Sunday, April 8, 2018

Hatred of the dialectic

Send to Printer, PDF or Email
by Alex Steiner

As part of his comment on the MeToo phenomenon which is devoted to an attack on us, David North, Chair of the WSWS Editorial Board, resurrects an argument he has previously used to dismiss all discussion of dialectics.  He writes,

One could not have a better example of sophistry, masquerading as "dialectical logic." Brenner's argument is: MeToo may be guilty of reactionary "overreach." But it has its good side too. The classic refutation of this sort of phony dialectics is to be found in Marx's celebrated response to Proudhon in The Poverty of Philosophy.” [1]

This is followed by a quote from Marx.

It is interesting that North used exactly the same argument against us in his series of articles titled “The Odyssey of Alex Steiner” only this time in relation to a discussion of the Frankfurt School instead of MeToo.  He wrote at that time,

“Steiner/Brenner are advocating a theoretical eclecticism that has nothing in common with the philosophical traditions upon which the Trotskyist movement is based. Moreover, the very form of their argument—"Can we not learn from...?" "Must we reject everything...?" "Is there not something interesting in...?"—epitomizes the sort of "on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand" sophistry that Marx invariably subjected to the harshest criticism.” [2]

This is followed by a footnote referencing the same quote from Marx against Proudhon that North resurrects for this occasion.  

This argument from a decade ago is followed by the same dismissal of any mention of “dialectics” that we see today. North wrote then,

“Despite all their rhetorical invocations of "the dialectic," Steiner/Brenner fail to present a historical and dialectical materialist analysis of the Frankfurt School.”

I showed on more than one occasion that North’s narrative on the Frankfurt School is little more than a kind of crackpot philosophy. I will leave that to those who are interested in the topic.  On this occasion I only wish to address his use of the Marx quote. [3]

In response to North, I wrote at the time that,

“Marx’s methodological point was that Proudhon was adopting a vulgar pseudo-dialectics in creating his categories whereas his actual methodology was profoundly undialectical.”

For North and his acolytes, the Marx quote about Proudhon is brought out on any occasion when anyone mentions the word “dialectics” whereas for Marx it served as an example of the vulgarization of dialectics.  And Marx did not stop at the indictment of Proudhon as a vulgarizer, but later on provides an example of what a genuine dialectical analysis of economic phenomena looks like,

“The production relations of every society form a whole…

In constructing the edifice of an ideological system by means of the categories of political economy, the limbs of the social system are dislocated. The different limbs of society are converted into so many separate societies, following one upon the other. How, indeed, could the single logical formula of movement, of sequence, of time, explain the structure of society, in which all relations coexist simultaneously and support one another?” [4]

North never quotes this part of Marx’s discussion of Proudhon because it makes clear that the alternative to Proudhon’s vulgarization of the dialectic is a genuine dialectic. As I wrote at the time in summarizing Marx’s treatment of Proudhon’s method,

“Note that Marx first of all chastises Proudhon for neglecting the real dialectic of wholes and parts here when it comes to examining the economic categories of a society. Proudhon proceeded as if each part was separable from the whole and thus those parts that were considered “bad” could be discarded while those that were considered “good” could be maintained. But this method, as Marx said, dislocates “the limbs of the social system.” [5]

North’s attempt to refute our arguments by presenting them through the template of Proudhon is in any case based on a willful distortion of what we wrote. We never wrote anything about “preserving the good side” either of the MeToo movement or of the Frankfurt School.  What we did was point to the contradictory nature of these social and intellectual phenomena. But for the “theoreticians” of the WSWS, there are no contradictory phenomena.  All one has to do is identify the class basis behind a movement and you have all you need to determine its nature.  Nor do they ever tell us how they go about their identification of the class nature of these phenomena. (I should qualify that on occasion they reduce the question of the class nature of a political formation by examining the stock portfolios of its leaders. See for instance their discussion of Syriza for an example of this “method”.) For the WSWS pundits, there exists somewhere a pure and unsullied working class which is the revolutionary class in society and likewise a pure and unsullied middle class which is always reactionary unless they are somehow led by the divine intervention of the WSWS to fall in line behind the working class. As we have pointed out on other occasions, the “working class” of the WSWS is an idealized working class that exists only in their heads and has little to do with the messy problems involved in the real working class. For the WSWS pundits this serves as a convenient way for avoiding the problems of class consciousness. Thus, their dismissal not only of the dialectic, but also of any interest in the dynamics of mass psychology.

But let us - as a kind of thought experiment - agree with North that we are every bit the sophists that he claims we are.  We would then ask North, given that Steiner and Brenner are sophists who only bring up “the dialectic” as a ruse to cover up their sophistry - can Mr. North tell us what he thinks a dialectical understanding of social and intellectual phenomena consist of? 

