Thinking and language.

It is obvious that thinking precedes language and that thinking does not entirely depend upon language. New born babies do not have language skills, which they have yet to acquire, but anyone bringing up children from birth know that new-born’s are thinking. Their eyes, ears, taste and touch senses are very soon operating satisfactorily and the experiences gained are being processed and stored in their developing brains. Staring, head movement, smiles, and coos, along with cries and occasional giggles on being tickled are the main outward expressions of the fact that thinking is going on in their heads. Well before they can speak, they can find things funny, which requires a sophisticated brain process of knowing something is different and in a certain context that difference is also funny. Indeed, I also know from direct experience, that babies between 1 or 2 years old, before they can speak can learn to communicate with their parents by sign language, if only by a limited number of signs. This, pattern of learning and development through into adulthood is evidence, that thinking does not require language or any previous form of two way communication, but it is also evidence that language acquisition requires thinking.

Indeed, we humans have the ability to think about language and understand its many contradictions, if we care to. Undoubtedly, thinking should determine the language we use, but if we are not careful language can also determine how we think. These facts, along with the knowledge that many animals and birds think and even reason, without spoken and written language, does not diminish the importance of language in the development of human thinking. Language has been rightly claimed to be one of the most important social inventions and developments that humanity has created and crafted. Its acquisition and development over thousands of years has undoubtedly had effects upon the evolutionary expansion of human knowledge and skills along with the increased capacity of the brain. Language undoubtedly accelerates individual learning by codifying and socialising knowledge within and across communities and generations. Language is how we get most of our information about and knowledge of the world. Language has become part of what it is to be human. So much so that children in general become fluent speakers, well before school age. Indeed, it is hard to get them to keep quiet as question after question is uttered in search of information to expand their understanding and vocabulary.

However, language is such powerful and versatile tool that we know from experience that it can be used in four distinct ways. First; to impart accurate information. Second; to obscure, distort or deny accurate information. Third; to spread misinformation or disinformation. Fourth, to create imaginary information. I think it fair to say that all members of the human species use language in each of the four above – noted ways in their daily lives. Consequently, we have all been in receipt of a mix of accurate information, inaccurate information, misinformation, disinformation and imaginary information, delivered by strangers, friends, family members and even our most intimate partners. And, if we are honest, perhaps being guilty of those other uses of language ourselvelves. Nevertheless, accurate information is commonly held to be the preferred default mode for the ‘civilised’ and humanist use of language. However, it must be obvious to almost everyone, that in fact outside of good science, history and academic discourse, language in the public domain is used more to avoid accuracy than to enhance it. Capitalist sales and marketing, for example, more often than not, use language in the second way to avoid telling accurate information about some aspect of their products, services or production processes.

Politicians, Governments and Financial Institutions, all indulge in the use of language in the second and third way, to spread misinformation or disinformation about actions and decisions, they would prefer their citizens or voters not to have an accurate knowledge about. If dodgy dossiers and state-sponsored poisonings are not enough to convince the reader of this practice, following the ‘official’ language used by the various state elites around the ‘disappearance’ of the Saudi critic Khashoggi, should do so. That particular example will provide the reader with the latest, and an even more bizarre example than usual, of this second and third misuse of language by elites. Coincidentally, in an article printed in the Washington Post in the aftermath of his disappearance and later admitted death, Mr Khashoggi, had written;

“A state-run narrative dominates the public psyche,…and while many do not believe it, a large majority of the population falls victim to this false narrative.”

Of course Mr Khashoggi was referring to the Saudi State, but his remarks are equally applicable to many other states and even those with a modicum of press freedom, come pretty close to emulating this domination of the public psyche with false narratives. Its simply how elites operate to survive, they just can’t help themselves. And although fiction writers are the ones who predominantly use language in the fourth way (to produce imaginary information), it cannot have escaped our notice that, this fourth category also makes frequent appearances across the board in commercials, newspapers, the above-noted dodgy government dossiers, ‘official’ investigations, state cover ups and carefully crafted political statements.

For the record, although not usual, imaginary/fictitious information is not entirely unknown in science, history and academic discourse; statistics have been frequently made up, dubious hypothesis often described as fact, creative imagination woven skilfully to assert, connect and even disconnect historical facts. Nevertheless, despite numerous malicious aberrations such as those mentioned above, the humanist essence of language use I suggest ought to be the accurate conveyance of information between each other. None of us like being mislead, even though it happens to us all the time under the present class based mode of production. So in this third article I will continue to make the case that revolutionary-humanists should aim for the utmost accuracy in their use of language and should challenge misinformation and disinformation and inaccuracy whenever and wherever it arises. I suggest, a healthy criticism of almost everything that exists is much better advice, than believe everything you read or hear.

Word accuracy and meaning.

In the first article in this series of three (ie Ways of Thinking -1 ) I shared a list of stages in a process of thinking which combines the best aspects of materialist and idealist thinking and builds upon them to embrace a dialectical method of understanding grounded in reality. The first of these stages stressed the need to accurately know what something is identified as – ie word accuracy. This is important in public written discourse, because that is different than personal dialogue. In spoken dialogue, language and meaning can be dependent on context and how a word is stressed, but that context can be entirely missing in written communication. The author Dostoyevski in one of his diaries recorded how he heard six drunken male friends use the same inappropriate swear word with different stresses, volumes and body movements to express six different views on the same issue during their way home from the inn. I am sure the reader can confirm a similar or parallel example to that from their own experience. Among close friends and partners it is often the case that sentences started by one friend can be completed by another. This dialogue aspect of language is – in most cases – a directly negotiated communication where meaning can be communicated by body language, volume, tone, facial expression and prior understanding as well as fewer words. In dialogue, word accuracy is not always essential, for meaning, even if it is always desirable.

A recognition of this fluidity with regards to the words and concepts chosen in communication suggests the following. That in serious written or spoken communication of a factual kind, the accurate use of words and descriptions is necessary for at least two reasons. First, because the negotiated context and emotional contact of direct speech communication is missing. Second, because deliberate or accidental use of inaccurate words and descriptions leads to confused, mistaken or distorted thinking. Furthermore, in a world in which most of our information and knowledge comes to us via others, rather than our own direct experience, we need extra care. When important issues are being considered, we at least need to be sure that words and concepts are being used accurately. It is here that we need to recognise the effect upon language and thought of modes of production in which there are unequal class divisions. In such cases, the dominant class, tends to monopolise the production of information and ideas, via its domination and control of those occupations which demand a high degree of literacy and self-confidence. As Marx noted;

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch, the ruling ideas: ie., the class which is the ruling ‘material’ force of society is at the same time its ruling ‘intellectual’ force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, consequently also controls the means of mental production, so the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are on the whole subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relations,….” (Marx. ‘The German Ideology’. Section 3.)

This ideological domination leads to an increase in the frequency of monologues, in which the representatives of the ruling class tell the rest of the population what to think and how to think via the media in all its forms – school, church, cinema, television, radio, magazines, newspapers, books, pamphlets, posters, etc. With few exceptions, all of these deliver un-negotiated, unchallenged, monologues to the rest of society. Thus there is a constant stream of one – way communication via the designated ‘expert’ representatives of the systems ideological workforce. Only by way of exception do voices which explore the deep seated contradictions of capitalism reach the ears of the oppressed and exploited. In contrast, this bourgeois and petite – bourgeois directed monologue of communication attempts to describe the capitalist mode of production, from which they benefit, in the most positive ways. When negatives are noted they are generally characterised as unintentional consequences, to be gradually reformed rather than structural contradictions, which are an integral part of the capitalist socio-economic system.

Language and borrowed thinking.

The result of this constant barrage of biased, language-based information is that a lot of it is uncritically absorbed by those who are subjected to it. It enters the store of knowledge in peoples brains as borrowed thinking, only later to re-emerge as if it were actually their own thinking. Of course, there is no serious problem with this monologue process, as long as what is borrowed from it is accurate. Accepting accurate information and understanding from others, as the basis for, and supplement of, ones own direct experience and understanding, is an important aspect of the social life of humanity. But under complex and unequal societies, such as ours, it is up to the receiver of information to check and ensure accuracy and not to assume it. For, as noted above, the second socio-economic use of language (to obscure and distort), the third socio-political use (to mis-inform or dis-inform) and the fourth entertainment based use (to create imaginary entities) are also part of what is transmitted by the representatives of the dominant class and these motives are frequently stitched together in colourful linguistic patchworks of skilful deception. Consequently these fabrications of facts, fictions, distortions and even omissions are part of what is received and borrowed.

So it stands to reason, that various strands of this mixture of accurate, distorted, misinformed, dis-informed, and imaginary information also enters into the general understanding of populations and emerges later as the general consciousness of millions. Many of whom then exert a social pressure on others to conform to all sorts of inaccurate and misguided understandings that they have previously borrowed and absorbed. Relevant examples, of such borrowed thinking, to this particular article being that men are cleverer than women; that human beings are split into biological races; that nations, capitalists and workers are a ‘natural’ geographical and economic phenomena. And again it doesn’t matter how many people think something is correct, that fact does not by itself mean that it is. As previously noted, millions thought the earth was flat and that the sun went round the earth, but that huge number didn’t mean that they were correct.

With the above in mind, any honest reader will hopefully admit (at least to themselves) that much of their knowledge and opinions have been taken on trust from ‘official’ (or non-official) sources and therefore, in actual fact have been borrowed – before later being accepted as their own. These authoritative sources, will have been parents, teachers, significant others, preachers of their particular religion, politicians, newspapers, television, radio, books, magazines etc. For this reason all of us need to question what we think we ‘know’ far more than we have been accustomed to do. For the question arises as to how many of these sources of our knowledge are accurate or have not had their own particular slant or twist on things added to the monologues directed at our eyes and ears. And also how many of these ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ information agencies are simply regurgitating information and opinion they too have previously uncritically borrowed from other sources?

The chain of serial information and opinion borrowers along with promoters of myth and misinformation can be surprisingly and revealingly long. This process, once recognised, should alert us to the fact that much of what we have learned needs to be at least challenged and in a great many cases, actually overturned. And I don’t just mean the obvious fictional cases of the alleged existence of angels, unicorns, tooth fairies, father Xmas, Yeti’s, alien abductors or those mentioned earlier. My experience – if it is typical in any way – suggests that too much already threadbare ‘hand-me-down’ knowledge, spread by written and oral language over generations, is still circulating as fact, when there is no evidence to substantiate its validity. Indeed, we should be quite dismayed that much of the knowledge we have taken on trust and paid for in various ways, was in fact incomplete, misleading, distorted or even frequently more in the nature of fiction rather than fact.

How else than borrowing and assimilating ideas can we account for the fact that millions of children over successive generations across continents were (and are) born without any understanding of religion or any thoughts of an invisible, all – powerful male god, end up believing, without a shred of reliable evidence, one or other of the sectarian versions of these warring patriarchal religious fantasies? Yet they do. The self-serving elite – generated ideologies such as religion, nationalism, sexism and racism, etc., have to be taught via language and learned in an atmosphere of fear or deference until they have become individually and collectively embedded ideological reflexes, reinforced by repetition, ritual and peer group pressure. There they stay in the memory structures of the brain until the elite need them to be fully acted upon. Defend your religion, your nation, your race, your gender; eventually one or more of these mantras become the linguistic calls to arms in which one section of humanity will, on the basis of flawed, borrowed thinking, be urged to denigrate or purge another section of humanity either intellectually or physically. And who can deny that this isn’t still being done and will not continue in the future?

Language and the struggle against oppression – 1.

As noted, one of the means of perpetuating and rationalising oppression and exploitation is via the use of language structured in such an ideological way that it plausibly denies that oppression, exploitation and discrimination are a structural part of the socio-economic system. The dominant ideology invariably blames one or other of the victims of the system for the predicament of another victim or for their own predicament. In the last article I gave the examples of how the poor are frequently blamed for their own poverty because of bad attitudes and/or culture. Yet in such cases, those so criticised and labelled are often unable to reply to their critics because they may lack the opportunity, the means, the skills or even the awareness of the need to question and argue an alternative. Yet one of the most basic and important skills for anyone regarding serious issues is to question every meaning in general and test the accuracy of the words being used in particular. This is because words are the building blocks of language and language is the means by which understanding or misunderstanding is transmitted. I suggest a successful struggle against oppression cannot be achieved on the basis of inaccurate words and misunderstandings borrowed from bourgeois ideology.

One of the most glaringly obvious inaccurate use of words (and associated concepts) in terms of bourgeois oppression of a large section of humanity is that arising from the adapted and then borrowed term ‘race’. The concept was developed by the European bourgeoisie in order to explain to themselves and others why they should be able to dominate the people and resources of the world. However, it was only fully perfected in the 19th century. Economic class and maleness had been used as a distinguishing feature to explain privilege and the lack of it for supposed lesser human beings (women and workers) within the newly developed capitalist nations. Capitalism, of course, is founded upon prejudice and discrimination of the most fundamental economic kind.

To use an analogy, discrimination and prejudice are part of capitalisms DNA. However, class and gender discrimination were inadequate concepts to apply to the people of foreign lands, when capital needed to systematically extend its theatre of operations across the globe. The idea of classifying peoples as distinct groups of varying supposedly inferior and superior characteristics and qualities, solved the intellectual and practical problem of occupation and resource extraction. The overall concept of discrimination just required a convenient term to label it with. The word ‘race’ was therefore developed to try to give some plausible explanation of why some human beings could and should be treated as curiosities or sources of cheap, coerced labour.

So in fact the concept of ‘race’ is a fictitious category and was invented to exaggerate secondary superficial differences in order to further mercantile and industrial exploitation during the Colonialist and Imperialist stages of capitals globalisation project. [See ‘The Invention of Race’, on this blog]. In a typically dualist and complimentary reflex two other words borrowed from the colour pallet and already conveniently associated with cleanliness and dirtiness became deliberately attached to the ideology of race – white and black – and was then applied to people. Hence forth bourgeois language contained two more associated fictions, for whilst there is discrimination based upon skin colour, there is no such skin colour as white and no such skin colour as black. Nevertheless, despite this obvious falsehood, bourgeois ideology was (and is) so dominant that it was able to impose these false categories and their derogatory associations into everyday consciousness. Furthermore, because the words existed and persisted, it was assumed the borrowed categories associated with mythically created racial types, actually existed. Its use became so dominant that even those who were opposed to its purpose – exploitation and oppression of the other – nevertheless accepted the fiction and carried on using the borrowed terms.

