Historical idealism or Marxist analysis? (Part I)

Socialist News writer Don Hoskins breaks Arthur Scargill’s “Nazi”, “bookburning” ban and outlines his Economic and Philosophic Science Review views on homosexuality, etc

It will take more than the cod philosophy put forwards by Phil Sharpe (Weekly Worker December 17) to make the reality of imminent imperialist collapse disappear, make the titanic and now eternally established reality of 70 years of Soviet achievement disappear, or deny the urgent necessity to warn the working class of the need to overturn capitalism by making revolution against it.

Revolution to end capitalism is an inevitable development historically, but one that will only occur with conscious understanding and leadership (a contradiction that seems impossible only to someone who does not grasp even the basics of dialectics). Being as right as humanly possible is crucial for the leadership of the revolutionary fight, and the struggle for clarity is the core of getting it right.

But grasping dialectical materialism and the philosophy of scientific understanding is a million miles away from Sharpe’s actual aims, despite his opening welcome for “detailed discussion”, as called for by the Economic and Philosophic Science Review. Far from wanting the discussion, he sets out to attack the Review and its clarity.

Nor is he really interested in the application of science to understanding human sexuality and homosexuality, his ostensible reason for the article. Sharpe uses the question of homosexuality only to mobilise the censorious abuse that current PC, single-issue hysteria produces against all attempts to analyse homosexuality objectively. Any attempt to explore the issue politically, psychologically, socially or philosophically is slandered as “homophobic”, unless it kowtows to the existing PC wisdom (within capitalism) that homosexuality and heterosexuality are completely equal. There is nothing more between them, it is suggested, than ‘lifestyle’ preference perhaps, rather than the expression of deep seated social-development difficulties, as some analyses have begun to explore.

And the reason to attack the discussion with abuse rather than argument is to avoid science.

And the real purpose of avoiding science it to be able to continue trying to rubbish all major communist understanding without having to tackle the facts, which begin with developments in the real world. As Phil Sharpe’s preoccupations in the article make very clear, he is especially afraid to look at capitalism’s growing crisis and the terrifying weaknesses it is producing in the ruling class.

But abuse will not do to head off a growing general willingness to tackle the understanding of these questions by serious people and thoughtful workers. They will produce a growing depth of consciousness that the fight against the capitalist crisis will demand.

Sharpe is so fearful of the weight of understanding being produced now that he has to try a new tack, proving that there is no such thing as truth. Science, he declares, cannot produce an objective world view because it is not testable. He sweepingly declares “predictability” to be an inadequate and flawed concept for defining scientific understanding.

Tellingly, his hostility to “predictability” (a code here for ‘testability’) is triggered by descriptions of the capitalist crisis in the EPSR and the existence and achievements past and present; of the workers’ states, particularly the USSR, but also China, Vietnam, Korea, Cuba and most of east Europe.

He wants to cover up the more and more glaringly wrong perspectives presented by the Weekly Worker, by pretending that it does not matter that events are developing in a completely different direction to the relentlessly gloomy and defeatist CPGB world view. After all, he asserts, prediction is not what science is about.

But far from a revitalised New World Order in capitalism, led by a resurgent US imperialism, pushing back revolutionary and nationalist struggle (as the CPGB absurdly says) and far from imperialism “cooling down the hot spots” in the anti-imperialist struggle worldwide, real world events point to growing upheaval. And at its core is ever deepening inter-imperialist conflict and political and economic undermining of the system on an unprecedented scale.

Never before has imperialism - and its leading force, the US ruling class - been so split politically, and never before has so much humiliating and degrading sleaze and infighting beset Washington. Militarily and politically its interventions in hot spots from Somalia to the Sudan, the Balkans to Iraq, despite fascistic barbarity, have been disastrous or ineffectual. But the Weekly Worker-type theories of a 1990s rebuilt imperialist confidence would predict otherwise. And the prediction does not match events. So, to get round it, Sharpe says science is not really about predicting at all. He means there really is nothing to test and therefore no way to distinguish one view from another. There can be “no one main reason” to explain homosexuality, for example, he says, implying that therefore we give up the battle to understand. The great ‘multanimous’ swamp of 57 varieties of Trotskyism and quasi-Trotskyism is unavoidable.

