John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

How did Communist parties handle issues of internal discipline and democracy in Lenin’s time? The recent intense discussion within the British Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and beyond has heard claims that the SWP rests on the traditions of democratic centralism inherited from the Bolsheviks.

John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

Richard Atkinson: Death and the Bedroom Tax

Some extended thoughts about Stephanie Bottrill, the woman who committed suicide because of the bedroom tax.

Richard Atkinson: Death and the Bedroom Tax

Dave Renton: Who Was Blair Peach?

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the killing of Blair Peach by the police. David Renton looks back at Blair Peach’s life as a poet, trade unionist and committed antifascist

Dave Renton: Who Was Blair Peach?

Bunny La Roche: Nasty Little Nigel gets a rude welcome to Kent

Bunny La Roche of RS21 on Nigel Farage's visit to Kent

Bunny La Roche: Nasty Little Nigel gets a rude welcome to Kent

Financial Appeal

We're up and running! An appeal for funds to kickstart the IS Network

Financial Appeal

Gove's Trojan Horse: or how a neocon has infiltrated our schools

Stuart King from London IS Network examines the media storm around supposed Islamic extremism in Birmingham schools.


When the so-called Trojan Horse document surfaced in March revealing a “jihadist plot” to take over schools in Birmingham, the media went into overdrive. Apparently Islamic extremists were taking over governing bodies, driving out head teachers and turning our schools into hotbeds of terrorism and worse.

Despite the fact that most people in the know believed this document to be a fake, no fewer than five different inquiries were launched. The education secretary Michael Gove led the charge by appointing an “anti-terrorism expert” to lead one, just in case anyone was in any doubt about the seriousness of the threat to our way of life.

Ofsted, pliant tool of the state that it is, was told to revisit the schools that 11 months previously it had rated as “outstanding” and find evidence of extremism (and apparently, if leaks to the Guardian are to be believed, sent back when their first drafts weren’t damning enough).

Sure enough last week Ofsted came up with the required reports having inspected 21 Birmingham schools. Five schools that were rated “good” or “outstanding” were now rated as “inadequate”; they and one other were put into “special measures”. Four of these run by Academy Trusts had their funding withdrawn within 24 hours by Gove’s department and will be transferred to other trusts.


Ofsted’s findings

What were the charges levelled against these Birmingham schools? Did Ofsted find jihadist training camps, madrassa-style education, girls consigned to burqas and niqabs in separate buildings? Not quite. They found governors seeking “inappropriate influence on policy and the day-to-day running of schools”, they found the curriculum was “too narrow” and pupils were “not prepared well enough for life in modern Britain”. Also schools had not done enough to “safeguard” pupils against extremism - on the internet for example, and teaching about relationships and sex education “was poor”.

Anecdotes were seized on by the media, an “Islamic extremist” was allowed into one school to speak on … time management, tombola was objected to at a school fete as gambling, music was objected to in one class during Ramadan (although singing went ahead), girls sat separately during a picnic, an expensive trip was organised to Saudi Arabia - not one to sell arms that no doubt would have been the subject of congratulation!

Whether any or all these things should or should not have happened in state schools, what is clear is that in terms of a “jihadi plot to take over Birmingham schools” they actually amount to a hill of beans.


Gove the neocon

What we in fact have here is a sustained anti-Islamic witch-hunt launched by a neoconservative education secretary supported by his friends in the right wing media. Gove’s extremist neocon views even led to a clash with Theresa May. He demanded that the Home Office combat conservative Islamic views even if they posed no threat of lawbreaking or jihadi violence. It was a case of “draining the swamp”, as he typically put it, of making clear that Islamic views in general were dangerous and needed to be dealt with.

It is instructive to compare Gove’s open Islamophobia with his attitude to the Christian sects within the faith school sector. In 2011 he declared that “by becoming an academy, a Catholic school can place itself permanently out of range of any unsympathetic meddling and so ensure that it can remain true to its Catholic traditions”. On being challenged by the TUC in 2012 that literature being used in Catholic schools was homophobic, he ruled that the Equality Act “did not apply to the curriculum” and that therefore these schools could go on discriminating in their sex and relationship lessons.

