Paul Dixon (Denzil Harber)

Marxism and Prognoses

A reply to comrades Condon, Goldberg and Healy

“Marxism and Prognoses,—A reply to comrades Condon, Goldberg and Healy” Internal Bulletin RCP, 22 February 1946, by Paul Dixon (Denzil Dean Harber), 11 pages, (4,604 words). Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Ted Crawford and Paul Flewers.

Our party has now before it a document from comrades Condon, Goldberg and Healy entitled: “The Marxist method versus Eclecticism and Empiricism. This document informs the RCP, and the International that: “the discussion, on the concrete question of entry into the Labour Party has now been transformed into a discussion on the marxist method . Consequently the differences between the majority and minority have considerably deepened, a fact which underlines the need for a thorough-going discussion on them. The majority of the leadership of the RCP, also our three comrades inform us, has “pledged adherence to empiricism in the field of tactics”. It has substituted “electicism as a method” for Marxist prognosis.

We have thus weighty matters to discuss with comrades Condon, Goldberg and Healy, and we have every right to expect serious arguments from them. Let us see what they give us. We intend confining ourselves in the present document to the general questions of Marxist method raised by our comrades. For on the other questions raised by them they give us nothing that is new.


1. Marxist Prognoses.
Our three comrades reproduce a quotation from Trotsky’s “In Defence of Marxism” which I gave in my reply to comrade Condon’s “British Perspectives”. This quotation, which it is hardly necessary to reproduce in full yet again ends thus:

“I made reservations several times as to the conditionality of my prognosis as ONE of several possible variants.

They then give a statement of my own, from the same document which runs thus:

“And comrades are perfectly entitled to put forward the prognosis of entry, to use the words of Trotsky as one of several possible variants and to refuse to bind themselves to one variant as being certain.” This the comrades say is a false method of argument “(second rate syllogistic reasoning, etc”). It is a method which our three comrades want the membership “to note carefully”. For, they state, Trotsky in speaking of this prognosis as one of several possible variants”. In actual fact, our comrades state, “although every prognosis is conditional, it by no means follows that it has several variants, otherwise the orientation of the party would be virtually impossible.”

Now from all this one of two things follows; either comrades Condon, Goldberg and Healy have, while taking a few quotations from my document, not troubled to read it as a whole, or else they are deliberately attempting to distort, to misrepresent, what I have said in it. For nowhere do I either state that “every prognosis has several variants” or give any grounds for assuming that this is the position that I support.

Let me refer comrades back to my reply to comrade Condon. They will find there the quotation from Trotsky which the comrades have reproduced. They will also find the statement: “And comrades are perfectly entitled to put forward the prognosis of entry, etc., etc.” But in between these two quotations they will find a whole page which our comrades have ignored. They will find, for instance, this passage:

“Now it can be argued that our Congress was correct or that it was incorrect in thus refusing to commit the Party to entry, and in any case there is no serious political issue involved here. But even if it is believed, as I believe myself, that entry in the future is a practical certainty, it is impossible to accuse the Congress of adopting an undialectical approach in refusing to accept this. The whole question is one of prognosis, one of estimating which is the most likely future course of development for the Labour Party under the conditions prevailing in the present period of capital decline.”

and then comes the message already quoted.

“And comrades are perfectly entitled to put forward the prognosis of entry, to use the words of Trotsky, as ‘one of several possible variants’, and to refuse to bind themselves to one variant as being certain.”

What is being argued in this passage? Is it that; “every prognosis has several variants?” Nothing of the sort; all that is being demonstrated is that it is permissable within the framework of the Marxist method, for comrades to “Refuse to bind themselves to one variant (of the prognosis) as being certain.” Whether it is correct for this to be done in a given case is quite another question and I clearly indicate in the above-quoted passage that I personally believe that a definite prognosis for entry can be arrived at.

But the important thing to establish is that, in a given case, it may be a mistake in estimating a situation to lay down several possible variants instead of one definite prognosis, this is not a break with the method of Marxism. Why was this necessary to argue out this rather obvious point in my reply to comrade Condon? Because it was then the position of at least some members of the Minority that not to arrive at one definite prognosis in all situations was a break with the Marxist method . Comrade Healy gave clear expression to this attitude at our Congress when he stated that to him the method of Marxism was a “precision instrument ”, i.e one that enables us to make exact prognoses. Moreover it appears that the material on this subject contained in my reply to Comrade Condon did not appear in vain—comrade Healy has now obviously, if silently, abandoned his former viewpoint, as the present minority document (which he signs) shows.