Aware that this is not the strongest of philosophy, he says elsewhere that “of course a theory can be tested”, by “its capacity to explain reality”. But how can anyone know what this “capacity” is, unless there is something to test against reality, which in all normal understanding means predictions?

The anti-prediction argument has an element of slyness to it because it tilts, correctly, at a bourgeois rigidity in the concept of predictability, but it uses this to go right on past and dismiss ‘prediction’ altogether.

In the narrow mechanical sense ‘predictability’ is a mainstay of post-war capitalist ‘philosophy of science’ as expounded by Karl Popper particularly, who has an avowed and open anti-communist agenda. The pre-digested simple version of this, as thrust down every science undergraduate’s throat for the last 40 years, is that only mechanically repeatable, experimentally verifiable predictions constitute science at all. All observation, categorisation, description and analysis of movement, development and trends is useless story-telling in this narrow view.

And even then there is no such thing as ‘knowledge’, or truth, and especially not absolute truth or eternal truth - only disprovable hypotheses (ideas) or temporarily convenient analogies, all waiting to be shot down as another comes along which is a better ‘fit for the data’.

The greatest problem for this Cold War Popperian ‘philosophy’ - whose only ra­tionale is to push Marxism outside the realm of science and discredit it - has always been the profoundly influential theory of evolution, which has built an ever deeper and more solid base in science over the post-war decades despite Popper. It now numbers among its protagonists some of most thoughtful and combative of the modern bourgeois scientists. Darwinism incurred Popper’s wrath because it uses a method of historical materialism as part of its structure, just as Marxism does (and Darwin won Marx’s admiration).

It is in fact also strongly predictive, as one of its current leading figures, Steven Jay Gould, points out. As he says, every time he chips away at a piece of rock to find a fossil he ‘predicts’ that the sequence of fossils will be present in a certain order; as it invariably is. If he found a human skeleton lower down (older) than a dinosaur, then a major rethink would be needed.

However this predictability does not stop the anti-predictability Sharpe from citing Darwinism as the “most outstanding” example of a theory apparently to show his materialist credentials and put him on the right side against the crudities of Popper.

Against moribund Popperism, holding up Darwin is good for the ‘revolutionary’ credentials, and commendable. But Sharpe cannot bring himself to cite Marxism as the major theory with even greater philosophical depth and range than Darwin, and thereby demonstrate some real revolutionary credentials, Marxism is after all the theory which analysed the whole revolutionary nature of all development (including species), material and theoretical.

It is Marxism that showed the “necessity of an alternative to idealist philosophies of history to analyse society” (which Sharpe credits to Darwin astoundingly!) and it is Marxism that first disentangled the great class-based conflict of materialist versus idealist philosophy as precisely reflecting the interests of the working (progressive, materialist) class in history and the reactionary idealism of the ruling class.

Sharpe cannot have the remotest understanding of Marxism, which he immediately goes on to prove by saying that he would never “suggest Darwin’s views are infallible and eternal”. Whyever not? The body of evolutionary science has been established for all time, no matter what developments, elaborations and modifications continuously developing human knowledge might make to the basic theory.

Sharpe gives away that he is actually as Popperian as Popper, by adding: “but at pres­ent no other theory explains the natural world in a more coherent manner”. So, theories come and theories go, one supplanted by another, a battle of ideas.

Just to underline the point, Sharpe casually writes off Newton’s laws of motion, which are possibly an even greater intellectual materialist achievement than Darwinism. Newtonian mechanics was the major intellectual product of developing 18th century bourgeois industrial culture.

But Newton’s grasp has been supplanted by the theoretical revolution of modern physics, says Sharpe. It is no longer valid. In 1908 Lenin took on and ridiculed exactly the same argument, put forward by the idealists of the then ‘new physics’. Newtonian physics remains the norm for most terrestrial purposes. Human knowledge builds up a core of understanding which becomes fully estab­lished, despite transformation and development and continuous deepening of the theories. This continuous dialectical process goes on with the gathering of new knowledge as new practice is tried, revealing shortcomings and contradictions, which lead to new knowledge, which then further refines practice. There is established knowledge, and then the cutting edge of human understanding where argument is needed to clarify the picture (the Trotskyists, instead, want a permanent soup of endless argument about everything).

