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]

Notes


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

9 thoughts on “Marxism and the unfinished business of philosophy

  1. Pingback: kill the bro in yr head | The Charnel-House

  2. Why are you recycling this failed approach to Marxism, Ross?

    You ought to know that Marx had abandoned philosophy by the late 1840s, saying things like this:

    Feuerbach’s great achievement is…. The proof that philosophy is nothing else but religion rendered into thought and expounded by thought, i.e., another form and manner of existence of the estrangement of the essence of man; hence equally to be condemned….

    One has to ‘leave philosophy aside’…, one has to leap out of it and devote oneself like an ordinary man to the study of actuality,

    exact references and more quotes like this can be found here.

    But, independently of this, even if we needed a philosophy (which we don’t), Hegelian dialectics (upside down or the ‘right way up) wouldn’t make it to the bottom of the reserve list of likely candidates. It is far too vague and confused.

    I have outlined the logical blunders that the Hermetic Harebrain, Hegel, committed here.

    Alas, these are still egregious blunders even when rotated through 180 degrees. This means that there is now no rationale to ‘the dialectic’ (as it has come to be understood after Hegel screwed around with it), upside down, or ‘the right way up’.

    Finally, it seems you have missed a golden opportunity (here) to provide your readers with an answer to my argument that, by the time he came to write ‘Das Kapital’, Marx had finally waved ‘goodbye’ to this logical incompetent.

    After all, you promised us one not three months ago.

  3. Hi Rosa,

    Since you invited me to respond, I will say that I respect your comment and your point of view. Two things are very clear from Ross’ post and your comment. First, you and I have a very different readings of Marx and Hegel, and second, no matter what rebuttals and counterarguments I offer, you will not change your mind, nor will I. So what follows is not so much an attempt at discrediting you, proving you wrong, as it is an attempt at making our differences more clear and transparent for others to see. That is, I hope you do not take it personally.

    To go to the heart of the matter, let’s talk about how Marx saw philosophy. In your website you quote Marx extensively, I will pick out the following segment for illustrative purposes:

    “One of the most difficult tasks confronting philosophers is to descend from the world of thought to the actual world. Language is the immediate actuality of thought. Just as philosophers have given thought an independent existence, so they were bound to make language into an independent realm. This is the secret of philosophical language, in which thoughts in the form of words have their own content. The problem of descending from the world of thoughts to the actual world is turned into the problem of descending from language to life.

    “We have shown that thoughts and ideas acquire an independent existence in consequence of the personal circumstances and relations of individuals acquiring independent existence. We have shown that exclusive, systematic occupation with these thoughts on the part of ideologists and philosophers, and hence the systematisation of these thoughts, is a consequence of division of labour, and that, in particular, German philosophy is a consequence of German petty-bourgeois conditions. The philosophers have only to dissolve their language into the ordinary language, from which it is abstracted, in order to recognise it, as the distorted language of the actual world, and to realise that neither thoughts nor language in themselves form a realm of their own, that they are only manifestations of actual life.”

    In these passages Marx is critiquing philosophy for thinking that thought had an independent existence from the world of actuality. That is the distortion he points out. He draws a parallel to language, and how language is also an abstraction from concrete materiality, which then linguists believe exists in an independent realm. Just read Noam Chomsky’s theory of language for an example.

    But to claim we don’t need philosophy would be as ludicrous as saying we don’t need language. Just because some linguists distorted and abstracted language, and philosophers have abstracted thought, humans would not be humans without language and thought.

    Understanding the relation between thought and actuality, between language and actuality, that is, comprehending the mediated nature of all that exists, this is what Marx was pointing out. He was against abstracted philosophy, not philosophy.

    And just so we don’t forget, Marx was as fierce a critic of Feuerbach’s materialism as of idealism. From the first thesis on Feuerbach:

    “The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism-that of Feuerbach included-is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as human sensuous activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence it happened that the active side, in contradistinction to materialism, was developed by idealism-but only abstractly, since, of course, idealism does not know real, sensuous activity as such.”