This Islamophobia is familiar to anyone who has read that US bible of neoconservatism, The Clash of Civilisations, which sees the next great struggle after the defeat of the Soviet Union as the struggle between Christian enlightened democracy and a fanatical Islam. It is therefore no surprise that Gove has turned the whole Trojan Horse affair into a campaign for “British values” in schools, a new version, for those with long memories, of Norman Tebbit’s infamous “cricket test” for Asians, who could only prove they were really worthy of being British by supporting “our cricket team”.


Religion and schools

Clearly there were problems in some schools in Birmingham in relation to religion, and some governors and teachers desired to impart their particular religious views and practices into the daily life of their schools. Tory politicians and Ofsted have said that the problem is that they overstepped the line because these were not “faith schools”, suggesting that had they been, this sort of pressure would have been “acceptable”.

Indeed what they are recognising is that this is exactly what happens in faith schools where for example the Catholic Church exercises these practices on a daily basis without anyone ever raising an eyebrow. The position of religion in schools is at the heart of these problems yet no party in parliament dare deal with it.

Labour’s response has been to avoid the issue, choosing to highlight Cabinet infighting, delays in taking action and Gove’s expansion of Academies and Free Schools resulting in atomisation and lack of local control of schools. Labour’s alternative is not to abolish Academies and Free Schools and bring back these schools under democratic local council control but to construct yet another layer of bureaucracy via “Local School Commissioners”.

They also fail to tackle the issue that is at the heart of what is going on in Birmingham and across the country, which is the place of religion in state-funded education. A British education system that allowed the Christian sects - C of E, Catholic, Non-Conformist - a large degree of control over our schools is now being extended to many other religions and communities. One unintended consequence of New Labour’s and now the Tory/Lib Dem drive to dismantle municipal control of education as a precursor to privatisation of the school system has been growing religious/community control of schools.

The disastrous segregated and sectarian religious education system that exists in Northern Ireland and parts of Scotland, one that has resulted in so much division and sectarian violence, is in danger of being extended across multiple communities across Britain, as Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, demand “equality” with the Christians.

For socialists who seek to unite and integrate all religious and cultural communities within the working class, secular education that removes religious faith teaching from our schools is an absolute must. Religion is and must remain a private matter for individuals.

This does not mean that we ban religion from schools but that we ensure that where religion is taught it is done in a historical and comparative context. Of course religious belief and practices must be respected, with prayer rooms provided in schools, dietary provision made available, and religious dress allowed, but religion as faith must be removed from the curriculum and from normal school hours. Instead all religions should be allowed to use school premises outside school hours on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays to teach and pursue voluntary religious education at their own expense, not at the expense of the taxpayer.

This way schools can be used for what they are supposed to be for, to educate pupils in the broadest possible sense without becoming a battleground for religious sectarianism or for those politicians like Michael Gove to use to stoke up prejudice against minority religions and communities.

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On Gove's Dickensian agenda

It comes as no great surprise that Michael Gove does not like students studying John Steinbeck’s classic novella Of Mice and Men. The book which lampoons the capitalist myth that hard work rewards and instead shows the gritty reality of poverty, racism, sexism and ableism rife in an economic crisis is somehow not quite in tune with Tory ideology. It is much more preferable, we are told, for our youngsters to plough through ‘The Great British Canon’ so they can become vastly aware of our rich cultural heritage. The new GCSE English curriculum is to scrap Of Mice and Men along with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in favour of novels by Charles Dickens. One wonders whether it is the entirety of Dickens’s work we are supposed to bequest as our heritage, or are we to subtly leave out the blatant antisemitism imbedded in characters such as Fagin or the overtly racist short stories he wrote with Wilkie Collins?

