Sunday, January 27, 2008

Reading Lenin

READING LENIN: Materialism and Empiro-criticism
Thomas Riggins

Using our editor's blog to further Marxist education seems like a good idea. So here is a famous work of Lenin's that outlines what Marxist philosophy is all about. It's 100 years old this year and we might ask ourselves what is still valid in this classic. Have new philosophic developments in the last 100 years made this work outmoded? I'm going to post some reflections on the book section by section and anyone who wants to read along and comment is welcome to do so. I hope to post weekly updates and Sunday seems the best day to this as it is a free day for me.

The Prefaces. Why did Lenin write this book? He tells us because a number of people calling themselves "Marxists" have been attacking "orthodox" Marxism ("dialectical materialism") and calling it outmoded and wanting to supplement it with new ideas borrowed from bourgeois philosophy.

Engels is specifically attacked as being "antiquated" and his views on dialectics are said to be a species of "mysticism." None of the books that Lenin attacks are of much interest today and the names of the authors have mostly been forgotten. Perhaps you will recall the name of A.A. Bogdanov, certainly the name Lunacharsky will ring a bell as he later became the first Commissar of Enlightenment under the Bolsheviks.

Lenin is not opposed to criticism of the views of Marx and Engels. He mentions approvingly Mehring's critique of "antiquated views of Marx" which was undertaken from a dialectical materialist standpoint. Any historians out there reading this are encouraged to send in comments about just what these views were and where Mehring made them as Lenin does not discuss them in the Prefaces.

Besides defending the "orthodox" view from "heretics", Lenin also wanted to know what drove ostensible Marxists to bourgeois philosophy. What, he asks, "was the stumbling block to these people" that made them desert the orthodox position.

Well, in our own day we have a similar problem. Engels is still attacked and efforts are made to cut Marx away from Engels and make Engels some sort of hack. We also have ordinary language Marxists, existentialist Marxists, phenomenological Marxists, postmodern Marxists, etc., etc.

Next week I'll look at "In lieu of an Introduction." I'm using Vol. 14 of the CW for the text. The book itself seems to be out of print. Maybe you can find a copy on line. If you google "materialism and empiro-criticism" the first entry you get should be an on line copy of the book so if you don't have a hard copy you can still read it.


Anonymous said...

You have an excellent idea; I'll be sure to read it. I very much hope you follow thru.

Green Bolshevik said...

This reading and sharing of Lenin's work is the only useful post on this blog.

real bolshevik said...

I disagree with "green bolshevik." Being able to change the world and the country isn't just based on how much you know about what Lenin said 100 years ago--though that's important too. Talking about and getting involved in the real world as it is now is crucial too. I think that's what being a real bolshevik is.

Carl Davidson said...

Lenin's 'Empirio-Criticism' may be too narrowly focused for what you seem to want to do, defending dia-mat against 'bourgeois philosophy.'

Lenin was aiming at a few people going off the deep end around the time of Einstein, making too much of the 'revolution in physics.' Today there have been many more revolutions, and dia-mat, if it can't jettison some 19th Century baggage, itself ends up as dogma.

Taken Stephen J Gould, an historical materialist and scientist par excellance. In his book 'Full House,' he does a wonderful critique of the dia-mat notion of progress through history, especially any 'inevitable' flavor of it. He posits an open future, more chaotic and complex than that posited by dia-mat.

Same goes for John Dewey's instrumental theory of truth, which is more in tune with what scientists actually deploy when doing science today.

Who said Marxism is science or it is nothing? Not entirely true, but very well, the question then is what really is cutting edge science today? Hint: It doesn't all fit into the old dia-mat formulas, methods and catergories, which were themselves historically shaped.

mike k. said...

I'm looking forward to reading along and participating in this.

And, for the record, I couldn't disagree more with "green bolshevik". I find the contributions on this blog useful, thought provoking and enjoyable to read.

Kamran Heiss said...

I'm afraid I'm going to have to disagree with some of Mr.Davidson's comments on DiaMat and science. While some of the individual scientific claims in Engels' Dialectics of Nature may have been refuted (though I can not name any), by in large recent scientific studies have if anything enhanced the correctness of DiaMAt. For example recent evolutionary studies have found that there are qualitative leaps in evolution triggered by geological disasters and climate change, and thus evolution is not always as gradual as Darwin argued.

While it is important that Marxist-Leninists do not become academic debating societies, Marxist theory is critically important toward knowing which actions are correct. National Bolsheviks in Russia for instance claim to be Bolshevik yet have such incorrect theories that in practice they have degenerate into fascist thugs.

