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.

Contra Comte

In Aspects of Sociology, a primer in social theory released by the Institute for Social Research (often referred to as the Frankfurt School), Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer explain the bastard etymology of the term “sociology” and its origin in the positive philosophy of Auguste Comte:

The word “sociology” — science of society — is a malformation, half Latin, half Greek. The arbitrariness and artificiality of the term point to the recent character of the discipline. It cannot be found as a separate discipline within the traditional edifice of science. The term itself was originated by Auguste Comte, who is generally regarded as the founder of sociology. His main sociological work, Cours de philosophie positive, appeared in 1830-1842.The word “positive” puts precisely that stress which sociology, as a science in the specific sense, has borne ever since. It is a child of positivism, which has made it its aim to free knowledge from religious belief and metaphysical speculation. By keeping rigorously to the facts, it was hoped that on the model of the natural sciences, mathematical on the one hand, empirical on the other, objectivity could be attained. According to Comte, the doctrine of society had lagged far behind this ideal. He sought to raise it to a scientific level. Sociology was to fulfill and to realize what philosophy had striven for from its earliest origins. (Aspects of Sociology, pg. 1)

Somewhere I remember hearing the quip that the term “sociology” was such an ugly combination that only a Frenchman could have concocted it. Not sure who was supposed to have said it, or if it factually took place, but there seems to be a ring of truth to the assertion. Anyway, Adorno points out in his lecture course Introduction to Sociology that “Marx had a violent aversion to the word ‘sociology,’ an aversion that may have been connected to his very justified distaste for Auguste Comte, on whom he pronounced the most annihilating judgment” (Introduction to Sociology, pg. 143). Continue reading

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).