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Response to the Modern Ranters: A Layman’s Naive Thoughts on the Cult of Roy Bhaskar

Ron Heisler

FOR ALMOST twenty years Roy Bhaskar and his little band of happy acolytes were content to plough their lonely furrow in those sleepy enclaves usually known as university philosophy departments. They provided, it must be said, some useful and enlivening discussion points for those blithe spirits whose vocation it is to swan around in philosophy of science seminars and conferences. And they began to develop an effective patronage network of the kind so essential for career advancement in British university life. Darwin (unfortunately Bhaskar has little to say about the grim old evolutionist with his mania for collecting empirical data) would have recognised this as yet another prime example of the survival of the fittest. All in all, few in the wider (are we allowed to say, real?) world were much troubled by these esoteric and basically innocuous pursuits; and little sleep was lost by those of us who had cheerfully seen the Althusserian triumphal chariot crash into the buffers and fragment into smithereens.

However, 1993 arrived and with it the publication of Bhaskar’s magnum opus, a long and complex tome entitled Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom. Since then, and despite a quite understandable sparsity of reviews (the book is badly and confusingly written, not that this should necessarily prejudice us against what it is actually saying), the pace of the Bhaskarian bandwagon has speeded up considerably, whilst the coterie’s ambitions have become shriller, more strident and more aggressive. Now, with Jonathan Joseph’s attack on the credibility of Karl Korsch’s Marxist philosophy, we can see the larger groundplan unfold. The bid for hegemony in contemporary Marxist thought is seriously under way. The Bhaskarite vanguard is on the move, and the world will ignore it at its peril!

Joseph’s article "Subjectivist Marxism and the Status of Philosophy", in What Next? No.17, throws down the gauntlet fairly and squarely. Having read David Renton’s critique of Korsch in the previous issue, Joseph claims he is left wondering "what is left in Korsch that is worth defending?", apart from the fact that "he remained faithful to some sort of revolutionary politics, defended the Bolshevik revolution and opposed Second International revisionism". Joseph allows that it was "understandable" that Korsch should "emphasise the concept of subjective praxis" in opposition to the "abstract nature" of Vulgar Marxism – primarily, the dominant trends in German Social Democracy, which at the time were preoccupied with separating themselves from actual struggles. Yet, whilst admitting that Korsch rejected some very bad philosophic positions, Joseph complains that he permitted his philosophic views to undermine his Marxist theoretical approach. Or, not to beat about the bush, that Korsch had committed the heinous crime of committing himself to the Hegelian-Marxist tradition, of which, we would point out, the greatest proponents were the young Marx, the middle period Marx and George Lukács. What Joseph cannot bring himself to say, alas, is that his preferred alternative, Bhaskarite critical realism, not only was unborn in the 1920s but was not even conceivable in that period. Bhaskarite scientific theory could only emerge, we suggest, once the quantum mechanics revolution had reached full maturity. Hence Bhaskarism in the 1920s would have been an absurd anachronism.

It is the theory of knowledge of the Third International "idealists" that Joseph essentially objects to. Korsch’s "relativism" – his claim that Marxist science sees everything from the vantage point of the working class – is anathema to critical realists who, by implication, must view it as limited. By linking Marxism to a social class, the "idealists" destroyed its legitimacy as a genuine scientific discipline. Besides which, the thought of "class consciousness" as described by Lukács is guaranteed to bring Joseph out in a cold sweat. Both Lukács and Korsch are lambasted, for with their strong orientation to "consciousness", they are guilty of ignoring "the question of objective social structures". Warming to Renton’s kvetch that Korsch had no sense of objective reality and therefore regresses to abstract philosophical categories, "empty of meaning", Joseph avidly argues that such criticism "could equally be applied to Lukács and other subjective philosophers".

But from what lofty perspective is Joseph speaking? He makes claims that most Marxists are unlikely to have heard of. Against "abstractness", Joseph insists that "it is necessary to maintain that transformative activity is not based on overcoming divisions within consciousness, it is about overcoming the stratification of real structures and agents". We should not impose a philosophical framework onto historical materialism, but engage in the "actual scientific investigation of real historical relations". And to facilitate this, we need "to conceive of a more humble philosophical project that sees its role as clarifying Marxism rather than orchestrating it".

Philosophy, in the critical realist world, is to be regarded as an "underlabourer" to the sciences. "Underlabourer", it should be explained, is a term borrowed from Locke which is obviously enhanced in Bhaskar’s eyes by its affinity to those homely craftsman- or peasant-related terms so beloved of Heidegger. "If we conceive of philosophy as an underlabourer, then we see it as working alongside Marxism", Joseph modestly tells us.

