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To Bury a Binfull of Bhaskarites

Ron Heisler

"MY ENEMIES are bad enough, my disciples are even worse", once said John Dewey, the eminent American pragmatist philosopher, somewhat startled by the infinite capacity of his followers to bend the meaning of his words in any direction they saw fit. With that insight in mind, we have some sympathy for Roy Bhaskar, who currently must be feeling much as Dewey did, as he contemplates the ill-bred zeal with which his epigoni are seeking to recast his intellectual profile according to their own idées fixes. We are thinking of Jonathan Joseph ("Subjectivist Marxism", What Next? No.17; also quoted in our article "Response to the Modern Ranters" in No.18) and Phil Sharpe ("Defending Philosophy", What Next? No.19).

Whilst Bhaskar may feel rather flattered by being compared to Hegel by Sharpe, who with some chutzpah announces that "Critical Realism is experiencing a Feuerbachian critique of its founder", at the same time the magister asinorum must be quite worried by his bovver boys’ fickle, disloyal natures. All that differentiation, and qualifying of positions, and distancing themselves, is rather more than mortal flesh and blood can stand! Moreover, the Bhaskarite Praetorian Guard, lustily executing their coupures épistémologiques upon the corpus of Bhaskar's writings, threaten to bring the whole intellectual enterprise to its knees. The malcontents have clearly misunderstood the essential integrity of his life’s work. Sharpe, for instance, whilst brandishing Bhaskar’s Dialectic as if it was Mao’s "Little Red Book", obviously has not read it through, for he overlooks Bhaskar’s for once wise words therein. Castigating the philosopher Kojève for weakening Hegel’s system by junking the Philosophy of Nature, Bhaskar correctly says that without this work "no sense can be made of the Logics". He then points out: "You cannot pick and choose with one for whom the truth is the whole." And as far as Bhaskar’s own ensemble of ideas goes, "the truth is the whole", too. Take out one brick and the whole system implodes. But that is what the "Feuerbachian" Fifth Column are up to!

Our constructively critical remarks concerning philosophy have rather upset Sharpe, who retorts that philosophy is not "abstracted from historical and social development in an elitist manner". Where has he been living all his days? It has been a standing complaint from the Left for over half a century that the hegemonic bloc in English philosophy, the analytic school, have been ruthlessly ivory towerish, immersing themselves in arid technical discussion; and that, when they have switched to a wider dimension, they have tended to be blatantly ideological, projecting the world view of the liberal-capitalist consensus. Bhaskarism has prospered under this regime, not by overturning that consensus, but by compromising with it, by becoming a satellite area of discourse. To read Critical Realism: Essential Readings (1998), edited by Margaret Archer, Roy Bhaskar et al, is to suffocate amid a morass of technicality obviously relished by its practitioners (proletarians need not apply for enlightenment). What a joyless parody of mainstream Anglophone philosophy it all amounts to! But, on reflection, perhaps we should not have expected anything better from this etiolated sect, camped out as it is on the "feng shui and sushi" wing of Marxism.

We are far from unique, incidentally, in our scepticism concerning philosophy’s grandiose pretensions to rule the roost in the world of the human sciences. The brilliant French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, whom E.P. Thompson once heartily recommended to unreconstructed Althusserians, so that they "might recommence their re-education", has done as much as anyone to cut the decadent postmodernist strains of French intellectual life down to their true dwarf status. Focusing on philosophy in particular, he has been rewarded for his courageous objectivity by a venomous stream of bitchery, the best that that insalubrious quarter is capable of. His assailants have included Régis Debray and one Verdès-Leroux, who attempted to dispose of Bourdieu as a "sociological terrorist".2 Such a phalanx of near asphyxiated philosophers indicates strongly that Bourdieu has right on his side and is fully worthy of our solidarity. Whilst not a Marxist, Bourdieu has been described as evolving a "distinguished form of vulgar materialism". He is also usually bracketed as a critical realist – but of a kind as far removed from Bhaskar as is conceivable.

Bourdieu argues that each academic discipline commands a "field" – and that such fields, lacking fixed borders, overlap. His central contention regarding philosophy’s declining relevance in recent times is compelling. Sociology and philosophy (the two "second-order activities", as the jargon goes) are engaged in a bitter struggle to the death for control of contested territory. Inspired by the Theses on Feuerbach, Bourdieu sees Marx, with his Promethean social science, as the founding father of the tradition of militant sociology, which has engaged in pushing back the frontiers of philosophy’s bloated empire. Obviously, if philosophy’s imperialism were allowed to reassert itself, the good work of Marx’s Eleventh Thesis would be largely negated.

We confess, by the way, to harbouring the hope that a future socialist society would result not merely in the withering away of the state, but also in the withering away of philosophy in favour of the useful and creative sciences. Some dogmatists might argue that to abolish the state is to abolish philosophy: they can point out, with good reason, that without the Greek polis the philosophy of ancient Greece is inconceivable. However, being of a liberal disposition, we envisage a place for a small institution in which redundant cultural manifestations such as alchemy and philosophy could be studied without prejudice. In such a liberated society, instead of being the exploited clientele of experts and authorities, men and women would learn "to speak rather than being spoken to", to borrow Bourdieu’s felicitous phrase.

We have perhaps allowed ourself to be carried away somewhat at the risk of overlooking Sharpe’s most important claim: that Bhaskar’s "Dialectical Critical Realism" is a "specific form of the necessary connection between the proletariat and philosophical inquiry about reality". As we have already seen, Bourdieu would laugh this formulation out of court and insist that the "necessary connection" is that between the proletariat and "sociological" inquiry about reality. But let us forget about Bourdieu and actually look hard at Bhaskar’s Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom, which presumably Sharpe considers to be the key text for linking the proletariat to philosophy.

