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Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

History and Objectivity

| 61 Comments

Sometimes I feel the need to mount my white charger, pick up my sturdy lance, and ride off in defense of some poor, abused word.  Often, it is a word that has been mugged and robbed of its precision, like hopefully.  Sometimes, it is a word that has been enslaved and required to labor under a burden of meaning it was never meant to carry, like, relationship.  The fact that these one-man campaigns are hopeless does nothing to discourage me; on the contrary, it just makes me feel more heroic, noble, and self-sacrificing.  Please do not disabuse me of this illusion; my self-love might not be able to stand the truth.

Today, we fight for the defense of a word that has been framed for a crime it didn’t commit.  I refer, as you are already aware from the title, to the word objectivity.  Somewhere along the line, objectivity, particularly in discussions of history, came to be used by some to mean something like, not having an agenda, or, not being a part of what one is examining, or, pretending to have a perspective that is uninfluenced by one’s knowledge or experience.  Naturally, with definitions such as this, poor objectivity finds itself convicted of uselessness without due process, and ends up in solitary confinement in some ideological prison where it must endure of hours of people taunting it with comments like, “there is no such thing as objectivity in history.”  Cruel and unusual, I say.  We will call this the casual definition, because calling it sloppy is a bit more confrontational than I’m ready for just yet. Now, where did I put that lance?

Let us begin with the dictionary, because I like to know dictionary definitions before I ignore them.  The American Heritage Dictionary, 1981, has this for definition 1 of objective: “Of or having to do with a material object as distinguished from a mental concept, idea, or belief.  Compare subjective.”  Definition 2 goes on, “Having actual existence or reality.”  It is not until we get to definition 3a that we find, “Uninfluenced by emotion, surmise, or personal prejudice,” which at least waves at the definition to which I refer in the previous paragraph.  And then 3b merrily goes on, “Based on observable phenomena; presented factually: an objective appraisal.”

We often hear, “No one can be objective regarding history.”  I beg to submit the following: 1. Generally, when someone says that, it is the casual definition that is being used.  2. By the casual definition, not only can no one be objective, but those who claim to be are usually being disingenuous, and working very hard to conceal their agenda.  3. Using the casual definition, objectivity is not only impossible, but also unnecessary, and not even a goal worth striving for; on the contrary, a good historian makes not the least effort to be objective in that sense, knowing that such an effort can only lead to distortion.

But when we go with the dictionary definition, we have an entirely different approach and result.  When I say a work of history is objective, I mean that it bases itself on real, material events and relationships.  Right now, I’m studying the history of Kansas, 1856-60, and the formation of the Republican Party.  I neither expect nor desire the historian to pretend to display events as if devoid of prejudice, belief, or agenda.  What I do demand is that conclusions be based on facts that are clearly laid out, that the historian’s beliefs and programs be either clearly stated or easily deduced, that “inconvenient facts” not be omitted, and that the internal consistency of the narrative, built on verifiable facts, be laid out.  In other words, “show your work.”

My two favorite historical works are James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom and Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution.  McPherson makes no secret of his antipathy for the slave power, and Trotsky, of course, is quite clear and open about his support for the insurrection of which he was one of the principal architects and the primary organizer.  What makes these works so profoundly convincing is the revelations of the general historical laws at work effectively explain the events; the logic holds together.  In both cases, it becomes very difficult to dispute the conclusions without taking the position that the author is out-and-out lying about facts (which is problematic in both cases, given how easily verifiable the facts are).

When I refer to a work or a method as subjective, I mean that it bases itself on the particular, individual, personal.  A work is subjective insofar as “I feel” is the starting point, as opposed to, “this happened.”  Even more so if, “this is how you should feel about it,” as opposed to, “this is why it happened,” comes slithering through the subtext.  Individual, personal experience can be vital in helping us empathize with another human being, but it is not how we come to a scientific understanding of the processes of history which, though inevitably happening to individuals, are nevertheless fundamentally impersonal: they are what happened whether I like it or not.

To be sure, no one can have a complete, perfect, total understanding of an historical event any more than one can have a complete, perfect, total understanding of, for example, the formation of Earth’s crust.  But we do not find hoards of pseudo-intellectuals telling us how geology cannot be studied objectively.  To achieve a scientific understanding of the formation of the Earth’s crust, a geologist does not base his work on how he feels about it, but rather endeavors, as well as possible, to determine what really happened and why.  And then we test that understanding by making predictions, and so modify our theories as needed.  To apply this same method to the study of history is, without doubt, more difficult: the effects of prejudice and social pressures generated by class society are much more immediate.  But that is no excuse for applying different standards. So, yes, I reject the notion that there can be no objectivity in historical studies.  Those who support this notion are, in my opinion, abusing the poor word, and ought to stop.

 

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

61 Comments

  1. In the history of philosophy, in particular in Descartes, there is another notion of “objective” that has all but disappeared. In the Third Meditation Descartes contrasts the formal reality of things with their objective reality. Here, “objective” means “to be taken as an object”, though it does not further imply that the object is something in the material world. Ideas contain objective reality, insofar as they are about or refer to something (a physical object, a feeling, a mathematical principle), and as much objective reality as the thing itself contains formally. “Formally” here refers to the medieval/Aristotelian tradition of existing things requiring both form and matter: if a thing has formal reality, it really exists. Degrees of formal reality, for Descartes, track a hierarchy: ideas have a little formal reality as mental things themselves, physical objects have some as physical things, mental substances, like a mind, have more, as does matter itself as the physical substance. And God has the most formal reality. The idea of God, for Descartes, therefore also has the most OBJECTIVE reality, since it is an idea of a thing that has the most possible formal reality.

    And that’s my philosophy geekiness for the day.

  2. skzb

    Thanks; that was delightful philosophy geekiness.

  3. Instructive and well said!

  4. But since human beings are inherently emotional creatures, can anything we produce ever completely separate “what happened” from how “I feel” about that? The way we talked about objectivity and subjectivity in graduate school is that we’re always viewing events through the lens of our own lived experience and biases, which in the case of history, might cause someone to weigh one event more strongly than another even though both are material events which existed in the world. Anyone writing history has a goal in mind for doing it, and that goal will influence the way the story is shaped and which story is being told.

