Chris Knight gives a completely distorted picture of Noam Chomsky’s view on the origin of human language. Knight claims that Chomsky is “arguing that humans are so utterly different from apes or monkeys that the question of evolution is irrelevant” (‘What can chimpanzees teach us about human nature?’, February 5).
This is utter nonsense. Evolution is, of course, very relevant, and Chomsky has never denied it. Humans and apes or monkeys and, in fact, all the species of ‘higher’ vertebrates are very similar. Taking a more abstract viewpoint of theoretical biology, the same is true of all the living organisms: the existing forms of life have developed from earlier ones. This is evolution, an observational and, after the discovery of the genetic code, also an undisputable descriptive fact of nature.
The fact that humans have a specific capacity - the faculty of language - does not make us “utterly different”, any more than the capacity for echolocation in some species of bats separates them from the rest of nature. The sophisticated ability of migratory birds to navigate, the behaviour of social insects, and all the specific properties of the various species of living creatures have evolved, ultimately, from unicellular organisms. The tough question is how.
Chris Knight refers to the version of a lecture in Delhi (January 1996), where Chomsky writes about a “strange cosmic ray shower [which] reorganised the brain, implanting a language organ in an otherwise primate brain”. This is not science, Knight writes, but a slightly disguised biblical miracle account of human origins.
He fails, however, to mention that Chomsky calls his “cosmic ray account” a fairy tale. The whole point of the passage is ironic: because of the lack of evidence, all accounts on the origin of human language are just stories. But a relatively sudden emergence of language as a result of a genetic mutation in one of our ancestors some 75,000 to 100,000 years ago might be more plausible than a slow evolution during hundreds of thousands or millions of years.
The same time frame of somewhat less than 100,000 years ago is also the period when the first archaeological evidence of symbolic behaviour, art, etc on the part of our ancestors appeared, starting what paleoanthropologists call a “creative explosion”. About 50,000 years later, the hunter-gatherers of Cro-Magnon people were surely like us - anatomically and behaviourally modern humans. It is reasonable to suppose that this “creative explosion” had something to do with the emergence of the faculty of language in humans.
As for the characterisation of language as an organ, this is innocuous as long as the term ‘organ’ is taken to mean a system that can be studied in a relative isolation from the rest of an organic whole. So the respiratory, circulatory and digestive systems together can be said to form the organ of metabolism.
Chomsky has always criticised the very common view of human language as an organ of communication, stressing that language is first and foremost an organ of thought. Language can be used for communication, but it can also be used for many other purposes. Basically, language permits “the free expression of thought over an unbounded range” (for this quotation by Chomsky, see CP Otero (ed) Language and politics Oakland 2004, p251).
Some scholars go even further and say that linguistic expressions are, in fact, identical with thoughts: there is no thought without language. Thoughts are simply silent linguistic expressions, and the difference between the two is no more than the difference between speech bubbles of various shapes in a comic strip. Note, for example, that the notion of ‘truth’ would be impossible without language. (For this view, see the very interesting book by Wolfram Hinzen and Michelle Sheehan, The philosophy of universal grammar Oxford 2013.)
Note that the human language faculty also consists of subsystems which in themselves are not devoted to language, and which we share with other animals. One of them is memory, the other a capacity to categorise the outside world. Then there are the perceptual and motor systems, which are used to externalise linguistic expressions: hearing and speech as the most common of them, sight and signing for deaf people, and even touch for deaf-blind, as, for example, the fate of Helen Keller shows. One of the major tasks of linguistic inquiry is to sort out which component parts in the human faculty of language are specifically devoted to language, and which of them are shared with other physiological functions.
Chris Knight’s story on the origin of human language is sympathetic, but it is just that - a story with no scientific basis. The greatest problem with tales like that is that they don’t analyse the structure of human language at all. Such an analysis requires hard scientific work. But without such an analysis it is impossible to present any even slightly reasonable account on how nature gave us the wonderful ability to organise our thoughts and make them understandable to our fellow humans.
Losses and gains
In his discussion of the basis for human nature, I’m glad to see Chris Knight is focusing on the bonobos, those smaller relatives of the chimps. I also find myself convinced by his speculation about the differences between the two primate groups being down to the difference in food habitat.
Of course, there is another difference worth addressing: as geneticist Steve Jones has pointed out, bonobos have largely separated sex and reproduction. Females choose to have sex not only when in heat and fertile, but for recreation at other times, with both genders. In fact, the bonobos are famous for their use of sexual play in all kinds of interactions. They often make love in preference to fighting, unlike chimps, while like humans they do it face to face. They are a more egalitarian and pacific cousin all round.
