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The Politics of Radical Philosophy

nOTES
state, and therefore teach people not to depend
on and fetishize the State as an omnipotent and
eternal form on which they depend? In the
absence of a coherent theory, situated in the
debates that have occupied Marxists (or maybe
even Anarchists) for a hundred and some years,
I really don’t see that Radical Philosophy qua
Radical Philosophy will lead people to take the
objectively right decisions whatever their
intentions.

THE POLITICS OF
RADICAL PHILOSOPHY
David-Hillel RubeD

1

I begin by assuming that Radical Philosophy is
a contradictory phenomenon, embracing as it does
groups of all sorts, Marxists, existentialists,
anarchists, apoliticals who are just bored with
the sort of philosophy taught in orthodox departments etc. Being a contradictory phenomenon is
neither good nor bad, but it does suit the
organisation for some tasks and not others. It
imposes certain constraints, objectively speaking,
on the nature of the activity pursued by Radical
Philosophy, and I presume that, short of
expUlsions, Radical Philosophy will continue to
be a contradictory organization. Obviously,
the more it is ‘democratized’, the more
contradictory elements it is likely to embrace.

2

One thing a contradictory organization cannot
do is to undertake coherent, revolutionary
practice. To engage in meaningfully revolutionary practice, a consistent theory must inform
that practice. But that is just what Radical
Philosophy cannot provide, for there is no agreed
theory save a ‘vague’ radicalism of the lowest
common demoninator. Without being informed by
a coherent theory, practice – however subjectively
intended to be revolutionary – will be liable to
being objectively counter-revolutionary and
misguided. For example, at the recent Radical
Philosophy meeting at Oxford, someone said that
in one case a local group put up a slate of
candidates who were elected to the Board of
Studies. But many radicals are resigning from
Boards of Studies across Britain, since their
presence there simply served to legitimize forms
which they could not change. Again, someone
else suggested that Radical Philosophy should
involve itself more with radical political groups.

The Claimants Union was mentioned as an example.

But do you teach people merely how to receive
maximum goodies from the bourgeois state, or do
you use it to expose the limits of the bourgeois

3

Therefore, the only things worth while that
Radical Philosophy can do are:

Ca) to serve the debate with orthodox philosophy
and expose its limitations, presuppositions etc;
Cb) more importantly, to serve as a forum to
which radicals from different points of view
can put their theoretical contributions and
debate with one another. Any shame in being
‘theoretical’ seems to me to be adolescent and
wholly un-Marxist. I’m not saying, of course,
that theoretical activity is enough. But, for
practice, there exist I.S., I.M.G., Solidarity,
S.L.L., even the C.P. There can be nothing
wrong in setting up an organization which
embraces only theoretical activity. Sensible
people will engage in practical activity in other
organizations which provide them with the proper,
coherent, agreed, theoretical framework in which
to act.

4

The suggestion that Radical Philosophy should
move its focus of interest away from universities and towards greater involvement with
active political groups such as Claimants Union
seems to have been put forward in a rotally
confused manner. I’m in favour of having the
widest possible field from which to draw
contributors to the theoretical activity of
Radical Philosophy. It is obvious why most of
the contributors are likely to come from
universities, for in a bourgeois society, not
many others have the same time to devote to
theoretical activity. But if you can get
contributions to radical theory from outside the
univers i ty, I am in favour and good luck to you.

However, if the contributors from the Claimants
Union, or whatever, are to be asked to write
reports or some such on what they are doing,
without linking that to theoretically interesting

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conclusions., it’s a bore – and what is more,
from being a theoretical journal, Radical
Philosophy will become just another radical
street newspaper. There is clearly a need both
for theoretical journals and newspapers for
radicals; but since there is a need for both,
I feel no need to’ apologize for the production
of a radical theoretical journal. If it is
meant that, as Radical Philosophy, we should
involve ourselves in Claimants Union work, I am
opposed. Decisions must be made on consistent
principles, and those Radical Philosophy cannot
provide. I leave that to Radical Philosophers
qua members of I.S., I.M.G., C.P. etc.

ALTERNATIVE
PHILOSOPHIES?

