Douglas Lain recently did a Diet Soap podcast with David Blacker on Eliminationism in education. I will suggest that for a Marxian understanding of current pedagogy. I have been noticing that the eliminationist motives aren’t just aimed at students and teaching assistants, but also at Professors themselves. The online classes will cut into the professor pole in the extreme and “streamline” education into less and less useful models, and they will still probably be based on the exploitation of students to maintain the grading. I think this actually proves that the institution of higher education as we know it, and probably k-12 education will not be a matter of reform, either of the liberal or Michelle Rhee’s neo-liberalization.
It will probably be one of slow collapse as the efficiency of this kind of education cannot be maintained. While the online classes will probably start to accelerate the decline of university research functions and decrease educational standards, but this has already come out of a need where the costs to producing these educational institutions are not maintainable. We who are teachers are going to have to much more honest at what we are looking at: We aren’t looking at something that is likely to be reformed. In fact, the constitution of reform of education pushes obfuscates all the material conditions which makes such education unlikely.
The challenge will be what we can do to set up alternative institutions fill in the gap.
C. Derick Varn: Marxian notions of science are characterized in two incompatible ways: I have heard Marxists and Marx being accused of proto-postmodern relativism and absolute social constructivism, and conversely as positivistic and crudely deterministic. Do both of these characterizations misunderstand something fundamental about Marx and Marxist-influenced epistemology?
Ben Campbell: In discussing Marxism’s relation to science, it is important to note that there is no one “Marxism”. Rather, it must be understood that Marxism frayed into several strands, particularly after Marx and Engels’ death, and especially after the political failures of the early twentieth century. One of the many areas in which this great divergence of Marxisms can be seen is in their relation to science.
The coherence of Marxism rests upon an attempted synthesis of materialism and the Hegelian dialectic. What exactly is meant by such a synthesis has been a subject of great debate. A particularly problematic character in this debate has been Lenin. Lenin’s philosophy, as expressed mainly in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism and his Philosophical Notebooks, is quite ambiguous and perhaps contradictory—he seems never quite able to resolve the synthesis between the Hegelian dialectic and materialism. At Lenin’s worst, his philosophy reduces to a “reflection theory”, and what Axelrod called “naive realism”. At his best, Lenin wrestles with the attempt to “apply dialectics to… the process and development of knowledge”, but the issue was never really resolved in his writings. Due to the eventual canonization of these problematic texts, these ambiguities would lead to great disputes in Soviet Marxism, and consequently in Marxism more generally, ranging widely from the metaphysical to the positivistic. Eventually, Soviet “dialectical materialism” would largely be reduced to mechanistic materialism, with the “dialectic” a mere superficial stylistic ornament, the ambiguity of which could be deployed for political purposes. Partially in response, much of the academic work of “Western Marxism” moved in the other direction, abdicating claims to the natural sciences, eventually leading to what you call “proto-postmodern relativism.”
So yes, various “Marxisms” can be accused of suffering from one or the other of these shortcomings, but these must be seen as symptoms of the degeneration of Marxism as a coherent whole. And from a Marxist perspective, this intellectual fragmentation is inseparable from the political failure of Marxism, and the continuation of capitalism with its extreme divisions of intellectual labor. Marxism, at least as envisioned by Marx and Engels, was meant to be a coherent Weltanschauung capable of transcending this divide. While one could argue that there have been some Marxists who have demonstrated the potential of such an aspiration, I do not think that Marxism has ever reached this aspired level of coherence.
Thus it seems necessary to return to Marx and Engels themselves, and ask if there may have been something faulty in their project—perhaps the attempted synthesis of materialism and the Hegelian dialectic is ultimately unstable? Did Marx and Engels themselves even have a clear sense of Marxism’s relation to natural science? Here, many authors have attempted to stress a fundamental distinction between Marx and Engels, for the implicit purpose of saving Marx from some of the ostensibly “positivist” or “metaphysical” elements introduced into “dialectical materialism” by Engels (note the opposite charges). While there are certainly differences between the two thinkers, their correspondence indicates that these are mainly differences in emphasis rather than fundamental differences in outlook.
So what was Marx and Engels’ orientation to natural science? Certainly it is not as explicitly identified or consistent as we might like. The question of what a materialist dialectic exactly means is one that strikes to heart of Marxism’s relation to science, and epistemology. And it is a question that has never really been answered, even in the writings of Marx and Engels. But then again, perhaps it wasn’t supposed to be, for as Engels would write in Anti-Duhring, dialectics “is nothing more than the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society and thought”, and in Dialectics of Nature, “to me there could be no question of building the laws of dialectics into nature, but of discovering them in it and evolving them from it.”
Thus instead of looking to Marx and Engels to discover what they really meant by this synthesis, perhaps it is more useful to look to scientific developments for insight.
C.D.V.: What does a Marxian theory of science look like in specific terms?
B.C.: There are really two approaches to this question. The first is a meta-scientific response that addresses the question as one of the theory, practice, philosophy, and history of science. What does Marxism tell us about science and how it is practiced in capitalist society? In this sense, it is worth considering the Hegelian dialectic and its advancement through the resolution of contradictions. There is some similarity here to Karl Popper’s famous view of science proceeding by falsification, with the obvious irony that Popper was a strident anti-Hegelian. The difference is that a Hegelian conception of science anticipates the criticisms that would be leveled at Popper, such as “confirmation holism”, and historicizes this notion of scientific progress. Interestingly, Popper’s most famous epigone, Imre Lakatos was an ex-Marxist émigré from Stalinist Hungary, were he was schooled in Hegelian Marxism — at times directly from György Lukács. Based partially on this background, but more importantly on the themes of his philosophy of science, the author John Kadvany has referred to Lakatos as a “philosophical mole”, and a “covert Hegelian taking the Popperian castle by storm”. But regardless of Lakatos’ intentions (was he really trying to Hegelianize Popper?) we can see in Lakatos something resembling a Hegelian philosophy of science.
