Sunday, July 22, 2018

David Guest, aspiring to theory, killed in practice

"I have never felt so much the value of abstract things, of theory seen in its proper relation to practice, than just now. I think I can see things in their proper proportions. I have myself a lively and intense desire to explore whole fields of theoretical work, mathematical, physical, logical and far beyond these, when the conditions for this will become again possible."

-- Letter from Spain, David Guest, British communist mathematician, killed fighting fascism in Spain in 1938

SOURCE: Sheehan, Helena. Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1985, p. 347.

For more historical overview, see also my bibliography:

British Marxism in Philosophy, Science, and Culture Before the New Left: Essential Historical Surveys

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Praxis philosophers & the disintegration of Yugoslavia

I have blogged about the Yugoslav Marxist Humanist Praxis philosophers and documented their work on my web site:

Yugoslav Praxis Philosophy Study Guide

Among Marxist humanists, critical theorists, and other anti-Stalinists, the Praxis School was in the forefront and a pole of attraction world-wide. It is also known that, sadly, their politics disintegrated along with Yugoslavia and that their leading proponents, most shockingly Mihailo Marković, were swallowed up by nationalism. Apparently there was a dimension of the inner tensions in Yugoslavia reflected in the persons of the praxis theoreticians that was not grasped by foreign enthusiasts. This article documents the dynamics of the depressing devolution:

Secor, Laura. “Testaments Betrayed,” Jacobin. “How Yugoslavia’s vibrant Marxist humanists morphed into right-wing nationalists.” Adapted from:
Testaments Betrayed: Yugoslavian Intellectuals and the Road to War,” Lingua Franca, 1999.
Here we have a bone-chilling historical lesson in the failure of reason to be actualized in society even by its foremost representatives. This is a sobering lesson in how precarious are the prospects, if not altogether impossible under prevailing conditions, for achieving a rational society. Uneven distribution of resources, power, and loyalties foster eventual destabilization. In Yugoslavia, the uneasy balance between centralized power (dictatorial or not) and regional/national/ethnic autonomy was totally fractured, with lethal consequences. In the USA, scarcity is entirely artificial, and so barbarism must be perpetuated by even more irrational means, fueled by uneven social development, irreconcilable differences among the population, and the exploitation of competing demographics and ideologies.

The Praxis School developed general, abstract conceptions with global appeal, and also had specific objectives in reforming the Yugoslav social system. But the world view and social theory that they developed could not sustain their political practice once the social basis for it was obliterated. They have left us with advanced general ideas of continuing relevance, but if they, faced with social disintegration, could not sustain a corresponding political practice, then what hope is there for us, in a politically regressive and rapidly degenerating social order, where ideas are not valued by anybody, to actualize our most advanced rational thought and create a reasonable society?

Max Horkheimer on Montaigne

Max Horkheimer's take on Montaigne is far harsher than that of Ivan Sviták. (See previous post and Sviták's essay on Montaigne.)

Horkheimer, Max. "Montaigne and the Function of Skepticism" (1938), in Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Early Writings, translated by G. Frederick Hunter, Matthew S. Kramer and John Torpey (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993), pp. 265-311.

Horkheimer sees skepticism, especially in the bourgeois period, as fundamentally conservative. He lays out the contemporaneous situation viz. the rising bourgeoisie, intensification of labor exploitation, the rise of Protestantism and its effect on Catholicism, the indictment of Montaigne by fellow-reactionary Pascal. Horkheimer analyzes skepticism as bourgeois inwardness, religion as the indispensable irrationalist undergirding of bourgeois rationalist existence, Hume's skepticism as liberal bourgeois status quo, the skeptical ego (290) esp. from the early bourgeois to the imperialist epoch, skepticism's adaptation to tyranny, transformation of skepticism into conformism, nationalism and fascism in 1938, hatred of the masses and celebration of Montaigne in the 19th century, Nietzsche's admiration for Montaigne (303-4), Dilthey's conservatism and advocacy of Montaigne, D.F. Strauss's demythologization of Christianity and its compatibility with authoritarianism, Hegel's dialectics as a way out, materialist dialectics vs. the unity of thought and history.

