Tuesday, October 28, 2008


REMEMBERING PAUL RICOEUR: 1913-2005 (French Philosopher) [Political Affairs Archives]
By Thomas Riggins

The May 24 New York Times has reported the death of one of Frances’s most famous philosophers (“Paul Ricoeur, 92, Wide-Ranging French Philosopher, Is Dead” by Margalit Fox”). Many of Ricoeur’s ideas are interesting even when they clash with the Marxist philosophical outlook. We can always learn from those who don’t share our philosophical commitments.

Fox quotes Dr. C. E. Reagan who said about Ricoeur, “In the history of philosophy, he would take positions that appeared to be diametrically opposed, and he’d work to see if there was a middle ground.” In that spirit I propose to see what middle ground Marxists might be able to share with Ricoeur ( I don't think we will find too many-- but at least two come to mind: peace is better than war and democracy is a postive good)) whose philosophy, forbiddingly, is a species of “phenomenological hermeneutics.”

This is not as bad as it sounds. Phenomenology is the “science” of how we experience the world and hermeneutics is a fancy word for “interpretation.” It comes from the Greek for ”interpret” (originally used for interpreting the Bible) and ultimately from the name of the Greek God “Hermes” (Roman Mercury) who was the messenger of Zeus.

Christopher Norris (The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, ed. by Ted Honderich) wrote that Ricoeur found in his “middle ground” way of thinking a “kindred dialectic” with Marxism. Norris points out the double aspect of interpretation (it has a “positive” and “negative” moment). His interpretation of Freud is one example: the negative-- psychoanalysis looks for the past repressed information in the unconscious mind in order to find the positive-- a cure to repression and a new possibility for the future. He also sees this in Marxism: the negative-- class struggle, oppression, revolution leads to the positive-- a new society of human equality [hopefully].

G. B. Madson (The Columbia History of Western Philosophy, ed. by Richard H. Popkin) tells us that Ricoeur comes out of the tradition of the German Fascist philosopher Martin Heidegger(this sounds bad and it is bad but not as bad as it sounds). This tradition breaks with the mainstream of modern philosophy from Descartes through Russell and their contemporary followers (almost all philosophers but not professors of literature and cultural criticism).

The first part of the break is not so bad. Modern philosophers have a tendency to start with the isolated consciousness of a particular person, the ego, and then try to see how this ego can get to an external world independent of its own thinking mind. We can agree with Heidegger that human beings find themselves, “always already”, as Madson says “in a world.” Madson quotes Ricoeur: “The gesture of hermeneutics is a humble one of acknowledging the historical conditions to which all human understanding is subsumed in the reign of finitude.” No problem. We awake to find ourselves always already in a specific historical context-- e.g., I’m a French worker or a German bourgeois, etc. Let’s agree not to start with the ego. But we are going to go downhill from here.

We all agree with the historical consciousness as a starting point. We do not need Heidegger or his followers to tell us this. It is a basic core belief of Marxism already. Let us assume that I am a sugarcane cutter in 1950’s Cuba. My consciousness is determined by what Ricoeur calls its “historicality.” Madson says, “As Ricoeur characterizes it, effective historical consciousness is ‘the massive and global fact whereby consciousness, even before its awakening as such, belongs to and depends on that which affects it.” In other words, Mr. Cutter belongs to and depends upon the world dominated by Mr. Plantation Owner and overseen by Mr. President Batista (and globally Uncle Sam).

Ricoeur continues, “The action of tradition [effective history] and historical investigation are fused by a bond which no critical consciousness could dissolve without rendering the research itself nonsensical.” This leads to the conclusion, Madson says, that the Enlightenment is wrong in thinking effective history must be overcome in order to really understand the “truth.” When Ricoeur proclaims that truth is historical you begin to think he must be on to something. But wait!

We are informed that this way of thinking rejects the “correspondence theory of truth”. This is the theory accepted by Marxism. A proposition is true if it corresponds to a state of the external world. “My car is red” is true if and only if my car is red. But we find out, says Madson, that “a core tenet of philosophical hermeneutics is that genuine understanding is not representational but essentially transformative.”

Mr. Cutter has been reading the Communist Manifesto and has decided that there is no correspondence between a just society and the world of Mr. Plantation Owner. He is told, “I’m sorry, but we don’t use the correspondence theory anymore.” What does it mean to say truth is transformative. Well, you read the Manifesto and it transforms you, you “appropriate” it and interpret it in your historical context-- Cuba 1950”s-- very different from Germany in 1848.

Mr. Cutter objects. He thinks the Manifesto is appropriate for any class society, that Marx and Engels had it mind to lay down general truths corresponding to the entire historical epoch of capitalism. Well then, we have missed “one of the most distinctive tenets of philosophical hermeneutics: The meaning of a text is not reducible to the meaning intended by its author.” Its meaning is now what you make of it.

Ricoeur is quoted: “The text’s career escapes the finite horizon lived by its author. What the text says now matters more than what the author meant to say, and every exegesis unfolds its procedures within the circumference of a meaning that has broken its moorings to the psychology of its author.”

