Friday, December 28, 2012

Marxism and the Philosophy of Science by Helena Sheehan (introduction)

Marxism and the Philosophy of Science by Helena Sheehan

On page 10 (introduction) Helena outlines 5 different types of errors in interpreting the history of Marxism (I've rephrased it a bit since I found her words initially not clear)

1) unproblematic straight line correctness

2) it would have been an unproblematic straight line except for the Stalin "cult of the personality" problem

3) Certain heretical critics (eg. Lukacs) provide a reinterpretation of Marxism which is then accepted uncritically

4) Selected Marxist texts are given forced "readings" and then other interpretations are dismissed as "historicist". An Althusserian once said to the author, "There is no such thing as history; there are only books on shelves", which left her speechless.

5) The whole of Marxism is dismissed as the "illusion of the epoch" (reference to a book by HB Acton)

On page 12, in contrast, she outlines her approach to the history of Marxism:

1) It's essential to delve into the "difficult matters" and "the self inflicted tragedies of the communist movement" ... she disagrees totally with "the premises underlying the tradition of sacrificing truth to 'partisanship', in the name of which so many crimes against science and against humanity have been committed"

2) Even without Stalin the history of Marxism would not be an unproblematic straight line (obvious)

3) She disagrees with the tendency of those who draw a sharp line b/w "creative" Marxists - Marx, Lukacs, Korsch and Gramsci - on one side and "dogmatic" Marxists - Engels, Lenin, Stalin - on the other side. Good and bad philosophers can be found on both sides of this divide. She likes Gramsci and Caudwell.

4) She is an unrepentant historicist - we cannot separate human thought from the context of human thinking without thoroughly distorting what it is. She adds in a footnote that such interpretations are not in opposition to structural, logical or systematic explanations.

[ on page 16 she elaborates further on her historical perspective: "Most philosophers today are utterly oblivious to the fact that philosophy or science is historical, except in the most trivial and superficial sense. Even when they do look at the history of philosophy or science they do so in such a thoroughly ahistorical and noncontextual way, that anybody could virtually have said anything at any time. In philosophy, the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Descarte, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Carnap and Quine are treated as discrete and interchangeable units, virtually independent of time and place ..."]

5) Rather than an "illusion of the epoch" she believes that however problematic Marxism remains (quoting Sartre) the unsurpassed philosophy of our time because of such features as its comprehensiveness, coherence and orientation towards science.

My thoughts: There may be more than 5 ways to misunderstand the history of marxism. I don't know enough to say whether her judgements about Gramsci and Caudwell as "the good guys" are correct or whether she is even looking in the right places to find answers. However, I do very much like her general framing of how to approach the history of marxism:
- the need to look into the dark places, to assess negatives as well as positives
- those who make errors may also have redeeming features; those who are mainly correct have probably also made important mistakes; we need to avoid the tendency of making black and white evaluations; nevertheless, categories such as correct and incorrect, friend and enemy are still valid categories in history and politics
- there is something about marxism (not yet identified here) that makes it worth pursuing as a key method of thinking to both understanding history and solving current world problems; to confuse errors, even very significant errors, with a fundamentally flawed philosophy would be an even bigger mistake

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