Materialism and the Crisis of Marxism
On the Nature and Role of Marxist Philosophy
April 5, 2023
Here, Darren Roso enters an ongoing debate in the pages of Spectre, regarding the role of philosophy and metaphysics as a ground and resource for Marxist strategy. For other entries in this debate, please see the following articles:
- Aaron Jaffe, “Marxism, Spinoza, and the ‘Radical’ Enlightenment”
- Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss, “Reason is Red”
- Neil Braganza, “Philosophy as Life-Making Struggle”
- Darren Roso, “Materialism and the Crisis of Marxism”
- William Clare, Roberts, “On ‘Being Serious About Ideas’: a Rejoinder”
This mode of outlook is essentially that of all English and French and of the first German socialists, including Weitling. Socialism is the expression of absolute truth, reason and justice and has only to be discovered to conquer all the world by virtue of its own power. And as absolute truth is independent of time, space, and of the historical development of man, it is a mere accident when and where it is discovered. With all this, absolute truth, reason, and justice are different with the founder of each different school. And as each one’s special kind of absolute truth, reason, and justice is again conditioned by his subjective understanding, his conditions of existence, the measure of his knowledge and his intellectual training, there is no other ending possible in this conflict of absolute truths than that they shall be mutually exclusive one of the other. Hence, from this nothing could come but a kind of eclectic, average socialism.
–Friedrich Engels, Anti-Dühring 1Marx Engels Collected Works, vol. 25 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1987) 20.
Global capitalism is producing a cacophony of intensified crises. The pandemic has decimated lives. Russia’s imperialist barbarism has made nuclear war a spectre of the possible as the terror of war between the United States and China is closing in. The heroic insurgencies in Iran show that revolution is thinkable, reasonable and indispensable while fascism has made breakthroughs elsewhere. And the urgent climate and biodiversity crises compound. In this discordant state of affairs, the other side of the class divide is scrambling for a word capturing the great mess of things. They have a fancy one for it: the “polycrisis” in which “the shocks are disparate, but they interact so that the whole is even more overwhelming than the sum of the parts. At times one feels as if one is losing one’s sense of reality”.2“Welcome to the world of the polycrisis,” Financial Times, 2022, accessed 15-12-2022, 2022, https://www.ft.com/content/498398e7-11b1-494b-9cd3-6d669dc3de33.
Yet faced with a vortex of calamity, Marxism, far more equipped to understand the nature and roots of confounding crises, is itself in crisis. Malignancy comes from afar: Social Democratic reformism, Stalinism, capitalist repressions, the demoralized and dashed expectations of the “fire last time,” a lack of clarity about, and the censured will to fight for “socialism from below.” The crisis of Marxism is theoretical and political. All of these constitute obstacles to developing Marx’s critique of political economy, the critique of politics, and the critique of apologetic-traditional philosophy; and the fight to build a politics of working-class self-emancipation still seems to be at ground zero.
We need to pause for a philosophical moment to discover emancipatory resolutions to the crisis of Marxism within the coils of the crises, which inevitably will define the “enigmatic patterns of historical time, which is the time of politics”.3Bensaïd 2002, p. 77.
My exploration here is comprised of three parts: the first dedicated to the absences of Marx’s philosophical thought and consequential distinctions to be made. The second identifies one key obstruction to resolving the crisis of Marxism – an a priori and foundationalist philosophy that not only misunderstands the relation of philosophical commitment to political decision, but essentially remains subordinate to sectarian expectations of a goal of history. In doing so such a position denigrates democratic deliberation, and desires to hold ‘all of Truth’ in a manner congruent with either the kinds of philosophy practiced by the antagonists of Marxism, like Dühring, or the modes influenced by Stalin’s codification of Marxist philosophy which long outlived Stalin. Lastly, I argue for a Marxism based on the self-emancipation of those compelled so sell their lives of labour. Though these arguments are voiced on the terrain of philosophy, a commitment to self-emancipation implies that the philosopher knows their limits since the terrain of philosophy has its very conditions of possibility in a plurality of resistance and class struggles.
Absences and Distinctions
Marxists in philosophy are compelled to think in the context of a great philosophical absence: Marx left no systematic Marxist philosophy as such.4Among others, see Georges Labica, Marxism and the Status of Philosophy, Marxist theory and contemporary capitalism, (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1980). Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach announced a new practice of philosophy, one attuned to the nature of revolutionary practices and the need to interpret their dynamics in order to change the world. Yet, Marx never gave a definitive presentation of the content of his new practice of philosophy. The most we have are the effects of Marx’s new practice, particularly as it is offered in Capital. At best, the presentation remained an unfulfilled program. From Marx’s first enunciation in the first of his Theses on Feuerbach onwards to the criticisms of the Young Hegelians in the German Ideology manuscripts, there has undeniably been a philosophical void.
