Notes from the grimpen mire, part 3

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This week marks the beginning of the Clonard Novena, Belfast’s hugely popular annual manifestation of folk Catholicism. Therefore it seems fitting that we resume our series on things about Ireland that the Irish left don’t get, with a brief look at religion. Here too we see a congruence between the Anglocentric Irish left and the South Dublin neo-democrats, really on the level of Britain being taken as normative and those aspects of Irish society that are deemed un-British, as symptoms of Irish backwardness. Which is sometimes true, but you can’t put together an analysis of Irish society on that basis.

First, let us take the separation of church and state. This is a demand you often hear, and you’re as likely to read it in the Irish Times as the Socialist Worker. Trouble is, this betrays a deep constitutional illiteracy. Under the 1937 Bunreacht, there is in fact already a separation between church and state, which is why the Vatican withheld its endorsement at the time. Article 44 asserts that “The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion.” Bearing in mind the intellectual climate in 1937, this is rather minimalist, and bears comparison with the Free State constitution of 1922 as enacted by the British parliament. The original sections 2 and 3 of the article, deleted by the Fifth Amendment in 1973, went on to recognise the various Protestant and Jewish denominations by name and to give a special nod to the Catholic Church as the denomination embracing the large majority of citizens.

The reader will note, and I believe the Supreme Court will bear me out on this, that the Church has no role in the direction of the State, nor vice versa. Both are kept to their particular spheres. And, although I would happily delete all religious references, nor does the religious flummery in the Preamble or the presidential oath of office have any administrative importance – we know this because we know from experience that there can be a Protestant president. Admittedly, this isn’t nearly as good as the succinct provision in the US constitution’s First Amendment that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

It is, however, better than the situation in the metropolis, where both England and Scotland (though not Wales) have established churches. Actually, the Banana Republic is somewhat unusual amongst European states in not having a constitutional link between church and state, such as exists in Spain or the Scandinavian countries. One would have thought that, to be logically consistent, our Anglophiles would be demanding a constitutional link. After all, D4’s grand project for the 26 counties is to turn it into a sort of expanded version of the Isle of Man, with all that that implies. Only maybe without the Manxmen’s ornery sense of independence.

The demand for separation of church and state is actually a misnomer, the same way that Irish bien-pensants say “pluralism” when they mean “secularism”, because they fear they couldn’t get support for secularism. When we hear the demand for separation of church and state, what’s usually involved is the wish that the churches, and specifically the Catholic Church, should be turfed out of the education system. I actually agree with that, it’s just that I wish the advocates of that perspective would say so.

A similar misnomer is in the frequent call for the Catholic bishops to “stay out of politics”. If memory serves, the last time the bishops entered party politics in a serious way was during the Civil War, when they came down firmly on the Treatyite side. Since then, interventions on referenda or specific bits of legislation have pretty much been restricted to issues touching on Catholic moral teaching, and specifically sexual morality. It really shouldn’t be surprising that Catholic bishops would speak out on issues of Catholic morality – one suspects that our bien-pensants are more pained by the tendency of lay Catholics to follow Catholic doctrine.

In fact, as far as D4 goes, there is a large dollop of hypocrisy here. The neo-democrats have been more than happy in the past for Catholic clergy to speak out on the correct issues, as for instance condemning armed struggle in the North, in contradiction to Catholic “just war” doctrine. The more thinking elements are also aware of the Catholic Church’s history of adaptation to power, including the imperial power (the Church’s leading role in the abandonment of the Irish language in favour of English springs to mind). Our leftist burger-flippers have the merit of being less hypocritical: they just want the Church to shut up and go away. Again, I’d be quite sympathetic to that if at least they would state their case openly.

The point here, I think, is that England, except for a few marginal areas, is basically a post-religious society while Ireland is not. Weekly church attendance is well under 10% in England, while even in Dublin you would be talking about 50-60%, and more like 80-90% in rural areas. Nobody really takes the Church of England seriously, while Irish people – and not just Catholics – do have a tendency to take their religion extremely seriously. There is a reason beyond style why Father Ted has a sharp satirical edge, at least to the Irish eye, while The Vicar of Dibley is just light joshing.

Not that this holds back our historical materialists. For decades now Swiss Toni has been proclaiming that the Catholic Church is finished as a force in Irish society, the wish being father to the thought. The corollary of that is that Catholicism is in all circumstances a reactionary force. I’m not sure that is true even in the historical sense – the major ideological challenge to McQuaidism back in the day came not from the tiny Communist movement nor from whatever was the analogue to the Irish Humanist Association, but from the Social Justice Thomists. Even today, most of the reports on poverty and inequality in the Celtic Tiger emanate not from the left, nor from trendy NGOs, but from the religious orders. I believe Swiss has been modulating his line of late, but that derives not from an improved understanding of Ireland, but from the pro-Islamic line of the parent company in London. Hence Richard Boyd Barrett, at Marxism a couple of years back, arguing that there were “positive aspects” to Islamic fundamentalism – can you imagine him claiming positive aspects for Catholic fundamentalism?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not by any means a defender of the Catholic Church. But it’s worth remarking that a fair slice of our body politic, not to mention the radical movement, have attitudes to Catholicism that closely parallel Paisleyism. Except they don’t have Big Ian’s theological justifications to fall back on.

