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“Dialectics: The Logic of Marxism, and Its Critics: An Essay in Exploration” By T. A. Jackson


This book, the author informs us, “is in every respect an essay, a venture—an attempt at a

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provisional exploration of a field which no British Marxist has hitherto attempted on anything but a most perfunctory scale.” In fact, Jackson does show quite well what he has learned from Marx and Engels, but the desire to “provoke others betters qualified to cover the ground in a more worthy manner” is an inadequate excuse for a book in which none of the leading questions of Marxism are illuminated, but the difficulties remain precisely as they were. He will have to do a little more “exploration”, he will have to discover some of the points on which Marx and Engels were wrong, before he can make any addition worth considering to the existing literature.

One main purpose of the book is, of course, to give what the publishers call “the familiar Jackson trouncing” to certain critics of Marxism. The spirit in which this is undertaken may be indicated by reference to the quotations on the title-page: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ-believe it possible you may be mistaken!” (Oliver Cromwell); “Even a little humour is permissible if it be not overdone” (Fred Casey); “The slogan is not to flinch in the struggle” (F. Engels). Does Jackson believe it possible he may be mistaken? No; the appeal is entirely to his opponents, whom he takes very little trouble to understand. The heavy emphasis (capitals and italics) which he employs on almost every page shows how far he is from either humour or detachment. Indeed, the quotation from Engels is intended to support the doctrine of “the unity of theory and practice”, whereby a mistake is a kind of betrayal, and opponents of the pure milk of the word, when they are not being ridiculed as “solipsists”, are shown to be preparing the way for Fascism.

The following samples of Jackson's literary style will serve to reinforce these points: “G. D. H. Cole presents the tragic-comic spectacle of a Don ‘toiling upwards through the night’—the night in question being the inspissated gloom of Oxford University culture. That G. D. H. Cole is also, ‘by act of God’, an inveterate liaison officer between everything mutually repellent. a living negation of the dialectic, makes his effort to find a golden mean between the Scylla of (say) Harry Pollitt and the Charybdis of (say) Arthur Henderson—and to do so in a manner suited to his reputation (with the higher command of the W.E.A.) as a decidedly incorruptible but not-too-sea-green Robespierre—a spectacle in expository acrobatics that has had no parallel since Blondin cracked eggs and fried an omelette on a portable stove on the tight-rope!” (p. 442.) And again (p. 505): “‘Coming events cast their shadows before!’ Already we can see that Professor Macmurray has set the stage in just the only way possible to produce as his climax a Negation of the Negation of Communism by Fascism! Already we can hear the premonitory minor chords from the orchestra which prelude the appearance of Walter Citrine as the Fairy Godmother—chasing away both the Black and the Red spectres to replace them with their Negation—a Yellow spectre with White Feathers in its Hair, and the star of a Knight's Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire on its distinguished bosom!” It is apparently this sort of rant which leads R. Palme Dutt to describe Jackson as combining with a wide Marxist culture “the racy vivacity of a Cobbett”.

The “culture” is exhibited in the mass of quotations (from Marx, Engels, Lenin, Helvetius, Locke and so on) which overload the book. But it is worth noting (as a final example of the minor defects of Jackson's work) that he disposes of a number of views without quoting at all. On p. 49 he quotes the first two paragraphs of the Introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason, but otherwise his references to Kant's philosophy are unsupported and are grossly inaccurate. For instance, on p. 617, in connection with Dietzgen's “refutation” of Kant, the judgment “John Jones is a man” is given as one that Kant would call a priori, whereas obviously, whatever uncertainty there may be in Kant's account of the relation between the two types of judgment, it is an empirical judgment. Apart from Jackson's desire to give an appearance of comprehensiveness, without actually having worked over the field, there was no need for him to refer to Kant at all—though it might perhaps be said that no one who has not grasped what is really cogent in Kant's work, and what is not can shake himself free from the Hegelian shackles in which the Marxists are still bound.

Over and above a variety of references to “Trotskyism” (all, I should say, inaccurate, and including the impudent assertion that Eastman, on Trotsky's behalf, is “largely responsible in the English-speaking world for the attempt to fasten the Fascist conception of the ‘leader principle’ upon the Communist International”), Jackson devotes ten pages (495-505) of his criticism of Macmurray to a proof of Trotsky's opposition to Marxism, and, without quoting a line of Trotsky's, attributes to him policies (such as that of “marking time” in industry) which he strenuously opposed, uses as a vital piece of evidence a quotation from Lenin which Trotsky has analysed in an opposite sense in published works, and ignores the great amount of additional material which Trotsky has assembled in support of his case. This is connected once more with “the unity of theory and practice”, which requires that a certain line of practice (in this case, Stalin's) must be indissolubly bound up with the correct theory—even at the expense of first-hand examination of facts and documents. Not much, of course, is (or could be) quoted from Stalin himself to justify Jackson's estimate of him as the “best and greatest pupil of Lenin”; but the aphorism “Theory without practice is sterile, practice without theory is blind” (in other words, theory without practice is without practice and practice without theory is without theory), is repeated as, what it undoubtedly is, a typical stroke of the leader's political wisdom.

