The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, July 25, 2005

Comment on Monod

Jim Farmelant writes:
I found it curious that you devoted a post on your blog to Jacques Monod's Chance and Necessity, with particular emphasis on Monod's critique of dialectical materialism and Marxism.  Monod's critique of dialectical materialism, and especially of the dialectics of nature, is, as you note, hardly unprecedented in the history of Marxism.  Various Marxists, including Georg Lukacs, Sidney Hook, Lucio Coletti, and G.A. Cohen, amongst others, representing a variety of schools within the Marxist tradition, all presented rather similar critiques of diamat.  Whether the abandonment of the dialectics of nature necessarily entails the abandonment of the materialist conception of history, as Monod seemed to think, seems quite a different matter.  Cohen, for instance, while rejecting the dialectics of nature, back in 1978, seemed to think that historical materialism was quite defensible on its own.  And even while since then, he has seriously qualified his endorsement of historical materialism, I think that he would still maintain that the merits or demerits of the materialist conception of history can be assessed quite independently of those of the dialectics of nature.
It is also interesting to note that some of the logical empiricists, especially Otto Neurath and Philipp Frank were rather sympathetic towards Marxism. And even Rudolf Carnap, in discussing the matter in the Schilpp volume, The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap, gave his endorsement to the materialist conception of history. See:
BTW you might be interested in Althusser's evaluation of Monod, which can be found at:
[P.S.] BTW, I forgot to mention that a little while back I picked up a recent edition of Monod's book which featured an introductory essay by the late John Maynard Smith, who endorsed
Monod's thesis concerning Marxism, while making mention of the fact, that he (Maynard Smith) was an ex-Marxist and an ex-Communist.
More on the dialectics of nature some other time, but for now I'd like to thank Jim for his comment.
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Saturday, July 23, 2005

The Party Line

Every so often in Macaulay's History of England he'll be talking about some gallant soldier on one side or the other of various wars, and he'll say something like 'and then he went off for a few years to fight the Turks'. Catholics and Protestants, Roundheads and Cavaliers, soldiers of the House of Stuart or the House of Orange, took advantage of occasional interruptions in mutual massacre to fight side by side against 'the enemy of all Christendom'. I think these days we would look somewhat askance at a young gentleman taking a year or two out to finish his education in the Russian Army or the Bosnian Serb militia.

Most Christians no longer feel like our illustrious ancestors did, but it seems that quite a lot of Muslims do. The Ummah is a much more live idea than Christendom. When the Prime Minister of Australia was deriding the idea that the bomb attacks in London might have something to do with Iraq, he pointed out that the attack on Australians in Bali was linked by the perpetrators, and I think he said by Osama Bin Laden too, to Australia's intervention in Timor. Should we have repudiated saving the Timorese because of that? he asked.

Well, indeed not - and even the far left was divided about the intervention itself - but I don't think Mr Howard was quite reinforcing his point. When Jack Straw, John Reid and others recite the mantra of 'Kenya, Tanzania, Indonesia, Yemen' as countries that had nothing to do with the war in Iraq that were attacked by al Qaeda, they are not being stupid. Nor are they being stupid in conspicuously missing out the obvious country from the list: Russia. Russia, they might well say, has been attacked over and over again by Islamist terrorists and suicide bombers, and it opposed the Iraq war! So what do you say to that, Mr Galloway? They of course say no such thing.

No, they are not being stupid. They are sticking to the party line. Sticking to a party line is something that Messrs Straw and Reid know all about.

Scott Horton provides a useful round-up of the evidence and arguments against the party line here.

There are no excuses for terrorism, but sometimes there are explanations. There's a nasty meme going around that to seek (non-party-line) explanations is to condone. A good antidote to it is in the words of Alec Nove:
To understand is not to forgive. It is simply better than the alternative, which is not to understand.
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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Is Marxism a theism?

Jacques Monod won the 1965 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work in molecular biology. In Chance and Necessity (1970, translated 1971) he looks at the philosophical implications of molecular biology. They are, for Monod, rigorously atheistic. In nature, 'invariance precedes teleonomy'. This is his way of saying that purpose is a product of natural selection. Belief in God, gods and spirits is what Monod calls animism: the projection into nature of the purposive properties of the human central nervous system. Discarding animism is the first principle of science, which Monod calls the principle of objectivity.

'All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even a part of science testify to the unwearying, heroic effort of mankind desperately denying its own contingency'. One of the philosophies most strenuous in this effort is Marxism. Monod's argument here is straightforward.