  5. Certainly there can be objective history both in the sense of definitions 1 and 2, not to mention the softer terms of 3a and 3b. This, let us say, is a silver denarius of Antoninus and Aurelius, as Augustus and Caesar, minted in Neapolis in the year 160 AD, and there is such a preponderance of similarly objective material evidence that those two men had those roles over a given span of years that we can regard this as verified fact rather than a deep conspiracy of the quaestors of the Imperial Mint. It’s no doubt worthy technical work to assemble these objective facts, but by themselves they don’t necessarily answer the questions we want addressed in a history of the period.

    We would like to know whether these two men were effective rulers, whether their policies were sound, and we would like to have explained the general prosperity of the Roman empire during their reigns. Was it luck? Skillful governance? Stoic philosophy? Alien intervention? We can’t decide that solely based on objective facts, because we just don’t have enough of them. Nevertheless, we do want to read that story, and that story has in fact (heh) been written many times by different historians. Let us stipulate those histories were mostly intended to be neutral and unbiased, so at least they manage to satisfy definition 3a, but in order to tell those stories, it seems they necessarily made use of non-objective evidence, because there are so many different and mutually inconsistent and contrary histories describing these men, their reigns, and the quality and skillfulness of their rulership.

  6. skzb

    Miramon: My issue is that I don’t see “neutral and unbiased” as necessary, possible, or desirable. And certainly “neutral and unbiased” has nothing to do with “objective.”

  7. SKZB, what you call “objective” I would call “believable”.

    A good historian should present facts which are representative of the facts he knows. They will fit into a pattern that implies a general rule for how things work. Given the pattern, the historian should not ignore facts that appear to refute the pattern.

    Given facts which appear to be representative of the whole, and the pattern which the facts appear to fit, it’s hard to reject the pattern. It is a believable pattern.

    But still, it is a pattern that was created by human ingenuity. It can be completely misleading. This happens a whole lot.

    So for example in geology we had the doctrine of uniformitarianism. Rivers gradually cut deeper into the earth. As mountains slowly arise, streams continue to cut through them, so long mountain ridges have water gaps. (But where do the wind gaps come from? I’ve heard amateur geologists have impassioned arguments about this.) Sand and silt get deposited on the ocean floor,eventually resulting in sandstone and shale in lenses which reflect variations in their deposition. It explains a whole lot.

    But some things in geology are easier to understand by catastrophic events. So we got the doctrine of catastrophism too, and people argued between them. Of course it’s absurd to think that everything happened by catastrophe, and eventually the argument died down, more-or-less uniform changes happen between the catastrophes. But for awhile geologists got quite emotional about it.

    The way I see it, once somebody sees a pattern they tend to apply it everywhere it can possibly fit, and only give up in cases where the evidence shows it can’t possibly work.

    So for example, free market enthusiasts tend to apply market theory to everything, and when they can’t apply it they look for bad things which they attribute to the lack of free markets. They tend to find results which fit what they already believe, and their results are convincing if you already believe their theories.

    I myself tend to believe in evolution. Whenever you have differential reproduction or survival, you will get changes because of it. Directional changes come faster when it’s entities which reproduce with pretty good fidelity but still produce variations.

    Evolutionary theory is true. It happens in almost every interesting situation. But when I try to apply it, I may misunderstand what is being selected and even what is changing. The theory is true but in any individual case I could come up with a believable theory with facts that are objectively true, but all my interpretations about how the theory fits the facts could be wrong. I find this sobering.

    It’s even worse with history. Almost everybody who creates historical observations — who writes letters etc describing his experience — has a theory of history himself. He interprets the world according to his theory. People who create economic data — who buy and sell or whatever — themselves have economic theories and they behave according to those theories. So the theories you make about how things work are contaminated by the theories held by the people you study.

    If an army holds the theory that they should charge in mass straight into machine gun fire, they will not keep doing it for very long. But when they have theories that are rewarded by other people who hold the same theories, they may decide themselves that it’s universal truth. And you observe them carrying out their theories and it can look like universal truth to you too. “This is how things work.” But it only works that way because people have persuaded each other that it works that way. Without their belief, it could work some completely different way.

    History is hard.

  8. “My issue is that I don’t see “neutral and unbiased” as necessary, possible, or desirable.”

    It’s good to look carefully at what happens independent of what you want to happen.

    When you’ve done that, what you want is what makes it interesting. If somebody spends ten years dispassionately studying the pattern of sand grains on a beach and nobody cares, what good is it?

    If something bad happens with some consistency, and your study of how it happens leads to a method to keep it from happening, that’s exciting! If your ideas about how bad it is get in the way of figuring out how it happens, so you come up with a bad way to stop it, that’s bad too.

    There’s nothing wrong with caring.

    I tend to disapprove of theories that go “The reason bad things happen is that bad people make them happen. If we decide who the bad people are and punish them enough, the bad things will stop.”. I think if historical forces magnify people’s power to do bad things, there might be better ways to diminish that power than to punish people who did bad things in the past.

    When I look at how effective that approach is at deterring petty criminals….

  9. My problem with the recent concept of ‘objectivity’ is how it morphed journalism from a search for the truth into a subset of stenography. Over the last 40 years we’ve seen more and more journalists unwilling to draw a conclusion from the evidence gathered; instead they just recite ‘both sides of the story.’ This unwillingness to draw a conclusion isn’t objective, it’s simply ignoring the facts and has led to numerous ‘he said, she said’ stories without the courage to say, “He/She is obviously lying.”

  10. How can we separate what happened and how we feel about it? Quite simply, by doing so. By facing facts, whether we like them or not. By being self-aware and self-critical. That’s the essence of a scientific approach. It’s only postmodernism that has (recently) legitimized and popularized the notion that it’s better to hide from the truth, that it’s natural and unavoidable that we delude ourselves.

    The scientific approach has shattered our self-important understanding of our place in the cosmos; it’s taken us from being created by God in His image to being self-aware matter on a tiny rock hurtling through space. If we could face that without lying to ourselves, we can face some historical facts.

  11. ” Individual, personal experience can be vital in helping us empathize with another human being, but it is not how we come to a scientific understanding of the processes of history which, though inevitably happening to individuals, are nevertheless fundamentally impersonal: they are what happened whether I like it or not.”

    Brilliantly put. And, by the way, you are hereby awarded the title of Don Zoltan.