That other relative of the chimp, the hominin or human, also separated sexuality and fertility. The species achieved this even more effectively by losing that natural signal of fertility, perineal swelling, through evolution into standing upright. Unlike chimps, male hominins didn’t know when females were fertile and therefore couldn’t concentrate energy on corralling them at those times against rivals. What is also possible is that a closeness of bonobo-type physical relations may have promoted solidarity, while those hands which were no longer feet were freed to make tools, throw spears, create art. This is not to say that any group equilibrium, with no single dominant alpha male, as with chimps, couldn’t be disrupted - that is, relations altered by new forces of production.
I agree with Chris: humans are sociable and enjoy sociability, making for a closer group, but another thing about them is that they could also have been much weaker, relatively speaking, than other animals - the big cat, the mammoth, even the alpha chimp - and so may have faced the necessity of inventing advantages. Some of these inventions might be useful for all - cooking, fishing. Some might have been commandeered by chiefs or particular families in mixed clan groupings. In central Asia, 30,000 years ago, bands of foragers came together and hunted from a common ‘base camp’, where in that cold climate somebody also invented the method of keeping meat frozen in large dug-outs (Finlayson, 2009). This ‘Gravettian’ culture, in achieving a surplus which was location-specific, became more settled - an innovation in safety which it probably wasn’t hard to convince the majority to accept. Same with herding and agriculture - examples of which were associated with and therefore owned by some leading family, like those of Abraham or Odysseus.
Separate human societies probably developed differently and attained an evolutionary advantage over other groupings, even without war. It is now accepted that Neanderthals were not killed off by homo sapiens but died out on their own. Down the millennia there have been losses and gains with each development, but the sociable human can be convinced to accept that a loss in one area is a gain in comfort or security, especially if the arrangement is endorsed by compelling religion and power-politics. In needing to be convinced though - by mythologies and new visions, by ideology - the human animal shows that they are not inevitably committed to one path. In being able to change their mind, they show they are not fleshy robots.
Our job now is to convince the human animal that it would be better - more sociable, more self-satisfying - to try something other than living in an increasingly broken-down society, under the vampires of capital and the mythologists of national community.
Check your facts
In his article, ‘A well-ordered militia’ (February 5), Jack Conrad, defending the classic Marxist idea of the workers’ militia, cites what he refers to as the “second stanza” (actually it’s the fifth) of ‘The Internationale’.
May I point out that the English translation he cites (with some very small typographical variations) was made by myself, and was published in the Socialist Worker diary for 1985. So I and the Socialist Workers Party of the 1980s, if not that of today, should not be numbered among the “cowardly, economistic left”, whom Conrad denounces so vigorously.
I realise that for people like Jack Conrad it is psychologically very important to believe that they alone hold the truth and that everyone else on the left is a coward or a traitor. Although it doesn’t do much for comradely relations, at least it provides a warm feeling inside. But please check your facts first.
I am not a Left Unity moderate. Where I differ with you is that you apply analysis derived from quite different historical circumstances to today. There are no Squadristi, no Sturmabteilung and no flying pickets on the horizon; we are not in an era of socialist insurrection. This is not the inter-war period.
I am not saying wait for the pre-revolutionary situation, but wait for the class struggle to involve the type of conflicts which make a workers’ militia relevant. Marxists are not fortune-tellers, but insisting on programmatic demands that are not raised by struggle makes you look as if you believe you are some kind of self-appointed vanguard possessing a set of timeless truths. At the moment, economic violence, not violent coercion, is what western workers need a defence against.
Dave Douglass has forgotten nothing, but by equal measure has learnt nothing. Speaking on behalf of all “battle-hardened, class-conscious coalminers”, he criticises our errors and misjudgements during the miners’ 1984-85 Great Strike (Letters, February 5 2015). Basically what they amount to are:
1. Calling for the widening of the strategic battle between the Thatcher government and the National Union of Mineworkers by drawing in other sections of the working class.
2. Thinking that a national strike ballot would have been advisable.
3. Attacking the idea that nationalised industries were somehow ‘ours’.
Comrade Douglass says “we” had a strategy - indeed, he says “we”, with the help of brick-throwing anarchists, “were winning”. Actually, of course, comrade Douglass is speaking on behalf of no-one except himself. That aside, maybe he should take a little time to think through a few problems with his endlessly repeated account.
