This is an interview with Rosa Lichtenstein, philosopher known for her criticism of dialectics.
It's not a secret that Dialectics holds a kind of sacred place in the world of the Marxist tradition. However, there have been those Marxists who have questioned the logic and the utility of it. One of them is Rosa Lichtenstein, a philosopher and mathematician who runs the website Anti- dialectics. Since the 1970's, she has accumulated a rich experience in dealing with Dialectics as a theory through reading Analytical Philosophy and Marxists such as Gerry Cohen, but also as a form of politics within parties such as SWP, which she was a part of for a while. The goal of this interview is both to go deeper into that experience and to give a summed up presentation of her views for those who are not familiar with anti- dialectics.
S: Can you outline the main problems in Engels's dialectics and trace its relationship to Hegel's dialectics?
R: Before I begin it is important to add that nothing said here should be read as is as an attack either on Historical Materialism [HM] -- a theory I fully accept --, or, indeed, on revolutionary socialism. I remain as committed to the self-emancipation of the working class and the dictatorship of the proletariat as I was when I first became a revolutionary nearly thirty years ago.
To answer your question: Engels's version of 'dialectics' isn't easy to summarise since he never published a clear or definitive account of it. He confined most of his comments to a polemic against Dühring in addition to a series of unpublished notes of varying quality. He wasn't a systematic thinker, and that is unfortunately the case with every subsequent Marxist dialectician. (This isn't true of Marx's work on economics, of course, or, indeed, work devoted to HM by others -- the difference between Dialectical Materialism [DM] and HM as I see it is explained here.) This means that much of Engels's work (and that of subsequent dialecticians) is, at best, vague and confused --, at worst, incoherent.
That is perhaps the first main problem with Engels's version of DM. The second is his dogmatism. Needless to say, dialecticians find both of these allegations impossible to accept, but they are relatively easy to confirm -- they have been fully substantiated at my site; for example, here. Plainly, in an interview like this, I can only concentrate on a few examples.
Taking the second first. Engels was at pains to deny he was a dogmatist who wanted to impose his ideas on the world:
"Finally, for me there could be no question of superimposing the laws of dialectics on nature...." [Engels, Anti-Dühring. Bold emphasis added.]
But then he says things like this:
"Dialectics…prevails throughout nature…. [T]he motion through opposites which asserts itself everywhere in nature, and which by the continual conflict of the opposites…determines the life of nature." [Engels, Dialectics of Nature. Bold emphases added.]
"Dialectics as the science of universal interconnection…. The law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa…[operates] in nature, in a manner fixed for each individual case, qualitative changes can only occur by the quantitative addition or quantitative subtraction of matter or motion…. Hence, it is impossible to alter the quality of a body without addition or subtraction of matter or motion…." [Ibid. Bold added.]
"Motion is the mode of existence of matter. Never anywhere has there been matter without motion, nor can there be…. Matter without motion is just as inconceivable as motion without matter. Motion is therefore as uncreatable and indestructible as matter itself; as the older philosophy (Descartes) expressed it, the quantity of motion existing in the world is always the same. Motion therefore cannot be created; it can only be transmitted…. A motionless state of matter therefore proves to be one of the most empty and nonsensical of ideas…." [Engels, Anti-Dühring. Bold emphases added.]
Now, there is no body of evidence large enough that could possibly substantiate dogmatic claims like these; nevertheless, Engels seemed quite happy to impose them on nature in defiance of his declaration that he would never do that. Of course, he didn't obtain these super-scientific 'facts' from the sciences of his day, he imported them from the work of Hegel and previous mystics -- who were also happy to impose them on the facts no less dogmatically, since they imagined they were reproducing the thoughts of the 'deity'.
The first problem I mentioned above was the allegation that his work, and that of subsequent dialecticians, is at best vague and confused. Again, I can only consider one example, Engels's assertion that motion is a 'contradiction':
"Motion itself is a contradiction; even simple mechanical change of place can only come about through a body being both in one place and in another place at one and the same moment of time, being in one and the same place and also not in it. And the continual assertion and simultaneous solution of this contradiction is precisely what motion is." [Engels, Anti-Dühring.]
There are a number problems with this passage -- not the least of which is exactly who is doing all that "asserting" and "solving" --, but that is just another example of Engels's dogmatism. From an extremely brief consideration of what he took to be the meaning of a handful of words, Engels thought he could assert what was true of every example of motion in the entire universe, for all of time! He offered no evidence whatsoever in support of this dogmatic assertion, and no dialectician since has even so much as thought to offer any, either. Indeed, it is impossible to think of any evidence that could confirm the assertion that moving objects are in two places at once, in one of them and not in it at the same time.
