Thursday, February 28, 2008


Thomas Riggins

There is no doubt, from reading the New York Times obituary (2-28-2008), that Buckley was a talented and bright person. But his legacy, I fear, is mostly negative and his existence was a not a boon to humanity. A few quotes from the Times reveals why.

“Mr. Buckley’s greatest achievement was making conservatism – not just electoral Republicanism, but conservatism as a system of ideas – respectable in liberal postwar America. He mobilized the young enthusiasts who helped nominate Mr. Goldwater in 1964 [types like John Bolton] and saw his dreams fulfilled when Mr. Reagan and the Bushes captured [an apt word indeed] the Oval Office.” Bush Jr. even gave him The Medal of Freedom, forever sullied from its contact with both of them.

Reagan and the Bushes have given us a legacy of war, racism, constitutional betrayal, corruption at the highest levels of the government, vote rigging, and a foreign policy predicated on the repression and oppression of the world’s poorest people in the interests of the profits of the big American multinationals and their CEOs. This is the “greatest achievement” of William F. Buckley.

He showed his true conservative opinions and his deep hatred for the American constitution and its promise of diversity and freedom of speech in his 1951 book God and Man at Yale, which “called for the firing of faculty members who advocated values out of line with what he saw as Yale’s traditional values [fascism?]”. The Times reports that he had to spend $10,000 (no small sum in 1951) to get this book off the ground. This tripe would never have been seen without this financial intervention.

He showed his true colors when his magazine National Review lined “up squarely behind Southern segregationists saying that Southern whites had the right to impose their ideas on blacks who were as yet culturally and politically inferior to them.” Of course they were “politically inferior”—they were not allowed to vote or to participate in politics! If this is “intellectually acceptable” then it says more about the level of intellect in the US ruling class and its sycophants than it says about Buckley.

It is at least comforting to know that his magazine and the intellectually juvenile articles published in it could not survive if it depended on the support of the American people alone. “The magazine,” the Times points out, “has always had to be subsidized by readers’ donations, supplemented by Mr. Buckley’s lecturing fees.”

The whole conservative movement, in fact, rests on nativism and racism and is the intellectual offal of monopoly capitalism whose creature it is and whose financial backing keeps it afloat.

from PAEditorsBlog

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


By Thomas Riggins

The British thinker Michael Dummett is generally considered one of the most important living philosophers writing in English. The TLS of 2-8-08 has a review of his new book (based on the Gifford Lectures he gave in 1996-97) “Thought and Reality”: Paul Boghossian “Powers for the divine.”

Having recently re-read Lenin’s “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism”, I was struck by the similarity of the problems being dealt with today by some contemporary philosophers and those dealt with by Lenin a century ago. I will use Leninist terminology in braces {}to make the arguments clearer.

Boghossian says that Dummett has been occupied over his career by two “master thoughts.” Master thought one is “that the metaphysical dispute between a realist {materialist} and anti-realist {subjective idealist}” about a particular area of reality (or “domain”) can only be seen as a disagreement about “the meaning of statements” about the area in dispute. Master thought two is that the theory of meaning provides a general argument “which tends to favour anti-realist {subjective idealist} conceptions of meaning over their realist {materialist} alternatives.” Let us see if much has changed since Lenin’s day.

Boghossian illustrates Dummett’s views by taking a mathematical example. In 1742 Christian Goldbach proposed “every even integer greater than two is the sum of two primes.” A mathematical realist who thinks the number system has an objective existence thinks that Goldbach’s proposition is either true or false independently of us. An anti-realist holds that the number system is the a construct of the human mind and the answer to Goldbach’s proposition is only true or false if “we have built enough into our notion of number to settle the matter.”

Enter Dummett’s First Master Thought: this dispute can only be resolved on the basis of whether or not math statements are true or false even if we cannot show that they are or not. That is, do they have what he calls JUSTIFICATION-INDEPENDENT TRUTH CONDITIONS. The question now becomes, according to Boghossian, can something be true “even if we have no justification for accepting it” or do we need a proof or some such justification in order for something to be true?

Enter Dummett’s Second Master Thought: the theory of meaning, according to Dummett, implies that without JUSTIFICATION CONDITIONS our statements about things have no meaning. If follows that there are NO justification-independent truth conditions. Thus the mathematical anti-realist is correct. This applies to all domains or areas of knowledge (so my use of “materialism” and “subjective idealism” is not too far off the mark as it may have been if ONLY the philosophy of mathematics was involved).

Boghossian thinks Master Thought One maybe have something in its favour but that Master Thought Two, justificationism, has too many problems. When it comes to a statement about the past, for instance, the truth or falsity of “X occurred” seems to common sense to depend on if “X occurred” or not and not on if we can give a proof or justification about the occurrence one way or another. Dummett seems to realize this problem and in another book, "Truth and the Past” tries to deal with it.

With respect to the past, Boghossian writes, Dummett says, in effect, that statements about the past are true “if and only if anyone suitably placed in time and space would be, or would have been, in a position to establish it as true.” But what about situations where it would have been totally impossible for someone to have been “suitably” placed—such as the moment of the Big Bang?

Dummett is led by his anti-realism, as Boghossian points out, “to the view that there could not have been a world without sentient beings.” But we know that the earth existed before there were any sentient beings on it. Also human beings have a different kind of sentience than other beings, so how do we explain living in a “common world?” “The realist {materialist},” the reviewer writes, “who believes in the world as it is in itself, independent of our ways of apprehending it, would easily be able to make sense” of all these problems. But how can Dummett do so?

