BHASKAR VS. MARX'S "SYSTEM"

Hans Ehrbar ehrbar at keynes
Sat Mar 11 07:43:43 MST 1995


Ralph wrote on Fri, 10 Mar 1995:

dumain> Though I thank Mr. Ehrbar for his efforts to translate
dumain> Bhaskar, I am not all all impressed by Bhaskar's "correction"
dumain> of Marx's putative shortcomings.

If someone wants me to put up other passages together with my
impressions around them, I'd be happy to -- and I will not be insulted
but thankful if you take the opportunity to point out Bhaskar's errors
or my own misunderstandings.  Science is a social process.  I would
also like to hear *your* interpretations of what Bhaskar says.

Ralph cited me:

ehrbar> An example of such actualist residues: Bhaskar discovered that
ehrbar> Hegel and, following Hegel, also Marx overemphasizes immanent
ehrbar> contradictions as opposed to external contradictions.

and added (and I'll give my responses to his comments):

dumain> Such a momentous "discovery" not only fails to substantiate
dumain> Bhaskar's genius,

Perhaps I should have said: this struck *me* as something new while
reading Bhaskar (I read it first in his chapter on dialectics in
"Reclaiming Reality").  I don't know if he is the one who discovered it.
I don't care, I think it is more important whether something is right
than whether it is new.  To me, it was new.

dumain> but is far more applicable to the subsequent elaboration of
dumain> dialectical materialism than it is to Marx himself.

Aha, you don't agree with Bhaskar!  Why don't you say so right away
instead of trying to put down Bhaskar.  No, I do think this criticism
applies very much to Marx himself.  Marx's development in *Capital*
for instance, but probably worse so in *Grundrisse*, tries to connect
everything a tad too immanently and too necessarily.  Bhaskar, in his
Dialectic, says somewhere that he has to make a break now in his
presentation, which is inevitable because the world is disjointed too.
Whenever Marx has to make such a break, he is almost embarrassed and
tries to gloss it over.  Of course, people pick up on this and
exaggerate it later.

dumain> If one were to recognize that not all change must be the
dumain> development of internal contradictions, say if a comet were to
dumain> crash into the earth and put an end to all its autonomous internal
dumain> development, so what of useful cognitive value is to be derived
dumain> from that?

This is an adventurous claim on your part: only immanent contradictions
are something one can do anything about.  The remedies for extraneous
contradictions are less "natural" but this does not mean there aren't any.

dumain> To recognize internal contradiction as a motor of
dumain> change was itself a monumental achievement.  Bhaskar's "discovery"
dumain> is a minor puff of flatulence in comparison.

We are not in a contest about who is the greatest.  Bhaskar's "minor"
point is important to me because it may mean the difference between
continued existence of the human race or ecological catastrophe.
Assume capitalism has to be done away with in order to save the
environment, *before* the slow historical learning process has made
the masses ready for socialism.  Not a pleasant prospect, but we
should start thinking about this!

Then Ralph quoted my translation of Bhasar's term "ethical
sociological reductionism":

ehrbar> This is a reductionism which only sees the sociological dimension
ehrbar> of ethics, i.e., considers morality always to be a form of exercise
ehrbar> of power

dumain> Bullshit!  This is the old saw about Marx's amorality.  There is
dumain> no evidence at all for such a view in Marx.  Marx refuses to preach
dumain> "morality" not becuase he is amoral but becuase he sees that
dumain> beneath all pretense of absolute ethical norms there is a hidden
dumain> agenda and a material reality which is not being acknowledged.  In
dumain> fact, nobody lives absolutely by an absolute moral code; everyone
dumain> adjusts their behavior according to certain expediencies and
dumain> practical realities no matter what abstract morality they preach,
dumain> and Marx simply recognizes this.  "Morality" does not exist in a
dumain> separate realm; it has to have something to do with practical
dumain> survival upon this earth, with what is real.

This would still be a reduction of ethics: not to social categories but
to categories of individual purposive behavior.  I think Bhaskar would
say people are moral not because they are victims of internalized
oppression and also not because they need guidelines to cope with
practical exigencies (which is what you seem to say), but people are
moral because the world they inhabit is not only made up of facts
but also of values.  Hegel's "Sollen" (what I tried to translate with
"oughts" in my previous post) has ontological counterparts, which are,
by the way, one instance of the "absences" Bhaskar is talking about.
Bhaskar explicitly argues against the fact-value distinction.


dumain> Bhaskar's quasi-mathematical masturbations.

If there is someone who creates the impression of bringing
sexual energies into the discussion, it is you, Ralph.

Then Ralph reproduced one of my Bhaskar-quotes:

bhaskar> to render him (and the majority of subsequent Marxists) impervious
bhaskar> to the need for a William Morris-type moment of positive concrete
bhaskar> utopianism to stand alongside Marx's negative explanatory
bhaskar> critique.

dumain>  Others will explain who Morris was, but "Morris-type moment"?

