Thursday, April 21, 2011

Humpty Dumpty analysis

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Humpty Dumpty famously holds that a word means what he wants it to mean:
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master— that's all."
Since 'Lewis Carroll' was the nom de plume of Charles Dodgson, a serious mathematician, we can be confident that the every bit of satirical irony that can be reasonably ascribed to the joke was intended.

The great virtue of Humpty Dumpty’s approach is that one cannot be wrong: one just adjusts the meaning of the terms involved so that no criticism “takes”. It is also an utterly pointless exercise in analytical terms, as one is not holding any specific position; for one is merely using words as placeholders, filling them with whatever content allows one to “win” the argument.

When I learnt that Terry Eagleton had published a book with the title Marx was Right, it seemed – this side of the tyrannical and murderous failures of Leninism and its derivatives – at best a profoundly quixotic exercise. Having now read his recent essay summarising his arguments, it turns out to be a much less interesting exercise than that.

The first principle he wishes to establish is that none of the experience of actually trying to introduce Marxism counts:
Marx was no more responsible for the monstrous oppression of the communist world than Jesus was responsible for the Inquisition. For one thing, Marx would have scorned the idea that socialism could take root in desperately impoverished, chronically backward societies like Russia and China. If it did, then the result would simply be what he called "generalized scarcity," by which he means that everyone would now be deprived, not just the poor. It would mean a recycling of "the old filthy business"—or, in less tasteful translation, "the same old crap." Marxism is a theory of how well-heeled capitalist nations might use their immense resources to achieve justice and prosperity for their people. It is not a program by which nations bereft of material resources, a flourishing civic culture, a democratic heritage, a well-evolved technology, enlightened liberal traditions, and a skilled, educated work force might catapult themselves into the modern age.
One might think that this is glibly dismissive of immense human suffering. One would be right.

But let us turn this around: what about Marxism in the Western world? Have Marxists in the West typically displayed respect and admiration for the:
flourishing civic culture, a democratic heritage, a well-evolved technology, enlightened liberal traditions
of Western societies? Or have they typically, sneered and denigrated such things? Typically, that is precisely what they have done. (Consider any Western Communist Party of your choice, for example.)

So, by ‘Marxism’, Eagleton neither means Marxism as practised outside the West, nor Marxism as typically practised inside the West. ‘Marxism’ apparently means ‘the thought of Marx, but not where it motivates bad things’. We are truly in the realm of Humpty Dumpty analysis. One is reminded of G. K. Chesterton’s comment on Christianity:
The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.
So, defending Marxism becomes “easy”, because no facts about the history of actual Marxism count – not if they are bad facts. Good facts get to count, however. Eagleton reminds of, to Marx’s credit:
the political movement which his work set in motion has done more to help small nations throw off their imperialist masters than any other political current. …
In the 1920s and 30s, practically the only men and women to be found preaching racial equality were communists. Most anticolonial movements were inspired by Marxism.
Capitalism does not, however, get the same treatment. On the contrary, everything that might be adduced against capitalism counts – even if it is something as ubiquitous in human history as imperialism. So, you are allowed to exclude any inconvenient fact about the history of Marxism, but no inconvenient fact about, or even vaguely tied to, the history of capitalism.

Terry Eagleton is the Humpty Dumpty of historical analysis – the facts only count when he says they do.

Eagleton’s point about the Gospels not being a natural support for the Inquisition is also rather less telling than he seems to think. For the Inquisition may have little to do with the preaching of the Gospels, but it has a much closer connection to the logic of monotheism: to the notion of a single, absolutely trumping authority which is a source of definitive understanding of the truth.

Similarly, the notion that one can have such a correct understanding of social dynamics that one knows where history is “properly” heading, an understanding which profoundly de-legitimises the very basis of current social arrangements, has a natural affinity with totalitarianism. It is much easier to go from Marx’s writings to the totalitarian impulse than from the Gospels to the Inquisition. And both historical journeys occurred: repeatedly. There is something to be explained here, and “they got it wrong” is not enough. Powerful patterns need explanation, not dismissive exculpation. Lezsek Kolakowski is, in every sense, much more serious on these points than Eagleton.

For how much of what Eagleton invokes, the:
flourishing civic culture, a democratic heritage, a well-evolved technology, enlightened liberal traditions
of Western societies rests on strong and vigorous private property rights? All of it, surely. Yet that is precisely what Marx profoundly and absolutely rejects and delegitimizes. The difficulty is not in arguing that undermining these things is a bad thing: the difficulty is in arguing that Marxism is compatible with any of it.

Though this is not a problem if one can engage in Humpty Dumpty analysis and say words mean – and the facts they refer to count – when convenient and not if inconvenient. Except, of course, that just takes the point out of the exercise. If Marxism means whatever it has to mean, or at least has whatever implications are required, in order to be benignly correct, then it does not mean anything in particular. It becomes a series of analytical placeholders, to be filled as convenient.

There is a way of preserving specific content but insulating doctrine from inconvenient facts. That is to declare such inconvenient facts as manifestations of perversion, of instances of corruption or deviance; not proper manifestations of the underlying doctrine or principle at all.

This is a favourite tactic of natural law theory, operating all the way back to Aristotle. Aristotle, for example, excludes random events from his causal analysis. So, his causal analysis works for all events, except random ones. What is any event it does not work for? A random event, clearly. Can you see the little problem?

This, the-conclusion-gets-to-exclude-inconvenient-instances principle, is classically applied by natural law theorists to sexual activity. So the purpose of sex is reproduction and any sexual act that is not reproductive in purposes is a perversion of sex. What if sex has many other functions in nature? None of them count, they are just perversions. The conclusion – the sole legitimate purpose of sex is reproduction – cannot be wrong, since any contradicting usage is a perversion and does not count.

The same with Terry Eagleton’s history: any use of Marxism that has bad consequences is a perversion and does not count. Only good uses of Marxism count.

But that an entire philosophical tradition is based on a technique does not make any more analytically or intellectual worthy. And it is still, at bottom, Humpty Dumpty analysis – except the word that gets to mean whatever the Humpty Dumpty theorist wants it to mean is ‘perversion’ or whatever is the equivalent excluder-from-counting.

Humpty Dumpty analysis does make for splendid polemics – as a polemical exercise, Eagleton’s piece is full of righteous energy. It just does not make for anything resembling serious analysis.

The problem remains that Marx was wrong: his theory of value is false, his theory of exploitation incoherent. He may indeed, as Eagleton notes, been tremendously impressed by the creative power of capitalism: but he did not actually understand it. Marx was wrong on things that matter to an analytically disabling extent, and no amount of Humpty Dumpty analysis changes that.

3 comments:

  1. Capitalism does not, however, get the same treatment. On the contrary, everything that might be adduced against capitalism counts – even if it is something as ubiquitous in human history as imperialism. So, you are allowed to exclude any inconvenient fact about the history of Marxism, but no inconvenient fact about, or even vaguely tied to, the history of capitalism.

    For instance, that it was liberal democratic capitalist societies who abolished -- for the first time ever in human history -- slavery. We take this for granted now as a hallmark of "civilization," but looking at history as a whole, it's more accurate to say that the institution of slavery is a hallmark of "civilization," its abolition a hallmark of (classical) liberalism. And note how the institution revives when a society attempts to get away from classical liberalism -- often as slavery of the most brutal and lethal kind.

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  2. The Soviet regime managed to revive both slavery (in its labour camps) and serfdom (in its banning anybody leaving a workplace without its permission).

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