Sunday, October 25, 2009

Conditions for the Success of Socialism

by Thomas Riggins

Since the collapse of the socialist experiment in the USSR and Eastern Europe the question of how to make socialism successful has become more pertinent than ever before.

I believe that the observations made by the British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) as a result of his 1920 trip to Russia and his interview with Lenin are relevant to this discussion and should be given serious consideration by socialists.

This article is based on the last chapter of Russell's book THE PRACTICE AND THEORY OF BOLSHEVISM. I must note that his views pertain to the conditions to be met while still under capitalism so that when socialism comes it will be able to succeed.

"The fundamental ideas of communism," he says, "are by no means impracticable, and would, if realized, add immeasurably to the well-being of mankind." So, at least, communism is a worthwhile ideal to struggle for it seems.

It is strange, however, for a logician such as Russell not to realize that the fundamental ideas of communism logically rest upon Marx's theory of value and since, in other places, he rejects that theory he should think them to be impracticable.

Be that as it may, Russell finds no fault with the fundamental ideas, the problem is "in regard to the transition from capitalism." The capitalists may put up such a fight to maintain power that they will destroy what is good in our civilization and "all that is best in communism." So this must be avoided.

There can be no success for a communist revolution if industry is paralyzed. If that should happen the economy would breakdown, there would be mass unrest, starvation, and the communists would have to resort to a "military tyranny" to retain power and maintain order and the utopian ideals of communism would have to be practically junked. This is arguably what happened in the Soviet Union as a result of forced collectivization and industrialization and the mass destruction suffered by the Nazi invasion in WW2.

So the success of any true communist revolution depends upon the survival of industry. This means that poor countries, small countries, and countries without fully developed economic power cannot have successful revolutions because the capitalists of the advanced countries would overthrow them or subvert them. Now, of course. this may be less true than when Russell wrote because there is at least one economically advanced country professing socialist ideals that could aid an under developed country, namely China

There is only one country large enough and powerful enough to have a successful revolution. "America, being self-contained and strong, would be capable, so far as material conditions go, of achieving a successful revolution; but in America the psychological conditions are as yet adverse." He further remarks that, "There is no other civilized country where capitalism is so strong and revolutionary socialism so weak as in America." This still appears to be the case.

Wherever socialism comes to power the bourgeoisie will but up a fight, and Russell says the important question is how long the fight (he uses the word 'war') will last. If it is a short time he doesn't see a problem. If it s a long time there will be a big problem involving the ability of socialism to maintain its ideals.

Therefore, Russell draws the following two conclusions. First, there can be no successful socialist revolution unless America first becomes socialist or is willing to remain neutral with respect to a socialist revolution. He dosn't mean socialists can't come to powe, but that they will not have the material means to create socialism. World history since 1920, when his book was written, would seem to give some credence to this view.

Second, in order to avoid the kind of civil war that would effectively cripple the realization of the the ideals of socialism, communism should not be set up in a country unless the great majority of the people are in favor of it and the opponents are too weak to initiate violent opposition or effective sabotage of the process.

The problems with the distortion of socialist values associated with so called "Stalinism" and "Maoism'', for example, can perhaps be attributed to the backward economic conditions of Russia and China respectively. Communists were able to take power but were not able to bring about the justice, equality and prosperity for all that was hoped for. The Russian experiment is over for now but the Chinese one is still a work in progress.

Russell also says the working class should be educated in technical matters and business administration so as not to be overly dependent on bourgeois specialists. This would imply an advanced industrial society, which was not the case in Russia or China at the time of their revolutions.

With respect to England, actually any advanced country-- especially the US-- is meant, Russell maintains the best road to socialism should begin with "self-government" in industry. The first industries to be taken over would be mining and the railroads (transportation) and Russell has "no doubts" that these could be run better by the workers than by the capitalists.

The US is actually in a position to this now that the government effectively owns the auto industry and some big financial firms (AIG). What is lacking is what Russell called the psychological preconditions by which is meant advanced class consciousness on the part of the workers. It is PAs function to help bring that about so lets hope our readership goes up!

Russell says the Bolsheviks are against self-government in industry because it failed in Russia and their national pride won't allow them to admit this. This is misleading. The Bolsheviks certainly favored workers control and soviets being in charge of industry but the civil war made this difficult to establish in practice [thus war communism]. They had no objections to workers self-government, that's what the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) was all about.

As far as having nationalized industries in capitalist countries being governed by worker's councils was concerned, this was permissible as a transitional stage to full socialism but not as an end in and of itself. Besides, a capitalist government would be unlikely to let the workers actually have the determining voice. Russell's suggestions, however, still make sense and the labor movement should be making this demand. No one is better equipped to run the auto industry than the UAW.

