Saturday 26 November 2011

Heart of a Heartless Theory

Marxism is a collection of intricately inter-related notions, and so can't be carved up neatly into discrete sections. That said, there are I suggest five broad aspects which can be identified, provided we remember they have many overlaps and connecting threads.

1) Philosophy. Hegelianism - the transformation of quantity into quality, negation and sublation, negation of the negation, the interpenetration of opposites and eternal change. Dialectical materialism.

2) Economics. The three types of value, including the labour theory. Surplus value and its declining rate. Exploitation and immiseration. Crises of over- and under-production.

3) Sociology (including psychology and culture). Labour as man's self-creation, ideology and hegemony, false and contradictory consciousness.

4) History. Classes, economic stages and teleology. The workers' revolutionary potential. Historical materialism.

5) Project. Organisation, party and activism, the need for revolution, the overthrow of capitalism and class, the establishment of communism.

These aspects could be diagrammed as overlapping in various ways. They could also be drawn as containing each other in various combinations. In particular, the economics could be regarded as a part of the history, or equally validly, vice versa.

But there are two elements which are curiously unconnected to the others. One is the political project itself, which isn't actually surprising even though the project is the point of all the theory, because the project is imperative and moral, while theory is declarative and morally neutral.

It is of course possible to accept the theory without accepting the project, or to regard the project's aims as desirable but unachievable, or indeed set the project on a substantially different theory.

The other unconnected element is dialectics. The 'materialism' part of dialectical materialism is near omnipresent, though not consistently defined. But the 'dialectics' part doesn't seem to relate at all. Or rather, it can always be made to relate, but only with constant redefinition and special pleading.

Is there a way in which the working and ruling classes 'interpenetrate'? Yes, in that there is a nebulous intermediate band between the two, composed of proxies for the rulers - workers indoctrinated and bribed with higher wages and small amounts of power, to keep the workers in line. We call this band the 'middle' class.

Or if you don't like that reasoning, you could say the two classes define each other reciprocally, much as a slave and slave owner define each other - a slave can't be a slave if someone doesn't own them, and it works the other way around too. This is of course a completely different notion of 'interpenetration', and you can chose which ever one you like, or switch between the two as convenient.

Ideology means one of two things. Either the rulers foist their own self-justifying rationalisations on the workers, who patchily internalise them into a kind of self-loathing. Or the rulers decide on a course of action, and set the middle class to invent and disseminate whatever lies they can come up with to justify it to the workers. Hegemony and propaganda, respectively.

Does ideology involve some kind of transformation of quantity into quality, or quality into quantity? It could - if you decide that hegemony has been reached when (say) >78.3% of the workers have been convinced by >23.1% of the arguments the mass media feeds them. Or you decide that there is a precise threshold beyond which a biased reporting of a true event becomes a lie.

Does it involve negation? Lies certainly 'negate' truth in one sense, by not being the same. And they 'negate' understanding in another sense, by creating misunderstanding.

Ideologies usually involve multiple, incompatible lies, which could be said to 'negate' or 'contradict' each other - which then negates the negation of the truth when the public realises the government's been telling them two things which can't both be true. Except that they can, dialectically, but let's pretend we've forgotten that for now.

How is the labour theory of value dialectical? That's easy - the labour contradicts the raw material (because one's 'living' and one's 'dead') but also penetrates and fuses with it, sublating both into a product (congealed labour). But it's got a limited shelf life because everything's constantly changing into its opposite and decayed merchandise is the opposite of new...and old things become new things when they've decayed into raw material for new labour.

Did Marx say any of this explicitly? Not to my knowledge - I just made it up. It's an easy game to play, because that's all it is. An intellectual game, of stretching and bending words until they fit - sort of, more or less - something already described.

It's no more profound or true than describing a violin as a kind of elephant. Both have a tough outer shell, both make a noise, and both need a lot of maintenance. I'm not sure whether you can tune an elephant though.

So, if the hegelian aspect of marxism is the basis of marxism, then marxism is founded on a vacuum. If it can't find another basis - game theory, its own economics etc. - then it falls right into that void and disappears.

If on the other hand the hegelianism is just a vestigal appendage of marxism, then we have both a hope and a problem. The hope is that marxist theory may be correct, and the marxist project may be possible - the evil of capitalism can indeed be overthrown, and maybe we can create a world worth living in.