Just as his great predecessor Bishop George Berkeley did, Dummett calls in God to be the guarantor of his system of justificationism. And here is the link between Lenin and Dummett. Anti-realist {idealist, and especially subjective idealist} arguments are as old as the hills, and a good reading of “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism” may make you doubt that Dummett is “one of philosophy’s most searching minds” (his other big interests are tarot and Roman Catholicism, to which he has converted)—but we can at least agree that his book “may not be the last word on the difficult issues it treats.” That book came out in 1908.

Monday, February 25, 2008


by Thomas Riggins

There is an excellent review of John Bolton's new book, "Surrender is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad" by Brian Urquhart (a former UN under-secretary general) in the March 6, 2008 issue of The New York Review of Books ("One Angry Man").

Urquhart points out that Bolton was unhappy with the Bush administration's change of course in its second term (from gung ho go it alone militarism to some limited recognition that cooperation with US allies and the broader international community
was in order).

The review says that the title of his book refers to not giving up one's political views and ideals and that, "There is no doubt about Bolton's vision of himself as the dauntless defender of US principles as he sees them." And what principles he sees!
A jingoist, xenophobic, America runs the world so get out of way, attitude more or less sums up the Bolton world view which derives, Urquhard believes, not from the neocons but from his early 60s encounter with and support of Goldwaterism. Urquhart alludes to a Col. Blimp flavor to some of his pronouncements, but this does Col. Blimp a disservice. For all of his pomposity and foolishness, Col. Blimp was kindhearted on a personal level. Bolton reveals himself to be petty, nasty, and small minded.

Urquhart reminds us that as an undersecretary of state, before his stint at the UN, "he did much to undermine America's leadership and position in the world." Actually, not a bad thing as undermining and weakening the power of the number one imperialist power strengthens the world progressive movement. Perhaps Bolton is a secret anti-imperialist? What Urquhart has reference to, however, is Bolton's role in undermining the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the International Criminal Court. Of course he could have only done this with the consent of his masters Bush, Cheney and the ineffective Colin Powell.

When Condoleeza Rice took over State Bolton was bounced over to the UN job but he was so incompetent for the position he could not even get confirmed by the Republican controlled Senate. He got a recess appointment in August 2005-- he lasted about a year or so and had to resign when it became obvious that the new Democratic controlled Senate would never confirm him-- he was such an embarrassment.

His role at the UN was basically disruptive as he had no regard for the institution, its goals, or international organizations and treaty commitments in general. His book also reveals his personal animus towards those he disagrees with, blaming them for policy failures which were the results of the actions of others. So his book seems not to be a trustworthy account of his record and the actions of the UN.

For example, he has a great dislike for Kofi Annan whom he says "was simply not up to the job" of Secretary General, a view that history is not likely to validate. He blames Kofi Annan for the Oil-for-Food scandal in Iraq. "It was," however, Urquhart says, "the Security Council, including the US, that allowed Saddam Hussein's government to negotiate deals and kickbacks directly --- without UN supervision --- with the hundreds of commercial firms involved." He also fails to note UN success stories. His book appears to be just a nasty minded distorted account of his activities with little regard for truth or accuracy.

He is also stupidly indiscreet. He reveals that when seeking a replacement for Kofi Annan Rice told him "I'm not sure we want a strong secretary general." They then agreed on Ban Ki-moon. Urquhart calls this "a gross disservice" to Ban Ki-moon and, I might add, to Rice as well-- but it is good to know what is really going on, so thanks, John, for spilling the beans.

Bolton now works out of the American Enterprise Institute (where else?) and has become a favorite of the corporate media (The New York Times, The New York Sun, etc.) who love to quote his quaint and outrageous opinions on all major world issues. Urquhart tells us that "Reporters seem to feel that if they quote him, they will have included a 'tough' conservative point of view."

Bolton doesn't think the US should talk with its adversaries. Threats and conventional military actions are all that's really needed to enforce the Pax Americana. Urquhart calls this outlook an "anachronism" and quotes William Pfaff [born in 1928, Pfaff has written eight books and is a frequent contributor to the NYRB] from a 1998 piece: "[T]he belief that America as 'sole superpower' would or could dominate the world, widely held after communism's collapse, rested on the illusion that military and economic power directly translate into political power, and that power is identical with authority. The exercise of authority requires consent, and rests on a moral position." A moral position is something Bolton and his coterie of admirers most certainly lack.

His credo is summed in the following four propositions based on Urquhart:

1. Only US interest count. The UN should serve those interests.
2. Allies are not to be trusted and hostiles must be treated by force as they will never abide by their commitments. The hostiles include North Korea, Iran, any enemies of Israel, and others.
3. Hostiles should not be negotiated with on a long tern basis or rewarded for a change of behavior. Force and violence are always a possibility on our part.
4. Idealists, liberals, multilateralists and "most Democrats" are "almost" the same as the hostile foreigners who oppose our country.

Urguhart concludes, as any rational person must, that Bolton's views and behavior "are a luxury the United States can no longer afford."
from PAEditorsBlog

Sunday, February 24, 2008


READING LENIN: Materialism and Empiro-criticism [ 5 ]
Thomas Riggins

Chapter One Section Three: The Principal Co-Ordination and "Naive Realism"

Lenin now turns to two works by Avenarius, "The Human Concept of the World" and the "Notes." He will give us the essence of the doctrine of the "Principle Co-Ordination" and its relation to our everyday notions of naive realism. Avenarius' thesis is that of, in his own words, "the INDISSOLUBLE CO-ORDINATION OF THE SELF AND THE ENVIRONMENT." The self and the environment are always together, like a horse and carriage or love and marriage! The self is the CENTRAL TERM and the environment is the COUNTER TERM of this co-ordination.

