Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Kwame Nkrumah’s materialism

McClendon, John H. "Kwame Nkrumah’s Materialism contra Representative Realism," APA Newsletter on Philosophy and the Black Experience, Volume 05, Number 1, Fall 2005, pp. 1-14.

This article is a rejoinder to Parker English, “Consciencism, Representative Realism, and Negritude,” African Philosophy , March, 1999. McClendon makes short shrift of English, but in the process interjects a criticism of Paulin Hountondji which is much more problematic.


English argues that Nkrumah should have opted for representative realism instead of direct realism. McClendon argues that Nkrumah’s Consciencism is located within the Marxist tradition, specifically dialectical materialism in conjunction with scientific socialism, in direct opposition to Leopold Senghor's idealistic Negritude. Secondly, Nkrumah's epistemology is dialectical:

"He does not restrict epistemology by designating the process of perception/observation as the more fundamental realm of cognition and, thus, at the expense of its conceptual/rational dimension. Nkrumah’s epistemology cannot simply be judged congruent with the epistemological tradition of empiricism and of which direct realism stands as a theory of perception."

Nkrumah adheres neither to direct realism nor direct idealism; in other words, Nkrumah does not advocate the identity of matter and consciousness. English deploys William Whewell's concept of consilience, transmogrified from science into philosophy, applying to the philosophies of Nkrumah and Senghor.

McClendon quotes English:

"Representative realism is consilient in that it clarifies and unifies these two views, generally regarded as quite independent of each other. Nkrumah, after all, argues for a “monistic materialism” while Senghor argues for a partially “animistic” construal of the world. Representative realism is also consilient in that it modifies both of the views it unifies. On the one hand, it eliminates the direct realism involved in consciencism; on the other hand, it eliminates the animism involved in negritude."

This is idiotic on the face of it, but McClendon takes the trouble to anatomize English's fallacious reasoning. Even if one were to accept some of these statements for the sake of argument . . .

"First,there is more ontologically at stake (in the opposition between materialism and idealism) than merely the elimination of direct realism and animism. This because of the fact that both direct realism and animism do not function as essential ontological characteristics of materialism and idealism. Second, and most importantly, materialism and idealism are ontologically mutually exclusive opposites. Thus, attempts at the unification of idealism and materialism become merely acts of syncretism; thus, in the broader sense of an ontological unity, what results is eclecticism."

Quoting English again, McClendon notes that . . .

". . . English does not actually affirm the unification of Nkrumah’s and Senghor’s philosophical views. Rather, we notice that he speaks of “Representative realism is thus related to negritude in roughly in the way it is related to Nkrumah’s view of consciencism,” and “To a large extent, representative realism is consilient with respect to consciencism and negritude.” What results in this instance is not the unification of Nkrumah’s philosophical materialism and Senghor’s idealism but, rather, we discern what is an approximately correlating characteristic, that is to say, with respect to each in its relationship to and modification by consilience qua representative realism."

McClendon further argues that Nkrumah's consciencism and Senghor's negritude are not only instrinsically antagonistic, but that Consciencism is a refutation of Senghor's essentialist Negritude and "African socialism" which colludes with European imperialism. Senghor attempts to conceal his idealism by claiming that the revolution in physics implies the disappearance of matter, bringing to an end the conflict between materialism and idealism. Senghor upholds Teilhard de Chardin (and Gaston Bachelard) in opposition to Marx and Engels. Senghor camouflages his idealism via a confused argument about the primacy of energy, which has material and psychic manifestations. For Nkrumah, the primacy of matter and its transformation into consciousness is characterized by the concept of "categorial convertibility", in contradistinction to mechanical materialism.

But there is more to be said:

"Although English’s assertion regarding the unification of Nkrumah’s materialism and Senghor’s idealism, I think, has been adequately demonstrated as flawed, there is a point of intersection, a common denominator, by way of philosophical and scientific mistakes, connecting Nkrumah and Senghor. Nevertheless, English’s presentation on consilience overlooks these shared technical errors."
Nkrumah's errors?

