Friday, 8 June 2018

The Preconditions of Socialism: a Critical Review (vi)

“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” Humpty Dumpty.

There’s a way to see Preconditions (or Evolutionary) that should help understand Eduard Bernstein’s argument: what goes where and why.

Imagine you are in Maycomb, Alabama. It’s the 1930s.

Preconditions is a criminal trial, with Marxism as defendant. The defendant can’t speak for itself; if it had defence attorneys things wouldn’t be so bad. Alas, commentators like Matt and Noah Smith don’t acknowledge its right to one. There’s a Tom Robinson in this movie, but no Atticus Finch.

Bernstein is the self-appointed judge, jury, and executioner, and -- Bernstein’s rhetoric and Matt’s convenient imprecision aside -- a hostile one at that. Judge Taylor, district attorney Gilmer, Mr. Cunningham, and Bob Ewell all rolled into one. But he is more: he is also the lawmaker. His 3 pages of home-brewed philosophy of science are the Law (pp. 9-12).

That’s what he gives his readers in P1§a (E1§a). Given the lack of bibliographic references, one must presume his Law is either (i) composed of abstract universal truths deduced from self-evident abstract axioms, which he never bothered to enunciate, (ii) the result of his original professional work in the philosophy of science, or (iii) Divine Revelation. Take your pick.

His mother tongue being German, one would have thought Bernstein was familiar with the use of the adjective “wissenschaftliche”. One would have been mistaken; either that or he had many words -- the best, in fact -- and they meant whatever he says they meant.

So, out of its several legitimate connotations (scientific, academic, scholarly, learned) Bernstein chose “scientific” as in Naturwissenschaften (noun, plural: natural sciences -- physics, chemistry, biology), the one least defensible for “wissenschaftliche Sozialismus”, no matter what Marxists mean by it.

I suspect Bernstein was not a believer in giving any “good will, intelligence, and cooperation”. Funny that, uh?

At any rate, one would have thought as well that “wissenschaftliche” as in Wirtschaftswissenschaft (singular, economics) or as in Sozialwissenschaften (plural, social sciences) would have been more appropriate; and that if one had to apply to “wissenschaftliche Sozialismus” the same criteria one applies to the natural sciences, then one would have to apply those criteria to Law, Linguistics or even Translation (all Wissenschaften).

In effect, the same criteria would apply to mainstream economics, yes? (Somehow I imagine my illustrious anti-Marxist readers suddenly having second thoughts).

Any way, Bernstein deploys his abstract, one-size-fits-all Law, universally applicable forever to all of science and scholarly fields, against Marxism. His account of science is naturalistic and he is a positivist: what he calls Science, in abstract, is in actuality Naturwissenschaft and Marxism must satisfy those criteria he dictated for Science. His immediate target is historical materialism.

Nineteenth century high school education, it appears, could put to shame contemporary tertiary and post- tertiary education, at least judging by Bernstein, a former banking clerk with a high school diploma.

Science, he adds, has a pure and an applied part. Agricultural chemistry and electrical technology (p. 10) are instances of pure sciences (?), or so his readers are told.

Applied and pure science differ. A given failing which in the applied part of science is an infraction or misdemeanor, in the pure part is a most grievous felony. In the former you get a fine, community service or mandatory medical treatment, in the latter you’ll hang. Think of defences based on the defendant being underage (or mentally incompetent).

His own rules in place, now Bernstein painted himself into a corner, to his readers’ utter astonishment: “A systematic extraction of the pure science of Marxist socialism from its applied part has not so far been attempted, although there is no lack of important preliminary work for it”, he writes (p. 10).

Marxism, then, only exists in its applied part. There’s no pure science of Marxism.

Well, then, if that’s the case, Marxism’s offences are infractions or misdemeanors, not felonies. But Bernstein wants the death sentence: “In principle, Marxism stands or falls with this theory” (p. 12). That’s not my interpretation. Tudor noticed that: “He went out of his way to reject this strategy.” (p. xxiii-xxiv). Tom Robinson’s got to hang.

You see the predicament Bernstein created for himself, don’t you?

Personally, I find it hard to explain that on rational grounds. Sure, I can understand Bernstein’s desire to say Marxism is only an applied science: he means that Marxism (Marxists, by extension) is “mentally incompetent” or “infantile”. “Half-baked” or “SNAFU” are similar although cruder descriptions Bernstein’s American contemporary peers enjoy (you don’t expect finesse from petty bourgeois Americans, do you?). It’s a display of their dominance over the great unwashed: cheap shots get them their kicks. Keeping in mind the different proportions and circumstances, sadistic criminals are known to enjoy taunting their victims.

What I can’t understand is the overwhelming compulsion of a cheap shot even if it derails one’s whole case, which is precisely what Bernstein did in the first 3 (yes, three) pages of his argument. (At this point I think I would have been justified in berating Bernstein. That’s exactly what I had done. Yet, I changed my mind and had to edit what I had already written: there's something pitiful in that man.)

To try and square the circle, Bernstein starts with a back-handed compliment:
“In the preface [to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859)] just mentioned, Marx presents the general features of his philosophy of history or society in propositions so concise, definite, and free of all reference to particular forms and phenomena that nowhere else has it been done with equal clarity. No essential thought in Marx's philosophy of history is omitted.”
In the following paragraph, in the same page, moments after claiming that no systematic extraction of the pure science of Marxism had been attempted, Bernstein promotes that Preface (which moments earlier was “preliminary”) to the systematic extraction he needed: “the [Preface’s] exposition remains sufficiently general to qualify for the pure science of Marxism. This is also warranted, and required, by the fact that Marxism purports to be more than an abstract theory of history.”


That was the first line in the sand (brace yourselves: Preconditions doesn’t get any better). With that Bernstein promotes Marxism, from applied to pure science: it took no oven to get Marxism fully baked, Bernstein’s feverish mind was enough.

Incidentally, my metaphors may or not be good; my style no doubt idiosyncratic. The ideas expressed aren’t. Like I said, Tudor noticed that. So did Luxemburg.

In Bernstein’s kangaroo court, Tom Robinson was facing the death sentence before being charged with a crime. Sobering, uh?

Before moving on, a summary is in order:
  1. Bernstein intentionally chose the most indefensible understanding of “wissenschaftliche Sozialismus”.
  2. In spite of operating under the rules he himself pulled out of his own ass, a wholesale rejection of Marxism was still unwarranted.
  3. He moves the goal post; he re-draws the line in the sand.
When I use the term “argumental pirouettes” I refer to messes like that.

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