None of those who look to Engels for inspiration have noticed how vague and imprecise his hyper-bold 'theory' of motion actually is. For example, we are never told how far apart the two proposed places are that a moving object is supposed to occupy while at the same time not occupying one of them. The answer can't be "It doesn't matter; any distance will do." That is because if a moving object is in two places at once, then it can't truly be said to be in the first of these before it is in the second -- since it is in both of them at the same time. So, if it doesn't matter how far apart these "two places" are, this would imply that, for example, the airplane that takes you on your holidays must land at the same time as it takes off! If any distance will do, then the distance between the two airports involved is as good as any other.
Furthermore, if there is no before or after here, there can be no during, either. This means, for instance, that while you are waiting for a bus, it doesn't leave the depot before it gets to your stop, it arrives at your stop at the same time as it leaves the depot! While the passengers might think they were on this bus during this journey, the advanced logic Hegel inflicted on humanity tells them they are sadly mistaken!
On the other hand, if just any distance won't do, then the question remains: how far apart are the two locations a moving object occupies at the same time? In the many centuries since this conundrum was first aired (as an integral part of one of Zeno's Paradoxes), no one -- not one person -- has even so much as attempted to say, nor have they even asked this question! And it is reasonably clear that no one could say, either. So, the classical theory is just as vague and confused as Engels's superficial version. He simply appropriated it uncritically, as have subsequent dialecticians.
However, the serious difficulties this ill-considered theory faces don't stop there: Do these 'contradictions' increase in number, or stay the same, if an object speeds up? Or, are the two locations depicted by Engels just further apart? That is, are the two points that an accelerating body occupies at the same moment further apart? If they aren't, and if that body occupies these two at the same time, it can't have accelerated. That is because speeding up involves covering the same distance in less time, but that isn't allowed here -- since, and once more, such a body is in both places at the same time. On the other hand, if they are further apart the theory faces the problems outlined in sentences (E1)-(E13), below.
[I am of course using "accelerate" here as it is employed in everyday speech, not as it is used in Physics or Applied Mathematics.]
Have subsequent dialecticians even so much as noticed these 'difficulties', which are a direct result of vagueness and confusion? Of course they haven't; they have always been far too busy regurgitating these 'cosmic verities' than they have been subjecting them to any critical thought. That can be seen from the fact that when they are presented with these obvious absurdities -- after the initial surprise -- they react in one of two ways: either (i) They reject them out-of-hand as just so much 'pedantry' -- can you imagine a genuine scientist reacting this way to serious problems in her theory? --, or (ii) They are genuinely perplexed and retreat into what can only be described as a 'cognitive dissonance sulk' where they can file 'difficulties' like this at the back of their minds, and then think no more about them. [There are materialist reasons why they do one or other of these, but we can leave that to another time.]
The next problem with this 'theory' is that it is in the end incoherent.
[I have set out the following argument in a series of steps since it is a little more involved.]
Underlying the following argument is this uncontroversial assumption:
E1: If an object is located in one place during two contiguous moments in time, it must be at rest there. So, no moving body can be in a given location during two such moments.
With that in mind we can now proceed:
E2: Assume that body, B, is at rest; if so it will be in a given location -- say p(k) -- for at least two 'moments in time' (leaving for now the word "moment" as vague as Engels left it) -- say, t(n) and t(n+1). [Where t(k) is a 'moment in time'.]
E3: Assume further that B is now moving and hence that it is in two places at once -- say p(1) and p(2), both at t(1).
E4: If so, then, unless it is in a third place at the same time -- say, p(3) at t(1) --, B will in fact be at rest in p(2).
E5: That is because if B isn't located at p(3) at t(1), it must be there at a later time -- say, t(2).
E6: And yet, B has to be in p(2) and p(3) at the same time -- according to E3; In this case, it must be there at t(2).
E7: But, if B is in p(2) and p(3) at t(2), it is in p(2) during two moments, t(1) and t(2) -- according to E3 and E6.
E8: In that case, B will be at rest in p(2) (since it was there for two moments in time -- according to E1 and E2), contrary to the assumption that it is moving.
E9: So, B must be in p(2) and p(3) at the same moment, t(1), if it is still moving.
E10: But, if B is in p(2) and p(3) at t(1), and still moving, it is in three places at the same time, p(1), p(2) and p(3).
E11: However, the same considerations also apply to p(3) and p(4); B has to be in both of these at the same time, which now means that it is in p(1), p(2), p(3) and p(4), all at t(1).
