Straddling Theory and Reality

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Vlad The Inhaler
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Jul 7 2018 12:27
Straddling Theory and Reality

Given that we're all susceptible to bias, wishful thinking, being inspired, being utopian, being cynical, being pragmatic and having an intuitive sense of the reality external to us...how do you read political theory? How do you safeguard yourself against being swept away by a great idea that doesn't really map onto reality (I assume the vast majority of people here are materialists and accept that reality is external and prior to our perception).

The reason I ask is because I tend to like to examine my theoretical errors. To find out what took me down a false path. More often than not I think I can locate my error to the following: Political theory is pretty advanced stuff. More often that not wherever you start you're reading above your level. This means you don't understand all of it. Their initial premise may hook you, it may make intuitive sense to you. It may solve a riddle you were already wrestling with. It may convince you with rhetoric. It may inspire you. The main body of the work will be a bunch of stuff you barely understand, their proofs and what not, that you have to take largely on faith and then the conclusion will generally be an elaborated form of the introduction/initial premise which banishes the doubts you felt through the middle of the work. As an example how many people can read Capital and say they understood it to a degree that they could defend it from a theoretical point of view, could say in all honesty that they have submitted it to a ruthless scrutiny? No enough people I would venture, certainly not myself.

Welcome to Proletarian problems: Too savy to accept Capitalism, not academic enough to do Socialism.

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Vlad The Inhaler
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Jul 7 2018 12:29

As an addendum, I am a damning indictment of the Leninist cadre model. Educated in party, yes. Educated in Marxism? Don't be daft.

Mike Harman
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Jul 8 2018 20:11
Vlad The Inhaler wrote:
Political theory is pretty advanced stuff. More often that not wherever you start you're reading above your level. This means you don't understand all of it.

So with philosophy and some other things this is often the case, but there's plenty out there that's not dense theoretical works. Most of the stuff I read is history, or theory grounded in history, and obviously people's prose varies but it's usually pretty readable.

Have you read stuff like CLR James' Black Jacobins, Jeremy Brecher's Strike!, Brinton's Bolsheviks and Workers Control, Glaberman's Punching Out!?

mn8
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Jul 8 2018 22:47

We should be cautious when discussing 'ideas that sound good but don't work in practice.' That is common liberal anti-communist rhetoric. It is often used to discourage revolutionary views.

I agree that people don't always subject texts to proper scrutiny, or attempt to understand them. I think that's a historical problem, and few are the socialists who aren't misrepresented more often than they are described accurately.

It's also important to promote theoretical views like opposition to capitalism as such, rather than only opposing apparent manifested injustices of a particular type of capitalism - which can also turn into opposing immigration, strikes, and other seeming affronts.

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Jul 9 2018 00:24

Disparaging Socialist ideas was certainly not my intention. I'm asking fellow members how they navigate the ocean of Leftist ideas when a great deal of it is mutually antagonistic, hostile or mutually contradictory. We've all, presumably, believed things that we've come to reject. My question is how do we make better decisions in the future, how do we learn from our mistakes. I was a Marxist-Leninist, now I'm not, I'm interested in what lead me down that path. It certainly wasn't a lack of sincerity in human emancipation and a deep desire to see the end of Capitalism. I became convinced through a mixture of personal experience and Marxist-Leninist theory. I'm fascinated by the interplay between the theory and the experience. They can seem to be in complete harmony one moment and the next...the theory seems to be talking about a complete fantasy world.

There are many great Anarchist and Marxist writers out there and I want to read them, understand them and subject them to as rigorous an analysis as I can. I'm asking where and how you start on that process and how you keep your feet on the ground as you travel deeper into the theorists abstractions.

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Jul 9 2018 00:48

I usually force myself to step back and ask "is that really true?". If something is said that I would really like to believe, but I have my doubts about realistically, I force myself to immediately listen to those doubts and ask if this statement I just read really conforms to reality. Basically I go by the rule that a lot of theory simply is too good to be true.

LBird
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Jul 9 2018 06:52
Vlad The Inhaler wrote:
Given that we're all susceptible to bias, wishful thinking, being inspired, being utopian, being cynical, being pragmatic and having an intuitive sense of the reality external to us...how do you read political theory? How do you safeguard yourself against being swept away by a great idea that doesn't really map onto reality (I assume the vast majority of people here are materialists and accept that reality is external and prior to our perception).

[my bold]
I've spent the last 5 years attempting to answer your questions for myself, Vlad. In that time, I've looked deeply in Marx's ideas, and have come to the conclusion that most 'Marxists' are actually Engelsists, including all Leninists/Troskyists.
You've made two points above that Marx wouldn't agree with.
1) 'ideas' do not 'map' onto 'reality' - 'ideas' combined with practice 'create our reality';
2)'reality' is not 'external' to us, nor 'prior to our perception' - 'our reality' is a social product of 'our conscious activity', and 'our perception' is also a social product, and changes with our reality.

Vlad wrote:
The reason I ask is because I tend to like to examine my theoretical errors. To find out what took me down a false path. More often than not I think I can locate my error to the following: Political theory is pretty advanced stuff. More often that not wherever you start you're reading above your level. This means you don't understand all of it. Their initial premise may hook you, it may make intuitive sense to you. It may solve a riddle you were already wrestling with. It may convince you with rhetoric. It may inspire you. The main body of the work will be a bunch of stuff you barely understand, their proofs and what not, that you have to take largely on faith and then the conclusion will generally be an elaborated form of the introduction/initial premise which banishes the doubts you felt through the middle of the work. As an example how many people can read Capital and say they understood it to a degree that they could defend it from a theoretical point of view, could say in all honesty that they have submitted it to a ruthless scrutiny? No enough people I would venture, certainly not myself.

Welcome to Proletarian problems: Too savy to accept Capitalism, not academic enough to do Socialism.

