This is a transcript from Alan's presentation at the book launch of Carlos Garrido's The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism, which you may purchase HERE.
Transcription by Emily Doringer
Noah Khrachvik: … Alan Freeman is a former principal economist with the Greater London Authority and is now a research affiliate of the University of Manitoba. With Radhika Desai, he is co-director of the Geopolitical Economy Research Group. He is also co-editor of the Future of World Capitalism book series with Pluto Books, and the Geopolitical Economy book series with Manchester University Press He is a committee member of the Association for Heterodox Economics (www.hetecon.net) and a vice-chair of the World Association for Political Economy. He is a board member of Video Pool Winnipeg and the Christopher Freeman Trust, and a former board member of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Go ahead, Alan--
Alan Freeman: I’m very pleased to be in this discussion for two reasons. One is that it’s a wonderful book, but the second is that we’re talking, that we have at least three organizations whose origins are completely different, who are sitting around and actually talking. And I must say from my experience on the left—this is a very rare event. This is a very important new stage in the evolution of the left, grounded in actually acknowledging a variety of different views that exist and discussing them out, so that’s a very welcome event, it’s a very welcome book.
I often say that I prefer to meet and discuss with people that I don’t agree with than people I agree with because if I discuss with people I agree with, I know what they’re going to say. So, the reason for discussing with people you don’t agree with is precisely to bring out differences, which is the purpose of dialectic. So I am going to kind of, in a humorous way, say, I’m going to throw out a criticism of the book, which is a friendly criticism.
I think it’s too soft on the hard left.
And I’ll try to do a second thing, which I don’t know if I can do in the time, and that is to bring that into an evaluation of a very important contribution of the book, which is its critique of the Socratic and Platonic tradition. And you may think, “what the hell is the connection between those?” So I’m going to read a few quotes out to you that may make you think more about, you know, what did Plato actually say? The first is Alfred North Whitehead, who said: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that is consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” So everything you’ve been brought up on, that you’ve been told is the basis of western democracy owes most of what it claims to its heroes Plato and Socrates.
What they forget is that both Plato and Socrates were irreconcilable enemies of democracy. Their position in Greek society arose after the defeat of the Athenian democracy in the Peloponnesian War, probably self-inflicted, but nevertheless a defeat. A tyranny of the Council of Thirty, who killed nearly 5% of the Athenian population, exiled many more. And they came to the conclusion after looking at this that the problem was democracy, and what you needed what a rule of the experts, a rule of the philosophers. And this rule had to be based on what Plato calls the “noble lie.” So your recipe for democracy is first of all, you put experts in charge. Don’t have anything to do with democracy which Socrates and Plato both called, “the rule of the ignorant.” And second is you have to lie to them. That’s the foundation of western democracy. And the lie in Plato is justified in the following terms: that it is necessary in order to maintain social harmony, so it’s a “noble lie.” And he tells a fictional tale know as the “Myth (or Parable) of the Metals.” And this is the origin of the Three Social Classes who compose his “Ideal,” his “Pure” republic, which never came into existence. It’s perhaps the first form of the purity fetish. And these are--the gold, the silver, and the iron. And the gold, the silver, and the iron are--the rulers, the workers (the iron), and the guys in the middle who kind of, you know, do the real business.
Now I want to put it to you that that “Noble Lie” and the rule of the philosophers are what we are actually getting from the far left. And I explain this in the following way: I have never met a member of the far left who is, and I count myself as a member of the far left, but of a far left purist organization, that has justified supporting the Provisional IRA in Marxist terms, or defending Saddam Hussein in Marxist terms, or defending the Iranian Revolution in Marxist terms, or siding with Russia in the aggression of NATO against it that provoked the current war, in Marxist terms. I’ve never heard any justification for supporting socialist China in Marxist terms, from many of these people.
So what are these people? They are apologists for imperialism. Let’s say that bluntly. Let’s say that loud, and let’s say that clearly. And the way they do it is the same as the method of Plato, which is they construct—basically based on a confusion between form and essence – an ideal form: an ideal society has to be like this, and if it’s not, it’s wrong, it’s impure, it’s imperfect. But the doctrine of essence that was developed in the Hegelian-Marxist tradition is something very different. It says, “no, we don’t look at what’s ideal, we look at what lies behind what we see.” Now in both of them they can appear quite similar, because they make a contrast between what you see and what’s really going on.
