Essay Ten Part One -- History And Practice Refute Dialectics
If you are using Internet Explorer 10 [or later], you might find some of the links I have used won't work properly unless you switch to 'Compatibility View' (in the Tools Menu). That appears to fix the problem.
This Essay should be read in conjunction with Essay Nine Parts One and Two; much of what I argue below depends on the conclusions reached there.
However, as is the case with all my Essays, nothing here should be read as an attack either on Historical Materialism [HM] -- a theory I fully accept --, or, indeed, on revolutionary socialism. I remain as committed to the self-emancipation of the working class and the dictatorship of the proletariat as I was when I first became a revolutionary nearly thirty years ago. [The difference between Dialectical Materialism [DM] and HM, as I see it, is explained here.]
Sections of this work are based on my experience of life inside the UK-SWP, but I have no reason to think that what I have to say here is unrepresentative of other revolutionary tendencies within Trotskyism in general --, or, indeed, beyond. Naturally, readers will have to make up their own minds on that one.
Update March 2013: This Essay was written before the current crisis engulfed the UK-SWP. I will say more about this when the situation becomes a little clearer. Nevertheless, what I have said can be read here, here and here. I have, however, updated parts of this Essay to take account of some of these developments.
First of all, it is important to note that phrases like "ruling-class theory", "ruling-class view of reality", "ruling-class ideology" (etc.) used in this Essay (in connection with Traditional Philosophy and DM) aren't meant to imply that all or even most members of various ruling-classes actually invented these ways of thinking or of seeing the world (although some of them did -- for example, Heraclitus, Plato, Cicero and Marcus Aurelius). They are intended to highlight theories (or "ruling ideas") that are conducive to, or which rationalise the interests of the various ruling-classes history has inflicted on humanity, whoever invents them. Up until recently, this dogmatic approach to knowledge had almost invariably been promoted by thinkers who either relied on ruling-class patronage, or who, in one capacity or another, helped run the system for the elite.
However, this will become the central topic of Parts Two and Three of Essay Twelve (when they are published); until then, the reader is directed here, here, and here, for further details.
Also, the claims I make in this Essay about the long-term failure of Dialectical Marxism [henceforth, DIM -- please note the use of the word "Dialectical" here!] should not be taken to imply that I am arguing as follows:
DIM is a long-term failure, therefore DM is false.
My argument -- which is based on the conclusions reached in the Essays that precede this one -- is in fact this:
Since DM is far too vague and confused for anyone to be able to say whether it is true or false, and since it is based on the ruling-class, mystical ideas Hegel inflicted on humanity (upside down or 'the right way up'), no wonder it has failed us so badly and for so long.
I augment this by adding the following dilemma:
If truth is indeed tested in practice then practice has delivered an unambiguous message: DM can't be true. On the other hand, if DM is true, then truth can't be tested in practice.
Either way, DM has been torpedoed well below the waterline.
May I also draw the reader's attention to what I have posted on the opening page of this site:
It is important to emphasise from the outset that I am not blaming the long-term failure of DIM solely on the acceptance of the Hermetic ideas dialecticians inherited from Hegel.
It is worth repeating this since I still encounter comments from comrades on Internet discussion boards, and I still receive e-mails from those who claim to have read the above words, who still think I am blaming all our woes on dialectics. I am not.
What is being claimed, however, is that adherence to this 'theory' is one of the subjective reasons why DIM has become a bye-word for failure.
There are other, objective reasons why the class enemy still runs this planet, but since revolutions require revolutionaries with ideas in their heads, this 'theory' must take some of the blame. [Several of these 'objective factors' are discussed in Essay Nine Parts One and Two.]
So, it is alleged here that dialectics has been an important contributory factor.
Finally, a good 50% of my case against DM has been relegated to the End Notes. This has been done in order to allow the Essay itself to flow a little more smoothly. This means that if readers want to appreciate fully my case against DM, they should consult this material, too. In many cases, I have added numerous qualifications and considerably more supporting detail to what I have to say in the main body; in addition, I have raised several objections (some obvious, many not -- and some that will have occurred to the reader) to my own arguments -- which I have then answered. [I explain why I have adopted this tactic in Essay One.]
If readers skip this material, then my answers to any objections they might have will be missed, as will the extra supporting detail along with the many qualifications I have added.
[Since I have been debating this theory with comrades for over 25 years, I have heard all the objections there are! Many of the more recent on-line debates have been listed here.]
As of March 2014, this Essay is just over 50,500 words long; a summary of some of its main ideas can be accessed here.
The material below does not represent my final view of any of the issues raised; it is merely 'work in progress'.
Anyone using these links must remember that they will be skipping past supporting argument and evidence set out in earlier sections.
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If you are viewing this with Mozilla Firefox you might not be able to read all the symbols I have used. I do not know if other browsers are similarly affected.
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(1) Practice And Truth
(a) Truth Tested In Practice?
(b) Binding The Future
(c) Bad Start -- But It Gets Worse
(d) A Short-Sighted View?
(e) Doesn't This Ignore The Dialectical Inter-Play Between Theory And Practice?
(f) Science Converges On The Truth?
(2) Dialectics: Tried And Tested?
(a) Appearances To The Contrary
(b) In Fact, History Refutes Dialectics
(c) Anti-Dialectical Impertinence?
(d) Capitalism Verified In Practice?
(e) Mass Seizure Versus Critical Mass
(f) The UK-SWP And Respect
(3) Excuse Central
(a) Dialecticians Have Nothing To Lose But Their Prozac
(b) Excuses, Excuses
(c) Expertly Practiced At Ignoring Practice
(d) The Excuse Dumpster
(i) Excuse One: Flat Denial Of Failure
(ii) Excuse Two: "Objective" Factors
(iii) Excuse Three: Ignore The Problem
(iv) Excuse Four: "It's Too Early To Tell"
(e) The Silence Of The DIMs
(4) Lenin And That Tumbler
(a) The Eclectic Light Orchestra
(b) Lenin's Abstract Account Of Concrete Objects
(c) Lenin's Impractical Advice
(d) The Relevance Of Relevance
(5) Reductionism And Its Opposite -- HEX
(a) HEX And Scepticism
(b) For Whom The Noumenon Tolls
(c) Engels's Divergent 'Realism'
(d) 'Commonsense' To The Rescue?
(e) The Reduction Of HEX To Absurdity
(f) Yet Another Dialectical Inversion
(7) Appendix A: Examples Of Dialectical Disdain
Summary Of My Main Objections To Dialectical Materialism
Abbreviations Used At This Site
Return To The Main Index Page
Practice And Truth
Is Truth Tested In Practice?
At this stage it could be objected that the considerations advanced in the Essays posted at this site ignore the plain fact that truth is confirmed in practice, as well as the fact that practice has validated DM.
[TAR = The Algebra of Revolution (i.e., Rees (1998); DM = Dialectical Materialism; DIM = Dialectical Marxism/Marxist, depending on context.]
The idea underlying this oft repeated claim was summarised by Lenin in the following way:
"From living perception to abstract thought, and from this to practice, -- such is the dialectical path of the cognition of truth, of the cognition of objective reality." [Lenin (1961), p.171. Italic emphasis in the original.]
"Knowledge can be useful biologically, useful in human practice, useful for the preservation of life, for the preservation of the species, only when it reflects objective truth, truth which is independent of man. For the materialist the 'success' of human practice proves the correspondence between our ideas and the objective nature of the things we perceive. For the solipsist 'success' is everything needed by me in practice, which can be regarded separately from the theory of knowledge. If we include the criterion of practice in the foundation of the theory of knowledge we inevitably arrive at materialism, says the Marxist." [Lenin (1972), pp.157-58. Bold emphasis alone added. Quotation marks altered to conform to the conventions adopted at this site.]
Similarly, the author of TAR both asks and answers his own question:
"[H]ow are we to be sure that our theory is correct? The answer is that there is a point where the theory and the consciousness of the working class meet -- in practice." [Rees (1998), p.236.]
Other dialecticians agree; here, for example, is Rob Sewell:
"Marxists have always stressed the unity of theory and practice. 'Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it', as Marx pointed to in his thesis on Feuerbach. 'If the truth is abstract it must be untrue,' states Hegel. All truth is concrete. We have to look at things as they exist, with a view to understanding their underlying contradictory development. This has very important conclusions, especially for those fighting to change society....
"The idealist view of the world grew out of the division of labour between physical and mental labour. This division constituted an enormous advance as it freed a section of society from physical work and allowed them the time to develop science and technology. However, the further removed from physical labour, the more abstract became their ideas. And when thinkers separate their ideas from the real world, they become increasingly consumed by abstract 'pure thought' and end up with all types of fantasies." [Rob Sewell, quoted from here.]
These comments were underlined by Sewell's comrades-in-arms, Woods and Grant:
"The ability to think in abstractions marks a colossal conquest of the human intellect. Not only 'pure' science, but also engineering would be impossible without abstract thought, which lifts us above the immediate, finite reality of the concrete example, and gives thought a universal character. The unthinking rejection of abstract thought and theory indicates the kind of narrow, Philistine mentality, which imagines itself to be 'practical,' but, in reality, is impotent. Ultimately, great advances in theory lead to great advances in practice. Nevertheless, all ideas are derived one way or another from the physical world, and, ultimately, must be applied back to it. The validity of any theory must be demonstrated, sooner or later, in practice." [Woods and Grant (1995), pp.84-85.]
All this is, of course, just a reiteration of Marx's famous words:
"The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth -- i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.
"The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it." [Marx (1968), pp.28, 30.]1
From this it could be argued that if dialectics has been tested in practice and has been verified countless times, then the abstract, academic points raised in these Essays can be seen for what they are -- "sophistry", pure and simple.
However, as we will see, far from practice being the Ace-in-the-Hole that DM-fans almost unanimously imagine it to be, it is in fact their Black Spot.
Background: 'Binding' The Future
We saw in Essay Three Part Two that Traditional Philosophers found it impossible to specify laws or principles capable of guaranteeing (with absolute necessity or certainty) the future occurrence of past or present contingent events; nor could they guarantee that the future would 'resemble' the past in any way. For example, they found it impossible to prove that the effects tomorrow of fire, or the nutritional value of food, will be the same as their effects today. In short, they could find no way of guaranteeing the regularity of nature.
[I hasten to add that in what follows, I am not voicing my own sceptical thoughts in this area, merely recording the fact that Traditional Philosophy has failed to solve this 'problem'. Why that is so will be left to Essay Twelve Part One to answer.]
Empiricists could only appeal to obscure mental 'habits' (fashioned involuntarily on past events) upon which to build such expectations; these days these are often expressed as part of a probability calculus. Unfortunately, the problem with 'habits' of mind is that not only are they creatures of contingency, too -- and thus no less incapable of guaranteeing their own constancy -- but the course of nature isn't bound by their many and varied fancies. And this quandary also undermines the reliability of the probability calculus; probabilities can only be specified where we have knowledge, and since we can't know the future we plainly can't bind the future with such calculi -- nor can we guarantee that these calculi will mean/imply tomorrow what they imply/mean today. We may express our various certainties in diverse ways, but these will only ever remain as 'subjective' and unreliable as 'habits' of the mind ever were -- which, of course, could themselves change.
Hence, Empiricists found it impossible to guarantee that their own calculi will give the same results tomorrow -- that is, not without making damaging concessions to Rationalism (disguised perhaps as part of a counterfactual law rooted in possible world semantics, or founded upon an "inference to the best explanation") --, vitiating the whole exercise. Indeed, as seems plain, what is highly probable today could be highly unlikely next week (especially given the fact that every event is, in its own way, quite unique (as Hegel himself pointed out), and thus impossible to regiment). Short of an appeal to a 'necessary law' of some sort, how could anyone safely conclude otherwise?
In contrast, Rationalists of various sorts variously appealed to such 'laws', or 'the natural light of reason', 'logic' (with the most desperate among them even invoking something called 'dialectical logic' -- a bogus discipline based on a series of Hegelian howlers) to guarantee the occurrence of future unregimented contingencies, taming them now as 'law-governed' certainties. The Real thus became Rational.
In Essay Three Part Two, we saw that desperate ploys like the above also failed to work for they had to appeal to the necessary connection between 'ideas', or between 'concepts' -- or, to be more honest (and more accurate), they had to appeal to the verbal expression of such 'laws', 'concepts' and 'categories' --, to justify whatever links were imagined to exist between events in the present with those yet to unfold, making this account entirely circular.
[In Essay Seven Part One, we saw Hegel's (and thus Lenin's) attempt to provide just such a connection (in response to Hume) fail badly.]
Anyway, 'necessary connections' are no less unreliable than their feckless, contingent cousins ever were. Not only are they annoyingly located in the here-and-now -- even if they are supposed to be aimed at locking in place the there-and-then --, when expressed in language and/or 'thought' they simply reduce to a series of brute facts about the way certain (rather privileged) human beings think we all think, or about how they imagine we all knit ideas, concepts and/or words together. But, what guarantees are there that human thought processes (linguistic practices and the use of rules) will always remain the same, or that today's certainties will not end up on top of that ever-growing pile of discarded certainties2
Traditional Metaphysicians couldn't solve this 'problem', and it remains in that state to this day. Contemporary forms of Traditional Philosophy are no less susceptible to corrosive 'epistemological acid' like this -- for whatever is offered by way of a 'solution' must of necessity exist in the here-and-now, the there-and-then forever mocking its feeble pretensions.
Unless someone invents a time machine (and the epistemological equivalent of Superglue, powerful enough to convert the contingent deliverances of our minds into the necessary thoughts of the 'divine', where every possibility of error is cast into outer darkness -- while managing to do this is a language that isn't socially conditioned, and hence liable to change), even our best laid theories will remain disconcertingly locked in the contingent present, formed as they must always be on the back of yet more brute facts about the way humans think they think. All the while the course of nature takes no heed. The Future even less.
As Baker and Hacker noted:
"Empirical, contingent truths have always struck philosophers as being, in some sense, ultimately unintelligible. It is not that none can be known with certainty…; nor is it that some cannot be explained…. Rather is it that all explanation of empirical truths rests ultimately on brute contingency -- that is how the world is! Where science comes to rest in explaining empirical facts varies from epoch to epoch, but it is in the nature of empirical explanation that it will hit the bedrock of contingency somewhere, e.g., in atomic theory in the nineteenth century or in quantum mechanics today. One feature that explains philosophers' fascination with truths of Reason is that they seem, in a deep sense, to be fully intelligible. To understand a necessary proposition is to see why things must be so, it is to gain an insight into the nature of things and to apprehend not only how things are, but also why they cannot be otherwise. It is striking how pervasive visual metaphors are in philosophical discussions of these issues. We see the universal in the particular (by Aristotelian intuitive induction); by the Light of Reason we see the essential relations of Simple Natures; mathematical truths are apprehended by Intellectual Intuition, or by a priori insight. Yet instead of examining the use of these arresting pictures or metaphors to determine their aptness as pictures, we build upon them mythological structures.
"We think of necessary propositions as being true or false, as objective and independent of our minds or will. We conceive of them as being about various entities, about numbers even about extraordinary numbers that the mind seems barely able to grasp…, or about universals, such as colours, shapes, tones; or about logical entities, such as the truth-functions or (in Frege's case) the truth-values. We naturally think of necessary propositions as describing the features of these entities, their essential characteristics. So we take mathematical propositions to describe mathematical objects…. Hence investigation into the domain of necessary propositions is conceived as a process of discovery. Empirical scientists make discoveries about the empirical domain, uncovering contingent truths; metaphysicians, logicians and mathematicians appear to make discoveries of necessary truths about a supra-empirical domain (a 'third realm'). Mathematics seems to be the 'natural history of mathematical objects' [Wittgenstein (1978), p.137], 'the physics of numbers' [Wittgenstein (1976), p.138; however these authors record this erroneously as p.139, RL] or the 'mineralogy of numbers' [Wittgenstein (1978), p.229]. The mathematician, e.g., Pascal, admires the beauty of a theorem as though it were a kind of crystal. Numbers seem to him to have wonderful properties; it is as if he were confronting a beautiful natural phenomenon [Wittgenstein (1998), p.47; again, these authors have recorded this erroneously as p.41, RL]. Logic seems to investigate the laws governing logical objects…. Metaphysics looks as if it is a description of the essential structure of the world. Hence we think that a reality corresponds to our (true) necessary propositions. Our logic is correct because it corresponds to the laws of logic….
"In our eagerness to ensure the objectivity of truths of reason, their sempiternality and mind-independence, we slowly but surely transform them into truths that are no less 'brutish' than empirical, contingent truths. Why must red exclude being green? To be told that this is the essential nature of red and green merely reiterates the brutish necessity. A proof in arithmetic or geometry seems to provide an explanation, but ultimately the structure of proofs rests on axioms. Their truth is held to be self-evident, something we apprehend by means of our faculty of intuition; we must simply see that they are necessarily true…. We may analyse such ultimate truths into their constituent 'indefinables'. Yet if 'the discussion of indefinables…is the endeavour to see clearly, and to make others see clearly, the entities concerned, in order that the mind may have that kind of acquaintance with them which it has with redness or the taste of a pineapple' [Russell (1937), p.xv; again these authors record this erroneously as p.v, RL], then the mere intellectual vision does not penetrate the logical or metaphysical that to the why or wherefore…. For if we construe necessary propositions as truths about logical, mathematical or metaphysical entities which describe their essential properties, then, of course, the final products of our analyses will be as impenetrable to reason as the final products of physical theorising, such as Planck's constant." [Baker and Hacker (1988), pp.273-75. Referencing conventions in the original have been altered to conform to those adopted at this site. It isn't being suggested here that these authors agree with the use to which I have put their ideas!]
Hence, Traditional Philosophy can't fail to fail, and not just here.
Once more, the disconcerting reasons for its practitioners' consistent and heroic emulation of the labours of Sisyphus (lasting now for over two thousand years with nothing to show for it, making it perhaps the most unsuccessful intellectual pursuit in human history) are detailed in Essay Twelve Part One. As Peter Hacker also noted:
"For two and a half millennia some of the best minds in European culture have wrestled with the problems of philosophy. If one were to ask what knowledge has been achieved throughout these twenty-five centuries, what theories have been established (on the model of well-confirmed theories in the natural sciences), what laws have been discovered (on the model of the laws of physics and chemistry), or where one can find the corpus of philosophical propositions known to be true, silence must surely ensue. For there is no body of philosophical knowledge. There are no well-established philosophical theories or laws. And there are no philosophical handbooks on the model of handbooks of dynamics or of biochemistry. To be sure, it is tempting for contemporary philosophers, convinced they are hot on the trail of the truths and theories which so long evaded the grasp of their forefathers, to claim that philosophy has only just struggled out of its early stage into maturity.... We can at long last expect a flood of new, startling and satisfying results -- tomorrow.
"One can blow the Last Trumpet once, not once a century. In the seventeenth century Descartes thought he had discovered the definitive method for attaining philosophical truths; in the eighteenth century Kant believed that he had set metaphysics upon the true path of a science; in the nineteenth century Hegel convinced himself that he had brought the history of thought to its culmination; and Russell, early in the twentieth century, claimed that he had at last found the correct scientific method in philosophy, which would assure the subject the kind of steady progress that is attained by the natural sciences. One may well harbour doubts about further millenarian promises." [Hacker (2001), pp.322-23.]
Of course, DM-fans might point to their own books and articles on Philosophy for examples of well confirmed laws (etc.), but as we have seen (in Essays Two through Thirteen Part Three), if anything, DM is in even worse shape than Traditional Philosophy!
Be this as it may, we need merely note the alarmingly insubstantial attempts made by dialecticians to solve this particular intractable 'problem'. So, just how do they guarantee that today's 'truths' aren't the content of tomorrow's trash can? In their case, this question is all the more pressing in view of their open commitment to universal Heraclitean change.2a
Again, as we have seen throughout this site, reality hasn't been too kind to these Hermetic Parvenus; no less so here. For, in order to dull the voracious appetite of this epistemological monster dialecticians sit it down, open a bottle of Premier Cru, and serve it a slap-up meal, for their theory places its most important criterion of truth -- practice -- in the future, and thus out of reach!
Naturally, this concedes ignominious defeat before the first course has even been served!
Bad Start -- But It Gets Worse
Stepping back from high theory to examine low dialectics: dialecticians appeal to practice as their most important criterion of truth. But, as we will soon discover, as far as DIM is concerned, not only is past practice best wiped from memory (since it has delivered little else but failure), current practice is even no less depressing. Worse still, the prospects of future practice are about as reassuring as a confirmed drug addict's promises to quit.
[PMT = Pragmatic Theory of Truth; COT = Coherence Theory of Truth; CTT = Correspondence Theory of Truth; DIM = Dialectical Marxism/Marxist, depending on context.]
Nevertheless, a reliance on practice means that DM-epistemology has inherited many of the weaknesses of the PMT. In fact, it is possible to show that the PMT collapses into the CTT, which in turn depends on the COT. And, as is well-known, the COT has always enjoyed a close, if not unhealthily incestuous relationship with Idealism.3
Moreover, as noted above, the idea that truth is confirmed in practice is dependent on the CTT, not the other way round (as several of the earlier quotes, and those in in Note 1, confirm).
That is because, if theory, T, predicts that for some sentence S, expressing a prediction, P, of T, and practice brings it about that what S says actually occurs, then in order to judge that what S says is indeed the case, S would have to be compared with relevant facts/evidence to see if P is indeed true. Manifestly, no one would try to guess whether S was true (i.e., that P is correct); and there is no way that more practice could confirm that S is indeed the case. Hence, the confirmation of the results of practice is dependent on 'correspondence relations', not the other way round (as, indeed, Lenin seemed to acknowledge).4
To give a concrete example: Let us suppose that party RR sets out to help win a strike by, among other things, mounting a series of meetings, distributing leaflets, organising marches, making collections, widening the dispute, advocating active picketing, and so on. If, on the basis of revolutionary theory, they then predict that one or more of these will help win that strike -- and that strike is won as a result --, the fact that those predictions were successful wouldn't itself be confirmed by yet more practice.
[Here "S" would be something like "Workers at the YY plant demand a 10% rise in wages and a 35 hour week, and party RR advocates the following: This strike will only be won if workers call for and organise public meetings, organise extensive leaflet distribution, well-supported marches, work-place and public collections, and they call for a widening of the dispute drawing in other factories, involving the surrounding community and active mass picketing...".]
A successful outcome would be clear from the way that the world had changed in line with earlier expectations (i.e., if the said workers received the 10% pay award and a 35 hour week). But, who in their left mind would try to ascertain that any of this was so by having another march, or holding more collections? In that case, despite what the DM-classics tell us, practice can't serve as a fundamental test of truth.5
Of course, the above example is rather simplistic, but it was deliberately chosen to illustrate the point that even if practice were a criterion of truth, it would still be parasitic on the CTT. So, for instance, if party RR at some point in the future puts together a strategy, or series of strategies and tactics aimed at furthering, and then winning, a revolution (as and when the latter was unfolding), and it was won as a result, nobody still in command of their senses would attempt to confirm that the said revolution had actually been won by staging more practice --, such as, another revolution!
And this is all to the good since practice isn't a guarantor of truth, anyway.
Here is why:
(1) Incorrect theories often make successful (practical and theoretical) predictions. For example, Ptolemy's system did just this for many centuries. In fact, the allegedly superior Copernican system was no more accurate than the older, geocentric theory had been.6 Indeed, Ptolemy's theory was refined progressively in line with observation for over a thousand years, and it became more accurate as a result. Despite that, it was no nearer to what we might now regard as the 'truth'.7
Furthermore, obsolete Caloric Theory was employed by Laplace to correct Newton's theory of sound, and Laplace's results were so accurate they remained unsurpassed for nearly a hundred years.
(2) In contrast to this, correct theories can sometimes fail, and they can do so for many centuries. For instance, Copernican Astronomy predicted stellar parallax, which wasn't observed until 1838 with the work of Friedrich Bessel, three hundred years after De revolutionibus orbium coelestium was published.
Similarly, Darwin's theory of descent through modification made predictions that were at odds with patently obvious facts: the persistence of inherited variations. The latter were inconsistent with Darwin's own "blending"* theory of transmission. Given Darwin's account, new and advantageous variations should be blended out of a breeding population, not preserved or enhanced. It wasn't until the advent of genetically-based* theories of inheritance forty or so years later that Darwin's theory became viable.
Moreover, this new 'synthetic theory' didn't achieve success by preserving anything from the old blending theory (and, because of that fact, that defunct theory can't be seen as an approximation to the 'truth', toward which later developments more closely inched their way). Indeed, because of the difficulties his ideas faced, Darwin found he had to incorporate Lamarckian* concepts into later editions of his classic work in order to rescue his theory. Hence, in the period between, say, 1865 and 1900 there were good reasons to reject Darwinism (as, indeed, many serious biologists did). This means that the development of the most successful theory of the 19th century (and one of the most successful ever) actually contradicts the DM-account of truth, by making incorrect predictions.8 [*Links below.]
In addition, the ideas that early Darwinists edited into, or out of, their theory didn't move what was left of Darwin's theory closer to the 'truth', either. In fact, these changes achieved the opposite effect, since they relied on openly Lamarckian principles. Even worse, as Darwin himself noted, his theory was contradicted by (and is still contradicted by, and might always remain contradicted by) the fossil record. This massive obstacle is still largely ignored, downplayed, re-configured, or even explained-away by Darwinians.
[The fact that 'orthodox' neo-Darwinism is probably incorrect, however, hasn't stopped Marxists of almost every stripe from hailing it as if it were the biological equivalent of the Holy Grail.]9
(3) Furthermore, some theories can make both successful and unsuccessful predictions. For example, Descartes's Vortex Theory successfully predicted that the planets would all move in the same direction and in the same plane, but it also predicted there would be no precession of the equinoxes. In contrast, Newton's theory couldn't explain this phenomenon.
Consider, too, the 'contradictions' between Newtonian Physics and observation -- those that prompted both the discovery of Neptune and the 'non-discovery' of the planet Vulcan:
"The arguments which terminate in an hypothesis's positing the existence of some trans-Uranic object, the planet Neptune, and the structurally identical arguments which forced Leverrier to urge the existence of an intra-Mercurial planet, the planet 'Vulcan', to explain the precessional aberrations of our 'innermost' solar system neighbour are formally one and the same. They run: (1) Newtonian mechanics is true; (2) Newtonian mechanics requires planet P to move in exactly this manner, x, y, z,…; (3) but P does not move à la x, y, z; (4) so either (a) there exists some as-yet-unobserved object, o, or (b) Newtonian mechanics is false. (5) (4b) contradicts (1) so (4a) is true -- there exists some as-yet-undetected body which will put everything right again between observation and theory. The variable 'o' took the value 'Neptune' in the former case; it took the value 'Vulcan' in the latter case. And these insertions constituted the zenith and the nadir of classical celestial mechanics, for Neptune does exist, whereas Vulcan does not." [Hanson (1970), p.257.]
[More details can be found in Hanson (1962). There are many other examples like this in the history of science. This claim will be documented more fully in Essay Thirteen Part Two.]
However, we don't have to appeal to the natural sciences for more examples; there are plenty to be found in revolutionary practice itself.
For instance, in the late 1980s and early 1990s the UK-SWP argued that the UK Poll Tax could only be defeated by the active involvement of organised labour. A strategy of civil disobedience (coupled with demonstrations and meetings) was regarded as insufficient to beat this tax. Admittedly, the SWP didn't counterpose these tactics, but argued that both should be built together. [On this, see Birchall (2011), pp.505-07, 511.]
As it turned out, the other strategy won.
A Short-Sighted View?
It could be objected that the above examples clearly ignore wider and/or longer-term issues. In the first case, the Ptolemaic system was finally abandoned because it proved inferior to its rivals in the long run. The same applies to Darwin's theory, which when combined with Mendelian genetics, is closer to the truth, something that is also true of Newtonian Physics, which has been superseded by the TOR.10
[TOR = Theory of Relativity.]
Furthermore, the Poll Tax simply reappeared in a modified form as the present-day Council Tax. To be sure, the total defeat of such regressive taxes (etc.) must wait for the revolutionary overthrow of Capitalism; here the involvement of the organised working class is essential.
All this is undeniable, but the above response is unfortunately double-edged: if it is only in the long run that we may determine whether or not a theory is successful, then that theory might never be so judged. As we saw in Essay Three Part Two (summarised above), that is because future contingencies could always arise to refute that theory -- no matter how well it might once have seemed to 'work'.
In fact, if history is anything to go by, this has been the fate of the vast majority of previous theories. Even though most, if not all, at one time 'worked', or were well-supported, the overwhelming majority were later abandoned. As Stanford notes:
"...[I]n the historical progression from Aristotelian to Cartesian to Newtonian to contemporary mechanical theories, the evidence available at the time each earlier theory was accepted offered equally strong support to each of the (then-unimagined) later alternatives. The same pattern would seem to obtain in the historical progression from elemental to early corpuscularian chemistry to Stahl's phlogiston theory to Lavoisier's oxygen chemistry to Daltonian atomic and contemporary physical chemistry; from various versions of preformationism to epigenetic theories of embryology; from the caloric theory of heat to later and ultimately contemporary thermodynamic theories; from effluvial theories of electricity and magnetism to theories of the electromagnetic ether and contemporary electromagnetism; from humoral imbalance to miasmatic to contagion and ultimately germ theories of disease; from 18th Century corpuscular theories of light to 19th Century wave theories to contemporary quantum mechanical conception; from Hippocrates's pangenesis to Darwin's blending theory of inheritance (and his own 'gemmule' version of pangenesis) to Wiesmann's germ-plasm theory and Mendelian and contemporary molecular genetics; from Cuvier's theory of functionally integrated and necessarily static biological species or Lamarck's autogenesis to Darwinian evolutionary theory; and so on in a seemingly endless array of theories, the evidence for which ultimately turned out to support one or more unimagined competitors just as well. Thus, the history of scientific enquiry offers a straightforward inductive rationale for thinking that there are alternatives to our best theories equally well-confirmed by the evidence, even when we are unable to conceive of them at the time." [Stanford (2001), p.9.]
[See also Stanford (2000, 2003, 2006a, 2006b, 2009, 2011), Chang (2003), Cordero (2011), Lyons (2002, 2003, 2006) and Vickers (2013). (Several of these link to PDFs.)]
So, if anything, practice shows that practice is unreliable!
Furthermore, and independently of the above, if it is only in the long run that superior theories win out, or can be deemed superior, then for most of the time inferior theories could make (and have made) successful predictions. In that case, we would have no way of telling the good from the bad for most of the time.
These observations apply equally well to dialectics. If Dialectical Marxists have to wait for the revolutionary overthrow of Capitalism before they know whether their theory is correct, then they might not only have a long time to wait, they could find that Marx's caveat (reproduced below) in the end refutes everything (i.e., everything but that anti-deterministic pronouncement itself). Clearly, Marx and Engels wouldn't have put this passage in the Communist Manifesto if practice always determined truth, and correct theories invariably worked -- whatever they might appear to have said elsewhere:
"Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes." [Marx and Engels (1968b), pp.35-36. Bold emphasis added.]
Anyway, such long-term promissory notes can't tell us today whether 'Materialist Dialectics' is now correct. Indeed, as noted earlier, this is one of the main weaknesses of pragmatic criteria: they are projective, and not simply assertoric.
Furthermore, an appeal to the "closer approximation" of a particular theory to the truth would be to no avail, either -- or, at least, it would be of no help to DM-fans. As we have seen throughout this site, in this respect DM isn't even in the running.
This is partly because DM's own precepts condemn its adherents (and humanity) to infinite ignorance (on this, see below), and partly because its core theses make not one ounce of sense (on that, see Essays Two through Eleven Part Two).
Of course, speculation about the length of humanity's sojourn in the aforementioned DM-inspired 'epistemological limbo' is a separate matter. But, the whole point of the exercise had been to use practice as a crucial test of the truth of theory. It isn't now to the point to appeal to yet more theory (i.e., "approximation to the truth") to bail out the practice.
Part of the problem with this version of alethic consequentialism is that conditions and circumstances change -- a fact which dialecticians should be the first to acknowledge. But, this minimal point of agreement only serves to weaken their case, for if they continue to pin their hopes on outcomes alone to vindicate their theory, then, as noted above, it might never be judged correct. Indeed, the opposite could turn out to be the case, especially if events unfold in unexpected ways -- a dénouement clearly allowed for by Marx and Engels, as noted above, too.
Naturally, in such circumstances, an appeal would have to be made to mitigating factors to save the theory from any awkward facts that might emerge -- as, indeed, the UK-SWP had to do when the aforementioned rival strategy won in the anti-Poll Tax campaign, and as Marxists in general do in order to account for the long-term failure of DIM.
[These are variously called "objective factors", "failure of revolutionary leadership", "treachery" by this or that group/set of individuals/party, or "misapplication of, or a failure to understand/apply, the dialectical method".]
But, if such additional (possibly theoretical) principles have to be deployed to reinterpret each and every apparently refuting outcome -- in order to explain why the latter do not actually disconfirm the theory, but 'conform' to it -- then pragmatic criteria are clearly irrelevant.
Of course, in the Poll Tax dispute, the explanation for the failure of UK-SWP tactics merely underlined the temporary and limited nature of any victory for workers under Capitalism, at the same time as reminding activists that what might appear to be victories are really only partial and/or transient in nature this side of a successful revolution.
Now, there is nothing at all wrong with such claims -- except that the more of them there are the more it becomes apparent that pragmatic criteria are no use at all.
And this fact should be apparent even to hard-nosed Bolsheviks, if they but thought about their own practice with respect to practice. There seems to be little point in appealing to practice if its results have to be constantly reinterpreted when outcomes fall short of expectations -- as they almost invariably seem to do for us Marxists.11
Indeed, as noted above, when confronted with the long-term failure of DIM, dialecticians do just this -- they deny that it has been tested in practice and thus shown to fail, promptly appealing to "objective factors" to account for its long and sorry record. On the other hand, the few successes DIM has witnessed they happily chalk this up to 'Materialist Dialectics'. In that case, practice can only ever win; failure is never blamed on this theory, only successes are attributed to it. Hence, practice and the theory that inspired it need never be altered, since DM can't ever fail. And so this sorry theory staggers on through yet another half-century of defeat and set-back.
Once more, the reason for saying this is that pragmatic theories are hostages to fortune. Because of that, those who appeal to practice as a test of truth should feign no surprise when future contingencies fail to match repeatedly dashed expectations.
To be fair, John Rees does offer his readers several other criteria that supposedly underpin the legitimacy of DM:
"There is no final, faultless, criterion for truth which hovers, like god, outside the historical process. Neither is there any privileged scientific method which is not shaped by the contours of the society of which it is a part. All that exists are some theories which are less internally contradictory and have a greater explanatory power….
"[A theory's] validity must be proven by its superior explanatory power -- [which means it is] more internally coherent, more widely applicable, capable of greater empirical verification -- in comparison with its competitors. Indeed, this is a condition of it entering the chain of historical forces as an effective power. It is a condition of it being 'proved in practice.' If it is not superior to other theories in this sense, it will not 'seize the masses,' will not become a material force, will not be realized in practice." [Rees (1998), pp.235-37.]
DM-theorists generally argue along similar lines (as the quotations given in Note One will confirm).
In which case, it could be argued that DM-theorists do not just appeal to practice as a guide to truth; in point of fact they argue that there is a dialectical interplay between theory and practice.
Unfortunately, the "other criteria" on offer have also proven to be inadequate, whether taken singly or as a job lot. Despite what Rees says, and as we have seen in Essays Eleven Part One and Seven Part One, DM-theorists can't in fact appeal to greater consistency in support of their theory since they openly admit that the world is fundamentally contradictory. Hence, if DM is to reflect nature faithfully it can't fail to be contradictory, too! Worse still, the closer DM approaches the supposed 'truth' about this avowedly contradictory world, the more accurately it should reflect it, hence the more contradictory it should become! So, far from it being the case that increasingly accurate theories should be "less internally contradictory", if DM were correct, they should in fact become more contradictory!
Moreover, in view of the fact that, upon closer examination, every single DM-thesis collapses into incoherence with alarming ease -- as has been shown time and again in these Essays -- DM wouldn't even make the bottom of the reserve list of theories capable of explaining the development of nature and society.
On top of that, as will be demonstrated in Essay Three and below, DM-epistemology is radically flawed. Apart from anything else, it would condemn humanity to infinite ignorance about anything and everything.
Given all of this, the alleged 'dialectical-interplay' between theory and practice would be far better described as 'diabolical'.
[Other criteria to which dialecticians appeal in order to validate their theory seem to depend on the CTT, which will be criticised in Part Two of this Essay. See also here.]
Finally, we have seen that the dialectical process itself is highly suspect -- that is, where any sense can be made of it. This means that even if DM were ever to be validated in practice, we should regard that in the way that astronomers, say, might view any 'successes' that astrologers might report -- i.e., as a sheer coincidence.
Science 'Converges' On 'The Truth'
Again, it could be objected that modern scientific theories are remarkably successful, which must mean that they are closer to the truth, and that is why they work. The same is true of DM.
This doctrine has recently been called "Convergent Realism". I will discuss it in more detail in Essay Thirteen Part Two. In the meantime, the reader is referred to Laudan (1981, 1984). See also here. (This links to a PDF.) In addition, cf., Stanford (2000, 2001, 2003, 2006a, 2006b, 2009), and Lyons (2002, 2003). (Several of these link to PDFs.)
Independently of this, it is worth pointing out that the success of a theory does not imply it is 'nearer the truth'. That is because:
(1) We have already seen that success doesn't imply truth, to begin with -- nor does it imply 'approximate truth'. For example, Ptolemy's theory wasn't even approximately true, even though it made successful predictions for well over a thousand years. Neither were many of the other theories mentioned above.
(2) Anyway, does scientific theory "converge on the truth"? To be sure, theories not only have to survive rigorous testing, they evolve over time. But, the fact that certain theories remain viable doesn't imply they are converging on some unspecified, and unspecifiable 'truth'. The fact that such theories remain viable for some time is down to further obvious and banal fact that they have so far survived. However, that doesn't mean that they are "closer to the truth". Indeed, in order to be able to say this, we should have to know what that 'truth' is so that such 'proximity' judgements might themselves be deemed true! And, statements of faith to one side, how might that be achieved?
(3) Furthermore, the survival of a theory no more implies it is closer to the truth than the fact that an organism survives in nature means that it is 'closer to the truth', or closer to its 'true form'.11a
For example, there is no such thing as the true form of a cat, which all cats are evolving toward. Cats just survive. Truth does not enter into it. So successful cats do not prove cats are true. Moreover, cats, like theories, could become extinct one day, no matter how well they once survived, or 'worked'. Indeed, most of the species that have ever existed are now extinct. Does that mean that they were unsuccessful when they were around? Hardly. And did that guarantee they would always remain so? Clearly not. And the same goes for any and all theories (as the history of science confirms).
However, in response it could be objected that theories are not at all like cats, dogs, or any other species; they are either (partially-) true or they are not. Species can't in any meaningful sense be characterised this way.
Maybe not, but the DM-link between practice and truth makes the analogy with cats all the more apt, for on this account, theories are true because they work. Now, the reason why some theories work/survive and others do not is analogous to the way certain species do in fact survive. There are all sorts of historical, social and ideological pressures on theories, which, like the environmental, impact on organisms, filtering out those not suited to that environment.
In that case, the fact that a theory survives/works doesn't imply it is true. To be sure, a case for the obverse inference might well be made (i.e., that a 'true' theory will or should work/survive -- however, we have already seen that this, too, is open to considerable doubt), but not this. Unless we know on independent grounds that a theory is 'true', its survival can't be used to infer its 'truth'. And, as we have seen, practice itself can't discriminate the 'good' from the 'bad', often over many centuries.
(4) There are other reasons for arguing that no scientific theory could be true, even when they make true (and novel) predictions. This isn't because they are all false, or of indeterminate truth-value, but because they are incapable of being true or false. In fact, as will be shown in Essay Thirteen Part Two, scientific theories are more like rules, and thus they aren't the sort of thing that could be true or false.
If all this is so, then the emphasis revolutionaries place on practice as a guide to truth is misguided at best --, which is all to the good, given the points raised in the next section.
Appearances To The Contrary...
Despite the above, it could be argued that the actual success of revolutionary practice speaks for itself; this alone shows the above comments are either seriously misguided or are simply "academic" and/or "sophistical".
Indeed, revolutionaries often appeal to 1917 as just such a success. The Party that advocated 'Materialist Dialectics' won the day, they argue. Here is Trotsky arguing to that effect (in his Open Letter To Burnham):
"You are not unacquainted with the great role played by Iskra in the development of Russian Marxism. Iskra began with the struggle against so-called 'Economism' in the labour movement and against the Narodniki (Party of the Social Revolutionists). The chief argument of the 'Economists' was that Iskra floats in the sphere of theory while they, the 'Economists,' propose leading the concrete labour movement. The main argument of the Social Revolutionists was as follows: Iskra wants to found a school of dialectic materialism while we want to overthrow Czarist autocracy. It must be said that the Narodnik terrorists took their own words very seriously: bomb in hand they sacrificed their lives. We argued with them: 'Under certain circumstances a bomb is an excellent thing but we should first clarify our own minds.' It is historical experience that the greatest revolution in all history was not led by the party which started out with bombs but by the party which started out with dialectic materialism." [Trotsky (1972), p.100. Bold emphases added. "Iskra" changed to italic emphasis. Spelling altered to conform to UK English; quotation marks also altered to conform to the conventions adopted at this site.]
Trotsky, of course, isn't alone in advancing this claim.
However, as we saw in Essay Nine Part Two, such an appeal can't successfully be made by dialecticians since it is clear from the record that the revolutionaries actually involved in the October 1917 revolution did not in fact use DM (or even 'Materialist Dialectics') to propagandise and organise the Russian working class. [As noted above, the evidence for this controversial claim can be found in Essay Nine Part Two; follow the link for more details.]
Does anyone really think that Bolshevik workers, having to face up to the likes of General Kornilov, were all that interested in the fact that Being is different from but at the same time identical with Nothing, the contradiction resolved in Becoming? Or that the Totality is a mediated whole? Or that plants negate seeds? Or that there are UOs everywhere? Small wonder then that dialectics gets no mention in this period -- nor for several years after.
This is, of course, quite apart from the fact that the 1917 revolution has now gone backwards, confounding the NON.
So, to answer Trotsky, the party that used DM/'Materialist Dialectics' (if it did) also screwed up.11b
[NON = Negation of the Negation; UO = Unity of Opposites.]
In Fact History Refutes Dialectics
Nevertheless, as it turns out, past events do give clear testimony --, unfortunately for DM-fans, they speak of the long-term failure of DIM.
Hence, dialecticians would be well advised to avoid using practice as a test of the correctness of their theory.
If a list is drawn up of all the 'successes' that 'our side' has 'enjoyed' over the last 150 years or so, it soon becomes obvious that it is depressingly short. Worse: our 'successes' are easily out-numbered by our 'failures'. A shortened list of both is given in Table One, below.
(1) The Revolutions of 1848.
(2) Paris, 1871.
(3) Russia, 1905.
(4) Ireland, 1916-21.
(4) The Anti-Nazi League, and successor organisations. (Major success, so far. However, the rise of the BNP in 2009 suggests that this might be too hasty a judgement. On the other hand, its demise in 2010 suggests this is in the right column -- so far.)
(5) The United Kingdom, 1919.
(5) The UK Anti-Poll Tax campaign. (Partial success.)
(6) Hungary, 1919.
(6) Numerous popular and anti-imperialist movements; e.g., Venezuela 2002-09, Bolivia 2003-09, Georgia 2003, Ukraine 2004-05, Nepal 2006, Lebanon 2006-07, Iran 2009, Egypt 2011. (All either partial/deflected, or it is too early to tell.)
(7) Italy, 1919.
(7) Limited democratic and other assorted reforms. (Many now being reversed.)
(8) Germany, 1918-23.
(9) China, 1926.
(9) The UK Stop the War Coalition, and the International Anti-War Movement, 2002-11. (Equivocal and/or petering-out.)
(10) The United Kingdom, 1926.
(10) In the UK: Respect -- after a promising start, in October/November 2007 has split! That might mean this entry is now in the wrong column. [Similar developments have taken place in the rest of Europe.] In addition, as of early 2013, the UK-SWP seems to be fragmenting, which might mean that (4) above will also have to be re-categorised, too.
(11) Spain, 1936-39.
(12) France, 1936.
(13) East Germany, 1953.
(14) Hungary, 1956.
(15) Poland, 1956.
(17) Czechoslovakia, 1968.
(18) Italy, 1969-70.
(19) Chile, 1972.
(20) Portugal, 1974.
(21) Nicaragua, 1979-90.
(22) Iran, 1978-79.
(23) Poland, 1980.
(24) Palestine, 1987-88.
(25) China, 1989.
(26) Eastern Europe, 1989-90.
(28) Indonesia, 1998-99.
(29) Serbia, 2000.
(30) Argentina, 2000-02.
(32) The Stop the War Movement, 2002-13. (Equivocal so far.)
(33) Scores of Rebellions, Insurrections, Uprisings and Indigenous Movements.
(34) Dozens of National Liberation, Anti-imperialist and Civil Wars.
(37) Sectarianism, Splits, and Fragmentation.
(38) Trade Union Bureaucracy, Modern Social-Democratic Parties.
(39) Systematic corruption in Marxist parties. [On this, see Essay Nine Part Two.]
Table One: The Dialectically-Depressing Details
Naturally, this doesn't mean that we can't explain all the set-backs, defeats, catastrophes, screw-ups, tragedies and disasters that have plagued the labour and socialist movement over the last 150 years, but we can only do so if we appeal to yet more theory, not more practice. Nor does this mean that theory and practice should be counterposed. However, if we insist on making practice a test of the truth of revolutionary socialism, we would have abandoned Marxism years ago, since our failures greatly outnumber our rather limited successes.
Moreover, attentive readers will no doubt have noticed the relatively massive scale of the defeats our side has suffered compared to the modest and temporary gains made in the last 150 or so years. For example, the catastrophic blow delivered by the failure of just two revolutions (e.g., those in Germany and Spain between 1918 and 1939) far outweigh all our successes combined.12
[OT = Orthodox Trotskyist; DIM = Dialectical Marxism/Marxist.]
Furthermore, it is only when they are viewed against a sophisticated enough theoretical background that it is possible to classify such events one way or another. For example, OTs in general regard the 'victory' of North Korea in the 1950s as a 'success', whereas the IST view it as a draw/stand-off between rival imperialisms. Similarly, the IST is inclined to interpret the events in Eastern Europe twenty or so years ago as a 'partial success', whereas unreconstructed Stalinists and OTs (and others) look upon them as a major defeat for workers.13
In response, it could be argued that the above list is highly prejudicial since it is padded out with dozens of failures that not only pre-date revolutionary Marxism, but which have nothing whatsoever to do with 'Materialist Dialectics'.
However, if these are filtered out -- along with the corresponding successes enjoyed by these non-revolutionary Marxist movements -- the list would be even more depressing!
As noted above, many of the items in the list are open to re-classification upon closer examination, and that includes most, if not all of our 'successes'. Naturally, the validity of that observation itself depends on when that judgement is made --; indeed, as Zhou Enlai once remarked of the French Revolution: "It is too early to tell".
For example, although the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) was a resounding success thirty years ago, the resurgence of the BNP (and latterly the EDL) over the last four or five years could lead to the future re-classification of the successes the ANL enjoyed as failures. If everything is indeed subject to change (according to DM), so are judgements and reputations. History is no respecter of the past; no status is locked in permanent stasis -- which is why, of course, pragmatic criteria are so unreliable.
Moreover, several outwardly successful movements could turn out to be the exact opposite if they are given an unsympathetic reading. For instance, the massive demonstrations around the world in 2003 failed to stop the invasion of Iraq. Was this a success or a failure?
(1) This was clearly a success if it is regarded as the latest high-water mark of the anti-Capitalist movement -- especially if every other relevant political and historical factor involved is taken into account, including (a) how close the movement came to actually stopping the war, (b) the fact that this movement has so far forestalled, or at least delayed, further imperialist 'adventures', and (c) how it has drawn in a several new layers of activists/revolutionaries.
[Indeed, it has been argued that the prevention of 'allied' bombing of Syria in the autumn of 2013 was a direct result of the anti-war movement.]
(2) On the other hand, it could be viewed as a failure if its explicit aims are read into the equation -- i.e., stopping that war!
This alone shows that the concepts of success and failure are highly contestable; they are theory-, and context-dependent. No doubt in the long run many 'failures' will turn out to be 'successes', but that just underlines the point being made here: if we have to wait for the future to tell us if DIM is a 'success', and that it is thereby correct, that would be an implicit admission that we can't (on that basis) determine whether it is true now.
Capitalism: Verified In Practice?
In stark contrast to our somewhat patchy record, the Capitalist class has been highly successful -- whatever else one thinks of their rotten and unstable society -- on most measures of success.
They have not only conquered virtually every square inch of the planet and won countless revolutions (as well as practically every major battle they have ever fought against 'our side' -- in the end -- even if they had to use or co-opt other social forces in order to do this), their ideas dominate intellectual life and opinion (even if somewhat precariously at times). The bourgeoisie have clearly transformed the earth in their image, and they are continuing to do so.
Hence, if practice were a reliable guide, we would have to declare ourselves supporters of the Capitalist system!
The fact that dialecticians do not do this -- and rightly so -- suggests that in practice they themselves do not believe what they preach, i.e., that practice is a guide to truth.14
But, that can only mean that, based on their own criteria once more --, and since they do not adopt it in practice --, their theory is defective.
Mass Seizure Versus Critical Mass
The various criteria of truth that John Rees outlined in TAR -- coupled with his theory of scientific knowledge -- unfortunately paint DIM into a corner. Consider the following:
"[I]t is impossible simply to stare at the world as it immediately presents itself to our eyes and hope to understand it. To make sense of the world, we must bring to it a framework composed of elements of our past experience; what we have learned of others' experience, both in the present and in the past; and of our later reflections on and theories about this experience." [Rees (1998), p.63.]
But, if all knowledge depends on such a "framework", the question naturally arises as to how we know whether this "framework" is itself correct.
In his consideration of Lukács's allegedly "class reductionist" theory, Rees tackled this problem head on:
"In a certain sense, of course, all truth is relative -- it is just that some theorists do not acknowledge this elementary fact. There is no final, faultless, criterion for truth which hovers, like god, outside the historical process. Neither is there any privileged scientific method which is not shaped by the contours of the society of which it is a part. All that exists are some theories which are less internally contradictory and have a greater explanatory power…. [I]f the truth is the totality, then it is the totality of working class experience, internationally and historically which gives access to the truth…. [A theory's] validity must be proven by its superior explanatory power – [so that it is] more internally coherent, more widely applicable, capable of greater empirical verification -- in comparison with its competitors. Indeed, this is a condition of it entering the chain of historical forces as an effective power. It is a condition of it being 'proved in practice.' If it is not superior to other theories in this sense, it will not 'seize the masses,' will not become a material force, will not be realized in practice." [Rees (1998), pp.235-37.]
Nevertheless, several issues arise from these not entirely consistent claims.
(1) Anyone not already convinced of the truth of Marxism could take the last couple of sentences of the above passage as proof that revolutionary socialism is a failure by its own lights. Up to date, our failures not only greatly outnumber our successes, they also dwarf them in significance. The combined failure of the German, Chinese and Spanish revolutions, for example, is of incalculable proportions. The reversal of the Russian Revolution was perhaps even more catastrophic. Just one of these far outweighs all our successes put together.
Although we might wish this were otherwise, it is nonetheless a fact that Marxism is the most unsuccessful of all the major political ideologies in human history. This is so glaringly obvious that few Marxists are prepared to acknowledge it, even when it is staring them in the face. Acute Dialectical Myopia sadly afflicts most militants. [I explain why this is so in Essay Nine Part Two.]
Not only has the bulk of the working-class proven to be highly resistant to our ideas, its "advanced sections" have, too. Even in Russia in 1917 the majority of the population was ignorant of (or resistant to) DIM. True, a large proportion of the proletariat became revolutionary (drawing in behind them for a time significant sections of the peasantry -- who were not, however, "class conscious" Marxists) --, but this fleeting success must be set against the depressing fact that the vast majority of the billions of workers and their families who have lived on earth over the last 150 years or so have known -- and still know -- nothing whatsoever of the DIM tradition. And they show little sign of changing their minds.
Hence, when Rees says:
"If it is not superior to other theories…it will not 'seize the masses'…." [Ibid., p.237.]
the only conclusions possible are: (a) either Rees's criteria are defective, or, so far (b) DM is an inferior theory.15
This does not mean that things can't change, or even that there is no explanation for this depressing state of affairs (especially given the conclusions of Essay Nine Part One). But, the truth is that the overwhelming majority of workers remain 'un-seized' by DIM, which fact refutes the above claims.
(2) This passage effectively consigns any test of the truth of DM to the future, unwittingly conceding the point made earlier. [This was that the veracity of this theory can't be ascertained now, but only when or if it "seizes the masses" at some unspecified point in the future.] The question Rees avoided was: How do we know whether DM is true now?
Again, it could be argued that this isn't so; Rees actually appealed to the "superior explanatory power" of 'Materialist Dialectics', its greater internal "coherence" and capacity for wider "empirical verification", as part of the proof of its superiority. Nevertheless, as he also admitted, all of these will remain academic unless and until this theory is made effective by mass support and successful practice. This is the 'epistemological hook' from which all of Rees's (and all of DM-theorists') other criteria hang. But, as we have seen, this slender support can't bear the weight that is constantly put upon it.
Moreover, we have also seen that based on internal coherence (as a criterion of correct theory) DM isn't even in the running!
Finally, as far as the other two criteria are concerned (i.e., explanatory power and empirical verisimilitude), what little alleged superiority DM in fact enjoys in this regard derives solely from the scientific nature of HM. Indeed, as will be argued in other Essays, the confused nature of the former only succeeds in undermining the scientific status of the latter. Truth be told: this is the only genuine success DIM can claim for itself: to have derived its few successes from HM!15a
Dialecticians Have Nothing To Lose But Their Prozac
Plainly, the results of "practice" haven't been too kind to DIMs. Indeed, they have been even less kind to Dialectical Trotskyists [DTs] -- comrades not known for their 'mass following'. In fact, practice hasn't looked at all favourably on DIMs of every stripe for close on a hundred years.
To reiterate: all Four Internationals have failed or are failing -- indeed, even the League for the Fifth International has already spilt!16
Figure One: Great Moments On The Left
The 1917 revolution has been reversed; we are no nearer to (and arguably much further away from) a Workers' State now than Lenin was in 1918. Practically all of the former 'socialist' societies have collapsed (and not a single worker raised his or her hand in their defence; compare that with the way workers have recently fought for or have defended even limited forms of bourgeois democracy!). Even where avowedly Marxist parties can claim some sort of mass following (for example, in Nepal and parts of India), it is passive and electorally orientated --, and those parties themselves have openly adopted reformist programmes (despite the contrary-sounding rhetoric).
So, if truth is indeed tested in practice, practice has delivered a rather unambiguous verdict: 'Materialist Dialectics' doesn't work, therefore it can't be true.
But, have dialecticians drawn this obvious conclusion?
Are you joking?!
In fact, it would be far safer to bet on this:
Figure Two: A Dead Cert In Comparison
When confronted with such overwhelmingly disconcerting facts, dialecticians tend to respond in one or more of the following ways:
(1) Denial: They flatly deny that DIM has been an abject failure. Typically, such comrades point to 1917 and/or the handful remaining 'socialist' states on the planet --, or, perhaps, to the few faint rays of hope there are in the world right now (i.e., Cuba, but more recently, Venezuela). Some even argue that the above failures do not refute Marxism, often in the same breath as appealing to practice as a proof of their theory!
[Psychologists call this syndrome "Cognitive Dissonance". More on that in Essay Nine Part Two: generally here, but more specifically here.]
(2) Shift The Blame: If DIMs admit to failure, they blame it on "objective factors", or on other Marxist parties. "Objective factors" include a consistently vicious and aggressive response from the capitalist class, a relatively weak, divided or underdeveloped proletariat -- which is passive, has been bought-off perhaps by imperial super-profits, or has been distracted by "false consciousness" (and the like) -- compared to a well-organised and focused ruling-class.
These are then often linked to the failures in theory, strategy, and tactics adopted by the various revolutionary groups involved in previous debacles.
But, it is worth noting, the above are invariably never the errors of the party to which that particular excuser belongs. It is always "those other guys" who screwed up; they don't "understand" dialectics, you see.
(3) Nothing To See Here: Many simply ignore the problem. This is the 'head-in-the-sand' syndrome we have met several times already, only applied here to the results of practice.
(4) Whistling In The Dark: Some tell us that it is too early to tell. After all, it took many centuries to see the back of Feudalism. If so, it is wildly unrealistic to expect DIM to triumph overnight.
Each of the above excuses will be dealt with below.
Expertly Practiced At Ignoring Practice
Now, there doesn't seem to be much point in dialecticians claiming that 'Materialist Dialectics' guides all they do, avowing that truth is tested in practice, if, when the latter reveals its long-term verdict, it is denied, disregarded or explained away.16a
Look again at these rather uncompromising declarations:
"From living perception to abstract thought, and from this to practice, -- such is the dialectical path of the cognition of truth, of the cognition of objective reality." [Lenin (1961), p.171. Emphasis in the original.]
"[H]ow are we to be sure that our theory is correct? The answer is that there is a point where the theory and the consciousness of the working class meet -- in practice." [Rees (1998), p.236.]
"Marxists have always stressed the unity of theory and practice. 'Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it', as Marx pointed to in his thesis on Feuerbach. 'If the truth is abstract it must be untrue,' states Hegel. All truth is concrete. We have to look at things as they exist, with a view to understanding their underlying contradictory development. This has very important conclusions, especially for those fighting to change society....
"The idealist view of the world grew out of the division of labour between physical and mental labour. This division constituted an enormous advance as it freed a section of society from physical work and allowed them the time to develop science and technology. However, the further removed from physical labour, the more abstract became their ideas. And when thinkers separate their ideas from the real world, they become increasingly consumed by abstract 'pure thought' and end up with all types of fantasies." [Rob Sewell, quoted from here.]
"The ability to think in abstractions marks a colossal conquest of the human intellect. Not only 'pure' science, but also engineering would be impossible without abstract thought, which lifts us above the immediate, finite reality of the concrete example, and gives thought a universal character. The unthinking rejection of abstract thought and theory indicates the kind of narrow, Philistine mentality, which imagines itself to be 'practical,' but, in reality, is impotent. Ultimately, great advances in theory lead to great advances in practice. Nevertheless, all ideas are derived one way or another from the physical world, and, ultimately, must be applied back to it. The validity of any theory must be demonstrated, sooner or later, in practice." [Woods and Grant (1995), pp.84-85.]
"The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth -- i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question. [Marx (1968), p.28.]
It might well be wondered, therefore, what sort of practice could possibly constitute a test of dialectics if, whatever the results, 'Materialist Dialectics' is always excused or exonerated? What precisely is being tested if the outcome of every 'test' turns out to be the same (i.e., a "success") -- otherwise the results are either ignored or are re-configured and put in a positive light?
Indeed, exactly which example, and what form of practice has worked? What permanent successes can our side point to over the last 80 years -- or ever?
In view of this, it is pretty clear that not only has dialectics never been tested in practice, dialecticians are expertly practiced at never actually testing it.
And they are even more adept at refusing to acknowledge this.
In that case, why not just declare that DIM is, and always has been, a success, with or without any test at all?
That would be a more honest and appropriate conclusion based on the sort of practice we have so far witnessed -- i.e., that which constantly ignores the results of practice!
Recall these earlier words of mine:
From this it could be argued that if dialectics has been tested in practice and has been verified countless times, then the abstract, academic points raised in these Essays can be seen for what they are -- "sophistry", pure and simple.
What becomes of this volunteered response if, as we can now see, the results of practice are themselves permanently ignored?
In fact, given the many and varied exposés of DIM published at this site, is it not rather the case that such long-term failure isn't the least bit surprising?
But, what else can we expect from a theory that has been so thoroughly compromised by the appropriation of ruling-class forms-of-thought? Or, that has so cynically trampled upon the reputation of Marxism itself?17
The Excuse Dumpster
However, taking each of the above excuses, one at a time:
Excuse 1: denial
Odd though this might seem, there are comrades who think DIM has been a ringing success. Unfortunately, they have so far failed to reveal where and how it enjoys this blessed condition.
[Presumably there's a Workers' State on the outer fringes of the Galaxy?]
[DIM = Dialectical Marxism/Marxist.]
Systematic denial of reality of this order of magnitude is difficult to counter -- that is, without recourse to professional help.
Indeed, there is no debating with hardcore Idealism of this sort -- i.e., with an attitude-of-mind that re-interprets the material world to suit a set of comforting ideas, and which then encourages its adepts to bury their heads in their own idea of sand.
Figure Three: The Search For A Dialectical Success Story Intensifies
Anyone who can look at the international situation and fail to see that our entire movement is not only deeply divided, it is in long-term and seemingly terminal decline -- and that the vast majority of workers have never been, and are not now "seized" by DIM --, is probably more of a danger to themselves than they are to the ruling-class.18
Some who have read through the above might be tempted to dismiss it with yet another wave of the hand as false at best, malicious at worst. After all, it could be argued, 'Materialist Dialectics' was a major success in Russia in 1917, in China in 1949, in Eastern Europe after World War Two, and has been in various other places (such as North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela and parts of Africa) since.
The use of 1917 to illustrate the success of 'Materialist Dialectics' has already been batted out of the park (here and here). However, the bottom line is that whatever excuses comrades come up with, the former USSR is no more, and neither are the vast majority of the former 'socialist' states.
Reality has intervened and delivered its own untoward verdict on both DM and the former USSR -- and its satellites.
Confronted with this, some might want to argue that the failure of 1917 (or the long-term failure of Dialectical Bolshevism in the former USSR, etc.) can't be blamed (even partially) on 'Materialist Dialectics'. But, if that is the case, then it can't also be argued that 'Materialist Dialectics' was (even partially) responsible for the success of the 1917 revolution, either. Indeed, if the short-lived success of 1917 is attributable (partly) to 'Materialist Dialectics', then so is the long-term failure of Dialectical Bolshevism. And that is precisely what we find.
More-or-less the same can be said of the former "People's Democracies" in Eastern Europe. There, the NON received a fatal blow as history proceeded to 'negate' the heroic work it had done supposedly 'negating' Capitalism in the late 1940s courtesy of Russian tanks (but mysteriously, not courtesy of the working class).
So, it rather looks like history has refuted 'Materialist Dialectics' in this case, too.
The following comments are for STD and OT DM-fans:
The alleged ruling-class of the former communist states (i.e., workers) were signally quiet when those regimes were toppled, having raised not one finger in defence of these "(Degenerated) Workers' States"/"People's Democracies". Indeed, and in many cases, they happily joined in tearing them down. Contrast that with the way workers have fought in Nepal in 2006, or as they have in the Lebanon, in Serbia, France, Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela, Peru, Burma, Bolivia (more recently), Thailand and Kyrgyzstan, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria -- in fact the population of Syria has been resisting the Asad murder machine now for over two years, and have suffered at least 100,000 deaths for their pains --, and the rest of the Middle East (January 2011-February 2012), to name but a few.18a
[NON = Negation of the Negation; STD = Stalinist Dialectician; OT = Orthodox Trotskyist; NOT = Non-Orthodox Trotskyist.]
[On this, see the pictures on the opening page of this site.]
The following two paragraphs are for NOT DM-fans:
Unfortunately, Stalinism/Maoism has proven to be far more successful than Trotskyism has ever been (despite the above glaring failures), so the demise of the above State Capitalist regimes is small consolation.
What can NOTs point to that is of comparable success?19
Taking the other examples mentioned above: those who think North Korea is a Workers' State are hardly likely to respond to anything I have to say (even if they even bother to read it!). Anyone who can happily accept the fact that power can be inherited in a 'socialist' state is surely not going to listen to reason. Indeed, anyone who can look at that dysfunctional society, that basket case, and then regard the working class as the ruling-class in N Korea, or its state-form as in any way socialist, is surely way beyond the reach of rational argument.
To be sure: such benighted souls deserve all the grief they will doubtless receive when North Korea, too, 'falls'.
Again, more-or-less the same comment applies to China -- even under Mao.20 Of course, we can all see for ourselves what this 'Workers' State' has now become, with its free market 'reforms' and 'socialist billionaires'.
As elsewhere, the NON seems quite powerless to prevent the onward, reactionary march of history, as the latter undoes its 'progressive' moves of yesteryear.
The question is: why is history picking on so many 'Dialectical Workers' States'?
Cuba, the one shining light left in the orthodox firmament, isn't, of course, a Workers' State, and is now gradually adopting market 'reforms'.21
Indeed, we read the following in October 2013:
"Cuba to open tax free Special Economic Zone
"Chris Arsenault 24/10/2013
"Communist Cuba is the latest country to plan a 'Special Economic Zone', part of an economic model blasted by critics for creating a 'race to the bottom' on wages and corporate taxes.
"Raul Castro, Cuba's president, signed law 313 in September creating a special development zone in the port of Mariel, 45km west of the capital, Havana, where foreign companies will be able to transfer their profits abroad without paying the usual taxes or tariffs.
"Laws governing the project come into effect in November although it's unclear exactly when the facility will be operational.
"'I understand in Maribel bay there is going to be a tax holiday for 10 years,' Clive Vokes, director of Market Scoping International, a niche advisory firm specialising in foreign direct investment, told Al Jazeera. 'I think the announcement is consistent with a trend that has been gathering momentum for the last 20 years.'
"One-hundred percent foreign ownership will be allowed for firms operating in the zone, and contracts will be extended to 50 years, up from the current 25. The body will be governed by a special office in the Cuban government and foreign operators will also be exempt from 'tax on the use of the labour force', property tax and local sales tax, according to a legal brief for prospective investors prepared by Jesus Bu Marcheco at the University of Havana....
"Backed by Brazilian capital, the $900m development is set to accommodate up to 1 million containers annually. The zone, covering more than 465 square kilometres, is set to be managed by Singapore-based firm PSA.
"'What the zone is intended for is to create a special climate where foreign capital is going to have better conditions than in the rest of the country,' Cuba's foreign trade and investment minister, Rodrigo Malmierca, said during a visit to Beijing, China's capital, in September.
"Supporters hope firms will ship raw materials into the zone, use Cuban workers to assemble them, and then export finished products to other markets. Fanavid SA, a Brazilian glass company, plans to open a manufacturing facility in the complex to supply markets in the Caribbean and South America.
"A single-party state, Cuba has attempted to liberalise its economy since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 sent its financial system into a tail spin. Growth on the island has lagged behind neighbouring countries, although reasonably strong public education institutions mean it has a domestic biotech and medical industry, unlike some of its competitors....
"'Part of the point of a special economic zone has always been that it is outside the main economic system of the country,' Professor Rhys Jenkins, an expert on transnational corporations in Latin America, told Al Jazeera. 'I don't think there is anything unusual about communist regimes adopting market mechanisms.'
"The average Cuban worker earns about $20 per month, although basic food items, housing and education are heavily subsidised or provided for free by the state. Companies wanting to operate in the zone are expected to pay salaries directly to the Cuban government, rather than to workers themselves, as is the norm for international ventures such as hotels and mines....
"Cuba's neighbours, including Jamaica, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, have experimented with similar zones with various degrees of success. But unlike Cuba, these competitors have easy access to the US, the world's most lucrative consumer market.
"'Cuba doesn't have an obvious geographic market,' Jenkins said. 'Where will they export to? Or is this just a way of getting more investment into the country for the domestic market?'
"To some, it's surprising that Cuba would adopt a development model so closely associated with neoliberalism and corporate control.
"'Rather than supporting long-term structural improvements for working people, trade liberalisation promotes less secure jobs and a 'race to the bottom' where companies move from country to country,' War on Want, a UK-based development organisation, noted in a report.
"Despite political critiques from some on the left of these zones in general -- de-territorialised spaces where highly mobile capital can exploit cheap labour confined to the nation state - analysts say there is a broader issue at play.
"In the last 30 years, as oil-fuelled globalisation allowed companies to move production away from areas with strong unions and environmental rules, between 3,000-3,500 of these zones have sprung up across the planet, according to calculations from Market Scoping International, employing more than 60 million people.
"'Sometimes there is a risk in these zones of being islands onto themselves; but the most successful zones are the ones with the potential for spillover benefits, particularly creating supply opportunities for national companies where there is a transfer of knowhow,' Vokes, the trade consultant, said. 'It isn't just about export generation, but it's the ability of zones to act as catalysts for the wider development process.
"'It's impossible to look at China's development over the last 20-30 years without looking at the role of some of these major zones, but there is no magic bullet,' he said, adding that tax incentives alone won't make a zone productive.
"The free zones in China, South Korea, and Dubai -- where foreign workers can earn tax-free salaries developing software -- have been quite successful. Others haven't been so lucky.
"'A number of African countries have tried these -- Kenya for example -- and it had a limited impact. They haven't been able to attract much investment,' Jenkins said. 'With the information I have at present, I wouldn't put my money into this zone.'" [Taken from here; accessed 31/10/2013. Quotation marks altered to conform to the conventions adopted at this site. Links in the original; bold emphases added. Minor typo corrected.]
Venezuela is, as yet, different. Clearly, only time will tell whether or not it will move forward toward a successful revolution. One thing is for certain, though: the working class will need to act independently of the Chavez regime (howsoever 'progressive' the latter might seem to be) for this to happen. [Cf., Sustar (2007) and Gonzalez (2004). See also this interview, and this. The above was, of course, written before Chavez's death.]
Naturally, some readers will reject the above analyses, but as Essay Nine Part Two has shown such a rejection can only be maintained on the back of yet more 'Materialist Dialectics' (a 'theory'/'method' which sanctions all manner of contradictory conclusions), coupled with no little substitutionist rationalisation. Now, since it was alleged (and demonstrated) in Essay Nine Parts One and Two that DM/'Materialist Dialectics' encapsulates the ideology of substitutionist elements in Marxism, a rejection of the above by OT and/or STD-theorists would come as no surprise. On the contrary, it is to be expected.
Hence, the inadvertent confirmation this would provide for the allegations advanced at this site is only to be welcomed.
[On this, see Cliff (1960).]
Excuse 2: Shift The Blame
It is undeniable that objective factors have hindered the revolutionary movement. These include a relatively well-organised, ruthless, rich, powerful and focussed ruling-class, imperialism, and expanding economies world-wide -- compounded by racism, sexism, nationalism and sectionalism among workers --, and so on.
But, dialecticians are quite clear: the veracity of a theory can only be tested in practice. Now, since that requires the subjective input of active revolutionaries (with 'Materialist Dialectics' to 'guide' them -- allegedly), this aspect of practice has plainly failed to work.
Or, if it has worked, then the meaning of the word "success" must have changed.
We thus face three possible alternatives:
(A) 'Materialist Dialectics' has never actually been tried out, or put into practice.
(B) Revolutionaries have been using another theory all along (which they kept remarkably well hidden). Or,
(C) The theory they say is central to all they do has indeed been a monumental failure.
Clearly, either of (A) or (B) would constitute a refutation of 'Materialist Dialectics' (in view of what dialecticians themselves say about practice), and (C) would be a fatally-damaging admission. Small wonder then that many DM-fans opt for Excuse 3, below.
However, whenever revolutionaries reluctantly bring themselves to acknowledge the 'subjective' side of failure, they almost invariably blame it on a lack of "revolutionary leadership" (but, this is then brazenly attributed to other parties/traditions, never their own), all the while forgetting to note the input of dialectics in all this. [On that, see here.]
But, to repeat: if 'Materialist Dialectics' is as central to Marxism as dialecticians believe, then it can't be unrelated to DIM's long-term lack of success.
Once more: which party can claim the opposite over the last eighty or so years? Has anyone, anywhere won the mass of workers to their side? Or, helped create a Workers' State that has remained such? Or, recorded even so much as a medium-sized, permanent success?
Despite this, many still argue that the failure of DIM isn't connected in any way with 'Materialist Dialectics'. In fact, this is one of the most common criticisms made of the Essays published at this site: that is, that dialectics is partly responsible for our failure.
Although, it must be said, those advancing this criticism almost invariably ignore the qualification I make (i.e., when I assert that DIM is only partly to blame), and no matter how many times they are told! Naturally, that allows them to attack a 'straw man', opening the way to yet another generation of failure!
Nevertheless, and despite the above, this is a rather odd objection -- the claim that DIM has nothing to do with our failure. Isn't everything in the DM-universe supposed to be inter-linked?
Here is a reasonably representative selection of DM-quotations to that effect:
"Dialectics is the science of universal interconnection…." [Engels (1954), pp.17.]
"The whole of nature accessible to us forms a system, an interconnected totality of bodies, and by bodies we understand here all material existences extending from stars to atoms, indeed right to ether particles, in so far as one grants the existence of the last named. In the fact that these bodies are interconnected is already included that they react on one another, and it is precisely this mutual reaction that constitutes motion. It already becomes evident that matter is unthinkable without motion." [Engels (1954), p.70.]
"[Among the elements of dialectics are the following:].... [E]ach thing (phenomenon, process, etc.)…is connected with every other…. [This involves] not only the unity of opposites, but the transitions of every determination, quality, feature, side, property into every other…." [Lenin (1961), p.221. Original emphases removed, and bold added.]
"Hegel brilliantly divined the dialectics of things (phenomena, the world, nature) in the dialectics of concepts…. This aphorism should be expressed more popularly, without the word dialectics: approximately as follows: In the alternation, reciprocal dependence of all notions, in the identity of their opposites, in the transitions of one notion into another, in the eternal change, movement of notions, Hegel brilliantly divined precisely this relation of things to nature…. [W]hat constitutes dialectics?…. [M]utual dependence of notions all without exception…. Every notion occurs in a certain relation, in a certain connection with all the others." [Ibid., pp.196-97. Original emphases removed, and bold added.]
"The world being in constant motion, we must consider phenomena in their mutual relations, and not as isolated cases. All portions of the universe are actually related to each other and exert an influence on each other…. All things in the universe are connected with an indissoluble bond; nothing exists as an isolated object, independent of its surroundings….
"In the first place, therefore, the dialectic method of interpretation demands that all phenomena be considered in their indissoluble relations; in the second place, that they be considered in their state of motion….
"Since everything in the world is in a state of change, and indissolubly connected with everything else, we must draw the necessary conclusions for the social sciences…." [Bukharin (1925), pp.65-76. Bold emphases added; italic emphases in the original.]
"Contrary to metaphysics, dialectics does not regard Nature as an accidental agglomeration of things, of phenomena, unconnected with, isolated from, and independent of, each other, but as a connected and integral whole, in which things…are organically connected with, dependent on, and determined by, each other.
"The dialectical method therefore holds that no phenomenon in Nature can be understood if taken by itself, isolated from surrounding phenomena….
"The dialectical method therefore requires that phenomena should be considered not only from the standpoint of their interconnection and interdependence, but also from the standpoint of their movement, their change, their development, their coming into being and going out of being…." [Stalin (1976b), pp.837-40. Bold emphases added.]
"Dialectical materialism appears at first sight to be a return to the original Greek view of the world from which philosophy started. And, indeed, like this Greek materialism, it sees the world as a single interconnected whole in endless motion….
"Every 'thing' is itself vastly complicated, made up of innumerable sides and aspects, related in various ways to every other thing." [Guest (1939), pp.38, 53. Bold emphases added.]
"The material base of this law lies in the actual interdependence of all things in their reciprocal interactions…. If everything that exists has a necessary and sufficient reason for existence, that means it had to come into being. It was pushed into existence and forced its way into existence by natural necessity…. Reality, rationality and necessity are intimately associated at all times…." [Novack (1971), pp.78-79. Bold emphasis added.]
"Its world-conception is Materialist alike in its Objectivity and in its Activity -- in that the world is conceived as a totality, and by means of its inseparably connected and never ceasing interacting movements.
"And it is Dialectical in that these inter-acting movements are recognised as begetting, of necessity, a perpetual self-transformation of the Universe as a whole -- a universally inter-connected series of processes in which old forms, formations, and inter-relations are constantly being destroyed and replaced by new forms…." [Jackson (1936), p.626. Bold emphasis added.]
"Contrary to metaphysics, dialectics does not regard nature as just an agglomeration of things, each existing independently of the others, but it considers things as 'connected with, dependent on and determined by each other.' Hence, it considers that nothing can be understood taken by itself, in isolation….
"The dialectical method demands, first, that we should consider things, not each by itself, but always in their interconnection with other things." [Cornforth (1976), pp.71-72. Bold emphases added.]
"The material world is not only a developing, but also a connected, integral whole. Its objects and phenomena do not develop of themselves, in isolation, but in inseverable connection or unity with other objects and phenomena….
"One of the most important aims of materialist dialectics is the study of the world as an integral connected whole, the examination of the universal connections of things." [Afanasyev (1968), pp.84-89. Bold emphases alone added.]
Not much grey area there -- everything is interconnected. So, dialecticians who are a little more honest than the rest, who acknowledge that that DIM has failed (in howsoever small a capacity), are faced with a dilemma: either (1) they reject universal interconnectedness, or (2) they admit that the failure of DIM is connected in some way with 'Materialist Dialectics'.
On the other hand, those who reject any connection at all between 'Materialist Dialectics' and the long-term failure of DIM, can't claim in one breath that all things are inter-related, but in the very next deny any such link!
If so, then the long-tern failure of DIM and 'Materialist Dialectics' must be the only two things in the entire universe that aren't inter-connected.
So, whether or not there have been "objective" factors, practice itself has refuted the subjective side of DIM: 'Materialist Dialectics'.
Moreover, since the Essays published at this site show that DM/'Materialist Dialectics' is not so much false as far too confused even to be assessed for its truth or falsity -- and thus that it is incapable of being put into practice --, the long-term failure of DIM is no big surprise. Indeed, because this theory inherited concepts and forms-of-thought from card-carrying ruling-class hacks (such as Heraclitus, Plotinus, Spinoza, and Hegel), this is doubly no surprise.
Under such circumstances, had DIM been a success, that would have been the surprise!
Faced with this, some comrades might argue that DM/'Materialist Dialectics' doesn't feature in the day-to-day deliberations of revolutionaries, but even if it did, the above argument would be misguided anyway. If DM is far too confused to put into practice (as these Essays claim), it can't have played even a partial role in the alleged long-term failure of DIM.
Or, so it might be maintained.
However, as Essay Nine Part One shows, 'Materialist Dialectics'/DM has been used (rather like the incomprehensible dogmas of Christianity are still used -- for example, in times of war) to manipulate opinion, and thus deflect revolutionary cadres away from revolutionary socialism itself. Even a totally incomprehensible theory/world-view can be used to that end, especially one like 'Materialist Dialectics'/DM, which, because it pictures the world as fundamentally contradictory, sanctions any and all contradictory conclusions that can be derived from it, and their opposites. [Evidence for that can be found here.]
However, those comrades who argue that DM/'Materialist Dialectics' isn't central to Marxist practice are clearly at odds with Engels, Plekhanov, Lenin, Trotsky (and a host of other DM-luminaries). Consider Trotsky's viewpoint, for example, as recorded by George Novack:
"[O]ur discussion glided into the subject of philosophy…. We talked about the best ways of studying dialectical materialism, about Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, and about the theoretical backwardness of American radicalism. Trotsky brought forward the name of Max Eastman, who in various works had polemicized against dialectics as a worthless idealist hangover from the Hegelian heritage of Marxism.
"He became tense and agitated. 'Upon going back to the States,' he urged, 'you comrades must at once take up the struggle against Eastman's distortion and repudiation of dialectical materialism. There is nothing more important than this….'
"I was somewhat surprised at the vehemence of his argumentation on this matter at such a moment. As the principal defendant in absentia in the Moscow trials, and because of the dramatic circumstances of his voyage in exile, Trotsky then stood in the centre of international attention. He was fighting for his reputation, liberty, and life against the powerful government of Stalin, bent on his defamation and death. After having been imprisoned and gagged for months by the Norwegian authorities, he had been kept incommunicado for weeks aboard their tanker.
"Yet on the first day after reunion with his cothinkers, he spent more than an hour explaining how important it was for a Marxist movement to have a correct philosophical method and to defend dialectical materialism against its opponents!" [Novack (1978), pp.169-70. Bold emphases added. Spelling changed to conform to UK English.]
The accuracy of Novack's memory is supported by the following comment of Trotsky's:
"...It would not be amiss, therefore, to refer to the fact that my first serious conversation with comrades Shachtman and Warde, in the train immediately after my arrival in Mexico in January 1937, was devoted to the necessity of persistently propagating dialectic materialism. After our American section split from the Socialist Party I insisted most strongly on the earliest possible publication of a theoretical organ, having again in mind the need to educate the party, first and foremost its new members, in the spirit of dialectic materialism. In the United States, I wrote at that time, where the bourgeoisie systematically in stills vulgar empiricism in the workers, more than anywhere else is it necessary to speed the elevation of the movement to a proper theoretical level. On January 20, 1939, I wrote to comrade Shachtman concerning his joint article with comrade Burnham, 'Intellectuals in Retreat':
"'The section on the dialectic is the greatest blow that you, personally, as the editor of the New International could have delivered to Marxist theory.... Good We will speak about it publicly.'
"Thus a year ago I gave open notice in advance to Shachtman that I intended to wage a public struggle against his eclectic tendencies. At that time there was no talk whatever of the coming opposition; in any case furthest from my mind was the supposition that the philosophic bloc against Marxism prepared the ground for a political bloc against the program of the Fourth International." [Trotsky (1971), p.142. Bold emphases added.]
Trotsky also added:
"...Dialectic training of the mind, as necessary to a revolutionary fighter as finger exercises to a pianist, demands approaching all problems as processes and not as motionless categories. Whereas vulgar evolutionists, who limit themselves generally to recognizing evolution in only certain spheres, content themselves in all other questions with the banalities of 'common sense.'" [Ibid., p.70.]
And, faith in this theory is not confined to the past; here is part of the Preface to the new edition of RIRE:
"Ted Grant was an incorrigible optimist all his life. Marxists are optimistic by their very nature because of two things: the philosophy of dialectical materialism, and our faith in the working class and the socialist future of humanity. Most people look only at the surface of the events that shape their lives and determine their destiny. Dialectics teaches one to look beyond the immediate, to penetrate beyond the appearance of stability and calm, and to see the seething contradictions and ceaseless movement that lies beneath the surface. The idea of constant change, in which sooner or later everything changes into its opposite enables a Marxist to rise above the immediate situation and to see the broader picture." [Woods and Grant (2007), p.13; quoted from here. Bold emphases added.]
[RIRE = Reason In Revolt, i.e., Woods and Grant (1995).]
Similarly, such comrades risk becoming eclectic opportunists, and/or narrow-minded dogmatists, according to Lenin:
"The gist of his theoretical mistake in this case is substitution of eclecticism for the dialectical interplay of politics and economics (which we find in Marxism). His theoretical attitude is: 'on the one hand, and on the other', 'the one and the other'. That is eclecticism. Dialectics requires an all-round consideration of relationships in their concrete development but not a patchwork of bits and pieces. I have shown this to be so on the example of politics and economics....
"A tumbler is assuredly both a glass cylinder and a drinking vessel. But there are more than these two properties, qualities or facets to it; there are an infinite number of them, an infinite number of 'mediacies' and inter-relationships with the rest of the world....
"Formal logic, which is as far as schools go (and should go, with suitable abridgements for the lower forms), deals with formal definitions, draws on what is most common, or glaring, and stops there. When two or more different definitions are taken and combined at random (a glass cylinder and a drinking vessel), the result is an eclectic definition which is indicative of different facets of the object, and nothing more.
"Dialectical logic demands that we should go further. Firstly, if we are to have a true knowledge of an object we must look at and examine all its facets, its connections and 'mediacies'. That is something we cannot ever hope to achieve completely, but the rule of comprehensiveness is a safeguard against mistakes and rigidity. Secondly, dialectical logic requires that an object should be taken in development, in change, in 'self-movement' (as Hegel sometimes puts it). This is not immediately obvious in respect of such an object as a tumbler, but it, too, is in flux, and this holds especially true for its purpose, use and connection with the surrounding world. Thirdly, a full 'definition' of an object must include the whole of human experience, both as a criterion of truth and a practical indicator of its connection with human wants. Fourthly, dialectical logic holds that 'truth is always concrete, never abstract', as the late Plekhanov liked to say after Hegel. (Let me add in parenthesis for the benefit of young Party members that you cannot hope to become a real, intelligent Communist without making a study -- and I mean study -- of all of Plekhanov's philosophical writings, because nothing better has been written on Marxism anywhere in the world.)" [Lenin (1921), p.90-93. Bold emphases added; quotation marks altered to conform to the conventions adopted at this site.]
"It is impossible to understand Marx's Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel's Logic. Consequently, half a century later none of the Marxists understood Marx!!" [Lenin (1961), p.180. Bold emphases added.]
Hence, according to Lenin, this theory is so central to Marxism that a failure thoroughly to study and understand Hegel's Logic would prevent anyone so foolish from understanding Das Kapital.
Countless other passages from the DM-classics (and other DM-texts) could be quoted in support of the centrality of this theory to practicing revolutionaries. Hence, the finger of blame for the long-term failure of DIM must point (partially, at least) at this theory.
Nevertheless, if some comrades insist that 'Materialist Dialectics'/DM has no practical implications, then they should be the last to complain if this 'theory is totally excised from Marxism. But, they are often among the first to object.
Is this yet another 'dialectical contradiction' we must simply "grasp"?
Excuse 3: Ignore the problem
This is probably the safest alternative for dialecticians to adopt -- completely ignore the problem (or, failing that, explain it away). It is certainly the option that inadvertently helps further the interests of the ruling-class, since it prevents the serious philosophical and political problems our movement faces from being addressed, helping guarantee another century of failure.
Figure Four: Dialectical Alertness 101
Indeed, the boss-class couldn't have concocted a better theory aimed at screwing with our heads if they had tried, initiating in our movement a monumental waste of time as our very best theorists vainly try to grapple with Hegel's fluent Klingon, in order to make some sort of sense of it -- unsurprisingly, none so far!
Furthermore, even if this weren't the case, and success were indeed an unfailing criterion of truth, since there is as yet no socialist society on earth, we will only know if DM/'Materialist Dialectics' is correct after the event. So, this criterion can't tell us whether Marxism is correct now. [Incidentally, that partially disposes of Excuse Four.]
In fact, the following declaration could itself become true:
"Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes." [Marx and Engels (1848), pp.35-36. Bold emphasis added.]
According to this, the "contending classes" could wipe each other out --, or at least the class war could result in their "common ruin" (which outcome itself is not at all easy to square with the NON; why that is so will be explored in Essay Three Part Five).
However, judging by the way that dialecticians themselves disregard the deliverances of practice, this suggests that even they do not accept this criterion -- in practice.
For in practice, they ignore it.
As noted above, pragmatic theories (like this) are hostages to fortune; any who adhere to them shouldn't act surprised if history pays little heed of their dialectically-compromised day-dreams, and delivers decade after decade of refutation.
There are other, much better ways of validating of HM. [These will be explored in an Additional Essay to be published at this site at a later date.]
Excuse 4: It is too early to tell
This we might call the 'Whistling In The Dark' option.
Now, to state the obvious, it isn't easy being a revolutionary. Not only are we in the overwhelming minority, we face unremitting hostility from the capitalist media -- but, more often, even worse hostility from other (supposed) revolutionaries --, and our ideas are openly rejected by the vast majority of workers (except in times of struggle when a small minority sometimes listens). On top of that, we have to face up to the depressing fact that our side has seen little other than failure for many generations -- and this is the case even if we go back as far as the English and French revolutions!
So, in the face of all that, it is hardly surprising that dialecticians tell themselves comforting stories to maintain or even restore their morale.
But, just like the Second Coming, the future seems continually to mock such consoling hopes anchored in the present.
Nevertheless, even Christians at least try to appeal to something tangible to convince themselves they aren't in the grip of an irrational delusion of some sort (be this the 'signs of the times', or personal experiences of 'god', or whatever).
But, to what can dialecticians appeal?
Well, perhaps this: dialecticians tell us, year in year out, that Capitalism is in crisis (but, there are far too many references to that end for me to quote them all here and hope to have space for anything else -- in fact, readers should visit this site, type the word "crisis" in the search box, and see what results emerge), and they have been doing this now for well over a hundred and thirty years.
Figure Five: Back By Popular Demand --
Now Entering Its Second Glorious Century
But, how much of this is merely crying wolf?21a
Well, according to one source (now badly dated!), this is an odd sort of crisis:
"23. Global GDP has doubled in the last ten years. The combined growth in the world capitalist economy over the three years 2003-5 has been the biggest for 30 years. GDP growth in 2004 was the highest in more than decade. The same year South America experienced its highest growth for nearly 20 years.
"24. In the first five years of the 21st century growth in global per capita GDP has reversed the decline of the previous 20 years. This is because the rapid growth of capitalism in the youthfully populated countries of Asia has more than compensated for continued per capita GDP decline in the ageing OECD and because the bourgeois statisticians measured the addition of the former workers states to the world capitalist market as a decline in capitalist production, rather than an increase in it.
"25. The current upturn in the business cycle has surpassed (or will soon surpass) the peaks of the last business cycle. Profits as a share of GDP in 2004/5 in the USA were at a 75-year high and a 25-year high in Japan and Eurozone. Industrial capacity utilisation in the USA is in excess of 80%. for example. The unemployment rate in the OECD and EU is less than 10-15 years ago, the proportion of the population in work is greater." [Quoted from here.]
So, according to the above, it looks like Capitalism is nowhere near the end of its capacity to develop the productive forces.
Another source posts this 'crisis-ridden' graph (which, as we now know, proved to be wildly incorrect):
Figure Six: World Growth -- Sick, Sick, Sick...
Here is another:
Figure Seven: Crises, Crises Everywhere!
And, future prospects don't look too 'good', either:
"The International Monetary Fund's (IMF's) forecast for the growth of the global economy for the year has been raised.
"The IMF predicted a 4.9% global growth rate in April but has now revised this figure to 5.2% for both this year and the year to follow, based on the impact of several rapidly expanding economies worldwide.
"Central to the increased prediction is the accelerating growth seen in the Chinese, Indian, and Russian economies, which together represent over one half of the 5.2% global economic growth projected for this year.
"China alone has seen its growth forecast increase from 10% to 11.2%, making it the biggest factor in global economic growth, for the first time. The Eurozone area's growth estimate has increased from 2.3% to 2.6%." [Quoted from here.]
A leader in a recent edition of the Guardian newspaper poured even more cold water on the looming crisis in 'crisis' claims:
"It is becoming increasingly difficult to turn on the radio or television or open a newspaper without being deluged with evidence of an international crisis. Whether it is another City pundit spelling out the apocalyptic consequences of the sub-prime lending crisis in the US, fresh write-offs by investment banks, rogue trading in France or yet more evidence of a UK housing recession, the message is almost universally gloomy. Evidence of recession is everywhere except one place: the economic statistics themselves.
"Yesterday the National Institute, an independent research body, after considering the effects of the international crisis, cut its prediction for growth in the UK in 2008 from 2.2% in October to 2% . Hardly a crisis. In fact it would be a very happy outcome considering what is supposed to be happening around us. Remember, at both ends of the 1980s the UK suffered not a mild slowdown, but negative growth. The figure of 2%, according to the NI, is a shorthand way of saying there is a 75% chance of growth being in the range 1% to 3% and a 25% chance of it being outside that range. Either way, as the NI's Ray Barrell said on Radio 4's Today programme yesterday, 'there is no clear evidence that the economy is slowing down sharply'. John Kay, the independent-minded economist, hinted on the same programme that most of the media pundits these days were from the City and may be producing gloomy forecasts because that was a better way to pursuade (sic) the Bank of England to reduce interest rates, rather than complaining about falling profits....
"You might think from the headlines that there had been a collapse in house prices: yet the latest figures from Nationwide show that house prices in January were 4.2% above a year ago, or double the rate of consumer price inflation. It could equally well be reported as a continuing boom, albeit at a lower pace.
"Nor is there evidence of collapse elsewhere. The French and German economies are doing quite well and, for all the talk of recession in the US, the latest GDP figures show expansion of 0.6% in the fourth quarter of 2007 after 4.9% in the third quarter. That is getting close to an official recession (two successive quarters of negative growth) but it is not there yet and there is a stimulation package planned. As for the whole world, the IMF recently downgraded its forecasts and now expects global growth of 4.1%, with a warning that it could be worse because of 'financial market turmoil'. How much City woes will affect the real economy that the rest of us live in is unclear. For instance, there is evidence that US sub-prime borrowers are defaulting on mortgages (especially when they are higher than the property's value) rather than taking a hit on their credit cards as in earlier recessions. They are letting banks take the strain." [Guardian, 02/02/08, p.32. Quotation marks altered to conform to the conventions adopted at this site.]
To be sure, there could be a slump around the corner [Callinicos (2007), Geier (2008)] -- indeed, Financial Markets across the world are decidedly jittery as this is being written (but read this, and Anonymous (2007)).
And if you are used to whistling in the dark, you are probably telling yourself this right now.
However, we can only go on "crying wolf" for so long before even we begin to smell a rat.
[Apologies for that mixed metaphor!]
Update 2010: To be sure, the crisis arrived, but since Dialectical Prophets have been predicting crisis after crisis for many years, they were bound to be right sooner or later! However, as the boy who cried wolf eventually found out, who now believes that Dialectical Economists know any more than bourgeois economists what is in actually going on? Indeed, as we will see, there were several 'mainstream economists' who predicted the coming slump, and they did this without an ounce of DM to guide them.
[More comments on this latest crisis can be found in Note 21a.]
Update January 2012: As Carchedi (2011) and Choonara (2009, 2011) show, there is as yet no generally accepted Marxist explanation of the 'crisis' that hit Capitalism four or five years ago, but then again there is no settled Marxist view of any of the crises that have hit capitalism since the late Eighteenth Century!
However, in the last year or so, the situation has been aggravated by the 'debt crisis' in the Eurozone, which have prompted widespread and savage cuts in workers' living standards in Europe and, indeed, across the globe. Naturally, this has elicited a fierce response from workers in the UK, Spain, Greece, Portugal, and elsewhere. [On this, see Callinicos (2012), Kimber (2012), Hardy and Budd (2012), Durgan and Sans (2011), Webber (2011), Thomas and Loudos (2011), and Gasper (2011). See also here and here.]
Update December 2013: For a mildly humorous lampoon of the, shall we say, 'predictive successes' of the Far Left, see here.
Of course, as Lenin pointed out, if the working class is prepared to pay the price, the system can always recover.
Update February 2014: It looks like the world economy is slowly recovering (the international working class clearly having paid the price):
Table Two: Percentage Growth In World GDP (Source)
To be sure, the 'recovery' was a-typically slow, and the system is still experiencing serious problems (not the least of which is global debt --, which, according to one source, stands at 313% of world GDP: $233 Trillion!), but it is now quite obvious that the meltdown of global capitalism failed to materialise. Indeed, world GDP dipped only 0.5% in 2009, bouncing back with a 5.9% increase the following year; hardly a crisis of 1930s proportions!
Of course, this isn't to minimise the seriousness of the near fatal problems that hit the Financial Sector in 2008-09, or the massive amounts of money governments around the world found they had to pour into the financial institutions in order to 'rescue' them, but the fact is that the economic crisis of 2008-2010 was relatively minor compared to global calamity of the 1930s.
So, DM-fans who are tempted to reach for Excuse Four should pause for thought -- and that thought should centre on one or both of the following:
(1) Is there anything in the history of DIM to suggest dialecticians won't continue to screw up?
(2) Is it really too early to decide that DIM inspires about as much confidence as a drug addict's promises to quit?
[Recall, this is isn't meant to question the revolutionary character of the working class, nor throw doubt on the falling rate of profit. Far from it. It is to question whether dialecticians should be trusted either with (a) Marxist theory or with (b) workers' confidence. (Or, indeed, whether workers will ever trust DM-fans again!)]
Independently of the above, there is another nagging doubt: How do we know that 'Materialist Dialectics' is correct?
Not in the future, but right now?
An appeal to practice can't answer that query (as we have seen), and an appeal to yet more 'Materialist Dialectics' would be like giving Strychnine to a patient recovering from pneumonia (as we have also seen).
In fact, the only thing we can appeal to is HM --, and to an HM stripped of all those consoling and contradictory phrases derived from the Hermetic writings of the modern-day Godfather Of Opiates: Hegel.
The Silence Of The DIMs
Truth "tested in practice", so we have been told; but practice has faltered badly for most of the last 150 years.
But, what is the DIM-conclusion?
Easy: dialectics is a monumental success!
And, the evidence for that is, er..., well, what?
Cue tumbleweed; cue rustling leaves; cue distant church bell...
Figure Eight: The Evidence Just Keeps Stacking Up...
Lenin's Theory Takes A Tumble
The Eclectic Light Orchestra
The connection between dialectics and practice doesn't stop there. In the section in TAR that deals with Lenin's contribution to DM-epistemology, John Rees refers his readers to a passage which records Lenin's avowed attempt to counter something he called an "eclectic" tendency in the Bolshevik Party.
According to Lenin, this 'deviation' involved certain comrades (to wit, Bukharin and Trotsky) in an attempt to view matters from disparate and disconnected angles, displaying an "on the one hand this, on the other that" attitude of mind. In response to this Lenin advocated the 'dialectical method' as a necessary corrective.
The flexibility this introduces helps prevent tactical "rigidity", so we are told. That is because it:
"Requires an all-round consideration of relationships in their concrete development but not a patchwork of bits and pieces." [Lenin (1921), p.90.]
It is at this point that Lenin comments on that hapless tumbler:
"A tumbler is assuredly both a glass cylinder and a drinking vessel. But there are more than these two properties and qualities or facets to it; there are an infinite number of them, an infinite number of 'mediacies' and inter-relationships with the rest of the world." [Ibid., pp.92-93.]
While Lenin mentioned a handful of these interconnections, their "infinite number" meant it was impossible to list them all -- as, indeed, Lenin admitted:
"[I]f we are to have true knowledge of an object we must look at and examine all its facets, its connections and 'mediacies'. That is something we cannot ever hope to achieve completely, but the rule of comprehensiveness is a safeguard against mistakes and rigidity….
"[D]ialectical logic requires that an object should be taken in development, in change, in 'self-movement' (as Hegel sometimes puts it). This is not immediately obvious in respect of such an object as a tumbler, but it, too, is in flux, and this holds especially true for its purpose, use and connection with the surrounding world." [Ibid., p.93. Italic emphasis in the original.]
However, there are several serious problems with the above passage that threaten to undermine DM-epistemology in its entirety.
An Abstract Account Of Concrete Particulars
Lenin famously asserted:
"One of the basic principles of dialectics is that there is no such thing as abstract truth, truth is always concrete." [Lenin (1976), p.276.]
"[D]ialectical logic holds that 'truth is always concrete, never abstract', as the late Plekhanov liked to say after Hegel". [Lenin (1921), p.93.]
However, are the above true? Presumably, Lenin (and Leninists) would say they are. But are they concrete? Hardly; they both look like abstract principles par excellence. In which case they can't be true, since the first tells us that "there is no such thing as abstract truth".
Be this as it may, Lenin certainly extolled the virtues of concrete analyses (in the 'tumbler' passage), and yet, what he offers here is clearly abstract -- that is, it is a description that involves a generalisation, and one which is surely impossible to confirm. In fact, Lenin made no attempt to substantiate his main point that any randomly-chosen object is connected with everything in the entire universe ("the rest of the world") and has what seem to be an infinite, or indefinitely large finite number of "mediacies".
However, that this number is in fact infinite is confirmed by the following:
"'Fundamentally, we can know only the infinite.' In fact all real exhaustive knowledge consists solely in raising the individual thing in thought from individuality into particularity and from this into universality, in seeking and establishing the infinite in the finite, the eternal in the transitory…. All true knowledge of nature is knowledge of the eternal, the infinite, and essentially absolute…. The cognition of the infinite…can only take place in an infinite asymptotic progress." [Engels (1954), pp.234-35. Italic emphasis in the original; bold emphasis added.]
"Cognition is the eternal, endless approximation of thought to the object." [Lenin (1961), p.195.]
Moreover, none of those listening to Lenin challenged him on this (if the record is to be believed). Why was this? If science and Bolshevism are supposed to be joined at the hip, as it were, one would have thought that someone should have asked Lenin how he could possibly know all this about an innocent glass beaker. How could Lenin possibly know that all objects are inter-related in the way he alleged -- or that their connections were infinite in number (or even bigger than, say, 10100000)?22
And why on earth does DL require it if it is indeed a fact?
Do scientists require grass to be green, or water wet?
Surely, a more pressing question for revolutionaries is whether Lenin's methodological criteria are at all practicable. Is it even sensible to take everything (or even most things) into consideration before any course of action is contemplated, let alone carried out? As should seem obvious to anyone who has ever had to make a decision, it is impossible to take Lenin seriously here. His advice wouldn't actually prevent rigidity, as had been its aim; on the contrary, it would encourage eternal prevarication, and hence suicidal inaction.
Consider the following unlikely scenario: In late 1917, when Lenin was pressing the case for an insurrection, on the night before the decisive move couldn't a rather confused comrade have argued as follows?
"Comrade Lenin is being presumptuous and dogmatic -- his analysis will undoubtedly lead to serious mistakes.
"We can't stage the action he suggests until we have first of all considered its connections with everything in the universe, as he himself recommends.
"In that case, I suggest we wait until we have received all the data from the recent study of Proxima Centauri, the report on the latest archaeological dig in Luxor, the weight of comrade Bukharin's entire family, the detailed report on the mating habits of Stag Beetles in Luxemburg, the average length of every wombat born in the Southern Hemisphere in the last ten thousand years, a comprehensive analysis of the dietary habits of Mohawk Indians in the early spring of 1636, the result of the three thirty at Belmont…".
Of course, such an intervention would have been regarded as completely crazy, and rightly laughed off as totally ludicrous -- but only by those who disagreed with Lenin's advice about the absolute necessity of taking into account the connections everything has with the entire universe, before anything is undertaken.
The Relevance Of Relevance
Clearly, the 'intervention' above was farcical because it raised issues that were patently irrelevant to the matter in hand. But, Lenin didn't mention relevance. Comrades who doubt this might like to re-check what Lenin actually said about that tumbler, and everything else, to see if they inadvertently missed that particular word first time round:
"A tumbler is assuredly both a glass cylinder and a drinking vessel. But there are more than these two properties and qualities or facets to it; there are an infinite number of them, an infinite number of 'mediacies' and inter-relationships with the rest of the world….
"[I]f we are to have true knowledge of an object we must look at and examine all its facets, its connections and 'mediacies'. That is something we cannot ever hope to achieve completely, but the rule of comprehensiveness is a safeguard against mistakes and rigidity…." [Lenin (1921), pp.92-93. Bold emphases added.]
Clearly, the word "relevant" doesn't appear in this passage; Lenin failed to mention it.
And, as if to make things worse, he didn't regard this strategy as an optional extra:
"[D]ialectical logic requires that an object should be taken in development, in change, in 'self-movement' (as Hegel sometimes puts it). This is not immediately obvious in respect of such an object as a tumbler, but it, too, is in flux, and this holds especially true for its purpose, use and connection with the surrounding world." [Ibid., p.93. Bold emphases added]
"Dialectics requires an all-round consideration of relationships in their concrete development…. Dialectical logic demands that we go further…. [It] requires that an object should be taken in development, in 'self-movement' (as Hegel sometimes puts it)…." [Ibid., p.90. Bold emphases alone added.]
Moreover, had Lenin mentioned relevance it would have made his other comments rather pointless. Why, for example, insist that consideration must be given to the infinite connections every object and process has if the overwhelming majority are totally irrelevant and should be ignored?
"[I]f we are to have true knowledge of an object we must look at and examine all its facets, its connections and 'mediacies'." [Ibid. Bold emphases alone added.]
Lenin didn't say we must examine most of an object's facets, connections and "mediacies", but "all" of them.
But, let us suppose that relevance is implicit in what Lenin said. Even then, that wouldn't solve the problems this passage presents. For example, who is to decide what counts as relevant? As seems clear, it would always be open to comrade NN to accuse comrade MM of "rigidity" if the former's set of 'relevant connections' was more inclusive than the latter's.
But, these difficulties don't stop there. Extending the picture: As the circle of relevant considerations is allowed to increase, the number of borderline cases (each of which would now surely become an occasion for further accusations of "rigidity", if ignored) will increase even more rapidly. [Why that is so is explained in Note 23.]23
Even worse still: The wider we expand the circle of relevant considerations, the faster borderline cases will stack up, only to be ignored perhaps by the next allegedly "rigid" comrade in line. Ironically, the more Lenin's advice is taken -- and the wider the relevance net is cast -- the greater this rigidity will seem to become, as ever-increasing numbers of such marginal cases pile up that have to be omitted on alleged grounds of "irrelevance".
Wags might even call this "the law of increasing marginal returns".
Now, it goes without saying that tactical inflexibility is a luxury unsuccessful revolutionaries can only ever 'enjoy' the other side of a failed revolution. Even so, it is still possible (if not highly advisable) to ignore Lenin's advice here without ever implying such rigidity. Indeed, if revolutionaries had to spend an infinite (or even a large finite) amount of time considering everything before they did anything, they would of course do nothing, rigidly or non-rigidly.
Quite the contrary, this clearly means that we must base revolutionary activity on criteria that are far less suicidally impractical. In point of fact, as noted above, Lenin's suggestion invites hyper-prevarication, as more 'inclusive' (i.e., less "rigid") comrades introduced ever more obscure "mediacies" which must be considered before any specific action was contemplated (a tactic taken to the extreme by the confused comrade mentioned above). And this would surely happen unless such tactical decisions were hedged about with endlessly controversial and increasingly recondite relevancy/irrelevancy clauses. Naturally, no revolutionary in his or her left mind would do this. In practice, activists rightly ignore Lenin's criteria -- advice not even he could have followed.
Small wonder then that there is no evidence that he ever did.24
Reductionism -- Or 'Inflationism'?
Surprising at it might seem, Lenin's comments are also connected with 'reductionism'.
Hex And Scepticism
John Rees and other DM-theorists almost invariably depict reductionism in negative terms, while DM-holism is offered as up an effective bulwark against it.25 For example, the part/whole relation is described in the following way:
"One important point to note about this approach is that it is, by its very nature, opposed to reductionism." [Rees (1998), p.5.]
That is because it:
"…presupposes the parts and the whole are not reducible to each other. The parts and the whole mutually condition, or mediate, each other. And a mediated totality cannot form part of a reductionist philosophy because, by definition, reductionism collapses one element of a totality into another without taking account of its specific characteristics." [Ibid., pp.8-9.]
The merits of Rees's argument isn't of immediate concern here (it will be, however, in Essays Eleven Part Two and Three Part Three), but his attempt to counterpose his own approach to CAR, which alternative involves something that would be more accurate if it were re-named "Hegelian Expansionism" [henceforth, HEX] --, but which others call "Inflationism" --, is.26
[CAR = Cartesian Reductionism; follow the link for an explanation.]
Now, several consequences of a HEX-like methodology were outlined in the quotations from Lenin and Engels given earlier: HEX holds out the prospect of an infinite task ahead of anyone rash enough to take this approach seriously.
HEX-type investigations proceed in the opposite direction to those taken by a CAR-like analysis. One of the avowed aims of reductionism is (a) to depict the properties of objects and processes in terms of its more basic (perhaps elementary) parts, or (b) to account for them with as few general laws as possible. However, the problem with reductionism is that while it is possible to make a start it isn't possible to bring it to an end. [Why this is so will not be entered into here.]
In contrast, the situation with HEX is far worse; while it is also impossible for HEX to reach a conclusion, it can't in fact begin. The reason for saying that is bound up with the fact that instead of seeking increasingly fundamental units, HEX-theorists aim to find ever wider, more involved and inclusive connections, which must be explored before any attempt to depict the "specific characteristics" of anything in particular can even begin.
This, of course, immediately stops the dialectical roller-coaster in its tracks because no element in this metaphysical wild goose chase is ascertainable before all the rest have been -– meaning, of course, that none ever will be. Since one half of this open-ended meander through endless epistemological space involves the completion of an infinite (or endless) task, neither option is viable. Therefore, the entire process can't end, and it can't begin.
HEX-theorists themselves admit that their approach delivers only "partial" truths (at best). To be sure, the latter are supposed to edge humanity ever-closer to "absolute truth" (when tested in practice). Nevertheless, the infinitary (or endless) nature of the task ahead of them completely undermines the whole exercise. Each element in the Totality in effect lies at the centre of a set of 'concentric circles' (or 'spheres', if we move into a metaphorical 'third dimension') with infinitely expanding regions of ever-broader 'interconnections' emanating outward from that centre.
Unfortunately, the indefinite expansion of the radii of each of these circles of "partial knowledge" would have no discernible effect on the remaining level of ignorance. That is because the difference between a large finite number of facts (representing the current state of "partial knowledge") and the infinite number of facts constituting "Absolute" knowledge, is itself infinite.
If a finite cardinal of arbitrary size is subtracted from the smallest transfinite cardinal, the latter remains the same size (always assuming, of course, that post-Cantorian cardinal number theory is itself correct -- I will pass no comment on that here).
Hence, the following would be true (for arbitrarily large (finite) n):
Ào - 10n = Ào
So, even if humanity accumulated knowledge (in terms of facts, connections and theories) comparable to that depicted by the real number above (i.e., the power of ten), the difference between that number and the smallest 'infinite' cardinal would itself still be infinite.27
["Ào" (pronounced aleph zero) is the 'smallest' transfinite cardinal, so we are told.]
For Whom The Noumenon Tolls
Now, as we saw, Engels's view of all this went as follows:
"'Fundamentally, we can know only the infinite.' In fact all real exhaustive knowledge consists solely in raising the individual thing in thought from individuality into particularity and from this into universality, in seeking and establishing the infinite in the finite, the eternal in the transitory…. All true knowledge of nature is knowledge of the eternal, the infinite, and essentially absolute…. The cognition of the infinite…can only take place in an infinite asymptotic progress." [Engels (1954), pp.234-35. Italic emphasis in the original.]
[Lenin said more-or-less the same, as we also saw.]
But, this means that no matter how far science advances, humanity would still be no nearer "absolute" knowledge than it is at present, or than it was 20,000 years ago. In that case, clearly, the "asymptotic progress" metaphor is a highly (i.e., infinitely) misleading picture of the progress of scientific knowledge.
In the final analysis, therefore, DM possesses its own version of Kant's unknowable Noumenon -– but one that has been given a temporal twist and projected into the 'infinite' future.
To repeat a point made earlier: according to DM, since the entire nature of the part is determined by its relation to the whole -- and vice versa --, and since we do not, and never will know the whole, we can't, and will never, know the part. In which case, Engels should have said (rather like the character Manuel from Fawlty Towers): "Fundamentally, we know nothing" -- i.e., "Fundamentally, we are infinitely ignorant of everything".
Hence, there seems to be little point in bragging about DM's ability to penetrate to the heart of reality -- or to grasp the "thing-in-itself" -- if it now turns out that the results of this particular example of dialectical-bravado have to be postponed forever.
In that case, if the road to epistemological Nirvana is paved with such god-like intentions, human ignorance will always remain infinite.27a
Engels's Divergent 'Realism'
Again, the process of 'increasing knowledge' was also summarised by Engels in the following way:
"The identity of thinking and being, to use Hegelian language, everywhere coincides with your example of the circle and the polygon. Or the two of them, the concept of a thing and its reality, run side by side like two asymptotes, always approaching each other but never meeting. This difference between the two is the very difference which prevents the concept from being directly and immediately reality and reality from being immediately its own concept. Because a concept has the essential nature of the concept and does not therefore prima facie directly coincide with reality, from which it had to be abstracted in the first place, it is nevertheless more than a fiction, unless you declare that all the results of thought are fictions because reality corresponds to them only very circuitously, and even then approaching it only asymptotically." [Engels to Schmidt (12/3/1895), in Marx and Engels (1975), p.457. Italic emphasis in the original.]
Reading between the lines here, it is quite clear that Engels himself sort of half understood the implications of what he was saying: this approach to knowledge in fact undermines itself since human beings will forever remain infinitely ignorant of everything, and thus of anything (by the Wholist principle, outlined above), including the truth of Engels's own claims recorded above!
In the face of this, as elsewhere, Engels's reaction is instructive: he just ignored the problem -- even though, on this view, no matter how much human beings might like to think they knew about anything, that would in fact advance them not one nanometre closer to the Holy Grail of 'Absolute Knowledge'.
Nevertheless, even this way of depicting things is misleading. The idea of an asymptotic approach in mathematics is connected with the concept of a limit -- if the limit concerned can be shown to exist. But, if a given series has no limit, then a set of its partial sums can't in fact "approach" anything at all. Such a series is said to be divergent -- not convergent. Engels's argument depends on knowledge converging on a limit which he manifestly neglected to show exists.
Moreover, and as far as can be ascertained, not one single DM-theorist (even those who are familiar (or competent) with mathematics and logic) has noticed this major flaw in Engels's 'theory', let alone attempted to rectify it.28
Naturally, this means that the asymptotic approach metaphor is completely inappropriate. Either that, or Engels knew there was a limit, constructed it, but forgot to write the proof in the margin of the above letter -- a bit like Pierre Fermat, perhaps.
However, before anyone tries to locate the proof of 'Engels's Last Theorem', it would be far wiser to conclude that this claim of his is yet another example of a priori legislation (for instance, that there is indeed such a limit) -- ultimately derived from the HEX-pert himself, Hegel -- and one that has been dutifully and uncritically copied by generations of the DM-faithful ever since.
In that case, another annoying dialectical inversion now confronts DM-fans: knowledge is not in fact asymptotically convergent on an absolute limit, but divergent. Worse still, in a part/whole system -- where the nature of the part is completely conditioned by the whole (and vice versa) -- what is known is qualified by what is not. If that is so, what little is 'known' implies that human beings will forever remain trapped in a bottomless pit of infinite ignorance -- even supposing we could assert that much with any confidence (which, if HEX were correct, we couldn't).
This means that the sum total of what we now 'know' about the "specific characteristics" of any part of the Whole is overwhelmingly outweighed by the black hole of infinite ignorance around which we humans must forever orbit, and whose grip we can never shake off. Given HEX, this dark pool of ignorance will never evaporate, diminish or dissipate.29
And that is why HEX can't begin; because, on this view, we are infinitely ignorant of every element in the Totality, we can assert nothing with any confidence about it, or about anything supposedly in it. Whatever is said about any object or process has an infinitely high probability of being completely wrong, given the great "cloud of unknowing" that forever surrounds everything. This is true even with respect to the humblest of objects found in this fathomless Whole -- like that tumbler (again, always supposing we could say even that much!).
And there is little point directing our attention to what we know already, since, on this view, not only could we know nothing about anything, we would be infinitely ignorant of everything. [However, on that, see below.]
But, if nothing said about any object is even remotely correct (indeed, on this view, if it is 'infinitely' incorrect), then even a reference to 'it' must surely become problematic. In fact, given this depressing view, each putative 'it' might not in fact be an 'it', since, of course, any assertion that 'it' was indeed an 'it' must itself be infinitely wide of the mark.
And yet, this is the Dialectical Mangle into which Engels and Lenin happily fed Marxist theory!30
'Commonsense' To The Rescue?
It could be objected here that if we begin with the naïve beliefs of the common man or woman (as Lenin himself suggested) then we would have a secure basis from which to begin our search for more accurate knowledge:
"Our sensation, our consciousness is only an image of the external world, and it is obvious that an image cannot exist without the thing imagined, and that the latter exists independently of that which images it. Materialism deliberately makes the 'naïve' belief of mankind the foundation of its theory of knowledge." [Lenin (1972), p.69; cf., p.279.]31
But, given Engels's 'asymptotic approach' metaphor, this response can't be correct. Unless we possess the entire truth about something as insignificant as a tumbler, for example, we could only assert with infinite lack of confidence that there was indeed just such a set of truths about, or "mediacies" relating to, 'it' --, or, to anything else, for that matter.
And as far as Engels's metaphor itself is concerned, we are certainly in no position to conclude that humanity is approaching a single unified limit, as opposed to countless thousands of limits, or none at all, about anything --, or, indeed, whether or not we are catastrophically diverging to infinity.
But, even if it could be shown that there is such an infinitary process of knowledge with respect to ordinary things, that would still be of no help to the beleaguered dialectician.
First of all, that 'proof would in fact undermine this metaphor. That is because, at least here (in relation to the above conclusion about that infinitary process itself), a 'concept' will have coincided with its 'object' --, contrary to the metaphor itself. But, if that metaphor is faulty in this case, if one 'concept' can be shown to disobey these protocols (and thus 'coincide' with its 'object'), what faith can we have that it captures anything worthwhile to begin with?
"The identity of thinking and being, to use Hegelian language, everywhere coincides with your example of the circle and the polygon. Or the two of them, the concept of a thing and its reality, run side by side like two asymptotes, always approaching each other but never meeting. This difference between the two is the very difference which prevents the concept from being directly and immediately reality and reality from being immediately its own concept. Because a concept has the essential nature of the concept and does not therefore prima facie directly coincide with reality, from which it had to be abstracted in the first place, it is nevertheless more than a fiction, unless you declare that all the results of thought are fictions because reality corresponds to them only very circuitously, and even then approaching it only asymptotically." [Engels to Schmidt (12/3/1895), in Marx and Engels (1975), p.457. Italic emphasis in the original; bold emphasis added.]
Secondly, if we are infinitely ignorant of everything (including tumblers -- and metaphors) then we are in no position to assert that any of the naïve beliefs of humankind are correct -- for example, that this or that 'object' is in fact a 'tumbler'!
Once again, to do so would undermine the metaphor itself, for here another 'concept' (i.e., 'tumbler', if it is a concept) would coincide with its 'object'.
[It is worth adding that the above does not in any way express my views on the matter; it is merely aimed at drawing out the absurd consequences of Engels's and Lenin's theory of knowledge.]
So, the unwise introduction of an infinitary process conditioning knowledge doesn't support -- indeed, it actually undermines -- naïve 'commonsense', and alarmingly quickly, too. It certainly doesn't confirm it. In fact, given a sufficiently large increase in 'partial knowledge', most or all of the deliverances of 'commonsense' could turn out to be completely mistaken.
Consider a few examples of 'commonsense'/'pre-scientific' beliefs that were formerly held to be true, but to which we no longer given credence -- and this is after only the finite advance in knowledge humanity has experienced over the last couple of thousand years (in fact, in most cases the last three to four hundred years):
Whales aren't fish; chairs, tables and floors aren't really solid; the earth isn't stationary, nor is it flat or located at the centre of the universe -- nor is it even supported by a huge turtle --; madness isn't caused by demon-possession; socially-isolated spinsters aren't witches, and their cats aren't instruments of the Devil; comets aren't messengers of the gods, and neither are dreams, rainbows, diseases, earthquakes, eruptions, birth defects, tea leaves, the flight of birds, entrails, wars, famines, droughts, plagues or madness; apes and humans aren't unrelated; the continents aren't fixed and motionless; mountain ranges aren't either; planets aren't unblemished heavenly beings propelled along by angels, nor do they move in circles attached to crystalline spheres; terrestrial motion isn't rectilinear; motion itself isn't maintained by the constant application of a force; there is no 'natural place' that matter seeks out (and gravity isn't even a force); 'intelligence' isn't inherited, and neither is madness; the sky isn't blue; grass isn't even 'objectively' green (in fact colour isn't an 'objective' property of anything, and neither are heat, taste or sound); life isn't a 'vital force'; fossils aren't 'sports of nature', nor were they planted by 'God' to test our faith; light doesn't emerge from our eyes to hit the seen object when we look at something; slavery isn't natural; poverty isn't deserved; tobacco isn't healthy; animals aren't divine beings, nor are they merely 'machines'; left-handedness isn't a sign of the Devil, and neither are birthmarks, congenital defects or cleft pallets; women aren't sub-human and neither are other 'races' (in fact, there are no 'races'); blood-letting doesn't cure disease, and disease itself isn't caused by an imbalance of humours (or even by a 'miasma'); 'flu isn't the result of cosmic 'influence'; fire isn't caused by a substance (Phlogiston) escaping from an object; there is no such thing as the evil eye; kings and queens aren't descended from the 'gods' (nor are they 'god's' representatives on earth), nor can they cure the sick by mere touch; birth defects aren't caused by pre-natal influences on the mother; light doesn't always travel in straight lines; parallel lines can both intersect and diverge; there are negative numbers, and, indeed, 'imaginary' numbers; one is a number (Greek mathematicians denied it was), and so is zero; some numbers are irrational; all four legs of a galloping horse are out of contact with the ground at some point; males can become female, and vice versa (after suitable surgery); human cells don't contain 48 chromosomes; hysteria isn't caused by a wandering womb; bumps on the head don't reveal character, neither do the shape and aspect of the face; it isn't the function of the brain to cool the blood; metals can't be transformed into gold; mass isn't conserved -- and it is also possible that energy isn't either; velocity isn't absolute, neither are space and time; atoms aren't indivisible, nor are they like diminutive planetary systems; there aren't exactly five elements (earth, air, fire, water, and quintessence); life isn't divided into just two 'kingdoms', there are in fact six (Bacteria, Protozoa, Chromista, Plants, Animals, and Fungi); heat isn't a fluid, neither are magnetism and electricity; bad luck doesn't come in threes; old dogs can be taught new tricks, Saddam Hussein didn't possess WMD, and Tony Blair isn't to be trusted; and so on.32
Video One: Eadweard Muybridge's Film That Confounded Artists
With such a list (here greatly truncated), and with the support of this ill-advised and infinitary epistemological 'theory', who could point to a single 'commonsense' or scientific belief and claim it will remain eternally secure? Especially given the fact that for thousands of years human beings believed some or all of the above (and more) -- and given the additional fact that humanity's infinite stagger toward the mythical asymptotic finishing tape of 'Absolute Knowledge' has hardly left the epistemological starting blocks.33
Indeed, if we now count the above 'journey' as having begun slightly before the advent of civilisation (approximately 10,000 years ago), then, compared with the length of time that anything recognisably human has been on the planet (i.e., approximately 2,500,000 years), this epistemological expedition has been underway for about 0.25% of human existence. In addition, if we regard the most significant part of this journey as having begun with the scientific revolution in the 17th Century, that percentage itself would shrink to under 0.02%. Furthermore, if we assume that human beings might last until the Sun becomes unstable (in about 5 billion years time), and introduce that immense interval into the equation, then even that tiny percentage (i.e., 0.02%) would begin to look rather large in comparison. This being so -- and given the asymptotic metaphor (along with the rest of DM-epistemology) -- who could say with confidence that any of our presently held 'commonsense' and/or scientific beliefs will survive for that long -- including belief in the existence of tumblers?
Admittedly, DM-theorists believe that human knowledge is relatively transient, even if dialectically cumulative. They would be among the first to admit the insecurity of 'commonsense' beliefs. Despite this, they also maintain that the connection between erroneous ideas adopted in the past and the more accurate scientific beliefs that replaced them is not accidental; the two are 'dialectically linked' by social progress and technological advance. On that basis, it could be argued that it would be wrong to conclude that the incorrect 'commonsense' beliefs of previous generations are totally without merit, and even more erroneous to saddle DM-theorists with such a view. Since these beliefs were a product of their time, they surely helped prepare the ground for the more objective theories of today -- as, indeed, the latter will in turn help create even more accurate and universally applicable theories in the future. Furthermore, a material account of the circumstances surrounding the creation of superstitious and mystical beliefs (but not just these) also shows how and why they are/were related to the specific Modes of Production, etc., in which they were situated.
Few of the points advanced in the previous paragraph will be challenged here (or anywhere else, for that matter) by the present author (although the language in which they are expressed might be revised); indeed, this approach to knowledge will be used to great effect in several Essays posted at this site to provide a novel analysis of the origins of Metaphysics, and thus of the ideological roots of DM (i.e., in Essay Nine Parts One and Two, and in Essays Twelve, Thirteen and Fourteen).
Despite this, it is clear that DM-theorists are actually claiming something quite different about 'commonsense' beliefs. [However, a detailed analysis of this topic will be postponed until Essay Thirteen Part One.]
Nevertheless, the picture painted above (even if it is highly sketchy) is in fact undermined -- not confirmed -- by DM-epistemology. That is because one implication of Engels and Lenin's theory is that humanity is and always will be infinitely ignorant. This doesn't just compromise 'commonsense' and "naive realism", it obliterates them.
Indeed, and far worse, it throws into doubt all that has ever been written or said by dialecticians themselves.
Given their view of things, we would now have no good reason to believe that there is such a thing as 'Absolute Truth', or that we are approaching it, or that truth is the whole, or even that Lenin wrote MEC, or that Engels and Hegel even so much as existed -- and a host of other (now dubious) banalities.
Infinite ignorance cloaks all of these in an unmitigated stygian gloom.
Conversely, we would have no good reason to disbelieve the deliverances of any theories that contradicted DM/'Materialist Dialectics' in this area. Quite the contrary, in fact --, there would be an excellent reason to accept them willingly in preference to DM, and that is because they would at least permit us to hold some true beliefs! DM denies us any at all!
Thus, for each DM-thesis there is an infinite gap separating it from 'final truth' (if indeed there is such a state). Hence, we will always have an infinitely good reason to reject DM-epistemology in favour of any theory not holding to such a crazy view of knowledge -- since, once more, the opposite of DM-epistemology at least allows us to form/hold some true beliefs.
In that case, the rejection of DM-epistemology is strongly recommended by DM-epistemology itself!
Hence, we may accept DM-epistemology only on condition that we are prepared to reject it; DM-invites its own repudiation in order to save humanity from irredeemable scepticism.
[MEC = Materialism and Empiro-Criticism (i.e., Lenin (1972)); QM = Quantum Mechanics.]
HEX Reduced To Absurdity
Compare this sorry tale with that revealed by mitigated reductionist practice (in science): the latter has actually produced astounding results in every field in which it has been applied. From Genetics to QM, Organic Chemistry to Geology, Medicine to Computing, detailed descriptions and explanations of countless processes and phenomena in nature have been developed over the last few hundred years.
In stark contrast, HEX has yet to provide anyone with a single explanation of anything in the natural world.
Now, this isn't meant to deny the importance of holistic explanations in science -- nor yet to endorse metaphysical reductionism --, but HEX isn't the same as scientific holism. HEX postulates an infinite system of interconnections; scientific holism simply makes do with a large finite set.
In addition, it doesn't unwisely claim that:
"…[T]he entire nature of the part is determined by its relationships with the other parts and so with the whole. The part makes the whole, and the whole makes the parts." [Rees (1998), p.5.]
As we have seen, this means that humanity will always remain ignorant of the nature of any part until they knew the full details of every connection it had with the whole, and vice versa. But, since the former will never happen, the latter can't even get underway. Indeed, in view of the fact that the Whole will forever remain unknown, human beings will never be in a position even to say what its connections with the parts are, or what relationship each part has with any other part, and hence what each of them actually is -- given that the entire nature of any part depends on its relation to other parts and to the whole (and vice versa). [More on this here.]
Yet Another Dialectical Inversion
This Essay began by reminding readers that theorists (and not just dialecticians) have yet to find a way of guaranteeing that their theories about the contingent present can in some way bind the future course of events with any sort of necessity. Traditional answers were cast into outer darkness in Essay Three Part Two, but here we have seen that the DM-'answer' is in infinitely worse condition.
Dialectical HEX-ologists claim to be able to see the infinite in the finite, the Absolute in the conditioned. According to them, general words employed in ordinary and/or scientific contexts imply that there is just such an Absolute (a 'we-know-not-what', which is in reality a 'we-will-never-know-what'), connected with each and every object and process in existence.
Knowledge, they claim, is edging ever closer to this absolute limit. But, as we have discovered, this endless meander implies the opposite: infinite ignorance.
DM-theorists make much of their ability to explain connections, history, causation and development in nature, etc. However, when we examine the assembled article -- and ignore the brochure -- we find that given 'Materialist Dialectics', human knowledge soon becomes lost in the obscure recesses of their nebulous Totality -- the Ideal Absolute of DIM's alleged inversion of Hegel.
1. Here are a few dialecticians who say more-or-less the same sort of thing:
"The fundamental principle of scientific thinking lies in the following: a proposition is true if one can prove that it applies in certain specific conditions, or if there is an acknowledged precedent for its having been so applied. This principle may be termed the principle of 'realisability'. Through the realisation of an idea in practical action knowledge is measured against, compared with, its object and reveals the actual degree of its objectivity, the truth of its content. The veracity of a principle can be proved only by its successful practical application. Any proposition which is directly or indirectly confirmed in practice, or which may be effectively realised in practice, is correct. If a person compares his concept of things with other concepts that have been practically tested, he thereby indirectly, through this correct image, compares his own concept with the object itself. Correspondence between a concept and its object is fully proved only when one can find, reproduce or create such an object, corresponding to the concept that one has formed. The truth of a theory is the necessary guarantee of its realisability. For example, the practice of launching artificial earth satellites confirmed the correctness of the theoretical propositions and calculations on the basis of which these satellites were built." [Spirkin (1983), pp.215-16. Bold emphasis added.]
"The laws according to which the planets move were first set forth by the astronomer, Kepler. I test their correctness and the degree of their exactitude by observing the course of the planets. One of the best ways of determining whether I actually know things is experiment research. If I wish to know whether I have truly discerned that water consists of two elements, of oxygen and hydrogen, which are combined in certain proportions of weight, how do I determine that my contention is correct? Through experiment -- of two kinds: first, by bringing oxygen and hydrogen together under certain conditions of temperature and of pressure, and thus producing water; second, by reducing water, through chemical means, into hydrogen and oxygen. Through this experiment I discover that this idea is no delusion but corresponds to the actual nature of the thing. Such experiments are made on a small scale in the chemical laboratory; they are made on a large scale in industry. Industrial practice is likewise a test of the truth of my perception. Such experiments are not only appropriate in nature, but also in society. Politics in the last analysis is nothing but a series of experiments in the realm of society. If, for example, I set up the law that the small farmers must be won for the revolution in order to partition the land of the great landed proprietors among them, this can be false or true. I learn whether it is true by putting the matter to a test.
"We now conclude: practice, the activity of man, is the test of the possibility and extent of his knowing things. If from oxygen and hydrogen I can compose water, then to this extent I have correct knowledge of the nature of water." [Thalheimer (1936), p.153. Bold emphasis added.]
"Dialectical materialism is a philosophy of practice, indissolubly united with the struggle for socialism....
"...This is the source of all its teachings, and in that service its conclusions are continually tried, tested and developed." [Cornforth (1976), p.125. Bold emphasis added.]
2. In short, not even thought can guarantee its own future deliberations.
Again. this shouldn't be taken to mean I'm a sceptic; I am merely sceptical of the a priori theories concocted by Traditional Philosophers. [More on this in Essay Twelve Part One.]
Incidentally, this topic is connected with Wittgenstein's discussion of 'rule-following'. More will be said about that, and the social origin of meaning, in Essay Twelve (that is, the Parts of Essay Twelve that haven't been published yet), and in Essay Thirteen Part Three.
2a. This is even more problematic for those who like dialecticians believe that everything is in the grip of universal change, for if everything is in flux, then not even the belief in universal change can remain the same for long.
On the other hand, if that belief does remain the same (as it seems to have done so for over two millennia), then, plainly, not everything is in constant change, which, of course, means that if this saying itself is true, it will have to change (since it would now be false, since at least one thing, namely this saying, hasn't changed)! And what can it change into? Surely: the thesis that not everything is in the grip of universal change.
[The 'relative stability' argument is put to the sword here.]
3. If truth is tested by outcomes (in practice), then clearly the latter must be identified correctly; that is, propositions reporting outcomes should themselves be known to be true, or whose veracity is capable of being validated in some way. For that to happen, these propositions must 'correspond' with those outcomes. But, that just means that the PMT is dependent on the CTT (as several of the quotations given earlier and in Note One seem to acknowledge, anyway).
However, outcomes can't be tested by reference to further outcomes. At some point, they must be compared with predictions, which later come to pass as expected. So, when the latter correspond with the former they will be judged correct. But, once again, that means that the PMT collapses into, or is parasitic upon, the CTT.
A good example of this can be found in Lars Lih's analysis of what he describes as Lenin's predictions in 1917 (I hesitate to quote this, since it comes from a deeply sectarian rag):
"I am going to talk about the fate of the 'four wagers' made by Lenin in 1917. They are: the wagers on international revolution, on soviet democracy, on steps toward socialism, and on what I call 'peasant followership'.
"First I will look at them in 1917, and then assess how Lenin thought they were turning out. By late 1918-early 1919 he is still very confident that most of them are paying off, but then he begins to realise in several ways that they are not. Then I will move ahead to 1922-23 and Lenin's final writings, where I think he achieves a shaky synthesis of sorts.
"I should say that the term 'wager' which I use is not meant to imply in any way something adventurous or risky. It comes from Pyotr Stolypin's peasant policy, known as a wager, or betting, on the strong. In other words, it refers to a policy intended to produce certain results, based on the prediction that events will turn out in a certain way....
"I will not speak much about Kautsky in this talk, but I will begin with a Kautsky quote from 1904:
'The practical politician, if he wishes to be successful, must attempt to see into the future much like the theoretical socialist. Whether this foresight takes the form of a prophecy will depend on his temperament. But he must at the same time always be prepared for the appearance of unexpected factors which will frustrate his plans and impart a new direction to developments, and he must always be ready to change his tactic accordingly.'
"And that is how I am approaching this subject: Lenin is making predictions and when he sees they are not working he tries to deal with the new situation.
"My source for all this -- since Lenin wrote little in terms of lengthy texts during this period -- is his speeches. That was a big element of Lenin's role in power: he made speeches to mainly party or sympathising audiences, where he would pound home the big message about what was happening. I think he was sincere in what he was saying, so when he started to recognise things were changing this was reflected in his speeches. There is a human drama in this: you can see his painful disappointment coming right to the surface." [More details here. Formatting and quotation marks altered to conform to the conventions adopted at this site. Bold emphases added.]
This is partly where the pragmatic theory that Lenin advocated interfaces with the material world -- in predictions which must be compared with reality. Hence, according to the above, Lenin not only made predictions, he adjusted his ideas when they failed to turn out as expected, indicating that practice isn't the sole determinant of truth.
It is possible to try to block this objection by claiming that "correct" does not mean "truth-by-correspondence", but "in-agreement-with" -- or even "in accord with relevant criteria". However, if that were so, then the PMT would collapse directly into the COT, cutting out the middleman. Moreover, since it is possible to show that all theories of truth collapse into the COT, anyway, the suggested response above would at least have the merit of speeding up the whole process. [This will be demonstrated in Essay Ten Part Two.]
This means that if we rely on philosophical theories of truth, the route back to Idealism is ineluctable. In this respect, at least, Hegel was quite correct -- all philosophical truth is Ideal:
"Every philosophy is essentially an idealism or at least has idealism for its principle, and the question then is only how far this principle is carried out." [Hegel (1999), pp.154-55; §316.]
Which is, of course, just one more reason to reject it.
[I explain more fully why that is so in Essays Twelve Part One and Thirteen Part One.]
It could be objected that practice is still a criterion of truth, since the outcome of practice is what told Lenin to make adjustments to his theory. He didn't just sit around contemplating society; he and the Bolsheviks were actively engaged in changing it. Maybe so, but that still doesn't affect the point at issue, which is that this part of DM collapses into or depends on the CTT. After all, had Lenin not compared his expectation with the actual outcomes, practice would have told him nothing at all.
It could be maintained that practice is merely a guide. This is how Phil Gasper puts it (commenting on a passage taken from Marx's Theses on Feuerbach, quoted below):
"Commentators who deny that Marx was a realist claim that this passage shows that he defined truth in terms of practical success, not in terms of some kind of correspondence with independent reality, and that he rejected arguments about whether thought actually does correspond with reality as 'scholastic'. But this is to misread Marx's (admittedly somewhat obscure) formulation. His claim is that practical success is a guide to truth, not that truth is literally no more than practical success, and what he rejects as scholastic is not the question about whether thought corresponds to reality, but the attempt to answer that question purely theoretically, without reference to practice. In fact there are numerous passages where Marx explicitly accepts a correspondence view of truth. In the Afterword to the second German edition of Capital, for instance, Marx says that an adequate description is one in which 'the life of the subject-matter is ideally reflected as in a mirror', and he adds that 'the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought'." [Gasper (1998), p.141.]
However, this attempt to read the CTT into the vague and idealist metaphor of the mirror won't work (as we will see in Essay Three Part Four), but independently of that, Marx was quite clear:
"The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth -- i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question." [Marx (1968), p.28. Bold emphasis added.]
Notice that? "Man must prove the truth...in practice." A "guide" isn't a "proof".
Indeed, Lenin saw things the same way:
"From living perception to abstract thought, and from this to practice, -- such is the dialectical path of the cognition of truth, of the cognition of objective reality." [Lenin (1961), p.171. Italic emphases in the original.]
However, in an e-mail, Phil has pointed out that the sort of proof he means isn't the sort of demonstrative proof one finds in mathematics or some areas of science:
"You probably won't be surprised to hear that I don't accept your criticism of my interpretation of the second thesis. I think you are confusing 'proof' in the sense of a mathematical or logical demonstration with 'proof' in the sense of a test (as in 'the proof of the pudding is in the eating'). I take 'proof' in the second thesis to be intended in this second sense. So what Marx is saying is that the test of whether an idea is true is its practical success. If an idea is practically successful, that is evidence (although not decisive evidence, since it may be outweighed by other factors) that it is true (i.e. that it corresponds to reality). In other words, practical success is a guide to truth." [Quotation marks altered to conform to the conventions adopted at this site.]
This is a valid criticism, but it isn't too clear if a theory can be compared with a pudding. Theories make predictions and can be used to help explain the world (and in the case of DIM, help change it); this isn't so with puddings.
Anyway, this doesn't affect the negative conclusions drawn in this Essay, since, as we have seen, practice isn't just an insecure guide, when we move beyond everyday banalities, it is more often than not an unreliable guide to truth, and it is even less dependable guide when it comes to revolutionary practice, as we will also see.
[By "everyday banalities" I have in mind prosaic situations where common sense explanations prove to be correct. For example, someone might test their theory that a neighbour's car won't start because the battery is flat. If, after fitting a new battery, the car starts, we should say that the said theory had been confirmed in practice. But, when we leave such everyday situations behind, we are on much less secure ground where a correct theory might fail to work, and an incorrect theory might work, as we are about to see. But, even then, this approach would still depends on the CTT.]
Moreover, it is also worth pointing out that Phil seems to agree here that even a modified PMT, to which dialecticians appeal, depends on the CTT. [On this, see Note 5.]
[Although, this should not be taken to mean that Phil accepts the PMT!]
4. Note, this isn't to suggest that I accept the CTT, but, as we will see in Essay Three Part Three (and as several of the above quotations confirm, anyway), DM-theorists certainly seem to accept it.
5. It could be objected that this caricatures revolutionary practice. Even the quotations given in this Essay show that no dialectician of any intelligence argues that practice alone is a criterion of truth. Successful practice coupled with the CTT (i.e., when the results of practice are compared with the facts, and are viewed in the light of other criteria) establishes the truth of DM.
Maybe so, but the point of this section is merely to undermine the claim that practice is any sort of test of truth (that is, if we ignore banal situations), even when practice is linked with or buttressed by additional criteria. [Anyway, these other criteria will be examined later (here and here), and in several other Essays.]
6. Naturally, this puts considerable weight on the interpretation of the word "work", but that just underlines the weakness of theories that share any concepts with the PMT. As noted above, the term itself isn't easy to define (philosophically or otherwise) without borrowing ideas drawn from the CTT, and hence the COT.
7. As we now know, the universe can be described in countless different ways -- just so long as we are prepared to make the enough adjustments elsewhere.
So, for example, according to Physicists, it doesn't matter whether we hold the earth to be stationary, and make the rest of the universe move relative to it, or otherwise. [On that, see here.]
Naturally, for reasons of "simplicity" we might prefer not to do this, but who says the universe has to work according to our notions of "simplicity"? And who says anyone knows what anyone else means by "simplicity" in such contexts? Of course, some might want to appeal to Ockham's razor here, but Ockham's razor is merely a methodological device aimed at pruning the amount of work scientists have to do. Unfortunately, it also allows rank amateurs to think they are qualified to judge in such matters. Worse, it has no clear a priori or a posteriori rationale to recommend it, despite the almost religious respect many have shown toward it. [This topic is examined in more detail here.]
On Copernicus, stellar parallax and Ockham's razor, see here.
The background details to this will be fully referenced in Essay Thirteen Part Two. Until then, readers should consult Kuhn (1957).
8. On this, cf., Depew and Weber (1995), Desmond and Moore (1992), and Gayon (1998). [On the weaknesses of Neo-Darwinism, see here, and Essay Thirteen Part Three.]
Of course, it could be argued that this is in fact in line with the DM-account of scientific progress -- that is, that theories face contradictions, some or all of which are later resolved by means of a superior theory. Hence, we are told that science "spirals" in on the truth. This argument will be destructively analysed in Essay Thirteen Part Two. However, for present purposes it is sufficient to note that this DM-response is also future-oriented, and thus susceptible to the serious difficulties outlined earlier in this Essay.
Even so, in what way was the demon possession theory of madness part of a "spiral" in on the truth? Or, the idea that bleeding is a good way to treat disease? Or, that women can give birth to rabbits? Or, that children can be born with gold teeth? Or, that comets are a sign from 'god'? Or, that Piltdown Man was one of our ancestors? Or, miasmic theories of infection? Or, indeed, many of the other defunct ideas listed here and here?
The spiral metaphor plainly relies on continuity if it is to work, but the history of science shows major breaks in continuity, alongside the invention of theories which can't be grafted onto a spiral since they are so radically different from anything that had gone before or has emerged since. This means, of course, that the development of science in no way resembles a spiral.
Consider another example: the rivalry between Descartes's Vortex Theory and Newton's Theory of the Solar System. These two theories are radically different and, other than the fact that the planets revolve around the Sun, are as unlike as any two theories could be. Indeed, the transition from Descartes's system to Newton's involved what has be called "cognitive loss". That is because Descartes's ('false') theory could explain why all the planets moved in the same direction around the Sun, and in the same plane, whereas the Newton's couldn't. Hence, the displacement of the former by the latter represented a step backwards.
[These phenomena remained inexplicable (in Newtonian terms) until the advent of the Kant-Laplace Nebular Hypothesis a hundred or so years later. On this, see Laudan (1996), p.117.]
So, the progress of science looks rather more like a Rube Goldberg machine than a spiral!
Figure Nine: Scientific Theory -- A Spiral?
9. On this, see Schwartz (1999). Also see here, and the essay links here.
This shouldn't be taken to mean I reject either evolution or Darwinism! [See Note 8, above.] It is just that the history of science has taught us not to treat everything that scientists tell us as gospel truth, for they constantly change their minds. [More on that in a Essay Thirteen Part Two. In the meantime, see here, here, and below.]
10. To be sure, it could be argued that it was the incorrect aspects of Darwinism that were responsible for these erroneous predictions.
But, this isn't entirely true; natural selection (which is presumably correct) when coupled with the blending theory (presumably incorrect) predicted that 'beneficial' variations would disappear. Of course, in the long-term, this mis-match became more obvious, but, as is argued in the main body of this Essay, if it is only in the long-term that we can tell whether or not a theory is true (in whole or in part), then that would leave us with no way of deciding whether it is true now.
11. It could be objected that this ignores the 'dialectical interplay' between theory and practice. That objection will be neutralised presently.
11a. I have, of course, borrowed this argument from van Fraassen (1980). This argument has been criticised in Leplin (1997), to which I will respond in Essay Thirteen Part Two (not yet published). In the meantime, the reader should consult Kukla and Walmsley (2004). This analogy is worked out in more detail in Hull (1988). However, I must add that I do not agree with everything that Hull or van Fraassen have to say, and I certainly wouldn't want to explain the success or failure of various scientific theories on Darwinian lines. Since such theories have been invented by human beings (obviously!), an account of their rise and/or fall should in fact be far more Lamarckian than it is Darwinian, or as Rose and Rose put it:
"The publication of Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions [i.e., Kuhn (1996) -- RL] in 1962 marked the beginning of a long process of change in the theory of science.... In brief, science was no longer neutral [Rose and Rose (1976)]. Today science theory sees the boundaries of nature and culture as under constant negotiation, with scientific knowledge as both reflective of, and constitutive of, both culture and society. In this co-production of science and the social order, social institutions, subjectivities, political practices, biological theories and constructs are produced together, with the natural and the social orders mutually sustaining one another [Jasanoff (2006)]." [Rose and Rose (2010), p.92.]
Apart from wanting to lose the word "subjectivities", the only changes I'd make to the above would be to replace "biological theories" with "scientific theories in general", and "the social orders mutually sustaining one another" with "the social orders mutually sustaining one another, leading to the rise and demise of such theories".
This argument also appears in a different form in Kuhn (1996), and has been subjected to criticism in Renzi (2009), to which there is an effective reply in Reydon and Hoyningen-Heuene (2010). They point out that Kuhn isn't arguing that Darwinian evolution and the development of science proceed by the same mechanism but that the former shows that progress needn't be goal directed. This also shows that progress in science itself needn't be goal directed either.
The problem with this reply is that, rightly or wrongly, scientists and scientific realists certainly believe that the development of science is goal directed, aimed at finding increasingly accurate and 'objective' theories about the world, and, in the ideal limit, at finding the Final Theory, a Theory of Everything.
However, both Reydon and Hoyningen-Heuene and Kuhn (along with practically everyone else) believe that Darwin banished teleology from evolution, and that assumption lies at the heart of this analogy. But, as we will see in Essay Thirteen Part Three, this isn't so. Darwinian theory is shot-through with teleological concepts. Not only does this completely undermine Kuhn's analogy, it appears to undermine the argument presented here (in that the latter appeals to Lamarckian notions of social evolution, as pointed out above -- and Lamarck's theory was notoriously goal-directed).
But, that isn't so, either. The argument here is based on progress as this is perceived by scientific realists. They certainly regard Darwin's theory as non-teleological, and that assumption is here being used against them to point out that, if that were so, not all progress is goal-directed, including the development of science. Of course, scientific realists believe that the progress of science is goal-directed, but as we will see in Essays Twelve Part Four and Thirteen Part Two, that is because they too have bought into a metaphysical picture of nature, which is itself based on a theological view of reality -- that is, that there is a hidden world, underlying appearances that is more real than the material world we see around us, and which is accessible to thought alone.
[On this see Guy Robinson's essays, posted at this site with his permission and that of his son.]
Of course, scientists base their theories on evidence, but the meta-theory that science is converging on a Final Truth of some sort isn't itself a scientific theory, and it certainly isn't based on any evidence. [In fact, as we have seen, it flies in the face of the available evidence.]
So, the argument here is that if scientific realists are correct about Darwinian evolution then not all progress is goal-directed. On the other hand, if the progress of science is goal-directed then this can't be explained along Darwinian lines but must be accounted for in Lamarckian terms. But, since the latter is itself predicated on a meta-theory derived from religious mysticism, convergent realism is likewise dependent on ideas drawn from that source, too. Which isn't surprising given Marx's comment about the ideas of the ruling class are always the ruling ideas.
This argument will be developed more fully in Essay Thirteen Part Two.
11b. The usual replies elicited by such an accusation are all fielded below.
12. On the German Revolution, see Harman (1982); on Spain, see Durgan (2007), and Beevor (2006).
[This forms part of Note 13.]
[I have concentrated on the UK-SWP for reasons outlined here.]
As far as the practical successes of the UK-SWP itself are concerned things are little clearer -- but, mercifully, only slightly less depressing. [This was, of course, written before the UK-SWP's recent implosion.]
However, in general the success of revolutionary theory is interpreted in a far more mundane/concrete fashion by SWP-activists. Among other things, this involves discussion of tactical issues at branch level (these are related to current opportunities for intervention), at the national conference, special caucuses and meetings, or annually at "Marxism" (etc.) -- alongside whatever prospects there are for building the party and furthering the struggle. In addition, this includes a consideration of the possibilities for spreading revolutionary propaganda, or for initiating agitation --, depending on the level of struggle at the time, or the self-confidence of the workers involved. Nevertheless, the criteria for practical success in such circumstances are notoriously unclear; they appear to be based largely on anecdotal reports and impressionistic analyses, often published (until recently) on the same page of Socialist Worker each week (i.e., page 12).
Like other revolutionary parties, the UK-SWP publishes few statistics. Indeed, it is unclear whether any accurate data are ever scientifically collected; naturally, this means that anecdotal information becomes disproportionately important by default.
This is (partly) why the leadership can get away with the following response to the recent crisis in the SWP:
"For almost a year the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) has been seized by deep division. It has not stopped us acting as a revolutionary organisation. We have had successes and recruited hundreds of new members. The trade union conferences saw some of the biggest party fringe meetings ever and near-record sales of Socialist Worker. The paper and the party responded very effectively to the death of Margaret Thatcher. We rightly supported the rank and file candidate Jerry Hicks in the Unite leadership election and helped make his campaign a success. We have placed ourselves at the centre of the movement against the bedroom tax in many areas and supported numerous struggles in the workplaces and communities. As part of Unite Against Fascism we played a crucial role in blocking the revival of the English Defence League after the killing of Lee Rigby in Woolwich." [Kimber and Callinicos (2013), quoted from here. There is an effective reply from Dave Renton, here.]
No evidence is offered for these somewhat incredible claims -- given the material I have posted below --, but we are used to DM-fans seeing the world as the opposite of what it really is. Indeed, the above two argue as follows:
"The real test of any revolutionary organisation comes in practice." [Ibid.]
In fact, and as we are about to see, the results of UK-SWP practice have delivered a rather uncomplimentary verdict. Indeed, the party has shrunk from a figure of about 10,000 to about 1000 in the last fifteen or so years.
On this in general, see Tony Cliff's recent autobiography -- Cliff (2000); see also Birchall (2011). Despite its many excellent features, Cliff's book is full of just such impressionistic analyses. To say the least, this is an odd feature of a movement that prides itself on its otherwise scientific credentials. Of course, such data -- if they were collected -- could fall into the wrong hands (why that is important is unclear; as if MI5 and Special Branch don't already know!). Indeed, in a review of a recent book on the UK 'security' services, one author had this to say:
"This nicely contextualises the farcical attempts of Socialist Workers Party apparatchiks to keep strictly private the internal e-discussions and factional arguments which have recently convulsed the organisation. But from whom exactly? It is blindingly obvious that the security services would have been able to access to every email, every discussion post, every telephone conversation or note and -- depending on the level of agent penetration or the technology deployed -- every important face-to-face discussion from the central committee down. As pointed out at the beginning of this article, this leaves the real security targets for the leaders of groups like the SWP (whose leaders are intelligent enough to know the huge reach of the state) first its own members, then the broader left and the workers' movement as a whole." [Mark Fischer, reviewing Undercover by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis. Quoted from here.]
Nevertheless, this still means it is impossible to tell whether SWP practice is a success or not. However, given the fact that the party is now a fraction of the size it was in the 1990s (when the SWP was claiming it had 10,000 members (Birchall (2011), p.517), it seems it isn't.
Update February 2012: The party has now started publishing limited recruitment statistics on the Internet. Even so, there is a difference between what the UK-SWP count as members and what it calls 'fee-paying' members. From figures published in 2011, it looks like the latter figure is probably down below 3000. [See the next paragraph.]
Update November 2012: A Preconference Internal Bulletin (this links to a PDF) in fact published more detailed recruitment and membership figures (pp.5-6), but it is still difficult to decide how many of these are active and how many are in effect just phantom members (see previous paragraph). Indeed, one contributor to the same Internal Bulletin even went so far as to allege the following about the party's 'inflated' recruitment figures:
"Firstly, the membership lists. Considering the central importance of maintaining a reliable membership list within a revolutionary organisation, it is terrifying how few comrades trust them.
"It is well known that the majority of people on the lists are not members (many never were), and that it is easier to squeeze blood from a stone than getting people taken off. These lists are then used as a basis for an assessment of our organisations size, which is clearly going to be completely distorted.
"I was told recently that Leeds had 153 members. If this is the case, the district must have ten more branches that I'm not aware of (maybe I've just stumbled across our underground membership?), or we are employing the age old method of kidology." [IB2, pp.24-25, quoted from here; contributed by 'Paris' of Leeds, who was subsequently expelled from the party for his pains, although it is reasonably clear that it wasn't just for these comments.]
It is, of course, impossible to verify (or falsify) such allegations without access to the primary data. [Although these figures have been published at Socialist Unity. Given that we were also told that only 32% are in fact due paying members (as of Autumn 2012), this puts the committed section of the UK-SWP down below 3000.]
The unofficial (or semi-official, but still anecdotal) statistical base upon which successful practice is based usually includes the following: the number of papers sold, new comrades enrolled, "contacts" recorded and interventions initiated, the numbers -- or the ratio -- of workers to non-workers attending particular demonstrations, how much money was raised in the latest appeal (and how fast it rolled in, and from whence it came), how many prominent, semi-official and/or official union branches and representatives signed or supported the latest petition, lobby, open letter or appeal, the proportion of workers to non-workers in the party, and so on. As Richard Seymour notes:
"...Party Notes consists of two elements. The first is a description of the successes of the party in recent days. How many demonstrated here, how many copies of Socialist Worker were sold; how many attending this steering committee meeting; how 'warmly received' a Central Committee member was at a meeting on Marxism and Feminism." [Quoted from here; accessed 22/01/2013.]
Of course, all of these have to be part of the way a revolutionary party relates to the working-class and its struggles -- at least, if only as a means of testing the latter's subjective mood. But, since no clear data are collected, assessment of the nature and extent of the party's successes remains fixed at the impressionistic level. Hence, it isn't possible to confirm scientifically the effect of UK-SWP activity, or test the claim that it is successful.
Nevertheless, the fact is that the UK-SWP appears to be (at most) half the size it was 20 years ago -- this suggest that its practice has not been, should we say, "synonymous with success".
Here are several other indications that 'dialectical practice' in the UK-SWP isn't going too well:
● The UK-SWP's annual theoretical conference, Marxism, currently lasts for only five days (in fact, it is more like three full-, and two half-days), as opposed to an entire week up until a few years ago. The one planned for 2008 was scheduled to last 3 full days, and to half days, too (while Marxism 2010 will last four and a half days; the same appears to be the case for 2012). [I attended Marxism 2007 (this was the first time I had been to this gathering since 1990), and it was a rather sad and tiny affair compared to 17 years ago.]
However, after the party's serious internal crisis of the first half of 2013, many speakers withdrew from attending, or boycotted the entire event. External observes put the attendance at between two and three thousand, compared to the four to five thousand who normally attend.
● The other jamboree (at Skegness, over Easter) was axed in the early 1990s.
● A recent fund-raising drive (early 2007) badly failed to meet its target (after being aired for several months), which is the first time I can recall that happening in over 25 years. The next one (autumn 2007) is also dragging its feet; all mention of it was dropped from Socialist Worker in early 2008. Issue Number 2083 (12/01/08) says that £126,279 had been collected so far; the next issue (2084, a week later) doesn't mention the collection. Had the target been reached, one feels certain that it would have been reported. The latest fund drive in Autumn 2008 is beginning to falter, too. After three and a half months it had reached £140,087 (Socialist Worker 2132, 20/12/08, p.3). It was initiated in early September 2008, by mid October it had reached £75,053 (Socialist Worker 2122, 11/10/08, p.3), and by mid November it totalled £119,357 (Socialist Worker 2127, 15/11/08, p.3), the rate of increase falling off dramatically as December approached. The 2009 appeal was somewhat similar. However, the 2010 collection went slightly better, the target of £150,000 being reached just before Xmas; the 2011 drive also met its target, as far as can be ascertained, and the 2012 target was reached sometime in late December.
However, the 2013 Appeal isn't going too well. The amount raised by 19/10/13 was £55,513 (Socialist Worker 2375, 19/10/2013, p.16), whereas the figure at the same point in 2012 was £94,083 (Socialist Worker 2325, 20/10/2012, p.16). This represents a 41% reduction on 2013. Compare that with the 2008 Appeal: by mid-October the latter had reached £75,053 (Socialist Worker 2122, 11/10/08, p.3), while the figure for mid-October 2013 was £43,833 (Socialist Worker 2374, 12/10/2013, p.16) -- a 42% reduction on what was in effect a bad year for the Appeal (which was itself a consequence of the Respect debacle). However, by mid December 2013 the total had reached £100,198 (Socialist Worker 2383, 14/12/2013, p.16); compare that with the 2012 amount for the same week: £146,113 (Socialist Worker 2333, 15/12/2012, p.16), a £45,915 shortfall, representing a 31.4% decrease on the previous year. The 2012 Appeal had in fact passed the £100,000 mark nearly two months earlier. It isn't easy to see how the party faithful will be able to spin this into yet another 'dialectical' success story.
[By the 1st of February 2014, the total had reached £143,016, still £6,984 short of its target (Socialist Worker 2388, 01/02/2014, p.16), a figure which had been exceeded six or seven weeks earlier in the 2012 Appeal -- in mid December the total had reached £146,113 (Socialist Worker 2333, 15/12/2012) p.16). After that, no more figures were published, which suggests the target figure had been reached sometime in February 2014, tow months later than the previous year.]
● The meetings/events section in Socialist Worker (invariably on page ten) is a fraction of its former size.
Now, the fact that the SWP has played such a leading role in the anti-war movement since 2002 (and in Respect from 2004-2008) suggests that recent "party-building" has been an abject failure. Under circumstances like this, the party should have faired far better than it has in fact done.
My supposition that there had been a disappointingly low level of recruitment during this period (i.e., 1999-2008) has now been confirmed by this document (written by John Rees -- alas, himself no longer a member of the SWP!), by this one (authored by John Molyneux), indirectly by this one (written by Chris Harman), and by this one (composed by Alex Callinicos). Another document (written by Neil Davidson, and commented upon by several of the above) puts the 2008 membership at over 6000, which is hard to reconcile with the facts given above (unless, of course, these are phantom 'members' as opposed to fee-paying, genuine members.]
Indeed, here is a video of Davidson giving his take on the situation as he saw things in late 2013, a few weeks before he resigned from the SWP:
Video Two: Neil Davidson Surveys The Sinking Ship
John Rees also makes the following point:
"The result of not following this course is that the party structure and the active membership are in a worse condition than at any time since the early 1980s. Preconference aggregates involved perhaps a sixth of the membership. It is unlikely that total branch attendance is any greater on average. There is a division in the membership and the active membership is in crisis." [Quoted from here.]
However, a recent BBC Radio Four programme (aired across two 15 minute slots in April 2008, entitled "From Trotsky to Respect") carried the assertion that the current membership is in fact 7,000. again, based on the above comments this is difficult to believe. [Again, this figure might include inactive/phantom 'members', and not fee-paying members. Anyway, no information was forthcoming as to how the data had been collected, or to what this number referred.]
This depressing assessment was echoed in an article written by Mark Steel (who has now left the SWP), published in an Internal SWP Bulletin, November 2007:
"For by whatever criteria you wish to use, our party has shrunk to a shadow of the size it was even a few years ago. In many areas where the SWP once represented a chaotic pump of activity that connected with all that was vibrant, energetic and rebellious in the city, now the meetings are tiny, bereft of anyone under forty and attended out of duty. Not many years ago, in most towns you were never far from a line of hastily slapped-up Socialist Worker posters, so they were almost an accepted part of any city centre, and there must be people who supposed the council was obliged to ensure they stayed up, on grounds of maintaining local heritage. But you'd have to conduct a diligent search now to find anything of the sort." [Quoted from here.]
Steel's views are outlined in more detail in Steel (2008); but, see also Callinicos (2008a).
The above impressions are further confirmed by Sue Blackwell, also a former member of the UK-SWP:
"The party continuously advocates the principle 'never lie to the class'. But in Birmingham we have witnessed the most flagrant of lies by party members that have been defended by the leadership. The party has also espoused another principle: never tell the truth to members regarding membership figures. It has been years since these have been revealed (even when they were, anyone who had been a branch membership secretary knew they tended to be grossly inflated). The reason for this, we believe, is that the party membership has declined enormously from about the mid-1990s -- we estimate its size to be about a third to a half of what it was then. The same is true for the numbers attending the annual 'Marxism' event -- numbers seem to have inexorably fallen. A democratic, accountable, organisation would regularly reveal the true membership figures to its members as of right, and if they have fallen, provide an explanation for this. It would also enable ordinary members to demand accountability and, if need be, allow for the removal of CC members deemed responsible. But alas, none of this happens and SWP members quietly accept what is not given to them....
"The activist comedian Mark Thomas, in a fiery polemic in the New Statesman, referred to the 'fastest growing party in the country', namely ex-SWP members. Actually the charge is a serious one. As we have said, membership appears to have declined sharply, and we also think that the average age of members has shot up. Why this should be so has never been discussed in party circles -- another great taboo subject. At one level, which Lenin was well aware of, one would expect membership of revolutionary organisations to be minimal in periods of low class struggle. Given that in Britain, strike statistics for almost 10 years have been the lowest since records began, this is bound to hit revolutionary organisations sharply -- the political terrain has been very tough indeed. Nonetheless, at another level, the party should take responsibility for the 'revolving door' nature of its membership. The record for retaining members is a very poor one -- and we argue that a crucial reason for this is that so many members are alienated by the absence of democracy and accountability, and resent being treated as paper-selling fodder, to be harangued and bullied by full-timers." [Quoted from here; quotation marks altered to conform to the conventions adopted at this site; link added. More details here.]
[I hasten to add that the reader shouldn't assume I agree with everything contained in the above article, or posted at the second of the two links at the end. These comments have been quoted since they proved to be remarkably prescient, and not just because they anticipated the internal debate in the UK-SWP, reported here. Had they been acted upon sooner, the Respect debacle (see below) might have been avoided, as might the even more recent debacle surrounding allegations of rape and sexual harassment levelled against a leading member of the SWP's CC (who has now resigned from the party, probably to avoid having to answer to yet more accusations of rape!).
In fact, estimates now (i.e, in mid-2013) put the party membership figure at around 1100! Depending on whose figures are to be believed, this represents either an 80% or a 90% reduction over the course of four or five years!
The above figures are suggested by the fact that in the run-up to a Special Conference held in March 2013 to discuss the growing crisis in the party, the CC was able to muster just over 500 signatures in support of their line, while the opposition collected nearer 600. This means that about 1100 members care enough about the party even to put their names on a piece of paper! If so, the total membership can't be much higher than this -- either that, or the rest don't care enough about their party to add their names.
Since then, several hundred more have decamped (more details here and here).
The failure of the UK-SWP to capitalise on the widespread radicalisation we have witnessed since the late 1990s was underlined by party loyalist, John Molyneux, back in 2005:
"The reality is that we face a somewhat perplexing paradox. Since the end of the 90s, in particular since Seattle, we have argued that a process of political radicalisation was occurring internationally and nationally. We have responded to this radicalisation with three major strategic initiatives: enthusiastic participation in the international anti-capitalist movement, the Stop the War Coalition and Respect. Moreover, each of these responses has met with remarkable, at times truly spectacular, success. Yet after all this the fact is that the SWP not only hasn't grown (despite innumerable urgings to do so), but is now numerically and organisationally weaker than it was in the 90s.
"How do we explain this paradox? Unfortunately we do not have a coherent explanation because we have not really faced the fact that the problem exists.
"Precisely because we have not so far squarely faced the facts, it is probably necessary, at this point, briefly to justify the assertion that we are 'numerically and organisationally weaker'. At some point in the 90s -- I think about 1994 -- we announced that we had 10,000 members. We stuck to this claim, reiterating it again and again, into the new century. However, at the last conference in November 2004 we were told that we had 4,000-plus registered members and 4,000-plus unregistered members.
"Unless the last year has seen a mass registration of the unregistered (and if so, why haven't we heard about it?) this means we have about 4-5,000 members. So somewhere during this period of radicalisation and outward success the party appears to have lost up to 5,000 (50%) of its membership (without ever acknowledging that this was happening). In addition to this there is the evidence of one's eyes of attendance at successive Marxisms, party conferences and councils and NC meetings, the anecdotal evidence about the state of the branches and the figures for Socialist Worker sales (about 7-8,000 per week or less)....
"It was Trotsky who said: 'It is the first duty of a revolutionary party to look reality in the face'.
"It was Tony Cliff who made this principle central to the International Socialist/SWP tradition from its foundation. It was crucial to the theory of state capitalism, to the non-catastrophist economic perspective of the permanent arms economy, to our attitude to the pseudo-Fourth Internationals and to the analysis of the downturn in 1979-80. 'Revolutionaries must tell the truth to the working class'; 'Don’t lie to the class, don't lie to ourselves'. How often did Cliff repeat these maxims?
"Yet somewhere along the line -- I think it was particularly in the 90s -- we started to lose sight of them. It was in relation to the membership figures that the departure from reality was most stark: we continued to claim 10,000 long after it was virtually impossible that we had that size of membership.
"But it was not just over membership -- a similar veil was thrown over the sales of Socialist Worker. Every week Party Notes would report excellent sales here and excellent sales there, but the overall figures were never given, never even spoken about in private.
"The habit of talking things up and exaggeration (of the size of demos, meetings, Marxism, etc) became part of the culture of the leadership, all to sustain the morale of the members. For a period this seemed, on the surface, to work, with overt enthusiasm being maintained, but in the long run it proved counterproductive. A layer of the membership simply dropped out, while others sank into passivity and cynicism." [Quoted from here. Quotation marks altered to conform to the conventions adopted at this site.]
This is underlined by Richard Seymour (who resigned from the UK-SWP in March 2013):
"The 'strategic perplexity' of the left confronted with the gravest crisis of capitalism in generations has been hard to miss. Social democracy continues down the road of social liberalism. The far left has struggled to take advantage of ruling class disarray. Radical left formations have tended to stagnate at best." [Seymour (2012), p.191. Quotation marks altered to conform to the conventions adopted at this site.]
Of course, as Richard goes on to note, there are three notable exceptions to this generalisation -- the gains made by the electoral left in Germany, Greece and France --, but it is far from clear that the 'Dialectical Left' have benefitted (or will benefit) from this. Indeed, a movement that maintains and prosecutes an incessant war within itself, and between its member parties, isn't likely to grow to a size that will threaten even a handful of bosses and/or local police chiefs, let alone the capitalist class.
Nor is it ever likely to impress radicalised workers.
[In fact, Die Linke, the German Left Party, seems to be going backwards, too. In 2009 they received 11.9% of the vote in the Federal elections, but only 8.6% in 2013.]
"Tested in practice"? Indeed, and almost to destruction.
In September 2007, a serious crisis erupted in Respect; by late October, it had become pretty clear that the Party was doomed, and would probably emerge significantly weaker as a result. I won't enter into who or what was to blame for this debacle. We can simply chalk this up as yet another failure on the left if, as seems likely, Respect remains in fragments. [However, see below.]
In fact, by early November 2007, Respect had split. Here is the case for the defence (an analysis with which I largely agree, I might add -- except for the use of the hyperbole "witch hunt", a phrase which it seems was inspired by John Rees, but which set of words is now 'avoided' by SWP-ers who once used it quite liberally, since Rees has now resigned from the SWP!). By early December 2008, this crisis had spread into the heart of the SWP, itself. [On that, see here.]
Update January 2013: One ex-member of the SWP, who tells us he had been part of the core leadership had this to say about the membership:
"[A]n Internal Bulletin article...massively over inflated the membership figures (the reality is around 2,500, they claimed 7,500)...." [Quoted from here.]
Another added the following comment:
"In 2007, when they [the UK-SWP -- RL] were in another crisis in which Callinicos claimed the very existence of the party was at stake, they did their 'witch hunt petition'. After weeks of contacting everyone in and out of the party, they only had something like 1,200-1,400 signatures.
"This tells you that the number of people who feel like members is in the 1500-2000 range. I'd say the lower end of that range." [Quoted from here; quotation marks altered to conform to the conventions adopted at this site. Link added.]
All this is, of course, academic, since it now looks like the UK-SWP is about to implode. [More about this when (or if) the situation becomes clearer.]
Update March 2013: Anna Chen has added these thoughts about membership totals:
"When I saw the print-outs in late 1997, it was shockingly far fewer than 2,000 once you took out all the multiple-inclusions and people who, when you did the ring-rounds, told you to 'f**k off, I keep telling you, take my name off your list!'. I did inform Rees and Pat among plenty others ...that I found the double, triple and quadruple counting and massaging of figures badly in need of a clean up, especially as we weren't supposed to lie to the class. But when I offered to do this, did they let me? Or get someone else to do it? 'Fraid not.
Update July 2013: Ian Birchall has just posted this comment about the membership size:
"Some years ago we were told the SWP had 10,000 members. Now, judging from the CC's own figures, we have around a thousand. We may indeed have 'an influence on so many important campaigns out of all proportion to our size', but if we continue to shrink that influence will not be all that great." [Quoted from here.]
And he adds:
"In 50 years' membership I have never seen losses as substantial and disastrous as those of the last few months, not even at the time of the split with Jim Higgins in 1975." [Ibid. Link added.]
And, on top of this, we are probably about to see another mass resignation from the Party.
One comrade expressed himself as follows:
"I was in north London district from the mid-90s when I began teaching at City and Islington until 2007 when I left and moved to S.W. London. At the beginning of that period we had a series of effective functioning branches -- I was in Highbury branch. By the beginning of the new century -- we had moved to small branches, then to micro-branches and then by post 9/11 to no branches at all. Eventually we moved to Marxist forums -- I was in the Islington one that had an attendance of about 8-10 on average, generally oldish people. So we had gone from a reasonably healthy large district to tiny meetings in the space of a decade. It wasn't that the outside world was barren. There was the huge political upsurge in the wake of 9/11 and the growth of Stop The War. (I was active in Newington Green StW -- Stop the War, RL). And of course there was the Socialist Alliance and Respect. For most of that period I went to district aggregates. Certainly by about 2002 the conversation before and after aggregates was about the idiocy of the dissolution of the branches. Yet in the aggregate's discussion most comrades avoided the topic or engaged in circumlocutions. It was rare for comrades to speak out -- I can think of a few who occasionally did -- but for the most part I was, not so much scared, but ill-at-ease at challenging the CC. So we all kept quiet. Some Bolshevik I was. This helps explain to me at least why the party failed to grow in the huge political upsurge following 9/11. We had no branches, to bring contacts to just the occasional public meeting. So there was no regular debate between comrades in branch meetings, no opportunities to discuss perspectives and our implementation of them." [Quoted from here; comments section. Minor typos corrected.]
Update December 2013: In relation to recent SWP-'successes', we read this from a prominent member:
"Any activist can always test their own success in whatever role they have found for themselves by simply seeing what happens when they finish and someone else has to take over from them. If the organisation they leave behind is strong, if more people are involved then, they can be proud of themselves.
"The CC will tell us that UAF [Unite against Fascism -- RL] and UtR [Unite the Resistance -- RL] have been glowing successes. They will never tell us how few members either campaign actually has than it used to, what funds they have raised, how many fewer people are involved than were 5 years ago.
"All of us can see with our own eyes that UtR is less than it was, while UAF is decreasingly capable of mobilising anyone outside the SWP's ranks. Even the number of comrades willing to turn out for either campaign is fewer than it was as recently as 12 months ago. These 'united fronts' have taken more and more of the party's resources to get less and less impressive results." [Dave Renton, quoted from here; accessed 08-12-2013. Quotation marks altered to conform to the conventions adopted at this site.]
To which he added:
"The SWP has suffered the worst year in the party's history. We have had to have three conferences in one year, the numbers attending Marxism have fallen by half, and the party has suffered hundreds of resignations. Everywhere in the organisation, we see ageing and decay. If the SWP is to survive, we desperately need to change course." [Quoted from here; accessed 08-12-2013.]
I have just read the SWP's Second Pre-Conference Internal Bulletin for 2013 (this links to a PDF). In there the CC have published detailed recruitment figures (p.21). They also summarise membership figures for the last few years:
"Our total membership now stands at 7,180. This is down 217 from the number last year but up on 2011's figure of 7,127, the 2010 figure of 6,587, the 2009 figure of 6,417 and 2008's of 6,155. The number of subs paying members is 2,147 -- 30 percent. This is slightly down on last year." [p.12.]
This means that (1) 70% of the membership are paper members only (ie., they don't pay subs), and that (2) Of the 30% who do pay subs, only 7% (approximately 500) supported the CC in the recent squabble; slightly more sided with the opposition (just over 600). The rest of the subs-payers (about 1000, or 14%, if the CC's figures are to be believed) clearly couldn't be bothered -- or they didn't care enough about the party -- to side with either side. As noted above, this suggests that there are approximately 1100 genuine party members left in the SWP, a figure confirmed by the rather anaemic response to the 2013 Appeal.
Update January 2014: However, Tom Walker, a comrade who resigned from the SWP in 2013, sums up the state of the far-left in the UK at present:
"The SWP's membership figures are much disputed, but while there may still be a higher number paying subs, I feel reasonably confident from reported aggregate attendances that its active membership is now below 1,000 -- and likely to shrink further. Its closest 'competitor', the Socialist Party, is generally thought to be slightly smaller than that. There is little else of any size....
"The far left, then, is small -- much smaller than we previously believed it to be." [Taken from here; accessed 03/01/2104. Quotation marls altered to conform to the conventions adopted at this site.]
The far-left is becoming increasingly irrelevant and ineffective, but still comrades refuse to think like the radicals they claim to be. Indeed, the site from which the above was taken has barred me from posting any comments, even if they aren't about DM!
Be this as it may, here is what I have written in Essay One about this and other crises on the far-left:
Sad though it is to say, Trotskyism's one major area of success has been to split more times than a schizophrenic amoeba on speed, which is, of course, one reason why it has been such a long-term failure. Believe it or not, there are comrades who will bemoan this fact in one breath, but in the very next will refuse even to countenance the allegation that their core theory ('Materialist Dialectics') has got anything to do with it! They will not even consider it as a remote possibility -- nor yet even as one aspect of a partial explanation why our side has witnessed 150 years of almost total failure. The very idea itself is rejected out-of-hand, and with no little vehemence.
[Why they all do this is explained in detail here. Anyone who doubts this should check the hostile response I received here, here, and here for merely suggesting this as one possibility. Or, indeed, dear reader, the response you will get, too, if you try this out for yourself, and even so much as tentatively suggest that DM/MD is a partial cause of our woes. Such hostility is now a regular, almost knee-jerk reaction.]
Stalinism and Maoism are far less fragmentary, but that is only because they have a long and bloody record of imprisoning, torturing and/or killing those who stray too far from the 'path of righteousness' --, as opposed to their merely being expelled from the party. One wonders therefore what would happen if Trotskyists ever managed to secure real power.
[Witness]...the rapidity with which former 'friends' and 'comrades' regularly descend into lying, gossip-mongering, fabricating and smearing one another -- for example, in the recent collapse of UK-Respect (but not just there).
[Indeed, a good place to sample much of this 'comradely banter' is over at the Socialist Unity website -- aptly so-named, presumably, because it (unwittingly, perhaps even 'dialectically' -- its 'owner' is a huge fan of the 'dialectic') records and/or encourages the exact opposite tendency. A significantly large minority fraction of its space is now devoted to highlighting every negative factoid (of dubious provenance) it can lay its hands on to rubbish the UK-SWP (and its 'leaders'). Many of the contributions in the comments section (at the end of each article) are generally even more hostile and uncomradely. The level of abuse and vitriol shown there toward fellow comrades just has to be seen to be believed. Small wonder then that very few female comrades venture there (especially given the content of the next couple of paragraphs).]
Update, September 2012: Even so, the aforementioned 'comradely' acrimony and vitriol re-surfaced in the late summer of 2012 over the controversy around Julian Assange and his alleged rape of two Swedish women -- which controversy was seriously compounded by the offensive remarks George Galloway subsequently made about rape; on that see here and here (especially in the comments sections). See also here, here, here, here, and here -- and this video, here.
[Readers will no doubt notice that Socialist Unity has degenerated to such an extent that it is now trying to defend Galloway, and brush aside his remarks on rape as a 'mis-statement'. This, from one of the left's most eloquent speakers?! The controversy prompted the resignation of two of Respect's leading female members.]
Update, January 2013: As one ex-UK-SWP-er, Tony Collins, has noted in relation to the latest (i.e., January 2013) crisis in the UK-SWP:
"The problem is, there is a certain way of seeing any discussion of the far left that's started by someone who isn't a part of it. He must by definition be an enemy and we must therefore believe he's trying to destroy the left....
"That's what happens on the far left. We sort of have these instinctive reactions. You can see glimpses of this all over the net right now, with SWP members openly attacking each other, something I've not seen ever. There's a cult-like hatred of people who used to be allies." [Quoted from here; 14/01/2013. Bold added.]
Update July 2013: Yet more vitriol and personal abuse between UK-SWPers and ex-members, here, in the main article and the comments at the end.
Witness, too, the animosity and personal abuse also apparent in the recent (i.e., Summer 2007) split in the US Communist League, and the even more recent feud (February 2008) in the Maoist RCP-US. A similar, dialectically-fuelled bust-up is currently underway (2007/08) in the US wing of the ICFI. The recent split (2009/10) in the IMT/WIL was no less rancorous.
Here is a comment by the IMT on the above split:
"The Venezuelan comrades of the IMT held their re-founding Congress in Caracas, taking the opportunity to launch their new paper, Lucha de Clases (Class Struggle). The comrades have had to deal with very difficult internal conditions over the past year but have been able to re-found the Venezuelan section of the IMT with great enthusiasm and optimism. The unanimous feeling was that the organisation was now on a qualitative higher level than before. Having purged the organisation of harmful ultra-left and sectarian deviations, they are prepared to play a decisive role within the PSUV and the Venezuelan revolution." [Quoted from here. Bold emphasis added.]
Notice how yet more splits and expulsions somehow 'strengthen' the movement! Gerry Healy, the DM-Guru par excellence, was well known for holding the same view.
[This is in fact the Trotskyist equivalent of the Maoist idea that "retreat is attack" (justified by an appeal to the 'unity of opposites') put about by Ai Ssu-ch'i in the 1930s; on that, see here. How and why comrades come up with such contradictory ideas is -- as should seem obvious by now -- a direct result of the contradictory theory which has them in its grip. (More details here, here, and here.)]
As I have pointed out in Essay Nine Part One:
"Here lies the source of much of the corruption we have witnessed in DIM. If your core theory allows you to justify anything you like and its opposite (since it glories in contradiction), then your party can be as undemocratic as you please while you argue that it is 'dialectically' the opposite and is the very epitome of democratic accountability. It will also 'allow' you to claim that your party is in the vanguard of the fight against all forms of oppression, all the while covering up, ignoring, justifying, rationalising, excusing or explaining away sexual abuse and rape in that very same party.
"After all, if you are used to 'thinking dialectically', an extra contradiction or two is simply more grist to the dialectical mill!
"And if you complain, well you just don't 'understand' dialectics..."
One thing is for sure: we can expect much more of the same before we finally allow the ruling-class to ruin this planet, courtesy of our own studied idiocy....
Hence, no material fact (no matter how obvious or damning) is allowed to count against the fixed idea that DIM has been, and still is, eminently successful.
This is, perhaps, one unchanging belief over which the infamous Heraclitean Flux has no hold, for this seems to be the only belief that remains rock solid year in, year out.
Anyone who doubts this need only read the neurotically up-beat reports one constantly encounters in most revolutionary papers, and on the vast majority of Marxist websites (with few notable exceptions): everything is always coming up roses, all the time. Major set-backs are largely ignored, and the smallest success is hyped out of all proportion and hailed as if it were of cosmic significance.
Hence, when a couple of dozen hard-boiled, leather-necked, brick-faced Bolsheviks gather together in some god-forsaken hotel in the suburbs, we are regaled with the glad tidings that this marks a significant advance for the world proletariat! Except, of course, no one bothered to tell all four billion of them, and they happily returned that complement by staying away in their billions. A month later, and what do we find? This 'party of the working-class' has split, with one half expelling the other, or vice versa --, and as if to rub it in, even that is hailed as a major advance for the toiling masses (as, indeed, we saw above with the IMT)!
[This is yet another excellent recent example of this phenomenon.]
Self-deception of this order of magnitude is clearly pathological.
Check out the rabid optimism that (up till recently) swept through Respect, and then Respect Renewal (the 'breakaway' party), especially here (where even the cake that was served was "marvellous"!) --, and this after yet another split! 300 or so bedraggled comrades roll up 150 years after the Communist Manifesto was published and this is something to shout from the rooftops! Of course, all this optimism has now been replaced by fragmentation and bitter recriminations, as we saw above. [And these numpties refuse even to be told!]
Single-celled organisms learn far faster, it seems.
To be sure, not everyone involved in this split was a fan of dialectics (even though significant sections were); in this, the social/class origin and nature of the vast majority of those involved is the key factor, for it is in this petty-bourgeois soil that sectarianism festers -- aggravated, of course, by this mystical 'theory'. [This is analysed in more detail in Essay Nine Part Two.]
[The best account so far of the split, from a neutral standpoint, can be found here. The best UK-SWP version (to date) can be accessed here -- and, as noted above, here. Several more examples of the uncomradely behaviour of Dialectical Disciples will be added to the Appendix at a later date.]
The expulsion of the US franchise of the IST -- the International Socialists -- in 2001, for reasons that still remain unclear (however, on this see Birchall (2011, pp.547-49) --, hasn't helped, either. Currently, the IST has no organised representation in the USA (now that Left Turn has resigned from the IST). This means that right at the heart of the beast, the IST is without any organised influence!
[Many of the relevant documents can be found here. An alternative view of this, the most damaging recent split, and the slow decline of the IST alongside its international fragmentation, can be found here, but I do not know enough to say whether it is correct or not. Another account of the split, from a hostile OT sect not known for its own ability to avoid fragmentation can be found here.]
[OT = Orthodox Trotskyist.]
Is this a yet another example of 'successful practice'?
[Update Autumn 2010: Apparently, the US and UK wings of the ISO/IST are now on friendlier terms!]
At the time of writing the above, much of the UK-SWP's activity revolves around the promotion of their half of the remains of the Respect split: the Left List in the 2008 London mayoral and local elections. Hence, success here will be interpreted in limited (but not exclusively) electoral terms.
Update, Autumn 2008: unsurprisingly, the Left List did remarkably badly in the May elections. For example, in the London Mayoral contest, their candidate polled 16,796 first preference votes (0.68%) -- under a quarter of the BNP's result -- and under a half of the Christian People's Alliance!
Fielding 14 candidates in the London Assembly constituency election, the Left List gained a total of 33,438 votes (1.4%), slightly behind the fascist National Front, but twice the BNP's figure. In the Additional Member vote the Left List gained 22,583 votes (0.9%), just short of one tenth of the Green Party, but almost one sixth of the BNP (who won a seat!), and less than a half of Respect Renewal (who gained 59,721 -- or 2.4%). Nationally, the picture was no less depressing.
Respect Renewal did not do well nationally, either; although this site tries to put some sort of a gloss on these rather poor results.
Yet another dialectical success story?
Nevertheless, figures from 2007 suggested that Respect was already beginning to falter a year earlier. In the July 2007 Southall bi-election, for example, Respect received 1.6% of the vote in a predominantly Asian area. It was then too early to tell if this was a freak result or not. However, the subsequent Shadwell bi-election painted the opposite picture (where Respect won the seat with 43% of the vote).
Update, Autumn 2009: the SWP in Belfast has just split from the IST. Calling themselves International Socialists, they later aligned themselves with Counterfire (the new group set up by those around John Rees and Lindsey German). Something similar has happened in New Zealand, too.
Update, February 2010: John Rees (whose book on dialectics prompted these Essays) and Lindsey German, along with 58 other members, have just resigned from the SWP. [However, see also here.]
Update, Summer 2010: In the UK General Election, in the face of an suicidally unpopular Labour government and the prospect of deep cuts both to the Welfare State and working class livings standards, the left's front parties -- Respect-Unity Coalition (the old Respect Renewal) and the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (to which the UK-SWP were affiliated) -- received a derisory number of votes: 33,251 and 12,275, respectively, compared to 564,331 for the Nazi BNP. [The Green Party received 285,616.] In view of all the recent in-fighting, this was no big surprise.
[A similar pattern of hate-fuelled fragmentation and decline was seen in Scotland around the Tommy Sheridan and SSP debacle, between 2006-2010.]
Update, April 2011: Long-standing CC member, Chris Bambery and several dozen Scottish members have just resigned from the SWP. They have now set up the International Socialist Group (Scotland), which is closely aligned with Counterfire. [See also here.]
Are these yet more 'dialectical success' stories?
If only there were some sort of a pattern here.
Now, this might be another sheer coincidence, but the precipitous decline in the UK-SWP's fortunes -- exacerbated by the above splits --, began after its open adoption of DM in the mid-1980s. [Details can be found here.]
How many more 'coincidences' do we need before we draw the appropriate conclusion? DIM is about as internally cohesive as a detonated IED.
[The recent steep decline of the UK-SWP and the IST is outlined here. It was alleged in Essay Nine Part Two that DM aggravates the inherent sectarianism of petty-bourgeois elements in DIM. These events seem to provide us with further confirmation.]
Update, March 2012: Respect Renewal (now known as Respect once more) has just won a historic victory in a by-election in Bradford West, overturning a healthy Labour majority, with 18,341 votes, and 56% of the turnout.
However, the election failed to get even a mention in Socialist Worker in the weeks before. Cynics might suggest that since the dialecticians are no longer dominant members of Respect, it has turned a corner.
A few column inches were devoted to this by-election in the edition of Socialist Worker published after the above vote -- Socialist Worker 2296, 31/03/2012, p.2 --, a notice that was clearly written before the result had been announced. The on-line edition, however, does give this win due prominence. [Analysis here.] In the next couple of weeks the victory was given extensive coverage (here and here), with a major article in the May edition of Socialist Review.
Update, May 2012: Respect has just won five council seats in Bradford in the May 2012 local elections.
Update, May 2013: The UK-SWP has just experienced a serious haemorrhage of members, losing most if not all of its student sections over the handling of rape allegations made about a leading member. At least 400 members have resigned, with another 600 threatening to do so as the summer wore on. It is isn't easy to see how the rump that has been left behind can survive for long. Further splits seem unavoidable.
Be this as it may, even if it were possible to check practice against theory, the interpretation of the former isn't a given.
For example, UK-SWP recruitment figures are an unreliable indicator of success. This is partly because of the untoward haste with which many new members are enrolled. [Indeed, it used to be a joke that all you had to do was look at a Socialist Worker seller to be recruited.] It is also partly because many new recruits remain largely ignorant of revolutionary socialism -- that is, beyond the basics -- for the entire duration of their membership (which is, alas, often very short -- a fact that is itself not unconnected with the previous point).
[That particular anecdotal observation should, of course, be regarded as no more, nor no less reliable than 'official' anecdotal claims themselves are (even those to the contrary).]
Despite this, up until a few years ago recruitment figures appeared regularly in Socialist Worker, where they were not only seen as a measure of success, they clearly served as a morale booster. Naturally, the rate of recruitment to revolutionary parties will be sensitive both to the vicissitudes of the class struggle and to the relative strength of the 'official' left, but the fact that so many new comrades drop out so soon after joining could (and should) be interpreted as a failure.
However, I was told unofficially that over a thousand new members had been enrolled at Marxism 2007. One can only hope the SWP manages to hang on to these newbies for a change. [This was written before the recent heavy loss of members!]
Now, up until recently, the SWP was one of the most successful post-war revolutionary parties in the UK, so the above reflects rather badly on the many groups/tendencies I have not mentioned. They too are hardly "proving" the truth of DM in practice. As I pointed out in Essay Nine Part Two:
So, despite the fact that every last one of these sad individuals continually strives to "build the party", after 140 years, few revolutionary groups can boast membership roles that rise much above the risible. In fact, all we have witnessed since WW2 is yet more fragmentation, but still no mass movement.
[Anyone who doubts this should look here, here, here, and here. Or now, here.]
Has a single one of these individuals made this connection?
Are you kidding!?
The long-term failure of Dialectical Marxism and its core theory (i.e., MD) are, it seems, the only two things in the entire universe that aren't interconnected.
To be sure, the course of events taking place during major class upheavals may be obvious for most revolutionaries to see, but outside of this the phrase "tested in practice" -- regularly bandied about by DIMs -- is about as accurate as most bourgeois election promises are.
It won't do either to appeal to the success of revolutionary theory in 'predicting' or explaining, after the event, the course of Capitalist development over the last 150 years or so. That is because this will depend, too, on yet more theory for its interpretation.
For example, the regular booms and slumps that afflict Capitalism appear to occur cyclically, and they seem to have imposed on them several subordinate waves of different periodicities and amplitudes. The exact status of all this is a matter of dispute among Marxist (and non-Marxist) economists. These so-called "Kondratieff cycles" also 'fit' large-scale economic phenomena (but they do not appear to have any obvious revolutionary implications). Clearly, the analysis of a complex set of ideas like this should be carried out with some degree of theoretical sensitivity and mathematical sophistication. Even so, any empirical evidence that is introduced in order to help discriminate between rival interpretations will itself already be highly theoretically slanted.
As the late Chris Harman noted [Harman (1984), pp.132-36; cf., also Mandel (1975) and (1995)], the long waves postulated by Kondratieff may be completely re-drawn if other statistical techniques are employed. But, that just confirms something mathematicians have been aware of since at least Leibniz's day: through a finite number of points a potentially infinite number of curves can be drawn. So, this fact alone can't be used to disprove/discredit a given theory, for all theories are subject to the same constraints. The data themselves can't determine which line or curve fits them (and simplicity isn't a 'natural' given, either, as noted above).
Furthermore, SWP-theorists have themselves found it necessary to modify Marx's original theory to explain subsequent economic developments. This has involved a new account of the former USSR, Imperialism, Monopoly Capitalism, Nationalism, The Permanent Revolution, and the Permanent Arms Economy, developed to help explain, among other things, the occurrence of long-term booms, periods of stagnation, protracted crises, and the nature of the struggles that have flared-up in the intervening years.
However, this re-vamped theory isn't without its own problems. For example, it faces the not inconsiderable task of accounting for the rather strange behaviour of Capitalism over the last ten or twenty years. At present certain parts of the world are growing strongly, and have been doing so for a record number of years.
[This was written in 2007. The current worldwide crisis is commented upon below, and in Note 21a.]
In a relatively recent article, for example, Rob Hoveman (who was later expelled from the SWP) noted that the US economy has witnessed its longest post-war period of growth [Hoveman (1999b)], but his explanation for this didn't include any reference to increased military spending. Similarly, articles by Chris Harman also attempted to account for the American boom (and the aforementioned crisis) in terms that also failed to include any reference to the Permanent Arms Economy (except, perhaps, as it operated up to the mid-1980s), either. Even so, Harman pointedly referred to other factors to explain the odd behaviour of the economy -- these were connected with inflated stock prices in the USA, the increased rate of exploitation of workers, and the growth of credit (etc.). [E.g., Harman (1999, 2000a, 2000b, 2001a, 2001b, 2005, 2007a, 2007b, 2008a, 2009b); cf., Callinicos (1999). See also Kidron (1967, 1970, 1974), and Cliff (1957).]
Having said this, Harman (2009a) returned to explaining the long boom (in the twenty-five or so years following WW2) by appealing to the Permanent Arms Economy, but not, apparently the current crisis. [The same seems to be true of Callinicos (2009), too.] See also Kliman (2009).
No doubt, the state of the world economy will be satisfactorily explained by SWP-theorists -- one day. [At any rate, it is worth pointing out that rival theories aren't fairing much better!] But, even if SWP 'theory' were performing well that still wouldn't imply it was the 'right' theory. The entire set of theories could be defective. We need criteria other than "predictive power" and "practice" to decide whether or not Marxism is 'correct'.
[I will attempt to outline what they are in a later Essay. And, of course, there are Marxist economists who claim that the standard Marxist explanations for the crisis that hit the world economy post 2008 don't even apply -- for example, this one. In this Essay, I take no stance on this; I merely point out that our theory in this area is in total disarray. I blame dialectics, but then I would, wouldn't I?]
Incidentally, the 'scare' quotes around the word "theory" above were deliberate -- the descriptor "The Theory of the Permanent Arms Economy" is misleading. When it is compared with other sophisticated economic theories, the detail (factual, mathematical and theoretical) that supports this 'theory' is rather thin. Chris Harman does an excellent job spreading it as far as it will go [in, for example, Harman (1984)] --, but calling it a "theory" is a little premature, to say the least. Of course, this doesn't of itself mean that it is a poor hypothesis, or that it is misguided (or even that I disagree with it!); but, it does mean that much more work will need to be done before we can begin to flatter it with the title "theory". [On this, see Kidron (1977), and Harman (1977).]
It is worth pointing out that Robert Brenner's recent attempt to construct a theory of modern Capitalism has (rightly or wrongly) been given short shrift by SWP-theorists. But, in the main, the criticisms comrades have levelled against Brenner are themselves analytic/theoretical, not factual. Where the latter look factual, the dispute actually centres on the interpretation and significance of certain sets of data, not the data themselves. [Cf., Brenner (1998, 2002, 2006), Callinicos (1998, 1999), Harman (1999, 2004), and Hoveman (1999a). See also the discussions here and here. See also Choonara (2009), which contains a very useful survey of the (dare I say it, "contradictory") state of current theory on the Marxist left.]
Cf., also Note 21a, below.
14. It could be objected that this is ridiculous; the success of Capitalism doesn't prove it 'true', nor does it establish its superiority. Capitalism is a decaying/dying social system which has reached the end of its 'progressive' phase.
Maybe so, but since that claim is itself a hostage to fortune, it can't be used to show Capitalism will always fail, or indeed that Marxism must prevail in the end. So far the plain fact is that the success of Capitalism stands in stark contrast to the meagre gains our side has made over the last century-and-a-half. We can only re-configure this depressing picture in the here-and-now if we drop these useless pragmatic criteria.
[Of course, references to the 'success' of Capitalism in this Essay are meant to be taken in the same way that Marx and Engels depict it in The Communist Manifesto.]
Again, it could be objected that Capitalism is actually failing now. Such an objector might even point to, say, the current semi-permanent state of economic instability and the manifest evils we see around the world as evidence of that fact. But, it is always open to a supporter of the present system to claim that the successes so far chalked up by Capitalism mean that these "evils" can be, and are being, eradicated (or, at least, ameliorated) by more and better Capitalist development (indeed, several of its apologists claim precisely this).
As we know, this is completely false. But, to which practice (and to which successes) -- not to which theory -- can we point to counter that response?
Capitalism is far more successful (in terms of achievements/practicalities) than anything our side has so far managed to cobble-together. Indeed, in terms of revolutionising the forces of production, it surpasses anything this planet has ever seen, and by a very wide margin.
Again, it could be argued that the success of Capitalism is in fact down to the working-class, not the bourgeoisie.
Doubtless this is largely correct, but supporters of this rotten system would merely point out in response that it not only took Capitalism to organise the working class, the latter have in fact resisted DIM for 150 years.
This isn't to excuse Capitalism; it is simply to point out that the above claims can only be countered factually/theoretically, not pragmatically.
Indeed, and in view of our track record, an appeal to practice alone here would be tantamount to an admission of defeat!
15. Some might object and point out that Rees puts these comments in the future tense:
"If it is not superior to other theories…it will not 'seize the masses'…." [Ibid., p.237.]
That response will be addressed presently.
15a. It could be objected that if all these failures refute DM, then they surely refute HM, too. If so, the spurious distinction adopted in these Essays between DM and HM is unsustainable. However, HM has never been tested apart from DM, so this objection is itself misplaced. [On the distinction between HM and DM, see here.]
It is also worth reminding the reader that I do not believe that the truth of a theory is tested in practice; I merely use this DM-fact to embarrass dialecticians who do.
16. Is this the Sixth International in the making? Must we run out of ordinal numbers before workers begin to sign-up en masse to join this ever lengthening list of dead dialectical ducks?
Or, before we finally figure out that they aren't the least bit interested in Mystical forms of Marxism?
16a. Of course, there are those who deny dialectics features prominently in the day-to-day activity of revolutionaries. If so, then those who adopt this view won't mind if this theory is completely excised from Marxism, will they?
However, and oddly enough, in 'debate' many of the latter adopt the opposite view when that theory is under attack, as it has been in these Essays. An excellent recent example of this can be found in the responses given to me here.
Even so, the idea that our core theory -- which is supposed to govern everything Marxists both think and do -- has nothing to do with how things have turned out for revolutionaries is bizarre in the extreme.
[On this rather desperate, if not pathetic, defence, see here.]
17. These allegations have been substantiated throughout this site; the former more particularly in Essay Twelve Part One (as well as here), the latter in Essay Nine Part Two.
18. This shouldn't be taken to mean that I think that things can't change!
After all, that is largely why I began to write these Essays!
18a. It is salutary to note that many of these battles were staged in defence of limited bourgeois democratic demands. The fact that workers in their hundreds of thousands were prepared to face down tanks and heavily armed soldiers in pursuit of such limited objectives throws into stark relief their failure to do likewise in defence of something supposedly more important: 'their' state, 'their' revolution.
19. On the former USSR and the 'People's Democracies' see Cliff (1950, 1996, 2003). See also Binns (1986), Binns and Hallas (1976), and Harman (1988).
20. Sceptical readers are referred to Nigel Harris's book Mandate of Heaven for more details. [Harris (1978); also see Hore (1987, 1991).]
21. The evidence supporting these allegations can be found in Binns and Gonzales (1980), Binns et al (1980), and Binns (1983). However, even those who still think Cuba is a socialist state will be dismayed by the creeping marketisation of its economy, begun in late 2010 by Raul Castro. [On that see, for example, here, here, here, here and here.]
Yet another 'dialectical success' story?
21a. The current state of confusion on the left (i.e., when this was written in January 2008) about whether it is appropriate even to use the word "crisis" to depict the present state of Capitalism can be gauged from the discussion at Louis Proyect's site, here. Even now (i.e., Summer 2010), opinion is divided as to whether or not the global economy will go into "meltdown".
The poor record Marxist's have of 'predicting' crises is noted by Robert Brenner:
"Marxist economists are famous for having accurately predicted seven out of the last one international economic crisis. Perhaps for that reason, many in recent times have been unusually cautious about once again 'crying wolf,' even as the evidence of international economic dislocation has mounted around them.
"Today, however, prediction is no longer necessary. The international economy, outside of the United States and Europe -- perhaps 50% of the world -- is already experiencing an economic downturn that is worse than any that has occurred since the 1930s." [Robert Brenner. Bold emphasis added; quotation marks altered to conform to the conventions adopted at this site.]
Unfortunately, the above was written in September 1998, the last time we were told a looming recession was the 'worst since the 1930s'. It looks like Brenner was also "crying wolf" back then, something he now admits to having done:
"I would have been a bit embarrassed, but not really surprised, if I had used the term crisis carelessly at that moment and even, unintentionally, left myself open for a catastrophist interpretation. In early October 1998, roughly the time I was writing this piece -- the financial economy was freezing up, and the international financial system seemed on the verge of collapse. For a good inside view of the scene at the time, and how it appeared and felt, see the opening pages of the book The Fed by the leading financial journalist Martin Meyer. Describing the subjectivity of the several thousands of bankers and central bankers and financiers and finance ministers who had just descended on Washington for a meeting of the World Bank and IMF, Meyer writes 'It turned out to be an experience they will never forget as long as they live, a weekend of pure terror, as though an asteroid were descending on earth.' Meyer does not hesitate to go on to use the term crisis (and panic) to characterize the economic situation in general, and the financial meltdown in particular. So -- I thought to myself -- writing pretty soon after this moment -- after the NY Fed had been obliged to bail out that hedge fund and Greenspan to cut interest rates outside the regular meetings of the Fed -- I could easily have used the word crisis misleadingly and without sufficient thought." [Robert Brenner. Quotation marks altered to conform to the conventions adopted at this site. Link added.]
Fortunately, we are blessed with 20/20 hindsight. Even so, one thing I have learnt over the last 25+ years is never to believe/trust a single economic prediction, no matter from whom it originates. The weather forecasts are ridiculously accurate in comparison. For example, here is another Marxist assessment of the 2013-14 'recovery' in the UK.
To be sure, traditional economists fare little better, either, but when it is recalled that Marxists are supposed to possess the correct scientific method in this area, this is nothing to crow about, nor is it something we should be shouting from the rooftops. [On this in general, see the timely warnings in Faulkner (2009).]
Nevertheless, the current "crisis" could turn out to be 'the biggest since the 1930s' (or, the biggest since the last incorrect assessment!) -- but, just like someone who predicts rain every day, when it finally does rain, that fact doesn't count to his/her credit.
And so it seems that this "crisis" might be the worst for 70 years; here is one recent survey, issued in August 2008. Only time will tell, however, whether or not this is just more "whistling in the dark".
Update, October 2008: It now looks pretty clear that this is a crisis of unique proportions, with several major banks and financial institutions around the world, but particularly in the USA, failing or having to be nationalised. As I write, the Senate and House of Representatives are deciding on whether to buy up the 'toxic debts' in the USA to the tune of $700 billion, and it is far from clear that even this will restore confidence. [On this see Callinicos (2008b), and Harman (2008).]
Nevertheless, as I noted above, if our side constantly predicts crisis, it is hardly surprising if we get it right in the end.
Unfortunately, however, this crisis was also predicted by bourgeois economists (except, and unlike DM-fans, they don't go about the place predicting a 'crisis around every corner', and so they didn't predict this crisis as a result of a 'scatter gun' approach to economics) -- for example Pettifor (2006), and several political figures (for example, Dean Baker, Steven Keen and Vince Cable (a leading figure in the UK Liberal Democrats and currently Business Secretary in the UK-Coalition Government) are said to have predicted it). Indeed, there were many such warnings (see, for example, here, here, here, and here). The Guardian newspaper carried a story (24/01/09) about economist Nouriel Roubini who also predicted this crisis. [Brockes (2009); also see the Wikipedia article on Roubini.] It also carried another story (31/10/08) about an assistant editor at the Financial Times, Gillian Tett, who gained no little notoriety and opprobrium for her predicting the looming crisis; indeed, we are told that on a trip to the economic forum at Davos in 2007 she was even denounced from the stage:
"One of the most powerful people in the US government at the time stood up on the podium and waved my article, the article that predicted the problems at Northern Rock, as an example of scaremongering." [The Guardian, G2 Supplement, 31/10/08, p.12. See also here, pp.21-25. (This links to a PDF.)]
Finally, here is another individual who had been warning about the looming crisis since 2003.
Does this prove that non-Marxist economic analyses are correct, too?
Indeed, John Rees now admits:
"The current economic crisis did not begin with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. It was obvious at least from the collapse Northern Rock a year ago. There is no theoretical agreement on the CC [Central Committee -- RL] about the likely depth and length of the recession. In the course of attacking me for saying that the SWP had been late in responding to the recession Chris Harman told the last NC [National Committee -- RL] that we had no idea how deep the recession would be on the very day that Lehman Brothers collapsed. Just a day later Martin Smith opened a joint CC and local organisers meeting with the words 'we've been late on the recession.' In the Manchester pre-conference aggregate Alex Callinicos admitted that he had been late in seeing the depth of the recession because he did not want to seem like one of those Marxists who are always claiming there is going to be a crisis of capitalism." [Quoted from here, 14/12/2008. Bold emphasis and links added.]
So, not only have non-Marxists predicted this 'crisis', prominent Marxists failed to appreciate its real nature.
Andrew Kliman also acknowledges the following:
"Because Marxists are famous for 'predicting five out of the last three recessions', I need to point out two things before continuing. First, the term crisis does not mean collapse, nor does it mean slump (recession, depression, downturn). A crisis is a rupture or disruption in the network of relationships that keep the economy operating in the normal way. Whether or not it triggers a collapse or even a slump depends upon what happens next." [Kliman (2008), p.61. Bold emphasis added; quotation marks altered to conform to the conventions adopted at this site.]
Comrades, it seems, are no more accurate in this regard than non-Marxists. However, what Kliman says about the use of the word "crisis" does not in fact conform to the way it is generally employed by most Marxists. As we have already seen, this over-used word is constantly applied to everything and anything by comrades who are inveterate 'crisis-junkies'. Indeed, and ironically, since everything in Capitalism is constantly in "crisis", Marxists can't in fact claim to have predicted this particular one. [This is the aforementioned 'scatter gun' approach to economic forecasting.]
Or, no more than the boy who cried "Wolf!" can be credited with foreseeing the eventual attack.
[As noted above, there is a salutary and timely warning in Faulkner (2009).]
22. The real source of Lenin's 'semi-divine' knowledge (of the alleged existence of infinite inter-connections, which everything supposedly has with everything else) is revealed here.
23. This idea is based on the observation that if borderline cases of relevant/non-relevant considerations are to be found anywhere, they will occur along the outer margin of these ever-expanding 'circles' of interconnections (to extend this metaphor a little), as the links each non-"rigid" comrade is actively considering are extended outwards. Since the latter regions are in effect 'annular rings', their areas will increase in proportion to the square of the difference between the radii of the surrounding circles. Plainly, this means that as the supposed interconnections widen, borderline cases of 'relevance' will increase even faster, being proportional to the square of the aforementioned radial difference.
Figure Ten: Annular Ring Showing The Many 'Irrelevant' Interconnections
That 'Rigid' Comrades Foolishly Ignore
Given Lenin's analogy, this would mean that the more interconnections any given comrade includes -- in order to lower his or her 'non-rigidity coefficient', as it were --, the more (i.e., squared more!) borderline cases there will be for him/her to have to ignore because of issues of relevancy, or because of time constraints.
In which case, the charge of "rigidity" would become increasingly apposite as greater numbers of such borderline 'relevancies' were progressively ignored. So, the less 'rigid' a comrade appeared to be, the more 'rigid' they would in fact have to become. The more that anyone heeded Lenin's advice, the more "rigid" he/she would automatically appear to be! That is because (of necessity) he or she would have to ignore more borderline cases than would any other comrade who rejected Lenin's advice, and who incorporated fewer connections in his or her analysis on the basis of stricter 'relevancy' clauses -- and, of course, because of the reasonable demands of "sound common sense".
Indeed, if the two-dimensional concentric circles mentioned above are replaced by three dimensional concentric spheres (as a more realistic image of the all-round development of knowledge), the situation would become even worse. Here the volume of each annular shell containing the next set of controversial 'irrelevances' would increase in proportion to the cube of the difference in their radii.
Figure Eleven: Concentric Spheres Of 'Irrelevance'
And, if we hit this 'problem' with all our metaphorical might, and move to n-dimensional 'knowledge space' (which option we could only exclude if we wish to be accused of "rigidity", even here!), the situation would be even worse still, and to the nth power!
24. In fact, had they taken Lenin's advice seriously, the Bolsheviks would still be discussing the October insurrection (with its infinite "mediacies")! Their meetings would surely have begun to resemble those of the "People's Front of Judea (Official)" portrayed in Monty Python's Life Of Brian.
Video Three: PFJ (Official) -- Weekly Aggregate Meeting
Unsurprisingly, even Lenin omitted the infinite "mediacies" he said this hapless tumbler enjoyed. There is no evidence (in the written record of the meeting during which Lenin raised this (dare we say) irrelevant epistemological requirement) that he went on to list the infinite "mediacies" of anything -- or even so much as 1010 "mediacies" of a single thing in his entire life.
Even less surprising: Those who pay lip-service to the letter of Lenin's advice have yet to list so much as 0.001% of the large finite number of "mediacies" -- mentioned in the last sentence (i.e., 1010) -- about anything relevant to issues of concern to dialectics, let alone about sundry items of glassware.
25. From dialectical writings in general -- and from TAR in particular -- it is unclear whether or not every form of reductionism is to be deprecated, or only certain versions.
Nevertheless, whatever successes reductionist strategies have or haven't enjoyed in the natural sciences, they are, of course, glaringly unsuccessful when they are applied in the social sciences. Why that is so will not be entered into here -- but, this has nothing to do with the sorts of reasons outlined in TAR. On reductionism in general, cf., Nagel (1961). [More on this in Essay Three Part Three.]
26. DM-Holism is examined in detail in Essay Eleven Parts One and Two.
27. Concerning the "infinite", see Blay (1998), Hunter (1996), Lavine (1994), Moore (2001), and Robinson (2003). For a clear outline of Wittgenstein's views on this topic, see Rodych (2000, 2011), and Shanker (1987), pp.161-219.
27a. It could be objected that even partial truths are still partially true. In which case, DM in no way implies scepticism. The comments in this Essay seem to want to ignore that simple fact.
Or, so it could be argued.
However, the above alleged fact (i.e., that even partial truths are still partially true) is itself infinitely far from the truth(!) -- if Engels is to be believed --, and, as such, it stands an incalculably high probability of being completely wrong. And it will always remain in that state this side of an endless dialectical-meander through infinite epistemological space, a search that must actually reach dialectical Valhalla before DM-fans can finally declare it an 'absolute truth'!
Short of that, they can't even say this is a "partial truth" about the nature of partial truths!
For example, in MEC (and in PN), Lenin declared that the Ether was "objective", but that alleged fact turned out to be no such thing; there is no Ether (so scientists tell us). If Lenin could be so completely wrong here, then this putative fact can't be declared partially true. Which part of the claim that there is an ether is 'partially true'?
There is more on this in Essays Eleven Part One and Thirteen Part One.
Of course, much of this is connected with Hegel's criticism of what he calls a "bad infinity" (a criticism that must also apply to Engels and Lenin's epistemology, it is worth noting) -- in contrast to what he described as a "genuine infinity"; but Hegel's solution (if such it may be called) is unavailable to Marxists -- at least, to those of us who are determined to reject Idealism with a little more consistency than DM-fans.
I will say more on this in Essay Twelve Parts Five and Six. [For Hegel's views on infinity, see Houlgate (2006), pp.370-435.]
28. Objections to this particular analysis are fielded here, and in Note 29, below.
29. It might be objected that a function might be able to map results that could lie asymptotically close to a limit in one sense, but infinitely distant from it in another. For example, the curve y = 1/x is close to (but still infinitely far from) the x-axis, when, for instance, x = 1 x 10100000000000, but the function maps the output value closer as x → +∞.
However, as pointed out in the main body of this Essay, this analogy only works if the limit (as y → 0 and x → +∞) can be shown to exist. Once again, Engels failed to demonstrate this with respect to the 'limit' implied by his metaphor.
Again, it could be argued that certain iterative functions in mathematics might yield infinite sequences, and yet that doesn't mean that the distance between any intermediate value given by partial sums of that function and the point toward which it is converging is itself infinite. For example, the sequence: 1 + 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 +...+ 1/2n-1 converges on 2 (as n → +∞), but none of the rational numbers (formed from the partial sums of this series) is infinitely far from 2.
This is not strictly correct, but even if it were the case, the above would have been an effective response had Engels bothered to prove that the limit he claims exists (implied by the asymptote metaphor) actually does exist. But since he didn't, it isn't.
The only way this sceptical conclusion can be avoided would be to deny that the search for 'Absolute Knowledge' is in any way infinitary. Clearly, that would place a condition on the object of knowledge before we knew what it was! [But, given what Engels and Lenin said, this denial itself would be infinitely far from the truth, and would thus carry with it an infinite probability that it was false!]
Anyway, this response would also mean that several passages from the DM-classics (quoted in the main body of this Essay) would need to be revised/ignored/ditched, along with the above 'asymptote' metaphor, since they plainly do imply such an infinitary task. Indeed, they go further -- they actually say it is infinite, and "demand" we regard it the same way, too.
30. Of course, these conclusions are completely crazy, but that is why they constitute an effective reductio of Engels and Lenin's claims.
31. This is (partly) how this passage of Lenin's will be handled in Essay Thirteen Part One:
Before we examine whether Lenin's argument is successful in its own right, it is worth pointing out to the many dialecticians who question the deliverances of 'commonsense' (which I take to be the same as "naive realism", referred to by Lenin) -- and who also regale us with the 'appearance/reality' distinction -- that 'commonsense' can't be called into question if it is to act as a basis for the Lenin's theory of knowledge.
[Those who think this an unfair criticism should read on before they finally make up their minds.]
Despite this, and given the other complexities that DM introduces, Lenin's alleged foundation stone soon starts to look much less substantial. According to DM-epistemology, knowledge depends on the completion of an infinite process (the precise nature of which still awaits clear exposition) before the very first thing can be known about anything in the DM-"Totality" with anything other than infinite uncertainty.
We have already seen that this approach to knowledge means that nobody would be in a position to say what even a simple tumbler is before everything about everything is known.
In response, it could be argued that the above picture is just another unfair caricature of dialectical epistemology. In reply to that, it is worth emphasising that any objector who raises this point would similarly be in no position to assert it successfully -- unless and until we are given a clear account of DM-epistemology. After over 150 years, we are still waiting.
Indeed, give DM-epistemology itself, no would be able to assert this and hope to be correct until they too had completed the aforementioned infinite pilgrimage to Dialectical Mecca!
Dialectical 'knowledge' of any sort is permanently locked in Sceptical Hell, if Engels and Lenin are to be believed.
Even so, it is worth reflecting on the sort of response that, say, a Phenomenalist might make to Lenin's claim that his theory begins with "naïve" beliefs of ordinary folk, and builds from there.
"The 'naïve realism' of any healthy person who has not been an inmate of a lunatic asylum or a pupil of the idealist philosophers consists in the view that things, the environment, the world, exist independently of our sensation, of our consciousness, of our self and of man in general. The same experience (not in the Machian sense, but in the human sense of the term) that has produced in us the firm conviction that independently of us there exist other people, and not mere complexes of my sensations of high, short, yellow, hard, etc. -- this same experience produces in us the conviction that things, the world, the environment exist independently of us. Our sensation, our consciousness is only an image of the external world, and it is obvious that an image cannot exist without the thing imaged, and that the latter exists independently of that which images it. Materialism deliberately makes the 'naïve' belief of mankind the foundation of its theory of knowledge." [Lenin (1972), pp.68-69. Bold emphases alone added. Quotation marks altered to conform to the conventions adopted at this site.]
She (the supposed Phenomenalist) might wonder what, for instance, the word "image" is doing in such prosaic surroundings. Indeed, she might even suggest that if we were to ask the average man/woman about what he/she knows of the world, the word "image" would appear nowhere in their replies.
Hence, not only is the aforementioned dialectical meander through infinite epistemological space counter-productive (since it implies the permanent and infinite ignorance of everything and anything), it begins in the wrong place! 'Commonsense'/"naive realism" -- whatever it is -- neither starts nor ends with images. [To be sure, certain forms of phenomenalist psychology might do this, but 'commonsense' does not.]
It is worth pressing this point home: there is no evidence that the "naïve" beliefs of anyone -- not even those belonging to DM-fans -- are based on imagery of any sort; but there is much to suggest that they are not. Hence, there is no evidence that ordinary people or sophisticated socialists believe the following:
"Our sensation, our consciousness is only an image of the external world…." [Lenin (1972), p.69.]...
In order to see this, consider the following example; suppose worker NN asserted the following:
L1: "That policeman hit me over the head with a truncheon."
Now, only a rather desperate defender of the Police would respond with:
L2: "You are mistaken. What you experienced was in fact only the image of a policeman clubbing you."
We can be reasonably sure that this worker doesn't need to wait for the asymptotic-train-of-knowledge to hit the absolute-buffers-of-eternal-certainty before he/she can claim to know what happened on the picket line when the Police attacked it. Indeed, such a worker would rightly feel angry if told that his/her knowledge of these uniformed assailants was only relative and partial, and that he/she had failed to consider all those pesky "mediacies" before arriving at that rash conclusion. In fact, we can be quite certain now (without the presence of an accompanying image -- and even before the epistemological train leaves the dialectical sidings on its endless meander to nowhere-in-particular) that this worker knows he/she was hit on the head and who was responsible for it.
Indeed, this would be the line Socialist Worker and other revolutionary papers would take if one of its correspondents witnessed Police violence -- in cases like the Police riot in Chicago in 1968, or in Red Lion Square London in 1974, or in relation to the death of Blair Peach in Southall 1979, the Miners' Strike, the picketing at Wapping in 1986, the march against the Nazis at Welling a few years later, the Police riots in Trafalgar Square in 1990, those in London in April 2009, those in Genoa in 2001 and 2003, those in New York and San Francisco in 2003, or even those in 2011 to clear the Occupy Movement off the streets, etc., etc. In fact, their readers would know precisely when they could stop trusting Socialist Worker and other Marxist papers: just as soon as they began reporting events in the way that Lenin characterised "objectivity", or if they ever started referring to the "images" in people's heads as evidence supporting claims made about Police violence, as opposed to the incidents themselves, video footage, witness statements and medical reports (etc.) --, or if they were foolish enough to insist that every "mediacy" had to be taken into consideration before anyone could decide what had happened on the picket line or on a demonstration, and what to do about it.
Not surprisingly then, in the Miner's Strike, the actual incidents were reported in Socialist Worker and other Marxist papers and articles (and the same is true of subsequent analyses presented in their more theoretical journals and books); they wisely omitted all reference to "images", and to "partial" or "relative knowledge", let alone to any obvious "asymptotes" that might otherwise be of interest only to sundry Idealists.
In practice, not one single revolutionary paper begins with "images" (nor do they bang on about concepts converging on reality, to eternity) -- not even the very worst Union bureaucrat in the history of the labour movement would come out with this sort of excuse for further prevarication!
In fact, it is more than a little surprising that die-hard supporters of Lenin's theory never point out to the editors of Socialist Worker and other Marxist papers, journals and books where they are going wrong in reporting events in the real world. Why hasn't a single admirer of MEC written to these papers (or these authors) to insist that reports of, say, BNP violence be replaced with descriptions of images in victims' heads? Whatever one thinks of the letters in Marxist papers, unless they are heavily censored, not a single one ever points out that their reports are defective because they record the actual events in the world, recklessly ignoring images inside the skulls of observers and victims alike -- or that they fail even to mention those bothersome "mediacies".
Anyway, despite what he said, Lenin himself didn't actually begin with the "naïve" beliefs of mankind. In fact, he did quite the opposite: he undermined them from the start -- indeed, he began by adopting the theories of previous ruling-class hacks, even if he modified them to his own ends. He did this by reducing ordinary beliefs to images. The same could be said of any socialist (reporter or otherwise) who thought to do likewise -- for example, by writing about the images of Police brutality inflicted on the images of miners, which image of events occurred in their image of Orgreave, in an image of 1984, in their paper (or image of it).
In fact, Lenin's starting point here is consistent with what was described earlier as the open denigration of the vernacular and of the experiences of ordinary people, by DM-theorists --, which tactic dialecticians have copied from the aforementioned ruling-class hacks. [More on this in Essay Twelve (summary here).]
Clearly this is the real "copy theory of knowledge": reproduce the ideas and modes-of-thought of alien-class thinkers, and make sure your theories are an exact image of theirs!
It could be argued here that Lenin is in fact interested in relative truth and objective knowledge, whereas the above would abolish both of these, thus lapsing into some form of relativism, postmodernism, or subjectivism.
In answer, it is worth pointing out (again!) that DM-epistemology (as outlined by Engels and Lenin) implies that knowledge will always be infinitely far from the truth. So, far from Lenin being interested in 'relative' truth, his own comments show he was actually talking about almost total error.
Now, I am neither a relativist nor a postmodernist. Philosophically, as I pointed out in Essay One, I am a nothing-at-all-ist -- and that shouldn't be taken to be the same a Nihilism. In fact, like Marx, it represents a total rejection of all philosophical theories as just so much hot air. Hence, the above accusation is itself wide of the mark.
And not 'relatively' so, either...
32. Plenty more examples here. Also see Ward and Edwards (2012).
The retailing of this list does not, of course, imply I concur with every such 'revision'!
Update September 2012 -- We read the following in the New Scientist:
"Truth decay: The half-life of facts
"Much of what we believe to be factual has an expiration date, but the good news is that we can see it coming
"In dental school, my grandfather was taught the number of chromosomes in a human cell. But there was a problem.
"Biologists had visualised the nuclei of human cells in 1912 and counted 48 chromosomes, and it was duly entered into the textbooks studied by my grandfather. In 1953, the prominent cell biologist Leo Sachs even said that 'the diploid chromosome number of 48 in man can now be considered as an established fact'.
"Then in 1956, Joe Hin Tjio and Albert Levan tried a new technique for looking at cells. They counted over and over until they were certain they could not be wrong. When they announced their result, other researchers remarked that they had counted the same, but figured they must have made a mistake. Tjio and Levan had counted only 46 chromosomes, and they were right....
"It is obvious that scientific knowledge is continually updated through new discoveries and the replication of studies, but until recent years little attention had been paid to how fast this change occurs. In particular, few had attempted to quantify how long it would take what we know at any given moment to become untrue, or replaced with a closer approximation of the truth.
"Among the first groups to measure this churning of knowledge was a team of researchers at Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, France. To get a handle on it, Thierry Poynard and his colleagues chose to focus on medical fields in which they specialised: cirrhosis and hepatitis, two areas related to liver diseases. They took nearly 500 articles in these fields from over 50 years and gave them to a panel of experts to examine. Each expert was charged with saying whether the paper was factual, out-of-date or disproved (Annals of Internal Medicine, vol 136, p.888).
"Through doing this, Poynard and his colleagues were able to create a simple chart that showed the amount of factual content that had persisted over the previous decades (see diagram). They found something striking: a clear decay in the number of papers that were still valid. Furthermore, it was possible to get a clear measurement for the 'half-life' of facts in these fields by looking at where the curve crosses 50 per cent on this chart: 45 years....
"We can't predict which individual papers will be overturned, of course, just like we can't tell when individual radioactive atoms will decay, but we can observe the aggregate and see that there are rules for how a field changes over time. The cirrhosis and hepatitis results were nearly identical to an earlier study that examined the overturning of information in surgery. Two Australian surgeons found that half of the facts in that field also become false every 45 years (The Lancet, vol 350, p 1752)....
"To understand the decay in the truth of a paper, we can measure how long it takes for people to stop citing the average paper in a field. Whether it is no longer interesting, no longer relevant or has been contradicted by new research, this paper is no longer a part of the living scientific literature. The amount of time it takes for others to stop citing half of the literature in a field is also a half-life of sorts.
"Through this we can begin to get rough estimates of the half-lives of many fields. For example, a study of all the papers in the Physical Review journals, a cluster of periodicals of great importance to physicists, found that the half-life in physics is about 10 years (arxiv.org/abs/physics/0407137).
"Different publication formats can also have varied half-lives. In 2008, Rong Tang of Simmons College in Boston looked at scholarly books in different fields and found that physics has a longer half-life (13.7 years) than economics (9.4), which in turn outstays mathematics, psychology and history (College & Research Libraries, vol 69, p 356)....
"Extinct in a blink
"It's easy to mistakenly assume that some of the facts in our heads are absolute, especially those learned in the textbooks of our youth (see main story). As a child, I loved learning about dinosaurs. But I have since discovered an incorrect fact that I had lived my childhood assuming was accurate: the name Brontosaurus.
"The four-legged saurischian, with its long neck and tiny head, is iconic. And yet its name is actually Apatosaurus. Why? In 1978, two palaeontologists noticed that the skeleton used to identify the Brontosaurus species had been graced with the skull of a different plant-eating dinosaur. The body belonged to the Apatosaurus. The Brontosaurus never existed.
"Since then, scientists have promoted the name change, and it has gained some currency. Nevertheless, the Brontosaurus myth continues to endure in popular knowledge and books -- no doubt aided by people who missed the expiry of this fact." [Arbesman (2012b), pp.37-39. Emphases in the original. Some links added. Quotation marks and some formatting altered to conform to the conventions adopted at this site.]
More details in Arbesman (2012a).
[It is difficult to resist e-mailing the New Scientist with the following riposte: So, how long will the above remain true?]
33. Recall, once more, that this way of analysing knowledge is diametrically opposed to the approach I would normally wish to adopt. It is manifestly unworkable, and is merely being deployed here as a reductio of the hopeless 'theory' under review.
[This topic is examined again in Essay Eleven Parts One and Two, and in Essay Thirteen Part One.]
Appendix A -- Dialectical Disdain
In the Introductory Essay, I added this comment:
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: DM.
Perhaps this was part of the reason why all revolutionary groups remain small, fragmentary, and lack significant influence? Indeed, could this theory be related to the unprincipled (if not manipulatively instrumental) way that these Disciples of the Dialectic tend to treat, use and/or abuse one another?
Maybe it also had something to do with the rapidity with which former 'friends' and 'comrades' regularly descend into lying, gossip-mongering, fabricating and smearing one another -- for example, in the recent collapse of UK-Respect (but not just there).
I will post several more examples of this trend from right across the Marxist Left here at a later date.
Here is the first (of many):
"The crisis inside the SWP has long been peppered with calls to conduct the debate in a comradely fashion inside the organisation. What goes unsaid is just how difficult this has been made. It takes two to tango, and the leadership has expended considerable effort destroying any possibility of a reasoned debate on the events of the past year. Its interventions on the subject are more akin to the smear tactics found in tabloid newspapers than the kind of debating you would expect to have amongst comrades. I take here the Charlie Kimber/Alex Callinicos article in the most recent ISJ as an example of this sort of behaviour. I stress that this is only that of an example, for the writings of the SWP leadership on the crisis are riddled from top to bottom with the wilful distortions that characterise their approach to 'debate'. That this is their modus operandi only goes to show that their aim is not to convince their opponents so much as it is to discredit them. They aim to publicly sow confusion in order that the relevant facts are accorded a degree of ambiguity in the minds of their readers....
"As Kimber and Callinicos say themselves 'controversy over the case [sic]' has become 'surrounded by a fog of gossip, innuendo, distortion and plain lies.' Indeed, not only the two cases but, additionally, the entire array of disagreements that have become enmeshed with them are subject to these. The source of many of these distortions and plain lies has not been the bourgeois press or 'the internet' so much as it has been the SWP CC itself. Their latest article repeats some already well-rehearsed lies, but also peddles some fresh ones. Kimber and Callinicos only discredit themselves and perhaps, most regrettably, the ISJ by extension by publishing such intellectually dishonest work.
"They offer us platitudes of 'comradely debate but instead provide learn-by-rote: repeating basic axioms of Marxism over and over alongside claims that their opponents deny these, thereby creating new 'truth' in the process. This is through the three pillars of their method: Argument by diversion, distortion and omission. They omit important details in order to charge others with errors that are actually their own. The views of their targets are distorted quite plainly and openly, attributing to them positions that they are not demonstrated to actually hold. All of this is done in order to shift the discussion away from territory on which they do not have a leg to stand on, and back on to more comfortable ground. The result avoids dealing with the thorny issues head on. Instead, rudimentary orthodoxies are reasserted in order that the targets become less comrades with something of value to contribute and more heretics to be exorcised.
" [Quoted from here; accessed 18/10/13. Quotation marks altered to conform to the conventions adopted at this site. Link added.]
More to follow...
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