Smashing the fash with ideas

Mick Armstrong demonstrates, despite himself, that ideas and rational argument are central to the creation of a mass movement against creeping fascism and capitalism. However his argument tends to err on the side of a false dilemma: either rational argument or building a mass movement. In doing so Armstrong unwittingly catches himself in an unfruitful, non-dialectical paradox: he resorts to a rational argument in order to assert the non-efficacy of rational argument. He leaves it up to the rest of us to point out his error and show how we must construct a thinking opposition to the irrationalism and unreasonable activity of racism and capitalism.

fig. 1

fig. 1

Smashing the fash with ideas:

Or, Hanson cannot be defeated by rational argument alone

Mick Armstrong has recently written an article called ‘Hanson cannot be defeated by rational argument’. It would have been better to say: ‘Hanson cannot be defeated by rational argument alone’.  Just as rational argument alone won’t defeat fascism, neither will it be defeated without rational argument.

Implicit in Armstrong’s article is a rational argument against the emptiness of much of what passes for reasoned argument in the mass media spectacle; and against the false ideas and solutions of fascism and nationalism and racism. However he presents the role of rational argument in a confused and often one-sided fashion. For instance, when right wingers like Pauline Hanson, Andrew Bolt and Sonia Kruger put forward racist ideas on television and the internet there is little reasoning or rational argumentation in the presentation of their opinions. Certainly sometimes they ape rationality and even try and convince us that their views are justified and rational.  More usually they are selective in their evidence base and often disregard the existing wealth of scientific knowledge against the false concepts of race and racism. In a word, they are irrational.

Nonetheless we need to rationally demonstrate their irrationality. We need to spell this out and argumentatively demonstrate the falsehoods in their claims. Such practical, rational argument is not opposed to mobilising a mass movement against fascism and capitalism. Indeed it a necessary part of such a movement.

Today, the more “clever” modern racists re-cast their racism as a sort of ‘culturalism’ shorn of some of the more egregious falsehoods of the old race theory promulgated by Hitler and others. But in order to make the claim that such culturalism is no improvement, we need to establish the irrationality of race theory and racism, argumentatively outline its long and intimate connection with capitalist societies, and critically demonstrate that the “new” racism is a variant of the “old”. That is we need to show culture provides no firmer grounds for bigotry than skin colour, genes, cranial measurement or comparison of facial structures, and that those who pretend it does have other, exploitative and divisive agendas. We do this with recourse to building a movement that will not only rationally oppose modern racism but also turn to a unified communist project of rationally understanding the world and transforming it.

At worst Armstrong’s argument tends to reinforce the one-sided, mechanical materialism common to “classical” Social-Democrats and Marxist-Leninists. Such materialism, trading under the name “dialectical”, imagines that ideas are secondary and subordinate to material reality. In truth ideas are a part of material reality, a real product and premise of the social intellect of human societies. For Marx the question of the centrality of materialism was never about the fictional “priority” of matter over ideas, but rather the real objectivity of human practices. Human practice is really objectified in ideas and other things. When we understand either ideas or things as exhausting the nature of material reality, we mistake for all of material reality a part of material reality.

In his early work Marx spoke of the ‘sensuous’ nature of human practices, and considered consciousness an indistinguishable part of such sensuous practise. He posed his materialism ‘in contradistinction to [previous] materialism’ which preferred the object to the subject.

The chief defect of all previous materialism (that of Feuerbach included) is that things, reality, sensuousness are conceived only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively.[1]

Marx was not, however, opposed to objective activity or reality. Rather he argued that objects posed or perceived by humans — even the human object itself — were inextricably bound up with subjective practices. According to Marx the human subject was bound up in the use and transformation of the objects of nature — both human and non-human nature. Thus objects like ‘religion’, ‘society’, ‘class’ and ‘racism’ could not be understood separate from the practices in which they were bound, resulted from and implied.  In a way such objects simply are these activities, like much religious activity, the objectified results and premise of further, potentially transformative activity. Religion is doubly relevant as a target since without ground religions claim to access the truth of human life outside of human activity. By abstracting from human activity religions are severely impoverished as explanations of society and the world.