Korsch, Joseph remarks, based his "anti-philosophical" stance on "the erroneous view" that Marx had stood Hegel on his head "and broken with philosophy". Lukács, Korsch and most modern dialectical materialists deserve condemnation for being "virtually the only people left who actually defend" Hegel’s bourgeois philosophy, whereas today we should be going beyond the Hegelian weltanschauung. Rather than succumbing in the face of the logical force of Joseph’s magisterial conclusions, we are somewhat overcome by a profound sense of déja vu. Within a generation of his death, the philosophy of that old bore Hegel had fallen completely out of favour within the German university system, and was supplanted by the neo-Kantian movement, which proceeded to dominate the scene till the First World War. That dullard, Karl Marx, was outraged, and in the first chapter of Das Kapital Volume1 felt morally obliged to remind readers of how "the ill-humoured, arrogant and mediocre epigones who now talk large in educated German circles began to take pleasure in treating Hegel ... as a ‘dead dog’. I therefore openly", Marx went on, "avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker."1

Marx’s intellect was indelibly shaped by the dialectical mode of thinking that he absorbed from Hegel (there are perhaps many dialectics in history). It has always been the way of great philosophers – or intellectual system builders – to cannibalise the best, or most relevant, parts of their predecessors. Thus Hegel is inconceivable without Kant; and Kant in his Second Critique is inconceivable without David Hume (pace Roy Bhaskar! – we know you hate the guy). Marx’s dialectical inheritance – and he was still studying Hegel intensely in 1858, and again at some time between 1860 and ’63 – gave him the tool to analyse so brilliantly the relations between classes: the all-important relation between wage-labour and capital, between price and value. He also took the view that dialectics existed in nature, contrary to the modern rumour. Regarding his use of dialectic, Marx several times said he intended to produce a short work on the topic (in a letter to Dietzgen of 9 May 1868, for instance). If he had been allowed a long enough life, he would have written the promised sixth volume of Das Kapital dealing with the superstructure of society; and this almost surely would have included a section on dialectics.

So what Joseph is essentially saying is that Marx had not broken with Hegel; had not broken with "philosophy"; through his confusion between different intellectual disciplines, philosophy and social science, failed to provide a true scientific investigation of society as defined by the Bhaskarites; and hence thoroughly deserves to be condemned as yet another "bourgeois" philosopher.

A far more sophisticated opponent of the 20th century idealist Marxists than Joseph is Daniel Brudney. Whether Brudney has been in the Bhaskarian swamp or not, we cannot tell. But at least Brudney, in describing Lukácsian "consciousness" and its problems, has a crystal clear position. "At present, however", he writes, "- that is, until both the objective possibility of revolution and a very considerable degree of revolutionary organization obtain – this ‘standpoint of the proletariat’ is just as much of an idealised standpoint (what I have called an insulated standpoint) as the standpoints of Self-Consciousness or the human species."2 Thus we have conveniently clarified the position of the Brudney-Joseph-Bhaskar axis: that the proletariat "ain’t got" a standpoint today, or if some make a claim to have it, or represent it, that claim has little more validity than, say, a boast of the same type by the British National Party.

In a world increasingly becalmed by a Marcusean pessimism regarding the revolutionary potential of the working class, is the "proletarian standpoint" a mere chimaera, not worthy of discussion? Or is it resurrectable in conditions far less favourable than those stipulated by Brudney? We will not attempt a substantive answer to this question, but rather pose an alternative: whether the issue can be comprehended and sympathetically handled from a Bhaskarian perspective, contrary to the impression left by Joseph? We think it probably can, provided we settle for a pared down Bhaskar, with the unseemly afflatus stripped away.

Bhaskar’s early philosophy of science attracted favourable attention initially because of the eminently reasonable observations he was then making about the relationship of perception – human knowledge, in brief – and nature. His target was the dominant empiricist tendency of the day. Basically, he argues as follows. Human science has discovered a great many "laws" in nature. But if man did not exist, it would not make any difference: those laws would still operate, even though they were not being "observed" in laboratory conditions. Correctly, Bhaskarians point to the failure of the Humean-empiricist approach to explain "what governs the world outside of experimental situations". To get out of the conundrum, Bhaskar postulates "generative mechanisms" lying behind the flux of events in nature, the latter being named "tendencies". Tied to this is Bhaskar’s attack on the fallacy of "actualism", the mistaken belief that what presents itself in the visible constitutes sufficient data for a natural law. As critical realists point out, "reality" often hardly registers in the visible or "actual", and sometimes not at all. Famously, we have no direct way of seeing, or knowing about, "black holes" in space; we can only deduce their existence from the evidence of an "event horizon" – disturbances which betray the presence of the phenomenon. Lastly, in these respects, we note Bhaskar’s claim that a scientific law is not a "constant conjunction" of events, but the characteristic pattern of activity, or "tendency", of a mechanism.3

Bhaskar’s next move was to widen his brief to embrace the human sciences, arguing for "an essential unity of method between the natural and the social sciences".4 This, of course, is treacherous ground, and Bhaskarism is awash with criticism from subject specialists. However, we are quite ready to bite the bullet in one respect: it seems to us that Bhaskar’s philosophy of science, as we have outlined it, admirably fits the problem of class and class consciousness. Empirical class consciousness on a day-to-day basis is routinely observed by anyone in some sort of contact with the working class. But there are different levels of class consciousness, of which the most dramatic is the eruption of class self-awareness in a revolutionary situation; or, more realistically in the case of Britain, in the expression of class solidarity as during the General Strike of 1926 or the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5. George Lukács’s delineation of an "ascribed" class consciousness seems to conjoin perfectly with the Bhaskarian scientific perspective we have so far laid out, horrible as the thought may be to the typical Bhaskarian novitiate. Great eruptions of class consciousness in history are rare, but all the same are an expression of a long-term "tendency" which simmers away, normally imperceptibly. The Marxist framework of relations of production, falling rate of profit, and so forth, gives a more than adequate explanation of how this "tendency" is created. Joseph’s first mistake, in finding the theories of the 20th century idealists such as Korsch irrelevant, is that he had fallen into the trap of "judging on the visible", if we may coin a phrase. He has forgotten Bhaskar’s own conclusion that the world is an open system in which "causal laws are out of phase with patterns of events and experiences".5