Here are a few choice quotes:

 "Just as bourgeois individuals reserve philosophy for their leisure hours and thus turn it into idle thought, knowledge and critique are isolated in the society as particular aspects of business." [p. 289]

"The idiocy of the notion that an individual or collectivity can save itself or the world by conciliation with the spreading rule of violence has now become so patently obvious that it can only be understood as a thinly veiled sympathy with that rule, or as an anxiety about sunk capital." [p. 293]

"The further society develops, the more obviously this principle [bourgeois equality], and with it that of bourgeois freedom, reveal their internal contradictions. The continued dominance of this principle, the skeptical rejection of revolutionary activity, and the hostility toward critique of the totality thus have something cynical about them. They reveal subordination to irrational relations, not integration into rational ones." [p. 295]

"Skepticism is a pathological form of intellectual independence: it is immune to truth as well as to untruth." [p. 307]


"To be sure, it is typical of skepticism, as well as of the dominant character as such, to ascribe the vulgar motives--according to which alone the rulers of the world act--not to them and their principle, but to the idea of humanity itself. The difference here is that the critical theory which we espouse, in contrast to skepticism, does not make an antitheoretical absolutism of the insight into the inadequacy of things as they are and the transitoriness of cognition. Instead, even in the face of pessimistic assessments, critical theory is guided by the unswerving interest in a better future." [p. 311]

For noteworthy philosophical generalizations see esp. pp. 270-4, 278-9, 284-5, 290, 295.

Ivan Sviták on Montaigne

Once again:

Sviták, Ivan. The Dialectic of Common Sense: The Master Thinkers. Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1979.

This volume covers Montaigne, Voltaire, and Holbach (also published separately). I have added a link to the essay on Montaigne, which comprises pp. 1-42 of this book. The link is to a PDF file consisting of images of the text rather than true text.

It is a curious take on Montaigne, both praising him to the skies and analyzing the historical context and obsolescence of his philosophy. I am sure that this reflects Sviták's predicament under Stalinism. The extreme intellectual measures undertaken to escape reification remind me of Merab Mamardashvili in the USSR in a certain respect.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Christopher Caudwell's unpublished manuscripts (2)

Continuing on this work by Christopher Caudwell:

Scenes and Actions: Unpublished Manuscripts, selected, edited, and introduced by Jean Duparc and David Margolies. London: New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.

Selected Bibliography
from The Wisdom of Gautama
from Heaviside
Short stories
      from The Rock
                The Mother Superior
                Lodgings for the Night
                The Bully
      from The Island
                The Play
                A Bit in the Papers
                The Piston
                Homage to Calderon
                The Bank
                The Device

from ‘Verse and Mathematics’
Heredity and Development

While I have owned this book for a couple decades or more, I never actually read it through. Verse and Mathematics was the draft of what was honed to his published landmark book Illusion and Reality. The extract published here is interesting and I may make it the subject of another blog post. "Heredity and Development: A Study of Bourgeois Biology" was not included in Caudwell's Studies in a Dying Culture, though it belongs there. The letters outline Caudwell's aesthetic principles and his evaluation of his own fiction, as well as details leading up to his fatal participation fighting fascism in Spain.

The introduction places all this in context, also presenting the following poems in whole or part:
The Survival
The Unspeakables
In Memoriam [of T.E. Lawrence]
Artic Expedition
Soul's Progress [excerpt]
Smoke and Diamond
The Art of Dying
[untitled fragment]
The Object
Heil Baldwin!
Caudwell’s Collected Poems were published by Carnacet Press in 1986.

The balance of the book contains selections from Caudwell's hitherto unpublished fiction. Having read none of his published fiction either, though I knew of it, I experienced this facet of Caudwell for the first time. I turned to the fiction after perusing the rest of the book, not in order of the items presented. After reading the letters, I began with Caudwell's non-naturalistic fiction--the excerpt from the speculative fiction story "Heaviside" and the stories from "The Island," which Caudwell termed Kafkaesque, which are in any case extrapolations of ideas, situations, and institutions. This is an unfamiliar dimension of Caudwell for me and adds to understanding his originality and sensibility. The stories from The Rock are character studies. At various times in reading these pieces my attention flagged, but that may just have been an effect of my state of mind at the moment and not the prose itself. While Caudwell criticized his own fiction, as does the book's introduction, Caudwell's style as well as his probing of human character are noteworthy.