Avenarius thinks this doctrine leaves the belief in naive realism untouched, and Mach ("Analysis of Sensations") thinks so as well. Lenin thinks this is nuts. In fact, he claims this view, which supposedly co-ordinates naive realism with the self (consciousness), is just warmed over Fichte.

Lenin means Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814, 'The Father of German Nationalism'-- a dubious honor), an Idealist who wrote in 1801 that you should "Take care, therefore, not to jump out of yourself and to apprehend anything otherwise than you are able to apprehend it, as consciousness AND the thing, as the thing AND consciousness; or more precisely, neither the one nor the other, but that which only subsequently becomes resolved into the two, that which is the absolute subjective-objective and objective-subjective." The so-called newest philosophy was just a rehash, a century later, of early German Idealism.

Now, what has this empirio-critical doctrine have to do with naive realism? According to Lenin, the naive realism (of "any healthy person") is "the view that things, the environment, the world, exist INDEPENDENTLY of our sensation, of our consciousness, of our SELF and of man in general."

Not only does the world have an independent existence human beings have knowledge about it because it interacts with our nervous system, also a part of the world, and reproduces images of itself of which we are conscious-- human consciousness being a higher order property of the organization of matter. "Materialism." Lenin says, "DELIBERATELY makes the 'naive" belief of mankind the foundation of its theory of knowledge."

Lenin takes great pains to stress that this is not just the partisan view of diamat that he is pushing, but it is the standpoint of modern natural science and of scientists in general, even those who would not consider themselves followers of diamat. (Dialectical Materialism)

As evidence for this view he turns to Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920, 'The Father of Modern Psychology,' along with William James) who maintained the view that any given reality cannot be described without a reference to the "self" (Avenarius and company) is, in his words, "a false confusion of the content of real experience with reflections about it."

Lenin also bolsters his argument my quoting from a 1906 article in 'Mind", still the leading English philosophy journal, by Norman Kemp Smith (1872-1958, best known for his translation of Kant's 'Critique of Pure Reason'-- still the gold standard). After discussing Avenarius' theory of the principle co-ordination of the world of sense experience and the natural world of naive realism viewed as one of complexes of sensations, Smith concludes that Avenarius has failed completely to capture the meaning of naive realism as it is understood by realists [materialists].

Avenarius, Smith writes, "argues that thought is as genuine a form of experience as sense-perception, and so in the end falls back on the time-worn argument of subjective idealism, that thought and reality are inseparable, because reality can only be conceived in thought, and thought involves the presence of the thinker. Not, therefore, any original and profound reestablishment of realism, but only the restatement in its crudest form of the familiar position of subjective idealism is the final outcome of Avenarius' positive speculations."

Lenin has pretty much made his main point in this section, which i will reiterate in a moment. He gives a few more examples of how mixed up Avenarius' views are (from W. Schuppe and O. Ewald-- both of whom will be dealt with in later sections). He again says "it is important to note" that all attempts to combine materialism (realism) and subjective idealism a la Mach and Avenarius into some transcendental philosophy that includes them both is IN FACT an "empty, pseudo-scientific claim." Lenin says that "To build a theory of knowledge on the postulate of the indissoluble connection between the object and human sensation ('complexes of sensations' as identical with bodies; 'world-elements' that are identical both psychically and physically; Avenarius' co-ordination and so forth) is to land inevitably into idealism."

And finally, to end this section, Lenin turns to R. Willy, the disciple of Avenarius, who has to admit that the attempt of his master to reconcile empirio-criticism and naive realism is a failure. Willy says you have to take the belief that Avenarius actually subscribed to naive realism "cum grano salis." Willy writes, "As a dogma, naive realism would be nothing but the belief in things-in-themselves existing outside man in their perceptible form." Willy thinks that is ridiculous, and perhaps it is in the way he formulated it. I mean, "in their perceptible form" is loaded-- there is an X out there but is that X 100% equal to how our senses perceive it?

At any rate, Willy is forced to concede that Avenarius' book, "The Human Concept of the World" is one that "entirely bears the character of a RECONCILIATION between the naive realism of common sense and the epistemological idealism of school philosophy. But that such a reconciliation could restore the unity and integrity of [basic] experience I would not assert." QED.

Next week we will go over Section 4 of Chapter One, "Did Nature Exist Prior to Man?" [Believe it our not this is still a big issue, even one of the presidential candidates thinks that Nature only existed for 5 days prior to man (our actual president is uncertain -- a Yale graduate, oh well if they let Buckley through I guess anyone can go there)! And the people of the world are supposed to take our country seriously!].

cum grano saltis = with a grain of salt
The phrase comes from Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia, regarding the discovery of a recipe for an antidote to a poison. In the antidote, one of the ingredients was a grain of salt. Threats involving the poison were thus to be taken "with a grain of salt" and therefore less seriously.-- Wikopedia
from PAEditorsBlog

Wednesday, February 20, 2008



Thomas Riggins

I don't know who killed Benazir Bhutto: the radical anti-western so-called "Islamists", the Musharraf government, or the Bush government. All three groups have shown that they don't hesitate to use murder and political assassination to gain their ends. It seems that the ideas put forth by Ms Bhutto, as presented in the New York Times review of her last book (NYT 2/19/2008), which she completed writing just before she was killed, would not please the Taliban, Al-Quaeda, Musharraf or Bush and his followers.

The reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, says she presents her view that Islam is "'an open pluralistic and tolerant religion," that has been "hijacked by extremists ." She did not think a clash between religions or civilizations was at issue.

