Wednesday, July 18, 2007

In Theory . . . SPGB's 2007 Summer School

Socialist Party of Great Britain member, Brian Gardner, reflects on the SPGB's 2007 Summer School that took place this past weekend in Birmingham.


This weekend some 40-plus members, sympathisers and Standard-subscribers from as far afield as Italy, Turkey and USA gathered for a weekend of discussion and debate at the annual summer school organised by Birmingham Branch.

Under the theme “Thinkers of the 20th Century” a range of ideas – from disciplines as diverse as anthropology, information technology, literature and philosophy - were reviewed from a socialist perspective and much heated debate followed.

It's not surprising that a recurring issue throughout such a themed weekend is that of “freedom”. Much abused in everyday currency, “freedom” often translates as little more than lower taxes and fewer regulations, issues of little or no concern to world socialists. In contrast, socialists are intensely interested in freedom, whether its the freedom we have to surpass the gene as a constraint on how we live, the freedom to work co-operatively in software development/use software without restrictions, or the more abstract freedom of the individual under the state.

The dystopian visions of Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) and George Orwell (1984) then, formed a large part of the discussions around the first two talks from Richard Headicar and Mike Foster respectively. What sort of state do we live in now? Which dismal projection has survived the best? Probably a bit of both is the answer: Orwell's boot stamping on the face is still prevalent in many parts of the world as the market system emerges to an ungrateful population of new wage-earners. “Late” capitalist states on the other hand have clearly evolved more complex and subtle forms of oppression, including of course the diversions of Big Brother (the TV “reality” show) and the dubious freedom of consumer choice.

To what extent can you separate the thinker from the thoughts? While Orwell got his hands dirty down mines, in hotel kitchens and most famously on the frontline in Spain, Aldous Huxley in common with most of the other thinkers risked little more than a paper cut in the drawing rooms of Bloomsbury. Does this influence how we read each author?

As Marx famously noted, “the philosophers have only interpreted the world the point is to change it”. Someone who has done very little interpretation of the world, but by contrast has undeniably changed it is Richard Stallman. A software engineer turned intellectual property activist, Stallman developed GNU software, CopyLeft and the free software movement. This has inverted contract law to ensure that CopyLeft software (such as Linux operating system) gets the fullest expression of its use value (ie it is free to copy and use), but has effectively no exchange value as users have to agree to make available and not restrict access to any amendments made to it. Tristan Miller discussed how this little oasis of “socialistic” production has grown unstoppably within the body of capitalism and effectively mirrors – albeit within the software and digital music communities – all the features of “from each according to ability, to each according to need”.

The subject of freedom of the individual phenotype (eg human) as opposed to the dubious constraints of biological determinism arose during Adam Buick's introduction to the cultural anthropologist Ashley Montagu, who is best known for his contributions during the middle part of last century to the nature v nurture debate. It is likely that his writings will stand the test of time better than the more recent fashions of biological determinism - sociobiology and evolutionary psychology - as typified by the “popular" science writers Richard Dawkins, E O Wilson and Steven Pinker. If human nature is slowly becoming less of an ideological “barrier to socialism” than it once was, it will be due to the painstaking work of real scientists such as Montagu.

Simon Wigley got the short straw in having to present the ideas of the Frankfurt School of philosophy shortly after a large Saturday lunch. He stuck to the brief given to him admirably however, particularly given that he had little enthusiasm for these ideas, as he made clear. Whilst some in the audience wanted to shoot the piano player, others were grateful that Simon had done the hard work of reading this stuff and translating it from the English for our benefit.

Personally speaking I gained most from this talk – even if it was only to gain confidence that the Frankfurt emperors were indeed just as stark naked as I had always suspected, and that rather than being extensions to marxist philosophy, the ideas of Adorno, Habermas et al (along with the post-modern ideas they set the scene for) are negations of class-based analysis, of the enlightenment, and even of the scientific method that drove it.

The material conditions of capitalism really haven't changed that much in the last century – and our philosophies really dont look like they need to change much either. Anyone who thinks that world socialists are intellectuals, academics or armchair philosophers would have been pleasantly surprised at the disdain with which these ideas – far removed from anything actually to do with working class experience – were discussed. Habermas could have dug coal during the Spanish Civil War for all I know, but – judged on their own merit - his ideas still should not be taken seriously.

In summary, there is of course a perpetual tension between theory and practice that no political organisation, whether liberal, marxist or anarchist, gets right all the time. However, assisted by a plentiful supply (according to need of course) of the local Black Country beer, and the opportunity to catch up with old comrades and new sympathisers, most attendees I spoke with left the weekend feeling stimulated, reinvigorated and better-prepared for the more practical need to spread the socialist case. Surely, the ideal balance between ideas and action.



Anonymous said...

Hi Brian,
Nice to see you and other old comrades again at summer school. Nice, also, to hear such brilliant talks from Richard and Mike. It's a shame I couldn't stay to hear all the others too, since, from your report, they all sound good too.