Russell thinks capitalists only care about money and power And we have seen this to be so in just the last few years with out current crisis.

So socialists should first take over the industries by means of self-government and allow the capitalists to keep their incomes then,when all can see that they are drones, they can be dispossessed without too much trouble. In this way we could have a relatively peaceful transition to socialism without the collapse of industry. Historically, Social Democrats have supported this but have in practice, in almost all cases, betrayed the workers and helped out the capitalists instead.

Russell says that another reason industrial self government is a good idea is that it would forestall the type of over centralization found in Russia. This should not be a real concern as Russia was backwards and Russell's plan assumes an advanced economic basis. The important thing is that it would be a support for democracy.

Russell makes an important distinction about democracy. There are at least two ways we can think about democracy One is parliamentary democracy, or in the US the type of representational democracy set up over two hundred years ago basically to protect slavery. Russell says this type of democracy is "largely discredited" and that he has "no desire to uphold" it as "an ideal institution."

He may have felt it was discredited in his day, but what about now?
Polls suggest that many Americans, at least, have a low regard for Congress and are becoming more and more aware that it is a tool for the corporations and their lobbyists Workers in the European Union are also waking up to what is happening in their respective countries. So socialists, perhaps, both here and abroad should be agitating for Russell's second kind of democracy.

He calls this "self-government." However. Russell doesn't give a more specific name for this, but today we use terms such as popular democracy, direct democracy (as opposed to representational democracy) or participatory democracy. The Russians tried soviets but the conditions on the ground made this impracticable. For the US, probably, some sort of mixture of popular democracy and parliamentary democracy (with the right of recall) would come near to what Russell had in mind. William Z. Foster once wrote a book called "Towards a Soviet America"-- I am not quite advocating that as a first stage!

Russell gives three main reasons for ensuring that socialism is based on his notions of self-government. 1) No dictator, no matter how well intentioned, "can be trusted to know or pursue the interests of his subjects [Stalin?]. 2) A politically educated population depends on self-government [the Soviet working class was unable to defend its gains against Yeltsin and Gorbachev and Co.]. 3) Self-government promotes order and stability and reinforces constitutional rule [the Soviet constitution was just a piece of paper]. As far as I know these reasons are all valid.

Russell's reasons are no doubt correct and successful socialism will be more likely if, when the time for the transition from capitalism comes, "there should already exist important industries competently administered by the workers themselves." This is certainly the ideal situation. But history does not always deal us the ideal hand. Sometimes, we are forced to play the hand we are dealt as it is not realistic to constantly fold your cards unless you have a royal flush.

Besides rejecting Bolshevism because he does not think it compatible with the type of stages and gradualism with respect to self-government that he has outlined [what the Bolsheviks questioned was if the ruling class would resort to violence if socialism won peacefully], Russell has another big problem with the Third International and that it is that its methods are based on coming to power as a result of war and social collapse, whereas socialism can only work, i.e., keep its ideals intact, by coming to power in a prosperous country-- not one destroyed by war and social upheaval.

Let us say that this is an alternative peaceful, and preferred, method. In 1920 the Bolsheviks had no way of knowing if this [violence] was a doomed project. It appears to us now that Russell may have been correct. Socialism can come to power by this method, but it cannot succeed in building a real lasting and popular social order without an already exisiting industrial infrastructure. Russia and Eastern Europe seem to have confirmed Russell's fears. The jury is still out with respect to the remaining socialist countries as I indicated earlier with respect to China.

Russell ends by saying the Bolsheviks are too dogmatic and what is really needed is an attitude that is more patient and takes into consideration the complexity of the international situation and rejects "the facile hysteria of 'no parley with the enemy'". By 1948, when his work was reissued, Russell could have read Lenin's "Left Wing Communism An Infantile Disorder" and he would have realized how inappropriate his description of the thought of the Third International was.

He then says, Russian Communism "may fail and go under, but socialism itself will not die." True then, true now. The Great War, Russell says "proved the destructiveness of capitalism" and he hopes that the future will not show the "greater destructiveness of Communism" but rather the healing powers of socialism.

What came was another world war of even greater destructiveness and the entrenchment of capitalism and its destructiveness. It now threatens the very Earth itself-- its atmosphere, its oceans, and its rain forests and all life on Earth. Now more than ever we need "the power of socialism to heal the wounds which the old system has inflicted upon the human spirit."

Monday, October 19, 2009


Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou, Art by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna (New York, Bloomsbury, 2009) pp. 347.

