Is Marx really necessary?
A response to Neville Spencer's article

I want to respond to Neville's article because I believe he is expressing in his own way a view I held until recently myself, and is widely held among politically active Marxists, but a view I now believe is fundamentally wrong and by ascribing quite stupid positions to intelligent people avoids a genuinely critical attitude towards bourgeois society.

Laclau and Mouffe ask:

“... what can we say about the natural world, about the facts of physics, biology or astronomy that are not apparently integrated in meaningful totalities constructed by men?”

and Neville says:

“They raise a question about the natural world (an ontological issue) but then give an answer about ideas about the natural world (an epistemological issue) as if it were the same thing.”

Now, sticking to the words quoted, this is not actually true: what we can say about the facts of a specific branch of natural science is indeed a social construct (which is not quite the same thing as to say it is a thought, of course). The idea that we could say something about the natural world which is not, was put paid to by Einstein when he showed that concepts as simple as space and time were abstractions from the human practice of measuring time and space, practices which cannot exist independently of socialised humanity. So, on the basis of the evidence Neville brings forward he is wrong.

Neville says:

“There is no escaping having a theory of ontology, it is only a question of whether or not it is consciously acknowledged ... Whilst they deny that there is such a thing as truth ... any argument they make must surely be making an assertion about the way things are (hence having a theory, albeit implicit and contradictory, of ontology)”

Neville does not spell it out, but he seems to be implying that Laclau and Mouffe imply that nature does not exist, and Neville on the other hand has a 'theory of ontology', namely that nature does exist, and that settles the essential difference between him and Laclau/Mouffe.

Let us suppose that Laclau and Mouffe 'come clean' and admit that an objective world exists independently of consciousness, something very, very few in the history of professional thinkers, and no-one outside of professional thinkers, have denied. What does that tell us about the limits and validity of knowledge? Very little, until we come to consider the practical relationship of the thinker to the material world, which is social practice and the historically developed division of labour. To my mind, the roots of knowledge in the material relations of production, the objectively shared context of all people, are minimised by Laclau and Mouffe. But what does Neville have to say on this score?

“Whilst, when I go to work everyday, it is indeed by virtue of my ideas and reasons that this happens ... Also at work here is the social relations of capitalism which require that I do this in order to continue to exist and these are not reducible to the reasons that individual capitalists and individual workers have ... ”

So the key contrast for Neville is that between the consciousness of individuals (ideas) and the social relations of a given social formation (objects):

“There remain ontological questions about society since much of society lies outside the realm of thought itself (e.g. social relations or even just solid socially produced objects).”

But I think it would surprise many people to learn that Laclau and Mouffe were addressing themselves to the relation between individual consciousness and social relations, since this is after all the subject matter of psychology, and whatever else one may think about Laclau and Mouffe, it is very clearly social theory and politics, about power relations and forms of social domination, that they are writing.

Certainly, from the standpoint of psychology the policeman's authority is as real and objective as his baton. But surely of much more interest in the study of politics and history is how the labour of the baton-maker comes to be the property of the policeman who is beating shit out of him when the baton-maker goes on strike, all of which is outside of thought, as Neville agrees, and about which ontology can tell us nothing?

All ontology can tell the afflicted baton-maker, so far as I can see, is that she is indeed not dreaming. This she knew; what she would like to know is how the product of her own labour came to be the baton for her own head.

Neville moves on to Hegel, who it is alleged was also subject to “confusion of issues of ontology (especially social ontology) and issues of logico-epistemology”, illustrated by the fact that “his overall scheme is to demonstrate that history is process of thought, of the absolute idea.” But this takes for granted what Hegel meant by 'thought'. Either Hegel was as much a fool as Laclau and Mouffe had to be taken for, or Hegel was far more profound than Neville. The Soviet philosopher E V Ilyenkov explained:

“From Hegel's standpoint the real basis for the forms and laws of thought proved to be only the aggregate historical process of the intellectual development of humanity understood in its universal and necessary aspects. The subject matter of logic was no longer the abstract identical schemas that could be found in each individual consciousness, and common to each of them, but the history of science and technique collectively created by people, a process quite independent of the will and consciousness of the separate individuals although realised at each of its stages precisely in the conscious activity of individuals. This process, according to Hegel, also included, as a phase, the act of realising thought in object activity, and through activity in the forms of things and events outside consciousness.” [Dialectical Logic]

Missing entirely the subject of Hegel's interest, Neville thinks that Hegel is just talking about a method for individuals to conduct their thinking more scientifically. “Concepts which don't capture something about the ontological nature of something are usually rejected for that very reason.” - Neville sees concepts as things produced by the individual thinker who then compares them with the sensuously perceived reality and accepts or rejects them accordingly. Consequently, he completely misunderstands what Marx is doing in Capital - “a conscious attempt to use Hegel's method of reasoning”.