  12. I agree very much that basing historical analysis upon documented evidence is the way to go. A history without accompanying references is not of much value.
    For fun, I entered the words objective,evidence,factual into the Google books ngram viewer from 1500 to 2008. That gives a chart like (direct embed didn’t work):

    https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=objective%2Cevidence%2Cfactual&case_insensitive=on&year_start=1500&year_end=2008&corpus=15&smoothing=7&share=&direct_url=t4%3B%2Cobjective%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Bobjective%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BObjective%3B%2Cc0%3B.t4%3B%2Cevidence%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Bevidence%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BEvidence%3B%2Cc0%3B.t4%3B%2Cfactual%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Bfactual%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BFactual%3B%2Cc0#

    Looking at some of the books from the samples, it looks like evidence has kept a pretty solid definition and a fairly high usage while objective has morphed (from philosophical texts to the current state) as it becomes used more frequently.

  13. Cynthia: Oh, I LIKE that title!

  14. I’m thinking what you’re calling objectivity, I would call honesty, or honest engagement. But I’ll think some more. I googled “objective observer” and came on this as the first definition of objective: “existing independently of perception or an individual’s conceptions”. For me, that’s angels dancing on pins territory, a fun game at best. I’ll continue to assume anyone who claims to be objective is lying to himself of me. But someone who claims to be trying to be objective, I’ll happily listen to.

  15. Will, I think you’re making it needlessly complicated–which probably means my OP was muddled. Let’s try it this way:

    1. If I say that the English Civil War was a product of the need of the rising bourgeoisie to have state power, I am being objective. I may be *wrong* (though I doubt it), but I am speaking of matters that are true (or false) regardless of my opinion–of what exists independent of the wishes or beliefs of the individual. That’s what it means to be objective.

    2. If I were to claim that the cause of the English Civil War depends on the “narrative” one chooses to assign it, I am no longer being objective, now I’m being subjective.

    3. If I say that the English Civil War was a product of the need of rising bourgeoisie to have state power and that I reached this conclusion from a fair, balanced, and impartial investigation in which I was a disinterested observer, now I’m either deluding the reader or deluding myself.

    To paraphrase Jonas above, how do you treat history objectively? By doing so. Understanding history is difficult; rejecting subjectivity or false objectivity just requires deciding to.

  16. ‘To determine what really happened and why’

    The Duke of Wellington, not noted for his tolerance of others at the best of times, became semi-apoplectic with rage when people asked him what really happened at the Battle of Waterloo.

    He was adamant that the question could only be asked by someone who had never been in the middle of a very large battle, and that it was unanswerable.

    And yet the Battle of Waterloo changed the face of history; without Von Blucher performing one of the greatest feats in military history Napoleon would have won and in all probability most of Europe would have spent the last couple of centuries speaking French.

    Which is probably why I am not comfortable with the concept of ‘general historical laws at work’; there are no laws which can explain why Napoleon lost and I don’t speak French. No law could predict the existence of an old man, trapped under his own dead horse for several hours at Ligny whilst his army was comprehensively beaten, refusing not only to accept that he had been beaten but also capable of inspiring his officers and men to march with him to the aid of allies who were held in suspicion by many of his officers and men.

    I could, of course, write reams about the Prussian code of honour to which Von Blucher adhered; I could note that his great flaw as a military leader- his inability to conceive of ever retreating- was precisely why he refused to accept that he was beaten, but even if I could provide a plausible explanation for his actions it still doesn’t provide an analysis which could be extrapolated to any other set of circumstances.

    Science sets out to find rules which can be extrapolated; if X does W in one scientist’s laboratory then X should do W in all scientists’ laboratories. History doesn’t work like that; however hard we try to determine what really happened we cannot create a theory of everything. If Von Blucher had died under his horse then our world would be unrecognisable…

  17. To take your specific example, Napoleon’s victory would not alter the development of capitalism or imperialism or the global Euro-centrism of the next two centuries. When people talk about “general historical laws”, they’re talking about larger things than whether you would’ve made it to the ice cream shop before closing if your cat hadn’t thrown up.

    And I say this as a guy who loves the story of three cigars and the Battle of Antietam. Yes, the world would be different, but how different would it be? The lives of the average Canadian and the average American have bee remarkably similar, even though they live in effectively parallel universes, one where the US revolution succeeded and one where it never occurred.

  18. skzb

    Stevie: “Which is probably why I am not comfortable with the concept of ‘general historical laws at work’; there are no laws which can explain why Napoleon lost and I don’t speak French.”

    Historical laws do not, by themselves, tell us why Napoleon lost; they tell us that, if he had won, you would likely speak French.

  19. Hey, I’ll totally cop to making things needlessly complicated.

    1. If you only mean someone can claim to be objectively right and be objectively wrong, what use is the claim to objectivity?

    2. Has any war ever been about one thing? The narratives of abolitionists, unionists, and capitalists are all relevant to understanding why the North fought so hard to keep the South.

    3. Agreed.

    Our disagreement here’s prob’ly a philosophical one. I believe in pursuing goals that cannot be obtained, so I completely agree we should strive for objectivity. But if anyone claims to be objective, I’m going to hide my wallet.

  20. skzb

    ” If you only mean someone can claim to be objectively right and be objectively wrong, what use is the claim to objectivity?”

    1. Because so very many people say, “I cannot be objective and neither can you, so let’s reduce everything to pragmatic discussions of differing narratives.”

    2. Because (as I said at the beginning) those who say, “No one can be objective” are misusing a perfectly good word, and that pisses me off. Objective means to base one’s self on the effort to understand the real world. People use it to mean “having achieved a perfect understanding of the real world” in order to then proudly claim it can’t exist. Rescuing the word is the point of the post.

  21. 1. Yeah, totally hate that.

    2. I’ve always had a fondness for people who fight for lost causes, even or especially lost causes I disagree with, so good luck!

  22. Skzb

    I like it!

    WS

    I must disagree; had Napoleon won then Britain’s dominance of world markets as the first major industrial nation would never have arisen. Wellington, who had spent much of his earlier career establishing the East India Company’s power in India, and thus poured vast sums of money into the pockets of its wealthy subscribers in Britain, would have been discredited; he would never have exercised political power in Britain, much less become Prime Minister.

    The Chartists came reasonably close to achieving some of their goals in a ‘Wellington won’ world; they failed but he was unable to withstand the 1832 Reform Bill, even with his immense prestige.

    So much of imperialism depended on there being one dominant nation that a world in which Britain’s naval power was offset by France’s continental strength would have born no resemblance to our own.

    It is important to bear in mind that Napoleon was not impressed by Adam Smith; the belief that the Enlightenment had genuinely enlightened the world, and that Adam Smith’s theories were genuinely enlightened and were therefore true, was primarily Anglo-American. The bloodbath of the Cult of Reason which had preceded Napoleon’s rise to power rather took the shine off the entire concept of the Enlightenment, at least for the French; it certainly didn’t predispose him to believe in a guiding hand which would miraculously ensure that capitalism was the way in which the world must inevitably travel to arrive in the best of all possible worlds.