This may be going too far. Original intent is important. We must first understand the text’ before we can interpret it. How to make sense of the phrase “what the text says now’? This means to Ricoeur something like “what it says to me”. But this sounds like relativism. Anyone can read Marx, etc., anyway s/he chooses. It is not relativism, says Madson. Philosophers in this school reject dogmatism and “maintain that it is never possible to demonstrate conclusively the validity of one’s interpretations, they also maintain, against all forms of relativism, that it is nevertheless always possible to argue for one’s interpretations in cogent, nonarbitrary, reasoned ways [the Enlightenment lives on!]. In other words... if our interpretations can reasonably lay claim to being true, they must adhere to certain argumentative criteria, such as coherence and comprehensiveness.”

Mr. Cutter decides that the Manifesto is both coherent and comprehensive and runs off to the mountains to join Fidel. Was he right to do so? Our philosophers, following Ricoeur, think that the purpose of interpretation, of understanding, of finding the “truth” is ultimately to better understand ourselves [the return of the ego]. They reject “objectivism” and want to suborn it to “communicative rationality.” People, Madson says, “reason together in such a way as to enable them to arrive at common agreements or understandings (however provisional) that enable them to live together peacefully, whether as members of a particular scientific discipline or as members of society.” A revolution would seem to be a breakdown of "communicative rationality." The war in Iraq would be another breakdown.

But Mr. Cutter and Mr. Plantation Owner can’t reason together. They don’t have a “human” relation-- only an exploitative economic one. What this philosophy represents is bourgeois liberalism. It represents “none other than the core values of liberal democracy.” Remember “truth” is not “objective.” It really is for these thinkers, “subjective.” Madson quotes Ricoeur: “The truth is... the lighted place in which it is possible to continue to live and think.” That really doesn’t say anything! Madson continues, “Ricoeur has asserted that “democracy is the [only] political space in which [the conflict of interpretations] can be pursued with a respect for differences”-- that is to say, with a respect for the pursuit of truth on the part of each and every individual human being. When all is said and done, the basic tenet of philosophical hermeneutics is that there is only one truth, which is the democratic process itself.”

Here is another quote from Ricoeur, from Le Monde [2004] (via BBC News):

If I had to lay out my vision of the world... I would say: given
the place where I was born, the culture I received, what I read,
what I learned (and) what I thought about, there exists for me
a result that constitutes, here and now, the best thing to do. I
call it the action that suits.

This is an interesting quote, but what does it mean? This is true for everybody, including cats and dogs. It sounds like fatalism-- my actions are the result of my past history. A strange quote from someone associated with the exitentialist movement. Why not try thinking outside the box? Anyway, who cares what Ricouer meant? I can interpretet this to suit myself as long as I am coherent and comprehensive.

Mr. Cutter was right to run off to the mountains. In this class riven world where profits come before people this was the action that suits. The thinking of Paul Ricoeur cannot lead to the liberation of humanity from the bestial reality of monopoly capitalism and imperialism. We will have to evaluate him again when we live in a classless society. R.I.P.

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at pabooks@politicalaffairs.net

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Reviewed by Thomas Riggins

This book is one of a kind. Tatakis published it in French in 1949 and it had to wait until 2003 before an English edition appeared. The wait was worth it. This is the only book in English that covers the development of the history of philosophy and its intersection with Christianity during the entire course of the history of the Eastern Roman Empire from the fall of Rome and the Western Empire to its own fall in 1453 A.D.

Americans and Western Europeans are familiar with our local history-- Rome falls, then the Middle Ages dominated by Latin Christianity (Catholicism), the Renaissance, Reformation, and modern times.

Our way of looking at politics and religion was born out of this sequence. Marxism, is in fact, the logical outgrowth of just this history. It is sometimes difficult to understand other types of Marxisms, i.e., I mean those that have developed in the non-Western European context. Think of “Marxism with Chinese characteristics” or “the Juche Principle.”

What we learn from Tatakis’ book is that a different Christianity (Eastern Orthodox) and a different philosophical development was taking place in the Greek speaking half of the Mediterranean world throughout the entire period we in the West associate with our Middle Ages. The eastern world, dominated by Constantinople (the second Rome), retained its high level of civilization to the end. Its culture forms the background of Russia and other East European cultures.

If we want to understand Soviet Marxism we may have to look at it through the lenses of Byzantine philosophy rather than just assimilating it to the Western tradition. Even if this turns out not to be the case, this book is still a good read and opens up a world most of us have missed out on with our parochial education.

Tatakis seems not to have a secular outlook, but this rarely intrudes in his history. Early in the book we can see the coming fight between philosophy and religion (Christianity) – that is, between reason and faith. Two great schools of early Christianity were duking it out in the first couple of centuries of the Christian era – one in the great city of Alexandria, the other in Antioch. Alexandria stood for mysticism and a dogma “inaccessible to human reasoning” while Antioch stood for a non-mystical analysis of religious texts just as one “would scrutinize any human text, thus,” Tatakis says, “the reader falls into the trap of scientific rationalism.” Well, we certainly wouldn’t want that to happen! Antioch lost this fight – the Byzantines remained mystical by and large. (Note: Byzantium was the name of the little town upon which Constantinople was built so the Eastern Romans are called, by us, “Byzantines” – they called themselves “Romans”).