Bob Brecher
The contents of ‘Radical Philosophy, 3’ highlight
two of the central tensions in the movement. Both are
manifest in Colin Beardon’s article, “On alternative
philosophies”, in its glib and muddled presentation of
marxism as the sole viable alternative to “traditional”
philosophy. Nevertheless, the gist of what he says
might be right. The two tensions. are as follows.

Ted Benton

Z

There is obviously a lot of disagreement within
the “movement” about Ca) relative emphasis on serious
theoretical work and political practice, respectively;
Cb) relationship between theoretical work and political
practice; Cc) the sort of political practice that it’s
viable to expect of R.P.G.

Both Cb) and Cc) are themselves theoretical
questions, and Ca) can only be decided on the basis of
a theoretical position, in my view, but we still have
to contend with the fact that many ‘supporters’ of
R.P.G. have to contend with immediate practical/
political problems in their departments, universities,
colleges, etc.

Therefore I suggest that if (as I hope) another
Conference is organized in London this year, a clear
division be made in conference-time between intellectual
work, and debate about the political practice of the
organization. I also suggest that at least some of the
latter time be allocated early on. This might make it
easier to do serious theoretical work in the times
devoted to it. The development of theory is absolutely
crucial to the future of revolutionary politics in
Britain and R.P.G. can make a uniquely important
contribution to it. I’m not, of course, saying that
we have to postpone political practice till we have the
correct theory!

though I do think that the
theoretical work of R.P.G. can be much more important
for the whole revolutionary struggle that any political
practice it may develop.

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35

1. That between the practice of philosophy and the
pursuit of political ideals. Beardon says, “Those parts
of the Liberation groups which are seriously concerned
with changing oppressive features of society have rapidly
become overtly political and have unified with wider
political movements. I see no other alternative for
Radical Philosophy. Either a few like-minded professionals will have found an outlet for their interests,
and little else will happen, or the Group must become
seriously committed to changing the present state of
philosophy.”
2. That between the espousal of marxism
as the only alternative to “traditional” philosophy,
and the avowal of non-sectarianism in the group’s
manifesto. Here Beardon writes, “It would be a hopeless task to devise a philosophy that is not trivial,
all we can do is devise philosophies that reflect
certain viewpoints. There are many possible viewpoints
that differ from the orthodox one, but the important
point is. how many reflect the viewpoint of a large
enough body to make effective changes in the educational
system even feasible? Only a Marxist philosophy sets
out to do just that. .. ”
Let’s have a look at these two tensions. In order
to see how they arise, or how 1 think Jhey do, let me
give a caricature sketch of how someone might become a
radical philosopher.

A student becomes fed up with the Oxford mixture
served up to him as philosophy. The endless, and
usually pointless. analysis, the clever, showy logicchopping, the crossword-puzzle attitudes of the professionals bores him stiff; he’d expected something
far better from philosophy, something with a real-life
purpose, not just an esoteric game. Perhaps it’s in
the bizarre meanderings of the so-called moral philOsophers that he realizes that the boredom of the
subject masks something more important – its pretended
a-morality and a-politicality. Surely philosophy
should be a moral activity, not merely a discussion of
piano practice CStevenson) or red motor cars (Hare).

It shouldn’t be just a second-order. apres-ski subject.

attempting to correct other people’s mistakes. He
sees that the boring triviality of linguistic philosophy
is inextricably bound up with the general isolation of
the academic, the ivory-tower atmosphere of universities,
the all too common human inadequacy of the academic .

Having realised this, he. and others like him, begin to
move away from pure logic-chopping. Now, metaphysics is
no longer disreputable; courses appear on Hegel. Marx.

Freud, Sartre; papers appear attacking the so-called
is/ought dichotomy; Witt~enstein is re-read, and “forms
of life” come into fashion. Radical philosophy is born.

But where does this – important and necessary though
it is – leave the radical philosopher’s dissatisfaction
with the academic? He’s still doing no more than talking and writing, whereas what he wants to do is to
change things, not to be an elitist intellectual. Nor
does he want to give up philosophy. He may have taken
part in sit-ins, and joined picket-lines; but this is
still inadequate, because he wants what he DOES to
stem from what he professionally THINKS, from his
PHILOSOPHY. After all, look at Russell and Sartre,
or even Spinoza or Socrates – though not at Aristotle
or Leibniz ••• or Hegel.

him in the way of moral-political action grounded in
his philosophy?