Equally undeniably, generations of Marxists have made every effort to fill the philosophical void.5Unless, of course, they decided to take the false positivist route of reading the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach as the final act of philosophical thought tout court. The void is amplified by the fact that Marx never made good on his promised worksheets on materialist dialectics. He never explained what was rational and demystified in Hegel’s dialectic, nor the extent to which even this was opposed to his own critical and revolutionary dialectic. Why did Marx leave posterity wanting? One possible answer is that a practice of materialist dialectic may not have been presentable in a formal kind of logic, and while a schoolbook on the general laws of dialectics may have been a delight for dogmatic thought, such an approach is precisely what Marx’s materialism set out to criticize.
Despite the missing philosophical discourse presented in something like a classical form, Marx clearly presented his actual scientific breakthroughs. Throughout the debate in Spectre on the Enlightenment and the role of reason in radical politics, reference to historical materialism has been a constant shorthand: the authors asking for the form of philosophy most adequate to historical materialism. The shorthand has far-reaching implications as Marxists pay too little attention to the fact that neither historical materialism, understood as a scientific doctrine, nor a general philosophy of history per se exist.
In the Marx Engels Collected Works, the concept historical materialism appears most often from the pen of the editors as a retrospective tool to explain the contents of Marx’s work, claiming that “historical materialism was first formulated as an integral theory in the German Ideology manuscripts … [uncovering – D.R.] the whole conceptual system of historical materialism.”6Editors, “Preface,” in Marx and Engels Collected Works 1845-47, ed. Maurice Cornforth Jack Cohen, Maurice Dobb, E. J. Hobsbawm, James Klugmann, Margaret Mynatt, James S. Allen, Philip S. Foner, Dirk J. Struik, William W. Weinstone, N. P. Karmanova, V. N. Pavlov, M. K. Shcheglova, T. Y. Solovyova, Y. V. Yeremin, P. N. Fedoseyev, L. I. Golman, A. I. Malysh, A. G. Yegorov, V. Y. Zevin (Electric Book: Lawrence & Wishart, 2010). After this, all the “economic” and “political” writings and interventions – from Capital to the Class Struggles in France, Eighteenth Brumaire and Civil War in France and the challenge to Bakunin’s anarchism – are explained as model examples of how to apply historical materialism.
Marx and Engels may have had the intention of unifying a science of history in their fragmented German Ideology manuscripts, but it certainly never materialized. Their intention was likely abandoned because Marx turned to the critique of political economy and revolutionary politics. Marx and Engels never referred to historical materialism as their breakthrough. The concept isn’t in the German Ideology manuscripts, it doesn’t appear in Marx’s 1857-8 self-clarifications of method, nor in the 1859 Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, nor in Capital and its various manuscripts or even Marx’s and Engels’s self-reflections on method and scientificity, nor in Marx’s political writings, nor the Critique of the Gotha Program, nor his Notes on Wagner. Engels was clearly aware of the difficulty of communicating Marx’s (and his own) systematic-scientific breakthroughs and a materialist conception of history, but these cannot be captured by historical materialism. The very notion of historical materialism obscures Marx’s and Engels’s revolutionary breakthroughs of the critique of political economy and the critique of politics.
Moreover, since Engels tentatively—but never definitively—made the case that Marxism was a worldview [Weltanschauung], hardly anyone has adequately clarified the context, meaning and consequence this claim has had for Marxists operating in philosophy, let alone the relation this has to “truth” claims. On the one hand, the Weltanschauung has often been denied in the name of science or philosophy or equated with them. Yet, there is no clear Marxist Weltanschauung to hold onto. On the other hand, some Marxists remain dogmatically fixed on Engels’s enunciation expecting philosophical closure without taking into consideration the new practices of philosophy that came after him.
The worst response perhaps, is that Marxist philosophy has been reduced to a set of competing belief-systems propagated by state-apparatuses and parties that function with totalitarian and self-reproducing ideological systems, each telling themselves their own stories. Each of these options, in its own way, is a clear abdication of a distinctly philosophical practice—one committed to criticizing ideological illusions by conceptual means. However, if Marxist philosophy does not exist as such, this is, paradoxically, why Marxist philosophical practice remains necessary.