I particularly wish I could have been there for Adam's talk, as I would have challenged his old-fashioned view, based on his reading of Steven Rose and other leftists, on 'biological determinism' and the modern sciences of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. I won't go into detail here, but please let me assure you that, first, you don't need to put scare quotes around 'popular': Dawkins, Wilson and Pinker are, whether deservedly or not, much better known figures than Montagu. Second, the left, including the SPGB, is under the delusion, thanks to their reading of people like Rose, that there are two kinds of Darwinism. There really isn't: the selfish gene Darwinists won almost all the arguments convincingly. If you don't believe me, read the sociologist Ullica Segastrale's book "The Sociobiology Debate". She started out on the side of the anti-sociobiologists, then switched when she realised that the arguments from the antis were gross caricatures.

Final point, just to give you a flavour of how wrong you are. Richard Dawkins is in no way a "biological determinist". He is, in the case of humans, if anything, a "cultural determinist", much like Montagu. His theory of culture is of course different to Montagu's (he's still clinging to his dodgy 'memes' thesis). But that's not the point here. Dawkins' position is that, in humans, culture trumps nature (genes). So if you hear anyone claim different, suspect a strong case of misunderstanding.

All the best

Brian Gardner said...

Hi Stuart, yes it was good to see you albeit briefly – I was hoping to catch up with you later on but maybe next time.

I take your point about how I have labelled Dawkins et al. But it isnt laziness I guess that made me call Dawkins a biological determinist. I was really just calling it as most people see it. I was using “Dawkins” as a label for the Biological determinists. Maybe a bit clumsy but probably accurate in terms of how most people who have some view on the subject see it.

There was a bit of a debate at Simon's talk about whether we should even be talking about Habermas' philosophy, that it was too obscure and that workers just don't relate to these philosophical debates. But while that is true, the ideological “milieu” (for want of a better word) we inhabit may - perhaps at 2 or 3 removes - be influenced by such esoteric high-falutin' arcane disputes.

Simlarly for the “nature/nurture” debate, its true that Dawkins has (if I am correct) since the first reprint of The Selfish Gene backtracked on it with the caveat that unlike any other species only humans “ can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators” . But he is still perceived at large as being on the “selfish” side of the debate, so that's the way in which I was using his name. I still (its now 30 years since first publication !) get the occasional response to the case of socialism of “Go read the Selfish Gene “ * Every subsequent reprint has included a new backtrack. Even his most recent (The God Delusion) which deals with effectively an entirely separate subject has a footnote indicating his latest belated re-emphasis (The key word in “The Selfish Gene” title that he would now underline was not selfish, but gene – he wanted to bring attention to the gene-eye view [which for me was the undoubtedly startling thing about the book]. Bear in mind also of course that he also belatedly claims that he could have re-named it “The Co-operative Gene” !)

Anyway you'll know all this, and it doesnt have much bearing on the points you made, but while you say there is a lot of “misunderstanding” of Dawkins' Selfish Gene I would certainly say that some of it he has brought on himself. I think Adam got it right when he said at Fircroft that the likes of Dawkins and Pinker are experts at “playing to the gallery”.

Incidentally, I have less time for Pinker: his last book (the X factor) seemed to be resurrecting for a popular audience the nature/nurture debate that I thought had basically been done to death and superceded 10 years earlier (ie there is nearly always a bit of nature and nurture but the key thing is the synergy and timing of the combination). He knows how to sell books and if it emjans re-hashing straw men arguments (who has argued for a blank slate in the last 20 years ?) then he is more than happy to do so.

I have strong doubts about most of the sociobiologists, but am relatively relaxed that you say the sociobiologists trumped the opposition with regard to Darwinism. Hopefully darwinism's political impact on humans can return to being as important as it is for pigs and donkeys.

The only real issue for me has always been “Is human nature a barrier to socialism ?” because we used to get told that it was all the time. It seems to me that – if you get past the title (Blank Slate, Selfish Gene etc etc) or the back-cover blurb - you just dont find anyone able to say that there is anything outwith human agency that is a barrier or hindrance to socialist behaviour. The really interesting queston is just why this is however such a strong and resistant (adaptive ?) “meme”in the heads of the working class, and how long its going to be there for.

On which point (I am starting to meander here) I was struck from the Summer school discussions of Orwell and Huxley with the extent to which my reading in my formative years – dominated as it must be by reading lists for O/A levels – dominated by the like of Animal Farm, 1984, Brave New World, Lord of the Flies. All putting a fairly strong cold war message into teenage minds that actually yes, human nature is a barrier to socialism. I wonmder who selected the lists. Why was Orwell's Paris & London never on it ? I'd love to know what's on current school reading lists, and who decides ?!

