[Rosa Lichtenstein is a “Wittgensteinian Trotskyist” who runs the website Anti-Dialectics. This is an edited and largely re-written version of an interview that appeared at The (Dis)Loyal Opposition to Modernity in July 2013. Note: if you are using Internet Explorer 10, you might find that many of the links won’t work properly unless you switch to ‘Compatibility View’ (in the Tools Menu)]
C. Derick Varn: 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 with dialectical materialism?
Rosa Lichtenstein: I began to read Hegel back in the 1970s, but when I started a degree course in Philosophy — which was incidentally delivered largely by leading Fregeans and Wittgensteinians, who introduced me to Analytic Philosophy — I very soon began to reject not just Hegel but all forms of traditional Philosophy as little other than “houses of cards”, to paraphrase Wittgenstein.
As part of my degree I had to study Marxism, but was put off by the confused philosophical ideas I encountered in Engels’s work, and in that of other ‘Dialectical Marxists’. However, in the early 1980s my interest in Marxism was rekindled, partly because of the increasingly bitter class conflict in the UK at that time, and partly in response to my reading Gerry Cohen’s book – Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense. As a result, I saw that there was now no philosophical barrier to my accepting Historical Materialism (providing every trace of Hegel had been removed). After the UK Miners’ Strike of 1984-85, I became involved in revolutionary politics for five or six years, joining the UK-SWP, which at that time seemed to me to be the least affected by Engels’s regressive philosophical theory, as well as the least sectarian group on the far-left. However, soon after I joined, the SWP did an about turn and articles promoting hardcore dialectical materialism began to appear in their publications. This dismayed and alarmed me, even though I found I could still agree with their politics; so I just ignored this regrettable development.
Unfortunately, in the fight against the UK Poll tax in the early 1990s, the SWP began to change dramatically. 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 toward other party members. These activists now declared that ‘dialectics’ 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 SWP). This meant that they had to conform to a suicidally increased rate of activity geared around the fight against this 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 also 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 the SWP, and the “new mood” melted away nearly as fast as most of the older, long-standing comrades had — 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. After the recent rape allegations debacle, the best estimate is that there are now less than 1500 members (falling from around 10,000, fifteen to twenty years earlier).
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, 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 the human race, 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 — whereby 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 at least 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 Dialectical Marxists 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, for 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 manifestly 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 is supposed to be contradictory!
Indeed, I wondered, was this theory also employed to ‘justify’ 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 leading to the deaths of millions of workers 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 spectacularly unsuccessful for so long. My research since has confirmed these suspicions, and very much more besides.
It’s worth adding, though, that I don’t blame this theory for all our woes. There are objective reasons why various ruling-classes still control 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, that our core theory – Materialist Dialectics –, has nothing whatsoever to do with this. But, there are comrades who will look you straight in the face and tell you one minute that dialectics lies at the heart of all they think and do, but in the very next breath they will deny it shares any responsibility – no matter how small – for this depressing state of affairs. They won’t even countenance this as one of the possible reasons; it is rejected out of hand. That, too, needs explaining.
So, apparently, the only two things in the entire universe that aren’t interconnected are the long-term failure of Dialectical Marxism and its core theory!
You just couldn’t make this up!
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?
Well the so-called Analytic Marxists weren’t nearly 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 was for me a landmark work (that is, if we ignore his Technological Determinism and his Functionalism), not least because of the clarity of his argument — an approach other ‘academic Marxists’ would do well to copy.
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.
Why do you think that dialectical materialists refuse to abandon dialectical materialism?
I think there are at least three main reasons, all of which are, ironically, inter-related. The first is rather complex (I hasten to add that I am going to simplify greatly here!): The vast majority of those who have led the Marxist movement, or who have helped shape 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 ‘reality’ 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’ (i.e., 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 against, reformed or negotiated with.
Hence, a ‘world-view’ that rationalises or ‘justifies’ 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.
Some might object that the above can’t have remained the same for thousands of years, across different modes of production; this runs counter to core ideas in Historical Materialism. But, we don’t argue the same for religious belief. Marx put no time stamp on the remarks he made about religion. They applied in Ancient Babylon and Egypt, just as they did in China and India, and Greece and Rome, in the Middle Ages and they have done so right across the planet ever since. The same is true of the core thought-forms found throughout traditional Philosophy, East and West — that there is indeed an invisible world, accessible to thought alone –, especially given the comments Marx made about Philosophy itself:
Feuerbach’s great achievement is…[t]he proof that philosophy is nothing else but religion rendered into thought and expounded by thought, i.e., another form and manner of existence of the estrangement of the essence of man; hence equally to be condemned…. [1844 Paris Manuscripts. Bold added.]
