Category Archives: anti-dialectics
Tim Morton is Hyperobjects (U Minnesota P, 2013), Realist Magic (OHP, 2013), The Ecological Thought (Harvard UP, 2010), Ecology without Nature (Harvard UP, 2007), seven other books and over eighty essays on philosophy, ecology, literature, food and music. He is Rita Shea Guffey Chair of English at Rice University. He blogs at Ecology without Nature.
C. Derick Varn: What do you think are the immediate practical implications for treating what we currently call “nature” as inter-related biological objects? Recently, I have seen you post that Graham Harman’s return to Heidegger was important because of the way philosophers like Derrida have used Heidegger. Why do you think this is important? A few times on your blog, you have been writing the troubles with Hegelianism in Continental. Why do you think Hegelian thinking has been so problematic?
Tim Morton: First I’ll say some things about Hegel, as Hegelianism is on my mind these days. You know how people become like their dogs? Or vice versa? Something similar happens in philosophy. This is in fact a Hegelian insight: ideas code for people to have them. Phenomenologically speaking you could say that you are attracted like a bee to honey to a certain kind of logical content of an idea. Ideas are somewhat autonomous from the person who thinks them, a little bit like the meme idea. So you are as it were a host for an idea. Different ideas select different hosts.
In my twenty-five years in the academy I’ve made some observations, totally amateur ones, about the kinds of host that ideas select for. One interesting feature seems to be that very often there is a blind spot in the person who becomes the idea-host, a blind spot that has precisely to do with the strange symbiosis between idea and idea-haver. The style of the host reveals something unconscious about the idea parasite.
So for instance, Derrideans (I am one) ca be religious control freaks (an interesting example would be the atheist side of the “radical atheism” debate).
Foucauldians can be power trippers who frequently use pathologization to control groups (discipline and punish!).
Hegelians have a tin ear for how they sound.
This last one is the key to my sense of the issues with Hegel, and this is the irony. It was Hegel who after all gave us this magnificent idea, and I think it’s a true idea, about ideas and their hosts. The very people who most fervently endorse Hegel are quite tone deaf when it comes to issues of “subject position” (in Althusserian) or “style” (in phenomenologese). They are deaf to their guy’s big discovery. I find this irony not accidental. Let me explain what I mean.
This feature—of how ideas select their hosts—is not extrinsic to philosophy, to the content of what is said. Indeed, as Hegel himself argues, quite brilliantly, it’s part and parcel of it. There is a symbiotic relationship between idea and host.
How do Hegelians sound?
If you are not a Hegelian, this is how they sound, sometimes. It is as if someone has hidden a little ball under one of three cups, and is asking you to guess which one. They already know where the ball is.
That’s the opening move. But then it goes on. There is a certain way of turning over the cups. A certain procedure must be followed, even though you are supposed not to know where the ball is. The ball hider (the Hegelian) himself (and I’m going to say “himself” as I associate this style with a certain masculinity), the ball hider also goes through the motions, like a parent with an infant: “Is it under here? Noooo….Is it under here? Noooo…aha! Here it is!”
It is as if the rules of the game are to hide the rules of the game, yet to reveal that they have been hidden. It is also as if there is a pre-programmed suspense as we build from (say) sense-certainty to the final glorious self-unfolding of the Absolute.
When I pointed this out, in particular about the introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit, I was immediately policed by a Hegelian online, in the following rather revealing terms. “He [underline he] who has made this remark has fallen at the first hurdle.” Tin ear, you see? Because he (the policeman, emphasis on man) has admitted that it is a game with a pre-programmed outcome. And that winning the game means becoming a Hegelian.
A journey with a known destination: like a Romantic piano sonata, in two ways. First you always return to home base (the tonic) no matter how much modulation happens: the adventure is to get really far out and then to return, like Shiva recognizing himself after an aeon of being everything else in the universe (to put it in provocatively orientalist terms that Hegel is allergic to). Secondly, because of equal temperament, your journey always occurs in a world of brown.