So this gets distorted, I mean I have a lovely quotation from Wolras, the founder of modern economic thesis: “A truth long a go demonstrated by the Platonic philosophy is that science does not study corporeal entities, but universals of which these entities are manifestations. Corporeal entities come and go, but universals remain forever. Universals, their relations, and their laws are the object of all scientific study.” Now that, you know, you could sort of square that with a kind of Hegelian narrative that underneath the reality there lies some, underneath the observed superficial appearance, there lies something. But actually, it’s the opposite. And there’s another beautiful quotation from Plato that illustrates this.
Because Plato argued that to stop people resorting to the sin of looking at things as they really were, what you have to do is you have to have gods that are out of reach. So Plato actually invented the idea that the heavens are the abode of the gods. Not Mount Olympus. Because they’re so far above us that you will never have people saying I want to go there and see what’s happening. Nowadays, you do have it, in Plato’s time you didn’t. And he justifies this with this wonderful phrase which I’ve—just sums it all up: “No one can ever gain knowledge of any sensible object by gazing upwards, any more than shutting his mouth and searching for it on the ground because there can be no knowledge of sensible things. These intricate traceries in the sky are no doubt the loveliest and most perfect of material things. But still part of the visible world, and they therefore fall far short of the true realities, the real relative philosophies in the world of pure number and all perfect geometrical figures.” So he says not only can you not see things in the heavens, but there’s no point in looking at the heavens, because the real heaven is even beyond all that. It’s completely inaccessible.
Now, how does that work? The gold and the silver and the iron are with us today. The gold is the world created by the imperialists. It’s perfect, it’s wonderful. Everything else is an inferior form of that. Then we have the people who kind of go along with that, and they’re the silver. The people who collaborate with that. And then you have the iron who is everybody else. And everybody else is inferior. The fundamental way that Russians are described in the narrative of the West is in the words of somebody like [EU foreign policy chief] Joseph Borrell: “Europe is a garden, and everywhere else is a jungle.” That’s naked racism, and when people in the Ukrainian government persistently say that the problem is all Russians, not the Russian state, not the Russian government, but all Russians—that naked racism. And it’s only accepted by people from pure Marxism because they use the pure Marxism to prove that Russia is just an imperialist country like any other.
Now I’m going to say one more thing to bring all that back together. And this is what you might call the classic origin of purity, which is the way in which Lenin defended the Russian Revolution against the charge of putschism. And he does that by reference to the Paris Commune. And from the notion of the Paris Commune is the dictatorship of the proletariat, or the prototype thereof, there comes the justification that he gives for the Soviet form of the state. I think I have no issue with that at all. But I think that subsequently what happened, is people then, through the purity fetish in its earliest form, said “only if you have a Soviet republic do you have a pure democracy, do you have a real democracy, do you have something that fits the criteria of Marxism-Leninism.”
Now what’s wrong with that? Lenin never says that the Paris Commune proves that the ideal form of democracy is Soviet democracy. What he says, and this is essence as opposed to form, is that you cannot have a socialist revolution. You cannot go to a new form of society in which the working class rules, without smashing the existing state. There are a hundred different ways to smash the state. Sometimes it just dissolves itself and then you can have a quiet, peaceful process. Sometimes it fights back very, very hard and then you have to have a revolutionary war. Or, as in China, sometimes you simply have an upsurge against the state, and the state virtually disappears and is replaced by something that you don’t quite understand, like the Iranian state. But to impose on that the criterion that it has to meet the ideal form is to misunderstand the need to look at it from the standpoint of essence. That is, does it advance and defend the interests of working people and does it retard and make more difficult the interests of the property owners?
And I’ll finish on a wonderful statement that was given in one of our webinars by an Iranian revolutionary, which is the analogy of the ice cream. He says the way that revolutionaries approach revolutions is they say—"I’m going to an ice cream van, and I’m going to get offered a strawberry ice cream, a Neapolitan ice cream, a vanilla ice cream. And I’ll choose the strawberry one.” He says, when you have a revolution, you don’t get a choice. You get the damn ice cream. And you take what you’re given. I think that notion that you deal with the reality, you look at the essence behind it, but you do not worship form, is the true way that the tradition of Marxism and of all the revolutionary currents one finds, whether they call themselves Marxist or not, should be adopted and taken on board in a rich and broad dialogue – for instance, - with Bolivarianism, with the Iranian revolutionary tradition, with the emerging currents that we now see in the very fervent debate going on in Russia, with the socialist China and the Chinese Communist Party and the Vietnamese Communist Party. That’s the kind of debate we need. A broad debate in which we all engage with each other on the basis of mutual respect without any precondition that we’re going to say, “this is pure” and if you don’t say that, then we’re actually going to go into another shouting match.
FULL BOOK LAUNCH: