‘Give Them an Argument: Logic for the Left’ by Ben Burgis reviewed by Bryan Parkhurst

Give Them an Argument: Logic for the Left

Zero Books, Winchester UK, 2019. 128 pp., pb £10.99 / e-book £8.99
ISBN 9781789042108

Reviewed by Bryan Parkhurst

About the reviewer

Bryan Parkhurst teaches music and philosophy at Oberlin College. …


Give Them an Argument: Logic for the Left (henceforth LfL) is in many ways a fun, frolicsome book, written with an attractive combination of pugilism and geniality. Burgis has a flair for discussing philosophical matters in a non-alienating manner; his humor and chattiness do much to sugar the pill of the book’s almost unavoidably pettifoggery-summoning subject, textbook logic. And, indeed, much of the book is given over to skewering the misbegotten nitpicking of right-wing ‘logicbros’ who, apparently, like to invoke hoary Latin designations for logical fallacies when they ‘slay libtards.’ For anyone who has had little first-hand exposure to the dark, unhygienic online lairs that these fraternity house castouts lurk in, it will be luridly intriguing, in an anthropological sort of a way, to see a light shined on some of the onanistic pedantry that transpires therein. And there are also the schadenfreudlich pleasures of watching a captious man-child like Ben Shapiro, Burgis’s anti-muse, get hoisted by his own logical petard, especially when the hoisting is carried off with some panache. LfL falls squarely into the category of the smart but not taxingly deep, light but not jejune, academia-adjacent but not academical fare that one has come to expect from Zero Books.

LfL’s first half (chapters 1-3) is spent examining and eviscerating a bunch of poorly-constructed right-wing arguments. (It bears noting that most of these are, at root, expressions of dissatisfaction with orthodox PC liberal multiculturalism and with the capitalist state, with which Marxists have, or ought to have, their own distinctive dissatisfactions.) Chapter 4 makes fun of Ayn Rand’s pompously inane use of logical terminology in the section headings of Atlas Shrugged (‘Non-Contradiction’, ‘Either-Or’ and ‘A is A’) and sympathetically critiques Trotsky’s unsympathetic critique of formal logic. Chapter 5 takes aim at some shoddy (centrist, pro-Hillary, technocratic) statistical reasoning. Chapter 6 reads like a desultory blog post; its purpose, to the extent one can be discerned , appears to be to exhort ‘the people’ to put on their thinking caps and ‘figure out’ socialism: ‘Figuring all of this out means billions of people all around the world who are accustomed to taking orders from bosses and landlords and politicians learning to run their own workplaces and communities […] A big part of this project is going to have to involve all these people learning to carefully and precisely reason with each other about their common tasks. This means, among other things, learning exactly where and how reasoning can go wrong so that we can learn together to do better’, Burgis foretells. After that there is a postscript with generic advice about how to be rational (‘carefully consider disanalogies’, ‘learn to restate arguments in your own words’, and so on) and a glossary of logical terms that uses some left-leaning (i.e. pro-Bernie, anti-Fox-News, etc.) illustrative examples. With the exception of Chapter 4’s treatment of Trotsky, to which we will return, Burgis’s commentary is dressed in such topical garb that the book will probably have a short shelf-life. Readers in 2020 will already feel the chronological remoteness of Burgis’s current-events persiflage, much of which feels like a throwback to 2016 BT (Before Trump), when it might have seemed timely and appropriate to gripe about, e.g. the statistical bullshitting that Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog resorted to in cheerleading for the Clinton campaign.

But there is a graver problem than ephemerality: namely, that it’s tough to understand what LfL takes itself to be accomplishing in giving Shapiro and his ilk their comeuppance. To help pinpoint what goes wrong in the various sophistries he surveys, Burgis gradually introduces an elementary vocabulary of logical concepts that includes formal and informal fallacies as well as basic epistemological ideas such as Inference to the Best Explanation, deduction vs. induction, Hume’s Law (according to which an ought can’t be derived from an is) and some other Philosophy 101 chestnuts. One is uncertain where in this exposition the priority is meant to rest. Are the egregious un-left arguments trotted out to help introduce some abstract philosophical content that is assumed to be intrinsically interesting and independently important? Is this just a logic textbook written for a niche clientele? Or is the logical apparatus trotted out to aid and abet a concrete political initiative, that of uncovering the covert fallaciousness of some superficially tempting arguments against which leftists need to be innoculated? That is: is this Logic for the Left or is it Logic for the Left? If the latter, we might wonder why Burgis supposes that ‘the left’ (whomever precisely that umbrella term encompasses) would appreciably benefit from being equipped with logician’s scalpels – or, rather, benefit from being re-equipped with them; for, as Burgis realizes, the ‘socialist left [is] disproportionately composed of a quasi-privileged stratum of college-educated urbanites’, and ‘enough universities require some sort of introductory Logic or Critical Reasoning class that many Jacobin readers and Chapo listeners […] have had the experience of learning to distinguish valid and invalid argument forms and identify short passages as examples of Ad Hominem, Begging the Question, and other fallacies’. Is the thoughtthat the current marginality and impotence of the ‘socialist left’ can be blamed, at least in part, on leftists forgetting what their professors taught them about how to construct truth tables? If the point of LfL is to prophylactically refute some seductive, genuinely politically pernicious reasoning that might otherwise, as Burgis puts it, ‘leave people nodding along’ – then one might also wonder why Burgis bothers with the flagrantly defective, manifestly sub-rational performances of a huckster like Shapiro, not to mention the even more embarrassing solecisms of Shapiro’s basement-dwelling epigones, some of whose trollish Tweets Burgis quotes at length. As Burgis himself concedes, ‘it’s deeply unlikely that any left-wing reader of [Shapiro’s book] How to Debate Leftists and Destroy Them has ever felt particularly destroyed’. Agreed – but then why spend most of a monograph telling self-identified leftists (who else would be reading LfL?) how much of philosophical fraud and a peddler of spuriousness Shapiro is? Is it just for the pious ecstasy of ritualistic (but entirely symbolic) sacrifice or, even less appetizingly, the complacent comforts of lefter (and thus smarter)-than-thou smugness? These are meagre consolation prizes, to be sure, for any Marxist living in the aftermath of the historical failure of Marxism as a political project!