Even many dark skinned people accepted the prejudiced description of being ‘black’ with the end result of perpetuating a double fiction about themselves as having black skin and of being a different race to those fictionalised as having white skin. Some only challenged the association of black as being without merit and the ‘black is beautiful’ movement displaced an incorrect aesthetic negative by a correct aesthetic positive but only at the expense of retaining the negative fictional dualisms of black and white skinned people and the equally fictional dualism of race as establishing superior and inferior races. And again it needs to be emphasised that just because the language and thinking of millions of individuals continues to operate with these fictional categories around ‘race’ created by bourgeois ideology and uncritically borrowed, does not mean they are accurate descriptions of the real world.

As also noted elsewhere, prejudice against other human beings is now rampant and takes numerous forms. Any form of hierarchical society will necessarily accumulate multiple means of discriminating between those at the top, those at the bottom and those in between. And of course, socio-economic discrimination is the trigger for the development of prejudice. Capitalism is one such a hierarchical form of society and has acquired multiple means of discrimination. Secondary identities such as gender, religious belief, age, sexual orientation, skin colour, ethnicity, lineage, nationality, and even regional accent differences (abbreviated here as G-R-A-S-S-E-L-N-A) are being used by many to discriminate against people for jobs, educational opportunity, housing, partners and many other things. It is also a fact in such societies that many of those suffering from prejudice are deeply prejudiced against others who do not share their particular secondary identity.

Many dark skinned males, for example, are as misogynist, homophobic and nationalistic as many light skinned males. Nevertheless this prejudice – as with all prejudice – is not natural. Prejudice has to be socially taught and learned. And if one type of discrimination and prejudice is experienced as inhuman, then it follows that all forms of discrimination and prejudice may be experienced as inhuman. All forms need to be combated, not just one. The invention of race and it’s institutionalisation, merely demonstrates the power of the dominant ideology (as borrowed thinking) to trap people into a virtual world of thought processes whilst living in a real world which so clearly contradicts them in so many ways. The capitalist mode of production is the real root of the problem, not any of its victims, but bourgeois ideology conveniently blames the victims.

This symptom also indicates that accurate thinking requires accurate words and concepts and that inaccurate words can lead to inaccurate thinking. For there is now a virtual world being projected onto the real world by many commentators in which pale-skinned workers are held to have more in common with pale-skinned capitalists than with dark-skinned workers and dark-skinned workers have more in common with dark-skinned capitalists than with pale-skinned workers. That is a convenient reversal of reality as the ruthlessness of dark-skinned capitalist elites against dark-skinned working people is daily demonstrated in business and politics the world over. Take for example, Africa, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Yemen – just to name a few places where a dark skinned elite class daily oppresses, tortures and even kills dark skinned workers and critics. The same goes for the ruthlessness of pale-skinned capitalist elites against pale-skinned workers, as contemporary events the world over as well as history also demonstrate. Europe, perhaps being the most obvious current arena of the deliberate and ruthless impoverishment, by pale-skinned elites, of millions of pale-skinned working people in Greece, Portugal, Spain. And in other countries such as the UK only to a lesser extent.

When ideas contradict reality, it is the ideas which should be suspected and rejected not reality, and yet these false borrowed ideas continue to be used to divide working people on the basis of skin pigmentation. Instead of an intellectual and practical wedge being driven between pale-skinned workers and pale-skinned elites and another driven between dark-skinned workers and dark-skinned elites as a prelude to other joint struggles against all forms of socio-economic prejudice, we have intellectual wedges being driven between workers on the basis of fictional constructs such as ‘racial’ characteristics and secondary features such as skin pigmentation, and not only by the bourgeois elite – but also by their opponents. Despite this divisive concept being the direct intention of the linguistic inventors and promoters of racial ideologies among the bourgeoisie and petite – bourgeoisie, some among the oppressed are unwittingly keeping that part of bourgeois and pre-bourgeois ideology alive and distancing themselves from or practising other forms of discrimination.

Perhaps this is because it is easier to continue using established categories, particularly given that the vast majority also continue to use them, than to directly challenge bourgeois ideology and to stand against the by now vested interests in perpetuating the falsehoods they are built upon. However, if we are genuinely against discrimination and prejudice then we need to be against all forms of irrational discrimination and prejudice, (ie all of G-R-A-S-S-E-L-N-A categories attracting prejudice and discrimination) not just the one which effects us personally. Otherwise we are not against discrimination and prejudice in general but only against it happening to ourselves or our group. And if the latter is the case then we don’t represent humanity as a whole but only our own section of it. Consequently we would not be equipped to help found human society anew. It should also be obvious that united, all those discriminated against may succeed in ending discrimination and prejudice, but divided no group will succeed in ending it.

Language and the struggle against oppression – 2.

A similar criticism as made against racial ideology can be made against patriarchal ideology (religious and political) which falsely asserts that men and women are static opposites and that women are inferior to men and should be subordinate to them. This sexist attitude is yet another form of elite invented false thinking which is then uncritically borrowed by millions of men, (and even some women) – including men of all skin shades – when in fact these male chauvinist assumptions do not stand up to serious scrutiny. The biological structure of humanity (as with most other forms of life) is embodied in two essential elements, sperm and ovum, developed in two locations, male and female bodies. However, from the species perspective (the deeper natural bio-reality) the sexes are not separate dualistic entities but essential parts of the dialectical whole.

For the species to reproduce the two elements cannot remain separate but must be integrated for each act of reproduction. The two, the sperm and ovum, must become one and in the majority of cases the partners also must become intimate. Importantly, biologically speaking, the female body provides the major functioning parts in the reproduction process. It does so in terms of supplying needed DNA and Chromosomes, pregnancy, breast feeding/immune system start up and early nurture. From the species perspective, the inferior position of women in patriarchal societies, including our modern society, is a total reversal of the natural evolution of humanity over millions of years. Second class status for women is undoubtedly a historically determined elite male invention delivered by misinformed language and borrowed thinking into the minds of millions and needs to be reversed by more accurate language and thinking in order to accurately reflect the importance of the other half of humanity.

The above noted pattern of human evolution is essentially true of the second class status of those who work in producing our goods and services. Working women and men engaged in the production of the essentials for living; food, water, fire, shelter, clothing etc., have been the active economic foundations of all human societies and recognised as such during the larger part of the four or five million years of human hunter/gatherer evolution. Indeed, in hunter/gatherer modes of production women as gatherers produced far more food (between 60% -80%) for their communities than men. And for millions of years, everyone, who wasn’t too young, too old, or too ill was an active productive worker. It is only with the development of class based societies founded on agricultural production, that the social status of working people has been gradually and fundamentally reduced first by slavery, second by serfdom and now wage-slavery to be below that of intellectual classes and land owning, or now capital-owning classes. Yet economically workers are still the most important of the present classes because without workers providing all the above noted essential elements of living and now more, the rest of the classes – middle and upper – could not fulfil their own privileged tasks.

At this point it needs to be acknowledged that many anti-capitalists have also been seduced by deference or laziness into uncritically borrowing their thinking from previous anti-capitalists who claimed to have a monopoly of accurate understanding of how to end capitalist oppression and exploitation. I did so myself out of deference when younger. Four glaring examples of this tendency have been the followers of Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky and Mao. Any serious and accurate study of the above elite male writings and actions will reveal not just the shortcomings of the language and concepts these men used, but also the disastrous and inhuman methods they employed to further their own elevation into positions of power and influence over the rest of the working populations of their respective countries and nations. During the Arab Spring events most of their anti-capitalist followers demonstrated they did not even understand the difference between uprisings and revolutions. They lacked accuracy in understanding the very words and concepts they used. [For those interested in my own contribution to the de-construction of the ideologies and practices of Bolshevism, Stalinism and Trotskyism see my book ‘Revolutionary-Humanism and the Anti-capitalist Struggle’ and the articles ‘Marxists against Marx’; ‘The Revolutionary Party’ and ‘Uprisings and Revoluions’, on this blog.]

Finally, for those who seek to work for a better world I suggest it is essential that they cease to uncritically borrow their thinking from any source. Their own accuracy of language and the conformity of their own thinking to actual reality is necessary as is the critical examination of what others have to say or write. The guideline list provided in ‘Ways of Thinking -1, is reproduced again below and can be used to test the accuracy and reliability of what anyone has written or said, including myself and themselves. So when you get the opportunity why not give it a go?

1. Accurately know what something is identified as. (are the ‘correct’ words being used?)
2. Accurately know what something is comprised of. (is the ‘actual’ content being described?)
3. Accurately know how it came into being. (is it’s ‘real’ history acknowledged?)
4. Accurately know the natural or social context it depends upon. (is it’s place in the chain of existence accurately located?)
5. Accurately know the objects internal contradictions and process of transformation whether characterised as germination, transformation or decay. (are it’s positive and negative potentials considered?)
6. Accurately grasp the direction or potential direction any transformation can take. (are the various levels of enquiry being combined into an enriched idea of it?)
7. Test each stage of understanding against reality, (is serious unbiased observation and self critical study being practiced?)
8. Always maintain certainty with an element of doubt as new or unforseen developments can occur. (are sectarianism and dogmatism being avoided?)
9. Always remember that the essence of humanities thinking is achieved as a natural, social species, not as an imaginary spiritual creation of individuals, nations, religions or races. (is human diversity represented as a slight change in human ‘form’ rather than as a substantial change in human ‘essence’?)

Roy Ratcliffe (October 2018)

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In ‘Ways of Thinking (Part 1)’, dialectics was described as a system of thinking, which unlike dualism, asks much more searching questions and does so over a number of stages, before coming to any conclusions. Even then the method of dialectics does not consider these conclusions as necessarily fixed or final. This reluctance or refusal to be dogmatic is because, new evidence may come to light or old evidence re-evaluated so as to refine the conclusion or even in extreme cases overturn it. For this reason, real-world dialectical thinking transcends all forms of dualism, dogma and intolerance due to their presumptions of possessing the ‘truth’. This second article will attempt attempt to substantiate that claim mainly by providing examples of dialectical understanding as applied to the spheres of nature, economics, ecology, society and politics.

However, before that, it should be noted that religion for centuries, has also been based upon, dualism, dogma and intolerance. Papal authority, for example, dogmatically relying upon what someone had written in the bible and what appeared in front of their eyes, considered that the sun went round the earth. They severely censured those who contradicted this assertion. For those who had accepted the religious form of dualist thinking, there could be no other explanation. Nevertheless, there was. However, the dogmatic rail tracks the religious intellect was trained to run upon could not conceive that their ‘borrowed’ way of thinking was incorrect and so they silenced and punished any alternative way of reasoning. [See ‘Religion versus Women’s Rights’ on this blog.]

As discussed in part 1, dialectical reasoning, recognises the difference (the contradiction) between the outward appearance of something and fully understood essence of it. This essence containing far more than first meets the eye and involving internal and external connections. It also accepts that the essence of ones idea of something, once seriously considered, may contain it’s own dynamic contradiction which sooner or later will change how that something is understood. This is no more than a belated recognition that the ideas of us natural beings as well as our bodies, can undergo a similar evolution or transformation as the natural ‘things’ we study. Some ‘things’ seem fixed and unchanging, (as do some ideas) but sooner or later they reveal themselves to be in the process of change. The ‘thing’ (or spacial position) of the ‘thing’ has changed into something else or moved somewhere else, or even both. A recognition of this general process suggests the ideas about about our world should at least try to keep up with changing reality and not wilfully or neglectfully get stuck in the past.

Before going further it should also be recognised that these changes, in the natural world as well as in the social and emotional realm of human affairs, are not undertaken or achieved without some difficulty. Births and deaths can be painful; engineering and metallurgy can involve quite extreme and often dangerous processes; developing high level skills can take time and excruciating effort. Change of any kind invariably involves stresses or strains of one kind or another. Dialectical thinking stems from a recognition of the connection between real world contradictions and the changing thought processes needed to take stock of this. Therefore it is to be expected that changes in understanding may also be accompanied by difficulties. Accepting new ideas and paradigms of thinking is not always easy for many people. However, painful this process is for some, the change element in the real world should by now be more acceptable to modern thinking, since science and technology has increased awareness that everything seriously studied is in a state of change. Consequently, methods of thinking have evolved as the following examples hopefully make clear.

Dialectics in the physical world.

Laser measurements have disclosed that even things as seemingly eternal as mountains, continents and planetary orbits are subject to small but accumulating changes, when not changed rapidly by irregular occurrences. Weather patterns, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, eclipses, shooting stars, asteroid collisions etc., are no longer thought of as acts of an imaginary god, or gods, but are understood as natural occurrences, where, small quantitative changes (such as result from saturation, pressure, speed of movement or position) accumulate to create a sudden qualitative change. The contradiction being that something seemingly stable becomes by degrees unstable before a change occurs and a further stage of seeming stability may or may not present itself. In other words, the appearance of something, at any one moment, is not necessarily the full essence, the completed process, or even the potential metamorphosis embodied within and around it. The fact of, and the process of, quantitative alterations leading to a change in quality, is part of the dialectical understanding and again modern life is full of such examples. I shall just outline a few more of the obvious ones, in each category just to emphasise the point.

It has long been observed that gradually decreasing heat within water, beyond a certain point, changes it into a solid – ice! Increasing the heat within water beyond a certain point, changes it from a liquid to the gaseous form of – steam. Both are examples of the fact that ‘wholes’ contain contradictory elements and that processes of quantitative changes (internally or externally generated) can result in a new quality – steam or ice. Steam, a new quality of extremely heated water, once harnessed was used as a source of power to usher in the industrial revolution by driving complex machinery. This was another qualitative and dialectical transition within mechanics, and one which branched off in many directions. Furthermore, real world contradictions don’t end there even in the case of water. We also know that water can extinguish fire, yet the gases which are contained within water – hydrogen and oxygen – both initiate and/or sustain fire. How counter-intuitive (or rather dialectical) is all that? Until we know more about the abstract category ‘water’, our initial idea of it as just something to drink or wash with isn’t wrong, it is just incomplete.

Similarly, mixing chemical substances together in certain proportions, (or dividing them up) changes them into new solid, liquid or gaseous compounds. Some mixtures having explosive consequences. These are processes now developed into massive global and mostly dangerously polluting industries. Again, in these areas we have quantitative changes creating new qualities. Our modern world is bursting at the seams with examples of this dialectical process applied within and onto capitalist production methods. This fact alone should stimulate a dialectical understanding and it does to a certain extent within the fields of applied science, engineering, technology, plate tectonics, plant biology and even human biology. Once thought impossible, heavier than air vehicles now criss-cross the skies and even visit other planets due to the planned alteration and accumulation of quantities of materials into new complex combinations and design qualities.