Marx used the word "moment" extensively in Grundrisse, for aspects
which cannot exist without their "other."  Perhaps this is what
Bhaskar means: Marx's explanatory critique is only one moment of it;
it must be complemented by the "concrete positive utopianism".  It is
a misrepresentation to say Bhaskar talked about a "Morris-type
moment"; he talked about a "moment of (Morris-type) concrete positive
utopianism."

dumain> I don't think Bhaskar writes bad prose becuase English is not his
dumain> native tongue; I think he revels in wretched English.

I happen to like Bhaskar's language (and this is a great advantage
for workign through his writings).  I think it is very expressive,
and it is also often quite funny.

Next Ralph took issue with my interpretation of Marx's silence about
socialism.  He quotes me:

ehrbar> This "society will develop it" is another actualist residue:
ehrbar> Marx underestimated the "openness" of social development to
ehrbar> individual intentionality.

ehrbar> This implies that we need to theorize socialism, create positive
ehrbar> utopias for future society because the course of history depends

and adds:

dumain> It stands to reason that in the process of changing the world,
dumain> one has to think about the various possibilities for human
dumain> living that do not yet exist.  Bhaskar takes Marx's rejection
dumain> of utopian socialism out of context.  Marx was reacting
dumain> against something very specific -- not against envisioning
dumain> human possibilities but agianst constructing arbitrary schemes
dumain> in denial of the real, actual world and the living
dumain> possibilities for getting from point A to B.

I didn't formulate Marx's reasons for his silence about socialism
sharply enough.  Let me take another shot at it: Does Marx say that we
have no basis for talking scientifically about a mode of production
that does not yet exist, because not only social relations will be
different but also people will be different?  Therefore all we can do
is critique capitalism?  That seems to be his argument, isn't it?
Bhaskar replies, I think, that the overcoming of capitalism will leave
a void that has to be filled; although Marx is right that we cannot
predict what is going to happen we should decide what we want to
happen and then go for it.

ehrbar> He underestimated how much is usually preserved in a sublation, for
ehrbar> instance in the transition from capitalism to socialism.

dumain> What are you saying here?  That Marx was overly optimistic?
dumain> That he underestimated the perseverance of all the old shit
dumain> (his words, more or less)?  I don't know that this is true at
dumain> all.

Again I think Marx and most Marxists after him had still conceived of
the building of socialism as an attempt to move society forward, it is
here now and with some effort we can get it over there tomorrow.
"Great Leap forward" stuff.  The socialist individual will then
develop under the new social conditions.  Bhaskar would say this is an
attempt to reduce the individual to society.  He says there is an
"ontological hiatus" between individual and society.  They are
irreducible to each other.  Attempts to jump to a different social
spot ignore that.  We have to allow individuals to comd along, they
will not automatically be dragged along.  All we can hope for is a
change in direction.  Carefully look at how individual actions
reproduce social relations, and make strategic changes which allow
desirable social relations to be strengthenend over time and
undesirable ones to fade away.  Also give individuals the opportunity
to learn from their own errors, etc.

dumain> One problem that surfaces here as it does in other posts is the
dumain> tacit assumption that Marx bequeathed to us a complete, closed
dumain> system, which defines for all time the elements of reality that
dumain> Marx himself was prepared to acknowledge.  Because others have
dumain> presented Marxism-Leninism as a finished, completed system, we are
dumain> supposed to look at Marx in the same light.  I don't buy it: I look
dumain> at Marx in process, not Marx as a finished product.  Marx never
dumain> finished his project or his system.  He didn't finish Capital, he
dumain> didn't finish his analysis of the capitalist system, he didn't
dumain> finish his analysis of pre-capitalist economic formations, he
dumain> didn't finish his theory of historical materialism, he never wrote
dumain> his promised explanation of Hegelian dialectics.  He did what he
dumain> could or would do until he died, but he never presented a finished
dumain> system.  I don't buy any of this crap about what Marx excluded from
dumain> his system.  By all means let us extend our analyses into areas
dumain> Marx did not live long enough to cover, but remember the Church of
dumain> Marx was erected by someone else.  If you want to be an iconoclast
dumain> against Stalin, Mao, Kautsky, Bernstein, or even Trotsky, Lenin,
dumain> Plekhanov, or Engels, that is your business, but don't think you
dumain> are being bold by directing your iconoclasm against Marx.  Marx
dumain> can't be found in his supposed Temple.


Of course, Marx was unfinished, and he would have probably weeded
out some of his errors in the process of finishing his building.
But it is important to identify any errors in the parts he left us.
The philosophical errors Bhaskar points out here are shot through
all of its parts and cannot be attributed to the building being
unfinished.


dumain> And by all means, let us benefit from the wisdom of Bhaskar, but
dumain> these examples you have given are trivial.

You didn't agree with most of them.  If you dismiss them as trivial now,
does that mean you do not want to discuss them any further?




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