Gnostic Marxist

October 2021 Forums Socialist Standard Feedback Gnostic Marxist

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  • #214014
    ALB
    Keymaster

    The fabrication that Marx was not a materialist has been repeated here endlessly. So here, Wez, is the killer quote you can use to try to put a end to this. It’s from footnote 4 of section 1 of chapter 15 of Volume I of Capital, Marx’s major published work:

    “Every history of religion, even, that fails to take account of this material basis, is uncritical. It is, in reality, much easier to discover by analysis the earthly core of the misty creations of religion, than, conversely, it is, to develop from the actual relations of life the corresponding celestialised forms of those relations. The latter method is the only materialistic, and therefore the only scientific one. The weak points in the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism that excludes history and its process, are at once evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions of its spokesmen, whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own speciality.”

    Even in the unpublished notes of 1845 that Engels published after Marx’s death as the “Theses on Feuerbach” Marx called himself a materialist (Thesis 10).

    Of course there are materialists and materialists and Marx distinguished his materialism from those of the 18th materialists (as in his early writings), from the “contemplative materialism” of Feuerbach, and from the 19th century “abstract mterialism of natural science”.

    With his serial lying on this point and unfounded accusation that we are materialists in one of the senses that Marx criticised, our feathered friend has long since become a pain in the arse.

    #214017

    Reply by the article’s author to the original question.

    It is certainly the case I did not define ‘what constitutes an individual’. When writing an article of a 1000 words or so for a magazine, defining all the terms used is not possible. Had this been a chapter in a book or a pamphlet, then perhaps such a more definitive course could have been pursued.

    I presumed, and still do presume, most if not all reader have a working understanding of what the word ‘individual’ means, even if it is not always precisely the same. If the working class does not consist of millions, billions indeed, of individuals, then this suggests a person is little more than a component.

    There is surely a dynamic between the material forces affecting the working class as a class and how individual workers respond to those forces. The dominant ideology of the ruling class does much to compromise workers’ responses and people don’t always react in predictable or expected ways.
    The material conditions for the working class to consciously act of itself, for itself have existed for quite some time. However, in accordance with Marx I believe, it is people who make history, not the material conditions in themselves. This requires conscious action based on workers knowing what needs to change, why it needs to change and what is the purpose and goal of change.

    None of this suggests ‘magical praxis’, nor some esoteric substitution, for the struggle of ideas. Indeed, if the working class is to merely act without knowing why it is acting that is certainly anti-intellectual, the by-passing of the intellect. And the class can only know if its constituent parts, the individual workers, know: by what other method can the present prevailing ideology be understood, prevailed upon and overthrown?

    The process of change will not entail a single blueprint everyone will simply follow. There will be debates, plans, counter-plans, successes and failures and all the messy arrangements and compromises contributing to the unfolding of a socialist future. I sincerely hope all who contribute to that process, the billions around the world, do so from a basis of knowledge, of knowing. My use of the word gnostic was rather tongue in cheek, but it does encapsulate the notion of profound understanding, an understanding forged through the class struggle around the prevailing material conditions.

    D.A.

    #214018

    A reply has been received from the author to the original question.

    #214021
    LBird
    Participant

    ALB wrote: “With his serial lying on this point and unfounded accusation that we are materialists in one of the senses that Marx criticised, our feathered friend has long since become a pain in the arse.

    The usual inability, as I’ve always argued, of a ‘materialist’ being unable to engage with the political and philosophical debate, and turning instead to personal abuse, just like Lenin did. You never fail to confirm my opinions, ALB. But I know that you can abuse freely, as the moderators only ban me, for replying in kind. So I can’t, and don’t, abuse you.

    However, in opposition to your claims, I’d like to post a quote from Marx, which confirms what I’ve argued:

    Marx wrote: “Every history of religion, even, that fails to take account of this material basis, is uncritical. It is, in reality, much easier to discover by analysis the earthly core of the misty creations of religion, than, conversely, it is, to develop from the actual relations of life the corresponding celestialised forms of those relations. The latter method is the only materialistic, and therefore the only scientific one. The weak points in the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism that excludes history and its process, are at once evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions of its spokesmen, whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own speciality.

    It’s all there: criticism of ‘idealism’ (religion); the material basis (social production, the ‘actual relations of life’); that the only ‘science’ is social production; the criticism of ‘materialism’ (abstract natural science, which excludes human history), and, finally:

    “the abstract and ideological conceptions of its spokesmen, whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own speciality” – the most abstract and ideological conception being their own speciality, ‘matter’. The uncritical, abstract, ahistoric, asocial, non-human ‘stuff’, which ‘materialists’ worship like a god, and thus exclude Marx’s social productionism.

