Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Dialectics and the Dorsai

Somewhere Marx wrote that the king believes his subjects bow to him because he's king; in fact it's the other way round - it's because people bow to him that they become subjects and he becomes king.

This simple example is to Marxism as the double-slit experiment is to the essence of quantum mechanics.

Most people - ordinary folk, politicians and academics - look at a society as a nested set of institutions: parliament, government, the legal system, the armed forces, the health system and so on. If you think this way you can never be a revolutionary.

The Marxist looks at these 'structures' and sees only recurrent patterns of human behaviour. If one day people were to behave differently, all those 'structures' would vanish like early morning haze: the king would be revealed as just another bloke with a back-story. Think about it.

The Marxist holds just such a vision of an alternate organising pattern for society, one which will manifest in the overcoming of this one. And so to the famous Hegelian dialectic: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

As the terms suggest, for Hegel the thesis is a founding idea; the antithesis a rebuttal which seeks out the contradictions in the original; and then through a process of dialogue and struggle emerges the synthesis - something genuinely new, deeper and more profound.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Marx thought that Hegel had this upside down as regards history. For Marx the thesis was that set of social processes we call capitalism; the antithesis was the revolutionary response invoked by the failures ('contradictions') of capitalism - such things as the revolutionary party, workers' councils (soviets), the general strike; the synthesis - emerging through the mass, self-organised revolution - was a new kind of society, post-capitalist and in transition  to communism.

Marx, Lenin and Trotsky all stressed the term 'dialectic materialism' as a synonym for Marxism; their opponents accused them of mysticism. Yet without seeing the 'structures' of the present as merely contingent shadows of conventional behaviour, there is no possibility of envisioning or bringing about a genuinely new kind of society. To reject dialectics was to reject the revolution, and to accept that the king was the king because he was king - end of story.

Why do I tell you all this? Because it's going to feed into my review of Gordon R. Dickson's second Dorsai volume, 'Soldier, Ask Not'. The author isn't a Marxist, far from it, yet he has a similar overarching concept of human history and destiny. Dickson's driving force is rather mystical - a Jungian concept of the collective unconscious - but dialectical the vision certainly is.

More here.

Oh, and Marxism? E. O. Wilson had it right.