Equal temperament is the way to tune piano strings (and hence, in piano-centric modernity, all other instruments), slightly fudging the harmonic ratios between them to enable maximum journey possibilities. If you don’t do that, you end up with “wolf tones” (interesting use of a nonhuman, even threatening, “wild” animal) that sound like interference patterns between notes. Of course these wolf tones are quite lovely in their own right, but equal temperament bans them in advance in order to initiate the hide and seek journey.
The story of Western “classical” music since the advent of the Anthropocene, from Beethoven to Schoenberg to La Monte Young, has been the story of the gradual liberation of the piano from having to tell human emotional narratives in a pre-programmed sepia world. A rather object-oriented story if you like.
When you drop the human storyline, what you end up with quite quickly, in the move from Cage to Young, are drones and pure sine wave tones, whole number tuning called Just Intonation, and an emphasis on timbre (the physicality of a sound) rather than melody. What you end up with, in Hegelian, is the disturbing “narcissism” of A=A, the night in which all cows are black (both Hegelian terms as you know). What you end up with, in other words, is a moment at which the search for the Absolute has not even begun.
A=A is the nadir of “not getting it,” of “falling at the first hurdle”—or of not even trying to jump over the hurdle. Of simply sitting down and “occupying” the racetrack as it were, staging a sit in against this stupid pre-programmed race. It is labeled as “narcissism,” for instance in Žižek’s attacks on Buddhism, and I find narcissism to be the label of choice of the young Hegelians who are out in some force online at present. Hegel dismisses A=A as a parasite that finds a host in a primitive form of consciousness that he calls Buddhism.
The (wounded) narcissist tends to accuse the other of narcissism precisely insofar as he is disturbed by a loop whose echo he finds within himself. Thus while Foucauldians can be power trippers, Hegelians can be narcissistically deaf to how they sound in the ears of the other. And a symptom of this is their overuse of the term narcissistic to describe opposing views. This overuse is a symptom of the necessity of the dialectic to disavow A=A, to discover that A=A, like a little ball under a certain cup, is always already caught in the dialectic that will propel the story forwards to the self-realization of the Absolute. A=A is thus both inside and outside of Hegelian thought, a parasite that does not sit well in its Hegelian host.
What in A=A is Hegel afraid of, if we think like Freud for a moment that all philosophies are forms of paranoia, attempts to explain the world to defend against—what? A gap, a void, precisely the Kantian gap between phenomenon and thing. The basic Hegelian move against this gap is to assert that since I can think this gap, there is no gap.
OOO disturbs the Hegelian for two reasons, then. First OOO returns to the Kantian gap, as if Hegel had never mattered. The idealist solution to the Kantian gap is claimed to be false. Secondly, and this is more damaging to the Hegelian “narcissism,” the gap is located precisely in a thing, as the existence of a thing as such, without “my” (human) subject–world gap to make the thing real—or indeed anything else, since objects are ontologically prior to relations. Thus A (a thing) just is A: A=A. This “location-in-the-thing” bears an uncanny resemblance to the Hegelian discovery of its dialectic in the thing, but with a crucial difference, which is precisely that the rules of the game are not decided in advance as idealist rules that make knowing the gap more real than A=A itself.
This is the quintessence of the OOO move. To return to A=A, to occupy that position, as it were, is to have exposed Hegelianism for what it is: a pre-programmed ruse that knows in advance that A=A must be disavowed/sublated, and the exact procedures of that disavowal/sublation. It goes without saying that this is caught up in a certain resistance to anarchism, which is why I use the term occupy.
The phenomenon–thing gap is not absolutely nothing at all—it is more like what is called nothingness, a meontic nothing as Tillich says. This is the real fear of the Hegelian, which is a fear of a weird presence in and as nothingness. The phrase A=A contains something. “Equals A” is something that happens to “A,” as it were. There is a slight distortion or movement of trace within that very formula, a happening of something. (Derrida has written on this with reference to Hegel explicitly.) A=A has something of the flavor of “This sentence is false” (the Liar). A contradiction that is already present, that turns the sentence into a strange loop or spectral, plasmic entity. Again, this differs from the Hegelian contradiction in the thing, insofar as I do not know in advance that A=A is simply an opaque blindness in me to this contradiction, but rather that A=A is already contradiction, or rather a double-truth (dialetheia), both true and false simultaneously. This is what the Hegelian narrative forecloses.
