Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A Case Study in the Neglect of Dialectics

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On the occasion of the announcement from Mehring Books of the publication of David North's,  Hegel, Marx, Engels and the Origins of Marxism, we thought it appropriate to republish an extended comment on this piece written back in 2007. The blurb from Mehring Books states that North's essay,  a review of a book by Tom Rockmore, "...sets out in a positive manner Marx’s materialist reworking of the Hegelian dialectic" (  We beg to differ.  As the following response to North shows, his essay does nothing of the sort. 

A word on the context of our response to North.  A Case Study in the Neglect of Dialectics was originally written and published as one section of a book length polemic with David North, then the leader of the Socialist Equality Party and even now still the Chair of the Editorial Board of the World Socialist Web Site (   While those polemics have outlived their expiration date we feel that the philosophical and historical issues addressed in our response to North are of lasting importance, despite the poverty of content in North's piece.  In this period of intensified class conflict throughout the world the emergence of new forces capable of successfully guiding the struggle for socialism becomes decisive.  The experience of the Occupy Wall Street movement shows - once again - that no amount of inspiration and militancy will be up to the task if it is devoid of a solid theoretical and historical foundation.  We hope that the republication of this material contributes to building that foundation.

A Case Study in the Neglect of Dialectics was originally published as one section of one chapter of the polemic, Marxism Without its Head or its Heart (Chapter 3 page 78-87) and appeared on the permanent revolution web site. Marxism Without its Head or its Heart was in turn a response to David North's book length polemic Marxism, History and Socialist Consciousness(Mehring Books, Oak Park, Michigan, 2007) The reference to the "IC" is an acronym for the "International Committee",  the umbrella organization that publishes the World Socialist Web Site. 

Alex Steiner, October 23, 2013

A Case Study in the Neglect of Dialectics
It was our contention that dialectics is a dead letter in the IC, as is the struggle against pragmatism. The evidence we offered is that there hasn’t been any articles or lectures on these issues in 20 years, and in the 2005 party summer school lectures the word pragmatism did not appear once. North countered this criticism by citing one article, his own critique of Marx After Marxism by Tom Rockmore,[1] but as we pointed out, this is a clear case of the exception proving the rule. In the philosophy archives of the WSWS, which go back to 1998, there isn’t any other article on dialectics and nothing on pragmatism, and it is much the same picture if one were to go back a decade prior to the advent of the WSWS. Thus, even if the review of Rockmore’s book were every bit the serious discussion of dialectics that North claims it to be, this one lone piece in two decades, no matter how profound, would still signify a shameful legacy of neglect of this central concern of Marxist theory.  

Unfortunately, North’s article hardly qualifies as a discussion of dialectics at all.  Its main concern is to beat back a tendentious interpretation of Marx and Engels by Professor Rockmore.  Rockmore’s book decries Engels as a vulgar positivist who did not absorb the subtlety and depth of Marx’s thought.  As for Marx, he is painted by Rockmore as a Hegelian, an idealist and a reformist. North’s brief, as he sees it, is to rescue Marx and Engels from the distortions promulgated by Rockmore. The overwhelming bulk of this review is concerned with demonstrating that yes, Marx was indeed a materialist and Engels was no vulgar positivist. While we can agree with North in these conclusions, they do not in any way constitute an examination of dialectics.  True, the word “dialectic” is mentioned a dozen times or so in the course of this two part series, about half the time in the words of others whom North quotes.  But nowhere is there, outside a couple of quotes from Marx, even a brief discussion of the meaning of dialectics, whether it be the dialectics of Hegel or that or Marx.

Rather, the bulk of North’s remarks on dialectics concern his amplification of Marx’s statement: “My dialectical method is not only different from the Hegelian, but exactly the opposite to it.” This leads North into a discussion of materialism versus idealism.  What is interesting about this discussion is not what he says about materialism and idealism, but what he fails to say about dialectics.  North’s treatment of dialectics, if it can be called that, is in marked contrast to the attitude adopted by Lenin when he studied Hegel’s Logic in the first months of World War One,

Dialectics is the theory of knowledge of (Hegel and) Marxism. This is the “aspect” of the matter (it is not “an aspect” but the essence of the matter) to which Plekhanov, not to speak of other Marxists, paid no attention … Dialectics as living, many-sided knowledge (with the number of sides eternally increasing), with an infinite number of shades ... here we have an immeasurably rich content as compared with “metaphysical” materialism, the fundamental misfortune of which is its inability to apply dialectics to the Bildertheorie, to the process and development of knowledge.[2]
Instead of a serious discussion of dialectics, North seizes on Rockmore’s book as one more opportunity to don the mantle of orthodoxy in defense of materialism as he engages in combat against the professorial class.  He is reprising the role of Kautsky and Plekhanov taking on Eduard Bernstein. But as we have seen, the defense of orthodoxy by the leaders of the Second International, while necessary, had a far from harmless subtext.  For behind the defense of orthodoxy was hidden the internal decay of Marxist theory.  Plekhanov’s defense of materialism allowed him to elide the difference between Marxism and mechanical materialism.  And whereas the idealism of Bernstein was the most obvious manifestation of the theoretical crisis of the Second International, the increasing influence of vulgar materialism, which evolved largely underneath the radar, in the end proved a more potent and long-lasting enemy of Marxism. 

We can say, to paraphrase Marx, that all great polemical battles appear twice: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. If Plekhanov’s polemics against Bernstein constituted an important if contradictory event in the history of Marxism, then North’s battle against Rockmore is little more than a sorry attempt to cover up a neglect of theory lasting over two decades.