In the chapter on the sixth and seventh centuries we come across a bad attitude developing in Christianity that we can see is still with us. This is that “revelation” is better than our human type of “observational knowledge” and therefore “every advance in human thought” is viewed “as promoted by the devil.” Technology was OK (needed for warfare) but science as a way of explaining the world was neglected.

Nevertheless, there were some philosophers who tried to carry on the classical tradition of rational thought while being Christian at the same time. John Philoponos is especially important as his works on Aristotle, along with Aristotle, were translated into Syrian (and later into Arabic) and he was “an important agent in the formation of Syrian-Arabian philosophy.” We all know that the Arabs had a great and flowering civilization while we in the West were flea ridden barbarians – but they got it from (and added to it) the Greeks of the eastern Empire.

The next chapter covers the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries. A new attitude to government developed – called “Caesaropapism” – that is, the emperor, not the pope (or in this case the Patriarch) runs the show. This reversed a 300 year tradition initiated by the thinker Themistios who taught that “virtue and piety cannot be coerced”. He convinced the emperor Valens of this and Valens allowed “everyone the freedom of choosing whatever religion he liked.” The good old days

Caesaropapism was eventually defeated by the Church. A work called “The Epanagogy” was adopted (ninth century) “which stated that the emperor, as the executor of the law, becomes the common bond for all the subjects and distributes rewards to all with perfect objectivity and according to their merits. In the Patriarch [of Constantinople], the image of the living Jesus [the Pope wouldn’t like this], being that he is committed in a profound sense to truth in acts and speech, resides the right of interpretation.”

In later times the Russians adopted this work and “it became the standard from which [they] regulated their political and ecclesiastical life.” Substitute “the party” for “the emperor” and “General Secretary” for “Patriarch” and “Marxism-Leninism” for “Jesus” and maybe we can see the cultural background upon which Soviet Marxism was built-- maybe.

Since the emperor and the Patriarch tell us all that we need to know and do (which self love should make us want to accept) this leads “to the responsibility of not allowing heretics to prevent one’s salvation.” The defenders of the faith are noted for “fanaticism and inflexibility.”

We should note that Byzantine philosophers in the eighth century, by concentrating on the study of the classical Greeks and their culture, laid the foundations for what would become the Renaissance in Italy. There was always contact between the Latin West and Greek East and westerners were always coming to study at the great schools and universities in Constantinople. The East was always ahead of the West, however.

In the chapter on the eleventh and twelfth centuries we meet Michael Psellos (1018-1096) who wrote about the philosophy of Plato and became “the promoter of philosophical movement in Byzantium, an initiative that continued from the 11th through the 15th century and was disseminated by Plethon and Bessarion to the Italy of the Renaissance and then to the rest of Western Europe.” Tatakis ends this chapter by saying, “it is not enough to say that in the 11th and 12th centuries speculative thought in the Latin West runs on the same track as it did in Byzantium. We must acknowledge that in all of the essential points of this intellectual movement, Byzantium led the way.”

We will end this review with the chapter on the last three centuries with some comments about George Gemistos Plethon (c.1360-1450) who came to live in Italy. Plethon was very advanced and definitely put philosophy in the first place ahead of religion. In “his most important work, The Laws,... [he says] philosophical thinking... reveals the naked truth to the spirit that has been liberated from dogmatism and compels the person, every person, to accept it ‘with one accord and with the same spirit.’ The position of the enlightenment philosophers would not be very different.”

We should feel some solidarity with Plethon even 550 years on as, Tatakis says, he believed “happiness emanates from the organization of the state” and in his memoirs, he “emerges... as the forerunner and anticipator of many socialist and other modern concepts.”
Does this sound like “From each according to his abilities to each according to his work”:
I mean his view that “the right to wealth is proportional to the services each person renders, a principle that secures social justice and elevates the value of labor.”

I certainly hope we won’t have to wait another 550 years to see this come about!

by Basil Tatakis
translated by Nicholas J. Moutafakis
Hackett Publishing Co., 2003. 424pp.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Pope Benedict XVI’s Perplexing Logic [Political Affairs Archives}
By Thomas Riggins

What can progressives expect from the new pope? Not much I’m afraid. The New York Times ran an article on Sunday (4/24/05), "Turbulence on Campus in 60’s Hardened Views of Future Pope," which gives those of us who are not seasoned Vatican watchers some glimpse of how the former head of the Inquisition (previous name for the Congregation of Doctrine of the Faith) thinks.

The article reveals some perplexing logical jumps in the reasoning of the pope while he was still just Joseph Ratzinger. He was supposedly a moderate liberal until he encountered feisty student protesters at Tubingin University.

We know what caused the protests. Students wanted more democratic control of the campus, plus they were against the Vietnam War and US bases in Germany. In other words they were demanding peace and freedom. This reminded Ratzinger (a former member of the Hitler Youth) of the Nazis despite the fact that "peace and freedom" was not a slogan usually associated with Hitler and the Nazis.

