Rescuing Marxism

It is praxis, not deterministic pseudo-science, that will bring emancipation, argues the SLP’s Delphi

Steve Green (Weekly Worker November 4) raises some important points about the scientific basis of Marxism which deserve clarifying.

Firstly, we appear to agree on the main point - that dialectical materialism is a method of analysis and not in itself a science. Steve even concedes that politics is not a true science. We also agree that understanding Marxism as a methodology is in need of “critical reappraisal” (Delphi’s words). He also goes on to affirm that the solution to this lies in “learn[ing] from the class struggle” - that is what Delphi, using economy of words, describes as praxis.

However, Steve goes on to distinguish Marxist methodology from a ‘Marxism’ which does not need such a critical reappraisal. The question therefore arises - what is this Marxism distinct from the methodology of dialectical materialism? He obviously does not mean Marxism in action, as this necessarily involves both methodology and practice. Does he mean the accumulated theoretical writings of Marx and Marxists? If so, how do we discern which among these describe objective reality, without recourse also to critical reappraisal tested in practice. Put simply, what elements of this Marxism are “science” and what not?

For the dogmatic Marxist-Leninists, or Trotskyists, the answer is simple. It is canonised in holy writ and ipso facto must be scientific. Under Stalinist regimes of course it is enshrined in official state ideology. Here it also serves the role of ascribing scientific authority to a bureaucratic class in its task of promoting industrialisation and socially engineering the subordination of workers and peasants to technology as producers. This is the pseudo-scientific doctrinaire nonsense peddled in the name of Marxism-Leninism by such theoretical Neanderthals as Royston Bull and Harpal Brar.

How indeed do genuine Marxists, Marxist-Leninists or Trotskyists use the methodology, theory or philosophy of dialectical materialism to arrive at an objective understanding of the real world, in order to bring about a transformation to socialism? To repeat - we require no less than an understanding of the “epistemological premises of Marxism”. This is not, as Steve translates from Delphinese, “the theory and methods upon which Marxism rests”. It entails a critique of Marxist “theory and methods”. To use as basic a definition as possible, drawn from Collin’s concise English dictionary, epistemology is itself the “theory of knowledge, especially the critical study of its validity, method and scope”.

Concluding his letter, Steve refers to a practical example which shows why such a critique is vital - the debate on the “British-Irish thing”, as he calls it. Delphi too (who has never claimed infallibility) is also bemused why this long-buried ’two nations’ thesis, propagated by the British and Irish Communist Organisation (BICO) in the early 1970s, should be resurrected with such vehemence at this time. Obviously it is an attempt to raise the demand of ‘Irish-British’ self-determination at this sensitive stage in the peace process. Whether it is intended, as it was by BICO, to undermine republicanism must be left to those most closely involved in the debate to judge.

However, both sides of the debate claim to be putting forward a scientific view of nationality in general and of the ‘British-Irish’ in particular. Which of these arguments reflects objective reality? How is the truth decided? If a theoretical position is adopted by an organisation on a majority vote, does this make it correct or scientific? It may be good enough for bishops or mullahs in council to claim the hand of god guides them to the correct decision, but, as materialists, we do not have that option.

According to Steve, faced with the inability of proving one proposition or the other by experiment, we may have to “wait for it to happen or not”. If so, how are all the acres of print and hours of time devoted to this and other questions justified, if they do not provide Marxists with a guide to action which can help, in this case, bring about British-Irish self-determination, or conversely, prevent unionist secession within a united Ireland?

To continue with the present example, it is an objective truth that central to the ‘nationality’ of the British-Irish is a culture and ideology which is pro-British imperialist, anti-Catholic and anti-Irish. Strip that away and what is left? The religious element in British-Irish culture is clearly dominated by the political aspect. Church of Ireland and dissenter congregations exist amicably in the 26 Counties without the need for expression through ‘self-determination’, or the desire to march with Lambeg drums.

