Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 17, 2015

On John Gray’s critique of Steven Pinker

Filed under: sociobiology,war — louisproyect @ 8:31 pm

John Gray

John Gray doesn’t care for Steven Pinker’s 2011 “The Better Angels of Our Nature: the Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes” at all. Who can blame him? It is a sociobiological defense of the state against “primitive” peoples who are made out to be much more violent than the Third Reich.

His first swipe at the book appeared in the September 11, 2011 edition of Prospect Magazine. He took another whack at him in the Guardian on October 15, 2011. The first paragraph was delightfully malicious:

Steven Pinker is one of those wunderkinder that elite US universities seem to specialise in producing. Born in Canada in 1954, he’s currently a professor of psychology at Harvard, but ever since he arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1976 he’s been bouncing like a high-IQ tennis ball between Harvard and its prestigious neighbour, MIT (he has professorial chairs at both institutions). By profession he’s an experimental psychologist who began doing research on visual cognition but eventually moved into studying language, especially language acquisition in children. He probably knows more about mankind’s use of verbs, and particularly the distinction between irregular and regular ones, than any other man, living or dead.

I love the “high-IQ tennis ball” bit, don’t you?

But the latest installment has probably gotten more exposure than the first two on the Internet. It appeared once again in the Guardian four days ago and is longer than the first two put together. Since he really has Pinker’s number, I hope it is not the last go-round.

I was intrigued by Gray’s reference to Pinker as a defender of Enlightenment values:

Among the causes of the outbreak of altruism, Pinker and Singer attach particular importance to the ascendancy of Enlightenment thinking. Reviewing Pinker, Singer writes: “During the Enlightenment, in 17th- and 18th-century Europe and countries under European influence, an important change occurred. People began to look askance at forms of violence that had previously been taken for granted: slavery, torture, despotism, duelling and extreme forms of punishment … Pinker refers to this as ‘the humanitarian revolution’.” Here too Pinker and Singer belong in a contemporary orthodoxy. With other beliefs crumbling, many seek to return to what they piously describe as “Enlightenment values”. But these values were not as unambiguously benign as is nowadays commonly supposed. John Locke denied America’s indigenous peoples any legal claim to the country’s “wild woods and uncultivated wastes”; Voltaire promoted the “pre-Adamite” theory of human development according to which Jews were remnants of an earlier and inferior humanoid species; Kant maintained that Africans were innately inclined to the practice of slavery; the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham developed the project of an ideal penitentiary, the Panopticon, where inmates would be kept in solitary confinement under constant surveillance. None of these views is discussed by Singer or Pinker.

Come to think of it, Vivek Chibber didn’t pay much attention to these views either. I always considered Marx to be a critic of the Enlightenment even though that in stating this I might come across as an unreconstructed subalternist. Those are the breaks, I guess.

Although I have never read Pinker’s book, I am familiar with his arguments, which are closely related to those made by Jared Diamond and Napoleon Chagnon, another couple of sociobiologists who view hunting-and-gathering societies as deeply criminal and homicidal. My own take on Pinker is here: http://louisproyect.org/2011/10/04/steven-pinker-hobbes-pangloss/. And on Jared Diamond here: http://louisproyect.org/2008/11/03/jared-diamond-on-tribal-warfare-in-new-guinea/. And finally on Chagnon there is this: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/02/22/chagnons-war/.

My emphasis is more on correcting the record on the so-called “savages” than it is on pointing out how barbaric modern civilization really is. Most of Gray’s latest article discusses the monumental scale of modern warfare including the prospect of an all-out nuclear war that will make the notion of steady progress toward peaceful relations among states altogether moot. If an H-bomb is dropped on Harvard, I doubt that Pinker will be in much shape to defend his arguments. Along those lines I did find this historical reference by Gray intriguing:

Discussing the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 in which nuclear war was narrowly averted, Pinker dismisses the view that “the de-escalation was purely a stroke of uncanny good luck”. Instead, he explains the fact that nuclear war was avoided by reference to the superior judgment of Kennedy and Khrushchev, who had “an intuitive grasp of game theory” – an example of increasing rationality in history, Pinker believes. But a disastrous escalation in the crisis may in fact have been prevented only by a Soviet submariner, Vasili Arkhipov, who refused to obey orders from his captain to launch a nuclear torpedo. Had it not been for the accidental presence of a single courageous human being, a nuclear conflagration could have occurred causing fatalities on a vast scale.

