Alan Bula, Donald Rooum, John Rowan, Bob Black: Letters

Having read Beyond Politics I agree with Zvi Lamm and Freedom that it is lucid, an invisible quality complemented by its almost stark black, white and yellow physical presence. All this, combined with the unfashionably theoretical nature of the subject, made the book a delight to read.

Yet, as I neared the valuable appenices, notes and references, bibliography and index of non-ideas, I wished they had been accompanied by a glossary. Such an addition would have meant I could have studied them without keeping the inside front-cover of IC at hand for occasional refreshment of the memory – necessary, because I’m far from being steeped in s.i. as yet.

A glossary could list the eight principal words in ‘Meet S.I.,’ together with the earlier equivalents for six of them, plus ‘assumption,’ ‘absolute assumption,’ ‘limitation,’ ‘self-limitation,’ ‘paradigm’ and perhaps other vital tools of the s.i. trade.

The way that the above words are used may not be particularly unorthodox, but it is specialised in a manner that could trip up the beginning student especially. In any case, a glossary is part-and-parcel of any presentation that is truly systematic. If theoretical studies are to progress, it is vitally important that all concepts should be sharp rather than vague.

A glossary can only help to maintain good focus. If it has to be ‘working’ and provisional to allow for evolution, so be it. At least we can have it till it becomes obsolete (if it does) and is replaced.

Yours etc. Alan Bula (London)

Positivistic thinking tends to assume that one starts with precisely-defined terms and uses them like bricks to erect a structure of thought. In fact the structure affects each of its components; the meaning of a word varies with its context, and not only its verbal context. As Power to the People pointed out: ‘The October Revolution changed the meaning of the words in Das Kapital, and that giant step taken by Neil Armstrong altered the meanings of all words, by invalidating the assumption that they are used by an earthbound race.’ [1] Our correspondent recognises this, asking not for definitions but, in effect, for an extension and more convenient placing of existing efforts to clarify the senses of terms used in Beyond Politics; his letter goes to swell the file of requirements for the next edition. [1] In IC 52.

I ask your indulgence for a letter on global warming which is longer than the article [Global Warming in IC 58] on which it comments. The fear of global warming is not that the world will become too hot, but that the temperature will rise too fast. If the oceans get warmer they will expand, and sea level will rise to threaten human settlements, such as London, which are built on estuaries. Just one of those things, if the change is slow, but a disaster if it is sudden.

Global warming does no harm overall, if it proceeds at less than 10C per century. But the calculation of 170 scientists of the World Meteorological Organization, peer-reviewed by 200 other scientists, is that global warming is probably proceeding at the dangerous rate of 20C per century.

As you say, direct measurement of a small change in average global temperature is impracticable. The main reason for anticipating global warming is that the concentration of ‘greenhouse gases’ is increasing.

To adapt IC‘s motto, Nothing is absolutely Certain. All reasonable decisions are made in the light of best estimates. 170 climatologists may be wrong (and they do not claim certainty), but it is crazy not to act as if they are right.

Yours etc. Donald Rooum (London)

This letter has been cut by about half; as received it listed the evidence, drawn from study of the moon and of samples of Arctic ice dating back 160,000 years, on which climatologists have erected the conclusion given. IC does not question any of these observations; our point is that between this evidence and social action intended to avoid global warming a chain of reasoning intervenes, each step of it involving ideological complications. The phrasing of the letter as received confirms this: ‘if,’ ‘probably,’ ‘reason for anticipating,’ ‘is attributed,’ ‘it is reasonable to suppose’; all those bring in the mode of thought which has worked on the evidence to produce the conclusion. Different thinking would reach a different result. It does not follow from NIAT that we should act as if this or that uncertain statement were simply ‘right.’

Long experience, some of it bitter, has known the danger of jumping from scientific evidence to social practice. New drugs do not get released for general use without more in their favour than the reasonable suppositions and fairly good correlations which the letter adduces to support the global-warming theory, yet every new drug still carries risks and unpredictable side-effects occur. Thalidomide was introduced with the approval of experts, and indeed as drugs go it was excellent – except for some pregnant women. The letter agrees that the highly theorised predictions it speaks of are not certain indications of disaster ahead on our present course, and we suggest it would be unwise to act as if they were. Action governed by them would after all carry a downside, resources being diverted from other uses and new limitations imposed on freedom.

The general proposition, that we are damaging the environment on which we depend, is a different matter; much of the evidence for that is as direct and conclusive as evidence well can be; some of the effects are with us already. This makes it all the more important to scrutinise particular proposals. The overall position is already serious enough that we cannot afford to take ill-directed action or allow ourselves to fall into an alternative orthodoxy.

To the revisions of the basic statement of s.i. there is no end. Here is another suggestion.

It seems to me that the description of the second of the eidodynamic levels needs a little adjustment. At the moment it is phrased exclusively in terms of socialism or communism, which is only one expression of the ideology, and quite a specific and political one. It leaves out all the other expressions of the same ideology, and gives thereby the impression that this level is necessarily materialist.

The reason why this is not true is because the thinking at this level becomes dialectical in character. The process logic of the previous stage gives way to dialectical logic. This is the radical change which makes the difference between reform and revolution. Reform sees change as gradual and evolutionary; revolution sees change as step-jump in character, and also sees real change as necessarily repudiating the previous stage of development. We do not move on except by being able to let go of earlier assumptions and practices. We go from conflict to unity, from unity to conflict. We are interested in the unity of opposites, the interpenetration of opposites and the conflict of opposites.