North begins his piece by placing Rockmore’s book within the context of what he calls the ‘Pseudo-Hegelians.’ North makes a valid point in identifying a group of academics who have reacted to the demise of the Soviet Union by searching for an alternative to Marx in the work of Hegel. [3]  But as we have seen elsewhere, when North does make a valid point, it is often made one-sidedly and conceals something else.  In this case, North avoids mentioning that the Hegel that is being resurrected by the ‘Pseudo-Hegelians’ is not the Hegel who inspired Marx when he wrote Capital – even as he critiqued him, nor the Hegel to which Lenin turned in 1914. Rather it is Hegel the political theorist and author of the Philosophy of Right to which this group turns – in short the most conservative part of Hegel.

It is also curious that North does not include in this group the political theorist Charles Taylor, who has been dubbed by some of his colleagues ‘The Canadian Hegel’. (For some reason Canadians play a prominent role in this milieu..)   For it is Taylor who actually pioneered that revival of Hegel even prior to the fall of the Soviet Union. [4] What motivated Taylor as well as a number of the other philosophers and political theorists mentioned by North was not only the need to find a ‘leftist’ alternative to Marx, but also the need to find a theoretical alternative to liberalism.  Thus the Hegel that was resurrected by Taylor and others is the political theorist, whose critique of social contract theory – the touchstone of traditional liberalism – seemed to provide a more robust theoretical underpinning for reformist politics than was available in the works of Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu and J.S. Mill. As to Hegel the dialectician, Taylor and the other Hegel revivalists make a point of rejecting what they consider the “mystical” and “speculative” parts of Hegel. With few exceptions, this group is not interested in a revival of the dialectic. The selective focus of this group has recently been noted by a Hegelian scholar,

In the second half of the twentieth century Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and Philosophy of Right began to reach and be read carefully by a much broader audience than ever before, thanks to the labors of commentators such as Jean Hyppolite and Charles Taylor.  But many of Hegel’s works still remain largely unexplored … One Hegelian text that still languishes in particular obscurity is the monumental Science of Logic…Lenin, Heidegger, Gadamer, McTaggart, and Hyppolite all read the Logic and recognized its enormous importance for Hegel’s system and for philosophy generally. Yet for most people today, and even for many Hegelians, the Logic remains both figuratively and literally a firmly closed book. [5]

One can add to this that it is not only for Hegelians that the Logic, i.e. the dialectic, remains a closed book.  It also remains a closed book for Marxists. The situation is hardly any better today than it was in 1914 when Lenin wrote in the margins of his Hegel notebooks that,

It is impossible fully to grasp Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, if you have not studied through and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consenquently, none of the Marxists for the past ½ century have understood Marx!  [6]

North’s review of Rockmore’s book completely ignores this side of the Hegelian revival and contributes further to the neglect of the dialectic. Essentially what North does is to focus his fire on those who would revive Hegel’s political philosophy while ignoring the burning necessity for a turn to a study of the dialectic. While we agree that the attempt to revive Hegel’s political philosophy is a retrograde tendency, we part company with North’s usage of this tendency to further reinforce a turn away from that which is revolutionary in Hegel, namely his dialectic.  It is against this backdrop that we must examine some of North’s arguments. 

Against Rockmore, North is quick to point to Marx’s articulation of his method as a materialist “inversion” of Hegel’s.  North writes,

Marx is saying, as clearly as he possibly can, that his own method is fundamentally different than Hegel’s—“its direct opposite.” And why? Because Hegel’s dialectic is that of an idealist for whom the real world is a merely a manifestation of thought; whereas for Marx, thought forms are a reflection in the human mind of a real existing material world.
This is an easy point to make against Rockmore’s attempt to paint Marx as an idealist.  However, in doing so, North elides the more important question – namely – what kind of a materialist was Marx?  To anyone who has read the Theses on Feuerbach, Marx was certainly not a materialist in the mould of the 18th century Enlightenment thinkers.  Let us examine once more Marx’s First Thesis on Feuerbach,

The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism (that of Feuerbach included) is that things, reality, sensuousness, are conceived only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as human sensuous activity, practice, not subjectively.  Hence in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was set forth by idealism – but only abstractly, since of course, idealism does not know real sensuous activity as such.

What Marx is saying here is that his materialism is fundamentally different than all previous forms of materialism, including that of Feuerbach. He is also saying that the problem with materialism as it has evolved up till now was that it never could account for the active role of consciousness. The latter was in fact most thoroughly explored by idealism, by which Marx means the idealism that developed in the tradition from Kant to Hegel.  But idealism was imprisoned within its own forms of mystification. The new standpoint that Marx articulates is therefore neither that of the old materialism or the old idealism but the sublation of both. 

The word ‘sublation’ has become the accepted translation of the German Aufheben, a word that in German has a dual meaning for which there is no readily available English equivalent. It is necessary to point this out because in his document North takes us to task regarding our use of this key term in dialectical philosophy:

The manner in which you employ Hegelian phraseology is sophistry of the purest water. In place of a real explanation of the relationship between utopianism and Marxism, you resort to terms such as aufheben and “unity of opposites”. This is simply a means of saying nothing, and making it appear profound.

Yet Aufheben is no Hegelian chimera. This word is in fact one of the few where Hegel himself feels it incumbent to provide a definition.  In the Science of Logic, Hegel writes that,

To sublate, and the sublated (that which exists ideally as a moment), constitute one of the most important notions in philosophy. 

[Aufheben und das Aufgehobene (das Ideelle) ist einer der wichstigsten Begriffe der Philosophie.]

