Marxism and the unfinished business of philosophy

.Continued from the  previous entry.

The Marxist attitude toward philosophy is far more nuanced than either Boyer or Althusser suspect. For the young Marx, the entire goal of historical development was the “immediate realization of philosophy,” or to make the world philosophical. “[A]s the world becomes philosophical,” he explained, “philosophy also becomes worldly.” Philosophy had been consummated in thought with the arrival of Hegel’s philosophy. Now the more pressing task was to bring this philosophy into reality — not by grafting its systematic features onto the world as it is, but by employing its dialectical methodology in order to ruthlessly criticize the world as it is (to invoke Engels’ distinction from Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy). Later Marxists, during the Second International, had very little patience for philosophical questions, preferring to have done with it rather than study its implications. Many of them fell under the sway of fashionable philosophies or intellectual currents from the time, such as Comtean positivism or neo-Kantianism, without even knowing it. Such “eclecticism” was the primary target of Lenin’s 1908 polemic Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, and a decade later the Marxist theorist Georg Lukács would provocatively assert that

[o]rthodox Marxism…does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the “belief” in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a “sacred” book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to methodology. It is the scientific conviction that dialectical materialism is the road to truth and that its methods can be developed, expanded and deepened only along the lines laid down by its founders. It is the conviction…that all attempts to surpass or “improve” it have led and must lead to oversimplification, triviality, and eclecticism.

Shortly before his death, Lenin called upon Marxists everywhere to “arrange for the systematic study of Hegelian dialectics from a materialist standpoint, i.e., the dialectics which Marx applied practically in his Capital and in his historical and political works.” This quote soon became the epigraph for Karl Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy (1923), released the following year. In this work, Korsch argued that Marxists’ general neglect of the philosophical questions that had preoccupied Marx and Engels had allowed a major theoretical conflict brewing within revolutionary Marxism to go unnoticed until it was too late. Lenin was virtually the only exception to this rule. Korsch therefore maintained: “Bourgeois consciousness must be philosophically fought with revolutionary materialistic dialectic, which is the philosophy of the working class. This struggle will only end when the whole of existing society and its economic basis have been totally overthrown in practice, and this consciousness has been totally surpassed and abolished in theory. — ‘Philosophy cannot be abolished without first being realized’.”

Philosophy should have been sublated — simultaneously realized and abolished — during the global conflagration that took place a century ago this year. Because this opportunity came and went without bearing fruit, philosophy lives on in a kind dim afterlife. Or as Adorno put it in Negative Dialectics (1966): “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed. The summary judgment that it had merely interpreted the world, that resignation in the face of reality had crippled it, becomes a defeatism of reason after the attempt to change the world miscarried.”[1]


[1] Adorno, Theodor. Negative Dialectics. Translated by E.B. Ashton. (Routledge. New York, NY: 2004). Pg. 3.

Biography is destiny

Anne Boyer on Althusser

bros fall back…
………kill the bro in yr head…

— Jonathan Munis
(Nov. 8, 2013)

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, once infamously asserted that “biology is destiny.” (What he actually wrote was “anatomy is destiny,” but this is a trivial distinction. Either way, the statement was clearly intended as a provocation). Of course, Freud made this remark in connection with the subject of female genitality, with a sideways glance cast toward “the feministic demand for equal rights” — which he held “[did] not carry far here.”[1] It should thus hardly come as any surprise that the milquetoast lefty Kulturzeitschrift New Inquiry would reject this formulation. By all accounts, however, if Anne Boyer’s recent “review” of On the Reproduction of Capitalism by the late Louis Althusser is any evidence, the online journal has embraced an opposite but equally dubious dictum. According to this view, it would seem that “biography is destiny.” Her examination of this text, the first translation of Althusser’s writings to be published in years, serves as a mere pretext for her bizarre tirade against philosophers’ incorrigible habit of reproducing “patriarchy,” here nebulously conceived as a kind of timeless or perennial entity or institution.

Louis Althusser at the blackboard

Louis Althusser at the blackboard

Normally I’d be the last person to mount a serious defense of Althusser. Theoretical antihumanism, the outcome of Althusser’s misguided structuralist approach to Marxism, has proved deeply problematic in its subsequent influence on the Left. His notion of a sharp “epistemic break” dividing the Young Marx from the Old, laid the groundwork for a whole generation of bad scholarship. Even more ironic is the fact that Althusser would propose such a drastic rereading of Marx’s mature works, especially Capital, so soon after the rediscovery of the Grundrisse in the 1950s, which all but confirmed the persistent Hegelian underpinnings not just of the early works (The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, The German Ideology, etc.), but his broader investigations into political economy more than a decade later. Althusser could scarcely have chosen a worse time, Marxologically speaking, to advance such a hypothesis. Besides this, there are any number of objections one might legitimately raise: his ahistorical notion of ideology, his rejection of historico-critical self-consciousness as the foundation for both individual and group subjectivity, or his botched anti-Hegelian interpretation of Lenin (who’d written that “[i]t is completely impossible to understand Marx’s Capital, especially its opening chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic!”). One could go on. Continue reading