Dialectical materialism is a contradiction in terms, because dialectic is a mental process, and the only way a mental process can be inherent in matter is if there is a mind inherent in matter. Hegel called it Spirit. But Hegel's Spirit is God. Without Spirit, there is absolutely no basis for a dialectic of nature or of history. Dialectic of nature -> Spirit in Nature -> animism.

Providence is thus smuggled back into a supposedly scientific view, with disastrous results, because if you think you are an atheist but are unconciously counting on Providence (the cunning of Reason, the logic of history, and other such avatars) to make it all come out right in the end, you are going to make catastrophic mistakes which you have no way to recognise, let alone correct. Historical messianism is the inevitable consequence of dialectical materialism. This is in addition to a long trail of intellectual embarrassments. (With some tact, Monod cites only those handed down to us by Engels and Lenin.)

There have been Marxists who rejected the dialectic, for much these reasons. But Marxism without the dialectic is just a set of economic, historical and sociological analyses, any of which you can take or leave. Without the deep conviction of having uncovered the laws of motion of nature, society and thought, it loses much of its zeal. Not a revision of Marxism, but a complete abandonment of it, is socialism's only hope.

With fact and value radically disjunct, and no destiny or duty written in nature, the only basis for reuniting our values with our knowledge is the recognition that the principle of objectivity is itself a free, and thus ethical, choice. A like recognition is, for Monod, the only basis for a scientific socialist humanism. We can choose to build a kingdom of knowledge and freedom, or we can choose the darkness.

[Added 14 July, with slight edits above to clarify]

But let Monod speak for himself:
'Perhaps more than the other animisms, historical materialism is based on a total confusion of the categories of value and knowledge. This very confusion permits it, in a travesty of authentic discourse, to proclaim that it has 'scientifically' established the laws of history, which man has no choice or duty but to obey if he does not wish to sink into oblivion.

This illusion, which is merely puerile when it is not fatal, must be given up once and for all. How can an authentic socialism ever be built on an essentially inauthentic ideology, a caricature of that very science whose support it claims (most sincerely, in the minds of its followers)? Socialism's one hope is not in a 'revision' of the ideology that has been dominating it for over a century, but in completely abandoning that ideology.

Where then shall we find the source of truth and the moral inspiration for a really scientific socialist humanism? Only, we suggest, in the sources of science itself, in the ethic upon which knowledge is founded, and which by free choice makes knowledge the supreme value - the measure and guarantee of all other values. An ethic which bases moral responsibility upon the very freedom of that axiomatic choice. Accepted as the foundation for social and political institutions, and as the measure of their authenticity and their value, only the ethic of knowledge can lead to socialism. It prescribes institutions dedicated to the defence, the extension, the enrichment of the transcendent kingdom of ideas, of knowledge, and of creation - a kingdom which is within man, where progressively freed both from material constraints and from the misleading servitudes of animism, man could at last live authentically; where he would be protected by institutions which, seeing him as both the subject of the kingdom and its creator, would serve him in his unique and precious essence.

This is perhaps a utopia. But it is not an incoherent dream. It is an idea that owes its strength to its logical coherence alone. It is the conclusion to which the search for authenticity necessarily leads. The ancient covenant is in pieces; man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance. Neither his destiny nor his duty have been written down. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose.'
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Britain's own

All that the police are saying at the moment is that the terrorists died in the explosions. We still can't be certain that they intended or expected to. It does seem, from last night's news reports of interviews with shocked neighbours, that some at least of the suspects weren't exactly moody loners or bitter nerds. I was wrong about that.

I can't say strongly enough that verbally or physically attacking the communities the suspects came from is exactly the wrong way to go. The police and politicians have held that line. It's too much to hope that all sections of the press will. That line must hold. Otherwise we are looking into the abyss, and the abyss is looking right back.
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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Yes, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?