Still, in the absence of a complete philosophy, Marx’s scientific developments nonetheless stand. To move beyond this seeming impasse between the missing elements of Marxist theory and the abundant presence of Marxist content, an elementary distinction needs to be made between the materialist conception of history [materialistische Geschichtsauffassung] and historical materialism [Historischer Materialismus]. This distinction allows us to see that a materialist conception is not itself a systematic scientific doctrine of universal history but a guiding thread of concrete research and analysis.
Without such a distinction, “historical materialism” often takes the form of an uninterrogated premise. To have certainty of belief in historical materialism—anti-dogmatic protestations aside—is to problematically assume an already established doctrine of science, a philosophy of history or a confused synthesis of both. On this basis, but also in a nagging recognition of the need to shore up such confidence, it then seems desirable to provide a secure philosophical foundation.
In the absence of such a foundation, Marxists who operate in philosophy need to come to terms with the distinct nature of their philosophical objects. Care is needed here for a couple of reasons. Despite any youthful words to the contrary, Marx and Engels did not recognize a single science, a “science of history.” At the very least, Capital is a systematic-scientific critique of political economy, not a science of history; at best, history features as the modern history of bourgeois societies, not as history in general. The idea that philosophical objects are not reducible to the sciences and politics does not mean philosophy is unconcerned with the objects of science and politics. Quite the reverse, in fact: the spectrum of Marxists in philosophy from Labriola of the Second International to Adler, Lukács, and Korsch, onwards through Adorno and Althusser, and more recently Bensaïd, shows that philosophical efforts interpret Marx’s scientificity and class struggles (from the Russian and German Revolutions through to May ’68). This claim, however, presupposes the existence of a specific philosophical discourse that is not reducible to science or politics.
If the objects of politics, science, and philosophy are distinct, then conflating them risks producing fantasies about whether and how Marxism has the ability to explain, from theoretical physics to the class struggle, everything under the sun. Worse, such conflation risks the classically idealist illusion that the totality of reality can be derived from the pains of thought alone. The results risk a dogmatism that is as practically unhelpful as it is overconfident in its power and range. One common expression of such dogmas is the use of the term “theory,” implying a false confusion between science, philosophy, and politics, and with such an expansive notion of “theory,” an evasion of the consequences of their distinctions.
Althusser was entirely correct to suggest that every great philosophy “thinks itself in a specifically philosophical object and in its theoretical effects” and that “these objects have no theoretical existence outside the domain of philosophy whatsoever.”7Louis Althusser, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Marx : politics and history (London: Verso, 1982), 113. Philosophy involves the production of philosophical objects and the immanent necessity of their conceptual effects; its forms of thought move in circular configurations that can never come to finality. Thinking is an ongoing activity of object-production. By contrast, science proceeds by way of the proposition, even if it deploys analytic and synthetic, logical or dialectical devices. Scientific theorizing comes to conclusions, to relatively final propositions. It is in this sense that Marx discovered new knowledge about a real object: the capitalist mode of production. Marking a distinction between the object, the object of thought, and, crucially, the manner of relating the two is crucial if we are to respect the distinction between philosophy and science.
If Marxists take seriously the claim that philosophy has its own definite objects, then this changes the way Marxists can relate to the systems philosophers build, particularly systems that put a claim on the “whole.” How sure are Marxists that we can helpfully think the concept of the “whole” and its “system”? How sure are we that the goal ought to be the construction of a metaphysical-ontological system of being in general? To what extent is it a problem that such a system requires decomposing the materialities of social practices in thought in order to recompose them into the stability of a completed logical appreciation of a system of domination? Marxist philosophers who want a priori foundations want the last word, to dictate a finality and closedness of their structured objects and ultimately to use philosophical thinking to put an end to thought.
Of course, Marxist philosophers have the task and duty to elaborate and construct their arguments as systematically, clearly and absolutely as possible. Yet doing so provides for only a subjective completeness because a single subject, or perhaps, at most, the intersubjective community of similar thinkers does the thinking. For this reason, individual Marxist thinkers not only inevitably fail to reach the kind of completeness a scientific theory can reach, they also labour under an illusion of what is possible when they attempt to produce an objectively valid philosophical system.
The illusion of the closed system is apologetic-traditional philosophy’s basic move when they play their game. Adorno’s identification (following the Enlightenment thinker d’Alembert) of the distinction between the systematic spirit and the intellect, on its own, hoping to form a system is key here.8Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (New York: Seabury Press, 1973). The difference between the systematic spirit and the spirit to form a system draws a line of demarcation that helps to avoid the confusion of the two, which has emerged historically as the difference and conflict between individual specialization and system-building. Marx and Engels severely disagreed with the spirit to form closed and final systems whenever they encountered them. It was a popular practice among the university professors in Germany at the time. On the other hand, a systematic spirit is required for any theoretical philosophical, scientific explanation, which is why one can refer to Marx and Engels and many subsequent Marxist philosophers as working in a systematic manner. Nevertheless, once the limits of any individual’s thinking capacities are marked, however systematic they may be, there is no reason a Marxist in philosophy needs to take on a dominant form of bourgeois philosophizing.
