Philosophy as Life-Making Struggle

Spinoza, Marxism, and Moby-Dick

December 17, 2022

This piece from Neil Braganza is part of a long-running debate on the relationship between Marxism and the Enlightenment. In issue 5 of Spectre, Aaron Jaffe critiqued a series of contributions on the question from Harrison Fluss and Landon Frim, as well as from Doug Enaa Greene and Harrison Fluss. Fluss and Frim responded to Jaffe in Spectre. The latest entry from Braganza is a response to that piece.

Capitalism, being a destructive system of exploitation and oppression, must operate through a nonstop barrage of confusion, distortion and disorientation that turns humanity against its own desires and interests. Any effort to think clearly and critically with others in our historical moment is a precious act of defiance that should be cherished. In this context, how should we regard the work of specialized philosophy, work that is dedicated to systematic conceptual analysis and comprehension?

The key insight of historical materialism on this question is that the confusions that weigh us down are not simply ideas that need to be identified, analyzed and criticized; they are also practical social relations that need to be changed; they are courses of action, ways of interacting and organizing as a species to secure and improve the conditions for our physical and emotional life. To practice philosophy after historical materialism, in other words, it is not enough simply to examine ideas and what it means to think them—a practice that in the Marxian tradition is associated with “idealism”. On the contrary, philosophy is only as clear and self-consistent as the strength of its collaboration with other forms of inquiry, expression, and practical organizing that aim to comprehend and transform capitalist social relations.

Still, the question remains: if philosophy is true only to the extent that it freely and self-consciously subordinates itself to the living plurality and diversity of liberatory struggle, how should we regard the work of its more specialized and technical inquiries, such as those into logic, epistemology, and metaphysics? This question is at the heart of two recent Spectre Journal articles that consider how Marxists should relate to the philosophical anticipations of their own tradition in the thought of early modern philosophers such as Baruch Spinoza. The exchange was initiated by Aaron Jaffe’s critique of calls for Marxists to turn to Spinoza and the ideas of the “radical enlightenment”.1Aaron Jaffe, “Marxism, Spinoza, and the ‘Radical’ Enlightenment: An argument for a dialectical and materialist approach to ideas, history, and struggles for emancipation,” Spectre Journal, June 1, 2022, https://spectrejournal.com/marxism-spinoza-and-the-radical-enlightenment.

Jaffe argued that such calls assume without warrant that the materially conditioned social relations of Spinoza’s time and ours are similar enough to allow his ideas to be as historically relevant and effective—“gripping”, as Jaffe nicely puts it—in class struggle today as they were in the 17th century when Spinoza formulated them. Calls for a Marxist turn to Spinoza, in Jaffe’s view, are fundamentally incomplete because they fall short of historically materialist requirements that ideas respond to the needs of the time and be assessed in terms of how they contribute to the motivation and organization of radical struggle today.

Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss’s response2Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss, “Reason is Red: Why Marxism Needs Philosophy,” Spectre Journal, August 29, 2022, https://spectrejournal.com/reason-is-red/. to Jaffe begins by mistaking Jaffe’s critique as a commitment to “strugglism”, a pursuit of action for its own sake, without ethical, conceptual, and strategic justification. This resulted in an essay that didn’t directly engage Jaffe’s argument. What Frim and Fluss offer us instead, though, is an insightful dive into Spinoza’s ideas to show their relevance to Marxist thought. The authors argue that core ideas of historical materialism—universal solidarity, the reality of change, the primacy of ethical action and struggle against causes of suffering, the critique of liberalism, the commitment to truth and the rejection of supernatural explanations—are all clarified, strengthened, and justified by “monism”, a shorthand for Spinoza’s position.

Outside the few additions that I propose below, in my view, Frim and Fluss’s exposition of monism is superb and should be endorsed by all readers of Spinoza. However, since Spinoza is a specialized, niche interest even within left-wing academia, “monism” remains a solution in search of a historically material problem. That disconnectedness is a consequence of leaving unaddressed Jaffe’s argument for developing ideas in and through the demands of contemporary struggles and for reading the history of ideas in that light.

In what follows, I argue that if we think it through, the monism that Frim and Fluss explicate is not a rebuttal of Jaffe’s critique but, on the contrary, its endorsement. I make this case by sympathetically building on Frim and Fluss’s exposition of monism. Since the authors developed their argument around seven propositions, I shall continue along that trajectory by proposing two additional propositions that follow from them but that point instead to the importance of Jaffe’s critique of calls for Marxists to turn to Spinoza.

Spinoza and Moby-Dick

My first additional proposition is the following:

8. The relations of monism make thinking and interpreting necessary.

Frim and Fluss develop their position by revisiting what is known in the history of philosophy as the “ontological argument” for the existence of God. Stripped of theistic framing, it is the assertion that nothing exists that cannot in principle be accessible to our thinking. The clarification I would like to propose is that it amounts to the claim that we cannot stop thinking for ourselves, relating to the world, and dealing with our own and each other’s thoughts and desires. As Spinoza put it in a delightfully pithy axiom, “Man thinks” (Homo cogitat).3Spinoza, Benedictus de, “Ethics” in The Essential Spinoza: Ethics and Related Writings. Translated by Samuel Shirley, Edited by Michael L Morgan (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2006), Book II, Axiom 2.

The depth of Spinoza’s ontological argument is difficult to appreciate in all its implications for human experience and psychology. That thinking never stops means that it persists through any perceived impasse, through any difficulty, anxiety, doubt, despair, hope and suffering. It means that our ideas are realities that fully occupy us, pin us to a spot and yet move us, whether they express our deepest loves and desires or our most intractable confusions and contradictions.

Great works of literature can illuminate the concrete experiential implications of Spinoza’s ontological argument. Take for example Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: the epic account of how Captain Ahab obsessively hunts a legendary white whale, tracking it around the world until a final confrontation at the end of the novel. The narrator, Ishmael, a sailor on Ahab’s ship, takes us through an encyclopedic range of information about how the species of whale that Ahab hunts with all his might pre-existed human civilization and appears in narratives across the history of human culture and religion around the world. Ishmael details how the whale supports in infinite ways—with its bones, flesh, and oil—cycles of human and non-human life both on land and in the sea.

To practice philosophy after historical materialism, in other words, it is not enough simply to examine ideas and what it means to think them

The species of whale hunted by Ahab, in other words, lives and moves in the elements of humanity’s deepest thoughts, in its material and social life, and in its connections to the planet. Ahab’s defiance of the whale and everything it stands for, then, emerges as a terrifying rage against the necessity of his own existence as a being who thinks. Over the course of the novel, it becomes increasingly clear that Ahab’s rage depends precisely on what it seeks to destroy. As his first mate Starbuck eventually warns him: “let Ahab beware of Ahab; beware of thyself, old man.”4Hermann Melville, Moby-Dick: An Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. Third Norton Critical Edition, edited by Hershel Parker (New York and London: WW Norton & Co, 2017), p.347 (chapter 109). Ahab’s effort to use all his mind and strength to kill the whale and its idea turns him into his own adversary and endangers the crew. The more he rages, the more he demonstrates the supremacy of the whale’s existence and how it will always elude capture.

Ahab’s rage is what Spinoza in his Ethics calls an “inadequate idea”: the rage against thinking is, despite itself, a demonstration of the necessity of thinking. An inadequate idea is a privation of—a  disavowal or negation of, an opposition to—the very existential and conceptual relations upon which it depends for its intelligibility and reality.5Spinoza, “Ethics”, Book II, Proposition 35. Each of us has a fascist little Ahab within us that lurks in our frustrations, but we cannot help but try to overcome those frustrations as best we can—and with the help of comrades—by being more like a whale swimming freely in relation to all things and whose misty spouts push rainbows into the sky.6Hermann Melville, Moby-Dick, ch. 85.

Spinoza’s “ontological argument” demonstrates that any act of thinking therapeutically softens the fixations that block the intelligibility of our relations to ourselves, each other and the world. Thinking persists in relation to all things, and it persists even in the friction of its own inadequate ideas.

This brings me to my second addition to Frim and Fluss’s list of claims:

9. Monism requires the subordination of philosophy to the needs of social struggles.

If not just having an idea, but thinking itself is necessary, then meaning is always open, developing, and never stuck or stalled on any particular expression or piece of jargon. Identities are relational, social and transitional. Efforts can be combined, discourses and languages can be translated into each other and can amplify each other. This means that if philosophers (or other specialists, academics, authorities, and so on) seek in some way to impose their jargon and concerns as dogmatic monologues onto others, they slip into the “close-coiled woe” of a captain Ahab who works a crew that is willing to support his inadequate ideas and their frustrations.7Hermann Melville, Moby-Dick, p. 388 (ch. 132). See also ch. 41. Efforts to reduce thought to specific discourses and representations, even those regarding “monism” itself, are thus oppressive and self-defeating because people cannot help but continue thinking and rethinking .