Alas, the book does no such thing – clinches nothing. The problem is that in over four hundred pages there are only a couple of paragraphs in which the proletariat (or working class) is actually discussed, invariably in a wider theoretical context aimed at downsizing or denigrating its importance as the agent of fundamental change in society. Bhaskar, by clearing the proletariat off centre stage, clearly intends to promote other social forces – the new social movements, with their particular utopias – as the potential vanguards of historical development.

Now we wish the more progressive of these movements well, since we agree with many of their more rational aims. But for heaven’s sake, let us not be deluded! The Marxist analysis of the economy and society specifically locates the revolutionary impulse – the motor of change – within a social stratum defined by its position within the relations of production, i.e. the proletariat. Bhaskar obviously believes that, in reaching this conclusion, Marx was out of kilter with historical reality. And, feeling unconstrained by Marx’s objectivism in this regard, Bhaskar sees no point in anchoring philosophy in the proletariat, but rather desires to anchor (or mire) the proletariat in philosophy.

But if the proletarian cannot function as Bhaskar’s revolutionary role model, where then does he place his hope? What sort of individual is Bhaskar’s revolutionary man? We don’t have to look far to find him, for many years ago he was defined by Bhaskar, as the denizens of the Bhaskarian underworld know full well. Nigel Pleasants has recently reminded us that Bhaskar has always enthusiastically invoked the idea of "tacit knowledge" in developing his theory of agency in society. This seemingly innocuous notion enables him to claim that the ordinary individual is actively and knowledgeably implicated in the production of the social order. Bhaskar even resolutely maintains that every social act men engage in is a "skilful accomplishment" (presumably, if one shits in a communal latrine, this constitutes a "skilful" act). Pleasants will have no truck with such sophistry on the very reasonable ground that to call speaking, seeing or interacting a "skilful accomplishment" is to risk "forfeiting the ability to discern genuine instances of skilful performance and accomplishment". Pleasants then makes the pertinent remark that it is "rather patronising" to call the life-situations of the homeless, the unemployed and poor a "skilful accomplishment".3

By now readers will be yawning to know where all this is leading, so we shall put them out of their misery. Several "Cambridge" critical realist economists and latterly Pleasants have pointed out the remarkable similarity between Bhaskar’s social theory and that of the reactionary ideologue Friedrich von Hayek, who, by the way, can also be classified as a "critical realist". This idol of Margaret Thatcher’s was the prime propagandist of "free market" economics and a fervent enemy of socialism, any kind of economic planning and the welfare state. Hayek peopled his "free market" utopia with a model of man very much like Bhaskar’s, invoking "tacit knowledge" with the same connotations as are to be found with Bhaskar. Pleasants’ judgement here is damning: "Bhaskar can do nothing qua critical realist to ensure that substantive social science does not endorse a Hayekian view of socio-political order."4

Now in case any reader underlabours under the illusion that Bhaskar, in his unhealthily close proximity to Hayek’s homo oeconomicus, speaks for himself alone – and not for his followers – we suggest a scrupulous reading of a little tract entitled A Meeting of Minds. Socialists Discuss Philosophy – Towards a New Symposium (1991). These are the edited conclusions of the Bhaskarite congregation present at a Socialist Society conference in Chesterfield, where apparently Roy Bhaskar plc was licensed to operate the philosophy franchise (for more filling fare, delegates went to McDonald’s). Chapter 2 is endorsed with the names of a fine gaggle indeed: Bhaskar, Ted Benton, Andrew Collier (his SWP days behind him), Gregory Elliott, Ros Gill, John Lovering, Andy Pratt, Kate Soper and Hilary Wainwright. In their summary of chapter 1, which evidently had driven them ecstatic with approval, this clutch of the "usual suspects" write: "On the transformational view, history is a skilled accomplishment of active agents, although not ‘under conditions of their own choosing’." This is a lovely synthesis, bringing Hayek’s "free market" man into conjunction with a golden phrase from Marx. Honour was satisfied all round, we can be sure!

There was a time, a golden age, when society took philosophy very seriously. We can be sure of this when we recall that Socrates was forced to take hemlock at the insistence of the Athenian state; that Peter Ramus (of the Dialectics) was targeted for assassination by the Parisian mob in 1572; that Giordano Bruno was executed at the behest of the Inquisition in Rome two decades later; that Thomas Hobbes quaked with fear because elements within a royalist government contemplated persecuting him for atheism; that a few years after his death the teachings of Hegel were banned from all Prussian academies by the education ministry; that the professor who taught Stalin philosophy in the 1920s was purged a few years later. Thereafter the rot set in. When Bertrand Russell’s spiritual leadership of CND irritated the Labour hierarchy beyond all endurance, George Brown threatened to take away his Labour Party membership card. Such a feeble reaction mirrored the low status of philosophy in the land. The day that the state insists on Roy Bhaskar taking hemlock will be the day we will acknowledge the importance of his philosophy for the proletariat. No doubt, many readers of What Next? will be earnestly praying that that day comes sooner rather than later!


1. Roy Bhaskar, Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom, 1993, p.367, footnote.

2. On Bourdieu, the best short surveys in English are: Frédéric Vandenberghe, "‘The Real is Rational’: An Epistemological Analysis of Pierre Bourdieu’s Generative Structuralism", in D. Robbins, ed, Pierre Bourdieu, Vol.II, our quotes pp.410-11. Also Dick Pels, "Knowledge, Politics and Anti-Politics: Toward a Critical Appraisal of Bourdieu’s Concept of Intellectual Ontology", Theory and Society 24, February 1995.

3. Nigel Pleasants, Wittgenstein and the Idea of a Critical Social Theory, 2000, pp.70, 71, 72.

4. Ibid, p.176.