As for a Marxist philosophy of science, it would have to synthesize such Hegelian notions of scientific progress with the recognition that scientific consciousness, while ultimately empirically constrained, is shaped by social being—and in capitalist society that is by the reproduction of capital and the scientific labor process. Thus, if you were to synthesize a philosopher like Lakatos with “externalist” accounts characteristic of the best of sociology of science, then you’re starting to get at a Marxian philosophy of science.
Now, speaking of “philosophy of science”, there is a tendency in the West to separate philosophy from science, such that “philosophy of science” studies how science progresses as an institution, but it doesn’t have much to say about scientific theories or nature—that is, it is a study of form, rather than content. This view has been encouraged, by what are seen as the historic failures of Soviet science, which are often seen as a blanket condemnation of philosophical and political interference in science. This rather simplistic portrayal is unfortunate. As Engels once said:
“Natural scientists believe that they free themselves from philosophy by ignoring it or abusing it… they are no less in bondage to philosophy, but unfortunately to the worst philosophy, and those who abuse philosophy most are slaves precisely to the worst vulgarised relics of the worst philosophies… It is only a question whether they want to be dominated by a bad fashionable philosophy or by a form of theoretical thought which rests on acquaintance with the history of thought and its achievements.”
Scientists always use philosophy to inform theory, whether they realize it or not. The very act of induction implies metaphysical speculations about the way the world is. Thus, the second response to this question, which is in my opinion more interesting, involves looking to contemporary science to inform philosophy, and vice versa.
If we return to Hegel, I should point out that he was deeply influenced by the Naturphilosophie of his day, and his thinking was really an attempt to develop an organic conception of the world. Indeed, as Frederick Beiser puts it, the purpose of The Science of Logic was to develop a “logic of life”. While some of Hegel’s scientific errors have been notorious, the central vision of the logic of life expressed by Hegel stands up remarkably well. That is, that life itself is a process driven by the resolution of contradictions between the object and the subject’s representation of it. That is, we can see in Hegel an attempt to answer the question later posed by Erwin Schrödinger: What is Life?
In answering this question from a biological perspective, there is a long tradition viewing life as a homeostatic process. Sometimes this perspective has been dominant, at other times less so. You can see it from early experimentalists like Claude Bernard and Walter Cannon to cyberneticists like Norbert Wiener and W. Ross Ashby. In this general view, life is envisioned as a process of regulating an internal environment against the ongoing threat of entropy. “Cybernetics”, coined by Wiener, comes from the Greek for “steersman”, emphasizing life as a perilous process of navigation. And as Ashby would note, the process of regulating a system requires the “modeling” of that system. Thus, life is seen as a process of organism modeling its environment. Or, as I said earlier, this is a view of life as a “process driven by the resolution of contradictions between the object and the subject’s representations of it”. Thus, there are long-standing conceptions of life that are ‘dialectical’, quite different than much of the popular molecular biological reductionism.
This conception of a materialist dialectic is perhaps most interesting in the cognitive sciences. In his own day Hegel critiqued Kant, who was himself responding to the threat posed by empiricism. To simplify greatly, this general progression can be seen from behaviorism, to the “cognitive revolution”, to today’s increasingly dialectical conception of the brain. That is, the cognitive science of the 1960s and 1970s was characterized by the study of “forms of thought” in response to the limits of naive empiricism. Hegel praised Kant for a similar maneuver, but went further, arguing that the forms of thought must critique themselves, and thus become dynamic. And likewise, the contemporary conception of the brain has moved from one of a more passive filter to an active conception usually termed “Bayesian”.
Thus, while few contemporary biologists would recognize it as such, contemporary biology is increasingly a vindication of Hegel’s dialectical understanding of the subject-object relation, and hence Marx’s materialist dialectic. Does that mean that today’s science is, in a way, Marxian? No. Marxism is more than just the materialist dialectic. A Marxist scientific practice would be one whose subjects were conscious of that dialectic, both in its natural and social forms. Today’s science, greatly atomized and lacking in coherence, is a long way from that.
C.D.V. Could you expand on this notion of the “increasingly dialectical conception of the brain”?
B.C.: Well, let’s start with a behaviorist conception of the brain as a model learning the statistical relation between sensory inputs and motor responses, a view taken to its logical extreme in B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior. What was known as the “cognitive revolution” was very much a reaction to the limits of such a conception, with Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s book somewhat of an opening salvo. From then on you begin to see in the “cognitive sciences” an increasing focus on mental forms, cognitive schemata, internal representations, etc. A particularly crude way of thinking about this is that there are a priori mental forms, into which external input is stored, with these forms often (but not always) taken as innate structures of the mind or brain.
However, as I mentioned earlier, to parallel all this work, there has been a trend in cybernetics and computational neuroscience looking at the relation between content and form. Some of this work started by asking the question: how would the brain efficiently store all of this information? And of course the most efficient forms are dependent on content, giving rise to conceptions in which the “forms of thought” themselves vary dynamically, a view developed by early information theory and cybernetics, but also in experimental neuroscience. And so, for example, you would see theoretically-heavy work arguing that the forms in which the visual cortex stores information depend dynamically on the spatial statistics of visual input.
Now, the interesting development in neuroscience came throughout the 1990s when this relation between form and content was increasingly considered temporally. This view of the brain, leaning an internal model of the temporal statistics of its inputs, is one of prediction—that is, that the cerebral cortex, far from just passively receiving incoming input, is actively predicting that input. This has given rise to a contemporary conception of the brain (usually called “Bayesian”) that emphasizes the central importance of contradiction. That is, the brain is constantly predicting its input, and updating its internal model when these predictions are contradicted. And this contemporary view, as emphasized by theorists like Karl Friston, relates back to the earlier homeostatic views of cyberneticists.
Contemporary scientists wouldn’t go near the word “dialectics”, but I cannot think of a better word for this emerging conception of the brain, and indeed life. The characteristic features of a “dialectical” understanding—contradiction, internal relations, emphasis on “the totality”—all find their parallel within contemporary neuroscience. And so in this view, as I said earlier “life is a dialectical process driven by the resolution of contradiction between the environment and the subject’s representation of it.”
Importantly, however, this is not merely a passive question of ‘modeling’. In speaking of the importance of the brain the neurophysiologist Rudolfo Llinás often references the tunicate, or “sea squirt”. Sea squirts begin their life as tadpoles using a primitive nervous system to navigate along the ocean floor looking for a suitable place to live. When it finds such a location, the sea squirt implants itself, to live its adult life as a filter feeder. It then proceeds to digest its primitive brain. The lesson here is that the brain is an organ tied to movement; an animal that does not move has little use for a brain. Thus, in talking of a dialectical conception of the brain, it is necessarily an active interaction of subject and object—or to paraphrase the most famous of Marx’s theses on Feuerbach: the purpose of the brain is not to interpret the world, but to change it!
C.D.V.: What do you think are the key differences between Marx and Engels on science?
B.C.: I am not convinced that there are key differences. Certainly, Marx wrote much less on natural science than Engels, but it seems that this was merely the result of Marx’s deference to Engels on the topic, not a fundamental disagreement between the two. While I am not a Marxologist, I have not seen any evidence of such disagreement. Nevertheless, this has not stopped many Marxists from asserting a fundamental difference between the two, with the seeming misstep of the “dialectics of nature” pinned on Engels. As I stated earlier, these criticisms have come from two opposite directions! On one hand, Engels has been blamed for introducing metaphysical speculation reminiscent of Naturphilosophie into materialism, while on the other hand he is accused of reducing Marx’s humanism to a vulgar mechanical materialism. The fact that Engels can be attacked from two different directions indicates the fundamental tension that exists in Marxism’s attempted synthesis of Hegelian philosophy and materialism. As his problematic Dialectics of Nature demonstrates, Engels never seemed to quite resolve the problem—and thus neither did Marx. But both were interested in it, understood the general contours of it, and attempted to synthesize a Weltanschauung of “dialectical materialism” (although the term was coined by Dietzgen, and now seems inseparable from Stalinist orthodoxy).
Now, having said that, I cannot help but wonder if Marx would have avoided some of the unfortunate formulations and speculations contained in Engels’ scientific writings. In particular, Lukács in History and Class Consciousness is correct to claim that the “the interaction of subject and object” is lost in many of Engels’ metaphysical speculations. It seems incorrect, however, for Lukács to claim that these “crucial determinants of dialectics” are “absent from our knowledge of nature”. They are abundantly present in biology, which is unsurprising, since Hegel was so influenced by an organic view of nature.
C.D.V.: What do you make of the recent turn of a lot of technocratically center liberals towards both neurology and evolutionary psychology to underpin their political instincts?
B.C.: Well, science has a reputation as a neutral arbiter of truth, and as such it is unsurprising that “scientific” claims are frequently enlisted as ideology in support of those with power, which exists today as capital in its manifestation as neoliberalism. One could go back many decades, of course, to see science used as ideology in previous phases of capital accumulation, such as various racist theories in the heyday of imperialism, and even the advocation of eugenics against the working class in the august pages of Nature. Of course, liberals now look back at this “science” in horror, as though it marks mere scientific misconduct or bad practice, while from a Marxist perspective it is entirely expected. Marxism is unique in its understanding of science, ascribing neither to a naive scientific empiricism, nor a postmodern relativism. It questions the ideological assumptions of science, particularly with respect to the requirements of capital, without denying the possibility of scientific truth.
The turn to neoliberalism has been accompanied by the ideology of the “free market” increasingly read into science, as a part of human nature. Evolutionary psychology is the most well-known example, itself somewhat of a rehash of the earlier sociobiology of the 1970s. In their most vulgar forms, these schools of thought attempt to explain nearly all features of human behavior as natural byproducts of human evolution. In this way, through Darwinian selection, people have been selected to maximize “fitness”. While fitness can be precisely defined in terms of reproduction, such controlled experiments are impossible in most cases. Thus, in the hands of an evolutionary psychologist fitness can be treated somewhat similarly to the neoclassical economic category of “value”—that is, in an entirely circular manner. Why do people do things? Because they increase fitness. What increases fitness? Why, whatever people do! By this type of armchair reasoning, evolutionary psychologists can deduce “just-so” stories to explain nearly all human behavior. Some are plausible explanations, for example that the common fear of snakes was adaptive for our primate ancestors. Others are less plausible. In a famous example, the neurologist V.S. Ramachandran wrote an evolutionary psychological response to the question “Why Do Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?” (“to enable them to detect the early signs of parasitic infestation and aging”). It was satirical, but some didn’t recognize it as such, giving some indication of the level of scholarship in this field. At any rate, seldom are evolutionary psychological explanations in any way testable.