53 Comments

  1. Wednesday said,

    June 12, 2007 at 2:47 pm

    … what’s usually involved is the wish that the churches, and specifically the Catholic Church, should be turfed out of the education system. I actually agree with that, it’s just that I wish the advocates of that perspective would say so.

    I’ve been saying it for yonks!

  2. Idris of Dungiven said,

    June 12, 2007 at 3:14 pm

    It was no coincidence that while other countries had ‘liberalism’, Ireland only had a ‘liberal agenda’. ‘Liberalism’, thanks to the last three letters of the word, implies a coherent world view that can aim for hegemony, and will be the tool of insurgent social forces. A ‘liberal agenda’, on the other hand, is a much less sturm-und-drang affair.
    As for the idea that Ireland was a theocracy, even in the worst of the bad old days, it betrays a deep ignorance of not only Irish history, but also the meaning of the word ‘theocracy’.

  3. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 12, 2007 at 3:17 pm

    I’ve been saying it for yonks!

    Me too. But it doesn’t make it into polite discourse, which is why we get euphemisms like “separation of church and state”. As if that didn’t exist.

  4. Idris of Dungiven said,

    June 12, 2007 at 3:28 pm

    Arguably it existed de jure but not de facto. I’d say that the post-counter-revolution power structure in the 26 counties involved a close partnership between the church and state – but the church was always the junior partner. One thing that stuck in my mind from Diarmuid Ferriter’s book on Twentieth Century Ireland was a marginal note by Sean Lemass on a letter from Archbish McQuaid: ‘His grace’s letter does not merit a reply’.
    However, if the Irish state and the Irish bourgeoisie wanted the church to do this or that job it wasn’t interested, certain concessions could be made to the men in purple.

  5. ejh said,

    June 12, 2007 at 3:46 pm

    Ahem.

    Beware of the polemical suggestion that such-and-such be “logically consistent”. It is nearly always a suggestion involving either a reductio ad absurdam or the progresion of an argument in a way neither logical nor consistent.

    Sorry, carry on.

  6. Idris of Dungiven said,

    June 12, 2007 at 3:57 pm

    Sorry, ejh, but that’s a bit too abstract for me.

    As for the final paragraph of our splintered friend’s latest instalment from the grimpen mire, the D4s for all their faults are a very long way away from believing that Ratzinger is the antichrist, or that the EU’s issue of a commemorative stamp showing Europa and the Bull is a fulfilment of certain prophecies in the book of revelation – both of which are part of the ‘Ian Paisley Big Book of Protestant Fundamentalism’.

  7. ejh said,

    June 12, 2007 at 4:09 pm

    Nobody really takes the Church of England seriously, while Irish people – and not just Catholics – do have a tendency to take their religion extremely seriously.

    Well, quite. I think the problem here can be that it is really very hard to understand the appeal (or rather, the power) of Catholicism unless one has been brought up within it. It must be tempting to think that’s it’s just silly (and of course it is silly in many aspects both surface and fundamental) without appreciating what a hold it can have on people. Hence the people who do believe it are dismissed as merely ignorant (and of course there is a great deal of ignorance about) without, necessarily, much further investigation than that.

    On your final topic – I think that the question ofa post-religious society is very important and no doubt much of modern Ireland is (or considers itself to be) in such a state, individually if not socially. Now one of the characteristics of such a state is that things like shopping, television and so on provide with a daily routine that leave neither room nor requirement for prayers and observances relating to all and sundry. The catechisms that my mother had in the Fifties make no sense to anybody in the consumer world and they basically cease to operate. Religious belief persists but the all-pervasisuveness of religious practice does not. (Conversely, where people are, or feel themselves, excluded from consumer society then it retains its power, perhaps even enhanced by the perception of exclusion. This goes some way to explain the appeal of Islam to poor peopole across much of the world.)

    Additional to this, as society changes the beliefs of the rich and the comfortable also change according to their changed circumstances. To younger people enjoying the benefits of affluence in modern Western societies, religion is so much flummery and the fact that poorer and older people believe in it merely demonstrates the superiority of the affluent young and explains their social position. Hence the phenomenon of Englightenment becoming linked, in the name of “modernity”, with the world of tax cuts, aspiration and the elevation of the metropolitan middle-class: the arrogance-made-flesh types who in Ireland I would associate (prehaps unfairly) with the PDs and who in England would be Cameronites if they went to public schools and worked in the City and Blairites if they did not.

    Which breasks the link, historically true and important, between opposition to religion and political egalitarianism. Suddenly relgion and egalitarianism are presented to us as both relics of an age from which modernity has escaped, both inefficient, both anti-meritocratic, both totalitarian and violent. Which, in turn, does lead to a certain mild reconciliation (and even that is an exaggeration, but you see the point) between the atheist leftist and the cleric, who both think that there are higher motives than the pursuit of personal success and are both inclined to say so.

  8. ejh said,

    June 12, 2007 at 4:09 pm

    Incidentally, is that the Idris who I would recognise from a place other than this?

  9. Andy Newman said,

    June 12, 2007 at 6:41 pm

    ejh , when you wrote: Beware of the polemical suggestion that such-and-such be “logically consistent”. It is nearly always a suggestion involving either a reductio ad absurdam

    Are you overlooking the fact that Splintered was in fact deliberately creating a reductio ad absurdam?