Beneath the surface of Burgis’s affable humor one can detect what can be regarded as a fundamentally bourgeois-liberal impulse to portray any ideology to one’s right as a form of stupidity or a breakdown of the rational faculty itself. That’s an easy fiction to maintain if the focus never veers from unlettered charlatans such as Shapiro. But there in fact exists a formidable and explicitly argumentative literature of cultural critique emanating from the (small-c conservative, ‘Western Civ’, often large-C Catholic) right that it might at least conceivably be worthwhile for the left to spend some time and effort dissecting. Such an undertaking would be instructive not just because there are conservative thinkers out there who are sophisticated and erudite enough to intellectually reward some philosophical poking and prodding, but also because there have been plenty of non-insane conservative-contrarian criticisms, recently, of the (identitarian, wokescolding, cancel-cultural, radlib, contradictorily puritanical-libertine, contradictorily anarchist-statist, etc.) sensibility of contemporary social-movement ‘activistism.’ The right has been getting a frightening number of things right in its dyspeptic railings against (liberal reactivity to) our disordered social moment, much more so than much of the left would care to admit. But rather than sparring with any mighty righties – redoutable reactionary grouches such as Heather McDonald, Thomas Sowell, Pope Benedict or Roger Scruton – Burgis is largely content to shoot alt-right fish in an online barrel.

More deeply, though, isn’t it really the left that the left should be learning to argue with more successfully, and with more adherence to the most stringent norms of rational engagement? In many or most respects, the left is the left’s own worst enemy. It itself is the single greatest impediment to its only possible meaningful task: the establishment of an anti-capitalist socialist party of the working class that will capture political dominance in the advanced industrial nations, institute the dictatorship of the proletariat, and preside over the birth pangs of society’s transition to communism. It’s not as though the right and the centrists are keeping the left down – the left isn’t enough of a force to require any containment protocols whatsoever. Anyone who agrees with this will agree that the most useful and interesting part of LfL is the internecine, left-on-left part of it, where Burgis defends (the very notion of) formal logic against an attack Trotsky makes on it in his 1939 pamphlet entitled ‘A Petty-Bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers Party’. Long story short – too much recapitulation would steal Burgis’ thunder – Burgis shows that Trotsky makes a complete hash of his ‘dialectical’ criticism of formal logic, in large part because Trotsky erroneously thinks of dialectical logic and formal logic as two species of the same genus and as being incompatible options between which one is forced to select. Nothing could be further from the truth; in fact, Burgis correctly suggests, formal logic can be profitably used to clarify the sorts of claims that dialectical thinkers such as Hegel and Marx are concerned to advance. This is the only section of LfL where one senses that Burgis is making a case that really needs making. A commitment to something called ‘dialectical logic’ – usually, incidentally, an ostentatious, bauble-like commitment that is expressed in a characteristically tortured lingo and that is invoked decoratively, rather than to do any real philosophical work – as against formal logic is a pose one does in fact encounter with some regularity amongst leftists, almost always leftists who have had some (but not enough) exposure to capital-T theory. It’s not a respectable view, and it is made no more respectable by the fact that an uncareful reader can glean it from a quick skimming of Dialectic of the Enlightenment. In the vulgarized form it usually takes, it lapses readily into the familiar pomo hogwash: unfounded suspiciousness toward anything savoring of math, crass celebration of rank ambiguity and easygoing tolerance for, or just abject failure to grasp the cognitive and metaphysical significance of formal contradiction (not at all what Marx and Hegel mean by ‘contradiction’), all of which is, it goes without saying, incompatible with the stringent categorial structure and rigorous analytical purport of Marx’s works. All of this to say that Burgis is doing the Lord’s work in combating this misprision.