1. The miners lost in 1984-85. They were left isolated by the TUC and Labour Party misleaders.
2. If you cannot get people to vote for you, it is unlikely they will be willing to fight for you. That there were so many scabs in Notts, the NUM’s second largest area, was a huge problem.
3. Arguments about coal (and steel) being ‘ours’ came from the top. Leaving aside Arthur Scargill, I am sure comrade Douglass has heard of Mick McGahey, George Bolton, Pete Carter, Emlyn Williams and Kim Howells. They equated nationalisation with common ownership and their dream of a British road to socialism.
I would not call Mike Macnair’s historiography “garbage”, as he labels mine (Letters, January 29), because it is as good as far as it goes. I would only raise what Macnair leaves out, which I would not oppose to Macnair’s perspective, but seek only to add to it. Perhaps it complicates it, but it does not necessarily “contradict” it. I have tried to find what is useful in Macnair’s observations. He only dismisses mine. Fine, then: opposition it is. Non-dialectically and polemically.
If I were to be honest, I would have to admit that I derive my approach from Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlet Reform or revolution? and related writings, and that I accept Luxemburg’s claim to be following Marx contra Bernsteinian revisionism and, later, contra Kautsky. As Michael Harrington quoted Luxemburg in his essay on ‘Marxism and democracy’ (1981):
“Marx proved that each political movement of a social class has a specific, economic basis. And he showed that all previous classes in history had achieved economic power before they succeeded in winning political power. This is the model which David, Woltmann and Bernstein apply slavishly to contemporary social relations. And it demonstrates that they have not understood either the earlier struggles or those taking place today. What does it mean that the earlier classes, particularly the third estate, conquered economic power before political power? Nothing more than the historical fact that all previous class struggles must be derived from the economic fact that the rising class has at the same time created a new form of property, upon which it will base its class domination …
“Now I ask, can this model be applied to our relationships? No. Precisely because to chatter about the economic might of the proletariat is to ignore the great difference between our class struggle and all those which went before. The assertion that the proletariat, in contrast to all previous class struggles, pursues its battles not in order to establish class domination, but to abolish all class domination. It is not a mere phrase … It is an illusion, then, to think that the proletariat can create economic power within capitalist society. It can only create political power and then transform (aufheben) capitalist property.”
If Macnair were to be honest, he would have to admit that he not merely disagrees with Luxemburg, but indeed agrees with Bernstein - and not Marx. Macnair has no use for Marx’s writings on the 1848 revolution, such as The class struggles in France 1848-50,the ‘Address to the central committee of the Communist League’, and The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,nor for much of Marx’s and Engels’ Communist manifesto or Marx’s later political writings, such as The civil war in France and Critique of the Gotha programme, on which Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky based their perspectives. But the 1848-50 writings were dismissed by Kautsky as those of Marx and Engels “before they turned 30”, on the basis of which Kautsky said sneeringly that the “communist theoreticians” like Lukács produced a “series of absurdities” in a “childish game” (‘A destroyer of vulgar Marxism’, 1924). This is what Macnair accuses me of doing. It is consistent with Macnair’s approach, which Luxemburg called the revisionist “opportunist method.”
Macnair adopts the Bernsteinian revisionist method of the supposed linear-progressive development of “evolutionary socialism”, in which the “movement is everything and the goal nothing” because the movement absorbs the goal, and thus Macnair like Bernstein identifies the goal with the movement rather than recognising, as Marxists did, the real contradictions that emerge between means and ends, practice and theory, and social being and consciousness in capitalism. This demands a dialectical approach to the struggle for socialism that Macnair dismisses, as Bernstein and Kautsky did, substituting apologetics for Marxian critical theory. For Macnair, the struggle for democracy in the workers’ collective movement is a direct political line to socialism, understood as democratic republicanism in society. Anything else - anything contradictory - is understood merely as an error based on the purported competing principle of bourgeois individualism. Macnair thus identifies socialism with democracy.
For Luxemburg, such an affirmative and not critical approach to bourgeois social and political relations in capitalism was understandable, if not forgivable, for Bernstein et al in a period of rising proletarian socialist organisation and consciousness. But that can hardly be said of Macnair’s perspective today. What Macnair leaves out and seeks to repress about the history of Marxism is more important than what he says about it. He thus conceals more than he reveals.
Macnair is not a Marxist, but, like Bernstein and Kautsky before him, an ideologist for democracy. Such ideology showed its limits in 1848: hence the need for Marxism, which was not opposed to democracy, but recognised the need in socialism to go beyond it.