No doubt there is room for people
who adopt certain media-psychoanalysis, religion, artas instruments for trying to change the world. and who
make use of philosophy as an aid to their understanding
of these media. But if that’s what you want to do, why
become a philosopher? Why leave psychoanalysis. art,
religion, or whatever, for philosophy? Because if you
do, then you’re left with exactly those questions that
got radical philosophy going.

But what Russell did in public had nothing to do
with his philosophy, though everything to do with his
“philosophy of life”, in its best, most vulgar sense.

Sartre only started doing things when he turned from
existentialism to marxism.

And that’s the point;
marxism is the one system of thought that requires the
marriage of theory and practice, the one philosophy
available to us which is a philosophy of “life. But
this is only the beginning of the change we need, for
many radical philosophp.rs have left hopelessly out-oftouch linguistic analysis for hopelessly out-of-touch
academic marxism. They are as alienated from their
idealized workers as the Oxford philosophers are from
the “ordinary” people whom they imagine to speak
“ordiIJ.ary” language.

Is non-marxist philosophy just a parasitic
fascination? Is non-marxist philosophy of life,perhaps
like Russell’s just a sentimental misapprehension,
nei ther “philosophy”, nor “of life”? Does Stoppard’ s
view of literary criticism fit such philosophy? – “It
remains the case than an. academic preoccupation with
the creative work of other people has become so widespread and obsessive that the art of criticism is
forced, out of self-respect, to pretend to a relevance
beyond the confines of its admittedly sprawling ramifications. This puts an unwelcome and unnecessary
strain upon a pastime fit for educated men of private
means and studious bent but no particular talent; the
scale and volume of the enterprise is now so great
that its true place in the system of cultural values
has been obscured to the point where public money
supports it and talented men are drawn to it ••• I can
imagine no use or virtue in it other than that
I
Professor Brown is, I suppose, having a good time ••• ”

Not only are many marxist philosophers in the
universities horribly uncritical ideologues, and thus
incapable of allowing half a dozen, let alone a hundred
flowers blossom, but, perhaps even more sadly, they
remain academics with little sense of reality, of how
real people live, of what inspires them, of their hopes
and fears. Has Beardon experienced those l~ years of
western non-marxist philosophy in Moscow? Has he
listened to the Czech philosophers thrown out of Charles
university in Prague for daring to suggest that marxism
might be open to socialist criticism, and acting on
what they thought, in the vanguard of the “Prague Spring”.

The workers, whose “practical alternative viewpoint”
some marxist philosophers think they’ve adopted, hold
them in contempt, because they regard the whole academic
set-up as a fraud, perpetuated to prop up the status
quo, radicals and all. And to a large extent they’re
right.

I”Playwrights and Professors”, in ‘DOERS AND THINKERS’

Both tensions remain; between philosophic thought
and political action; and between Marxism and unorthodoxy. This is very depressing, for the conviction
remains that philosophy ought to have real and fairly
direct consequences, and that philosophers ought to set
certain standards of academic disinterestedness.

Wisdom, not mere cleverness, should be our goal; and
wisdom, we feel, is a virtue, and should be put to
virtuous use. Is there no solution then?

STAFF AND STUDENTS
Keith GrahalD
Radical Philosophy 3 carried a repsrt(p44) purporting to come from the Radical Philosophy discussion
group which met in Bristol during the summer term, 1972.

It was said to be the group’s view of these meetings
that ‘the standard of discussion was kept low due to
deep divisions between the students involved (all
undergraduates) and the more liberal staff. What
emerged was that certain members of staff were keen to
identify with the movement, but still found it necessary
to appear as authorities on all topics discussed, even
when it was clear that they were not. The students
involved came to deeply resent this attitude.’

Well, I think that, for all I have said against
dogmatic marxism, an open-minded socialism might be
one. Committed marxist philosophers might be able
to do much better with more of what I’d call the human
qualities – remember “socialism with a human face”?

It was meant literally.