But if we make dialectical thinking the essence of the revolutionary stage of development, then the great dialecticians have by no means all been materialist, or political. That honour belongs to dialectical materialism alone. I suppose the most famous of the dialecticians is Hegel, who hardly conforms with the description given in the current statement. But there are many others: Hutchinson Stirling, Bosanquet, Knox, Joachim, Findlay, William Wallace, Francis Sedlak, F. H. Bradley, Edward Caird, and so on. If we go back far enough, we come to Heraclitus, perhaps the first dialectician. None of these were revolutionaries in the political sense. They were revolutionaries in that their thinking was dialectical; they revolutionised the established notions of what was and was not logical or rational.

In the early stages of the development of dialectical thinking, there is a one-sidedness. Many of the dialectical thinkers on the philosophical side were typed as idealists, and counted themselves as such. They emphasised the unity or unifying activity, and their work is contained in an academic framework which is clearly no threat to the status quo. But of course the further development of dialectical thinking removes this one-sidedness, and brings about the emergence of dialectics proper.

Similarly any of the dialectical thinkers on the political side were typed as materialists, and counted themselves as such. Here the emphasis was all on conflict and opposition, and Lenin put this very strongly by saying that unity is relative, but struggle absolute. And of course we know that this view does result in very strong threats to the status quo, in the shape of political and economic revolution. But again the further development of dialectical thinking removes this one-sidedness, and leads to the appearance of dialectics proper.

Dialectics is not one-sided. Its most characteristic feature is to be continually moving between one-sided statements and showing each of them to be inadequate to what is being described. This is of course a feature of Ideological Commentary itself, where dialectics has been extended to its farthest reaches.
So my suggested rewording of the item in question would go as follows:

REVOLUTION: Sees change as step-jump rather than gradual, and emphasises the need to condemn previous stages. Increasingly dialectical thinking leads sometimes to socialism or communism, sometimes to more academic revisions of previous logics and other assumptions. Strong tendency to radical re-evaluation of earlier views, both political and religious.
John Rowan

Our difficulties in accepting the proposed revision are mainly tactical; integrating it into the series would require rewording the accounts of all other levels. (The two changes accepted in IC 58, one of them a deletion, did not entail this). Certainly there is room for improvement and more attention should be paid to religion (Patterns of Faith in this issue moves in that direction) but the present version cost a good deal of work and time, and we’d like to get a bit more mileage out of it yet. With this letter we start a file of suggested improvements to Page Two. (Incidentally, who was it called materialism an idealism that hasn’t yet recognised itself?)

Your critics have a tendency, I notice, to call your meta-ideology ‘mechanical,’ and I think your discussion of ‘Stirnerism’ is a case in point. The credibility of a Stirnerist is for you a subtraction problem: others tell the truth for reasons of expediency and morality, Stirnerists only from expediency, therefore they tell the truth less often.

This is clockwork reasoning at its worst. It assumes a ‘ceteris paribus‘ clause although nothing is less likely than that the only difference between a Stirnerist and a non-Stirnerist is ‘Stirnerism.’ It might well be that a Stirnerist, his thinking being less occluded than that of a moralist, assigns a higher pragmatic value to the truth than a moralist does from moralistic motives. Many moralities, moreover, justify lying in some circumstances. [Two examples omitted. Ed. IC] Police routinely use deception in conducting interrogations. Cults conceal their identity from potential converts, etc. At least Stirner honestly admits he may not always be honest.

You seem to equate ‘taking seriously’ with ‘taking on faith.’ An ideologue’s assertion of good faith is of very little weight in assessing his credibility. He may be a sincere fool. Such a person is the most effective of deceivers. I never ‘make the usual assumption that the author is telling the truth.’ How could I, when the next author I read says something contradictory? The value of a book does not consist exclusively in the quantum of facts it contains, if so, I would read little else but the telephone book. That is not the Stirnerist way to read Stirner, Dostoevsky, Black or even Walford.
Yours etc. Bob Black. (USA)

Claiming to have rejected the initial presumption of a statement’s truthfulness, our correspondent yet makes no suggestion that that we may have deliberately misrepresented our view of Stirner’s book.

With Stirner as sometimes with Marx, we find ourselves defending him against his supporters. This letter argues that so far as truth-telling goes Stirner hardly differs from many others; we maintain, on the contrary, that anybody who writes a book including the statement that for them ‘truth is a thing of naught’ is highly unusual, presents a special problem and deserves special attention.

‘They did it too’ is no defence; the unquestioned fact, that others have provided evidence that they will tell the truth only if it suits them, does nothing to weaken the force of this evidence in Stirner’s case. Critics calling s.i. mechanical (meaning that it is only mechanical) have been answered; see for example IC 56,9.

This has been a good discussion. Everything received urging acceptance of Stirner’s ideas has been printed, perhaps doing a little to make his work better known, and we have learnt from our correspondents. Now they and we are starting to repeat ourselves. Our present thinking is summarised on this page (Freedom from Truth); letters raising new points will be welcome as usual but please no more, for a few issues at least, on those already discussed.

from Ideological Commentary 59, February 1993.