Maybe Burgis could write LfL again, this time training his sights on positions of the left that reliably sabotage the left’s prospects and ambitions. There is a veritable cornucopia of bad leftoid ideas in circulation. As Moishe Postone once memorably said, ‘“No” is an important word for the left.’ He meant that the left needs more practice saying ‘no’ to itself, needs to rein in its own delusional fantasies (about its own relevance, about whether the revolution is nigh, about its possible constituencies and their possible modalities of political representation, etc.) and its own LARP-ing quasi-praxis. But the left needn’t say ‘no’ to, because the left needn’t pay attention to, belatedly neocon-esque media personalities such as Shapiro or, to take a far more quirky and colorful example, that loveable Heideggerian lunkhead from the northern tundra, Jordan Peterson. That game – sparring with anti-Democrat dunces who mistake themselves for anti-Marxist philosopher-kings – is surely not worth the candle, and, in any event, any energy spent doing battle with Peterson et al. would doubtless be better spent taking a good long look in the mirror.

28 July 2020


  1. In this eloquent review the reviewer shows that the author is rather misguided in his targeting the “inane” alt-rightists rather than the “sane” arch-conservatives. Both should be the object of the Left’s critique for no other reason than that they ‘articulate’ major dimensions of the dominant bourgeois ideology. But the reviewer himself is misguided in celebrating ‘formal’ logic and denigrating ‘dialectical’ logic as if the latter is the confused rhetoric of “an ostentatious, bauble-like commitment that is expressed in a characteristically tortured lingo and that is invoked decoratively…”. He concurs with the author that if there is such a thing like ‘dialectical logic’ it needs “formal logic” to have its claims clarified (i.e. self-destruct by being reduced to ‘formal’ logic). So A=A inescapably in this type of reasoning, not A=A+not A. The formal identity of A with itself is always a sheer tautology, a self-referential mark that never changes, located in the nowhere, outside of space/time. An ‘eternal’ logic beyond history (of the universe & of the human species). Both the author and the reviewer assume as self-evident truth “Hume’s Law (according to which an ought can’t be derived from an is)”. ‘Hume’s Law’ rests at the core of bourgeois ideological thought. The ‘ought’ and the ‘is’ have only a purely external relation with each other and thus being unconnected it is not ‘legitimate’ to move from one to the other. Being unconnected the ‘ought’ cannot function as a ‘norm of critique’ of the ‘is’. The ‘is’ having the benefit of ‘existing’ self-justifies itself by being actual than a mere possibility. (A=A). Hence “might is right” according to this ‘formal logic’, not ‘might is wrong’ if there was an internal (dialectical) relation between ‘ought’ and ‘is’. Let us go to bourgeois society. According to its self-understanding and Marx’s standpoint the market consists of free exchanges of equivalents. Is this its ‘ought’ or its ‘is-ness’? According to Hume is its ‘is-ness’ (A=A). According to Marx its ‘is-ness’ is its ‘ought negated’ (which presupposes an inner bond between ‘is’ and ‘ought’). Behind the facade of equivalent exchange (let’s say bt Labour and Capital) lurks its opposite, i.e. non-equivalece (extraction of surplus value). This inner antithetical connection between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ is at the core of “dialectical logic”. To jettison it in the name of a presumably ‘self-evident’ (=dogmatically ungrounded) ‘formal’ logic (which as such has a certain function in dialectics by being both negated and subsumed) amounts to the condition of destroying any immannent grounds of critiquing capitalism condemning Left critiques to unwarranteed political subjectivisms (we like this or that and/or we dislike such and such).

  2. Thanks for the comments! A few responses to some things you wrote:

    “But the reviewer himself is misguided in celebrating ‘formal’ logic and denigrating ‘dialectical’ logic as if the latter is the confused rhetoric of ‘an ostentatious, bauble-like commitment that is expressed in a characteristically tortured lingo and that is invoked decoratively…’. He concurs with the author that if there is such a thing like ‘dialectical logic’ it needs “formal logic” to have its claims clarified (i.e. self-destruct by being reduced to ‘formal’ logic).”

    I didn’t mean to be “denigrating” dialectical logic. Far from it! The thing I said about “ostentatious, bauble-like committments” was not a potshot at dialectics; it was a potshot at leftists who invoke the dialectic without really knowing what they are talking about. (Surely we can all agree that this is pretty common.) And I nowhere claim that dialectics “needs” formal logic, whatever that might mean.


    “Both the author and the reviewer assume as self-evident truth “Hume’s Law (according to which an ought can’t be derived from an is)…”


    Not really–In this review, I simply report that Burgis introduces Hume’s Law. I have no view about its self-evidence or lack thereof.

  3. When George Daremas claims that for Marx “the market consists of free exchanges of equivalents” this is simply false. Marx did not argue any such thing.

    At most you could say, that there exists an “ideology” according to which trade is by definition always an exchange of equivalents, since the value of a tradeable thing is simply the money people are prepared to pay for it.

    David Hume was basically correct I think: from the statement of a fact, no particular conclusion necessarily follows about what you ought to do about that fact. All sorts of conclusions can be drawn

    The more substantive issue is that, as many philosophers have shown, it is often not so easy to distinguish sharply between facts and evaluations (cf. many “news” reports in the media these days, for example, which border on moral propaganda).

    The boundaries distinguishing “facts” from “values” are generally fuzzy to at least some extent and they are not so supremely exact or neat-and-tidy. That is why we can easily make a fact look like a value and vice versa, aided by clever use of language.

    If we observe the fact, that a man is drowning, we ordinarily feel compelled to try to save the man’s life. But the fact that the man is drowning, does not of itself “logically entail” that we should save him.

    It is more that in a civilized society, we operate with the moral precept, that “if you observe somebody drowning, you ought to save his life”. Similarly, a lawyer will say, that “if X occurs, then we will do Y, because that is what the law requires that we should do.”

    The rejection of Hume’s insight, and of the fact/value distinction, actually helps promote ascriptive discrimination between people, to the point where it is argued e.g. that “this person’s skin is black, therefore, this person does not belong here, and should return to his own country.” When identity politics blurs or rejects the fact-value distinction, it actually makes things worse.

    1. Ignorance is not a good guide in judging others’ statements. Marx writes “This value is determined by the labour-time required for its production [refers to the money-commodity] and is expressed in the quantity of any other commodity in which the same amount of labour-time is congealed.” (Capital v. I, Penguin Classics, 1990, p. 186.) Exchange of commodities (including the money-commodity) takes place on the basis of bearing “the same amount of labour-time”. This establishes their equivalence as a norm of general exchange. It is not the relative equating with ‘money’ that bestows equivalence as you suggest. This conception is Baily’s theory fully criticised by Marx in Theories of Surplus Value.
      What complicates matters and sometimes creates confusion in understanding is the commodity exchange between labour and capital. In this exchange the capitalist pays the exchange value of the labourer’s labour-power (the cost of its production). This is an equivalent exchange as in all commodity exchanges. But the capitalist buys not the ‘exchange value’ but the use-value of the commodity labour-power (as in all exchanges). The uniqueness of this commodity is that the exercise of the labour-power= its use-value creates more value than its exchange value and this surplus is ‘surplus value’. The apparent objective semblance is exchange of equivalents (and this creates the ideological legitimacy of the market exchange) but the essential non-apparent reality is that of non-equivalence outside of the market sphere and within the capitalist production process.
      As to Hume there is no ‘moral Reason’ so facts or actions do not ‘entail’ any inherent moral evaluation per se. (For Marx it is otherwise).
      The Nazi ‘final solution’ that exterminated millions of Jews and others in the crematoria is an ‘action’ that cannot be blamed, condemned on rational grounds. (“[A]ctions do not derive their merit from a conformity to reason, nor their blame from a contrariety to it” (A Treatise of Human Nature, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978, Bk III, P. I, p. 458.
      Actions can be “blameable” only on the basis of the contingent morals of an era. What is ‘blameable’ in one period may turn ‘laudable’ in another. According to this logic ( granted that it precedes Kant’s “practical reason”) in a ‘white supremacist US’ the “ascriptive discrimination of people” would be ‘legitimate’ contrary to what you assert. That’s why I wrote that in Hume’s separation of fact/value and the irrelevance of reason “might is right”. The dominant powers that be and which establish the dominant morality of an epoch (Marx’s “the ruling ideas of an epoch are the ideas of the ruling class” German Ideology) translate their domination into moral legitimation. That’s why Hume is a philosophical conservative regardless of his transient political views. Rendering the ‘is’ morally uncriticisable by (practical) Reason condones any historical atrocities that happened to align with the “customs” of the perpetrators.

    2. Both of you seem to be missing some of Marx’s finer points.

      In Vol 1, because he’s utilizing the principle of ceteris paribus, to reveal how value is operative at the most abstract level of analysis, he presumes commodities are the free exchange of equivalents. He even jokes about how this is a rather ironic assumption at the end of Chapter 6. By chapters 22-24 Daremas’s claim breaks down, because Marx loosens that analysis, and shows how the workers end up creating more value than they receive in compensation, in the overall simple and then expanded reproduction of society, this means workers are in fact putting up the capital, and capitalists are pocketing it as their own (NOTE: This is not the SAME claim being made in Chapter 7 part II cited by Daremas, that relates to the purchase of labor power, chapters 22-24 deal with whose putting up the circulating capital). At that point equivalences break down in the abstract model.

      By Vol III Marx completely loosens the ceteris paribus principle and applies the abstract model of Vol I to the more concrete manifestations of capitalism we see in Vol III, in which case commodities most certainly DO NOT exchange at equal values (e.g., monopoly capital, rent, ruthless exploitation, etc etc), which Marx is explicit about in basically the first, what, 9-12 chapters of Vol III? Total value does equal total price, so a type of equivalency is ultimately obtaining, but no markets do not consist of ‘free exchanges of equivalents’ for Marx. Not at all.

      -Chris Byron

  4. All that Marx is really saying in your quote on that lovely page, is that a quantity of money can only express its “value” relatively, in a quantity of N assorted commodities which it can buy, which is equal to a current replacement cost in average working hours. In other words:

    X quantity of money = Y quantity of an assortment of products you can buy = Z quantity of average working hours.

    If you ask the question, what is the value of X, the answer is that you can buy Y with it, it’s relative. Marx leaves out of account that currencies can exchange for other currencies etc.

    But from this simple equation, it does not follow at all in practice that all products will necessarily trade at their value, nor that the exchange of products will necessarily be an exchange of labour equivalents. I explained all that already in free wikipedia articles once, they are still there in the archives I think.

