Marxism as a Learning Process

[printable copy]

By Stephen D’Arcy

In everyday justifications offered on behalf of contested claims, simply noting that someone once said something about case X offers little or no help in substantiating a claim about case Y, regardless of how esteemed the speaker may have been. For instance, if I want to know how many people live in Greater Manchester today, it is of very little help to cite the remark by Friedrich Engels, in The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844, that Greater Manchester “contains about four hundred thousand inhabitants, rather more than less” (Engels 1892, p. 45). Similarly, albeit less obviously, if I want to determine the nature of a revolutionary process in the 21st century, I would seem not to get very far by quoting Karl Marx’s assertion, made in 1848, that the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century was “the victory of bourgeois property over feudal property, of nationality over provincialism, of competition over the guild, of the partition of estates over primogeniture…, of civil law over privileges of medieval origin.” As interesting as these comments by Engels and Marx may or may not be, they were simply not talking about, and for essential reasons were incapable of making informed judgments about, events or facts occurring over a century after their respective deaths. This much seems utterly uncontroversial. Nevertheless, in marxism, it is common to justify or to criticize claims made in the context of debates today by quoting statements made by Marx, Engels, or other ‘classical’ figures in the marxist tradition, like Lenin or Luxemburg, concerning issues or debates from the 19th or early 20th centuries. These quotations are supposed to serve not simply to enliven one’s writing with memorable aphorisms, but to justify important and contested claims.[1] It is for this reason that this practice is controversial.

Often, critics condemn what they call a “religious” attitude toward Marx (and other figures and texts with — I dare say — “canonical” status). The metaphorical or analogical accusation of “religiosity,” in this context, is a rhetorical means of ascribing to others a certain kind of epistemic irrationality, namely, what the critics deem to be a superstitious stance of deference to ancestral authority. For ease of reference, I refer to this way of objecting to the justificatory deployment of ‘classical’ formulations as ‘anti-citationalism.’ Conversely, I use the term ‘citationalism’ to label the practice of citing classical formulations as if they should be regarded as somehow epistemically authoritative in contemporary debates, in spite of the passage of time and the changing of circumstances.

The anti-citationalist, typically, likes to claim the mantle of rationality and to assume the posture of guardian and guarantor of evidence-based scientificity, determined to hold encroaching unreason at bay. But, notwithstanding its self-assured stance of secular modernity and its air of epistemological sophistication, this resistance toward the citation of classical texts in a justificatory role is misguided, at least in very many cases. In this paper, I want to explain where the anti-citationalist position goes astray.

In order not to miss what is at stake in the citationalism controversy, it is necessary to appreciate upfront that the kind of justification offered by citers of Marx and other classical figures is not empirical, in the sense of offering independent factual evidence to support a claim about what is held to be observably the case. Instead, the citationalist’s appeal is to a judicious precedent, that is, the precedent of a sound judgment offered in an earlier, admittedly different, yet relevantly similar set of circumstances. This appeal has less to do with religious justification (as in, “The Holy Bible says….”) than with common-law juridical justification (as in, “The Court held in a relevantly similar case that the principle of freedom of association was applicable under circumstances of this type….”). A crucial step on the way to vindicating the rationality of citationalism, therefore, is to show that (and in what manner) common law legal reasoning from analogous precedent is — when it is done well, and not poorly — quite capable of qualifying as epistemically rational. 

In this paper, I approach this matter in four steps. First, I draw attention to an assumption that seems to motivate anti-citationalist doubts about justifications of this type, namely, the assumption that the epistemic value of a quotation must be equivalent to what we learn from the quotation itself, from someone having said that. Second, I introduce the idea of justification by recapitulation, which Hegel called “Erinnerung” (recollection) and which is now more commonly known as “rational reconstruction.” According to this idea, one way to justify a claim is to retrace the steps of the learning process by virtue of which we came to be rationally motivated to adopt the claim in the first place. Third, I argue that common-law juridical justification, the legal or jurisprudential variant of the more general phenomenon of precedential reasoning, is rational because and to the extent that it appeals to the discoveries of a cumulative learning process that generates an evolving intellectual inheritance shared by a community of co-inquirers. This inheritance establishes a (defeasible) presumption in favour of ensuring consistency of new judgments with the accumulated stock of previously recognized insights that comprise the tradition. Because cited precedents are presumed to be susceptible to defence by recapitulative justification, the burden of justifying contrary views that break with that inheritance is relatively demanding. Fourth, I draw attention to the fact that the citation of a precedential case in juridical justification can take the form of simply naming the case, as in R. v. Oakes or Roe v. Wade, without explicitly restating all the reasoning or evidence considered in the cited case. This is sufficient, normally, because (by hypothesis) it is a presumptively well-founded established precedent. So too in the citation of canonical (that is, precedential) formulations in marxist social science, the reliance on the short form of citation (that is, merely quoting a single sentence or short passage) implies no deficiency of epistemic rationality, as long as the appeal to learning processes already traversed and susceptible to rational reconstruction can be vindicated on demand. Finally, fifth, having explained the basis for the assumption that the citation of classical formulations is epistemically rational, I illustrate the analysis with two examples drawn from recent debates within marxist social science, in which canonical formulations inherited from the tradition are deployed in a justificatory role, and which are not plausibly seen as irrational in the way that anti-citationalism imagines such justifications to be. In a brief conclusion, I explain why this type of justification is not limited to any particular category of claims, like descriptive, explanatory, or normative claims, but applies to any class of claims that admit of cumulative learning processes to which later inquirers can appeal in the mode of precedential “recollection.”