A night in which all cows are black still has cows, if we take the image as hiding in plain sight something on its own face—it’s not absolutely nothing at all. There are these cows everywhere, these ungraspable cows. It’s a universe of entities—I can think them, but I cannot directly perceive them, yet they are (physically) real: the Kantian universe where there are raindrops that are raindroppy, I can think them, they are not popsicles, but I can’t access the things in themselves. Which is also the OOO universe, in an expanded sense—to get from Kant to OOO all I do is repudiate the copyright control the (human) subject has on the phenomenon–thing gap and allow it to exist everywhere. So that there is a cow–night gap, a cow horn–cow gap, a cow stomach–cow tail gap, and so on. Even an A–A gap, or a cow–cow gap.
To exist is to be ever so slightly different from yourself, which is the secret of “narcissism”—autoaffection in the end is equal to heteroaffection. The most phobic image of A=A in Hegel is a Hindu image that he takes to be an image of Buddha “in the thinking posture” (as he puts it): baby Krishna inserting a toe into his mouth and sucking it, wondering why it tastes so sweet (Krishna Narayan). Hegel calls this “withdrawal into self,” a phrase with a contemporary and uncanny resonance with OOO: to exist for OOO is indeed to be withdrawn-into-oneself (Entzug). And Buddhism is the religion of this “being-within-self” (Insichsein).
Thus anything that looks like self-pleasuring is suspect for Žižek. So it is better to have an empty ritual than one suffused with (the wrong kind of) meaning, because that would betray something “narcissistic” about that meaning. New Agers are to be roundly condemned. This assault on autoaffection has so spooked actual Buddhists that it is common to defend oneself against it: “I am a Buddhist but I’m not one of those New Age Western Buddhists.” Thus a robust defense of Buddhist against Hegelianism must start with a shameless occupying of the dreaded narcissistic position.
There are numerous positions within post-Hegelian Western philosophy that can be used in this deployment. For instance, consider Zarathustra’s “Love your neighbor as yourselves, but first be such as love yourselves,” which sounds like it comes straight out of a Buddhist manual on what is called maitri, or even “worse,” from a self-help book. Then there is Derrida:
Narcissism! There is not narcissism and non-narcissism; there are narcissisms that are more or less comprehensive, generous, open, extended. What is called non-narcissism is in general but the economy of a much more welcoming, hospitable narcissism, one that is much more open to the experience of the other as other. I believe that without a movement of narcissistic reappropriation, the relation to the other would be absolutedly destroyed, it would be destroyed in advance. (“There Is No One Narcissism”)
A fear of nothingness that is precisely the fear of an uncanny presence, a presence that is the starting position of Hegelianism itself, A=A. A presence that is me but I disavow it, “destroy [it] in advance” (Derrida). There is something homophobic about Hegel’s deployment of the image of Krishna sucking his toe. He goes on to deplore the fact that lamas (Tibetan incarnate teachers) are brought up in a feminine passive way. It is as if what is being warded off is that phobic sequence popular in nineteenth century sexology and diet: narcissism >> masturbation >> excess energy >> more masturbation >> homosexuality. This is why Cornflakes was invented. Young boys who eat too much meat are prone to an excess of psychic energy which results in this pathologized narcissistic loop.
I object to Hegelians because they think I am a narcissistic cocksucker, and because they claim this is bad, and because they claim that they are not. The ecological project—namely the transition to a genuinely post-modern age—depends very much on our admission that we are all narcissistic cocksuckers.