In other words, from these various accumulated quantities of knowledge, skills and materials, new qualities have emerged in the various methods of production and final construction and not just in metallurgy and chemistry. Body organ transplants are now routinely possible, but such organs are never independent. They are dependent upon a donor and successful medical integration. Test tube medical science can now artificially replicate some parts of the natural human fertilisation process, in which two discrete and separate qualities, sperm and ovum combine to create multi-cellular quantities and finally after many further transitions a new quality – another unique human being. The connectedness of stages, and the transformation of quantity into quality has long been evident in the natural world and in the evolution of plant and animal life forms, even though this natural process was not always fully understood, appreciated intellectually, or the analogy applied to other fields of study. For generations, the prevalence of empiricism and dualism and the lack of knowledge meant that many processes of change, as with planetary orbits, weather patterns, etc., were seen as mystical, magical or the unseen actions of the gods – who were imaginatively conjured up abstractions for just that pre-scientific explanatory purpose.

Yet, even in times past, certain specialists often had a dialectical understanding of their particular field of study. Indeed it was impossible not to have it to some degree and be successful in many specialist areas. However, even there, the intellectual framework of dialectics was (and still is) frequently left in the locker rooms along with any specialist tools and clothing when the working shift was over. The phenomena of dialectical and sceptical scientists etc., busy with understanding contradictions during the working week and becoming religious, gullible, dualist-minded citizens on Saturday or Sunday has never been an uncommon symptom. The result has been that the dialectical method of thinking has been rarely applied to societies and modes of production. Or to modes of thinking in general for that matter. In these particular areas of concern and in the lives of most people, dualist thinking continues to reign. The bourgeoisie and petite bourgeoisie in our era has accepted and championed dualism in economics, politics and social life, because it expresses, their economic and social reality as well as their class needs.

Dialectics in social affairs.

In modern social affairs, for example, the Conservative (or Republican) minded bourgeoisie generally consider ‘bad culture creates poverty’; for the Liberal/Labour (Democratic) minded bourgeoisie, it is often the opposite; ‘poverty creates bad culture’. These are two ends of a dualist conceptual spectrum view of the working class or the non-working – under-class. That way both political wings of the ruling elite consider the problem of poverty as being mainly the fault of the current poor themselves. Accordingly, the poor are considered to need patronising support or harsh penalties of one form or another. A warm bath or a cold shower: more benefits or less benefits, job counselling or job compulsion, etc. The preferred remedy being dependant upon whether the political left, right or centre expresses the viewpoint. On the surface these contrasting petite-bourgeois views of the poor may seem opposed, but they are connected by the fact that they conveniently avoid the spotlight falling on the capitalist system which has created poverty from its domination centuries ago. It also avoids recognising the fact that culture in all its forms, is to a considerable extent, a direct or indirect product of the dominant economic system.

In contrast a dialectical explanation examines the role of capital and labour in the production of the essentials and non-essentials of life along with the role of technology in capitalist production. It notes how this technology regularly replaces workers by machines and draws some obvious conclusions. If the system regularly creates armies of unemployed and precariously employed workers, with no other alternative, then certain connected things are sure to follow. Among the resulting symptoms are the many citizens who consequently sink into poverty and some into antisocial ways such as theft, drug addiction, gang membership etc. The dialectical contradictions and real-world connections are all there just waiting to be recognised for those who want to take their thinking further. So a fuller version of capitalist socio-economic reality, for example, reveals that increased social productivity and therefore an increase in the mass of economic wealth at one end of society, produces poverty at the other. How contradictory is all that? Yet bourgeois dualist forms of thinking are content to just stay in the virtual world of surface abstractions and discuss culture and poverty without their connection to the mode of production. Isn’t that a convenient way of thinking, if the rest of us just accept it?

An interesting dialectical contradiction also exists with regard to ownership and control under the capitalist system. Normal capitalist legal logic suggests that if you pay for something or part of it you are entitled to control or at least part control of it. The buildings and inventory of hospitals, schools, military, air force and naval establishments, along with local and national government building/contents, for example, are paid for by public taxation, yet these goods are not owned and controlled by the public. Instead, they are rigidly controlled by a relatively few and usually unelected elites. Yet these few controlling elite actors cannot operate these complex buildings and organisations themselves, but need those who have no ownership or control of them to operate them. This they do by granting working people access to do work, and then lock them out when their work is not needed! The same goes for private industry and commerce. In each case only those who do not control them can make them function, whilst those who do control them cannot possibly partly staff them, let alone make them function. And again in this economic relationship we have a bizarre reversal of logic rationalised as a desired state of affairs and presented by bourgeois dualistic reasoning as ‘natural’.

A more fundamental example applies to two of the categories of the means of production under capitalism – workers and the main tools of production represented by capital. To the bourgeois economic dualist, Labour and Capital are two polar opposite categories to be taken for granted as ‘natural’ with just the separate problems associated with this productive bifurcation to be worked out. Of course thinking about this ‘appearance’ a good deal further, suggests that it is not ‘natural‘ that some people own large amounts of capital whilst others own none. Nature does not produce owners of means of production (capitalists) and non-owners of means of production (workers), nor their opposed interests. It takes a socio-economic system to do that and a warped one to boot. Hence dialectical thinking goes further than such surface abstractions and reveals more. By reflection and critical thinking it notes the following. That in this case also the tools of production, (factories, machines, planning, development etc) presently owned by relatively few individuals, have become so complex and extensive they can no longer be operated by those who own them. In other words a dialectical reversal of historic tool ownership and use. And again, on the other hand those who can operate them, the workers, are now collectively too poor to own them.

This contradiction is even greater when we consider that the tools of production, buildings and machines, were also not built by the owners but by other workers, who also do not own them. The fact that owners cannot operate them and the workers cannot own them – is a massive social contradiction with unresolvable problems (as long as this division continues) effecting employment, over-production, climate change, pollution, health and safety, to identify just a few. What appears on the surface of bourgeois society as a static dualist opposition between capital and labour, is in fact a volatile dialectical opposition which involves perpetual class struggles over wages, safety, employment, wars and now increasingly environmental issues. The resolution (the human negation) of this fundamental contradiction of economic and social class differences, within humanity, will therefore not be achieved without considerable difficulty both in fact and in the depth of understanding needed. A later section will indicate that particular difficulty being revealed in contemporary politics.

Dialectics in ecological and economic affairs.

The development of the capitalist mode of production, since the end of the Second World War, has seen remarkable technological and social progress. Full employment and mass industrialised production had been the foundations which supported the post -war development of welfare states and the liberal-democratic political systems which were integral to them. However, the sheer quantity of scientific and technological inventions has led to a new quality in production methods and materials. Automation, artificial intelligence, advanced computer controls have permeated all types of production, transportation and sales outlets. The capitalist mode of production has also led to serious environmental pollution problems and increased ecological devastation. The pursuit of profit via the unrestricted production of commodities and services has progressively increased the quantity of products available. That quantitive increase in new stuff, has qualitatively changed the problem of disposing of unwanted old stuff and the non-degradable waste materials used in their production. The examples of plastics, petroleum products, nuclear energy and anti-biotics, almost serve as metaphors for capitalism in general.

Plastics, in various forms, were heralded, when I was younger, as as long lasting wonder materials with so many positive uses that some had yet to be discovered. Now, there is so much indestructible plastics in the environment that when broken down they have entered the food chain at a microscopic level and if not already there, are on the way into the bloodstream and internal organs of animals and humans. And with likely devastating consequences. So a sequence of quantitative increases in technical and chemical know how produced a new quality – plastics, but this new quality under the incentive of production for profit became a new quantity, which has led to a further (but unwelcome) negative quality – macro and microscopic pollution – on a global scale! This type of dialectical process of quantity into quality (and increasingly negative quality into negative quantity), fuelled by capitalism, can be replicated add nauseum. Each addition of atomic power production, for example has added up to a qualitatively new problem of disposing of its radioactive residue; more and more fossil-fuel energy use (quantity) has had a qualitative effect upon planetary warming; quantitive increases in anti-biotic uses over decades has led to the new negative quality of drug resistant bacteria. Capitalist production is killing, animals, insects, birds, environments and humans. Like cigarettes, it should come with a health warning.

But this is not all. The automation and computerisation, mentioned above has also led to vast reductions in the numbers of workers required to sustain or increase the current levels of production. The thousands of factories with thousands of workers inside, producing stuff each day during the 19th century, are now almost a thing of the past – at least in the advanced capitalist countries of Europe and America. The resulting large-scale unemployment and low-paid precarious employment has drastically reduced the amount of taxes paid to governments; less money in wage packets has also reduced the amounts workers spend in consumption. So the reality is that increased production on the one hand, restricted consumption on the other, together with surplus commodities and shrinking state revenues, are all due to the same economic process governed as it currently is by capital and greed for profit.

This symptom of relative overproduction demonstrates dialectical transformation in the field of economics, which is just one more dialectical transformation among many currently at work. Otherwise positive developments become channelled into a negative outcomes courtesy of the capitalist mode of production and greed for profit. At the economic and financial levels, this new productive quality has led to overcapacity, overproduction, economic stagnation, financial instability and downward spirals into recessions. At the social level, both of these latter quantitive reductions have led to reductions in the quality and quantity of welfare provision. The two aspects are not separate and independent, as everyday dualistic thinking would suggest, but connected and dependent. Yes, here in the social world as in the natural world, dialectical processes can work in an ascending or descending direction; in a positive or negative way. However, the domination of capital over our present mode has the uncanny knack of making most of the positives negative.

Moreover, the much touted progress toward fully automated and future artificially intelligent algorithm-supported production methods are set to take this process even further. Already, factories exist staffed mainly with robots, linked to computer technologies and capable of self correction and improvement. Ultimately, from this scenario, capitalist production now and in the future doesn’t need many workers to produce more and more ‘things’. However, to return profits on invested industrial and commercial capital, there still needs to be millions of paying consumers to buy them or future production will be stopped. So who is going to buy what is produced to prevent this? This contradiction represents a massive problem, but only under capitalism. The current speculative ideas of giving ‘things’ away or giving money away to buy them – on such a general scale – such as the unworkable Universal Basic Income (UBI) or the unequal Job Guarantee Programme (JGB), points to more than the need for further petite-bourgeois patronising charity. For those who can see beyond surface phenomena, it is another pointer to the need to go beyond capitalism.

Yet even with the already existing levels of production, the world is coming apart in so many ways and in so many places. At the same time the dominant ideological mode of viewing partial realities is incapable of joining the dots and revealing their links to the capitalist mode of production. Mainstream bourgeois thinking has yet to catch up with reality. Nevertheless, the quantitive changes in production methods are not only leading to the above noted changes in the amounts of pollution, ecological damage, war ravaged countries, saturated markets, large-scale unemployment, precarious employment and reduced amounts of consumer taxation and spending, but also to changes in consciousness and political preferences among voters. Much of the latter changes being understandably contradictory since politics is part of the problem – as will be indicated in the next section. Despite such contradictions, most citizens are responding to their direct experience of one or other of these changed and changing economic and social realities. Very few are likely to be fooled by internet ‘fake-news’ or Russian/Chinese manipulated propaganda.

Dialectics in political affairs.

The above mentioned voter response to the changes outlined in previous sections represents a transformation in voter attitude and opinion, which is likely to continue. And here in the field of politics another dialectical transition can be witnessed. The years of increased quantities of incompetence, lies and broken promises which mainstream politicians have perpetrated upon the public has produced a qualitative change in voters opinion of politics and politicians. Many people no longer believe what they are told by politicians and their paid servants in government, academia and the media. They are questioning whom and what they vote for. Politicians the world over, are again no longer trusted and capitalist, along with state-capitalist political systems are viewed with disdain, if not outright hostility. Politics is increasingly being seen, not as it is presented, – as the rational solution to social problems – but as part of the irrational problems facing humanity.

And the political contradictions are growing. There are now virtual civil wars taking place within the political establishments of many countries between left liberal/democratic and right conservative/republican. There is a deep split developing between these twin establishment political elites, over how to rescue the capitalist system from its obvious contradictions. One set of the international political class has started to reject neo-liberal globalisation and seeks solutions within an authoritarian nation state, whilst another set seek to reform neo-liberal globalisation and give it a more humane face. On the world stage these positions are personified by Donald Trump in the USA and Macron in France, but the trends, to a greater or lesser degree, are global and are visible in most countries. This contemporary split is similar to that which occurred during the last global crisis of the capitalist mode of production in the mid-nineteenth century. And now, as then, both these pro-capitalist currents need to appeal to the working classes as these are the voters in the current and coming electoral wars and of course, the shock troops in any future civil wars.

The elites nationally and internationally are at ideological war with each other, working people would be wise to avoid joining any side in this self-defeating spat. For distortions are being piled upon distortions; intolerance upon intolerance, misrepresentation, upon misrepresentation. The petite-bourgeois concept of fair play has all but disappeared from public discourse, along with innocence until proven guilty. Guilt is assigned to whole swathes of people based on nothing other than a common identity. All men are predators; all pale-skinned people are racists; all gentiles are anti-semites; all Muslims are terrorists; etc. Deep pools of anger and frustration among many citizens, are being manipulated and guided by politicians into verbal stand-offs between secondary identities, such as gender, skin colour and sexual preference – any form of identity except class is being highlighted and championed! Shouting matches are now in vogue where no evidence is required to substantiate a polarised opinion, only partisan assertion.

Taking political sides on any so-called ‘politically correct’ issue, has become an emotional reflex, impervious to any request for sufficient evidence to substantiate any dubious assertions. Indeed, even requesting evidence becomes perceived by either side as an act of hostility or disloyalty. Twenty first century politics is reviving and updating its 1920s and 30’s surreal period. To the unattached observer, this spectacle presents something of a theatre of the absurd, except that in certain circumstances, ideological civil wars, can be transformed into actual civil wars. Those who doubt this possibility should reconsider the Aryan ‘identity’ issues and nationalistic descent of parts of Europe (Italy, Germany, France and Spain) in the mid 20th century economic and financial crisis. The collapse of Lybia, Syria and Yemen in the 21st century, which in those cases went from initial citizen protest to sectarian civil wars based on contrasting Islamic or secular identities, demonstrates such possibilities – when taken to extremes – still exist.