E12: It takes very little 'dialectical logic' to see where this is going (no pun intended): if there are n points along its path, then B will be in p(1), p(2), p(3)..., p(n-1), p(n), all at t(1).
E13: So, this 'world-view of the proletariat' would have a moving object occupy all the points along its trajectory at the same time!
For those who might find the above a little too abstract, here it is again in more ordinary terms:
According to Engels, a moving object has to be in two places at the same time -- call that moment "t(1)". If it is still moving at the second of those two points then it must be in that second place and a third place, at the same moment in time -- t(1), again. Otherwise, it will be in that second place for two moments -- t(1) and t(2) -- not one moment, which would mean, of course, that it would be at rest there. So, if it is still moving, it must be in this third place also at t(1). But the same considerations apply to the third and fourth place, the fourth and fifth place, and so on... Hence, if Engels is to be believed, a moving object must be located at every point along is path at the same moment -- t(1)!
Returning to a point noted earlier: assume the two places an accelerating body, B, occupies at the 'same moment in time' are further apart. Call these two points p(i) and p(ii). But, between any two points there is a potentially infinite number of intermediate points. Call these intermediate points p(1)-p(n) from earlier. If so, we have already established that B will be in p(1) at the same time as it is in p(2). This isn't affected by the fact that B is accelerating since B is in p(i) and p(ii) at the same time, and p(1) and p(2) lie between p(i) and p(ii); so B has to be in all four places at the same time. But that is also true if B isn't accelerating (since B is in all the points along its trajectory if it is moving, and accelerating bodies are certainly moving).
So, this theory can't distinguish an accelerating body from one travelling at a constant speed. In which case, it is difficult to see how, in a DM-universe, moving bodies can possibly accelerate if they are in all these points at the same time whether or not they are accelerating.
But, worse: No (moving) 'dialectical object' can occupy more points in a given time, and it matters not whether they are the same distance apart or are further apart -- since, in all cases, they occupy them at the 'same moment in time'. If, as we have seen, a moving object occupies all the points along its trajectory at the same time, then this isn't affected whether these points are a nanometre or a thousand kilometres apart. That being the case, there can be no acceleration in a 'dialectical universe'!
Is it any wonder that this 'theory' has presided over little other than failure for the last hundred or so years?
S: Engels defines metaphysics as something rigid and one-dimensional and claims Heraclitus as one of the progenitors of dialectics. It seems to me that Vedic metaphysics, and indeed later Jainism, for example, doesn't quite fit the Engels's mold. To what extent is Engels's definition of metaphysics correct?
R: I agree. Engels's knowledge was decidedly parochial (and 'dialectical concepts' are found in mystical systems the world over -- on that, see here, here and here), but he imported this 'persuasive definition' of metaphysics from Hegel. That is, this isn't a 'definition' as such but an attempt to persuade the reader to accept a favoured idea that has been disguised as a definition. This revisionary 'definition' was neatly summarised for us by Hegel scholar, Stephen Houlgate:
"Metaphysics is characterised in the Encyclopedia first and foremost by the belief that the categories of thought constitute 'the fundamental determinations of things'.... The method of metaphysical philosophy, Hegel maintains, involves attributing predicates to given subjects, in judgements. Moreover just as the subject-matter of metaphysics consists of distinct entities, so the qualities to be predicated of those entities are held to be valid by themselves.... Of any two opposing predicates, therefore, metaphysics assumes that one must be false if the other is true. Metaphysical philosophy is thus described by Hegel as 'either/or' thinking because it treats predicates or determinations of thought as mutually exclusive, 'as if each of the two terms in an anti-thesis...has an independent, isolated existence as something substantial and true by itself.' The world either has a beginning and end in time or it does not; matter is either infinitely divisible or it is not; man is either a rigidly determined being or he is not. In this mutual exclusivity, Hegel believes, lies the dogmatism of metaphysics. In spite of the fact that metaphysics deals with infinite objects, therefore, these objects are rendered finite by the employment of mutually exclusive, one-sided determinations -- 'categories the limits of which are believed to be permanently fixed, and not subject to any further negation.'" [Houlgate Hegel, Nietzsche And The Criticism Of Metaphysics (Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp.100-01.]
So, this is a revisionary definition of "metaphysics", which doesn't make sense even in its own terms. That is because it puts Hegel himself in something of a bind, for he certainly believed that metaphysics was this but not that (i.e., it was either this or it was that, but not both) -- meaning that even he had to apply the very principle he anathematised to make his point -- he had to use the dread 'Law of Excluded Middle' [LEM] in order to criticise it! He had to divide thought into "rigid" dichotomies to advance his argument, fatally undermining it. So, "metaphysical philosophy is...described by Hegel as 'either/or' thinking" -- or it isn't. According to Houlgate, Hegel drew a rigid dichotomy between "metaphysical" and "dialectical" philosophy! I am sure Houlgate did this inadvertently, but his attempt to characterise Hegel's thought only succeeded in torpedoing it.