Joseph’s second error is not his own, but arises from the more dubious teachings of Bhaskar. We are speaking, inevitably, of the Althusserian overload. The baneful influence of Althusser on critical realism cannot be avoided. Like a contemporary Zhdanov, Bhaskar hands out the Party line in no uncertain terms: "in recasting Marx’s thinking about ... science and society, Louis Althusser made a contribution of decisive importance. The Althusserian legacy demands nothing less than the most thorough-going reappropriation today." And, in an interview, Bhaskar hailed Althusser as "the best and most advanced Marxist for the philosophy of science". Meanwhile, Andrew Collier rushes to reassure any Doubting Thomas that Bhaskar’s "multiple determination" is basically Althusser’s "overdetermination".6

Considering Bhaskarite pretensions to authority in commenting on matters scientific in many fields of research, the virtual lack of critical analysis of the generally discredited French idol is remarkable in the extreme. But then, the Frenchman started off as a devout Roman Catholic, imbibing Catholic dogmatics with his mother’s milk; and dogmatics are what the fawning poodles who lapped at the feet of the "pope of theory" have always been happiest with. For our own part, we have always had great difficulty in taking seriously the scholarly reputation and ungrounded assertions of Althusser, whose ex cathedra judgements substituted viciously for serious argument. For instance, in his "Preface to Capital Volume One", referring to Section 4 of Part 1 Chapter 1, he reprimands Marx as if the German were a ninny, in these terms: "A last trace of Hegelian influence, this time a flagrant and extremely harmful one (since all the theoreticians of ‘reification’ and ‘alienation’ have found in it the ‘foundation’ for their idealist interpretation of Marx’s thought): the theory of fetishism ...."7

The reader will note the dishonest implication that Marx’s inclusion of fetishist theory was a sort of accidental hang-over, rather than profoundly considered. Perversely, this type of crude argumentation has proved inspirational for Althusser’s Bhaskarian epigones. However, the subtlest of Althusser’s latter day apologists, Greg Elliott, whilst manfully saving as much as is compatible with sanity from the Althusserian wreckage, simultaneously makes the damning admission that: "Althusser’s treatment of other members of the Western Marxist tradition was crude and cavalier, his typology of Marxisms undiscriminating, and his own reconstruction of historical materialism defective. Moreover", adds Elliott, "he accepted elements of the Stalinist codification of Marxism ... [such as] the travesty of Trotskyism." Sorrowfully, Elliott confesses that: "Marxist philosophy in its Althusserian rendering was immunized against the dictates of the class struggle."8

Joseph’s third error lies in his basically naive and uncritical attitude to "philosophy". Even Bhaskar has always accepted that the practice of philosophy, being socially derived, is liable to ideological pollution, although he has never explained how philosophy goes about cleansing itself of the dreck of the ideological, except to reiterate his faith in the use of "reason". His omission, we suspect, reflects Althusser’s sordid sleight of hand in elevating ideology as a necessary ingredient in Soviet-style societies as well as in post-capitalist societies yet to be born. Althusser was even prepared to banish the concept of "false consciousness" as illegitimate. However, the Frenchman was determined to expunge one ideology at least: the "spontaneous" ideology of the proletariat. This he wrote off as "imprisoned" within the dominant bourgeois ideology. Yet, generously, Althusser allows that there is one hope for the proletariat – and one hope only: intervention by countervailing Marxist science, i.e. elements such as Althusser and his kind.

Marx was acutely aware of the fact that all philosophic "perspectives" are impure and self-interested. For him, who knew the beast well, the idea of "Socialists of the Chair" – mid-19th century German academics – being allowed a privileged status to guide the German labour movement would have been downright ridiculous. Mystification applies as much to philosophers as to ordinary working people – probably more so. And in the case of the Bhaskarites, one is impelled to be a trifle sceptical. What lies behind the fine veil of words, billowing in the wind like the standard of an Arthurian court from which knights set out from time to time on romantic quests to save, or bring succour to, the downtrodden proletariat? In truth, Bhaskarism gives all the appearance of being a romantic tendency, paying homage to the Holy Grail of critical realism – a sort of philosophic Pre-Raphaelitism constructing a charming world of representations that never existed in reality and never will. A very English take, one might say, on Althusserianism.9

Philosopher-workers, from whom surplus value is extracted, have always been scarce on the ground, and are now almost an extinct species. On the other hand, professional philosophers – workers by brain and jaw, who are members of university salariats – if not exactly common, are reported as being seen from time to time. An ideological formation – a stratum and structure of quasi-state employees – they mediate between the state and civil society, usefully holding in stasis certain aspects of ideological contradiction. Like most "free floating" intellectuals, they are never as free in their allegiances and projects as they sometimes like to fantasise. They are allowed – in fact, encouraged – to occasionally bite the hand that feeds them. No harm done! They are an indulgence tolerated in the name of liberal thinking and the "open society". The practice of toleration draws these intellectuals into a compromising modus vivendi, whose constraints are generally effective because normally subconsciously self-imposed.

