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Jonathan Sperber

Jonathan Sperber

JONATHAN SPERBER’S NEW BIOGRAPHY SEEKS TO BURY KARL MARX, NOT PRAISE HIM

Karl Marx, A Nineteenth Century Life
By Jonathan Sperber,
Liveright Publishing, 2013

A Review by Barry Healy

Barry Healy

September 26, 2013 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — In life Karl Marx lived a tumultuous, revolutionary life and in death he has likewise been less than tranquil. Alive, he was the best hated man in Europe. For the ruling classes and police spies he personified the “spectre” that was haunting the continent, the demonic rise of communist revolution.

After his death he was bleached of his humanity, canonised by his admirers and slandered by his bourgeois enemies. Both misrepresented him.

His enormous collection of notes and half-formulated writings were bequeathed first to his long-time political collaborator Frederick Engels and later to the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). Engels laboured long and hard and managed to produce the second and third volumes of Capital.

Stumbling across Marx’s notebooks on anthropological research, Engels also managed to write The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, the classic Marxist statement on the topic. Karl Kautsky of the SPD cobbled together the volumes of the Theories of Surplus Value, which formed the last instalments of Capital.

Along the way Kautsky and the SPD turned themselves into the arbiters of Marxism, the font of all wisdom on the man and his work. Kautsky was even referred to as the “Pope of Marxism”.

The messy details of Marx’s life – such as fathering an illegitimate child – were buried and the image of the prophet who foretold the inevitable collapse of capitalism was manufactured.

Below that edifice was buried Marx’s radicalism. Within the German SPD, social reform replaced revolution – the perfect justification for the party’s bureaucratisation and adaptation to peaceful coexistence with capitalism.

A leading SPD intellectual, Eduard Bernstein, propagated a version of Marxism in which the working class would slowly take over and socialise society — through building the SPD. This would be an organic process based on social evolution driven by scientific developments, which would take an extended period.

That strand of defanged Marxism exposed itself when the SPD supported the German government in WWI. However, as if in an historical horror show, the Stalinised Soviet Union took over the care of this mummified version of Marxism.

The Communist Party of Great Britain symbolised this process in 1954 by moving Marx’s remains and erecting the granite monolith that glowers over Highgate Cemetery today. The simple, original gravestone lies broken at the first grave.

The Stalinists seized control of Marx’s intellectual legacy by gathering all his writings and overseeing the production of his collected works (known by their German initials as the MEGA). Careful selection kept Marx’s dangerous thoughts from the eyes of the masses.

With the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, these collected papers have been translated by a new group of academics, producing what is known as MEGA2. This enlarged body of work is available for scholars. We can expect in years to come that historians and others will be mining it for nuggets of information similar to how Jonathan Sperber has done in this minutely researched volume.

Selective

Sperber, an expert in early 19th century Germany and the German language, should be perfect for this task of revealing the real Karl Marx. In many ways he is, but unfortunately his eye is selective.

He has come not just to dust off the accretions of history from the real Marx, but to bury Marxism for all time. Sperber’s tome, which he sets the mission of being the authoritative text on Marx has some peculiar assertions and omissions.

The book begins quite insightfully, exploring Marx’s early history by situating him in the revolutionary times in which he lived. By delving into the faction fights in which Marx engaged, not only is Marx’s point of view reported, but also the arguments raised against him, which fills out the record.

However, Sperber revels in any hostile gossip that opponents piled onto Marx or Engels. Any tirade is accepted as fact, whereas Marx’s polemics are subjected to minute, critical examination.

Sperber’s method at times turns peculiar. He insists that this famous sentence from the Communist Manifesto is mistranslated: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned and man is at last compelled to face, with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

He contends that in English it should read: “Everything that firmly exists and all the elements of the society of orders evaporate, everything sacred is desecrated and men are finally compelled to regard their position in life and their mutual relations with sober eyes.”

Why does he insist on a bland translation? Because Sperber’s project is to demonstrate that Marx is irrelevant to this century and his translation is part of his case.

Marx was not describing the epic results of capitalism on society in that sentence, Sperber says. He was only commenting on the bourgeois overthrow of feudalism (“the society of orders”). Sperber’s point is that the Manifesto was only looking backwards, not referring to the ongoing revolutionising effects of capitalism.

Such an argument is a wilful misreading not only of the Manifesto, but of the entire body of Marx’s works. Sperber pronounces that, being mired in old-fashioned irrelevancy, Marxism means nothing today.

Oddly, in this he refracts, as if though a glass darkly, arguments that Bernstein raised against the Communist Manifesto. For Bernstein the Manifesto was a product of a younger, hot-headed radical Marx, emerging from the conspiratorial matrix of the French Revolution and should not be considered relevant to the modern age.

