Thursday, June 17, 2010

George Novack on socialism & humanism, revisited

I broached this subject elsewhere in a previous post: Socialism & Humanism: Novack & Mattick.

Recently, in the process of googling, I came across this piece:

Psychoanalysis and the “empty place” of psychology within Marxism by Frank Brenner

I've been to this site before. My distaste for sectarian Trotskyism (is there another kind?) notwithstanding, I usually get one or two useful bits out of these internecine debates. Somewhere in his essay Brenner criticizes Novack's 1973 book Humanism and Socialism. Brenner manages to pinpoint weak points in Novack's argument, for example, on the question of human nature. Novack's book is similar to the two 1959 articles cited in my earlier post, albeit an expansion of the same themes. Little changed in 15 years for Novack, it seems.

There are certain things I like about some of Novack's philosophical books, most of which, I think, were published in the '70s, but unlike Novack, I changed quite a bit over any 15-year period you can name, and his abstract schematism and Trotskyist dogmatism are more striking and harder for me to take now.

There is also the fact that in the 1970s some Marxist intellectuals could still get away with the conception of lawlike social causality and the virtually inevitable future prospects of socialism despite the wrenching historical detours of the 20th century. The circumstances of today would necessitate a rewriting of arguments like these, except I suppose among still-resolute sectarians.

My critique of Novack stands, but I may have more to add when I've (re-)read his book. Given my own experiences with the secular humanist movement, I'd certainly write a badly needed critique differently.

Presumably one of Novack's concerns, and certainly one of mine, is how to orient oneself with respect to the organized humanist movement, which was in fact organizing itself at the same time Novack latched on to Marxism. What really is bourgeois or proletarian humanism? In organized movements, involving Marxists for instance, "humanism" was a banner of both Stalinists and anti-Stalinists. Proletarian humanists also latched onto the bourgeois humanist movement. (Mark Starr, who started out as a leftist and war resister in Wales and ended up as a labor bureaucrat in the USA is a prime example. He wrote an article in the late '40s about John Dewey and signed the Second Humanist Manifesto.) I don't find this taxonomy terribly useful to clarify the relationship between humanism and socialism.

The first Humanist Manifesto was issued in 1933, an historical turning point for obvious reasons. Many of the contributors to this project were Unitarians who decided it was time to shed the previous theistic trappings of their denomination. The principle author was the philosopher Roy Wood Sellars, originator of a non-reductive materialist philosophy variously named critical realism, critical naturalism, emergent realism, and maybe something else I'm forgetting. Sellars was also a man with socialist leanings, though with no worked-out social theory that I'm aware of. Novack doesn't mention him, but of course he mentions others who signed on or got involved, such as Dewey and Corliss Lamont, whom Novack characterizes as liberal reformers who prefer to speak in abstractions about common ethical principles and human welfare in general, occluding the fundamental social facts and explanation of class antagonism. Apparently, Novack never updated himself from the 1930s, as far as the American movement was concerned (he did discuss dissident East European Marxist humanism), so of course he never analyzed what became of secular humanism as a result of McCarthyism and the Cold War. Hence we are stuck with these generalities and a few hoary examples. Arguing for a generic Marxist perspective, and one so flimsy that it cannot be used in practical or ideological interventions in the real world, does not much inspire me. Furthermore, the goal of influencing the way people think should not be from the perspective of getting them on board the correct vanguard party, but influencing their orientation in the practical situations in which they find themselves, which is all the harder to do as practical options become closed off.

Novack also proved to be behind the times in addressing the live debates of the '70s, most notably around sociobiology (unless he wrote of this elsewhere), where there is really something to fight about and which remains a live ideological problem.

The progressive intelligentsia has moved on, as a result of what wasn't killed off in the '70s. Today's sophisticated intellectuals, while paying lip service to class when necessary, have learned to identify their targets as racism, sexism, heterosexism, et al, and the intersections of these factors, and, whether incorporating or rejecting the conceptual edifice of postmodernism, generally succumb to the confused fragmentation of our time. Furthermore, the integration of perspectives, not just the obvious class perspective, but the incorporation of scientific knowledge, the processing of all the social and ideological currents with which we are bombarded--this whole scenario has outgrown the parameters of the arguments of old. To sum up, a static and schematic characterization of the relation between socialism and humanism and a formulaic advocacy for a Marxist perspective of the sort that Novack engaged in are useless.

The most interesting development in the U.S. atheist/humanist movement in the past year is the almost overnight explosion of a visible black atheist presence. The variety of ideological perspectives brought to this grouping in formation--encompassing not only the prevalent mainstream "liberalism" but the entire range from socialism to right-wing libertarianism, with occasional dollops of conservatism and Afrocentrism--provides us a veritable laboratory of bourgeois ideology in the remaking. (We shall see whether the initial thrill of overcoming isolation and ostracism and finding others with a common experience dissipates once the participants in this development have absorbed what black atheists do and do not have in common.) It is also instructive to view the degree of acceptance of the intellectual influences coming from the atheist/humanist movement as a whole and possible rebellions against the prevailing intellectual constellation. From those few voices inclined to challenge the star system and prevailing preoccupations of the atheist/humanist/skeptics movement, beyond the predictable call for diversity, what will we find? The one serious challenge I've seen is predicated on a black feminism and the notion of "white supremacy" as the fundamental social organizing principle, which indicts the existing atheist/humanist movement as dominated by white males--a predictably insipid criticism, which, among other things, conveniently omits an explanation of why this crop of white males (and why not add white females to the mix?) thinks and acts as it does, or how these people got to hold the positions they do, as opposed to those who never became leaders or media stars, or for that matter, how today's bigwigs may differ in orientation from the left-leaning white males of an earlier era whose influence was eclipsed by McCarthyism.

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