Usually, Marxists within the system have dove-tailed into the state’s loyal opposition. Occasionally, a gifted (and hard-nut) individual within the system, or at its margins, has had a surprising resonance in the wider world. One thinks, unremarkably, of E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams, both of whom were grounded in the left political movement from an early age. These were thinkers, with a particular empiricist bent, who did not primarily address the narrow concerns of professionals, but always instinctively wrote to be read by the common man. In contrast, one of the distinctive weaknesses of the Bhaskar movement has been its deadly and incestuous specialist appeal. Elitist and self-obsessed, it resembles an intellectual freemasonry for the favoured few, a mirror image of the old universities structure from which it was defecated.

Almost certainly, posterity will judge Bhaskarism as a symptomatic Marxisant effusion of an era of proletarian decline in Britain, in which the once fecund organic link between a strong working class and a loyal, supportive intelligentsia has been snapped asunder. Together with the Marxism Today tendency and the Analytical Marxists, Bhaskarism constitutes a holy trinity whose credo could be summed up as: Marxism freed from the shackles of class allegiance!

Joseph, in one revealing passage, says contemptuously that neither Hegel, nor Korsch, nor Lukács can provide a proof for the Hegelian philosophy. For "these philosophical schemes, after all", he points out, "are religious: you either believe in them or you do not". Well said, indeed! For this truly "Freudian slip" gets to the emotional heart of the cult of Bhaskar. It is a belief system of the greatest ambition – Bhaskarism, with its generative mechanisms, depth structures and general ontology, is yet another "philosophical scheme". And those paid-up initiates with a ticket on the ocean liner constituted by the Bhaskarian ensemble of ideas – a work in progress, so to speak – cannot get off the moving ship at will, even if they kid themselves they can. They are stuck on it for the long haul, can’t choose bits and pieces of the theory on the premise that it is a sort of pick’n’mix Marxism. They have to take the rough with the smooth. Unfortunately, with Roy Bhaskar there is guaranteed to be a lot of rough!

Bhaskar’s indebtedness to Heideggerian ontology has been alluded to already; and we concede at this stage that we regard the German’s Being and Time of 1927 to be a serious work of great substance. We associate it with a deep conservatism in reaction to modernism. Some argue, however, that Heidegger’s politics in the late 1920s equated with a kind of anarchistic anti-parliamentarianism. Heidegger’s Nazism did not emerge till later – till 1933, in fact. Heidegger’s strong imprint on Bhaskar’s ontology is clear enough, particularly in his treatment of time and his exaggerated emphasis on the importance of the past. St Thomas Aquinas, the greatest scholastic philosopher of the Middle Ages, was a profound influence on Heidegger – and Aquinas, through the twin tracks of Heidegger and Althusser, leaves his imprint firmly on Bhaskar and his fellow critical realist, Andrew Collier. Collier proudly invokes Heidegger on one occasion as saying that non-realism is a non-starter in a certain technical respect and that this put him on the side of realism "doxographically, as it were". Collier sums up the Bhaskarite hope with the observation: "What would a realist version of Heidegger’s analytic look like? Or a realist critique of Sartre on concrete relations with others ...? Is it not precisely the absence of a depth-realist notion of counter-phenomenal ... truths that vitiates those brilliant phenomenological inquiries?"10 Here, in sum, we have the philosophic mission laid out from Collier’s point of view: Heideggerianism plus critical realist methodology (including, naturally enough, investigation of Collier’s "depth structures") is the path to the future.

Heidegger is famously concerned with the meaning of Being, with explaining what is implied by "is" when we, without a second thought, say "It is" or "It isn’t", and so forth. He puts Being on a pedestal, denying that it is an entity in contrast with men, animals, material objects etc, which come under the rubric of beings. The lived world of men is called Being-here. But in our existence we constantly draw on Being, and not only every time we open our mouths. Our intuition is that the dualism of Being and beings in Heidegger provided the germ of the idea in Bhaskar of Philosophy with a capital "P" standing as the "guardian" or "guarantor" of the sciences, both natural and social, including Marxism. And we might add that the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides believed that "being equals thought". We can also think of an early 20th century precursor for the Bhaskar type of ambition in the shape of the German Kantian, Emil Lask, who proposed a science of sciences and attracted Lukács’s interest briefly. In any case, the notion of philosophy as the "Queen of Sciences" is age-old.

As for Jonathan Joseph’s talk of the "relationship" between Marxism and philosophy being "kept in careful balance", we are reminded of Heidegger’s constant lament about men’s forgetfulness of Being and their fall into an age of nihilistic technologism; and of his yearning for a "turn" (kehre) among men that would bring society back to a true recognition of, or balance with, Being. Alas, Heidegger – who was as daft as a brush in matters of the "actual" world – set his sights on Hitler as the messianic figure to restore Being to mankind. Joseph’s messiah, as readers will have already appreciated, is the less threatening figure of Roy Bhaskar (although this infatuation seems to be waning somewhat lately).