This quantitative and qualitative (dialectical) change in how bourgeois democracy is viewed has also had further global repercussions. The decades – long experience of of western capitalist democracy by citizens of many middle eastern countries, for example, has changed their view of its supposed benefits. From initially welcoming secular politics as a means of supplanting (negating) pre-existing theocratic or aristocratic oppressive systems, large numbers have now decided otherwise. A hundred years of European and North American interference in the former Ottoman Empire region (NB. epitomised by Sykes/Picot/Balfour and Bush x 2) has seen many people there reject exploitative, manipulative, bourgeois secular democracy in favour of a return to Islamic forms of governance. The historic move from 2000 year old religious and despotic forms of politics and governance which was negated through the ‘reformation’ struggle in Europe was then reversed (further negated) in Europe during the 1930s in favour of authoritarianism. A similar pattern has occurred in the middle-east with Egypt and Iran being prime examples. Religious and despotic forms of politics and governance are being artfully resuscitated in every part of the region.

This political negation of the negation is being demonstrated in practice, and not only in the middle-east, but globally. In terms of humanity, this trend represents another change but one which is again definitively backward. The status of workers, trade unions, women and gays, being the most clear indicator of how backward this theocratic and authoritarian reactionary development is. Governance by religious minded people who believe in mystical fictions such as gods, angels, devils and a heaven staffed with virgins is seen by millions as preferable to governance by people who believe in capitalist exploitation and military interventions to ensure their profitability survives. Here in Europe and the west, there has also been a rejection of neo-liberal economics and the bourgeois democratic political forms established to govern it. Some of this also represents a step backward, not forward towards a positive post-capitalist future, for here too there is an increased leaning toward authoritarianism. However, looking for a strong man (or woman) to sort out the contradictions has been tried a number of times before – and failed. To keep trying the same thing and expecting a different result is not really sensible. So the question is why is this happening? And the answer is not simply one of voter nostalgia or stupidity as some fixed-rut observers have suggested.

The lack of dialectical understanding in the political mindset over generations was starkly revealed in 2016 and continues today. For example, those citizens who voted the way the elite wanted them to vote were viewed as responsible, whilst those who did not were viewed as despicable – or stupid enough to be influenced against their will by foreign powers. Political dualists typically see two opposed groups of citizens who need to be praised, tolerated or vilified depending on which side they have voted for. Considered from a deeper understanding, however, this difference was clearly superficial and inaccurate. In essence both sides of this particular working class divide were wanting things to get better, they just differed in how that could be achieved. The immediate form of their protest against their situation (voting on elite-provided petite-bourgeois solutions) did not adequately represent the content of it, and this shared content, where it is allowed expression, may yet create another dialectical change. But emphasising a dualistic difference of skin pigment, gender or sexuality, as fundamental distinctions is useful to the elites. That way they create a virtual world of separation among working class human beings based upon ideologically derived differences rather than the unity of their shared oppression and exploitation. This allows the elite to divide potential opposition to their economic system and avoid any responsibility for what transpires due to their own actions.

Whatever area of life we consider, dialectical reasoning and understanding leads to very different conclusions than simple empiricism, idealism or dualism, as we have seen and would see more if we cared to look. For it is now becoming clear, to those who are able to consistently go beyond those first surface levels of thinking, that the post-Second World War, American-led, liberal world order, at the political and economic levels, is now progressively unravelling. The capitalist economic system is going down and the dualistic-minded elite globally who live on its proceeds, are on a course to take us down with it – if we let them. The capitalist mode of production, economically, financially and politically is certainly not in crisis because of foreign manipulation or citizen stupidity, but because of its own internal contradictions. Its positives are turning into existential negatives, which urgently need to be seriously examined and definitively solved. Dualist methods of thinking cannot begin to adequately explain and help positively intervene in this evolutionary and transformative socio-economic process, but dialectical methods can.

Dialectics reveals that class is the fundamental division within capitalist societies and whilst class struggles can include support for other identity struggles, the opposite is not the case. Secondary identity is too narrowly drawn and consequently too weak to include or remedy the negative situation of other identities, let alone to remedy those associated with class. In fact identity politics is in direct competition with other secondary identities for remedial action and is consequently divisive and reformist rather than revolutionary. Us first, and us too, forms of organisation go no further than confronting specific surface symptoms of the capitalist mode of production, whilst ignoring the causes embedded in the foundations of the mode of production itself. Consciousness of fundamental class divisions and dialectical understanding offer an alternative way of thinking for revolutionary – humanists, to acquire and promote in active opposition to the current dangerous domination of dualism in politics and social affairs.

Roy Ratcliffe (October 2018.)

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In a previous article entitled ‘The dangers of Dualism’, I pointed out the pitfalls of being drawn into dualistic ways of thinking. However, that article only touched on an alternative and more thorough way of thinking. This article, and one to follow, will attempt to remedy that deficiency and supplement the ideas suggested there. Hopefully, this will help make contemporary and future activists, anti-capitalists and revolutionary-humanists, more aware of the partially lost alternative and more complete way of thinking established in the 19th and 20th century. But, more than that, I hope the articles will assist them in taking on board and using this radical alternative to the dominant mode of bourgeois inspired thinking.

The death of the hope for an alternative form of society to the present one, due to the monstrosities of Bolshevism, Trotskyism and Maoism, was not just a physical set back for working class attempts at post-capitalist reconstructions, it represented the simultaneous atrophy of much more. What was also lost, due to its associations with the ‘leaders’ of these practical and theoretical distortions, was an advance in the mode of critical thinking. Yet this alternative method of thinking had already been further developed and refined which enabled two important developments. First, a coherent understanding of modes of production in general and their role in the formation of classes. Second, a lucid criticism of the capitalist mode of production in particular.

The method of thinking I refer to, is known as dialectics, and although it has been around since the ancient Greek period, (eg. Heraclitus etc.) it took on an increasingly important development during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. In the 18th century a philosopher named Immanuel Kant wrote extensively of dialectics, particularly in ‘Dialectics of Pure Practical Reason’, but it was Hegel (another Philosopher) in the 19th century who developed the method further before Marx, as a Young Hegelian student and later revolutionary-humanist, saw an important flaw in Hegel’s (idealistic) form of dialectics. However, it is worth considering Hegel’s interpretation of, and contribution to, that method of thinking for Marx considered him; “…the first to present its general form of working in a comprehensive and conscious manner”. Also, Hegel has been much overlooked by many within the anti-capitalist movement so that is an additional reason for including him in this article. Hegel wrote;

“Whatever exists is concrete, with difference and opposition within itself……….Contradiction is the very moving principle of the world: and it is ridiculous to say that contradiction is unthinkable. (Hegel’s Logic.)

The term contradiction in the dialectical method does not have the same meaning as is used in everyday life. It does not mean a verbal disagreement between people who simply contradict each others point of view. Contradiction here is used in the sense of things being opposed to themselves, or within themselves. Self-contradiction if you like. Hegel uses the example of a bar magnet with positive and negative poles of opposed attraction within one piece of metal. Cut a bar magnet in half and the poles aren’t actually separated as might be expected. The metal is in two halves but there isn’t a separate positive pole and a separate negative pole. Each half takes on a positive and negative aspect for as opposites they cannot exist without each other. He also mentions that setting of on a global journey eastward will eventually find the traveller back in the west.

Hegel concludes from these, and other examples, that frequently supposed opposites do not actually exclude each other as common-sense and dualism might suggest, but are interdependent. He goes further and suggests that at bottom or in ‘essence’ they are the same. Moreover, Hegel suggests that to know something by its concrete immediate character only is not to know it fully. Initial observations and immediate conclusions offer a limited perspective and stop at a partial one-sided, incomplete stage of knowledge. To Hegel this limited way of thinking is to view things by an inadequate form of thinking by means of a mere abstraction. It is to miss out its inward and developmental character from the effect of internal and external contradictions and changes.

The example of a plant seed is used by Hegel to illustrate his contention; that everything which exists stands in correlation, and this correlation is the veritable nature of every existence. What he was getting at in this and many other examples, was that to an initial surface consideration, a seed just seems to be a single ‘thing’ (or ‘being’ is a term he often uses). It is a ‘thing’ which can stay as as it ‘is’ and complete for long periods of time under certain dry conditions. However, under certain other conditions, it has within it the potential to become the plant, which itself has within itself the potential to produce new seeds, before withering away, and so on. Negation is a term frequently used in this philosophical context. The seed negates itself by becoming a plant; the plant negates itself by producing seeds. But these negations are not simply negatives, their results are positive. This result, to common-sense represents a paradox, but only to dualistic modes of common-sense thinking, not to nature or to dialectical thinking. The completed process represents Hegel’s negation of the negation which results in a new positive.

So a developed idea of a particular seed, (or anything else) containing a description of size, shape, weight, density, colour and internal structure may seem to offer a comprehensive basis for knowledge, but compared with knowledge of the whole natural (or social) cycle it is not. Therefore, it makes very little sense to always stop the investigation of the ‘thing’ or ‘situation’ in isolation. Without knowledge of how its process correlates to its material, biological or social composition and how this relates to the rest of its material life-cycle and environment, the understanding is severely limited. Therefore, knowledge and understanding of just one dimension of nature and life in general is not just limited but can be actually misleading. And not just with regard to plants. To stop at first and second levels of empirical observation regarding the things around us, for whatever reason, is to impose a self-limitation on our understanding. But that is not the only danger attached to such limited empirical methods of thinking.

The empiricist method does consider the real world and then not only names the real things in it and categorises them, but frequently makes them into abstractions, which are then given an imaginary independent life of their own. Real things can be seen, touched, smelled, tasted and weighed, that’s how we (and the empiricists) know they exist. However, not every word, describes something which actually exists. There are many words for which there is no corresponding ‘thing’, and not just in the case of imaginary beings. Space and time are examples of such rational abstractions which cannot be seen, touched, smelled, tasted, or weighed, but are thought by many to have an independent existence. Yet they only exist as abstractions in thought, tools of thinking, transformed into vocal speech or writing on paper.

Hegel, also gave the example of the difference between abstractions and real things by pointing out that we can eat cherries and plums, but not fruit. Fruit is just a collective category or tool of language and thought, not some ‘thing’ that actually exists. Common sense expressions such as “I eat some fruit for breakfast this morning”, are not really accurate. They rely on the intelligence and discrimination of the hearer to assume bananas, apples, grapes etc. Or he or she may ask which fruit, if sufficiently interested. These may sound trite and inconsequential examples, but the same ingrained habit of assuming abstractions exist is replicated on many more important issues, particularly in the fields of religion, economics, social and political life.

To paraphrase Hegel; to actually maintain the idea that something has only a unilateral, independent identity is only possible by abstracting away from it all its other important attributes and connections. Left at that abstract stage, understanding is not only deficient and misleading but dangerous, particularly when wielded by those with the power and influence, to promote such one-sided, incomplete and judgemental impressions and abstractions. Economists, Financial ‘experts’ (sic) Politicians, Lawyers and Media Pundits are among those who most frequently operate with abstractions (imaginary and otherwise) and are most practiced at selecting one-sided, incomplete representations of reality as long as it serves their purpose.

Fake news, propaganda, redacted or censored documents, plausible deniability actions, misinformation, withheld information, etc., are the most obvious common symptoms of this phenomena. And just because some examples of one-sidedness, are so bizarre that they are obviously fake, doesn’t mean that other more subtle variants do not occur which are not always detected and pass for valid assumptions. These examples, along with abstractions are the means of maintaining that these manipulated realities represent a (or even ‘the’) ‘true’ picture. However, the elites success in promoting these one-sided and often deliberately misleading caricatures and stereotypes of reality is dependent upon their audiences being trapped within the same limited method of thinking. The elites depend upon the bulk of society being unable or unwilling to deconstruct or fully challenge what amounts to intended or in some cases unintended distortions of reality. If seeing is not always accurate and can be manipulated by peer group suggestion – and it can – so too can thinking.

How dangerous limited ways of thinking can be – even within the radical left – was demonstrated by the acceptance in 1930’s Germany of Stalin’s instructions to categorise German Social Democrats as Social Fascists and not to join joint them in the struggle against the Nazis. Clearly, this politically driven categorisation was an abstraction and a distorted dualistic one at that. Tragically, the category was sufficiently accepted by the rank file CP members, that it split the potential anti-fascist opposition to Hitler and probably hastened the Nazi conquest of state power. Had sufficient organised opposition to Nazis materialised, it may or may not have prevented a capitalist war, for capitalism has many economic motives for war, other than a dehumanised dictator, but it would have possibly prevented many of the atrocities associated with the Nazi regimes leadership of it.

So from a revolutionary-humanist dialectical and even a scientific perspective, abstractions and dualisms can be problematic whenever and wherever they arise. Hegel again; “The abstract understanding with its ‘Either-or’, may struggle against this (dialectical) conception of nature”. And;

“Not that such analysis is illegitimate: we only mean that the external and mechanical relation of whole to parts is not sufficient for us, if we want to study organic life in its truth. (Hegel. Logic.)

We should note that Hegel is not making the case for the emergence of a condition of ‘false consciousness’ in contrast to ‘true consciousness’ (another frequent misleading dualist abstraction) by the uncritical and imaginary use of abstractions. Abstractions are not necessarily illegitimate forms of analysis, although as noted above, if they are non-existent or distorted, they can be. In fact rational abstractions can also be the starting point for a more thorough understanding of natural and social life, providing they are not considered as the end point for understanding, as some like to assume. Marx, for example, began his most famous work – Das Capital – with the abstraction ‘commodity’ rather than a particular commodity such as an hammer or kettle, however, he did not stop there but went on for another 3 volumes.

To develop thinking further, as Marx did, our thought processes need to go back to the chosen starting point – object or subject – and uncover and discover what has been abstracted. When that is done it becomes possible to reinstate those internal and external attributes and thus modify and supplement our ideas of the starting point. In other words, in regard to Hegel’s example above, we need to go back to the seed and having comprehended its full life-cycle development, now understand it in a new inclusive and inter-dependent light. One final extract from Hegel, will illustrate both the difficulty of reading Hegel due to the 18th century translated words and concepts he uses, but this also sums up his own explanation of the dialectical approach to thinking.

“Conditions of a thing seem at first sight to involve no bias any way. Really however an immediate actuality of this kind includes in it the germ of something else altogether. At first this something else is only a possibility: but the form of possibility is soon suspended and translated into actuality. This new actuality thus issuing is the very inside of the immediate actuality which it uses up. Thus there comes into being quite an other shape of things, and yet it is not an other..” (Hegel. Logic.)

It may help the reader to decode and understand the above extract by again thinking back to the example of the seed and plant noted above. The seed is Hegel’s actuality which contains the germ of something else as a possibility (eg the potential future plant). This possibility is translated into actuality from within the actuality (the seed) itself. And thus comes into being another shape (the actual plant) and yet it is not another – it is itself in another form. So far so dialectically good, but with Hegel we are still immersed in the realm of ideas. Hence his ‘Thesis – anti-thesis – synthesis’ continuum. Of course Hegel did not have the benefit of present day knowledge of micro – biology, cell/gene structure, and DNA, so his ‘germ’ idea contained every facet of the future form in extreme miniature. However, unlike, many philosophers before, and many who followed later, he had the process broadly nailed except for a couple of other important points.