He didn’t really like the Nazis the article says. He grew up in Bavaria, a very Catholic area in Germany and also home to the Nazi Party. These were the good old days when being a German Catholic and anti-Semetic were almost coterminous. Having seen the local Catholic population going nuts for Hitler he "became convinced that the moral authority based in Catholic teachings was the sole reliable bulwark against human barbarism." Well, Catholic moral teachings had been around in Bavaria for a long time – so where did all these Nazis come from? Catholic moral teachings, and Protestant as well, did not seem to be much of a bulwark.

Nevertheless, Ratzinger’s "deep reading" of history, philosophy and theology allowed him to connect student peaceniks with the Nazis. He decided the way to fight the student movement that he saw as "an echo of the Nazi totalitarianism" (which he "loathed") was to insist upon "unquestioned obedience" to Rome (i.e., the Pope). That’s right folks – the way to fight Nazi totalitarianism was with Papal totalitarianism. It seems to me that the Nazis also had a leader what advocated "unquestioned obedience." You might think that the young Ratzinger, with all his deep reading, would have concluded that "unquestioned obedience" was probably not a good idea, but you would be wrong.

He was tipped off that there were big problems in the Church by his experiences in Vatican Two (the council called by John XXIII in the 60’s). The article quotes his autobiography: "Very clearly, resentment was growing against Rome and against the Curia, which appeared to be the real enemy of everything that was new and progressive." Well, he was certainly right about that!

He became "deeply troubled" by "the idea of an ecclesiastical sovereignty of the people in which the people itself determined what it wants to understand by church." What a shocking notion. The people must be protected from itself by "unquestioning obedience" to the leader. I wonder where he got those ideas from?

To top off what he saw at Vatican Two, he then had to put up with those over zealous student demonstrations on his college campus.

"Marxist revolution kindled the whole university with its fervor, shaking it to its very foundations." Good! That just what it needed. Nevertheless, the notion that a Marxist "revolution" had broken out in Tubingen is a bit of a stretch. He should have to moved to Paris in ‘68!

Ratzinger fled to Regensburg University where he was remembered by Gustav Obermair, the university president: "People of his age and background [the Hitler youth?] panicked at the thought that a new, radical, dictatorial and totalitarian regime might come out of the ‘68 uprising. Of course, this was a complete misreading of the ‘68 movement. But that is what they thought."

It doesn’t bode well for the Church that its new leader has a tendency to "completely misread" what is going on about him in society. His ideas are said to have been shaped by St. Augustine, St. Bonaventure, and Plato. I don’t think Plato should be blamed for Ratzinger’s ideas. Plato subjected all ideas to the test of argument and debate, maintaining that you had to follow the argument wherever it led. The idea of "unquestioning obedience" would have been anathema to him.

Here is a great argument from Ratzinger – given at an anti-abortion meeting in 1986. "It is force that establishes right and thus, inadvertently for the many, the very bases of any authentic democracy are threatened." If you think this sounds like mumbo jumbo you are correct. In the 1985 "Ratzinger Report" the good cardinal "condemned abortion, contraception, homosexual relations, sex without marriage, ‘radical feminism’ and transsexuality." A real party pooper!

But what are his "reasons." He condemns the above because those ideas and practices, according to him, come about when people unlink sex from motherhood and marriage. This leads to activities that "uncouples man from nature." It seems homosexuality is not natural, nor is sex without marriage, but life long celibacy is ok.

Vaticanistas say he is open-minded: "He is willing to go with the best idea." But this can not be true. "Going with the best idea" is not compatible with "unquestioning obedience." What should be said is that he supports instrumentally those ideas, which further his preconceived prejudices and beliefs.

Ratzinger is quoted as having said, "I have to obey the pope. The pope told me that it is my biggest religious obligation not to have my own opinions." How anyone can have a "deep" understanding of philosophy and say such things is incomprehensible. Now that he is Benedict XVI will he demand that Catholics not have their own opinions? Anyway, how is it even possible not to have your own opinions?

Saturday, October 11, 2008


The Illusion and Reality of Siddhatta Gotama, the Buddha
By Thomas Riggins

Karen Armstrong’s Buddha, published as a Penguin paperback in 2004, is not only a bestseller but has been praised as "invaluable." Armstrong is well known as a popular writer on religious history and this book is one of many she has written for a lay audience. All of her books are well written and enjoyable to read but not always historically reliable. This is, unfortunately, the case with her book on the Buddha. I am afraid that people going away after a reading of this admittedly enjoyable book will have no real understanding of either the Buddha or his religion.

The problem is that she has somewhat indiscriminately mixed up primary and secondary sources as well as credited and discredited theories about religion in general and Buddhism in particular. As an example she gives equal weight to both forms of Buddhism – i.e., the original, or at least the older, Theravada tradition (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia) based on the Pali texts, [her book is, however,based mostly on the Pali texts] and the much later Mahayana tradition that developed in North India (written in Sanskrit rather than Pali) and spread to China, Korea, Tibet, Vietnam and Japan. This second tradition, influenced by contact with Persia and incorporating Zoroastrian elements, and seeing the Buddha as "an object of worship" is very different from the original teachings of Gotama who was himself inclined towards atheism and was more this worldly than other worldly.