The problem is that almost no marxists see it like that - and none of its major theorists. Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg - they were all hegelians. Not just passively or vaguely - passionately and definitely. The very people who seemingly understood and practiced marxism best, most deeply, with the most insight and sweep...were wedded to a piece of 18th century mystical gibberish, and to the belief that it underpinned all their other beliefs, and their struggle.

Thus the great dilemma for the marxist who knows philosophy: One precondition of marxism being true is that it's not predicated on hegelianism. Therefore if all the giants of marxism are right, marxism is false. And if marxism is true, all the great marxists are wrong about marxism.

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Anything You Can Do...

Let's invent a philosophy. Apoplectical Hyperrealism.

It's origins are in a German mystic called...Bagel. Unfortunately no one's sure what Porge Bagel said because he always spoke with his mouth full, so our ideas about him mainly come from a philosopher and revolutionary called Narks.

Writing with his friend Angels, Narks put it this way:

I turned the Bagel upside down, and scooped out the gastronomical filling, discarding the stale outer crust.

- The Gnomic and Orthodontic Manuscripts (1944)

Narks wrote many books using the tasty nuggets squeezed from Bagel, but somehow never got around to explaining what they were. Fortunately though, Angels wrote one and a half books explaining it, and their followers have been able to piece it all together. The three principles are as follows:

1) The principle of Fragmentation and Reconstitution: All things are constantly falling apart and coming back together, but in a different order.

For instance, when you breathe out, you are losing a part of yourself - Fragmenting the carbon dioxide from your lifeblood into the universe. But man cannot breathe out without thereafter breathing in, for without breath there is no life.

Man reconstitutes himself by drawing in breath, which is inevitably followed in an iron law of nature by exhalation.

When you eventually die your atoms are Fragmented into the soil, to Reconstitute as a tree or another person. So reality itself is breathing in and out, unable to ever stop. This is the Apoplexy of Apoplectic Hyperrealism.

2) The Principle of Comparison: Everything looks a bit like something else.

A man with a full head of hair resembles one with a small bald patch, who resembles one with a larger bald patch, who resembles a skinhead. Thus there is a chain of keratin from the hairiest hippy to the most shaven of punks, proving that if you change enough details, anything is a bit like its opposite.

3) Resemblance of the Resemblance: Sometimes, something looks so much like something else, it outshines the thing it looks like.

So, Lady Gaga is like Madonna, but with even worse clothes, a gayer fanbase and even more formulaic songs. Lady Gaga, the Resemblance of Madonna, has Reconstituted the Fragmentation of Madonna's attributes into a new, lower form.

I Can't Believe It's Not Butter is a butter-substitute so buttery, it replaces butter in the fridges of people who don't like margarine. The imitation has replaced the original by taking the main points, and exaggerating them. This is the Hyperrealism.

This wonderful philosophy which perfectly explains absolutely bloody everything is not popular with those who control the world. The superrich are the only people with enough money to spend all day in bed - hence their name, the boudoirsie.

They are threatened by its profound implications, and have all the scientists in the world brainwashed into accepting a false idea of reality. This is ironic, because all the discoveries of every single scientist confirm Apoplectic Hyperrealism.

When you boil water, the molecules of H2O are Fragmented from the body of the liquid, eventually Reconstituting back into liquid in a different place. Small droplets of water floating in air Compare to particles of smoke, and as the Comparison increases, eventually the water (as steam) Compares to smoke more than the Smoke does, rising higher and being hotter.

Smoke that doesn't float is ash, and as steam turns back into water, it compares itself more and more to ash and therefore falls to the ground in a light sprinkle.

This view of the universe is both simple and obvious from a thousand daily phenomena and a million scientific facts, yet almost no one can see it. Such is the power of ideology.

The philosophy isn't just an unquestionable scientific truth, but also the only hope of humanity.

The great revolutionary Lemming used its principles to lead a people's coup, and even though the regime he set up turned into a barbaric dictatorship, that's only because his successor (Stealing) wasn't sufficiently Apoplectic.

There have been other glorious failures in many countries, and one day one of them will last more than a few years and spread through the whole world.

Finally, we should make clear that there is another philosophy called Dialectical Materialism, which may look superficially similar but is completely different.

Dialectical Materialism is a collection of incredibly vague, quasi-theological principles which can be interpreted to mean anything so as to 'explain' any and every phenomenon.

All refutations are simply condemned with circular logic as 'undialectical'. The evidence is cherry-picked and distorted to make it fit. The followers of this sad delusion form small warring factions, yet have spent the last 150 years believing they can use its mantras to lead humanity to salvation.