“Marx's starting point, like Hegel's with being, is the commodity.”

In what sense “like Hegel's”? Marx explains his starting point as follows:

“The method of presentation must differ in form from that of inquiry. The latter has to appropriate the material in detail, to analyse its different forms of development, to trace out their inner connection. Only after this work is done successfully, if the life of the subject-matter is ideally reflected as in a mirror, then it may appear as if we had before us a mere a priori construction.” [Afterword to Capital]

But Hegel's starting point (Being) is quite different:

“the principle ought also to be the beginning, and what is the first for thought ought also to be the first in the process of thinking. ... all that is needed to ensure that the beginning remains immanent in its scientific development is to consider, or rather, ridding oneself of all other reflections and opinions whatever, simply to take up, what is there before us.” [With What Must Science Begin?]

Despite what is profound in Hegel's thought here, both in point of the method of enquiry and the method of presentation, Marx says that his method is the opposite of that of Hegel.

Since for Neville, the subject at issue is subjective analysis of empirically given facts, Marx begins with the commodity and “reasons out the necessity of money” but not by “purely reasoning alone”, “that this tendency has indeed been actualised could not have been determined without some empirical input.”

So Marx apprently begins with appearances, reasons out what these appearances entail, and then corrects any mistakes with a bit of empirical data. This sounds to me much more like the kind of 'scientific method' dished out in our typical high school education.

The commodity is the outcome of a protracted process of history and its concept an equally protracted process on the part of Marx. The development of money out of barter is an historical process worked out not in Marx's head but in the lives of billions of people, before it is given as an immediate sensuous reality, which, as it turns out, is actually the very opposite of what it appears to be.


What's your Super-Theory?
No. 2 from Andy

OK, thank you Neville. I think it may be possible to close of couple of these issues.

Firstly, you have heard and can agree with my formulation that Laclau and Mouffe disregard "the objectively shared context of all people", and we share the view that this marginalisation of human needs and practical life inevitably leads to absurd and reactionary political positions. It was my specific concern to focus on this oversight, which is a product of the division of labour in contemporary bourgeois society, what Marx calls the "theoretical attitude" of the non-worker, rather than what you agree would be an erroneous implication, that Laclau and Mouffe were somehow followers of Bishop Berkeley.

Secondly, some of my hostility to your promotion of Ontology is based on a possible misunderstanding of what you mean by Ontology. For me, Ontology is a branch of philosophy and one which holds little interest for me; however, you seem to be using the word to refer to positive investigation as opposed to critical investigation of the categories of knowledge. Positive investigation I am all in favour of, so rather than disputing over words, I will henceforth respond accordingly.

But, I retain my view that your own sleight of hand is allowing you to skip over what is significant in people like Laclau and Mouffe, which is highlighted in your assertion that: "space and time can and do exist independently of socialised humanity." What is true is that the practices of measuring space and time and the practices based on these concepts are valid, real and objective, and therefore the concepts of space and time have a material basis in nature. How else can you compare the Medieval, Galilean and Minkowski concepts of time and space? Are they all simply objectively existing? Or only the most recent conception? Or some future ideal conception?

Now, I still feel that you have made a straw man of Hegel by refusing the accept what Hegel means by "thought" and criticise him as if he were talking about subjective reflection when he is quite specific that this is not what he means by thought:

“With these explanations and qualifications, thoughts may be termed Objective Thoughts – among which are also to be included the forms which are more especially discussed in the common logic, where they are usually treated as forms of conscious thought only. Logic therefore coincides with Metaphysics, the science of things set and held in thoughts – thoughts accredited able to express the essential reality of things.