  10. ejh said,

    June 12, 2007 at 8:16 pm

    It depends what you mean by “overlooking”.

  11. WorldbyStorm said,

    June 12, 2007 at 10:42 pm

    splintered, your point about how the hierarchy was actually attacked from within the Catholic Church is extremely important. This was a process of radicalisation which continued throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. Part of this was also due to the spread of Irish priests and nuns abroad.

    Now, it’s important not to overstate it, but there were, and remain strongly progressive elements within Catholicism quite at odds with the rather hackneyed stuff that passes for analysis. The same is true as well of the Church of Ireland, albeit in a slightly different way.

    As for the Church in education. Good to see them gone, but more importantly who is the man or woman standing up for the nationalisation of our education system?

  12. ejh said,

    June 13, 2007 at 6:28 am

    It’s not really news to say that there are and were progressive and even radical elements within the Catholic clergy. It would surely only a be a straw man who would claim otherwise.

  13. Andy Newman said,

    June 13, 2007 at 9:04 am

    I have met plenty of those straw men then!

    I have a problem with your approach here ejh, and it has been bugging me why.

    It seems to me that you object to much of the debate because we don’t allow for the nuance that exists when political ideas are expressed by their most sophisticated exponents.

    But politics is not academia.

    When we refer to someones “implied position” for example, this is often based upon hard political experience at the coal face that this actually is their underlying assuption, but they are too canny to articulate it publicly.

    From my many years in the SWP I know that comrades will express themselves very bluntly among trusted comrades, but be much more circumspect in public. In truth it is the blunter version not the nuanced one that informs the practical politics. It can hardly have passed you by that this is actually enshrined in Cliff’s political philosphy of “stick bending”.

    What is more, not all comrades have the intellectual armoury of a callinicos, or even a Keiran Allen to draw upon.

    Any polemical debate will inevitably involve the debating tools of seeking to tease out implied and well as explicit assuptions, and there is nothing improper about the use of a reductio argument, as long as it is not misrepresented.

    The reason I am unhappy with the way you keep challenging the way the debate is conducted, instead of the substance, is becasue I have seen it so many times before.

    I am sure unintentionally on your part, but it is a debating technique used to protect those who have most access to power and influence within a community, in this case a political one.

    By continually pointing out inadequacies with the form of the debate. attention is deflected away from the content. What is more it plays the role of diminishing and delegitimising the critic. In SWP vocabluary, they become an “oppositionist”, and their views can be handily put in a box.

  14. ejh said,

    June 13, 2007 at 9:58 am

    Well, not really, Andy. Indeed your whole approach seems to me to do precisely what I object to: attribute views that have not actually been expressed rather than deal with those whcih actually have been.

    To describe this as deflecting attention away from the content is surely the opposite of the truth: I’m trying to concentrate on the content (though of course it is not all I am trying to do).

    Of course it is valid to observe that there are such things as implications but it is rare that those implications are treated properly and common that they are made up, overstated or made too much of.

    One consequence of this is that an enormous proportion of debate within left politics involves people objecting that they haven’t actrually said what their disputant says they did. This then leads to accusations of dishonesty and so on and makes for an extremely unattractive and forbidding atmosphere.

    Politics is not academia, of course. (Moreover there are many problems with the way politics is dicussed by academics: the privileging of those with qualifications, for instance, and the tendency to treat everything as a lecture rather than a debate. You can see this quite frequently on Crooked Timber.) Nor is it a Polite Society, though we could all do rather better in that direction than we do. But I am quite firm in finding the prevailing style of socialist polemic unhelpful, unconstructive and more concerned with trying to nail one’s opponents than with either clarification of views or bringing leftist ideas to a wider public.

    There’s more to say than that, of course and if you’re not bored already I’ll add some more…

  15. Andy Newman said,

    June 13, 2007 at 10:15 am

    I am not adressing your expressed views, but your behaviour.

    You continually raise questions of form rather than content.

    I have acknowldeged that I do not think it is your intention to stiffle debate in the intersts of those more privilaged with influence and power within the movement.

    I observe however that the same technique is used by those who do so interntionally stiffle debate.

    I am sure we can all improve the ayy we debate,, but perhaps you could lead yy example, rather than critique the manner in whoch other people express themselves.

  16. ejh said,

    June 13, 2007 at 10:21 am

    Manner is important, Andy.

  17. Idris of Dungiven said,

    June 13, 2007 at 10:32 am

    In response to your previous question ejh, I am indeed a grizzled veteran of the Urban wars, now firmly ensconced ‘At the Bar’, or other more exotic locales.

    I look forward to the Splintered One working his unique brand of magic on the Greens, especially now it appears that they have sold the whole country down the river by agreeing to Harney stayig at health.

  18. ejh said,

    June 13, 2007 at 10:34 am

    Good to see you again, Idris.

    Presumably Shannon Airport will stay open for the troops as well?

  19. chekov said,

    June 13, 2007 at 1:13 pm

    “But I am quite firm in finding the prevailing style of socialist polemic unhelpful, unconstructive and more concerned with trying to nail one’s opponents than with either clarification of views or bringing leftist ideas to a wider public.”