Reviewed by Thomas Riggins

This is an excellent graphic novel, Howard Zinn calls it "extraordinary," about the life and times of Bertrand Russell and his search for the foundations of mathematics. Believe it or not, this is a really good read and not a dry and esoteric exercise in the history of mathematics.

In a brief "Overture" we are told this is a real honest to God comic book and it has a real story line about real people and events (although some fictional elements have been added to juice up the story they are minor).

The framework of the book is a lecture given by Bertrand Russell at an American university a few days after the invasion of Poland in 1939. On his way to the lecture hall Russell encounters protesters who want the US to stay o ut of the war and they expect Russell, who was world famous for his opposition to WWI, to join with them. Instead he invites them to his lecture with the idea that his views on the new war will be revealed. They accept and they all go to the lecture hall together.

Russell's topic is "The Role of Logic in Human Affairs" but he actually recounts the major episodes in his life and his philosophical search to establish the truth of mathematics as a branch of logic. Actually the comic ends in 1939 and Russell lived another 30 or so years so there is room for a follow up comic.

His "lecture" (it's not an historical lecture just an excuse to introduce Russell as the narrator, is divided into six parts. The first, "Pembroke Lodge," recounts Russell's youth at his Grandfather and Grandmother's estate where he was brought up after the early deaths of his father and mother. In the second part, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", Russell goes off to the study mathematics and philosophy at Cambridge, meets his life long friend G.E. Moore, meets the woman who will be his first (of four) wives, and takes classes with Alfred North Whitehead with whom he will later collaborate in writing the three volume "Principia Mathematica" their magnum opus on the foundations of mathematics.

Part Three is called "Wanderjahre". Russell and his bride travel to the continent visiting Germany and France and Russell has fictional encounters with the great mathematicians Frege and Cantor (inventor of set theory). Although fictional these meetings further the plot by introducing some of the mathematical ideas that Russell was working on in the first decade of the 20th Century.

In part four, "Paradoxes," Russell and Whitehead work on Principia Mathematica, Russell's marriage cracks up, he attempts to seduce Whitehead's wife (and fails). The title of this part refers to certain logical paradoxes, especially "Russell's Paradox," which led Russell and Whitehead to conclude that without finding solutions to logical paradoxes they could never prove that the foundations of mathematics rested on logic.

Part five is called "Logico-Philosophical Wars." Ludwig Wittgenstein shows up to study logic with Russell at Cambridge and calls Russell's whole outlook into question. Meanwhile, World War I breaks out. Wittgenstein goes off to fight for Austria (not very enlightened) and Russell ends up in prison (for six months) for anti war activities.

In part six "Incompleteness" we find Russell married again, having a son, and running a progressive school based on his philosophical views on education. His and Whitehead's project for establishing the foundations of mathematics gets a fatal blow from a young mathematician named Kurt Godel who proves his "Incompleteness Theorem" which shows that the goal of the "Principia Mathematica"-- a complete proof that mathematics rests on logic is unattainable.

Russell ends his speech by saying to his American audience that he can't tell them what to do with respect to fighting or not fighting in W.W.II. They will have to logically think this out for themselves.

Anyone with an interest in 20th Century Anglo-American philosophy will really enjoy reading this book. I have only skimmed the surface in this review.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Thomas Riggins

"The Case for God" is the new book by Karen Armstrong the popular best seller writer on religion. This is an evaluation of her case as based on a review by Ross Douthat in The New York Times Book Review Oct. 4, 2009.

Douthat thinks this is the right time for Armstrong's book now that the Bush era is over and the country is focused on health care and the economy (he neglects to mention the two wars still raging from the Bush era) rather than right wing religious issues such as creationism and sex education based on abstinence.

Douthat says the book is a good history of religious thought in the West and also "wraps a rebuke to the more militant sort of atheism"--i.e., Dawkins & Co. Armstrong wants to make three major points in her book. 1.) The idea of "God" put forth by the new atheists as well as literalists and fundamentalists is wrong headed. 2.) Her idea of "God" does not conflict with science. 3.) Her views on "God" are more faithful to the ancient traditions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity than are those of the conservation literalists of today. In fact she says it is the moving away from the old time religion towards literalism that is "one of the reasons why so many Western people find the concept of God so troublesome today."

Let's see what her argument is and if she can make her case. The pre-modern theologians (say the Fathers of the Church and even Thomas Aquinas) she says saw faith as a "practice" a set of beliefs not, she writes, "something that people thought but something they did." Well, this seems an odd thing to say. Christians have always fought over what CREED to uphold, calling each other heretics based on THOUGHT not practice. Burning at the stake was not a modern invention. So when Douthat says she holds that the old time religion was "a set of skills , rather than a list of unalterable teachings" I think she is just wrong. Persecuting heretics and weeding out wrong thoughts started with PAUL and has been with us ever since. And similar things can be said about other religions as well.

