David North
Marxism, History and Socialist Consciousness

Dialectics, pragmatism and the theoretical work of the ICFI

The manner in which you deal with the other major theoretical project of the International Committee—the lectures held in August 2005 in Ann Arbor—is a travesty. Once again, you make no effort to seriously and objectively address their content. Of the nine lectures presented at the summer school, you ignore five. As for the four that I delivered, you do not quote one complete sentence from any of them. The attacks that you make generally involve distortions, gross simplifications or outright falsification of the positions I advanced. One is entitled to conclude that you assume the audience for whom you are writing will not have read, or have any interest in reading, the actual text of the lectures.

You begin your critique of the summer school with the following statement:

Dialectics is a dead letter in the IC. The movement hasn’t produced a single article on dialectical philosophy in 20 years and no lecture was devoted to it at the summer school. Predictably enough, the abandonment of dialectics has also meant the abandonment of the struggle against pragmatism. The latter didn’t rate so much as a single mention in any of the lectures. A telling instance of how invisible pragmatism has become in the IC’s outlook is the fact that while Richard Rorty is discussed in one lecture as a representative postmodernist, his role as a prominent philosophical pragmatist is completely ignored. This is astonishing given that the struggle against pragmatism was at one time considered the most important element in the training of a conscious revolutionary leadership within the International Committee.

What a dishonest method of argumentation! You offer as proof of the death of dialectics in the ICFI, and the abandonment of the fight against pragmatism, our focus on Richard Rorty as a leading postmodernist, rather than on his role as a pragmatist. What is the point of such nonsense? Do you seriously believe that no one in the audience knew that Richard Rorty, America’s most celebrated philosopher, is a pragmatist? Or that they were unaware that postmodernism is, itself, a major tendency within contemporary pragmatic philosophy? My discussion of Rorty, which extends for several pages, focused on the two theoretical questions that are central to the struggle against pragmatism: (1) Rorty’s rejection of the possibility of objective knowledge and the concept of objective truth, and (2) his virulent rejection of the concept of history as an objective and law-governed process, from which lessons can be drawn. In the course of my examination of Rorty, I stated:

… He proposes to banish from discussion the achievements of more than 200 years of theoretical thought. Underlying this proposal is the conception that the development of thought is an arbitrary subjective process. Words, theoretical concepts, logical categories and philosophical systems are merely verbal constructs, pragmatically conjured up in the interest of various subjective ends. The claim that the development of theoretical thought is an objective process, expressing man’s evolving, deepening, and ever more complex and precise understanding of nature and society is, as far as Rorty is concerned, nothing more than a Hegelian-Marxian shibboleth. [6]

Is this not, Comrades Steiner and Brenner, a concise and correct explanation of an essential conflict between Marxism and pragmatism?

To the extent that your indictment of my supposed failure to deal with pragmatism is not merely a factionally-motivated distortion, but also an expression of your own theoretical conceptions, your casual treatment of the question of postmodernism is not without significance. You write:

The assumption that postmodernism has replaced pragmatism and empiricism as the principal ideological threat to Marxism is deeply misguided. Postmodernism is an academic fad that gained currency out of the rightward shift of the generation of Sixties radicals and the incorporation of many of them into the upper middle class. By contrast, pragmatism and empiricism are bound up with the entire historic development of Western capitalism.... Moreover postmodernism is by now very much a fad on the wane. Many of its principal spokesmen have either passed away or gone into retirement and those who remain active often find themselves on the defensive, with condemnations of postmodernism now commonplace in radical and liberal circles. Twenty years ago it would have mattered to mount an attack on postmodernism; today it is an exercise in flogging, if not a dead horse, at least a very puny one.

This is a superficial, impressionistic and unserious approach to the examination of philosophical tendencies. First of all, I have nowhere stated, or even implied, that postmodernism has replaced pragmatism. It is, rather, a variety of pragmatic thought—indeed, one that takes the subjective idealist, voluntarist and even irrational elements that are present in classical pragmatic thought, dating all the way back to James—to their most extreme and reactionary conclusion. To suggest, as your comment does, that postmodernism represents a fundamentally different species of theoretical thought, is to make a major concession to pragmatism, to shield pragmatism from the intellectual embarrassment it suffers on account of the gross excesses of its postmodernist progeny.

Similarly, to refer to postmodernism as “a fad on the wane” is to make light of a philosophical tendency that is a significant expression of both the reactionary character and deep crisis of bourgeois thought. A petty-bourgeois academic, who flits from one half-baked conception to another, may describe postmodernism as a “fad,” especially as he prepares to jump on some new intellectual bandwagon, without bothering to give a proper accounting of his last philosophical escapade. But that is not how a Marxist appraises the significance of a theoretical trend. What one or another subjective-idealist philosophical tendency calls itself is secondary. The main issue is its relationship to the history of philosophy. You correctly state that pragmatism and empiricism “are bound up with the entire history of Western capitalism.” But is that not the case with postmodernism, which draws, not only upon the American pragmatic traditions, but also on other deeply reactionary philosophical trends? Are there not deep and disturbing echoes of Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Heidegger in the writings of contemporary postmodernists, including those of the pragmatist Richard Rorty?


David North, The Russian Revolution and the Unfinished Twentieth Century (Oak Park: Mehring Books, 2014), p. 165.