While it is easy to laugh at the more absurd examples of evolutionary psychology, from a Marxist perspective it is far from humorous, as it serves as both a Panglossian justification for the status quo (one can always find an evolutionary explanation), and more specifically as “scientific” support for the ideology of neoliberalism, with its view of human nature as maximizing some utility function.
As I have mentioned, these debates are nothing new. Marxist-influenced biologists like Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould had ongoing disputes with sociobiologists like E.O. Wilson beginning in the 1970s. Unfortunately, this type of highly ideological science is today increasingly unchallenged. While there was a scientific element to both the Old Left and the New Left, today’s scientific Left is virtually nonexistent (or more optimistically, has yet to be born). One obstacle is the increasingly anti-scientific stance of the American Right, which for many scientists appears to have reinforced the identification of scientific values with liberalism, and at least postponed any critical scientific challenge to liberalism itself.
As a neuroscientist and a Marxist, some of the more troubling developments in recent years have been in the area of “neuroeconomics”. While much of the work carried out on human decision-making is quite valuable in challenging the assumptions of neoclassical economics, much of the work being conducted by “neuroeconomists” is heavily ideological, driven by a desire to synthesize neoclassical microeconomics and neuroscientific theory. And so the human brain is increasingly viewed through the lens of neoclassical theory, with the ventral tegmental area correlating with utility—dopamine as value drug. And so today, an increasing number of neuroscientists (well-intentioned people, indeed my colleagues and my former self) speak of the human brain as maximizing value, endeavor to measure value and reward with functional MRI experiments (often played for money), and elucidate our contemporary notion of “human nature” through this framework.
Now, from a Marxist perspective it is important to note that this heavily ideological science is not entirely wrong. Marx did not just dismiss his predecessors in political economy because their theories were ideological. Rather, he recognized fundamental insight in their work and went on to develop a critique from that work. Similarly must a Marxist approach both the later developments in economics, and the type of science derived from its assumptions.
I do not dispute that the functioning of the brain can be read in a manner broadly consistent with the notion of maximizing utility. But just as there are different coordinate systems for the same geometry, so are there different interpretations of the same brain activity. Why is brain and behavior so commonly interpreted as “maximizing utility”, when it could be equally interpreted as “minimizing disutility”? Note how the trivial shift in wording leads to a significant shift in our view of “human nature”. The first interpretation points to the neoclassical homo economicus. The second leads back to the homeostatic—and dialectical—view mentioned earlier.
C.D.V.: Do you see this blurring of the lines between a highly philosophical (ideological) discipline like economics with neurology to be related to way most scientific endeavors are funded? Or do you think something else is going on? I noticed a lot of co-option of evolutionary language in economics since the 1970s and Hayek’s use of socio-biology underpinning of the market as a form of evolution, but it seems to have gone far deeper now and the reason for it eludes me.
B.C.: Well, the question of how capital influences the scientific “superstructure” is predictably difficult, especially science the large majority of scientific funding occurs via the state, and then through universities. So you’d need to get into some serious institutional analysis. It is for the most part not a question of vulgar causality, where corporate interests are directly funding science, such as in the age of tobacco research (although there are exceptions). Indeed, when one thinks of such conflicts today one thinks of climate scientists, whose conclusions, far from supporting capital, have been directly opposed by it (hence reinforcing the liberal notion of neutral science). So it is clearly not a situation of either extreme—of a neutral science “speaking truth to power”, nor of science as merely the ideology of capital. Unfortunately, the Marxist study of the history and practice of science is significantly underdeveloped, with the field of “Science and Technology Studies” really lacking a strong Marxist critique.
So, to speak only of the example given, neuroeconomics, I think there are two factors at work. The first is that economics, in order to address increasing criticism, has been forced into the field of psychology, in the form of behavioral economics. The second factor is that neuroscience, and biology in general, is a theory-poor field. This is largely the result of the intellectual fragmentation caused by the specialization of intellectual labor—a fragmentation that has increased substantially over the last few decades. This has led to a general decrease of coherence, with science increasingly reducing to a pastiche of theoretical forms—the science of late capitalism, in Fredric Jameson’s sense. And so just as economics is looking for support from psychology, neuroscience is largely looking for theory.
This trend is probably true more generally. With the decrease of coherent narrative, biology has been increasingly vulnerable to ideological interpretation—and it is certainly related to the decline and fragmentation of the Left.
C.D.V.: What do you think a concerned response to these trends might be by Marxian thinkers? Do you find Gould to be a particularly good example?
B.C.: There haven’t been many explicitly Marxist scientists in the West, at least not since the late 1930s and the disasters of Stalinist science (e.g. the purges of geneticists). There have been scientists that are Marxist-influenced, like Stephen Jay Gould, however this largely attests to the relative strength of Marxism academically in the post-War era. Back then simply receiving a broad pluralistic education would expose one to Marxist critiques and perhaps leave one sympathetic to them, but this is rather different than explicitly looking for connections between Marxism and science, as scientists and Marxists of previous generations had. In the case of Gould, it certainly made him much more skeptical of simplistic causal claims, particularly when they supported capitalist ideology, as well as emphasizing the role of contingency and historicism in nature.