First, his search for accuracy in understanding (which he considered as ‘truth’) was also aimed at proving by ideas the existence of something out of nothing (ie philosophically justifying the biblical creation myth) by God. This was a common obsession with many philosophers of that period and before. Second, his accuracy and truth seeking was to perfect the idea, which in the form of the ‘absolute’ idea, he also thought was evidence of the existence God. Eg.”Ultimate truth is..uncovered through…the history of ideas”. In philosophy, the linguistic abstraction ‘truth’ is invariably considered absolute, whereas in science the linguistic abstraction ‘accuracy’ is usually considered relative. [The latter being a more rational word and concept to use than the former.] This starting and finishing with the idea (as dialectically perfected) was why Marx stated Hegel’s views on the dialectic were idealistic and needed to be inverted (stood the right way up) in order to be a rational method. Thus, for Marx, dialectics;

In its rational form, it is a scandal and abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors, because it includes in its comprehension an affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time, also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary.” (Marx. Preface, Capital Volume 1.)

This last quote demonstrates Marx outlining the critical and revolutionary role the dialectical approach plays when rationally applied within and to modes of production. The key broad elements in this approach to thinking with regard to modes of production, and other aspects of life are 1. a recognition of the existing situation; 2. A recognition of its transient nature; and 3. the recognition of radical/revolutionary change. Points 2 and 3 are the parts the bourgeoisie and their supporters are in denial about. In his notebooks, known as the Grundrisse, Marx provides some additional points on how to start from the abstract and work toward understanding the interconnected detail and the processes involved in the real world as distinct from the world of ideas. First, the difference between idealistic dialectics and materialist dialectics.

“Hegel fell into the illusion of conceiving the real as the product of thought concentrating itself, probing its own depths, and unfolding itself out of itself, by itself, whereas the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete is only the way in which thought appropriates the concrete, reproduces it as the concrete in the mind. But this is by no means the process by which the concrete itself comes into being.” (Marx. Grundrisse.)

The idealistic form of dialectics always returns to contemplation of the idea for further refinement or perfection – as the test of its relevance. Essentially it is satisfied by asking; does reality conform to the perfect idea. If it doesn’t the temptation is to select from reality only those aspects which fit the idea. In addition this method frequently ushers in the battle of ideas syndrome, in which competing ideological sides each claim – in front of a panel, membership or readership – that their ideas are the best. The idea which finally wins approval is judged to be correct, just because it won. In contrast, materialist dialectic always starts from and returns to experimentation and detailed rigorous observation of reality for conformation of the ideas relevance to it, and asks; does the idea reflect the reality including the reality of potential and actual change. If it doesn’t then the idea isn’t accurate. Unfolding reality becomes the criteria for judgement, not the static opinions of those listening to the pros and cons of the ideas. The rational form of dialectics rises from the abstract cognition of reality by successive determinations of thought, as assisted by many observations of reality. This leads to a progressive improvement of the concepts used. Thus the concrete reality is apprehended by the brain as;

“..a totality of thoughts, concrete in thought, in fact a product of thinking and comprehending; but not in any way a product of the concept which thinks and generates itself outside or above observation and conception; a product, rather, of the working-up of observation and conception into concepts.” (Marx. Grundrisse.)

Anyone who has opened any of the three volumes of Marx’s Das Capital and looked at the contents list will recognise the enormous effort of the working up of observation and concepts undertaken by the author. Years and years of intensive research went into detailed analysis of the capitalist mode of production. How accurately it reflected the reality and the dialectically changing reality of the economic, financial and social conditions, can only be understood after reading it thoroughly and familiarising oneself with the socio-economic situation itself. But elsewhere Marx went even further than the above quote and reasoned that human beings are part of nature and therefore their abilities are natural abilities, including the ability to act upon and think about the objects and relationships around them. Therefore, the objective product of human activity confirms the objective activity of humanity and also the correctness of human thinking. It is practical activity which confirms the accuracy of human thinking, not the elegance, multiplicity, or intricacy of their ideas. Prior to that, Marx had already concluded that;

“…consistent naturalism or humanism distinguishes itself both from idealism and materialism, constituting at the same time the unifying truth of both.” (Marx. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.)

As noted earlier, the 19th century words and phrases used by those who improved the dialectical method of pursuing knowledge and understanding, can be somewhat obscure. This is particularly applicable to those who wrote in a different language and were later translated into English. So rather, than simply quoting them in summary using their often convoluted words I offer the following guidelines, (or check list for evaluation) presented as stages, that I use myself in my own effort to unify the insights of materialism and the world of ideas within a dialectical framework. They were formulated after reading Hegel, Marx and Engels on the revolutionary-humanist and dialectical method of enquiry. This suggests the need;

1. To accurately know what something is identified as.
2. To accurately know what something is comprised of.
3. To accurately know how it came into being.
4. To accurately know the natural or social context it depends upon.
5. To accurately know the objects internal contradictions and process of transformation whether characterised as germination, transformation or decay.
6. To accurately grasp the direction or potential direction any transformation can take. (ie. By the working up of the five levels of enquiry into an enriched idea of 1.)
7. To test each stage against reality, (experimentally or by serious observation and study.)
8. To always maintain certainty with an element of doubt as new or unforseen developments can occur.
9. To always remember that the essence of humanities thinking is achieved as a natural, social species, not as a spiritual creation of individuals, nations, religions or races.

The question of accuracy is often one of degree, because it it is not always possible to test this criteria given that accurate information and evidence are not always freely (or even expensively) available. Utilising the best available evidence at the time and admitting this is the honest way to proceed, if waiting until better arrives is not an option. The dangers of ones own confirmation bias as well as others bias also needs to be kept in mind. I suggest the integrated combination of these stages of knowledge is what separates the dialectical process of thinking from all other methods. Just grasping stages 1 and 2 accurately is enough to get by in many realms of life providing they are accurately understood. Stage 3 needs to be accurately contemplated for any level of understanding and positive interaction above naming and categorising. Many commentators fail to go beyond this 3rd stage.

However, it is the fourth, fifth and to a lesser extent the sixth stage which determines the more scientific approach to understanding and intervening in the natural and social arenas of life. Nevertheless, it is the inclusion of the sixth, seventh and eighth stages which transforms thinking into a forward looking and revolutionary mode of understanding. Many of these levels or stages of knowledge and understanding are well established in some areas of human endeavour, but not others. Engineering, building, science, medicine, for example, could not function effectively without using 4, 5, 6 and 7 (ie testing results) levels of understanding. It is the 8th and 9th which are frequently missing and wilfully disregarded in much of religious and political thinking in the 21st century as it has also been in in the past. In my opinion it is all these stages or Ievels of understanding, which need to be kept alive and continually championed, not just the easiest or most convenient.

R. Ratcliffe (September 2018.)

Posted in Anti-Capitalism, Critique, Marx, Revolutionary-Humanism | Leave a comment


Everybody knows the dice are loaded.
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.
Everybody knows the war is over.
Everybody knows the good guys lost.
Everybody knows the fight is fixed.
The poor stay poor the rich get rich.
That’s how it goes.
Everybody knows.

Sometimes it takes a poet to capture the spirit of the times in a few words and images and Leonard Cohen in this poem certainly put his finger on much of the malady facing humanity in the 20th and 21st centuries. The first verse of the poem ‘Everybody Knows’ reproduced above is an excellent example. Furthermore, practically every verse in this poem turned song encapsulates some aspect of life during the neo-liberal phase of capitalism. For a start, in the game of life, under this system, the dice are certainly loaded against the working classes and in favour of the elite. Many of us have metaphorically had our fingers crossed most of the time. If Mr Cohen was referring to the end of the Second World War in the third line of the above verse, then certainly many of the good guys lost out. An estimated six million lost everything, including their lives. My father, part of the allied air force, in the UK sent here and there to fight fascism, survived but certainly lost his hair, his health, his teeth, his sense of fairness and eventually his job when he returned to civvy street in 1947.

He was one of a whole generation of Western pale-skinned working class survivors of that total war against fascism but who also thought they were fighting for something positive – the right of nations to self-determination. Yet he was accused of being a fascist when he later objected to economic immigration taking away much needed UK jobs and houses. Apparently he felt that he and his mates hadn’t fought for the freedom of ‘others’ in order to be economically and culturally replaced by them later or by their children later still. Millions had died, some from his own Nissan hut, in that war against an authoritarian version of capitalism categorised as fascism, but that didn’t matter. When capital and its supporters needed cheap labour in the UK, and recruited it from around the globe, people like dad became classed as neo-nazis, for objecting. No more evidence for such ill-thought out venom was deemed necessary than opposition to the importation of cheap labour. A fact which said more about the accusers than the accused.

He was not on his own. The same thing happened and is still happening in the rest of Europe and North America and perhaps elsewhere as an older generation that gave practically everything, except their lives and like dad, were (and are) routinely, unfairly and simplistically categorised as being the very thing they fought against. Dad was bitter about many things that had happened to him during the 1930s and the war, but like millions of others, grumpiness, a quick temper and an acid tongue did not induce him to become something he had fought against. Nor did many of that older generations children turn to fascism, practically everyone of my generation knew from parents, school and community the general reason for what what had taken place between 1939 and 1945. And of course, referring back to the poem, after the war was over, the class struggle to survive was in fact still fixed and everyone knows the poor stayed poor and the rich got rich – stinking rich in fact – whilst many of the poor got literally stinking poor, particularly in old age. And;

That’s how it goes –
Everybody knows!

Everybody knows the boat is leaking.
Everybody knows the captain lied.
Everybody’s got that sinking feeling.
Like their father or their dog just died.
Everybody’s talking to their pockets.
Everybody wants a box of chocolates.
And a long-stemmed rose.
That’s how it goes.
Everybody knows.

I shall assume that the boat leaking in this second verse refers to our mode of production which includes and supports the economy, culture, finance, politics etc. Practically everybody, except those in denial, knows that in all of these institutional arenas morality, integrity, fair play and honesty are indeed still leaking out of the system fast. Moreover, everybody knows the captains of industry, commerce, finance, education, state institutions and politics have lied and continue to do so when it suits them. Faced with a patriarchal, sexist political elite – all of whom are in the system for what they can get out of it and lie about their motives and deals – choosing who to vote for cannot be based upon their morality, truth or honesty – other criteria kicks in – and it has now kicked in big time.

And of course, millions of citizens globally, some worse than others, have now got a permanent existential sinking feeling concerning their present and future situation. It is one similar to, and frequently involves, the death of a significant other. In addition, everybody knows that our culture is based upon how much we have or don’t have in our pocket. It is also common knowledge that retail therapy, buying stuff, (epitomised by the box of chocolates) has become the ersatz (and diabetic inducing) sweetener for a lost sense of community belonging, well being and self-esteem. That’s currently how it goes. And of course, everybody knows. And that’s not all they know.

And everybody knows that its now or never
Everybody knows its me or you.
And everybody knows you live for ever.
When you’ve done a line or two.
Everybody knows the deal is rotten.
Old Black Joe’s still picking cotton.
For your ribbon and bows.
And everybody knows.

Bourgeois individualistic dualism now rules and everyone knows it takes the form of competition (there’s only one winner attitudes and practices) between individuals for jobs, homes, prizes, esteem and even partners. Everybody knows its a me, me, me culture and even the much needed me too movement starts with me and does not embrace the needs of poor ethnic women or those of the working class. Everybody knows we will soon be forgotten, unless we are lucky enough to have written a book, a piece of music, a poem or made an outstanding painting or statue. Simply emptying our bins, cleaning our streets, keeping our electricity and water flowing, growing our food, making our clothes, nursing us back to health, driving our trains and buses, etc., (just some of the real essentials for life as we know it) will not prevent us from sinking into a thankless obscurity.

Everybody knows the post-slavery deal and pre and post-war New-Deals were rotten and the majority of dark-skinned people along with poor pale-skinned people are still routinely entrapped in modern forms of debt and trafficked slavery. They are still relegated to the bottom of the current capitalist constructed socio-economic pile. And in this regard, everybody knows who still picks cotton and in particular who sews our third world manufactured clothes – because the latter is printed on every shirt and dress label. And yes again – everybody knows – that’s how it goes.

Sometimes it takes a poet only a few short stanzas, to make obvious a whole picture that should be obvious to all, and however artistically, tell it how it is. The poem goes on further with a some references to more personal issues which I will omit. Those interested can always obtain the poem or the song, which I strongly recommend, for it is well worth reading or listening to. Finally, I am no poet but inspired to write this short article by Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows, I offer my own feeble updated contribution to what everybody knows before signing off.

Everybody knows the seas are rising.
Everybody knows its getting too hot.
Everybody knows there’s too much rubbish.
But everybody wants more than they’ve got.
Everybody knows the worlds in trouble.
Yet everybody stays inside their bubble,
And buys more clothes.
That’s how it goes.
Everybody knows.

Yes indeed, Leonard!
Everybody knows – everybody knows.

Roy Ratcliffe (August 2018)

Posted in Anti-Capitalism, Critique, dispossession, neo-liberalism | Tagged , | 16 Comments


After finally finishing the book ‘The Great War for Civilisation’ by Robert Fisk I decided it needed reviewing on this blog. For even though it was published in 2005, its content is still valuable in understanding the situation we find ourselves in 2018. I feel its content is so important to understanding the middle east from a humanist perspective, that despite this long delay it still needed to be done. However, how do you adequately review a manuscript of over 1200 event-full pages in the space of a short article? The huge scale of the book is why it took me so long to finish it, as I have an extensive reading list of challenging material to get through and a book of my own to finish writing. To do Mr Fisk’s book justice would require a review the length of a small book or long pamphlet. And even then would that be really enough? I doubt it! It really does need to be read in full. A booklet or nothing? Not an option. After weighing up the alternatives I decided on the following strategy.