It is a fundamental determination which repeatedly occurs throughout the whole of philosophy, the meaning of which is to be clearly grasped and especially distinguished from nothing.  What is sublated is not thereby reduced to nothing…

‘To sublate’ has a twofold meaning in the language: on the one hand it means to preserve, to maintain, and equally it also means to cause to cease, to put an end to…

Thus what is sublated is at the same time preserved; it has only lost its immediacy, but is not on that account annihilated. [7]

Thus what North called “sophistry” is considered by Hegel to be a “fundamental determination which repeatedly occurs throughout the history of philosophy.”  It is well known that Marx also employed the term, though it has rarely been translated consistently as “sublated”.  Take, for example, the following passage from Capital,

We saw in a former chapter that the exchange of commodities implies contradictory and mutually exclusive conditions. The further development of the commodity does not abolish [aufheben] these contradictions, but rather provides the form within which they have room to move. [8]

The reason that “Aufheben” does not concern North is that he has a non-dialectical grasp of the emergence of Marxism from out of the cauldron of French materialism and German idealism. That is why in his polemic with Rockmore, he fails to acknowledge the active side that was developed by idealism.  While it is true to say that Marx was a materialist – this against Rockmore – it is just as true to say that Marx’s form of materialism was at once a cancellation and a preservation of this “active side”  – i.e. a sublation.  To miss that is to miss the difference between Marxism and “all hitherto existing materialism”.

Thus North’s piece is little more than a dishonest attempt to clothe himself in the mantle of the defense of orthodox Marxism while at the same time smearing over the contradictions between mechanical materialism and Marxism. North inevitably digs himself into a pile of evasions.

To illustrate, as he gets deeper into his subject, North castigates Rockmore for the statement that “few Marxists, including Lenin”, have made a careful study of Hegel. North writes that,

Again, Rockmore relies on the intellectual acquiescence of an academic community steeped in cynicism and indifference. He takes for granted that no one, at least in the academic milieu within which he operates, will take him to task for writing things that have absolutely no basis in fact. Has Rockmore ever bothered to review the writings of G. V. Plekhanov, the “Father of Russian Marxism”? Even those who disagree with Plekhanov’s philosophical conceptions could not claim, in good faith, that his familiarity with Hegel was anything less than exhaustive and profound. Is Rockmore unfamiliar with Lenin’s Conspectus on Hegel’s Science of Logic?

We agree with North that Lenin did indeed undertake a careful study of Hegel. There is however an incredible irony here for neither North nor any other writer for the WSWS has seen fit to make more than a passing reference to Lenin’s Conspectus on Hegel’s Science of Logic in two decades.  In fact, the first serious discussion of Lenin’s Hegel Notebooks in any connection to the work of the International Committee since the 1980’s was the essay by Alex Steiner, The Dialectical Path of Cognition andRevolutionizing Practice: A Reply to David North, an essay that was written in response to North’s neglect of the dialectic. The truth is that it is not only Rockmore who is unfamiliar with this crucial contribution of Lenin’s to dialectical philosophy - so are the readers of the World Socialist Web Site. [9]

A further point in this regard. In the course of an extended discussion about the Marx-Hegel relationship North makes a number of valid points against Rockmore. It is indeed absurd for Rockmore to claim that Marx was a Hegelian idealist, and even more absurd to claim that in Volume 3 of Capital Marx repudiated revolution and embraced reform.  But North’s own explanation of the Marx-Hegel relationship concentrates almost wholly on the materialist-idealist dichotomy and says barely anything about the dialectic. North therefore distorts what is a very complex subject into easily digestible sound bites. For instance, he tells us that contrary to Rockmore, Marx accepted a theory of reflection. But everything hinges on what one means by a ‘theory of reflection’.  According to North,

The crucial issue is whether the mind reflects an independent world.

But if that were really “the crucial issue” then virtually everyone in the history of modern philosophy, excepting only a few religious thinkers and solipsists such as Berkeley, could be classified as supporting a theory of reflection. There must be something more to it than that.  And indeed, no sooner does North tell us what the crucial issue is than he goes on to qualify it to the point where it is no longer recognizable.

The ideal forms in which the material world is reflected are complex and contradictory. The ideal reproduction of the real in the human mind proceeds through a historically and socially-conditioned process of abstraction. In this specific sense, the mind is not functioning merely as a “mirror,” in which reality is, on the basis of immediate reflection, reproduced in all its complexity.

We can agree with this latter statement, but then what has happened to the “crucial issue”? In fact, the real crucial issue is not the catch-all “whether the mind reflects an independent world” but how the mind cognizes this independent world.  When the model of cognition is a kind of copy then we have what has been traditionally understood as a theory of reflection.  In traditional reflection theory, a thought or a word corresponds to a thing.  It is the simple one to one relationship that is characteristic of reflection theory. A dialectical theory of cognition on the other hand, while certainly acknowledging that thoughts reflect objective reality, rejects this one to one model of the relationship. (We may also add, to paraphrase a point made by Lenin in his Hegel Notebooks,  that the mind, consciousness, does not merely reflect an objective world, it is also part of that world and transforms it through social practice. [10] ) But it was precisely this simplistic version of cognition that characterized much of the vulgar Marxism that was propounded by Stalinism over several decades.  North correctly points to the work of Soviet philosophers such as Ilyenkov who challenged this vulgarized model of cognition, but he fails to acknowledge that reflection theory as it has been understood traditionally, is indeed incompatible with a dialectical theory of cognition.

