Archive for the 'socialism' Category

Historical Materialist Dialectics

DaVinci vitruviawith_pyramid

Question “The only experience that I have with dialectics is a horrible essay that I had to write at university about Mozart and Beethoven. I’ve never really understood what dialectics means, except that it’s a great word to use when pretending to be intellectual over a cup of coffee. Most other people don’t really seem to understand the concept either, but would prefer not to admit it. I know this as I regularly drop it into conversations and no one has pulled me up on it yet.. see emperor’s new clothes post!”

Dialectics – What is it, what are examples of it?

by Keza 2004

I mentioned in The relation between materialism and idealism topic that materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett doesn’t mention the word dialectics – so in reading Dennett I’ve been looking out for what language he uses when describing concepts that are dialectical.

I’ve found one instance – he uses words like paradoxical to describe the problem and then in detailing his solution says things like, “this is not paradoxical at all”

An example is that Mother Nature / Evolution has no foresight and yet has managed to create humans who have foresight.

• Re: progress and dialectics

Posted by keza at 2004-12-28

The best laid plans of mice and men…. if practically everything that we do results in something not intended then why do we plan, why do we struggle, why do we try to move the world in a certain direction?

When Engels wrote that consciously willed actions often result in quite unintended consequences I think he was disputing the Hegelian idea that history is “the gradual realisation of ideas”. His point was that what happens in history comes about not as a direct result of abstract ideas, wishes, intentions (and so on) but is governed by ‘inner laws’ – ie what is possible (and therefore real and rational) in a given epoch. Movements don’t arise just because someone comes up with a good or bad) idea and manages to convince lots of people to follow them. Movements for change arise out of material conditions – the possibility for change is present and that opportunity is seized. The ideology in which the movement is clothed is (somewhat) secondary.

“The distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production … and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic — in short, ideological — forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.”


Marx: Contribution to the Critique of Political Philosophy (1859)

An example is the idea of “equality” in the bourgeois democratic revolution. The idea that “all men are created equal” stood in direct opposition to the feudal belief that all men are most definitely not created equal. The growth of capitalism made it not only possible but also necessary for the idea that rulers are made rather than born to take hold. Thus on a conscious level the motivation for bourgeois revolution was belief in ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ but at a more fundamental level, the revolution was driven by the necessity to liberate the productive forces from the constraints of feudalism. That reason (or motivation) was only dimly appreciated however.


Friedrich Engels wrote in 1893 that:

“Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker. Consciously, it is true, but with a false consciousness. The real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him; otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process. Hence he imagines false or seeming motive forces.

I don’t think this means that bourgeois revolutionaries didn’t really believe in liberty, equality, fraternity – or that the battles they fought weren’t really for these things. We all know (except perhaps for the pseudo left) that as a result of the democratic revolution we have freedoms and rights that were hardly even dreamed of previously. However the ideas themselves weren’t the driving force – these ideas could only take hold because the material conditions were crying out for them (so to speak).

I think what bothers a lot of people is the feeling that perhaps this means that what they as individuals actually do doesn’t really matter – that somehow we are all carried along by a tide of “underlying forces” , that we are seized by ideas rather than seizing them ourselves etc etc. Engels refuted this when he said “freedom is the recognition of necessity” (Anti Duhring?) … once we come to understand “how things work” – “the rules of the game” then we do have a real chance of using our understanding to influence the course of history. Engels’ Letter to Franz Mehring in Berlin is interesting in this respect.”

He starts by pointing out that both he and Marx tended to neglect the role of ideas/ consciousness in bringing about change…

“Marx and I always failed to stress enough in our writings and in regard to which we are all equally guilty. That is to say, we all laid, and were bound to lay, the main emphasis, in the first place, on the derivation of political, juridical and other ideological notions, and of actions arising through the medium of these notions, from basic economic facts. But in so doing we neglected the formal side – the ways and means by which these notions, etc., come about – for the sake of the content. This has given our adversaries a welcome opportunity for misunderstandings and distortions…..”

and later:

“Hanging together with this is the fatuous notion of the ideologists that because we deny an independent historical development to the various ideological spheres which play a part in history we also deny them any effect upon history. The basis of this is the common undialectical conception of cause and effect as rigidly opposite poles, the total disregarding of interaction. These gentlemen often almost deliberately forget that once an historic element has been brought into the world by other, ultimately economic causes, it reacts, can react on its environment and even on the causes that have given rise to it.”