First I would quote an extensive section of the authors own words which I think sum up the books importance along with his acknowledgement of the many sided nature of the inhumanity taking place there. Second I would add just a few comments of my own to establish the context of the quote and a few later to round off this apology for an inadequate review. The context of the lengthy quote which follows takes place after extensive material on his reporting of Afghanistan, Suez, Israel/Palestine, Algeria, Lebanon, the Iraq/Iran war, the 1st Gulf War and much else. He penned the words which follow as an immediate reaction to the news of the two planes which had been flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. Although his hasty estimate of the number of casualties was inaccurate the rest is chillingly pertinent to our present global situation in 2018. So here is Mr Fisk in his own words written in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

“So it has come to this. The entire modern history of the Middle East – the collapse of the Ottoman empire, the Balfour Declaration, Lawrence of Arabia’s lies, the Arab revolt, the foundation of the state of Israel, four Arab-Israeli wars and the 34 years of Israel’s brutal occupation of Arab land – all erased within hours as those who claim to represent a crushed, humiliated population struck back with the wickedness and awesome cruelty of a doomed people. Is it fair – is it moral – to write this so soon, without proof, when the last act of barbarism, in Oklahoma, turned out to be the work of home-grown Americans? I fear it is. America is at war and, unless I am mistaken, many thousands are now scheduled to die in the Middle East, perhaps in America too. Some of us warned of ‘the explosion to come’. But we never dreamed of this nightmare.

And yes, Osama bin Laden comes to mind, his money, his theology, his frightening dedication to destroy American power. I have sat in front of bin Laden as he described how his men helped destroy the Russian Army in Afghanistan and thus the Soviet Union. Their boundless confidence allowed them to declare war on America. But this is not the war of democracy versus terror that the world will be asked to believe in the coming days. It is also about American missiles smashing into Palestinian homes and US helicopters firing missiles into a Lebanese ambulance in 1996 and American shells crashing into a village called Qana and about a Lebanese militia – paid and uniformed by America’s Israeli ally – hacking and raping and murdering their way through refugee camps.

No, there is no doubting the utter, indescribable evil of what has happened in the United States. That Palestinians could celebrate the massacre of 20,000, perhaps 35,000 innocent people is not only a symbol of their despair but of their political immaturity, of their failure to grasp what they had always been accusing their Israeli enemies of doing: acting disproportionately. All the years of rhetoric, all the promises to strike at the head of ‘the American snake’ we took for empty threats. How could a backward, conservative, undemocratic and corrupt group of regimes, and small, violent organisations fulfil such preposterous promises? Now we know.

And in the hours that followed yesterdays annihilation, I began to remember those other extraordinary assaults upon the US and its allies, miniature now by comparison with yesterdays casualties. Did not the suicide bombers who killed 241 American servicemen and 100 French paratroops in Beirut on 23 October 1983 time their attacks with unthinkable precision? There were just seven seconds between the Marine bombing and the destruction of the French three miles away. Then there were the attacks upon US bases in Saudi Arabia, and last years attempt – almost successful it now turns out – to sink the USS Cole in Aden. And then how easy was our failure to recognise the new weapon of the Middle East which neither Americans nor any other Westerners could equal: the despair-driven, desperate suicide-bomber. And there will be, inevitably, and quite immorally, an attempt to obscure the historical wrongs and the injustices that lie behind yesterdays firestorms. We will be told about ‘mindless terrorism’, the ‘mindless’ bit being essential if we are not to realise how hated America has become in the land of the birth of the three great religions.

Ask an Arab how he responds to 20,000 or 30,000 innocent deaths and he or she will respond as decent people should,that it is an unspeakable crime. But they will ask why we did not use such words about the sanctions that have destroyed the lives of perhaps half a million children in Iraq, why we did not rage about the 17,500 civilians killed in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. And those basic reasons why the Middle East caught fire last September – the Israeli occupation of Arab land, the dispossession of Palestinians , the bombardments, and state-sponsored executions …all these must be obscured lest they provide the smallest fractional reason for yesterday’s mass savagery.

No Israel was not too blame – although we can be sure that Saddam Hussein and the other grotesque dictators will claim so – but the malign influence of history and our share in its burden must surely stand in the dock with the suicide bombers. Our broken promises, perhaps even our destruction of the Ottoman empire, led inevitably to this tragedy. America has bankrolled Israel’s wars for so many years that it believed this would be cost-free. No longer so. But, of course, the US will want to strike back against ‘world terror’, and last nights bombardment of Kabul may have been the opening salvo. Indeed, who could ever point the finger at America now for using that pejorative and sometimes racist word ‘terrorism’.

Eight years ago I helped make a television series that tried to explain why so many Muslims had come to hate the West. Last night, I remembered some of the Muslims in that film, their families burnt by American made bombs and weapons. They talked about how no one would help them but God, Theology versus technology, the suicide bomber against the nuclear power. Now we have learned what this means.” (Robert Fisk. ‘The Great War for Civilisation’ Pub Fourth Estate. pages 1029 – 1031)

Although I do not agree with everything the author writes in this extract or in the whole book, it cannot be doubted that he has successfully challenged the Western elites dualist version of events in the Middle East. A version in which one side is represented as civilised and the other as uncivilised; where one side is seen as essentially good and the other is essentially bad. He correctly concluded that many thousands would subsequently die in the Middle East. In Iraq the number may never be accurately known. And now the same goes for Yemen and Syria. In addition he traces some secondary, but essential elements of the dialectical struggle between the Advanced Capitalist countries need to dominate global resources and markets and the various indigenous peoples who may object and try to prevent it in various ways. Elsewhere in the book he identified and recorded something else also of contemporary relevance.

He mentions the vitriolic attacks upon anyone who questioned the dominant narrative of the western elites. Fisk wrote that he never imagined how nasty and personal it would get as he was classed as a Nazi, Anti-American, anti-Semite and a Fascist just for writing the above. Simply being against the elites support for the American led invasion of Iraq and their support for the Zionist occupation of Palestine is enough for the elite establishment to engage in orchestrated character assassination against those who will not toe their line and speak out. In this latter regard, note for example, the recent media savaging of the peace activist leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, also for his anti-Zionist support of Palestinian rights. His anti-Colonialist stance has been twisted into making out that he is soft on anti-Semitism and supportive of violent terrorists. How is that for an example of the manufacture of fake news? It would be hard to better it, in my opinion, at least this side of the Atlantic.

I am no admirer of US President, Donald Trump, but notice also the attacks upon him for declaring much of the Capitalist media as creating fake news. Most of us workers have known for years, that capitalist media (the 5th organ of the capitalist state) has always been manipulative and frequently downright dishonest with regard to supplying the public with information. UK striking trade unionists in the 1960’s and 70’s, for example, would often only trust one newspaper (the Financial Times) to report their struggles at least partially accurately. So Trump, no stranger to media manipulation himself, is nevertheless correct at least concerning the media who are hostile to him and he is only repeating what millions of American citizens already know. The US government under Trump may at times resemble a mad hatters tea party, and a dangerous one at that, but his Democratic critics are daily proving themselves worthy of replicating it when they get the opportunity to do so. Note also that those who have published anti-Clinton views are being accused by some establishment figures of manipulation by Russia, whilst those whistle-blowers who publish what the elite want hidden are being classed as witting or unwitting agents of foreign powers.

From a revolutionary-humanist and anti-capitalist perspective Robert Fisk’s book fails to make a clear link between the actions of the West and the needs of its capitalist driven mode of production for resources and markets. That is the reality behind Mr Fisk’s term “malign influence of history”. It is also light on the differences between the motives of the capitalist elites and those of their millions of blue and white-collar worker citizens. His use of a collective ‘us‘ and ‘we‘ in the West in his analysis misses out the obvious rift between capital and labour during the period covered by the book, not only in economic matters but also in social and political affairs. The millions, world-wide and in the West who demonstrated against American led wars from Korea, through Vietnam and on to Iraq, indicate that we in the west are not united in treating the rest of the world’s people as collateral damage in the pursuit of profit. The rift still exists and at the moment most of us can only protest and, where we can, offer charity to those who are the worst treated victims of this corrupt system.

Nevertheless, despite these shortcomings, this book is an important contribution to breaking through the domination of the neo-capitalist elites narrative in global and Middle East affairs. And to my mind, it is one of the best. It records and asks questions about the loss of humanity not only among those perpetrators of the ex-colonialist/imperialists powers but also among those who have decided to fight back. The book eloquently reveals that atrocities of revenge by members of the oppressed and exploited, against the many atrocities perpetrated by the oppressors, does nothing but create a downward spiral of inhumanity and leads to no positive outcome. Just more of the same. This downward spiral is described in detail in the book and it is at times difficult to read what one set of human beings can do to another as witnessed, in this case, by Robert Fisk. Yet it is important to confront and understand these recurring savage outcomes of a system based on extreme forms of economic, social and political alienation. So I recommend the book to all and offer much belated apologies to Robert Fisk – as this is the best review I can do at the moment.

Roy Ratcliffe (August 2018)

Posted in Anti-Capitalism, capitalism, Critique, dispossession, neo-liberalism, Politics, Revolutionary-Humanism | Tagged , | Leave a comment


[Democracy: “…a situation in which everyone is treated equally”. A process: .”..relating to or… available to the broad masses of the people.” Websters Dictionary]

Democracy under Capitalism.

Much play is made by the political class (and many other pro-capitalists) concerning the so-called merits of western democratic practices. It is often trumpeted by its advocates as – the best system possible. Others, more sceptical, view it as the least worse form of governance for modern societies. The result has been, that the concept and practice of bourgeois democracy has been treated almost like any other capitalist commodity and therefore marketed and exported to punters around the world. However, even in the European heartlands, where ‘bourgeois democracy’ has been most developed, many millions of citizens are not exactly enthralled by its functioning. Millions now view it with suspicion and contempt and do not bother to participate in its restricted activities. This negative reaction is also a phenomena that has appeared wherever else it has been adopted. Such a negative response is not really surprising – and it is not due to apathy – a frequent ill-considered rationalisation for any obvious lack of interest.

In fact many people throughout the world have actually seen through its paper thin relationship to direct democracy and have rejected it. More and more people are coming to the conclusion that, even when operating at its best, this form of democracy is not really meant to be inclusive. Indeed, examined closely, bourgeois democracy is essentially a means of excluding the majority from effective engagement with, and control of, issues that deeply effect their lives. In this regard, modern (ie bourgeois) democracy is a direct, albeit modified, descendent of the forms developed in ancient Greece. Formal political discussion, debate and decision by was initiated, and perfected by elites in the ancient discriminatory political arena known as the Greek Polis. By that period of history, any direct democracy of previous egalitarian modes of production had been completely destroyed, along with the essential rights of women and ‘other’ non-Greek men – both of whom could therefore be (and were) captured and treated as slaves.

So the important point to recognise and stress is that modern bourgeois democracy is not democracy in the abstract, as the above quoted part of Webster’s definition implies, but a particular form of restricted democracy. One which is designed to allow bourgeois elites to govern in their own interests. It was adopted by the bourgeoisie and altered with regard to who was allowed to vote on important issues and who (in elections), one was allowed to vote for. For example; from Greek to late Feudal times, it was the landed aristocracy which supplied those who were allowed to influence decisions (not always by vote) and from which candidates for office were selected. After their ‘revolutions’, the bourgeoisie initially extended the direct influence on governance to include those who owned capital, (the newly rich). The capitalist class also became part of the pool of possible candidates for public office. It was blatantly clear to the bourgeoisie that this new addition to voting rights was simply a sharing of power – an accommodation with the remnants of aristocracy. The old feudalist and new capitalist elite, after battling each other, combined in order to carry on ruling in their own, albeit often conflicting, ways.

With the expansion of capitalist activity (more of that later) and the rising numbers of working people, displaced from agriculture and crafts, the unfairness of exclusive elite decision-making was increasingly challenged – as were the new methods of capitalist production. Voting in elections was mistakenly seen as a means to remedy fundamental socio-economic ills. Consequently, agitation for the extension of voting rights to working men (male suffrage) became a mass campaign alongside the development of trade unions and was eventually achieved. This was followed by a suffragette campaign to extend this right to women, which was also successful. At each stage of the huge increase in eligible voters it became clear, despite some doubts, (and many workers hopes) that the bourgeois system was safe from unwanted influences exerted by the new electorate. Its safety in the hands of the elite was ensured by the structure and form of political representation. It is this structure and form we now need to consider.

Representative government.

Because all citizens are allowed to vote in modern representative democracies it is made to appear as if all eligible voters are actively involved in democratic decision-making. However, on closer examination, they are decidedly not. First, of all the broad masses do not choose the candidates who appear on the ballot boxes for election or re-election. That choice is not even made by all the members of a political party, but by a small group within each political party. These ‘executive‘ committees (or candidate panels) are the ones who select the person they want to stand as candidate. Moreover, these miniscule bodies are subject to various forms of outside influence from powerful individuals or other small panels as well as informed by their own career ambitions. The wishes of party donors and their own career paths are never far from the minds of those few who are involved in such selections.

So before we even get to governing at a Parliament or Congressional level, the political system is anything but democratic or exclusively focussed on the general good. Nor is everyone treated equally. In fact the system is thoroughly oligarchical and guided (or in most cases corrupted) by the individually tailored needs and desires of the few involved and their inside and outside backers. The only thing available to ordinary political members or the broad masses is to decide which candidate of some central office influenced, back room dealing oligarchy, should or should not get their vote. This is an extremely limited participation – and occurs only after the event. It bears no resemblance to the idea of democracy in its general form. The next level of the bourgeois form of democracy is also interesting and informative regarding the complete lack of any real contact with the electorate.

If a political grouping win a majority of seats in elections, another small group (or sometimes a few individuals) within the top tiers of the successful party decide who should do what in the government of an entire country including – who should have the top position. Then Prime Ministers or Presidents (and their close advisors) get to deal out lucrative jobs for the boys (and sometimes girls) to reward past favours, or ensure future ones. The wishes of the majority in this scheme of things has never had a look in, let alone had any serious purchase upon what has taken place or is about to take place at the level of administration. Although after an election the population are told they have chosen a government, in fact, no matter who wins, the population has had a government chosen for them. The facts contradict the ideology. So in reality we have a situation in which everyone is not treated equally, nor is the process available to the broad masses. And it gets even more undemocratic, if that is possible, when the whole theatre or pantomime of governance is finally opened for business.

There is a whole industry of powerful, well-funded, think – tank, political lobbying agencies that hover like lies around the seats of power and decision making. They use every inducement and reward imaginable to seduce and persuade elected representatives to legislate in a manner favourable to those who fund their activities. No one elects these agents of capital. They are not concerned with the general welfare of citizens or humanity at large, but with the narrow interests of other powerful and wealthy individuals, corporations or institutions. This parasitic lobbying is clearly not a democratic process for ordinary citizens do not play a part nor can they compete with such powerful means of persuasion and influence. However, it does allow the back stage economic and financial elites to push and pull decision-making strings in the directions they need to maintain or improve the system as they desire it.