This false use of faith, many think, is similar to Bush's hijacking of modern Christianity to cover up his war mongering and attacking of other countries. Neither group of extremists has the interests of religion or humanity at heart.

Kakutani, I believe, tries to present Bush in a better light than he deserves. He says, and I emphasize it, that Ms Bhutto held "that dictatorship breeds extremism and that democracies --- and here, SHE SOUNDS A LOT LIKE PRESIDENT BUSH -- "do not go to war with democracies" and "do not become state sponsors of terrorism." Maybe this SOUNDS like President Bush, but Kakutani knows full well it doesn't accord with his ACTIONS, nor with the general foreign policy of the US.

He has waged covert "war" (supporting a coup, for instance) against the democratically elected government of Venezuela (the US has a history of overthrowing democracies) and he supports dictatorships whenever it suits him (thus he is responsible for the growth of Islamic extremism to a greater extent that bin Laden who plays the monster to his Dr. Frankenstein)-- the US also has a history of being the dictators' best friend (Indonesia, Chile, Iran under the Shah, Iraq in better days, Indonesia, etc., etc.). It is a sick joke for Bush to talk about democracy after his own taking of power was based on flawed and phony vote counts.

Ms. Bhutto points out that US actions "made generations of Muslims suspicious and cynical about Western motivations"-- she is referring to the overthrow of the democratic government in Iran (1953)-- but the US backing of Israel and its white settler policies against the occupied Palestinians is also a good example.

She also blames the US for the problems of Afghanistan and the Taliban. She says "if the United States had not used Afghanistan as merely a 'blunt instrument to trigger the implosion of the Soviet Union' and then abandoned it, history in the entire region might have been very different." Yes, and we might still have our twin towers standing.

She called Bush's war in Iraq a "colonial war" and "a quagmire for the West and a great and unfolding tragedy for the [Iraqi] people." No wonder Bush's State Department wouldn't give her extra protection when it was found out assassins were after her. She would been a democratic thorn in the side of the our war criminal president!

Her Pakistan People's Party has just won, with other opposition parties, a big mandate against the Dictator supported and sponsored by the US. We will have to wait and see if real democratic change comes about in Pakistan. Even more importantly we will see, in the coming months, if real democratic change can come about in the US. Will the undemocratic and criminal policies of the Bush administration be repudiated and replaced by pro people and pro peace policies, or will we be served up with old wine in new bottles?
from PAEditors Blog

Sunday, February 17, 2008


READING LENIN: Materialism and Empirio-criticism [ 4 ]
Thomas Riggins

Using our editor's blog to further Marxist education seems like a good idea. So here is a famous work of Lenin's that outlines what Marxist philosophy is all about. It's 100 years old this year and we might ask ourselves what is still valid in this classic. Have new philosophic developments in the last 100 years made this work outmoded? I'm going to post some reflections on the book section by section and anyone who wants to read along and comment is welcome to do so. I hope to post weekly updates and Sunday seems the best day to do this as it is a free day for me.

Chapter One Section Two "The Discovery of the World Elements"

What are the "world elements" that Mach has supposedly discovered? In his "Mechanics" (1883) he wrote, "All natural science can only picture and represent complexes of those ELEMENTS which we ordinarily call SENSATIONS."

Lenin says Mach is confused, because in "The Analysis of Sensations" he says, "A colour is a physical object when we consider its dependence, for instance, upon the source of illumination (other colours, temperatures, spaces and so forth). When we, however, consider its DEPENDENCE upon the RETINA ... it is a PSYCHOLOGICAL object, a SENSATION."

Here it seems physical and psychological objects are dissimilar. Lenin calls Mach's view an "incoherent jumble." It seems that Mach wants it both ways, but by having two sorts of objects, physical and a sensation, Mach has slipped into MATERIALISM despite his claim that there are only sensations and their complexes.

This is the viewpoint of natural science and materialism: "matter acting upon our sense-organs produces sensation." The empirio-crticists seem either unaware of their problem here, or just confused. Lenin quotes one of the most important followers of Mach and Avenarius, Joseph Petzoldt [ Ludwig Wittgenstein's teacher ] who wrote that "In the statement that 'sensations are the elements of the world' one must guard against taking the term 'sensation' as denoting something only subjective and therefore ethereal, transforming the ordinary picture of the world into an illusion."

This is really muddled and Lenin says he can't help "harping" about it. He tells the empirio-criticists that they must give up their world elements and "simply say that colour is the result of the action of a physical object on the retina, which is the same as saying that sensation is a result of the action of matter on our sense organs."

Lenin points out that in fact, as Mach and Avenarius grew older they began to modify their beliefs and materialist elements, as it were, forced themselves upon them. Here is the strong Machian position from "Analysis of Sensations"-- " It is not bodies that produce sensations, but complexes of elements (complexes of sensations) that make up bodies."

But this view is somewhat modified. Avenarius, according to his disciple Rudolf Willy, ended up also accepting some form of "naive realism"-- i.e., the stance of regular people that there are real existing thing outside our minds. And his biographer, Oskar Ewald, conceded that he ended with a contradictory system with "idealist" and "realist" positions. [NOTE: Academic philosophy generally prefers the word "realist". Lenin uses "materialist" in deference to Marx and Engels and because he thinks it is more honest.]

Back to Bogdanov Bashing: Bogdanov says he is not a Machian. He only took one thing from Mach. Yes, but what he took, Lenin says "is the BASIC ERROR of Machism." And what is this basic error, the source of Bogdanov's "philosophical misadventures"? It is that "the external world, matter" is thought to be "identical with sensations."

