Nikolai Bukharin on the criterion of practice in epistemology

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Below appears an excellent chapter from Nikolai Bukharin’s book, unpublished in his lifetime, Philosophical Arabesques (1937-1938). The whole collection is really quite good, but this portion on epistemology is particularly superlative. Lately I’ve been reading up on Marxism and the problem of truth: the way it involves the relation of subject to object, as well as theory to practice. I have to admit, Bukharin’s competence in treating difficult questions of philosophy surprised me a little. Not just because I’d read his short 1921 textbook on Historical Materialism — which, while insightful at times, is on the whole very mediocre — but because of Lenin’s low estimation of Bukharin as a philosopher. Shortly before his death, the Bolshevik leader recorded in his “Testament” that

Bukharin is not only a most valuable and major theorist of the Party; he is also rightly considered the favorite of the whole Party. His theoretical views can be classified as fully Marxist only with great reserve, however, for there is something scholastic about him (he has never made a study of dialectics and, I think, never fully understood it).

Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács, whose studies of the philosophical legacy in Marx’s thought remain unparalleled, took Bukharin to task for this theoretical deficit. “For one faction (typified by Bukharin’s book The Theory of Historical Materialism),” wrote the former, “the whole of ‘philosophy’ has fundamentally already reached a point that in reality it was to reach only in the second phase of Communist society after the full victory of the pro­letarian revolution, viz. the transcended standpoint of an unenlightened past.” Lukács wrote that “Bukharin attributes to technology a far too determinant position, which completely misses the spirit of dialectical materialism.”

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At first, Bukharin sided with the “mechanist” faction of communist interpreters of Marx. Other notable adherents included Abram Deborin and László Rudas, bêtes noires of both Korsch and Lukács, who admonished them for their Hegelianism. This sensibility was rather in line with Bukharin’s training as an economist and his enthusiasm for the natural sciences. During the 1930s, though, he made a renewed study of German classical philosophy. Following his imprisonment in 1937 at the hand of his onetime ally Stalin, Bukharin finally got around to writing a treatise on philosophy. He was adamant that it be published, whatever his fate:

The most important thing is that the philosophical work not be lost. I worked on it for a long time and put a great deal into it; it is a very mature work in comparison to my earlier writings, and, in contrast to them, dialectical from beginning to end.

Unsurprisingly, his wishes were not honored. These manuscripts only surfaced after the Soviet Union’s fall in 1991. You can download the translation by clicking on the link above or read the chapter on practice below the photographs underneath. Additional works by Bukharin are available here as well:

Practice in general and the place of practice in the theory of knowledge

Nikolai Bukharin
Philosophical Arabesques
September 1937
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Earlier, we dealt with the naïve claim of the agnostics to be reasoning on the basis of their sense perceptions alone, and thus to be able to demonstrate the unreality or incognizability of the external world.

This claim proved to be baseless and comic. From this we may conclude that any philosophical reasoning, since it operates with concepts, which are a social product, the product of thousands of years of mental work, must because of this very fact operate on the broad basis of all the achievements of science, leaving behind all the fuss and bother of foolish subjectivists.

Science, however, tells us that in historical terms, the starting point was the active, practical relationship between humanity and nature. Not contemplation, and not theory, but practice; not passive perception, but action. In this sense Goethe’s dictum “In the beginning was the deed,” when counterposed to the evangelical-Platonic-Gnostic dictum “In the beginning was the word” — that is, logos, or reason — furnishes us with a precise expression of historical reality. Marx noted this repeatedly: in his notes on the book by Adolf Wagner, in which he heaps scorn on the closeted professorial view according to which objects are passively “given” to humanity; in his Holy Family; in his Theses on Feuerbach; throughout the whole text of Capital; and together with Engels, in the brilliant pages of The German Ideology.

Contrary to the ravings of idealist philosophy to the effect that thought makes worlds, and that even matter is the creation of spirit (for example, the world-positing “I” of Fichte), it is human practice that creates a new world, actually transforming the “substance of nature” in line with human wishes. Historically, it was social humanity, the social-historical human being, and not an abstraction of the intellectual side of humanity, personified by philosophers as the subject, that above all produced, ate, and drank. It was only later, through the division of labor, that theoretical activity became separated off and isolated as an independent (or relatively independent) function, becoming restricted to particular categories of people, “mental workers,” with the various social and class modifications of this category. Theoretical cognition arose out of practice as well. The active, practical relationship to the external world, the process of material production, which, as Marx put it, conditions the “exchange of substances” between humanity and nature, is the basis for the reproduction of the entire life of social humanity. The chattering of the high priests of the so-called philosophy of life [Lebensphilosophie], including Nietzsche and a series of present-day biological-mystical hysterics, bypasses this fundamental fact, just as numerous representatives of classical idealist philosophy also bypassed it. Of course! After all, from the point of view of Kant the simple acts of sawing wood, smelting iron, or making liquid oxygen constitute a breakthrough into the “transcendental,” that fearful transgression which is “impossible”! What a mess the “practical” bull creates in this china shop full of unknowably subtle statuettes!