After his debacle in his Nazi years – his disillusionment with Nazi reality – the fascinating and excessively learned Heidegger turned more and more in a mystical direction, finally talking a great deal about the gods. And this is an influence that Bhaskar has swallowed without much of a critical reaction on his part. To be frank, he has not sicked up on the flight to reaction so much as rather keenly tailed along with it. For proof of this disintegration of reason, we have only to look at Dialectic: The Pulse of Reason. Here the plaudits to Heidegger ring out loud and clear. "Heideggerian ontology, taken seriously", we learn, "yields its own immanent critique", i.e. is highly commendable on that score. The "Heideggerian question has a certain piquancy for me, in that I argue negative without positive being is possible", remarks a Bhaskar who seems as pleased as Punch.11 But ironically, Heidegger, who according to the old joke was always more interested in Being than in beings, is taken to task for being too oriented towards "anthropism" – to humancentricity. His Being and Time is censured for always being mediated by Dasein, or Being-here. And Bhaskar objects strenuously to Heidegger’s rethematising his ontology in terms of human traces from pre-Socratic philosophy to contemporary technology. Heidegger deserves a kicking for having evaded this "scandal of philosophy". It is as if Bhaskar sees himself as an ultra-Heidegger.12

Marx bears the brunt of Bhaskar’s scorn. Obviously there is a love-hate relationship at work here, which can only be resolved by the father (figure) being destroyed and the son stepping into his shoes. "It is not the unilinear character of Marx’s presentational dialectics, but their actualist, monistic, demoralized and utopian ... nature that I am complaining about", writes Bhaskar. "They constitute the mystical skeleton rattling around in the cupboard of geo-historical materialism [the guru’s regular phrase for Marx’s system]." Bhaskar then asserts that: "The best that can – and probably must – be said for Marx was that he was committed to the development of an integrative (asymmetrically structured) pluralism, driven by the logic of commodification and reification." Lucky Marx, to be let off so lightly! "Mystical" is a typical Bhaskar buzz word, often thrown at Marx in passing. Thus we read: "The mystical elements within Marx’s own positive dialectic ... are more complicated.... To give an example ... actualist residues combined with ethical sociological reductionism to render him (and the majority of subsequent Marxists) impervious to the need for a William Morris-type moment of positive concrete utopianism to stand alongside Marx’s negative explanatory critique."13

"Whose ‘need’?" we may well ask. Regrettably, it is a fact that the opportunities for the great mass of the working class to participate in the Morrisonian Arts and Crafts movement were rather limited in Marx’s era. Instead, workers were flocking in their thousands into the co-operative movement – and with the full approval of Marx and Engels. Bhaskar’s ignorance regarding this pinnacle of the Victorian reformist movement is evident, whilst he seems to have failed completely to comprehend the grounds of Marx’s largely well-founded aversion to the mass of utopian experiments that briefly flickered in the early and mid-19th century and to the utopian philosophies with which they were entangled, religious, Saint-Simonian, Comteist, Fourierist, etc. Andrew Collier issues a sharp, if oblique, rebuke to Bhaskar in Being and Worth (1999), which is tantamount to St Paul correcting Jesus Christ. Collier writes: "We have no duty to try to bring about an ideal man or woman of the future, only to try to ensure that life is good for whatever men and women actually exist in the future. A certain type of utopian politics and moralism is ruled out. I think that this degree of ‘conservatism’ should be accepted, as it was by Marx and Engels, whose fine passages of scorn for utopianism cannot be heeded too much."14

Not that Bhaskar can be diverted one iota from his set course by the prayers of one of his Church fathers, for in truth he yearns to be leading an irrationalist utopian colony, is an updated version of one of those oddball 19th century utopianist prophets. For proof, we need only consult his own words in reworking Marx’s deliberately vague futuristic ideal of "association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all". Writing with a florid overspecificity characteristic of some of the Victorian utopian programmes, Bhaskar seems quite oblivious to the complex mathematical model required to institute his utopian blueprint on a mass scale: "distributive principles along the lines of ‘from each according to their concretely singularized wants, abilities and needs and, at a minimum threshold, from what they would expect to receive from others ceteris paribus, i.e. unless exceptional circumstances prevail’ ... and ‘to each according to their essential needs, wanted possibilities and social virtues (e.g. creative enterprise, willingness to participate in necessary but undesirable or arduous tasks) and, at a minimum threshold, what makes it unnecessary to sell their labour-power’."15

Whereas the earlier Bhaskar had fought tooth and nail against Hegel’s epistemological fallacy – his "foundationalism" – nowadays Bhaskar seeks reconciliation with the Swabian, and tells the reader, as if nothing had happened in the interim, that "Like Hegel, I take dialectic to be a logic of content and not just form". His preface to Dialectic insists that the work is an enrichment of critical realism that is "a non-preservative sublation of Hegelian dialectic".16 However, Bhaskar claims to improve on Hegel by substituting for Hegel’s three key terms of identity, negativity and totality, the four terms of non-identity, negativity, totality and transformative agency. What, we may well ask, does this essentially amount to in Bhaskar’s intellectual progress? To which we would suggest the following answer: that in order to salvage his ultimately thinly provisioned and hence rickety doctrinal hold-all, Bhaskar has had to plunder Hegel wholesale for some kind of dynamic model to propel all those "generative mechanisms" lurking behind society – to initiate those causal sequences called "tendencies".

Bhaskar reminds us that "the rational kernel for Marx was above all Hegel’s epistemological dialectic entailing both (quasi-) ontological stratification ... and the principle of (immanent) metacritique". The young Marx had been a naughty boy of destructive tendency, for his "reception of Hegel tended to be assimilated to ... a virulent polemical assault on philosophy per se". Moreover, Marx, being a real muddle-head, was not "entirely clear" about the concepts of negativity and contradiction; and often confusingly uses the word "dialectical" when he should be saying "scientific".17 And despite his "recognition of the way in which capitalism was changing humanity, there is no real dialectic of subjectivity" in Marx, "... which would have to incorporate a dialectic of morality and a conception of the moral evolution of the species as unfinished".18 The latter claim is extraordinary balderdash: Marx was acutely aware of the mutability of human nature and mores between different societies, cultures and milieux. The notion of a fixed essence, and a concomitant static morality, the mature Marx would have regarded as risible.