Of course, it could be argued that the above observations aren't "judgements" about the 'fundamental nature of things' -- but that objection itself must use the LEM to make its point, for it takes for granted that the above paragraph is saying this, but not that, about the 'fundamental nature of things'. Indeed, even Hegel's conclusions about the content of any metaphysical 'judgement' (i.e., that it says either this or that, not both) would also require the use of the LEM.
We can go further, any 'leap' into higher forms of 'speculative thought' to the effect that this or that, or whatever, has been 'negated', must implicate the LEM, too; for it will either be the case or it will not that for any randomly-selected dialectical 'negation', it will either have taken place or it won't. Naturally, this would imply that if we were to accept the above revisionary definition, Hegel's thought (as well as that of anyone who agrees with him) is just as 'metaphysical' as anything Parmenides or Plato ever promulgated.
In fact, any attempt to say something definite or determinate about anything, involves an implicit, or explicit, use of the LEM. Not even a 'genius' like Hegel could find some way to by-pass it, even while he was attempting to criticise it. He had to use it in any attempt to do so.
So, and ironically, Hegel and Engels's 'definition' isn't in fact either correct or incorrect; it is far too confused to elevate it into either category.
S: Although Marx criticised Hegel, we often hear that reading Marx without Hegel is impossible and that Marx didn't break from Hegel despite his criticisms. How would you respond to that? What was Marx's reaction to Engels's dialectics?
R: This is one area of my work that has perhaps been more heavily attacked than any other (even here at Libcom, in the Forum, a few years back) since it strikes right at the heart of the Engels/Plekhanov/Lenin tradition of interpreting Das Kapital -- and therefore much of the work, and hence the intellectual standing, of 'academic Marxists' and their cottage industry, which has for several generations churned out ever more complicated and obscure 'reconfigurations' of the 'dialectic of Capital'.
[Incidentally, the sanitised version of dialectics that academic dialecticians inflict on their readers -- purged of all those Engelsian 'crudities' -- plainly isn't an "abomination" in the eyes of those sections of the bourgeoisie that administer Colleges and Universities, or, indeed, who publish academic books and journals.]
Marx began his drift away from Hegel and philosophy back in the 1840s (the textual evidence for that allegation has been posted here). My contention is that by the time he came to write Das Kapital, Marx had abandoned Hegel, root-and-branch.
On what do I base this highly controversial allegation?
I base it on the only summary of 'the dialectic method' Marx published and endorsed in his entire life. He added this summary (written by a reviewer) to the Postface to the second edition of Das Kapital (because of space considerations, I have only quoted one third of it):
"After a quotation from the preface to my 'Criticism of Political Economy,' Berlin, 1859, pp. IV-VII, where I discuss the materialistic basis of my method, the writer goes on:
'The one thing which is of moment to Marx, is to find the law of the phenomena with whose investigation he is concerned; and not only is that law of moment to him, which governs these phenomena, in so far as they have a definite form and mutual connexion within a given historical period. Of still greater moment to him is the law of their variation, of their development, i.e., of their transition from one form into another, from one series of connexions into a different one. This law once discovered, he investigates in detail the effects in which it manifests itself in social life. Consequently, Marx only troubles himself about one thing: to show, by rigid scientific investigation, the necessity of successive determinate orders of social conditions, and to establish, as impartially as possible, the facts that serve him for fundamental starting-points. For this it is quite enough, if he proves, at the same time, both the necessity of the present order of things, and the necessity of another order into which the first must inevitably pass over; and this all the same, whether men believe or do not believe it, whether they are conscious or unconscious of it. Marx treats the social movement as a process of natural history, governed by laws not only independent of human will, consciousness and intelligence, but rather, on the contrary, determining that will, consciousness and intelligence.... With the varying degree of development of productive power, social conditions and the laws governing them vary too. Whilst Marx sets himself the task of following and explaining from this point of view the economic system established by the sway of capital, he is only formulating, in a strictly scientific manner, the aim that every accurate investigation into economic life must have. The scientific value of such an inquiry lies in the disclosing of the special laws that regulate the origin, existence, development, death of a given social organism and its replacement by another and higher one. And it is this value that, in point of fact, Marx's book has.'
"Whilst the writer pictures what he takes to be actually my method, in this striking and [as far as concerns my own application of it] generous way, what else is he picturing but the dialectic method?" [Marx, Das Kapital. Bold emphases added.]
In the above passage not one single Hegelian concept is to be found -- no "contradictions", no change of "quantity into quality", no "negation of the negation", no "unity and identity of opposites", no "interconnected Totality", no "universal change", etc., etc. -- and yet Marx still calls this the "dialectic method", and says of it that it is "my method". So, Marx's "method" has had Hegel completely excised --, except for the odd phrase or two, "here and there", with which he merely "coquetted", as he later notes.
In that case, Marx's "dialectic method" more closely resembles that of Aristotle, Kant and the Scottish Historical School (of Ferguson, Millar, Robertson, Smith, Hume and Steuart), the very first historical materialists.
[Dialecticians have raised several serious objections to this interpretation; I have answered them all at my site. For reasons of space I won't reproduce that material here.]
Now, I don't think Marx was an enthusiastic supporter of Engels's dalliance with Hegelian Mysticism -- to put it mildly. Some of my critics point to passages in Das Kapital where Marx appears to use concepts drawn from DM in his study of Capitalism, but as I have shown at my site, this isn't so (on that, see here and here). Others refer to Anti-Dühring and the fact that Marx contributed a chapter to it. But, there is no evidence that Marx read the entire book, or even endorsed it. Indeed, Engels tells us he read this book to Marx:
"I must note in passing that inasmuch as the mode of outlook expounded in this book was founded and developed in far greater measure by Marx, and only to an insignificant degree by myself, it was self-understood between us that this exposition of mine should not be issued without his knowledge. I read the whole manuscript to him before it was printed...." [Engels, Anti-Dühring. Bold emphasis added.]
But, if Engels did read this to Marx (a claim, it is worth noting, he only made after Marx's death), that would have taken at least two-and-half days to complete.
I have based the above conclusion on the following calculations: I estimate Anti-Dühring [AD] is slightly under 130,000 words long. In the version I have, the Peking Edition, there are approximately 300 words per page. If we omit the Prefaces and the Notes, there are just over 430 pages; so 430 x 300 = 129,000.
Now, I have timed myself reading one page of that edition, and doing this fairly rapidly it took me 1 minute 50 seconds to complete. Reading non-stop, the entire book would take approximately 13 hours 10 minutes to finish. If we add a ten minute break every hour (for toilet or smoke breaks -- Engels was a smoker, and would have been slowed down by puffing away on several cigars -- or coughing regularly and/or stopping to light another -- but no time for discussion, drinks, food or sleep), then the manuscript would take 15 hours 20 minutes to read. When I slowed down slightly, that added twenty seconds per page -- and thus 2 hours 20 minutes to the total -- bringing the time to 17 hours 40 minutes. If we now allow for an eight-hour day, and a couple of hours for food breaks every eight hours, etc., then that would add at least 4 more hours to the total -- now at just under 22 hours --, or, two-and-half days (for an eight-hour day) of Engels banging on, and on...
[Incidentally, if we omit the Prefaces and the Notes, AD is 293 pages long in the MECW edition (Volume 25), with approximately 450 words per page -- 293 x 450 = 131,850 words. One page took me 2 minutes 30 seconds to read (fairly rapidly) and 2 minute 45 seconds (reading slightly slower). The first timing would mean that the book could be read (non-stop) in just over 12 hours 10 minutes; the second in 13 hours 25 minutes. So the two approximations agree reasonably closely.]
Can you imagine it! One wonders how often the rapidly ageing Marx must have nodded off, not fully realising the nature of what it was that some would later claim he accepted! But, why read it to Marx? Were his eyes and his brain failing him? Moreover, if Marx contributed a chapter (which he did), why didn't Engels simply ask him to read the proofs? And, it is rather odd, too, that Engels never claimed this of any of his other published work -- that he had read it to Marx.
Furthermore, AD contains several sections on mathematics (which few, other than die-hard-dialecticians will now defend). Unlike Marx, Engels was neither competent nor knowledgeable in mathematics (as is relatively easy to confirm -- on that see here and here). If we insist that Marx agreed with every single line read to him from AD, then we are also forced to conclude that Marx, too, was an incompetent mathematician. Are dialecticians who are competent in this area -- the opinions of those who aren't are surely irrelevant in this respect -- are they prepared to admit this? If not, then the claim that Marx had this book read to him, and that he agreed with every word, can no longer be sustained.
Finally, some point to unpublished letters where Marx speaks highly of 'dialectics', but we already know he meant something different by that word compared with the way it has been understood by the tradition that has descended from Engels -- the long passage above confirms this. So, there is no convincing evidence Marx agreed with Engels about DM, and much that suggests he didn't.