The only thing we have gotten out of North on the question of dialectics is the idea that dialectics is equivalent to materialism and the latter consists in little more than identifying what is real and what is in one’s head and after that all you need to do is to determine the underlying class relations and their evolution.  We are furthermore told very little as to how any of this takes place. 

Let us reduce all this to one simple question as an example of the poverty of the North methodology: “What is the class nature of Karl Marx’s theoretical work?”

Undoubtedly such a question will elicit much outrage among the WSWS pundits and the Internet trolls who populate the WSWS comments section. “Of course Marx’s work was working class! To even suggest it was anything else is tantamount to a form of treason.”

But one might object that Marx did not come from a working class background. His background was firmly middle class and that of his wife Jenny was of the old hereditary aristocracy. That did not change even when the Marx family lived in abysmal poverty during the years of his exile in London. Moreover, his lifelong partner Engels was in fact the manager of his family’s very capitalist manufacturing facility in the city of Manchester. Furthermore, Marx rarely had contact with rank and file workers. One of the few occasions in which he did was a speech he gave to a group of German workers living in exile in Brussels in 1847.  From his earliest years Marx was an active journalist and part of what could be considered the radical intelligentsia of Prussia. He was initially a radical democrat and only later did he become a convinced communist who tied his fate to the struggles of the working class. Was Marx’s intellectual and political evolution not a contradictory one? Is it not more accurate to describe Marx’s class nature not simply as “working class” but that of a person from the middle class whose ideas, as they evolved in the fertile climate of the complex brew of intellectual and political trends to which he was exposed, led him to embrace the cause of the working class?

To be sure there are occasions where a discussion of the nuances of subtleties of class analysis are used deliberately to obscure the class nature of competing political movements.  But it is equally the case that labeling something either “working class” or “middle class” without an investigation of the contradictions involved in such phenomena becomes a convenient excuse for abstaining from real life struggles. A good example of the latter was the attitude of the WSWS towards the referendum of 2015 in Greece.  They labeled the call for a referendum “a reactionary fraud” but then - inconsistently - urged workers to cast their votes in this “reactionary fraud” of a referendum.  But anyone in Greece and internationally with the slightest connection to the working class understood that while the logic of the Tsipras government could only lead to a betrayal of the working class, the fact that they were forced to call a referendum presented a golden opportunity to educate the working class.  That was not possible with the WSWS’s sneering dismissal of the referendum. 

There was indeed a similar issue that came up in discussions with Trotsky in the 1930’s in relation to a proposal for an Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Ludlow Amendment.  The Ludlow Amendment called for an end to war. It encapsulated illusions in pacifism and the efficacy of bourgeois democracy. Yet Trotsky’s attitude to this referendum was the very opposite of the WSWS’s attitude toward the Greek referendum of 2015 which was also intertwined with illusions. Rather than calling the Ludlow Amendment a “reactionary fraud”, as the sectarians at that time were doing, Trotsky urged his followers to participate in the campaign for the amendment and in the process seek to educate the working class. He wrote,

We must advance with the masses, and not only repeat our formulas but speak in a manner that our slogans become understandable to the masses…”

“The referendum is not our program, but it's a clear step forward; the masses show that they wish to control their Washington representatives. We say: It's a progressive step that you wish to control your representatives. But you have illusions and we will criticize them. At the same time we will help you realize your program. The sponsors of the program will betray you… [6]

It is not hard to guess what Trotsky’s attitude would have been to the WSWS’s calling the Greek referendum of 2015 “a reactionary fraud”.

As a final point I have observed that over the years of our polemics with North and his acolytes, their attitude toward the dialectic seems to have hardened. It is not simply that they dismiss the dialectic, but their rhetoric indicates what can only be described as a visceral hatred of the dialectic. This comes out especially clearly in the comments of Mr. James Cogan, the leader of the Australian section of the group that publishes the WSWS.  Mr. Cogan writes,

“Or will Mr. Brenner present a “dialectical” rationale, employing various abstract invocations of Hegel’s logical categories I’m sure, as to the working class should renounce democratic principles that were developed in centuries of struggle against tyranny and oppression.”

Here the contempt for dialectics is thrown together with a dismissal of Hegel’s logical categories, our use of which, Mr. Cogan claims, amount to a renunciation of democratic principles. Huh?? How does any of this follow from anything we have written? It’s a bizarre outburst from someone that at one time would have been called a cultural boor. But in the diminished intellectual atmosphere engendered by the WSWS such remarks are considered profound and are guaranteed to generate much genuflection by the trolls on the periphery of the WSWS comments sections.