    His economic warfare against Britain was part and parcel of his military strategy; the way to destroy a nation of shopkeepers was to prevent them having anything to sell. He came very close to achieving it; had he done so he would not then have suddenly decided that British economic theories were superior to his own. Why should he?

    It is only Anglo-American cultural dominance which prevents people from even noticing that capitalism in general, and free market capitalism in particular, was merely one economic theory among many; it wasn’t a theory which Napoleon subscribed to, and I have seen no evidence to suggest that a world shaped by Napoleon’s supremacy would have developed in the same way that our world did…

  23. I can’t flatly disagree because I’m the author of what’s called Will Shetterly’s Rule: “There are no correct alternate histories; there are only plausible alternate histories.” You’re making your change after he got his butt kicked in Russia and Spain, so it’s hard for me to imagine a France arising from a victory at Waterloo that would completely dominate Europe, but let’s say that happens. Why would the businessmen of that timeline not pursue the things they pursued in ours? Empires like to expand. Why wouldn’t the French move into the places that the English had kept them from?

  24. Ws

    I think you are overlooking the fact that there were two separate phases in the Napoleonic wars; Napoleon was exiled after screwing up in Russia, and, to a much lesser extent, in Spain; this was not a mistake he intended to make again on his return from exile. That’s why I said ‘most of Europe’, not ‘all of Europe and parts of Asia’.

    It does seem to me that you are hopelessly at sea when it come to what businessmen might do; has it not occurred to you that the legal device which enabled businessmen to avoid personal liability via the formation of companies radically changed what those businessmen could do? Or that the repeal of usury laws also radically changed what those businessmen could do? Without those and other legal changes capitalism could not, and therefore would not, have happened.

    As for French expansion around the world, please read the comment which I had already made above about British naval power counterbalancing French continental strength; this has to be contrasted with the ‘Wellington won’ world in which Britain was the single dominant power…

  25. It may be that as a Brit, you naturally think the defeat of your nation would matter more than I do. As a socialist, I naturally assume capitalism would expand under a British model or a French model. With a British defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon would want more naval power, so I just can’t see his victory as a way of preventing or significantly retarding capitalism or imperialism–the invasions of Russia and the attempt to reclaim Haiti don’t suggest that he would stop until, like Rome, he met his Parthians, and if that’s not the Brits, I dunno who it would be.

    No big. It’s just alternate world-building.

    Or sure, I could be hopelessly at sea. To be human is to err.

  26. skzb

    Stevie: “Without those and other legal changes capitalism could not, and therefore would not, have happened.”

    I think emphasizing the flip side of that is more precise: it was the needs of capitalism that forced those legal changes; the law tends to reflect rather than drive economic realities. To be sure, a Napoleonic victory may have delayed the spread of capitalism, perhaps significantly. If that is your point, I have no dispute.

  27. When you speak of economic warfare against Britain, do you mean privateering? That was pretty much universal on all sides in war at the time, and was driven more by private greed than any other consideration, wasn’t it? Certainly the destruction of enemy commerce was satisfactory, but from the French point of view, was it a principal form of warfare or aggression? Considering that for a while Napoleon supposedly had an invasion army and transport fleet ready to move if the blockade could be broken, and considering his natural tendency to resort to military action on land for his entire reign, I imagine that military considerations trumped economic ones in his mind even in the war with Britain.

  28. “…objectivity, particularly in discussions of history…”

    When discussing history as presented by other people, I agree with most of what you say since at that point the information is at best second hand and approaching the results with an open mind is how one learns.

    Most people who talk about history are actually talking about their ideas about the ideas that people have gotten when reading about other people’s ideas. The amount of debate centered on actual work done in the field tends to be very small outside of academic circles. And just like any other field that can be divided into professionals and amateurs, terms that can be loosely applied to the latter should be more rigorously applied to the former.

    As for the historian doing the research to begin with:

    “What I do demand is that conclusions be based on facts that are clearly laid out, that the historian’s beliefs and programs be either clearly stated or easily deduced, that ‘inconvenient facts’ not be omitted, and that the internal consistency of the narrative, built on verifiable facts, be laid out. In other words, ‘show your work.'”

    I think you are conflating fact and opinion. In digging up facts, my belief, bias or program don’t matter; that’s what makes them facts rather than conclusions. Demanding inconvenient facts not be omitted begs the question who gets to decide what’s inconvenient? Someone with the idea that economics is the driving force of all human history might want to describe the artist Raphael’s technique in relation to the market value of eggs, but if I don’t, I haven’t ignored anything becaue I don’t accept it’s pertinent.

    “What makes these works so profoundly convincing is the revelations of the general historical laws at work effectively explain the events; the logic holds together.”

    There are no such things as historical laws. History is not a physical thing; it is not a force that imposes itself on existence. It is an abstract word we use to refer to past events. When it comes to history texts, the “logic holds together” because it is applied after the fact, when the outcome is known and hence seems inevitable. It is when people attempt to derive a general principle and predict the outcome of the next (similar) event that the idea of an ironclad “law” is shown to be invalid.

  29. W. Shetterly: “There are no correct alternate histories; there are only plausible alternate histories”

    I agree completely. One thing that makes me nuts is when people say “If X had happened differently, then obviously Y and Z would have resulted”. It’s one thing to have fun with “what if”, and another thing altogether to insist “it must have gone this way”.

    SNL had a skit about a history series called “What If?”. On the episode “What if Napoleon had a B-52 at the battle of Waterloo”, their careful analysis lead to the conclusion he would have won. That’s spookily similar to a lot of the sort of analysis I’ve seen.

  30. L. Raymond, I’ve given SNL’s analysis due consideration and agree 100%. 🙂

    But I’ll disagree with “There are no such things as historical laws.” In 1815, mercantilism was in decline everywhere. Napoleon’s victory might’ve slowed its decline, but it wouldn’t have made the economic tide flow backward. The powerful tend to seek more power, and when the powerful are capitalists, they seek unregulated capitalism.

  31. “Objective means to base one’s self on the effort to understand the real world. People use it to mean “having achieved a perfect understanding of the real world” in order to then proudly claim it can’t exist. Rescuing the word is the point of the post.”

    OK!

    So to these other people being objective means to succeed at understanding things separate from your biases, and to you it means to attempt to do so.

