Wednesday, October 04, 2006

the philosophical roots of sectarianism

If you remember a while back, I referred to a debate on Dave Osler’s Blog whereby leading SWP blogger, Lenin, rejected the idea that objective truth exists, or rather that it can be approximately knowable. This is a fundamental rejection of a key tenet of Marxism. There has been a contribution to a similar debate in last week’s Weekly Worker, but sadly the article by "Chris Knight" in defence of science is a bit disappointing. Thanks to Matthew at The point is, for bringing the article to my attention.

The argument becomes a bit technical, but worth persevering with, as it is relevant to the whole situation we are in with competing left groups all proclaiming they are the way, the truth and the life.

Knight says: "In the final analysis, no doubt, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. What happens when we try out a new hypothesis? Does it prove to be empowering? Does it lessen mental effort in solving intellectual problems? In other words, does the hypothesis add to the power - be it purely intellectual or practical as well - of scientists in the relevant field? If it does, then everyone should ultimately come to recognise the fact. Assuming intellectual efficiency to be our criterion (and we will not be scientists otherwise), support for the theory will spread. Internal coherence (agreement between the theory’s parts) will find expression in widespread social agreement. Such a capacity to produce agreement is the ultimate social test of science."

This type of argument in defence of scientific realism was dealt a body blow by Laudan's theory of "pessimistic induction". Laudan basically points out that using tests like the one by Kuhn approvingly quoted here, lots of false theories like the phlogiston theory of chemistry or the caloric theory of heat, were accepted as truth.

To say that "capacity to produce agreement" is the arbiter of truth-likeness, is a dangerous concession to the idea that truth is only what we agree it to be. Indeed “Chris Knight” concludes: “ if Marxism is genuine science, it ought to be possible to demonstrate this potential in purely theoretical terms in advance.” Thus he rejects not only the philosphical position of scientific realism that the predictive powers of theories must be empirically established, but also the actual practice of working scienctists that hypotheses are not accepted unless they are repeatably verified by experiment

Before we go any further it is worth stating what the scientific realist philosophical position, (which is defended by but not exclusive to Marxists) actually is. In a nut shell we argue that currently successful scientific theories are approximately true. In the evocative image by the philosopher, Sellars, scientific theories are “cutting the world at its joints”

This is worth looking at because if a prolific writer in the SWP, like the blogger “Lenin” argues that the truth of concepts such as atoms is unknowable, then all truth is unknowable, and all we have is language. In which case we are in the very scary world where the truth is determined by power relations, and where the ends totally justify the means. Only recently in the comments box of the Sheridan story in this blog, SWP blogger Snowball referred to "the truth” in question marks. As Ed correctly says in reply: “the position you're taking here is reminiscent of those references to 'revolutionary truth' (ie what it is politically expedient to promote as the 'truth') as opposed to 'bourgeois truth' (as in what actually happened) which have unfortunate historical associations”

(skip the next two paragraphs if you are not interested in philosophy) Laudan actually made an important contribution to the defence of scientific realism by attacking a weak chink in some interpretations of it, and therefore refining how we interpret evidence. Laudan correctly points out that when it comes to observing scientific theories, observing their consequences is neither necessary nor sufficient for empirical support. That is not all logical consequences of a hypothesis are supportive (for example quick recovery from a cold after prayer would not prove the hypothesis of the power of prayer), and conversely a hypothesis can be supported by evidence not among its logical consequences (If a theory T entailed some evidence E, then if T was part of a wider theory H, then E indirectly supports H, even though E is not entailed by H)

Thus Laudan challenges naïve empiricists who would argue that if there are two theories T and T’ that both explain the evidence E, then the best we can do is argue that the theories are empirically adequate, and we cannot distinguish if either is approximately true. In defence of scientific realism (supported here by Laudan) we must say that theories that explain the empirical evidence must also conform to theoretical virtues, such as coherence with other established theories, completeness, unifying power and the capacity to generate novel predictions.

