Springing the ‘philosophy trap’: a critique of Mike Macnair

Back in 2013, the Weekly Worker ran a debate about the legacy of Georg Lukács, which I was somewhat involved in. It would be obviously perverse to re-start a stone-cold debate about the famous Hungarian revolutionary/philosopher after seven years and I have no intention of doing so.

Towards the end of this debate, Mike Macnair produced an interesting article: ‘Lukács: The philosophy trap’ (21 November 2013; all subsequent Macnair quotes are from this article). This came up, briefly, in Ben Lewis’s recent London seminar on Karl Kautsky and I thought it would be useful to address it again as I recognise Macnair’s conclusions on the topic have been influential, at least in the CPGB; and other CPGB leaders such as Jack Conrad (whom I suspect is much more of a Hegelian Marxist than Macnair) have been largely silent on the topic.

Macnair’s 2013 article was interesting in its arguments about the practice of philosophy by the left. I was less interested at the time in Macnair’s attempt in ‘The philosophy trap’ to reduce Lukács to a shifting set of schemas (‘ultra-leftism’ to ‘Cominternism’ and so on). This type of identity thinking, reducing historical complexes to schematic, undeveloped concepts that do violence to the history supposedly being explained, runs through the left repeatedly. Trotskyist writing on Lukács, led by Michael Löwy’s Georg Lukács: From Romanticism to Bolshevism (first published in French in 1976) has a different schema from Macnair but the same essential method, reducing the career of Lukács in the 1920s to a rubric of first ultra-leftism, then revolutionary ‘Leninist’, then Stalinist. We then have the grotesque spectacle of Trotskyist writers having to make Lukács’s writings of the mid-to-late 1920s sound as right wing and conciliatory to Stalinism as possible. It’s not even that such writings are ‘wrong’ in that it’s no secret that Lukács supported Stalin and the perspective of ‘socialism in one country’ from the mid-1920s, for example (and Macnair has obviously discovered some truths about the Lukács of History and Class Consciousness and the period of the early Comintern). But in the process, Lukács is turned into a horse tethered to one fixed point of reference (‘Stalinism’, ‘Cominternism’, whatever) around which his writings are forced to endlessly circle and the ‘unity in diversity’ of his thinking falls into an abyss. (This, of course, mirrors the complaints around some of the contemporary left endlessly equating Karl Kautsky with ‘renegade’.)

At this point, dear reader, you could be forgiven for thinking that I had broken the entreaty of my opening and am taking you, so to speak, back into the thickets of particular interpretations of Georg Lukács. But I do this merely to establish a most determined opposition to Macnair’s practice in relation to thinkers that he does not like; establishing quick summary judgements that become hardened into reductionist schemas. This short-circuiting is immediately apparent in the more general arguments around Marxism and philosophy that Macnair introduces in ‘The philosophy trap’.

Recently, the Weekly Worker featured an appalling ‘debate’ on the merits, or otherwise, of German philosopher Martin Heidegger, where various ex-members of the old Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) cavorted happily on the letters page, treating us to lurid tales of the ‘opposition between materialism and idealism’ and suchlike, which was all about as appealing as watching Peter Sutcliffe cruising through a red-light district. What all this nonsense leaves out is any notion of an immanent critique, that is a critique that explodes the internal contradictions contained within a thinker’s own thought. The alternative, to over-obsess about Heidegger’s guilt in relation to Nazism, or to merely use him as some kind of counter in a Manichean struggle between good (materialism) and idealism (evil), is to leave the foundations of his thought unsullied by any actual criticism. In Heidegger’s case, this is particularly unfortunate given the way he was given a radical gloss by the existentialist movement but also because of the opposition in his work between a primordial ‘being’ (singular) and the particular ‘beings’ (plural) of human actors in the world. This ‘being’ defies our attempts to conceptualise it and is opposed to us as individuals. It just ‘is’ and there isn’t a damn thing we can do about it. Theodor Adorno saw lodged within this an expression of authoritarianism, whereby particularities could be smothered by an unthinking obedience to what is.[i] This immanent critique (which is not meant to be taken as a complete view of Heidegger in any sense; I am unqualified to offer that) allows one to lay hold of internal contradictions and understand how ‘Heideggerian’ the contemporary left is. After all, in many of the organisations of the left, the ‘being’ of the sect is always counterposed to the ‘beings’ of the membership and, furthermore, most leftists voluntarily renounce their ‘beings’ to the ‘greater good’ of the sect and its dogmas, which become irrevocable. The sect just ‘is’. Ignorant prattle about Heidegger’s position in some kind of philosophical hellfire or merely labelling him as a ‘Nazi’ actually leave the authoritarian implications of his work undefeated. It is the theoretical equivalent of standing behind a police barrier shouting ‘Nazi’ at members of the English Defence League/Football Lads Alliance supporters on the other side of the road; it shows a pronounced sense of disengagement with the world.

Now, comrade Macnair is not to be equated with the inconsequential protagonists in this recent ‘debate’ but what he does share with them is a certain externality in the way he often deals with thinkers; particularly ones he doesn’t like. One couldn’t truly call ‘The philosophy trap’ an immanent critique of the thinkers it discusses; rather, various theories are being used in summary fashion to apparently position Macnair in an angular relationship to traditional left thinking. This, I think, is the real trap, as I will hopefully demonstrate in this article.

Macnair argues, in relationship to the Second International, that an approach that sees its collapse as being determined by it being “insufficiently theoretically or philosophically Marxist… foresees the creation of a mass of competing groups, sects founded on the basis of theoretical agreements”. (As an aside, I have never argued that the collapse of the Second International was solely due to any such reductive schema; and I view the whole idea of Lenin’s magical conversion to dialectical thought by reading Hegel’s Science of Logic in 1916 as a seductive fable fit only for children’s nurseries.) I think we need to unpack some of what Macnair is saying here as it does appear to be a key hinge of his understanding of what the ‘philosophy trap’ is.

Complaining that organisations or actions of the labour movement in whatever form are “insufficiently theoretically or philosophically Marxist” is the type of big, dumb, bad-ass argument that sects use to demarcate themselves from other sects and the rest of the world. This does take the form of particular understandings of, say, the history of the Soviet Union, forming the basis of the ‘unity’ of the sect through theoretical agreement. This is a trap and those sects such as the WRP that added in further layers of differentiation around philosophical matters, and through furnishing its cadre with the awful philosophical education recently displayed in the Weekly Worker, merely added further levels of madness. (Although I am somewhat grateful for Gerry and the Pacemakers’ promotion of the Soviet philosopher Evald Ilyenkov; proof that something good can appear amid the worst kind of horseshit in both Ilyenkov’s and the WRP’s case.)

In any sane world, grandiose conclusions such as X is “insufficiently theoretically or philosophically Marxist” would only appear after fairly long and considered exchanges. Instead, it is the conclusions, usually turned into labels, of theoretical analyses that get bandied around as a means to differentiate people into sects. When I first became involved in the left in 1989-1990, I felt this very keenly as a supporter the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) because my organisation didn’t have a proper badge or label relating to its analysis of the Soviet Union (which was embodied in a book: Frank Furedi’s The Soviet Union demystified [1986]). SWP members were ‘state caps’; more orthodox Trots had their ‘degenerate workers’ state’; while all I had was a succession of passages about the inability of the Soviet Union to socialise its product and its dysfunctional division of labour, leading to the fragmentation of the Soviet economy and so on, which, try as I might, I couldn’t boil down into a handy cut-price definition. Actually, what Oxford RCP cadre told me was right: ‘Don’t get hung up on labels; let’s work out what the actual dynamics of the Soviet Union are.’ But that wasn’t the culture of the broader left and I was always impatient to short-circuit this. I used to stay awake in bed thinking up absurd labels and badges for the Soviet Union that I could use (I think I toyed with ‘non-workers’ state’ for a while, which, looking back, was a fair index of how desperate this enterprise was). It was a similar dynamic when the issue of the nature of the Soviet Union came up in the CPGB circa 1998. It was Jack Conrad provocatively labelling the Soviet Union as a ‘slave society’ on the front page of the Weekly Worker that threw most members of the Manchester cell into a rage (with one member resigning almost instantaneously) and we spent much of the summer debating the consequences of this counter-productive badging exercise. Conrad did spend some time arguing that year that such labelling exercises were pointless, and we needed to understand the Soviet Union’s laws of motion. This was to little avail and Conrad was always being badgered by Manchester comrades to tell them ‘what the Soviet Union was’. What was his label? What was his ultimate conclusion?

You could see the same kind of thing on the more orthodox Trotskyist left. Generally, cadre were ‘tooled up’ (I use the analogy deliberately) in the idea of the universal struggle between ‘materialism’ and ‘idealism’, and everything in philosophical history had to be somehow bound and gagged into this horrendous (in reality, Stalinist) summation.

So, this kind of thinking is definitely a trap but, arguably it has precious little to do with philosophical knowledge (which I interpret as having to be concerned with epistemology, the theory of knowledge or thinking about thinking; given that the Marxist left simply can’t be trusted with ontology, explorations of the nature of being, due to the ever-present temptation of reductionism). In philosophy, you learn through a clash of ideas and the process of exploring different philosophical positions; the deracinated conclusions one might draw are relatively unimportant. The same is true of theoretical knowledge of issues such as the nature of the Soviet Union. One learns far more from a clash of opinions and the process of exploring alternative positions, rather than the silly left-wing game of bandying around conclusions, summations and labels without paying attention to the Soviet Union’s laws of motion. This, again, is mere ‘standpoint’ theory; striking a pose to situate oneself in a universe of nothingness.

‘Sect philosophy’ and ‘sect theory’ is thus a trap; but the process of philosophical and theoretical enlightenment, and the concurrent task of being sceptical of the ‘reason’ of the contemporary Marxist left is not a trap. There is no such thing as a ‘philosophy trap’ per se. It is merely a rhetorical device. The trap, rather, lies in any reversion to a so-called ‘empirical’ theory of knowledge, which, on the Marxist left is instantaneously mediated by the object of the sect, which scuttles any hope of rationality and truth in the cause of its own, non-empirical tautologies. Such ‘reason’ can only be unpicked by a critique of such ‘reason’; it can’t be capsized by empiricism.

Macnair treats Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) as an example of “counter-Enlightenment philosophy”. Kant’s lineage is developed down from Bishop Berkeley and David Hume, attacking John Locke for the idea that we cannot derive knowledge from sense perception. Macnair goes on: “When we move into the German ‘philosophical revolution’, Kant takes his starting point from Hume. Why? It is hardly surprising. Kant is writing in the context of the ‘Enlightenment’ of ‘enlightened despotism’, of Voltaire and the enlightened prince Frederick the Great of Prussia. If we concede probabilism based on sense perceptions, we will end up taking seriously the opinions of cobblers and barbers on religion and politics.

“This is counter-Enlightenment philosophy. And precisely because of its political and religious commitments, the arguments are creating a closure against adverse empirical evidence. This is done precisely by making the relation between subject and object the starting point. To do so is to build in at the starting point Berkeley’s and Hume’s critiques of Locke. In doing so, it immunises theory against empirical refutation.”

While no one wants to build a mythology of Kant, it is easy to recognise this type of analysis from a more traditional lexicon of left-wing writing. Flat, one-dimensional judgements are summarily dispensed, with a simple equivalence invoked: in this case, Kant=counter-Enlightenment. The name Kant is plotted alongside relations with other external names and institutions, and this seems to damn Immanuel by association. The whole effect, just as with the recent debate on Heidegger, is strangely external to Kant and his writing. Macnair is engaged in the traditional left-wing practice of polemical signification, of mere ‘standpoint’ philosophy that fails to get to grips with the matter at hand.

The alternative to this methodology is an immanent criticism that takes the contradictions embedded in Kant’s own work as the starting point, rather than his place in an externally constructed system of signs. Adorno’s sophisticated treatment of Kant and Enlightenment in his lectures on the Critique of pure reason shines an unflattering light on Macnair’s reductionism in this regard. Adorno is emphatically not attempting to mythologise Kant in relation to Enlightenment thought or taking Kant simply at his word; rather Adorno sets out the deep ambiguities in Kant’s position, so that it cannot be reduced to either a ‘pro-’ or ‘counter-’ Enlightenment stance.

Adorno begins with Kant’s polemic against the Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, primarily an attack against all dabbling in the occult before moving on to some of the former’s powerful statements of faith in Enlightenment from: Answer to the question: what is Enlightenment? (1784): “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of Enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! [Dare to know!] Have the courage to use your own understanding!”[ii] This is the positive side of Kant’s use of reason but that is instantly qualified by Adorno, in pointing out that in trying to establish the self-autonomy of reason, Kant restricts any critique of objective spirit or knowledge. Kant’s reason is also purely theoretical in character and limited to writers and scholars, and not public servants of the state. So, on one level, you have a pull towards the unfettered use of reason; on the other, reason is severely constrained in the objective sphere. Adorno finds this situation indicative of bourgeois rationalism itself: “On the one hand, reason is deemed to be the supreme and indeed the only authority by which to regulate human relations; on the other hand, this is always accompanied by warnings to the effect that reason must not be ‘taken to extremes’.”[iii]

But Adorno moves on from this to explore even deeper contradictions in Kant’s standing in relationship to Enlightenment; this is because the Critique of pure reason contains both identity and non-identity thinking that make it deeply ambiguous in terms of the Enlightenment. On one level, the identity thinking in the Critique wishes to “reduce the synthetic a priori judgements and ultimately all organised experienced to an analysis of the consciousness of the subject”.[iv] On the other, the non-identity thinking present means “this way of thinking desires to rid itself of mythology, of the illusion that man can make certain ideas absolute and hold them to be the whole truth simply because he happens to have them within himself”.[v] Kant of course set limits to humans knowing the world, in that there is the unknowable ‘thing in itself’ that they simply cannot know. This non-identity thinking has a positive side in that by questioning the grounds of reason itself to establish absolute judgements, “it regards the idea that all knowledge contained in mankind is superstition, and in the spirit of the Enlightenment, it wishes to criticise it as it would criticise any superstition”.[vi]

At this point in proceedings, Macnair’s alternative sense of Kant simply being “counter-Enlightenment philosophy” looks somewhat bedraggled and reductionist, and the comparison with Adorno’s analysis of Kant is not flattering. But this debate is more than merely ‘saving’ Kant from the summary judgements of leftist oblivion or in establishing Adorno as any kind of philosophical deity (although his approach is very obviously more dialectical than that of Macnair), it’s also about why this should matter to the contemporary left.

Macnair seems to want to establish some kind of philosophical ‘year zero’ for the Marxist left, where all the contradictory achievements of German idealism are swept away, including the subject-object dialectic, which in Macnair’s eyes merely builds in Berkeley’s and Hume’s critiques against Locke’s probabilistic theory of knowledge (there is no absolutely certain knowledge but there is probabilistic knowledge that we can rationally act on). This appears to take Macnair back to some kind of empiricism although I’m less interested in the label so much as the consequences of his approach. As we have seen, the subject-object dialectic in Kant emphatically does not mean walling off subjects from the empirical world, if we follow his contradictions through. Alongside his scepticism, establishing that a dogmatic pursuit of reason, where the subject feels she has ‘the whole world in her hands’, is a faulty path, a ‘critique of reason’ actually re-opens the path back to the ‘non-identical’ (if Kant himself is treated critically, of course): the things that aren’t enclosed in a subject’s authoritarian capsule world view. From this perspective, the worst thing about Kant is also somehow the best thing about him.

But to understand how damaging Macnair’s philosophical standpoint is for the left one needs to go on a slight detour. Many of the CPGB’s leaders, including Macnair, have remarked that the left is incapable of thinking in its current iteration. Only recently, Ben Lewis referred to some of his previous works on Kautsky as ‘dogs that didn’t bark’ and I can certainly attest to that feeling as someone who has worked on historical projects that contest the manner in which the left has hitherto viewed the subject matter. You mostly either get crap in response or silence. It’s obvious that Lars T Lih has produced material that should be part of a major re-evaluation of the history of Bolshevism but the response his work has received from the Trotskyist left (with only a few exceptions) has been utterly lamentable. So, we can carry on bringing historical documents and controversies out (and I’m all for this) but the risk currently appears to be us building a massive drift of empirical material that in some ways becomes a bit like Kant’s unknowable ‘thing in itself’ (apart from in relation to a small ‘critical’ substratum of the Marxist left). To appreciate that weight of historical material the left needs to re-learn to think again and that may mean a recourse to philosophy: crudely defined in this instance as thinking about thinking.

But Macnair’s filleted philosophical world view, which suggests that Locke’s probabilistic knowledge is good enough for the left to comprehend what is in front of it, with any epistemological critique or notion of subject-object dialectic left aside, merely leaves the left at the mercy of identity thinking. A left-wing reader who has been through one of the Marxist sects will not approach a detailed historical argument against her conventional thought on the subject on the basis (which might appear reasonable) that because the author of that historical text has assembled compelling evidence then it is probably true. No, it is likely that she will only be able to read the evidence through fixed reference points and that it will be largely non-comprehensible as a result. It will be filtered through the objective needs and demands of her sect education and points of historical evidence, no matter how compelling, will be reduced to her a priori understanding. Black will be painted white and the more evidence is provided that black is still black, the more it will be reduced to white. The alternative is the despair of avoidance and silence. We thus go around in circles.

The only alternative to this is to try and tackle the subject-object dialectic that lies at the heart of such identity thinking: the arrogance of the sect-influenced ‘subject’ who believes she can encapsulate all the manifold objective world in her dogmas. Like Kant and Adorno, we would want to criticise that leftist superstition, like we would any superstition. But this can’t be reduced to any catechism or brief summary of dialectical thinking (thesis/antithesis/synthesis) or any notion of ‘pet’ philosophers presented in some kind of unbroken theoretical lineage; it can only be accomplished through a constant process of thinking and rethinking. Yes, it means constantly probing away at reductionist thinking with newly found (non-identical) evidence that constantly threatens to overthrow existing schemas. But that will be utterly useless if we can’t critique the theory of knowledge that underpins the reception of this history. In other words, we have to consciously overthrow reductive identity thinking by contemplating and working through how subjects epistemologically mangle the objective world around them, which is actually a logic embedded in the structures of capitalism itself.

To conclude, we should try and map Macnair’s work more broadly onto a current project of the ‘enlightenment’ of the left. In works such as Revolutionary strategy he presides over a vast accumulation of historical knowledge, brilliantly undercutting whole swathes of sect-inspired dogma. It is one of the few original, exciting books that the Marxist left has produced in recent decades. That is the positive side of Macnair. In contrast, writings such as ‘The philosophy trap’ more soberly remind us that while the comrade is a foremost critic of the existing Marxist left’s strategy, he is also the product of that left, and his tendency to breezily wade into thinkers on the basis of short capsule comments that have fixed points of reference is a dogmatism that always seems to threaten the edifice of his thought. Macnair seems determined to leave the accumulation of historical knowledge at a primitive stage, given his fulsome denial of some of the philosophical tools by which such knowledge could be more properly engaged by the Marxist left.

[i] T Adorno Ontology and dialectics Cambridge 2019. This book of lectures is an extended critique of Heidegger.

[ii] Cited in T Adorno Kant’s ‘Critique of pure reason’ Cambridge 2001 p62.

[iii] Ibid p64.

[iv] Ibid p66.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

3 Comments

  1. Interesting piece however I wonder if Lenin and the Bolsheviks would be classed as a “sect” as per the approach outlined here?

    The point being that while it is correct to evaluate ideas in the whole, seeing all the aspects of their internal contradictions, does not invalidate assessing what they represent in terms of political action. The fact that most leftists and left groups move quickly to the conclusion and reduce the whole to just the conclusion is not a reason to refuse to make conclusions.

    For instance the ideas of Kautsky cannot just be reduced to “he was a renegade” but at the same time Kautskyism” as a distinct and separate political tendency can be reduced to that in terms of what it means for political action – especially for anyone claiming to stand in the general framework of the Bolsheviks and the early years of the Russian Revolution. Hence the CPGB are forced to go through all kinds of political contortions to squeeze Bolshevism into their “Kautskyite” revisionism (see for instance – https://revolutionaryprogramme.wordpress.com/2014/04/11/cpgb-playing-fast-and-loose-with-the-real-political-history-of-bolshevism/)

    And must confess I am astounded by your comment:

    “In works such as Revolutionary Strategy he presides over a vast accumulation of historical knowledge, brilliantly undercutting whole swathes of sect-inspired dogma. It is one of the few original, exciting books that the Marxist left has produced in recent decades.”

    Seriously? That book is riddled with both internal inconsistencies and, what might best be described as “CPGB sect” understandings on various historical political events, that combine to make it virtually worthless as a guide to action.

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  2. You make an interesting point about ‘conclusions’. I’m not suggesting that conclusions, summaries and the like are invalid at all; they are inevitable anyway. But they need to be constantly referred back to the process that produced them to have any value; and they need to be constantly questioned and criticised. I think this is what Trotsky was getting at in his Philosophical Notebooks of 1933-35, that the concept “is not a closed circle, but a loop, one end of which moves into the past, the other – into the future”. Lenin also had an extremely fluid sense of dialectic in that cognition not only reflects but creates the world, so no I don’t think the Bolsheviks were a sect in a philosophical sense. Having said that, I’d far prefer Lenin and Trotsky on philosophy than Bukharin on dialectics, so nothing’s perfect.

    We’ll have to have a chat over a beer about the RS book. Sorry to disappoint but I thought it was great, even though I’ve pointed out a few of its shortcomings in the past.

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