Jack Fitzgerald

Review of Materialism or Spiritualism?

Source: Socialist Standard, October 1926.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain
HTML Markup: Adam Buick
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

Materialism or Spiritualism?
by Isabel Kingsley

Marx versus Mediums – Materialism or Spiritualism?

If a political Party continuously changes its policy and programme, follows one “stunt” after another, and advocates sensational measures of various kinds at different times for the purpose of attracting crowds of various mentalities to its ranks, it must not be surprised if it sometimes reaps a result such methods deserve.

The pamphlet before us is a case in point. Its authoress, attracted by the wild and whirling phrases of the Communist Party, joined that organisation, and then tried to spread her peculiar views inside its ranks. As the Communist Party is ready to support almost any view on particular occasions, this idea of the authoress had considerable justification. But the Party Executive, who make no fetish of logic, forbade such action, and so the pamphlet was published outside in an endeavour to reach the members inside.

Whether such a thing of shreds and patches, with its curious collection of freaks, as the Communist Party, can be said to have any basis beyond the job-hunting schemes of its leaders, and the money from Russia is a moot point.

Throughout the pamphlet there are numerous totally unsupported assertions and claims of the authoress that would take a volume to refute in detail. One or two examples may be taken. On page 7 we are told that “the middle of the eighteenth century saw the rise of Materialism,” a statement that A. Lange, the standard historian of Materialism, flatly contradicts. We read on page 9 that a new science called “Metapsychics” has been discovered, and it is described by Richet in an unreferenced quotation as follows : –

“Metapsychic facts are marked off from the physical in that they seem due to an unknown intelligence,” What a convenient “science”? The “facts” (themselves in dispute) seem to be due to an unknown intelligence ! Perhaps the gem of these baseless assertions is given on page 26, where we are told : –

“Mind has healed broken bones, spinal curvature, and gangrenous wounds, in many cases instantaneously and after every recognised method of treatment had failed.”

Still Couè died. But the unkindest cut – to the Communists – is given on page 44, where one reads : “Between present-day Spiritism and Communism there is a striking general analogy” We have never said anything quite so cruel as that.

Another feature of the pamphlet is the large number of statements placed between quotation marks, as if taken from various writers, though references are only given in two or three cases. There is a certain wisdom in this omission as we shall show presently.

A criticism of Materialism, sooner or later, means falling foul of Marx, Engels, Morgan, etc., and the Materialist conception of history, and Isabel Kingsley is not long before she begins her attack. On page 13 she asserts : “Never was there a less scientific mind than that of Marx, nor a less scientific book than Capital. “ The authoress’ mental inability to understand anything scientific is shown on the same page, when she says that the new idea brought into political economy by Marx was “the equivalence between Capital and Labour” ! Students of Marx will smile at this grotesque nonsense, as well as at the further statement on the same page, that Marx’s explanation of value “is not a scientific deduction; it is an ideal of social ethics, a new moral ideal.”

As if to make the proof of her ignorance of economics and Marx overwhelming, she follows the above statement with this : –

“While the classical economists regard the labourer as only one means of production, in the Marxian theory he is the sole creator of value.”

The most elementary student of economics can see at a glance that the two phrases of this sentence have no direct connection with each other. In addition, it implies a misrepresentation of Marx, because, as it is written, it infers that Marx said there was only one means of production, the labourer, a statement that is specifically refuted on page 10 of Capital. (Sonnenschein. – ED.)

Another misrepresentation is given on page 15, where we are told : “Marx’s method in Capital is the method of the moralist. He first postulates an absolute morality.” One need go no further than the preface to Capital to see the falsity of this statement.

A further instance of misrepresentation is when the authoress, on page 14, describes Engels’s book as “Socialism, from Utopia to Science.” Engels, of course, did not use such an absurd title, and it is in contradiction to the views in the text. There is not even the excuse of a translator’s slip, as Engels saw the English edition of this work through the press and wrote a special preface for it.

When the subject of the Materialist Conception of History is reached, the misrepresentation becomes blatant. The first thing that strikes the reader is that there is not a single quotation or even a word from Marx’s writing on this subject, in the whole pamphlet. Instead the following travesty of Marx’s view is given from the Century Dictionary and the Dictionary of Philosophy : –

“THE MATERIALIST CONCEPTION OF HISTORY assumes that the substance of all things human is wealth, qua its production and distribution; that religion, art, morality, etc., are its accidents, i.e., each and all of their manifestations being traceable directly, or indirectly, to economic causes.”

Not satisfied with this piece of trickery, the authoress borrows a falsification from America that consists of substituting the term “Economic Determinism” for the “Materialistic Conception of History,” and then proceeding to demolish the former view, which no Marxian defends, and so avoiding the trouble of meeting the Marxian case at all.

And what does Isabel Kingsley bring against the huge accumulation of facts, the scientific deductions, and the splendid generalisation that supports the Materialist Conception of History? That combination of cheap charlatanism and crude superstition, derived from savages, that is known as Spiritism ! After pages of abuse of Marx and the materialist philosophy in general, we are offered as a substitute the sentimental mouthings of old women of both sexes and the superficial conjuring tricks of mediums that Stuart Cumberland says would not obtain a 30s. a week engagement on a music-hall for most of its exponents. What a mouse from such a would-be mountain !

On page 39 the authoress complains that opponents of her case when writing in the Communist Review used various epithets as “dangerous,” “neurotic ravings,” etc., against her views. What does she expect? When a disputant pours out shoals of baseless assumptions, of unsupported assertions, besides indulging in deliberate misrepresentation, as we have shown above, it is a piece of impertinence to expect such a case, or its exponent, to be received with other than ridicule.

A foreword by Florence Baldwin has a “warning” that is the usual stock-in-trade of the parson worsted in a debate :

“None of us,” she says, “really knows the truth about ultimate problems, and if we dogmatise about them we may some day find ourselves quite on the wrong road.”

When one has recovered from the shock of this awful warning, one may retort that, firstly, the people who are doing the bulk of the dogmatising are the religious and Spiritist advocates who claim to know all about God, Soul, Spirit, Heaven, Hell, and Eternity. The scientist gathers his facts, draws his deductions, and frames his generalisations, but is usually ready to admit that, where his knowledge ends, he does not know. Secondly and of overwhelming importance is the simple truth that while the human race has existed, according to modern authorities, for something like a million years, yet not a single piece of knowledge, not a single fact, has been discovered that was not a materialist one. We may be on the wrong road, but as it is the only one we, or anyone else, know, it would savour of insanity to leave it for the uncouth mumblings and the hysterical promises of the five-shilling medium.