    The crisis of leadership is probably the most stinking of the theoretical turds left about the place by trotsky. You don’t need to convince the public of anything other than the fact that the current leadership is wrong – leading to the politics of exposure where you actually aim for failure as it will expose the current leaderships incorrectness to their supporters.

  20. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 13, 2007 at 2:13 pm

    I’m not sure that you can heap it on Trotsky, who was usually much more literate in his polemics. But the Church of Latter-Day Trotskyism is something else, and I agree there’s far too much emphasis on the “expose and denounce” mode.

    As in, if we “expose” Labour/Greens/SF then the working class will look for a new leadership with an unstained banner, ie SP/SWP. In fact the SP are so strident with their exposure at the minute that you’d almost want to defend Rabbitte. Almost.

    I wish that our present-day Trots would actually go off and study LDT’s idea of the united front, and how it involved cooperating with reformist workers and showing them your ideas were better. But there’s not much hope of that.

  21. ejh said,

    June 13, 2007 at 2:17 pm

    But the Church of Latter-Day Trotskyism is something else, and I agree there’s far too much emphasis on the “expose and denounce” mode.

    There is. But it should be added that this applies to many of the critics of Trotskyism as well as many of its practitioners. I’m not convinced that “the most stinking of the theoretical turds”, for instance, is a phrase that owes more to the traditions of fraternal discussion than to those of denunciation.

  22. ejh said,

    June 13, 2007 at 2:28 pm

    I recall once reading one of these books offering hitch-hiking advice, probably when I was a student. I don’t recall it doing much for my hitch-hiking, but I do recall one section which involved explaining why, no matter how wet and pissed off you were, you shouldn’t respond to the millionth car passing in the rain by flicking V-signs at them.

    It posited a situation in which two hitch-hikers, perhaps a mile or so apart, but on opposite sides of the road and unknown to one another, did precisely this: with the effect that each of them put off potential lifts for the other, since drivers on the other side saw the V-signing hitcher and chose to not pick up the hitcher they subsequently saw on their side.

    I wonder if this doesn’t remind me a little of what’s wrong with most intraleftist polemic: which is that most of the potential audience, not having made up their mind (or indeed necessarily caring) which side is right or wrong, are repelled by the tone and nature of the argument long before they ever begin to approach the facts of the matter. So the denouncers, full of their own righteousness in condemning their rivals (while their rivals, of course, righteously denounce them) have the effect of driving away from leftist politics most of those who might actually be interested.

    Still, it doesn’t matter, as long as the job of hammering home each other’s wickedness and errors has been achieved.

  23. chekov said,

    June 13, 2007 at 2:38 pm

    “I’m not sure that you can heap it on Trotsky, who was usually much more literate in his polemics. But the Church of Latter-Day Trotskyism is something else, and I agree there’s far too much emphasis on the “expose and denounce” mode.”

    To be honest, I think you can actually trace the lunacy directly back to trotsky’s “crisis of leadership” formulation – whereby the objective conditions for revolution were in existence, only an incorrect leadership held it back.

    Now, while I think that trotsky was utterly wrong, at least it made some sort of sense when he developed it in the 1930s and 40s. You had mass stalinist and social democratic parties and a reasonable person with a healthy dose of wishful thinking could come to the conclusion that only the conservative leaders of the workers were holding them back and that, with a more ‘correct’ revolutionary leadership, the revolution could be achieved in the immediate future.

    It seems to me that, despite the obviously changed circumstances and despite the fact that it seems ridiculous to think such things nowadays, this type of thinking is still endemic among the LDTs.

    Now, don’t get me wrong, I think such an approach to the modern world is coming from the moon. However, in analysing why people do the things that they do, it’s normally best to start from an assumption that they have a rational reason for it and that this reason can be deduced from their theoretical framework – which informs the way they look at the world.

    In some of the LDTs, like the sparts, the “crisis of leadership” appraoch is completely and utterly explicit – they do see their mission as denouncing the more dominant trotskyist groups and exposing the incorrectness of their positions and I think that it’s fair to say that they genuinely think that the fact that the existing revolutionary left’s leadership has an incorrect Marxist approach is what is holding back the working class from enacting revolution, bonkers as it might seem. They say it, the act as if they think it, so it’s fair to assume that they do genuinely believe it.

    Similarly, although to a lesser extent, the bigger LDT groups act as if they’re thinking along similar lines. To me it’s one of the most frustrating things to deal with – they make demands that are explicitly designed to be unachieveable in order to “expose” the reformist leadership; they constantly attack the most leftist strands among the trade union bureaucracy, based upon a fairytale assumption that they are holding back the workers’ militancy in times of zero struggle. As a good example of this sort of thing, I recall that during the bin tax blockades, the SWP (amid others) always wanted to pack the platform with elected reps (SF/LP) in order to “expose them” when they’d refuse to meet demands from the floor. The matter of whether we won or lost and whether we might need such meetings in order to actually organise didn’t even seem to come into it at all.

  24. ejh said,

    June 13, 2007 at 2:43 pm

    Now that (#23) I’m much more inclined to agree with.

  25. chekov said,

    June 13, 2007 at 2:55 pm

    “There is. But it should be added that this applies to many of the critics of Trotskyism as well as many of its practitioners.”