Armstrong is well aware of the difficulties of writing a "biography" of the Buddha. The man Gotama died in the 5th century B.C. and all we know about him has been mixed up with legends and later traditions to such a degree that what we say concerning him "cannot satisfy the standards of modern scientific history." The Buddha that emerges in her book is, as she says, an "archetypal figure" that she has more or less constructed out of the Pali canon which is the earliest and most reliable source available on the life and teachings of the Buddha.

There are two annoying features of her interpretation that will not go down too well with Marxists. First she uses, as a framework for comparisons, the discredited notion of the "Axial Age" put forth by the German existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers. This is the notion that from around 800 to 200 B.C. the ancient world from Europe, thru Iran and India to China created the "ethos" that "has continued to nourish men and women to the present day." This fantastical "Axial Age" only works by selectively including and excluding, as well as misinterpreting the functions of the individuals who are supposedly the most important thinkers of this period.

She includes Socrates and Plato (but not Aristotle) as well as "the sixth-century Iranian sage Zoroaster." Zoroaster’s dates are notoriously difficult to determine, but the modern consensus places him four or five hundred years earlier than the sixth-century – this messes up the "Axial Age" because Iran drops out of the picture. It should also be noted that Confucius was a thoroughly secular teacher and was not involved in reforming "the religious traditions of China." "People," she writes, "who participated in this great transformation were convinced that they were on the brink of a new era and that nothing would ever be the same again." A period that lasted 600 hundred years can hardly be called a "brink", nor, not having read Jaspers, would people from Europe to China even be aware of a "great transformation" taking place, especially since it was artificially constructed only recently.

Second, she refers to the economic system in Buddha’s day as a "market economy." This is very confusing terminology with relation to the mode of production in ancient India. The ancient economy was based on the exploitation of village agriculturalists in a semi-feudal system that had recently developed in Buddha’s day (in northeast India where he lived) when state structures had evolved out of tribal systems into kingdoms and then empires. There was a large merchant class, as in Rome, but it is a stretch to say the cities and empires were "dominated by a market economy." Ancient India was not a capitalist state.

Buddha, as we know, saw life as a big drag – suffering, etc., and his new religion, was based on the Four Noble Truths (all is suffering, suffering has a cause, suffering can be overcome, the sacred eightfold path is the way to do it.) To escape suffering you needed to follow Buddha’s new rules of life. He founded an order of monks who could follow his path and attain enlightenment and escape from rebirth, and thus another round of suffering, to "nirvana" – a state of being or nonbeing never really spelled out.

Armstrong gives an interesting account of all the trials and tribulations of the Buddha and the founding of his Order – but her explanations are almost exclusively in terms of inner struggles and spiritual development. This is all very well and good but will not satisfy Marxists who want to understand the rise of Buddhism in terms of class struggle and other Marxist categories. None of this is in Armstrong’s book. So Marxists will not get much out of her book. She lacks the necessary jaundiced eye when looking at religion which Marxists regard as an "illusion" and, as Marx said, brings the people only an "illusory happiness."

The question for Marxists is – what were the social and economic conditions prevailing in Buddha’s time that allowed his religion to survive and prosper? The answer to this question is to be found in the works of the great Bengali Marxist philosopher Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya. The short answer is that in Buddha’s time the old democratic tribal associations were being replaced by newly emergent military states. The tribes had been governed by councils who appointed the leaders by democratic methods. Buddha came from such a tribe, the Sakyas. He witnessed the destruction of these tribal organizations by the new states and the consequent enslavement and murder of the tribal peoples. The source of the suffering world.

In his Order he recreated the primitive democracy and interpersonal solidarity of the tribal ethos and thus presented, on a spiritual level, the illusion of freedom and meaning to life that had actually been lost in the real world.

This is the real story behind the rise and development of Buddhism but you won’t find it in Armstrong’s book.

Karen Armstrong, Buddha, Penguin, New York, 2004
Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Indian Philosophy: A Popular Introduction People’s Publishing House, Delhi, 1964
Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Lokayata: A Study in Ancient Indian Materialism, People’s Publishing House, New Delhi, 1959 (7th ed. 1992)

Sunday, October 5, 2008


Inequality is a Law of Nature? [Political Affairs archives]
By Thomas Riggins

Science and the Rich

New Scientist, the British science magazine more or less equivalent to Science News in the US, but a step down from Scientific American, has a wonderful article in its March 12-18 ‘05 issue. The article, by Jenny Hogan, is headed "There’s one rule for the rich... Anyone trying to redistribute wealth in a market economy may be up against a law of nature."

A law of nature? That would certainly make economic reform in favor of the poor a rather more difficult task than the left has envisioned. On the other hand, it favors those who want to abolish the market altogether.

What is Hogan talking about? A remarkable discovery has been made as a result of studying the US economy. Hold on to your hats, but scientists have found out that "The rich are getting richer while the poor remain poor." This astounding fact has emerged from a study of the US economy since 1979. In that year the income gap between the top one percent of the population and the bottom 20 percent was 33:1. By 2000 it was 88:5.

Hogan says that this gap will likely grow if the scientists (physicists) are correct with the new model of capitalism (the market economy) they are drawing up based on the laws of physics holds true.

A new science is in the making – a blend of physics and economics called "econophysics" and Hogan’s article is a news account about the conference to be held this week in Kolkata, India, a first for the new science.

