Eliot: Following Marx and Engels?

November 30, 2015


‘Following Marx, Engels here draws on the familiar base-superstructure model to link causally the world of ideas, philosophies, religions to the material base of society, thereby making it objectionable for anyone ever again to discuss religion, myth or idealist philosophy  without having to view them in the context of the material conditions that produced them’

(Ivo Kamps from ‘Materialist Shakespeare’ Ed. Ivo Kamps (1995))

‘Objectionable’ is an interesting word: as is the emphatic ‘causally’: and the fairy-tale-like finality of ‘anyone ever again’ also.

Now I am not writing as one outraged by the line of thinking championed here; nor am I writing as one with maybe a fairly small axe to grind; I am writing, I consider, on the side of reason and on the side of what I understand to be truth.

The quotation copied above is taken from an introductory essay to the book cited, and which advocates what is termed a ‘materialist’ view of history. Not necessarily a Marxist materialism, but materialism in a range of political colours.

But what is wrong with that?  Well, just as during the 1980s a British form of Trade Unionism was overthrown which had jealously protected workers by use of what was termed then ‘the closed shop’; so likewise I want to overturn this ideological protectionism which is using its own form of closed circle in order to claim absolutely for itself the proper field in which social, political and cultural criticism is to be done.

‘Closed shops’ controlled by disqualification the sizes and natures of the specialist workforces in which they operated, making it next to impossible for a candidate to enter into their trade, unless such a candidate was family stepping into retired shoes or else he came carrying all the ‘right recommendations’.  Such rigidity of terms of Labour Combination cost their employers dearly; and their intemperate success sowed the germs of their eventual undoing.

Likewise I see ‘materialist’ claims of any political colour as a prescriptive challenge made deliberately to exclude metaphysical thinking, content, and influence by way of maintaining their disqualification from discourse to be reasonable and indubitable.

My position is that there is no good reason why a person’s thinking should be artificially and hermetically sealed-in so as to entertain a basis exclusively ‘inside’ human relations and activities as they shape the social environment under physical pressures.  I ask instead what is being lost by remaining open-minded about the alleged firmness of these proposed and supposed boundaries of limitation.  Materialists might answer me saying that to include ‘ungrounded’ metaphysical discourse is like allowing ‘water into wine’ which to their minds dilutes and mars the purity and strength of the vintage; it being an adulteration.

But this understanding of theirs must be and can only be an assumption. Like the religious positions of ‘answered prayer’ and of ‘all things for the best’ it is an act and a leap of faith because such an assertion cannot be empirically or logically tested or demonstrated. It is forever an hypothesis.

The drawbacks for us accepting this assumption as one that draws the lines of a de facto field for legitimate study are horrendous. For instance, there is the chancy claim being made by our recent scientists that they are near to proposing ‘a theory of everything’. The same people talk of eventually being able to collate all knowledge from all the sciences.   One hundred years ago, in his anti-religious essays Bertrand Russell expressed a like complaisance about ‘a coming to an end for scientific discovery’.   In just the same way there are sections of the religious community who generation after generation are persuaded they are living in end-times. We like to attempt to make ourselves feel special – that we are the only ones for whom it will happen.

No such claims could be entertained unless a presumption of their possibility were in general circulation among the thinking communities.  And for such thinking to be prevalent a further assumption has to be made by them that there exists a possibility, presently latent, for men and women to master everything and to thereby exhaust the world of its mysteries and problems. A belief that full and comprehensive explanation/understanding of things is out there and available and that all we need do is to pursue it (by necessarily addressing this task by way of an inherently illogical dependence on use of causality and effect).

Now some religious persons can display an arrogance in their bearing and thought, especially towards those whom they consider not like themselves; towards people who might be either other religious persons or else non-religious persons.  Certain religious persons for instance can sometimes seek to presume a closer or a special relation to God; and/or that their doctrine is of the purest when set beside other religious doctrine held by others.

