Monism as the basis for solidarity
How does monism support a Marxist politics? In the first place, Marxism is about the international solidarity of the working class. And the working class is affirmed, not on identitarian or “workerist” grounds, as though it was just one identity among countless others. Instead, the working class is unique because it represents the universal interests of humanity. In its struggle against capitalist exploitation, the proletariat have the historical mission of abolishing class society, and inaugurating a new world based on common material interests and flourishing.
In a monistic universe, there are no permanently discrete parts, but instead everything is a modification of Nature. As such, each individual thing—and each individual person—can only be understood through this substantial unity. I cannot form an adequate idea about myself without, at the same time, understanding my place in the world. 3This is not a merely civic or ecological awareness of our living in a larger community; it is rather the stronger, metaphysical claim that our very essence is bound up with the nature of the universe. In other words, humans are not a special “state within a state,” but instead, are thoroughly conditioned by intelligible, natural laws. Benedictus de Spinoza, “Ethics,” in The Collected Works of Spinoza, Volume I, ed. and trans. Edwin Curley (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), E3 Preface. References to Spinoza’s Ethics follow the convention of using the letter “E” to refer to the work itself, “A” to refer to axioms, “D” to refer to definitions, and “P” for propositions. And therefore, I can’t understand my own identity without realizing my substantial identity with others. Universal solidarity, the unity of all peoples, regardless of particular cultures or geographies, is built upon this more fundamental, and metaphysical, unity.4In the Marxist canon, the term “metaphysics” is frequently derided as otherworldly and supernatural. However, in this article, we are using the term in its original, Aristotelian sense, i.e., as the science of reality and essences. In this regard, everyone has a metaphysics, just so long as we are talking about reality. The only question is if one’s metaphysics is well thought out and justified.
Monism supports universal solidarity in yet another way: Nature is in a state of constant change, evolution, and movement. But since everything is part of an integrated whole, these changes are never spontaneous or miraculous. Instead, change is governed by natural laws that condition the mutual interactions among finite things. All things, in other words, have an “existential inertia”—they have an internal structure and movement, and this structure maintains itself unless acted upon by some outside force.5“Inertia” in this case, as in the domain of physics, does not imply absolute rest. Instead, it denotes the tendency of things at rest to stay at rest, and equally, the tendency of things in motion to remain in motion (unless acted upon by an outside force). Everything, in this sense, is “positively charged,” as nothing randomly destroys itself (for no reason).
This universal tendency to persist in one’s being, (what Spinoza calls our “conatus”) is a feature of existence itself. But when it comes to sentient creatures, like us humans, this striving is transformed into a conscious desire. Insofar as we are rational, we are also governed by an indelible self-concern or egoism. Far from being a limit to compassion, this is its very springboard. The more rational we are, the more we clearly perceive our identity with others. In this way, our self-concern becomes generalized to include a concern for all sentient beings.6This is the Stoic doctrine of oikeiôsis, i.e., “familiarization.” It is often conceived as a series of expanding circles of concern, wherein the ethical agent identifies with ever-greater portions of the world. For a treatment of this concept, see Landon Frim, “Impartiality or Oikeiôsis? Two Models of Universal Benevolence,” Symposion 6, no. 2 (2019): 147–69. Beyond the Christian imperative to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” the monist understands that their neighbor literally is, in some substantial sense, themselves. They desire their welfare and flourishing just as immediately and directly as they desire their own. What could be a surer footing for international solidarity?
Many socialists will shy away from this whole picture. They will complain that exotic doctrines such as “monism,” “conatus,” and “existential inertia” are very costly premises for supporting something as commonsensical as universal solidarity. We don’t need these speculative categories to simply care about people. And others go further still. They claim that these metaphysical premises are not only costly but also useless. In a polemical blog written against our position, William Clare Roberts opined, “[a]dherence to abstract principles does not produce political demands.” Or put more directly, “I can understand you and still want to kill you.”7William Clare Roberts, “Why I Am Not a Fan of ‘the Radical Enlightenment,’” ACCELERATE THE CONTRADICTIONS! (blog), May 19, 2017, http://acceleratethecontradictions.blogspot.com/2017/05/.