This crucial recognition of one’s limited capacities allows a conflict between what may be thought of as apologetic-traditional philosophy on one side and critical-revolutionary philosophy on the other to come into view. Throughout his work Marx is deeply keyed into the antagonism between traditional-apologetic philosophy which fails to mark its limits and what we can think of as his critical-revolutionary philosophy which does. Writing in the second German edition of Capital Marx held that a materialist dialectic “lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary.” The dialectic’s materialism—that is, what makes it both critical and revolutionary—consists in its insistence on its own program of development and at least implicitly a refusal to let grand pretensions to system and completeness close its continuous work. It is revolutionary because it is critical both in the sense that it criticizes bourgeois thought’s over-extensions and in the sense that it refuses to make the same error.
Between apologetic and revolutionary orientations there is a conflict of “philosophical” positions that, despite Marx’s intensions, are prominent in the history of Marxist philosophy. Roughly put, traditional-apologetic philosophy refers to philosophers who accept, affirm and even fight for the eternal domination of human over human, in which the state machine has a decisive role. Critical-revolutionary philosophy criticizes forms of domination. It is committed to struggles for liberation, accepting the thesis that philosophy is indeed about political power.9Frieder Otto Wolf, Radikale Philosophie (Münster: Verlag Westfälisches Dampfboot, 2009), 192. More clarity about where a Marxist stands in relation to this conflict is a must, shaping the relation of Marxism and philosophy in significant ways since they each pose philosophical argumentation in relation to Marx’s scientific breakthroughs, class struggles, subjectivity, gender, racial and national struggles, state-apparatuses, ideology, revolutionary-democratic politics, history and labour.
Stalinist Obstructions of Marxism
The decisive thought governing the Spectre debate over Marxism and philosophy is present in Anselm of Canterbury. His ontological proof of the existence of God—“that than which nothing greater can be thought”— is introduced by Fluss and Frim and helpfully qualified by Braganza. An orthodox articulation of the Catholic Church becomes a cunning of reason for theologians of “matter in motion,” and thereby a supposed foundation for human liberation.
Two problems, however, beset any effort to graft ideological monism inspired by Anselm onto communism: one of function and the other of content. Though monism cannot be reduced to ideology, monism can take on a specific ideological function which, while attacking all forms of pluralism, misunderstands and misrepresents the complex nature of historical situations in which political “truths” emerge. There is a risk, in other words, that monism is used to flatten out the nature of things.
In terms of content, Anselm’s ontological proof of the existence of God can be read as an analytic statement with a complex relation to the social-political imaginary of the time, the peak articulation of a form of historical life constituted by the material practices of the Catholic Church during the Investiture Dispute.10Norman Malcolm, “Anselm’s Ontological Arguments,” The Philosophical Review 69, no. 1 (1960), https://doi.org/10.2307/2182266. In a nutshell, Anselm claimed that God is that which nothing greater can be conceived. Conceive of an atom, and God is greater; conceive of a cup and God is greater; conceive of the earth and God is greater; think of the entirety of the universe and its many laws, and again, God is greater. God is in excess of anything that can be thought.
Anselm’s argument is uniquely thinkable in its ideological time and place. It is one example of the way philosophical theses and ideologies are implicated in historically specific sets of social relations. This is important because once somebody sets down a specific language game and its propositions as a condition for “rational” politics, the presence of ideology and history in the backdrop of the language game destabilizes its purity, indicating that the claim to a logically perfect ground which can be used to dispense with imperfect political deliberations is itself far more of a symptom than a cure.
Treated as an analytic statement, which means that its meaning is contained in itself without reference to the concrete facts of the matter, Anselm had said something logically necessary on the basis of an a priori deduction. But to treat an analytic statement as necessarily and politically true is to treat the necessity involved in politics as if it were a language game. This misunderstands that a different necessity is at play in politics than in the way we analytically might reason things out.11This point is also made in Aaron Jaffe, “Lukács’ antinomic ‘standpoint of the proletariat’: From philosophical to socio-historical determination,” Thesis Eleven 157, no.1 (2020): 60-79. A language of words and sentences only has meaning in the game shaped by historically specific practices. One needs to demonstrate not only that Anselm has put forward a fine analytic statement, but show why the concept has sense in a given form of life with its historically specific material practices, concepts, and ideologies. Without doing so, analytic statements suffer from the duress of reification. What sense does the concept of an infinite being have in a material complex of social relations? One can begin to see that the language game grounding a philosophical commitment to monism can be inspected from the outside in, from the terrain of social-material practices, without denying the proof’s analytic necessity. In fact, doing so allows us to make sense of how such statements appear as if they contain and articulate such a necessity.