No time to write any more now!! I’ll finish with a quote I quite like though:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like an Alp on the brains of the living…. “
(Marx: The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napolean)

end Keza

Posted by kerrb at 2004-12-19 01:54 AM

More about the usefulness of dialectics, being a bit more specific about it than in my previous reply to sally.

1) socialist / not socialist dialectic

A few years ago (maybe 20) I went to a debate where someone from the pro-Soviet so called communist party was arguing that the Soviet Union was still a socialist country. This person was so wrapped up in the details and scope of his argument that I could see that no single point could be made in question time that could possibly persuade him that he might be wrong. I wanted to support the case that the Soviet Union wasn’t socialist and so was racking my brains for a question that might get through, if not to the speaker, then at least to the audience.

What I thought of and asked the pro-Soviet speaker was: ” Are there any possible circumstances that might arise in the future which would persuade you that the Soviet Union was no longer socialist?”

To the amusement and bemusement of some of the audience, he replied, “No, the Soviet Union will always be socialist”

2) progressive / reactionary dialectic

I think a similar sort of point can be made to the pseudo-left in connection to the US invasion of Iraq.

In my view it’s pretty straightforward that the US has led a campaign to overthrow the fascist government of Saddam Hussein and is now proceeding to help Iraqis create a democratic government. That has to be progressive.

Because historically US Imperialism has been very reactionary, as exemplified by the Vietnam war and much more, there are now many people in the world who seem incapable of conceptualising that the US could possibly do something progressive. It’s always possible for these people to point to bad things that the US does – there is no shortage of examples.

Maybe part of the problem is that they have an ingrained black and white, non dialectic world view, which implicitly denies the very possibility that the US could do something progressive.

I’m not saying that thinking dialectically is a substitute for studying the details of processes in detail – including the details of what the Soviet Union became historically and the details of what is happening in Iraq and the Middle East. But that having the concept of dialectics (the coexistence of opposites in things) might help prevent falling into the rigid black and white thinking illustrated in the two examples above. If some people can’t even conceptualise that it might be possible for US Imperialism today to do something progressive then no amount of detail is going to change their mind about Iraq. Their thinking is dogmatically stuck at another level to do with their whole world view. I’m arguing that studying dialectics is useful because it helps us keep our minds open to these possibilities.

Here’s a paragraph from Dennett:

“One of the standard (and much needed) correctives issued to those who study evolution is the old line about how natural selection has no foresight at all. It is true, of course. Evolution is the blind watchmaker, and we must never forget it. But we shouldn’t ignore the fact that Mother Nature is well supplied with the wisdom of hindsight. Her motto might well be “If I’m so myopic, how come I’m so rich?” And while Mother Nature is herself lacking in foresight, she has managed to create things – us human beings, preeminently – who do have foresight, and are even beginning to put this foresight to use in guiding and abetting the very processes of natural selection on this planet. I occasionally encounter even quite sophisticated evolutionary theorists who find this paradoxical. How could a process with no foresight invent a process with foresight? One of the main goals of my book “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” was to show that this is not paradoxical at all. The process of natural selection, slowly and without foresight, invents processes or phenomena that speed up the evolutionary process itself – cranes, not skyhooks in my fanciful terminology – until the souped up evolutionary process finally reaches the point where explorations within the lifetime of individual organisms can affect the underlying slow process of genetic evolution, and even, in some circumstances, usurp it.”
– Freedom Evolves, page 53

So, this illustrates that one can think dialectically without formally studying dialectics or even using the word dialectic. Dennett’s ability to do this would presumedly arise out of his deep study of the science of evolution combined with his materialistic philosophy.