Less intolerance, more
sympathetic understanding of non-philosophers; less
hardness, more real concern. Maybe even an assault on
the academy from the outside. After all, one of the
few positive achievements of what passed in Czechoslovakia for marxism was the incorporation of the
university into life, life into the university; and it
was just this that so nearly destroyed the rigid
orthodoxy, for the flowers of the Prague Spring grew
in the philosophy faculty at Prague, and blossomed on
the streets and in the homes. The other thing that I
think would be needed is a proper working-out and
justification of how “view-points”, or whatever they’d
be better called, are the ground of any philosophy, and
of how, given this, philosophy differs from ideology
pure and simple. More stress would have to be laid on
the imagination and the emotions, the parts they play
in philosophy. It’s a hard job, requiring a transformation not only of philosophy, and the philosopher,
but probably of marxism as well.

But what of non-marxist radicals – can there
even be such a thing? The humanization, or deacademicization, and the sorting out of philosophy
from ideology, having realised that there is no Truth,
only truth for something and someone, wouldn’t come
amiss here either. But even after that, is there any
framework for philosophy apart from marxism where
thought must needs issue in what is done? Or is the
only alternative for the non-marxist radical philosopher
the much lowlier aspiration of setting a personal dayto-day example of reasonableness, arising from philOsophical rationality, and sympathy. arising from
philosophical understanding; is this all there is for

1 should at once declare an interest. 1 am almost
certainly one of the members of staff referred to, and
1 suffered deep resentment on being labelled a liberal.

But even leaving personal feelings aside, 1 believe
the report should not go unchallenged. Apart from its
inaccuracy (postgraduates also attended these meetings)
it is not a report from the group, but rather the work
of one particular member of it. He seems, moreover,
to have been unsuccessful in gauging the sense of the
meetings in question. Having traced as many as
possible of those who attended them I have discovered
only one person who believes that the above description
is a fair one. Fruitful meetings continued in Bristol
during the autumn term with no sign of deep divisions
or deep resentment,

36

It has been put to me that even considered as one
person’s reaction the report was worth publishing. 1
agree. There is also a second reason why it should not
be disregarded. It might be seen as a particular
manifestation of a more general attitude which is found,
for example, amongst some radical students. This is the
view that an important analogue of the class struggle
is reproduced in universities, with lecturers in the
role of the bourgeoisie and students as the proletariat
(1 should stress that I have no idea whether the author
of the above report holds the general view in question.

It is in any case worth examining on its own account.)

It wil.l not do to dismiss this as a fantasy produced:

by the post-adolescent rebellion against public school
and a rich father. Even if that were a correct account
of the genesis of the belief. we should still want to
know if anything in reality corresponds to it. And
certainly a plausible picture can be built up of the
lecturer as a figure of authority. if not an authoritarian figure. who is possessed of a power which he has
every reason to keep and which is backed up by a whole
network of institutions. On the other side is the
student. in a totally subordinate position. and forced
to do whatever he can to break the lecturer’s monopoly
of power and knowledge.

If this parallel holds. it is likely to have
important practical consequences. In the class struggle
itself. the interests of the owner and non-owner of the
means of life are diametrically and inherently opposed:

it is in the interests of the capitalist to screw
everything he can out of the worker. and vice versa.

Perhaps then. it may be argued that a similar position
obtains in the university? Though a student may make
temporary alliances with his teacher (as in Radical
Philosophy?) he must ultimately remain opposed to him.

and have no illusions about cooperation and joint
ventures. Of course he may find the odd teacher who
manifests total indifference to the power and authority
associated with his role, but (someone might argue) the
fact than an ‘individual is not conscious of the interest
he has qua member of a certain group does not gainsay
the fact that he has that interest – in the same way
as one comes across students who show no concern over
their oppression by those who teach them. And in any
case what is true of isolated individuals may not hold
at all for the whole class.

to·be cultured. and universities do serve the needs of
capitalist society. But so. for that matter. do steel
plants. police stations and printing works. In no
case does it follow that the people who work in these
places have good reason to identify with the interests
of those who employ them. University teachers are
relatively privileged members of the proletariat and
they conduct their wage-bargaining in a gentlemanly
way. but the crucial fact is that they are nevertheless
in a position which makes such bargaining necessary
over and over again.