While we could certainly use more scientists like Stephen Jay Gould (these days one can receive a broad pluralistic education without really learning about Marxism), I don’t think that this is sufficient. Scientists, and especially those who study science (e.g. sociology, history, and philosophy of science), really need to develop more of a structural critique of scientific institutions, ideology, and their relation to capital accumulation. And given the hitherto failure of the institutionalized study of science to do enough of this (e.g. Science and Technology Studies) it is likely that this will increasingly have to be done outside of the academy in collaboration with activists and journalists who are willing to engage with science dialectically—succumbing to neither the facile anti-scientific stances that have characterized some on the “left”, nor the uncritical championing of scientific empiricism. And this will be aided enormously with the participation of scientists engaged in an immanent critique of their own practices. The question of how to radicalize a new generation of scientists is interesting. I do not think it will happen to a great extent without a broader rebirth of the left and leftist critiques more generally. In my case it was the broader upsurge of leftish politicization of 2011, epitomized in the Occupy movement, that sparked my interest in the relation of science and capital. And I think that only rarely would scientists even consider these questions without them being raised by a broader left.
“I believe that while philosophy may well terminate in definitions, it cannot start out from them; and that, in order to understand, to have knowledge of, the content of philosophical
concepts themselves – and not simply from the point of view of an external history of ideas or of philosophy – it is necessary to know how concepts have come into being, and what they mean in terms of their origins, their historical dimension.” – Adorno
“Philosophy” is often he pathology of the way people justify their identity, but when it is not, it generally ends with questions and genealogies and logics, not pat answers. Generally, however, as Marx, Nietzsche, and Adorno understood and as many other non-German thinkers have also understood but not did have the press to articulate, philosophy is the product of the material development of history mixed with the social development of people. In other ways, people have a condition or position and need to come up with a justification, and then there we go. I would not go so far as to say it was always just a justification as the epiphenomena it produces actually justify all sorts of developments from technology to science (through meta-justifications that do themselves clarify).
Philosophy too then is as Badiou defines it: a way of mediating between truth processes. But this is only in the ideal, and the ideal, sadly, is only rarely the real. In the end, our rubric cannot be the formalized definition, but it’s opposite: The informal question and genealogy.
That said, it is important to look at the historical development of a philosophical position or a political position for what it obscures as much as it what it says. One should also question one’s motives for doing it.
The separation of agitprop from a political philosophy, the slogan from a coherent political stance, the ideology from the meme, and the hard answer from the easy one may be something I take up for wrong reasons. Un-reasoned positions can’t be reasoned out of, and positions which reinforce identity doubly so. That itself may be a problematic form of distinction. Yet, if no one says anything, the easy answers keep getting pushed. I think I am going to have a cup of tea and read a book then.
The easy answers confirm our identity; they reduce cognitive dissonance, they allow things to go unchanged.
So much of what I see on the “left” or the right or the center–the reduction of things, the recitation of statistics without context, the half formed views of nation states as being one thing or the other, is the easy answer. No, I realize that these ideological positions aren’t equally guilty, but the tendencies to view philosophy as a handmaiden to politics and for politics to be about identity or its obfuscation.
Sometimes I think a lot of what passes for progressive ideas is a conspiracy to make fascism look good. No, I don’t actually believe that, but damn, it’s easy to see how bad ideas bring worse ideas to life. Fascism, here, is not right-wing ideas alone or totalitarianism, or discipline, or any such notion: fascism here being the willingness to combine all sorts of ideological predisposition to maintain an identity, despite the fact it is legitimately falling away. (This definition is actually also incomplete, but it fits for here).
The reason I feel that way about a lot of what passes for “progressive thought” is that it often ahistorical and also abiological. Neo-keynesian focus in the 1933 through 1955 and Keynesian spending, ignoring the leveling and rebuilding of Europe in the process and the decline in real profits of the 1970s. ‘-isms’ (able-ism, capitalism, sexism) and ‘archies’ (patriarchy, corporatocracy) are spoken about as if they were anamorphous enemies that have been constant throughout time without any improvement or context. These -isms and -archies are rooted in the very real, very lived experience, but as they are spoken about in this way, the realness seems to fall away into mere projection. This is a projection of value that looks inherently unknown and can make conservatism or other forms of ideological positions that are actually not in the interest of many of the oppressed (as individuals or as a class) seem more natural and more contextual. Luckily, in the US, conservatism in the popular parlance seems to have gone insane, but many liberals, leftists, and otherwise take a false sense of security from that and other demographic facts without realizing that they themselves could easily be becoming the sane version of the status quo.
Badiou would inform us of the truth process here in seeing bad politics and our need to cut away. So the formalist and genealogist meet again.