As we said years ago, the time when we thought it was possible to revive this sterile sect has long passed. But perhaps there are still lessons to be learned by others about the fatal destiny of a sectarianism wedded to a hatred of the dialectic.

[1] North’s remarks are buried in the comments section of this article:
[3] A detailed examination of North’s account of the Frankfurt School can be found in Chapter 1 of  my polemic Downward Spiral, , pages 23-28.  We developed the view of North’s account as a type of crackpot philosophy in the polemic, Crackpot philosophy and double-speak, .  We revisited the topic in our review of an article by Javier Sethness that justifiably pilloried North, .
[4] Marx-Engels, Collected Works, Volume 6, (International Publishers, 1976), pp. 166-167.  .
[6] The Transitional Program of Socialist Revolution, L Trotsky, with Introductory Essays by Joseph Hansen and George Novack. Pathfinder Press, 1973. P. 192-193.


Anonymous said...

How would Steiner/Brenner go so far as to ask the above question "... can Mr. North tell us what he thinks a dialectical understanding of social and intellectual phenomena consist of?"
How would they be feeling stuffy about the WSWS after so much time spent knocking at a deaf man's door?
When it comes to the Metoo Movement, I am again convinced that the WSWS, including cultural warrior David Walsh, is too far removed from reality as well as ordinary people's atmosphere.
In my country where gender inequality or sexual abuse has been too ingrained or prevalent, the Metoo Movement is even hailed as "a revolution that seems live up to its name."
By the way, is it little more than a conspiracy by Democrats and greedy and jealous females in America?
Too regrettable.

Mcomment said...

Davidson's article in "Weekly Worker" No 1198 questioning the revolutionary nature of the bourgeoise revolutions may help to explicate Comrade Alex's criticism of the SEP view of Marxist dialectics. Cde Alex quotes Marx to the effect that the "limbs" of reality are not separate entities but constitute the nature of the movement, the events of lived social and political reality. Davidson distinguishes between the social revolution which changes the relations of production between the major classes and a political revolution that changes the form of rule making it perhaps more democratic or more authoritarian as the contending classes struggle. Could we not see the social revolution and the political revolution as "limbs?" The "Me too" movement is not by a social revolution, but it is progressive in that women are struggling to acquire greater rights. Socialists are concerned with developing Marxist consciousness in the working class. It doesn't help to dismiss progressive demands such as those raised by women in the "Me too" movement as just the selfish grasping of the petite bourgeoise concerned solely with their stock portfolios.

Anonymous said...

In my own country, Karl Marx used to be one of the banned terms in public life until as late as the late 1990s.
Indeed there were scholars mentioning or studying his ideas, especially in such fields as economics, sociology, and literary theory, but they seemed to be confined to a few college campuses or institutes, paled in comparison with the academic mainstream atmosphere.
This was mainly influenced by anti-communism kindled continuously by the long periods of military dictatorship, when powerful elites readily took advantage of public fear of possible threats associated with the Cold War.
Ironically, in what seemed to me a kind of reaction, Marx, along with his offspring, descendants, distant relatives from Lenin to Althusser to Che Guevara, was enthusiastically embraced by very many college students and laborers from radical unions.
They were far from satisfied with the status quo, longed for the great transformation, and wanted at least the start of an upheaval. It was only Marx who seemed to them to propose a solution for a society of no inequality, exploitation, or conflicts.
In retrospect, that was a quasi-religion, regardless of the validity of Marxism. Why?
Especially among students, in all kinds of subjects from post-election perspective to dating violence to film review, sayings from Marx and his kin were cited. Everything was summoned to the Marxian court, where sectarian legalists contended by pointing to this or that section of the poorly translated Holy Marx Books. By the way, until when? Exactly the year 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union. After being dumbstruck or baffled for a while, they all fled and disappeared. (Of course, a very very few of them returned with Deleuze, Negri, Badiou and Zizek.)
As for me, I am in no way hostile to the ideas of Marx. Rather, I think his ideas are more relevant now than at any other time. However, I always feel stuffed how the ideas are transformed to meaningful and productive practices on a permanent basis. Steiner/Brenner seems to me to try to solve this puzzle, sometimes walking across the beaten path and other times looking outside the box. For this reason, some people may have suspicion, but I consider their stance to be more sound for the same reason.
I was at first drawn to Trotsky for his texts on culture and literature. I have had little time to attend to details of his philosophy(dialectics) or politics(transitional program). That’s why I enjoy visiting this blog.
Thank you again for this great article that kindly outlines today's Marxism.