    Definitely. The ultra-leftists, left-communists and the various ‘internationalist’ comedy sects (IBT, ICC), have a slight variation of the malaise which almost manages to be worse. In their world, any interaction with reality at all is to be denounced, as it inevitably leads to a dilution of the pure revolutionary principles. The theoretical source of their particular lunacy seems to be the belief that the very existance of permanent structures, political parties nd so on inevitably constrains the inherent revolutionary capacity for spontaneous self-organisation of the workers. This seems to me to be a consequence of the fact that the basis of their theory comes from people like pannokoek (sp?) and luxembourg who were active in a real revolutionary situation in which such a position could be held by a reasonable individual. Unsurprisingly, such approaches that adopt historical writers as doctrine can behave in particularly silly ways when historical circumstances change markedly.

    “I’m not convinced that “the most stinking of the theoretical turds”, for instance, is a phrase that owes more to the traditions of fraternal discussion than to those of denunciation.”

    In fairness, I am actually dealing with the realm of ideas rather than engaging in any polemics against people or groups, albeit in colourful language. I could have said “although I think trotsky’s intellectual legacy has been unreservedly negative, one of the worst theoretical positions that he developed and has since been adopted as doctrine by his later day followers is the concept of the “crisis of leadership”. More long-winded, but saying pretty much exactly the same thing and without any references to turds at all – all round inferior.

  26. ejh said,

    June 13, 2007 at 3:57 pm

    Definitely. The ultra-leftists, left-communists and the various ‘internationalist’ comedy sects (IBT, ICC), have a slight variation of the malaise which almost manages to be worse.

    I was, in fact, thinking very much of anarchists and autonomists here, who very often think that the conventions of fraternal debate don’t apply to them when they’re attacking members of leftist organisations.

    all round inferior

    Well, all round better, to be honest, unless your priority is to give yourself the satisfaction of behaving as badly towards your disputants as you consider they behave towards you.

    Incidentally the idea that Trotsky’s legacy is “unreservedly” negative is surely as sectarian and negative an approach as any developed by his latterday followers.

  27. chekov said,

    June 13, 2007 at 4:21 pm

    “I was, in fact, thinking very much of anarchists and autonomists here, who very often think that the conventions of fraternal debate don’t apply to them when they’re attacking members of leftist organisations.”

    There are undoubtedly many people who call themselves anarchists and/or autonomists who exhibit ultra-leftist characteristics. A consequence of a political current which spent decades as a flea on a flea. Definitely more common in the UK than in Ireland though (probably due to the fact that we had essentially no tradition here pre the fall of the Berlin Wall).

    “Well, all round better, to be honest, unless your priority is to give yourself the satisfaction of behaving as badly towards your disputants as you consider they behave towards you.”

    You’ve failed to consider the possibility that my priorities include using amusing metaphors involving turds. I also don’t recall complaining about anybody’s methods of arguments against me.

    “Incidentally the idea that Trotsky’s legacy is “unreservedly” negative is surely as sectarian and negative an approach as any developed by his latterday followers.”

    You see, it wasn’t the colourful metaphor that you were objecting to, it was the idea behind it. I also can’t see how such a statement can possibly be considered sectarian – I’m not saying that I don’t think that trot groups have never done anything useful, I’m appraising an intellectual legacy and my opinion on that legacy is quite negative.

  28. ejh said,

    June 13, 2007 at 4:30 pm

    I also can’t see how such a statement can possibly be considered sectarian

    Really? Seeing no merit whatsoever in an intellectual tradition of the left has not a touch of the sectarian about it? Can’t possibly be considered sectarian?

  29. chekov said,

    June 13, 2007 at 4:36 pm

    No more so than not seeing any merit whatsoever in, say, some religion would be sectarian or bigoted.

    I think you’re confusing respect for participants in debates with respect for their ideas. It’s perfectly possible to have the utmost respect for somebody while having no respect at all for some of the ideas that they hold dear.

  30. ejh said,

    June 13, 2007 at 4:43 pm

    So it is, but it’s also possible that to see no merit in a whole political tradition (or come to that, in a religious tradition) speaks more of the inadequacy of the viewer than of what is viewed.

  31. chekov said,

    June 13, 2007 at 5:13 pm

    “So it is, but it’s also possible that to see no merit in a whole political tradition (or come to that, in a religious tradition) speaks more of the inadequacy of the viewer than of what is viewed.”

    Right so. Perhaps you can display your adequacy by pointing out the positive intellectual legacy of:
    a) stalinism
    b) scientology

  32. ejh said,

    June 13, 2007 at 6:00 pm

    Scientology isn’t a religious tradition, it’s a private and particular organisation founded for questionable purposes. The comparison is specious.

    As for Stalinism, it’s a fact whether or not you or I like it that many millions of people received a political training though Stalinist organisations and while they were certainly told enormous whoppers about the USSR and many other things) and while that required them to engage in intellectual somersaults that at best disfigured their thinking, they also learned much else besides.

    Many peopele schooled in Stalinism broke with Stalinism: but often they took much of what they’d learned with them, instead of rejecting it wholsale. Many intellectually and productive leftists have emerged that way. Unless we are to engage in the game of pretending that everything good in them came from their rejection of Stalinism and everything bad from their schooling in it (which would be an argument designed to suit a conclusion rather than a conclusion deriving from an argument) then we are obliiged to conclude that it was not entirely arid.