So is Marxism a science? To which I would answer it could be, but usually isn’t. If we mean by Marxism a social theory that seeks to establish its own approximate truth through examination of the evidence, and through self-critical evaluation of its own theoretical virtues, including coherence, then Marxism is a science. However, there must be a number of caveats. Firstly, that the development of evidence involves the art of seeking to change the world though political activity, and it is extremely hard to evaluate the impact of such activity, and what evidence is gathered is subjective . Secondly, the research resources of the Marxist left, including academics, are puny compared to the complexity of the society we are seeking to understand, so any theories we develop are likely to be only highly flawed approximations to the truth; thirdly the problem of organisational conservatism on defending false aspects of theories. When we take these caveats into account we can see the inadequacy of all those arguments that start: “As Marxists we should, or as Marxists we must … “

The last factor I mention, organisational conservatism is perhaps the most important. Precisely because the empirical evidence is sparse, or subject to other interpretations that are equally consistent with the evidence, then the question of “theoretical virtues” are of elevated importance. Alex Callinicos includes a useful discussion of this in his short book on Trotskyism, discussing the question of progressive and regressive problem shifts derived from Lakatos. If the consequence of a theory entails evidence consistent with an unrelated theory then this is a progressive problem shift, that supports a presumption towards truth-likeness. If however, defence of a theory involves rejection of parts of other mature ands established theories, then we are involved in a regressive problem shift (That doesn’t necessarily mean it is wrong as all theories are only truth approximations and can be refined – but a regressive problem shift should raise a presumption of truth-unlikeness requiring further research.)

Yet the various Leninist groups, the SWP, CWI, USFI etc, all derive their justification for separateness by defining themselves as having a coherent world vision based upon a unique or semi unique interpretation of Marxism, often deriving from very partial and incomplete evidence. How could it be different? How could a few amateur researchers, with scarcely any access to evidence, really develop theories that were sufficiently supported empirically; and sufficiently theoretically virtuous in the technical sense; to explain social phenomenon as complex as the degeneration of the Soviet Union? Yet on the basis of these differing interpretations, each of these groups has developed a distinct Weltanshauung that is largely hermetically sealed. For example, if we look at the theoretical writings of the IS tendency, they only refer to works within their own “tradition”, or to the old grey beards. The same can be said of the Mandelite tradition, or the Taafeites. In other words, the left groups deliberately eschew an attempt to develop a scientific exposure of their theories to a discussion of their theoretical virtues – again in the technical sense of what degree they are consistent, consilient, lacking ad hoc features, etc.

This is because each of these groups endeavour to establish that their theoretical tradition, and their reason for separateness, is and always has been correct. What is more there is a belief that the tactical decisions of the leadership bodies are always correct or defensible – but why should that be so? This is not a scientific realist approach, and inevitably involves regressive problem shifts, and increasing cognitive dissonance.

How insane we must look from the outside. A tiny number of dedicated socialists, spilt into multiple organisations, each of which believe they are the only ones with access to the truth.


Southpawpunch said...

I was very interested to read this article – particularly as to, paraphrase you, - how could a few amateur researchers, with a lot of access to evidence, really develop theories that were similar about left disunity.

As I wrote in

‘All groups have an intellectual presumption - we’re right, you’re wrong. This keeps organisations from merging but how on earth do they know they are right? Can any group be deemed to be ‘successful’? How many revolutions have they to their credit or, as my mother would say, ‘if you are so clever, why aren’t you rich?’...

High-level debate on such matters all too easily becomes just a search for differences and has no guarantee of achieving the 'correct' result. An individual may have less success in picking stocks than a group of fund managers, but both often use little more than guesswork and are often wrong.’

It’s good to know that our thoughts have philosophical backing too!

But I suppose I want to appeal to members of parties that read this that your tribal loyalties are often no more than an accident of history.

When I first joined the movement I would imagine Militant picked up a lot of members just through being the only outfit with a presence in a lot of small town Britain. In different eras someone fresh to revolutionary politics may well have come across the SWP, or CP for similar reasons.

The differences that separate organisations are minor compared to a shared core body of thought. I hope comrades will always push for organisational unity across the left.

maps said...

Hi Andy,

I agree this is a question worth discussing.

Could you clarify what you mean by 'scientific realism', though? I agree with you completely that the view that objective reality is completely unknowable because language gets in the way is one that Marxists should reject, but do we have to argue for a pre-Kantian empiricism to do this?

I know that there are some in the Marxist tradition who have done this - Lenin with his 'camera theory of perception' in Materialism and Empiriocriticism is one - but there are other instances of a more subtle approach being taken (Lenin himself seems to take a more subtle approach in the Philosophical Notebooks).

Moreover, I think that Marx's dialectical method implies that language and reality interpenetrate. Yes, the world exists out there independently of us, but we must access it by thinking - we can experience it only through the use of concepts.

Language does not obscure reality in the way that Derrida would claim it does, but equally we cannot experience reality without language, without a set of concepts. So both the extreme postmodern view you attribute to Richard of Lenin's Tomb and the naive realist view that the real Lenin fell for in his early work on philosophy are mistaken.