And yet, if Anselm’s ontological proof for the existence of God is a necessary analytic statement, but also the result of a socio-materially evolving and ideologically pervaded language game, then it turns out to be absurd to set this philosophical model up as an a priori foundation for a concretely situated critique of political economy and revolutionary politics. The opposite, concretely situational route is the road to liberation. Claiming an a priori foundation in a metaphysical truth that is not beholden to socio-material analysis of language or the social relations through which its sense is articulable and intelligible bears striking similarities to Stalin’s approach to philosophy—an approach Engels had already identified as a regressive move for socialist politics.
Stalin codified a Marxist philosophy that became a search for ontological-metaphysical foundations and far less a pursuit and reflection on liberatory social practices and class struggles. To this day, Stalin’s codification of Marxist philosophy as a metaphysical-ontology of matter remains de facto the dominant form of Marxist philosophy today which contracts materialism by reducing complication to “matter and motion.”
We need to counter this Stalinist counter-revolution philosophically. Much like apologetic-traditional philosophy’s attempt at closed systems, Stalin had insisted that philosophy be founded on the fundamental questions. The idea that there is only a small set of feasible answers to an already established set of unquestioned questions has trapped Marxist philosophers in the field of metaphysics-ontology. The trap has produced a veritable theology of Matter in motion based on ideological monism. Stalinist philosophy excels at constructing a metaphysical-ontological system of Being in general because it decomposes, just like apologetic-traditional philosophy, the materialities of social practices. It did so in order to recompose them into a system of domination itself legitimized by the manifest order of Being. That is why Stalinist philosophy required a priori foundations as well as the last word to dictate how the hierarchies of life and thought are structured a hegemonic system. In knowing the origin (the principle), it knows the end.
Of course, a metaphysical-ontological order of Being may tend to legitimize domination, though it is not on that basis necessarily Stalinist. There are other pitfalls into which such a position can fall. Firstly, not all monisms are true—the pre-Socratics certainly were not correct when they reduced things to a single physical principle. Further, not all monisms are politically “revolutionary” or “reactionary”of their own accord. If this is the case, however, then positing them as a ground for revolutionary politics is untrue and one-sided.
In the second place, one needs to pay attention to the way in which Stalinism drew upon the pre-existing ideological-philosophical material. In fact, though it might have had a progressive element, the monism derived from Spinoza was subject to a counter-revolutionary reversal in which, as André Tosel (a close reader of Spinoza) wrote, resulted in the fact that “Spinoza operates as an element of the Stalinian ideological state apparatus”.12André Tosel, Du matérialisme de Spinoza (Paris: Editions Kimé 1994), 200. Recognizing that this is so is not an attack on Spinoza’s thought, nor monism in general. It is one moment of honestly describing the relationship that ideology has to philosophy. It is indeed the case that philosophy responds to, but also incorporates elements of, the ideological struggle that takes place in the history of class struggles. Philosophical positions can varyingly play the game or rather, ensnare their readers into a nexus of politics, ideology and philosophy so much more opaque for being disavowed via the purportedly pure logic of a priori reasoning.
Owing to its genesis and use, this form of Marxist philosophy is diametrically opposed to a practical materialism of liberation. A monistic theology of Matter is one-dimensional in its approach to the tasks of philosophy, which—in the last instance—traps philosophy in its own domain and, in so doing separates it from its roots in class struggles, in turn seeking to dominate them from its distanced heights. Given its lasting effects, it is time for political anti-Stalinists, to unearth the critical and revolutionary, subterranean traditions of materialism non-reducible to Stalin’s narrow determination of philosophy.
Fortunately, the critique of political economy and revolutionary politics do not need the Stalinist approach, least of all to monism. This is because there is no need for a metaphysical or ontologically derived ground to ensure the discovery and consolidation of their scientific and political truths. For instance, we do not need such a ground to know that the capitalist mode of production is a universalizing system that creates the uneven and combined conditions for internationalist liberation. We do not need such an a priori foundation when we have the critique of political economy. Likewise, revolutionary politics is concerned with contingently given multiplicities of struggle in concrete situations, in which tactical and strategic arguments over a determinate set of real possibilities take shape. Here too no supposed a priori foundation via metaphysical grounds helps.
Though I do not want to appeal to an authority for the sake of it, Engels most certainly anticipated the arguments I am making here. He had already spotted the impasse in a socialist movement of trying to provide an a priori foundation for politics. His arguments? That it was an illusion to try to apply the mathematical method to a history made of class struggles. History and political struggles do not concord with a truth based on a model of mathematical certainty. It is a fundamental error to try to deal with history with any notion of immutable truths. Indeed, according to Engels, this was only another way of
Giving a new twist to the old favorite ideological method, also known as the a priori method, which consists in ascertaining the properties of an object by logical deduction from the concept of the object, instead of from the object itself. First the concept of the object is fabricated from the object; then the spit is turned round, and the object is measured by its reflexion, the concept. The object is then to conform to the concept, not the concept to the object.13Friedrich Engels, “Anti-Dühring,” Marx Engels Collected Works, vol. 25 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1987) 89.
This is why Engels thought the very notion of eternal truths in the dominion of history was an illusion. In fact, according to Engels, and I think he is correct, the very idea that humankind could reach an unconditional claim to truth would mean that humanity would have reached a point where the infinity of the intellectual world had been finished with, “and thus the famous miracle of the counted uncountable would have been performed”.14Friedrich Engels, “Anti-Dühring,” Marx Engels Collected Works, vol. 25 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1987) 81. For Engels, it is a fool’s errand to try to hunt for absolutely immutable truth in the materialities of history.
Among others, the error involved here is to expect that an act of a priori deduction somehow can be fixed to a center or end of history when history has no center and only an end from a given over-confident present. This makes the Stalinist-style move, made under the guise of reason, doubly ideological and irrational: ideological because of the illusion in its own timelessness and irrational because materialist history has no center. Worse, such a position cannot improve: it cannot have much room for statements like “I thought I knew, but it turned out that I was wrong.” To have mathematical certainty is to be right all the way down history’s line of evolution. Worst of all, the attempt to apply mathematical certainties to the domain of history itself rests on the subjective psychological time of the thinker who claims to achieve an a priori analytic deduction.
Any suggestion that putting the question to monism produces historicism and relativism misses what is at stake because it accepts, without proof or demonstration, a concealed decision in favor of a timeless Truth. Debates then become efforts to cast out anybody who deviates from this arbitrary decision. The only way to access such a Truth, in the singular, is to produce or align oneself with a philosophy the very form of which is prone to domination.
From the perspective I have outlined, there is a sharp distinction between an ideological commitment to a priori monism on one hand, and the scientific reconstruction of the capitalist mode of production and concretely-situated revolutionary politics on the other. There is a break between these two thoughts, not a continuity. There is no, nor could there be any, direct deductive line from the logically necessary analytic proposition developed a priori to a historically constituted, contingent and given form of life with its unforeseeable encounters, political conjunctures and the indeterminate outcomes of its plural possibilities. In being a priori the former severs itself from the possibilities of any bridge, that is, of bringing itself to bear on the latter. At most the a priori position can posit ideals to strive for, but they preclude themselves from engaging in materialist social analysis.
Historically, thinkers of ideal essence have opposed thinkers of materialist inquiry into history.15In this section I draw on Louis Althusser, “Montesquieu: Politics and History,” in Politics and History: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Marx (London: Verso, 2007). Hobbes and Spinoza were able to see certain limits of bourgeois society and its state, but they thought only ideal essences in their efforts to construct materialisms of modern sciences, bourgeois societies and their state apparatuses. Such ideal essences could construct some of the future structural mechanics of bourgeois societies and state-forms, but the fact remains that their objects of thought were not the concrete societies before them. Instead, they thought the ideal essences of emergent bourgeois societies which they reconstructed as a new ought over and against pre-modern life of the old feudal orders. In other words, Hobbes and Spinoza built their theories on the basis of a new way of scientifically-philosophically constructing the world around them, against the pre-bourgeois world of oppressions.
In failing to mark the appropriate limits of thinking, their work offered ideals of the bourgeois world itself, as if they held a mirror up to the bourgeois societies being consolidated around them. They marked the essential contours, limits, and even the contradictions of bourgeois societies—but again, from an external perspective.
Against the bourgeois line run by Hobbes and Spinoza was Montesquieu’s defense of the feudal regime. Though he supported a backward-looking orientation he paradoxically produced a breakthrough for historical thinking because his objects of thought were concrete societies in their factual specificity. Montesquieu’s great accomplishment was a revolution in method: he inquired into such concrete societies grasped as totalities, using a new concept of law owing to Newton but applied to the political body. Oughts here are socially imbricated and immanent to their social formations. The split between these two distinct and unreconciled objects—ideal essence and concrete historical specificity—rules out a retreat, on our modern Marxist behalf, to one side of the conflict; instead, a sublation is possible and necessary.