In the same way there is a presumption of arrogance in some who are allianced to materialism and to its closed circle of definitive limitation. The arrogance lies mainly in the misplaced and egocentric hope to rout and ransack nature and all its works; in an anthropocentric coup over the forces of universal being. Outlets for aggrandisement of the human species and a tenacious self-flattery concur in their audacity.

Taken from a different angle one can see that a person having settled on circumscribed materialism as a doctrine for life loses out massively. A person unnecessarily restricts horizons and possibilities for himself; seeing such freedoms as snares for wistful thinkers maybe, the mire pits sloppy dreamers land in.  Instead, like Sisyphus, they accept a weight of endless cyclical eternities bearing the burden of their entrapment because of self-imposed restrictions. Mind-forged manacles.

The issue of materialism versus a wider compass for thought goes back at least as far as Socrates and his times.  The arguments of Plato’s Republic explicitly aim at demolishing a contention that society at large and human relations in aggregate are the sum total of the acceptable limits for meaningful discourse: Especially about the nature of value.  Do we still read Plato today simply as an exercise; dabbling the feet to test the waters of bygone antiquated eras?  I don’t believe so.  The thrust of The Republic has never been refuted satisfactorily, and our pre-emptive attempts to ambush and rob such ideas of their intrigue and perennial relevance represents, I believe, a failure on our parts to allow a due place and honour to those who went before us.

The social circle, the social round, becomes thus all-engrossing, all-encompassing to most materialists; so gaining to itself a fabricated pre-eminence and weight of importance. After all – what alternative could there be for materialists?  Speculation is trumped every time by social economic and environmental contexts, and their fabricated redundancy itself trumps all claims of any tie with or sensibility towards a deity or to any spiritual otherness.

The physical is generally the basis for the materialist – for his superstructures of society, consciousness, thought to be built on and supported by. The physical is imputed a precedence which remains unwarranted and unwarrantable. For it appears to me that the inscribed circle for the permissible range of materialist studies must be able to be entered upon and likewise exited at any points on its circumference.  The placement of the physical and the economic as being primary is then a wholly arbitrary act and could be as justly substituted by any other part of its prescribed range of study  To be so dogmatic and definite about the primacy of the physical and the economic is merely to express a prejudice.

To be unkind, but maybe also honest, the trick, the draw and attraction of materialism to many who fall under its cartwheels is in this very promise of its all-embracing, all-encompassing claim, that there is no other field of study beyond its bounds; and it is this asserted certitude which draws to it so many whose hope is to master and so have sway over whatever area of study or knowledge they aspire to.  There is a promise of hard and fast certainty about it; a workmanlike artisanship of demesne; which quite honestly and ridiculously too often prefers a scholarly prose style of convolution and periphrasis in order to express itself with the appropriate impact.

The promise of this masterfulness acts to engage adherents in their delvings and incisions, their post mortems and autopsies on literature and on texts. It encourages a use of language in a shockingly pretentious way so that scholars joust with theories and discussions going head-to-head so as to get the jump over one another for a prize of being seen to be deeply perspicacious and uncannily prescient.  Like the old time alchemists and some of the old time religious dividers of the word, whose writings use arcane and mazy patter pointed at initiates within the clique, the argot of these new diviners serves only to raise admiration in the ignorant and adulation in the perverse.

Their insistence on the social bond being the only relational bond available to us becomes the arena wherein is fought out their competition for title to place and supremacy.  Thus the world becomes a secular prize to them – the oyster to be obtained – for what else is there once everything else is denied?  Meanwhile they are passing up the pearl of great price they left on the shoreline, for it to be grasped gratefully by publicans and sinners who go into the Kingdom of Heaven before us.

Ours is an age of singular vision; and we revel in rejoicing that we have conquered over the mumbo-jumbo of history.  But we see only a section, a delimited angle, which we have chosen to take as being the whole.