Possibly there is an astrological explanation as to why otherwise normal and sane people seek to defend Gilad Atzmon, despite the abundance of evidence relating to his anti-Semitism. Either that or stupidity - I will leave it to your readers to decide which of the above best explains Ted Rankin’s and Harry Powell’s letter denying that the jazzman is anti-Semitic and praising his “brilliant book” (February 5).
Those who sought to eradicate Atzmon’s influence in the Palestine solidarity movement never, at any stage, sought to ban Atzmon from airing his views - still less to deny him the right to earn a living playing jazz. However, there is no doubt as to Atzmon’s anti-Semitic credentials. If messrs Rankin and Powell believe such accusations are a result of out-of-context, truncated quotations, then they can refer directly to my ‘Guide to the sayings of Gilad Atzmon, the anti-Semitic jazzman’ (http://azvsas.blogspot.co.uk/2011/03/guide-to-sayings-of-gilad-atzmon-anti.html).
Perhaps Atzmon’s statement that “I do not wish to enter the debate regarding the truth of the holocaust” has been taken out of context. Perhaps the same applies to his statement in Truth, history and integrity: “If the Nazis ran a death factory in Auschwitz-Birkenau, why would the Jewish prisoners join them at the end of the war? We should ask for some conclusive historical evidence and arguments rather than follow a religious narrative ...” Or “Why were the Jews hated? Why did European people stand up against their next-door neighbours? Why are the Jews hated in the Middle East?” (Note how Atzmon seamlessly weaves the Jews of Europe with the Israeli Jews’ treatment of the Palestinians. Both, after all, are unpopular!)
Apparently there is no “conclusive historical evidence” as to the existence of the extermination camps. Perhaps the Auschwitz protocols of two Jewish escapees, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, is not sufficient?
In his “brilliant” book, The wandering who?, Atzmon informs us that “The never-ending theft of Palestine in the name of the Jewish people is part of a spiritual, ideological, cultural and practical continuum between the Bible, Zionist ideology and the state of Israel … Israel and Zionism, both successful political systems, have instituted the plunder promised by the Hebrew god in the Judaic holy scriptures.”
Some of us see Israel’s theft of Palestinian land as being a consequence of it being a settler-colonial state. Atzmon sees it as a product of the Judaic god.
Atzmon, anti-Semitic? Perish the thought.
We do not ask the impossible, comrades of the Labour Representation Committee majority, Socialist Resistance and Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. What say you now, comrades of the LRC majority, who backed the EuroMaidan and the war against the democratic rights of the people of the Donbass?
It is now clear that a huge gulf has developed between the US policy of arming their Kiev puppets to risk World War III and the far more cautious Merkel and Hollande, who know that the USA is only too willing to fight to the last European to defeat Russia.
If the USA arms Kiev, Russia will have no option but to go in. Thirty million dead in World War II is a recent memory. They will defend their motherland with everything they have, as they did against Napoleon and Hitler. They cannot concede being pushed back like this and will not accept the neocon project to break up Russia itself.
And Russia does not have to accept defeat. They are a nuclear power. And the British ruling class itself is far more split than the USA right now. The warmongering Garton Ash last Monday laughed at the liberal Guardian readership: “America does the cooking, but Europe does the washing up,” he crowed in a piece of wisdom from the pre-nuclear age.
The UK would be the first to get the H-bomb dropped on them in the event of a war now so recklessly being pursued by the USA. And they have their strong supporters here in Britain too.
Where do you stand, comrades? Can the LRC majority, Socialist Resistance and the AWL not distance themselves even now from the far right of US imperialism and get behind the liberal bourgeoisie and European capitalism in seeking to avoid war?
We do not set any unachievable goals for you. No demands that you rise to the political level of Karl Liebknecht and seek the defeat of your own ruling class. We are even conceding it is OK for you to wrongly designate Russia as an imperialist power, to make it easier for you to adopt a pseudo-Leninist mutual defeatist policy. But such politics are obviously a distant memory for you now.
We do not ask you to support the Donbass. You are obviously far too far now from revolutionary socialism to take such a step and become the anti-patriotic revolutionaries that all true international socialists are. We do not ask you to put the interests of the global working class before the outlook of your own narrow trade union bureaucracy. That is obviously too much to ask now.
The very idea that the best interests of the Ukrainian working class are best served by the defeat of Kiev, that the Donbass leaders themselves fear that because they fear their own working class more, hence the kidnapping and exile of the Borotba revolutionary socialists, is far too complicated for true patriots, who see only what the bureaucratic Len McCluskey sees. We do not ask it of you.