If this is accepted as a truth, then it is difficult to see why the debate has assumed the proportions it has. Is it because, as Delphi is saying about epistemological premises, Marxism is often employed not as a method of critique related to actual struggle, but as a theory, which, having assumed an autonomy of its own, is disputed in terms of an inner ‘logic’ and not reality? In terms of science it bears the same relation as pure mathematics does to the necessary ability to calculate quantities of food, money, electricity, coal or any other thing required in daily life. In other words, even if the theory does accord with reality - ie, is ‘scientific’ - but does not provide a way to validate itself through praxis, what is its value to the struggle for socialism?

Furthermore, if a theory is scientific - that is, based on determined laws - how can its realisation be mediated through praxis? As Steve says, human beings are “conscious creatures”, and therefore subjective factors, the factors of will, especially in issues like nationality and culture, come into play. According to deterministic ‘scientific Marxism’ of the Bull and EPSR ilk (Delphi, as always, uses them as an extreme manifestation of this phenomenon and not because they represent any influence), the task of Marxists is merely to make workers aware of immutable laws, and then, conscious of their historic task, they will carry out the role allotted by history.

But this falls down on the very problem of what process generates that consciousness. The Bullites believe it is by preaching the correctness of their own version of scientific rationality. Delphi believes that it is only through struggle, through praxis, that people’s consciousness is changed. Marxism’s role in this is not primarily as a science, even while it may be providing an accurate analysis of the real world. Workers and other oppressed peoples do not become socialists because they are made aware that they are agents of an historical process. They become socialists either out of self-interest (ie, they anticipate some material benefit) or because they are inspired to fight for a goal which is perceived to be good, or usually a combination of the two. All these are subjective responses.

Never in history has ‘science’ motivated a movement for revolutionary social or political change, not even the Russian Revolution. Lenin may have used scientific methods to arrive at the slogans, ‘All power to the soviets’, ‘Bread, peace and land’, etc, but it was the slogans and the material necessity which moved the masses, not the science. It is the ethical quality of Marxism, the ability to inspire people to sacrifice in attainment of a higher humanist goal, which Delphi argues is the most neglected and valuable element of Marxism. Delphi’s “crusade”, as Steve dubs it, is not to undermine Marxism by criticism, but to rescue the utopian, ethical, humanist dimension of Marxism from the embrace of deterministic pseudo-science.

 ‘What’s new?’ some readers may ask. This debate has gone on within Marxism throughout its history and even Marx himself never made clear whether his scientific approach in Capital was meant to complement, or supersede, the humanist legacy expressed in the Economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844, for example. The difference is that now, with the decline of the authority of the Bolshevik tradition, following its historical failure in the Soviet Union, humanist Marxism is not only being debated by academics, but is able to make headway in the class struggle. Dave Osler’s article (Weekly Worker November 4) on Scargill and the SLP reflects this trend with the statement, “We have to stress that socialism is an emancipatory project” which takes on board “the insights of feminism and environmentalism”.

The Stalinist ghost was indeed present at the feast during the SLP congress. But the spirit of Delphi was abroad too and it is a pity that comrades such as Dave were not there to utter it. His analysis of Scargillism contains some good points, but his attack on Scargill’s ‘ego’ is a red herring. Only a leader with immense determination, conviction and sense of purpose could have mentally survived the onslaught which Dave acknowledges has, and continues to be, mounted by the state and media. Scargill often uses Stalinist methods, but his ideology is basically utopian, even romantic. It is this quality, as well as his unquestionable principle, which underpins his charisma. Marxism, both within the SLP and outside, has indeed to become an “emancipatory project”, based on genuine liberation and a humanist ethic, if we are to regenerate the revolutionary movement.

To return to comrade Green’s letter on Delphi. Perhaps he missed Delphi’s explanation that anonymity has been chosen to avoid the accusation of factionalism and in the hope that the ideas will be judged on merit irrespective of the individuals who express them. It should also be explained that Delphi is not meant to suggest divine inspiration, but is in fact an acronym for the main elements of humanist Marxist socialism - Democracy, Equality, Liberty, Peace, Humanism, Internationalism. Perhaps the significance of these principles may be elaborated at a later stage in the columns of the Weekly Worker?