Of course it would be wrong to rule out the literary merits and significance of Dickens as a novelist, and his work deserves to be studied, warts and all. But one also wonders which of his epic Victorian novels are going to be handed out to young GCSE students, for many of whom this will be their first experience of reading a book. In an already tight academic schedule will there be sufficient time to closely read his major works in class, and guide students through the many sections which feature archaic language or describe customs which are unfamiliar today, or will this all be set for homework? As an undergraduate I once only just managed to blag my way through a seminar on Bleak House having got only a third of the way through (in my defence this was a good 250 pages in!). As a product of a generation who neglected my ‘literary heritage’ I suppose this lethargy is only to be expected. Gove’s vision is a generation of youth who will embrace such tasks enthusiastically. Erasing John Steinbeck will remove with it the corrupting ‘Americanisation’ of students which Of Mice and Men is to be blamed for. Young people of tomorrow will repel the urge to listen to Gangster Rap and will instead ritually recite Tennyson at one another as they linger about town.

Gove’s ambitious new policy is largely based on ideas originating from the right wing American educationalist ED Hirsch, who promoted a concept known as “cultural literacy”. He believed that the teaching of literature should be shaped through the acquisition of “certain facts, ideas, (and) literary works that people need to know in order to operate effectively as citizens of the country in which they live”. In essence, the teaching of literature is to be boiled down into a promotion of British values taken from the canon, helping to instil a sense of nationalistic togetherness. This in turn will aim to undermine any notion of class division. In Hirsch’s plans Gove presumably hopes for a curriculum which will accustom a generation into accepting absurd fables such as “We are all in it together”.

I expect that he will fail to achieve this. This is not to say that good old fashioned nationalism hasn’t the fertile ground at the moment (the recent Ukip election results would suggest otherwise) but that Dickens is simply not suitable as core reading for a diverse set of learners today. Dickens’s novels contain many captivating stories which a confident reader who is aware of Victorian history could enjoy. It brings with it the potential for plenty of lively discussions on topics which remain relevant such as inequality, egalitarianism and imperialism, there are also many moral dilemmas which create opportunities for students to dissect and debate. Today many of these discussions are had in A-level classrooms studying the AQA module “Victorian Literature”, designed as a next step for students who have achieved at GCSE level. Of course there are many readers who are perfectly capable of enjoying Dickens without having gained any qualification, but it is likely to be those fortunate enough to have been brought up with access to books and who have been encouraged to read who will be successful. Those from less privileged backgrounds will be left behind, and the experience of failure will have its likely effect of alienating the underprivileged from ever reading for pleasure, a concept already lost for many living through our increasingly target driven culture. ED Hirsch’s design will therefore deepen class divides further rather than pulling the nation together.

Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird make far better choices for a GCSE syllabus as thematically the texts are instantaneously relevant to the lives of young people while also remaining accessible to new readers. It is of course important for anyone studying these novels to understand the basics of 20th century American history, particularly the brutal extent of racism, but for a young person brought up in a multicultural Britain under an increasing threat from the far right none of this is too hard to grasp. In an excellent piece for the Guardian this week Anna Hartnell argues that Gove’s decision to remove the two novels ”fails to recognise the dynamics that make up modern Britain”. For instance, a constant theme running throughout both books is the notion of identity and the importance of accepting others. Across both novels a reader is presented with themes surrounding class, gender, race, disability, mob culture and murder, all topics which provoke valuable discussions which young people living in a multicultural society would benefit from having today. They both use mostly modern language and are written in such a way that is easy enough to dissect meaning, so the inexperienced reader is not faced with an instant irremovable barrier. Yet their complex themes also provide plenty to work with for a more confident reader meaning the text can be appropriate for a classroom with a diverse range of abilities.

It is worth noting that already the GCSE curriculum requires students to study a Shakespeare play in order to achieve a GCSE language grade. For many students the task of overcoming the difficulties of historic verse is already a troublesome ordeal. Of course, the skills and enjoyment this can bring can be of great worth, but one expects that if English classes for many simply become the study of words and passages which are a struggle to comprehend, then studying literature will become nothing more than a daunting prospect. The inclusion of John Steinbeck and Harper Lee gives a student a healthy balance between modern and classic literature, without which literature could easily seem merely a primitive thing of the past.

It may be that some do not enjoy the experience of reading Of Mice and Men or To Kill a Mockingbird. While I think that both novels are very suitable texts for a GCSE syllabus, some students and teachers may think that other novels would make better reading. I don’t personally hold much faith in a rigid national curriculum and I lean towards the ideas of radical educationalists such as Paulo Freire. He believed that in a perfect educational environment teachers and students should be given the autonomy to decide their own curriculum layout together. In a study based on his experiences of teaching in shanty towns across Brazil, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire argues that the negative relationship an underprivileged learner has with the society he is living in often also results in a negative relationship between the learner and their teacher. Freire believed that the only way to overcome this to remove from the teacher the status of imposing a curriculum onto a learner, and that instead the role of a teacher should be merely that of a facilitator. This model of education is obviously unattainable in mainstream classrooms under a neoliberal regime However, I do think that given the level of alienation that exists in schools today (particularly those in impoverished areas) educationalists should be trying out some elements of this approach, such as seeking far greater student feedback. Living in the age of neoliberalism and austerity has brought about a situation where the left is unfortunately on the back foot, so arguments such as these will need to be long fought for.

In the current climate though it’s important for us to recognise that the removal of John Steinbeck and Harper Lee from the English curriculum is a further ideological attack at multicultural values, and one which is likely to deepen the gap between privileged and disadvantaged young people. We should therefore outright reject the imposing of a British Canon onto young people. It is after all Gove who would do well to reread the classic Victorian texts. He might want to pick up Nicholas Nickleby and remind himself of the passages depicting the repugnance of “Dotheboys School”. Perhaps then he could consider the damage which his own government driven welfare cuts and the ideological attacks on the poor are bringing to a new generation of students who are slowly being pushed back to the squalor of Dickensian Britain.


Further reading

Freire, Paulo (1972), Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York)

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A left defence of Bitcoin

For the last month, I have been conducting a small portion of my business in a different currency - Bitcoin. I do the same work as I do for British pounds, but instead of cash or a bank transfer, I’m paid with a few clicks of a mouse in a currency that is backed by no state, or by gold or silver, but by the consent of its users.  I have had a fascinating and frustrating time so far working with this “open-source currency.”

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Read more: A left defence of Bitcoin

Ian Birchall: The International Socialist tradition – a response to "International Socialist Tradition at the Crossroads"

Some time ago the IS Network website published a set of documents introduced by Chris Ford, and entitled International Socialist Tradition at the Crossroads. These dealt with the faction fight in the International Socialists from the period 1973-75. Ford describes this period as a “key turning point in the history of the International Socialist tradition”, and argues that it can help to explain the SWP’s current crisis. Ford strongly sides with the positions taken by Jim Higgins in this dispute.

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Selfish gene theory, feminism and Foucault

I found Samuel Grove’s article ‘The dead of Knight’, critiquing my ideas on science, very illuminating; I especially enjoyed the title. I am pleased that unlike the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the IS Network encourages discussion of such issues. 

It’s good that Samuel took the trouble to read Richard Dawkins and his critics: as far as I know, most of the SWP’s leading figures during the 1980s/1990s never got beyond the title of Dawkins’ best-selling book. Samuel’s account of the 1970s ‘level of selection’ debate is well informed. But let me simply point out that this debate – unlike the so-called ‘linguistic wars’ triggered by Chomsky’s notion of ‘deep structure’[1] – proved in the end to be fruitful and productive.

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Read more: Selfish gene theory, feminism and Foucault

Samuel Grove: The dead of Knight

Chris Knight claims that critical theorists should read their Marx. On the contrary Knight should start reading his Darwin.

Chris Knight’s call for the left’s struggle to be based on "solid scientific foundations" distorts the left’s historical engagement with science and caricatures critical theory

In a recent article published in the Weekly Worker entitled 'Why is the Left So Afraid of Science?' the Marxist anthropologist Chris Knight defends "science" against "hostile opponents" on the left. Knight's message to these opponents is implicit in his favoured definition of science: "Science is knowledge that endows us with power" (Trotsky). This appears to place politics ahead of science. Not so, says Knight. "Marx and Engels did not advocate subordinating science to politics," and neither does he. This is a distortion of priorities that Stalin was responsible for. Rather what Knight wants to call "genuine science" is knowledge "pursued ruthlessly for its own sake". This, he argues, "is the best service that can be rendered to the proletariat".

What is the lesson here? That disinterested knowledge ("genuine science") is preferable to knowledge that "serves sectional interests" ("ideology"). Agreed. But who on the left argues otherwise?

It is difficult to identify specific opponents of this view, because Knight maintains that "hostility to science infects almost the whole of the left". However, reading through the article, Knight gives a particular mention to Noam Chomsky, "a key figure in explaining how and why the left became so alienated from science", and university students who have "got into Foucault". Two influential figures to be sure, but at a first approximation they are an unusual pairing. When Chomsky debated Foucault in 1971 they articulated very divergent views on "science". However, for the purposes of Knight's article and mine, perhaps they are not such an arbitrary couple. As it transpires the one thing they do share is a hostility, not to science, but the juvenile depiction of science on display in Knight's article.

It is all very well defining science as "disinterested knowledge". The difficulty comes in identifying what is or is not disinterested. Knight seems reluctant to identify Marx as a critical theorist, but it was Marx who originally pointed out that one cannot distinguish "scientific bourgeois economy" from the "bad conscience and the evil intent of apologetic" simply based on what individuals think about themselves. To do this we must clearly define what we mean by "science". Foucault and Chomsky approach this question from different but complementary angles.

Foucault argued that before we ask whether or not a discourse is scientific we should be asking ourselves a prior question:

We should be asking ourselves about the aspiration to power that is inherent in the claim to being a science [...] What theoretico-political vanguard are you trying to put on the throne in order to detach it from all the massive, circulating, and discontinuous forms that knowledge can take?1

The label "science" is one invested with power and effects. It is right then that we pose the question of what we are trying to do when we bestow a theory with such an honour. There is no need to descend into casuistry here as I think the answer is self-evident. When we use the label "science" we are trying to differentiate what we are saying from our own interpretation. Science is more than just an opinion of someone. Something about the way "science" is constructed elevates it above interpretation to a more universal realm.

Chomsky's notion of "science" centres on this universal construction. According to Chomsky, a theory is scientific when its concepts do not need to be interpreted in the way vernacular words usually are. For example, when we refer to "energy" in a vernacular sense we can mean many different things from a type of boisterousness, a drink, an equivalent to what the Spanish mean by "onda" and so on. There is no single referent to the vernacular term "energy" independent of the person doing the referring. However, "energy" in relativity theory does have a fixed meaning — one that is mathematically expressible and corresponds to mass. Physicists don't have to interpret what each other mean by "energy" because the theory has already defined it for them.

The precision of scientific communication derives from the comparative simplicity of its object. Chomsky credits Galileo for the scientific intuition "nature is simple and it’s the task of the scientist to prove it". In Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences Galileo asked, "Why should I not believe that [nature operates] in a manner which is exceedingly simple and rather obvious to everybody?"2 This helps explain the association that science has with a universal mode of construction. Answers that are "obvious to everybody" are not simply interpretations. Foucault also noted this breakthrough although he credits Descartes rather than Galileo. In The Hermeneutics of the Subject Foucault refers to a "Cartesian moment" when science abandoned profound metaphysical questions in favour of "direct self-evidence".3

Foucault notes another feature of the modern scientific revolution that hinges upon this question of truth and interpretation. Prior to Galileo truth was inextricably tied to certain authors. As Foucault puts it in his essay 'What is an author?' scientific texts "were accepted in the Middle Ages, and accepted as 'true' only when marked with the name of their author".4 In order to know "science" one had to be an expert on the prevalent scientific authorities. One had to read and correctly interpret the texts of Hippocrates, Pliny and Aristotle. After Galileo, "scientific discourses began to be received for themselves" and not in "reference to the individual who produced them".5 Foucault’s observation is simple but profound. Students of physics do not have to read Newton's Principia to understand his theory of gravity just as molecular biologists do not have to read Watson and Crick to grasp the double helix structure of DNA. The theories they produced were independent of them, manifest "in the anonymity of an established or always re-demonstrable truth" (ibid).

The exception to this trend is in the works of Marx and Freud, authors that students and advocates are supposed to read. To be a Marxist or a Freudian one is expected to have read Marx or Freud. The renewal of what Foucault calls the "author function" in Marxist and Freudian discourses is tied directly to the question of their scientificity, the question of whether they produced theories that were sufficiently precise that their texts didn't need to be interpreted. According to Foucault what Marx and Freud founded were theories that "made possible" "not only a certain number of analogies, but also (and equally important) a certain number of differences [...] divergences — with respect to texts, concepts, and hypotheses — that all arise from within the discourse itself".6 It is the fact that Marx and Freud have to be interpreted that deprives them of the honour of being science. Foucault gives them an alternative designation — he calls them "discursivities".7 The irony in this return to the "author function" is that the strategy used to seal their scientificity — the invocation of the author's authority — is the clearest evidence we have that discursivities are not scientific.

It is interesting to keep Chomsky and Foucault's conceptions of science in mind when assessing Knight's own argument. He cites it as axiomatic that Marxism is "science". However, short of supporting evidence Knight turns to the author function for help — "Marx, after all, was a scientist. His special contribution was to extend the principles of science into areas where no-one else dared go — beyond mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology, all the way up to society." (What principles?) Knight then goes onto berate those on the left who "invoke Marx" but either haven't read him or read him correctly ("I cannot myself see any connection").

Another interesting aspect of Knight's argument in this regard is his discussion of "selfish-gene Darwinism". The reaction "of pretty much all of the left to [this] revolution was tragic", he asserts. He then proceeds to try to render the selfish-gene argument:

The point of selfish-gene theory was to solve a genuine puzzle. Suppose you accept Darwinism as ‘the survival of the fittest’. Suppose you also accept that some components of animal behaviour are natural and instinctive, passed on genetically. Then, on that basis, you cannot explain altruism or cooperation. Suppose, for example, you are a soldier in World War I and throw yourself on a grenade to save the comrades in your platoon. You would not pass on your genes because you would be dead. So, if there exist instincts for altruism or solidarity that are part of human nature, you just cannot explain how they could possibly have been transmitted down through the generations.

This is interesting for our purposes because Knight's oblique reference to what is called the "levels of selection" debate in the evolutionary literature provides us with a paradigmatic example of a Foucauldian discursivity — a theory (in this case "natural selection") that gives rise to not only a set of analogies but also a certain number of differences. Evolutionary theorists have been debating the correct unit of selection ever since Darwin equivocated between writing On the Origin of Species (in which he endorsed exclusive individual selection) and The Descent of Man (in which he allowed for group selection). Some from Herbert Spencer to GC Williams endorsed the reductionist argument, while others from Petr Kropotkin to Stephen Jay Gould and David Sloane Wilson have endorsed multi-level selection. Consistent with Foucault's observation, competing evolutionary theorists have claimed Darwin for themselves and condemned opponents for misreading him.

More importantly, Knight's rendering of the "levels of selection" debate is an example of the danger of claiming scientific closure on an ongoing debate. His insistence that this is a "science" and, moreover, the site of a "scientific revolution", no less, implies that opposition to gene selection is confined to ignorant outsiders. However, in this case it is Knight who is the ignorant outsider. "As an anthropologist," he avows, "I know more about evolutionary science than about climate science." This is concerning as in rendering the gene selection argument Knight repeats an error of logic that even Williams and Dawkins conceded.

"Selfish-gene Darwinism" was supposed to prove the fallacy of altruism or cooperation. If the gene is the "unit of selection" then group selection was a logical impossibility because the gene favours the individual not the group. This was the sum of the argument. The trouble with it is if the unit of selection is the gene, then the selection of an individual organism (a collection of genes, after all) is an example of group selection. In a later edition of The Selfish Gene two new chapters were added and the argument was changed from a logical to an empirical one. "We can now see that the organism and the group of organisms are true rivals for [selection]."8

Knight goes on to justify the argument for individual selection on the basis that the group selectionist argument leads to racism and eugenics. "I cannot express how reactionary all that stuff was," he writes — but it was not until the arrival of selfish-gene theory that all this came to be exploded as "rubbish biology". On the other side of the argument Steven Rose tied the links between gene selection and the rise of neoliberalism:

I do believe that when the history of the move to the right of the late 1970s comes to be written, from law and order to monetarism and to the (more contradictory) attack on statism, then the switch in scientific fashion, if only from group to kin selection models in evolutionary theory, will come to be seen as part of the tide which had rolled the Thatcherites and their concept of a fixed, 19th century competitive and xenophobic human nature into power.9

Can we settle the "levels of selection" debate on the basis of which position has the most reactionary effects? Should we presume that the answer lies, in the first place, on what "truth" lies closest to justice? Does Darwinism's implication in politics since the 19th century demonstrate that it only became a science with the advent of gene-selectionism? Or is the relation between truth and power more complicated than Knight would have us believe? There is a deeper question that needs to be asked here: why is it so important for the left to "reclaim science" in the first place? Knight discusses three areas of "scientific" inquiry to justify his argument:

Evolutionary biology: If Knight’s knowledge of evolutionary biology is poor, his awareness of the role an active left has played in the discipline is even worse. Left wing scientists, supported by a wider left, have been contesting what they regard as biology as ideology in general and the application of natural selection to man in particular for decades. This is hardly a closely guarded secret. The "Darwin Wars", as they became known, have been the subject of numerous popular books.

Climate change: The second case is climate science. Here Knight is on stronger ground because there really is a conspiracy to deny "inconvenient truths". But here Knight cannot be referring to a left wing conspiracy, for who on the left denies climate change? Unless he is maintaining that the left's suspicion of science accounts, circuitously, for climate change scepticism. However, is it really a Marxist argument (still less a scientific Marxist argument) to claim that climate change denial emanates from the inflated power of literary theory departments?

Anthropology/social science: This leaves us with Knight's own discipline — not one not known for its political purity. In her definitive guide to Colonial/Postcolonial Studies Ania Loomba sums up the political history of anthropology succinctly if understatedly:"‘Knowledge about and power over colonised lands are related enterprises."10

Nevertheless to call them "related enterprises" is not the same as saying that anthropology is reducible to power. What Knight is endorsing is organised empirical work on matters of political importance. For his own purposes, research on "time and how it is measured". Fair enough. This could be valuable work. But what is the value of calling it scientific? Presumably it would ward off critique from anyone who doesn’t seek to found anthropology on the same "solid scientific foundations" that Knight does. As it turns out Knight is less interested in emboldening anthropology as he is undermining its critical dimension.

Knight cites critical theory as if it was independent of anthropology and the "social sciences" rather than something which emerged within it. This way he can present critical theorists' use of Marx as illegitimate ("because Karl Marx was quite a critic of various theories, as we all know. It makes you despair"). However, Marx was also a critical theorist. Even if we take Capital, the work most associated with "scientific determinism", the whole thrust of the book is oriented towards showing that what classical political economy presented to us as natural and determined laws decipherable to science is in reality shot through with human agency (the full title, lest we forget, is Capital: A Critique of Political Economy). Consider these passages:

If wage-labour is taken as the point of departure, so that the identity of labour in general with wage-labour appears to be self-evident, then capital and monopolised land must also appear as the natural form of the conditions of labour in relations to labour in general.
[In classical political economy] production relations are converted into entities and rendered independent in relation to the agents of production (labour) [thus] the world-market, its conjunctures, movements of market-prices, periods of credit, industrial and commercial cycles, alternations of prosperity and crisis, appear to them as overwhelming natural laws that irresistibly enforce their will over them, and confront them as blind necessity.

It would be absurd to claim that Marx is trying to match classical political economy’s exposition of "scientific" economic laws. Capital is precisely an account of how to get out the nightmare of "scientific determinism" through clearing a space for deliberate political action by ordinary people.

One of the strategies of the right to prevent "deliberate political action of ordinary people" is to convince them that they are not qualified to interfere in economic "science". By emphasising Marx’s scientificity, Knight risks reinforcing this conception. Does one need to have a qualification to understand, for example, the reality of the "class struggle"? Marx equivocates. On the one hand he does claim to be doing science. However, the basis for his scientific approach was the realisation that property (including "wages, trade, value, price, money, etc") does not describe a natural relation between a thing and its owner (an assumption "analogous to that of theology") but is always already a relation between people. It was this discovery that "first rendered possible a real science of political economy". Moreover in Capital Marx asserts that the worker has an advantage over the capitalist (and presumably the economist as well) in observing this relation:

The worker stands on a higher plane than the capitalist from the outset, since the latter has his roots in the process of alienation and finds absolute satisfaction in it whereas right from the start the worker is a victim who confronts it as a rebel and experiences it as a process of enslavement.12

I agree with Knight that we should support organised disinterested knowledge (to the extent that it is possible) in anthropology and the social "sciences". However, disinterested knowledge does not necessarily equate with "science". To suggest otherwise amounts to an attempt to connect the varying interpretations of human existence with the theoretical achievements of the modern scientific revolution — something they have nothing in common with. If their pretensions to scientificity are baseless then the agenda is not. It is in the claim to scientificity that academics hope to insulate themselves from critique. However, it is precisely when theories claim to be objective and above power that we should be most vigilant. This means subjecting these claims to critique and scrutiny. For example, just because scientists can isolate an evolutionary mechanism in a laboratory with bacteria doesn’t mean we are compelled to call idle speculations on the course of human evolution scientific as well. Above all it means refusing childish demands to suspend our critical faculties. There is nothing particularly new about the bombast and invective Knight aims at critical theory "gobbledygook". As Foucault once put it in an interview:

I think that the blackmail which has very often been at work in every critique of reason (either you accept rationality or you fall prey to the irrational) operates as though a rational critique of rationality were impossible.13

We are used to seeing this blackmail from the right. It is the natural recourse of what Marx called the "hired prized fighters of the bourgeoisie". We should have no tolerance of it when it rears its ugly head on the left.


  1. Michel Foucault, 2004, Society Must be Defended. Penguin, p. 10.
  2. Galileo, 2010, Dialogue Concerning Two New Sciences, trans. by H Crew and A De Salvio, Cosimo Press, p. 161.
  3. Michel Foucault, 2005, The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the College de France 1981-1982, edited by Frederic Gros, translated by Graham Burchell, Picador, pp. 14 and 190.
  4. Michel Foucault, 1979, ’What is an author?’, trans. by JV Harari, in Michel Foucault, The Foucault Reader, Pantheon Press, p. 109.
  5. ibid.
  6. ibid, 115.
  7. ibid, 114.
  8. Richard Dawkins, 2006. The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition, Oxford University Press, p. 254.
  9. Steven Rose, cited in Dawkins. The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition, p. viii.
  10. A Loomba, 1998. Colonialism/Postcolonialism, Routledge, p. 43.
  11. Karl Marx, 2012. Selected Essays, The Floating Press, p. 109.
  12. Karl Marx, 1977. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, volume 1, trans. by Ben Fowkes, Penguin, p. 990.
  13. Michel Foucault, 1983. 'Critical Theory/Intellectual History', in Michel Foucault, Politics, Phiosophy, Culture: Interview and Other Writings, 1977-1984, edited by L Kritzm. Routledge, p. 27.
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