The above, I think, effectively disposes of most of the arguments contained in several pages of the document of comrades Condon, Goldberg and Healy, for they are based upon a totally false assumption—that I do not accept the need for a Marxist prognosis, but believe that all that is needed is to have “several possible variants”. In general our three comrades appear to be under a complete misunderstanding as to what was under discussion in my reply to comrade Condon. For instance they state:

“Here lies the basic mistake of Dixon’s documents. Not once does he analyse the objective situation and outline the definite trends which should constitute a prognosis. Instead he snatches a quotation from Trotsky which was related to the Soviet-Finnish war, and implies in his conclusion that such an analysis is not necessary since so far as the ‘entrist tactic’ and ‘open work’ is concerned; ‘You can pay your penny and take your choice’; this he justifies under the formula of ‘one of many (sic P.D.) variants’ (Soviet Finnish Balance Sheet).

“The weapon of Marxist investigation” wrote Trotsky, “must be constantly sharpened and applied”. Quotations from Lenin and Trotsky can never supplant such an investigation. So far as they have any significance it is only when they are related to ‘concrete reality ’. Today, the all-important task is to correctly investigate the objective situation in Britain, and from that derive a prognosis. No amount of quotations can accomplish this by themselves, such a task belongs to the application of Marxism to present conditions.”

Here indeed is a blow which misses its mark. No one reading my reply to comrade Condon could have been under the impression that I had set myself the task of analysing the objective situation in Britain and “outlining the definite trends which should constitute a prognosis.” What I set myself to do in that document was to dispose of the numerous factual and political errors contained in comrade Condon’s “Perspectives”. But if comrades Condon, Goldberg and Healy want to know what is my analysis of the situation in Britain and my prognosis arising from this analysis, I can refer them to the document submitted by the Militant Group to the 1944 Fusion Conference, entitled: “Resolution on the Labour Party Tactic ”. This resolution which was submitted at a time when comrade Healy (comrades Condon and Goldberg were, I believe, not yet members of the Party) was supporting the prognosis entry being “the least likely ” possibility and should be in any case very well known to our comrades of the Minority, since they have liberally drawn upon the ideas contained within it. To make the situation perfectly clear I would remind our three comrades that the ideas contained in this 1944 Resolution were reaffirmed by me in the “Statement of PJB and DDH to the CC and to the Membership ” submitted on the eve of the August 1945 Congress and that this same statement makes it clear why I do not consider this question of entry one which justifies a factional struggle under the present circumstances.

It must be assumed, I think, that our three comrades have read both the 1944 Resolution and the 1945 Statement referred to above, but that for factional purposes, they chose to ignore their existence in writing their present document. Otherwise they could hardly venture to bring forward some of the strange and utterly misconceived attacks which it contains.

“The quotation-snatcher Dixon”, thus comrades Condon, Goldberg and Healy in their comradely fashion, “is quite obviously covering something up. He tells us confidently that he is in favour of entry into the Labour Party, but he rejects the prognosis of the Minority which calls for an orientation in this direction now. At the same time he declares in favour “open work” but fails to define the prognisis from which he draws this tactical conclusion. Dixon rejects one prognosis and refuses to outline the other. The conclusion is obvious—Dixon has no prognosis.”

This would be a very telling line of argument on the part of our three comrades were the facts contained in it correct. Unhappily for these comrades, however, the facts are not correct, and even more unhappily them—it can be demonstrated that not only are the facts incorrect but that they—comrades Condon, Goldberg and Healy, knew this. This can fortunately be proved with the utmost readiness by quotations from the above mentioned “Statement of PJB and DDH to the C.C. and Membership.” We stated there:

“…meanwhile the C.C. resolution lays down as our main immediate task the building of the independent party. With this also we agree—the situation in the LP today is not yet such as would bring us significant gains if we were to enter now. So long as LP work still brings little or none, the main emphasis must lie in independent work. True we could dig ourselves in by entering the LP now and thus gain positions that we would find valuable in the coming period but this gain would be more than balanced by the loss of members and influence that we are at present getting by independent “open” work.

