Criticism or Positivism?

El Lissitzky's "Lenin Tribune" (1925)

A fairly interesting discussion is going on over here regarding the imperative for the Left to either critique (negate) ideologies or produce (posit) its own ideology.  Predictably, I maintain that the outline of a different future is best conceived as the negative image of the present.  Hegelian sublation was never a “synthesis” but rather the antithesis of the antithesis, the negation of the negation, expropriating the expropriators (Marx).

20 thoughts on “Criticism or Positivism?

  1. Interesting indeed. Can you perhaps explain a bit more what you mean by ‘ideology’ here? It sounds as though it is used in a kind of neutral sense of ‘overall political narrative’ which isn’t the same as ‘ideology’ in Marx (which, of course, it doesn’t have to be) – can we really talk about ‘leftist ideology’ here if ‘ideology’ is a form of false consciousness, for example?

    • I agree that ideology carries with it the specific connotation of “false consciousness,” which is precisely why I consider ideology critique to be the only legitimate Marxist approach. There is a larger sense in which ideology just means any form of thought that is erected as a superstructure of the material basis, i.e. the mode of production and the social relations therein. Usually, these ideologies distort the reality out of which they arise, and become a part of the overall social reality, but once the totality is grasped in theory, these ideologies can be dispelled.

  2. Ok, we’re on the same page then. I would only add (to continue your comment) that even if we understand ideology as any superstructure, it is still not without its negative connotation (it distorts, as you point out), since superstructure’s task is to conceal the operations of the base, i.e. something like ‘leftist ideology’ would, I can only assume, accomplish such a task with some leftist means. It seems that the idea that leftists need their own ideology is similar to the idea that they need their own ‘spin’ – right lies and distorts so left needs to lie and distort as well etc etc. I’m with you on the ‘ideology critique’ then – showing why X is false is necessary to combat X, and constructing an alternative (and competitive) ideology Y simply will not do in and of itself. Of course, in addition to that I must mention that leftist already have plenty of potent narratives – have you ever read anything by Daniel Bensaîd? He often makes a point of suggesting that old Marxist narratives are not only still potent and shouldn’t be abandoned, but their weakness has nothing to do with their essence but with their application (or rather lack of it) today…

  3. No, I’ve never read anything by him. Most of my Marxism is informed by Moishe Postone, David Harvey, Immanuel Wallerstein, Adorno & the Frankfurt School, Walter Benjamin, Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky, Engels, and of course Marx himself.

  4. Marx for Our Times is a good book, I think. I hope there’ll be more of his works translated soon. But I think David Harvey’s making similar points as well – old narratives are not outdated simply because they are put aside by the ‘defeated Left’ – one might argue that classical Marxist critiques of capitalism (and its ideological tools) are still very potent, it’s just that academics aren’t likely to pick them up due to their relative unpopularity in the academic discourse – can’t make a steller career being a Marxist these days, it seems – so they invent new better ways for saying basically the same thing, but the real thing is always better than its poor imitations – that seems to be Bensaïd’s point (sorry, I’ve misspelled Bensaïd in my previous comment as having a circumflex accent, it’s with an umlaut)…

  5. I just remembered this one essay in which a young Marx Horkheimer tears Karl Mannheim to shreds on precisely this point:

    [O]n the level of the total concept of ideology, upon which Marx is supposed to have stood, the “ideological character” of an overall perspective was at least judged from the standpoint of a theory understood as itself non-ideological. With the removal of this restriction on the total concept of ideologythat is, with its transformation into the general concept, this distinction falls away, and “the thought of all parties in all epochs” is branded as “ideology.” Herewith the concept of ideology is cleansed of the residues of its accusatory meaning, and its integration into the philosophy of mind is complete.

    His point was that if ideology was treated as just the particular form of thought for every individual political orientation, the term becomes nothing more than a category in the philosophy of mind.

