Friday, 15 June 2018

The Preconditions of Socialism: a Critical Review (vii)

“There are few writers or thinkers in history whose every word and grunt has been examined by hostile critics so minutely as Marx’s has”. Hal Draper.

The usual reference Marxists give those asking about “historical materialism” (aka the “materialist conception of history”) is Marx’s 1859 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (example 1, example 2). If readers downloaded and printed it from the Marxists Internet Archive, depending on their printer settings, they’d get something like this:

Right-click to open a larger version in a different tab.

At least two things explain the Preface’s popularity.

For one, it’s a concise document: 1,977 words including title, source, footnote and hyperlinks. Remove that and other “accessories”, and what’s left (highlighted above) contains the exposition proper: 411 words. To put that in perspective: so far the Marx and Engels Collected Works (note well: collected, not complete) spans 50 thick volumes, at least 600 pages each.

For another, because, for all of Marx’s fame as a hard-to-read writer, it’s fairly straightforward: skeptic readers are invited to judge that by themselves.

There is another reason, however, to bring that document to the readers’ attention, after twice doing that last time. In Chapter 1 of Preconditions and Evolutionary (§ a and b) Eduard Bernstein discusses it. He understands its central role for Marxism and he is determined to inflict the maximum damage: “In principle, Marxism stands or falls with this theory” (p. 12). It’s a high-value target, one would say these days.

The trouble, from his perspective, is that, being such a well-known document, the Preface is also very hard to mess with, unlike the Circular Letter of 1879.

But Bernstein is ambitious, if nothing else.

As discussed in the previous post, in § a, after calling it “preliminary work” Bernstein uses the Preface to promote Marxism to pure science: Naturwissenschaft-like, Marxism is subject to the same precision requirements of a natural science, in accordance to Bernstein’s positivism.

In § b, which we’ll comment on here, Bernstein includes four quotes from it. Beginning in page 13 of Preconditions he discussed the 210 words that appear highlighted below:

Right-click to open a larger version in a different tab.

Compare that with the first illustration. Readers may be wondering about the green bit. We’ll see that soon.

Bernstein remarks on the apodictic (which Harvey inaccurately rendered as “dogmaticin Evolutionary) wording of those 4 fragments in yellow. One may say, following Tudor (p. xxiv), that by that Bernstein meant those passages looked deterministic: because of them, Bernstein claims, Marxism produces precise outcomes much like Newtonian mechanics which, given initial velocities, accelerations, masses and directions, predicts, determines precisely how two billiard balls will move once one hits the other, for example.

One, of course, needs to guess what Bernstein had in his eccentric mind, but if that’s how he interpreted Marxism then he chose the wrong document to quote from. The way he found to mould the document’s content to match his “understanding” of it was to ignore the green passage. He just omitted it. In its place, ellipsis. As in the case of the Circular Letter of 1879, whatever is written there, Bernstein is not interested.

But I am. So, I reproduce it here:
“In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.”
That explicitly contradicts Bernstein’s naturalistic interpretation of Marxism: “ideological forms”, in short, cannot “be determined with the precision of natural science”.


Considered in isolation, readers could oppose, that omission might be a gross oversight, but by itself is no conclusive proof of dishonesty: maybe Bernstein missed it. He could just have been careless.

But one doesn’t need to consider it in isolation. For one, because that’s not the first strategic omission Bernstein perpetrates (it isn’t the last either). For another because, in a stunningly boneheaded move, Bernstein admitted he did that intentionally.

Being such a well-known document, that “omission” would not have gone unnoticed (as the omission of the Circular Letter did). For once Bernstein was capable of anticipating an obvious objection; to pre-empt it he writes that that passage was “omitted here as immaterial” (rendered in Evolutionary as “omitted here as of secondary consideration”). His answer, however, makes things worse: he left it out intentionally; his excuse is that it was “immaterial” (Was Tudor showing a subtle sense of humour?)

Let’s be clear: He chose those 411 words, nobody forced him. He further reduced that to 210 words. A passage from the Preface he alternatively disqualified (“preliminary”) and praised contradicts his critique of historical materialism and that’s immaterial!? One must give Bernstein something: few could make that shit up.

He acknowledges the green passage is there and intentionally leaves it out? That passage, Bernstein alleges, was material only during “social revolutions”. Why? Beats me. For the second time I invite readers to re-read it. One is left to speculate that Bernstein is trying to shove down one’s throat his own deliberately deformed interpretation of historical materialism: ideological forms, Bernstein wants his readers to believe, fall out of the blue entire (or at least only become relevant) during social revolutions. Before that, in his rendition, there were no ideological forms: no laws, no political institutions, religions, art or philosophy.

But that’s not what’s written in that Preface.

Now, readers sympathetic to Bernstein may automatically discount my opinion, for I’m a Marxist. Pushed to justify that, they may claim I’m not giving him the goodwill, intelligence and cooperation he is entitled to. In other words, I’d be wrong to deny him what he was right to deny Marx, yes?

Well, rest easy, dear readers, because I can quote Schumpeter, a man who had little love for socialism and whose book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy featured in a previous post:
“It [Bernstein’s critique] would have been unbearable even if Bernstein had been incontestably right on every point, for creeds embodied in an organization cannot be reformed by means of holocausts. But he was not. He was an excellent man but he was not Marx’s intellectual peer. We have seen in Part I that he went too far in the matter of the economic interpretation of history which he can hardly have fully understood.” (p. 347)


But there’s more. That’s not the only place in § b (in fact, in the same page 13 of Preconditions), where Bernstein shuts his eyes, covers his ears with his hands, and recites frantically “happy thoughts, happy thoughts, happy thoughts” when something contradicts his straw man account of historical materialism.

I deliberately kept another example from the second “printout” above, to leave it as an exercise to the readers (Hint: Look for the two instances of the string “more slowly or more quickly”; “sooner or later” in Preconditions. Think now about what it means for Bernstein’s claim that Marxism makes precise predictions and how he deals with it).

There was a reason I said the man was no garden-variety liar, he was an inept liar. If the Preface didn’t suit his critique, he should have avoided it like the plague.


Retaking the metaphor of Preconditions as criminal trial: with the rope firmly placed around his neck, Tom Robinson hasn’t yet been told what’s the crime his been accused of. As evidence of some kind of unspecified crime, Bernstein, the prosecutor, brings the Preface as written confession.

Marxism, Bernstein contends, promises precise predictions, much like those of physics.

The problem is, the Preface does not say that. The places where the Preface explicitly contradicts Bernstein’s intentional misinterpretation of historical materialism, he wants readers to ignore as immaterial!

In Bernstein’s scheme only one thing remains: to prove beyond reasonable doubt Marxism failed to deliver its promise. That’s what his empirical argument is meant to do. That much even ill-faith critics like Sidney Hook would be ready to accept.

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