Could this be true? I remember being at Bard College in 1962 when the crisis was going on. Students were very worried about nuclear war while I shrugged the whole thing off, largely a function of the existentialist nihilism I picked up after watching Godard films uncritically. Well, I’m glad that Arkhipov kept us all alive, although I do wonder what really happened. From what I know of the USSR, nuclear gamesmanship was not its calling card. Maybe if J. Posadas were in charge, things would have turned out differently. The Trotskyist genius put it this way: “Nuclear war [equals] revolutionary war. It will damage humanity but it will not – it cannot – destroy the level of consciousness reached by it… Humanity will pass quickly through a nuclear war into a new human society – Socialism.”

Toward the end of his article, Gray appears to cast doubt on the prospect of achieving peace (and justice, one surmises) either through the agency of the modern capitalist state as Pinker believes is possible or any other socio-political changes:

Improvements in civilisation are real enough, but they come and go. While knowledge and invention may grow cumulatively and at an accelerating rate, advances in ethics and politics are erratic, discontinuous and easily lost. Amid the general drift, cycles can be discerned: peace and freedom alternate with war and tyranny, eras of increasing wealth with periods of economic collapse. Instead of becoming ever stronger and more widely spread, civilisation remains inherently fragile and regularly succumbs to barbarism. This view, which was taken for granted until sometime in the mid-18th century, is so threatening to modern hopes that it is now practically incomprehensible.

This sounds a bit like warmed-over Oswald Spengler, a philosopher of history who argued in “The Decline of the West” that the 20th century was headed toward collapse. In the 1950s he was quite trendy. As a high school student and a hardened anti-Communist, Spengler’s doom-and-gloom resonated with my own weltschmerz. Boy, I’m glad I got over that.

Thirteen years ago Gray wrote a book titled “Straw Dogs” where his Spenglerian bent was allowed to fully blossom. The book derives its title from Sam Peckingpah’s 1971 film that pitted a “civilized” Dustin Huffman going medieval on the British working class guys who had raped his wife.

In a review for the Guardian Terry Eagleton showed him no mercy:

John Gray’s political vision has been steadily darkening. Once a swashbuckling free-marketeer, he has, in his recent studies, become increasingly despondent about the state of the world. With the crankish, unbalanced Straw Dogs, he emerges as a full-blooded apocalyptic nihilist. He has passed from Thatcherite zest to virulent misanthropy.

Not that nihilism is a term he would endorse. His book is so remorselessly, monotonously negative that even nihilism implies too much hope. Nihilism for Gray suggests the world needs to be redeemed from meaninglessness, a claim he regards as meaningless. Instead, we must just accept that progress is a myth, freedom a fantasy, selfhood a delusion, morality a kind of sickness, justice a mere matter of custom and illusion our natural condition. Technology cannot be controlled, and human beings are entirely helpless. Political tyrannies will be the norm for the future, if we have any future at all. It isn’t the best motivation for getting out of bed.

Like all tunnel vision, Gray’s extravagant pessimism is lugubriously amusing. As with his great mentor Arthur Schopenhauer, the gloomiest philosopher who ever lived, it takes a degree of heroic perversity to overlook every apparent flicker of human value. Straw Dogs is based on a keen, crucial insight – the fact that if men and women really did behave like wild animals, their existence would be a lot less bloody and precarious than it is. Indeed, one might go further and claim that ethics are an animal affair – a matter of our fleshy, compassionate bodies, not of some high-minded moral law. In believing itself infinitely superior to its fellow creatures, humanity overreaches itself and risks bringing itself to nothing. What the ancient Greeks knew as hubris is shaping up at this moment to maim the people of Iraq.

If Marx was no Enlightenment thinker, at least he had a vision of how war could be ended, namely through the establishment of communism, a system that through the elimination of the profit motive could set the stage for peaceful relations among different peoples.

Gray does not see things that way. In a survey on “Bourgeois pundits consider Marx” written in September 2011, I gave Gray props for acknowledging that Marx was correct in pointing out “how capitalism destroys its own social base” but like everyone else I considered ruled out an alternative to the capitalist system. For Gray, Marx was wrong in his belief that “a popular revolution would occur and bring a communist system into being that would be more productive and far more humane.”