As I understand him, Marx argues that the key to thinking is 'abstraction' - that we grasp reality by 'abstracting' it through applying concepts to it. Marx tries to create abstractions that are dialectical - that contain contradiction and change, in contrast to bourgeois abstractions and the concepts that are based on them. But what he is abstracting doesn't exist in pre-existing concepts - he is imposing order upon a mass of data and sensations, and he can only ever 'capture' so much of that mass in any one abstraction. Reality is infinitely complex and cannot be grasped in toto, just as it cannot be grasped without language.

In Capital, of course, Marx goes back again and again to his massive subject, abstracting the same mass of reality in different ways to bring out its different aspects. That's why he 'contradicts' himself, in the eyes of bourgeois social scientists, by talking at one time about a capitalist class, at another time about capitalist classes, at another time about bankers as a distinct class, and so on.

Marx, then, has a radically different method than bourgeois realists, who think that reality comes in pre-cut categories and treat their concepts like pigeonholes. And underlying this different method is a different ontology - an ontology which denies that the world exists nicely and tidily 'out there', and merely has to be 'photographed' by us.

There are important epistemological consequences of Marx's ontology and his dialectic method. When making projections about the future or generalisations about the past, Marx often talks of 'tendencies', rather than laws, and he makes it clear that there are a multiple 'countervailing tendencies' which can cancel out these tendencies, at least for periods of time.

Bourgeois social scientists don't understand this subtlety, and delight in announcing that Marxism has been 'refuted' because, say, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall was largely absent in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century. They have a crude positivist method based on the belief that human life can be understood with the same sort of rigorous rules that are used in physics (or were used in physics - that view of natural science is increasingly out of favour since the rise of chaos theory, which has more than a little affinity to the Marxist method, as Alan Woods has pointed out).

You mention Lakatos, and I think his methodology of scientific research programmes actually captures some of the subtlety of Marx's picture of how theories are tested and evolve.

Snowball said...

I agree I could have been slightly clearer, but I think a lot has been read into my putting 'the truth' in quotation marks - and my quote has been taken slightly out of context. I said:

'there is something vaguely nauseating about socialists lining up with Rupert Murdoch and the News of the World to join in a witchhunt of a leading fighter for the working class and socialism in the name of 'the truth'.'

I meant to imply that the record of Murdoch and the NOTW when it comes to truthful reporting about things has rather a lot to be desired - and therefore socialists should not accuse other socialists of lying if they are themselves (objectively) working with the likes of Murdoch. That way hypocrisy lies.

AN said...

Fair enough Snowball, and I am sure that almot everyone reading this will know and agree that the NOTW are lying scumbags.

BUt Ed's point that the truth is what actually happened, not what is convenient to believe happened, is an important one. Therefore the truth remains the truth whatever use it is put to.
If someone says things that are not true then that is lying. If people are prepared to undertake a libel action that will turn on contested evidence where different comrades will say different things, then that exposes the movement to police investiogation for perjury.
Once the court case was initiated - by Sheridan remember - the truth remianed the truth, and if you describe people who told the truth as "(objectively) working with the likes of Murdoch." then you are close to accepting the idea that Ed accuses you of, of the idea of an expedeint and proletarian truth, that does not necessarily follow actaully existing reality.

AN said...

Hi Maps

On the two Lenin’s

“Richard Lenin” entered a debate with me on Osler’s blog that has unfortunately become lost/deleted. The argument started when I disputed his equation that Zionism simply is anti-semitism, during which I tried to explain the dialectical interaction of Zionism as a flawed strategy against anti-semitism interpenetrating with anti-semitism.
As a result Richard argued that he rejects the concept of dialectical process in toto, rejects the concept of a knowable independently existing reality, and claimed that anyone who thinks atoms exists simply hadn’t though about the issue enough! He also that the dialectic was mystification and for example Marx’s capital showed no evidence of the dialectic, and challenged me to find an example of a dialectical contradiction within Marxist economics. Pretty astounding stuff, and I hope he will come here and correct me if he thinks I have misquoted him.

On the issue of the big Lenin, at the risk of being misunderstood or misquoted, I wuld say that materialism and Emprio-Criticism (M&EC) is a rather better book than some people think who have perhaps not actually read it but only read about it, or do not put the debate in its historical context. (That is you also need to look at the works of Plekhanov and the Machists like Bogdanov). M&EC has two merits, one is that Lenin makes a really first class effort to master the scientific theories of the time and base his arguments on the developing revolution in science, with the transcending of Newtonism. Secondly he relentlessly defends the idea of an externally existing physical universe, although as you say much too one sidedly, and the “reflection” idea of knowedge is an unfortunate one, and one accepted uncritically by Marxist scientists like Haldane.

I will post a second comment answering what I think scientific realism is, and where it fits with marxism

AN said...