Then of course there are the permanent officials and officers of the state, who steer the day to day functioning of the various institutions of governance. None of these are elected, but selected and chosen on the basis of their general loyalty to the system and particular loyalty to those individuals or panels who selected them. Career considerations and promotion prospects ensures that their reliance upon the upper tiers for security of tenure is rewarded by loyalty and cooperation, and even voluntary silence (or gagging orders) when needed. So as was intended from the outset, the political and administrative functioning of capitalist societies are completely locked into the needs and wishes of the economic, financial, military, political and educational elites. With a few well-groomed (in the full sense of the word) exceptions, the ordinary citizens and working class people are intentionally locked out.


So far we have considered the exclusive nature of the so-called democratic process of selecting candidates and choosing the temporary Ministers and permanent officers of the various capitalist states. The narrowly drawn, but powerful interests which, by various means are able to penetrate this exclusive and hugely undemocratic process have also been indicated along with the career considerations of those who have become the chosen few. Now it is time to consider, the powerful economic forces which determine to a greater or lesser degree, what foreign and domestic decisions are made by capitalist government.

The capitalist production process is one dominated by the needs of capital in its various forms; industrial capital, commercial capital and finance capital. Each category of capital needs to be thrown by its owners/managers (individual or collective) into a process by which the original amount is preserved and a new amount (profits or interest) added to it. At the end of each cycle the overarching requirement is to keep the process going, so that capital is not idle in any of its departments but constantly circulating. Industrial capital needs to be continually put into new production; commercial capital needs to continually purchase items and sell them; finance capital needs to continually find new sources to lend capital and receive interest.

The collective pressure of those individual and collective owners of capital to keep the system going is immense. They have become accustomed to living off the proceeds of capital and getting rich in the process. From their positions in the system they have come to view it as ‘natural‘ that there should be rich and poor and that the economic system – more or less as it is – is something to be taken for granted. Thus, when sales of products dry up, pressure for new sales outlets increases and they need to be energetically found. When essential raw materials become scarce, pressure to find new and guaranteed sources of them builds up. When waste materials accumulate, new places to dump them need to be urgently located. When investment opportunities are in short supply, new sources and forms of investment need to in be found or created. The logic of the capitalist mode of production makes it like a machine which the owners and those who benefit most from its operation, wish to keep in constant motion.

However, to keep it in motion the machine needs to be supplied with all the essentials it needs. In general, the more extensive and efficient the system of production, the more these essentials are needed. Increased output requires increased input in one form or another. For capitalists and their supporters, the question is perennially posed: ‘Where can we get them?’ Nations who have these essentials; material resources, markets and opportunities need to be made at least friendly to the most industrious and powerful capitalist countries or else they may be tricked or forced to becoming client states of one kind or another.

The list of European annexations, conquests, settlements, arm twisting treaties, and territories ceded was several pages long before the 21st century. When two, or more, powerful capitalist countries are in competition for these essential resources, especially those which are scarce, then armed skirmishes and even invasions are still likely. This is no theoretical conclusion, but a matter of historical and contemporary record. On a global scale capitalist competition creates social instability among peoples and nations along with ecological instability. Two World Wars and numerous invasions, unfriendly regimes toppled, uncooperative individuals assassinated for standing in the way, tell their own story once the official spin is spun away.

It is a fact that excuses and additional reasons are frequently layered on top of the fundamental economic compulsions described above. This is done to confuse or misguide the general public as to what is really at the bottom of the foreign policy of capitalist and state-capitalist countries. A section of the bourgeois intelligentia and media outlets are tasked with hiding, smoothing over or even white – washing the actions of their respective national elites and demonising their rivals. They are amply rewarded for these cosmetic applications on, and air-brushing of, modern history, to disguise the numerous disfigurations of our humanity engendered by the needs of the capitalist mode of production. Of course they can fool some of the people all the time, or all the people some of the time, however it is not always possible for them to fool all the people all of the time.

Another frequent tactic intended to fool the masses by pro-capitalists, is to claim that the capitalist production machine needs to be kept running all the time, irrespective of the myriad of negative symptoms it produces, because workers need jobs. There is a section of the reformist left that buys into that unwarranted assumption and masks it’s own pro-capitalist needs by pretending to be concerned for the needs of working people. It’s a piece of nonsense, but is given credence because it is frequently repeated by so-called political, economic and social experts, who sound like they know what they are talking about. But of course it is obvious nonsense to claim that working for capital is the only means of creating jobs for working people. People had jobs and occupations before capitalism became the dominant economic and political mode of production and non-profit making production still exists on a massive scale.

Whenever you hear or read that particular type of ossified bourgeois economic nonsense it is invariably coming from a politician, an academic or government minister, few, if any, of whom work for a profit based capitalist organisation. They along with local government, national government, education, higher education, state health workers, police, army, navy, air force, fire service, employees all have jobs in organisations not based upon invested capital and are not required to return a profit. Interestingly, most of the above have standards of living and job satisfaction equal or better than the majority employed in capitalist concerns. In terms of job security, health and safety and pension rights, those non-capitalist jobs, for ordinary workers are frequently far superior to those in the private capitalist concerns. Of course if all the above noted jobs can be done well and effectively without the intervention of capital and without the need to produce profit, then so could all jobs. Yet for that to happen, the capitalist mode of production would need to further phased out and a post-capitalist mode of production constructed.

Indeed, the creation of large-scale non-profit public services and production organisations, is one of the most important developmental processes, that the capitalist mode of production has offered to the future of humanity. It may seem a massive contradiction that a system based originally upon individual capital and private ownership of the means of production, has given birth to its opposite; collective capital and social ownership of public services. But contradictions are everywhere, they are how the real world works. It would seem that here too, as in the natural world, the seeds of the new come out of the old: before the old one dies and makes way for an expansion of the new. To continue the analogy; of course the new will need to be nurtured and be provided with time to blossom. So when comments coming out of the secure public sector extol the virtues of the insecure private sector, we are witness to a body that lives in a new mode of production, with a brain that is rooted in an old one. Moreover, it is a brain that stands in the way of general progress.

And this point brings us back to the question of why bourgeois democracy is the way it is and not something; “in which everyone is treated equally”. And why it is definitely not something .”..available to the broad masses”. Can the reader imagine that the broad masses, if they had the chance, would vote to continue having low-paid, unhealthy, dangerous and precarious, jobs, whilst everyone else was treated much better? Would you expect most of the unemployed, if they were asked to vote on it, to settle for unemployment whilst some in the elite have multiple well-paid jobs? Can we suppose that in advanced old age, pensioners would vote against ending up in short-staffed, care homes with low-paid, overworked carers? And can you imagine the capitalist class and the middle-classes really wanting to have a system “in which everyone is treated equally”? Of course not. Not even in their wildest liberal dreams. And is there not something quite nauseating about, well paid, job secure, adequately pensioned, middle-class individuals, shielded from market forces, asserting that due to market forces, ordinary working people and their children will have to endure, low pay, unhealthy and precarious employment for the rest of their lives?

Capitalism and authoritarianism.

From the logic of what is written above, we can conclude the following. 1: That when in crisis, the capitalist classes and their hangers on, either directly or by proxy, will engage in competitive wars, (both economic and military) rather than change their system. 2: That in any crisis these same people would not allow any kind of internal democracy that might seriously challenged their system. Indeed, they already demonstrate that the freedom of thought and protest is severely limited if it does not serve their own elite purposes. If the voters in elections, do not choose the candidate the elite prefer, as in the case of the USA, they imply foreign manipulation and a gullible or 5th column electorate. They wouldn’t hesitate to suspend elections altogether, along with existing civil liberties and declare emergency powers rather than contemplate radical changes. Indeed, they have done so in the past. When the elite say they will vigorously defend their system of democracy, what they mean is they will ruthlessly defend their system of exploitation. It isn’t hard to work out what they would do if a substantial internal challenge to the system emerged.

If any reader is in doubt, then they could check out what the EU elite did to Greece as the least worst kind of response to serious reforms during their debt crisis. Mull over what the elites in Egypt, Turkey and Syria did to put down mass citizen protests for change as examples of the extreme lengths which elites will go to prevent their system from being altered from below. Add to this the treatment of Kurdish aspirations for independence, (97% voted in favour of it) denied by the Iraq business and political elite who want to keep hold of the lucrative oil business. Even consider what happened in Catalonia when a majority of people there wanted to continue supporting capitalism but on a more regional basis. The nationalist middle-class elite in Spain, knew what would happen to their stipends if they lost full control of the taxes flowing into their coffers from that region. They were having none of it and voters were clubbed unconscious and beaten up whilst others were arrested and at least one had to go into exile to avoid arrest, simply for advocating a vote of independence.

It is at this point that the other fundamental factor previously mentioned – economics – needs to addressed with regard to the overall political tendency of advanced capitalism toward authoritarianism. There is a built in inclination in capitalist economic and political affairs, to counter some aspects of the capitalist economic free-for-all by resorting to authoritarian actions. It occurs most regularly in periods of crisis. The strong economic tendency of elimination of competition by monopoly under capitalism is mirrored at the political level by the elimination of political competition by authoritarianism. When this development occurs, the power of the state is harnessed by a single political party, in order to smooth out the extreme effects of unplanned economic competition and to counter any stalemate or instability within social life along with ending the competitive struggle for political power. This totalitarian inclination at the heart of the capitalist system of economic activity is manifested in the political and intellectual realms of society in three basic ways.

The first is by way of establishing political coalitions in which separate political parties agree to rule jointly in order to impose upon the people a platform of economic and social measures agreed between them. However, this remedy itself is invariably unstable and rarely lasts very long before breaking down. Note, for example, the limited time-scale of coalitions even during the existential crisis of the First and Second Capitalist driven World Wars. So in an extreme crises of a prolonged nature, the idea gradually emerges (among all classes) of the need for a single determined and resolute political entity to replace the competitive stalemate and confusion. It can seem to many that any form of ‘law and order’ is better than an absence of law and order. Starting off as what is now incorrectly diagnosed as ‘populism’, the mood eventually crystallises into the desire for someone and some single political party to take power and rule with an iron will and iron fist for the hoped for benefit of all.

Emerging to fulfil this role in the 19th century, during the last severe crisis of the capitalist mode of production, were two forms of iron will accompanied by iron fists – Fascism and Bolshevism. Hitler and Mussolini etc., on the one hand; Lenin and Mao etc., on the other. Both these basic forms of authoritarian response had nuanced differences. Spanish, German and Italian fascism had their own individual peculiarities, as did Russian, Chinese and Eastern European Bolshevism. But the differences were of form rather than content. All the authoritarian forms offered to run society on behalf of the little man – hence its attraction to many workers – and curb the worst characteristics of capitalism whilst retaining it’s system of wage-labour, one party governance, central planning and aggressive resource acquisition. All the 19th century iron-fist forms managed to gain control of state power and all used their resources to plan and prepare for war. And of course, it was the same workers who they cynically promised to assist, that were ordered into armed combat and who died by the millions.

The economic and military similarity between Fascism and Bolshevism was because the system they supported was still capitalist, despite being politically designated as communist, socialist or national socialist in three of the cases. True, they were modified forms of capitalism – capitalism controlled by the state! They were right-wing and left-wing variants of the state-capitalist type, but both retained and preserved all the above noted essentials of capitalism – authority, hierarchy, capital investment, wage-labour, surplus-value extraction. This explains their later relatively easy transition to other forms of capitalism (welfare-heavy capitalism in post war Europe) then neo-liberal capitalism. In the cases of Russia, Eastern Europe and China, all in the hands of more entrenched bureaucratic elites, the transition from state-capitalism to neo-liberal forms of capitalism occurred after a much longer period of time, but at an accelerated tempo when it did.

All this reasoning suggests that hopes for a victory of bourgeois democracy over authoritarianism (or democracy versus fascism) is an illusion, or self-delusion, arising from a partial or complete lack of understanding of the capitalist mode of production and the evolution of its social and political development. Authoritarianism at the factory level, the social level, the military level and the bureaucratic level is as much a part of capitalism as money, credit and loan – capital is. Capitalism and authoritarianism are the two sides of the same bourgeois coin. This is why state capitalism in the political form of Fascism or Bolshevism were not simply the inventions of a few ruthless political elites of right or left persuasion. They simply codified and personified the logical expression of the capitalist tendency of centralisation for ever large concentrations of accumulated capital and the power and influence this creates. If capitalism is likened to a coin, then bourgeois democracy is on one side and on the other is authoritarianism and Fascism.

In the humanist struggle against capitalist exploitation and authoritarian suppression, it is a tragic misfortune that the very organs of defence against capitalist exploitation, created by the slow and painful efforts of the working classes; the trade unions and friendly societies, have become part of the bourgeois establishment. Their, hierarchical structures and their entrenched bureaucracies will ensure they remain wedded to the capitalist system in any present and future class-based struggles. It is more than likely they will stay neutral or actively take the side of capital, as they did in the two world wars of the 20th century. Long ago, Marx noted (with a nod to Greek tragedy), that in the struggle of the working classes against the capitalist class;

“..they seem to throw their opponent to the ground only to see him to draw new strength from the earth and rise again before them, more colossal than ever; they shrink back again and again before the indeterminate immensity of their own goals, until the situation is created in which retreat is impossible.” (Marx. Eighteenth Brummiare of Louis Bonaparte. In Surveys from Exile. Pelican page 150.)

Although more concerned with describing tendencies, than making predictions, this passage by Marx serves as an excellent surrogate for an out and out prediction. Capitalism, like the aftermath of the mythical sowing of dragons teeth by Jason (or Cadmus) seems to rise up after every defeat and armed to the teeth reinstates it domination over humanity and the whole world. Perhaps, given the global levels of pollution and ecological damage now evident, due to its unbridled over-production tendencies, a future situation will indeed be created “in which retreat is impossible”. That tendency, along with capitalisms continued insistence on dragging humanity into genocidal wars, may encourage more people to look up from their daily routine and question if there is not a better way to provide ourselves with adequate food, shelter and safety. Humanity, I keep suggesting, needs a new set of ideas around which to organise it’s resistance to being drawn further down the sink – hole capital has created under our homes and communities.

R. Ratcliffe. (June 2018)
[See ‘Revolutionary-Humanism’, parts 1 and 2 and ‘Capitalism and Fascism’, both on this blog;]


Posted in capitalism, Critique, Economics, Marx, neo-liberalism, Politics | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments


This month, two hundred years ago, (actually on 5 May 1818), Karl Marx was born. And as is usual on any date connected with Marx, a spate of articles by so-called ‘experts’ appeared in periodicals and papers assessing Marx’s contribution to human affairs. Is it not revealing that his birth date is still being used for some kind of public recognition if not quite celebration? Although he has been dead for 135 years his ideas obviously live on. They are lasting far longer, I suggest, than the ideas of those commentators, who frequently declare his irrelevance. In contrast to his painstaking research and conclusions, their feeble assertions will undoubtedly be forgotten only weeks after publication, their names even quicker.

