09 November 2012

Living Communism


CU Course on Hegel, Part 10a

Corporate image of a collaborative project

Living Communism

Bourgeois propaganda would have everyone believe that communism is an impossible utopia, and that class relations, as we know them now, are all-pervasive in human society, to the exclusion of every other kind of social behaviour.

But, on the contrary, the development of class relations and the State (which as Lenin says, is not only the inevitable product of such relations, but also the proof of their irreconcilability) did not expunge all previous forms of human relation.

Humans already had language, and language is a powerful, stateless system. It has no fixed centre.

There are many other examples of communistic human relations which have survived, like language, and which remain as the bulk of our social fabric. There are even apparently new kinds of communistic social structures appearing, such as the Internet.

What Andy Blunden has done in the writing that we have sampled for the sake of illuminating the questions raised in particular by Lenin’s “The State and Revolution”, is to begin to theorise the communistic patterns of social activity, mediated by artefacts, that characterise human social existence in general.

This is the on-going body of humanity upon the back of which the class struggle is carried, for the time being, like the cross of Christ.

Andy Blunden’s book (from which these excerpts, downloadable via the link below, are taken) is called “A Critique of Activity Theory”. It is concerned in part with Cultural-Historical Activity Theory, or “CHAT”, but we can pass over the specifics of “CHAT”, and look at what Andy means by “collaborative projects” in these chapters.

Collaborative Projects and Artefacts

Collaborative Projects are how people do stuff. Even capitalist companies are collaborative projects (see the corporate image, above).

One characteristic that Andy Blunden identifies is that collaborative projects are always mediated by an artefact, or artefacts. Artefacts are things made by people (but words are also artefacts, by the way).

What Andy therefore begins to theorise is the social place of things, or goods, made by people. This is different from the understanding of such goods as being commodities, which is all that capitalism can manage to see them as.

Another insight of Andy’s is the way that collective agency is both expressed, and also formed, within collaborative projects. We may say that we are humanists, believing in the rational free will of social beings. But how does this actually proceed? Andy provides a description, rooted in politics, philosophy and educational theory.

Our own method, following Paulo Freire, is to have dialogue involving two or more people, centred on a “codification’, which is an artefact (text or image). This conforms to the structure of a “Collaborative Project”.

But the aim within this course on Hegel is not necessarily to follow Andy into educational theory. The aim within this particular course is to consider what may already exist under the shell of the class-divided bourgeois State, so that what will remain, if and when that State withers away, can be apparent to us now, today.

What is the living communism of today? This is the question that is being answered by Andy Blunden’s writings sampled here.

08 November 2012

New Tools for Marxists


CU Course on Hegel, Part 10

Polynodal semi-chaotic social-system diagram

New Tools for Marxists

This is the last part, and the second last item, in our series on Hegel’s Logic. It is the late SACP stalwart Ron Press’s article “New Tools for Marxists” (see the download linked below) on the application of Chaos Theory to revolution, written in the heat of the post-1994 election moment.

History has not actually ended. Closure of this course is therefore not appropriate.

Hegel’s theories have served us well and will continue to serve. There are not two branches of philosophy. We live in a Hegelian world, no matter what the reactionaries and the post-modernists may wish to think. The unity of human history is a hegemonic idea. Science is well established and universally revered, if not always for the right reasons.

If, because of the collapse of the Soviet Union a generation ago, we are forced to conclude that the Bolsheviks failed in their revolution three generations earlier, then it is more than likely that the reason they failed was lack of philosophy.

Philosophy and the withering away of the State

The revolutionaries must have a clear philosophical theory of how the coming classless society is going to work without a state.

In “New Tools for Marxists”, Ron Press wrote:

‘“…the standard Marxist idea that society passes in a linear manner from primitive communism via class struggle to the ultimate victory when the working class replaces capitalism with a classless society is an unattainable myth. Especially when a classless society was taken to mean the establishment of order and stability, in fact stasis. The theories outlined above indicate that stasis means the inevitable sudden crossover into chaos and collapse.

‘Lenin in State and Revolution continued the work of Engels and Marx in outlining the parameters which form the basis for the definition of systems indicated by points (a) and (b). It is interesting that they did not define the form or structure which socialism will have. Lenin recognised these new structures when they emerged. He initiated the slogan “all power to the soviets”.’

Ron Press is saying that the theory of the State, and of the “withering away” of the State, in Marx, Engels and Lenin is not wrong, yet these three did not have the full theoretical means to appreciate in full how “stateless” systems can, and already do, work in nature and in human society.

The revolutionaries of today need a Hegel for today: a Hegel up-to-date.

Let’s finish with two short quotes from our late comrade Ron Press:

“In the Soviet Union the “Soviet” i.e. committee system was destroyed by restricting the bandwidth of communication, and making one node all powerful.”

“But if there is a lesson to be drawn from the study of complexity it is that a complex system given a very “simple” goal (in our case the well being of humankind) develops its own best methods of operation and organisation. Solutions emerge from the system itself.”

Solutions emerge from the system itself.

Hegel could have said that.

05 November 2012

Lenin on the Theory of Knowledge


CU Course on Hegel, Part 9a

Pablo Picasso, 1937: “Guernica”

Lenin on the Theory of Knowledge

The Criterion of Practice in the Theory of Knowledge

Lenin’s 1908 “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism” is a full-length book, but a difficult one to include under any particular category. It is a polemic against Ernst Mach and his Russian followers, whom Lenin said had little to distinguish themselves from the 18th-century subjective idealist Bishop Berkeley. This controversy does not seem quite so important today as it may have been in 1908, but it is still useful.