It was fortunate that the Stalinists had no idea of what Caudwell was up to or they would have squashed him like they tried to squash Jack Lindsay, an original polymath from Australia who was also a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain.  Caudwell indulged in formulaic political judgments in his analyses, but retained a freshness and originality in his approach.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Christopher Caudwell on religion as static imagination

I have blogged here before about Christopher Caudwell. As I also mentioned, I used the title of his essay collection Studies in a Dying Culture (1938, followed by Further Studies in a Dying Culture, 1949) as the title of my podcast/radio series and one of my blogs.  Here is an interesting quote on religion from Caudwell's correspondence:
As I see it, religion undoubtedly represents very strong emotional realities, but they only become religion by religious people’s making them static, i.e. by demanding that their formulations (angels, salvation, heaven, hell, God, etc.) represent actual existent entities with the same reality of existence as matter. It is just this static formulation which is the core of any formal religion (Buddhism, Christianity, Mohommedanism). Separate that out and what have you left? Primarily two currents. One: art, or ‘poetry’—The fluid emotional experimenting with illusory concepts drawn from reality, either felt as illusory, as in our civilised age, or felt as real, but unconsciously acknowledged as illusory by the very fluidity of treatment, as in Greek myth (not Greek religion). The other current is sociological, and is symbolical of the tremendously powerful and emotionally charged currents that hold a society together, and express, in a subtle instinctive way, the fact that though individualities, we yet have a real being in common: buds of the same tree. We are not completely divided by ‘The unplumbed, salt, estranging sea.’ The power of this bond is expressed in the attitude of men to a drowning stranger, a ship in distress, in time of war, and so on. You may feel a sociological conception of religion arid and empty of content. So do I, but that is because we are children of a civilisation that necessarily sees society as linked primarily by money exchanges, I mean sees that intellectually, whatever we may sometimes feel emotionally. The first criticism of Communism is always that men would never do their best work for society, regardless of income, and this expresses perfectly how debased and empty of content our conception of social relations has become. But the Greek citizen, or the merest tribal primitive, would see nothing strange in our conception of the society as the basis of religion. To him the city or tribe is joined with religion’s bonds; and even to‑day, when religions are so palpably failing, we see, in Italy and Germany, how men are bowled over by the sociological as opposed to the theological element of religion, in however questionable a guise it comes.

But why not leave it at that, you may ask, and, seeing religion’s aesthetic and sociological credentials, say ‘Pass friend, all’s well?’. Just because religion, to be religion, formulates its sociological and aesthetic beliefs in terms of science, of external reality. So that on the one hand art is held back from developing, made to accept the outworn forms of yesterday, and, on the other hand, man, mistaking social relations for divinely ordained permanences, is held back to the social groupings of yesterday. So the Greek, cramped into the City State, was torn by internecine warfare and fell victim to the barbarians he despised. So we, with our national formations, and national churches, are involved in imperialistic wars, in which ministers preach from the pulpit the divine approval of a just war. And it is no answer to say that genuinely religious people are pacifists, for we can only take religion as it appears, and to do otherwise is to mean by the adverb ‘genuinely’—‘religious in a way we approve’, which, from a historical view­point, taking religion as it has manifested itself, turns out to be not religious at all, but people who put social reality before theological formulations—heretics, prophets, and rebels.

SOURCE: Caudwell, Christopher, Letter to Paul [Beard] and Elizabeth [Beard]. 21 November 1935 (from London), in Scenes and Actions: Unpublished Manuscripts, selected, edited, and introduced by Jean Duparc and David Margolies (London: New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986), extract: pp. 220-221.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: "Slapstick"

What would I have thought of Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s 1976 novel Slapstick had I read it when it came out? I had read his 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions, but some time in the interval I had moved on to other interests until 2006, when I was given Timequake. Vonnegut died in 2007, and I know around this time I had read some of his later nonfiction and began to re-read a couple of novels. I rediscovered Vonnegut as I had rediscovered other people I had drifted away from in the mid-’70s. I don’t recall even being aware of the publication of further novels in the ‘70s, and I think I might have thought that Vonnegut was done with them in 1973. But I must have thought I absorbed everything I had to gain from him. So what would I have thought of Slapstick, his next novel after 1973? And what do I think of it now that I have finally read it?