Yesterday in a shop near the Hawes Inn I came across a copy of the mass-market paperback of Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan. I've never read it, and (for now) I didn't buy it. But it made me think of how things were different back when I were a lad, in the late sixties and early seventies. McLuhan was one of the thinkers of whom everyone with the slightest intellectual pretensions (e.g. moi) had at least heard. Others: Herbert Marcuse, Buckminster Fuller, Claude Levi-Strauss, Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Teilhard de Chardin, Harvey Cox, Paul Tillich, Karl Popper, Arthur Koestler, J.K. Galbraith. My high-school English teacher, who was by no means pretentious, had well-thumbed copies of books by almost all of these on her living-room shelf. Turning to the public library, I could find the counter-culture ably if optimistically surveyed by Theodore Roszak and Charles Reich; the new women's liberation movement by Germaine Greer; Black nationalism by Malcolm X. Nor was Marxism without champions in the paperback lists: I hadn't then come across Isaac Deutscher or Ernest Mandel, and the lonely hour of Althusser was still to come, but Paul A. Baran and Paul Sweezy were in print in Penguin and referred to off-hand in the semi-anarchist alternative press as sound on capitalism but soft on state capitalism.

Most of these thinkers were of the Left - even Popper was a social democrat, though the most established critic of Marx - but Koestler and Robert Conquest fought their corner, and the great conservatives and classical liberals - Burke, Spencer, Smith, Hume, Mill - were well served by Penguin Classic editions. The novels of Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, the memoirs of Ginzburg and Djilas, the testimony of Marchenko were all in Penguin or Fontana. Soldiers, diplomats, dissidents, exiles and historians who excoriated Communism shared the same popular imprints.

The quality and lasting relevance of the then-living thinkers listed (and plenty of others from the time, as you can see if you happen across the old Fontana Modern Masters series) of course varies a lot. The point is that they were all read, and not just for show. And to reiterate, I came across practically all of them in Greenock - in my teacher's bookcase, or in the local library or the local mainstream commercial bookshop.

At the time, of course, I thought Greenock was something of an intellectual backwater. It was for sure no hotbed of the sixties counterculture or the far left. It had one Maoist, two International Socialists, one hippie, and one very old Communist. All these serious mass-market paperbacks can't have been bought by them and my English teacher. And who, I wonder, are the present-day equivalents of these paperback writers - and their readers?

Yes, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?
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Monday, July 11, 2005

Music and stuff

If we don't blog about trivia then the terrorists have won.

Fantasy author Mike Cobley and SF fan Michael J. Lowrey have picked up the musical baton.

Sound libertarian Arthur Silber says he has finally figured out what is really wrong with Ayn Rand. But he is being a bit of tease about it, and keeps talking about other things. The other things are worth reading, but I'd pay to read what he has to say about Rand. In fact, I have. Go throw him a few bucks and plead.
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Saturday, July 09, 2005

Revenge of the nerds

It's cold comfort, but the London bombings could have been much worse. With exactly the same resources, far more people could have been killed and more lasting structural damage done. The opportunity of a Madrid-scale massacre was dissipated in a headline-grabbing bid for 'Al-Qaeda attacks across London'. The lesson is that the war against jihadist terrorism is being won. Respect is owed to the emergency services, to the people of London, and to unknown spooks and cops; solidarity and support to the victims; and to the perpetrators of the atrocity, contempt. We spit on their manifestos, their deluded boasts, their claims to be Muslims, and their pathetic inadequacies.

Imagine creationist electrical engineers taking up abortion-clinic bombing. That's the level of people we're dealing with here. The Sekrit Jihad Organization of Al Qaeda in Europe most likely consists of speccy, spotty nerds whose sole reading is the Koran and computer manuals, whose only chance of getting laid is an arranged marriage, and who don't even allow themselves a wank to ease their zits. In a better life they would have found science-fiction fandom.

One area where the self-professed followers of the Carpenter have shown some superiority over those who abuse the name of the Prophet is in the creativity of their terrorism. Christian terrorists have invented or perfected the car bomb, the no-warning bomb, the false warning bomb, the secondary bomb, the proxy bomb, the VCR-timer bomb, the dump-truck bomb, the fertiliser bomb, the litter-bin bomb, and the on-camera hacksaw beheading. Even the airliner hijack was invented by (presumably Papist) Cubans. The world record for suicide bombing was until quite recently held by the Tamil Tigers, who are godless communists raised as Episcopalians. In terms of bang-for-a-buck and political effectiveness, the Christian fascist terrorist McVeigh accomplished more at OKC than Osama achieved at the World Trade Centre.

Osama, who fancies himself the Che Guevara of the counter-revolution, must be turning in his cave at the incompetence of his European admirers. Admittedly, the haiku elegance of fly airliners into skyscrapers was a hard act to follow, but, you know, come on. We're talking London here - multicultural melting pot, global capitalist centre, imperialist metropolis, Babylon incarnate - the ultimate target-rich soft target.

And they blow up the fucking Tube?

They can go to hell.
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