The Anti-Citationalist’s Motivating Worry

Consider a typical expression of anti-citationalism, to be found in the work of a marxist philosopher of science, Brian Aarons. He writes:  

[M]any marxist intellectuals and revolutionary activists … think that just because Marx or Lenin or Mao wrote something it must therefore be right. For too long this sort of think­ing has led to ‘proof by quotation’ arguments, which are very often futile because the quotations are treated as holy writ, as well as being usually quoted out of the con­text of the text and the times in which they were written.[2]

I note that Aarons describes the citation of classical formulations as “very often futile,” not futile by their very nature. But I am less concerned with replying to this specific formulation than elucidating the type of worry that motivates the anti-citationalist objection as such. Aarons points to three features of the citationalist move: first, the reverential attitude toward the “canonical” source (“holy writ,” true because someone special uttered it); second, the gap in historical context between the original text and the chronologically later citation of it in a different setting; and third, the disembedding of the cited judgment from the context in which it was originally articulated.

It is not actually my intention to push back against these worries on their own terms. I do not, for instance, object to the thought that — other things being equal — it would be epistemically irrational to believe some claim p is true, just because someone deemed to be important or special had long ago uttered the claim that is true. Nor do I deny that the historical context in which some judgment was made could make it epistemically irrational to simply apply the same judgment to questions arising in a very different context. Nor, finally, do I reject the worry that a quoted passage, taken out of its original context, can change its meaning and can go from ‘true’ to ‘false’ by being improperly or carelessly recontextualized. My response to worries of the sort expressed by Aarons is more subtle than a straightforward rejectionof these points. Essentially, my claim is that they grossly understate the epistemological sophistication of the very practice of citing canonical formulations in a justificatory role. Put differently, my objection to Aarons’ criticisms is that they underestimate the resources available for epistemically rational judgment that are already found within the practice of reasoning from cited precedents. To see why, we need to adopt a more curious and perhaps a more charitable approach to analyzing the type of reasoning that the citationalist brings into play.

Dialectical ‘Erinnerungen’: The Epistemic Rationality of Retracing our Steps

The first part of the picture I want to sketch here is the dialectical model of justification via recapitulation, or what Hegel calls “Erinnerung” (recollection).[3] Hegel’s “Erinnerungen” (recollections) are called “rational reconstructions” by the Marxist philosopher of science, Imre Lakatos, and for the most part that’s the term I use here, although the terms roots in Hegel’s conception of inquiry is important to take into account, since the marixist practice of precedential reasoning emerged from the same tradition.[4] This is the model of scientific justification that Marx invoked when he articulated his “après-coup” principle. Marx claims, in the first volume of Capital, specifically in the slightly expanded French edition, that “scientific analysis” of “the forms of human life” must take “a course directly opposite to that of their real [historical] development,” so that the analysis “begins post festum [après coup]…with the results of the process of development ready to hand”[5] in advance. A scientific account of capitalism, for example, begins with what we know capitalism to be, and rationally reconstructs its emergence in retrospect, by retracing the steps of its emergence and elucidating the imperatives to which each of those steps responded. In Marx’s case, however, what is at stake is not justification, but causal explanation. One explains how capitalism followed a certain developmental trajectory by reconstructing the causalimpact of systemic imperatives to which it was, at each stage of its development, responding. Hegel, however, is more concerned with rational reconstruction in the sense of retrospective recapitulation of the rational insights, especially the correction of mistakes, that motivated us to change our minds, or (in many cases) to enrich or complicate our conceptual repertoires or vocabularies, in response to deficiencies of earlier, now-superseded understandings. This Hegelian mode of recapitulation does not just explain our change of mind; it justifies successor views by elucidating how they correct mistakes, or otherwise offer epistemic enhancements, and so embody advances in relation to their predecessors.

Hegel’s books are essentially all rational reconstructions, in this sense, but none more explicitly so than his first and most important book, the Phenomenology of Spirit. There, he begins, après-coup, in Marx’s sense, with what we now know to be true, having already traversed a learning process. Looking back from this epistemically privileged standpoint he justifies this claim to know what we believe to be so by means of a retrospective rational reconstruction, retracing the steps of the learning process, reactivating the insights that propelled us past earlier, now ‘relativized’ steps along the path, which we now know to have been inadequate (what he would call mere relative knowing, as in “it seemed so at the time,” in contrast to “what we now know to be so,” full stop, or so-called ‘absolute’ knowing), because they proved in the course of ongoing learning to be unable to account for insights integrated into their successor stages of a learning process that left them behind. On this model of learning, we move forward by accumulating insights, correcting the deficiencies of predecessor views while integrating what was relatively correct in them, a process Hegel dubs “sublation.”

When I describe Marxism as a learning process, it is to the Hegelian conception of justification by rational reconstruction that I intend to appeal. Marxism is a cumulative learning process in which insights are taken on board. These insights can be invoked later, using the short form of citation typified by the practice here named ‘citationalism’: invoking a presumptively authoritative precedent, as part of a learning process that we — participants in the tradition — have already traversed. 

From the Retracing of our Steps to the Citation of our Precedents

The citation of a canonical judgment inherited from a research tradition in which we claim to participate is not, in and of itself, justification by rational reconstruction, in the dialectical (Hegelian and Marxian) sense reviewed above. In crucial respects, the mere citation of a classical source stops short of recapitulation. In particular, the citational gesture is terse to the point of controversiality. One can hear a debate partner’s invocation of a one- or two-sentence quotation from the Communist Manifesto or Capital and think, “Is that your only argument?” This reaction from the citationalist’s skeptical interlocutor is, if not exactly correct, at least understandable. It responds to the fact that the citationalist’s quotation dislodges a fragment from a larger intellectual and historical context, and then recontextualizes it by inserting it into a different debate, addressing different circumstances, in a different time and place.[6] Extracting two or three sentences from a book like Capital, and recontextualizing them into the back-and-forth of a 21st-century debate, could well appear to be a grossly questionable or even careless procedure, especially if the alleged relevance of the quoted passage extended no further than the sheer worthiness to high esteem attributed to the quoted author. 