She quotes Sudhakar Yarlagadda from the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, which is located in Kolkata, who is concerned about "understanding whether there is some kind of social injustice behind this skewed distribution" of wealth. Let’s hope not! If the US showed signs of social injustice what in the world would be going on in Kolkata, Bombay and New Delhi? India might have its own problems with "skewed distribution." But if this is all due to a law of nature what’s to be done?

Well, even if some people are confused about the "injustice issue" others are not, or at least they think society is "unfair." Hogan quotes Robin Marris a retired economist from the University of London. He says, "People on the whole have normally distributed attributes, talents and motivations, yet we finish up with wealth distributions that are much more unequal than that."

How are we to explain all this? Hogan tells us that there is some sort of "power law" (mathematical powers) at work that was discovered by Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) that explained why the rich people in Europe ended up with most of the wealth.

Who was Pareto? Excuse me for this small digression. He was an economic philosopher who came up with an idea now known as "Pareto optimality" as a measure of the efficiency of an economic system. This, and not his "power law," is the real basis of his philosophy.

That system is optimal when it can’t be changed in anyway so that to help a person B a person A will be hurt. So it is not efficient if, in order to abolish slavery, the slaves benefit at the expense of the masters. Any income redistribution would violate this optimality of the system.

Pareto’s system was very status quo. It favored free trade, economic elites (about three percent of the population as calculated by his "power law"), and authoritarian governments. While Pareto lived in Switzerland and was apolitical, he had a big fan down in Italy by the name of Benito Mussolini who adopted many of his ideas and gave him many honors. But as one author says (Peter Winch), "since he died after only one year of the fascist regime, his considered attitude to it must be a matter of conjecture." Hmmm.

Now back to Hogan. She says that while the rich are governed by Pareto’s law (fascists and their friends will protect the "efficiency" of the system for the benefit of the ruling class) the rest of us, including the poor, have been found to be subject to "a completely different law." We act like atoms in a gas.

How does this work? Hogan turns to a physicist at the University of Maryland, Victor Yakovenko, who after researching Internal Revenue Service statistics concluded that Pareto was correct about the upper crust three percent. His "power law" rules this group (and limits it numbers – not four percent or ten percent – the rich are three percent – actually between two and three).

The rest of us, just as atoms in a gas exchange energy when they randomly collide with one another, are randomly interchanging economically with a host of other people – only we exchange money for services and goodies, etc. Just as the gas/atom system has the same amount of energy in it after all the random collisions (conservation of energy), so does the economy regulating the 97%. When the day is done and we are all back home after dealing with the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, and they are done with us, money has been redistributed but the amount of money is the same – just in different pockets. We are different from the elite because they are also creating wealth which trickles down to us. That is why we should not mess with them.

"This, along with research data from other countries," Hogan concludes, "suggests that there are two economic classes. In one, the rich grow richer while in the other the poor stay poor." This is an amazing scientific discovery. Who would have thought of this? This should go a long way to increase the credibility of science with the Bush administration. Left wing malcontents are simply anti-scientific and refusing to except a law of nature.

The good news for millionaire wannabe’s is that because the system is random it is possible for a member of the masses to jump into the elite once in a while (the lotto factor). But, Yakovenko warns, any type of social policy designed to redistribute the wealth of society to help the poor would be ill-advised. His atom/gas model, plus Pareto’s theories indicate trying to transfer the goodies from one class to another (from rich to poor that means) "will be very inefficient short of getting Stalin." Yikes!

Well I’m glad that’s settled. There is no arguing with science. I just wonder if there is a mad scientist somewhere on the verge of discovering a system where the wealth is actually being transferred from the poor to the rich. What kind of system would that be like?

On Sartre (Archives Thomas Riggins Blog)

[Source: www.Sartre.org]]

Sartre at 100

By Thomas Riggins

The French are honoring their most famous 20th century thinker – Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). The French National Library in Paris is mounting a major exhibition dedicated to his life and works. Although Sartre had a rocky relationship with the French Communist Party he considered himself a "Marxist" of sorts. The New York Times has even weighed in with some opinions about this ("To Honor Sartre, France Buffs A Pedestal the Writer Rejected" by Alan Riding, 3/16/05).

I can’t say that Riding’s article is always informative. Take this observation, for example, regarding Sartre’s image as a "Left Bank intellectual." "Even for many French people, his embrace of Communist causes placed him on the wrong side of history." This was at a time when a fourth of the French were voting for Communists, so its also true that many French people (and not only the French) think he was on the right side of history.

Those causes, by the way, were for world peace, anti-racism, anti-imperialism, and freedom for the colonial peoples. Whatever may have happened to Communism – these were (and are) the right causes. As for "causes," we can learn something from Sartre when we reflect on his statement that "if I ask myself ‘Will the social ideal as such, ever become a reality?’ I cannot tell, I only know that whatever may be in my power to make it so, I shall do; beyond that, I can count upon nothing." You can’t be on the wrong side of that.

