January 18, 2009

This strident antipathy to Freud (and Marcuse) is consistent with prevailing opinion in academia

Of sterile flowers, poisonous weeds and a political smokescreen By Alex Steiner and Frank Brenner On Jan. 6, the WSWS carried yet another polemic against us, the second one in a week. This one came with a purple prose title, “Adam Haig responds to Alex Steiner’s burst of outrage”.[1]

There was no “burst of outrage” in what we wrote... Second, Haig’s riposte is not only overheated in its language but also murky in its logic... Haig is indeed claiming – falsely – that we are attempting “to revise, if not replace, modern Marxism … with the pseudo-Marxist Frankfurt School.” As for our real position – i.e. that “not all the work of the Frankfurt School and Marcuse is ‘worthless’” – Haig simply dodges the issue with an “even if”, just as he dodged it before with his remark about it being “beside the point.”

Haig then tries to seal his argument with a quote from Brenner: “Marxism in the 21st century is neither conceivable nor viable without assimilating the best insights of these thinkers.” But this only reiterates our position: we are not for revising Marxism but for “assimilating the best insights” of the critical theorists to it. (And the latter, by the way, includes not just Marcuse but towering intellectual figures of the last century like Walter Benjamin and Georg Lukacs.) Indeed, we are for Marxism “assimilating the best insights” from every field – science, philosophy, culture etc. Any other position amounts to a hopeless dogmatism that is totally alien to the outlook of the great classical Marxists. Read in context, it is clear that this is just what Brenner’s remark was meant to say.[5]

Incidentally, in this same passage, Brenner characterizes critical theory in terms of Lenin’s famous description of philosophical idealism as “a sterile flower” but one “that grows on the living tree … of human knowledge.” This rather jars with the claim that we are trying to “revise, if not replace” Marxism with critical theory.

In any case, Haig sets out to prove that there is very little worth assimilating from his chosen target, Marcuse, whom he summarily characterizes as “a reactionary neo-Marxist.” For Haig, Marcuse is much less “a sterile flower” than a poisonous weed, and in his first opus Haig hunts down a page-worth of quotes to prove that a key work of Marcuse’s, Eros and Civilization, “adds nothing to scientific thought or socialist theory” and that it constitutes “libidinal fairy tales.”

This kind of quotation-hunting is an intellectually dishonest way of proving whatever one wants to prove. Using the same method, one could show that Hegel, for example, was a hopeless reactionary – a supporter of the Prussian state, a god-believer and spinner of metaphysical “fairy tales”. And one could then take Marx to task for his “eclecticism” in assimilating any ideas from such a figure (as, indeed, Eduard Bernstein, Max Eastman and many others did).

Haig is nothing if not ambitious: having set out to demolish Marcuse, he is also eager to do battle with Freud. We are told that psychoanalysis “is not an experimental or quantitative field”, that Freud’s “methodology” is an “ahistorical subjective idealist orientation,” and then (somewhat inconsistently) that “Freudian individual psychoanalysis was based on mechanical materialism” and that it was a form of “biological determinism”.[6]

While these objections shed little light on psychoanalysis (we will soon be posting some material that addresses these issues), this strident antipathy to Freud (and Marcuse) is consistent with prevailing opinion in academia. Here it is worth noting Haig’s background in “literary and cultural studies”, since probably no academic field has been more imbued by postmodernism than this one.[7] The postmodernist rejection of ‘metanarratives’ applies as much to Freud as it does to Marx. And just as relevant here is the postmodernist hostility to utopianism.[8] It isn’t a huge stretch to see in the contemptuous way Haig dismisses Marcuse’s “libidinal fairy tales” – which is to say, Marcuse’s efforts to envision a non-repressive civilization free of the stranglehold of alienated labor – the lingering influence of his academic studies.

There is much more we could comment on (for example, Haig completely misrepresents Trotsky’s argument in Results and Prospects which was aimed against the kind of “shallow moralizing” that calls for a “moral awakening” of the working class before it can come to socialist consciousness – a position that is held not by us but by David Walsh of the WSWS editorial board.[9])

And we could also point out that despite his eagerness to hit back at our brief note, Haig manages to ignore one of the three points that we made (and indeed the one we spent the most space on) – which is that when his original essay was first posted on the WSWS, it had hyperlinks to the documents of ours that he was quoting, but several hours later those hyperlinks were removed and replaced by a deliberately vague reference to “Permanent Revolution”, not even indicating whether this was a book, a journal or a website. There is no reasonable explanation for this except that the WSWS editorial board did not want WSWS readers to have direct access to our material so that they could judge for themselves the validity of Haig’s arguments. While Haig gets very indignant over our brief note, he has no comment on – and therefore, one has to assume, no objection to – this obvious bit of intellectual bad faith. [10]

But let us go back to something we raised earlier – the willingness of the WSWS editorial board to post this second statement of Haig’s. Veteran members of that board like North or Walsh would have readily recognized this statement for what it is – an overheated expression of writer’s pique by someone relatively new to polemical debate – and in the normal course of things would probably have advised against rushing into (electronic) print.

But clearly the normal course of things doesn’t apply when it comes to the polemical dispute with Steiner and Brenner. Back in October, North launched his smear campaign against Steiner, with help from Ann and Chris Talbot; now Haig has been pressed into service for the same basic political agenda – which is to divert the discussion away from the criticisms we made of the IC leadership’s political line.

According to Haig, we are wrong in claiming that North’s series against Steiner is a smear campaign: “This is not demonization, but a well-grounded assessment of their [i.e. Steiner and Brenner’s] theoretical and political conceptions.” But a central part of our “political conceptions” is our critique of the IC leadership’s politics: how can North (or the Talbots) have provided “a well-grounded assessment” when they never said a single word about any of these criticisms?

No comments:

Post a Comment