.: Well, if you are a Trotskyist, the vast majority of dialecticians are anti-Marxists or are counter-revolutionaries, namely the Stalinists and the Maoists. On the other hand, if you are a Stalinist, the vast majority of dialecticians are anti-Marxists or are counter-revolutionaries, namely the Maoists and the Trotskyists. Alternatively, if you are a Maoist, the vast majority of dialecticians are anti-Marxists or are counter-revolutionaries, namely the Stalinists and the Trotskyists. [I know they do not see things this way, but I do.] So, adherence to dialectical materialism is no guarantee that you will always stay on the straight and narrow. In fact, the vast majority fall by the wayside even while remaining faithful to this theory.
Of course, the counter-argument is that these other groups ‘mis-apply’ the dialectic, or they do not ‘understand’ it — but they all say that of one another. Moreover, there is no objective way of deciding if and when the dialectic has been, or can be applied ‘correctly’. In fact, if truth is tested in practice, the weight of evidence (from the history of all wings of Dialectical Marxism) delivers a very uncomplimentary verdict.
As far as James Burnham’s later trajectory is concerned, I think the way he was treated by Trotsky and his allies in the US-SWP (coupled with the shock to his system delivered by the Hitler-Stalin pact and the invasion of Finland, compounded by the way these were received and interpreted by Trotsky and the US-SWP) disturbed him so profoundly he abandoned his socialism. Although I condemn this turn in his political career, I can sympathise with him to some extent. That is because I too have been treated with little other than contempt, derision and misrepresentation by the vast majority of fellow Marxists (and this is especially so with respect to fellow Trotskyists) with whom I have debated this theory. In Burnham’s case, he reneged on his socialist principles; in my case, it has had the opposite effect, and has made me more determined to press my case.
S: Why do you think so much of “Marxist discourse” has been relegated to Humanities departments and the sectarians whose relationship to the broader working class seems thin at best? Is this solely the result of dialectics?
R.L.: I think left intellectuals have largely come to distrust the working class (by their actions, not necessarily their words), and have retreated into a sort of enclave. Framing socialist theory in Hegelian and post-Hegelian terms hasn’t helped. You can see the results for yourself in the tangled mess that comes out of France, or out of Zizek, for example. How many workers are going to read that? Compare this with the attempts made by left intellectuals sixty or seventy years ago, when they made genuine efforts to speak to workers in terms they could grasp. Chomsky made this point rather well a few years ago:
The problem is that the more that left intellectuals do this, the more they become divorced from working people, and the less faith they have in them. It’s a vicious circle. I not only agree with Marx on this, I have tried to follow his advice:
“The philosophers have only to dissolve their language into the ordinary language, from which it is abstracted, in order to recognise it, as the distorted language of the actual world, and to realise that neither thoughts nor language in themselves form a realm of their own, that they are onlymanifestations of actual life.” [The German ideology.]
Of course, it’s up to others to decide if I have indeed fully followed on that advice. And the sectarians you refer to have decamped into their own closed circles for reasons I spelt out in an earlier reply. Dialectics has simply made a bad situation worse, I think. There are also other reasons why this has happened, which are connected with the class origin and current class position of those who lead the sectarians, as you call them. [I have detailed these in Essay Nine Part Two at my site.]
S: Why do you think Continental philosophy, and not just that of the Marxist tradition, has been so resistant to developments in classical and modal logic?
R.L.: Not just these forms of logic, but temporal, epistemic, and deontic logic, to name but a few.
It’s hard to say, but I think it stems from Hegel’s insecure grasp even of the logic of his day, and his negative judgement of it. Since then, left intellectuals, by-and-large (but there are notable exceptions, such as the work of Graham Priest) have been suspicious of logic. There is also an element of the fear of mathematics (which modern logic looks suspiciously like), I think. But, we perhaps need the help of social psychologists on that one.
S: What do you think a Historical Materialism without dialectical materialism would look like, exactly?
R.L.: It would look very much like Gerry Cohen’s formulation (minus the Technological Determinism and the Functionalism, as I noted earlier), perhaps admixed with the work of Alex Callinicos in this area (for example, in his Making History) — if, that is, we ignore what he has to say about ‘agency’.
S: Anything you would like to say in closing?
R.L.: No, I think I have said quite enough!