Not only does he assert this, but he reproduces the equivocations and confusions of Avenarius et al when he writes in "Empirio-monism" that "insofar as the data of experience appear IN DEPENDENCE UPON THE STATE OF A PARTICULAR NERVOUS SYSTEM, they form the PSYCHICAL WORLD of that particular person; insofar as the data of experience are taken OUTSIDE OF SUCH A DEPENDENCE, we have before us the PHYSICAL WORLD."

I would like to insert here a note on the use of the term "metaphysics." In the period under discussion this was a term of abuse. Marxists referred to two groups as "metaphysicians"-- the idealists and the mechanical [i.e., non-dialectical] materialists. Dialectical Materialism (Diamat) was a "science." On the other hand idealists and agnostics (those neutral on the realism antirealism issue) called all the materialists "metaphysicians" for, as Lenin puts it, "it seems to them that to recognise the existence of an external world independent of the human mind is to transcend the bounds of experience." Lenin will deal with this later in his book,

For the present I think the main point of this section was to show that "What appeared to Bogdanov to be truth is, as a matter of fact, confusion, a wavering between materialism and idealism." This due to the fact that "the amendment made by Mach and Avenarius to their original idealism amounts to making partial concessions to materialism."

Next week we will deal with Section Three of Chapter One: "The Principal Co-ordination and 'Naive Realism."
from PAEditorsBlog

Thursday, February 14, 2008


Attack on Pensions by Right Wing Government Resisted
Thomas Riggins

“Options in favor of the European Union are incompatible with any concept of measures in favor of the popular strata”—A.Papariga, General Secretary, KKE

Yesterday the Greek working class closed down Greece for 24 hours to protest another attempt by the right wing capitalist state, run by Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis, to mess with the pension system.

Karamanlis wants to reduce benefits and extend the working age past 65 (men) and 60 (women) despite the fact that he won re-election last year after pledging to do neither.

The typical politicians ploy of promising one thing to get elected and then reneging.

The two big unions, General Confederation of Greek Workers and Civil Servants’ Union, succeeded in closing down the banks, hospitals, air ports and public services in a massive general strike to protect their retirement rights. This is the second walkout in two months!

The leader of the GCGW said, “We won’t accept attempts to capsize the pension system. We won’t accept pension changes that hurt the young, women and workers in heavy and arduous industries.”

The Greek pension system is considered one of the best in the EU for workers, so naturally the capitalists want to reduce the benefits it provides—more profits for them.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development claims that the system MIGHT in the future (15 years down the line) cost too much.

Lots can happen in 15 years, what’s the rush? Is the right afraid a more worker friendly future government won’t slash people's benefits? Their excuse, based on the OECD data, is that they must prevent big deficits that could threaten to become an excessive drag on a future government.

Well, the answer to that is not to stick it to the workers but to up the tax on the big monopoly corporations operating in the country and effect massive savings by taking Greece out of NATO and no longer playing the role of American puppet.

[Some facts and quotes from a New York Times report by Anthee Carassava, 2-14-2008] from PAEditorsBlog

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Reading Lenin 3

READING LENIN: Materialism and Empirio-criticism [ 3 ]
Thomas Riggins

Using our editor's blog to further Marxist education seems like a good idea. So here is a famous work of Lenin's that outlines what Marxist philosophy is all about. It's 100 years old this year and we might ask ourselves what is still valid in this classic. Have new philosophic developments in the last 100 years made this work outmoded? I'm going to post some reflections on the book section by section and anyone who wants to read along and comment is welcome to do so. I hope to post weekly updates and Sunday seems the best day to this as it is a free day for me.

Chapter One "The Theory of Knowledge of Empirio-Criticism and of Dialectical Materialism I" Section One "Sensation and Complexes of Sensations"

Lenin begins by stating the basic idea of the theory of knowledge (epistemology) of the two betes noirs of empirio-criticism Ernst Mach and Richard Avenarius. This is, that what we experience when we experience "the external world" is what goes on in our own brain-- id est, the "elements" making up the "external world" are actually INTERNAL complexes of sensations.

Lenin says, "Mach explicitly states... that things or bodies are complexes of sensations, and that he quite clearly sets up his own philosophical point of view against the opposite theory which holds that sensations are "symbols" of things (it would be more accurate to say images or reflections of things). The latter theory is PHILOSOPHICAL MATERIALISM."

Lenin bases his view on that of Engel's in his work "Anti-Duhring." Engel's uses the term Gedanken-Abbilder which Lenin translates as "mental images" or "mental pictures." "Picture" in German, however is das Bild (which can also mean "image") and since Engel's didn't use the term Gedanken-Bilder, I will not use "picture" but "image" (das Abbilder). Engels believes that really existing external things produce "thought-images" in the human brain. I like the German word used for the English "brainwave"-- i.e., der Gedankenblitz, pl., die Gedankenblitzen, literally "thought-wave, waves."

So the question, as I see it, is what is the relation of our Gedankenblitzen to the real world when we experience what we take to be an external world. Are they the reflections of external reality, or is external reality simply deduced and constructed out of the Gedankenblitzen? Lenin says, "Anybody who reads 'Anti-Duhring' and 'Ludwig Feuerbach' with the slightest care will find scores of instances when Engels speaks of things and their reflections in the human brain, in our consciousness, thought, etc. Engels does not say that sensations or ideas are 'symbols' of things, for consistent materialism must here use 'image', picture, or reflection instead of 'symbol', as we shall show in detail in the proper place." Well, we shall see. At this point it would appear I could be a "consistent" materialist as long as I held that my Gedankenblitzen symbols were produced by actually existing external objects independent of the human brain. We will reconsider this when we get to the "proper place."