"Therefore, under consideration is Nkrumah’s second thesis, “matter would be whatever has mass and is perpetually active; and, in its manifestation, matter would be coextensive with the universe.” More precisely, we must examine the first part of his second thesis, “matter would be whatever has mass.”"

Nkrumah's Newtonian conception does not square with the theory of relativity.

"The philosophical implication of this conflation is to define matter on the basis of structure. Nkrumah’s conception of matter as inert mass, emblematic of the Newtonian paradigm, is, paradoxically, the very basis for mechanistic materialism—the presumed impediment he seeks to dislodge. The Special Theory offers a more profound and penetrating (dialectical) conception of matter by linking mass and energy isomorphically to space and time."

Nevertheless, Nkrumah remains a materialist, in contradistinction to Senghor's idealist mystification of physics.

Adducing a quote from Nkrumah, McClendon continues:

"Although we see that Nkrumah openly argues that the theory of relativity indeed supports materialism and that materialism and relativity are compatible, he does not advance to how the theory of relativity requires a new or dialectical conception of matter, for example, electromagnetic radiation and momentum mass. More importantly, he fails to demonstrate what this dialectical conception concretely means in philosophical terms."

Lenin avoided such a morass by distinguishing the philosophical conception of matter from the scientific conception of matter at any given point in the evolution of scientific knowledge.


McClendon's next move is to bring in Paulin Hountondji's critique of Nkrumah, particularly the claim of an intrinsic relationship of political systems and metaphysical commitments. McClendon is unhappy with Hountondji's position:

"In my estimation, Hountondji’s structuralist Marxism, and his antithetical conception of science and ideology, is prima facie very puzzling because he, as a Marxist philosopher, does not see the connection between scientific socialism and materialist ontology. Yet, inasmuch as he conceives science on the same idealist basis as Althusser, it follows that materialist ontology would occupy a different discursive location than political discourse. For example, Althusser argues, “The primary function of philosophy is to draw a line of demarcation between the ideological of the ideologies on the one hand, and the scientific of the sciences on the other.”"

McClendon is troubled about the prospects for a scientific ideology:

"Of course, such reasoning about ideology and science makes rendering the notion of a scientific ideology as problematic at best. Nkrumah presumes that materialist ontology grounds scientific ideology. And, here, I think Nkrumah is most consistent with Marx’s and Engels’s general idea about philosophy as a form of ideology, as witnessed in The German Ideology, and Lenin’s particular specification about revolutionary (scientific) ideology in What Is To Be Done?"

COMMENT: We shall see how McClendon makes his case. Now up to this point, I'm not troubled by McClendon's references to Engels and Lenin, though I am not so concerned about Nkrumah's self-placement within the Marxist-Leninist tradition. However, at this point, the conceptual structure of Marxism-Leninism, essentially a product of the USSR, begins to be a problem. To put it bluntly, there is no such thing as a scientific ideology in any useful sense of the term; ideology is essentially mystified consciousness, and the notion of a positive ideology degrades the concept into the most banal sense utilized by "political science". Also, the grounding of "scientific socialism" in dialectical materialism takes for granted a pre-packaged system, whereas the necessary relation between materialism and scientific socialism needs to be demonstrated. We have to follow Hountondji further and see if he makes sense.
"Nkrumah insists “philosophy admits of being an instrument of ideology.” 30 In turn, Hountondji claims, “Nkrumah thus explicitly embraces an instrumental conception of philosophy. Philosophy, for him, exists merely to translate spontaneous ideological theses into more refine language, to elucidate, enunciate and justify, after the event, the decisions of the ideological instance. This conception of philosophy explains the whole project of Consciencism.” It is accurately this line of demarcation between science and ideology that pushes both Hountondji and Althusser into the realm of idealism, inasmuch as that philosophy as ideology, for them, remains apart from not only science and but also separated from its role as a theoretical guide to practical struggle."
But here Hountondji is correct and McClendon is wrong, regardless of the value of Althusserianism tout cout.