    Chris’s comment is substantially correct, but it misses a finer point: in the last part of Capital Vol. 3 (chapter 49 in the penguin edition, pp. 971-973), Marx explains that in reality, it cannot be true, that total prices are equal to total values (von Bortciewicz also noted that). I was among the first to highlight that point. This has to do, in the purest case – at that stage of analysis – with (1) synchronic and diachronic differentials in labour productivity within and between sectors, (2) products being produced under abnormal conditions. It means for example that part of the (surplus-) value is actually not realised in exchange.

    Marx regarded the total value/total price identity as a “simplification” in abstracto, but he was willing to assume it in building his theory of the reproduction and growth of the national income in capitalist conditions, most probably because he believed that the quantitative divergence between total value and total prices could never be extremely large, given market competition. Anwar Shaikh provides empirical grounds for thinking that Marx was correct about that (the deviations between measured product-values, market prices and production prices just aren’t very large for the largest part of the distribution).

    What David Hume was saying is, that how you morally evaluate the merits or demerits of an action (whether it is right or wrong, good or bad) does not necessarily have anything to do with its logicality or illogicality. Presumably its merit or demerit (its moral evaluation as good or bad) has to do, with how it relates to a relevant normative principle or rule, or to the consequences of the action.

    Actually, once Hitler had decided on the “final solution” of the Jewish problem, the Nazi apparatchiks set about quite rationally and logically to work out a system and an infrastructure for operationalising the industrialised butchering of people. I have Raul Hilberg’s three volume history and his autobiography here on the shelf, and Hilberg explains that very well. Hannah Arendt, a publisher’s referee for Hilberg’s manuscript who at first turned the manuscript down, later used Hilberg’s analysis (when it was published) to sustain her own thesis about the “banality of evil”.

    There was a rational, logical method in this hideous crime, and it was administratively worked out in fine detail by a small army of officials and military people. These people were in some sense wholly indifferent to the moral implications of their crimes – essentially, the Jews were dehumanised already, they were more or less animals, subhuman creatures, and they could be rightfully slaughtered as if they were cattle (they were transported on cattle trucks etc.).

    This gruesome story is I think gruesome, yes, but quite consistent with David Hume’s point. An action may be fully rational and logical, but not morally sound at all. Conversely, an action performed without a rational or logical motivation might be morally quite sound. Many people (including German soldiers) for instance saved the lives of Jews, gays, gypsies, commies, schizo’s etc. not because of some clever rational argument or rational self-interest (often they risked their own lives), but because they identified with them as human beings who deserved to stay alive, and morally recognised a monstrous crime against humanity for what it was.

    Part of the classical critique of technocracy was that the end-goal and the means to achieve it often became separated from each other – politicians decided on the policy, and then the technocrats obediently worked out how to implement the policy, irrespective of whether the goals of the policy themselves were sound or unsound. The technocrats were (supposedly) not concerned with moral issues but only with means/ends relationships to operationalise something.

    In his own time, I don’t think David Hume was conservative, he was an enlightenment thinker, a friend of reason and an enemy of superstition. Maybe Hume appears conservative in modern times, but that is another story. Got to work tomorrow

    1. Jurriaan,

      My focus on Marx has more to do with socio-political philosophy, and philosophy of religion, than it does the nuanced mechanics of his political economy, so I’ll admit hesitancy and lack of sureness in what I’m about to say:

      I just re-read 971-73. I gather Marx seems to be saying, and it’s what I would expect him to say, that total profit equals total *realized* surplus value, but of course, much surplus value goes unrealized. Every paragraph in those sections has some line such as the following : “At all events profit plus rent equals the entire realized surplus value, and for our present purpose the REALIZED surplus value can be equated with the total surplus value” (Emphasis Mine).

      You stated: ” It means for example that part of the (surplus-) value is actually not realised in exchange,” which Marx affirms in that quote and in those pages. So I guess a more qualified statement would be “for abstract theorizing about the fundamental nature of capital, total value = total price” and “total profit = total surplus value”, but in the concrete world of capitalism “total profit = total realized surplus value”. Correct?

      Pretty sure I read a book on this subject by Freeman and Carchedi called non-equalibrium economics, but honestly most of the content has escaped my memory.

      As an aside to both of you, Paul Russell’s new book on Hume is a great tethering out of which aspects of Hume’s philosophy were ‘radical’, and which were fairly conservative.

  5. Hi Chris,

    Thank you for your comment. Yes, you are correct, in the real world we deal with “realised surplus value”. This is also true in national accounts, which aim to be based on observables.

    There are several more reasons for thinking that true surplus value exceeds “realised” surplus value. In general, I personally believe there is more profit in the system, than Marxists often claim there is. That is, the statistical data can indicate the broad trend, but probably fall short in measuring absolute magnitudes. This is maybe a “funny” thing to say in corona times, when lots of businesses go broke, but I think it is true.

    In a sense, that is not a problem for analysts insofar as they are mainly interested in the trends and movements in variables across time, variables which, in order to be useful, have to be measured and defined in a uniform way across time. But for the economic scientist, the true magnitudes are an issue that ought to be clarified (there is already a new literature on “the missing profits of nations” due to tax-dodging schemes, revaluations and international transfers). Simply put, the national accounts we have are inadequate for the 21st century, even although they offer plenty useful data also.

    What we also have to bear in mind, is that Marx had in mind “the total value of all commodities newly produced in a year”. Marx lived in a time when there were no standardised and comprehensive national accounts (and he made an often ignored contribution to national accounting systems).

    Today, we have to deal with a world in which – in the “advanced” capitalist countries – more output value is classified as “services” than as “(physical) goods”. I am still working on the problem of services, conceptually, in economics and econometrically. Basically what we are dealing with now is a statistical system operating with concepts which are surpassed by the movements of the capitalist economy in the last half century (cf. Diane Coyle). It creates a lot of problems for statisticians, which can I think be solved, but of course meanwhile we are still dealing with the official data constructed using concepts which are partly outdated, and mask new phenomena.

    In many ways, I am in no better position than you are, because a lot of highly important new scientific literature has been published in recent years that I either have not been able to read yet, or am still grappling with. I aim to write something about that, in a way that people can understand it, but – in self-criticism – I lacked the time so far. Parts of the TSSI critique I regard as correct, but some of it is mistaken, I think. But that is a complicated controversy that I cannot go into here.

    The main point is really, that Marxists are apt to confuse and conflate an abstract model with what happens in the real world. As Anwar Shaikh shows, it takes a lot of work to bring the science that Marx founded up to speed with the 21st century. Allegories and analogies are sociologically interesting, but to understand the real world – which science aims to do – we ought also to understand the limitations of allegories and analogies. The latter can lead us astray.

    BTW when I talked about the holocaust, I do not thereby mean to endorse “anything that the State of Israel does”. I don’t. I am deeply aware of the enormity of the human catastrophe of the holocaust, but I am also very aware of the horrific distress of Palestinians (right now, this is not a joke, the Gaza strip is without electricity, can you imagine what it is like?).

    I am not even sure, that I know the right things to say about all that, which would make a positive difference. What comes to my mind is that, beyond the so-called “eternal war for a Jewish homeland” and the so-called “eternal war for Palestinian rights”, Jews and Palestinians DO have something in common, and that is their belief in God.

    What would God want all of them to do? That is the question, the ultimate relativisation. My hunch is, in all sincerity, that God, as the expression of all our highest intentions, would want them to help each other, and try to work together to really solve the problems that demand attention now, to reduce human suffering.

    Now I could perhaps discourse about that eloquently, but I am not going to do that, I am not in the position to do that, and I am not a preacher. But it is sometimes useful for politicians to think “outside the box” and consider the meaning of what happens today, in a very long term perspective (some would say “eternity”, i.e. how would God evaluate our actions now, in the framework of eternity). Question is, can people afford to haggle about such matters today, when so much is at stake in the long term?

    There is a tendency among Marxians and Marxists to disparage empiricist fact-finding, but I am not among those. I do think we need to “count the horse’s teeth” as they say. Here I stand with David Hume and Francis Bacon. Our philosophizing may be splendid, but for the purpose of doing things we need facts, reliable facts, that can serve as an orientation, and put problems in true perspective and true proportion. I don’t care so much about being the judge of what ideas are the most “radical”, I am mainly concerned right now with which ideas can book real progress, and offer real solutions in the situation that really exists now.

    When I studied Descartes, Locke, Hume and the problem of determinism vs free will, as a freshman student in 1978 with Dugald Murdoch and David Novitz, I reached a point, where I was terribly confused. I knew no other option, than to go and see Dr Novitz in his office, and I told him forthright that I was terribly confused, and knew not to what to write. He smiled, and said to me, “well if you are confused, that is a good thing, because it means you are thinking seriously about the subject”.

    I was surprised he said that, he had me there. Whereupon we discussed my confusions, and he put me on a better path to complete my assignment. So anyway, we may be confused, it is human, but at least that shows we are grappling with the problem. And if we do that, solutions will surely appear. The way that Marx put it was (roughly, the exact quote is in the 1859 preface), if we are able to “think” the problems consciously, then indications of the possible solutions are already available, or in the background.

  6. In his book “The riddle of Hume’s treatise” (Oxford University Press, 2008), Paul Russell reports that:
    “When Hume’s coffin was taken from his house on St. David Street, to be buried on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill, someone in the large crowd who were watching remarked, “Ah, he was an Atheist.” A companion replied: “No matter, he was an honest man.” (p. 300).

    This anecdote, Russell considers, neatly sums up Hume’s life, and captures the essence of his life and philosophy.

    Russell’s claim is, that Hume was guided by fundamentally irreligious commitments and objectives. Hume considered that if we can accept the imperfections of human existence and the real limitations and fallibility of what we can know about the world, we can secure reasonable happiness for ourselves and others in life. Rather than seeing Berkeley and Locke as Hume’s predecessors, Russell places Hume in the tradition of Hobbes and Spinoza. (p. 278)

    It is not Hume’s intention to prove that God does not exist (p. 185). He does not actually embrace of endorse any kind of crass atheism (p. 283), but, as regards religion, he is essentially a skeptic and an agnostic (p. 284). Instead, Hume aims “to curb and discourage dogmatism and to turn our philosophical speculations away from theological systems and their associated doctrines and to confine our investigations to areas of “common life—such as the “science of man.” (p. 272)

    Hume wants to provide “a secular, scientific account of moral and social life based on an analysis of the main elements of human nature” (p. 272), based on a “causal analysis of the elements and operations of human nature” (p. 250). In this sense, Hume criticizes Christian philosophical anthropology, and seeks to provide a complete alternative to it (p. 288).