This helps me to answer the other questions. Let’s consider Harman’s turn to Heidegger in spite of, or around, or underneath (or whatever) Derrida. That has to do on the one hand with the idea that nothingness is not just a feature of sentences. And it also has to do with an intimacy with objects, an intimacy that Heidegger calls the “ready-to-hand.” Here I will simply quote the wing mirror of your car, which is an object-oriented ontologist: “OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR.” It is this closeness that makes them impossible to grasp, an intimacy, not a distance, a distance that must only be a feature of some kind of aestheticizing technology of framing. For Heidegger, this distancing is already at work in Plato’s Idea, but for OOO, it is also in pre-Socratic materialisms that seek to reduce the inherent inconsistency of things by positing some kind of thing (such as measurement for Protagoras or the flux for Heraclitus) as more real than other things.
Since here we reach a terminus of Western philosophy, it isn’t surprising that Harman has reached out to nonwestern ones such as are found in Islam and Buddhism. Foucault: “it is the end of the era of Western philosophy. Thus if philosophy of the future exists, it must be born outside of Europe or equally born in consequence of meetings and impacts between Europe and non-Europe.” This is in marked contrast with Laruelle, who without reflection repeats the basic Hegelian gesture of recounting the history of philosophy as the story of (white) Western philosophy.
I see the OOO intimacy with nothingness—the ungraspability of the thing—as part of a transition through and under nihilism, which Heidegger started, and which deconstruction continues, and which I believe OOO begins to complete. The post-modern ecological age is an age that will have transitioned through nihilism. My objection to eliminative forms of realism is not that they are nihilistic, but that they are not nihilistic enough. They are not nihilistic enough because they disavow the intimacy of things, an intimacy that is not based on constant presence (metaphysics of presence) but that is precisely ungraspable as such.
Now I can answer the first question. I take ecology to be the thinking and practice of this intimacy, the intimacy your car tells you about on a regular basis. Nature is an “object in mirror,” as it were, that is taken to be over yonder, underneath me, in my cells or in my atoms, “over there” in the wilderness. To riff on the wing mirror statement, Nature appears to be “as far as away as it appears” to the human.
Nature is in this sense the opposite of ecology, and it is not accidental that the modern concept Nature is born at the inception of the Anthropocene, as a kind of “schizophrenic defense” against the actual direct intervention in Earth’s crust by humans. A fantasy that prevents us from seeing how we are always caught in things, even as (and ironically especially when) we feel as if we have achieved escape velocity from them, like Oedipus fleeing his supposed Corinthian father.
SDV Duras is an engineer and philosopher who after spending the 1970s as a revolutionary, partially retired during the 1980s and underwent a new education and training in phlosophy and media. Beginning to become cautiously active again in the last dozen or so years. The neoliberal counter revolution was well under way, the appropriation of the radical specificity of race, gender, consumerist and other identity based politics was noticeably central to the neoliberal turn. By the late 1980s it was clear that an academic career was not a sensible option, instead he became an engineer (analysis, design and code). He suppose it’s marginally interesting that he is the person that the neoliberal counter-revolution was designed for, which is why the socialism, communism and the philosophy derived in part from the exemplary lines of thought Marx and Deleuze have been essential to constrain and humanize my behaviour throughout the neoliberal period.
C. Derick Varn: Deleuze as well as Deleuze and Guattari have benefited from increased usage in the last two decades; however, it seems like Deleuze may be the one of the philosophers that is often attacked on whatever superficial grounds and even defended and applied on superficial grounds. What are the problems you have seen in the way Deleuze is applied in the academy right now?
SDV Duras: As Deleuze pointed out politics, like life, is an experimental activity. However the loss and absence we can see with Deleuze is that whilst he was alive he never succeeded in breaking out of the confines of the academy. Even now it’s not clear that his texts have escaped from the academy. As such he never succeeded in applying the techniques of his work to life as it is lived. So that Deleuze never managed to work towards criticizing the ordinary objects of life, the literature of his time, cinema, television, the fleeting and imaginary concerns of the public and private spheres. In a sense we know that Deleuze wanted to take sides – and yet there is a sense in which he could not as there is always an ambivalence in the engagement. As Benjamin writes in One-Way Street, “He who cannot take sides should keep silent.”