Actually Marx was right. The problem, however, is that these popular revolutions were strangled in their crib almost universally. The contradiction was one that Marx did not fully anticipate, namely that revolutions would occur in countries where the immiseration was deepest and as such would lack the economic power to fend for themselves.

Gray is definitely on the side of the angel as opposed to Pinker’s specious “better angels of our nature” but like most people philosophically disinclined to consider proletarian revolution is almost incapable of seeing an alternative to the present system. It is up to us—the modern day sans culottes—to fight for such alternative.



  1. A quick note from a long-time lurker: that’s the wrong John Gray, i.e. it’s the Men are from Mars, Women from Venus eejit rather than the student of Isaiah Berlin.

    Comment by Francis Ward — March 18, 2015 @ 1:33 am

  2. Thanks for the head’s up.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 18, 2015 @ 3:23 am

  3. “…This theory, however generally accepted, has little evidence to support it and rests on a number of unproved sequential relationships.

    Mumford rightly rejects it and, instead, believes that man has always possessed unused psychic capacities (mental, emotional, spiritual, and imaginative) and that his earliest and most significant inventions were not in the area of tools and technology but were of organizational, ritual, symbolic, and imaginative character, a fact which has not been recognized by most archaeologists simply because evidence of these things does not survive as evidence of tools and weapons does.

    Mumford points out, for example, that natives with the most impoverished material cultures and technology, such as the aborigines of Australia, have the most elaborate and complex languages, social organizations, myths, and rituals.

    He argues that the almost unchanging material equipment of palaeolithic man, over hundreds of thousands of years, remained static, just as it did in Australia, because man’s elaborate and dynamic non-material culture, during that period, was so absorbing of primitive man’s time and energies and so satisfying to his psychic needs.

    On the other hand, contemporary man is so absorbed and engulfed in machines and technology that he is spiritually stunted and frustrated, a psychic cripple, alienated from nature, society, and his fellow man. Instead of becoming the independent autonomous personality which his potentialities make possible, he has tended to become a cog in a meta-machine…”


    Comment by Bankotsu — March 18, 2015 @ 5:40 am

  4. Things have never been better says Pinker (and Obama). Ignore that pesky mass extinction going on, we do after all have zoos.


    Comment by jay — March 18, 2015 @ 9:42 am

  5. I know Herman/Peterson aren’t your cup of tea, but their response originally alerted me to Pinker’s arguments: http://dissidentvoice.org/2012/12/steven-pinker-on-the-alleged-decline-of-violence/

    Comment by David Green — March 18, 2015 @ 8:58 pm

  6. Well, they are better off writing about such things than the geopolitical chess game, I guess.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 18, 2015 @ 9:12 pm

  7. Remarkable! Brilliant! Able to judge a book without reading it! Able to ascertain its contents (“familiar with its arguments”) without reading it!
    Superb scholarship! Wonderful. More of this intellectual rigour please!

    Comment by Ivan appleton — May 7, 2015 @ 11:15 pm

  8. The opening paragraph in the Guardian piece that you cite isn’t actually written by John Gray but John Naughton. John Gray figures later in the article.

    Comment by Andreas — October 12, 2016 @ 6:24 am

  9. I find it extraordinary that a self-proclaimed Marxist should back the utterly reactionary John Grey, however much you may dislike Steven Pinker (though I have to agree with a previous commenter, that your critique of Pinker would be a little stronger if you’d actually got round to reading his stuff.

    Grey is almost a self-parody of misanthropic gloom and totally pessimistic about humanity’s prospects. In his books Straw Dogs (2003) and Black Mass (2007), he dismisses all aspirations to create a better world, arguing that our efforts to improve social conditions usually make them worse. He’s a much more profoundly reactionary thinker than Pinker.

    And where on earth did you get the idea that “Marx was no enlightenment thinker”?

    Comment by Jim Denham — February 12, 2018 @ 11:42 am

  10. […] his sometimes sloppy scholarship (fairly critiqued here), but surely any Marxist (except, it seems this one) must side 100% with him against the […]

    Pingback by John Gray: Thatcherite philosopher who moved right – Shiraz Socialist (Second Run) — March 7, 2018 @ 10:07 am

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