In fairness to Hegel, that “colossal old fellow,” as Engels affectionately called him, it should be acknowledged that although Marx and Engels had to wage a desperate, impassioned, and ultimately victorious struggle against the “drunken speculation” of Hegelian idealism, Hegel did have an understanding of practice, of labor and its tools. Moreover, the embryo of historical materialism, in the form of brilliant conceptions, was present in his works. We shall have cause to be convinced of this subsequently… Continue reading

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.

Why read Lukács? The place of “philosophical” questions in Marxism

Chris Cutrone
The Last Marx­ist

A re­sponse to Mike Macnair
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Whatever one thinks of Chris Cutrone or Platy­pus, the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s con­tro­ver­sial rhet­or­ic, meth­ods, and antics, the fol­low­ing is an ex­cel­lent es­say and re­sponse in the (still on­go­ing) ex­change between Platy­pus and the CP­GB. This was first presen­ted at the School of the Art In­sti­tute of Chica­go, Janu­ary 11, 2014. A video re­cord­ing is avail­able here, an au­dio re­cord­ing avail­able here.

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Still read­ing Lukács? The role of “crit­ic­al the­ory”

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Why read Georg Lukács today? Es­pe­cially when his most fam­ous work, His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness, is so clearly an ex­pres­sion of its spe­cif­ic his­tor­ic­al mo­ment, the abor­ted world re­volu­tion of 1917-19 in which he par­ti­cip­ated, at­tempt­ing to fol­low Vladi­mir Len­in and Rosa Lux­em­burg. Are there “philo­soph­ic­al” les­sons to be learned or prin­ciples to be gleaned from Lukács’s work, or is there, rather, the danger, as the Com­mun­ist Party of Great Bri­tain’s Mike Macnair has put it, of “the­or­et­ic­al overkill,” sty­mie­ing of polit­ic­al pos­sib­il­it­ies, clos­ing up the struggle for so­cial­ism in tiny au­thor­it­ari­an and polit­ic­ally sterile sects foun­ded on “the­or­et­ic­al agree­ment?”

Mike Macnair’s art­icle “The philo­sophy trap” (2013) ar­gues about the is­sue of the re­la­tion between the­ory and prac­tice in the his­tory of os­tens­ible “Len­in­ism,” tak­ing is­sue in par­tic­u­lar with Lukács’s books His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness (1923) and Len­in (1924) as well as with Karl Korsch’s 1923 es­say “Marx­ism and philo­sophy.” The is­sue is what kind of the­or­et­ic­al gen­er­al­iz­a­tion of con­scious­ness could be de­rived from the ex­per­i­ence of Bolshev­ism from 1903-21. I agree with Macnair that “philo­soph­ic­al” agree­ment is not the prop­er basis for polit­ic­al agree­ment, but this is not the same as say­ing that polit­ic­al agree­ment has no the­or­et­ic­al im­plic­a­tions. Rather, the is­sue is wheth­er the­or­et­ic­al “po­s­i­tions” have ne­ces­sary polit­ic­al im­plic­a­tions. I think it is a tru­ism to say that there is no sure the­or­et­ic­al basis for ef­fect­ive polit­ic­al prac­tice. But Macnair seems to be say­ing noth­ing more than this. In sub­or­din­at­ing the­ory to prac­tice, Macnair loses sight of the po­ten­tial crit­ic­al role the­ory can play in polit­ic­al prac­tice, spe­cific­ally the task of con­scious­ness of his­tory in the struggle for trans­form­ing so­ci­ety in an eman­cip­at­ory dir­ec­tion.

A cer­tain re­la­tion of the­ory to prac­tice is a mat­ter spe­cif­ic to the mod­ern era, and moreover a prob­lem spe­cif­ic to the era of cap­it­al­ism, that is, after the In­dus­tri­al Re­volu­tion, the emer­gence of the mod­ern pro­let­ari­an­ized work­ing class and its struggle for so­cial­ism, and the crisis of bour­geois so­cial re­la­tions and thus of con­scious­ness of so­ci­ety this en­tails. Continue reading