II. The monism of Frim and Fluss
Frim and Fluss seem to think that a clear and consistent political line will emerge by deduction from a Hegelian-Spinozist account of fundamental ontology. They claim that “taking theory seriously is really the most practical course of action,” precisely because, from a rational insight into “the nature of reality,” dialectical monism both “demonstrates the unity of human nature and the human good” and “establishes the real basis for international solidarity.” If we get clear on the rational architecture of the entire universe, we can then reason our way to “a clear idea of why we fight, and how best to achieve our goals.”
I’m skeptical, if only because the champions of this deductive rational procedure do not themselves deduce any conclusions from their stated premises. Their essay does not follow chains of reasoning so much as it allows enthusiasm to tangle them, break them, and melt them down into a confused lump. If caring about being right and being rational mean anything, they must mean thinking clearly and following the argument where it goes, which Frim and Fluss do not do.
Right off the bat, Frim and Fluss cannot decide whether the monism they favor is “require[d]” for Marxism, or whether it merely “supports” it. These are very different claims. If Marxism requires monism, then only monism can support Marxism. However, Frim and Fluss say nothing to substantiate this requirement claim. The only argumentative strategy that would suffice is one of showing the incompatibility between Marxism and anything other than monism. That strategy would require defining Marxism—identifying that set of propositions the affirmation of which is necessary and sufficient for being a Marxist—and showing that anything other than monism would imply the negation of one or more of its core propositions. I, for one, would be interested to see them attempt this. It is clearly not a strategy they pursue in their essay, however.
Instead, Frim and Fluss fall back on the weaker thesis that monism supports Marxism. Even here, though, they struggle to supply any good reason to believe their thesis. They claim, near the end of their essay, to have provided seven arguments for the conclusion that monism supports Marxism.4They say these are arguments for the conclusion that “monism is necessary for a socialist politics,” but this is neither a true description of the arguments nor a plausible claim. There have been many committed practitioners of socialist politics who were and are not monists in Frim and Fluss’ sense. Instead, it is clearly a normative claim: Frim and Fluss think that monism should be necessary for socialist politics—i.e., that socialists should be monists. All of the claims about the indispensability of dialectical monism are simply recommendations that socialists would be better off if they were monists, recommendations that have been dressed up in military dress uniforms so as to seem more imposing.
Frim and Fluss cannot content themselves with making merely pragmatic recommendations, since that would require them to indicate some plausible and concrete benefits that socialists should expect from converting to dialectical monism. The first four amount to variations on the claim that monism renders the world intelligible and events of the world explicable, since it excludes immaterial or supernatural causal principles (including free will). The fifth, sixth, and seventh turn to practical matters. Monism (5) “provides the basis for universal solidarity as a logical consequence of our shared human nature.” It also (6) furnishes the only non-question-begging foundation for ethics, since it grounds ethics in naturalism rather than decisionism. Finally, (7) it secures our hopes for improving the world through intentional action.
The first four arguments, as well as the seventh, are not specific to the dialectical monism in which Frim and Fluss wish to ground socialism. Rather, (1) naturalism, (2) the rational intelligibility of all processes, (3) the causal explicability of all events, and (7) the hope of improving the world through intentional action, are all broadly affirmed by materialists of all stripes. Not only do you not need dialectical monism in order to conclude that there are no immaterial sources of information in the universe, but you can be a fully-paid-up, card-carrying member of the eliminative materialism club and also be a liberal capitalist—or a brownshirt, for that matter. These five claims are not wholly indeterminate—many people really do believe in an interventionist god, miracles, spirits, and the radical freedom of the will—but the secular, rationalist, natural scientific practices these five claims endorse do not have to take the theoretical form of dialectical monism, nor do they have to issue in Marxist politics.
The actual transmission belts of Frim’s and Fluss’s argument are supposed to be the fifth and sixth claims. This is why they spend so much of their essay arguing that monism is the basis for solidarity and the basis for action. Unfortunately, words spent is not a measure of progress made.