The conflict with science in modern time, she thinks, arose because theologians developed "a fatal case of science envy." How did this happen? Armstrong thought the religious thinkers became Deists in the tradition of Newton and William Paley (!), according to Douthat.

Impressed by the "natural theology" of the scientists Western Christian thinkers held "the natural laws that scientists had discovered in the universe were tangible demonstrations of God's providential care," Armstrong writes. This led the religious thinkers to give up their pre modern "mythic" and non literal approach and, as the reviewer puts it to adopt a "pseudo-scientific rigor." This meant "they had nowhere to turn when Darwin's theory of evolution arrived on the scene."

This is really revisionist history. Christianity and its leaders never adopted the Deism of Newton or Paley. Becoming literalists was just the opposite of the scientific approach. If they had been impressed by the "natural theology" of the Deists and they wanted to ape the scientists they would have rushed to adopt Darwinism and incorporate it into a scientific theology. They did just the opposite because this earlier pre-modern "mythic" form of religion based on practice not thought constricted by scripture is a figment of Armstrong's imagination. She is incorrect if she thinks Aquinas or Augustine would be "unfazed by the idea of evolution" as the reviewer puts it. They would have rejected the scientific theory of evolution and concocted some non scientific Bible based theory instead but they would never have accepted Darwin.

To avoid the fruitless arguments over religion versus science, Armstrong makes two recommendations. First, she writes to the atheists that there is "no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth or falsehood before embarking on a religious way of life. You will discover their truth--- or lack of it--- only if you translate these doctrines into ritual or ethical action." Well, this first one doesn't make any sense. How do you judge the "truth" of a ritual? And ethical "truths" are notoriously slippery and culture bound notions whose "truth" seems to depend on "feeling" more than on anything else. No atheist is likely to "embark" on a religious life style to discover religious "truths", especially when they already think there are no truths to be found. There are too many religions fighting not only among themselves but also internally with their own sects, as to make it seem a most unlikely prospect for an atheist.

Second, the fundamentalists and literalists are told to go back to the old time pre-modern religious outlook that recognized that "revealed truth was symbolic, that Scripture could not be interpreted literally.... [that] revelation was not an event that had happened once in the distant past but was an ongoing, creative process that required human ingenuity." This will go over like a lead balloon, especially with those who think revelation ended with Moses and a few Old Testament prophets, or with the New Testament, or the Koran. But atheists will agree that "human ingenuity" is the bases of revelation.

The reviewer also has doubts about Armstrong's views and mentions that rather than having her liberal outlook the old Christian sages [and others too] "were fiercely dogmatic." Some of them, Augustine for example, may not have been 100% Biblical dogmatists (with respect to Genesis for example) but still held literalist views as well (the Resurrection).

I have to conclude that Armstrong's God will have little appeal to most people who believe in religion-- especially since he is "mythic" and dependent on "human ingenuity." I think her case for God fails and the time one might spend in reading her book could be more profitably utilized in reading Spinoza.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Jerry Fodor and The Language of Thought

Thomas Riggins

Tim Crane has reviewed "LOT 2: 'The Language of Thought' revisited'" by Jerry Fodor in a recent issue of the TLS (9-4-09). Fodor is a leading philosopher of mind and this book is a follow up to his 1975 "The Language of Thought"-- which would be LOT 1. The purpose of this new book, according to Crane is to "stamp out" the philosophy of pragmatism which Fodor says is "perhaps the worst idea that philosophy ever had." Crane says Fodor in LOT 1 aimed at "reductionists, behaviourists, empiricists, operationalists, holists " and sundry Wittgensteinists. But all these "have become distilled" down to pragmatists. Fodor at least has good intentions!

In the 1975 work Fodor argued that when the brain thinks its thoughts the rules it follows are like a language (LOT= the language of thought). LOT is also known as "mentalese." The CONCEPTS of thinking combine in mentalese by rules just as words in a natural language combine by rules to make meaningful sentences.

A Marxist might think that the brain, through trial and error, simply learns whatever natural language it is exposed to and forms its CONCEPTS accordingly with no need for mentalese.

Fodor has some other controversial ideas in LOT 1, according to Crane-- such as the mind thinks as a computer, psychology cannot be reduced to a more basic science, and the simple concepts in the mind are INNATE not learned (the last, Crane indicates, is the most controversial).