Once they can be convinced of Apoplectical Hyperrealism, they can join our cause - and then, comrades, the whole world will be Apoplectic.

Thursday 8 September 2011

Blessed be the Holy Method

Marxism is not a religion, but Hegelianism is.

Assuming for the moment that Plekhanov's version of Hegel is more-or-less the same as Marx's version of Hegel, this quote from Plekhanov shows why:

"We know that Hegel called his method dialectical; why did he do so?

In his Phänomenologie des Geistes he compares human life with dialogue, in the sense that under the pressure of experience our views gradually change, as happens to the opinions of disputants participating in a discussion of a profound intellectual nature. Comparing the course of development of consciousness with the progress of such a discussion, Hegel designated it by the word dialectics, or dialectical motion. This word had already been used by Plato, but it was Hegel who gave it its especially profound and important meaning. To Hegel, dialectics is the soul of all scientific knowledge. It is of extraordinary importance to comprehend its nature. It is the principle of all motion, of all life, of all that occurs in reality."
- Georg Plekhanov, From Idealism to Materialism, 1917

Read that last sentence again. Hegel describes a model of progress in human understanding of the world, one of stages somewhat akin to Khunian paradigms, with each stage incorporating the insights of the earlier ones but improving on them, in a successive approximation to an as-yet unknown truth.

It's a simplistic but defensible model, both of the way individuals learn from their lives and the way science progresses.

Then in the last sentence he suddenly asserts that the universe progresses in the same way. As below so above. That the universe is moving through stages of successive approximation to...what? Some kind of self-actualisation, presumably.

There's no reasoning given behind this leap - we're just supposed to be carried along from an epistemological hypothesis to a cosmological one as though there were no difference between changing your mind and changing your molecules.

Hegel has taken a reasonable partial description of one aspect of human behavior, and projected it onto the entire universe, which becomes thereby shrunken to a human scale, and personalised. We have a word for this: Religion.

In a religion, the impersonal enormous universe gets scaled down and invested with human traits. Thunderstorms are the gods fighting because lightning looks violent. Crops are the earth mother giving birth because you can only harvest from fertile ground. Life hurts you because a magnified version of your father is punishing you, or because an invisible trickster enjoys your pain.

And in the modern, industrialised and educated world, the method by which human knowledge advances is, according to Hegel, the method by which the world does the same thing.

Religions involve this linguistic slight of hand: Two very different things become the same thing because they can be described with the same word.

This leaves open the question of why such insightful thinkers as Luxemburg and Trotsky thought such shallow writing as Plekhanov's was correct, nevermind great.

Monday 15 August 2011


Marxists have a very distinctive attitude to science, and also a very puzzling one.

They can hate science one moment, then they're grateful that it tells them what they want to hear, then dismissive because it doesn't, than patronising because they knew what it says all along, or filled with horror that it might cut away their humanity.

It's confusing because it's confused. They're trying to reconcile three irreconcilable views.

The first is the view that science is a dehumanising view of the world, one that reduces people to things and treats emotions with contempt. This comes from the hermetic philosophy that Hegel was building on, and in it science is the enemy of both happiness and 'true knowledge'. Science is evil.

The second is the view that marxism is confirmed by the natural sciences - even though scientists don't recognise it themselves. Discoveries are cherrypicked and reinterpreted to make them both agree with and support marxism. Indeed, marxism itself is sometimes called a science. This could be called the enlightenment view. Science is good.

The third is the view that marxism is like the natural sciences...but better. That marxists are waiting for the plodding positivists to catch up with them. This is the opposite of the enlightenment view, in that instead of science confirming marxism, marxism confirms science. Science is redundant.

Hegel held to the first and second views, both being inherent in his hermeticism. Engels vacillated between the second and third.

Bogdanov held to the second, even suggesting (quelle horreur) that science had something to teach marxists. Lenin slapped him down, citing the third view - but sometimes shifted towards the second.

Lenin studied Hegel extensively, claiming it was necessary to digest all of Hegel to understand Marx. But Hegel was a science-hating hermetic mystic, not a philosopher as such, which accounts for Lenin's hostile view of science as something which attacks marxism.

The three 'poles' give a vast number of permutations and attitudes to adopt and slide between, but there is no way they can be integrated or simultaneously dominant. This is why their attitude is so mercurial within individuals, and so perplexing even when it's constant.

There is of course one constant in nearly all marxists. They know nothing about science.