False statements of Max Eastman's position are similarly unsupported, though we are told (pp. 521 and 535) that he “explicitly” supports the encouragement of delusions among the workers and “avowedly” believes the bourgeois system capable of indefinite prolongation—in which case quotation should have been easy. And the treatment of Freud (pp. 549-560) is equally marked by ignorance and presumption, e.g., when it is said that Freud rechristened the “secondary consciousness” of the older empirical-physiological school, “The Subconsciousness”—regardless of the fact that the Freudians insist on the term unconscious, and that the doctrine of repression not only was developed independently of the older theory but would compel its complete abandonment—and still without a solitary quotation.

Jackson's Marxism, in fact, makes him quite impervious to any doctrine which does not bear the hallmark. Certainly he shows that such thinkers as Eastman and Postgate views occastionally misstate or ignore views embodied in the Marxian corpus; but still they are raising problems which Marx obscured—and, not least, are bringing out the fact that Marxism has no psychology. The weakness of the “dialectical” position is manifest in Jackson's contention (pp. 551-2) that “in between the objective (physiological) and the subjective (logical) poles of the field of psychological phenomena lies the debatable land of emotional states and their resultant interactions”, which is the “Happy Hunting Ground” of spook-chasers, etc., but which can be studied only in terms of “a sound science of human society”. If we could not study emotions without studying their social conditions, we could not study anything without studying all that it is related to—and human society, like anything else, would be just as “debatable land” as emotional states; i.e., there would be no science whatever. The inability to recognise this, the error of supposing that there is anything subjective about logic and that it is at the “opposite pole” of mind from its physiological basis (instead of being fundamental to all natural processes), the overlooking of the fact that a sociological interpretation of psychology would have to be continued into a similar interpretation of physiology and of all “nature”, are in line with the basic ambiguity of Marx's “materialism”, which amounts to an alternate treatment of things in terms of social movements and in terms of some unknown “matter”. Jackson rightly emphasises the Hegelian character of Marx's thought, his conception of Society as (so to speak) the knife-edge of Reality in its dialectical advance; but he does not see what Eastman, despite all his confusions, sees, that these doctrines have a thoroughly confusing effect on the proletarian movement itself.

The central error of Marx appears in the eleventh (and last) of the Theses on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point, however, is to change it”. The notion that a change, even a revolutionary change, in society is a change in “the world” or in the subject-matter of philosophy, is one which could occur only to an idealist of a particularly crude kind. Logic, the general theory of events, is equally applicable to social and non-social events, to events at any period and events at any other; it does not determine any universal “march of events” (indeed, it is opposed to such a conception, though not to any particular development. It would, in fact, be entirely unaffected, supposing society or humanity did not exist at all; and those who believe otherwise not only, like Jackson (quite correctly following Marx and Engels), adopt the idealist theory of “the movement of the whole” but also, in “subjectivist” fashion, confuse between the questions of what we know adn of our knowing it.

Jackson may argue that, in distinguishing (p. 183) between “the product of thinking” and “the act of thinking”, he has avoided this confusion; but in taking the former as a “mind picture” he makes it impossible to show (a) how pictures and acts can be distinguished in the mind, (b) how pictures can be connected with the “being” of which they are said to be pictures. He largely follows his teachers in making practice the criterion; though what kind of “verification” of a picture practice can give except to present us with another picture, and how the passage from one to the other gives us any knowledge of what is not a picture, he is quite unable to say. The Marxists, as I have pointed out elsewhere, cannot answer Berkeley's arguments—and that is why they try to dispose of him by the mere catchcry of “solipsism”. Only a realist rejection of the “picture” theory can solve the problem.

According to Jackson, however, “the Truth is the Truth of the relation between Men and Things” (p. 604), and knowledge “is consciousness of relation and, in its practical sense, is a justifiable and justified certainty of the correctness with which Thought (in any given instance) reflects objective Reality” (p. 184). But knowledge, as this kind of union of self-knowledge and other-knowledge, could never tell us which was self and which was other, which was the “subjective world” and which was the “objective world”. In fact, knowledge is always of objective reality, whether mental or non-mental; and even though, being always knowledge of situations (with distinguishable constituents), it might be described as knowledge of relations, it is not true that mind itself is always a constituent in a known situation. We know things only when they are related to us but we need not know that they are related to us, and in any case we can discuss them quite independently of this relation. And, of course, to say that we know things in relation, and even in relation to ourselves, is not any argument for the “relativity of knowledge”; the question will always be whether they are or are not related as they are alleged to be, i.e., a question of absolute truth or falsity; and any opinion we advance on the matter will be absolutely right or absolutely wrong. Certainly, a person can have a “theory” or set of beliefs, some of which are right and others wrong; but the only way to criticise the theory is to show specifically which of them are wrong. Certainly, again, a person's going wrong in a particular case may be contingent on the conditions of his life; but discussion cf these conditions is still quite distinct from discussion of that case. There is no question anywhere of “reflections” of facts but only of facts themselves, and the relations between men and other things are one particular set of facts that can be studied like any other.