“An exposition of the relation in which such forms as notion, judgment, and syllogism stand to others, such as causality, is a matter for the science itself. But this much is evident beforehand. If thought tries to form a notion of things, this notion (as well as its proximate phases, the judgement and syllogism) cannot be composed of articles and relations which are alien and irrelevant to the things. Reflection, it was said above, conducts to the universal of things: which universal is itself one of the constituent factors of a notion. To say that Reason or Understanding is in the world, is equivalent in its import to the phrase ‘Objective Thought’. The latter phrase however has the inconvenience that thought is usually confined to express what belongs to the mind or consciousness only, while objective is a term applied, at least primarily, only to the non-mental”. [Introduction to the Encyclopedia, § 24, my underline]

You say:

“In relation to Hegel, Andy implies that my error is in using an individualist conception of thought. There is nothing, however, in my article that would contradict any valid notion of the social nature of thought. What my article does contradict, is that society is, or can be studied as, a process of thought as Hegel attempts. It is certainly the case that I would assert that only individuals can have thoughts. But they can do so by virtue of their existence within a social, intersubjective situation. It does not, however, follow from the fact that thought is necessarily socially-embedded that society or social structure or history are of the same nature as thoughts, nor that the historical development of knowledge and the intersubjective means of its development are of the same nature of thoughts.”

Now you have just asserted that space and time exist independently of socialised humanity. Many would say that your position is here more idealistic than Hegel’s. For example, can I quote what that great fighter for philosophical materialism, Albert Einstein, had to say, in passing while refuting his positivist critics:

One may not merely ask: ‘Does a definite time instant for the transformation of a single atom exist?’ but rather: ‘Is it, within the framework of our theoretical total construction, reasonable to posit the existence of a definite point of time for the transformation of a single atom?’ One may not even ask what this assertion means. One can only ask whether such a proposition, within the framework of the chosen conceptual system – with a view to its ability to grasp theoretically what is empirically given – is reasonable or not. ” [Reply to Criticisms my underlining]

What I would like to see you address is this: how is it that at one point in history a medieval concept of space exists, at another point a Galilean concept and at another point we have a Minkowski space-time manifold, and people manage to live perfectly well in their own way, in each epoch. Hegel gets around this troublesome fact by proposing that (instead of lot of ideal objects like your space and time) a kind of Logic exists which includes the whole movement through these different entities, it posits itself in Nature, and then through social labour of people in Nature, these entities manifest themselves in the progress of science.

You got a better theory?

Let's leave the discussion about Marx's Capital for later, after we have resolved the whole problem which everyone from Descartes to Kant to Hegel to Marx, have addressed themselves: How is it possible that quite distinct and apparently mutually exclusive theories of the world are all valid in some historical context?

I'll put my Question Again.
No. 3 from Andy.

Neville, apologies: I expressed myself inexactly when I asked you "...concepts of time and space? Are they all simply objectively existing?". I meant to ask you about the objective existence, independently of socialised humanity of 'what it is a concept of' (to use your phrase).

I apologise for this imprecision which unfortunately has prolonged our difficulties. But before re-putting my question, can I just make a couple of comments? You say:

“Theoretical conceptions are not necessary for most everyday activity.”

Yes, but the whole point is that people work with ideological forms whether they are theoretically minded or not. For example, most people treat money as valuable even though they're not economists and clean their hands after shitting even though they've never heard of Louis Pasteur. And when I watch television I make use of the concept of electromagnetism (as well as electromagentism) whether I know it or not.

You say:

“There is a causal interrelation between thought and that of which it is a thought.”

Neville, you are very close to defending the position of seventeenth century British empiricism. These words could have been quoted from Thomas Hobbes. OK, Hobbes did not properly distinguish between the cause and the thought, but where does “social practice” figure here? Do you have any politics? Is history just a big data-gathering exercise?

“If instead we accept your relativist view that nature changes along with our concepts of it, ... ”.

Now Neville! OK, by my inexact expression I gave you room to misunderstand me, but if what I have said sounds to you like I'm advocating Bishop Berkeley-style subjective idealism, shouldn't you re-read the passage? Even send me a message to clarify it, or something! But to carry on refuting Bishop Berkeley instead of answering my question is not good enough.

My question is this: if the objects referred to by the Medieval, Galilean and Minkowski conceptions of space and time are objective, how do you account for the validity of all three conceptions?