Riding observes that Sartre’s reputation is approaching that of the great French pantheon (which he may soon join) of Voltaire, Hugo and Zola. But Riding shows his true colors when he states that as "political visionaries," Raymond Aron (the conservative pro-US cold war intellectual) and Albert Camus "stand taller because their view of freedom was untainted by association with Stalinism or Maoism." Guilt by association! While Camus couldn’t bring himself to back the right of the Algerians to throw the French out, Sartre risked his life (he survived a bomb plot) speaking out against French repression in Algeria. So much for standing tall!

Camus died young, while he was still developing, so I don’t want to be too judgmental about him. But Aron was a typical conservative. He supported the so-called "Free World." He is dead so I don’t know how he would think about the "freedom" we are bombing the people of Iraq into.

Riding asks "is Sartre remotely relevant today?" He seems to think not. But this is a difficult question. He seems to base his judgment on the fact that Sartre is no longer fashionable or as fashionable as he once was. This is a different question from relevance. Sartre was both a popular writer and a philosopher. His big philosophical tomes (Being and Nothingness: The Critique of Dialectical Reasoning) were never best sellers. He articulated a philosophy of human freedom known as "existentialism" and tried to hook this up with Marxism. I think as long as there is a struggle to attain a more just and free world, and as long as society is dominated by class struggle and exploitation, serious people will find Sartre’s philosophy relevant even if they do not ultimately accept it.

Riding briefly outlines some of Sartre’s politics but his readers will get the wrong impression from his presentation. He writes that Sartre played no political role until after the liberation of Paris and that he "cheerfully" produced his plays and books during the German occupation after having been a prisoner of war for "a few months." The implication is that Sartre did not do his duty. Riding fails to mention that Sartre did have a role in the Resistance during the occupation. He ended up with a minor role because the Resistance was practically run by the Communist Party and Sartre was unwilling to commit himself, as pointed out by Thomas Baldwin (The Oxford Companion to Philosophy) to the Party or the Gauillists. After the war no one thought Sartre derelict in his duty.

Riding next wishes to put Sartre "in the dock." "Placed in the dock today," he writes, Sartre would face two charges: between 1952 and 1956, he was a fellow traveler of the French Communist Party, albeit breaking with it after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956." The charges should be amended. Sartre was more than a "fellow traveler." According to Baldwin, Sartre was member of the French Communist Party having joined during the Korean War. While he left the Party over the 1956 Hungary issue, his final break with it did not occur until 1968.

What about this first charge. Only a typical right-wing anticommunist knows nothing would want to put Sartre in the dock on this charge. Throughout France and Italy the Communists were extremely popular in the years before the invasion of Hungary. Europeans knew to whom their liberation from Hitler and his Nazi armies was due. We Americans like to say we saved the French, that we defeated the Nazis, etc., and carry on as if we should get most of, or even all of, the credit.

You would think it was the Battle of the Bulge that decided the war. But 80% of the German forces were in the East confronting the Soviets. That is where the war was won. D-Day was a mopping up operation in comparison. Throughout Europe everyone knew it was the Communists who were the main force in the resistance movements against the fascists. For Sartre, who had committed himself to anti-imperialism, to peace, and to the working class as the most progressive class in society, it was only natural that he should join the Party.

The second charge was that in the years 1970-1974 he "supported French Maoists." This is a bogus charge, and Riding knows it. It was Voltaire, one of Sartre’s fellow pantheon members, who said "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." And Riding says Sartre’s "counsel" could claim "he was defending their right to exist more than their views."

Riding reports on four more of Sartre’s positions – on which "time favored him." Independent intellectuals can often mess up – even with good intentions – and Sartre was no exception. I say this because I think he made errors in two of the four positions mentioned by Riding. But first the positive. One, he was one of the first to support the right of Algeria to independence. This took a lot of courage as French fascists tried to assassinate him for being so outspoken, Two, he was an opponent to the US war against the Vietnamese people. Riding could have elaborated a bit here. Sartre co-chaired (with Bertrand Russell) the International War Crimes Tribunal that exposed the acts of war crimes in Asia by the US (still, as usual, going on in Iraq and elsewhere.)

Now the negative. Three, he went to Cairo in 1967 and made a speech on the right of Israel to exist. That is all well and good but he should have also called for the creation of a Palestinian state. But this was before the 1967 war and the take over of the West Bank and the true nature of Zionism was not so clear to many European intellectuals. Finally he broke with Fidel and Cuba (1971) over the perennial question of "persecution" of dissidents. I can only say that Sartre was too shrill. He forgot that the full force of US imperialism was (and still is), as far as possible, being directed against Cuba and in order to survive it is only natural for the Cubans to take corrective action against those they perceive as helping the US against them internally. Sometimes Voltaire has to take a back seat until we can create the conditions to seat him front row center.

He had two other worthy actions according to Riding. He stood with the students in May 1968 and, near the end of his life, he supported the demand that Vietnamese boat people be given refuge in France. One should also note that he refused, in 1964, the Nobel Prize in Literature. Riding quotes him: "a writer should refuse to be allowed to be transformed into an institution."