S: Can you provide an account of the "rational core" of Hegelian dialectics, in particular with reference to historical materialism and its corresponding methods of investigation and argumentation?
R: In the space available to me, it really isn't possible to provide an account of the 'rational core' you mention. However, Hegel himself was heavily influenced by Aristotle, Kant and the Scottish Historical School (mentioned earlier). He took their ideas and thoroughly drenched them in Christian and Hermetic Mysticism. So, in order to ascertain the 'rational core' before Hegel had thrown countless mystical smoke bombs at it, we need to go back to those earlier theorists, by-passing Hegel, and read Marx afresh in that light. Several theorists have partially attempted to do this, the most important being the late Gerry Cohen, whose book -- Karl Marx's Theory of History. A Defence -- is, in my view, a modern classic, providing its technological determinism and functionalism are ignored. Fortunately, Alex Callinicos's book -- Making History -- has plugged most of the holes in Cohen's theory.
The methods used? Those of any other historiographical study -- but, devoid of methodological individualism. I hope to say more about this when my current project is complete.
S: What Marxist anti-dialecticians do you agree with the most and why?
R: Unfortunately, there are very few who fit into that category, and what few there are only go as far as questioning the application of dialectics to nature, restricting it to human social development and the class war. And of those few, the vast majority steer far too close to Traditional Philosophy (or, rather, too close to Hegel and 'Continental' Philosophy), which means that only those with a PhD can follow their thoughts. That is quite apart from the easily confirmed fact that much of what they write is as obscure as anything Hegel thought to publish -- any who doubt this should check out two of Slavoj Žižek's latest books, Less Than Nothing. Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, and Absolute Recoil. Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism. Only those fluent in academic gobbledygook will understand more than a few pages of either tome.
There are two Marxist dialecticians that I agree with most, and whose work is definitely worth mentioning. The first is the late Guy Robinson. I have posted Guy's unpublished book -- Philosophy and Demystification -- at my site, where I have also added these thoughts:
"I am publishing here several of Guy Robinson's Essays. These had until recently been posted at Guy's site, which no longer exists. In my opinion, Guy is one of the few Marxist Philosophers whose work is genuinely worth reading. Indeed, I'd go much further: I cannot praise his book, Philosophy and Mystification (Fordham University Press, 2003), too highly; it seems to me that this is how Marxist Philosophy should be done.
"I only encountered Guy's work in 2005, but I soon saw that he had anticipated several of my own ideas -- except he manages to express in two paragraphs what it takes me several pages to say! Unlike the vast bulk of material that claims to be Marxist (especially that which has been produced by academic Marxists), Guy's work is a model of clarity. It is no accident, therefore, to see Guy writing in the Wittgensteinian tradition. Sadly Guy passed away in October 2011."
The other author with whom I agree the most is Eric Peterson, whose book, The Poverty of Dialectical Materialism, is the best -- and, as far as I know, the only -- published work that is wholly devoted to an attack on the application of DM to nature written by a revolutionary Marxist. Several years ago, Eric promised a second edition; if and when it comes out I hope he deletes the comments he made about Formal Logic in one of the appendices, which were, alas, ill-informed and only detracted from his overall argument. While I don't agree with everything Petersen says (for example, what he writes about the nature of Philosophy and the application of 'the dialectic' to human development and the class war), his book is easily the closest to my own work, and I learnt much from it.
S: Analytical philosophy's goal was to introduce clarity and precision to philosophy, as opposed to traditional philosophy, which tended to build philosophical systems trapped in thought and language, to paraphrase Bertrand Russell. He and G.E. Moore, for example, accused Hegel of being obscure. You seem to align yourself with at least some instances of analytical philosophy, but you warn that the newer analytical philosophy has "resiled from its earlier anti-metaphysical stance“. Do you think engaging in metaphysics is harmful or irrelevant, or both, and if so, how? What pitfalls are there if Marxists avoid metaphysics but still use techniques drawn from Analytic Philosophy?
R: I am a died-in-the-wool Analytic Philosopher, but in the Frege-Wittgenstein tradition. Wittgenstein's first book, The Tractatus, provided a dozen or so positivistically-inclined scientist-philosophers, the so-called Vienna Circle, with the analytic tools they sought in their endeavour to provide a comprehensive philosophy of science free from metaphysics, among other things. However, they completely misconstrued Wittgenstein's book (as did Russell in his introduction to the said book), but it is that interpretation that dominated Analytic Philosophy for the next few decades (and, in some respects, it still does), mis-characterising it as belonging to the Empiricist tradition, which it most definitely doesn't.
Rightly or wrongly this meant that Analytic Philosophy from the late 1920s through to the late 1960s was predominantly anti-metaphysical. The picture began to change with the work of Quine and Chomsky, followed by that of Saul Kripke, Hilary Putnam, and David Lewis, among others. This now means that Analytic Philosophy, outwith the Wittgenstein tradition, has slipped back a whole century, and is now dominated by theorists who think Philosophy is and should be a sort of Super-Science.
Despite this, Metaphysics has proved to be an almost total waste of time and effort, and that is because metaphysical theories are, quite simply, incoherent non-sense.
In the 'West', since Ancient Greek times, Traditional Thinkers have been imposing their dogmatic theories on 'reality'. This ancient tradition taught that behind appearances there lies a hidden world populated by the 'gods', assorted 'spirits' and 'essences', which are more real than the material universe we see around us, and which is accessible to thought alone. Theology was openly and proudly built on this premise; so was Traditional Philosophy. Indeed, as Marx noted:
"Philosophy is nothing else but religion rendered into thought and expounded by thought, i.e., another form and manner of existence of the estrangement of the essence of man; hence equally to be condemned...." [1844 Manuscripts.]
This way of viewing the world was concocted by ideologues of the ruling-class, which class ensured that others were educated -- or, rather, were indoctrinated -- to see things the same way (as part of their religion). They invented this 'world-view' because if you belong to, benefit from, or help run a society that is based on gross inequality, oppression and exploitation, you can keep order in a number ways.
The first and most obvious way is through violence. That will work for a time, but it is not only fraught with danger, it is costly and it stifles innovation (among other things).
Another way is to persuade the majority (or a significant section of "opinion formers" -- philosophers, administrators, editors, bishops, educators, 'intellectuals', and the like) that the present order either works for their benefit, is ordained of the 'gods', defends 'civilised values', or is 'natural' and thus cannot be fought against, reformed or negotiated with.
These ideas were then imposed on reality -- plainly, since they can't be 'read' from it.
As Marx pointed out, members of the ruling-class often relied on these other layers in society to concoct and then disseminate such ideas on their behalf in order to persuade the rest of us that each successive system was 'rational', 'natural', or 'divinely ordained':
"The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch...." [The German Ideology. Bold emphases added.]
Notice that Marx tells us that they do this "in its whole range", and that they "rule as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age." This must mean that Traditional Philosophy was, and still is, an integral part of ruling-class ideology.
In Ancient Greece, with the demise of the rule of Kings and Queens, the old myths and Theogonies were no longer relevant. So, in the newly emerging republics and quasi-democracies of the Sixth Century BCE, far more abstract, de-personalised ideas were required. Enter Philosophy and Metaphysics. It is no accident then that these disciplines emerged just as Greek society was changing in the above way.
Hence, a 'world-view' is necessary for the ruling-class to carry on ruling "in the same old way". While the content of this ruling ideology has altered with each change in the mode of production, its form has remained largely the same for thousands of years: Ultimate Truth can ascertained by thought alone, and may therefore be imposed on reality, dogmatically. Philosophy thus became a Super-Science.
Philosophers felt they could read their doctrines into nature, since, for them, nature was 'Mind' (or it was the product of 'Mind' -- so, the Universe was ultimately 'rational'). In that case, the human mind could safely concoct and then project its thoughts onto this 'rational' Universe. But this is a thoroughly Idealist method, as US Trotskyist, George Novack, pointed out:
"A consistent materialism cannot proceed from principles which are validated by appeal to abstract reason, intuition, self-evidence or some other subjective or purely theoretical source. Idealisms may do this." [The Origin of Materialism.]
Of course, Metaphysics these days has largely been distanced from the rationalisation and justification of ruling-class power -- and, outside of the Church, from Theology, too -- but it still performs a useful (and largely inadvertent) function: since it is still based on the premise that the material world is insufficient to itself and has beneath it a 'rational' order accessible to thought alone. But, if there is a 'rational order' beneath 'appearances', then, ultimately, the universe must be mind-like, No wonder Marx asserted that "Philosophy is nothing else but religion rendered into thought."
This interpretation of Metaphysics places it in the political sphere: it still represents a ruling-class view of 'reality', and so it is a legitimate target for Marxist criticism. It is harmful in this sense: Metaphysics is still the paradigm that dominates the thought of dialecticians and Marxist theorists in general. They, too, think they are doing Super-Science.