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 those who have led our movement 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 this 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 Christian and Hermetic 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 had been taught ‘genuine’ philosophers should behave.
You can see comrades (and others) regularly doing this sort of thing right across the Internet on various discussion boards and blogs, (and, indeed, in books and articles on ‘dialectics’ or Marxist Philosophy; in fact, many examples can be found at this site (i.e, The North Star). These comrades rarely if ever stop and think how it is that they can so effortlessly derive fundamental theses, true for all of space and time, about ‘Being’, ‘consciousness’, ‘subjectivity’, ‘essence’, etc., etc., from a handful of words/concepts, all in the comfort of their own heads. Indeed, it seems quite natural and uncontroversial to do this. Well, 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 and this new theory, which profound truths workers, alas, couldn’t quite grasp because of their dependence on ordinary language, ‘formal thinking’, and the ‘banalities of commonsense’.
In which case, dialecticians aren’t going to relinquish the pre-eminent position that adherence to this theory bestows on them — they are the High Priests of the Revolution, and are determined to remain that way.
The second reason is a bit more down-to-earth, so to speak: Because Dialectical Marxism has been such a spectacular and long-term failure, revolutionaries have had to convince themselves that (a) This isn’t really so, 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 one 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 occupy a unique role in this regard, motivating and/or rationalising (a) and/or (b). So, although things might appear to be going wrong, these invisible underlying ‘essences’ – that only those who ‘understand’ dialectics seem able to perceive, ascertain or comprehend – tell them the opposite. Alas, this prevents them from addressing the serious theoretical problems that afflict Dialectical Marxism. That is,if they even so much as acknowledge there are any problems! Part of the problem is that they don’t! All the while Dialectical Marxism sinks slowly into oblivion and self-inflicted irrelevance. The dialectical equivalence of fiddling while Rome burns.
I mentioned earlier that Marx thought that “philosophy is nothing else but religion rendered into thought” (a comment Marxist philosophers studiously ignore). However, just like role that religion assumes in the lives of those who look to Bishops and Imams for guidance, dialectics provides those held in its thrall with much needed consolation in the face of the alienating affects 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’ these comrades 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 defeats, debacles and disasters, and in the face of their own belief that truth is tested in practice, revolutionaries almost invariably respond with a “Well that doesn’t prove dialectics is wrong!”
Again, just like the religious, who can survey all the ‘evil’ in the world and still see it as an expression of the ‘Love of God’ — who will make all things well in the end –-, 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 stops them examining that theory, inviting yet another generation of failure by masking these facts.
So, dialecticians aren’t going to abandon this valuable source of consolation, and will continue clinging to it like drunks to lampposts.
The third reason is also connected with the other two: As is the case with the Bible, which provides believers with ample excuses to accuse everyone else of not ‘understanding’ the ‘Will of God’, dialectical materialism, with its sacred texts, provides its acolytes with an equally obscure theory that ‘allows’ them to claim that other theorists — even if they are Marxists (but who belong to a different party or tendency) — either do not ‘understand’ dialectics, or they ignore and ‘misuse’ it. Only they can fully comprehend it. This then ‘allows’ these ‘true believers’ 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 — simply because it glories in contradiction.
Abandoning this theory would therefore deprive our ‘leaders’ (and many of our theorists) of a very powerful ideological weapon, which helps them control the movement by, oddly enough, keeping it small, and thus easier to control. So, despite the fact that we have witnessed over 150 years of comrades devoting themselves to ‘building the party’, very few can boast membership rolls that rise much above the risible. Hence, the only thing Dialectical Marxists seem to be expert at is falling out with one another, and splitting! This explains the apposite nature of the Monty Python sketch about the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (etc.), which everyone knows and quotes. Its clichéd status reveals a truth that has sunk deep into the collective public mind: Dialectical Marxism is now a standing joke.
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?
Well, it certainly helped the leaders of the communist movement sell contradictory tactics and strategies to its cadres, and thus to the whole movement. No theory (other than perhaps Zen Buddhism) can so readily lend itself to the derivation of any conclusion you find politically expedient and its opposite (often this trick is performed 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 of this at my site). So, it’s an ideal weapon to put in the hands of opportunists of every stripe.
As I noted earlier, it also helped the leaders of both the Communist and the Trotskyist movements rationalise their own substitution (or that of other forces) 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!
Do you think that lingering Hegelianism affects the early chapters of Capital or do you think that is where the clean break begins?
Marx certainly held onto the jargon, with which he tells us (in the Postface to the second edition of Das Kapital) he merely wished to “coquette”.
However, and this is something about which all Dialectical Marxists prefer not to be reminded, in the very same Postface, Marx provided his readers with the only summary of “the dialectic method” he published and endorsed in his entire life. Sure, it was written by a reviewer, but Marx still endorsed it as “his method” and “the dialectic method”. But, in this summary, not one atom of Hegel is 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 Marx still calls this “the dialectic method”. So, according to him (not me!), “the rational core” of “the dialectic” contains absolutely no trace of Hegel. Hence, putting Hegel back ‘on his feet’ reveals how empty his head really is. 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 Steuart).
Now, I have to admit that this is one of the more controversial aspects of my work, and it has drawn upon my head a storm of criticism and no little opprobrium — and along with that it has attracted many objections. Naturally, I can’t go into all the details in this interview, but I have responded to these objections at my site.
Anyway, I prefer not to call this a “break”, since that would suggest I agree with Althusser about there being an ‘epistemological break’ in Marx’s thought. Marx isn’t interested in epistemology, and it isn’t hard to see why. But, maybe more about that another time!
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.
I don’t think Wittgenstein’s project is at all the same as Marx’s; sure, there are a few superficial similarities, but that is about as far as it goes. Having said that, there is very clear evidence that some of Marx’s ideas filtered through to Wittgenstein via Piero Sraffa and his many Marxist friends in Cambridge and Birmingham. In the early 1930s, after long discussions with Sraffa, Wittgenstein began to adopt an “anthropological view” of language, which linked it directly with how we have developed as a species and how discourse functions as means of communication rather than as a means of representation (which is how he had pictured it in the Tractatus). I have written more about this in an article of mine The North Star has just published, but in much greater detail here.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we can’t use Wittgenstein’s ideas to help improve Marxist theory, or at least change its direction.
However, in another sense, his work is among the most radical ever to have appeared in the entire history of Philosophy, East and West (and this is what aligns it with Marx’s own approach). That is because, if he is right, his method brings to an end 2500 years of empty 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 would put this point, 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 a relation between things, or, indeed, those things themselves. Dialectical Marxists call this “reification”, but fail to see this accurately describes what they have done with the concepts they unwisely imported from Hegel (upside down or ‘the right way up’).
By-and-large, traditional Philosophy has always been seen as method for obtaining fundamental truths about ‘reality’, ‘being’, ‘god’, ‘consciousness’, ‘mind’, etc., — all of which were derived from language or from ‘thought’ alone. This is indeed how the discipline is viewed today, especially in what is called ‘Continental Philosophy’. Over the last thirty or forty years, even Analytic Philosophy itself has resiled from its earlier anti-metaphysical stance and has now largely returned to the traditional role Philosophy has always arrogated to itself: a sort of Super-Science. So, the main function of Philosophy these days is, it seems, to produce a theory of mind, or of perception, or of language, or of ‘consciousness’, or of time, 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!). Indeed, if his method actually caught on, they’d all be out of jobs!
Incidentally, another reason why Dialectical Marxists reject Wittgenstein’s work is that they think he argued that Philosophy should “leave everything as it is”, that is, that he was a conservative or “bourgeois” theorist. [This from those who look to Hegel, a quintessential bourgeois theorist, if ever there was one!]
Of course, Wittgenstein never argued this, but readers will need to read the article that has just been published at this site (or here) for more details.
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?
I’m not too sure Trotsky was all that familiar with Hegel’s work, but, 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 ramblings even while accepting the scientific nature of his other work. The same applies here.
In answer to your second question, I think Trotsky helped preserve the revolutionary proletarian element in Marx’s (and Lenin’s!) politics — something 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 had to/will have to struggle against that imposition in order to create a classless society, one in which they are no longer exploited and oppressed –, which is, indeed, what we have seen, and are still seeing, in all those states set up by the Stalinists and the Maoists.
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?
The odd thing is that if you are a Trotskyist, the vast majority of dialecticians are in fact (for you) 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 in fact (for you) anti-Marxists or are counter-revolutionaries, namely the Maoists and the Trotskyists. Alternatively, if you are a Maoist, the vast majority of dialecticians are in fact (for you) anti-Marxists or are counter-revolutionaries, namely the Stalinists and the Trotskyists. The same is true if you are a Left Communist or an anti-Leninist Marxist. [I know they don’t see things this way, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t so.]