Spinoza points out the above in many ways and places, one of which is in his Theological-Political Treatise, where he develops his ground-breaking approach to reading the Bible historically.8Baruch Spinoza, Spinoza: Theological-Political Treatise. Edited by Jonathan Israel. Translated by Michael Silverthorne and Jonathan Israel. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2007). See especially chapter 13. He observes that since the Bible is written by diverse authors working across a wide range of historical times and places, and since the Bible is addressed not to learned experts (philosophers or theologians) but to common people, divine revelation in the Bible can have meaning only if it is about the necessity of free thought and interpretation, and thus about the necessity of the critique of moralistic, authoritarian power.

The simple, universally accessible divine revelation expressed in the Bible, in Spinoza’s view, is the action of loving the neighbour as oneself by practicing justice and charity. Spinoza reasons that full and adequate knowledge of, and obedience to, God—or to the highest thought philosophers can comprehend or intuit—is indistinguishable from ethical action, the practice of justice and charity. From a Spinozan perspective, the Bible is a collection of diverse voices from different contexts that try to argue for, think through, imaginatively inspire, study and strengthen action that resists the Ahabs in our world and in ourselves.9Hermann Melville, Moby-Dick, ch. 128, tells of Ahab’s encounter on the seas with Captain Gardiner of the Rachel whale ship who begged Ahab to help him find find his 12 year old boy who was feared lost at sea:

Meantime, now the stranger was still beseeching his poor boon of Ahab, and Ahab still stood like an anvil, receiving every shock, but without the least quivering of his own. “I will not go,” said the stranger, “till you say aye to me. Do to me as you would have me do to you in the like case. For you too have a boy … Yes, yes, you relent; I see it—run, run, men, now, and stand by to square in the yards. “Avast,” cried Ahab—”touch not a rope-yarn;” then in a voice that prolongingly moulded every word—”Captain Gardiner, I will not do it. Even now I lose time. Good bye.” (p.382).

This implies that our discourses, including those of philosophy and religion, must be—indeed cannot but be—subordinate to the demands of ethical action. It also means that ethical action is never subordinate to or necessarily dependent upon this or that preferred or authoritative discourse. This is an ontological claim, meaning that if we can think anything at all, ethics necessarily comes before our preferred discourse on the intelligibility of our ideas or knowledge.

Such ethics are a critique of the subordination of experience and desires to dogmatic and abstract ideas. Even when people feed the Ahab inside themselves and others by clinging to certain ideas and reifying them in a desire for closed and fixed relationships, they cannot explain those ideas adequately without breaking them down, clarifying them, rewording them, unpacking them, demystifying them, socializing them, and thus presupposing and positing the very relationships they resist. Ideas cannot adequately be thought without their living conceptual content overcoming the dead shell of abstraction and reification.

To think through the ontological argument for monism, one needs to take a step beyond strictly philosophical demonstrations and examine how the logic and ethics of monism acquires historical influence and force in situations where people are trying to work together to change the world for the better.

It follows from Spinoza’s ethics that philosophy becomes useless and confused unless it explicitly subordinates itself to the living needs of struggles around us instead of trying to subordinate the struggle to itself by presenting itself as struggle’s more enlightened expression or more self-aware standpoint. “Monism” itself requires more than its conceptual explication. It requires discovering and rediscovering its justification and validity by organizing with others to challenge oppressive power as effectively and as thoughtfully as possible. Hence, to think through the ontological argument for monism, one needs to take a step beyond strictly philosophical demonstrations and examine how the logic and ethics of monism acquires historical influence and force in situations where people are trying to work together to change the world for the better. Philosophical demonstration must adapt its intuitions and insights to the situations and languages of ongoing struggles.

Philosophy as Life-Making Struggle

Another way to put this is to say that the struggle against capitalism must also involve a struggle against its forms of philosophy. Though this point has been made repeatedly throughout the Marxist tradition, it is always important to rediscover and rethink what it means. To offer brief thoughts toward that end, I return, in closing, to my opening question and consider how recent Marxist interest in social reproduction might provide a way to understand it and answer it.