Positivist?

Sperber also goes into a long-winded critique, covering many pages, in which he insists that Marx was not a dialectician, but was an unconscious, though inconsistent positivist. Now this really is passing strange.

Logical positivism was still evolving during Marx’s lifetime. But its progenitor, Auguste Comte, wrote in the early 19th Century and had followers in and around the workers’ movement. Marx ripped into Comte, calling his work “trashy”.

Positivism held that society was evolving towards a more sophisticated future through scientific advancement.

Sperber, while arguing his positivist case against Marx, does not actually define what he means by the term. By inference it appears that it includes, for him, the collection of evidence and the analysis of data – in short the scientific method – plus a teleological belief in the steady advance of human civilisation. These are certainly elements of positivism and lend it its semi-religious flavour, even though it is secularist. Positivism is an extreme form of empiricism that reifies the scientific method and imposes it on sociology.

The degenerate bureaucrats of the German SPD were certainly influenced by positivism, because it let them off the hook of having to organise and lead the class struggle. Stalinism, with its mechanical materialist worship of the Five-Year Plan wilfully mixed dialectics with positivism.

Sperber says that philosophically Marx was stuck halfway along a line that stretched from Hegel at one end, with his “distrust of empirical evidence”, and positivists at the other end with their “scientific method and scientific form of empiricism”.

Now, to say that Hegel, who studied the scientific developments of his day, “distrusted empirical evidence” is quite something. To picture Karl Marx as a kind of philosophical muddle-headed wombat is to take a leap into void.

Hegel taught that every moment contains within it the possibility of future developments. This future-that-is-not-yet-present is a metaphysical concept. Hegel used the word geist (spirit) to describe the motivating force that drove these possibilities to fruition.

Marx stripped the metaphysics out of Hegelianism, turning Hegel on his head as it were, and developed what is now known as historical materialism to explain how history is driven forward.

Sperber has it wrong. Above all, Marx believed that the possibility of social progress depended on human intervention – revolutionary activity expressed through class struggle. Positivism passively depends on the advancement of science.

Marx’s argument against positivism was that it failed to discern the inner dynamics of society, which dialectical social science could expose. He granted that Comte, as a mathematician and physicist, was certainly “superior” to Hegel in scientific knowledge. However, “even here Hegel is infinitely greater when one considers the whole”. In fact, Marx said, “compared with Hegel” Comte was “wretched”.

‘Static’ economics?

Sperber is also at pains to criticise supposed failings in Marxist economic theory, which he delves into over 10 pages. It is a brave writer who tries to summarise Marxist economics in such a brief space and Sperber more than fails the job.

Following on from his inability to understand Hegelian or Marxist dialectics, Sperber can’t see the dynamic thrust of Marx’s economics. For Sperber, Marx’s grasp of economic reality was “static”, effectively “snapshots of the 1860s”.

However, just opening volume I of Capital and reading the list of contents confounds this. The process of the production of capital, the relationship of use value and exchange value making up the commodity, the fetishism of the commodity, the transformation of money into capital, the labour process and valorisation process, etc. Every page is drenched in the application of dialectics, which is the understanding of reality in movement, to economics.

To drive his points home Marx quotes from the British government factory inspectors’ reports to illustrate of the reality of working class conditions (these are “snapshots” according to Sperber).

Sperber is on slightly surer ground when he criticises Marx’s theorising about the tendency of the rate of profit to decline over time. Over the years Marx made several different attempts at explaining this tendency and never succeeded to his own satisfaction.

Sperber also delves into Marx’s newspaper editorships, indicating that his papers were dominated by strident, unreadable polemics. However, he makes no mention, for example, of the prominence of poetry in Marx’s newspapers. S.S. Pawer, in Karl Marx and World Literature, available since 1976, records the trouble to which Marx went to get the best of contemporary radical poets into his papers.

Sperber thinks that Marx’s literary allusions in his journalism were unintelligible to a mass audience, whereas Pawer shows that that his contemporaries were able to pick up the references easily. Interestingly, Sperber totally misses the myriad Biblical references and advanced use of theological logic in Marx’s writings.

Similarly, for Sperber, Marx’s organising activities to keep Britain from entering the American Civil War on the side of the Confederacy are absent. In fact, Marx’s keen interest in North American events appears right in the preface to Capital volume I and his activity was immense.

The development of Marx’s thinking about British rule in India Sperber dismisses as a strain of “petit-bourgeois” radicalism. The evolution and intellectual vigour of Marx’s engagement with the question is masterfully discussed in Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins, which was available while Sperber was at work on his book, but rates no mention.