I too have been down several 'false paths', including the SWP!
The lack of any role for workers' democracy (ie. political control of social production) caused me to fundamentally question what I'd been taught by so-called 'Marxists'.
It transpired that Engels, and not Marx, is the political and philosophical inspiration for 'materialists'. Once one reads Marx, it soon becomes obvious that he was an 'idealist-materialist', who argued for social theory and practice, active humanity, which changes their reality, and not passive acceptance of a fixed reality, which materialism requires, and which your statements above reflect. That is, you're still living in the 'mental' universe of the Leninists.
I'll substantiate these opinions, if you want more discussion and references.

LBird
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Jul 9 2018 07:01
Vlad The Inhaler wrote:
As an addendum, I am a damning indictment of the Leninist cadre model. Educated in party, yes. Educated in Marxism? Don't be daft.

Yeah, I identify with that experience, Vlad!
Marx was for 'class', not 'party'.
Marx argued that 'materialists' reserve the 'active side' for themselves, with their pretence that there is a 'prior external reality' which is pre-determined and can't be changed by us, a 'reality' which they claim that only they know and can change, and so they must divide society into two - a minority with a 'special consciousness' (a cadre party), and the passive majority (the working class).
'Materialism' is a bourgeois ideology, suited to an elite, and denies democracy.

LBird
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Jul 9 2018 07:06
Vlad The Inhaler wrote:
Disparaging Socialist ideas was certainly not my intention. I'm asking fellow members how they navigate the ocean of Leftist ideas when a great deal of it is mutually antagonistic, hostile or mutually contradictory. We've all, presumably, believed things that we've come to reject. My question is how do we make better decisions in the future, how do we learn from our mistakes. I was a Marxist-Leninist, now I'm not, I'm interested in what lead me down that path. It certainly wasn't a lack of sincerity in human emancipation and a deep desire to see the end of Capitalism. I became convinced through a mixture of personal experience and Marxist-Leninist theory. I'm fascinated by the interplay between the theory and the experience. They can seem to be in complete harmony one moment and the next...the theory seems to be talking about a complete fantasy world.

There are many great Anarchist and Marxist writers out there and I want to read them, understand them and subject them to as rigorous an analysis as I can. I'm asking where and how you start on that process and how you keep your feet on the ground as you travel deeper into the theorists abstractions.

I seem to have had precisely the same career path as you, and drawn similar conclusions as to the problems.
Whether we'll share the solutions that I think that I've found, remains to be seen.
I think my views can be summed up as 'Democratic Communism' (ie., not 'Libertarian Communism'). And I regard myself as a Marxist (of some sort), not an Anarchist.
If you're interested in exploring these ideas, please ask away.

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Jul 9 2018 07:13

When you get the time, I'd really recommend reading some Angry Workers of the World stuff, I think they really stand out as an example of proper praxis - theory that's always informed by and reflecting on the day-to-day experience of living and working in West London.

On a very different note, you may (or may not, it's not to everyone's taste) find Revolutionary Self-Theory to be of some internal and relevance as well.

LBird
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Jul 9 2018 08:42
R Totale wrote:
... proper praxis - theory that's always informed by and reflecting on the day-to-day experience of living and working ...

This is an interesting point, R Totale - just what is 'proper'?
You seem to put 'experience' (ie. 'practice') prior to 'theory'. That is, your 'proper' method is 'practice and theory'.
Marx, though, argued otherwise - for him, the 'proper' method was 'theory and practice' (in that order). Of course, this method is 'social', and not 'individual'.
This allows Marx to argue that (because 'theory' is prior) we can change our experience. That is, 'experience' isn't a 'given', that we must 'reflect on', but something that emerges from our 'theory'.
And this 'theory' is amenable to a democratic vote, since it is a social product (and it is not the result of 'day-to-day experience', especially of 'individuals').
There are obviously political implications from whichever 'proper method' one chooses.
'Materialism', as outlined by Engels, does not have the possibility of being 'democratic', and you'll find 'materialists' also choose the method of 'practice and theory'. This is simply to hoodwink the mass of workers, who will thus not ask questions about 'theory', if it simply reflects their personal experience, and thus they'll be completely unaware of just 'who' is providing the initial 'theory' which creates their (supposed) 'individual experience'.
This ignorance and acceptance of the latter position of 'theory' suits the Leninists perfectly. They can then provide the necessary 'theory' for 'theory and practice (Marx's method), whilst pretending to the rest of us workers that they are merely 'reflecting reality'.
All philosophy has political roots.
It's best to openly examine the politics of any 'proper' method.

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Jul 9 2018 10:44

LBird could you tell me where you're getting these impressions of Marx from because it sounds antithetical to the Marx I'm familiar with.

LBird
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Jul 9 2018 11:17
Vlad The Inhaler wrote:
LBird could you tell me where you're getting these impressions of Marx from because it sounds antithetical to the Marx I'm familiar with.

No problem, Vlad!
I'm 'getting these impressions' from Marx himself!
I can guarantee that 'the Marx you're familiar with' is a political product of the Leninists, and I can guarantee that because I too used to believe it, as a member of the SWP.
As I've already said, I seem to have had a somewhat similar intellectual journey to you - my introduction to 'Marx' was through contact with Trotskyist parties at college as a mature student, and, as a completely uneducated working class bloke, I had no way of judging the veracity of their 'philosophical' claims. I didn't have either critical abilities or the desire to question my new-found anti-capitalist ideas. They seemed a perfect fit!
But... we all grow older, become more educated, read more critical works, have some dodgy political experiences, ask some pertinent questions, query the lack of democracy within the ideology of 'materialism'...
... and, for our troubles, get called 'idealists', reformists, liberals, even unconscious counterrevolutionaries, by our 'materialist betters'!
But when one eventually has the political desire, and philosophical ability, to read Marx (and he's a shit writer, who never uses one word where a hundred will do!), one finds that we workers have been sold an Engelsian dud. An 18th century, bourgeois, elitist, supposedly 'scientific', dud, entirely 'antithetical' to Marx's political intentions.
I can elaborate, if you're minded to explore the calamity that Engels created, when he created 'Marxism'.
That's the fundamental reason that the Leninists have to link 'Marx-Engels' into a single entity, because actually reading them both soon reveals their differences. All the Leninists' quotes come from Engels (very few from Marx), but they hide why they do so. Perhaps they really are not aware of those differences, but they are not minded to examine them, because that would undermine the 'Special Consciousness' nonsense of 'The Cadre Party', who 'know reality better' than we workers can ever do.
'Democracy' is the key flaw in their view of "workers". The 'materialists' will not have workers' democracy, in all social production, including ideas, theories, science, truth, reality, nature.
They claim that 'matter' determines, and that we can't change it.
This is antithetical to Marx, who claims that we can change our social product. And any 'external reality' that we know, is a product of humanity. So, we can change it.
That's what's revolutionary about Marx - it's nothing to do with the Engels-Kautsky-Plekhanov-Lenin passive acceptance by workers of 'matter', whilst they, the elite 'scientists', alone, provide the 'ideas'.

