The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Losing the specific in the general?

To my chagrin, Norman Geras has successfully skewered a key bad move in my response to his earlier argument against my post on the pro-war left.

(Cue meta-argument.)

Looking over the above sentence, two things strike me about it. One is that its successive references to previous rounds make me recall with unwonted affection the textual protocols of Usenet. The other is that it seems almost frivolous in its politesse. Why treat an argument over bloody, serious matters as if it were (only) a philosophical disagreement?

For one thing, philosophical disagreements can be bloody serious. ('"The Battle of Stalingrad was the decisive confrontation between the heirs of the Right and the Left Hegelians." Discuss.') For another ... well, several others ...

First, Norman Geras is (in the teeth of some provocation on my part, albeit not intentionally personal) himself being polite. This is something I want to reciprocate. (Not that I have any fine feathers to preen here. I learned to argue the way I'm trying to do now by repeatedly doing it the other way, and finding it didn't work. There are posts on Usenet at the reminder of which I still blush. And - electronic retrieval being what it is - they'll probably be around long after I and all my books are dust.)

Another is that (moving from the general to the specific) I owe the guy. How well I remember sweating and swaying on the London Underground to and from work, poring (literally) over Geras's Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend. It wasn't the first work of what might loosely be called 'analytical Marxism' I'd come across - that was G. A. Cohen's Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence - but it was the first to alert me to the value of a close reading of a Marxian text blunted by over-familiarity. (Philosphers speak of 'unpacking' a statement. This was more like defusing what remains, ticking, when all the innocent items have been lifted out.)

Finally, I think this is an argument worth persisting with. It makes me think, in a way that few have before, that some premise so far unexplicated is mistaken, on one side or the other (or, possibly, both). I don't think it necessarily has anything to do with Marxism. People of every political persuasion have been (in variant proportions) divided over the war. There are probably fascists arguing over it. More seriously, it does a disservice to clarity to suggest (as I have, by picking on those few who argue in Marxist terms) that 'the pro-war left' is an eccentric minority. In a broad, but far from the most catholic, sense of 'left', the Iraq engagement is a war of the left, and the present argument over it one within the left.

(Which raises the question: to what extent is everything in Western democratic discourse an argument within the left? Some years ago, I half-seriously suggested that the Second World War just was the long-awaited world proletarian revolution - the decisive plebian victory in the 'battle of democracy' - and that (almost) everything since has been a conflict between the 'Maoists' and the 'capitalist roaders' within what is to all intents and purposes the dictatorship of the proletariat: The West is Red! Cooler heads prevailed, but ... )

I'll try to make a better stab at Norman's argument after Christmas has worn off, and in the meantime wish him a good one.


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