  33. chekov said,

    June 13, 2007 at 6:10 pm

    “Unless we are to engage in the game of pretending that everything good in them came from their rejection of Stalinism and everything bad from their schooling in it”

    You’re not arguing about the same thing as I am. You’re saying that stalinists did some useful things (political education) as well as some bad ones (somersaults). Neither of those things say anything at all about the intellectual tradition – by which I mean the ideas specific to the current and their legacy.

    If scientologists were to teach their children basic mathematics as part of their religious education, it would be a mistake to say that this is evidence of the merits of their intellectual tradition.

    Incidentally, I find your dismissal of scientology as an intellectual tradition to be arbitrary. The catholic church is also “a private and particular organisation founded for questionable purposes”.

  34. ejh said,

    June 13, 2007 at 8:12 pm

    I don’t think that sort of comparison will hold up: it weasn’t consciously founded by an individual in order to pursue a lucrative fraud.

    I think you’re overstating the point about “intelelctual tradition”. I think we’d both agree that if one asked a question like “what did Stalinism add to Marxism?”, in the sense of producing big ideas, new concepts, new models to aid in one’s understanding of the world, they’d be pretty thin on the ground, though not entirely absent. (Conversely, Trotskyism has been quite rich in the theoretical sphere – though I suspect that seam is pretty much exhausted now – and for that reason alone it can’t be dismissed as having produced nothing of value.) But in all sorts of fields – in Britain, for instance, one would automatically think of historiography – individuals from within Stalinism have produced valuable ideas and conceptions and have done so by applying a worldview which was formed by Stalinism. It’s not simply a question of “useful things” – there is an intellectual tradition there which we can only avoid seeing if we are determined to shut our eyes. But I don’t think Eric Hobsbawn, for instance, is devoid of merit.

  35. Andy Newman said,

    June 13, 2007 at 11:56 pm

    I would subscribe to the overwhelmingly negative appraisal of trotskyism.

    In particular the fact that Trotskism considers itself to be a distinct intellectual tradition in the first place.

    NOw I can accept that it was a well meaning endeavour to seek to organisatonally split with the official communist movement over the question of attitudes towards the USSR.

    However, in so doing the various Trotskyist groups have each also sought to brand their own brand of marxism as more authentic then others, and built a whole superstructure of seemingly arbitrary ideological positions, linked to organisational loyalty.

    It is noticeable when looking at writings from the SWP or SP that they are almost exclusively self referential within their own “tradition”, except for nods to the old grey beards, or reference to facts from other sources. You would never even read for example in an SWP publictaion that the MIlitant had it right over the poll tax, and the SWP was wrong.

    If we compare that to what would be normal in the physical sciences, then we see how bizarre it is. No theories would be considered sound if developed in isolation with an assumption that no other branch of science could have valid insight.

    And I do think this comes from the “crisis of leadership” legacy. So instead of looking to see how the best possible alignment of progressive forces can push the overall situation to the left, they always have an eye on how their own group can be the “leaders”, and how the historical wisdom of their leaders can be vindicated.

    This also comes on to the other main weakness of trotskyism, which is their lack of credibility over the crimes of the USSR. Despite having party structures identical to the worst Stalinists (e.g. the CP in Britain has never in its history been as undemocratic as the SWP), a belief in a revolution in the Russian model, and the specific contribution of Trots in the USSR to some of the most repressive policies (Evgeny preobrazinsky, for example) the Trots say they are unstained by the crimes of Stalin. A big boy did it and ran away.

  36. ejh said,

    June 14, 2007 at 6:48 am

    If we compare that to what would be normal in the physical sciences

    That’s not a good comparison Andy (and didn’t you say just the other day that politics wasn’t acadmeia?).

    Trotskyism considers itself to be a distinct intellectual tradition in the first place

    Well I think it can, but of course that requires us to discuss what we mean by “distinct” and we end up in a similar position to the historical arguments (sorry, back to academe after all) in which they fight over whether “continuity” or “change” should be emphasised in an argument that can’t essentially be resolved.

    You saw Eric Hobsbawn’s piece the other day about communist parties? I was reflecting at the time that one very serious difference between Stalinists and Trotskyists was that the former adhere to the party, the latter to the line. Trotskyism does tend to roll out everything in a grand procession of logic in which, provided you have the correct analysis, everything follows. This no doubt forms part of its appeal to intellectuals – there are always some very, very smart people in even the smallest splinter group.

    I’m really not sure what you expect Trotskyites to accept about the USSR. I mean, specifically. If you want them to accept that the October Revolution led directly to the Gulag they’re not going to do that and I don’t think they should. If you want them to accept that the possibility of a deeply repressive regime was inherent in that action then I think they already do (ref: Victor Serge). What exactly do you want from them?

  37. Andy Newman said,

    June 15, 2007 at 7:27 pm

    Not so fast, ejh.

    The comparisn with the physical sciences is a relevant one, becasue here we have an entire practical body of human work and knowldege founded on the assumption that actualy existing reality is approximately knowable.

    What is more the social generation of science has developed norms of integrating novelty and theoretical innovation into the established corpus of theory. And this is done without most working scientists being aware of the philospohical implications.