In my experience comments about Marx usually fall into one or other of the following three categories.

1. Those which are hostile to Marx and dismiss him as mistaken and dangerous and therefore not worth the effort of serious study.

2. Those which damn Marx by faint praise and accept (reluctantly or otherwise) that he made some important contributions, but consider he is now outdated and again not really worth the effort to study seriously.

3. Those penned by self-styled ‘Marxists’ who think the Bolsheviks were following in Marx’s footsteps and therefore his works are worth the occasional dip in and out of, before putting them down and getting back to the Lenin or Trotsky version of sectarianism.

This 200 birth date occasion has been no different. So for those who have read one of these recent attempts to disrespect, disregard or distort the great revolutionary-humanists contribution to struggling humanity, I offer this alternative perspective. In this article I will try to point out the shortcomings of each of the above three categories of critique of Marx’s studies and conclusions and provide a more balanced assessment of his efforts to understand the capitalist mode of production and the possibility of a brighter future for humanity.

For a quick example: Marx having read the thoughts of those who (while he was alive) considered themselves ‘Marxists’ (ie category 3 above) declared that he was definitely not a Marxist. This fact and the reasons for expressing it, are rarely considered by those who continue to claim to be ‘Marxist’ and thereby prove that they have not understood the difference between Marx’s revolutionary-humanism and Bolshevik or Stalinist vanguard elitism. Nor have they considered Marx’s views on how some ‘revolutionary men‘ hampered the ‘full development of every previous revolution‘ (Marx. Class struggles in France. Peking edition. page 15.)

Indeed, it is rare to come across anyone – even among his admirers – who has given Marx serious study and this is partly understandable. His economic works comprise of seven substantial volumes of detailed complexity and his political and philosophical writings take up even more substantial volumes. Like any research based branch of intellectual endeavour it takes some time, dedication and persistence to become familiar with the detailed concepts and analysis. It is therefore necessary to make time and summon up commitment. In fact Marx anticipated the difficulty facing readers of his economic researches and methods of presentation, for in a 1872 preface in volume 1 of Das Capital he wrote;

“There is no royal road to science and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.”

I would hazard a guess that more people have done the fatiguing climb and ascended the steep paths of Mount Everest (and succeeded) than have have attempted to traverse the intellectual glaciers and crevasses within the 7 volumes of economic research by Marx. From my own 60 year experience among the left and in academia, it has to be said that the effort to follow the steep trails blazed by Marx’s research has proved to be far too fatiguing for most people whether of left or right persuasion. Some have even baulked at a leisurely stroll among some of his less Hegelian formulations.

So in my experience, a useful starting point with regard to Marx, is to be wary of anyone – including me – who asserts anything, without providing credible evidence. And remember; even quotations can be manipulated or taken out of context to present a distorted picture – particularly if it is being used to serve a dismissive or disrespectful purpose. What follows is my assessment of the contributions – in several areas – that Karl Marx made to our understanding, of the present and future prospects for our species.

One of the important differences between Marx’s critique of capitalist economic activity and most bourgeois economists, including contemporary ones, was with regard to the definition of capital. Most economists describe capital in terms of money or equipment which is supplied by the owners (or borrowers) of capital to fund capitalist production, transport and sales. However, Marx went further and pointed out that capital was accumulated from the previous activities of working people. In fact stripped of its monetary camouflage, it’s bare ‘naked’ form was nothing more (or less) than stored up, previously expended, labour.

Capital, in all its forms, was and is, the result of past labour, but now transformed by workers into commodities, materials, buildings, machinery and money. Or as Marx put it, “Capital is dead labour..” (Capital volume 1 page 233). Workers produce capital – not capitalists! How shocking was that to the minds of the 19th century bourgeoisie? Moreover it was past labour which had been surplus to the direct needs of workers before being creamed off by their employers. He went on to write;

“Wherever a part of society possesses the monopoly of the means of production, the labourer, free or not free, must add to the working time necessary for his own maintenance an extra working time in order to produce the means of subsistence for the owners of the means of production.” (ibid p 235)

Shock, horror!: The source of profit (and capital) – usually shrouded in the esoteric mysteries of book-keeping – was the unpaid, surplus-labour expended by the working classes of the world. And of course, this is the case in the 21st century as it was in the 19th when Marx wrote that. The worker still works part of the day to gain enough to live on but must work another part of the day to make the surplus-products or services and thus value (profits) for the owners and part-owners of the means of production. (So Karl you were definitely right on that). Moreover, he pointed out that improvements in productivity lessened the time needed for workers to earn their wages and increased the time available to produce even bigger profits for the owners. It therefore cannot be surprising that these profits are even more astronomical in modern times than then.

Yet another observation of contemporary relevance given the advent of automation and artificial intelligence, was that mechanisation, meant fewer workers would be needed in the long run, making workers redundant and pushing them into poverty (see Capital volume 1, chapter 15). (You were spot on again Karl!) These elements of Marx’s analysis were hated by the capitalists and their hangers on when he wrote them and they still are. With regard to such negative reactions against the publication of his economic analysis, Marx noted that;

“The peculiar nature of the material it deals with, summons as foes into the field of battle the most violent, mean and malignant passions of the human breast, the Furies of private interest.” (ibid preface)

‘Mean and malignant foes’, adequately describes many of the category 1 critics noted above. And Marx’s economic analysis of capitalism is still hated by some precisely because it is still relevant. Hostility to him is nothing new and his detailed analysis is also why his ideas are considered dangerous by those who continue to benefit from the unpaid labour of working people. They just don’t want working people to read and understand such damning evidence about the system workers are forced to work for when needed. Moreover, we can see from the written evidence that he was certainly not mistaken with regard to the extremes of Poverty and Wealth created under the capitalist mode of production. For in the 21st century, massive wealth is created for the 1% whilst low-wage and food – bank type poverty (or worse) is the structural fate for increasing numbers. This symptom is evident now in all countries dominated by capital, whether we consider the countries which it has dominated for longest or for the shortest.

The financial crisis of 2008, the effects of which were devastating to some, witnessed the collapse of finance houses, the terminal atrophy of building societies and the potential bankruptcy of huge banking companies. Credit default swaps and swindles had long fuelled huge 21st century financial bubbles. Many of the above institutions owed money and either went bankrupt or had to be bailed out at public expense. It should be remembered that prior to this ‘crisis’ the mainstream economists and political pundits of the period said this sort of situation could never happen. But it did! They pretended that they had learned the lessons of the 1939 Wall Street crash, for example, and taken measures to avoid such over-speculation and credit collapse. But they hadn’t really learned anything of the sort. In fact they had not only failed to understand the system they were administering, but had ignored people such as Marx, who had done the hard analytic work for them. For example, as long ago as 1860 he had jotted down the following observation;

“With the development of interest – bearing capital and the credit system, all capital seems to double itself, and sometimes treble itself, by the various modes in which the same capital, or perhaps even the same claim on a debt, appears in different forms in different hands. The greater portion of this ‘money – capital’ is purely fictitious.” (Marx. Capital volume 3 page 460.)

Prior to 2008, the world was awash with fictitious capital and bundled debt instruments such as credit default swaps. (So thanks for the warning Karl.) However, I have to report – not many had listened. Indeed Marx had concluded that this system of finance-capital (interest-bearing capital) could, and indeed would, sooner or later, lead to crisis and collapse. Having studied it thoroughly Marx described the process of crisis, in the following way.

“The chain of payments obligations due at specific dates is broken in a hundred places. The confusion is augmented by the attendant collapse of the credit system, …and leads to violent and acute crises, to sudden and forcible depreciation, to actual stagnation and disruption…” (Capital. volume 3 p 249)

All those confused savers and workers who in 2008 queued up outside building societies and banks, or collected their belongings from collapsed firms such as Lehman Brothers would have recognised – obviously not in Marx’s own words – the violence of the crisis, the sudden depreciation of their investment assets and the actual stagnation and disruption which followed. Stagnation and disruption which persists to this day. It was nice of Marx to give humanity a heads up on this further possibility – but again he was largely ignored.

It is common knowledge that trust in politics is now probably at its lowest point since the 1930s. Politicians and their ‘spin-doctoring’ co-workers, are now almost universally viewed as self-centred and unreliable if not downright dishonest. Being ‘out of touch’ is one of the more gentle rebukes. But even well before the mid 20th century, the problem of politics was evident to all those who bothered to take off their petite-bourgeois blinkers. Marx wrote;

“Where political parties exist, each party sees the root of evil in the fact that instead of itself an opposing party stands at the helm of the state. Even radical and revolutionary politicians seek the root of evil not in the essential nature of the state but in a definite state form, which they wish to replace by a different state form.” (Marx. Collected Works, volume 3 page 197.)

That adequately describes the party-political, sham democracy which pretends to be the best we can expect to conduct our human affairs.  Politicians are an integral part of the ‘system’. They are solid branches of the same monopodial bourgeois root stock. When not in power, their ‘opposition’ is not to the system of exploitation but only to the others currently in charge of it. And this doesn’t just apply to reformist politicians. Do you think the so-called ‘Marxists’ Lenin, Trotsky and the rest of the soviet politburo bothered to read or understand this? Not before, during or after the ascendency of Stalin, in my opinion. A few pages later in the same document, Marx noted that the more keener and lively the political mind-set is; the more incapable it is of understanding social ills.” (ibid p 199) Even the very rare examples of non-corrupt political understanding, deceives the social instinct of those involved in it. (ibid 204). They are so deep in the box they cannot see out of it. How perceptive of Marx was (and is) all that?

Ecology and production.
We are becoming more aware, if we want to, of the ecological effects of unbridled production and consumption upon the planet. Air, soil, ground-water and sea pollution are becoming harder to hide or ignore as the engine of capitalist production continues to churn out myriads of useful (and frequently useless) commodities and services, in order to continue to gather in profits. But here again this is nothing new. Marx, developing the concepts of earlier political economists made the following assertion in his extensive research notes known as the Grundrisse.

“..capital must on the one hand strive to tear down every spatial barrier to intercourse, ie to exchange and conquer the whole earth for its market,…The more developed the capital, therefore, the more extensive the market over which it circulates, …the more does it strive simultaneously for an even greater extension of the market..” (Grundrisse. Page 539.)

Of course, Marx could not have known the ultimate lengths to which the needs of capital would drive humanity. Two – world wars, in which rival capitalist elites (Allies and Axis) drafted it’s citizens into armies to fight and mass kill each other over ultimate control of colonial and imperial territories for the raw materials (coal, oil, rubber, metals and minerals) and markets needed to feed capitalist production and absorb it’s sales. The barbarity of the first world war (1914-1918) and the second world war (1938-1945) would have undoubtedly shocked him but given what he wrote above such ‘striving for a greater extension of the market’ would not have entirely surprised him. Nor would news that once rocket propulsion had been invented that capitalists would set up business plans to visit other planets, to obtain rare minerals once they have terminally exhausted and messed up this one. (Apart from not predicting total war, jet and rocket propulsion, the despoiling of the planet was well spotted Karl.)

The lack of humanity of so many of those who claimed to be ‘Marxists’, is well documented, as is the lack of it among those who like to be called Fascists. These are both documented on this blog and massively elsewhere. The indifference and brutality of those who claim to be decent and liberal members of the bourgeoisie is likewise daily exposed as the social-democratic led invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, the bombing of Libya, Yemen and Syria demonstrate. The lack of humanity displayed toward foreign people is greater than that displayed toward their own citizens, but as noted earlier, poverty, austerity, homelessness, injustice, discrimination, are distributed across the whole spectrum of nations, without impinging too greatly on the bourgeois and petite-bourgeois conscience. Consider Marx on this aspect.

“..the whole of human servitude is involved in the relationship of the worker to production…fully developed humanism…is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man – the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation…”


“Private property has made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours…when it is used by us.” (Marx. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. In Collected Works Volume 3, pages 293 – 306.)

Individual consumer fetishism, conspicuous consumption and retail therapy are more than anticipated by Marx’s scathing remarks. Human beings are primarily a social species. We rely upon each other absolutely. However, the capitalist mode of production has forced us into seeing ourselves as primarily individuals. We live in societies but must compete, rather than cooperate with each other for jobs, housing and other essential needs. We are expected to take for granted those (the ‘other’) who supply us with the essentials to live. We are encouraged by the elite to be indifferent to their standards of living and welfare – providing we are comfortably off.

When the low-paid protest or remove their labour or the desperate underclass rebel we are encouraged to get angry and demonstrative, not sympathetic and supportive. Sadly this look after number one mentality has permeated the whole of bourgeois culture and was only pushed back a little (not completely) by the efforts of a few in areas such as health and social services. But still, ‘conflict between humans and between humans and nature’, badly needs resolving by a ‘fully developed humanism‘.

Modes of production.
Another important contribution Marx made to the understanding of the social and economic history of mankind was with regard to modes of production and their transformation from one mode to another. The hunter-gatherer modes of production gave way to pastoral and herding modes, which in turn became surpassed by modes of production based upon settled agriculture. Each transformation was resisted by some and championed by others.

The current capitalist mode of production arose in competition with the aristocratic feudal mode and the latter’s resistance was eventually overcome. Predictably, the dominant classes of each mode think it should be eternal despite any problems the mode has started to cause for the bulk of society. The capitalist mode based upon money and commodity production for profit, is no different in this regard. When it throws at humanity and the environment more unsolvable problems than the bulk of humanity wish to endure, it is time for a further change in the mode of production. For as Marx, pointed out.

“Nature does not produce on the one side owners of money and commodities, and on the other men possessing nothing but their own labour power. This relation has no natural basis, neither is its social basis one that is common to all historical periods. It is clearly the result of past historical development, the product of many economic revolutions, of the extinction of a whole series of older forms of social production.” (Marx. Capital volume 1 page 169.)

For all the above reasons the contribution made to economic, political and social understanding by Karl Marx should be celebrated, not distorted, demeaned or dismissed. More than any other individual he has furnished a set of intellectual tools for the benefit of humanity to utilise in the struggle for a better world and a healthier planet. Its up to more of us to pick them up, clean away the muck piled upon them by the distorters and wield them – or take the easy way out, sit back and leave them to rust. As always we have a choice.

Meanwhile; ‘Happy birthday dear Karl!’

R. Ratcliffe (May 2018)

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