    To me, their meaning is mostly useless because I see no evidence that anybody ever succeeds at it.

    And to me, your meaning is mostly useless because nobody should get to decide how hard somebody else is attempting to be objective. So it becomes a subjective internal thing that people can lie about.

    But still I like your version better.

  32. “Yes, the world would be different, but how different would it be? The lives of the average Canadian and the average American have bee remarkably similar, even though they live in effectively parallel universes, one where the US revolution succeeded and one where it never occurred.”

    Usually things like wars don’t change everything. WWII maybe, if the Nazis had succeeded in winning and then genocided France, that would have been a truly significant difference. Assuming they would actually have done that.

    For the long run, I don’t know what would happen because I don’t know the real truth about alternate histories. I can imagine that different details like who won wars might somehow affect the march of technology. A different invention gets created first, or funded first, and that has an avalanche effect changing later inventions.

    If somehow we had gotten much-cheaper glass, and a whole lot more buildings used double-glazed glass to get a greenhouse effect, and more greenhouses etc, could that have had a big effect on Canada? I don’t know how to find out.

    A friend who studied such things told me that in the 1920’s the Railroad Commission arranged freight prices so that steel from Pittsburgh cost the same in Atlanta as steel from Birmingham. If somehow the politics had been different so that the south was allowed to become prosperous before the 1950’s, would that have made significant changes? I think so, but I can’t run the experiment so I don’t really know.

  33. “There are no such things as historical laws. History is not a physical thing; it is not a force that imposes itself on existence. It is an abstract word we use to refer to past events.”

    Are you sure? How would you find out?

    I believe that the laws of evolution apply any time things can change in small ways or rarely, and some of the things they change to are more stable than others. But when I try to apply that and guess which things are being selected and how much, my track record is good only because I’m smart and lucky.

    Similarly, it’s possible there are economic laws that strongly affect history. Maybe classes of people arise whose needs must be met, and history is the record of how those needs did get met. And this could be true even if all my ideas about economics and classes of people are wrong.

    There are people who claim that because the USSR fell, that proves communism does not work. And since communism does not work, that proves Marx was wrong. And since Marx was wrong, that proves there are no historical laws. But maybe communism can work even though the USSR fell, and maybe Marx was right about a lot even if communism can’t work, and maybe there are historical laws even if Marx was wrong.

    I don’t begin to see how to find out the truth about this sort of thing, failing travel to alternate worlds with alternate histories.

    But I will assume I can predict future history and I will act on my predictions, because when I believe in them I’d be a fool to assume they’re wrong. If the day comes that I think I need to flee the country before something terrible happens, I want to actually flee the country and not assume that there are no historical laws and my guesses are all wrong.

  34. @W. Shetterly: “But I’ll disagree with ‘There are no such things as historical laws.’ In 1815, mercantilism was in decline everywhere. Napoleon’s victory might’ve slowed its decline, but it wouldn’t have made the economic tide flow backward. The powerful tend to seek more power, and when the powerful are capitalists, they seek unregulated capitalism.”

    Power seeking power is certainly a human trait, but how is it also a “historic law”? What law does it exemplify, how is it applicable elsewhere, and in what way is it a hard and fast unchangeable law? Those are points I’ve yet to see addressed by anyone who accepts the idea of “historical law”. And in the past few months, I’ve run across the idea fairly often without seeing it elaborated on. If you could give me a coherent definition of “historic law”, I probably won’t agree with it, but I’d appreciate the illumination.

  35. I may be using “historic law” in a too-broad sense. I see tides of history, and while I have no trouble imagining dams that would slow certain developments, I have trouble imagining dams that would stop them forever or turbines that would send the flow backward. Since capitalism was already moving toward less regulation in 1815, I would need more than Napoleon’s victory at Waterloo to be comfortable making Stevie’s assumptions.

    Though I could love a novel based on those assumptions.

  36. skzb

    Will: Historic laws are as real as the laws determining any other aspect of material reality–from astronomy to genetics. More complex and difficult, certainly; and we’re still in the early stages of learning them. But certain basics, such as the general increase in the productivity of labor, of the tendency of new economic content to conflict with old economic forms, of the need of a newly rising class to take state power, are both quite real and important to have a basic understanding of history. To say, “stuff just happens” is as unscientific and useless in history as in geology.

  37. “The most merciful thing in the universe, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate its contents.” So begins a short story, and is an interesting thought experiment. Are there laws, historical or otherwise, that a human could not understand and remain happy and sane? The Onion did a piece about the Second Law of Thermodynamics in this regard.

    Objectivity is what we strive for in history. I may have (hell, I DO have) biases and preferences, but when I set down to determine why something happened the way it did, what I want doesn’t matter much. Yet because I know my biases and preferences, even when assembling facts I can ask myself to look specifically for things I don’t expect to find. In assembling a narrative, I can periodically interrogate myself and the growing narrative to see whether I’ve been honest or deceptively serving my biases. And so on.

    Yet there are conclusions that I won’t accept, and so will argue that I lack understanding, or don’t have one or more key facts. Not that I have made a huge study of it, but the Holocuast is one of those things that seem awfully hard to approach, because it’s almost impossible to know where to start gathering data. At the small scale are excellent works such as Lipton’s “The Nazi Doctors” or Browning’s “Ordinary Men” or the (to my mind) indispensable work of Tadeusz Borowski; but I’ve never seen a work by anyone attempting to describe something of the whole that could remotely account for the data in the three studies I mentioned, with most flatly contradicting it.

    I cannot begin to fathom how the capitalist class in Germany drove Nazism generally or though death camps were a good idea. Maybe elements of the early Nazi reign show service to bourgeois goals in the huge growth of industrial capacity and the targeting for socialists for internment and extermination well before the application of zyklon-B. Yet the tremendous cost of the Final Solution in resources, not to mention that Operation Barbarossa would have done much better to enlist anti-Stalin partisans against the Red Army instead what actually happened in the service of the final solution.

    Look to the actual statistics of how many people were killed by the Nazi regime generally, and in camps specifically, and some interesting questions arise. We hear often of dead Jews, but not of 5 million other dead people (Romanyi, communists). We hear of German anti-Semitism, but cannot account for the large percentage of German Jewery of 1933 alive in 1946 while only two percent of a much larger Polish population could say the same.