    Human knowledge is, for Hume, built up from distinctions and generalizations drawn from sensory perceptions, from real experience, and the processes of consciousness have a material basis – “matter and motion may often be regarded as the causes of thought” (p. 198). Human life exhibits regularities, which permit us to anticipate and predict human behaviour (p. 233). Hume recognizes that religious or spiritual impulses and faiths will always be with us, but they can have a destructive influence on the improvement of life, and so they have to be restrained (p. 298).

    What Hume rejects, is elaborate metaphysical speculations and theological systems as such, believing that religious belief is “not rooted in reason or philosophical arguments of any kind”, and is “irrational in character” (p. 295). The main point there is, that metaphysical beliefs by their very nature cannot be tested or verified, and therefore, Hume thinks disputes about them are largely useless.

    Obviously, in an era when theologians were mainly doctrinaires trying to refound religion on reason, the skeptic would likely be regarded as an “enemy of religion” (p. 213). Hume’s skepticism about theological metaphysics was however nuanced, and for very good reasons.

    In the first place, Hume is quite aware that human theorizing reaches beyond the available facts. More importantly, too much skepticism about what we can know, would undermine the very possibility for the growth of human knowledge (p. 216). So, Hume acknowledge that speculations about the things we experience in ordinary life can be quite reasonable.

    All of this suggests an enlightened and nuanced humanism, but in what sense can we regard it as “conservative”? I would say that actually Hume stance is quite “modern”, and if he could reach that understanding in 1740, his thinking was very advanced for his time. All one could say is, that to be a Humean today, would be quite conservative, given human progress and changes in the world meantime.

    As I have described elsewhere, conservatism is fundamentally concerned with maintaining order and curbing disorder: conformity to a rule or principle, and continuity with the past (a tradition or heritage of some sort). Conservatives typically assume that:

    • everything in the world has its proper and rightful place.
    • people ought to know what that place is, for their own good.
    • people ought to stay in their own proper place, because they belong there.
    • people should not try to leave their proper place in life, or misplace things, because that only causes trouble.
    • the changes which occur, are only really variations of things which always remain the same in human existence, because “that is how people are” or “that is how society is”.

    This is not necessarily a “narrowminded” perspective, because knowing what the proper place of things is, might involve a vast knowledge about how things work. There may be very good reasons for keeping things as they are or were (but it may not be feasible to do so, in times of rapid changes).

    I do not not really see how David Hume fits into that conservative pattern. He supported the American revolution, defended press freedom, postulated a utopia of a “perfect Commonwealth”, and aligned himself neither with the Whigs or the Tories, stating famously “My views of things are more conformable to Whig principles; my representations of persons to Tory prejudices.”

    On balance, Hume seems to have been a non-conformist, and an open-minded rational thinker, and not ideologically a conservative, though he was perhaps conservative in matters of style, decorum and habits. Was Lenin a conservative, because he believed in firm and resolute exercise of authority?

  7. @Chris: it could be that your reference to the conservative side of David Hume concerned his attitudes toward women.

    It is difficult to find much detailed information about his dealings with women across his life. He doesn’t seem to have been a great womaniser, and did not marry.

    In an autobiographical sketch he wrote in 1776, he stated that he took “particular pleasure” in the company of “modest women” but what exactly that meant in practice, is not altogether clear.

    Leftwing people often associate conservatism with lack of interest in sex, but I think myself that is an error.

  8. I’m no Hume scholar, but I found his ‘Essays’ largely disgusting, because he had a transparently hostile attitude to non-elites. He clearly preferred monarchy, I believe of a hereditary sort, and distrusted the expansion of Democracy.

    And his book on the Principals of Morals consistently argued in favor of preserving the status quo. It’s a textbook case of reification, coming from an empiricist who should know better. He reads off the patterns of behavior that he experiences as timeless traits of men and women, and classes and races (he was extremely racist). That’s bad empiricism, bad sociology, bad philosophy, etc and goes against the basics of empiricism. So he’s a reifier. In Book 3 of his Treatise on Human Nature, he states human nature to be individualistic, aggressive, and geared toward property ownership and property accumulation. Basically humans are capitalists by nature. He practically reads like Milton Friedman. Again, it’s total reification.

    However, as I said, I’m no Hume scholar, and honestly, have no inclinations towards exploring this topic with depth. I don’t want to go to my book shelf, find passages to vindicate my point, or research further; this just isn’t a pressing or interesting topic at this moment (for me), in the same way Medieval philosophy isn’t a pressing topic (for me).

    I cited Russell’s book though to acknowledge that when it came to organized religion Hume was no conservative, and as you rightfully point out, a very independent and critical thinker.

    (My reasons for reading that book were actually independent of Hume, it has to do with my own research into philosophy of religion).

  9. When I was dealing with Hume, Locke, Berkeley and Descartes as a student in the late 1970s, it was more in the context of the theory of knowledge (the foundations of rationalist and empiricist philosophy).