However, these doubts are based, in most cases, on a misunderstanding of what the citationalist is up to. The citation of an inherited, canonical judgment is important to us for a very specific reason, not taken into account by the anti-citationalist. We care about the quoted passage, not because the one who uttered it is an object of reverence, but because the passage is the repository or trace (in the sense of footprint) of insights emerging from a learning process that we, who take it as presumptively authoritative, could in principle rationally reconstruct, if called upon to do so, normally by recapitulating a learning process that has already been traversed, probably at the time of the initial formulation (and typically recorded in the larger canonical expression of the cited view). Thus, although the actual citation of the precedential judgment does not contain a justifying recapitulation, the epistemological authoritativeness of the cited precedent is grounded in the availability in principle of a rational reconstruction of its emergence from an insight-motivated learning process. 

We can shed light on the epistemological infrastructure of this practice by considering a parallel in the law. Citationalism in social-scientific research is comparable, epistemologically, to the practice of attributing epistemic authoritativeness to the citation of case law in common-law jurisprudence. The authority of the citation of a previously decided case as precedent, which may take the form of a mere mention of a case’s name (such as, to cite a famous example, Roe v. Wade), or at most an extremely terse summary of a key conclusion, will seem epistemologically mysterious if we lose sight of its relatively complex epistemological structure. There is nothing magical about invoking the name of the decision, nor of the judge or court that generated it. Rather, the case’s claim to our attention in a present-day debate, as an authoritative precedent that is presumptively binding on us in today’s different circumstances, rests on a dual claim that the basis on which the decision was made in the cited case is, first, well-founded by reasoning that is normally recorded in the original decision, or otherwise could be stated or restated by those counting it as precedential, and second, originating as a judgement about an earlier case that is relevantly similar to the one under consideration today. If the best reasoning available to support the supposed precedent were found to be a rationally baseless “hunch,” or some now-discarded theory that was misjudged at the time to be informative, then the presumption in favour of the earlier decision’s bindingness on us would be weak to the point of irrelevance (rationally, if not legally). In just this way, precedents are discarded and overridden over time, as the reasoning on which they rest loses its grip on us. Likewise, if the circumstances under which the decision was made were so different as to cast serious doubt on the applicability or relevance of the precedent to this case, under these circumstances, then once again it would lose its authoritativeness as applied to our situation. If, however, on the contrary, the reasoning is not found wanting or unavailable, and the circumstances are apparently similar in all crucially relevant respects, then the bindingness of the precedent is presumptively dispositive. (The word “presumptively,” of course, implies also the possibility of defeating the presumption; but doing so rationally requires that there be a compelling basis for setting aside the precedent, because there is an epistemological asymmetry between a firmly established precedent, on the one hand, and a possibly eccentric or capricious departure from that established precedent, on the other hand.)

Some Examples

I want to conclude by illustrating this analysis with two simple but vivid examples. These examples illustrate the type of claim that citationalism legitimizes, namely, justification by citation of a judgement recorded in a canonical formulation that encapsulates an insight arrived at via a learning process that the tradition has already traversed. I do not take a position on whether the justifications in these examples are convincing, all things considered. My only claim is that the anti-citationalist objection reviewed above falls flat, when we understand properly what is happening in these appeals to ‘classical’ sources. 

First, consider the case of the debate between John Holloway and Michael Lebowitz in 2005, in the journal Historical Materialism. At issue, centrally, was the anti-statist position of Holloway, according to which the anti-capitalist left should refrain from aiming to “take power,” in the sense of wielding governing authority in the context of the capitalist state.[7] Lebowitz complained that refraining from taking power over the capitalist state was, as he put it, “a profound rejection of Marx.” Holloway, in response, cited a classical passage from Marx, one that Marx not only wrote, in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte from 1858, but also quoted — citing his own work — in the Civil War in France from 1871: “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.”[8] On one level, this looks like a debate about who is and who isn’t “profoundly unmarxist,” with Holloway using a quotation from Marx to underline his own claim to a more rigorous form of orthodoxy, confirming that Marx himself endorsed Holloway’s view and rejected that of Lebowitz. However, there is more to the citation than that, because Holloway notes precisely the crucial variable that concerns me in this paper: the citation as a repository of insights gleaned from a learning process already traversed. Exactly in this spirit, Holloway accuses Lebowitz of forgettingsomething already learned. He writes: “[Lebowitz] prefers to forget that [Marx and Engels] revised their understanding of revolution and the state after the experience of the Paris Commune.”[9] In this way, Holloway draws attention to what I earlier called the epistemological infrastructure of the citationalist’s practice: the invocation of a canonical passage from the research tradition to highlight how an interlocutor has forgotten something that has already been learned, and reverted to a retrograde intellectual position, one that has already been surpassed by the community of co-inquirers who share the inheritance of that cumulative learning process. In the sequence of texts invoked by Holloway, a learning process is recorded, and Holloway reminds Lebowitz of a sequence in which a mistake about the capitalist state has already been exposed and corrected.

Holloway’s citationalism, in this instance, purports to be epistemically rational, because it draws attention to an epistemological asymmetry between statism (or capturing the capitalist state) and anti-statism (or ‘smashing’ the capitalist state) in the marxist tradition, such that a special justificatory burden falls on the statist to overcome the justificatory weight, the precedential authoritativeness, of Marx’s reasons for casting doubt on projects of their type on the basis of the experience of the Paris Commune and other accumulated experiences and insights. Superstitious appeals to ancestral authority play no role in this justificatory move.

