By Dave Osler
A housewife knows that a certain amount of salt flavours soup agreeably, but that added salt makes the soup unpalatable. Consequently, an illiterate peasant woman guides herself in cooking soup by the Hegelian law of the transformation of quantity into quality.
That — believe it or not — is a verbatim quote from Leon Trotsky. Leaving aside the casual sexism implicit in such an analogy, it does not strike me as a particularly impressive defence of one of major postulates of Marxist philosophy.
When I first came across the notion of dialectics, I took it on board without much further thought, simply because I wanted to be a Marxist, and dialectics were what Marxists were supposed to believe in. At that time, I had no formal training in philosophy whatsoever. If I had been asked to accept L. Ron Hubbard’s dianetics instead, I’d have swallowed that, too. There’s only a couple of letters’ difference, after all.
The trouble is, the more I have subsequently studied formal logic, the less satisfactory it seems to be to me that Marxism hives off its own theory of knowledge, distinct from logic as the discipline is generally taught at university level, and bases everything else on the supposed insights that ensue.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say I reject the conception outright; probably there are a number of texts that I still need to study before I come to a final conclusion on the matter. But I am increasingly uneasy about all this. If dialectics is as integral to the wider system of historical materialism as most major Marxists repeatedly stress, the whole prospectus appears to be built on methodologically weak foundations.
The general form of the dialectic, as defined by John Rees’ well-regarded book The algebra of revolution, is said to constitute an internally contradictory totality in a constant process of change. That contradictions can and do exist, and that reality is in flux, should not be controversial, of course.
Where I start to lose the plot is the contention that because Marxists have mastered this supposedly superior form of thought, they are uniquely able — as Rees reiterates — to look beyond the surface appearance of society and come to a privileged appreciation of its underlying nature.
As is repeatedly demonstrated by the history of religion, any doctrine suggesting that only a select few can look at apparent reality and tell the rest of us what is really going on by means of a recondite master key is quite obviously open to misuse. In particular, dialectics can act as a cover for “revolution round the corner” perspectives.
For instance, the dialectician Rees argued in an article published online last year that the Coalition government in the UK only looks stable, comrades; the reality is that one final push by a united front against it would be sufficient to bring about its downfall. Funnily enough, that is not the way reality has panned out since then.
Dialectics has been used within the British Trotskyist movement to promote all kinds of arrant nonsense. I still have on my bookshelves a slim volume entitled Studies in Dialectical Materialism, which is the work of an author who bills himself on the cover as simply G. Healy.
“Dialectical materialists,” G. Healy tells us on the first page, “get to know the world initially through a process of cognition.” No shit, Sherlock. So does everyone else, pretty much by definition, I guess.
Nor do I see evidence of any distinctive superior dialectical technique in the day to day practice of today’s crop of Trot groups. Dialectics remains more or less a rabbit that sect gurus can pull out of their magicians’ hat when occasion demands that they have to prove that white is really black.
What is currently saving the day for me is a book first published in 1978, with which I only became acquainted a year or two back. G.A. Cohen — another author seemingly too modest to employ his first name — controversially maintains in “Karl Marx’s theory of history: a defence” that “there is no such thing as a dialectical form of reasoning that can challenge analytical reasoning. Belief in dialectic as a rival to analysis thrives only in an atmosphere of unclear thought”.
Commitment to analytical techniques, he suggests, is prior to commitment to this or that Marxist thesis, precisely because it is a commitment to reason itself, rather than irrational obscurantism. If historical materialism — which is the core of what is valuable in the Marxist method — can sustain itself without resort to mumbo jumbo, all Marxists have to be better off.
At the very least, Cohen’s position seems a damn sight more convincing than hyping a rural granny boiling up a pot of borscht in order to feed a family of 15 with a couple of beetroots as some sort of unconscious Hegelian.
I’d love to feel that at least one group of revolutionary socialists is bold enough to think through the implications of what Cohen has to say. How about it, AWL?