A solution becomes possible not when we each use our a priori reasoning to alight upon monism, but only when the singular individual is grasped as a self-reflective, socially situated and practical subject: one who is directly confronted with the dilemmas that arise from the bourgeois revolution and modern moralism in the context of a novel “bourgeois-civil society” [bürgerliche Gesellschaft]. These dilemmas could only be solved by somehow overcoming the standpoint of idealized practice, not by reducing the subject anew into the strict necessities that govern an ideological approach to metaphysics. Progress can be made by beginning to clearly articulate the concrete and historically specific structures of modern bourgeois societies and the state machines in which the capitalist mode of production dominates.
There are three ways to try to make this progress. First, materialists can read hitherto existing philosophy as forms of thought discerning the structures of reproduction constituting modern bourgeois societies. Materialists could do so in a conceptual manner that could begin to reconcile the contradiction between the thinkers of an ideal essence like Hobbes and Spinoza, and the materialist-historical inquirers like Montesquieu. This is exactly the sense in which Hegel elaborates a philosophical-scientific “conceptually grasped history” [begriffne Geschichte].16G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. Terry Pinkard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 467.
Second, the history of philosophy can be read in relation (but not reduced to) to the way Marx grasped the structures of the capitalist mode of production. While concrete revolutionary politics or even concrete historical situations cannot be deduced directly from the logic of Capital, a work like this, which inaugurates a revolution in political economy, has implications for the way Marxist philosophy can be practiced. Or rather, we could draw out the implications for philosophical deliberation not only of Capital, but also of the political events with the failures and victories of the workers movement. This would mean effectively developing a materialist dialectic in conjunction with the critique of political economy and the materiality of class struggles.
Third, such a reading of Marx’s scientific production makes it possible to assess the political and scientific insights prior philosophy made about modern bourgeois societies, albeit in philosophical form. It would link the context of the uneven and revolutionary emergence of modern political bodies in Holland, England, the Americas and France, to philosophy’s history in terms quite different to a search for metaphysical-ontological foundations. These connections would be wide-ranging, and at times overlapping, but provide the crucial mediating links that ground philosophy not in an ideal metaphysics, but the historically specific materialities of history.
The claims I set forth cannot be reduced to a bias against philosophy itself, or “movementism.” The nature of philosophical abstraction, the pure ideal space of philosophy, its time of thought, as well as its conceptual invention and determination all remain present, even if in the form of problems to be engaged in, when considering the relations between Marxism and philosophy. Likewise, philosophical abstraction has an ambiguous relationship to everyday life, common sense, and the lived experiences of politics, art, love, toil, and exploitation. And abstraction is non-negotiable. It is a key element of philosophical practice, materialist or otherwise. It contains an irreducible share of constructivism and invention because, as a practice, it always operates given historical and political contingencies, always in some relation to class struggles and liberatory practices. At its upper limits, it defends the historically unfolding practices of human liberation while making the effort to translate the extreme limits of change – when it comes to revolutionary struggle and defeat – into a conceptual form of presentation.
To be a Marxist in philosophy means to intervene by way of this abstract, rational, conceptual practice into these situated practices of liberation. The question then is the meeting point or points of these two practices. Concerning the relations of philosophy and liberation, metaphor weakens. The very idea of a point is difficult because it presupposes a fleeting moment; however philosophical argument is also an effect of a longue durée of reflection and might be far-sighted beyond the meeting point.
Perhaps a Marxist in philosophy sets the sails of concepts (which Braganza aptly captures in his article), catching wind on an oceanic crossing towards human liberation. Perhaps the metaphor is that of a train, where the materialist mounts and descends without knowing where things will terminate, but nevertheless fully commits to the ride. Or perhaps, the revolutionary philosopher handles profane images of thought that make sense of and resonate with a historical constellation made of crises and struggles. At stake in any metaphor is the fact that the relationship between revolutionary philosophy and liberation, as two distinct practices, can never be complete, never be wholly encompassed in thought. For this reason, philosophical practice must, if it is to be honest to its conditions and operations, always and in principle be open ended. This mode of philosophical practice offers often new, radical and experimental content in conflict with philosophies and ideologies of domination and inevitably joined to the problem of power.