  6. Nice quote. Neatly summarizes why that Larval Subject’s post was wrong on a number of levels, especially in the comments where he basically seem to be calling for the Left to act like the Right – certainly their lies work, who would deny it? just think of the poor protesting on behalf of the rich against their own interests (Tea Party against Healthcare) – efficacy of ideological deception is not a solid foundation for any political platform that seeks genuine change. I mean if the goal is to create change by any means available then military dictatorship is probably even more efficient, no?

  7. He’s just being his usual condescending self – it never ends well over there. I think that, addressing your point vis-a-vis radical movements that separated themselves from Marxism, it is also an sign of capitalism’s ultimate flexibility and ‘all solid melt into air’ quality described in the Manifesto.

    I also liked your point about “educating people about the fundamental nature of capitalism” – Bryant’s snark aside (has he ever read anything about Marx’s continuous struggle to make his Capital a work that workers can read and understand?) – I think it is essential to tackle the problem of ideology critique not working on the level of exposing the distortions on theoretical level only. It is here, it seems to me, that much of the ideology critique work has encountered problems but also offered some solutions (stuff that Zizek does and so on).

    • Actually if you could join in the conversation over there I think it might be productive, since he won’t be able to try and deflate major criticisms I offer with snarky little quips.

    • Yeah, it seems that way, sadly. Your point about capitalism’s ultimate flexibility and its corrosion of old traditions and general inclusiveness. Homosexuals could be (and should be) allowed to marry at any time and it won’t make the slightest difference in terms of destabilizing Capital.

  8. I told you, Ross. Our great defender of the weak and oppressed has a short fuse.

    Even I get a kick in the ass – thanks, man! The great armchair Marxist will surely be doubling up now in his efforts to revive the Left with a bit more whining about his cushy academic job and so on.

    At least I spent a delightful afternoon reading blogs on your post and watching him lose his shit over issues he knows little about – good times, right?

    • It’s just painfully obvious that he has barely read any Marx beyond the Manifesto, a piece he was commissioned to write. Perhaps he’s read the chapter in Capital about commodity fetishism, and he’s trying to argue with me? haha. I’ve read all three volumes. He hasn’t a clue what he’s talking about. His confusion over the term “ideology” gives him away instantly.

      • Trust me, he will not talk to you like a normal person talks to another normal person – he’ll lecture you about ‘collectives’ or some other nonsense he picked up from the latest book and bore you to death to get a ‘win’ and move on – it’s not worth it. He will twist and turn every word you say and then whine forever about how you allegedly twist and turn his words. The man is a gigantic philosophical baby, he’s lonely and he needs someone to play with. Don’t go there. I’m sure he’s obsessively reading every comment here as well, it’s sad really – you will only waste your time in the end.

    • It seems that the conversation has dragged on in much the same way you expected it would. Perhaps I should just leave him alone and let him comfort himself with the thought that he’s “a committed Marxist” even though it’s clear to anyone that he barely knows Marx’s works outside of the Manifesto.

  9. If you are outside of mass organizations, you are outside politically. A definition of a sect.

    In Pakistan the IMT has over 200 chapters. We’re in every school, major union etc. We’re even areas of Pakistan, fighting both the Taliban and US imperialism. The 1968 Revolution was led by the Pakistan People’s Party. To workers the PPP means the revolution and its socialist program. By being the Marxist wing of that party, if it ever splits, we’re poised to lead revolution. Goodness knows the PPP has contradictions.

    A socialist group needs to recruit the ones and twos, the best and brightest. Quality can influence quantity.

    You need strong principles, and flexible tactics.

    This is leading to asking you, what’s your opinion of mass organizations as; Pakistan Peoples Party, British Labor Party etc? How do you relate?

    • Platypus engages with workers’ unions and labor activists as well as minority representatives and so on. We form panels and participate in marches, and yes, I will be attending the march tomorrow in NYC along with the other members of Platypus. Obviously, we also encourage discussion at the academic level — debates about theory, even at the highest level, are very important to us. Platypus is limited in its abilities to spread too far out, but we’ve only existed for 4 years, and have only 100-200 members/sympathizers. But we do what we can.

Leave a Reply