    The best-known camp is Auschwitz-Birkenau, a combined work camp/experimentation center and death camp, which during it’s 57 months of operation killed an average of 19,300 people per month using the relatively more efficient zyklon-B methodology. We occasionally hear of Sobibor and Treblinka where an average of 15,625 and 50,000 people (respectively) were killed each month. Never hear about Majdanek or Chelmno, and it’s as if the Maly Trostineks extermination camp never existed.

    Historical laws either cover everything, or they are good theories but not laws. This is a historical event which gives problems to every theory I know of, which can either explain on the micro human level, or on the meta-narrative level but not remotely on both. This, I think, is an example of a thing which if properly understood, would drive people mad, hence beginning with the Lovercraft quotation.

  38. Lorraine Daston has written extensively cogently on the history of both the word “objectivity” and the practices (predominantly philosophical and scientific). Her essay “Objectivity and the Escape from Perspective” from Social Science Studies Vol. 22 Num. 4 (Nov., 1992) provides a superb analysis of how the term evolved from moral philosophy into its role in science and its abuse by contemporary colloquialisms.

    The key idea that she addresses, which mirrors your sentiments, is that objectivity pertains to a standard for communication, not internal motivations. She notes that scientists focus on numbers because they translate well from person to person and language to language. She also notes that scientists leave out information that doesn’t translate well, and this doesn’t mean the information isn’t valuable; it just doesn’t meet a particular standard of communication.

    [Also, I lurk around this message board a lot but never comment, so I’ll take this time to note, skzb, that I’ve been enjoying your novels since high school (I’m now 31 with a PhD in English – hence the impulse toward formal citations…), and you’re probably the only author whose releases I track and wait for impatiently.]

  39. Steve, I would say the things you cite are tides, not shit happening. And because I’m a bit more comfortable with vague moral generalities than you are, I would add that the basic movement of human history is toward more efficient sharing of the earth’s resources. But I would add that shit sometimes happens, which is why socialists who believe socialism is inevitable should keep working.

  40. “I cannot begin to fathom how the capitalist class in Germany drove Nazism generally or though death camps were a good idea.”

    I think something happened to your syntax, but I also think I understand what you mean.

    The big implication is that the large-scale things the Nazis did that did not make sense, imply that at the very least there must be exceptions to historical laws.

    Here is another example — the nuclear arms race. At one point 10% of all the electric power produced in the USA went to making nuclear weapons. Kennedy got elected partly on the “missile gap”, the claim that the USSR had more nuclear missiles than the USA did, which he later admitted (when he had access to military secrets) was false.

    We continued to make nuclear material past any rational need. Pacifists complained that we have 4 times the amount needed to kill all of humanity, 20 times, 50 times, they picked arbitrary numbers since there was no way to test the real number. We went right on building. At one point we had dozens of warheads aimed at each significant Russian city, at least one on each major town, railroad center and railroad bridge etc, and we were assigning them to crossroads.

    The rationale was partly that neither side could let the other have very much MORE than they did. That somehow if they could kill us 10-fold and we could only kill them 5-fold that they would have a negotiating advantage.

    Also there was the chance they could make a big strike to destroy all our weapons and still have a lot left over to threaten us with.

    And if we did have a nuclear war and the US economy was knocked back 100 years or so, we perhaps wanted to have surviving nukes to threaten Mexico in case they tried to take back their land while we were weak.

    There are lots of crazy ideas about why we did it, but I think the central historical law is that when people start doing something, they tend to keep doing it more and more until they run into limits. People build more residential housing until a bunch of them go broke. Armies march across europe until they are stopped. Nazis built death camps until they were overrun. Americans built nukes until we ran out of money and had to negotiate with the Russians who were also running out. It doesn’t have to make sense.

    Part of it is division of labor. Once somebody is in charge of some piece of the puzzle — running death camps, building nukes, building residential houses, railroad track, etc — then they personally identify with their job. When their job becomes less important then THEY personally are less important. So they are ready to fight to do more, to be more important. And if nobody important is ready to oppose them, then they do more and more until some external force does stop them.

  41. “Look to the actual statistics of how many people were killed by the Nazi regime generally, and in camps specifically, and some interesting questions arise.”

    You point out the uneven coverage of the history in the mass media. I would guess that real historians pay attention to the details reasonably well (without actually reading much real history about it myself, to back up that guess). But the mass media cover it to create a narrative, so they tend to leave out things that don’t fit the narrative.

    When I was a child they talked about 6 million jews and 7 million others who died in the camps. Now it’s 5 million others. It’s possible there are traces of objectivity in the Nazi Holocaust stories, but you mustn’t expect too much.

  42. “But certain basics, such as the general increase in the productivity of labor, of the tendency of new economic content to conflict with old economic forms, of the need of a newly rising class to take state power, are both quite real and important to have a basic understanding of history.”

    The first of these is contingent. When there is a labor shortage, and otherwise when capital is significantly cheaper than labor, then it makes sense for labor productivity to rise. When people pride themselves on their technology then productivity might rise even when it is not in fact productive to do that. Productivity has tended to rise in our lifetime, and history tends to stress it, but it is not at all a universal. It happens for particular reasons and we struggle to deal with the consequences because we lack any ideology that would tell us to put a stop to it.

    We tend to notice new economic content when it conflicts with old economic forms. We are more likely to notice that it’s new when that conflict is there. There’s some truth to the claim that it happens, but that’s strongly influenced by our perceptual bias.

    One of the ways we notice that a class is rising is that they take state power. If they don’t take state power then we may decide they aren’t rising after all.So this is another almost definitional claim.”No true scotsman would fail to take state power when his class was rising!”

    I’m sure there are important basics, but these don’t look to me like they quite get there.

  43. Will: When I think of a tide, I think of something that rolls in and out. The increased productivity of labor, to take the most obvious example, is a very powerful trend.

  44. D’oh! Bad brain. I wanted something more like “current” or “flow”. Sorry about the confusion!

    I will fix this in the next draft.

  45. @skzb “Historic laws are as real as the laws determining any other aspect of material reality–from astronomy to genetics.”

    Can you demonstrate this?

    Scientists use the word “law” rather than “theory” when it can be demonstrated that something will happen given certain circumstances, while “theory” is generally used to describe how something will happen. Laws can very often be expressed as a mathematical formula, which is why social sciences don’t tend to have laws. (I’ve always liked the explanation at http://science.kennesaw.edu/~rmatson/3380theory.html)

    Astronomy & related disciplines are replete with laws pertaining to gravity, physics, the big bang etc. These laws have been tested and shown to be accurate when scientists have found the phenomena they predict. Geneticists have formed many theories which they test by predicting birth disorders and which they apply by devising new methods of combating disease. How do historic laws fit in with astronomy and genetics? Where have these laws been explicitly spelled out? How have they been tested?