Your contribution has given a partial answer: “all these concepts are attempts to understand the same real world in different ways. ” This is true of course. But it says nothing about the very basis upon which the conceptions differ, namely the differing social relations within which these conception are manifested, and that is exactly the point I was asking you to address. Because you assert that not only does nature exist independently of socialised humanity, but “it is space and time itself, as opposed to concepts of space and time, that exist objectively”. ‘space and time’ ... Einstein showed that the independent existence of these two abstractions is a human construct. So, assuming that you recognise the validity of Einstein's work, I want you to confront your assertion against Einstein that on the contrary they each does exist independently. My reason for asking was not because I wanted to challenge your knowledge of physics. Of course not. But you seem to assert that your conception of space and time has some kind of validity which Einstein's conception does not, either that or I must stand aside and let you occupy the ground of relativism.

You say:

“the discovery of non-correspondences between concepts and that which they are concepts of which has often led to the search for better concepts.”

and that:

“Galileo's and Minkowski's theories actually referred to one and the same thing”

So long as we are talking about Nature as a whole as the “one and the same thing” being referred to, then of course, it is the same thing. But isn't the whole point of interest that people were doing different things, and that was why and how the conceptions changed?

The words of Laclau and Mouffe which you objected to were:

“... what can we say about the natural world, about the facts of physics, biology or astronomy that are not apparently integrated in meaningful totalities constructed by men?”

All I have so far is that we can say that Nature exists. I don't count that as something really worth making a big fuss about. We all know that.

Can you answer my question? Are the medieval, Galilean and Minkowski conceptions of space and time approximations to some other thing, other than being abstractions from Nature as a whole? if so, what can you say about the facts of physics which are not part of totalities constructed by humanity? other than that they refer to a material world? Tell me something about space or something about time which doesn't refer to any particular theory of physics or measurement or history.


Is Marx really necessary? Summing Up

I started with a question to Neville as to what he meant by "the confusion between ontology and epistemology, that is the confusion between the study of thought and the study of the world as it exists independently of thought". Later we came to the issue of "confusing the issue of the sociology and history of science with science itself".

In order to draw Neville into expressing his views about the nature of thinking and its relation to the objective world, I asked him to explain how different, valid conceptions of space-time could arise at different historical junctures. I wanted to choose something as remote as possible from politics and society so that we could look at the objectivity of knowledge, clear of any differences about history or politics.

Surely, by this approach I have put myself on the weakest possible ground? For 99% of human history, for 99% of the time, 99% of the population can and do regard space and time as each independently and objectively existing entities - and rightly so!

However, at a certain point in history (the late 19th century in Europe) a practice arose (the Michelson-Morley experiment) for which it subsequently came out, courtesy of Albert Einstein, that this experiment and the measurements of spatial and temporal intervals it involved, can only be rationally understood if we first explain it strictly in terms of the material practices of measurement involved and understand "space" and "time" as abstractions from that material practice. Einstein went on to verify his premise, that Euclidean geometry and everyday conceptions such as independently existing space and time are indeed valid for ordinary speeds and distances, such as 99% of people had had to do with for 99% of history for 99% of their time.

Einstein remained to his dying day a convinced philosophical materialist. And rightly so! All Einstein had done was to show that certain conceptions of the material world were historically and socially limited in their validity, and that "All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice". [Theses on Feuerbach VIII]

Further, it was not new properties of space-time discovered by Einstein which are of interest to us. After all, the Lorenz transformation was already known in Einstein's day. It was in fact precisely the fact that Einstein postulated no new properties for space-time at all, that was interesting, that he instead simply examined the same experiments which others had already carried out from the standpoint of how we conceived the object being studied. That is to say he studied scientific practice itself, not the material world as such. So Einstein would have to plead guilty to "confusing the issue of the sociology and history of science with science itself".

[Just by the by, I also object to Neville using the term "ontology" when he is simply talking about positive investigation of the objective world. It is bad enough that we live in a world in which the social division of labour has so fragmented human practice as to create a separate profession of "philosophy", and bad enough that we are advised to keep as separate as possible the proper material of each of these professions, without using these alienating terms in reference to perfectly material, objective practice.]