So I’ll end with a chuck of Gravity’s Rainbow and let you, gentle and intellectual reader that I hope that you are, see the relevance as I saw it today:
But the rocket has to be many things, it must answer to a number of different shapes in the dreams of those who touch it – in combat, in tunnel, on paper – it must survive heresies shining, unconfoundable . . . and heretics there will be: Gnostics who have been taken in a rush of wind and fire to chambers of the Rocket-throne . . . Kabbalists who study the Rocket as Torah, letter by letter – rivets, burner cup and brass rose, its text is theirs to permute and combine into new revelations, always unfolding . . . Manicheans who see two Rockets, good and evil, who speak together in the sacred idiolalia of the Primal Twins (some say their names are Enzian and Blicero) of a good Rocket to take us to the stars, an evil Rocket for the World’s suicide, the two perpetually in struggle. Gravity’s Rainbow (727)
The certain power of people who identify as “liberals” to have an ideology that still mirrors the society they critique because of two basic assumptions is pretty telling; although not in the simple double-think or hypocritical way that so-called “conservatives” often accuse them of belying It is not that these marginally richer working class (called middle class in the US) are bad or crypto-racist necessarily even if they often blindly do benefit from such exploitation, but they are often blind to the structures they assume could be fair. Even terms like privilege imply that it is just systemic unfairness that could be reformed out, and not something that is fundamental to the structure of economic situation itself. After all, privilege is granted and can be taken away without fundamental social change at the roots of production. You can deprivilege an ethnic group in feudalism for example (the dominance of say the Anglo-Saxons by the Normans) but not change the fundamental social structures of the society. These unconscious assumptions are hidden within the language of many liberal “radicals” who adopt the nomenclature without fundamentally doing historical work to see the development of the idea at hand. This gives even progressive liberalism a limitation that tends to be conservative under stress: It’s fundamental assumptions are in line with a “progressive” notion of the present to be managed into improvement without fundamentally changing the structure of class, and thus not deeply changing the nature of race or gender. (Read the recent discussion in mostly liberal magazines about the end of men, which does not discuss that the pay for women while improved is still off and that benefits of middle class society are disappearing for lower income “middle class” including things like marriage without liberating the work load on single mothers, etc.)
In short, the mistake is that they actually assume the world as it is could be tweeked into something ideal without radical (and thus violent in some fundamental sense even if no blood is spilled) change, and thus they read the current into the past when trying to understand it. Recently, more or less liberal sociological work by people like Jonathan Haidt read a fundamental separation of political ontology into determined psychological framework ignoring that historically these divisions are very modern. For example, many liberal narratives about the South Eastern US ignores the history of populist and even progressive politics in the South: William Jenning Bryant was the presidential candidate of the “Solid South” after all. Keynesian redistribution is assumed because that is all managerial tax policy, and no look at how fundamentally un-equal the work structure would be even under Keynesian redistribution schemes and how dependent semi-capitalist social Democracies actually are on exploited labor in countries that are not social Democratic. The problems of the EU make this abundantly clear.
Many “Leftist” critique of liberalism actually accept fundamental liberal categories (Keynesian just needs to be more radicalized, the state is enemy but it could be run by more leftist technocrats to the benefit of all, the assumption of nation-states as somehow real national actors) and just try to push them further. This in a way makes sense because the origins of left-liberals and Democrats have an ideological genealogy that is on the same spectrum of bourgeois politics out of a mostly European framework. Even “radically” “non-Eurocentric” radical liberal critiques (such as say Judith Butler) still fundamentally use categorical terms which are out of European thought itself (“the other” for example being a primary one).
In this, the self-identified radical or even the self-identified moderate liberal, can be somewhat forgiven for reflecting the divided and uneven nature of semi-capitalist liberal modernity. It sees the world as “it is” but the world as it is is a reflection of the structures in which our economic and political lives are limited. But while they can be forgiven, as long as they do not recognize the fundamental structural impossibility of their project due to the nature of representation and production, they are often their own enemies and the enemies of the very social improvement they advocate. Keynesianism does not work without outside exploitation of labor to give grist to the mill of the welfare state’s production capacity. Mutliculturalism doesn’t work unless one has a definition of culture that is purely ideal and thus involved with tolerance and tokenism of native languages without any respect for their own development or separation from the traditional ideologies of their society.
Many of my “liberal”–and remember I realize how confused this term is in North America, but also in Europe (which often denies the liberal origins of most contemporary social Democracy after the say 1930: Was it not the German Social Democrats, the former party of Marx, who removed minimum wage laws in Germany)–friends actually do see these contradictions in the paradox of Obama’s actual governing record, or the realization that most neo-liberalization of the US economy was actually accelerated under Bill Clinton. They see it, but still holding on to the theories and social categories of soft psuedo-Marxian analysis of a re-distributional (which is really just radical Keynesianism often), sociological categories which have idealist modes of ideology, and notions the vague “system” is “systemically unfair” (instead of doing what it logically must do to maintain itself as a mode of production and distribution) limit how they can address the problem, and so the march continues and economic cycling and stagnation maintains itself.
I was listening to Doug Henwood interview David Frum, and it hit me that it was like listening to two parts of my brain speak to itself: there is the part of me that is a former right-winger and is still a communitarian, and there is a part of me that looks on to some right-wingers as essentially alien and outside my experience even though I was one of them in my mid-twenties. I am alienated by most left-liberals and left as them as largely motivated by lifestyle or by issue-based critiques, but the right in the US and abroad with only a few exceptions seem to be from a differing set of values from most of mind, and ones that are mainly seeming about reinstating lost institutions (far from the Burkean managerialism).
I have logical critiques of many things “leftists” say and methodological and epistemological issues with many Marxists, and I tend to balk on the patronzing empowerment of the bourgeois state of most liberals that hardly seems in their own long-term interests, but I do share many communitarian values and virtues with them, but I share a concern and contempt with a lack of flow through and a certain hyper-intellectualization among the left and the managerial tendency of most liberals and the ideological purist (even if incoherent ultimately) of left liberals.
