One bonobo's view of the world...and stuff.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

We Need To Talk About Lenin

This is post 2 of the promised 3. Sorry for the delay1 - looking back at the date of the last one there was a reason

I'm going to talk a little about Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov - mainly as a lead in to talking about the idea of Marxism as 'scientific' worldview, whether Marxism tries to be a 'Theory of Everything' and whether it can be considered as Deterministic.

But first we need to talk about Lenin. Up to 10m deaths on his watch, depending who you ask. Not a good record. I'm not going to wriggle out of the fact that Lenin (and Mao) were varieties of Marxist. Stalin - arguably less so. Lenin was a political philosopher rather than an ideologue and made some interesting intellectual contributions. Maybe the problem is having philosophers in charge of people's lives - or thinking you can build a society from philosophy up. But the end of the day, when asked how one can reconcile a Marxist viewpoint with the disaster of the Soviet Union, the honest answer should be 'I don't know.' 2

Say what you like about Lenin (and we certainly should!), he wasn't in it for himself. Perhaps his greatest fault was the singlemindedness of his revolutionary zeal. Why? Well the universe demanded it: The Marxist Way - specifically Dialectical Materialism3 was so embedded within the fabric of the universe that his revolutionary process was both inevitable and desirable. Referring to advances in the emergent atomic science he said something along the lines of:
'Recent discoveries from chemistry confirm this.' 4
This was more than a tangential reference to science. Lenin was clearly interested in the unfolding discoveries in physics. In his 'Materialism and Empirio-Criticism' - fair to say one of his lesser known works and possibly not directly relevant to day-to-day political problems...but check out the diagrams! - he's struggling to get to grips with what it all means for Real Life. If even matter is divisible...where are we etc. etc. It seems to me that Lenin believe that the Marxist way is The Right Way. It is is scientifically proven! The proletariat will rise up, the bourgeoisie will be smashed. We will emerge into Communism. Nothing can stop us...but it's might be a bumpy ride.

Problem is...I'm not sure that this is what Marxism implies.

Granted, Engels coined the term 'Scientific Socialism' to refer to a means of understanding historical, social, political and economic phenomena by reference to the empirical, material world and therefore, by implication, tractable to the scientific method. He also described Dialectic - the motive force behind the progression of ideas as identical in character to natural forces. After all - ideas are manifestations of the material :
"All nature, from the smallest thing to the biggest, from a grain of sand to the sun, from the protista to man, is in a constant state of coming into being and going out of being, in a constant flux, in a ceaseless state of movement and change."
Friederich Engels - The Dialectics of Nature
(Incidentally - many have pointed to similarities between Engels' views on Dialectical Materialism and the much earlier work of Lao-Tse. The Tao Te Ching is even on the archive. Meh. Folk have found Taoism everywhere, from The Bible to Winnie the Pooh. That said...if I ever get around to Post #3 I'll explain why this maybe isn't too surprising.)

So far so good. However, saying that a philosophy is Scientific is not - and from Marx and Engel's viewpoint was never intended to be - the same as saying that it provides infallible predictions of the future. My favourite analogy is meteorology. Solar gain and the gas laws and the like are about as sound science as it gets, yet nobody expects meteorology to predict what the weather will be like more than a few days in advance. (Or maybe a rough, macro-level trend, in the case of global warming). But meteorology at least knows that volumes of atmosphere will move from hither to yon, and why. It knows about specific phenomena such as hurricanes and knows that they occur in certain parts of the world at certain times of the year - but not precisely when or where.

So too Marxism. Marx recognised certain dynamics within history in general and Capitalism in particular. He thought that the logic of Capitalism's innate instability would inevitably push society towards something like Communism (possibly he was an optimist here: disaster is equally possible - but he was somewhat in favour of preventing that). He also thought that the situation in 19thC Europe was perilous - but this peril offered opportunities for advancement. What he did not have a view on, perhaps contrary to popular belief, is what the futures would or should look like: we'd have to work that out step by step as we went along - and what it would like like at any given time would depend on what had preceded it5. What's more he didn't have a magic formula for fastforwarding to Communism (via The Dictatorship of the Proletariat). The point is for people to be in charge of their destinies, unconstrained by the structures of Capitalism. This is new territory. Who can say what life will be like then?

But...does this mean that we Marxists are trying to have our cake and eat it? Marxism is a brilliant theory that tells you all you need to know about history and society and shit which all makes perfect sense...until you try to do anything with it. Marxists can never be wrong! We always have a get out out clause somewhere. ('When he said XYZ...he didn't mean XYZ...'). Well it depends on what you expect Marx to do for you. If you want Marx to give you foolproof instructions on how to manage Russian agriculture - You've probably got the wrong man6. If you want him to predict the next financial crisis...well I'm not sure who you'd go to, but at least Marxists insist there will be crises (broken clocks, etc.) If you want someone to tell you what utopia will look like, you probably want that Palestinian fella.

Or...there are some Philosophers that might come in handy. The thing with philosophy is that it's not about giving answers to things, but the mental equipment to think about them. To my mind the go-to guy for thinking about why history, society and economics work the way they do is Marx. Sure - you'll need some empirical tools to back you up in much the same way that a fan of Popper might also find a particle accelerator handy when it comes down to actual work. But at least you'll have a way of getting your head around the problem.

And I shall be expanding on that last sentence in my next post...whenever.

1 Yeah, right! As if anyone's been waiting.

2 For what it's worth, some of the harshest criticisms have come from the Left. The official version, in brief, goes something like this: Marx would have been askance at the idea of trying to provoke a proletarian revolution in a backward, barely post-serf economy like Russia. For communism to succeed you need the material conditions brought about by Capitalism. It could have worked if the European industrialised nations had revolted - Russia could have specialised as the breadbasket - but given international competition, Communism wasn't meant to work in a single country. Plus Russia lacked an indigenous political tradition so from the start they were trying to run Soviets with a handful of Bolsheviks. Then there followed a brutal civil war in which a lot of their best people were lost leaving only the self-serving dullards who remained through Stalinism, down to 1990 and beyond.

3 Marx and Engels didn't actually coin the term Dialectical Materialism. This vecame its name as the official philosophy of the Soviet Union.

4 Aaaand...I had the quote lined up from, a repository for Marxist-Leninst writing, which was going to be the centre of this Post...only I've lost it. It was something like that, anyway.

5 Interestingly, in some of Lenin's work you get a glimpse that he understood this. Initially at least he was willing to work with what he had - the parliament, existing economic structures - deriding the 'Infantile Disorder' of the ultra-leftists who didn't want to get their hands dirty.

6And I'd keep away from Trofim Lysenko, too.