Andy Blunden May 2017

A note on Marx vs. the philosophers

In my paper on “Goethe, Hegel and Marx” I argued that the principal revision Marx made of Hegel was that

“whereas Hegel suffered from the illusion that a theorist could unfold from a conceptual ideal everything that was implicit within it, Marx consistently held to the view that the logical development had to follow the development of social practice at every stage, making intelligible what was given in social practice.”

The purpose of this note is to review what I found in three unrelated investigations which shed light on what it means to “follow the development of social practice at every stage, making intelligible what was given in social practice,” and how this logical reconstruction of real history differs sharply from dominant approaches in the human sciences.

The three investigations I have in mind are:

  1. My book, “The Origins of Collective Decision Making,” in which I take it that a group of people in the same place deciding what to do together is the germ cell of collective decision making. My aim was to discover the origins of Majority and Consensus decision making and trace their development up till now. This led me to discover how collective decisions were made before people voted and therefore the conditions which led to the invention of voting and consequently the essential nature of Majority decision making, and likewise of the Consensus decision making which appeared historically much later.

  2. My paper, “On Political Representation,” which used empirical material gathered for the book on decision making to clarify the concept of political representation.

  3. My paper, “The Emergence of Nicaraguan Sign Language,” which traced the history of the invention and propagation of Nicaraguan Sign Language beginning in the 1980s, and by doing so clarified important principles to do with language acquisition and the human capacity to make and learn languages.

Ad. 1 When I wrote this book I was unaware that there was any academic literature on the topic of the origins of collective decision making, only hearsay among anarchist writers. Subsequently, I learnt that there is an academic literature on Majority voting but I had never come across it because it never went to the places that I explored.

Academic treatment of Majority decision making goes as follows: a description of practices in ancient Greece and the commentary of Plato, Aristotle, etc., skip a couple of centuries to ancient Rome, a quote or two from Pliny or whoever, skip a millennium to decisions of the medieval Vatican, then skip half a millennium to eighteenth century France and the science proper begins with Rousseau, Condorcet, Pufendorf, etc., as well as Englishmen like Hobbes and Locke.

The material about the ancient world is interesting in itself, but I never went there because my real topic was collective decision making practices in the contemporary world and there was no thread of practical collaboration connecting the political practices of the classical world to our own. As is well known, the line of transmission of classical culture to early modern Europe passed through the Islamic world and the sole vehicle was text, not practice, and political practices are not acquired by masses of people reading manuscripts.

But at the time Pufendorf and Condorcet discussed voting, they are reflecting on an established practice, and they have neither the knowledge of nor an interest in the origins of that practice which ordinary people had been engaged in (it turns out) for about 800 years. As a result of adopting these Enlightenment philosophers as the founders of the theory of voting, a belief grew up that voting was invented by philosophers and passed down from the top by governments. Others who believed that the British House of Commons had invented voting arrived at similar conclusions.

But this idea that voting is a gift handed down from the top to the people fundamentally distorts the nature of Majority decision making, which was invented by merchants, artisans and others excluded from the protection of the state under feudal law governed by blood and soil. That is to say, voting was invented by the excluded, at the very bottom and pressed upward until universal suffrage was achieved in the twentieth century.

Ad. 2 repeated what I had found with collective decision making. It appeared that representation was a practice that was invented following the granting of the franchise by governments to the people, ignoring a thousand years of the practice of representation in voluntary organizations used by ordinary people to manage their affairs in the absence of assistance from the state.

Ad. 3 The dominant view about the origins of Nicaraguan Sign Language is presented in the Wikipedia entry Nicaraguan_Sign_Language. According to this narrative, NSL was invented by anonymous, non-literate deaf children – children that had otherwise never used language – in the playground together at school. This story is taken to prove the existence of a “Language Acquisition Device” as proposed by Noam Chomsky, that is, it proves that language is innate rather than being a accomplishment of human society acquired by participation in a culture – a major blow in the Nature versus Nurture debate.

I saw this claim as unbelievable (just as I believe that ghost stories and time travel are unbelievable) and my investigation was able to trace the precise series of practical collaborations between named individuals which led to the creation of NSL by young adults, some of whom were already literate, with adult assistance. Thus the supposed proof of the existence of a LAD turned out to be fake, and my investigations did bring out just what are the outer limits of what a deaf child can achieve without exposure to a developed sign language, the minimum cultural conditions for language acquisition.

Marx was doing the same thing when he began Capital with a consideration of commodity exchange and its historical evolution into money and capital. The political economists who took money and capital as given phenomena and then tried to explain them were never able to achieve what Marx discovered – the essential nature of money and capital.

The studies mentioned above go to the essential nature of politics (a.k.a. collective decision making and representation) and language, two essential aspects of human life.

Andy Blunden
May 2017