Over on Dave Osler’s blog, there has been a discussion going on about British Labour Party membership and the strength or otherwise of the Labour left. I don’t intend to enter that discussion, but I was struck by a contribution from Mark P of the Socialist Party, than whom nobody’s imagination ranges further. Mark regards discussing the Labour left as analogous to “medieval scholastic debates about the numbers of angels in each choir of heaven.” I’d love to know who these scholastics are, because this doesn’t correspond to any scholastics I’ve ever read. I suspect that we are dealing here not with actual scholastic philosophy, but with a vulgar Marxist’s idea of what scholastic philosophy ought to be about.
This calumny against the scholastics has been doing the rounds a very long time. I heard the late Tony Cliff, with a good deal more wit than Mark P, do a version of it dozens of times. And like many of Cliff’s wisecracks, it was older even than he was, stemming from the Protestant Reformation and subsequently from anti-Catholic philosophers like Hobbes and Locke. And it was a pretty boring joke even in Hobbes’ day.
Allow me to explain. Luther’s concept of justification by faith alone meant getting rid of scholasticism, which attempted to introduce reason into theology, notably in Augustine’s use of Platonic concepts to explain the Trinity. Luther moderated his position in his later years, realising that the Christian couldn’t do without reason altogether, but the Hobbes-Locke paradigm was even more insistent in erecting a Chinese wall between Keplerian experimental science and religion, which was to be determined by reference to the Book. Scholasticism was damned because it didn’t respect these boundaries, and held that rational thought could be brought to bear on matters of religion. This meant throwing out a huge and rich tapestry of thought, including even someone like Bacon, probably Europe’s first experimental scientist, and who could only be rehabilitated in scientific tradition by pretending he wasn’t a scholastic.
The parody of scholasticism comes from this background, and parody it is. There are few thinkers more rigorous than Aquinas, the undisputed master of the Aristotelian dialectic, who makes most of our twenty-first-century Marxists look like doltish obscurantists. Forgive me for waxing Thomist, but I think there’s actually a lot to be learned in terms of method and categories from the scholastics. As a little experiment, let’s apply Aristotelian categories to the scientific materialists of the Irish left.
In the early 1990s, if you went to the SWM’s Marxism conference, you couldn’t have missed a huge banner proclaiming “No revolutionary practice without revolutionary theory”. Our modern Marxists, at least in the two British franchises, operate a dichotomy between the two. In the case of the Marxism conference, the implication was that, while we may spend most of our time running around like blue-arsed flies, we could take a weekend a year to, like, totally talk about Lenin and shit? And then go out and run around like blue-arsed flies some more.
“Theory” was conceived narrowly, in terms of group gurus writing learned articles and the rank and file being schooled in them. An example would be Militant’s Basic Education Programme for new cadre, which meant rote learning of the works of Grant, Taaffe and Hadden, plus a very narrow selection of Lenin and Trotsky articles where the greybeards argued for positions Militant found congenial. In the SWM things were less structured and more eclectic, but not dissimilar. And, as Andy points out, each group regarded itself as having a definitive intellectual system that needed no reference to anything outside itself. “Practice”, on the other hand, was and is defined in very broad terms as “doing stuff”.
It is perhaps more fruitful to apply an Aristotelian three-way distinction. According to this model, theory consists of logic and mathematics, thus pure contemplation. Practice, or praxis if you want to be pretentious, consists of engagement with the other, aiming at the creation of a higher synthesis – dialogue, in other words. Between the two you have production, meaning poetry and rhetoric – that is, doing stuff, but in a contemplative way.
When we look at our actually existing left, we find an overwhelming amount of production. The franchises’ anti-theoretical bias is well known, but this doesn’t translate into practice as most of the stuff they do is self-referential and therefore contemplative. Dialogue is conspicuous by its absence.
Take campaigns. A fruitful way of working, in the Aristotelian sense, would involve concerned people getting together, having a full discussion of what the problems were, what we wanted to achieve and the necessary action; taking the necessary action; reflecting on the action and its outcomes and trying to draw any lessons for the way forward; and so on. Note that discussion and reflection are integral to the process, and are not optional extras or inconveniences.
How do left campaigns work in practice? Have you ever gone to a meeting aimed at launching a campaign where there was open discussion? In my own experience, very rarely. The left normally follow not the Aristotelian model, but the Zoë Salmon model. As in, here’s one I prepared earlier. Here’s the campaign, the plan of action, probably a steering committee already set up. All you need to do is “join the movement”.
So where does dialogue, the root of the dialectic, come into this? The answer is, it doesn’t. The broad masses are exhorted to do stuff, but to do it in a contemplative manner. Thus we move from the Zoë Salmon model to the Paul Simon model: “Get on the bus, Gus. We don’t need to discuss much.” This is why – and the bin tax meetings were a shining example of this – when you say you should talk about what the campaign is about and what it needs to do, you get stared at like a lunatic. And production begets production, even an hundredfold.
This is the self-referential and solipsistic conceptual world of the sectarian. Repeat after me: Activity without engaging with the other is not practice, it is production. It is the intellectual equivalent of digging holes and filling them in again. Sitting on a committee with people who agree with you on every issue of importance is production. Even inscribing pithy legends on cardboard placards and walking up and down O’Connell Street on a Saturday afternoon isn’t practice. It’s just doing stuff. Not that production is necessarily a bad thing in itself, far from it, but it isn’t to be mistaken for practice.
So be careful before you diss mediaeval scholastics, because they had a sophisticated and flexible system of thought that can still be of use to us today. Meanwhile, many of our would-be scientific materialists have, as the late Frank Zappa put it, transcended mere mumbo-jumbo and entered the more elevated realms of mumbo-pocus.