Let us pause here to urge our comrades of the minority to mark the above quoted passage well. Will they please note that it makes perfectly clear why I support “open work” in the present period?

To continue “True we have one difference with the CC Resolution—it does not state that it is certain that we shall have to enter the LP in the coming period, as we believe it is.”

To pause again for the benefit of our three comrades—will they please observe a definite prognosis here—in favour of eventual entry into the LP?

But once again to continue:

But we have not thought and do not think that it is worth carrying on a factional struggle inside the Party as to whether it is ‘possible’, ‘probable’, ‘most probable’ or ‘certain’ that we shall have to enter the LP in the future. For we do not consider that any real gain would result from such a discussion for the Party, or that, if the Party were to decide that entry in the future was certain, this would in any way affect our work or the entry itself. And past unhappy experience has convinced us that factional struggle unless thoroughly justified in this way is something to be avoided.”

Once again, will comrades Condon, Goldberg and Healy be good enough to note—these are the reasons why I do not support the Minority: Let me remind the comrades that the primary purpose of such internal discussions as we are now conducting is that of clarifying the membership. Such clarification can hardly be assisted by the deliberate misrepresentation on an opponent’s viewpoint of which these comrades are so obviously guilty in the present instance

2. Eclecticism
Comrades Condon, Goldberg and Healy spend some three pages of their document in attempting to find contradictions, dual perspectives, etc., in the resolution on Perspectives passed by our recent Congress. Now the arguments which they give here are practically identical in character with those we have already had from the Minority in the document of comrades Goffe and Healy entitled: “After the Conference—the LP and ILP. Discussion”. It so happens that I have dealt very fully with these alleged contradictions in my “Reply to comrades Goffe and Healy”, which appeared shortly after our three comrades had written their present document. Under these circumstances I refer our comrades to this: “Reply to comrades Goffe and Healy” and pass over here these three pages of their document. Needless to say, should they, having read the “Reply to comrades Goffe and Healy”, wish to take the matter up further we shall be most willing to discuss it with them.

3. Empiricism.
The section of which deals with this question is perhaps the most remarkable part of the document which our three comrades have written. It displays a quite astounding ignorance—to make the most charitable assumption.

We are first given on co again the well-worn quotation from the P.B. Reply to the “Pre-conference Discussion”;

It is precisely in the field of tactics that empirical adaption is necessary .” “Empiricism” exclaim our three comrades, “Comrade Trotsky explained, is to operate from one occasion to the next guided not by the analysis of historica1 development but by practical experience, routinismj rule of thumb and instinct. Empiricism is the adoption of tactics without a Marxist evaluation of events. That is Haston’s conception of the present relationship of the party to the class.”

Let us first reassure our comrades of the Minority once again; Empiricism is all that they (and comrade Trotsky) say it is in fact, a bad thing and alien to the whole conception of Marxism . In fact we have already told them this in our Reply to comrade Condon where we wrote:

“It (Empiricism as a method) means that one does not deduce one’s plan of action for a given situation from a Marxist analysis of that situation and of the development of' society as a whole, but evolves a plan of action based only upon day-to-day ‘practical’ considerations.”

In this same reply to comrade Condon we go on to state:

“Nothing of this sort has ever been advocated either by comrade Haston or any other member of the Majority of our party.”

And we must quite categorically repeat this statement to our comrades of the Minority here. But, let us point out to them yet once again, this condemnation of Empiricism in no way invalidates empirical adaption in the field of tactics ! Before I go on to explain this riddle which they cannot (or will not) solve, I fear that I must give them a few quotations, despite their professed distaste for these. (One notices, by the way, that they use a. great many quotations themselves.)

(a) “The hypotheses with which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas; they are real hypotheses which can be made abstract only in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activities and their material conditions of life, both those already existing and those produced by their own activities. These hypotheses are therefore provable in a purely empirical manner.”

(b) “Empirical observation must in each separate case prove the connection between social and political stratification empirically and without any mystification and speculation.”

(c) “Its hypotheses are men, not in any fantastic seclusion or fixation, but in their real, empirically observable process of development under definite conditions.”

(d) “Communism is empirically possible as the simultaneous act of the dominant peoples ….”

What do our three comrades think of these quotations? They emanate, let us assure them from a quite authoritative source, i.e. the “German Ideology” of Marx and Engels , a work from, which several dozen similar quotations could very easily be selected. Do they perhaps suggest to our comrades that while the word “Empiricism ” has one meaning the word, “empirical ” can have as used by Marxists often quite another? Such is in fact the case and when I look up the word “empirisch” (empirical) in the list of difficult words which are explained at the end of the German version of the “German Ideology” (from which I have just made the above translations, I find it explained thus; “Empirical—belonging to the factual world of material experience .” The riddle is in fact a very easy one. Empiricism is a philosophical system which amounts to the abandonment of theory and the sole reliance upon practical experience. But the word empirical has not of necessity any association with such philosophical systems; it can be used by Marxists to mean “based upon factual, material experience” which is after all the basis of the whole of Marxism and indeed of human knowledge.

> This is the sense in which Marx and Engels used the word in “The German Ideology”; it is also the sense in which comrade Haston used it in the pre-Congress discussions.

Thus the whole case which is so hotly argued against comrade Haston, myself and the PB by the comrades of the Minority rests upon … a confusion in terminology on the part of the comrades of the Minority . To them “empirical” is an “adjective derived from “Empiricism” and nothing more!

This misunderstanding on the part of comrades Condon, Goldberg and Healy means that once again their most violent attacks miss their mark and land in the air. Thus they inform us:

“Of course the changing tempo of events sometimes illuminates the precision, incompleteness or incorrectness of our assessment of the situation and of our tactical conclusions. Sometimes far-reaching corrections, as Dixon points out are necessary; a turn of the wheel and we are on the right path again. The difference between Marxists and empiricists is that the former can see the road and the latter cannot. They venture into the unknown and stumble from mistake to mistake precisely because they are minus the faculty which Marxists possess …. the dialectical method of analysis.”

Very true comrades, except, of course, that it isn’t only “the changing tempo of events which renders a reassessment on our part necessary—quite often even the events themselves turn out quite differently from what we have expected. But what you refuse to understand, is that the corrections Marxists have sometimes to make are always made upon the basis not only of the dialectical method of analysis but upon that of the events themselves i.e., upon that of practical experience . Thus in this sense they are made empirically . That is all, and it is surely very simple. But let us make it even simpler by a practical example. We in this country expected at one time that the ILP would be affiliated to the LP within a certain immediate period. We drew this conclusion from a Marxist analysis of the situation as we saw it. But in actual fact the ILP did not secure affiliation in this way and affiliation was in fact postponed — apparently indefinitely. Thus, the empirical fact of the non-affiliation of the ILP led us to change our tactics in relation to that party. Naturally this change was carried out upon the basis of a Marxian analysis of the new factual, empirical situation. This, comrades of the Minority, is all that we mean by “empirical adaption.”

Our three comrades have a somewhat puzzling passage on this quotation of empirical adaption. They write:

“Haston’s error is quite important as we have shown, but he is cautious and circumspect when compared to Dixon. Haston says empirical adaption is confined to the field of tactics. Dixon says that it is applied to the field of prognosis or perspective .” Since our comrades underline this passage one can only assume that they attach some special meaning to it but it is difficult to see what this can be. Apparently they wish to differentiate between “the field of tactics” and that of “prognosis or perspective”. Since, however, the former (tactics) obviously flow from, and are dependent upon the latter (prognosis or perspective) it is not possible to see the value of such a differentiation in the present connection. Perhaps our three comrades would explain?

It is to be hoped that by now we have succeeded in making the meaning of the term “empirical adaption” sufficiently clear to our comrades of the Minority, and that in future they will refrain from making themselves ludicrous by launching accusations against comrade Haston of “a. rejection of political prognoses” and against myself of “rejecting the methodology of Marxism itself”(!)

However to make quite sure let us give them yet another quotation: “A second remarkable lesson in class strategy! It shows that even finance-capital, with the levers of the whole social machine under its contro1, cannot infallibly estimate, at a single a priori glance, the full reality of a political situation. It enters into the struggle and, in the development of the struggle, on the basis of experience gained in the struggle, it corrects its analysis and makes it more precise. This in general, is the only possible method in political questions of being oriented correctly and at the same time actively.” (L. Trotsky Once Again, Whither France .)

It must come as somewhat of a shock to comrades Condon, Goldberg and Healy to learn that there is something in common between the method of political orientation used by finance capital and that used by revolutionary Marxists! And an even greater shock to learn that this common factor is precisely what we term empirical adaption! Let us hasten to reassure them that there is also a difference here. Both the revolutionary Marxist and the protagonists of finance capital make an analysis of a given situation, but while the revolutionary Marxist makes his analysis upon the basis of conscious dialectical understanding of the economic social and political forces, the protagonist of finance capital makes his upon the basis of empiricism. But both the revolutionary, Marxist and the protagonist of finance capital have this in common as Trotsky points out,—they both correct and sharpen their analysis upon the “basis of experience gained in the struggle”, i.e. upon the basis of empirical adaption.

Our three comrades have made great accusations of “empiricism”, “eclecticism” “revisionism”. They have also announced—with a visible air of triumph—that “the differences between the Majority and the Minority have considerably deepened”. One cannot but remark here that, right from the time of the 1944 Fusion Conference, the attitude of the Minority towards differences with the rest of our Party has been remarkably reminiscent of the attitude of Voltaire towards God—it will be remembered that Voltaire held that if God did not in fact exist, it would be necessary to invent him.

Let us now seek to determine how great are our differences on this question of Marxist prognoses. Let us first state, in as concise a form as possible, the attitude which we hold on this subject.

(i) All Marxist prognoses are conditional. It is not possible to make absolute prognoses in relation to human society since it is not possible adequately to take into account all the factors involved. (An exception can perhaps be made in the case of certain general prognoses—such as that capitalism leads to war, class struggle, etc. etc.)

In other words the method of Marxism is not precision instrument.

(ii) Nevertheless, though no prognosis can have an absolute value, this in no way signifies that prognoses re of no value to revolutionary Marxists. On the contrary, it is a fundamental task of the proletarian party and its leadership to carry out analyses of the economic, social and political forces of society upon the basis of the Marxian dialectical method, and to formulate as a result of such analyses prognoses which shall guide the party in its struggle for the leadership of the working class and the dictatorship of the proletariat.

(iii) This does not mean that under all circumstances it is possible for the proletarian party to arrive at, and to act upon the basis of one single prognosis. Under some conditions, where a more precise analysis is not possible, it can limit itself to defining two or more likely variants of the future course of events. Under other, very fluid, conditions, it has to renounce all prognosis for a time and be content to wait and see.

(iv) Even where a single prognosis has been arrived at, the party must be continually on the watch to ascertain how this prognosis stands up to the empirical unfoldment of events. Where necessary it must carry out a. new Marxist analysis, to adapt its prognosis and the strategy and tactics flowing from it to this same empirical development of events. This is what is meant by empirical adaption.

(v) Empiricism as a method consists in the rejection of analyses based upon the method of Marxism and the formulation of analyses based upon day-to-day episodic considerations. Such a method may sometimes lead to correct results especially where it is employed by the leaders of the capitalist class with their long practical experience of rule and their wide knowledge of the social forces involved. But it is in all respects inferior to the dialectical method of Marxism, and one which cannot be employed by the proletarian party and its leadership.

Now before our comrades of the Minority continue with their accusations of “empiricism”, “revisionism” etc., let them tell us (and the whole International, if, they wish) wherein they differ from the above formulations . The only difference which it can be anticipated they will raise (now that they have tacitly abandoned the definition of the method of Marxism as a “precision instrument”) is that they object to the term “empirical adaption as describing the process outlined in (iv) above. If that is the only difference they can raise then the whole question become a sterile dispute over terminology. For it is perfectly obvious from my “Reply to Comrade Condon” that we have used this term “empirical adaption” in precisely the sense outlined above, and in no other. Moreover, we were perfectly entitled to use the term empirical adaption in this way according to the traditions of Marxism . Had our comrades of the Minority not been so eager, in the first place to cover up their own unfortunate formulation of the precision instrument and in the second place to invent new differences with the Majority, this whole dispute would never have arisen.

One last word. In my original reply to comrade Condon I raise a great many points of criticism which are not dealt with in the present document from comrades Condon, Goldberg and Healy,—points which I feel demand a reply. Since all the points in dispute were first raised by Comrade Condon, one of the signatories of this document I feel that it is their duty to let the Party know where they stand with regard to them today.
Paul Dixon

Last updated: 5 March 2009