Indeed, the history of Marxism and philosophy can be read as a series of creative acts of conceptual production, the results of which provide some leverage or helpful vantage point onto questions of liberation. When we understand the concepts through proper names the proper names produce either new thoughts or re-thoughts. Plekhanov gives us monism from one definite conjuncture; Lukács gives us reification from another; Korsch, new materialism; Adorno, negative dialectic; Althusser, overdetermination and encounter; Colletti, social relations of production; Lefebvre, the everyday; Heller, need; Bensaïd, contretemps.
Each creative act of philosophical production takes place in a field already constituted by a definite philosophical moment and a conflictual relation with it, a certain state of knowledge and critical reflective appreciation of Marx’s scientific breakthroughs, and the conjunctures, political truths and liberatory possibilities of their times. These elements combine in a singular thinker who articulates—without guarantees or predestination—something hitherto unread, unseen or unheard of in the history of Marxism leaving, when successful, its durable effects. If their accomplishments are “true,” then when we read them, we think their fragile truths.
Since properly Marxist philosophy is concerned with political power and the unification of exploited and oppressed subjects (who can liberate themselves), it is the opposite of modern bourgeois philosophies that affirm the domination of capital over labor. This does not entail an instrumental reduction of philosophy to pragmatic politics but draws the consequences from the inner political nature of philosophy as such.
Despite claims to pure reason, Marxist philosophy draws out the relations of domination immanent to the apologetic-traditional form of philosophy.17Wolf, Radikale Philosophie, 94. To draw out the internal political character of philosophical activity requires a style of philosophy attentive to the real contradictions of a historical conjuncture it abstracts from in order to think its limits.18About this, see Étienne Balibar, “Conjectures and Conjunctures,” interview by Peter Osborne, no. 097, October, 1999, https://www.radicalphilosophy.com/interview/etienne-balibar-conjectures-and-conjunctures The real contradictions can be pushed to their extremes in a properly Marxist philosophy in a way that cannot be done in other forms of discourse that require a reduction of complexity to simplicity (which is often necessary given the more immediate tasks of politics). A properly Marxist philosophy takes the inverse path, moving from the simple to the complex, doing so in conceptual terms able to articulate the contradictions of the conjuncture.
Absolutely opposed to relativist ideologies, such philosophy has a concept of “truths.” If philosophical practice is directed at the conjuncture, then its truths are not restricted to the specular couple of a “foundation” and a “proof” floating in the abstract. Non-relativistic, this can be called a “truth politics”19See Wolf, Radikale Philosophie. distinct from liberal forms of consensus, totalitarianism, scientific positivism and hermeneutics-historicism-postmodernism, all of which abolish the “truths” that philosophy attempts to produce.
This notion of truth politics is composed of two elements. The first is a concern with radical democratic perspectives and the revolutionary transformations necessary to achieve them. The second is a reflexivity about the social situatedness of truths that allows a Marxist philosopher to recognize the contradictions of a conjuncture which condition its pursuit of thinking and transformations. Folded back onto the critique of domination, the recognition of the constituent political moment of every philosophy (at least since Plato) and the efforts to give lucid voice to the real contradictions of a conjuncture, the production of Truth and the Good are set in coordinates quite different compared to the analytic a priori metaphysical-ontological proof: Truth and the Good are not imposed on the oppressed by a minority but emerge from the radical-democratic and liberatory mass struggles from below, though articulated in philosophical form.
Homo resistit sive resisto, ergo sum
Finally, to put words into Spinoza’s mouth, one resists; like thinking, resistance is a fact that happens. The Spectre debate comes down to philosophy’s relation to ideology and social revolution, the authors approaching the problem through a rationalist or an aporetic reading of revolutionary thought. Since communism is far from guaranteed on this side of practice, and all acts of resistance are immanent to insufferable situations, one becomes a revolutionary not through abstract philosophizing but by resisting the irresistible. Resistance never proceeds from the assurance of an a priori. Resistance does not follow from a commandment. As Bensaïd once wrote, in praise of the dictum I resist, therefore I am, “one does not resist in the name of some authority whatever it may be,” and this authority cannot be the abstract authority of reason in its purity.20Daniel Bensaïd, Résistances – Essai de taupologie générale (Paris: Fayard, 2001), 37.
Yet, if one single thought is necessary for communism, then it can be stated thusly: you, singular individual, have the power to liberate yourself in an emergent process of collective liberation alongside all of oppressed and exploited humanity; your struggle for absolute liberation will leave its truths and traces of universality. For most, the thought comes after they enter into resistance. Seldom, for others, does the thought come before. Either way, the thought attains its meaning, its “truth” in a singular conjuncture of resistance and class struggle, in the finite revolutionary tempest that makes its way to the infinite of liberation.