North berates Rockmore for providing a potted explanation of the following quote from Marx (in the Postface to the Second German Edition of Capital),   “…if the life of the subject matter is ideally reflected as in a mirror, then it may appear as if we had before us a mere a priori construction.”  He says that Rockmore deliberately distorts the meaning of this passage to avoid the conclusion that Marx held to a reflection theory.  What Rockmore said of the above passage is that,

Marx’s wording here easily creates misunderstanding. He is obviously not espousing the reflection theory of knowledge pioneered for Marxism by Engels. He is also not saying that knowledge in fact requires that mind literally reflect an independent world. [11]

Now we can agree that Rockmore’s identification of Engels as a crude empiricist and positivist has no basis in the historical record. But Rockmore is correct in saying that Marx’s wording can easily create misunderstanding – although his explanation of that misunderstanding is wrong.  What is so prone to be misunderstood is the “mirror” metaphor, an image that encourages one to think that, yes indeed, perhaps Marx did hold to a reflection theory of truth in the traditional sense.   However, in the context of the entire passage from which this quote is taken, it is clear that Marx did not hold any such theory.  Perhaps even more to the point, the mirror metaphor appears in the old Moscow translation of Capital and is used by both Rockmore and North.  In the far superior Fowkes translation of Capital, the mirror metaphor is not present at all. Here is the entire paragraph from that translation:

Of course the method of presentation must differ in form from that of inquiry.  The latter has to appropriate the material in detail, to analyse its different forms of development and to track down their inner connection.  Only after this work has been done can the real movement be appropriately presented.  If this is done successfully, if the life of the subject-matter is now reflected back in the ideas, then it may appear as if we have before us an a priori construction. [12]

This whole matter of reflection theory demonstrates yet again that you cannot master the complex problems of the philosophical development of Marxism by resorting to the undialectical materialism characteristic of Plekhanov and the theoreticians of the Second International. What inevitably results is a botched effort that obscures more than it reveals. And how could it be otherwise given the IC's decades-long neglect of dialectics?

Finally, let us consider North’s attempted rescue of Engels from the charge brought by Rockmore that the latter was little more than a vulgar positivist.  Once more, North makes a correct point here – Engels is not guilty of the charges brought by Rockmore and a host of others – while at the same time papering over a fundamental historical question.  The issue North will not touch is the embrace by the leading theoreticians of the Second International of the methods of positivism.  And while it is completely unfair to lay the blame for this theoretical collapse at the feet of Engels, the fact of this theoretical collapse cannot be denied.  We have previously discussed the theoretical collapse of the Second International and need not repeat that here.  It is however worth quoting Marcuse’s succinct summary of this epochal experience in the history of Marxism,

With the repudiation of the dialectic, the revisionists falsified the nature of the laws that Marx saw ruling society. We recall Marx’s view that the natural laws of society gave expression to the blind and irrational processes of capitalist reproduction, and that the socialist revolution was to bring emancipation from these laws. In contrast to this, the revisionists argued that the social laws are ‘natural’ laws that guarantee the inevitable development towards socialism. ‘The great achievement of Marx and Engels lay in the fact that they had better success than their predecessors in weaving the realm of history into the realm of necessity and thus elevating history to the rank of a science.” (Kautsky) The critical Marxist theory the revisionists thus tested by the standards of positivist sociology and transformed into natural science. In line with the inner tendencies of the positivist reaction against ‘negative philosophy’, the objective conditions that prevail were hypostatized, and human practice was rendered subordinate to their authority.  [13]

North’s defense of orthodoxy inevitably dances around the question of what happened to the great defenders of orthodoxy in the past.  A philosophically serious critique of Rockmore would not stop in absolving Engels of the charge of positivism, but would have to deal with the reasons why positivism did in fact arise and eventually dominate the Second International.  But this North cannot do because his version of Marxism has no room for the dialectic.  He is unable to provide a serious diagnosis of the causes and etiology of the disease to which the Second International (and, one might add, the American Socialist Workers Party later on) succumbed. This is the fruit of the turn away from dialectics. 

A new generation looking to Marxism for answers to the crisis that besets us today will not find it in a retread of the orthodoxy of the Second International. Unfortunately, this is all they will get out of North’s philosophical exercise. What passed for Marxism in the Second International paved the way for the great betrayal of 1914.  The enormity of that betrayal was unsurpassed in its time and was only overtaken by the even greater betrayals of Stalinism a decade later.  Any attempt to return today to some idealized version of a “healthy” Social Democracy will only pave the way for new betrayals in the future.  What is needed today is not a return to orthodoxy, but a return to Marx’s dialectic, the only comprehensive theory of change to arise out of the Western tradition. [14] Only then will philosophy rise beyond the level of mere contemplation and become a force, wedded to the struggles of the working class, in changing the world. 
© Copyright 2007 by Frank Brenner and Alex Steiner. All rights reserved.

[1] “Hegel, Marx, Engels, and the Origins of Marxism: A review of Marx After Marxism: The Philosophy of Karl Marx by Tom Rockmore”, By David North,  2 May 2006,

[2]  V.I. Lenin, Collected Works Volume 38, (Progress Publishers), p. 360.
[3]  However, the term ‘Pseudo-Hegelian’ suggests a more coherent intellectual movement than actually exists, and some of the writers he mentions simply do not fit in.  For instance, one of the ‘Pseudo-Hegelians’ that North identifies is Errol Harris.  Now Harris may be a Hegelian, but there is little ‘pseudo’ about him. This 99 year old retired professor is about as close to an orthodox Hegelian as you are likely to find on either side of the Atlantic.  He is one of the very few contemporary philosophers who have tried to defend Hegel as a metaphysician and profound religious thinker.  He is also one of the very few contemporary philosophers who have seriously tried to develop Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature.  Another of the authors North mentions, David MacGregor, is on the fringe of Hegel scholarship with a very idiosyncratic interpretation of Hegel (to say the least) that is not accepted even by his fellow ‘Pseudos’. MacGregor has in recent years proposed a kind of conspiracy theory to account for Hegel’s apparent conservatism in his later years. According to MacGregor Hegel was part of a secret conspiratorial group and his public pronouncements were made to throw the conservative Prussian monarchy off the trail of he and his comrades. MacGregor makes this case in particular in his work, Hegel and Marx after the Fall of Communism, (University of Wales, 1998). It is partly on the basis of this historical interpretation that MacGregor concludes that Hegel was really a communist, and a more radical one at that than Marx. MacGregor’s thesis is actually far less radical than it sounds once one understands that what he means by “communism” is little more than the welfare state of his native Canada

[4]  In his book, Hegel, (Cambridge University Press, 1975).
[5] Stephen Houlgate, The Opening of Hegel’s Logic, (Purdue University, 2006), p.1
[6] Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 38, p. 180.
[7]  Hegel, Science of Logic, translated by A. V. Miller, (Humanities Press,  1969), p. 106-107.
[8]  Marx, Capital, Volume I, translated by Ben Fowkes, (Penguin Classics), p.198.
[9]  North’s attitude to a study of Lenin’s Hegel Notebooks can be gauged by the fact that to this day the WSWS has never even mentioned the only serious study to be published on the subject, Kevin Anderson’s Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism. (University of Illinois Press, 1995).  While there are very big problems with Anderson’s treatment, particularly in his underestimation of Trotsky as a serious Marxist theoretician, the work nevertheless deserves critical attention. Mention might also be made of several other important philosophical works that have been published in the past twenty years that have been completely neglected by the WSWS.  Above all, it is astonishing that the WSWS never wrote a review of Trotsky’s Philosophical Notebooks although they were published way back in the 1980’s.  In more recent years, Lukacs’ Tailism and the Dialectic was published. This book includes important previously unknown material defending his History and Class Consciousness against some of its detractors. And just last year, Bukharin’s Philosophical Arabesques was published, also without comment from the WSWS.
[10]  Steiner had an extensive discussion of the evolution of Lenin’s conception of ‘reflection’ in his Dialectical Path of Cognition. It is relevant to North’s discussion with Rockmore for Steiner shows that by 1914 Lenin had gone beyond the simple model of ‘reflection’ characteristic of Second International Marxism. A key passage from that discussion follows.
In the latter notes, [i.e. in his Hegel Notebooks] Lenin still sometimes uses the term “reflection” to denote the relationship between ideas and reality, but this is no longer a passive reflection that merely accepts images from an external world.  Rather he is emphasizing the active role of consciousness in deriving concepts and separating appearance from essence.  For instance,
“The reflection of nature in man’s thought must be understood not “lifelessly”, not “abstractly”, not devoid of movement, not without contradictions, but in the eternal process of movement, the arising of contradictions and their solution.”  (Lenin, C.W. Volume 38, p. 195)
Or take the following oft-repeated statement:
“Thought proceeding from the concrete to the abstract … does not get away from the truth but comes closer to it. The abstraction of matter, of a law of nature, the abstraction of value, etc., in short all scientific abstractions reflect nature more deeply, truly and completely. 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, C.W. Volume 38, p. 171)
Or as a final example we have following statement that summarizes Lenin’s new view of the transformation of the subjective into the objective:
“The thought of the ideal passing into the real is profound: very important for history. But also in the personal life of a man it is clear that this contains much truth. Against vulgar materialism.  NB. The difference between the ideal from the material is also not unconditional, not uberschwenglich [inordinate].” (Lenin, C.W. Volume 38, p. 114)
There is nothing like this in his earlier philosophical work. There he emphasized the dichotomy between the ideal and the real. Here he is emphasizing both their dichotomy and their unity. The relationship of the ideal to the real is a unity in difference.
Elsewhere in his document Steiner cites the justly-famous quote by Lenin,
“Alias: Man’s consciousness not only reflects the objective world, but creates it.” ( CW Volume 38, 212)
After which Steiner comments,
The vulgar materialist, whether crude or sophisticated, always insists that man’s consciousness reflects the objective world, but forgets the second part of Lenin’s thesis, that it also transforms (a better word than “creates”) the world from which it has arisen.

[11] Rockmore, Marx after Marxism, p.131
[12] Capital, Volume I, (Penguin Classics), p. 102
[13]  Marcuse, Reason and Revolution, p. 398.
[14]  The contemporary evolutionary scientist, Stanley H. Salthe, has written,
 ‘It is time to consider the relations between emergence and the only theory of change constructed in Western culture: dialectics.’
Development and Evolution: Complexity and Change in Biology, (MIT Press, 1993), p. 227.   

Saturday, October 12, 2013


Public education, as important as it may be, is not usually considered one of the top priorities of politicians or governments since they usually have more urgent issues to deal with in the adult world. Indeed, there is a traditional perception in our society that what goes on in the classroom is as much a local and state issue as it is the federal government’s and that the success of public education depends largely on the dedication of individual educators and teachers. But as the world economic situation continues to worsen, it is becoming more and more necessary and convenient for politicians and national governments to recognize the serious problems of long standing that plague the traditional model of public education. Education reform initiatives like those proposed by Presidents Bush, (“No Child Left Behind”), and Obama,( “Race to the Top”) and “Charter Schools” are all examples of purported attempts to address this problem in the United States. Now this education reform movement has moved south to Mexico where it has ignited a firestorm of protest among public school teachers led by the dissident teachers’ union, the National Congress of Education Workers (CNTE), which has brought thousands of teachers into the streets protesting Educational Reform Laws (ERL) which have been proposed by Mexico’s newly elected president, Enrique Peña Nieto, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Though these laws were approved by Mexico’s national legislature last summer, it is evident that by proposing to reform education in Mexico on the model of the U.S., Peña Nieto has opened up a veritable Pandora’s Box.
Peña Nieto has been able to pass the ERL thanks to a package of reforms called the “Pact for Mexico”, which he and his party signed before he took office in December of 2012 with the other two major parties of the country, the National Action Party, (PAN) and the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). The ambitious package of reforms includes, besides the fiercely contested ERL, a labor reform law, which was passed earlier this year over the vehement protests of labor unions; a tax reform law, the details of which are now being discussed in the congress; and, the most controversial reform of them all, the privatization of the state-owned PEMEX oil company which is now being negotiated by the major political parties and will soon be voted upon in the midst of widespread popular resistance.
The Mexican version of the reform law is actually part of a much larger educational reform movement taking place in the U.S., Chile, Brazil and other countries and is being promoted by politicians, private enterprise, philanthropic foundations and international organizations. In Mexico the ERL is being promoted by Mexico Primero, an organization representing the private sector, by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the OECD), the World Bank and, of course, a compliant corporate media. The ostensible goal of the reform movement is to make public education, schools and teachers more efficient, competitive, cost-effective, accountable and productive by managing them according to the principles of private enterprise. This amounts to the privatization of one of the most important of public services—education—and a frontal attack on teachers’ unions and labor rights.
The present ERL has been carefully planned and has been in the works at least since 2008 when the groundwork was laid for it during the administration of Felipe Calderon of the PAN.  After Peña Nieto took office, the next step in the reform movement was to enlist support in the required number of states for the presentation of a general reform law. Then last February, just hours before submitting the reform legislation to the congress, Peña Nieto arrested the corrupt leader of the largest teachers’ union (SNTE), Elba Esther Gordillo, who had split with the PRI in the last elections and could not be counted on to support the reform initiative. The SNTE, the National Union of Educational Workers, has 1.5 million members, is the largest labor union in Latin America and is generally considered undemocratic. Gordillo is now in prison awaiting trial and her replacement, appointed by the federal government, Juan Diaz de la Torre, has promised to back the reforms. Last August the “secondary laws”, which stipulated the particular conditions of the ERL, were presented to the legislature for approval, and have subsequently been passed.  The last and most controversial of these laws, the Professional Teacher’s Service Law, was passed hugger mugger on the very eve of Peña Nieto’s State of the Union Address on September 2.
The ERL made changes to Articles 3 and 73 of the Mexican Constitution, which guaranteed all Mexican citizens the right to a secular education and specified how public education was to be administered. The ERL consists of 1) the general education law which changes education from a right into a “service” and stipulates that teachers will be evaluated by a standardized test drawn up by the OECD, 2) a law establishing the National Evaluation Institute, which creates a mechanism for teacher evaluation, and 3) the Professional Teachers’ Service Law, the most controversial of the education reforms, which requires teachers to pass a standardized test within a period of two years. If after three attempts the teacher fails to pass the test, she is summarily dismissed without the right to a hearing, removed from her post or offered early retirement, according to her category and seniority. This, the teachers argue, violates the teachers’ constitutional right to job security and stability.
Public repudiation of the ERL has been led by the CNTE, the dissident teacher’s union which is predominant in Oaxaca, one of the poorest states in the country. The union is highly politicized and has a 30 year history of militant struggle. In response to the ERL, the union mobilized its forces, which include about 74,000, or about 5%, of the country’s teachers, just as it did during a similar political dispute with the governor of Oaxaca in 2006.  This past summer, they brought their protest to Mexico City. They descended upon the capital in buses by the thousands and over a period of weeks, conducted marches and demonstrations which often paralyzed traffic in parts of the city and sometimes led to violent confrontations with government riot police. They also occupied the Zócalo, the central square of the capital, in plastic tent cities for several weeks before being forcibly removed by riot police on September 13. They have since removed their encampment to the Revolution Monument near the city center and have continued to hold rallies, marches and demonstrations throughout the city. The last demonstration in which they participated took place this past Wednesday, October 2, commemorating the 45th anniversary of the infamous government massacre of students at Tlatelolco just days before the 1968 Olympic Games. There were, during these demonstrations, yet more outbreaks of violence and confrontations with police in incidents which, it is speculated, were triggered by provocateurs infiltrated into the teachers’ ranks.

Rally commemorating Tlatelolco massacre of Oct. 2, 1968 in which tousands of teachers marched attracted a number provocateurs calling themselves  "anarchists".
Photo: Cuartoscuro