    #214022
    LBird
    Participant

    ALB wrote: “Even in the unpublished notes of 1845 that Engels published after Marx’s death as the “Theses on Feuerbach” Marx called himself a materialist (Thesis 10).

    Of course there are materialists and materialists and Marx distinguished his materialism from those of the 18th materialists (as in his early writings), from the “contemplative materialism” of Feuerbach, and from the 19th century “abstract mterialism of natural science”.”

    So, if you’re a ‘materialist’ of Marx’s kind, why do you contemplate ‘matter’ (rather than create/change/destroy it, as Marx argued) and why do you consistently defend ‘natural science’ as opposed to Marx’s ‘human science’?

    It seems that whenever you’re questioned about your views, ALB, you return to the type of ‘materialism’ that Marx criticised.

    By ‘material’, Marx meant ‘human’, as opposed to ‘ideal’, meaning ‘divine’. Marx was never talking about ‘matter’, as he made clear in Capital Volume 1 (and I know that you know the quote). Marx was a democrat, focussed on human production, and its ability to change its products (like ‘matter’, which has a history, and even within capitalism, physicists change, to suit their purposes – matter…mass…energy…?).

    #214025
    ALB
    Keymaster

    Anybody without an axe to grind or an obsession to pursue can see that, when Marx wrote “The weak points in the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism that excludes history and its process, are at once evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions of its spokesmen, whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own speciality,” he is referring to the “abstract and ideological views” expressed when they spoke on other subjects than their particular field of science, as when they expressed a view on political or economic matters, and not to their theory of “matter” (whatever criticisms he may also have had about that).

    What Marx wrote in German would have been better translated as “abstract natural-science materialism” rather than “abstract materialism of natural science” since this latter could suggest he was criticising the whole of “natural science” as physics, chemistry and biology were then called.

    Naturwissenschaftliche Materialismus was a position propagated under this name by a number of German “natural scientists”, mainly in the field of physiology and anatomy, from the 1850s, whose most prominent propagandists were Ludwig Büchner and Carl Vogt. They were keen to refute the religious view that the mind was something special created by god rather than a natural product and function, and endorsed the view that “the brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile”. Ths might have scored a point, in fact did, against the religious view of mind (accepted by most other “natural scientists” of the time and who didn’t claim to be materialists; far from it) but was clearly inadequate as it offered no explanation of the content of thoughts or how these arose. Hence Marx’s description of it as “abstract”, for ignoring “history and its process.” It wasn’t a criticism of natural science as such. In fact this was a subject Marx took a particular interest in and followed closely.

    Marx’s criticism of the views they expresed outside their specialist field was probably directed against Vogt, who was a critic of “communism” from a bourgeois-liberal standpoint and against whom Marx had published a searing polemic in 1860.

    #214030
    LBird
    Participant

    ALB wrote: “They were keen to refute the religious view that the mind was something special created by god rather than a natural product and function, and endorsed the view that “the brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile”. Ths might have scored a point, in fact did, against the religious view of mind (accepted by most other “natural scientists” of the time and who didn’t claim to be materialists; far from it) but was clearly inadequate as it offered no explanation of the content of thoughts or how these arose.

    1. idealism/religion – god creates mind;
    2. materialism/bourgeois science – brain creates mind;
    3. idealism-materialism/Marx’s revolutionary science – humans create mind.

    The key point, ALB, is that there are not simply two options, as Engels argued, battling against each other, in an eternal war – idealism versus materialism, good v. evil, white v. black, cowboys v. indians, etc.

    Marx introduced a reconciliation of the two, and created social productionism, within which both the ‘ideal’ and the ‘material’ are represented, in which human conscious activity, social production, is the ontological basis – not active mind, nor passive matter, but ‘creative humanity’. And, since we are the creators, we can change our creation. Any ‘nature’ we are confronted with, is our creation. Any ‘nature’ outside of our conscious activity is, to quote Marx, ‘a nothing for us’.

    • This reply was modified 8 months ago by LBird.
    #214032
    LBird
    Participant

    This reconciliation, this ‘unity’, is what Marx meant by the ‘new’ in ‘new materialism’.

    Those who are already convinced by bourgeois ‘materialism’, simply ignore the prefix ‘new’, and console themselves with the thought that “it’s simply a materialism”.