Jackson is equally blind to the philosophical issues in the matter of thinking and being. “Thinking can be treated as a form of being…Being, as such, cannot be treated as a form of thinking” (p. 183). Thinking, of course, is a relation, and it is because they treat it as the character of mind (leaving nothing to have the relation) that the Marxists can have no psychology. But if we say that mental events are a species of events and (consequently) events are not a species of mental events, and call this a priority of being to thinking, we can say exactly the same about non-mental events or any set of events we like to take, and so make being prior to anything that is. Jackson feebly criticises Casey (pp. 586-592) for advancing a similar argument to the above—though Casey, as a monist, naturally does not work out the argument to its pluralistic conclusion. What Jackson does not see is that the “being” he is talking about is nothing at all, that “the Material Universe” is just as supernatural an entity as any supposed cause of it, that things are irreducibly various and do not form a totality. That minds are not the only things in existence, that minds and non-minds both exist now, can establish no priority of one to the

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other. And if there was a time when no minds existed, there were differences of the same empirical character (say, between stones and non-stones), and no one of the different things, nor any combination of them, was “being” or “matter”. The relativist conception of mind, of course, helps to conceal these facts from Marxists—as when Lenin (quoted by Jackson, p. 590) approves of Dietzgen's description of thinking as a “function” of the brain, but considers that “to call thought material is to make an erroneous slip”. And Jackson naturally finds it much easier to deride and misrepresent Casey than to tackle the difficulties dodged by Lenin in accepting expressions like “function” and “idea”. The root of the confusion is the doctrine of a “primary reality”, which, whatever we call it, is incompatible with the recognition of differences or relations.

Similar criticisms apply to “the unity of theory and practice” based upon “the primary of practice” (p. 187). Jackson admits that “to theorise is to act”; so again the genus is prior to the species—though the two can interact! As before, the fact that there are other ways of acting does not show that theorising is in any subordinate position; and even if in time theorising follows some other ways of acting, once it exists in interaction with them there is no “primacy” at all. “The aim, object and purpose of theorising”, says Jackson, “is newer and better practice”. Why (neglecting the idealistic notion of the aim of anything) should it not be newer and better theorising? Even if newer and better theorising meant only having newer and better mental pictures, what argument could Jackson have against the “primacy” of such an aim—granted that various measures (of eating, etc.) had to be taken in order to secure it? The fact is that the barren dogmatism of “dialectic” is inimical to the real study of social movements as well as of philosophy, and serves merely to obscure such problems as the relation of the theorist to the proletarian movement or the assimilation of science with industry under conditions of workers' emancipation. Such questions, treated positively (whether his conclusions are sound or not) by Eastman, are vastly more important than the considerations of leisure (p. 370) or of “the worth of individuality” (p. 632), which represent the highest flight of Jackson's ethical imagination.

It is to be understood that the main stimulus to the serious consideration of such features of social development comes from the work of Marx. But the “dialectic” which he mixed up with his positive views remains a stimulus to the adoption of a sectarian and anti-theoretical attitude, and an obstacle to the participation of scientists in a movement which naively seeks to remould “the world”. The polemic violence of Lenin's philosophical work, along with the fact, indicated above, that he does not get down to the major difficulties, has undoubtedly furthered sectarianism. The list of “Elements of Dialectics”, given by Jackson (pp. 635, 6) from one of Lenin's note-books and recommended as “of simply incalculable Value” to the student, is of the same amateurish character—though here, presumably, Lenin was merely jotting down hints for his own guidance. Selecting for comment item 12 in the list—“From co-existence to causality and from one form of connection and reciprocal dependence to another deeper and more general”—we may note its practical suggestiveness along with its theoretical inadequacy. It is true that a man with large political plans will be in a better position if he can find some causal connection between concurrent phenomena, which otherwise he has to make separate allowance for; it is true that he will be well-advised to look out for such connections; it is not true that there is bound to be such a connection in any given case. More broadly, it is not true that there is a “world” to change; there is (whatever social changes may be made) an irreducible plurality of social as of other activities.

This, I take it, instrumentalism apart, is what Eastman has mainly in mind when he speaks of “possibilities”—a question which Jackson in his various wrestlings with “freedom and necessity”, entirely fails to clear up, since he can neither identify nor logically distinguish mental and “mechanical” causality. No doubt, also, it is the incorrigible distinctness of human interests that Eastman is thinking of when he advises revolutionists to acquire an understanding of psychology. He is right, at any rate, in holding that it was just because Lenin's “practice” (his experimental, and thus logically pluralistic, habit of mind) was not one with his theory (of a primary reality) that he was able to do as much as he did. Still, the promulgation of this theory was part of his practice, and it has contributed to the establishment of that obscurantist “culture” which this tedious book exemplifies and defends.