In dialectical language no foresight and foresight would constitute a unity of opposites and in the process of development one can transform into the other. I think this way of looking at it is preferable to Dennet’s apparent paradox that turns out not to be a paradox.

But it’s probably more important to really study the topic deeply (in this case, evolution) than just to be able to spout the magic words. But I also believe that it’s important to study dialectics itself (Mao, Hegel etc.) because this creates an awareness or sensitivity to possibilities of things turning into their opposite that we otherwise might not even notice – it has the potential to make our thinking more fluid and flexible.

end post

Posted by kerrb at 2004-12-19

Dialectics is the co-existence of opposites in everything, nature, mind, society. I’ll explain by reference to something said in The Emperor’s New Clothes thread:

Think of all the people scared to speak in public, or scared to admit how they feel about something, or someone! I know for a fact that my private side is very different from my public face. So in my opinion this is a ‘problem’ that stretches right across the board, it’s not just in intellectual circles. People in general are afraid to speak their minds! Me too, so afraid that I don’t want to post this, but I will anyway.

What you are saying here is full of dialectics IMO. You talk about fear of speaking out and feeling compelled to speak out coexisting in your mind. Both of these opposites co-exist side by side. In some circumstances the fear might be stronger and you don’t speak. In other circumstances the compulsion to speak out might be stronger.

I think it’s fair to say that these opposite tendencies exist in everybody and so we are talking about something that is universal.

So, by contrast, what would be a non dialectical way of looking at this? We might view some people as always speaking out, the sort of people we wish would shut up sometimes. We might view other people as never speaking out, the sort of people that we don’t know what they are thinking. We might form black and white opinions about people with these extreme tendencies and as a result lose our curiosity, for example, not notice that a normally garrulous person has gone quiet in certain circumstances.

But of course there are no people like either of these two extremes. Although some people speak too much and others hardly at all these are just tendencies across the spectrum of possibilities. In reality, the two opposite tendencies coexist within everyone.

I’ve just taken one example of dialectics here from something you wrote in order to explain the idea. But whatever you are thinking about or studying I would argue that you can always conceptualise opposites that coexist within that thing. At the least I think it’s a very handy way to think about things because it can open up new ways of looking at something.


The Hitch is still fighting despite cancer

Christopher Hitchens, witnessing the Portugal 1974 revolution:

It was the last fall of the curtain on the last act of the 1968 style, with its “take your desire for reality” wall posters and its concepts of work as play. For me it was also the end of the line with my old groupuscule. I had developed other disagreements, too, as the old and open-minded “International Socialists” began to mutate into a more party line sect. But Portugal had broken the mainspring for me, because it had caused me to understand that I thought democracy and pluralism were good things in themselves, and ends in themselves at that, rather than means to another end….

… Conor Cruise O’Brien had phrased it better than I could then hope to do:

“Are you a socialist?” asked the African leader. I said, yes.

He looked me in the eye. “People have been telling me,” he said lightly, “that you are a liberal…”

The statement in its context invited a denial. I said nothing.

And yet, as I drove home from my interview with the leader, I had to realise that a liberal, incurably, was what I was. Whatever I might argue, I was more profoundly attached to liberal concepts of freedom – freedom of speech and of the press, academic freedom, independent judgment and independent judges – than I was to the idea of a disciplined party mobilising all the forces of society for the creation of a social order guaranteeing more real freedom for all instead of just a few. The revolutionary idea struck me as being more immediately relevant for most of humanity than were the liberal concepts. But it was the liberal concepts and their long term importance – though not the name of liberal – that held my allegiance.