Consider, now, a second example: the decision of Nisancioglu and Anievas to cite Marx’s Capital on the “chief moments of original accumulation,” as including colonial dispossession, chattel slavery, and other aspects of early-Modern history deemed by so-called “Political Marxists” (like Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood) to be exterior to the causal origins of capitalism and excluded from the category of original (ursprünglich) accumulation:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the expiration, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which charac- terize the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation …. The different moments of primitive accumulation can be assigned in particular to Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England, in more or less chronological order. These moments are systematically combined together at the end of the seventeenth century in England; the combination embraces the colonies, the national debt, the modern tax system, and the system of protection.[10]

The anti-citationalist presumably regards this as, at best, irrelevant to the justification of the claims made by Nisancioglu and Anievas, and at worst an irrational invocation of Marx as a kind of High Priest or infallible Pope of socialist theory, whose word is law. Indeed, any such gesture — any appeal to Marx as a fount of wisdom, whose word is somehow conclusive — would be irrational, guilty of a fallacious appeal to authority. However, a proper understanding of the citationalist move of Nisancioglu and Anievas in this case will insist that, on the contrary, it is the careless by-passing by some Political Marxists of a precedential judgment of Marx’s, without a sufficiently sound justification for overriding its presumptive authoritativeness, that risks epistemic irrationality by failing to acknowledge and adjust itself to the epistemological asymmetry between a canonical judgment, constituting an established precedent within a still-vital research tradition, and the solitary assessments of a handful of researchers, who seem to some to be reverting to a set of beliefs (Eurocentrism, notably) that were already found to be wanting in the course of a learning process traversed in an earlier stage of scientific development, in this case by Marx himself. Marx’s judgement about the “chief moments of original accumulation” is the repository of an insight-motivated learning process that has been traversed, that could be recapitulated or retraced today, and that addresses a relevantly similar set of facts in comparison to those addressed by the Political Marxist account of the transition. (Here, it is not my intent to claim that the Political Marxists could not answer this objection; I am only trying to clarify the nature of the objection, insofar as it takes a citationalist form.)


I want to conclude with a comment on the generality of the point made here about the epistemic rationality of citationalism, or reasoning from the presumptive authoritativeness of canonical judgments that encapsulate insights accumulated during a cumulative learning process in a research tradition. Does this apply only to one kind, or a few kinds of judgements? For example, does it only apply to strategic judgements, or to explanatory ones, or conceptual points? No. What is justifiable in this way is not restricted by some specific epistemic quality, like being descriptive, explanatory, normative, conceptual, theoretical or interpretive; precedential reasoning can lend support to judgments of any kind. All that is required is that questions under discussion in contemporary debates be relevantly similar to questions that we have already encountered and intellectually processed in our tradition. The present population of Manchester is not relevantly similar to the population of Manchester in the 1840s, and it is for this reason that citing a classical description is uninformative. Identifying a certain strategic orientation deployed a century ago as ‘opportunistic’ might have a much stronger claim to being relevantly similar to a case today, in which the same (or a very similar) orientation is in play, although here too there may have been changes to the circumstances (i.e., relevant dissimilarities) that make new learning necessary. This debate can be conducted in a way that is wholly endogenous to the citationalist procedures set out above, far from necessitating a break with these procedures. 

My aim in this paper is fairly modest. I obviously do not claim that there has never been or could never be an instance of irrational or fallacious appeals to quotations from canonical sources in the marxist tradition. Instead, I claim that the practice of using quotations from canonical sources is not, as such, irrational. If we understand the epistemological infrastructure of the practice — the rational underpinnings of it — we can grasp how these citations appeal to the presumptive authoritativeness of formulations that condense or concisely convey the core of insights that emerged from learning processes that the intellectual tradition of marxism has already traversed. The rational underpinnings of the practice include, first, the neo-Hegelian idea that we can justify a view we now hold by rationally reconstructing the insight-motivated learning process from which it emerged, and second, the convention that these rational reconstructions do not have to be elaborated in each insistence, but can be invoked in a short-form way, such as by citing the name of a decision or a concise statement of it (like a short quotation), as is common in the epistemologically similar practice of precedential reasoning in common law juridical justification. No claim is true just because of who made it; but a claim might be presumptively authoritative in cases where it was made at the end of a learning process, which has not been overtaken by a change in the circumstances or further learning. 


[1] E.g., one might cite a description by Marx of the traits commonly exhibited by investors, in support of the view that such traits are to be expected in the behaviour of an investor today. Or one might cite an analysis by Luxemburg of the dynamics of social-movement escalation, in support of adopting a strategy that anticipates the possibility of an escalation of that kind occuring. Or one might support an explanation by Lenin of the prevalence of pragmatically motivated (“opportunist”) resistance to militancy in labour movements in order to argue for the importance of cultivating an independently organized ‘militant minority’ in working-class movements. It is important to notice that, in such cases, one does not decide the facts of the new case by appeal to the precedential case. Rather, at most, one appeals to the precedent in order to defend a description of a new constellation of facts in terms that were used (in the earlier case) to describe a relevantly similar set of facts. Precedential reasoning is not a method of fact-finding, but a procedure for ascribing presumptive weightiness to well-established ways of describing, analyzing or explaining facts of a certain kind. 

[2] Brian Aarons, “Science or Pseudo-Science: Althusser & Marxism,” Australian Left Review, 1(39), 1973, p. 7.

[3] See especially §808 of G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford: OUP, 1977), trans. A.V. Miller.

[4] Lakatos borrows this expression from Rudolf Carnap, but Lakatos gives it a much more Hegelian interpretation than the neo-Kantian-influenced Carnap had done.

[5] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy [1867]Volume I, Chapter 1, section 4 (London: Penguin, 1990), p. 168.

[6] In Chapter 4 of The Accumulation of Capital: An Anti-Critique, Luxemburg  calls this “picking a raisin out of the cake,” i.e., extracting a fragment of text that is atypical of or contrary to the context from which it is taken. In English, we also have the expression, “cherry-picking,” often used in a similar way, albeit usually about the selective use of data rather than text fragments. 

[7] Holloway distinguishes, precisely in his debate with Lebowitz, between “taking power” in this sense and the breaking of the capitalist state by forms of working-class self-governance of (what he considers to be) non-statist types, such as workers’ councils or ‘soviets.’ This complication of Holloway’s position seems not quite to be understood by Lebowitz, who does not draw the distinction in this way. See Mike Lebowitz, “Holloway’s Scream: Full of Sound and Fury,” Historical Materialism, Vol. 13 (2005), Issue 4, pp. 217-231.

[8] Marx, quoted by John Holloway, “No,” Historical Materialism, Vol. 13 (2005), Issue 4, p. 279.

[9] Holloway, op. cit., p. 278.

[10] Marx, quoted in Kerem Nisancioglu and Alexander Anievas, How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism (London: Pluot, 2015), pp. 25.

On Gottlob Frege’s völkisch Political Theology

Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) as been called ‘the undisputed father of analytic philosophy’ and ‘the most important logician since Aristotle.’ Even if his impact on philosophy were to extend no further than his decisive influence on leading early 20th-century thinkers of the stature of Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Rudolf Carnap, that alone would assure him a notable place in the history of modern philosophy. But his elucidation of the distinction between sense (Sinn) and reference (Bedeutung), his pioneering, albeit ultimately unsuccessful attempt to reduce arithmetic to logic, and his decisive contribution to the emergence of quantificational logic, among numerous other innovations, elevate him to the highest level of importance in the history of the discipline.

Unfortunately, he was also a Far-Right extremist, committed to eliminationist antisemitism and the destruction of the constitution of the Weimar Republic, and a supporter of the fascist political party, the DVFP, which was then locked in a formal alliance with Hitler’s NSDAP (Nazis). In a paper just published in the journal, Politics, Religion, & Ideology, I develop a detailed critical analysis of one aspect of Frege’s Far-Right thought: his late interest in nationalist political theology. The full text is here (, but the following brief excerpt indicates the core of the argument:

“In this paper, I attempt to show that Frege’s interest in theology was rooted not so much in conventionally spiritual concerns as in the decidedly innerweltlich desire to help turn the tide in German politics in favor of the ultranationalist Far Right. His theology was, I claim, a political theology of völkisch, antisemitic, and anti-socialist nationalism.

“The core of the völkisch political theology developed by Frege in the early 1920s can be reconstructed as a cluster of three complex ideas, to each of which I devote a section in what follows. Frege’s first idea (Section I) was that, reeling from its defeat in the First World War and subject to the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles, German society stood in dire need of a ‘statesman’ or great leader, described by Frege in messianic-eschatological terms, as a saviour-figure to come, who would ‘sweep away the people’ and lead the nation toward ‘deliverance’ in the context of an anticipated confrontation in which the forces of good would defeat the forces of evil. Frege’s second idea (Section II) was that, because the (völkisch-nationalist) statesman’s appeal to national unity and the nobility of self-sacrifice was at a disadvantage when trying to compete with the appeal of the (Social-Democratic) ‘demagogue’ to class antagonism and the ‘wretched’ motive of economic gain, it was the theologian’s duty to support the statesman against the demagogue by championing the ideal of self-sacrifice for the unity and welfare of the Volk against the corrupting lure of self-interest. Finally, his third complex idea (Section III) was that, in contrast to the directly political advocacy pursued by the Christian-Social theologians, like Adolf Stoecker, who Frege accused of conflating religious duties with legal obligations in a way that was insensitive to the specificity of politics in contrast to religion, it would be clarifying to take the prototype of noble self-sacrifice in Christian messianic eschatology, Jesus of Nazareth, and retell his life story as a vindication of ‘the noble side’ of humanity, in order thereby to encourage modern Germans, especially workers, to reject the appeals to self- interest and class antagonism put forward by Social Democracy. From these three complicated ideas, Frege’s core project in political theology took shape. His project – never carried out, but sketched by him a year before his death in 1925 – was to use the life of Jesus narrative, understood in messianic-eschatological terms, to promote popular appreciation of the nobility of self-sacrifice for the good of the nation (that is, the ethnic-German ‘Volk,’ not the country of Germany per se), and in this way to lend support to the emergence of an anticipated völkisch-nationalist great leader against the (supposedly) demagogic appeals to class antagonism that were typical of what he considered to be the ‘cancer’ of Social Democracy in the early Weimar Republic.

“….In the end, we cannot but be appalled by [Frege’s] most basic moral and political commitments: his intense antisemitism, his hostility to equality and democracy, and his embrace of the extremist militancy of the Weimar-era German Far Right. Equally appalling is his complicity with and affiliation to what was at that time an all-too-widely embraced project in political theology: to offer up to the Far Right the possibility it craved of advertising its aims as consistent with the moral and religious responsibilities of individual Germans and the religious communities to which they belonged.”

‘Belfast’ Review: Roadway as Passage and Crisis

I approached the movie Belfast reluctantly, because I feared it would be political, and I didn’t trust Kenneth Branagh to be political in a way that I would appreciate. As it turned out, however, the film was intended to be scrupulous in its avoidance of overt politics, holding rigorously to its decision that the conflict in the Six Counties would be approached solely from the standpoint of its 9-year old main character, that is, more as an ominous background and source of urgency and tension than as a field of partisan engagement or social antagonism. (Indeed, the film intentionally blurs the line, in multiple ways, between children watching Hollywood Westerns like ‘High Noon’ and the same children watching as spectators to the spiralling tensions of the Troubles.)

Belfast, as it turns out, is about love, rather than politics, and Belfast figures as a place where people love others, rather than as a site of political conflict.

The plot is very low-key, and mostly recedes into a supporting role to prop up a symbolic structure that the film places in the foreground: the symbolism of the roadway. Roads appear in two guises, in ‘Belfast’: on the one hand, they are zones of coming and going, where people are either welcome to come and go freely or frozen out (or locked in) by actual or imaginary barricades; on the other hand, roads in the mode of ‘forks’ are also crisis points where “you have to choose,” a constant refrain in the dialogue (not just in political usages but very generally). 