Monday 8 August 2011


Comrades in branches don't talk about dialectics much when organising leaflet design or strike support. The unity of opposites doesn't play a major role in chanting at protests.

In fact, most members of most socialist groups don't care about philosophy, cosmology, or the nature of ultimate reality. Dialectics is a closed book to them, and they show no inclination to open it.

Marxism has a strong anti-intellectual current, as shown by the scarcity and poor quality of its major philosophical works, endlessly quoted without critique in the minor works.

But dialectics is used by the leadership, and the layers of party hacks who address meetings, organise demos and transmit policy to the branches. It gives an air of educated authority to presentations, it gives the appearance of impressive theoretical justification to policy flip-flops, and it papers over the cracks of inconsistant positions.

It serves an authoritarian purpose. A bit of Hegel is great for bullshitting the members.

But do the hacks, leaders and party intellectuals belive it? Most of them probably believe it when it's convenient for them to do so. When they want to discipline an errant member who's written an article questioning the party line, they passionately believe the inconvenient article is 'undialectical'. It's probably 'idealist', 'petit-bourgeois', 'mechanical', 'ahistorical' and 'reactionary' too.

The rest of the time, dialectics is like the god of the anglican - not so much disbelieved in as forgotten about when not needed.

If this were the whole story, the ghost of Hegel haunting Marx would be an annoyance, but not a major issue.

If it were the whole story, Engels would not have set aside real work for a year to produce the Anti-Duhring, and later the Dialecics of Nature. Lenin would not have turned away from intensive political activity in 1908 to attack Bogdanov.

Marxists want to make you free. But they also want to make you to believe their supersitions.

In the ideal future world of evangelical christians, everyone will submit to christ of their own free will. In the hypothetical post-capitalist socialism after the revolution, everyone will take dialectics as an unquestioned axiom. And they'll do it because they've seen the light.

After the revolution, everyone will be a marxist.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

The Spectre Still Haunting

What did Marx take from Hegel?

In answer, marxists generally trot out the line that Marx took the "rational kernel", and/or that he "turned Hegel on his head, or rather his feet".

Both are more slogans than answers, and when you press for more detail, the former gets expanded into something like "Hegel was an idealist but he had some central insights which were materialist, and Marx took these", or sometimes "Hegel's method was materialist but mystified by his ideological idealism, and Marx extracted the method". As to what these insights were or this method was, that remains vague - as does the exact nature of this "materialism".

As for the latter line, incompatible with the first, it suggests that Hegelianism is simply a coded form of Marxism, and Marx found the cypher book.

Marx was not a philosopher, and neither was Hegel. Hegel was a follower of Hermes Trismegistus - he was a hermetic mystic. Numerology and kabalism, freemasons and the illuminati, ancient symbols and word magic, animism, mystery-as-revelation and universe-as-god-approaching-self-awareness - these are the furniture of Hegel's world.

To try to read Hegel as a philosophy is like trying to read Hobbes as a romantic comedy. The result can only be gibberish and incomprehension - which is of course precisely the result of most readings of Hegel.

On the questions of what Marx took from Hegel, I suggest there are three broad kinds of things one writer can take from another:

1) Form - style, a way of writing, a choice of words and preferred grammatical forms, aphorism or prolixity, the mode of expression.

2) Content - the ideas expressed, irrespective of the words used to express them. Of course, the habit of using different words for the same idea and the same words for different ideas is a feature of form that Marx and Hegel share.

3) Values - attitudes, emotions, associations and connotations. Not completely distinct from content, but often useful to separate.

I think what Marx took from Hegel was mostly his values - with some of the content which was bound up with them.

Their attitude towards science, for instance. On the one hand, the hermetic, proto-scientific view that the universe runs on rules that can with difficulty be discovered, and through knowledge of these rules controlled. And on the other hand the equally hermetic, anti-scientific view that treating animate matter as not qualitively different from inanimate matter, is dehumanising - even evil.

Marx wasn't an animist, but he did view human life a special and valuable - for ethical, not doctrinal reasons. Plus of course, Marx was an atheist - at least to the extent of not believing in a personal creator god who answered prayers.

Their attitude towards technology and industrialisation, as on the one hand oppressive and brutalising, and on the other indicative that humanity (and for Hegel the universe) had reached an advanced stage. The next stage would incorporate and "tame" technology, putting it to work for man, instead of the other way around.