"The critical link here is precisely that materialism founds scientific socialism. African socialism and other forms of utopian socialism do not require materialism and, in fact, manifest a certain ontological consistency and affinity with idealism. This is at the crux of Nkrumah’s claim. Furthermore, the link between African socialism and idealism became most transparent from our earlier discussion of Senghor’s idealism, which I take as paradigmatic of the utopian socialist/idealist amalgam. What Hountondji and English disregard is the fundamental difference between the commitment to building socialism and a scientific comprehension of that objective. The scientific comprehension of socialism, as a determinate stage of history, of class struggle, of revolutionary transformation, is what makes materialism imperative (i.e., the materialist conception of history and dialectical materialism are guides to building socialism on a scientific basis)."

Indeed, a scientific as opposed to the mystical comprehension of the socialist objective, not to mention just a comprehension of society as it is, makes historical materialism imperative. I would further argue that historical materialism implies ontological materialism, simply because supernaturalist or metaphysical interpretations of nature and society render historical materialism impossible. There is a connection between the state of society and forms of its comprehension, as well as the state of political movements and their forms of comprehension. However, materialism does not found social theory, as social theory is not derived from materialism. Materialism cannot be a guide to building socialism; it can only be a guide to combating idealist mystification. Hountondji is correct in his critique of an instrumental view of philosophy. What is worse is that "consciencism" is an entirely artificial construct; there is no reason it should exist apart from generic materialism, ontological or historical, except to provide an ideological African identity. This itself is mystification.

McClendon restates Nkrumah's argument for a correct formulation of theoretical consciousness. Presumably this is the answer to the intrinsic connection between the need for materialist philosophy as a political project, even though practical political collaboration involves participation by people with different ideologies and differentially developed consciousness.

At this point one wonders why Hountondji and Althusserianism had to be dragged into this argument, to be accused of idealism without a serious engagement with their ideas. This does not fit in well with the overall flow of the argument, esp. since McClendon then returns to the question of representative realism.


McClendon addresses English's technical arguments about the inadequacy of Nkrumah's materialism, which English alleges to be direct realism. Here there is an interesting discussion of "logical grammar" and "categorial differences" and how they relate to ontology, followed by an elucidation of Nkrumah's views on the mind/brain problem, perception, and subjective idealism. McClendon disputes English's claim that Nkrumah does “not clearly distinguish between what is true of science and what is true of language…”, and explores English's hermeneutic errors in depth.

COMMENT: There are parallel arguments going on here, which are deeply interconnected: the question of certain formulations of materialism viz. idealism, empiricism, and scientific theory (distinguished from philosophy), the struggle between "scientific socialism" and mystical obscurantist notions of socialism (Negritude), and finally the tradition of Marxism-Leninism in relation to idealist deviations and bourgeois nationalism. Actually, it is one argument that connects these three abstractable dimensions. It is this last named dimension that troubles me. That Nkrumah argues not only within a materialist tradition but within a Marxist tradition and a Marxism-inflected materialism is not a problem for me, though it is a problem for critics that cannot comprehend it properly. The issue is ensconcing not only Nkrumah but the object of investigation as a whole entirely within a Soviet-derived Marxism-Leninism, which takes for granted certain notion-complexes that should be taken apart. For example, the notion of a "scientific ideology" is harmful nonsense, born out in the whole history of Soviet Marxism from first to last. Secondly, the instantiation of the unity of theory and practice in Marxism-Leninism, given its coup de grace in Stalin's philosophical intervention of 1931, mystifies the role of theory and reduces it instrumentally to the "construction of socialism", with disastrous results. As such, the actual structure of philosophical thought and its relation to empirical reality and practical action becomes a form of naked ideological manipulation and loses productive conceptual content. We can't know from just one or two quotes from Hountondji whether Hountondji's positions hold up, but one does not need to be an Althusserian to see there is something very wrong about the crude instrumentalization of philosophy. Of course, Althusser was later to claim that philosophy is class struggle within the realm of theory, which is also a badly formulated characterization, whereas the notion of drawing a line between idealism and materialism at any given point in time, vs. system-building, is a much better idea.

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