My reaction was one of both familiarity and bewilderment. One familiar element was Vonnegut’s constant repetition of catch-phrases, this time “Hi ho.” This adds caustic irony to the narrative as did Vonnegut’s catch-phrases in his earlier novels, although for me his catch-phrase wore thin after a while this time around. Also characteristic is the deceptive simplicity, easily readability, and often cartoonish character of Vonnegut’s style, which looks easy but just try and write that way yourself. There is the prominence of Indiana, Vonnegut’s homeland, though the story is initially set in New York City (now known as the Island of Death). And then there is Vonnegut’s outrageous imagination. But this time I couldn’t place it in making sense out of it, especially in relating it to the state of American society of the mid-’70s. Even the title, indicating Vonnegut’s dedication of the work to Laurel and Hardy, struck me as puzzling. Woody Allen’s dystopian film comedy Sleeper made sense to me and was much funnier, and the slapstick in that film was real slapstick.

Vonnegut begins his Prologue by stating that it is the closest thing to an autobiography he is ever going to write. The bizarre symbiotic relationship between the novel’s narrator and his sister is in some way an imaginative projection of Vonnegut’s feelings about his own sister and himself. He also states that the novel represents what life feels like to him, and that he loves the personifications of Laurel and Hardy because they did the best they could with their destinies.

Note that the novel’s subtitle is “Or, Lonesome No More!”—which, as we learn much later, is the narrator’s campaign slogan on which he wins the presidency of the United States. Vonnegut recycles an earlier idea of his of arbitrarily creating extended families to create a novel form of support system. The condition this is meant to address was a concern of American sociologists, notably Philip Slater’s 1970 The Pursuit of Loneliness. I remember, accurately I hope, that Slater had written that the revolutionary political slogan for the American (white) middle class should be ‘no more loneliness’.

What then, was contemporary about Slapstick? I could discern only the mention of Richard Nixon and the curious use of mainland China as the inscrutable world power sciencefiction-ly pulling the strings as the USA declines—which could easily be applicable to the present though a haphazard ‘prediction’ in the mid-’70s, after which Nixon had visited China and around the time of Mao’s death.

By Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut’s social criticism had progressed to the trashing of American society, or, somewhat more specifically, of ‘Middle America’. What comes next?—is a question I have only now posed. It seems to me that Slapstick represents not the objective state of the USA as a whole in the mid-’70s but rather the disintegration of Vonnegut’s own midwestern universe.

There are familiar elements of post-apocalyptic utopias here—plagues that wipe out millions, social breakdown . . . and even rendering this in a comedic farcical mode is not jarring (remember Sleeper), but the specific mode in which the social transformation occurs strikes me as rather conceptually anemic. The narrator, known eventually as Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, becomes president on the basis of his ‘loneliness no more!’ slogan, in which extended families are arbitrarily established and networked on the basis of his middle-naming system. As the existing governmental organization of the United States disintegrates, the new extended family system results in fiefdoms of warring clans. (And the Hatfield-McCoy feud is not forgotten.) Well, this latter development has a certain logic to it, but, while the totality of the developments described may well be characterized as slapstick—and now we are surely living in a political state of outrageousness oblivious to consequences, they are in my view not effective in characterizing the forces of social breakdown. Social isolation and individual helplessness are indeed the breeding ground of fascism—which isn’t exactly the social order depicted here either—but this cute Vonnegut notion of the artificial extended family cannot carry the weight ascribed to it. It really represents the limit of the midwestern sensibility of his generation that Vonnegut injected into his ouevre. The Vonnegut imagination persists, and I suppose in some way it reflects the social decline perceptible in the 1970s, but only dimly through Vonnegut’s personal lens.

I have not read the intervening novels, but Hocus Pocus in 1990 is on point with respect to American dystopia. By 1973 Vonnegut’s social critique had traveled a long way from 1952’s Player Piano, and apparently sometime in the 1980s he was prepared to confront America’s irreversible social decline imaginatively with greater exactitude.