By the mid-70s translations of Deleuze and Guattari work began to appear, both from the USA and more local translations. The adoption of Nietzsche as a counter-cultural figure took place during this period, Nietzsche was unconvincingly presented as the founding father of the counter-culture. Shortly after this in 1978 the English translation of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus was published, copies arriving in the UK when it was remaindered in 1979. Arguably a more significant moment was the publication of Rhizome and the accompanying academic dossier on their work in I&C no 8 published in 1981. What is important about this dossier is that it marks the moment when the English speaking academy began to take ownership of Deleuze and Guattari. In retrospect the publication appears at the moment when the themes began to be discussed and defined which were to remain central to the way the work was appropriated, even now, thirty years later. With the not insignificant difference that the writers in I&C assumed, as we all did, that the work was on the side of human emancipation. It took only a few years before the readings implicit in the I&C would be presented as the correct and true readings of the texts. To put it in another way the words, the meanings tentatively established in the 1980s and made concrete in the 1990s have been maintained as the orthodox readings ever since. Mistakenly thinking that the work was not appropriable by the right, by those who are necessarily against human emancipation, who are knowingly or unknowingly for hierarchy and control.
The right wing appropriation of the work began to emerge in the 1990s. And yet we can see how this tendency was evident in the earlier Nietzschean counter-cultural appropriation. The possibility certainly existed in the texts but we misunderstood how it might be used and what the right might actually look like. The conservative and liberal meanings of this interpretation of the texts have gradually become more obvious. Careers began to be established, a school of Deleuzeian studies developed and over the last twenty years the Deleuze information industry with its academic support network was introduced. The academy established a way of reading the Deleuze and Guattari texts which directly enabled the right to appropriate and take ownership of the aspects it required to maintain the dominance of their line of thought. The first secondary journals and books dedicated to Deleuze and Guattari begin to appear in the 1980s, which developed into a stream in the 90s and in the 21st Century a flood. During this period the right wing appropriation and the conservative tendencies in the academy were reinforced exactly as the dominant neoliberal ideology required. Even now as new intellectual fashions develop and Neoliberalism has failed this tendency continues.
Negri’s worry about the institutionalization of Deleuzian social and political philosophy is worth remembering here, which is to say that the difficulties of molecular revolutions have with creating links between consequences. Which is to say the difficultly of actually taking power. As Guattari said… “… will these micro-revolutions…be put away to restricted sphere of the social sphere ? Or will they be articulated in new social segmentations that won’t imply the restitution of hierarchy and segregation ? In short will all these new micro-revolutions set up a new revolution ? Will they be capable of assuming not just local problems, but the management of big economic sets?” As we know so far at least there has been no sign of a new revolutions being enabled by this and as these incoherent sentences of Guattari suggest the danger of new-fascisms, new hierarchies and segregations should concern us.
CDV: Many Anti-Oedipus’s notions of territorialisation, deterritorialisation, and reterritorialisation under capitalism have obvious correlates in identity politics. Do you think this is strength in way to understand the way identity functions as a means of territorialisation which corresponds to the strategic essentialism, and then expansion of the notion of the pime identity (deterritorialisation corresponding to de-essentialization) and problematic reterritorialised (separatism, chauvenism, etc)? What would be the function of identity politics in this context?
SDV: The retreat which the specific intellectual and identity politics represents was recognized at the beginning of the neoliberal period with the argument from some feminists that a vote for Thatcher was a vote for women. As the Thatcher case demonstrates questions of identity, territorialization, ecology and the minor always have an explicit danger of a reactionary turn, because there is no central engagement in human emancipation. Whether this is essentialist or anti-essentialist depends entirely on the relationship to the universal of human emancipation and the relationship to power. For such a politics to have any usefulness it must maintain an explicit reference towards the universal of human emancipation and construct a politics that is not ‘afraid of power’. What Thatcher demonstrates is that all such politics can entail a becoming-fascist a becoming-reactionary… Who after all has been concerned by the eco-fascism(s) that we have all come across.
CDV: What do you think of Ian Buchanan’s notion that the form of the Deleuze and Guattari’s thought is a formal dialectic, but one that is divorced from Hegelianism?
