Roy Bhaskar’s passing on November 21 robs the world of a great philosophical spirit and enlightened campaigner for human emancipation, says Corinna Lotz.
For anyone who thinks that philosophy, particularly dialectics, has to be a dry and sterile thing of abstract thought, Roy Bhaskar was a living refutation. I first met him in the spring of 1995 in the Gray’s Inn Road chambers of Bill Bowring, the human rights lawyer.
Bill’s chambers, lined with dark green legal tomes, suddenly sprang alive as Roy pulled out multi-coloured notebooks, filled with his tiny script and marked with Day-Glo post-it notes, from the depths of his burgundy velvet jacket. He also pulled out the cash to buy the book I had co-authored, Gerry Healy, a revolutionary life.
By then, he had a long string of widely-respected writings under his belt. He was preparing yet another conference for supporters of the critical realist outlook which he had helped to found. But while proud of his books, he wore his knowledge with an incredible lightness of being.
He had recently published his monumental “dead hard” Dialectic – the pulse of freedom. Roy’s approach ran refreshingly against the perceived common sense of prevailing ideological triumphalism, running high on the hog in the early 1990s. He was taking up the cudgels on behalf of Hegel and Marx’s dialectic, not as an “outsider”, but as someone with a record of academic brilliance, just at a time when Marxist philosophy was seen as a thing of the past. He held on to the revolutionary spirit of his student days in Oxford, where he joined the International Marxist Group. It was there that he met fellow activist Hilary Wainwright. In 1971 they married and although eventually separated, they remained close friends and collaborators.
Mainstream thought in the universities and in social science departments insisted that science and philosophy were unconnected, let alone that philosophers could involve themselves in politics, God forbid. There was no world independent of our senses and what we make of things, it was asserted. But here was a sophisticated philosopher who had a rigorous training under the distinguished social scientist Rom Harré. From a fundamentally materialist philosophical standpoint, Roy was developing complex dialectical theories about the nature of being, consciousness and human agency.
Bhaskar asserted the underlying unity of being, human existence and thought from the standpoint of reflexivity, complexity and structure. His championing of dialectics and transcendence flew in the face of monolithic outlooks and dogmas.
As Alan Norrie has noted, the amazing thing about Roy’s early book, A Realist Theory of Science, was that “here was a book on the philosophy of natural science, but you knew that it was a book written by someone of the political left”.
Roy argued against the mainstream by insisting on the validity of a scientific point of view. He asserted the primary nature and importance of ontology – the nature of being itself and that it cannot be reduced to what we think of it. With his “four-plane view” of the phases of social being, he sought to counteract what he termed the “ontological monovalence” of most Western philosophy.
In his championing of dialectical critical realism, Roy creatively took up and developed a sorely-neglected side of Marx – the nature of the dialectic of thought being and action. Mind, he asserted, was an “emergent power of matter”.
Roy not only confronted the ideologies of the ruling elite, he also challenged the anti-dialectical reductionist version of Marxism beloved of the dogmatists, especially those of the Soviet official variety, as a form of mechanical historical materialism.
He saw dialectics as “the yearning for freedom and the transformative negation of constraints on it”. Concepts of absence and negativity suddenly spring to life. Far from turning Hegel and Marx into icons, he sought to develop their ideas, in particular the notion of human alienation. He challenged rigid views of the world and of human beings as unchanging and incapable of achieving individual and social liberation.
At the moving celebration of Roy’s life at Islington Crematorium on 5 December, Hilary Wainwright spoke of the need to take Roy’s work forward in a collective way. Matthew Wilkinson, from the Institute of Education where Roy held a post as World Scholar, noted that Roy was “a towering thinker” who instilled an understanding of the importance of good ideas and that they can bring about real change: “Ideas always meant an ought for him based on the need to resolve and transcend obstacles to human flourishing”.
Critical Realism journal editor and close collaborator Mervyn Hartwig said that Roy “read Marx correctly as a profoundly spiritual thinker”.
After my first encounter with Roy, I filled in as his personal assistant for some months. He was always generous, full of mischief and fun and supported my political work. One of my best memories was a talk he gave to a packed audience at the University of London Union Marxist Society which I helped to organise. He demolished philosophical opponents in a most polite, respectful, laid-back but rapier-sharp way. For him the dialectical outlook gave rise to an inexhaustible fountain of profound, sparkling revolutionary ideas.
Roy’s nephew Michael said that Roy was the rare person who could keep focused on the big ideals. We need more people like that. Thank you, Roy, for your contribution.
Ram Roy Bhaskar, 15 May 1944 – 19 November 2014