These two variants of the roadway — the passage of coming and going and the fork of taking sides — are ultimately brought together in the film by means of a conception of love that the movie tries to establish, not as the only kind of love but as a kind of love worth choosing: love as embrace of the other’s free coming and going. Love in this mode is not necessarily meant to be understood in contrast to hate, but more so in contrast to a kind of hardness or rigidity that closes the passageway in and out, either clinging to people so that they can’t leave or blocking them so that they can’t return. 

So, it isn’t that Belfast proposes that love is always or only allowing the other to come and go freely, welcomed when they come, and wished a fond farewell when they go. Rather, it proposes that we are forced, at least in times of personal, familial or social crisis, to choose between two ways to construe loving the other: the hard or rigid way, which clings and bonds, or the soft and permeable way, which declines to hold the other tightly, but invites passages back and forth, in and out, accepting of both intimacy and distance.

It would be going too far to say that the movie is ‘apolitical.’ There’s a politics to it, for sure, this child’s view of exile and return or coming and going, but ultimately none of the key characters actually do make any clear political choices. The film ends without any of the political background being sorted out at all. Instead, the characters just choose how they want to love each other, when they are dying, emigrating, or simply changing or maturing. So, it would be more of a stretch to interpret it as a political film in any notable way. It’s political only in the modest sense that ‘everything is political’; it’s not political in the Ken Loach sense, that’s for sure.

Since I’m commenting on the symbolism in Belfast, I’ll just add that, alongside the roadway symbolism, there are a number of associated symbols for permeability or its blockage: doorways (usually open, but with notable exceptions), fences (usually with holes that allow children to pass through), and the bus at the end of the street, just outside the barricade, that leads people to and from the family. But there’s also the phenomenon of the street party, a symbol of stretching the home or the family beyond its bonds or boundaries of privacy or exclusivity. These symbols don’t really depart substantively from the core symbol of the roadway, but they lend a certain richness to image of the roadway as passage and crisis. 

Ideology and the New IPCC Report

It is partly true that the new IPCC Report on Climate Change is “scientific,” but we should be honest about the limitations of this. It is also an ideological document, covering up key causes and insulating powerful systems from critical scrutiny. In the crucial, most widely read version of the Report, the 41-page “Summary for Policymakers,” the word “human” appears 79 times; by contrast, the word “capitalism” occurs 0 times, the word “colonialism” occurs 0 times, the word “corporation” occurs 0 times, the word “business” occurs 0 times, the word “money” occurs 0 times, and the expression “fossil fuel” (or even just “fuel”) occurs 0 times.

In this case, as in so many others, the most ideological, political aspects of a text appear in the form of silences and omissions.

The IPCC Report goes to great pains to remain silent on the systemic causes of climate change, refusing to even mention capitalism or colonialism.

In the 150-page “Technical Summary,” the word “human” occurs 133 times, and all the other terms occur 0 times.

In the massive, nearly-4,000-page Full Report, which is fully read by hardly anyone, the word “human” occurs on 751 pages; the phrase “fossil fuel” occurs on 121 pages, but the word “capitalism” occurs only once, in a bibliographic entry; the word “colonialism” never occurs, the word “corporation” occurs on 12 pages, the word “money” never occurs, and the word “business” occurs on 11 pages, almost all of which are as part of the phrase “business as usual.”

We should welcome the Report, as an important source of scientific insight; but we should also view it critically, as an ideological device that in crucial ways obscures the systemic roots of climate change and therefore also obscures the need for a fierce struggle of working-class movements, including the crucial leadership of Indigenous peoples, against capitalism and the states that protect it.

Book Review: Emma Dabiri’s “What White People Can Do Next ~ From Allyship to Coalition”

By Stephen D’Arcy

The recently published book, What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition (Penguin, 2021), is written by the Irish anti-capitalist and anti-racist, Emma Dabiri. Dabiri is previously the author of Twisted: The Tangled History of Black Hair Culture (UK edition’s title: Don’t Touch My Hair).

What White People Can Do Next delivers admirably on its promise to be a concise yet sophisticated introduction to contemporary anti-racism, including what is nowadays demonized by racists and the Far Right as “critical race theory” or “critical race studies.” Dabiri has a rare gift for combining a breezy, conversational, and accessible writing style that puts the reader at ease, with a deep and broad knowledge of anti-racist theory and the history of struggles over race as a form of domination, exploitation and extraction.

It is, certainly, an introduction. And yet, it is more than a broad, general overview. It includes a number of brief detours into points of detail and refuses to overlook subtleties and complications. There are so many fine discussions throughout: about racism’s intertwinement with capitalism and colonialism; about the similarities and differences between the organization of race in Ireland, the UK, and the USA (in all three of which countries she has resided and experienced racism firsthand), or indeed in Africa and elsewhere; about the limitations of online-centric approaches to (ostensibly) anti-racist ‘performance’; about the dangers of depicting opposition to racism by white people as a kind of charitable, supposedly noble act of self-sacrifice; and so, so much more.

Although it’s true that Dabiri seems to be either a marxist or (at minimum) a very marxism-influenced thinker, it would be wrong to think that in this book she simply reiterates longstanding marxist positions in an accessible way. Her book is much more rooted in and committed to engaging with a wide range of anti-racist scholarship and struggle histories, extending well beyond any narrow ideological limitations. And the book is extremely up to date: not only extensively discussing the 2020 BLM upsurge, and how it was or wasn’t processed online, but also discussing the demagogic campaigns against “critical race theory” in education, the COVID pandemic, and lot’s of other things that give the book a very contemporary feel. So, yes, it’s marxist or semi-marxist at least, but it’s not just reiterating points that are already familiar to marxist readers.

