The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, June 22, 2009

A Superfluous Science

But all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided. Marx, Capital, Vol. III, ch. 48

Superficially, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was a gigantic reactionary mass movement to establish an Islamic theocracy. Likewise, a couple of years later in 1981, the insurgent Polish trade union Solidarity superficially appeared to be a Catholic, nationalist mass movement to overthrow the unpopular People's Republic and restore capitalism. And today, the Iranian uprising seems on the surface to a brave and massive, but minority, protest movement in favour of the neoliberal Islamist candidate who may (or may not) have lost the election and against the right-wing populist Islamist candidate who may (or may not) have stolen the election.

In all of these cases, and many more, Marxists have warned anyone who would listen that the superficial appearance shouldn't be mistaken for the essence, for what was really going on under the surface of events. The underlying essence varied, and varies, according to the Marxist but whatever it is, you can be damn sure it wasn't something you would have thought of yourself, or gathered from the biased reportage of the bourgeois press. Not many people would have looked at a photo of shipyard workers kneeling to take Mass and thought, 'What they're really after is socialism from below.' Not many people could hear millions of voices chanting 'Allahu akbar!' and think, 'Ah yes, the power of the people is greater than the man's technology.' Crowds hauling down statues of Lenin didn't look as if they were celebrating the spirit of 1917, but that just goes to show how deceptive appearances can be.

Wittgenstein: “Why do people say that it was natural to think that the sun went round the earth rather than that the earth turned on its axis?” I (Elizabeth Anscombe, a friend and pupil of Wittgenstein) replied: “I suppose, because it looked as if the sun went round the earth.” “Well, he asked, what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth turned on its axis?”

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'Who are you going to trust? Me, or your own lying eyes?'

I'd say the Marxists who underplayed the Catholicism of Solidarity did so because they had an emotional investment in a superficial reading of the 'progressive' nature of Polish state socialism.

I'd say it was almost exactly the other way round: the Marxists who supported Solidarity tended not to regard Polish state socialism as progressive.

Well, you were there and I was not; what I'm thinking of is the idea that the political bureaucracy could be overthrown, but the socialist relations of production could be retained. Wasn't that the basic Orthotrot line, or has the signal-to-noise ratio got the better of the historical memory there? Also, wasn't it the case that Marxists of all sorts took over a lot of the 19th century's assumptions about unilineal cultural evolution - which meant in turn that they could conceive of societies moving forward to socialism/communism, or backwards to capitalism, but not of societies branching out into all the weird and wonderful instituional forms we perceive today, like the Islamic Republic of Iran, for example?

(by the way, let me know if the above makes no sense at all - I write these things off the top of my head, and sometimes quality control suffers).

I see what you mean now, and I think you're right - there was a widespread view (or assumption) that large-scale nationalization was very unlikely to be reversed. (Even Tony Cliff argued this, in _State Capitalism in Russia_, and he didn't think these states were in any way socialist.) This assumption may have helped the 'orthodox' Trots (with a few exceptions, such as the Spartacists) to convince themselves that any movement for democratic or national rights in the Soviet bloc had to be progressive. I wrote about this delusion here.

On the specific topic of Iran, we were genuinely convinced that the mass movement to overthrow the Shah was simply expressing political views in religious terms, and that underneath the veil or cloak of Islam it was a democratic movement. Almost all the Iranian left, from Trotskyists to Tudeh, made this argument. As it turned out, the only people trying to advance democratic and/or socialist aims under the cloak of religion was the Iranian left itself.

The experience made me very wary when Solidarnosc erupted a couple of years later.

I like that quote from Karl Marx at the top of the page. I wonder what he'd have made of the ever-expanding universe, quantum mechanics, and the mutual acomodation of religion and science.

I rather like the quote from Wittgenstein.

I read it as saying, not that things seem superficially to be X,but in fact are Y, but that superficially X and Y can be regarded as equally plausible.

If you consider the passage of the sun across the sky there are any number of scenarios which would look the same from here. What if there was a new sun every day launched from below our horizon travelling in an arc, then falling below the horizon? Wouldn't that look the same?

A rather crude view of science is that it involves looking 'beneath' the outward appearance of things, when all too often it is first about understanding what the outward appearance actually is.

Hi Lobby---At this moment I am politically rather out of things, but not philosophically. Your word 'actually' can lead to confusion. First, it can mean that one needs a more accurate phenomenological description of those 'outward appearances' you mention. Second, it can refer to the underlying mechanisms that, by natural laws, generate those appearances while being themselves invisible. Both are necessary, as the history of thermodynamics shows quite beautifully: first physicists had to get a couple of 'phenomenological' laws about how hot objects appeared to the naked eye. Once those were established mechanisms were thought up that went beneath those observable phenomena and explained them. In this case the mechanisms were what J.C. Maxwell called 'Matter And Motion', namely atoms moving around, bumping against each other and thus enacting 'The Kind Of Motion We Call Heat,' That's the wonderful title of Clausius' basic paper on this subject. He could not have described the move from appearance (heat) to underlying reality (invisible atoms) better. So I'd say that your 'all too often' is out of place here. What you call the 'crude view' was historically the best way to go. So I hope you mean that your STATEMENT is crude and can be refined!