    There is howevr a whole body of philospophy devoted to study and defence of scientific realism – and the question of how we know what is true and what is not.

    The releveance of this to marxism should be self evident, and there is of course the whole tradition of Engels, lenin, and the grey beards writing about it, and distingusihed contributions from the likes of the neglected Caudwell.

    Alex callinicos in his slim volume “Trotskyism” specifically refers to Lakatos and the theory of the progressive problem shift as a tendentious puff up for the theories of the permenant arms economy and state cap.

    I think we actually have a lot to learn from the ay the physical sciences approach theory, and have discussed ow I think failure to do so is a philosophical root of sectarianism:
    http://www.socialistunity.com/?p=288

  38. ejh said,

    June 15, 2007 at 7:53 pm

    here we have an entire practical body of human work and knowledge founded on the assumption that actualy existing reality is approximately knowable

    Well, more than that – on the whole it is quantifiable, definite statements can be made about it and actions can be taken in respect to it which produce entirely predictable results.

    None of these things are really true of the social sciences, if sciences they be.

  39. Andy Newman said,

    June 15, 2007 at 11:41 pm

    Even if I acceopted that as wholly true (it is mainly true but much theoreticall physics is hard to empirically verify) – the fact that truth-likeness is harder to establish by experimet would be all the more reason to stress that the theories must also conform to theoretical virtues, such as coherence with other established theories, completeness, unifying power and the capacity to generate novel predictions.

    The fact that the various left traditions (and especially the trots) are self referential, and consciously do not seek to unify their theories is part of the problem.

    I don’t see how they can justofy entirely different organisations, and claim that these organisations have unique access to truth – this is more religion than politics.

  40. ejh said,

    June 16, 2007 at 6:48 am

    I wonder if they do, actually, fulfill the conditions of your final paragraph.

    coherence with other established theories

    The trouble is here, too, that it’s not so straightforward to say what is coherent with other theories and what is not. A great deal of time and effort is expended in claiming that things are (or are not) coherent in this way and as it can’t be proven either way not much is gained from the process.

    As for “novel predictions”, I’m unconvinced that the capacity to make predictions is of very much value in politics or that a “correct” theory (insofar as I think such a thing exists) can succeed in doing this, or that we can link the correctness of a theory to its capacity to make predictions.

    Obviously there are easy ones to get right (US to mess up Iraq invasion, bookies stopped taking bets as early as January 2003) but who predicted the major political event of our lifetimes, the downfall of the USSR? Nobody*. So does that mean none of us have theories worth salt? Well it might….

    [* = except of course everybody who sid it was bound to fall someday, but that’s not within the proper realms of prediction as far as I’m concerned.]

    PS Talking of foresight, any chance of attaching a preview box to this website?

  41. Ken MacLeod said,

    June 16, 2007 at 2:20 pm

    Re the fall of the USSR, I think the Critique school (Hillel Ticktin et al) could fairly say they weren’t taken by surprise.

    Also I distinctly remember the English libertarian Brian Micklethwaite writing back in the mid 80s that the whole Soviet system would collapse ‘any decade now’.

  42. ejh said,

    June 16, 2007 at 3:32 pm

    Has he noticed yet?

  43. Andy Newman said,

    June 16, 2007 at 9:45 pm

    ejh – I largely agree with everythig n you have writte in your last comment, and when you say does that mean none of us have theories worth salt?

    I would say it means none of us have theories so solid that we can claim the we and we alone are the authentic marxists, have unique access to wisdom and are uniquely suited to lead, or as john Rees described the role of the SWP in respect: those who see most clearly what needs to be done.

    Yet almost all the the left groups take this conceit as their starting point.

    The Millies always used to explicity say things like “and back in 1960 Ted Grant predicted …. ”

    And with regard to the SWP – as Kidron observed, a few insights don’t make a theory. yet they have built an entire Weltanshauung on some sketched out hypotheses. If we adopt the approach of lakatos we might say that the failure of the SWP to reappraise sytematically their State Cap threories to take into account the economic disaster that befell the USSR with the reintroduction of capitalism, or adequately account for the continued success of the Cuban state coming through the “special period” means they are now locked into a regressive problem shift – avinf to dent aspects of reality in order to persevere with the theory.

  44. ejh said,

    June 16, 2007 at 10:01 pm

    have unique access to wisdom and are uniquely suited to lead, or as john Rees described the role of the SWP in respect: those who see most clearly what needs to be done

    Do note that those are not quite the same thing.

    adequately account for the continued success of the Cuban state coming through the “special period”

    Now there’s a statement which has “asking for trouble” attached to it.

    You would do yourself a favour, Andy, if you stopped banging on about the SWP every time you sat down at your computer.

  45. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 18, 2007 at 7:44 am

    I think Ken is right re the Critique group. But then, Ticktin did a lot of empirical work on the Soviet economy without making great claims for macro theories.

    The amazing thing is that none of the Trot groups sent anyone out to Russia to do serious empirical study in the archives. David Mandel of course did go out and made himself quite the expert, but not as a representative of USec. I think the collapse posed serious theoretical problems that none of the groups has bothered to get to the bottom of.