    The rationalists wanted to deduce knowledge from irrefutable foundational principles discovered through introspection. The empiricists sought to base knowledge on the solid bedrock of sense-data. Both philosophical schools thought, that they could obtain reliable knowledge (mostly) without reference to religion or religious authority – that was what their “radicalism” consisted in, they were freeing themselves from the grip of religion over human thought.

    At the time, I never delved very deeply into the political or moral attitudes of the philosophers, beyond looking up encyclopaedias etc. for an outline of their lives.

    As a student, you would be faced with all these thinkers, but you really had no idea about who they were as people, how their lives went, the historical context, what problems they faced or tried to answer, and where they got their ideas from. You had to track all that down yourself.

    As regards Hume, he was basically a political moderate (a “centrist”), and in his political essays, he aims to explain in a fairly nuanced way, his opinions about how politics “works”. Then he reasons about what would, realistically, be the most optimal governmental set-up.

    Hume rejected an absolutist monarchy, but also rejected too much political power for the propertied classes via the parliament. His main concern was, that power should not fall into the hands of the wrong sorts of people (who followed their own interests, rather than represent those of the nation). A system of checks and balances was necessary for that.

    Elites would probably always be there, but for Hume, it mattered a great deal for the country, whether the best or the worst parts of the elite held power. Sometimes you had to support the Tories against the Whigs, sometimes the Whigs against the Tories, and sometimes you needed to do something else.

    Of course, at the time, there existed no popular democracy, and only the propertied class could vote, perhaps 5% or so of the adult population (there was no secret ballot). To vote, you had to own a certain amount of land, etc. In Scotland, serfdom ended only at the end of the 18th century, and black slavery was still quite normal at that time.

    It would be easy for us now to project a New York Times-style liberal moralism and identity politics on 18th century Scotland, but in reality, probably the vast majority of Scots were ideologically “racist” at that time, if judged by today’s standards.

    After all, the world at that time was ideologically divided into Western christian civilization and the “uncivilised rest” they were in competition with (heathens, pagans, barbarians, etc.), i.e. peoples who had yet to become Christianised and civilised, through colonisation and missionary efforts.

    There were all kinds of distinct races and nations in the world, and some of them were superior to others (more intelligent, more productive, better technology, more cultured etc.).

    That was the normal view at that time, and most people did not know any better. This view already existed, long before researchers tried to associate cognitive ability, character types and criminal tendencies with racial characteristics.

    I do do not intend to be an apologist for Hume here, but I do think we ought to evaluate his philosophy in the context of the era he lived in. You are correct though, that Hume was definitely not a Marx.

  10. A couple of points I could add, for balance:

    (1) it was to the credit of the Scottish philosophers and political economists, that they didn’t just deride “savage societies” in a vulgar, condescending or racial way. Instead, they tried to study them, from the information available. What did savage societies imply for human nature, and the history of human evolution? How did they live? What was their mode of production like? The New Zealand Marxist economist Ronald L. Meek, who lived a long time in Scotland, wrote a book about that (“Social science and the ignoble savage”, Cambridge University Press, reprint 2011), focusing mainly on perceptions of the American Indians.

    (2) If David Hume never proclaimed himself as an atheist outright, that probably wasn’t just because of his skepticism about arguments about theology being able to prove anything definitely. There was a very good practical reason, namely, if he had done so, then he would have packed a lot of hostility, and would have made a lot of enemies. He could only go so far, to stay credible in public opinion, and have his books published and read.

    Much later, Marx took a similar approach in this respect – at a certain stage, Marx just dropped the whole subject of religion, save for a few satirical comments in Das Kapital or private correspondence etc.

    Attacking religion explicitly in public, could harm the emerging labour movement, and so it was politically unwise to whip up a huge controversy about it. One could get fined or even jailed in those days, for public displays of irreverence. As a migrant, Marx had to watch his words, if he wanted his words to be published and read, rather than being expelled.

    Interestingly, Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin both held the opinion, that one’s beliefs about spirituality were a private matter – the party’s programme was secular, but personal spiritual beliefs were something that individuals had to figure out for themselves.

    Personally, I think the science of spirituality (how human spirituality “works”, if that is a way of putting it) is still only emerging. Contrary to Hume’s skepticism, I think spirituality is a dimension of human existence about which much still has to be “discovered”.

    It is about the personal meanings which humans create for themselves, as meaning makers. To simply repress or ridicule that path of discovery, would not be a very healthy or intelligent thing to do, I think.

    It’s not that I am a fan of creationist science, but more that I think there as yet much about the human mind, living organisms and the formation of the biosphere that we do not know about. There is nothing to stop us from proceeding from the known, to the understanding of what is, as yet, unknown.

    The new science of bio-semiotics has already shown, that living organisms typically both send and receive information – that is, in some sense, most or all living organisms “communicate”, even if only in a very rudimentary way.

    That kind of insight, which is testable, might one day, who knows, lead to quite a different perception of the biosphere. And of the mentality of so-called “savage societies” in history.

    As an evolutionist, you would have to say, that if a spiritual sense emerged at all in human communities, it must have helped humans to survive, physically and socially. Science cannot abolish spirituality, but it could be an aid to understand it better.

Make a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *