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   Vol. 68/No. 12           March 29, 2004  
George Novack: in defense of materialism
(Books of the Month column)
Below is an excerpt from Polemics in Marxist Philosophy, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for March. It is a collection of articles written between 1960 and 1977 by Socialist Workers Party leader George Novack. He defends scientific socialism, the generalization of the historic line of march of the working class, as explained by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. He answers those who, parading as the true interpreters of Marx, have provided a “philosophical” veneer for the anti-working-class course of Stalinist and social democratic misleaderships worldwide.

The article excerpted below pays tribute to the philosophical contributions in defense of materialism made by Italian Marxist Sebastiano Timpanaro (1923-2000). The excerpt refers to Noam Chomsky, a U.S. linguist and anarchist known for his theory that the underlying logical structure of language stems from innate biological patterns of perception. It also refers to Antonio Gramsci, a founder of the Italian Communist Party who wrote extensively while in the jails of Mussolini’s fascist regime until his death in 1937. He developed an interpretation of Marxism emphasizing “praxis”—which implies an ability of revolutionary will to substitute for a lack of propitious objective opportunities—as well as changing mass consciousness through training “proletarian intellectuals” and the creation of “proletarian culture” to contend with bourgeois culture. The reference to structuralism concerns the view that in social analysis the question of historical evolution is greatly subordinate to the examination of existing interrelationships between various institutions and social structures. Copyright © 1978 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.


The essays in his book are a sustained polemic against the more prominent antimaterialists who profess allegiance to Marxism but sacrifice some of its principles in their writings. These include such figures as Louis Althusser; the early Georg Lukács; Karl Korsch; Herbert Marcuse, Alfred Schmidt, and other luminaries of the Frankfurt school, and Jean-Paul Sartre. In connection with them [Timpanaro] takes up the positions of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Noam Chomsky.

Timpanaro sets his criticism of the current adulterators of Marxist theory in the broad historical context of intellectual development over the past century. Marxism, as the scientific outlook of the revolutionary working class, has had to make its way through a cultural and political terrain occupied by bourgeois and petty-bourgeois forces and ideas that have exerted unremitting pressures upon its adherents. Consequently, from one generation to the next, the propagators and defenders of dialectical materialism have been obliged to counter attempts to introduce incongruous ideas, derived from alien class sources, into its structure.

The deviators have been most strongly influenced by two opposing trends of bourgeois thought. One has been neoidealism; the other neopositivism. Despite their very different standpoints and methods, they have in common a hostility to modern materialism as elucidated by the creators of Marxism and their most qualified disciples. Most of the Western Marxists have gone astray by succumbing to certain attractive tenets of one or the other of these types of thought.

Just as Lenin took up the cudgels against empiriocriticism in 1908, so his true followers must nowadays ward off the encroachments of a comparable eclecticism. They have to conduct a two-front campaign: against a relapse into semi-Hegelianism by exponents of the praxis school on one side, and against the formalistic structuralists on the other. Timpanaro subjects both of these fashionable currents of thought to searching examination.

Their three-sided controversy revolves around the question: How is the relation between objective reality and social life to be conceived? The mechanical materialists who espouse behaviorism or biologism try to slur over or obliterate the qualitative distinction between animal and human behavior. The praxologists, on the other hand, assert or imply that the “second nature,” the artificial environment created by humanity in the historical development of social life, has entirely absorbed primordial nature into itself. They thereby head toward some form of a voluntaristic spiritualism….

The praxis theoreticians, from the Lukács of History and Class Consciousness to Antonio Gramsci and Sartre, commit the unpardonable transgression of shuffling away the existence of nature independent of humanity by insisting that the object is inseparable from the subject. However, humanity’s action and effect upon nature does not eliminate the priority of nature’s action and effect upon humanity. For all materialists, pre-Marxist and Marxist alike, the objective world antedates humanity and underlies its history. Any indecisiveness on this cardinal proposition inexorably pulls the wobblers toward antimaterialist conclusions of one sort or another.

Such a breakaway from the first premise of materialism is the impetus behind the attacks upon the philosophical traditions upheld by Frederick Engels, George Plekhanov, and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The negative evaluations made of Engels by various thinkers from Lukács to Colletti have a logical outcome. It is no matter of chance, Timpanaro says that “those who have embarked on a ‘Marxism without Engels’ have arrived, coherently enough, at a ‘Marxism without Marx.’” The theoretical views of the cocreators of dialectical materialism are so firmly welded together that the positions of the one cannot be disavowed without discarding those of the other….

Timpanaro praises the noted linguist Noam Chomsky for his courageous anti-imperialist stands and crusades for civil liberties at home and abroad. And he acknowledges the worth of his researches in transformational grammar. At the same time he censures the MIT professor for reverting to the device of “innate ideas” (inherent structures of the mind) as the source of language. This kind of explanation was long ago discredited by empiricism and is by now too antiquated even for bourgeois thought, he says. Its Cartesian philosophy is antiempirical, antimaterialistic, and nonevolutionary. Its dualism introduces a hiatus between the human and other animals that no intermediate steps can bridge. Chomsky’s effort to overcome this gap by turning innate ideas into hereditary predispositions “wavers between an antediluvian spiritualism and a genuinely ‘vulgar’ materialism.”

In any case, Chomsky does not claim to be a Marxist; he is a libertarian. Timpanaro draws a clear line between the scientific gains made by the leading structural linguists in their specialty, from de Saussure to Chomsky, and their French extralinguistic imitators, who have extrapolated their conceptions in an illegitimate manner.  
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