  46. Andy Newman said,

    June 18, 2007 at 3:58 pm

    ejh

    You say: You would do yourself a favour, Andy, if you stopped banging on about the SWP every time you sat down at your computer.

    This statement seems somewhat at odds with your concern about how we debate and your concern that we should not attribute views to people that they have not actually expressed.

    But all along ejh I have wondered whether by complaining about the form of the debate, it is actually the content you don’t like.

    I don’t think the SWP are worse than the SP, and the AWL and Worker Power are worse than either of them. But i know the politcs of the SWP better, and therefore tend to treat them as representative when criticisng all the left groups.

    Nor are the SWP irrelevane because of their influenctial role in various campaigns – it is therefore entirely proportionate to try to analyse their politics.

  47. Andy Newman said,

    June 18, 2007 at 4:09 pm

    It is also worth saying perhaps ejh, that if you read the SU blog, there is hardly a disproportionate amount of attention to the SWP, and we write about the Labour party, the SSP and even the CP much more.

    BUt what we have by you saying You would do yourself a favour, Andy, if you stopped banging on about the SWP every time you sat down at your computer. is the old trick of saying something to diminish and delegitimise the person making a criticsm.

    The old SWP trick of saying that anyone who criticises the leadership is being “inwards looking”

  48. ejh said,

    June 18, 2007 at 5:19 pm

    And there you go: two further postings almost entirely about the SWP. Not all that “proportionate”, really. Nor is it relevant to anything I’m saying: it just increases the already worryingly large degree to which your input to discussion involves going after opponents real and imaginary rather than saying constructively what you think might be done, suggested, accomplished, organised, proposed.

    all along ejh I have wondered whether by complaining about the form of the debate, it is actually the content you don’t like.

    Have you really, Andy? Well if you’re going to invent opinions for me perhaps you could invent somewhere else to discuss them? I can be bothered to discuss the things I say: I really can’t be bothered to discuss things I don’t, for the very good reason that if I have not said them is it quite likely that I do not think them.

  49. Andy Newman said,

    June 18, 2007 at 6:51 pm

    ejh: I am just responding to what you wrote, it is you I am criticising not the SWP.

    Can you substantiate this allegation against me: ” your input to discussion involves going after opponents real and imaginary rather than saying constructively what you think might be done, suggested, accomplished, organised, proposed. ”

    Firsly, it seems I constructivly propose, suggest and organise a lot more than I see you doing.

    Secondly, seeing that Splintered’s blog is a reflective one that discusses the state of the left amongst other things, i don’t understand your arguments which delegitimise my part of that discussion.

    Give it a rest mate.

  50. ejh said,

    June 18, 2007 at 7:02 pm

    If you want to hallucinate arguments that I’ve not put and motives that I don’t possess, Andy, then perhaps you should consider giving it a rest?

    Can you substantiate this allegation against me: “your input to discussion involves going after opponents real and imaginary rather than saying constructively what you think might be done, suggested, accomplished, organised, proposed.”

    Ah yes, Andy. Your many postings to this thread go on almost exclusively about other people’s apparent deficiencies: we learn almost nothing of what you think except in so far as your thoughts are about the deficiencies of others.

    I am just responding to what you wrote, it is you I am criticising not the SWP.

    Which makes it really, really odd that so much of your reply to me should involve….. discussing some other bunch of people.

    Don’t give it a rest, Andy. Take one.

  51. Andy Newman said,

    June 18, 2007 at 8:10 pm

    EJH – Well I sorta take it for granted that peple don’t regard my contributions to this thread as the totallity of either my political thought or activity.

    I cannot see that my contributions to this thread have been different in chracter from chekov’s or Splintereds, or come to that yours:

    You wrote above: I wonder if this doesn’t remind me a little of what’s wrong with most intraleftist polemic: which is that most of the potential audience, not having made up their mind (or indeed necessarily caring) which side is right or wrong, are repelled by the tone and nature of the argument long before they ever begin to approach the facts of the matter. So the denouncers, full of their own righteousness in condemning their rivals (while their rivals, of course, righteously denounce them) have the effect of driving away from leftist politics most of those who might actually be interested. Still, it doesn’t matter, as long as the job of hammering home each other’s wickedness and errors has been achieved.

    What is that if not you giving your thoughts about the deficiencies of others?

    And right up there above we read from you: Beware of the polemical suggestion that such-and-such be “logically consistent”. It is nearly always a suggestion involving either a reductio ad absurdam or the progresion of an argument in a way neither logical nor consistent.

    Again, you are pointing out the deficiences of how other people are conducting a debate, without adding anything of substance.

    I cannot see any point in continuing this.

  52. ejh said,

    June 18, 2007 at 9:41 pm

    Well Andy we was doing perfectly well until at #13 you thought it would be a good idea to lay into me – and throw in a few more paragraphs about the SWP.

    Remarkably enough this did not have a positive effect.

  53. Andy Newman said,

    June 19, 2007 at 9:38 am

    Well that was a bit of a cross-over from the argument we were having at the same time on Phil’s blog:
    http://gapingsilence.wordpress.com/2007/06/01/fighting-again/

    Which is also how the SWP got drawn into it, becasue Phil’s post was specifically about Alex Callinicos and the SWP’s prioritisation of Iraq over Venezuela.

    Sorry if I upset you, that was not my intention.


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