My question, again, was: if philosophy is true only to the extent that it freely and self-consciously subordinates itself to the living plurality and diversity of liberatory struggle, how should we regard the work of its more specialized and technical inquiries, such as those into logic, epistemology and metaphysics? Stated in terms that relate to Marxist interest in social reproduction, the question becomes: what would philosophy look like if it was part of the activity of life-making and the struggle to defend that life-making against capital’s need to reproduce itself by devaluing, stifling, exploiting, and burning out our living labour and capacities?

In my view, if philosophy was life-making struggle, its practitioners would begin with the justified anger and frustrations of exploited and oppressed people themselves, explore and amplify their stories, and organize dialogically to build solidarity and unity of purpose with others to confront systemic problems. This requires a philosophical practice that moves with empathy through different conversations and discourses, and that patiently, persistently, and precisely identifies and confronts abstractions that get in the way of this work until those impasses soften and yield or are otherwise overcome. This is a critical and interpretive practice that is indistinguishable from the caring activism that empowers others. Like the air in our lungs, it connects us to people around the world. The winds of life-making struggle are what subdue the Ahabs within and without:

Slowly crossing the deck from the scuttle, Ahab leaned over the side, and watched how his shadow in the water sank and sank to his gaze, the more and the more that he strove to pierce the profundity. But the lovely aromas in that enchanted air did at last seem to dispel, for a moment, the cankerous thing in his soul. That glad, happy air, that winsome sky, did at last stroke and caress him; the step-mother world, so long cruel—forbidding—now threw affectionate arms round his stubborn neck, and did seem to joyously sob over him, as if over one, that however wilful and erring, she could yet find it in her heart to save and to bless. From beneath his slouched hat Ahab dropped a tear into the sea; nor did all the Pacific contain such wealth as that one wee drop.10Hermann Melville, Moby-Dick, p.388 (ch. 132).

Just as the gentle11Hermann Melville, Moby-Dick, p.392:

A gentle joyousness—a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness, invested the gliding whale … Yet calm, enticing calm, oh, whale! Thou glidest on, to all who for the first time eye thee, no matter how many in that same way thou may’st have bejuggled and destroyed before.
yet unstoppable force of the whale, Moby-Dick, comes to the assistance of “that glad, happy air, that winsome sky” by smashing death-making12 Sue Ferguson, “Life-making or Death-making?” Midnight Sun, October 17, 2021,  https://www.midnightsunmag.ca/life-making-or-death-making/ whale ships that are fixated on inadequate ideas, so can the struggle to support life under the harsh and artificial conditions of capitalism generate a moving force that can overturn and transform those conditions. Such is the critical lesson, it seems to me, of the Marxist interest in social reproduction. Theorists of social reproduction teach us that it is not enough for Marxists to diagnose oppressions and injustices by exploring how capital depends on them and feeds them by turning humanity against itself in countless ways. One must understand them not only in terms of what serves the interests of capital, but also “from below”, in terms of how they are experienced firsthand by people themselves, how they are necessarily resisted, and how those resistances can build.

We can find an example of how to connect those levels of Marxist thought in Aaron Jaffe’s Social Reproduction Theory and the Socialist Horizon.13Aaron Jaffe, Social Reproduction Theory and the Socialist Horizon (London: Pluto Press 2020). Jaffe argues that capitalist relations stifle and constrain our capacity to satisfy social needs and develop our need-satisfying powers, and thus that the struggle for social power is a struggle of social reproduction against capital to develop those capacities and powers. What is also noteworthy about Jaffe’s book for our present discussion is that he develops his argument by amplifying the voices of striking workers and activists who were involved in the 2018 International Women’s Day strikes or public school teachers’ strikes in the US. By developing his position in dialogue with these voices, Jaffe provides an example of how Marxist philosophy can prioritize the language and ideas of engaged struggle and rediscover itself in those terms by explicating and elaborating their conceptual content. There is a humility in that approach that helps stir winds of change.

Marxists who have devoted the time required for specialized study of Spinoza, Hegel, or other demanding thinkers whose texts they find worthwhile are thus faced with the challenge, issuing from those very texts insofar as they are true, of finding a way of working with the life-making struggles around them by amplifying and supporting their confrontation with capital as best they can. Knowledge of the history of philosophy is profoundly valuable for this. But it requires philosophers to listen for how contemporary voices may echo insights from that history in surprising ways, and that they consider carefully whether it makes strategic and practical sense to make those connections explicit, or, at times, leave them unstated, so as to build other interests and narratives that more effectively support and resonate with contemporary struggles.

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