But Bhaskar, despite himself, has made a valid and important point here: Marx indeed did not provide a "real dialectic of subjectivity". Regrettably, however, Bhaskar seems unaware of some of the more significant work in this field: Enzo Paci’s The Function of the Sciences and the Meaning of Man (English trans., 1972) springs to mind, as does, paramountly, Karel Kosik’s classic text Dialectics of the Concrete (English trans., 1976), which reinvigorates a tired idealist Marxism.

We cannot yet pass on from Bhaskar’s dialectical effusions, for they have odder implications than some might imagine. He tells us that Dialectic is "not primarily concerned with nothing or nothingness, but with real determinate non-being"; also that this "base concept of non-being is absence, the simplest and most elemental concept of all. It is easy enough to see that any world containing change must contain absence", he adds. Bhaskar is very keen on "desire", which has an essential role in the dynamics of his system. He explains that the "moral goal of universal human autonomy is a presupposition of the most elemental desire, the first initiating act of referential detachment, induced by negativity in the guise of absence". Thus "any ill can be seen as a constraint and any constraint as the absence of a freedom". The dialectic is concerned with the "absenting most notably of constraints on desires, wants, needs and interests".19 As we read Bhaskar’s description of dialectic as "an inner urge that flows universally from the logic of elemental absence (lack, need, want or desire)",20 we can’t help thinking kindly of conservative Hegel, with his intellectual self-discipline and restraint. In comparison, Bhaskar looms as the super-idealist, as the ultra-teleologist deriving a meaning or purpose in the universe – the desire for freedom. And what good bourgeois in his heart could ask for more?

Alas, with this time-worn, jaded reader at least, it won’t wash. We like our dialectics as specific as possible, spread thinly on a nice slice of old fashioned, well researched, well reasoned historical materialism. And we can’t help but agree with Alex Callinicos’s tart comment on Dialectic: "the danger of trying to say everything is that one ends up saying nothing."21 Which neatly brings us to another point. The thought that when we run out of toothpaste we experience absence, are overcome by desire and solve the problem dialectically by buying a replacement tube, strikes us as not worth saying, it being so trivial an experience. But to Bhaskar it is not trivial; it is the bedrock of his new philosophical fad.

Bhaskar, as we have already indicated, does have a bigger target in sight, namely Karl Marx. Thus he talks of "socialism" on one occasion (really meaning Marxism) in these terms: it is "unready" because it lacks the required "unity of explanatory critical social theory and emancipatory axiology .... This is the ultimate absence this book [Dialectic] aims to repair".22 "Socialism", then – our striving for it – must await in Bhaskar’s view until the required "unity of explanatory critical social theory etc" is got ready. A backward looking, Kantian sort of notion! But not one shared by the rather shrewder Hegel, who was wont to set his students rolling in the aisles with the story of the man "who would not go into the water till he could swim".

Hegel and Marx are collectively berated for being "biased towards internal, radical and linear negation".23 "Linearity" is one of those curse words popular among postmodernists; and "linear" critiquists should mostly be avoided like the clap. Bhaskar’s objection is really to Marx’s conception of linear stages in history – to the 19th century mind-set so deeply embedded in historicism and belief in historical progress, in civilisation ascending to a "closed, completed totality", as Bhaskar would put it. His ideal – so postmodernistically apposite – is of an "open, unfinished totality" for the historical project.

Having prepared the path with a revolutionary redefinition of negativity, the stretching out to embrace the cosmic proved irresistible to Bhaskar. With From East to West: Odyssey of a Soul (2000), we are conscious of a new millennium being truly born. Bhaskar’s summa theologia is a splendidly vivid combination of all-revealing autobiography and compelling theosophy. Bhaskar admits to a theosophical background, and presumably this alludes to the Theosophical Society founded by Madame Blavatsky back in the 1870s. As Bhaskar chronicles his fifteen lives, starting with Moses the Teacher and concluding with the sage currently available at Brahmes Hall, Suffolk, the reader is spared no relevant graphic detail. Indian philosophy, Buddhism, reincarnational beliefs – all are forcefully woven together into a tapestry that sparks in this reader at least a spark of empathy with Bhaskar that the earlier writings seemed incapable of igniting.

This is an interesting life (sorry, sequence of lives!), one that we would have liked to have shared in part. We would have enjoyed meeting Pythagoras or Laozi; would happily have descended into the Underworld in the company of Orpheus. But some of the lives are distinctly uncongenial. In Life 3, for example, Bhaskar’s soul was reincarnated in the body of a woman in Ancient Greece; she was regularly beaten by her uncle, who thereby sadistically derived immense sexual satisfaction. More palatable, perhaps, is Life 12, wherein Bhaskar’s soul is incarnated in a Sufi Arabic sultan, who possesses twenty-eight wives or concubines, one for each day of the lunar cycle.24

A question mark hangs over the reliability of Bhaskar’s narratives, however. Our suspension of disbelief was put under some strain in the case of Life 11. We are told that Bhaskar’s incarnation "was sitting meditating clad only in a loincloth when a female devotee ... went down on his clearly visible erect lingham and brought him to orgasm without disturbing his equanimity or repose in the absolute at all".25 We agree that it is perfectly possible for a man to contemplate his navel and attain an erection; but it beggars belief to claim synchronicity of an orgasm with "repose in the absolute". Here Bhaskar has badly succumbed to abstractness, conflating the diachronic into the synchronic.