During this mobilization and occupation of the capital, the CNTE has been debating whether to end their strike and return to their home state or stay in the capital, all the while calling for a peaceful teacher’s “insurrection” nationwide. Some teachers and workers are calling for a general strike. The CNTE’s call to action has found a sympathetic response in large sections of the country, particularly in the poorer states, among teachers, parents, other members of the community and labor unions. Meanwhile, the teachers’ movement has been viciously and systematically ostracized by the private sector, the middle class and the corporate media.  
The teachers’ grievances are roughly as follows. Teacher’s view the standardized teacher evaluation test mandated by the ERL as “punitive” because the system does not provide the means whereby the teacher can update her skills or remediate her shortcomings at government expense. The new law will also weaken the power of the teachers’ union and reduce teachers' labor rights by isolating the teachers and subjugating them to the unilateral and potentially arbitrary decisions of a centralized bureaucracy. It will also undermine the teachers’ national training institutions by allowing any and all professionals to apply for a position as a teacher. The net effect of this latter provision will be that older teachers with seniority will be replaced by a younger cadre of teachers who will not have the same training, salary or labor benefits and will be awarded only 6 month contracts. In fact, the minister of education, Emilio Chuayffet, has announced that he expects that 60% of the nation’s present teaching corps of 1.5 million, or 900,000 teachers, will be replaced within the next twelve years, which amounts to the dismissal of some 72,000 teachers a year.
Thus the teachers see the new education laws not as a serious effort at education reform but as an overt attack upon their unions, their labor rights and their very livelihoods. As one observer has pointed out, any serious effort at education reform would pose a myriad of unanswerable questions about the curriculum and how it is to be taught. The law, rather, is an attack on the teachers’ union and their labor rights in the guise of education reform which seeks to scapegoat the teachers by making them appear to be entirely responsible for a situation which, particularly in the poorer areas of the country, is plagued by conditions beyond their control. Furthermore, by evaluating only the teachers, the law does not recognize the responsibility that the Department of Education and the government itself has and has had in the creation of the problems which public education now confronts. In addition, since most of the teachers are from Oaxaca, which has a history of conflict with the government, the movement is also, at least partly, political. 
Meanwhile, the teachers of the CNTE have formulated and submitted their own set of reforms to the government for consideration in which 1) they call for a guarantee of the minimum conditions for education such as school facilities and materials for teachers and students which will allow learning to take place, 2) they seek to allow student-teacher input into school administration, the planning of curriculum and the evaluation system itself, all of which would take into account the particular conditions of the school environment and the community and 3) ask for a training program which would allow teachers to upgrade their knowledge and skills at government, rather than personal, expense. The government’s proposed ERL, the CNTE maintains, makes the teachers alone accountable for the success or failure of education and does not allow for a global evaluation of the education system itself.
Responsibility for the fury of dissent that the government’s ERL has unleashed rests in no small part on the government itself and its refusal to consult or negotiate with those very people who are most closely involved with education: teachers, parents and students. The way the law is being formulated and implemented, like the content of the law itself, is authoritarian and unilateral. But more importantly, the crisis in education that the law is intended to remedy is not the sole responsibility of the teachers but is ultimately one of the consequences of the advanced state of the general decomposition of modern society under free-market capitalism. The crisis of education we now face is only a reflection of the failings of society precipitated by capitalism-- and implementing radical Neoliberal policies which turn public services such as education over to the dictates of private enterprise is expecting that the system responsible for creating the crisis should also be mandated to solve it. But the real motives of the government’s education reform laws are not to reform public education or address the root causes of its failures but to dismantle and destroy it completely by privatizing it and by weakening or even destroying the teachers’ labor unions in the process. In this respect we see a major political offensive against trade unionism very similar to the education reform movement in the U.S.. Public education, therefore, is quickly becoming a major bat tleground in the bitter class war that is emerging in Mexico as the present economic crisis continues to worsen.
October 5, 2013

Ramon Rodriguez
Mexico, D.F.

Following the rally commemorating the Tlatelolco massacre the CNTE teachers voted to lift their occupation of the Revolution Monument and return to Oxaca. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

The arrest of the "Golden Dawn" Nazi gangsters in Greece

Note: We are publishing below a guest column by Savas Michael-Matsas,  Secretary of the EEK (Workers Revolutionary Party of Greece).  For some background see our previous coverage of the trial of comrade Savas as well as our publication of his statement following the successful conclusion of the trial.

The arrest of the "Golden Dawn" Nazi gangsters in Greece

 Last weekend’s arrests in Athens of  deputies and members of the Nazi “Golden Dawn”, including of its farcical “Fuhrer” Nikos Michaloliakos, following the murder of the young left wing antifascist hip hop artist and worker Pavlos Fyssas, is a clear sign of the deepening crisis of the  regime in socially devastated Greece. Only a few days before the crime, leading government officials – including the secretary of the government, Takis Baltakos - and journalists in the pro-government bourgeois mass media – such as the Sky television channel - advocated the possibility of a future ruling coalition, after the next elections, between the ruling right wing “New Democracy” with a “more serious” (?!), “more moderate” version of the same ‘Golden Dawn’.

     But the enormous popular anger following the murder of Pavlos by the Nazi gangsters operating under the eyes of the supervising local Police present at the site of the crime, as well as the international outrage with the role of the Samaras government and the Greek State, which left unpunished 4 murders and 400 serious injuries in one year by attacks of Nazi storm troops assisted by the Police, produced a politically unbearable position for the capitalist government. They have to act not out of fear from the menace represented by the criminals of “Golden Dawn”, their extra-institutional instruments of rule. They were frightened that the explosion of popular hatred could result in their losing control of the situation. As a matter of fact, the crime of September 18, the mass protest demonstrations that followed, and the arrests of September 28, do indeed signal that the ruling class is losing control of the situation while at the same time the working class still has not won control. The pre-revolutionary conditions in Greece are rapidly ripening.

     The murder of Pavlos came one week after the first wave of a strong strike movement in the public sector, and concurrent with another visit to Greece by the troika, who had come to dictate new round of attacks on the working class and the population as a whole. The trial of two prominent antifascists, the General Secretary of the EEK Savas Michael-Matsas and the former Rector of the National technical University of Athens Konstantinos Moutzouris concluded just two weeks prior to the murder of Pavlos Fyassas. That trial was brought on as a result of a lawsuit initiated by the Golden Dawn and supported by the repressive apparatus of the State. Thanks to a powerful international and national solidarity movement, the trial ended by declaring “not guilty” the two accused. It was the first trial that the “Golden Dawn” had lost after its ascent! But within moments after the conclusion of the trial the Police escalated their campaign of repression against the Left and the anarchists, accompanied by death threats by the “Golden Dawn” against the EEK, its Secretary and against the antifascist movement as a whole. A series of new violent assaults by the storm troopers culminated in the murder of Pavlos Fyssas by a Golden Dawn thug named Roupakias, in concert with a 50-man strong Nazi gang.

     This time it was a Greek person who was killed by the Nazis, not an immigrant like the Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Afghans or Egyptians killed by the ‘Golden Dawn” and their supporters in the Police in the recent past, particularly after the 2012 elections that witnessed the entry of the Nazis to the Greek Parliament. So the entire people, including a conservative nationalistic part of the Greek population that stood quietly by when immigrants were killed or Jews were put on trial, could no longer tolerate
the criminal role of the Greek government and the State, in addition to that of its Nazi watchdogs.