One of the most striking features of the book is its subtly subversive title: it sets the reader up to expect something that it resolutely refuses to deliver, namely, a liberal-individualist analysis of how white individuals can situate themselves comfortably on the “virtuous” side of the racism/antiracism divide. Intead, the book is from start to finish fixated on a very different set of questions: how can we win? How can race be eradicated? How can powerful, ambitious social movements be built through militant struggles and the learning processes they unleash? What is the difference between the kinds of antiracism that empower poor and other working-class Black people and the (supposedly class-neutral) kinds of antiracism that insulate systems of exploitation and extraction from critical challenges from below that pose existential threats to their continuation?

“What white people can do,” it turns out, is not mostly a matter of stepping up their tweet game, or undertaking an insular, self-obsessed or narcissistic process of self-examination, or even ‘holding businesses accountable’ for their products or ads. Instead, as the subtitle already hints, it’s mostly about linking struggles against racism with anti-capitalist, anti-sexist, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist and environmental struggles, and rethinking the idea of liberation in ways that are sensitive to the relationship between racism and other systems of domination and exploitation and the struggles against these systems. Above all, it’s about putting the project of defeating racism at the centre of our thought, speech and action around ‘race,’ and so refusing to adapt to or reaffirm the permanence or incontestable centrality of race, especially the persistent centring of white people (notably in allyship discourse) that she continually critiques.

(If you read between the lines here that Dabiri’s book is implicitly mounting a challenge, not only to racial liberalism, but also to Afropessimism, you wouldn’t be wrong — although I don’t think she explicitly mentions or criticizes directly Afropessimism. The whole tone and framework, make the point hard to miss.)

Dabiri’s book is also relentlessly critical of, and unflinchingly honest about, the failings of the forms of anti-racism that have evolved in the dysfunctional ecosystems of social-media consumption.

Overall, the book is a great introduction to anti-racism in theory and practice: utterly non-academic in tone, yet thoroughly conversant with and precise about the insights (or failings) of the past 50 years of academic anti-racist theory. Challenging to all, in a multitude of different ways, it also somehow manages to be inviting to most readers, especially readers committed to fighting to win in anti-systemic social movements.

Three Fallacies of Anti-systemic Strategic Thinking

The worst thing we could do, as leftists, is refuse to think strategically. We owe it to ourselves, our co-workers and neighbours, and indeed future generations and other species, to think collectively about how best to marshal our capacities most effectively to defeat the systems of exploitation, oppression, and ecological destruction that have wreaked such havoc and harm on the world. Capitalism, which is at the centre of these systems, will not fix itself; it continues to threaten all of us — especially the most exploited and oppressed among us — with its relentless onslaught of destructiveness, indifference to our well-being, and contempt for human dignity. Moreover, we know that everything is stacked against us: we have no guarantee that we will prevail. Success depends on our willingness and ability to fight tirelessly and courageously, but also intelligently, to defeat the formidable adversaries that stand arrayed against justice, democracy and dignity. Only in this way can we hope to overpower our enemies: the big corporations and the governments, police and courts that protect them.

That means that strategic thinking is not just a ‘niche’ interest, that can be taken seriously by some but not all anti-systemic fighters. No, strategic thinking is an obligation for all of us. But, if we’re to do it well, we have to be wary of some false friends of strategic thinking: forms of thought that seem to make good sense, but actually get in the way of clearly developing plans for effective struggle. In this short article, I want to highlight three fallacies of anti-capitalist strategic thinking. I call them, respectively, the organizer’s fallacy, the historical re-enactment fallacy, and the uniformity fallacy. 

What is a fallacy? 

A fallacy is a mistake in reasoning, which is not obviously mistaken but hides its mistake in argumentation that seems to make good sense. A fallacy is a kind of disguise in which mistakes conceal themselves as apparently sound reasoning. A simple and well-known example of a fallacy is the “ad hominem” fallacy. In this mistaken form of reasoning, one argues from the fact that so-and-so (some bad or unlikeable person) made a claim, to the conclusion that the claim itself must be false. The problem, we can see on reflection, is that a bad or unlikeable person is perfectly capable of saying something true (2+2=4, for example), or even expressing an important insight from time to time.

OK, what about strategic fallacies? Are there flaws in reasoning about anticapitalist strategy that are, like the ‘ad hominem’ fallacy, tempting but misleading? I believe so, and I think it is worth highlighting them, and trying to avoid them when we pursue our indispensable task of figuring out how to prevail against our most formidable adversaries. 

The Organizer’s Fallacy

Let’s start with the organizer’s fallacy. The reasoning goes like this. We just organized an event or activity, like a strike or a demonstration. It turned out to be a great success. We won our main demands, we humiliated our adversaries, we built a powerful coalition and emboldened people to fight and win against powerful enemies. This is just how we thought it would go, and how we planned for it to go. And we were right. Surely it must follow that the success, which we anticipated and planned for, is attributable to our excellent plan, our far-sighted and perceptive strategy! Further, since we have confirmed that it works, really we should tell others about the method we have discovered, so they can follow up on our success, and win further fights. The reasoning is very tempting, especially to those who believe that they have lived the effectiveness of their organizing activities; they saw with their own eyes how potent and effective their tactics and plans proved to be. In fact, however, this line of reasoning rests on a dangerous fallacy. The organizer’s fallacy claims that, “Since we organized X in a certain way, and X was successful, it must follow that X was successful because we organized it in that way.” This, however, is not at all true. There could be any number of factors that affected the outcome. At most, we can say that the method of organizing did not prevent success; we are perhaps entitled to suppose that it probably helped, to some extent, on this occasion. But in no way can we safely assume that the organizing methods and the outcome bear a simple relation to one another of cause and effect. 