George Galloway during a furious debate about the Iraq war, in 2005, famously called Hitchens “a drink-soaked former Trotskyite popinjay” (link). Drinked soaked, yes by his own admission, but a Trotskyite, not for long. Hitchens flirtation with the IS (International Socialists) may have served to prejudice him against Mao (how uncontrarian for such a contrarian to be against the Cultural Revolution without any analysis whatsover) but his far deeper attachment to freedom enabled him to break from the Trotskyite inclination of sabotaging united fronts. So he ended up supporting the liberation of Iraq (which required a very broad united front) and modernity in general. Hitchens is the iconic modern man. His warts and all bio, Hitch-22, is a mixed bag but contains some wonderful anecdotes and analytical gems.

Post-capitalism – day one and longer term

This is a rather clunky attempt to present some thoughts on the immediate and longer term programs for a radical party whose aim is to move to a society based on the social ownership of the means of production. The immediate program would have to be relatively limited in its objectives because change takes time and you do not want to bite off more than you can chew.

Grabbing the commanding heights of the economy would be the main job at first. This means nationalizing the large public companies. It has been suggested that the best way to handle this would be to allocate shares in these companies to government owned hedge funds. Hopefully, the well paid managers of these funds together with the nationalized banks would continue to invest as if nothing had happened. Likewise for senior management of enterprises. No doubt it will not work out quite as smoothly as we would like.

At the same time, arrangements will need to be made to ensure that people who previously owned shares in the nationalized companies – particularly the non-rich – continue receiving regular compensation payments.  Foreign investors may or may not be a tricky issue. It would depend on the political circumstances.

Smaller scale business would be left untouched. (I don’t know where you would draw the line.)

While these minimalist arrangements are being put in place, hopefully a lot of stuff is happening among the middle and lower ranks (the “masses”).  Generally they will be busily sticking their noses in where they previously did not belong. In many of the enterprises that are still private there will be calls for socialization. Policies will need to be developed on how and when this occurs. Continue reading ‘Post-capitalism — day one and longer term’

This website kills fascists!

Right-wing conservative columnist, Andrew Bolt, has perplexed some of his followers by putting on his site a youtube clip of Woody Guthrie singing “This Land is your Land”. Another right-wing site, Just Grounds Community , has commented on those conservatives who do not have the knowledge of history or the “empathy” to understand why and how Guthrie supported socialism and sympathized with communism during the 1930s. I’m not precisely sure where JGC is coming from but they certainly make sense in their understanding that Woody Guthrie would not have been impressed with the pseudo-left of today – “the two bit hustlers… the present day chancers and fuzzy thinkers who would claim his endorsement”.

I sometimes wonder how many people identify with the right – the libertarian right in particular – because what passes for ‘the left’ is so appallingly unworthy of support.

Continue reading ‘This website kills fascists!’

Cuba: Viva la dissolution

Cuba definitely deserves our special attention because the hideous regime there calls itself socialist and people believe it. Current developments mean that things may start to get a bit more interesting. The current economic “reforms” are in full swing. Basically they are sacking about a million government employees while allowing them to set up small businesses and “cooperatives”. Also the fibre optic cable connection to Venezuela is complete and the government will now endeavor the tricky task of trying to manage wider use of the internet which is presently very limited.

Being basically a mix of feudalism and state capitalism, “socialism” in Cuba is a total disaster and needs a massive injection of “normal” capitalism to get any growth from its economy. Vietnam and China managed to get a lease of life from doing this. It will be interesting to see if Cuba can pull off the same trick. Any sort of socialist trajectory of course is out of the question because the privileged strata would suppress it and the populace at large are not subjectively equipped for the task, in any way shape or form.

I’ve got some books about Cuba on my Kindle which I have started to plow through. The first one is Persona Non Grata: A Memoir of Disenchantment with the Cuban Revolution by Jorge Edwards who was Chilean Charge d’Affaire in Cuba under Allende and is a famous novelist. Here are some interesting quotes from the book followed by a few comments. Continue reading ‘Cuba: Viva la dissolution’

Economics of the alternative

Marxists are often accused of doing a lousy job of explaining how socialism would do consciously what the capitalist market system can do without anyone being all that aware of what is going on.

But that’s OK, because the efforts of bourgeois economists more than make up for this. Their mission has been to show how capitalism is good at allocating resources efficiently (if sometimes with a bit of restrained government tweaking). But in the process they have had to explain what this means and the role of a price system in achieving  it. Thank you chaps. The revolution will be forever grateful.

We just need to drive home how a system of social ownership will be able to avail itself of this unintentionally provided wisdom. Making the case is fairly easy. Debunking the “calculation debate” is particularly easy. (More on that in a few months but in the meantime see here.)

The hard job for people like me will be (1) convincing ourselves and others that we really can transcend the profit motive and rely instead mainly on intrinsic motivation and (2) developing a transitional program given that it will take time for people to take on the abilities, habits and inclinations needed to make social ownership viable.

By the way, I now find it easier to tell people what I am working on without being put on the defensive. I usually say something to the effect that it’s been a bit unfashionable for quite a long time but now that capitalism is collapsing all around us I am expecting a bit more interest. This is generally greeted with a nod.

I’ve just revised the sections on investment, money and public goods in the main article at my Economics of Social Ownership website. I have cleared out all mention of quasi-public goods and removed all the murky speculation from the money section. The old versions of these sections are stored here purely for reference.

Let’s not forget Engels!


I’ve just read a review of a book about Engels entitled The Frock Coated Communist (due to be released on May Day).

Having not read the book itself,  I can’t really comment on it.   But the review prompted me to want to write something about Engels because he is so often overlooked.


The review opens  by saying  “It is a truth now universally acknowledged that capitalism’s most insightful philosopher is Karl Marx.” and the first paragraph ends with “Today, in the midst of a once-a-century crisis of capitalism, Das Kapital has raced to the top of the German bestseller lists and even President Sarkozy has been caught leafing through its pages.”   The rest of the article is an account of the importance of Engels in the development of Marx’s economic views.

Continue reading ‘Let’s not forget Engels!’

Price Systems

How would prices be established in the absence of a capitalist market?  This question has come up in the Who Needs the Owners? But What’s the Alternaitive?” thread.  Arthur pointed out proper discussion of this issue could get quite technical and therefore  deserves a thread of its own.

The question of pricing arose via comments from Jad, who has been arguing in favor of “technocracy” as an alternative to capitalism.

(It’s worth perusing that other thread in order to see how that discussion evolved, before jumping in here.)

I’ll republish the comment from Jad which prompted Arhur’s call for a new thread, followed by Arthur’s reply, and we can take it from there.



Hi Again, A bit more on technocracy, after having looked at “Bright Future”.

I agree that the technocrats are hopelessly Utopian in that they offer almost no practical steps regarding how their proposed system can be arrived at, but I think a similar criticism could be made of Bright Future. In any case, I don’t think small doses of crackpot, utopianist speculation now and then do any permanent damage, so I thought I would offer some comparisons between the resource allocation model in Bright Future (BFM) and the Energy Accounting Model (EAM) model of the technocrats. ( By the way, although I’ve only been seriously investigating Marx for a couple of years and was in nappies in ‘68 when some of you folks were stomping the streets, unfortunately I no longer consider myself very young!).

In relation to the determination of what is produced, for both BFM and EAM, this is dependent on consumer demand. To measure demand, BFM would rely on things such as past consumer behaviour, consumer surveys and demographic predictions, whilst EAM emphasizes the electronic recording of all purchases made. There is no difference of any substance here. Of course, both EAM and BFM recognise that supply will never be perfectly matched to demand, due to changes in consumer preferences.

In relation to individual’s consumption rights, under EAM all individuals would have the same consumption entitlement (which is based on the premise that without the waste of private ownership aggregate supply capacity would exceed aggregate demand), whereas under BFM, initially at least, consumption entitlements would depend on the amount and quality of work performed.

I agree that EAM, whilst more communistic, is unrealistically utopian here in not recognising that it would take time for people’s consciousness to change and that it is not just the technical aspects of the production system that are relevant.