    ‘Materialism’ is a ruling class idea, which has a hold on humanity that’s yet to be broken by Marxists.

    Unless we socialists have ‘democracy’ as the basis of all our active social production – politics, philosophy, ontology, epistemology, science, logic, physics, maths, etc. – then there will be a social elite, in short, a ruling class.

    • This reply was modified 8 months ago by LBird.
    • This reply was modified 8 months ago by LBird.
    #214039
    pgb
    Participant

    L Bird says “Marx was a democrat”. No, Marx was not a democrat! At least, not in the same way we might say that J S Mill was a liberal, or Edmund Burke a conservative. To Marx, democracy defined a political state, conventionally associated with a democratic republic which he saw as the “logical form” of bourgeois rule. Beyond that, democracy was seen as a means (a “mere means” according to Engels) and not an end in itself. Regarding Marx’s socialism, democracy was a means for the proletariat to gain power.

    As far as I know, there is nothing in Marx’s work where he explicitly states that socialism/communism will be a “democratic” society. Not in Critique of the Gotha Program where it might be expected to be found. There is no mention in CGP of democracy – neither in the lower phase nor the higher phase of socialism/communism.
    Nor in Capital 1 where he talks about “a community of free individuals carrying on their work with the means of production held in common”. Since Marx identified democracy with a political state, and given that socialism would bring an end to state and politics of any kind, then it made sense for Marx not to call socialism a “democratic society”. I am not suggesting that Marx was anti-democratic. Far from it. I think he was committed to an ideal of direct democracy (best understood through his early works). But he never addressed the important procedural issues of what concrete forms of collective choice and decision making would apply in a socialist society. He didn’t provide recipes for the cookshops of the future.

    It is not enough to call socialism “democratic social production”. The SPGB definition appropriately identifies property and purpose as central to an adequate definition: a socialist society holds economic resources in common (no-one owns) under democratic control, and production is for use, not profit. L Bird’s definition would better fit Britain’s early 20th century Guild Socialism than it would revolutionary socialism. Calling Marx a democrat would have him rising from his grave in Highgate cemetery.

    #214041
    ALB
    Keymaster

    Marx on “materialistic-critical socialism” and its materialist basis.

    #214042
    LBird
    Participant

    Well, pgb, if you’re going to argue that Marx was not a democrat (in the sense of social production), and that socialism won’t be a democratic society, then that’s a good, open, political position, to espouse and broadcast. I admire your frankness, which escapes the Trots!

    But, not surprisingly, I disagree with you. I think that everything Marx wrote reflected his political experience, of his times, of its near contemporary history, especially the French Revolution. Without democratic politics, Marx’s works are meaningless.

    On your views, to me they seem ‘anarchistic’, focussing more on ‘individuals’ and their ‘freedoms’, rather than on Marx’s political concerns, social production by the associated producers.

    You claim: “a socialist society holds economic resources in common (no-one owns) under democratic control” – but this is contradictory, because ‘in common’ means ‘in common’, not ‘no-one’. That is, the community, the commonwealth, humanity as a whole determines the production and distribution of our collective resources. And if there’s ‘democratic control’, there’s politics – debate, disagreement, argument, voting, and decisions incumbent on all to respect.

    In common with all ‘materialists’ (if I’m mischaracterising you, I apologise, but experience here has taught me something about the SPGB’s political ideology, so I’m assuming you share it), you appeal to Engels, rather than Marx, because Engels was an inheritor of a different politics to Marx. This is why Engels (not Marx) talks about ‘the administration of things’ (as if politics will disappear from humanity!). Engels is fruitful source of a ‘Marxism’ which is very different to Marx’s democratic social productionism. Anarchism, individual freedom and ‘the end of politics’ are far removed from democracy, collective social production and the ‘zoon politikon’ of Marx.

    Nevertheless, thanks again for being so open. If the SPGB would be so open in its political publications about this future aversion to ‘democracy’, I think you’d attract people more in tune to your political views, and repel Marxists like me, from the start!

    • This reply was modified 8 months ago by LBird.
    #214044
    LBird
    Participant

    ALB wrote: “materialistic-critical“.

    The clue’s in the word, ALB.

    Not ‘materialistic’ (one strand), not ‘critical’ (the other strand), but a unity, a reconciliation, of the two strands.

    ‘materialistic-critical’ is simply another way of saying ‘materialistic-idealistic’.

    Marx’s ‘materialism’ (‘new’ materialism) requires consciousness. It’s not about ‘matter’, but the criticism of what is, and its replacement by what we determine will be.

