The nihilism of socialism

Robert Rives La Monte
Socialism: Positive and
(NYC: 1908)


For a while now I’ve been contemplating writing an essay on “proletarian nihilism.” By this I don’t mean the nihilisme prolétarien Vercesi wrote about in the Bordigist journal Bilan, a pejorative term he applied to German and Dutch council communists who denied the October Revolution had been anything more than bourgeois. Rather, proletarian nihilism would be the listlessness, apathy, and self-destructive instinct that gave rise to punk rock, or else that odd mixture of fatal resignation and reckless abandon that underlies so much of mass psychology.

Of course this is all a bit too simple, grounding the self-abolition and self-realization [Selbstaufhebung] of the working class in some sort of subjective mentalité. Self-overcoming, a term used by both Hegel and Nietzsche, is a key term for any adequate Marxist theory of the transition to a classless society. Marxism’s truth depends on the self-directed negativity of the proletariat, whose interest it is to do away with class altogether. This is why its particular interest is simultaneously universal, in the best interest of all society, which is central to Marx’s conception of the proletariat as the “universal class”:

Just as the condition for the liberation of the third estate, of the bourgeois order, was the abolition of all estates and all orders, so the condition for the emancipation of the working class is the abolition of every class. The working class in the course of its development will substitute for the old civil society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power properly so-called, since political power is precisely the official expression of antagonism in civil society. Meanwhile the antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is a struggle of class against class, a struggle which carried to its highest expression is a total revolution. And indeed, is it at all surprising that a society founded on the opposition of classes should culminate in brutal contradiction, the shock of body against body, as its final denouement?

Incidentally, this is also why it’s so misguided to conceive of class as just another identity alongside gender and race. The world-historic significance of the proletariat is not at all its permanent position within capitalist society, but its negation of that society. Negation of identity is not identical to the affirmation of difference. Only on its basis is the dissolution of religion, family, and the state imaginable. Robert Rives La Monte, whose work I mentioned in my last post, formulated this essentially annihilative aim of Marxism as “the nihilism of socialism.”

As La Monte explained, “…‘nihilism’ is not used in strict technical or philosophical sense, but simply as a convenient term by which to designate the aggregate of those aspects of socialism which, viewed from the standpoint of the existing regime, appear as negative and destructive.” Marx famously described this corrosive nihilism as the “rational kernel” of dialectical methodology in the 1871 postface to the second edition of Capital:

In its mystified form, the dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and glorify what exists. In its rational form it is a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen, because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary.

Engels later counterposed the revolutionary method of Hegel’s philosophy with its conservative system, writing in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of German Classical Philosophy that “all that is real in the sphere of human history becomes irrational in the process of time, is irrational by its very destination, tainted beforehand with irrationality… In accordance with all the rules of the Hegelian method of thought, the proposition of the rationality of everything which is real resolves itself into the opposite proposition.” Quoting Goethe, Engels wrote: “All that exists deserves to perish.”

La Monte’s essay, which follows, is concerned above all with three negations: “the atrophy of religion, the metamorphosis of the family, and the suicide of the state.” He locates “the nihilism of socialism” in the materialist conception of history. I would do him one better, and locate it in the historical formation of the proletariat. For as La Monte himself says: “the nihilism of socialism has no deterrent terrors for him, for as Marx said long ago, ‘he has nothing to lose but his chains, and a whole world to gain’.”

Positive ideals


In their negative proposals the socialists and anarchists are fairly agreed. It is in the metaphysical postulates of their protest and in their constructive aims that they part company. Of the two, the socialists are more widely out of touch with the established order. They are also more hopelessly negative and destructive in their ideals, as seen from the standpoint of the established order.

— Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of Business Enterprise. Pg. 338.

To label a truth a truism is too often regarded as equivalent to placing it in the category of the negligible. It is precisely the salient obviousness, which makes a truth a truism, that places it in the direst peril of oblivion in the stress of modern life. Such a truth was well stated by Enrico Ferri, the Italian Marxist criminologist, in a recent lecture before the students of the University of Naples: “Without an ideal, neither an individual nor a collective can live, without it humanity is dead or dying. For it is the fire of an ideal which renders the life of each one of us possible, useful and fertile. And only by its help can each one of us, in the longer or shorter course of his or her existence, leave behind traces for the benefit of fellow beings.”