In opposition to the earlier forms of mechanical materialism Marx noted that it was idealist philosophers who developed the ‘active side’— the subjective side of criticism. For instance the various subjective philosophies of Kant, the post-Kantians and Hegel in particular. In the case of Hegel he recognised ‘man’ as both the subject and object of a historical process, even if he imagined this historical process in an ‘inverted’ fashion, positing as first and final cause a supernatural spirit in place of  both exploited and free human agents. Rather than being motivated by a disembodied spirit Marx believed that history was the product of human practice, albeit largely mystified and alienated up until and including capitalist societies.

fig. 2

fig. 2

Marx described ‘human activity itself as objective activity.’[2] In the social bond as much as the individual roles and agency of human societies past and present, human subjectivity itself became a manifest object of practice. That is to say humans posed themselves and each other as transformed and transformative objective powers. The real problem then, for Marx, is the nature of this objectification and whether or not humans are alienated in the process of their objectification.

Humans are alienated from their own powers only to the extent that they pose their own powers mystically and in opposition to themselves. The worlds’ religions are the classic examples. They have imagined the powers of human creativity as the work of gods and other spirits, even reducing the spark of thought into a different substance — sometimes above, sometimes below, always apart from reality. But this is an ideological vision of reality, itself a product of the contradictions of social reality and the subordination of thought to the ruling ideas of the epoch.

Marx dismissed the problem of whether or not ‘objective truth can be attributed to human thinking’ as a merely ‘scholastic problem’ in isolation from practice.[3] Instead of pondering its existence separate from our understanding and transformation of everyday life, men and women ‘must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of [their] thinking in practice’.[4] The question of consciousness then becomes this: to what extent do people become aware of the alienated objectifications of capitalist society and transform them?

The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.[5]

Importantly for our age of extreme environmental damage, it is not hard to understand how Marx also avoids posing ‘truth’ as simply a description of action within human society. The activity that allows society to continue perforce must be recognised as embedded in a larger cosmos. While human activity is a vanishingly small part of that cosmos, no activity can be understood without reference to it.

In The German Ideology Marx and Engels considered the division of mental and manual labour as a foundational division of labour in ancient class societies, a division more over that has been developed and “perfected” by capitalism. The development of religion and philosophy can be seen in relation to such a division; ideally projecting the hierarchy into a mystical heaven of the gods in the case of religion. But of course such ‘emancipation’ and ‘autonomy’ is mostly illusory; consciousness is always the ‘consciousness of existing practice’.[6]

Before returning to Armstrong it is important to note that in the case of capitalism, existing practices are contradictory in the sense we can discern and describe a universal tendency to a proper opposition. On the one hand there are those who believe in the further exploitation of human activity via divisions like bigotry, and mystified and mystifying explanations like religion. And on the other hand there are those people who seek a rational basis for the unity of human activity beyond the mutilating exclusivity of private property as communism does.

Scientific ideas, both rationally sought and experimentally verified, have revealed the nature of physical reality, and have helped to develop the needs and nature of the human species alongside the contradictions of our social and economic organisation. New potentialities and possibility slumber in the midst of capitalist alienation. Unfortunately such possibilities are denied and subordinated to irrational ideas such as religion, private property, profit and the capitalist state. Revolutionaries are not immune to irrationality, as Armstrong demonstrates. Consider the example of the undoubtedly revolutionary surrealists of the 1920s and 30s. Against their ultimate idolisation of the unconscious mind and cult of the irrational, Guy Debord argued we need to make reality more not less rational.

Armstrong demonstrates, despite himself, that ideas and rational argument are central to the creation of a mass movement against creeping fascism and capitalism. However his argument tends to err on the side of a false dilemma: either rational argument or building a mass movement. In doing so Armstrong unwittingly catches himself in an unfruitful, non-dialectical paradox: he resorts to a rational argument in order to assert the non-efficacy of rational argument. He leaves it up to the rest of us to point out his error and show how we must construct a thinking opposition to the irrationalism and unreasonable activity of racism and capitalism.

Anthony Hayes
Canberra

For more on the importance of rational argument for revolutionaries see Gerald Keaney’s article Argument is Required.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach [1845],’ in Karl Marx & Frederich Engels Collected Works, Vol.5, New York: International Publishers, 1976.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Karl Marx & Frederich Engels, ‘The German Ideology [1845],’ in Karl Marx & Frederich Engels Collected Works, Vol.5 New York: International Publishers, 1976.

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