Finally. I may be accused of an unsympathetic
interpretation of the counter-suggestions. They are
not to be construed as endorsing this identification
with the interes~s of the ruling class; rather as
stating the regrettabl~ but inevitable fact that this
body of intellectuals, because of’their position. are
bound to adopt a reactionary stance. My reply is that
this is an interesting speculation. But we have no
chance of judging its truth while only a vanishingly
small minority of ‘real’. horny-handed proletarians
wish to abolish the relationship with gives rise to
their subordination. If/when they decide in large
numbers that they wish to end the wages system then
we shall be able to see whether intellectuals lag
behind in class consciousness. But one should beware
of the dangers of self-fulfilling prophecy in this
area.

The moral of all this is that what is common
between staff and students is of greater significance
than what separates them (just as the long-term common
interest of lorry drivers and dockers is more important
than any short-term conflicting interest). To go
looking for deep divisions within one section of the
working class is to ensure that capitalism is with us
for another thousand years. One might put the point
in the form of an injunction: Radical staff and students
unite. You have a whole world to win. You have
nothing to lose but your distinction.

Just because the parallel would have such implications I believe it is important to see where it fails.

At the school I went to. the headmaster was keen on
fostering such things as house loyalties on the grounds
(curiously similar to those involved in the parallel)
that the school was a reflexion or microcosm of society
at large. The difficulty which such a suggestion runs
into is the fact that the school is an institution
wi~hin society, and that its artificially created
loyalties may be affected or come into conflict with
loyalties which pre-exist in the wider world. So it
is with the present parallel. If the lecturer is
thought of as some kind of pale imitation of the
capitalist, it has to be remembered that he wc.irs this
guise in a world where is is actually a member· of the
proletariat – i.e. he has to sell his labour power in
order to gain access to the means of life. Of course
he does not fit the music-hall image of the proletarian. but then an ever-decreasing number of proletarians
do. Thus it turns out that in the wider context from
which the parallel is drawn the interest of lecturer
and student do. after all. coincide.

AGITPROP

Agitprop’s collective is on the move. Every
revolutionary movement demands increased flexibility
and a mas~ering of new skills. While we each feel the
need to change in different ways. we feel we must end
our own involvement in the projects occurring here and
help others in the libertarian movement who want to
carry on with political education and information work.

We have made this break reluctantly and realistically
after about 6 months of discussions.

We feel encouraged by the growth of several nonprofit. community shops outside London. as we feel they
are concrete examples of efforts to decentralise. We
feel it is important for groups and individuals both to
supply these bookshops with new and regular publications.

and to make an effort to get their books and pamphlets
from a regional shop rather than from London.

What I am suggesting is that if we recall the
points of contact which universities have with the
wider society. we shall recognise a more fundamental
and important similarity of interest between students
and staff. a similarity which renders the attempted
parallel misleading. But a defender of the parallel
may argue that stressing the points of contact has
precisely the reverse effect and shows its validity.

He may say that it is sheer natvet~ to refer to
university lecturers as members of the proletariat:

they are ‘intellectuals’. they are members of the
Establishment. they are close to the centres of power;
Hence they will identify with the interests of the
ruling class and one cannot expect them to do otherwise.

Once we are clear about the effects of the
repression we are facing we will be able to let people
know what we are planning to do. Pauline Conroy and
Andy “Jeff” Ellsmore are facing a charge on a police
set-up for conspiracy to get guns, and the Home Office
is unwilling to give Ruth and Harris a visa.

This
restricts our planning in part. You should be hearing
from us soon on this.

For the fortnight fr an

Even if such counter-suggestions were appropriate
they would not leave the parallel intact. Once we
begin to place the university in its wider context
then we have to do the same for students, and many (if
not most) of them too will become members of the Establishment – lawyers. doctors. civil servants etc. But
are the counter-suggestions in fact appropriate? Of
course governments do not pour millions of pounds into
universities because they think it is nice for people

.l3 n. 15~h

oS

n. B th the

shcp will be c lcsed as we prepare for closing down,

though we will continue to send out orders that reach
us by Feb.5th. After Feb.5th Agitprop is effectively
closed.

37

A last literature list has been prepared and is
available with a fuller statement on our changes by
sending an s.a.e. to 248 Bethnal Green Road. London.

E.2.

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