The Web Site for Critical Realism The WSCR Archive

[The following review originally appeared in Radical Chains, No. 4. A copy of the review is also available at]

Critical Unrealism


Review of Roy Bhaskar (ed.), A Meeting of Minds: Socialists Discuss Philosophy--Towards a New Symposium (London: Socialist Society, 1991).

Edited and mainly written by Roy Bhaskar, this short book seeks to explore the relation between Bhaskar's critical realist philosophy and the political project of socialist emancipation. Its real importance, however, is that it constitutes a statement of the philosophico-political project of the grouping that calls itself The Socialist Movement. For this reason alone it deserves serious attention.

In the first two chapters, which outline Bhaskar's critical realism and its political applications, a form of critical realism is advocated, one which, it is argued, underpins the politics of socialist emancipation. Critical realism, it is claimed, penetrates below superficial surface appearances to reveal enduring structures and generative mechanisms. Critical realism stresses what it sees as the 'transformative nature' of social activity and a 'relational' conception of society. Social systems are, from this point of view, intrinsically open and so essentially subject to the possibility of transformation. It is this that makes socialism possible. Socialism itself is seen as the result, not of the amelioration of states of affairs within a given social structure, but of the actual transformation of those structures. This in turn underlies the opposition of Bhaskar and his comrades to post 1945 social-democratic government and to stalinism.

The critical realist view appears to start off on the right track, stressing the historical nature of all social institutions, the market included. It is argued, for example that the market is not natural or given but socially and historically specific. From this, however, the conclusion is drawn that market relations are compatible with human emancipation: 'Emancipatory socialist action will involve transforming the market - more precisely, abolishing some markets, socialising and democratising others' (p.30). Rejecting the 'market-socialism' of Alec Nove and the 'market-less socialism' of Ernest Mandel, Bhaskar et al opt for the 'socialised market' proposed by Diane Elson (in New Left Review 172, Nov-Dec 1988).

A political project that is essentially uncritical of the value form must be rejected but it is necessary to be clear on what grounds. What is needed is not a merely abstract dismissal of the conclusions reached - the 'socialised market' - but criticism of the premises from which these conclusions arise. This is no easy task for these premises include ones that many communists would share. Politically, the acceptance of the 'socialised market' flows from rejection of stalinist and social democratic administration. But it has theoretical roots as well. The argument for the 'socialised market' starts off from the legitimate concern to reject all 'reified' conceptions of the market. It is argued that the market is neither natural nor given and nor is it unchanging. The market has taken on different forms at different times in history and in different societies. And as an empirical observation, it must be conceded that this is true. Bhaskar's political conclusions cannot be refuted by appeal to the unchanging nature of the market. More than that, however, Bhaskar's concern to reject all 'reified' conceptions of the market has a resonance with the concerns of those writers in Radical Chains who have opposed the 'naturalisation' of the laws of capital (see Dixon and Gorman in Radical Chains 3).

There is here a resonance but also a dissonance. The two projects meet and also part. Bhaskar and the other philosophers of The Socialist Movement are critical of the reification of 'the market' and conclude that the market can be 'socialised'. For those writers who have taken up the question in Radical Chains, by contrast, the concern has been to understand how the laws of capital have been transformed by and have in turn transformed conscious activity. From this follows the need to abolish the value form and all surrogates for it. The Socialist Movement philosophers derive their categories from sociology and economics and not from the critique of political economy. Where the Radical Chains project is concerned with the understanding of a system or totality of interlocking social relations, Bhaskar and company see instead a mere aggregation or collection of relations that are subject to an open set of permutations. This can be seen in Bhaskar's description of the socialised market: 'It involves public ownership and worker-managed enterprises with a basic wage guaranteed irrespective of work, in exchange for domestic or caring labour, with labour, producer goods and consumer goods markets, subject to over-all planning norms and with market-making undertaken by publicly funded bodies and backed up by buyer-seller information networks' (p.28-29).

The Socialist Movement wants to abolish the market in capital but retain the market in labour. At the same time, however, it wants to guarantee a basic wage 'irrespective of work'. How is the circle to be squared? A socialist project that wants to retain the labour market does not anticipate the emancipation of human activities, needs, and desires from external discipline. It has, in fact, no conception of real human emancipation. A 'basic wage guaranteed irrespective of work' is, however, incompatible with money mediation, the discipline of the law of value. If needs can be met without recourse to wage labour people will not exchange their labour power for a wage. To this extent the law of value is partially suspended. Yet in so far as society is still subject to the pressure of the law of value, to the extent that there is still a market in labour power, people must be forced to work. Administrative structures will proliferate as the socialist regime strives to make the recognition of needs compatible with the discipline of the law of value. If the regime is not to succumb to crisis, the extent of needs recognition will have to be reduced. Necessarily the socialist regime comes into opposition to the class of producers.