As for the CPUSA, I would say by and large theory is correct, but one aspect that concerns me is seemingly giving up the idea of state power forever. There is nothing wrong with supporting liberal Democrats, or taking power as part of a progressive coalition, but I do find it troubling abandoning the idea of EVER assuming stat power. Again theres nothing wrong with doing it through peaceful quantitative stages, that is the way Marx, Lenin, Mao, Castro, Ho Chi Minh attempted until they were forced to respond to counterrevolutionary terrorism. The problem is when the idea of quantitative change leading to qualitative change is completely abandoned. I don't see this as a major issue in the CPUSA but some recent papers seem to imply that strategy, although it may just be my misreading.

Anyway I look forward to reading an analysis of Lenin's work and I'm preparing my own critique and criticism of Stalin's interpretation of Dialectical Materialism

Carl Davidson said...

I'm afraid that what I meant by some of the outmoded aspects of Dia-Mat are a little more involved than what you're suggesting. I would agree that incremental change in one aspect of a causal complex can bring about change elsewhere of a different order of magnitude--quantity into quality, to use Engels term (not just his). But today, rather than the old 'water into steam' metaphor, complexity throws in the 'butterfly flapping its wings causing hurricanes' metaphor.

I would be careful, though, at making analogs between patterns of change in inorganic and organic phenomena and social phenomena. They may have little or nothing to do with each other. We're carrying out this discussion in English, which has its own rules and patterns of a social and intellectual nature. Underlying it is the machine language and code of the computer and the protocols of the internet, which have their own rules and patterns that are completely different, even though they work together for communication in cyberspace.

My example didn't question whether there were leaps, but it did question whether they were necessarily progressive or necessarily inevitable, rather than arbitrary or capricious.

Dia-Mat is very tied to a coherence theory of truth. It also claims a correspondence theory within that. The problem is you end up with a closed system, even if it does grow. As for new discoveries 'proving' Dia-Mat, you could just as easily make the case that they 'prove' Buddhism, and that Buddhism and Dia-Mat 'prove' each other. But that doesn't get us much beyond interesting and enjoyable conversation.

Better to have a science that starts with problems, is open to being disproven, and seeks solutions.

Gould is one of the best known people putting forward 'punctuated equilibrium' as an improvement on Darwin, which Darwin would probably embrace, since it shows natural selection still holds, even in conditions far from equilibrium. But Dia-Mat usually talks about things progressing through time, mainly through internal contradictions that bring about a qualitative leap FORWARD, on a higher level. Gould argues differently, showing that the mass extinctions took place for arbitrary reasons, at least arbitrary to the organism-environment at hand. You can say they were 'higher' simply because they were among the five percent of survivors, but it could be simply a result of their distance from the impact of a comet collusion. To call them 'higher' then simply means you're promoting a 'just so' story. Likewise with the famous classic images showing the ascent of man from the 'lower' orders. If successful adaptation and survival are the key to how well organisms are on an evolutionary scale, Gould is pretty convincing that cockroaches and bacteria are at the top, while the jury is still out on humankind.

I'm not sure what the reference to the CPUSA and 'state power forever' is about, so I'll let it pass for now.

M. Heiss said...

I apologize if I was overly critical in my initial response to your point. I agree that we can not continue to uphold Nineteenth century dogma in the age of the internet. There would be no greater proof that Dialectical materialism was not a science than if it had remained unchanged from 1848 to 2008. To be fair, I'm not a scientist and my understanding of DiaMat is grounded more in politics and philosophy. Nevertheless to me it seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, to claim that because individual claims of DiaMAt have been challenged by recent science, that somehow the entire Dialectical world-view is bunk.

You raised the issue of computers as a refutation of the simplicity of DiaMat. I would say that modern computers, are an elegant illustration of both quantitative into qualitative change, and the nature of contradiction. The entire coding system of modern computers is based on contradiction. A bit is either a 1 or 0, the same as saying A or ~A. Out of opposites emerge the entire system of computer programming. Likewise each individual bit is basically the same qualitatively, and the only real changes come quantitatively. And yet if enough bytes or megabytes are gathered, quantitative differences can cause vast qualitative differences in computer programming. And yet if you broke down the memory of websites, music, videos, digital artwork or any electronic information, down to its simplest parts they are in fact qualitatively identical. Thus all computer programming is in a way simply more complex illustration of the boiling water metaphor.

As for the example of the butterfly affect, I don't see how that contradicts the boiling water metaphor either. As I understand it, it is based on the fact that a small change in the quantitative levels of air pressure can have vast qualitative impacts on the weather.