     The Samaras government had no other option than to act. But no illusions should be nurtured over a government where the ruling, closed circle of “advisors” around the Prime Minister is composed of well known far right nationalists, and vicious anti-Semites (T. Baltakos, Chr. Lazarides, Failos Kranidiotis etc.), Within this circle one can even find former leading members of Greek Nazism (Makis Voridis, spokesperson of the parliamentary group of the New Democracy, the Health Minister Adonis Georgiadis, his close co-thinker and “adviser” Thanasis Plevris, son of the notorious guru of Greek Nazism Kostas Plevris, and now appointed by Samaras as Vice-Chairman of the National Organization on Pharmaceuticals). No one should feel secure or complacent knowing that the Nazis have important positions and strong influence inside the Police, the secret services, and the Army.

     The government itself not only covers up for the Nazis within its midst but it also deliberately uses the current arrests of the most prominent elements of the gang to introduce new anti-democratic legislation and impose measures against the Left in the name of “the fight against extremism, both right and left”.

     Above all, the deterioration of the material social and economic conditions that helped the ‘Golden Dawn” become the third most influential bourgeois party in the country are still here. And according to the latest polls the Golden Dawn remains in that position, even after the murder of Pavlos: the capitalist systemic bankruptcy, the measures of social cannibalism imposed by the troika of the EU/ECB/IMF, the decomposition of a discredited bourgeois parliamentary system.

    The struggle against fascism  cannot be separated  from an uncompromising struggle  against social devastation, to kick out the troika and its servants, the New Democracy-PASOK government;
To smash the bankrupt capitalist system that generates hunger, mass unemployment as well as the repressive State apparatus and their complement, the Nazi storm troopers;
To open the road for a socialist way out from the crisis  with the workers and oppressed  taking power, and re-reorganizing society on new social bases. Either Socialism or barbarism!

                                                           Savas Michael, 30 September 2013


We think Savas’s analysis of the current political dynamics in Greece following the arrest of members of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn organization is an important contribution to our understanding of the crisis facing the working class both in Greece and internationally.  If the troika, European capital's agents for imposing brutal austerity measures on Greece, along with the assistance of their collaborators in the Greek government and their neo-Nazi shock troops, succeed in turning Greece into a third world country, then such may soon become the fate of workers in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland – and then no worker on the planet will be safe from such brutality. In that sense Greece has become the front line of the class struggle internationally.

However we think that an analysis of the situation in Greece ought to examine the role of the Left as well as the machinations of the Greek government and the Right.  In particular it is important to raise some questions about the role of SYRIZA.  As the largest opposition party in Parliament,  and claiming to represent the aspirations of workers who have said "NO" to the troika,  SYRIZA bears the biggest responsibility for the state of readiness among workers, youth and progressive intellectuals for the coming struggle.  Yet time and again the leadership of SYRIZA has betrayed the trust of their political base and fostered illusions about the possibility of reaching an accommodation with the troika and the government.  True to form, the leader of SYRIZA, Alex Tsipras, was quoted following the arrest of Golden Dawn members, that this action by the Greek government demonstrates that democracy is alive and well in Greece.  Making such nonsensical statements in the face of the evidence (summarized in Savas’s piece) that the government is saturated through and through with supporters of the neo-Nazis, does nothing but disarm the working class. It is exactly the opposite of what is needed. Rather than  teach the working class to rely on its own autonomous organizations, such as self-defense militias, in the struggle against fascism,  the leadership of SYRIZA would have the working class place their faith in a non-existent consensus about “democracy” within the leadership of the right wing government. As the history of the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930’s has shown, that is a formula for disaster.  The recent release of three members of the Golden Dawn who were previously arrested makes evident to anyone not willfully blind that the Greek government has no intention of seriously reigning in the Golden Dawn. In Greek SYRIZA stands for Coalition of the Radical Left, but it is painfully obvious by now that there is nothing radical about SYRIZA. Unfortunately, the same isn't true for the political situation in Greece – which is radical in the extreme.

It is therefore important to place the role of SYRIZA and other organizations of the Left under the microscope of Marxist critique in addition to following the gyrations of the ruling class.

Savas did provide an analysis on the role of SYRIZA and the most recent developments elsewhere.  Here is an excerpt from his correspondence on that subject:

"During the arrests, Alexis Tsipras, the leader of SYRIZA,  was in Brusells meeting with leading members of the European Social Democracy and of the EU, trying to build up his image as a future prime minister  of Greece, acceptable  by those capitalist leaders  in the West  who still consider him as a dangerous person leading a radical left formation threatening their interests. His response  to the recent events, was not only an attempt to demonstrate his loyalty and advance his credibility in front of the leaders of EU imperialism but also it was  a declaration of faith to bourgeois democracy, which, under the impact of the world capitalist crisis, is rapidly disintegrating  in Greece and internationally, and it was, above all a genuflection in front of the bourgeois State. When three of the most notorious Nazi leaders of the Golden Dawn were released  by the judiciary investigating the case - a provocative action that took even Samaras by surprise while he was visiting the US and produced a public  uproar at home- Tsipras declared again: "I have full confidence to the Greek Justice and to the [State] institutions". It was not a surprise to us, in the EEK, as we always clash with SYRIZA, which, among other things,  rejects  any proposal  to build Workers Defense Guards against the fascist gangs and State repression.The reformists and the Stalinists are completely legalistic, although they are very well informed, as is everyone else in Greece, especially following the recent revelations following the murder of the left antifascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas,  that there is a close connection between the State, the "Golden Dawn" Nazi storm troopers and the mob."

We hope that the publication of Savas’s analysis will generate debate and discussion both in Greece and internationally.

Alex Steiner, Oct. 7, 2013

Leader of neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Nikos Michaloliakos being taken away by police
Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras

Leader of SYRIZA Alexis Tsipras