Scientific realism is the school of philosophy that defends three positions:

Metaphysical – the world exists and has a mind-independent natural structure
Semantic – scientific theories should be taken at their face value, and can be true or false. The theoretical terms of theories have factual reference, so if the theories are true then both the observable and unobservable entities they posit actually do populate the physical world
Epistemic – mature and predicatively successful scientific theories are well confirmed and approximately true.

My contention is that Marxism should defend all three of these positions.

I don’t really agree with you that there is a category of philosophers who we can describe as “bourgeois realists”. If Marxism involves a theory of knowledge then it is scientific in the sense that Marxism seeks to validate the truth-likeness of is theories in practice, but also that the interests of the working class are coincidental with the interests of the entire human race. Therefore, no knowledge of the actually existing world can be opposed to the political interests of the working class, and our political positions have no contradictions with the physical sciences. (therefore there can be no Marxist a priori assumption about such factual issues as whether or not homosexuality is genetically influenced, but we would stress the role of human beings as social animals in any explanation.

I would refine your observation that for Marx the world can only be accessed by concepts, because although at one level true, I would say that the deed came before the word. The fundamental starting point of Marxist philosophy is participation in the actually existing physical world. This is the standpoint of the These on Feuerbach, and is a major contribution to philosophy and to understanding the physical world. What Marx describes as Practical Critical activity. So as part of developing concepts we also simultaneously test those theories by practical activity in the physical world.

In this sense knowledge of nature is mediated by the labour process – as the British communist philosopher Christopher Caudwell put it: “knowledge is only given to human beings as a result of an active and social relation to the rest of reality”

So I would argue that the task of socialists in philosophy is to defend scientific realism, but also defend the compatible extension of it that the practice of science is a social activity – the dualism of mind and matter is resolved in an active object-subject relationship. However, the fact that reality only known to us “this-sided” through our experience of it is compatible with our theories being truth-approximations.

The truth is out there, but we only discover it through conscious labour.

AN said...

I should point out that I use the word "metaphysical" in the above comment in the technical sense it is used by non-Marxists, to denote a theory of being.

Unfortunetely Engels started a traditiona among Marxist to use the word Metaphsyics to denote static non dialecticalk thinking. This particularly eccentric use of the word has been followed by nealy all Marxists since, but is most unfortunate. Ii am not using it in the usual Marxist sense.

sorry to anyone who presevered this far and was confused by that.

Louisefeminista said...

"“Lenin” argues that the truth of concepts such as atoms is unknowable, then all truth is unknowable, and all we have is language."

“Lenin” could possibly be confusing knowledge and truth.

Truth is largely independent of people's perception when you make an observation of social phenomena.

While knowledge changes through debate, or whether it is being disproved or proved though it is never static. Social phenomena is different ‘cos people act on their perceptions and the choices they make are often influenced by their material interests.

It is still the case that any observed phenomena are going to be independent of whatever statements are made about it by observers.

It seems to "Lenin" that perception is everything and therefore he is ditching materialism.

Maybe he should read Terry Eagleton’s After Theory. I also find Lenin’s arguments reminiscence of Wittgenstein (“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”.)

The revolutionary left is like any other social process. The empirical basis people use is narrow and the resources they use are limited. And therefore, of course. they are conditioned by their own group.

Like Agent Mulder from the X Files, the truth is most definitely out there.

Btw: “Chris Knight” is not a pseudonym it is his real name.

AN said...

I can't get used to the idea of people writing under their real names in WW

Louisefeminista said...

I used to write under my real name for WW (don't know whether that's embarassing or not)just believed it was silly to use a false name. Seems like only their members use false names for whatever reason.

Don't think Chris Knight is a member either.

AN said...

If he is not a member that explain the lack of an alias. In the case of the CPGB the use iof alaiases seems simply to make it seem like there are more of them!)

But he has adapted well to their flowery house style

Louisefeminista said...

Nah, I doubt Chris Knight is a member but he is part of the Radical Anthropology Group (which organised the Communist University). In the 80s I'm sure I remember him being around Labour Briefing but may be wrong.

Well, think most groups use false names to inflate numbers (my old group did and oh, what fun we had thinking them up.I can't remember what mine were including "party names", too long ago.....)

AN said...

Hard to beleive you have really forgotten :o)

When i was a punk, I had a "punk name" but I have never had a political alias

(I also have a journo alias I use sometimes when writing about something where if I used my real name my confidential sources would be obvious)

Edie said...

Thank you for the comment and link to this post. I want to reply at my own blog.

I find the SWP's post-modernist influences to be most repellent at times.