Consider an example. In 2012, in Quebec, there was a student strike, which was in many crucial respects a resounding success (although, certainly, some of its highly ambitious aims, notably free tuition, were not realized). It was organized in a fairly specific way, using campus-based assemblies, particular types of popular education, and so on. These methods seemed to work, in the sense that the strike itself was extremely powerful. However, many strike organizers, in the grip of the organizer’s fallacy, assumed that they could then (1) get other people, in other places, to repeat their success by replicating their methods; and (2) repeat the process again, as needed, for future student strikes in Quebec. Both of these assumptions proved to be incorrect. What they ignored is the fact that, although the strike was organized in a certain way, and it succeeded, it does not follow that the strike succeeded simply because it was organized in that way. There are innumerable other factors, too numerous and complex even to fully grasp, much less to fully state, that bear upon how a struggle will play out in practice, on a mass scale. 

I do not conclude from this that we should not look at tactics or methods or strategies used in successful struggles, in the hope to learn about things that might work again in other settings. I simply insist that we avoid the organizer’s fallacy of imagining that every successful struggle that was organized was successful simply because of the way it was organized, because that is not the case. (Conversely, not every failed struggle that was organized was a failure because of the way it was organized; another struggle, organized the same way, might very well succeed, if other circumstances or factors are different and more favourable.)

The Historical Re-enactment Fallacy

Let’s turn to a second, somewhat related type of mistake in reasoning about anticapitalist strategy, which is probably even more common: the historical re-enactment fallacy. The reasoning behind this mistake is just as seductive, and just as dangerous, as the reasoning behind the organizer’s fallacy. Suppose we read about, or remember, an example in the past where a strategy was effective and led to victory. Since everybody has a different view about which struggles were successful and which struggles were failures, let’s take an imaginary example. In the (imaginary) land of Topia, a revolutionary movement emerged which, under terribly unfavourable circumstances, managed to build up the capacities of the exploited and oppressed population to create various forms and institutions of struggle that proved to be remarkably potent. In a fairly short period of time, they were able to defeat the systems that oppressed and exploited them, and to replace them with democratic, just and sustainable alternatives, which dramatically improved the lives of the people of Topia. OK, we have a case where a certain strategy was effective and produced great results. Surely it must follow — according to the historical re-enactment fallacy — that, since this is the best example we have of a successful revolutionary strategy, we have here some knowledge or insight about what works, and we can and should try to replicate it by studying and applying the same strategy, albeit obviously adapted in some ways to our own situation. Doesn’t that make sense? No, it does not.

What makes the reasoning fallacious is that, precisely because it was so successful in the past, it is very hard to imagine that it could possibly succeed again. A strategy is not more likely but less likely to succeed in the future if it has been remarkably successful in the past, because our adversaries are bound to make adjustments in their own strategies to anticipate a possible repetition, and to undermine the effectiveness of the once-successful methods. Once a successful tactic or strategy becomes familiar to our adversaries, it quickly loses its capacity to put them on the defensive, and on the contrary we are probably only playing into their hands if we try to cycle through the same methods a second time.

It is probably too simple to say that a strategy or tactic is “ruined” once it has been seen by out adversaries to succeed in practice. But we have to admit, at least, that it is far, far less likely to succeed, once it has been found to be successful in the past. People who think they are giving us reason to adopt a strategy by pointing out that it was used successfully in the past are actually giving us a reason to reject that strategy. (On the other hand, broad strategic principles, like ‘try to put your enemy on the horns of a dilemma,’ are much more useful over time.)

The Uniformity Fallacy

A third type of fallacy that can lead anti-systemic strategic thinking astray is what I call the uniformity fallacy. This is the reasoning which suggests that, because one strategy or tactic is the best strategy or tactic, then the most effective movement will be one in which everyone pursues that strategy or tactic. After all, this line of reasoning goes, anything other than the best tactic or strategy will be inferior to the best option, so why do anything other than what’s best? It’s easy to see how tempting this line of thought might be to someone who wants a movement to maximize its effectiveness. But it is entirely fallacious. To see why, consider a military analogy. 

Imagine a war in which the best weapon available is a tank. Someone might conclude, on this basis, that the entire army should be equipped with tanks, in order not to settle for an inferior weapon, but to rely instead wholly on the very best option. This line of thinking can seem tempting, but a moment’s reflection will reveal the problem. An army that relies only on one kind of weapon, even if it is the best available one, is easy to defeat, because it pursues a one-dimensional, predictable, uniform course. Its enemy only has to prepare one kind of defence. Moreover, the enemy is relieved of exactly the burden that strategic analysis is supposed to force upon it: it will not be put on “the horns of a dilemma,” that is, it won’t have to expose itself to one type of vulnerability because it is focussed on protecting itself from another kind of vulnerability.

Because a single-tactic, or single-strategy enemy is by far the easiest to predict and the easiest to defeat, we have to draw exactly the conclusion that the uniformity fallacy steers us away from drawing: that a complex, differentiated, multi-layered, ideologically (and in other ways) diverse and relatively unpredictable social movement, pervaded by multiple currents and constant debates, is likely to be the most effective kind. More specifically, it is likely to be more effective than one in which everyone follows the unitary, single best (‘best’) strategy. Uniformity of strategy and tactics, or indeed of leadership or decision-making structures, spells disaster for a social movement. Uniformity is a gift to our enemies.


Thinking strategically about how to defeat the most powerful institutions and systems in the world is the obligation of anyone who claims to be committed to human liberation. The willingness to take on this challenge is part of what distinguishes the sincere fighter for liberation from the social media consumer committed only to curating a ‘progressive’ online persona. Doing the work of strategic analysis is difficult, not only because our enemies are so powerful and our own forces are so fragmented and disorganised, but also because we are continually tempted to think in lazy or superficial ways about what it would mean to win, and what it will take to win. Avoiding the strategic fallacies is one way to help steer our struggles in the right direction.

(Steve D’Arcy is author of Languages of the Unheard: Why Militant Protest is Good for Democracy.)