Anti-Dialectics At Marxism 2007
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The author of this page remains loyal to the political principles of the SWP tradition, but finds himself forced to leave the SWP because of the recent actions of the leadership. This is a matter for the author alone, and does not reflect the opinions of Rosa Lichtenstein, the owner of this site, who, while agreeing with the politics of the SWP, wishes to continue debating with and challenging its members (among many others) on the subject of Dialectics.
[Added on edit: The above was written in 2007. In
addition, Rosa wishes to make plain that she no longer associates
herself with the UK-SWP; that is because of their disastrous handling of
rape allegations advanced against a leading former member.]
On this page, readers will find a more-or-less verbatim transcript of the anti-Dialectical contribution made at the meeting on Dialectics at Marxism 2007. Marxism is a festival of meetings, rallies, and artistic events held in London each year at the beginning of July. While organised by the SWP, the audience and speakers are international, and come from many different strands of the left. The speaker at the above meeting, John Rees, defended Dialectics as the theory of change and as an essential part of Marxist "method", along the same lines as his book-length defense of Dialectics, The Algebra of Revolution. For readers unfamiliar with the format of meetings at Marxism, after the main speaker has finished, contributions of up to three minutes are invited from members of the audience. The main speaker then returns to reply to these contributions as appropriate and to sum up.
Most of the time humans have existed, there were no social classes. All the able-bodied produced food, clothing and shelter collectively.
Language emerged as they interacted in their work. Using language, they could pass on skills and progressively improve methods of production.
With more efficient and complex methods of production, specialisation emerged. This needed special vocabulary, since everyday, shared language didn’t cover new technical tasks.
But from plough-making through to computers, technical language has always been teachable through everyday language.
Likewise the theoretical frameworks of the modern sciences, which allow us draw empirical data into something explanatory, not just descriptive, whether it's quantum physics or Marx's historical materialism.
But a third kind of language emerged, used neither for everyday nor specialist work.
First there were the incantations of priests, who thought words had magic powers.
Then, in more sophisticated class societies, ruling-class parasites, living off the work of others, invented specialist terms and complex theories, all from the comfort of their armchairs.
Cut off from the material world of work, they mysteriously arrived at unheard-of conclusions without having to gather any specialist data -- that would’ve been too much like hard work for them.
They would start by wrenching a word from the everyday language of the producing classes they despised, say, the verb "to be".
Then they'd turn this into a noun, in this case "Being", and so, through word magic, they'd think they'd discovered something hidden away from the stupid working masses.
In everyday language, we can say things like "I suppose you think you’re being clever", but the Being called up by word magic is now the name of some "thing".
Next, the Philosopher -- let's call him that now -- decides to add Nothing to Being.
Again, this isn't the word used by workers, as in "there's nothing here that makes any sense to me". It's a name, now, the name of -- well, never mind.
Then the Philosopher notices that Being -- pure existence, he says -- doesn't have any qualities, which makes it surprisingly like Nothing.
Eventually the Philosopher decides that Being and Nothing should give birth to Becoming.
Not as in "this is becoming really stupid" but the name of yet another thing unknown to the masses.
And finally, our Philosopher decides he's got the makings of a theory of change.
He convinces himself that the stupid workers, using mere everyday language, have no way of understanding change.
Never mind that workers have changed the world beyond recognition through their labour.
You'd surely think they could talk about the changes they'd brought about, but our philosopher can't allow them that.
Decide for yourselves if the Philosopher in his armchair has anything to offer the working class in its struggles.
The Philosopher, of course, was Hegel, and Dialecticians, including John, endorse his Being, Nothing and Becoming story,1 and agree that the language of workers can't deal with change.2
Historical materialism already gives us the theory we need if we want to fight to smash capitalism -- it uses everyday language and explainable technical terms.
1. E.g. p.45 of Rees, The Algebra of Revolution (pointed out during contribution).
2. E.g. pp.49-50 of Rees, The Algebra of Revolution (pointed out during contribution).
John Rees replied to this contribution when he returned to the microphone in the last section of the meeting. Readers are welcome to check the account given here against the recording of the meeting, available from this site [order form available here -- this is a .doc file]. Unfortunately, according to John's version of the contribution, the only distinction was between two types of language (rather than three): he claimed that the contribution had only granted legitimacy to everyday language and that it had condemned all varieties of technical/theoretical language. The rest of John's reply was based on this version, and was therefore irrelevant; the argument actually made in the contribution never received an answer. There was never any question, of course, that a three-minute contribution would overturn the ideas of someone who has published articles and a book committed to Dialectics; it was primarily addressed to comrades who are uncommitted or only half-persuaded by Dialectics. On the evidence of the applause the contribution received, it would seem that such comrades were indeed present in the audience.
The contribution had, in fact, been conceived to clarify the anti-Dialectical case in this area; the same accusation had been leveled by Dialecticians in earlier debates on Dialectics at the website Lenin's Tomb (though not by the creator and main author of that excellent site). Readers can assess for themselves whether the contribution clearly conveyed the point that both everyday language and technical/theoretical language had legitimate roles to play, including the description and explanation of changes of whatever variety. Dialectics, on the other hand, belongs to the third and illegitimate type of language, which is disconnected from normal usage in the material world of work inhabited by the producing classes. The point of the contribution was not to put forward a new theory of language (far from it), but simply to make distinctions that were missing from previous debates, but which clarify the case being made so ably by Rosa on this website.
The contribution was also designed to eliminate two further, related ploys used by Dialecticians (neither of them open to John Rees, since he had chosen a line of attack that took him in a different direction). Dialecticians, as Rosa has observed from years of experience debating with them, like to put words in the mouths of their opponents by attributing to them some other philosophical theory, which they can then condemn as "undialectical" or "mechanical". And so in one of the three-minute contributions later in the meeting, a speaker from the floor dismissed the anti-Dialectical contribution as "empiricist" -- on the basis of no evidence whatsoever. Empiricism should be rejected (as Rosa argues elsewhere) as much as Dialectics and any other philosophical theory (as opposed to scientific theories). Granted, most empiricists have shown far greater ingenuity than Dialecticians have in making their theories sound plausible, but that cannot rescue them. Alternatively, if the Dialectician is more inclined to play fair, s/he will often ask "what philosophical theory do you propose instead of Dialectics?" The question contains a false assumption, namely that the rejection of one philosophical theory requires another philosophical theory to take its place. As the contribution made clear, the answer is to reject the premises of the question: all philosophical theories should be repudiated as a part of ruling-class ideology.
The case being put here is not that Dialecticians are deliberately conspiring against the working class, or against revolutionary socialist organizations, but that they are unwittingly dragging a Trojan Horse into our camp. For revolutionary socialists, ideas and actions are inter-linked. Correct actions should flow from correct ideas. But if we set out from ideas that are profoundly wrong...
[Added by RL: more details here. Marx's 'surprising' anti-philosophical stance can be accessed here.]
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