    “More complex and difficult, certainly; and we’re still in the early stages of learning them.”

    More complex than Einstein’s theory of relativity? More difficult to study than gravitational waves? Einstein’s paper on relativity was published just 110 years ago, and in that time we’ve been able to study the origin of the universe. The idea of studying “historic laws” certainly predates Einstein’s work; how can it still be in the early stages?

  46. “More complex than Einstein’s theory of relativity?”

    This is a hobby-horse of mine, and I want to briefly rant about it. Relativity theory is simple.

    The story starts with David Faraday. He was self-educated and he didn’t like math. He carefully studied electricity and magnetism, and he described what he found with pictures and words.

    People who did like math tried to translate his work into mathematics. They came up with an adequate way to do that, relative to his lab bench.

    Maxwell used the translations of Faraday’s work (among others) to come up with a partial but completely general view of electromagnetism and light. It fit together so well and also fit the experimental evidence well enough that scientists assumed it had to be true. But the rest of physics was velocity-independent. If you do an experiment where everything is moving sideways at the same rate, the results come out normal. Maxwell’s equations only work right if you’re moving at the same speed as Faraday’s workbench.

    Einstein found a fudge factor which handled that. If you assume that different velocities change space and time just the right amount, then Maxwell’s equations work for everybody. It’s a very simple change to space and time. The idea is a bit hard to grasp it because it requires you to change a lot of assumptions around, but it is very very simple, because Maxwell’s equations only need a simple fudge factor. Why do relativity instead of actually apply the fudge factor to Maxwell’s equations? Probably historical accident.

    Relativity results in a peculiar interpretation of electromagnetism. If you are moving relative to an electric charge, you can measure a magnetic field from that charge. Without that relative movement, the magnetic field is gone and the electric field is adjusted just the right amount to make up for it. Is the magnetic field there at all? It is an interpretation — when the charge moves (relative to you), you experience its force coming from where it used to be instead of where it is now, and the magnetic field is the difference, experienced as a sideways force. Magnetic fields are only a side effect of relativity, there is no actual force there.

    But Feynman’s formula adds a term so that the force does after all originate at the location the charge would have now if it kept traveling at constant velocity, and then that can then be subtracted out by the magnetic force. It’s like epicycles. Faraday’s interpretation continues to propagate.

    Einstein later repeated the same trick with gravity. If you assume that the presence of mass changes the nature of space in a particular way, you can get all the results of gravity from that change. So instead of gravity being a force that attracts mass to mass, gravity is a distortion of space that attracts mass to mass. The math turns complex this time, but it works out just like gravity so it’s a valid interpretation.

    Gravity waves are hard to study partly because gravity is about 10^-44 times as strong as the electric force. Even with 64-bit computing that’s less than rounding error. Direct measurement of gravity waves is hard, if there are such things. Sound waves are pressure waves, at any one place the pressure rises and falls. It would be hard to detect transverse sound waves because over distance they would quickly average out to nothing. light waves are only transverse, any longitudinal component disappears quickly. What kind of waves would you expect from gravity? It depends on your assumptions about how gravity works, and those assumptions are hard to test.

    Bottom line: Even in physics, by far the easiest science, it’s hard to separate your a priori assumptions from the data. People can’t help but to think about their data in terms of what they already believe.

  47. “This is a hobby-horse of mine, and I want to briefly rant about it. Relativity theory is simple.”

    Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough about the context I intended. In 1905, when Einstein was publishing his best known work, Ludwig Prandtl’s theory of aerodynamics was only a year old. The first fully maneuverable flight by an aircraft was in spring of that 1905. In the following century, we’ve taken the idea of flight to whole new planets and employed the principles learned in a few decades of work to demonstrating the accuracy of Einstein’s theories. That is why one can refer to laws of astronomy – the predictions, which existed for decades solely as abstract equations, are being demonstrated to be correct left and right,and that after less than a century of work.

    Articulating and supporting the law(s) of history is surely more simple than that.

  48. “That is why one can refer to laws of astronomy – the predictions, which existed for decades solely as abstract equations, are being demonstrated to be correct left and right,and that after less than a century of work.”

    This shows that I wasn’t clear enough either.

    “Laws” of physics, astronomy etc tend to get expressed in terms of the existing theory about what’s going on. What gets demonstrated to be correct is mathematical relationships between different sets of data after considerable fudging, not the laws themselves.

    In general physical laws don’t mean what they appear to. So for example, physics students can get into arguments about what neutrinos are. They universally get described as particles, but can just as well be described as probability distributions for waves of violations of conservation laws. People who argue that they are not probability waves cannot make good arguments. The winning argument is that particles — all particles — are in fact probability waves and so there is no conflict.

    Neutrinos show that conservation laws are not falsifiable. When a conservation law is broken physicists invent new hypothetical particles to account for the conservation failure, and then interpret their experimental results in terms of their particles. Similarly astronomers assume properties of light that are reasonable but cannot be tested over the times and distances they care about, and then interpret all their EM results based on that theory. Start with a different theory and get a different astronomy from the same data. They tend to keep the one they have until it breaks so badly it can’t be patched.

    Einstein lived at a time when Maxwell’s equations had broken so badly they could not be patched, and Einstein found a way to patch them after all.

    Laws of history? People always start out with their theories which make sense to them, and then interpret whatever facts they are concerned about, according to the theories. This is unlikely to get useful laws. However, the closer the theories are to being unfalsifiable, the longer they will be accepted.

  49. Seems to me that young-Earth creationists do in fact tell us that geology cannot be studied objectively.

  50. Last year I began wondering about whether Marxism was inherently weak as a social or political theory, so I began reading the writings of Marx, Engels and Trotsky, not to mention scores of other marxists, and I have found many points of similarity between YECs and Marxists.

    The concept of there being scientific “laws of history” was entirely new to me at that time, and is something I have only seen in Marxist literature. Never once have I seen these laws explained, supported or applied to current or future events. I’d love a straight answer to the question, “What are historic laws?”, an answer that doesn’t involve confounding the different meanings of “theory” as used by scientists and laypeople.

  51. This might be helpful:

    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2011/apr/18/karl-marx-men-make-history

    It’s short, and it ends with a quote from Marx that may be useful: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

    I continue to be very sorry about using “tides” when I meant “currents”, which was as unhelpful as unhelpful can be. Bad, bad, bad brain.