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Jul 9 2018 12:31
LBird wrote:
R Totale wrote:
... proper praxis - theory that's always informed by and reflecting on the day-to-day experience of living and working ...

This is an interesting point, R Totale - just what is 'proper'?
You seem to put 'experience' (ie. 'practice') prior to 'theory'. That is, your 'proper' method is 'practice and theory'.
Marx, though, argued otherwise - for him, the 'proper' method was 'theory and practice' (in that order). Of course, this method is 'social', and not 'individual'.
This allows Marx to argue that (because 'theory' is prior) we can change our experience. That is, 'experience' isn't a 'given', that we must 'reflect on', but something that emerges from our 'theory'.

Tbh, I have pretty much no interest whatsoever in arguing about whether the chicken or the egg comes first, that's why I used the term praxis. If there's one useful thing I take from "dialectics", it's the ability to see things like "theory" and "practice" as being moments of the same process and not as two separate things that can be opposed to each other. Looking over the Revolutionary Self-Theory text linked above, I think this puts it quite well:

Self-theory is the body of critical thought you construct for your own use. You construct it and use it when you make an analysis of why your life is the way it is, why the world is the way it is. (And ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’ are inseparable, since thought comes from subjective, emotive experience.) You build your self-theory when you develop a theory of practice — a theory of how to get what you desire for your life.

Theory will be either a practical theory — a theory of revolutionary practice — or it will be nothing... nothing but an aquarium of ideas, a contemplative interpretation of the world. The realm of ideals is the eternal waiting-room of unrealised desire.

Eta: oh, and this - sorry if it makes for an excessively long post:

Although this booklet had the construction of self-theory as its focus, we never intended to imply that revolutionary theory can exist separate from revolutionary practice. In order to be consequential, effectively to reconstruct the world, practice must seek its theory, and theory must be realised in practice. The revolutionary prospect of disalienation and the transformation of social relations requires that one’s theory be nothing other than a theory of practice, of what we do and how we live. Otherwise theory will degenerate into an impotent contemplation of the world, and ultimately into survival ideology — a projected mental fogbank, a static body of reified thought, of intellectual armour, that acts as a buffer between the daily world and oneself. And if revolutionary practice is not the practice of revelutionary theory, it degenerates into altruistic militantism, ‘revolutionary’ activity as one’s social duty.

We don’t strive for a coherent theory purely as an end in itself. For us, the practical use value of coherence is that having a coherent self-theory makes it easier for someone to think. As an example, it’s easier to get a handle on future developments in social control if you have a coherent understanding of modern social control ideologies and techniques up to the present.

Having a coherent theory makes it easier to conceive of the theoretical practice for realising your desires for your life.

LBird
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Jul 9 2018 12:32
R Totale wrote:
LBird wrote:
R Totale wrote:
... proper praxis - theory that's always informed by and reflecting on the day-to-day experience of living and working ...

This is an interesting point, R Totale - just what is 'proper'?
You seem to put 'experience' (ie. 'practice') prior to 'theory'. That is, your 'proper' method is 'practice and theory'.
Marx, though, argued otherwise - for him, the 'proper' method was 'theory and practice' (in that order). Of course, this method is 'social', and not 'individual'.
This allows Marx to argue that (because 'theory' is prior) we can change our experience. That is, 'experience' isn't a 'given', that we must 'reflect on', but something that emerges from our 'theory'.

Tbh, I have pretty much no interest whatsoever in arguing about whether the chicken or the egg comes first,...

That's fine by me, RT. I've only entered this thread, to discuss with those who are interested in the issues in the title.

R T wrote:
...that's why I used the term praxis. If there's one useful thing I take from "dialectics", it's the ability to see things like "theory" and "practice" as being moments of the same process and not as two separate things that can be opposed to each other.

Hmmm... 'dialectics', eh? Another of Engels' hobby horses. As for 'praxis'...
But... I know that you're not interested, so I'll give my political and philosophical opinions of Engels' 'dialectics' in another post, if someone else is interested in asking questions about it.

PS. the 'egg' came first, according to 'science'.

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Jul 9 2018 14:03

I'm very much enjoying your contributions LBird so don't see this as a dismissal but I want to grapple with some of the things you've said.

LBird wrote:
I've looked deeply in Marx's ideas, and have come to the conclusion that most 'Marxists' are actually Engelsists, including all Leninists/Troskyists.

This was something I had suspected, although I lacked the solid grounding in Marxist philosophy to say with any convition. However, was Engels not Marx's closest confident and collaborater? Did Marx not oversee the majority of Engels' edits? It sounds a little like the old argument I used to hear (from the Trotskyists) that Stalin was some cataclismic break with Lenin and Stalin manages to do this whilst being right under Lenin's very nose. It seems improbable. Marxist-Leninists were just as guilty of this tactic in relation to Kruschev who they rejected as a fundamental break with Stalin which, again, was done right under the nose of Stalin who gave Kruschev promotion after promotion.

How do you counter this?