“…spirit of 1917” is more like vintage of 1789, the only true mass movement is a crowd with torches. Hegel got one thing right; whatever will is at work, it’s not superficially nor substantively how it appears, unless you are not sober. People may eventually unite to bring down dysfunctional systems but creation is always in the hands of the few, no matter the hallmark of Their movement. Marx’s movements seem to imply social controls from the bottom up, (but show me an inverted pyramid and I’ll show you my asymptote.) Communist, Socialist, Capitalist, Feudal … systems all are expressed as a welfare states for the masses and I doubt the mass movements that may have inspired them did little to affect the result.

George, one thing I'm getting at is that there is no such thing as 'essence': as you say, the reality underlying appearances is atomic motion.

Kevin, my point is that I don't like that quote from Marx at all, because the whole appearance-and-essence dialectical song and dance leads Marxists to see 'underlying' stuff which actually isn't there. When you dig beneath the surface, you expose another surface. There are no essences. It's surfaces all the way, or at least all the way down to the atoms.

Thanks Ken, I have endless difficulties explaining this to Marxists influenced by Dialectics Of Nature and later such stuff. I use the thermodynamics example to criticize the notion of a transition of quantity into quality, or whatever it is. This leads to many arguments, even when I bring in Gibbsian phase transitions and talk about water turning into ice or steam, etc. They refuse to believe that there are tested theories of mathematical physics that explain such things with no reference to quality at all! When I push the point, the bottom line is always the same, i.e. that their view of what is really basic is close to Aristotle's: The world consists of visible objects only, they have qualities, and atoms (and much else) are "just" constructions of the mind. Well, that's exactly where they stop being realists or materialists of any modern acceptable kind! When I tell them that the existence of atoms was verified in (I think) 1905 by Perrin in France, they still remain unimpressed. Then they claim that, "Well, OK, then atoms are another way of looking at things." Then I give up and accuse them of being crypto post-modernist relativists!

I just realised that the above would have Lenin's approval. He believed in atoms and wrote a lively book about how Mach and others were scientific reactionaries. The book uses all the right and standard philosophical arguments and in fact defends a realistic view of modern science. So I wonder how some Marxists I know can insist on the Dialictic while simultaneously accepting the sensible if polemically expressed arguments in 'Materialism and Enperio-Criticism.'

I've never come across Marxists who thought atoms were a construction of the mind. But I have come across quite a few who think Materialism and Empirio-Criticism is 'crude' and 'mechanical' and 'reductionist' and so on.

By the way, Lenin gave full credit to Mach et al as scientists - it was their philosophical views that he considered mistaken. But with the scientists he reckoned it was an honest mistake - what really got his goat was Marxists (mostly Bolsheviks I think) who argued that Mach's ideas should be incorporated into materialism and Marxism as the latest cool scientific thing.

I'm glad to hear that Ken, but I have very recently come across one such person. Our argument was fun but hard hitting. At any rate, I'm more than glad to stand corrected about the general case.
Lenin's book is polemically brilliant and philosophically sound. That's because it IS true that the good arguments standardly directed at Berkeley apply to Mach. So now I wonder what philosophies the people you met would to Lenin's acceptance of the best science and philosophy of his time. Any ideas?

P.S. My "endless difficulties" occured between 64 and 71, when I was a student. At that time almost all academic philosophers in America were positivists of one form or another. They were influenced by Ernest Nagel, John Dewey, and Rudolf Carnap. Some were Marxists as well, and I never understood how these strands could coexist in their minds (Sidney Hook was one before his conversion). I was always a staunch realist in science. Never gave an inch. There were very few others. In the USA realism never flourished again in academia. It was there, though. But now it's vanishing again thanks to the influence of two brilliant anti-realists. One I like a lot, the other exists by selectively using the work of his realist teacher Wilfrid Sellars. I'm close to Sellars but with reservations. My comrades-in-arms in this affair are exasperated, as am I. My take is that the return to anti-realisms is egged on by the popularity of Post Modernism. PoMo might be waning in "literary Theory," but forms of it are alive and (too) well in philosophy. I do not like this and have been trying to correct this a bit: fat chance.

Ken - When I read the Marx quote for some reason I immediately thought of string theory and the unification of relativity and quantum mechanics. Not quite rendering science superfluous but rounding things off quite nicely. I'm sceptical though. Dotting the subatomic i's and crossing the big bang t's has already seen off the likes of Einstein and Hawkings.

Marxism has always promoted itself as scientific socialism although in practice the social science was rarely more than a crude amalgamation of Calvanistic puritanism plus the methodology of the revolutionary French bourgeouisie circa 1793.

Kevin, I don't think science has been rounded off nicely, or ever will be.