A friend of mine, Aaron D. Ward, put it this way in response to me complaining about the conflation of systemic racism and personal racism by both liberals and conservatives, and how many of my left-liberal friends just assume I don’t know Tim Wise or Keynesian economics:
Binary thinking is a problem here. A simple “left-right” construction leaves out a great many ways of seeing such as right-libertarianism or green anarchism, or red anarchism, or communism, on whatever.
Secondly, the ignorance of both the different and similar values of the other present a picture of ignorance in the other. So, our political/ideological understanding of the other is mired in a false consciousness. For example, yesterday I was watching a doc called “Anarchism in America”. Karl Hess, a right-wing speech writer for Nixon and Goldwater, after being thrown out of the GOP, started to read our lady Emma Goldman, and was shocked to see his beliefs and values reflected there, but argued better than the right-wing libertarians had been able to articulate. So, what I think I learned was that our ignorance of the values that other’s ideologies are grounded in generates an opacity regarding their argument and leads us to conclude that they are are fucking idiots and are not educated on the issues, or facts, or whatever. So false consciousness generated by ignorance of the other is the problem.
But I think what you are experiencing with “liberals” be they paleo or neo, is that they VALUE management, power over, and domination of others, and more importantly, they value systems and bureaucratic rules over others. I tend to think this is a bastardization of what 18th C liberalism was all about, ie. freedom, and after years of social democratic theory, sociological analysis, and the lessons learned from “hard-authoritarian” ideological application (Germany, USSR) they have come to see “soft-authoritarian” methods as the “best” method toward their primary fetish, “growth”. This growth is not limited to economics for liberals. They also fetishize “progress” and want to see growth in all the sociological metrics; literacy, life expectancy, “standard of living”. Thus, for liberals, if the numbers a moving in the right direction while people are forced (even through “nudging” or coaxing”) individuals within society move closer to that Holy Grail, freedom.
I say fuck their management. I want Total Freedom now! But I see freedom as illusory, only glimpsed at an angle, and only attained episodically and temporarily. And because I don’t think we can have freedom as a permanent condition, I don’t think it can be attained through management of society, its institutions, and others. But liberals do. But I don’t think the liberals are stupid. I think they are dangerous and that their notions of “how to freedom” is contradictory and come from that pedantic and pompous position that “everybody else is stupid”. They ain’t stupid anymore than George Will or David Brooks are stupid; they’re just dicks.
On the original point about racism being “power + privilege” and “only whites can racist,” I suppose I will share that here:
When it comes to privilege, I have never understood the deliberate conflation of racism as individual animosity and racism as privilege, both are valid definitions of racism, but one is newer and specialized. In popular parlance, it is expressed as “only white people can be racist”, but this is a reference systemic racism, which is what racial (gender, professional, etc) privilege is, does not involve any individual agency beyond those who set up the system. When people are complaining about personal animosity, this is an equivocation. No one is systemically racist unless they have total dominance or primary dominance in setting up the system, the average privileged individual only benefit from it. They may or may not be individual racists (racism definition A), but that is irrelevant. Therefore the conflation in only white people can be racist is strange, because if it systemic then the average individual’s personal belief is irrelevant and so then is there consciousness of privilege, because only changing the structure would matter. Holding people of lower class accountable for a system that exploits them is problematic, particularly from people generally higher up on the privilege scale chastising them (such as white, left-liberal graduate students). Now the denial privilege seems to be particularly empowered by the conflation of racism A and racism B, because the equivocation is just inverted by the conservative or the whomever. Privilege is real: It may suck much less to be a rich and black than a poor and white, but poor and black is a shit deal. So when comparing like to like, the privilege issue is clarifying, but when making blanket derailing statements, most people intuitively see the equivocation problem and then racialists can exploit it. Liberal answers to the privilege problem is generally fixes that neither fix the structure nor addresses personal animosity, but look to dis-empower people on a declining scale and, of course, this would lead to reactionary tendencies among the working and middle class.
Furthermore, I like Malcolm X prefer the wolf I know, give me an honest Tory instead of left liberal who lives in a gentrified neighborhood lecturing people on gentrification. So in the end, I end up like with devil being like David Frum and the other like Henwood. Being mugged by reality in this day and age doesn’t lead to becoming a neo-conservative, it leads to wondering what the hell happened to the political spectrum in the first place. Why does all of it seem so disconnected? There is no third-way, but the existing ways don’t look so hot these days either.
I have, increasingly, stopped writing about “the left.” This hypostatization is almost meaningless now: the idea of utopia have little pull with most of those who call themselves leftists be they Marxists, primitivists, anarchists, liberals, progressives, or whatever. The arch-liberal jeremiad writer, Chris Hedges, has picked up the a title that one could have attributed to Edmund Burke, “the myth of progress.” Nor can one easily say that there is no left without committing akin to a etymological fallacy: a word means in the current how it is popularly used, and its current context should be that. By “left” is almost an empty signifier like “God” in mentioned in the public square without a coherent theology backing up the reference.
At the end of the day, the political praxis I want does not yet exist and it is my goal to work towards it: I suppose this is always the goal of both the cynical and the idealist, who are two manifestations of the same notion of critique. So I may talk about “the left” as it is, as people use the term, but in reality, the term means little to me.