Hence, an adherence to dialectical materialism (or ‘materialist dialectics’) is no guarantee that you will always remain on the ‘straight and narrow’. In fact, the vast majority of Dialectical Marxists ‘fall by the wayside’ (according to those not in the specific party or tendency making this judgement), even while remaining faithful to it in their own eyes! A nice ‘unity of opposites’ for your readers to ponder.
Of course, the counter-argument is that all these other groups/theorists ‘mis-apply’ the dialectic, or they don’t ‘understand’ it – but, they all say that of one another! In fact, there is no objective way of deciding if and when ‘the dialectic’ has been, or can ever be, applied ‘correctly’. Indeed, if truth is tested in practice, the weight of evidence (from the history of all wings of Dialectical Marxism) delivers a very uncomplimentary verdict in this regard. They’d be the very epitome of success if their application of ‘the dialectic’ were correct.
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, a shock compounded by the way these events were received and interpreted by Trotsky and the US-SWP) disturbed him so profoundly that he abandoned socialism. Although I condemn this development, 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, some of whom even advise others not to read my work!). In Burnham’s case, he reneged on his socialist principles; with me, it has had the opposite effect, and has made me more determined to press my case while remaining a revolutionary.
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?
I think left ‘intellectuals’ have largely come to distrust (by their actions, not necessarily their words) the working class — but, as with most generalisations, there are notable exceptions –, and have retreated into a sort of academic enclave where they only speak to one another, and in terms that only those with a PhD can understand. Framing socialist theory in Hegelian and post-Hegelian terms clearly hasn’t helped. You can see the results for yourself in the tangled mess that comes out of France, or out of Zizek and Judith Butler, for example. How many workers are going to read that? Compare this with the attempts made by left intellectuals sixty or seventy years ago, who made genuine efforts to speak to workers in terms they could understand. Chomsky made this point rather well a few years ago.
I think Chomsky’s negative attitude toward Marxist theory (apparent in the above and in some of the other things he has said), is largely a result of the fact that Marxist Philosophers have stopped speaking to workers and write books and articles in impenetrable prose.
The result is all the more ironic: today, such ‘intellectuals’ scratch their heads and wonder why workers ignore Marxism! As Chomsky points out, these ‘intellectuals’ have abandoned the working class and left them open to the far more focussed and much more easily accessible ideas of the ruling-class and their ideologues. This is a very clear dereliction of duty.
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. But, just try telling any of them them this! As one of my old professors used to say (and as Chomsky also intimated), their heads are so full of noise that this message won’t get through.
I not only agree with Marx about 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 only manifestations of actual life. [The German Ideology.]
Of course, it’s up to others to decide if I have indeed followed that advice! But, Marx might as well have been talking to the cat for all that this advice will be heeded by ‘academic Marxists’.
However the sectarians you referred to have also withdrawn into their own closed circle for reasons I spelt out earlier. Their adherence to dialectics has simply made a bad situation worse. There are other reasons why this has happened, too, which are connected with the class origin and current class position of those who lead the sectarians, as you call them, and as I also noted above.
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?
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 garbled logic of his day, and his negative judgement of it (much of which was based on the fact that he didn’t seem to know it was garbled!). Since then, left ‘intellectuals’, by-and-large (but there are notable exceptions again, such as the work of Graham Priest) have been highly suspicious of logic, or have simply ignored it. There is also an element of the fear of mathematics (which modern logic looks suspiciously like) among these ‘intellectuals’, who are almost exclusively drawn from the Arts. But, we perhaps need the help of social psychologists on this one.
What do you think a Historical Materialism without dialectical materialism would look like, exactly?
I think it would look very much like Gerry Cohen’s formulation (minus the Technological Determinism and the Functionalism, as I noted earlier).
Anything you would like to say in closing?
If I were an Idealist, I’d harbour illusions that my work could make some difference; that is, I’d be under the illusion that Dialectical Marxists could be argued out of their adherence to this creed. But, as a Historical Materialist, I know that only social change will bring to an end the conditions (and the consequent alienation) that motivates the vast majority of comrades into looking at the world in the traditional manner I outlined earlier. Since fundamental social change can only come about through the revolutionary activity of workers themselves, Dialectical Marxists of every stripe are going to need the proletariat to ‘save them from themselves’.
I stand no chance – I might as well be speaking Klingon to the cat!
(Originally posted here)