Lenin says that Mach goes on to explain that we have experiences of certain complexes of sensation that are so intense and consistent that we have become "habituated" (Mach must have gotten this term from Hume) to ascribe the origin of these experiences to an external reality. For Mach, this particular thought wave is no proof of an actually existing external world. We are not justified in going beyond the reality of our own sensations.

Remember Diderot and his piano from last week? Lenin says that he represents "the real views of materialists." Which "views do not consist in deriving sensations from the movement of matter or in reducing sensations to the movement of matter, but in recognising sensation as one of the properties of matter in motion. On this question Engels shared the standpoint of Diderot." This is not clear to me. If sensation is a property of "matter in motion" have we not reduced sensations to the "movement of matter"? Perhaps this will become clearer later.
Lenin now switches his attention from Mach to Richard Avenarius (1843 to 1896). His works appear to be out of print in English at any rate (if they were ever translated). [Trivia: his mother was Cacile Wagner, Richard Wagner's little sister.] Lenin quickly establishes Avenarius' idealist credentials with a quote from his Prolegomena zu einer Kritik der reinen Erfahrung: "We have recognised that the existing [thing-tr] is substance endowed with sensation; substance falls away, sensation remains; we must then regard the existing as sensation, at the basis of which there is nothing which does not possess sensation." This is animism! The reason "substance" falls away is that we don't need it to explain the world. All we know is what we experience-- i.e., sensation. Avenarius coined the term "empirio-criticism" to describe his philosophy and his thought was the major influence on Mach.

Bogdanov (1873-1928) makes his first appearance in this section. A. A. Bogdanov was the nom de guerre of A.A. Malinovski. who at one time was the the #2 Bolshevik after Lenin and a leader of the discredited Proletkul't movement after the revolution. He was an MD who founded the first blood transfusion and research institute in Russia. It is now called The Bogdanov Institute. He lost a power struggle with Lenin (the book we are studying was written to discredit him in the eyes of Bolsheviks) and turned to research. He used his institute to do blood experiments trying to halt aging and reverse the aging process. In fact, when Lenin died his brain was given to Bogdanov to study as well as his body to see if it could be reanimated. It couldn't. Bogdanov accidentally killed himself while doing a blood transfer experiment on himself. There is an interesting article about him on Wikipedia and in Volume 3 of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. He was very interesting character who deserves to be better known.

Under the influence of Wilhelm Ostwald (a psychologist) as well as Mach and Avenarius, Bogdanov tried to update Marxist materialism by blending it with the thought of the empirio-ctiticists. The result was his book "Empirio-monism" which is the object of Lenin's ire. It is however only mentioned in passing in this section. In fact Lenin even likes the quote from Empirio-monism that he reproduces here because the Machist Bogdanov ("from forgetfulness") formulates his new position using words that actually describe a materialist outlook, which is that sensation is "the direct connection between consciousness and the external world."

This gives Lenin the opportunity to set forth what he thinks is the major fallacy of Idealism. "The sophism of idealist philosophy," he says, "consists in the fact that it regards sensation as being not the connection between consciousness and the external world, but a fence, a wall, separating consciousness from the external world-- not an image of the external phenomenon corresponding to the sensation, but as the 'sole entity.'"
This is I think the MAIN POINT of this section.

Lenin ends this section with some remarks on three other Machians whose Idealism he is going to deal with: the English philosopher Karl Pearson [1857-1936, better known as the founder of mathematical statistics], and the physicists Pierre Duhem [1861-1916] and Henri Poincare

Next week we will go over section 2 of Chapter One: "The Discovery of the World-Elements"
from PAEditorsBlog

Thursday, February 07, 2008



Thomas Riggins

The LA Times had an interesting article in its 2-06-08 issue by Borzou Daraghai (“Lebanon Cleric Advises ‘Modern Shiites’”). It’s a good tonic against the rising tide of Islamophobia engulfing the West in general and the US in particular. Just think of the hysterical reactions we have read about when a Muslim was elected to Congress and a high school dedicated to Arabic studies and language was opened in New York City.

The impression most Americans get from the popular, mostly right wing and conservative, media is that Islam is a backward religion run by medieval throwbacks to the Dark Ages. To counter such outlooks progressives can refer the neocons to the web site of the Lebanese cleric Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah []. Now don’t expect a Marxist, but the GA has decidedly progressive views when compared to the Christian right in this country and many of the more backward looking reactionary Islamists.

What is a Grand Ayatollah? Well, an Ayatollah is someone so respected for his knowledge of Islam that his faith community ( in this case the Shia branch of Islam) grants him that title. A GA is an Ayatollah the other Ayatollahs respect and elect as it were. He can pronounce fatwas, that is, give an authoritative interpretation of Islam for the faithful to model their behavior on. It is a nonbinding but very powerful statement of what is good conduct and vice versa.

GA Fadlallah is reported to have outraged “conservative” [i.e., culture bound reactionary] Muslims with his fatwas based on more enlightened and modern perspectives. Here are some examples. “A woman can respond to physical violence inflicted on her by a man with counter-violence as a self-defense measure.” The reactionaries considered this fatwa from the highest-ranking cleric in Lebanon scandalous. He also ruled against “using any sort of violence against a woman, even in the form of insults and harsh words.”

The GA is also quoted as saying, "The belief that it is disgraceful for the man to manage household tasks is derived from the social culture and not from Islam. Personally, I think that no woman would be obliged to bring her social life to a standstill just because she is being occupied with her children."

What this shows is that it is NOT Islam per se that is to blame for the many negative characteristics selectively reported in the US press, but the surrounding cultural conditions and level of societal development. It is analogous to not blaming the democratic process because Huckabee won in some states.

