IMAGE: Ivan Kudriashev, Construction
of a Rectilinear Motion (1925)
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Continuing this metaphor, common to both Nietzsche and Marx, we might still ask: What is it, exactly, to which “old collapsing bourgeois society” is giving birth? Nietzsche saw two possibilities, depending on whether the self-overcoming of the present had been borne “[of] a desire for fixing, for immortalizing, for being, or rather [of] a desire for destruction, for change, for novelty, for future, for becoming.” If the former, Nietzsche warned, the impulse is romantic and regressive, an attempt to return to the static existence of tradition. “The desire for destruction, for change and for becoming,” by contrast, “can be the expression of an overflowing energy pregnant with the future.” Once more, the present’s pregnancy with the future is intimately bound up with the problem of conscience and self-becoming. As Nietzsche indicated in The Gay Science: “What does your conscience say? — ‘You should become who you are.’” How is this accomplished? Through boundless negativity, through a fearless commitment to self-transformation, by embracing “the eternal joy in becoming, — the joy that includes even the eternal joy in negating…”
In a similar fashion, Marx understood the bourgeois epoch to be characterized by perpetual flux, the annihilation of existing conditions to make way for those arising out of them: a ceaseless motion of becoming. Materialist dialectic, by standing the doctrine of its Hegelian predecessor on its head, was no less negative or pitilessly destructive than its Nietzschean counterpart: “In accordance with the Hegelian method of thought, the proposition of the rationality of everything that is real dissolves to become the opposite proposition: All that exists deserves to perish. But precisely therein lay the true significance and the revolutionary character of Hegelian philosophy, that it once and for all dealt the deathblow to the finality of all products of human thought and action.” Moreover, the concept of freedom was always understood by Marx as the freedom to become what one will be, rather than the ontological notion of freedom promulgated by romanticism and postmodernism as the freedom to be (e.g., a Jew or a Muslim, a sculptor or a painter, heterosexual or homosexual) what one already “is.” Marx saw this possibility for self-becoming as grounded in the historical emergence of the capitalist mode of production, which, after establishing itself, reproduces the conditions of its own existence, as well as those conditions by which it might be superseded:
[Capitalism’s] presuppositions, which originally appeared as conditions of its becoming — and hence could not spring from its action as capital — now appear as results of its own realization, reality, as posited by it — not as conditions of its arising, but as results of its presence. It no longer proceeds from presuppositions in order to become, but rather it is itself presupposed, proceeding from itself to create the conditions of its maintenance and growth…This correct view [of its development] leads at the same time to the points at which the suspension of the present form of production relations gives signs of its becoming — foreshadowings of the future. Just as, on one side, the pre-bourgeois phases appear as merely historical, suspended presuppositions, so do the contemporary conditions of production likewise appear as engaged in suspending themselves and hence also as positing the historic presuppositions for a new state of society.
The historical perspective Marx brought to his analysis of the capitalist social formation provided the basis for his recognition of the impermanence of the present. But beyond this insight, it promised a higher form of freedom than had been imaginable in pre-capitalist times. He therefore opposed any proposal that would arrest elements of society in their current state of development, or “preserve” traditional cultures against the onslaught of modernity, or atavistically seek to reinstate precapitalist social relations:
[T]he old view, in which the human being appears as the aim of production, regardless of his limited national, religious, political character, seems to be very lofty when contrasted to the modern world, where production appears as the aim of mankind and wealth as the aim of production…[H]owever, when the limited bourgeois form is stripped away, what is wealth other than the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces, etc., created through universal exchange? The full development of human mastery over the forces of nature, those of so-called nature as well as of humanity’s own nature? The absolute working-out of his creative potentialities, with no presupposition other than the previous historic development, which makes possible this totality of development, i.e., the development of all human powers as such the end in itself, not as measured according to any predetermined yardstick? Where he does not reproduce himself in one specificity, but produces his totality? Strives not to remain something he has become, but is in fact the absolute movement of becoming?
Obviously, it would be a mistake to conflate Marx and Nietzsche’s concepts of “becoming.” But hopefully this parallel, however approximate and imperfect, will serve to ward off the petty squeamishness of those who gasp at Nietzsche’s notion of the “innocence of becoming” (i.e., Losurdo, Dombowsky, others). Its destructiveness should be thought no more terrifying than Hegel’s description of history as the “slaughter-bench” on which “the happiness of nations, the wisdom of states, and the virtue of individuals are sacrificed.”
For Nietzsche, the priority of becoming over being exposed the mistaken prejudices of morality inherent in ontological modes of thought. These prejudices, he contended, with their emphasis on ideas of “selflessness,” “altruism,” and ascetic self-abnegation, lay behind Christian and socialist visions of justice alike. “The psychological error out of which the antithetical concepts ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’ arose is: ‘selfless,’ ‘unegoistic,’ ‘self-denying’ — all unreal, imaginary,” he wrote. “False dogmatism regarding the ‘ego’: it is taken in an atomistic sense, in false antithesis to the ‘non-ego’; at the same time, pried out of becoming, as something that is a being.” The origin of his reflection on the subject, it turns out, again came through his earlier engagement with Dühring’s writings on socialism, as evidenced in Nietzsche’s 1876 notebooks.
Unlike Dühring, however, Marx’s notion of communism did not at all rely upon some moralistic injunction to individuals urging them to behave selflessly. “[T]he communists do not oppose egoism to selflessness or selflessness to egoism,” Marx clarified in The German Ideology (1846), “nor do they express this contradiction theoretically in its sentimental or in its highflown ideological form; they rather demonstrate its material source, with which it disappears of itself. The communists do not preach morality at all.” Because Marx explicitly rejected moral appeals and cheap displays of sentimentality, it would be difficult to accuse him of relying on ressentiment. In fact, already in his early Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx had leveled a similar criticism at this impoverished conception of socialism: “Crude communism is only the culmination of…envy and…leveling-down.” Unfortunately for Nietzsche, for whom Dühring was the quintessential socialist, mainstream socialism in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s was hardly any less crude. Engels thus felt it necessary to warn his readers that, unlike Dühring, his own notion of communism was “not in any way be confounded with that crude leveling-down which makes the bourgeois so indignantly oppose all communism.”
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