SDV: It’s not a particularly interesting and useful rereading, I think that in themselves Deleuze and Deleuze and Guattari are anti-dialecticians. Not merely against Hegel but against the dialectic itself. It is rather up to us to reintroduce the important Hegalian-Marxist moment back into what is a Spinozist-Marxist line of thought. Aline of thought wants to be just as much post-Hegelian as they want it to be post-Kantian.
However in doing so whilst Deleuze can address the Althussarian moment in Difference and Repetition he cannot begin to take into account the key radical question that Guy Debord asked in the mid 60s – “All the theoretical strands of the revolutionary workers movement stem from critical confrontation with Hegelian thought” – In the present crisis there is still no evidence that a non-Hegelian revolutionary or radical thought will provide an emancipatory moment for humanity.
To often the careerist secondary readers of Deleuze and Guattari maintain a liberalism, in the European sense of the term, as required by the academy.
CDV: What key concepts in Deleuze do you find useful to lived, embodies, everyday activism?
SDV: This is genuinely difficult question, I think that this rests on the politicisation of everything. Which extends beyond the personal is political, into the everyday and beyond science. So then, not just the politicisation of philosophy but the recognition and acceptance that ‘everything is political’. This concept is founded on the way that Marx directed philosophy and everyday life towards the political. And towards the way that because everything is political there are no apolitical domains and fields. For us it is not just in the everyday but also within philosophy that there is no separation of truth from falsity, but instead there is the necessity to analyse, question and work to change the material conditions, to challenge the everyday order in the attempt to construct a new world. This describes in a few sentences the heart of the left wing version of Deleuze, which is the one Badiou references as Democratic Materialist, rather than the right wing variation that Zizek references, it is this one that exists most obviously in Difference and Repetition and in Nietzsche and Philosophy- these are political texts which show the extent to which Deleuze is beholden to Marx and Marxism. A relationship which is made more explicit in the joint project with Guattari.
To be precise then a more political reading of Deleuze is possible as this suggests, but it requires that we accept and work with the extent to which he is a Marxist. Which requires that we do not merely read the Marx from Deleuze’s public sympathy with the Italian Marx of the Autonomia line of thought, but equally understand the readings possible from the other Marxisms…
CDV: What have you have you seen in Deleuze that is easily appropriated by the right?
SDV: Examples are easy with this question – though see below for some enhancements to this response
To begin with see the work of Brigadier-General Aviv Kokhavi, who in his use of Deleuze ‘inverse geometry’, which he explained as ‘the reorganization of the urban syntax by means of a series of micro-tactical actions’. This is not the first use of Deleuze and Guattari in military work – for that see Manual DeLanda ‘War in the age of Intelligent Machines’ a book I once discussed with an American Colonel whilst flying into Washington in the 90s. Equally critically see the pro-capitalist aspect of Deleuze and Guatari developed by Bard and Soderqvist in Netocracy the quintessential appropriation for a form of network capitalism that creates a horrifying class antagonism between netocrats and consumers. In all these cases the uses made are possible because their work can be considered as being the ideology of a newly emerging ruling class, or to put it another way we have to prevent the appropriation of the work by the emergent class by imposing a universal of human emancipation on the work. It does not exist in the work itself….
CDV: What do you make the figure of Nietzsche in Deleuze’s work? Is Nietzsche’s presence there a problematic point or a liberating poiny or something else entirely?
SDV: This inevitably leads towards an understanding of Deleuze’s work which asks whether a Marxism founded on Spinoza and Nietzsche and written against the dialectic is feasible. To understand Deleuze’s reading of Nietzsche it is crucial to recognize the status and use made of Marx, especially in the Nietzsche book and in Difference and Repetition. Deleuze’s strong readings of Spinoza and Nietzsche are founded on a Marxist reinterpretation. A central aspect of Deleuze’s practice is to establish and renew a critical position by respecifying what the philosopher is, through making the philosophers problem explicit and then reproducing the system the philosopher maintains. The critical thing is to recognize that Deleuze’s philosophical practice always works with strong readings of other figures, texts really, Nietzsche, Kant, Leibnitz, Spinoza and so on. The misreading of Nietzsche is particularly influential but in fact Nietzsche remains the same dubious reactionary figure that he always has been. The reactionary heart of Nietzsche is eradicated by the use of Marx. To the extent that we might argue that a new problem emerges at this point, one founded not on a phantasy of a Nietzschean and Spinozist form of Marxism but rather on what the precise relations are with the other forms of Marxist and non-Marxist radical thought.. And then to consider what happens when people move from Deleuze back to Nietzsche ?