Platitude though this may be, our greatest poets have not hesitated to use their highest powers to impress it upon us. Robert Browning put this truth into the mouth of Andrea del Sarto in one of the strongest lines in all English verse, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” Continue reading

Art into life

Marx once declared, critiquing Hegel, that the historical task confronting humanity was “to make the world philosophical.” Hegel had completed philosophy, effectively brought it to a close. Now all that was left was to make this philosophy real by transforming the world according to its dictates. As he put it:

It is a psychological law that the theoretical mind, once liberated in itself, turns into practical energy, and, leaving the shadowy empire of Amenthes as will, turns itself against the reality of the world existing without it. (From a philosophical point of view, however, it is important to specify these aspects better, since from the specific manner of this turn we can reason back towards the immanent determination and the universal historic character of a philosophy. We see here, as it were, its curriculum vitae narrowed down to its subjective point.) But the practice of philosophy is itself theoretical. It’s the critique that measures the individual existence by the essence, the particular reality by the Idea. But this immediate realization of philosophy is in its deepest essence afflicted with con­tradictions, and this its essence takes form in the appearance and imprints its seal upon it.

When philosophy turns itself as will against the world of appearance, then the system is lowered to an abstract totality, that is, it has become one aspect of the world which opposes another one. Its relationship to the world is that of reflection. Inspired by the urge to realize itself, it enters into tension against the other. The inner self-contentment and completeness has been broken. What was inner light has become consuming flame turning outwards. The result is that as the world becomes philosophical, philosophy also becomes worldly, that its realization is also its loss, that what it struggles against on the outside is its own inner deficiency, that in the very struggle it falls precisely into those defects which it fights as defects in the opposite camp, and that it can only overcome these defects by falling into them. That which opposes it and that which it fights is always the same as itself, only with factors inverted.

Reflecting on these lines nearly a century later, in the aftermath of the stillborn October Revolution, Karl Korsch famously concluded that “[p]hilosophy cannot be abolished without being realized.” In other words, it is vital not to cast philosophy unceremoniously aside simply because its time has passed. One must come to terms with it, and critically engage it, before doing away with it completely. Theodor Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, in many ways a sequel to Korsch’s essay on “Marxism and Philosophy,” thus begins with the sobering observation: “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 in itself, becomes a defeatism of reason after the attempt to change the world miscarried.”

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Alfred Sohn-Rethel, who corresponded for decades with Adorno, explained at the outset of his monumental work on Intellectual and Manual Labor, provided a clue as to what this might have meant:

[Work on the present study] began towards the end of the First World War and in its aftermath, at a time when the German proletarian revolution should have occurred and tragically failed. This period led me into personal contact with Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Siegfried Kracauer, and Theodor W. Adorno, and the writings of Georg Lukács and Herbert Marcuse. Strange though it may sound I do not hesitate to say that the new development of Marxist thought which these people represent evolved as the theoretical and ideological superstructure of the revolution that never happened. In it re-echo the thunder of the gun battle for the Marstall in Berlin at Christmas 1918, and the shooting of the Spartacus rising in the following winter.

Korsch’s insight into this theme from the early thought of Karl Marx, reaffirmed subsequently by Adorno and his best followers, can be extended to encompass art and religion as well. For Hegel, of course, art and religion each provided — in their own, particular way — privileged access to the Absolute. Art reigned supreme in the ancient world, while religion dominated medieval thought (with its “great chain of being”). By the time Hegel was writing, however, these modes of apprehending the Absolute had been surpassed by philosophy, which rationally comprehended the Absolute Idea in its spiritual movement. Intuition and belief had been supplanted by knowledge. Science, or Wissenschaft, had been achieved.

Yet this achievement did not last long. After Hegel’s death, his successors — Left and Right, Young and Old — battled for possession of the master’s system. Only Marx succeeded in carrying it forward, precisely by realizing that philosophy itself must be overcome. The same may perhaps be said for those older forms of life which had the Absolute as their object, art and religion. Feuerbach’s religion of humanity, which read theology as secret anthropology, perhaps found its most revolutionary articulation in the writings of Bogdanov, Gorky, and Lunacharsky, who promoted a project of “God-building” [богостроиетльство]. Lenin rightly scolded them for their excessive, premature exuberance, but they were on the right track. Similarly, the avant-garde project of dissolving art into life, in hopes of bringing about the death of art, can be read as an effort to make the world artistic (“to make the world philosophical”). Or, better, to make the world a work of art.

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