    Marx was always discussing ‘consciously active humanity’ – not ‘the conscious divine’, not ‘consciousless matter’.

    #214046
    ALB
    Keymaster

    I don’t know whether Marx ever described socialism as democratic, but if he regarded (defined) democracy as a form of state then obviously he wouldn’t have as socialism is not a form of state. As you point out, this does not mean that Marx was “anti-democratic”. Democracy has a wider meaning as a form of organisation that any organisation, not just the state, can take, e.g. a trade union, a political party, a sports club.

    Marx was not against workers’ organisations being organised on the basis of some of their members being elected to carry out specific functions and being answerable to those who elected them. He envisaged this as being the case in the classless society that socialism would be, pointing out, in answer to a criticism from Bakunin:

    “Election is a political form present in the smallest Russian commune and artel. The character of the election does not depend on this name, but on the economic foundation, the economic situation of the voters, and as soon as the functions have ceased to be political ones, there exists 1) no government function, 2) the distribution of the general functions has become a business matter, that gives no one domination, 3) election has nothing of its present political character.”

    He saw universal suffrage as a feature of socialism, describing, and in effect endorsing, the programme of the 1871 Paris Commune:

    “While the merely repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society. Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in Communes, as individual suffrage serves every other employer in the search for the workmen and managers in his business. And it is well-known that companies, like individuals, in matters of real business generally know how to put the right man in the right place, and, if they for once make a mistake, to redress it promptly. On the other hand, nothing could be more foreign to the spirit of the Commune than to supercede universal suffrage by hierarchical investiture.”

    Thus he could be said to be in favour of democracy as an organisational form within socialism, In any event, the SPGB has used the term in relation to socialism right from its foundation in 1904, when it laid down it object as:

    “The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.”

    Before he became a socialist Marx had been a democrat, i.e saw the aim as to establish a democratic state, a political democracy. While, in becoming a socialist, he abandoned this as the aim and way-out for the workers — and criticised those who continued to say it was — he was still in favour of workers struggling for this under capitalism as the best political form within which the workers and socialist movement could develop.

    #214050
    ALB
    Keymaster

    The other argument is over as it has been admitted that Marx did describe himself as a materialist. Marx did not regard it as a dirty word as had been claimed.

    #214056
    LBird
    Participant

    ALB wrote: “The other argument is over as it has been admitted that Marx did describe himself as a materialist. Marx did not regard it as a dirty word as had been claimed.

    You’re sliding back into Lenin’s method, ALB – he built straw men of his political enemies supposed ‘admissions’, and altered the meaning of what they did actually say, and proclaimed his ‘final victory’ without actually engaging with his critics, like Bogdanov.

    I’m not sure what your political intention is, but we know from history where these tactics lead – pretending an elite knows what the masses can’t, pretending that supporters of workers’ own democratic activity, like Bogdanov, are anti-Marx, pretending that their party is arguing for ‘democratic socialism’, but hiding the fact that they plan to remove democratic controls from the associated producers when ‘socialism’ is achieved.

    To put the debate straight, no-one has ever claimed that Marx didn’t describe himself as a materialist. This is an accusation of your own making, and its purpose is to close down the debate, in case your opponents’ arguments start to have some effect.

    The key problem is what Marx meant by ‘materialist’. All the evidence shows that it as nothing to do with ‘matter’ (or, ‘materiality’, ‘material conditions’ meaning ‘external impulse on humans’. Marx, as you have said, made claims for a ‘new materialism’, which, as you’ve said, was not the old 18th century ‘passive humanity/active matter’ belief, which required ‘clockwork’ humans. Marx insisted, always, that self-conscious humanity would change its world, and never argued for passively waiting for some unspecified ‘material conditions’ to work their ‘magic’, as Wez put it.

    In effect, what Marx meant by ‘material’ was human (as opposed to ‘ideal’, meaning ‘divine’). And his fundamental concept was ‘production’, active, conscious, creation by humanity. This mean that, for workers to understand, now, its easier to tell them that when Marx talked of ‘material conditions’, he was talking about ‘social production’. Thus, where Marx writes ‘material’, we can understand ‘social’. This is nothing to do with ‘stuff an individual can touch’.

    This is what the political and philosophical debate is about: ‘What did Marx mean by ‘material’?’.

    I’d recommend that any interested should read, for example, George Kline (1988) The Myth of Marx’ Materialism Philosophical Sovietology, Volume 50. This covers the multiple meanings that Marx employed within his writings regarding ‘material’.

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