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.