This notion that humanity moves in discrete stages towards a great predefined goal is very Hegelian, though for Marx what's inevitable is the movement in stages and the attainment of the goal, not the nature of the stages, nor their number or any necessary timetable.

Hegel of course thought that the progress of human society, human knowledge and the universe itself had already reached its end point in justice and self-awareness - embodied in his very own modest writings. For Marx, the endpoint of society at least is yet to come - but not far away.

Engels was much more a Hegelian than Marx, taking more of the content and writing style. Unline Hegel, Engels wasn't horrified by science and technology - rather, he tried to incorporate scientific discoveries into his hegelianism. A different way of taming the technical side of capitalism.

Lenin studied Hegel intensively and extensively, though largely in secret - a secrecy which may suggest a hermetic attitude to study. Lenin's notebooks and Emperiocriticism offer mutually incompatible but decidedly backward looking views of epistemology and ontology. Indeed, his ideas about science, when not simply wrong, are anachronistic precisely to the lifetime of Hegel.

Trotsky was much less hegelian. He still believed in the dialectic, and thought it was almost impossible to be a thinker or activist at all if one didn't. But the occult signs, terror of science, inevitibilism, confusion about referential language and sense experience - these are gone.

As for modern marxists, they range from sages pouring over revered texts seeking the perfect wisdom of the authors, to streetwise activists concerned with human rights and sticking it to The Man, caring nothing for theory.

It's an open question as to how much hermetic mysticism has been purged from marxism by time, and a separate question as to how much however much of it remains is a serious problem for marxism today.

We can hope that Marx is now almost free of the ghost of Hegel. I think there's a lot more still inside the hermetic box.

Thursday 21 July 2011

A Bedtime Story

Once upon a time, a long time ago, there wasn't a giant robot. Back then, no one needed one.

Everyone was miserable, but at least everyone was equally miserable. Then people found ways to make things that made them less miserable - like more food, better clothes, painting and music.

Soon, there were enough good things for a few people to not do much work - provided everyone else still worked hard. These people decided they liked not doing much work, so they built a little robot to organise everyone else's work.

Some people didn't want to do what the robot said, so it was given teeth to encourage them. Over time, the teeth got quite large. Soon, the people forgot there had ever been a time without the robot. They forgot that people had made it, so they forgot people could take it apart again. Sometimes it didn't work very well, but most of the people had also forgotten it could be repaired.

Under the robot, people made more and more things, and so there was more for the robot to do. It got bigger and bigger, until it got so big no one could see all of it at once.

The roboteers realised too late that it controlled them too, but it provided them with the nicest things made by the ordinary people, so they didn't mind too much.

The ordinary people though, were not happy. They had some nice things, but they were more and more miserable. The robot was having them made pointless things just for the sake of making things.

Often it bit people for no reason, and told them they deserved it. When two roboteers fought over a mountain of shiny things, the robot made the ordinary people fight in their place.

Many of the people dreamed of becoming roboteers themselves, because then they thought they could get into the robot's brain and reprogram it.

Some tried to persuade them to make a few tweaks - to make the robot nicer. But even the few roboteers who wanted a nicer robot found it had made ways to protect itself from tampering.

Lots of people decided there was an old, bigger, friendlier robot out there. One which loved the people and would do some reprogramming if everyone obeyed its hundreds of lifestyle rules. But the bigger robot was just the big robot in disguise.

Others dreamed of going back to a time before the robot, but they didn't know how. Many tried to set up their own, littler and friendlier robots, but the big one stamped on them.

A lot of the younger people thought that, if people were sensible, they could organise themselves much better than the robot could. But while the robot was there, it made people silly. If only there were a way to make people sensible enough to destroy the robot, then they'd become sensible enough to organise themselves - and destroy the robot.

Then one day one of the youngsters realised that if all the people got together, they could smash up the robot, and then...what?

Everyone could be a roboteer! And everyone could build a better robot together! Smaller, easily reprogrammable, and set up to do what the people as a whole decided they wanted - not a small lazy group.

Life was now too complicated to do without an organising robot of some kind, and the people wanted the nice things that came from the organising. In fact, there could be a lot more nice things! (If that's what people really wanted).

But some of them decided the robot would rust on its own in time, so they didn't need to do anything. And most of them didn't trust any of the others to build a better robot properly.

Most of the time they argued over who was in charge, and who had the correct schematics of the robot. They found they liked arguing about things better than doing things.

And so the robot continued to stand, barely noticing them, for a very long time.