Gerry Healy


Eclecticism In Practice

(Marxist Review, July 1986)

  In his introduction to Leon Trotsky's book In Defence of Marxism, written luring 1966, ex-WRP leader Cliff Slaughter utilised the following paragraph from the book:

   ‘Like any petty-bourgeois group within the Socialist movement, the present opposition is characterised by the following features: a disdainful attitude towards theory and an inclination towards eclecticism; a disrespect for the tradition of their own organisation; anxiety for personal “independence” at the expense of anxiety for objective truth; nervousness instead of consistency; readiness to jump from one position to another; lack of understanding of revolutionary centralism and hostility towards it; and finally, inclination to substitute clique ties and personal relationships for party discipline.’

   This quotation is taken from page 56, titled A Petty-Bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers Party. Slightly less than 20 years after, it was reproduced by Slaughter. It is presently an adequate political description of the degeneration of the petty- bourgeois academic himself. A few months ago, Slaughter engaged in a round of unprincipled clique combinations with an ex-leader of the International Committee of the Fourth International, David North from the USA and M. Banda, now expelled with his brother and others. The clique has split into at least three parts and more are on the way.

   In the course of this rather rapid political disintegration Slaughter found himself shaking hands and greeting like a long-lost 'brother' fellow academic Monty Johnstone, who was expelled as a Stalinist agent from what was the ‘Revolutionary Communist Party' in the latter part of World War II for being an organised agent of the 'Young Communist League' with direct connections to the KGB.

   Today, Slaughter himself manages to combine his political relations with this arch-Stalinist enemy and his threadbare formal allegiance to the diametrically opposing principles of Trotskyism, represented by the International Committee of the Fourth International. In this way he establishes his 'personal independence' from the Trotskyist movement for a closer alliance with the dregs of Euro-Stalinism, Messrs. Hobsbawm and Monty Johnstone.

    This is the method and practice of eclecticism, which has its roots in subjective idealism. Hence the desire to politically break from democratic centralism in favour of Menshevik organisational methods. It Is the hallmark of 'formal thinking', carefully hidden. Leftish eclectically chosen words, phrases and quotations reflecting entirely different processes. In Slaughter's case, it follows the Kantian urge to cover it up with dialectical materialist phraseology.

   In his introduction to In Defence of Marxism, the reader will discover that Slaughter takes the second quotation from page 56 whilst he reproduces his first quotation from pages 102-103, on which Trotsky's Open Letter to Burnham appears. Can it be that Slaughter read In Defence of Marxism backwards? The most likely answer is that he never read it at all except for what he considered suitable forms of eclectically combined quotations. At that time in 1966 Slaughter himself had returned to his academic job of lecturer in the University of Bradford after a short period of working as a full-time professional in the Socialist Labour League.

    He regarded the introduction as another chore of dashing off a jumble of eclectically chosen quotations consistent with the routine style of bourgeois academic work. We invite the reader to read the eclectically chosen quotation on pages 102-103 of In Defence of Marxism.

   ‘The nub of the matter however consists in this, that discussion has its own objective logic which does not coincide at all with the subjective logic of individuals and groupings. The dialectic character of the discussion proceeds from the fact that its objective course is determined by the living conflict of opposing tendencies and not by a preconceived logical plan. The materialist basis of the discussion consists in its reflecting the pressure of different classes. Thus, the present discussion in the SWP, like the historic process as a whole, develops - with or without your permission, comrade Burnham - according to the laws of dialectic materialism. There is no escape from these laws.’ (our emphasis - GH). [The SWP referred to is the Socialist Workers Party of America, which has no connection with the presently existing revisionist group in Britain of the same name. – Ed]

   Slaughter seeks to cover his tracks by jumping backwards from pages 102-103 to page 56, whilst apart from mentioning the Open Letter to Burnham he carefully refrains from providing the page numbers of his quotations. He simply refuses to analyse or even comment on the content of the pages between 102-103 and page 56. These would have been a real test for our eclectic. There is, however, another more politically compelling reason for this evasion. As conscious eclectic he is unable to identify the most important connections of  an object and the same is equally true of his approach to phenomena.


Once Again, ‘The ABC of Materialist Dialectics’.

   In the section which begins on page 63, The ABC of Materialist Dialectics, Trotsky refers to ‘the Aristotelian logic of the simple syllogism’ which ‘starts from the proposition that "A" is equal to "A" ... ‘But in reality’, writes Trotsky, “A” is not equal to “A”. This is easy to prove if we observe these two letters under a lens – they are quite different from each other, But, one can object, the question is not of the size, or the form of the letters, since they are only symbols for equal quantities, for instance, a pound of sugar. The objection is beside the point; in reality pound of sugar is never equal to a pound of sugar - a more delicate scale always discloses a difference. Again one can object: but a pound of sugar is equal to itself. Neither is this true - all bodies change uninterruptedly in size, weight, colour etc. They are never equal to themselves. A sophist will respond that a pound of sugar is equal to itself “at any given moment.” Aside from the extremely dubious practical value of this “axiom”, it does not withstand theoretical criticism either. How should we really conceive the word “moment”? If it is an infinitesimal interval of time, then a pound of sugar is subjected during the course of that “moment” to inevitable changes. Or is the “moment” a purely mathematical abstraction, that is, a zero of time? But everything exists in time; and existence itself is an uninterrupted process of transformation; time is consequently a fundamental element of existence. Thus the axiom “A” is equal to “A” signifies that a thing is equal to itself if it does not change, that is, if it does not exist.' (page 63-64, In Defence of Marxism, our emphasis - GH)

Eclecticism Versus Materialist Dialectics

   Slaughter as an eclectic cannot identify these changes and connections. In the case of the symbol ‘A’ or the pound of sugar, their source is in the external world which is both the starting point of ‘external reflection’, negation and the quantity of symbols, ‘A’ = ‘A’ or the pound of sugar. Or, as Lenin explains on page 51, Volume 14, Collected Works, (Materialism and Empirio-Criticism):

   For every scientist who has not been led astray by professorial philosophy, as well as for every materialist, sensation is indeed the direct connection between consciousness and the external world; it is the transformation of energy of external excitation into the fact of consciousness. This transformation has been, and is, observed by each of us a million times on every hand. The sophism of idealist philosophy consists in the fact that it regards sensation as being not the connection between consciousness and the external world, but a fence, a wall, separating consciousness from the external world - not an image of the external phenomenon corresponding to the sensation, but as the “sole entity”.’