What pitfalls are there? Well, that depends on which strand of Analytic Philosophy a given theorist has been influenced by. If it is the current mentioned above (that has openly dived back into Metaphysics), then that theorist will probably be dragged down with it. On the other hand, the techniques we use, especially in the Frege-Wittgenstein branch, can't help but benefit Marxist theory in general. They will at least stop them thinking Formal Logic began and ended with Aristotle!
S: How does Dialectical Materialism render Dialectical Marxists unable to understand the dynamics between the base and superstructure?
R: I don't think it does render them unable to do what you say -- except perhaps when they speak about the contradiction between, for example, the forces and relations of production. If that were the case, according to the DM-classics, the forces and relations of production would have to struggle with, and then change into, each other! Has anyone ever witnessed, say, a transport system struggling with and then changing into the relations of ownership and control? Crazy ideas like these, that trip so easily off the tongues of dialecticians, undermine the scientific stature of HM -- as well as the credibility of Marxist theorists -- and only serve to mystify the relation between base and superstructure.
S: You say one of the reasons many Marxists do not reject dialectics is their perception of it as a kind of dogma, a sacred text. Marx was clearly against dogma, to which his "ruthless criticism of everything“ testifies. Do you think that Dialectical Marxists, in your experience, are generally more prone to being dogmatic than those who reject dialectics?
R: In my experience they are all dogmatists when it comes to DM. That is because of the dogmatic mature of Traditional Thought, and the fact that those who founded Marxism and invented DM weren't workers. They came from a class that educated their children to believe there really was a 'hidden world' lying behind 'appearances', which governed everything in existence (again, as part of their religious education). So, when they became revolutionaries, they looked for 'logical' principles relating to this abstract world that told them that change was inevitable and part of the cosmic order. Enter dialectics, courtesy of the dogmatic ideas of that ruling-class mystic, Hegel. Hence, the dialectical classicists latched onto this theory and were happy to impose it on the world (upside down or the "right way up"). As a result of their education, it seemed quite natural for them to do this -- since that is how 'genuine' philosophers should behave. Or so they had been socialised to believe.
This doesn't mean that only workers can be good revolutionaries, but it does mean that Marxists should be alert to the class-compromised ideas that the DM-classicists brought with them into our movement -- before the working class could provide them with an effective materialist counter-weight.
Today, a hundred and fifty years later, there is no longer any excuse for continuing to import these doctrines into our movement since that counter-weight now exists -- and we now understand the role this theory has played in the long-term failure of Dialectical Marxism.
S: In your experience with Dialectical Marxists, what role does dialectics play in their outlook? Also, you have stated that you would be an idealist if you'd harbour any hope that your work would positively influence Dialectical Marxists. Has anything changed since you've made that statement and has your work had a positive influence on other Marxists?
R: The problem here is that, like Metaphysics in general, DM is incoherent non-sense, so it is actually impossible to put it into practice. Can you imagine anyone arguing that they should oppose, for instance, Donald Trump's Muslim ban because the whole is greater than the sum of the parts? Or that since quantity turns into quality, we should fight the attack on pensions. Or even that the rise of the alt-right in the USA and across Europe should be resisted because Being is identical with but at the same time different from Nothing, the contradiction resolved in Becoming (an 'argument' of Hegel's that was praised by Lenin and Trotsky as the work of genius)?
For more years than I care to mention, I have been asking dialecticians in person and on the internet for examples of the (positive) application of dialectics in the class war or in the practice of revolutionaries, and I have yet to be given a single valid example -- except they tend to present me with instances drawn from HM, instead. However, as is relatively easy to show, dialectics can be and has been used to rationalise and/or 'justify' anything a given party finds expedient and its opposite -- often this trick is pulled off by the very same individual, in the same book, article or speech. That is because DM glories in contradiction. In that case, dialecticians conclude that the party and its ideas should be no less contradictory. This is a characteristic that dialectics shares with no other theory -- except perhaps Zen Buddhism -- and it has had extremely deleterious effects on Dialectical Marxism. [I have posted dozens of examples of this phenomenon at my site.]
So, if the history of Dialectical Marxism is anything to go by, DM has no positive practical applications, only negative. That is why I have argued that it is part of the reason for the long-term failure of Dialectical Marxism. Of course, there are many complex reasons for this failure -- notice I am not saying Marxism has failed; the non-dialectical version hasn't been road-tested yet --, but this theory has to take some of the blame.
Or are we supposed to conclude that the only two things in the entire universe that aren't interconnected are the long term failure of Dialectical Marxism and its core theory, DM?
Has anything changed? Not really, except dialecticians now either ban me from their forums, or they simply ignore me on-line. I think my reputation goes before me these days.