Our text from Lenin’s book is “The Criterion of Practice in the Theory of Knowledge” (download linked below).

It begins: “We have seen that Marx in 1845 and Engels in 1888 and 1892 placed the criterion of practice at the basis of the materialist theory of knowledge.” This shows up some of our difficulty in the field of Marxian philosophy. As the footnote says, Lenin is referring to Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845) and to the works by F. Engels: Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy” (1888) and the “Special Introduction to the English Edition of 1892” of his “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”.

The latter pamphlet is made out of excerpts from Engel’s “Anti-Dühring”, while the “Theses on Feuerbach” are part of “The German Ideology”, a book written between 1845 and 1847 by Marx and Engels and then abandoned “to the gnawing criticism of the mice”.

Karl Marx had a Doctorate in Philosophy but he did not, as a “Marxist”, write a book of philosophy as such, except insofar as his long “Capital” project could be taken as philosophy, and there are indeed some philosophical statements here and there among the preparatory works and in the three originally-published volumes of “Capital”.

So, what is linked from this post comprises the major part of the overtly philosophical work of Marx, Engels and Lenin. It is a tiny amount when compared to the world’s literature on philosophy.

It is therefore clear that the classical literature does not provide us with a full, exclusively Marxist exposition of philosophy. Perhaps this is fitting, because Marxism is after all not outside of the main stream of learning. As we have seen, it is a continuation of, as well as a reaction to, Hegel’s work, while Hegel’s work stands in a similar relation to Kant’s, and so on.

Taken together, all this means that for the philosophy that is necessary for revolution, the revolutionaries will have to go beyond Marx and Engels, and study the full discipline of philosophy, its history, its development and its meaning. This is exactly what Lenin began to do in the early 1900s.

In “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism” Lenin quotes Hegel several times in passing, and briefly, though not in this particular chapter. It would seem that Lenin’s interest in Hegel really only got going later, at about the time (1914) when he prepared his ‘Conspectus of Hegel’s book “The Science of Logic”’. The Lenin Philosophy Archive on MIA is here.

Lenin is saying in this short chapter that that the test of truth is practice, and this provides us with a continuity in relation to our previous instalment, from Ilyenkov.

The next part will be the last in this Hegel series.

Picture: Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica”. Picasso was the most distinguished painter of the 20th Century, and a communist. His famous mural depicting the fascist aerial bombing of the Spanish village of Guernica is now at the United Nations.

01 November 2012

Ascent from the Abstract to the Concrete


CU Course on Hegel, Part 9

Pablo Picasso, 1908: “Three Women”

Ascent from the Abstract to the Concrete

There is no a priori humanity, or presupposition of humanity. There may be a God, or not. What is human is not given, but is made, by humans. We are made as humans by the knowledge that we continue to get, through labour, and to share, socially.

The knowledge that humanity has accumulated, altogether, is science. Objective things-in-themselves that are parts of the universe become known through labour and are thereby brought into that sphere which is humanity. So, the Object becomes part of the Subject.

Similarly, thoughts and decisions become facts of a social and political kind and become objects of science, including Scientific Socialism. In this way, Subject becomes Object.

These reversals, inversions (or “reciprocal actions” as Clausewitz might have called them), are critical transformations and are noticed and incorporated into the philosophy of Hegel and of Karl Marx.

We cannot say that everything is thought, and we equally cannot say that everything is matter; and to say that reality is an unqualified mixture of thought and matter is only to enter a hall of mirrors.

Hegel creates an escape from this maze into a better, and dynamic, form of understanding.

Hegel’s solution is to demonstrate how the movement takes place, not once and for all, but constantly. In the previous part of this course, Andy Blunden’s lecture explained it like this:

“The categories of Being which come into being and pass away, continue to come and go indefinitely. The succession of oppositions which overtake one another in Essence continue to generate polar opposite pairs of determinations. As these unfold, a new form of social practice develops self-consciousness, with a succession of new qualities, new entities, new relations, both incidental and necessary, registered in thoughts and purposive activity and representations, and judged, and people may draw from these experiences a more concrete understanding of the new social practice as it develops. So in terms of time, all these relations are happening at the same time, although there is a logical dependence of the later categories on the former.”

This movement is an ascent from the abstract to the concrete.

What is “concrete”? It is the unity and interaction of the parts of a system. It is a dialectical unity-and-struggle-of-opposites. In philosophy, “concrete” has nothing to do with being fixed, hard or permanent. In philosophy this word has a special meaning.

Our main document in this part is “Hegel’s Conception of the Concrete” from Chapter 2 of Evald Ilyenkov’s “Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital”. Ilyenkov (1924-1979) was a first-class Soviet philosopher. The full Ilyenkov Archive on MIA is here. Here are a couple of quotes from Ilyenkov:

“As we know, Hegel was the first to understand the development of knowledge as a historical process subject to laws that do not depend on men’s will and consciousness. He discovered the law of ascent from the abstract to the concrete as the law governing the entire course of development of knowledge.”

“In reality, the immediate basis of the development of thought is not nature as such but precisely the transformation of nature by social man, that is, practice.”

Picture: Pablo Picasso’s “Three Women”. “Cubism” in visual art was a conscious attempt to represent the relationship of the abstract and the concrete on a two-dimensional surface.