Both EAM and BFM see factors such as prestige, enjoyment and intrinsic reward as becoming more important than material reward as a motivating factor for work. The major difference between EAM and BFM is in relation to the pricing of goods and services. Under EAM the cost and price of goods and services is determined by the energy required for their production. Under BFM allocation of resources to production units is dependent on demand for consumer goods, and consumer goods are exchanged for work. I presume that the price of consumer goods would therefore be dependent on the socially necessary labor time necessary for their production, in an application of the labour theory of value.

I think the EAM method and theory of pricing is superior to BFM for two interrelated reasons.

Continue reading ‘Price Systems’

Who needs the owners? But what’s the alternative?

Over the years I’ve done a lot of talking with people, friends and workmates in various workplaces, about the idea of the workers ‘taking over’ and running things for ourselves. It’s an idea that holds great appeal to me, so I advocate it. Most times, people respond by rolling their eyes – they generally think the system can be fixed so that it functions more fairly. I then try to point out that the system ain’t broke – unemployment, alienation and periodic crises is precisely capitalism functioning. Fortunately, people are skeptical and therefore willing to listen to new ideas. Some ask what the ‘workers taking over’ would actually mean, how would it be different/better, what would it look like?

I then point out that, in most situations, the workers ‘run’ things anyway – this happens on a day-to-day basis. Who in a workplace ever sees the boss – I mean, the real boss, the owner of the industry or service-provider? Sure, we see our foremen and managers, who – like us – need their weekly wage to survive. But the big boss, the owner? So, things day-to-day are pretty much done by the workers on the ‘floor’. While most people I’ve talked with reckon we need the foremen and managers, no-one has ever stated that we need the owners. No-one has declared: “Oh no! Without the owner of our industry, everything would collapse!”. Under the current economic crisis, the reality is that, with the current owners of industry, etc. in charge, everything is collapsing.

Continue reading ‘Who needs the owners? But what’s the alternative?’

Saying No to Hugo Chávez’s Baloney Revolution

Getting out there and defending social ownership has numerous challenges. One of them is the need to disown various past and present regimes in Third World backwaters that give the idea a bad name. There hadn’t been any new ones for a while, and then along came Hugo Chávez in Venezuela with his “Bolivarian Revolution” and “21st Century Socialism”.

This “process” has two main features – limiting democracy and freedom both for opponents and adherents, and using oil revenue to buy support. There are also various bits of window dressing but these are of secondary importance. Continue reading ‘Saying No to Hugo Chávez’s Baloney Revolution’

Radio National Talk on Socialism

I have just presented a short talk on Australian ABC Radio National entitled “Should the financial crisis prompt another look at social ownership?”. Here is the podcast and transcript.

The ownership I am referring to relates to the means of production, the physical assets of  businesses. A system where such a form of ownership dominates ought I think be called socialism, although this does require wresting the word back from the right and pseudo left for whom it means government meddling with capitalism. There are two main take home messages from the talk.

The first is that the conditions of advanced capitalism in places like Australia, USA and western Europe are vastly more conducive to the success of socialism than the backward conditions that prevailed in places where it had previously been attempted and failed. Transforming Czarist Russia, Manchu China and agrarian fascist eastern Europe into socialist societies was a big ask.

Continue reading ‘Radio National Talk on Socialism’

Allying with the Right

You cannot avoid being allied with right wingers. It is just a matter of who and when. The people we describe as pseudo-left are in alliance with Pat Buchanan, The Cato Institute and The Independent Institute in opposing the US liberation of Iraq. On that matter we side with Bush and the neo-cons. We have written a lot on the question both here and at our parent site. We see it as a switch in US foreign policy from supporting “stability” in the region to supporting democracy and “draining the swamp” in which all sorts of creepy things fester.

Many pseudos in the US would side with Pat Buchanan and Ann Coulter on trade protection. We would ally with Cato and support free trade. Both we and the pseudos would side with The Cato and The Independent Institutes on a range of civil liberties issues and on ending the embargo on Cuba.

But we must ‘fess up. We are doing more than our share of fraternizing and endorsing.

Continue reading ‘Allying with the Right’