Now, it is Neville's insistence that the objects studied by the various branches of natural science exist independently of human practice. Offered that maybe he meant that each of these branches of science abstract from Nature as a whole, Neville declined, insisting again that while science may provide better and better theories, the objects themselves exist independently of human history (and in particular, that they exist in the form immediately given to the senses, as opposed to any subsequent theoretical constructions such as Minkowski space-time).

Now this appears to be a reasonable position. Neville takes it that space exists, time exists and that all that Einstein had done was to demonstrate interdependence between them. We have seen that the independent existence of space and time is valid for 99% of human history, for 99% of the time, for 99% of the population, but Neville re-asserts this conception in the context of considering the significance of Einstein's work where the independent existence of time and space, entities existing independently of the practices of measurement is precisely what was not supposed. The relative validity of these abstractions is the outcome of the research, not its pre-supposition. For Einstein therefore, the validity of Euclidean conceptions of space and time was a question to be resolved by examination of the practices underlying these conceptions - not something to be resolved by "ontology"!

Now, it needs to be asked: is asserting that "the question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but a practical question" a concession to idealism? a move in the direction of relativism, perhaps? Should we not insist in the strongest possible terms that "the thing, reality, sensuousness, be conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation", and firmly reject its conception "as sensuous human activity, practice, sensuousness, subjectively"?

Politically, the problem we have is that on one side we have professional philosophers and literary critics who claim to be able to resolve all questions with reference only to words - words being their own professional specialism; and on the other hand, we have people claiming to be Marxists, claiming to be interested in the overthrow of all existing social conditions, who claim that science can give us only better and better theories about objects which exist independently of social practice and are given immediately in everyday experience and not subjectively.

To our "orthodox Marxists", any suggestion of introducing human history and social relations into questions regarding the nature of objectively existing entities is but a step along the road to solipsism. Neville boldly paraphrases the words of Thomas Hobbes: "All which qualities called Sensible, are in the object that causeth them, but so many several motions of the matter, by which it presseth our organs diversly. Neither in us that are pressed, are they any thing else, but divers motions" [Leviathan, 1650]. And yet two centuries passed from Hobbes's empiricism to Marx's transcendence of philosophy! And one-and-a-half centuries for both our "orthodox Marxists" and our "post-Marxists" to forget Marx's words: "Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, really distinct from the thought objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity." [Theses on Feuerbach I]

Insisting the abstractions of the various branches of science to be products of social practice, far from being a concession to philosophical idealism, is in fact the sine qua non of genuinely revolutionary practice.

The power of money, for example, is to both the professional economist and the ordinary citizen, an objectively given, real thing. The economists compete with one another to discover better and better theories about money, while ordinary citizens compete with one another to acquire as much of it as possible ... but one day money, along with economic science and the market, will go the way of phlogiston, animism and the anthropomorphic God.

The practices of buying and selling at the market price are very bit as objective as the practices of measuring temporal and spatial intervals. Anthropologists can observe them among peoples who know nothing of economics (or could last century). If we are interested in doing away with the power of money, we have to be like Einstein: we have to approach the conception of an objectively existing entity from the standpoint of seeing it as the outcome of a specific kind of practice, and determine the limits of that practice.

But for Neville, that would be confusing ontology and epistemology, confusing the sociology of science with science itself!

Of course, Neville says that in society "ideas can be causes", whereas in Nature this is not so. Or as John Locke put it: "External objects furnish the mind with the ideas of sensible qualities, which are all those different perceptions they produce in us; and the mind furnishes the understanding with ideas of its own operations." [An Essay concerning Human Understanding, 1689] But "muddling of issues of ontology and issues of epistemology" is for Neville as much to be avoided in questions of history and politics as it is in questions of Nature.

For our "post-Marxists", anything that may be going on outside the universe of discourse, anything which cannot be expressed by it, does not in any sensible way exist, and cannot determine the discourse. However, the actors in this global discourse are active, corporeal human beings who need natural material things in order to live, whether they know it or not, what happens reflects the relation of humanity to Nature (what lies outside the "discourse") as well as the relation of person to person. Figuratively, discourse has an "arbiter" who has no voice in the discourse.

For our "orthodox Marxists", the world is divided into two: one the one side we have the objects of history, who dumbly act out the given laws of history, and on the other side we have the knowing subjects, the Party members, who study history scientifically and develop better and better theories about history and society.

I could ask the question of "who is to educate the educators?", for I have exhausted my own efforts.