Next you say the following, which I shall take as one:

LBird wrote:
You've made two points above that Marx wouldn't agree with.
1) 'ideas' do not 'map' onto 'reality' - 'ideas' combined with practice 'create our reality';
2)'reality' is not 'external' to us, nor 'prior to our perception' - 'our reality' is a social product of 'our conscious activity', and 'our perception' is also a social product, and changes with our reality.

I kind of get what you're saying. Yes our ideas and perceptions are products of our experience, our reality but there is a material world beyond it that we are trying to grapple with. Surely that's the purpose of science? When a Pannokoek, a Gorter or a Kropotkin deals in theory they are (1) trying to develop a concrete analysis of the laws of this external world in as scientific a manner possible. (2) using those laws to formulate strategies and tactics for the overthrow of the present state of things.

So when I ask how one navigates theory, I'm specifically asking how does an ordinary, poorly educated proletarian weigh one analysis against another, one formula for the future against another. If I've missed your point here please tell me.

Then you posted:

LBird wrote:
It transpired that Engels, and not Marx, is the political and philosophical inspiration for 'materialists'. Once one reads Marx, it soon becomes obvious that he was an 'idealist-materialist'

When you say 'Idealistic-Materialist', are you using the hyphen to denote the primacy of the former? i.e - X > Y, or are you developing a fairly original (at least to me) philosophical concept i.e - Idealistic-Materialism as a proper noun or, as I suspect, are you suggesting that the distinction between Idealism and Materialism is false? i.e - that they are equal parts of the same relationship? Say, making a dialectical whole?

I have no trouble admitting that Engels politics were very much more authoritarian and elitist than Marx who seemed to vacilate between a belief in the self-activity of the workers being paramount and then in the next moment building illusions in substitutionism.

What follows is:

LBird wrote:
Once one reads Marx...who argued for social theory and practice, active humanity, which changes their reality, and not passive acceptance of a fixed reality, which materialism requires, and which your statements above reflect.

Again, for me this seems to conflate ones individualistic perceptions which are seldom examined, and scientific investigation which is explicity trying to examine the material reality that we inhabit. our politics, ideology, worldview, what ever you want to call it is changed by our lived experience but the mode of production, for example is what it is irrespective of our sometimes dreary, sometimes utopian ideas.

Could you explain a little more about what you mean.

LBird wrote:
Marx was for 'class', not 'party'.

Why was Marx not more critical of the Gotha program then? Why was Marx not more difinite in an outright rejection of bourgeois parliamentarianism?

LBird wrote:
Marx argued that 'materialists' reserve the 'active side' for themselves, with their pretence that there is a 'prior external reality' which is pre-determined and can't be changed by us, a 'reality' which they claim that only they know and can change, and so they must divide society into two - a minority with a 'special consciousness' (a cadre party), and the passive majority (the working class).
'Materialism' is a bourgeois ideology, suited to an elite, and denies democracy.

Can you provide some quotes please. I'm not familiar with Marx touching on a revolutionary elite who withold theory from the masses.

LBird wrote:
I think my views can be summed up as 'Democratic Communism' (ie., not 'Libertarian Communism'). And I regard myself as a Marxist (of some sort), not an Anarchist.
If you're interested in exploring these ideas, please ask away.

I'm somewhat sceptical of the throwing together of words like Libertarian-Democratic-Communism-Socialism.etc. When I say how do ideas map on to reality, I supposed I'm asking what difference they make to the world. To borrow a well know phrase from Marx "...The point is to change it!" I can have come up with a brilliant plan for human imancipation and called it New-Liberatory-Municapal-Revolutionary-Marxist-Futurism but if its just an idea with no means of interjecting in the class struggle and effecting the lived experience of workers (which would in turn transform their consciousness so that they became converted New-Liberatory...I can't be bothered to type that all out again) then what use is it? The point is to change the world. To do that we need to somehow act as a class. To do that we need to develop strategies of collective action, why? because I strength is in our numbers and our shared interests.

LBird wrote:
But when one eventually has the political desire, and philosophical ability, to read Marx (and he's a shit writer, who never uses one word where a hundred will do!), one finds that we workers have been sold an Engelsian dud. An 18th century, bourgeois, elitist, supposedly 'scientific', dud, entirely 'antithetical' to Marx's political intentions.

I agree that Marx is infuriating, and often dull to read. In terms of prose the Anarchists win hands down. Politically I would agree with your characterisation of Orthodox Marxism (including the Leninisms) but on what, specifically, are you basing your exoneration of Marx who, again, worked and developed his ideas with Engels intimately.

LBird wrote:
That's the fundamental reason that the Leninists have to link 'Marx-Engels' into a single entity, because actually reading them both soon reveals their differences. All the Leninists' quotes come from Engels (very few from Marx), but they hide why they do so. Perhaps they really are not aware of those differences, but they are not minded to examine them, because that would undermine the 'Special Consciousness' nonsense of 'The Cadre Party', who 'know reality better' than we workers can ever do.
'Democracy' is the key flaw in their view of "workers". The 'materialists' will not have workers' democracy, in all social production, including ideas, theories, science, truth, reality, nature.
They claim that 'matter' determines, and that we can't change it.
This is antithetical to Marx, who claims that we can change our social product. And any 'external reality' that we know, is a product of humanity. So, we can change it.
That's what's revolutionary about Marx - it's nothing to do with the Engels-Kautsky-Plekhanov-Lenin passive acceptance by workers of 'matter', whilst they, the elite 'scientists', alone, provide the 'ideas'.

The preceding I thoroughly agree wiith, which is why the accusation that these parties attempt to apply a materialist analysis to everything but their own party is so on the money. What a shock they would get if they did.

Apologies for the length of response but this is hugely interesting to me.

LBird
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Jul 9 2018 14:09

I'll have to reply, to your comprehensive post, over several posts, Vlad!
Please try to focus on one issue per post, so that I can not only reply, but put together some quotes, to back up my claims. As it is, to try to cover all the ground that you're asking questions about, I have to be brief, or I'll be here all week!