    Best,

  4. TJ, thank you for those comments. However:

    “In these passages Marx is critiquing philosophy for thinking that thought had an independent existence from the world of actuality. That is the distortion he points out. He draws a parallel to language, and how language is also an abstraction from concrete materiality, which then linguists believe exists in an independent realm. Just read Noam Chomsky’s theory of language for an example.”

    First of all, Marx doesn’t say what you attribute to him; he says this:

    “The philosophers have only to dissolve their language into the ordinary language, from which it is abstracted, in order to recognise it, as the distorted language of the actual world…”

    Notice, Marx doesn’t say ordinary language has been abstracted, but that philosophers distort language by abstracting their language from ordinary language, and in doing this they produce a distorted language of the actual world. This is a theme he had explored earlier:

    “If from real apples, pears, strawberries and almonds I form the general idea ‘Fruit’, if I go further and imagine that my abstract idea ‘Fruit’, derived from real fruit, is an entity existing outside me, is indeed the true essence of the pear, the apple, etc., then — in the language of speculative philosophy –- I am declaring that ‘Fruit’ is the ‘Substance’ of the pear, the apple, the almond, etc. I am saying, therefore, that to be an apple is not essential to the apple; that what is essential to these things is not their real existence, perceptible to the senses, but the essence that I have abstracted from them and then foisted on them, the essence of my idea -– ‘Fruit’. I therefore declare apples, pears, almonds, etc., to be mere forms of existence, modi, of ‘Fruit’. My finite understanding supported by my senses does of course distinguish an apple from a pear and a pear from an almond, but my speculative reason declares these sensuous differences inessential and irrelevant. It sees in the apple the same as in the pear, and in the pear the same as in the almond, namely ‘Fruit’. Particular real fruits are no more than semblances whose true essence is ‘the substance’ — ‘Fruit’.

    “By this method one attains no particular wealth of definition. The mineralogist whose whole science was limited to the statement that all minerals are really ‘the Mineral’ would be a mineralogist only in his imagination. For every mineral the speculative mineralogist says ‘the Mineral’, and his science is reduced to repeating this word as many times as there are real minerals.

    “Having reduced the different real fruits to the one ‘fruit’ of abstraction -– ‘the Fruit’, speculation must, in order to attain some semblance of real content, try somehow to find its way back from ‘the Fruit’, from the Substance to the diverse, ordinary real fruits, the pear, the apple, the almond etc. It is as hard to produce real fruits from the abstract idea ‘the Fruit’ as it is easy to produce this abstract idea from real fruits. Indeed, it is impossible to arrive at the opposite of an abstraction without relinquishing the abstraction.

    “The speculative philosopher therefore relinquishes the abstraction ‘the Fruit’, but in a speculative, mystical fashion — with the appearance of not relinquishing it. Thus it is really only in appearance that he rises above his abstraction. He argues somewhat as follows:

    “If apples, pears, almonds and strawberries are really nothing but ‘the Substance’, ‘the Fruit’, the question arises: Why does ‘the Fruit’ manifest itself to me sometimes as an apple, sometimes as a pear, sometimes as an almond? Why this semblance of diversity which so obviously contradicts my speculative conception of Unity, ‘the Substance’, ‘the Fruit’?

    “This, answers the speculative philosopher, is because ‘the Fruit’ is not dead, undifferentiated, motionless, but a living, self-differentiating, moving essence. The diversity of the ordinary fruits is significant not only for my sensuous understanding, but also for ‘the Fruit’ itself and for speculative reason. The different ordinary fruits are different manifestations of the life of the ‘one Fruit’; they are crystallisations of ‘the Fruit’ itself. Thus in the apple ‘the Fruit’ gives itself an apple-like existence, in the pear a pear-like existence. We must therefore no longer say, as one might from the standpoint of the Substance: a pear is ‘the Fruit’, an apple is ‘the Fruit’, an almond is ‘the Fruit’, but rather ‘the Fruit’ presents itself as a pear, ‘the Fruit’ presents itself as an apple, ‘the Fruit’ presents itself as an almond; and the differences which distinguish apples, pears and almonds from one another are the self-differentiations of ‘the Fruit’ and make the particular fruits different members of the life-process of ‘the Fruit’. Thus ‘the Fruit’ is no longer an empty undifferentiated unity; it is oneness as allness, as ‘totality’ of fruits, which constitute an ‘organically linked series of members’. In every member of that series ‘the Fruit’ gives itself a more developed, more explicit existence, until finally, as the ‘summary’ of all fruits, it is at the same time the living unity which contains all those fruits dissolved in itself just as it produces them from within itself, just as, for instance, all the limbs of the body are constantly dissolved in and constantly produced out of the blood….