The idea that by far the best thing for the British and American working class is defeat in the Ukraine is very far from your minds. How soon we forget the Vietnam syndrome and the great leftist impulse this gave to the global working class after 1975, despite the liberal patriotism of the ‘Bring our boys home’ peaceniks. The wisdom that defeat of imperialism in a foreign war opens up revolutionary possibilities is obviously long gone from the consciousness of those who once understood it.
But at least join the peaceniks and protest the launching of World War III from the standpoint of British liberalism; you cannot continue as the agents of Joe Biden and his son’s oil and gas company in the Donbass, or still follow the vision of John McCain, the modern-day Doctor Strangelove.
Salvage some measure of self-respect even now after the disgrace of supporting imperialism in Libya, Syria and the EuroMaidan.
Step by step
A Syriza central committee member, Stathis Kouvelakis, addressed a meeting in Cambridge earlier this week, which was jointly organised with Left Unity. He said the Syriza government was committed to a “renegotiation of the debt” and, when asked what would happen if Greece defaults, he said they’re not aiming to default, but, if it comes down to it, “difficult choices will have to be made”. He didn’t elaborate, but I think we can take a guess at what he meant.
Incredibly, he also said that the army is not the main issue and, although Syriza is against Nato membership, it’s not a priority right now. Anti-austerity was the main issue - hence the reason for the concessions to Anel. I wanted to ask, when would it be a priority? But unfortunately I wasn’t called to speak. Comrade Kouvelakis said they would need to take things step by step towards a workers’ state and hopefully this would lead to European solidarity and change across Europe.
However, at the end of the meeting, while stressing the importance of giving solidarity to Greece in opposing the troika, I asked him how a Syriza government would prosper, if it either defaulted or ended up compromising and caving in - especially given the fact that it had to rely on a 50-seat top-up. He told me this was a false choice, and avoided me after that.
I must say, it all smacks of Trotsky’s Transitional programme. First it’s anti-austerity, then we’ll get to opposing Nato membership and imperialist wars and later form a workers’ state. And apparently there will be radical inspiration across Europe - I cannot see it somehow.
He got enthusiastic applause at the end from the audience of around 80. Illusions in a Syriza government delivering its promises have got people very excited - although one naysayer (I was told he was the son of a Pasok member) said the reason for the Greek Communist Party’s behaviour, which comrade Kouvelakis described as “sectarian”, was its difference over the EU and euro membership.
The Rugby Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition is not surprised to discover today that papers handed to BBC Panorama and other media outlets show that the HSBC bank, through its Swiss subsidiary, has helped its clients evade taxation.
It was the bankers who caused the so-called economic crisis in the first place by lending money they did not have. These same bankers, like many other wealthy people, have always found ways of avoiding paying their taxes - legally through tax avoidance schemes or illegally by tax evasion. It is clear from the documents handed over that the bank helped wealthy clients to illegally evade tax worth billions of pounds throughout the world, including 7,000 clients based in Britain.
The records go back to 2007, when Labour was in government, so they are no less guilty than the Tories in not seeking ways to prevent this happening. Tax evasion and avoidance by wealthy individuals and companies costs the British economy over £120 billion a year - collection of these revenues would be enough on their own to pay off the country’s economic deficit and avoid public spending cuts.
The present Tory-Lib Dem government cannot hide behind Labour on this one. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs recently informed the government they had only contacted one in six people who were UK residents, but had money in HSBC Switzerland. Only small amounts of taxation have been collected. It is even the case that HMRC and the government agreed with the Swiss authorities, after the leaks about HSBC were found, not to prosecute except where the cases would be virtually guaranteed to succeed. This helps explain why so little has been recovered.
Ordinary working people have suffered increasing poverty since the banking crisis in 2007, with lower wages and massive cuts to their public services, whilst the wealthy have largely got away with their criminality - which is what tax evasion is.
All this is yet further evidence that it is one rule for the rich and one for everyone else in Tory, Lib Dem and Labour Britain. In a report published last week by Inequality Briefing, since the year 2000 the pay of chief executive officers has risen five times quicker than that for the average worker in Britain. Company pre-tax profits have also risen much more than average pay. We are not all suffering from austerity in anything like the same way.
This latest banking scandal is just one more example of the divided society we live in. Failure by successive governments to take tax evasion seriously simply adds to the contempt so many people have for the politicians in the main parties. We challenge any Tory, Lib Dem or Labour MP/PPC to defend what their government has ‘achieved’ on the question of tax evasion.