CDV: Working in the sciences, do you think motivates the rejection of Deleuze’s work in the sciences?
SDV: There is no acceptable philosophy of science or engineering in Deleuze’s work. He co-opts and produces a series of strong readings but as with the appropriation of Nietzsche we are dealing with readings which cannot be utilized without a recognition of the specificity of the reading. The false difference between Minor Science and Royal Science is the classic representation of the core of the problem science represents and explains why a philosophy of science founded on the work hasn’t developed. Minor science is science as employed by artisans, engineers and is operated by problematics, (ambulant, itinerant, nomad science) which is posed as oppositional, different from Royal science, state science. They argue that minor science works by pushing systems into intensive states in order to follow traits in material to reveal their virtual structures or multiplicities. The examples supplied in ATP are hydrodynamics, metallurgy, masonry. Minor science works by focusing on on material and forces rather than matter form structures of hylomorphism. Royal and State science, also referenced as major science is founded on a critique of the positivist interpretation of classical mechanics. It functions by extracting constants from variables of extensive properties, and the establishment of laws, standard laws and phenomenological ones. Except scientists and engineers are not positivists and haven’t been for many decades, probably they never were…In a sense then the minor and major science difference here avoids the actual issue of state science which is touched on in ATP… A moment that has passed… Which is to say that where they imply an understanding of Georges Dumezil and his definitive analysis of Indo-European mythology, specifically of political sovereignty which has two poles, the king and the jurist. For whilst I accept the Deleuzian proposition that says that science, state and in fact minor science has supplanted religion as the juridicial pole, as the pole of legitimation, and whilst the king even in our liberal parliamentary democracies has remained fundamentally unchanged as the despotic pole, as power. Except that whilst clearly the structure has remained unchanged that the media, the spectacle itself has supplanted both science and religion to become the jurist-media, the acknowledged legislator, the creator of pacts which the ‘king’ is beholden to… the jurist-media, the jurist-spectacle… So that where science as they imply as the juridicial pole was never simply state science, figures such as Newton, Galileo and Einstein obviously but really minor science as well….
In other words the model is explicitly flawed… and the flaw needs naming.
CDV: Do you think Debord complements Deleuze in your understanding of the spectacle?
SDV: Yes, nothing in Deleuze’s work has the clarity of insight that is available as a consequence of the work of Guy Debord and his successors. To briefly consider two lines of thought of current concern; what Hegelian-Marxists like Guy Debord force us to do is address the long term nature of the ongoing crises of capitalism, the almost 100 year old solution to an earlier crisis of capitalism that is the spectacle, that is mass-consumption. Perhaps given out concerns here though equally critical is the insistence that ‘representation’ is important.
What is offered is a focus on everyday life, on life as it is actually lived which the more traditionally focused philosophical work of Deleuze cannot address. The hidden question which Debord raises, which has not yet been properly addressed by Deleuzian thought is whether a radical left politics, can ever be constructed without addressing and accepting some aspects of our Hegelian-Marxist past. For what if Debord is correct when he says that the ‘…revolutionary workers movement stems from a critical confrontation with Hegelian thought…’ This question asked in the mid 1960s was never addressed…
CDV: Do you find accelerationists readings of Deleuze to be dangerous to radical political praxis?
SDV: Do I need to say that accelerationism has the strong smell of Italian Futurism about it ? A futurism which was really addressing and resurrecting a nasty imperial past.