If this sounds familiar it is only because it replicates, at a higher level of decay, the inadequacies of the social democratic project that it rejects. It replicates the inadequacies of that project and also takes over its language and categories. The references to 'over-all planning norms' and 'publicly funded bodies', 'public ownership and worker-managed enterprises' indicate the degree of dependence on previous outmoded projects. Planning is equated with the activities of the organisers of labour and not with the activity and subjectivity of the producers themselves. The project does not point to the future but appears to try to salvage the wreckage of the past. The philosophers of The Socialist Movement are unable to identify class subjects with a potential for self-emancipation and thus cannot conceive of the transcendence of value relations. Thus they are condemned to become, if anything, the guardians of absolute poverty in decline. Market relations and the laws of capital are subject to change and transformation but the possibilities are not endless. At some point the questions of power and supersession must and will be posed.

If the first two chapters are devoted to outlining the basic ideas of critical realism and their application, chapters three to five examine the relative merits also of critical theory and postmodernism. This takes the form of a debate between Roy Bhaskar, William Outhwaite and Kate Soper. Bhaskar's contribution consists of a critique of Habermas (the representative of critical theory) and of Rorty (who represents postmodernism). The form of this critique is very much apparent but its content is elusive. For Bhaskar, Habermas 'remains ensnared in the antinomy of transcendental pragmatism'. He 'tacitly inherits a positivist ontology and an instrumentalist-manipulative conception' of the natural sciences and the sphere of labour (p.34). Habermas's system 'readily takes on a dualistic overly anti-naturalist hue' while Rorty 'remains wedded to a positivist account of the natural sciences'. Rorty, moreover, 'erects a Nietzschean superstructure (as a superidealist "epistemology") in the guise of an undifferentiated "linguistified" monism on a Humean-Hempelean ontological base' (p.35).

This is a lot of '-ists' and '-eans' to be crammed into less than two pages of text. It is not, however, the result of trying to distil the essence of his longer works into a small space. Readers of Bhaskar's weightier tomes,--The Possibility of Naturalism, for example--will have noticed the same tendency at work there. The suspicion is that the adjectives--'positivist', 'Nietzschean', 'superidealist', and so on - are doing all the work. They are surrogates for real argument. What exactly is a 'dualist overly anti-naturalist hue'? How would you recognise a 'superidealist epistemology' if you encountered one? Bhaskar would seem to presuppose more knowledge on the part of the reader than could be deemed to be reasonable. Perhaps he could have provided a glossary, or better, an index of -isms.

Yet there is something less than humorous about these procedures. To say that someone's philosophy 'readily takes on a dualistic overly naturalistic hue' is not to argue a point but to refuse debate. It is a form of intellectual policing, the outcome of which cannot be a broadening of views or an exchange of ideas. In it, however, there is more than an echo of Stalin's denunciation of the economist I. I. Rubin for 'Menshevising idealism'.

After all this, Outhwaite's response appears initially as a breath of fresh air, his chapter opening promisingly with an unpretentious attempt to unravel the relation between critical realism and critical theory. This soon degenerates into an attempt to show that Bhaskar and Habermas have more in common than is normally thought. The purpose and relevance of the exercise is unclear.

The most interesting of the last three chapters is Soper's discussion of postmodernism, critical realism and critical theory. Soper identifies postmodernism as a response to the experience of fascism, stalinism and what she describes as the 'nuclear age and looming ecological crisis' (p.43). These, she argues, have generated doubt, scepticism and a questioning of Enlightenment rationality and conceptions of progress. These real concerns are expressed in the postmodern consciousness. Yet, with postmodernism, conceived not just as a form of social consciousness but as a philosophical project, these legitimate concerns are subjected to a kind of 'theoretical overdrive'. In the end it invites us to 'disown the very aspiration to truth as something unobtainable in principle' (p.45). Thus it degenerates into a total relativism and a form of libertarianism or anarchism 'of distinctly New Rightist overtones' (p.46).

Soper's distinction between postmodernism as a spirit of the age and as an intellectual project is useful. However, while recognising the socio-historical roots of the postmodern consciousness, Soper deals with postmodernism only as an intellectual concern. Thus she appears to think that it can be overcome by showing it to be logically incoherent. But a critique which addresses only the relativism and libertarianism of postmodernism is not sufficient. We need to understand the social processes necessary to the breakdown of the current condition of disorientation and to the emergence of a new rationality. If this cannot be done, then criticism is limited to an essentially conservative reaction, an attempt to restore what is in fact irretrievable.

Soper's predicament, however, highlights a problem that is general. The supposed task of the project seems to be that of rectifying 'the error of reification' (p.9) or 'illusory or false consciousness' (p.11). It is as if socialist thought develops autonomously of human social relations, that intellectual work is not subject to the same processes that supposedly mystify everyone else. This goes together with a lack of recognition of social subjectivity. Bhaskar says that his contribution is 'part of the longer term project of recapturing the intellectual high ground' (p.7). It is difficult to avoid concluding that he thinks that intellectual hegemony is enough. There is no recognition that individuals must transform society and so transform themselves.

The book is presented as a contribution to the process of socialist 're-thinking' and in particular as a response to the collapse of stalinism in the USSR and Eastern Europe and the weakening of the national liberation movements in the Third World (p.5). Yet the general impression is that the philosophers of The Socialist Movement remain trapped within the old perspectives. There is no real break here with the old practices of administrative intervention and the concern to socialise the market merely echoes the current preoccupations of the Soviet elite.

The Web Site for Critical Realism The WSCR Archive