With the collapse of the Soviet Union progressives around the world are being forced to rethink the Marxist tradition. Sartre wrote, "I consider Marxism the one philosophy of our time which we cannot go beyond and.… I hold the ideology of existence and its ‘comprehensive’ method to be an enclave inside Marxism, which simultaneously engenders it and rejects it." Whether Sartre is relevant or irrelevant will depend on how interested students of the future are in engaging with his thoughts on Marxism.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


By Thomas Riggins

With all the talk of Red State religious reaction and the Republican-Evangelical alliance, I thought it time to bone up on Theology. A good place to start is David F. Ford’s Theology: A Very Short Introduction all the information you will ever need (unless you’re born again) packed into 175 pages. Anyway, critics of Marxism have often taken to calling it a type of religion-- a secular religion-- so maybe this book will reveal if there are any parallels. I don’t myself think Marxism is a religion, but that is not to say that some of the actions of the ultra-left don’t confuse the issue. This book, by the way, is basically about Christian theology.

We are informed early on that there are five different ways to practice this discipline (based on the work of Hans Frei). The first way (the order is arbitrary) is to take some current philosophical position and use it to explain and interpret the Bible. Right-wing Evangelicals won’t go for this unless they want to explain the Bible in terms of the Republican national platform instead of vice versa. I can see using Marxism in this way, however. That is, to explain the Bible in terms of class struggle, false ideological reflections of consciousness based on the primitive production processes of nomads, etc. This type of theological endeavor approaches religion from the outside. Ford considers this an extreme position to take.

Another extreme position, he tells us, is to interpret everything in terms of "classical" Christianity. We are talking about a "fundamentalist" position. Interestingly, Ford brings up the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein in this context. Wittgenstein’s notion of "language games" is discussed. Let me explain. Just as Chess is a game with a set of rules-- to play Chess you must follow the rules, so you can look at Fundamentalism as a language game (this is not how fundamentalists look at it). The game of Fundamentalism has as its rule "the Bible has to be defended as always right and correct about everything." To be a fundamentalist is to use this rule to interpret everything going on in the world about you. An atheist can play this game if she wants to, anybody can. A Wittgensteinian would also see Marxism as a language game. The rules of the Marxist language game are to explain things using the labor theory of value from Das Kapital plus Lenin’s views on party building, revolution and imperialism (if you are playing the Marxist-Leninist game). There are variations on this game--i.e., the Trotsky game, the Mao game, etc. Marxists won’t accept this philosophy, of course, but maybe it has heuristic value.

After discussing these "extreme" positions, Ford comes to three other types which he calls "mainstream." One of these is illustrated by the theology of Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976). He took Existentialism as a model and used it to explain what he took to be the deepest meaning of the New Testament. Here we take a modern philosophy which is relevant to how (some) people attempt to understand life and use it to make sense of the Bible. This is very academic and has no broad mass following. The other two kinds of theology are also academic. This differs from the first type because it is inside Christianity, as it were, and not approaching it from the outside. While Marxism can use Christianity in the first type, it would be Christianity using Marxism in this type. By the way, Liberation Theology was a popular non-academic example of this type of theology (in my opinion, Ford does not discuss it.)

The next type is called by Ford "correlation" theology-- practiced by Paul Tillich (1886-1965). Here we try to correlate Christian ways of thinking and doing things with other systems as ways to enhance dialog and understanding. This is something Muslims, Jews and Christians should be doing. Marxism amd Liberation Theology could also play a role in this type of thinking.

Finally, the last type discussed by Ford, is a milder form of fundamentalism. That is to say, it assumes the basic truth of Christianity but is interested in the community of Christians and how they relate to other traditions. It differs, it seems , from fundamentalism in being more liberal and open minded and not so 100% literal. Ford suggests that Karl Barth (1886-1968) exemplifies this type. It should be noted that these types are not all mutually exclusive and that a Marxist outlook may be compatible (at least politically) with all but those associated with fundamentalism.

There is a chapter on Jesus Christ which is very revealing as far as the status of theology as a science goes. The point of this chapter is to try to answer the following question: "is the historical probability of the testimony to Jesus in the New Testament sufficient to sustain the plausibility of the Jesus Christ of Christian faith?" For Marxists this boils down to what is the plausibility that a person can walk on water. If you can believe that you can believe anything.

Ford goes over the Biblical account of the life of Jesus and concludes that it is "not falsifiable"-- which is very different from "its capable of proof."

Ford also reads the gospel with a 21st century sensitivity to political correctness. The New Testament is very clear in portraying Pontius Pilot as not wanting to kill Jesus. He finds no fault with him, washes his hands, etc., "When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said His blood be on us, and on our children." Matthew 27:24-25.

For the politically correct David Ford, who does not see to it, this becomes: "It was the Romans who condemned and crucified him as a rebel because of the political threat." Anyone can read the New Testament in any way one likes.

The life of Jesus is "not falsifiable" but history is not the issue. When you read about Jesus in the Bible you are reading testimonies of what his followers believed and this will "challenge readers in far more radical ways than could a set of verified facts." What use have we for the facts?

The conclusion I come up with after reading this book is, as a Marxist, it is a waste of time to argue about religion (there are no verified facts so what's to argue about) and time is better spent trying to get people to take an interest in the problems facing all of us with respect to the exploitation and suffering all around us and that needs to be addressed by progressive political involvement.

David F. Ford, Theology: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2000.