Bhaskar’s strong impulse to clarify what previously had been left obscured is allowed its full head in From East to West. For instance, we are told that "the rational kernel of Hegelian dialectic as a dialectical learning process is to underpin the ideas of reincarnation, karma and liberation [moksha]". Indeed, the "real theme of this book is the operation of reincarnation, karma and liberation". Reification is "an inevitable corollary of alienation, itself the product of avidya or categorial error and the illusion or maya it generates". Moreover, central to Bhaskar’s system is "the idea of God as the ultimate categorial structure of the world and of the emergence and disemergence of ignorance, evil and structural sin". Alas, we will have to patiently wait some time for this work’s "theoretical" sequel, in which "Marx’s critique of political economy as a causally aefficacious [efficacious] ideology" will be related to a "Vedantian critique of the dualistic and fragmented, alienated ... world of maya or illusion which most of us inhabit solely".26 "Solely"? Surely even Bhaskar does not intend to nudge us in the direction of solipsism!

Bhaskar’s theosophy unleashes a gnostic strand to his thinking, a strong belief in the dualism of good and evil in existence. An interesting twist is given in Andrew Collier’s Being and Worth. Defining evil as negative reality, the constraint that Bhaskar’s dialectic seeks to overcome, Collier outlines the intellectual ancestry of the Bhaskarite position. He proudly ropes in the Ranters of the English Revolution as standing in the line of founding fathers of this philosophic theme.27 There can be no complaints, then, if we choose to describe the Bhaskarite coterie as a bunch of modern Ranters.

Many hard-nosed atheists or agnostics will have read through all this with a smile, feeling that, whilst it is not a direction in which Marxism should be pulling, the Bhaskarite deviation is basically harmless and unlikely to achieve wide currency. Such tolerance will be tested to breaking point, we suggest, by the reading of a curious footnote on page 74 of From East to West. This odious intrusion discloses a worrying anti-semitic residue in Bhaskar’s thinking. He writes: "The topic of alienation also relates to the so-called ‘Jewish question’, the esoteric significance of the fragmented pot or jug: a split between the chosen people and the rest of mankind, leading to fragmentation, diaspora, persecution, holocaust and war(s) (including world war)". As we try to puzzle our way through this sentence, to which no further explanation is attached, we cannot escape the implication that those weird ancient monistic Jews, with their claim to be "the chosen people", were responsible for the subsequent history of recurrent persecution; were even responsible for "world war", which presumably means the Second World War and the associated Nazi-Hitler phenomenon. This is a traditional argument within the repertoire of fascist apologias. By substituting an essentially esotericist interpretation of history for one remotely historical materialist, Bhaskar sadly capitulates to irrationalism. But we had already had warning of this possibility, for Andrew Collier conceded that it was perfectly logically possible to combine a critical realist position with any kind of politics, whether it be middle-of-the-road or even right wing.28

Bhaskar gave himself license to operate with unlimited political freedom in Philosophy and the Idea of Freedom (1991), where he writes: "These passing notes are not of course innocent. They are written from a particular perspective, that of a Lockean underlabouring interest in human sciences .... Such sciences ... would allow us to change both ourselves and the conditions under which we live ... in such a way that ‘the distinction between the reformer and the (violent) revolutionary is no longer necessary’."29 Despite Bhaskar’s oft expressed scorn for the pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty, his plagiarising from that source is all too obvious: pragmatism is his Alpha and Omega!

Bhaskar is the true "moving target" philosopher. No positions are fixed; they are variable or fluctuable at will, assimilating all sorts of incongruous or disparate angles and matter. What is one to make of the following passage, for instance, to be found in Dialectic?

"Did not perhaps Marx after all displace Geist onto labour – and a specific kind of labour – ... as he displaced Hegel’s cognitive triumphalism onto practical Prometheanism and his [Hegel’s] endism in Communism? And was not this a source of the neglect of the sheer weight of national, ethnic and religious, as opposed to class, differentiations that burst the Second International asunder in 1914?"30

What exactly is being hinted at here? Is not Bhaskar actually implying that the world could have done without Marx’s displacing Hegel’s Geist (Spirit, but not with the English religious sense of the word) onto wage-labour; or, in other words, without Marx’s making the proletariat the coming motor of history under capitalism? And is he not floating the notion that Marx should have equally displaced Geist into the realms of "the national, ethnic and religious"? Marx and Engels wrote plenty of words on Ireland or India, yet Bhaskar seems devoid of Marx’s insight that the hegemonic strength of imperialist powers lay precisely in their control over the national, ethnic and religious; and he certainly seems hostile to Marx’s conception of the proletariat as the most threatening fracture within his age’s evolving capitalism.