Generally I find the discoveries of punctuated equilibrium supportive of DiaMat interpretations of evolution, in that the concept of "Evolutionary leaps" is supported. Objectively though I don't think anyone would argue that the complexities of human life is not a qualitative advancement over bacteria, even if as Gould says it is not yet clear which is "fittest"But I can certainly see your point in mentioning Gould's discovery that often randomness can impact on progress. To this I can only respond by saying, that this is a major flaw in some schools of DiaMat, especially the rigid interpretation put forward by Josef Stalin. The idea that either history or the physical world, is slave to some iron laws of progression is ludicrous, and I readily concede that point. Nevertheless if you look at the "big picture" of evolution and human history, there seems to be at least some truth to the idea of linear progression arising out of contradictions. Perhaps Hegel's concept of a "spiraling" history is more accurate than any idea of a linear path.

DiaMat may not yet be developed to the extent of the hard sciences, but it is certainly more than mere soft philosophy. Less than 50 years after the scientific foundations of DiaMat were laid out many of the its basic assumptions were under attack by the discoveries of "bourgeois" science. And the importance of Lenin's Empirocriticism is that he neither rejected bourgeois scientific advances nor abandoned DiaMat altogether, but instead incorporated new data into old theories. IT is this sort of scientific character towards Dialectical Materialism that has made it so adaptive and such a force int he world. There are so many components to DiaMAt that I don't think its possible for any one scientific discovery to somehow "disprove" all of DiaMat in onew swipe. DiaMat has shown itself to be an advanced scientific way of examining problems and looking at the world.

Just to close I strongly agree with your point that "some" of the 19th century baggage has to be jettisoned for DiaMat to be meaningful in the 21st century, I just feel that the scientific element of DiaMat is more significant, than you seemed to imply. I thank you for the many thought provoking questions you have raised about the validity of DiaMat, and have learned a lot from this discussion with you.

Kamran Heiss

Carl Davidson said...

I'm not claiming, Comrade Heiss, 'that somehow the entire Dialectical world-view is bunk' due to advances in science.

I'll take the Dia-Mat worldview any day of the week against the Aristotelian worldview or most others among pre-20th century schools of thought.

But my defense of Dewey's 'Instrumentalism' raises the question of whether we need worldviews at all, or at least the limitations involved with them.

Dia-Mat makes the claim of being scientific. Very well, if that's all that we mean that's at the core of it, then I'm definitely an advocate of science and its method, and uphold it over ideology. Marx himself rarely, if ever, used 'ideology' as anything but a pejorative, and counterposed it to science. And 'proletarian ideology' vs 'bourgeois ideology' is not a frame I'd uphold any longer. It was mainly brought into our movement by Stalin and Mao for more mundane political battles.

Science is neither bourgeois or proletarian, not are all ideas 'stamped with the brand of a class,' as was asserted in the GPCR in China. Scientists, as people, can certainly be of one class or another, and the ruling class can certainly put some of their work to use while ignoring others, but those are different matters.

To the extent it has a political bias, science bends toward democracy, because its experiments and proofs have to be able to be reproduced by anyone, not a special priesthood. It also flourishes with an open society, diversity and freedom of expression.

So I prefer 'working hypotheses,' 'probabilities' and 'causal patterns' over 'final aims', 'inevitable results' and 'iron laws,' especially when it comes to the social sciences and history, all of which include the wild card of human consciousness as a player, and thus have some indeterminacy built in. Besides, when events prove you wrong, as they often do, it's far easier to adjust or replace one's working hypotheses without automatically committing the dire sin of revisionism when revisiting 'iron laws'.

As for dialectics, I committed to monism over dualism decades ago, that 'the many' develop out of 'the one' through internal contradiction, at least for the most part. In some cases, the entire universe has to become your local 'internality' to make it work. I'd rather go with Gould's point here.

Also, A equals A (Aristotle's law of identity) always seemed limited in scope. A equals A and not A seemed to describe the living world better. But then we have the curious cases -- Buddhism's A equals neither A nor not A (emptiness) or the modern multivalued and 'fuzzy' logics. What do we do with these?

In short, I don't think one has to be a Dia-Matist to be a good communist. One has to be in general agreement with the program, pay dues and carry out the work in an organized fashion, and a critical thinker. DiaMat is atheist, and goodness knows, we've plenty of good communists who are Baptists and all sorts of other flavors among the worldviews.

Kamran Heiss said...

I was reading through Lenin's Empirocriticism and many important question were raised about DiaMat and materialism in general. One interesting critique is that of the empiricists who claim that Materialists, turn matter into a new deity based on faith, since objectively we don't have any basis of any matter outside of our senses. This brings up Kant's idea of "the thing in itself". Its a hard concept but my interpretation is that there are certain categories that all objects belong to that we could never understand since they are outside time and space. From my reading of it, it almost sounded like a revival of Plato's forms.