   We can see why Slaughter cannot identify the changes in symbols ‘A’ equals ‘A’ or in a pound of sugar in the external world which exists independently of the individual. He is a Kantian eclectic covering his tracks with dialectical materialist phraseology. Or as Hegel explains: ‘Kant's ideal is the phenomenon, not objective in Itself’ (page 275, Vol.38 Lenin's Collected Works.) Three pages earlier, Hegel describes Kant's Phenomenon as ‘no more than an external impulse, an X, an unknown, which first receives these determinations through our feeling, through us' (page 272, Vol .38). These quotations are reproduced by Lenin.

   Here is Kant's disciple Slaughter, who starts from the impulse of the unknown image of sensation, ignoring the Identity of its source in the external world, which was initially responsible for the image of sensation. This explains the reason why Slaughter is unable to analyse Trotsky's chapter in his In Defence of Marxism, the ABC of Materialist Dialectics.


Eclectics is Anti-Marxist Dialectics

   The use of a lens in the process of external reflection proves that ‘A’ is not equal to ‘A’ because its Identity contains difference in-Itself. The identity of a pound of sugar is never equal to itself because as Trotsky explained, it always discloses a difference (our emphasis). In any infinite moment, the Identity of the ‘A’ and the pound of sugar is negated into difference: As Engels explains in s Dialectics of Nature, ‘ identity contains difference within itself’ (pages 214-215).

   The negation of the identity of ‘A’ through external reflection with the use of a lens into finite difference in thought records the changes in ‘A’ itself. Thus Identity becomes a negative which appears as a Positive on the negative image of difference, seen through the lens.

   In this first negation of Identity into Difference it appears as a positive mage which contains negated contradiction. The same dialectical process off cognition applies to the pound of sugar, where Identity as a negative is negated into difference which contains the positive image of the condition of the sugar in the contradiction derived from the negation itself. As Trotsky explains it , ‘everything exists in time and existence itself is an uninterrupted process’ (page 64, In Defence of Marxism).

   The unity of Identity into difference is ‘uninterruptedly’ and objectively proceeding in dialectical nature, where the infinite consists of the Identity of the source of sensation, from some object or objects existing independently in the objective external world being negated into difference as the negative image of sensation, whose difference from every other moment of time is a negative which contains a positive image of the original identity as well as the contradiction included in the negation itself. The unity of negative and positive constitutes Essence, which as anti-thesis drives on to negate the negation.

   When Slaughter in his eclectical choice of quotations chose Trotsky's warning to Burnham that ‘the historic process as a whole develops ... according to the laws of dialectical materialism’, he was unable as a practising eclectic to abstract these laws. He just casually adds this quotation to a spate of dialectical materialist verbiage with which he can prove nothing.  

 The Dialectical Laws of Nature, Society and Thought   

   Engels explains on page 62 of his Dialectics of Nature the following: ‘It is, therefore, from the history of nature and human society that the laws of dialectics are abstracted (our emphasis). For they are nothing but the most general laws of these two aspects of historical development, as well as of thought itself. And indeed they can be reduced in the main to three:

‘The law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa;

 The law of the interpenetration of opposites;

 The law of the negation of the negation.’

   Engels criticised Hegel, whose ‘mistake lies in the fact that these laws are foisted on nature and history as laws of thought and not deduced from them’. (Ibid)


    Slaughter takes a quotation from Trotsky, but carefully avoids demonstrating the theoretical and physical abstraction of these ‘laws of nature, society and thought’. As an eclectic, he evades analysing Trotsky's  ABC of Materialist Dialectics, Thus he reveals that he is incapable of this inescapable, dialectical materialist task.

   The quantities of sugar in the external world constitute an infinite identity of the source of sensation for the consumer. He or she in turn buys a pound of sugar for their finite, qualitative use. Here we have the interpenetration of the opposites: object sugar into the subject man and woman as consumers. The antithesis on the negative contains a positive image of the sugar for the consumer.

   The sugar in turn is negated into tea or coffee, ( negation of the negation). If the consumers like the sugar, its quality (vice versa) will lead to the purchase of another quantity of sugar, or whatever commodity he needs as a substitute for sugar.

   Trotsky's ABC of Materialist Dialectics is the core of his work between pages 56 and 102-103 of In Defence of Marxism. Slaughter’s eclecticism has its roots in bourgeois idealist academic practice. He mechanically assembles different qualities in his writings, thus avoiding the establishment of the main link which is for him a ‘whole’ which is the lifeless sum total of its eclectically selected parts. This is the reason why he is drawn back to Euro-Stalinism with its counter-revolutionary theory of ‘Socialism in a single country’. More and more he will be dragged in the wake of the most reactionary class forces. For 20 years he never trained or recruited a group of new members from his university existence. Hunter, Bruce, Pilling, Kemp, Smith and Co. follow in his footsteps, in the method of lifeless eclectical combinations.