LOT 2 revisits the main ideas of LOT 1 and Fodor has some second thoughts about some of his views but his attack on PRAGMATISM ("the view that thinking or having concepts is explained in terms of abilities to do things" is unwavering, according to Crane.

There are many shades of pragmatism and one of the most famous is that of the British philosopher GILBERT RYLE who attacked DESCARTES for his dualism-- matter and mind or the myth of "the ghost in the machine." Ryle also held that knowing how something is done comes before knowing that it "is the case." This riles Fodor to defend Descartes and he says "thought about the world is prior to thought about how to change the world. Accordingly, knowing that is prior to knowing how. Descartes was right and Ryle was wrong " [at least on this issue].

The two most important arguments against pragmatism in LOT 2 are 1) that since thinking is required for us to exercise our abilities it must be prior to them, and 2) since to think about the world with concepts the concepts have to relate to each other in a meaningful way ("be determined by the semantic properties of their parts") and this means, Fodor says, they partake of "compositionality" (i.e., the meaning of concepts is a function of the rules for relating them to each other, their "composition.") Pragmatism does not account for this property of thinking, Fordor says, so it must be wrong. This is a rather obtuse argument but there it is.

Thought consists of "aboutness". It is thinking about things i.e., it has reference. This is a position, Crane says, that Fodor has held for a long time. Crane maintains that there is a "tension" between Fodor's two arguments against pragmatism. The first argument has it that thought is "fine-grained" as thinking about George Orwell isn't always the same as thinking about Eric Blair. But the second argument is "coarse-grained" since references to Orwell are also references to Blair: "the thoughts have the same semantic properties."

Crane says the best chapter in the book is the one devoted to trying resolve this tension. He defends the fine-grained view by saying thinking about THE EVENING STAR is different than thinking about HESPERUS because there is only ONE concept in the latter and there are TWO concepts in the former.

But what about HESPERUS and VENUS? Well, Crane says, Fodor knows there is no difference in reference so the difference must be in how the content of the reference is presented by syntax. He quotes Fodor: "If there is something that it seems you need senses to do either do it with syntax or don't do it at all." All well and good, but Crane says this answer is also given by the philosophers Fodor opposes and although he has many differences with "pragmatists" and others, this use of syntax "is not one of them."

So the different ways we think about things is due to the different concepts involved and the concepts are part of the LOT going on in our brains [where else would it be?] What about PERCEPTION? This is discussed in "a much less satisfactory chapter."

Perception is NOT thought therefore it is non-conceptual. Crane says Fodor explains non-conceptual representation in two ways. 1.) Picture-like ("iconic") rather than linguistic and 2.) "in terms of the way it carries 'information' in a merely causal or physical sense." Crane gives the examples of smoke informing us of fire and clouds of rain.

These two arguments are also in tension according to Crane. "Informational content", he says, is indifferent as to how it is represented-- information about VENUS is also information about HESPERUS. Icons on the other hand are not indifferent as to how they are represented. The same cat can be perceived in different ways entirely.

Crane concludes that in Fodor's system informational content is "not well suited" for perception. He claims that perception can be as "fine-grained" as thought and that Fodor's "devotion to informational content" makes it difficult for him to see this.

So it appears that this philosophy has been found wanting. The LOT also appears to be a form of metaphysical speculation without sufficient empirical warrant.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Chinese Artificial Virginity Kit to be Banned?

Thomas Riggins

The never ending struggle for equal rights for women is not only a concern of human rights activists, but it could provide a boon for the capitalist market economy as well.

Enterprising Chinese capitalists have come up with The Artificial Virginity Hymen kit for mass marketing in the Middle East where, in many countries, it is de rigeuer for a woman to be a virgin when she is married. Virgins and non virgins can now be on an equal footing.

The kit has a device with artificial blood which is inserted during the honeymoon and allows its contents to leak out after consummation of the marriage, thus allowing the husband the satisfaction of seeing stained sheets and thinking he is the first to have gone where no man has gone before.

There is, however, a movement in Egypt, according to the New York Times, to ban this innovative capitalist product. One would hope on the grounds that it is demeaning and degrading to force women to have to resort to this subterfuge in order to satisfy the adolescent vanities of the adult males.

That would be a vain hope. The Times reports that Sheik Sayed Askar of the parliamentary committee on religious affairs is demanding the Egyptian government ban the product because he thinks it "would make it easier for women to give in to temptation."

The Gigimo Company, which sells the AVH, should consider the American market as an alternative. Our belief in the Free Enterprise System, which trumps common sense and human rights at every turn, would, I am sure, provide a fertile market with the abstinence until marriage crowd and the many young people who have realized the impracticality of upholding such a difficult commitment. [New York Times 10-6-09]