  52. Also, the bits on history and historical materialism here:

    http://www.marxists.org/glossary/terms/h/i.htm

  53. skzb

    dd-b: I can’t tell if you’re only kidding, or also making a point, but in case it’s the latter, no, young-Earth Creationists tell us that Geology can be studied subjectively, not that it cannot be studied objectively. Unless you are using the definition of objectivity that the entire point of the post was to discredit.

  54. Young-earth creationists may be studying something, but I don’t think it’s geology. Really, creation “science” might as well retreat to the Omphalos Principle. It’s impossible to controvert, unlike their stupid theories.

  55. Miramon, as I understand it, young-earth creationists assume that God made the earth pretty much instantly almost AS IF it had ground along with erosion etc for billions of years.

    They start from their a priori beliefs and develop theories from there. Meanwhile geologists start from their a priori belief that God did no such thing, and similarly develop theories. Neither belief can be disproven. The scientific approach is preferred because it is conceptually simpler — it assumes only the (partly known) laws of physics and chemstry and requires no god. This is a subjective preference. The creationist approach is preferred because it is compatible with scripture which is known to be true. This is another subjective preference.

    Creationism is compatible with Deist beliefs, which say that God created the earth as a second scripture, one which is possibly more reliable than the one written on paper since God made it himself with no imtermediaries at all. If it turns out that God created some geological facts which are impossible to explain rationally, He might have put them there so we would find them and know that he was not just trying to trick us and test our faith. I don’t see that any such facts have been discovered, but it would be reasonable for creationists to look for such.

    In practice, scientists don’t usually pay attention to Occam’s razor. They take whatever theory is prevalent at the time and try their best to fit all the evidence to it. If they get evidence which cannot possibly fit the theory then they get upset and dither until somebody thinks of something that works, and they tend to go with the first theory that fits the facts. Occasionally some prestigious scientist comes up with an alternative theory, and then instead of picking the version that looks simpler, they collect data until they can say one theory doesn’t fit the data and can be discarded. It went that way with the steady-state theory in astronomy. The idea was that instead of a Big Bang which leads to stellar evolution and perhaps eventually a contraction etc, things like electrons and protons just appear in empty space and eventually coalesce, and that just keeps happening. Eventually the data appeared to favor the Big Bang enough to say it was true, and nobody has seriously questioned it since.

    I would prefer a variation on Sherlock Holmes’s idea.

    “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

    Once you eliminate the theories that are incompatible with observation, everything that remains is valid scientific hypotheses.

    I think part of the reason scientists don’t do it that way, is that most prefer to (incorrectly) feel like they know the truth. Almost certainly, most scientific laws fit special cases in which the simplified version of a more correct law is approximately correct. When the more correct law is found, people will tend to believe that it is just as true as they thought the previous version was. Like a hermit crab moving into a new shell. Ah, home. Truth.

  56. Wil, on reading your links I find myself with a sense of disappointment. As the tenets of marxism get expressed more subtly they become more elastic, better able to fit any situation, more correct and at the same time less useful.

    I can certainly see how skzb gets disgusted at people who keep waving their scarecrow version of what they think he believes at him.

    “As Antonio Gramsci pointed out, if Marx thought it would all come about automatically, then there was no need for his 11th thesis on Feuerbach, which declared that it was more important to change the world than to interpret it.”

    This is an example of an awful logical fallacy I see all the time, that I don’t have a name for. Politicians usually use it, but so do lots of others.

    “If elected, I promise to increase military funding and maintain social programs, with reduced taxes and no deficit spending.”

    ‘No wait, you are going to increase spending, so you’ll increase taxes or deficit.’

    “Didn’t you hear me? Less tax and no deficit.”

    ‘But if you bring in less money and you don’t borrow it, you’ll cut spending.’

    “Is something wrong with your ears? I said I’m going to increase military funding and maintain social programs. Of course I’ll also cut spending by eliminating waste.”

    There’s the implicit claim that the politician’s platform has no contradictions. Here Gramsci makes that claim of Marx. His conclusion is probably true, but the argument is bad.

    “Marx could not possibly have ever claimed X, because I have an example where he said Y and Y can’t be true if X is true. Therefore Marx never said X.”

  57. @W Shetterly: “This might be helpful:…”

    “For Marx, there are no iron laws…” That’s a very interesting opening sentence, because it contradicts what so many self-described Marxists say, and while what they say is so positive, they tend to neither support their position nor refer to a source in Marx’s writings. I certainly haven’t found anything as yet in Marx’s writings about “iron laws”, but those who come after seem to have done so.

    Part 2 of the Guardian’s series is very interesting to me. He says point blank that “Marx never provided a blueprint for that future society”, which is something I’ve noticed in my reading. I had been wondering if I simply haven’t yet come across his concrete recommendations for the future, but recently I’ve decided he simply had nothing to say beyond his, well I would say utopian dreams, but he and his have reduced “utopian” to jargon, so I guess he had nothing to say beyond outlining his idealized view of a rose-tinted world that would magically appear once the revolution took place.

    “Also, the bits on history and historical materialism here”

    I’m very familiar with marxists.org, having made a wholesale sweep of their archives to help answer my questions about marxism as a social or political base. When the idea of historical materialism is kept in perspective, it’s as accurate any other single benchmark used to analyze history, but like any other single issue it is wrong to accept it as the one and only guiding principle of human development.

    “I continue to be very sorry about using ‘tides’ when I meant ‘currents’, which was as unhelpful as unhelpful can be. Bad, bad, bad brain.”

    For what it’s worth, I see no reason to beat up your brain over this. Tide, current or maelstrom – it’s all rhetoric meant to describe perceptions of movement in history. They’re equally evocative, but they don’t actually support the idea that there are anything like “historical laws”.

  58. When reading Marxists, I always remember my favorite Marx quote, usually translated something like, “If that’s Marxism, I’m no Marxist.” See http://libcom.org/forums/theory/context-marxs-i-am-not-marxist-quote-09062009

    This is much of the reason I don’t call myself a Marxist. I haven’t read enough Marx to pretend to be one.

    Marx did intend to write intensively about socialism, but he died before he got past capitalism. It’s the writer’s curse.

  59. Which brings to mind Pete Seeger: “I still call myself a communist, because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it.”

    What a guy. Still an active musician at age 94!

  60. Damn it. RIP.

  61. Yeah. I don’t know why I was sure he would make 100. He had a damn fine run.

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