Vlad The Inhaler wrote:
I'm very much enjoying your contributions LBird so don't see this as a dismissal but I want to grapple with some of the things you've said.
LBird wrote:
I've looked deeply in Marx's ideas, and have come to the conclusion that most 'Marxists' are actually Engelsists, including all Leninists/Troskyists.

This was something I had suspected, although I lacked the solid grounding in Marxist philosophy to say with any convition. However, was Engels not Marx's closest confident and collaborater? Did Marx not oversee the majority of Engels' edits? It sounds a little like the old argument I used to hear (from the Trotskyists) that Stalin was some cataclismic break with Lenin and Stalin manages to do this whilst being right under Lenin's very nose. It seems improbable. Marxist-Leninists were just as guilty of this tactic in relation to Kruschev who they rejected as a fundamental break with Stalin which, again, was done right under the nose of Stalin who gave Kruschev promotion after promotion.

How do you counter this?

[my bold]
The bolded part is certainly the allegation made by the Leninist Materialists. They are for the unity of the one being, Marx-Engels.
But this claim does not stand up to reading both Marx and Engels.
I'd 'counter this' Leninist myth, by asking any worker to read what Marx and Engels actually wrote, rather than simply accept that political claim of 'unified being'.

LBird
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Jul 9 2018 14:33
Vlad The Inhaler wrote:
Next you say the following, which I shall take as one:
LBird wrote:
You've made two points above that Marx wouldn't agree with.
1) 'ideas' do not 'map' onto 'reality' - 'ideas' combined with practice 'create our reality';
2)'reality' is not 'external' to us, nor 'prior to our perception' - 'our reality' is a social product of 'our conscious activity', and 'our perception' is also a social product, and changes with our reality.

I kind of get what you're saying. Yes our ideas and perceptions are products of our experience, our reality but there is a material world beyond it that we are trying to grapple with. Surely that's the purpose of science? When a Pannokoek, a Gorter or a Kropotkin deals in theory they are (1) trying to develop a concrete analysis of the laws of this external world in as scientific a manner possible. (2) using those laws to formulate strategies and tactics for the overthrow of the present state of things.

So when I ask how one navigates theory, I'm specifically asking how does an ordinary, poorly educated proletarian weigh one analysis against another, one formula for the future against another. If I've missed your point here please tell me.

[my bold]
Vlad, IF 'there is a material beyond' 'our reality', HOW would you know it?
A serious question, because the 'materialists' claim to have a politically neutral, 'scientific' method, which allows them, and them alone (to the exclusion of us dumb bastard workers) to know this 'material world'. If that's true, then any form of democratic communism is impossible, because their 'method' is an elite one. This is the nub of Engels' supposed 'Scientific Socialism', and he didn't realise just where that ideology would lead. It's nothing to do with Marx, though.
As for Pannekoek, he claims (and I agree with him), that the 'laws of nature' are a human creation (see his Lenin as Philosopher, p. 29, it's in chapter two)
And, what is the 'purpose of science'?
According to the bourgeoisie, its purpose is to 'discover' a pre-existing 'Reality', so we know God's Truth. But that nonsense has been dead since the late 19th century. It's a political claim that emerged fully after the defeat of the revolutionaries of the English Revolution of 1642-60.
The revolutionaries followed a different path for science, a science that was democratic in method, and which had the purpose of 'creating the Good Life for all humans'.
The setting up of the Royal Society in 1660/2 was the institutional birth of their [edit, the bourgeoisie's] 'material world, awaiting honest, disinterested, scientists, to passively discover it'.
It's political, philosophical and historical nonsense, Vlad.
How to navigate these 'theories/formulas'? First, try to be clear about one's own political beliefs. If one wants 'democratic politics', starting with 'elitist science' isn't a good departure point. Try to ask how any 'theory' would develop your own communist, revolutionary (and presumably democratic) politics.

LBird
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Jul 9 2018 15:01
Vlad The Inhaler wrote:
Then you posted:
LBird wrote:
It transpired that Engels, and not Marx, is the political and philosophical inspiration for 'materialists'. Once one reads Marx, it soon becomes obvious that he was an 'idealist-materialist'

When you say 'Idealistic-Materialist', are you using the hyphen to denote the primacy of the former? i.e - X > Y, or are you developing a fairly original (at least to me) philosophical concept i.e - Idealistic-Materialism as a proper noun or, as I suspect, are you suggesting that the distinction between Idealism and Materialism is false? i.e - that they are equal parts of the same relationship? Say, making a dialectical whole?

I have no trouble admitting that Engels politics were very much more authoritarian and elitist than Marx who seemed to vacilate between a belief in the self-activity of the workers being paramount and then in the next moment building illusions in substitutionism.

By 'idealist-materialist', I mean that Marx wasn't a simple 'materialist'. That claim is Engels' misunderstanding, and Leninist in result.
It was Engels who regarded philosophy as a never-ending battle between 'idealism' (booo!, bad guys, black hats!) and 'materialism' (hurray! good guys, white hats!), and the triumph of the latter as 'Science'.
On the contrary, Marx thought he had united parts of both idealism and materialism, and rejected parts of both, in the 1840s. Engels never had either the education or the interest in philosophy, and was much more concerned with 'Science', that bourgeois product that delighted the 19th century gentlemen (of which Engels considered himself one), and assured them that they, and they alone, would Know Reality. I assume you've seen Kautsky's views about 'science' being kept separate from 'workers'?
This 'unification' was a common aim within German Idealism prior to Marx, and he had the aim of solving that philosophical issue. And he did: 'social productionism', or (to use the terms of the time, that the 'materialists' insist on holding onto) 'idealism-materialism', or 'theory and practice', or 'conscious human activity'. Any 'science' for Marx would be on the basis of workers' own conscious activity.
On 'dialectics', just don't. It'll get nasty!
As to politics, I'd argue that Marx wanted the self-emancipation of the proletariat. Engels couldn't get his head around why his 'dialectics' prevented that from being possible. 'Dialectics' merely allows bullshitters to baffle workers' brains. No-one knows what it all means: they don't, I don't, you don't, academics don't, and Engels didn't. Workers should be encouraged to burst out laughing at 'Dialecticians'. Leninists will be gritting their teeth, everywhere, once their 'magic method' is stripped from them!

Spikymike
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Jul 9 2018 15:56

I have some sympathy with LBird's distinguishing Engel's popularising of Marx's works from the best of Marx's own original analysis of value to us today and the subsequent problems associated with the 'Engels-Kautsky-Plekhanov-Lenin' theoretical line and practice, but we shouldn't draw too strong a contrasting line between the two comrades when taking account of their combined political practice in a period dominated by bourgeois revolutions as this rather harsher and materialist critique of both Marx and Engels suggests:
https://libcom.org/library/a-contribution-to-the-critique-of-marx-solidarity-group
I had my own criticisms of that text at the time and still have but it does suggest that Engels can't take all the blame for what subsequently transpired in terms of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, themselves operating in very different circumstances.

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R Totale
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Jul 9 2018 16:59
Vlad The Inhaler wrote:
The preceding I thoroughly agree wiith, which is why the accusation that these parties attempt to apply a materialist analysis to everything but their own party is so on the money. What a shock they would get if they did.

Just popping my head back up to add: on this note, I think you might find some of the stuff Scott Jay wrote a few years back, like What is a Marxist Organisation? and The Sociology of Leninist Organisations to be useful on that point. Bowing out again now, and I hope it doesn't feel too much like I'm setting you homework here.

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Vlad The Inhaler
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Jul 9 2018 17:26

Not at all mate. All thoughts and suggestions are more than welcome.

LBird
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Jul 9 2018 18:10
Spikymike wrote:
I have some sympathy with LBird's distinguishing Engel's popularising of Marx's works from the best of Marx's own original analysis...

[my bold]
I should say that I don't agree that Engels 'popularised' Marx.
After much reading and thought, I think that it's more accurate to say that Engels created his own ideology, and named it 'Marxism'. It may bear some superficial resemblance to Marx's works, by its use of similar terms, but I'd rather be accused of 'distinguishing Engels' destruction of Marx's works from...'.

Spikymike wrote:
...Engels can't take all the blame for what subsequently transpired in terms of Lenin and the Bolsheviks...

No, that's true.
If even Engels didn't have a clue about what Marx was arguing, then the blame lies squarely with Marx.
It's up to us workers in the 21st century to try to disentangle Engels' 'materialism' from Marx's 'social productionism'.
It's a simple task to put this in a few words. The answer to any question about 'who decides?' has to be 'the proletariat' (ie., the class conscious, democratic, revolutionary proletariat). If it doesn't exist, then the conditions don't exist for communism.
Not 'The Party', not 'academics', not 'experts', not 'specialists', not 'nature', not 'matter', not 'physics', not 'logic', not 'maths', not Stephen Hawking, not Albert Einstein... and not bloody 'Dialectics'!
To put it bluntly, to the question 'who creates their universe?', the answer is 'us'.
'Materialism' does not give this answer.
But Marx does - we create our objects, a 'nature-for-us'.
At heart, it's a political issue. Self-determination of our world, both social and natural.

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Vlad The Inhaler
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Jul 9 2018 18:24
LBird wrote:
To put it bluntly, to the question 'who creates their universe?', the answer is 'us'.
'Materialism' does not give this answer.
But Marx does - we create our objects, a 'nature-for-us'.
At heart, it's a political issue. Self-determination of our world, both social and natural.

What do you mean by this because I'm really not sure. I need to nail this down. Are you saying that no world exists external to us? Because if you are then I can't possibly agree. This seems like Materialist 101. We are born into a pre-existing reality, already in motion. That reality conditions us and sets the basic parameters of our consciousness. As I understood it Marx's view was human activity, especially class struggle, broadens our horizons, thus forcing us to question those basic parameters and to desire to overcome them. Hence the crucial point that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class.

But again, just to clarify, you are absolutely not denying that a material reality exists external and prior to us, are you?

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Jul 9 2018 18:34
Vlad The Inhaler wrote:
Given that we're all susceptible to bias, wishful thinking, being inspired, being utopian, being cynical, being pragmatic and having an intuitive sense of the reality external to us...how do you read political theory? How do you safeguard yourself against being swept away by a great idea that doesn't really map onto reality...

When you attempt to read works of theory or history, you have to keep in mind that all of these writers are human beings, shaped by influences and circumstances that are far removed from your own personal self. You definitely should not hold the expectation that you will fully understand someone else's perspective and motivations simply by reading a couple of their widely touted 'important' texts.

Vlad The Inhaler wrote:
More often than not I think I can locate my error to the following: Political theory is pretty advanced stuff. More often that not wherever you start you're reading above your level. This means you don't understand all of it. Their initial premise may hook you, it may make intuitive sense to you. It may solve a riddle you were already wrestling with. It may convince you with rhetoric. It may inspire you. The main body of the work will be a bunch of stuff you barely understand, their proofs and what not, that you have to take largely on faith and then the conclusion will generally be an elaborated form of the introduction/initial premise which banishes the doubts you felt through the middle of the work.

The writers you hold as 'experts' in a specific subject matter took much of their life to reach that level of understanding or analysis. In a couple of years time, you may not even think of that person an 'expert' should you devote a lot of time to develop your own thinking on these matters. What's important to recognise is that everyone have struggled with the same questions you are now dealing with, and will continue to do so.

I personally like to think of the stuff I read (books, articles, manifestos, pamphlets, statements, etc.) as nothing more than historical artifacts - written by individuals or groups who were part of political movements that of interest to us. To truly grasp these ideas, you have to read as much, if not more, about the history behind these ideas than texts that simply expound them. That's why I have recently shifted into reading more history books, biographies and personal accounts.

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Jul 9 2018 20:18
Agent of the International wrote:
When you attempt to read works of theory or history, you have to keep in mind that all of these writers are human beings, shaped by influences and circumstances that are far removed from your own personal self. You definitely should not hold the expectation that you will fully understand someone else's perspective and motivations simply by reading a couple of their widely touted 'important' texts.

I'm just looking for a guide to action because I don't know what to do for the best.

Agent of the International wrote:
The writers you hold as 'experts' in a specific subject matter took much of their life to reach that level of understanding or analysis. In a couple of years time, you may not even think of that person an 'expert' should you devote a lot of time to develop your own thinking on these matters. What's important to recognise is that everyone have struggled with the same questions you are now dealing with, and will continue to do so.

I've been engaged with politics for over twenty years and if I'm correct in what I (sort of) believe now then those 20 years were spent fighting for State Capitalism, oppression and dictatorship. i.e - a complete and utter waste of time or worse. I'm very anxious not to make that mistake again. I don't want to look back in another twenty years and feel that I was engaged in something totally counter to my desire.

Agent of the International wrote:
I personally like to think of the stuff I read (books, articles, manifestos, pamphlets, statements, etc.) as nothing more than historical artifacts - written by individuals or groups who were part of political movements that of interest to us. To truly grasp these ideas, you have to read as much, if not more, about the history behind these ideas than texts that simply expound them. That's why I have recently shifted into reading more history books, biographies and personal accounts.

I understand that but doesn't that leave them feeling like curios, rather than guides to action and theory garnered through long struggle? If they are just curios then are we just saying that theory is dead. Long live blind struggle?

Edit: Curios not curious, obviously.

LBird
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Jul 9 2018 19:11
Vlad The Inhaler wrote:
LBird wrote:
To put it bluntly, to the question 'who creates their universe?', the answer is 'us'.
'Materialism' does not give this answer.
But Marx does - we create our objects, a 'nature-for-us'.
At heart, it's a political issue. Self-determination of our world, both social and natural.

What do you mean by this because I'm really not sure. I need to nail this down. Are you saying that no world exists external to us? Because if you are then I can't possibly agree. This seems like Materialist 101. We are born into a pre-existing reality, already in motion. That reality conditions us and sets the basic parameters of our consciousness. As I understood it Marx's view was human activity, especially class struggle, broadens our horizons, thus forcing us to question those basic parameters and to desire to overcome them. Hence the crucial point that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class.

But again, just to clarify, you are absolutely not denying that a material reality exists external and prior to us, are you?

You're completely right to 'need to nail this down', Vlad.
You have a political choice: either 'Materialist 101' or "Marx's social productionism'.
Marx argues (and I agree with him) that we create our reality.
Any 'material reality' only exists because we produce it. Thus, we can change it. This issue of 'change' is at the heart of Marx's politics and philosophy.
So, no 'pre-existing reality', no 'in motion' (in reality itself), no 'prior to us'.
What's 'external to us' is our product, an 'externality' that, since we produce it, we can change.
Marx's key term, taken from the German Idealists, was 'entausserung' ('externalisation'), what we would call 'production'. This provides the necessary link between subject and object. 'Objects' don't precede us, we create them. We 'externalise' our theories through our activities. That's social productionism.
I'm very aware that what I'm claiming is extremely unfamiliar to you, but you seemed ready, given your opening comments, to dive into the world of revolutionary thought. And it doesn't get much more revolutionary than questioning the 'common sense' that's been hammered into all of us for 350 years!
'Pre-existing external reality' is a ruling class idea, and one whose time has come for challenging.
Again, put simply - if it 'pre-exists' us, we can't change it, can we, since we didn't create it?
Humanity is its own god.
Once more, I'm sure that these claims are politically shocking, but if you want to, we can delve further into Marx's ideas, and I can provide some help for you - books, pamphlets, links, explanations, commentary, quotes.
If it's already too much, perhaps just leave it for a few days, and return to it later.
Or, just tell me to 'Get Lost!', and you can return to the bourgeois comforts of 'common sense' and Engels' materialism (joke - I'm very aware that the internet isn't good for humour).

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Jul 9 2018 19:41

LBird,

No offense, but I think Vlad asked some pretty straightforward questions that doesn't warrant you - or anyone else for that matter - to beat him over the head with your peculiar brand of 'democratic communism'. I think you've now realised that your ban has been lifted, and it seems that your getting a little bit too excited, like you've just found some new toy to play with. Your coming across like a preacher looking to convert a potential recruit to the 'truth' you espouse. Just calm down a bit, and try to keep this thread focused and not go into a million other directions you want it to go.

LBird
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Jul 9 2018 20:46
Agent of the International wrote:
LBird,

No offense, but I think Vlad asked some pretty straightforward questions that doesn't warrant you - or anyone else for that matter - to beat him over the head with your peculiar brand of 'democratic communism'. I think you've now realised that your ban has been lifted, and it seems that your getting a little bit too excited, like you've just found some new toy to play with. Your coming across like a preacher looking to convert a potential recruit to the 'truth' you espouse. Just calm down a bit, and try to keep this thread focused and not go into a million other directions you want it to go.

Why is it that Marx's ideas are always met with insults? Why can't you just say what you disagree with, and why?
Perhaps you could do better, and give some 'pretty straightforward' answers to Vlad?
As for your childish personal insults about my 'motivations', I couldn't give a shit whether you're interested or not.
If you're interested in Marx's politics and philosophy, all well and good. If not, why not leave Vlad to decide whether they want to continue with the discussion?

admin - we've banned LBird again

Mike Harman
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Jul 9 2018 21:36
Vlad The Inhaler wrote:

I understand that but doesn't that leave them feeling like curios, rather than guides to action and theory garnered through long struggle? If they are just curios then are we just saying that theory is dead. Long live blind struggle?

So it's not that it's dead, but you get a lot more from reading theory if you can put it in historical context. Then once you've done that, you can try to figure out how much is applicable to today.

Council communism emerged due to the emergence of workers councils in the German revolution (and elsewhere at the same time).