GA Fadlallah is also politically advanced. He is opposed to US imperialism and at the same time to Islamic extremism. “I think,” he said, “the current Iranian president lacks diplomatic skills, and I think he creates problems for Iran.” Very diplomatically put.

As far as the notion of a worldwide Shia anti-Western movement is concerned, the GA says: “I don’t see there is a unity in the situation of Shiites in the world.” Marxists would agree since they see religious views as tempered by the economic and productive forces at work in a society.

He also has progressive views with respect to women's rights to education stating that "Knowledge is a merit for man and woman equally, and the importance of acquiring it is identical to both of them." The GA Fadlallah is an example of a relatively progressive voice within Islam. We in the West should be reporting on and becoming more aware of such voices.

The policies of the Bush administration and its military adventures and diplomatic fiascos in the Middle East and elsewhere only strengthens the hand of Islamic reaction. It is US policy that is responsible for the so-called "threat" of militant Islam and that makes the views of clerics such as GA Fadlallah and other liberal minded clerics more difficult to spread in the Islamic world.
from PAEditorsBlog

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


Thomas Riggins

In 2005 the French people voted down the proposed constitution for the European Union. For the constitution to go into effect it had to be unanimously adopted. The French were not the only people to reject the constitution, but French resistance had to be overcome.

It was basically the middle class and the working class allied who brought about the defeat, as the constitution was designed to strengthen corporate power at the expense of the workers, unions and ordinary French people. The people were able to stop that monopoly capitalist initiative at the polls.

What to do? This defiance by the people against the will of their masters was not to be tolerated. Well, the AP reports today that the EU has come up with a simplified version of the old constitution, it keeps all the major capitalist demands, and now it is called a TREATY. Meanwhile the bourgeois French Parliament has changed the French constitution so this new EU “treaty” does not have to be put to the French people for a vote. This is obviously a betrayal of its own constituency by the French Parliament in the interests of international capital.

Now that the French law has been changed, the AP reports “President Nicolas Sarkozy decided that this time Parliament would vote on the charter, diminishing the risk of rejection.” Now I ask you, what type of “democracy” is run by people who know that their people want one thing and yet do all in their power to see that the exact opposite comes into being? Let’s hope the Spirit of 1789 is not dead!

from PAEditorsBlog

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Reading Lenin 2

READING LENIN: Materialism and Empiro-criticism [ 2 ]
Thomas Riggins

Using our editor's blog to further Marxist education seems like a good idea. So here is a famous work of Lenin's that outlines what Marxist philosophy is all about. It's 100 years old this year and we might ask ourselves what is still valid in this classic. Have new philosophic developments in the last 100 years made this work outmoded? I'm going to post some reflections on the book section by section and anyone who wants to read along and comment is welcome to do so. I hope to post weekly updates and Sunday seems the best day to this as it is a free day for me.

"In Lieu of an Introduction"

It really is an introduction, about sixteen pages in which Lenin compares the so-called Marxists he is about to criticize to Bishop George Berkeley who is, wrongly I think, considered by many to have been a subjective idealist-- i.e., someone who thinks the existence of "external" objects is dependent on the human mind.

Lenin says, for example, "Denying the 'absolute' existence of objects, that is the existence of things outside human knowledge, Berkeley bluntly defines the view point of his opponents as being that they recognise the 'thing-in-itself.'"

This is an unfortunate sentence, using as it does both Kantian terminology eighty years in advance of its creation and substituting the term "human knowledge" for Berkeley's term "mind."

A few pages later, Lenin corrects himself with a more nuanced view of Berkeley's position. "Deriving 'ideas' from the action of a deity upon the human mind, Berkeley thus approaches objective idealism: the world proves to be not my idea but the product of a single supreme spiritual cause that creates both the 'laws of nature' and the laws distinguishing 'more real' ideas from less real, and so forth."

Actually, Berkeley is an objective idealist as he holds that the objects that we see existing in the world about us truly have an independent existence from human beings and the world would be just as it is even if there were no humans in existence. Lenin also believes this. What differentiates them is Berkeley has an extra entity which Lenin does not have-- ie., a spiritual being "God" in whose Mind everything exists. Except for this, Lenin and Berkeley have pretty much the same world view (minus dialectics) when it comes to the "real" existence of the external world. Anyone who doubts this need only read "Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous" [1713]. In his desire to smash his contemporary philosophical opponents, Lenin has not given Berkeley his due. He is much more sophisticated than the people Lenin is opposing.

Berkeley's philosophy of "to be is to be perceived" (esse est percipi) is nicely expressed by Ronald Knox:

There was a young man who said, "God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there's no one about in the Quad."
Dear Sir:
Your astonishment's odd:
I am always about in the Quad.
And that's why the tree
Will continue to be,
Since observed by
Yours faithfully,

Better is Lenin's interpretation of the views of Hume and Diderot. His reading of Hume is filtered through Thomas Huxley (Darwin's bull dog) and his 1879 book "Hume" from which he quotes. "'Realism and idealism are equally probable hypotheses' (i.e., for Hume). Hume does not go beyond sensations. 'Thus the colours red and blue, and the odour of a rose, are simple impressions.... A red rose gives us a complex impression, capable of resolution into the simple impressions of red colour, rose-scent, and numerous others." Hume admits both the 'materialist position' and the 'idealist position;' the 'collection of perceptions' may be generated by the Fichtean 'ego' or may be a 'signification' and even a 'symbol' of a 'real something.' This is how Huxley interprets Hume." This is more or less how Hume is still interpreted and he is also still very popular in English speaking philosophical fora and lurks in the background of modern bourgeois philosophical "materialism" and "realism."

In the same generation as Hume, Lenin appreciates the materialism of the French philosophe Diderot, and puts forth (in passing which I have emphasized) an important principle in the following quote. "And Diderot, who came very close to the standpoint of contemporary materialism (THAT ARGUMENTS AND SYLLOGISMS ALONE DO NOT SUFFICE TO REFUTE IDEALISM, AND HERE IT IS NOT A QUESTION FOR THEORETICAL ARGUMENT) notes the similarity of the premises both of the idealist Berkeley, and the sensationalist Condillac" (a French version of Locke from whom both he, Berkeley and Hume ultimately derive.) We shall see later how important the passage I highlighted will become.

Lenin likes the way Diderot uses the example of a self-conscious piano to explain his views. Such a piano would be able to play on its own the "airs" played upon it. All the problems about the origin of our sensations-- internal, external, etc., Diderot is quoted as saying would be solved by "a simple supposition which explains everything, namely, that the faculty of sensation is a general property of matter, or a product of its organisation."

Now to conclude. This little introduction was just to give some background before Lenin takes up the cudgel against the "Marxist" idealists of his own day. We shall see that they all, to a greater or lesser extent, are influenced by the ideas of the Physicist Ernst Mach (remembered today not for his philosophy but for the Mach number-- object speed divided by the speed of sound). "For the present," then Lenin says, "we shall confine ourselves to one conclusion: the 'recent' Machists have not adduced a single argument against the materialists that had not been adduced by Bishop Berkeley." Remember-- I need your input-- if I overlooked something important in this reading please bring it up in the comments.

Next Week: Chapter One Section One "Sensation and Complexes of Sensations"
from PAEditorsBlog

President McCain?

Thomas Riggins

I just watched Meet the Press where we were informed that national polls are saying that in a Clinton vs McCain election she gets 46% and he gets 49%, Obama vs McCain has the reverse figures. Both figures are within the standard deviation so this makes the race a 50/50 proposition.

What have the Democrats done to have blown their previous lead and set us up for another Republican President? Is it Pelosi's fault for not going for impeachment and repudiating the war? It can be argued that the Democrats were elected to get rid of Bush and end the war and that they have in fact only been enabling Bush.

Will this great disillusionment bring about a McCain presidency? What can be done to forestall what would be a disaster not just for the US but for the rest of the world as well? Let's hope Ralph sits this one out.
from PAEditorsBlog

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Reading Lenin

READING LENIN: Materialism and Empiro-criticism
Thomas Riggins

Here is a famous work of Lenin's that outlines what Marxist philosophy is all about. It's 100 years old this year and we might ask ourselves what is still valid in this classic. Have new philosophic developments in the last 100 years made this work outmoded? I'm going to post some reflections on the book section by section and anyone who wants to read along and comment is welcome to do so. I hope to post weekly updates and Sunday seems the best day to do this as it is a free day for me.

The Prefaces. Why did Lenin write this book? He tells us because a number of people calling themselves "Marxists" have been attacking "orthodox" Marxism ("dialectical materialism") and calling it outmoded and wanting to supplement it with new ideas borrowed from bourgeois philosophy.

Engels is specifically attacked as being "antiquated" and his views on dialectics are said to be a species of "mysticism." None of the books that Lenin attacks are of much interest today and the names of the authors have mostly been forgotten. Perhaps you will recall the name of A.A. Bogdanov, certainly the name Lunacharsky will ring a bell as he later became the first Commissar of Enlightenment under the Bolsheviks.

Lenin is not opposed to criticism of the views of Marx and Engels. He mentions approvingly Mehring's critique of "antiquated views of Marx" which was undertaken from a dialectical materialist standpoint. Any historians out there reading this are encouraged to send in comments about just what these views were and where Mehring made them as Lenin does not discuss them in the Prefaces.

Besides defending the "orthodox" view from "heretics", Lenin also wanted to know what drove ostensible Marxists to bourgeois philosophy. What, he asks, "was the stumbling block to these people" that made them desert the orthodox position.

Well, in our own day we have a similar problem. Engels is still attacked and efforts are made to cut Marx away from Engels and make Engels some sort of hack. We also have ordinary language Marxists, existentialist Marxists, phenomenological Marxists, postmodern Marxists, etc., etc.

Next week I'll look at "In lieu of an Introduction." I'm using Vol. 14 of the CW for the text. The book itself seems to be out of print. Maybe you can find a copy on line. If you google "materialism and empiro-criticism" the first entry you get should be an on line copy of the book so if you don't have a hard copy you can still read it.
from PAEditorsBlog

Friday, February 01, 2008


Thomas Riggins

Obama wants to talk about the future not the past but keeps bringing up Clinton's vote on the war five years ago. Neither one will tell us specifically what they will do in the future to end it. They are both leaving themselves room to stay in Iraq one way or another for years.

However, I agree with Obama when he said, "I think everyone, the day after this vote was taken, understood this was a vote potentially to go to war. It is important to be right on Day One."

Clinton's response was surreal! "Knowing that [Saddam] was a megalomaniac, knowing that he would want to compete for attention with Osama Bin Laden, there were legitimate concerns about what he might do."

I mean, is she nuts? She votes for war with Iraq because she thinks Saddam and Bin Laden are a couple of school yard kids trying to get noticed. Since Bin Laden got credit for the Twin Towers, Saddam might what-- go after the Empire State Building "to compete for attention?" That is not an answer that builds confidence in her understanding of how history works.
from PAEditorsBlog