But Roberts’ complaint says a lot more about his empiricist worldview than it does our own philosophy. A purely descriptive, empirical understanding of the world certainly can’t imply any sort of ethics. (You can’t derive the moral claim that “murder is wrong” from a technical understanding of the circulatory system.) If all we have is a pile of facts before us, then indeed, we might all be “equally human” and still decide to wage war on one another for no reason. In this case, any political agenda, all norms and ideals, will have to be artificially added to one’s “realistic” worldview (supposing we want to engage in politics or activism at all). In the end, this will always be a romantic and question-begging move. Empiricism always searches for a borrowed normativity not derived from “what is,” but only chosen according to one’s own whim.
Monism provides a way to bridge the gap between “what is” and “what ought to be.”8This is what philosophers call the “is/ought gap,” or in other words, the supposedly uncrossable barrier between descriptions of reality and moral imperatives. For only monism offers an account of nature which is normatively-charged. Precisely because it is not a mere empiricism, cataloging this or that fact, monism can make universally-descriptive claims about humanity and what’s good for human beings. Unlike the religious moralist, the monist does not try to “speak truth to power.” This would, again, set up a pious dualism between “what is right” on the one hand, and “what is the case” on the other. Instead, the monist simply uncovers the innate, rational tendency of human beings to maintain and increase their power by combining with others. Caring about the other is not a free-will decision, but instead is the natural outgrowth of maintaining our own existence. It’s not a choice, but a necessity.9A rationalist politics involves denying what philosophers call akrasia or “weakness of will.” Wrongdoing is never a spontaneous choice to do evil, but rather is the result of ignorance and determinate causes. For an account of politics as based on rational imperatives, rather than free moral choices, see Landon Frim, “‘Nature or Atoms? Reframing the IR Curriculum through Ethical Worldviews,’” Teaching Ethics 17, no. 2 (December 2017): 195–211.
Anything else is liberalism. What contemporary liberalism involves is replacing metaphysical foundations, especially monism, with a methodological pluralism. Any theory will do, so long as it helps to bolster your politics. There is always a skeptical attitude taken towards absolute truth claims and an enforced humility when it comes to philosophy itself. This is what the founder of modern liberalism, John Rawls, called the “burdens of judgment.” Since there are no absolute answers to ultimate questions, the best we can do is to build policy consensus with diverse groups, using equally diverse justifications as a guide.10John Rawls, Political Liberalism, Expanded Edition, Columbia Classics in Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 54–58. The liberal aims for identical norms, but for non-identical reasons.
The result is an eclectic attitude toward political philosophy. Under the guise of nuance and sophistication, there is an acceptance that theory is sometimes useful, but only when, in the words of Aaron Jaffe, “practical potentials can be drawn from intellectual history in light of human needs today.”11Aaron Jaffe, “Marxism, Spinoza, and the ‘Radical’ Enlightenment,” Spectre Journal, June 1, 2022, https://spectrejournal.com/marxism-spinoza-and-the-radical-enlightenment. Even rationalist philosophy is sometimes accepted, albeit in a patronizing manner. As Roberts puts it, “If you are committed to rationalism, then you should keep that commitment in mind as you make your arguments, not try to make your arguments follow from your rationalism.”12Roberts, “Why I Am Not a Fan of ‘the Radical Enlightenment.’” In other words, keep your pet theory if it makes you happy, just don’t take it too seriously, and agree with my politics in the end. Again, this is no different from the eclectic, liberal method of allowing all sorts of diverse, private beliefs, only so long as these result in the desired policies at the end of the day.
But taking theory seriously is really the most practical course of action. It avoids the common fallacy of trying to derive positive, political conclusions from the negative premise that “we just don’t know” about the nature of reality. Instead, monism demonstrates the unity of human nature and the human good; In so doing, it establishes the real basis for international solidarity.