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Democracy, dialectic, and subtle revolution

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From H.S. Maine‘s Popular Government (1885), Essay II:

The old Italian toxicologists are said to have always arranged their discoveries in a series of three terms—first the poison, next the antidote, thirdly the drug which neutralised the antidote. The antidote to the fundamental infirmities of democracy was Representation, but the drug which defeats it has now been found in the Caucus.

The “Caucus,” according to Maine, is “the agency, by which the representative is sought to be turned into the mere mouthpiece of opinions collected in the locality which sent him to the House of Commons….” Today, we can readily acknowledge this as an artifact of political “party.”

I found this quotation fascinating primarily because of the easy parallel that one can draw between “old Italian toxicologists” and so-called “Hegelian dialectics,” by which the zeitgeist formulates (1) an abstract idea, after which develops (2) its negation, and finally, (3) its “concrete” formulation. This formula is more commonly known as “thesis-antithesis-synthesis.”

When we run this through the subsequent filter of Marx, who advocated what is now called “dialectical materialism” (as opposed to Hegel’s “idealism”), we get this (from his afterword to the second German edition of Das Kapital, here):

My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, i.e. the process of thinking, which, under the name of ‘the Idea’, he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of ‘the Idea’. With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.

By making Hegel’s dialectic purely material, Marx formulates a dialectic of, quite specifically, political economy. For anyone who wishes to hold on to Hegelian dialectic, though, Marx’s materialism as a “direct opposite,” or antithesis, of Hegel, may offer justification for Hegel himself if a subsequent sort of “synthesis” between the ideas can be agreed upon.

But anyway—returning to the parallel that I claimed I would make—observe how Maine’s assertion may seem to be influenced by contemporary Marxist thought on historical dialectic. Being that Maine is not too keen on the idea of “Popular Government,” the “zealots of democracy,” or the “Caucus,” the prospect of dialectic may seem appealing to him in this case. I will steal a line from Wikipedia by way of explanation (here, as before):

Dialectical materialism is a strand of Marxism, synthesizing Hegel’s dialectics, which proposes that every economic order grows to a state of maximum efficiency, while simultaneously developing internal contradictions and weaknesses that contribute to its systemic decay.

So, if party politics within a democratic republic (where democracy was the thesis and representation was the antithesis) is the concrete, synthetic, maximally-efficient, and final formulation of a political-economic order (democracy) in a materialist, dialectical conception of history, then it is the last stop before that political-economic order’s systemic decay, and subsequent revolution.

What is fascinating about this theoretical decay and revolution is that someone like Maine becomes the “revolutionary” in this case. This is a different kind of revolutionary than Marx described—he is one who openly scoffs at the proletariat, its corrupt tendencies, and the harm caused by its place in government. He is indignant, but he is also subtle.

Now, if the reader finds any of this—(a) the truth of dialectical materialism or (b) Maine’s interpretation of the development of party politics—convincing, more questions arise. What would Sir Henry James Sumner Maine’s revolution look like, if the system fell into decay? Could you tell if it were happening? Would the “contradictions” be visible? Would there be rallying cries or war? Perhaps economic upheaval? Would new terms be coined, or would the old ones simply be recast?

Knowing that a new “thesis” would only be met with “antithesis,” wouldn’t Maine publicly assert that, really, nothing had changed at all?

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Written by M. James

October 13, 2012 at 10:00 am

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