WARNING: EPISTEMOLOGY AHEAD!
In the discussion of Post-Modernism (or, more precisely, Post-Structuralism), Chaosprime challenged my argument by making a strong point. He writes:
As far as this goes, I have yet to get past the blatant contradiction. There’s this maneuver where we want to reject the political program of idealists who want to take no concrete action but talk people into thinking differently which will supposedly produce change, right? So we say, no, philosophical idealism is wrong, it’s material conditions, we should change those. And then we *slip idealism in the back door* by constructing ideas as some kind of airy-fairy thing that is specially excluded from the world. Sorry, that’s no good; can’t have it both ways.
Everything is material; therefore, *ideas are material*. Ideas are a part of the material conditions of existence. Thoughts are a part of the material conditions of existence. You can tell because consequences proceed from them.
Meanwhile, in what has been called my socialist FAQ, Oliver Campbell made the following observation:
First of all, it’s critical that the working class have a high level of political consciousness and culture, something that suffered major blows in Russia as a result of the deaths of the most class conscious workers in the civil war against the White army and the major imperialist powers.
Taken together, these provide an opportunity to explore, for the three of you who are interested, just how I approach the question of the relationship between objective material conditions and subjective ideas.
First, above all, the relationship is dialectical: the objective and the subjective can transform into one another. The point cde Campbell makes is a perfect illustration: The fight of the Bolsheviks took place, above all, in the arena of the consciousness of the Russian working class–it was a fight to bring to the worker an understanding of actual material forces: the conditions of Russian capitalism, the effect of the war, the reasons that, whatever he may have personally wanted to do, Kerensky was incapable of simultaneously fulfilling Russia’s agreement with the Allies, and solving Russia’s problems–it required simultaneous peace and war. At the same time, he was incapable of solving the problems of the Capitalist Class’s need to end the resistance of the proletariat and the peasantry, and the need for the proletariat and peasantry to have “Peace, bread, and land.” In the end, it became a clear choice: Lenin or Kornilov; there were no other options because of the correlation of objective, material forces (you don’t get much more objective than bullets and artillery shells; they tend not to care what you’re thinking). And in the end, the October Revolution happened because the Russian worker and soldier, in particular the Petrograd worker and the soldier in the Petrograd barracks, understood this.
But that understanding took place in the heads of the worker and the soldier. It is a matter of ideas. It is subjective, personal.
And then, because of sheer numbers (an objective factor) and above all because of the social position of the worker and the soldier (another objective factor), those subjective, personal ideas became an objective force: the decisive factor in the creation of a workers’ government. Indeed, one might say that the subjective thinking of the Bolshevik Party became an objective factor in history at exactly the moment that those thoughts, through a combination of activity and the development of objective events, transformed the thinking of the Russian masses. (Here I could go into the transformation of quantity into quality, but I shan’t. You’re welcome.)
And after Civil War, and the Wars of Intervention by the Allied Powers, in which the most advanced, most class-conscious elements of the working class were also the most self-sacrificing, the tremendous toll on those forces resulted in a significant lowering of the consciousness of the working class, which, in turn, became an important factor in permitting the bureaucracy to gain power–that is, an objective factor, part of the material conditions.
So, in fact, Chaosprime is right when he speaks of ideas being part of the material conditions; at least under some conditions.
So, with this in mind, when I speak (admittedly, with a certain contempt) of idealism, what do I mean?
Let us go back to St. Thomas Aquinas for a sterling example of idealism. He argues: 1. God is, by definition, perfect. 2. One attribute of perfection is existence. 3. Therefore God must exist.
But, you see, St. Thomas never actually examined God. He did not measure God’s beard, he did not test God’s DNA, he did not discover how many decibels were produced by God’s speech. He had no God physically before him to investigate, which left him only able to discuss the idea of God. Hence, the conclusion he draws says nothing about God, it only speaks of the idea of God, which was never in doubt; he then palms a card by obscuring the difference between the idea and the reality.
Marx is often quoted as saying, “Men make history, but not just as they please.” But let us look at the full quote for a moment: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852)
Being determines consciousness. Consciousness, through human activity, can also then alter the conditions of being, but not willy-nilly, not arbitrarily in any way it chooses. However much a Libertarian wishes to create a society with private property but without the State, it cannot happen: private property and the State are mutually dependent, one cannot exist without the other. However much a “democratic socialist” wishes for socialism to be voted in and to immediately institute universal suffrage, the power and ruthlessness of the capitalist class requires violence and repression and the curtailing of human rights in order to prevent the bloodbath (and far more brutal repression) that inevitably accompanies counter-revolution. And conscious political activity can neither start nor stop a revolution, only determine its success or failure.
We do not get to simply choose arbitrarily how our history will unfold. When L. Raymond, in the discussion of the Paris Commune, spoke of the reason for its failure as being squabbling among its leaders, without, in turn, explaining what conditions produced that squabbling, we have an example of idealism. When J. Thomas, who I know means well, creates a long, involved study of what people should do, or what they actually do, piling conclusion upon conclusion upon conclusion, none of which is grounded in the natural and social conditions under which human beings live, we have as clear an example of Scholasticism (a particularly virulent form of idealism) as that provided by St. Thomas.
Our struggle, as human beings, whether political or not, is to continually increase our understanding of how the world actually works, and then to use that understanding to make things better.
And so, Chaosprime, here is my answer: If we explain ideas, above all, by pointing to material conditions, we are materialists. If we explain material conditions, above all, by pointing to ideas, or we neglect material conditions entirely in our study of ideas, we are idealists. They interact, they can transform one into the other, but the objective facts are always the prime moving force, and by neglecting that truth, we are failing to understand our world.