On and on it goes. Sperber’s conclusion is that Marx’s ideas are stuck in “the matrix of the early nineteenth century, the age of the French Revolution and its aftermath, of Hegel’s philosophy and its Young Hegelian critics, of the early industrialisation of Great Britain and the theories of political economy emerging from them”.

Sperber misses the point

Sperber completely misses the point: when Marx inverted Hegel’s dialectics and applied it to political economy he did not just create a new economic theory with some attendant radical posturing. Marxism is a philosophy of human action aimed at the complete liberation of the entire human race and the rescue of the planet from capitalist over-exploitation.

Marx was a critic of capitalism and, ironically it is capitalism that has kept its nemesis, Karl Marx alive. Capitalism’s myriad oppressions demand analysis and resistance. In that, the ideas and revolutionary example of Karl Marx are vibrant.

It is only with the death of capitalism that Karl Marx will finally be buried, because we will no longer have need of his world historic contribution. Notwithstanding Jonathan Sperber, Marx will then rest in peace with the grateful blessings of all humanity.

[Barry Healy is a member of Socialist Alliance in Perth, Western Australia. A shorter version of this review appeared in Green Left Weekly.]

Source: LINKS: International Journal of Socialist Renewal – http://links.org.au/node/3530

 

**END**

Cold Hands & Quarter Moon, ‘Stagnant’ at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YkP_Mi5ideo (new remix, and new video, 2012)

‘Cheerful Sin’ – a song by Victor Rikowski: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIbX5aKUjO8

Posted here by Glenn Rikowski

The Flow of Ideas: http://www.flowideas.co.uk

Rikowski Point: http://rikowskipoint.blogspot.com

Volumizer: http://glennrikowski.blogspot.com

Glenn Rikowski on Facebook at: http://www.facebook.com/glenn.rikowski

Online Publications at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=pub&sub=Online%20Publications%20Glenn%20Rikowski

 

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Sociology

HISTORICAL SOCIOLOGY, HISTORICAL MATERIALISM AND INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS

CALL FOR PAPERS
Spectrum Journal of Global Studies
Conference on:
Historical Sociology, Historical Materialism and International Relations

November 1-3, 2012
Middle East Technical University
Department of International Relations
Ankara – Turkey

The discipline of International Relations (IR) known as an “ American” social science has in the last decade or so been discovering the importance of alternative forms of explaining international relations. More so than any other field of social science, IR has been dominated by positivist conceptions of scientific inquiry. However recent approaches in the philosophy of sciences as well as the sociological turn in IR has changed the boundaries, assumptions and methodologies of our discipline.  Critical realism as an alternative to positivist as well as post-positivist understandings of social science is increasingly becoming the dominant form of philosophyzing about IR.

Historical sociological approaches are taking over the static, a-historical forms of theorizing. Marxist social theory has become more and more relevant to explain the current of changes in the international system. Internationalisation of capitalism has made the concerns of Marxism increasingly relevant to understand and explain the “international”. Recent controversies on the relation between the state system and capitalist mode of production have made important contributions to understand the link between what is traditionally understood from international relations and capitalist relations of production. These efforts have to go on as there are yet many other untouched aspects of international relations that require deconstruction and de-reification. This conference attempts to further our understanding of the links between historical sociology, critical realism and Marxism. Empirical works combining the insights of Marxist historical sociology and historical materialism with that of international relations is particularly welcome. We are extending an invitation to all researchers to present research that address the following issues and similar topics:

    • How does a historical materialist geopolitics address the traditional issues of IR?
    • Geopolitics of state formations
    • What is the relation between the state system and capitalism?
    • In what ways does critical realism help Marxism to analyse the international?
    • What are the limits and the potentials of he theory of combined and uneven development to explain the international?
    • Historical materialist analysis of international law
    • Contemporary forms of imperialism
    • International State Apparatuses and their role in the reproduction of capital
    • Marx’s method and the world market

We hope to see both individual papers and panels discussing these themes from different disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives.

We encourage scholars from all around the world to participate in this exciting attempt to link our conceptions of praxis and change with that of what constitutes the “international”.

Most papers presented in the conference will later be published in a special issue of the Spectrum journal or in a separate book.

We look forward to welcoming you all at METU in Ankara.
Key note speakers for the conference will later be announced.