Accelerationist readings are particularly dangerous because they always produce a potentially reactionary appropriation of the work. Not so much as a turn towards a worshipped future singularity, but rather because they constitute a medieval turn towards a seemingly endless aristocratic past and future. Founded not on the analysis and anticipation of progress but rather of a series of masked gestures towards the past. Accelerating ever faster towards the medieval eventually with a new Tudor future, with new unbermensch’s reminiscent of King Henry composing music and art…. There is nothing in an accelerationist co-option of Deleuze that does not end up in a glorious monarchy and perhaps worse in a love of a future Oriental Despotism.
CDV: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
SDV: In the current political and economic crisis it seems vaguely foolish to assume that a specific philosophical and political position is strategically correct. Rather we should accept that in world where everything is political notions of philosophical correctness have less meaning than they used to. Instead we live with the necessity of accepting that everyday life and the political are experimental activities with a requirement that strategy and tactics are lived with, along with the need for a modicum of solidarity. All of which is impossible given the naive tendency towards believing philosophical discourse is related to truth, which as everything is political cannot be considered correct. Curiously Henri Lefebvre argued once that everyday life is non-philosophical and that Marxism (as a philosophy and science(smiles)) should construct a philosophy/science of everyday life, of lived experience and yet the limit of this is that what he is referencing is life after 1929 and the growing dominance of mass-consumption, an affluent society which today is in the process of changing quite dramatically. Yet surely this philosophy/science could perhaps protect us from the study of proletarianized academics working for the furtherance of the control society… because …
…Lived experience has always contained a distanciation, has always been emptied by representation(s). I think it was Benjamin who first noticed people standing with cameras in front of paintings trying to preserve an experience they cannot imagine or have. What this means is that in the integrated spectacle we live within, both representation in general and in the specific forms already referred to, are pure forms of separation. The spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes image (Debord) “…when the real world has been transformed into an image and images become real, the practical power of humans is separated from itself and presented as a world unto itself…” It is this which has become the end goal, the meaning of our network society, the manipulation and control of perception, memory and consequently action in our disparate communities. Humanity separated from their commons, their language, their data, their thinking itself. This is the final expropriation, which empties the world of meaning, tradition, beliefs, contents, from the commons in their entirety. In it’s latest neoliberal incarnation it is the negative side of the post-modern understanding that culture is a resource rather than something which owns and creates the human subject. What happens to this now that the neoliberal phase is over is the source and cause of these words.
The responses to these developments have been particularly interesting. We live in a world cursed by the growth in hideous absolutisms. All of which generate rational and even sometimes sensibly angry responses, the violence of geopolitics; the life-destroying dogmatism of Islam, reactionary Christianity and religions in general; the destroyed financial markets with the most extraordinary levels of incompetence and what appear to be naive manipulations which have undermined the social and political economy and condemned material producers to starvation, ever growing slum cities and political administrations that are not capable of engaging in democratic debate and instead impose decisions along the lines defined by the network society, capitalism.
This list of absolutes is no surprise in a sense its inevitable and could be extended quite easily. Will these absolutisms begin to end as the crisis of neoliberalism begins to resolved itself ? What will post-neoliberalism look like ? What is the relationship between them and the integrated spectacle ? What is the relationship between these despotisms and the control society ? Sadly I don’t think we can avoid post-neoliberalism, the left has been so weakened by the neoliberal period that it needs this crisis to merely reestablish itself in some form or another.
For the spectacle has generated these absolutisms especially those that believe they are rejecting it…. In our world the necessity of addressing the integrated spectacle is crucial if we are to make any social and political progress in the next few decades. In a world where all information is virtually image, the information and its still expanding and translucent nature necessitates a belief in a total consciousness. This totality is supported by the technological developments that enable the integrated spectacle to exist, that have supported the globalisation of capitalism, so that the false imaginative consciousness, for that’s what it is, can no longer recognize what is possible, let alone impossible or even nothingness. The integrated spectacle reified and objectified (‘objects all the way down’) can only work towards its extension, the commodification of everything. In this sense then the integrated spectacle and the control society are one and the same thing. Two concepts which are differently named because they emerge from an unnecessary and irrelevant difference. But the control society evades the necessity to address the spectacle, always addressing its organic constituency rather than the world we actually exist in.
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!