When Lenin attacks the ultra-leftists in Left Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder, he's telling them things like work in the main trade unions, help the Labour Party get into power in the UK because people will see how shit they are and turn communist etc. All of these are fucking terrible opportunistic stances, although frankly less opportunist than the ex-anarchists of the past five years going full-Corbyn.

Gorter's open letter in response is essentially to say, Lenin, you've done very well in Russia, but what what worked in Russia with a tiny working class and a massive peasantry doesn't apply here in Western Europe with a huge industrial proletariat and hardly any peasantry at all. Also not only that but Russia organisationally using the Third International to try to impose these tactics on communists elsewhere (for its own geopolitical ends?) is the opposite of internationalism. Also stop telling me what to do you're not my dad.

But this is in 1920 when people outside Russia aren't seeing the repression of the anarchists, Miasnikov, factory committees etc.

Once we get a bit later, we see people trying to figure what in Lenin 1917-23 would lead to Stalinism later, because Stalin made obvious to people outside Russia that something must have also gone wrong under Lenin.

However there are several versions of this:

- there was no revolution in Russia, just a bolshevik coup.
- the bureaucracy and repression developed due to the conditions of the civil war
- Russia could only have had a bourgeois/capitalist revolution against Tsarist feudalism, but nevertheless centralised party organisation is still important.
- the bureaucracy developed because Lenin's ideology was suited to a bureaucracy overthrowing the Tsar to develop capitalism, rather than for the working class to implement communism, and the bureaucracy immediately asserted its interests against the genuine working class organisations like the factory committees which had the potential (if not ability in the end) to assert themselves independent of middle class leadership/parties.

And many more, most of them represented to some extent by posters on this site. Some of these aren't mutually exclusive even, but they represent different approaches, emphases and have different political conclusions.

So council communism emerged both due to historical context (the workers councils) and also a theoretical and political break with Lenin via the Third International. It's very useful to know all this, but it doesn't mean the ideas of the council communists in 1920 can be applied to whatever situations we're in in 2018, and anarchists in 1920 who were in Russia had very different analysis of the problems of Leninism to council communists in Germany.

Or we can look a CLR James and the Johnson-Forrest -> Correspondence Publishing Committee -> Facing Reality group. In Facing Reality written 1958, this was after workers councils had emerged in 1956 in Hungary without any communist party or similar organisation providing a theoretical grounding or political leadership at all, and the rise of workers self-management internationally (for example production control in Japan post war https://libcom.org/history/production-control-japan).

James was also breaking with the US SWP just before then, and trying to define what the role of the pro-revolutionary group (I think he calls it 'Marxist organisation') was when breaking with Leninism. But CLR James is also someone who thought Lenin 'got it right at the time', while rejecting 'Leninism' as a contemporary practice. https://libcom.org/library/silences-suppression-workers-self-emancipation-historical-problems-clr-jamess-interpreta is a good critique of CLR James (although he's also one of my favourite political writers since he's honest enough you can read through the flaws).

If we look at that critique though, it's saying there's always been an element of self-organisation, all the way back to the maroons in Haiti, which CLR James had documented to an extent but largely overlooked as having had potential to carry out a genuine proletarian revolution that would destroy the state and capital (as opposed to great leaders bringing things forwards from bad circumstances but not quite getting there). Or from another angle, we start to see critiques of self-management emerge a little bit later, when early variations of works councils, Toyotism, and other management techniques which in some ways were a response to self-management come through.

And this is where an anarchist theory of self-organisation of the working class, i.e. as a theory of oragnisation comes in - in the sense that you can analyse historical movements, whether they were explicitly anarchist or not, by the ways that people organised (workers councils, neighbourhood mass meetings, parties, trade unions, syndicalist unions, maroon communities etc.) as well as their programmatic politics.

But for example with Haiti, an anarchist didn't write that history, CLR James did, but Haiti especially, since it happened only half a decade after the sans-culottes and before either anarchism or marxism emerged as historical tendencies is important to understand, so we can learn about Haiti via CLR James while still taking issue with some of his conclusions. It's important for an understanding both of proletarian (and slave, and maroon) organisation (the Haitian revolutionaries were all three at various points), as one of the first national liberation struggles (both in the sense of fighting colonial powers, but also the trajectories that leaders like Toussaint took, in some cases suppressing uprisings of maroons and plantation slaves/ex-slave agricultural proletarians in the hope of a smoother transition to formal independence) at a very early point in the development of capitalism as a truly world system.

So from writings about the Russian or Haitian revolutions (or which emerged from them), you can't get a plan of action, but you can get the following:

1. The similarities and differences in trajectories - external and internal counter-revolutions etc. on the one hand they're unique, on the other comparisons can be made.
2. Things that went wrong / that no-one should ever do again, since this can be as useful as people telling you what you should do.

And as you get more familiar with events like Haiti, Russia, Spain '36, then ideologies like 'Leninism', 'national liberation' 'anarcho-syndicalism', autonomist-marxism look a lot less like theoretical blueprints and a lot more like historically contingent ideas and organisational models that emerged from struggle. But.. people sometimes still cling to one or more specific tendency across time and space, and less problematically, there's lots of inspiration (either theoretical or practical) to be had from them.

Then beyond that, having looked at both the history of the movements, but also the ideas in the context of those movements, you could compare the following two articles from the past decade:

https://libcom.org/blog/workers%E2%80%99-organisations-%E2%80%93-general-thoughts-debate-30072014

https://libcom.org/library/fighting-ourselves-anarcho-syndicalism-class-struggle-solidarity-federation

And note that AWW is definitely approaching things from a post-Leninist/workers inquiry/autonomist standpoint, and Solfed/Fighting For Ourselves is approaching things from a council communism/Marx-friendly anarcho-syndicalism. And that also both of those groups, within 90 minutes of each other, are organising as solidarity networks, albeit with some differences in emphasis, but then West London and Brighton are pretty different local economies too (massive airport vs. shops/restaurants/hotels/student lets).

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Jul 9 2018 21:38

I don't think AotI insulted you at any point. Also, I'm not sure this discussion was about Marx's philosophy when it started.