Earlier we were perhaps too hard in our strictures on Jonathan Joseph, and hopefully we can compensate a trifle by letting his own views speak for themselves. In his doctoral thesis "Hegemony and Critical Realism" (1997), he unleashes his sense of disappointment with Bhaskar, possibly an actual feeling of betrayal by one who would be a god amongst men. "Unfortunately", confesses Joseph, "it now looks as if Roy Bhaskar has moved away from his original critical realist project." Whereas that project "seemed to stand in a careful balance with Marxist social science", this "has now been lost". Bhaskar’s dialectical critical realism "seems to be an attempt to replace Marxism". Even worse, "Bhaskar is somewhat over-extending the role that philosophy can play" by venturing "into the realm of cosmology". The concept of "absenting" ensures that "the speculative element is left to predominate". Sadly, Joseph faces up to the fact that dialectical critical realism "rejects notions of class analysis in favour of ubiquitous master/slave relationships" (regresses, in other words, to Hegel’s cardinal reading of exploitation on earth – but without the logical clarity and superb fine-tuning of Hegel’s own system, we might add). A despairing Joseph concludes that Bhaskar’s project is ultimately "to provide an emancipatory theory for the new social movements and radical petit bourgeoisie".31 But one doesn’t need to have been a Bhaskarite groupie to have guessed that.

Does, however, Joseph’s own political version of Bhaskarism – based on a "purer" phase of Bhaskar’s evolution – constitute much of an improvement on the great guru’s collapse into irrationalism? Joseph’s unhappy consciousness has to wrestle with the rather stark contradiction between Bhaskar’s liberational pluralism and his own stubborn – one might well say, fetishising – attachment to monolithic democratic centralism. "It is precisely because reality is completely structural" (it is possibly true of nature, can never be totally true of human society), Joseph rants on, "that organisational discipline is necessary if any meaningful changes are to be made". We are warned that "As effective leadership and direction are removed, any attempt at a hegemonic project descends into incoherence", which leads to "fragmentation and the reinforcing of alienated identities". Moreover, Joseph assures us, "Those of us who still believe in the dictatorship of the proletariat, would see the need to impose constraints on certain freedoms".32 Stalinism has found itself a well-defended bolt-hole in Workers Action, it would seem!

Thus we see idealised the democratic centralist pyramid: one structure among the totality of structures that make up Bhaskarite society, its successful functioning dependent on an "effective leadership", which, no doubt, will obligingly rely on sound critical realist philosophic advice. No wonder Joseph harks back wistfully to the early Bhaskar, whose theory is wound round Althusserian structuralism like a corset tightly laced around a putrefying corpse. Althusser, the most prestigious philosophic voice the French Communist Party could muster, recoiled in panic and confusion at the "events" of 1968, that voluntaristic explosion which briefly sent the French power structures into a tail-spin, until, that is, the Communist Party rallied to save the Gaullist regime. As Rancière crisply put it, Althusserianism was exposed as a "philosophy of order".33 We cannot imagine our contemporary Althusserian nostalgist, a somnambulist wandering through a delightful and comforting dream-world of structures, responding very differently. In vivid contrast, we recall our old friend, the late Nicholas Krasso, often describing the enthusiasm with which George Lukács, aged idealist Marxist and born again voluntarist, responded when Krasso introduced him to revolutionary Budapest’s first Workers’ Soviet in 1956.


1. All quotations from Joseph in the first half of this article are to be found in his article in What Next? No.17. Marx’s quote is taken from W.A. Suchting, Marx and Philosophy: Three Studies, 1986, p.97.

2. D. Brudney, Marx’s Attempt to Leave Philosophy, 1998, pp.416-17.

3. On critical realism generally, see A. Collier’s article in Vol.2 of the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1998.

4. Quoted by A. Callinicos, Critical Realism and Beyond: Roy Bhaskar’s Dialectic, 1994, p.6.

5. Ibid., p.2.

6. R. Bhaskar, Philosophy and the Idea of Freedom, 1991, p.183; G. Elliott, Althusser: the Detour of Theory, 1987, p.331, n.6; M. Archer et al, eds, Critical Realism: Essential Readings, 1998, p.274. The general sycophancy towards Althusser is pretty nauseating.

7. L. Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, 1971, pp.91-2.

8. Elliott, Althusser, pp.337, 325.

9. However, the Bhaskarians are very self-consciously, and with grim determination, seeking to establish themselves as the new Kuhnian paradigm in the philosophy of science and the human sciences.

10. A. Collier, Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy, 1994, pp.30, 260.

11. R. Bhaskar, Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom, 1993, pp.229, 239.

12. Ibid., p.205.

13. Ibid., pp.350, 344-5.

14. A. Collier, Being and Worth, 1999, p.69.

15. Bhaskar, Dialectic, p.295.

16. Ibid., pp.4, xiii.

17. Ibid., pp.344, 86, 347, 346.

18. Ibid., pp.349-50.

19. Ibid., pp.239, 182, 335, 175.

20. Ibid., pp.297/9.

21. Callinicos, Critical Realism, p.15.

22. Bhaskar, Dialectic, p.203; G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Vol.3, 1896, p.428.

23. Bhaskar, Dialectic, pp.59.

24. R. Bhaskar, From East to West: Odyssey of a Soul, 2000: Life 3, p.96; Life 12, p.142.

25. Ibid.: Life 11, p.141.

26. Ibid., pp.150, 61, 26, 150, 4.

27. Collier, Being and Worth, pp.70, 72-3.

28. Collier, Critical Realism, p.200.

29. R. Bhaskar, Philosophy and the Idea of Freedom, 1991, p.vii.

30. Bhaskar, Dialectic, p.349.

31. Jonathan Joseph, "Hegemony and Critical Realism", PhD thesis, University of Southampton, 1997, pp.14, 16.

32. Ibid., pp.60, 15.

33. J. Rancière, quoted in Elliott, Althusser, p.242.