    “The ordinary man does not think he is saying anything extraordinary when he states that there are apples and pears. But when the philosopher expresses their existence in the speculative way he says something extraordinary. He performs a miracle by producing the real natural objects, the apple, the pear, etc., out of the unreal creation of the mind ‘the Fruit’. And in regard to every object the existence of which he expresses, he accomplishes an act of creation.

    “It goes without saying that the speculative philosopher accomplishes this continuous creation only by presenting universally known qualities of the apple, the pear, etc., which exist in reality, as determining features invented by him, by giving the names of the real things to what abstract reason alone can create, to abstract formulas of reason, finally, by declaring his own activity, by which he passes from the idea of an apple to the idea of a pear, to be the self-activity of the Absolute Subject, ‘the Fruit.'” [‘The Holy Family’]

    Notice how Marx deliberately contrasts what ‘the philosopher’ does with what ‘the ordinary man’ does.

    Moreover, it is difficult to fit your interpretation of what Marx is doing around these comments:

    “Feuerbach’s great achievement is…. The proof that philosophy is nothing else but religion rendered into thought and expounded by thought, i.e., another form and manner of existence of the estrangement of the essence of man; hence equally to be condemned….”

    “One has to ‘leave philosophy aside’… one has to leap out of it and devote oneself like an ordinary man to the study of actuality…”

    Again, notice how Marx links philosophy (not ‘abstract Philosophy, but Philosophy) with alienation (and he condemns it for this), and how he again contrasts what Philosophy succeeds in doing with what ‘ordinary’ men do: study reality as opposed to speculating around empty abstractions.

    And, I’d like to see you do some philosophy without using ‘abstractions’. So the distinction you draw between ‘abstract Philosophy, and Philosophy itself is not only not found in Marx, it isn’t tenable even if it had been.]

    You then say this:

    “But to claim we don’t need philosophy would be as ludicrous as saying we don’t need language. Just because some linguists distorted and abstracted language, and philosophers have abstracted thought, humans would not be humans without language and thought.”

    But, this is as ‘ludicrous’ as saying we need religious thought, too.

    Moreover, I have shown that all that Traditional Philosophy (and I include in this all that has passed itself off as ‘Marxist Philosophy’ since Engels, Plekhanov, Lenin (and all rest) put pen to misuse) is capable of delivering are non-sensical and incoherent strings of words.

    I rather think we can do without that.

    http://anti-dialectics.co.uk/Why_all_philosophical_theories_are_non-sensical.htm

    Moreover, I am not saying human beings should do without thought, but that we should take Marx’s advice concerning that empty and pointless ruling-class discipline called ‘philosophy’, and “leap out of it”.

    “Understanding the relation between thought and actuality, between language and actuality, that is, comprehending the mediated nature of all that exists, this is what Marx was pointing out. He was against abstracted philosophy, not philosophy.”

    Notice how you have to change Marx’s words to make this point. Fine, but if you want to know what *Marx* thought (not what he can be made to say by adding words to what he actually said), ‘distorting’ his words isn’t a good way to start.

    “And just so we don’t forget, Marx was as fierce a critic of Feuerbach’s materialism as of idealism. From the first thesis on Feuerbach:”

    Sure, but how does that affect what Feuerbach had shown:

    “Feuerbach’s great achievement is…. The proof that philosophy is nothing else but religion rendered into thought and expounded by thought, i.e., another form and manner of existence of the estrangement of the essence of man; hence equally to be condemned….”

    Or, indeed, Marx’s advice that we should:

    “‘leave philosophy aside’…, one has to leap out of it and devote oneself like an ordinary man to the study of actuality.”

    Now, I might not be able to change your mind (that will depend on whether or not you want to continue misrepresenting what Marx said), but you certainly aren’t going to change mine about Marx’s view of philosophy by distorting what Marx actually wrote.

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