As for Marxism - for all my sarcasm above about Marxists' ability to see the 'underlying essence' of events whose actual character was perfectly obvious to everyone else (I mean, who, except the Marxists, was in the least surprised when the Khomeini government turned on them?) I don't at all recognise your description of it as even a caricature. Possibly you are mistaking the Militant tendency and its decomposition products for Marxism. (I tend to do the same with the splinter of Trotskyism I came from.) But if you want to expand on that description, please go ahead.

The scholar Lars T Lih gives a very interesting take on Lenin's What is to be done? here.

Isn't there actually substantial virtue in looking at the complexities of mass movements rather than just the largest current within them? The Iranian Revolution, for instance, wasn't just "a gigantic reactionary mass movement to establish an Islamic theocracy" and Solidarnosc wasn't just "a Catholic, nationalist mass movement to overthrow the unpopular People's Republic and restore capitalism". Obviously we can spend forever waiting for such movements to throw off their masks, only to find out that the mask was actually its real face all the time, and the fact that they have the potential to be something else may only recall Dave Bassett's "potential gets you the sack". But, y'know, that's what Marxists are there for, to observe contradictions, to remark on their potential, to note (as the world economy is currently obliged to note) that sometimes thing turn into their opposites. In other words, not to just say what seems perfectly obvious to everybody else. As long as that's the business people are in and not the business of predictions (or backing long-odds horses far too often) then I think it's valuable.

(See, one thing I particualrly like about Marxism is the uncertainty that seems to me to be inherent in its worldview. It's always been turned into this or that certainty, all sorts of people telling you definitively what's going to happen and definitively what it says. But it seems to me to offer instead a permanent kaleidoscope of alternative possibilities, of different outcomes.)

Isn't there actually substantial virtue in looking at the complexities of mass movements rather than just the largest current within them?

Sure. But, back in the day, we (most of us) argued flat out that the 'largest current within them' just wasn't there or really meant something else.

I imagine this line got a few airings:

And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionising themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language.

The sun rotates too, although it's called a differential rotation. So, did or do any multidimensional sunlings enjoy a earth sight and wonder who or what is going around who or what? And I wonder if Michael Moorcock (a writer I've enjoyed very much) has disinterest in just 'high' altitude vehicles or generally any vehicles other than a four-legged variety, it seems that flights of fantasy can soar quite high as well and I remember that the original Star Trek was labeled 'Wagon Train in Space'.

Yes Ken, the Russian Machists were largely Bolsheviks like Bogdanov, Bazrov, and Lunacharsky. Bogdanov was a very interesting figure whose wrote prolifically on a wide variety of subjects. I think its too bad that he was expelled from the Bolshevik faction in 1908, since he was a lively and interesting thinker, who instance for instance created what he called 'tektology' which was an early version of general systems theory. In the years after the October Revolution, he was a founder of the Proletkult which had an influential role in the cultural life of the Soviet Union during the 1920s (lots of people who became leading cultural figures like film maker Sergei Eisentein, passed through that organization during those years).

Concerning the Lenin/Bogdanov debate much can be said. Lenin was, I think correct, in linking the Machists's positions to Berkeleyian idealism. Indeed, the British logical positivist A.J. Ayer (logical positivism being essentially an updated version of Machism) in his book Language, Truth, and Logic emphasized that the positivists were intellectual descendants of Berkeley. And indeed, in one of his autobiographies, Ayer explicitly conceded that Lenin was correct in seeing Machism as rooted directly in Berkeleyian idealism.

I think that Lenin was correct in making the case for realism, but on the other hand, I think that the Russian Machists were on to something too. They perceived correctly, IMO, the inadequacies of dialectical materialism as it had been handed down by Engels and Plekhanov. And most of the most important and innovative work that was done in the philosophy of science during the 20th century was rooted either directly or indirectly in Machism. The expulsion of Machist thinking from Bolshevik and hence later Soviet philosophy was ultimately, IMO, quite detrimental to the development of Soviet philosophical thought, since Soviet philosophy was largely cut off from philosophical developments in the West.

Another interesting debate was the debate in the Soviet Union between the so-called Mechanists and the Deborinists which took place during the 1920s. To some extent some of the issues from the earlier debate between Lenin and the Machists got revisited, except that this time both sides insisted that they were orthodox Leninists.

I wrote about this once on the Marxmail List. See:

Thanks, Jim, for the comment and the linked piece - very interesting. (The link should be A few years ago I read a Brezhnev-era Soviet textbook called The Fundamentals of Marxist-Leninist Philosophy and found some of its arguments and presentations quite interesting. Ilyenkov's Dialectical Logic is in a different league though - it's an independent contribution that really makes one think.


Apologies for jumping in with my size 10 working class boots and muddying your playground, but it is surly perfectly possible for an organization like Solidarnosc, to start out as a progressive force and eventually morph into the opposite, after all Lenin's Bolshevik party managed it without a backward glance.

There can be little doubt for a time Solidarnosc put some manners, if not the fear of christ ;) on the stalinist bureaucracy that lorded it over the Polish State. it also gave a boost of much needed confidence to working class people everywhere.

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