OK, concedes Lenin:

“Of course we must never forget that the criterion of practice can never, in the nature of things, either confirm or refute any human idea completely. This criterion too is sufficiently ‘indefinite’ not to allow human knowledge to become ‘absolute’, but at the same time it is sufficiently definite to wage a ruthless fight on all varieties of idealism and agnosticism. If what our practice confirms is the sole, ultimate and objective truth, then from this must follow the recognition that the only path to this truth is the path of science, which holds the materialist point of view.

“… But inasmuch as the criterion of practice - ie, the course of development of all capi­talist countries in the last few decades - proves only the objective truth of Marx’s whole social and economic theory in general, and not merely one or other of its parts, formulations, etc, it is clear that talk here of the ‘dogmatism’ of the Marxists is to make an unpardonable concession to bourgeois economics. The sole conclusion to be drawn from the opinion held by Marxists that Marx’s theory is an objective truth is that by following the path of Marxist theory we shall draw closer and closer to objective truth (without ever exhausting it); but by following any other path we shall arrive at nothing but confusion and lies” (VI Lenin CW Vol 14, p143).

A century later and there remains so many alleged ‘revolutionaries’ like Sharpe who would have “confusion and lies” reign overall, covering it over by daunting talk of supposed ‘philosophy’ when all development proves the objective truth once again of Marx’s (and Lenin’s) understanding, taken as a whole.

Picking out and dismissing bits of science as “rightwing bourgeois”, as Sharpe arbi­trarily chooses to do with psychoanalytic theories (about homosexuality being a problem of socialisation and family interactive development) is silly. Or dishonest, more likely, because Sharpe happily cites other (equally “bourgeois” scientific) theories about homosexuality when they support his PC stance. For example he suddenly loses sight of the bourgeois nature of science when he chooses to cite the supposed discovery of a homosexual gene, ‘proving’ homosexuality to be ‘normal’. Even within bourgeois science this discovery is widely contested incidentally.

The bourgeois limits to modern psychology or science in general do not make science wrong so much as hamstrung: at best mechanistic and unable to broaden out; at worst paralysed by stupid idealistic fantasies.

In the greatest achievements of human struggle and class struggle, the instrument evolved to test theory is the party. Arguments and polemic are here most closely focused and most sharply tested and fought out, as far as possible to clarity. Testing theory against reality by practice is constantly crucial, which requires that the party, and the class behind it, develops a line based on its theoretical battles (of course it needs to have the theoretical battle to establish a line).

As the devaluation crisis now ripping through Brazil on the coat tails of the ever deepening Asian and Russian crisis shows, there is still nothing to disprove Marx. And plenty to show he was right, profoundly. And just to be sure we can put forward a prediction (that the EPSR has alone pointed to) - the crisis will rapidly draw in the once-mighty dollar bringing it and the US imperialist order to collapse and chaos.

Strangely the Trotskyists and the quasi-Trotskyists, in their PC mode, suddenly are the least willing to argue and battle out developing understandings. Even to most tentative hypotheses that homosexuality might not be identical to heterosexuality produce demands for silence, for shutting down publications on a par with the most draconian bookburning demands of the inquisition or the Nazis. Suppressing the real argument is capitalism’s major weapon against the truth.

In case that does not work, Sharpe finally goes all the way back to medieval ducking stool witch-finding. If you drowned, you were innocent (but dead). If you floated, you were a witch and had to be burned.

Says Sharpe, if you do not agree with his PC views on homosexuality, and (oh horror) uphold the allegedly “traditional bourgeois ideology and morality about the family unit” (though the tens of thousands years long path of family evolution long predates capitalism or even feudalism), you are showing signs of “the problem of latency”, an “obsessive fear of acknowledging their particular sexuality by repressed individuals”. The more you deny this, the argument runs, the more you latency you have and therefore, it is to be presumed, the more you secretly go along with the opposite argument. So only one argument really exists - Sharpe’s. A veritable philosophic ducking stool!

None of this diatribe of misrepresentation, distorted quotes and agnosticism has anything to do with science: just hostility to science and an attempt to confuse the working class. It will not work, as Sharpe and the Trotskyist swamp will discover, as revolutionary practice necessarily rapidly sharpens in the coming imperialist disintegration. It will give short shrift to nonsense. That is another prediction - to be tested shortly.