On a separate issue. While I have indicated above that my only real interest in the Darwin Wars has been in confirming that HN is indeed not a barrier to socialism, I would be interested in whether you have a view on whether HN might in fact be a motor for socialism. Adam and the Party at large (I think its fair to say) are happy to defend a neutral position (ie that HN is neither “good” or “bad” from the perspective of a socialist. Some authors have indicated that our Stone Age brains were presumably hard-wired at a time when co-operation was relatively more critical as an adaptive niche. In addition studies on infants would suggest that what we are currenly socialised to term “good” infant behaviour is behaviour that is more in tune with socialism than capitalism. “Is human nature a barrier to capitalism ?”!

Footnote: the most satisfying occasion was when a friend of a friend halted me in mid-argument about socialism/human nature and dramatically went away to his bookshelf and triumphantly returned brandishing The Selfish Gene saying “I think you need to read this”. It was the sort of open goal I usually stub my toe on, but I was able to quickly check the edition and flick to the back page (almost) and brandish the get-out quote (“We alone on earth can rebel against the tyyranny of the selfish replicators”) straight back in his face. Makes me smile to this day just to think about it.

All the best,

Brian Gardner said...

Oops should have previewed my last post. I referred to Steven Pinker's last book as the X Factor, when I meant to say the Blank Slate (in which he talks of some mysterious "X" factor, which is a sort of "missing link" between nature and nurture)

also for "emjans" read "means". Obviously.

Brian Gardner

Londonsocialist said...

I'm just reading Dawkins's The Ancestor’s Tale. Interesting, even fascinating but marred by his irritating insertions from time to time of his own theories. At one point (p. 44) he openly describes himself as a "sociobiologist". On p. 158 that he writes: "My first book, The Selfish Gene, could equally have been called The Co-operative Gene without a word of the book needing to be changed. Indeed, this might have saved some misunderstanding (some of the book’s most vocal critics are content to read the book by the title only)". It would be nearer the truth to say that the title was chosen to get more people to buy it by pandering to popular prejudices about "human nature". Even in it, he had admitted: "To be strict, this book should be called not The Selfish Cistron nor The Selfish Chromosome, but The slightly selfish big bit of chromosome and the even more selfish little bit of chromosome" (chapter 3). In the Ancestor’s Tale he talks of "the tiger co-operative, the camel co-operative, the cockcroach co-operative, the carrot co-operative" as a "alternative co-operatives of genes" and ends up saying that the unit of evolution is not the individual gene but the gene pool:
"The proximal set of genes with which a gene has to co-operate are the ones with which it shares a body ─ this body. But in the long term, the set of genes with which it has to co-operate are all the genes of the gene pool, for they are the ones that it repeatedly encounters as it hops from body to body down the generations. This is why I say it is the gene pool of a species that is the entity sculpted into shape by the chisels of natural selection. Proximally, natural selection is the differential survival and reproduction of whole individuals ─ the individuals that the gene pool throws up as samples of what it can do" (p. 359).
This doesn’t seem to me to be all that different from the view of those he set out to criticise in The Selfish Gene. In any event, that book contains no such explicit statement as "it is the gene pool of a species that is the entity sculpted into shape by the chisels of natural selection". Rather it talks about the individual members of a species being "gene machines" and "lumbering robots" designed and/or controlled by genes. Still, it’s nice to see that Dawkins’s views are subject to evolution too.

Jools said...

". . . oasis of 'socialistic' production"? I remember a certain ex-WSM member being castigated on various forums for using such an argument ;-)

Seriously though I would love to get a copy of Tristan's talk - anyone know whether it was recorded?

Anonymous said...

There's too much there to respond to without writing an essay, so I'll limit myself to three comments.

1. Yes, I really like your question, Brian: "Is human nature a barrier to capitalism?" I think the answer is yes! That's why capitalism was born drenched from head to foot in blood.

2. Dawkins "back-tracking". This is a very curious argument indeed. It's like one of your political opponents accused you of supporting the former USSR because you support socialism, and then him accusing you of "back-tracking" when you put him right! Dawkins has not back-tracked on any issue of substance. He has, when the progress of science demanded it, changed his view, for example on his support for Zahavi's theory of signal selection. A terrible thing indeed that he should change his mind when the evidence demands it!

3. Adam, if Dawkins had said, "the gene pool as a whole is the unit of natural selection", then I agree, that would be a complete change of mind. As it is, I don't see the contradiction that you do. How do you think gene frequencies in the pool change if the pool as a whole is what is selected?

Brian Gardner said...

Hi Stuart,
obviously I have no problem with Dawkins changing his views when the evidence demands it, but I'm not sure how relevant that is to this "back-tracking" issue: it does seem to me that he has done the bare minimum to publicly correct the rampant misconceptions of his work that have have been around for the best part of 30 years now. Given that he holds (held ?) a chair in the Public Understanding of Science (or somesuch)he does seem surprisingly relaxed about the public misunderstanding of his own science