For more information and to submit your papers and panel proposals, please contact spectrumconference@spectrumjournal.net

**END**

‘Human Herbs’ – a new remix and new video by Cold Hands & Quarter Moon: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Au-vyMtfDAs

‘Stagnant’ – a new remix and new video by Cold Hands & Quarter Moon: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YkP_Mi5ideo  

 

Posted here by Glenn Rikowski

The Flow of Ideas: http://www.flowideas.co.uk

MySpace Profile: http://www.myspace.com/glennrikowski

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Rikowski Point: http://rikowskipoint.blogspot.com

Volumizer: http://glennrikowski.blogspot.com

Online Publications at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=pub&sub=Online%20Publications%20Glenn%20Rikowski

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The Island

LOST TEXT

History Matters

THE ILLUSIONS OF ‘SOLIDARITY’ By David Brown

A ‘Lost Text’ from 1975 rediscovered: David Brown on the ‘Illusions’ of Maurice Brinton and Cornelius Castoriadis

Editorial notes by the Hobgoblin Collective:

Hobgoblin has published (online) for the first time a text, written in 1975 as a letter to the membership of the Solidarity group – also known as ‘Solidarity For Workers Power’. This group was founded in 1960 by Chris Pallis, an eminent neurologist who wrote under the name “Maurice Brinton,” and Ken Weller, a young shop steward working in the motor industry. The group, initially known as Socialism Reaffirmed, published a journal, Agitator, which after six issues was renamed Solidarity. Both Brinton and Weller had previously been members of Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League, founded amidst the mass defections from the Communist Party after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. As Richard Abernethy put in an obituary for Chris Pallis in Hobgoblin in 2005:

“Solidarity punctured and deflated some favourite left-wing illusions. It recognised that there was no actually existing socialism, no worker’s states, in the world. Notwithstanding all differences between the Western capitalist bloc, the Eastern bloc ruled by Communist parties, and the Third World, the basic divide between rulers and ruled existed everywhere.”

The Solidarity group, despite never having much more than a hundred members, was influential, not least because Solidarity became the main conduit of the political theories of Cornelius Castoriadis aka Paul Cardan (1922-97), founder of Socialisme ou Barbarie in France.

The resignation statement by Solidarity member, David Brown, was written at a time (1975) when the group was in decline, facing splits and having to deal with the fact that Castoriadis/Cardan had, following the demise of Socialisme ou Barbarie in 1965, moved to the Right. Brown, was influenced by French ex-Bordigist, Jacques Camatte, some of whose writings he translated, by the Russian value-theorist, II Rubin, and by Karl Korsch, author of Marxism and Philosophy. According to Brown, Castoriadis and Solidarity shared with the traditional left a restricted understanding of Marx’s ideas, not recognising the liberatory core of Marx’s Capital, and taking the shortcoming of the traditional left as grounds for breaking with Marx. Brown argues that Castoriadis, Brinton and the Solidarity group misunderstood the cardinal term of the Marx’s critique of political economy – value. Brown writes:

“The attack on the labour theory of value is only a prelude to a more general attack on the materialist conception of history. By reducing the general conception of the mode of production to mean technology and the word ‘determine’ to mean the same as ‘cause’, a simple transformation of marxism into banality follows.” 

Castoriadis had argued that:

“The revolutionary movement… must become the place (the only place in contemporary society, outside the factory) where… individuals learn about collective life, run their own affairs and fulfill and develop themselves, working for a common objective in reciprocal recognition.”

Brown finds this position to be “entirely false,” and argues (following Jacques Camatte) that “all organisations are despotic” because, basing themselves on “critique of other organisations and individuals” they are “already” the conception of competitive capital.

Two of the editors of The Hobgoblin (Richard Abernethy and George Shaw) are former members of the Solidarity group. As Marxist-Humanists, we do not agree with a lot of the positions David Brown expressed in 1975. If the statement that “all organisations are despotic” means that all attempts to overcome atomization and individual isolation are doomed, then we certainly disagree, believing, as we do, in a philosophically-grounded alternative to capitalism – something Castoriadis, as a “positivist,” never even considered. Nor do we agree that “support for oppressed peoples” was part of the degeneration of Marxism (this in spite of Marx’s own statements on Ireland, Poland etc), or saying that people who voted Labour in 1974 “voted for capitalism.”

We are publishing this text not only because of its historical interest as a critique of a (dead) organization of the Left, once significant (and still influential “beyond the grave,” through the works of its theoreticians and the legacy of its activists) , but also because of the general theoretic questions it raises have, in the 21st century Left, not been surpassed.

TO READ THE TEXT IN FULL SEE THE LINKS BELOW

http://www.thehobgoblin.co.uk/2011_DAVID_BROWN_ON_CHRIS%20PALLIS_1.htm

http://www.thehobgoblin.co.uk/2011_DAVID_BROWN_ON_CHRIS%20PALLIS_2.htm

The Hobgoblin: http://www.thehobgoblin.co.uk/

Posted here by Glenn Rikowski

The Flow of Ideas: http://www.flowideas.co.uk

Books

POLICY FUTURES IN EDUCATION VOLUME 8 NUMBER 2 (2010)

Policy Futures in Education
Volume 8 Number 2, 2010

ISSN 1478-2103

SPECIAL ISSUE
THE UNIVERSITY IN TRANSITION

Guest Editor: GARETT GIETZEN

Garett Gietzen. Introduction. Challenges and Possibilities for Today’s University

Michael A. Peters. Re-imagining the University in the Global Era

Garett Gietzen. Jean-François Lyotard and the Question of Disciplinary Legitimacy

Stephanie Mackler. From the Positivist to the Hermeneutic University: restoring the place of meaning and liberal learning in higher education

Casey E. George-Jackson. The Cosmopolitan University: the medium toward global citizenship and justice

Rodrigo Britez & Michael A. Peters. Internationalization and the Cosmopolitical University

Daniel Araya. Cultural Democracy: universities in the creative economy

BOOK EXCERPT

Henry A. Giroux. Challenging the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex after 9/11. Introduction to University in Chains: confronting the military-industrial-academic complex (Paradigm Publishers, 2007)

REVIEW ESSAY

Eugenie A. Samier. The Evolution of the Modern University: from scholarship to disenchanted economic handmaiden

OBAMA’S AMERICA

Michael A. Peters. Economics Trumps Politics; Market Trumps Democracy: the US Supreme Court’s decision on campaign financing

BOOK REVIEWS

Higher Learning, Greater Good: the private and social benefits of higher education (Walter W. McMahon), reviewed by Jennifer A. Delaney & Patricia Yu

Multiversities, Ideas, and Democracy (George Fallis), reviewed by David J. Ondercin

Now available at: http://www.wwwords.co.uk/pfie/content/pdfs/8/issue8_2.asp
Access to the full texts of current articles is restricted to those who have a Personal subscription, or those whose institution has a Library subscription. However, all articles become free-to-view 18 months after publication.

PERSONAL SUBSCRIPTION (single user access). Subscription to the 2010 issues (i.e. full access to the articles in Volume 8, Numbers 1-6) is available to individuals at a cost of US$54.00. Personal subscriptions also include automatic free access to ALL PAST ISSUES. If you wish to subscribe you may do so immediately at www.wwwords.co.uk/subscribePFIE.asp

LIBRARY SUBSCRIPTION (institution-wide access). If you are working within an institution that maintains a Library, please urge them to purchase a Library subscription so access is provided throughout your institution; full details for libraries can be found at www.symposium-journals.co.uk/prices.html

For all editorial matters, including articles offered for publication, please contact Professor Michael A. Peters (mpet001@illinois.edu).

In the event of problems concerning a subscription, or difficulty in gaining access to the journal articles, please contact the publishers at support@symposium-journals.co.uk

Glenn Rikowski and Ruth Rikowski have a number of articles in Policy Futures in Education. These are:

Rikowski, Ruth (2003) Value – the Life Blood of Capitalism: knowledge is the current key, Policy Futures in Education, Vol.1 No.1, pp.160-178: http://www.wwwords.co.uk/pdf/viewpdf.asp?j=pfie&vol=1&issue=1&year=2003&article=9_Rikowski_PFIE_1_1&id=195.93.21.68

Rikowski, Glenn (2004) Marx and the Education of the Future, Policy Futures in Education, Vol.2 Nos. 3 & 4, pp.565-577, online at: http://www.wwwords.co.uk/pdf/viewpdf.asp?j=pfie&vol=2&issue=3&year=2004&article=10_Rikowski_PFEO_2_3-4_web&id=195.93.21.71

Rikowski, Ruth (2006) A Marxist Analysis of the World Trade Organisation’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, Policy Futures in Education, Vol.4 No.4: http://www.wwwords.co.uk/pdf/viewpdf.asp?j=pfie&vol=4&issue=4&year=2006&article=7_Rikowski_PFIE_4_4_web&id=205.188.117.66

Rikowski, Ruth (2008) Review Essay: ‘On Marx: An introduction to the revolutionary intellect of Karl Marx’, by Paula Allman, Policy Futures in Education, Vol.6 No.5, pp.653-661: http://www.wwwords.co.uk/pdf/validate.asp?j=pfie&vol=6&issue=5&year=2008&article=11_Rikowski_PFIE_6_5_web

Posted here by Glenn Rikowski

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MySpace Profile: http://www.myspace.com/glennrikowski

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