As such I no longer am particularly worried about political purity tests for this praxis nor do I want to superficially disavow the idea of “Left” like Occupy Wall Street did to create an inclusive moment. Furthermore, despite the relevance of understanding Das Kapital to the current crisis, I also don’t think “Marxist” does the trick either. In the game of family resemblances that is Marxist discourse, we who have been influenced by Marx have never had more influence on academic and activist critique since the 1970s, and yet politically we have never been more utterly irrelevant. In countries with explicitly Marxist parties, no where does “Marxism” or even “Marxist-Leninism” or “Marxist-Leninist-Maoism” really dominate a school of thinking, and while Marxists will never stop disparaging “Liberal concessions to reality” as reactionary, Maoists will make the same arguments for contradictions between theory and praxis in Mao, Stalinists for Stalin, and Trotskyists for early periods of Trotsky’s political development, although Trotsky having been marginalized by Stalin and Trotskyist parties have almost no success historically in leadership have spared them such later hypocrisy in practice.
What I am interested a “left”–or more specifically emancipatory–virtue ethics mixed with a knowledge of material conditions and class relationships in one’s life and the structural critique of various social forms outside of this. By this I mean to acknowledge the tension between collective identity formation and individual agency, and to reduce that tension and the systemic limitations to it. I expect this will continue from the failures of the historical socialist tradition in both social liberties and in acknowledging the structural necessary of systemic blocks in our means of production, social relations, etc. But this can only be based on a clear set of axioms, and understanding a clear set of family resemblances, it cannot be based on any a prior political mystification.
So chattering endlessly about the existences or pure form of the “left” is a waste of time, and now is largely semantic almost to the point of re-defining if a one-eyed monster in Dungeon and Dragons is a cyclops or a beholder: It’s an imagined form now anyway. In the battle to fight the bewitchment of language on the matter, I learned to stop giving a shit about “the left” and to start caring about the political and ethical praxis that let me to be a part of “the left” in the first place.
In this one must abandon hope in order to find it. To all others, I give simple advice: do not care about your political nomenclature so much as having meaning and coherent political axioms in the first place. Incoherent axioms will most likely lead to incoherent results.
Now, gentle readers, I have some poems to write.
*Spoilers beneath the cut*
Why is so much lefty pop culture criticism both repetitive and generally bad criticism: take the criticism of Batman, it is not like the Dark Knight was more “subversive” than the Dark Night Rises, Batman in that movie keeps an allegory about problematic executive power only to justify its use while pretending to condemn it. It is also not like Batman was ever a particularly “lefty” source material. This is not anything but obvious. There are interesting things to be said about the Nolan Batman, particularly that it is sort of a mess artistically, and that it has conflicting messages: this review, while somewhat in the same tone as a lot of the silly articles I have seen from lefty publications, discusses it a little better. It admits the function of much of the culture industry is anyway: to reflect back at us what we already think we know.
Expecting a piece of popular culture to be beyond the cultural limitations of the current is silly: Batman has always been about the contradictions of the wealthy “crime fighter” is explicitly fascistic, like the lefty origins of Superman who morphs from an alien hero for the poor in the earliest comics to its nearly fascistic manifestation during the Second World War until the 1970s. The politics morph with the culture because that’s what adolescents fantasies reflect for purely “objective” commercial reasons. This point has been made by comic book writers themselves from Neil Gaiman to Alan Moore as early as the late 70s. At this point, pointing out that comic books have a hero-worshiping, almost fascistic, element is, well, a “duh” statement.
“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 only manifestations of actual life.” [The German ideology.]
“When I talk about language (words, sentences, etc.) I must speak the language of every day. Is this language too coarse and material for what we want to say? Then how is another one to be constructed?” – [Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations]
” Language is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness that exists also for other men, and for that reason alone it really exists for me personally as well; language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men. Where there exists a relationship, it exists for me: the animal does not enter into ‘relations’ with anything, it does not enter into any relation at all. For the animal, its relation to others does not exist as a relation. Consciousness is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all.” [Marx, The German ideology.]
“What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use…. The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or another piece of plain nonsense and of bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language….
“Philosophy simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything. — Since everything lies open to view there is nothing to explain…. The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose. If one tried to advance theses in philosophy, it would never be possible to debate them, because everyone would agree with them.” [Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations,]
“He was opposed to it in theory, but supported it in practice” -[George Thomson on Wittgenstein's relationship to Marxism]
It is clear that there can be no way of saving that Marx is Wittgenstein avant la lettre, their (anti)philosophical projects were divided in aims and in content, Wittgenstein arguing out from under positivism and Aristotelian thought, and Marx from German Idealism and Hegelian “dialectics.” Furthermore, while it has been said that both men thought philosophy left the world as it is, Marx placed the emphasis on a means to change it and Wittgenstein thought clarity stemming from philosophical dissolving of pseudo-problems would alter the world. For Wittgenstein this is bracketed out, it is not his job. Yet the emphasis on dissolving problems of the ideal that stems from language’s mystification and reification of abstraction seem, at base, to be a crucial parts of both projects, and given how their successors have taken up the task, an oft ignored one.
(I’d like to think Rosa Lichtenstein, Ray Monk’s book on Wittgenstein and the collection of essays editted by Kitching and Pleasants, “Marx and Wittgenstein: Knowledge, Morality and Politics” for pointing me to this line of inquiry.)
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!