What might constitute a Marxist philosophical canon?

(Democritus; Hegel; Feuerback; Marx)

(Democritus; Hegel; Feuerback; Marx)

Whilst Marx was always concerned with the relationship between theory and action, this didn’t mean that he thought theory was a waste of time. Ian Stone argues for a broader view of ‘Marxist’ philosophy.

Though Marx famously stated in Theses on Feuerbach that ‘philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it’, this condensed version of Marxist theory-practice does away somewhat with the vast accumulation of knowledge Marx had achieved even up to this relatively early point in his life. His assertion was, of course, to make a performative but necessary point; the end goal for us all as revolutionaries is the attainment of a radically different society based on need as opposed to greed, and action is necessary to achieve this. Yet Marx was well versed in philosophy; a comparison of the Greek philosophers Epicurus and Democritus views on nature had been the basis of his doctoral thesis and he had also written on 19th century philosophers Hegel and Feuerbach.

Selective readings of Marxist texts that favour ‘guides to action’ rather than the more reflective philosophical works has somewhat skewed the approach of Marxist organisations in recent years. This has led to the conflation of favourable signs in the movement with victories and victories as evidence that revolution is just around the corner. When we have ‘got ahead of ourselves’ due in part to this approach, there hasn’t always been the tendency to reflect on why we haven’t made significant material gains. This was the case when the huge Stop the War movement of 2003 was not converted into a mass party to challenge the Government of the time. Increasingly, there have also been increasingly formulaic and/or rhetorical versions of Leninism and Trotskyism in particular that have begun to be presented as ‘official versions’ despite their partial readings.

The founding of new radical political groups is an invitation to begin anew. This does not mean the abandonment of central texts that tell us something profound about our experience of capitalism, such as Marx’s Capital. However, there is an opportunity to rehabilitate texts that have been discarded by the movement in the past and question why that was so. Sometimes there was a reason.

Mao’s On Contradiction was once a favoured text of Louis Althusser, who has been highly influential in Western post-war Marxism but from what we know now of his crimes against humanity Mao is now highly unlikely to be part of a 21st century Philosophical canon. Other times the reason for texts falling out of favour has been less clear. The film theory of Sergei Eisenstein, for instance, is as Philosophically rich as any ‘heavyweight’ Marxist text but bafflingly is somewhat unknown in comparison to his undeniably brilliant films. Some major works have come to light after having been thought lost, such as Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project but somehow have not achieved the status of other lesser works, perhaps because Marxist Philosophy is sometimes viewed as a niche concern compared to former times.

This is an unfair premise and in order to make a strong case for Marxist Philosophy as a vital current we need to argue for it’s importance in understanding the modern condition. This could mean paying greater attention to works which draw on humanism and other aspects of philosophy that lie just outside the Marxist fraternity, such as psychogeography, postmodernism and Semiotics, for instance. And where theories need elucidating or updating, in accordance with a Marxist framework, as with issues of gendered identity or women’s liberation respectively, we shouldn’t be afraid to take a lead. The question vis-à-vis what a Marxist philosophical canon is also needs to be reposed in terms of our experience of the last ten years, and not in terms of what books are ‘acceptably’ Marxist or are unduly prescriptive; ie. what theory helps us to understand our current predicament?

This will be informed undoubtedly by Marxist philosophy that arises out of age-old questions of economy and class history; but class consciousness is also borne out of more immediate philosophical problems posed and forged in the midst of class struggle, and also in the re-emergence of strands of abandoned or ignored thought as it becomes pertinent to the situation, and are assimilated to a reflexive process of trial, error and retrial. We have seen an ideological war waged on immigration and those on benefits and our grasp of our own philosophy will have to be high to effectively counter such right wing arguments.

There are 7 comments

  1. Rosa Lichtenstein (@RosaL100)

    This is all rather odd in view of the fact that Marx had abandoned thus useless discipline — Philosophy — by the end of the 1840s, saying things like this:

    “Feuerbach’s great achievement is…. The proof that philosophy is nothing else but religion rendered into thought and expounded by thought, i.e., another form and manner of existence of the estrangement of the essence of man; hence equally to be condemned….”

    “One has to ‘leave philosophy aside’…, one has to leap out of it and devote oneself like an ordinary man to the study of actuality,”

    Indeed he enjoins us to ‘leap out of it’, too.
    [I recognise this is unwelcome news to most comrades, but it is nevertheless true for all that.]

    I have added more details on this topic, here:

    http://anti-dialectics.co.uk/was_wittgenstein_a_leftist.htm#Marxs_Attitude_To_Philosophy

    Or, see the discussion I have had on this over at The Charnel House:

    http://thecharnelhouse.org/2014/03/03/marxism-and-the-unfinished-business-of-philosophy/

  2. stoneian41

    Hi Rosa, This is certainly very interesting but I’d argue that a reflexive view of Marx wouldn’t concentrate only on his early writings but interpret him according to how he approached Philosophy ‘in the round’ Many of Marx’s later writings, pinpointed by Althusser as scientific Marxism seem to me to be heavily indebted to Philosophy eg his analysis of value in Capital is shot through with a reflexive understanding of ideology that theorises comprehensively concepts like Mediation ‘precognitively’. Also implicit in this is the idea that philosophy isn’t the ruling classes to own; there is always-already the prospect that the theorisations of the ruling class are inept and at some point in the future will not just steamrollered by history and productive forces but by a superior set of ideas that are capable of running society. I don’t really see the disjunct between what I write here and what you write in the charnel House piece in particular. This piece was intended in part as a problematisation of Philosophy and how we might rethink it in terms of it’s relation to our experience to the world. Marx’s engagement with polemic doesn’t disprove the worth of Philosophy, and it doesn’t make some of his own musings less philosophical despite himself.

  3. Rosa Lichtenstein (@RosaL100)

    Thanks for those comments, stoneian41, but, as you probably saw from my comments over at the Charnel House, my claims are far more radical than anything Althusser ever thought to advance. I can’t see anything in Marx’s mature work that supports the things you say — sure, there is a 130+ year tradition that would have us interpret Marx’s work through the distorting lens of Hegel’s work (upside down or the ‘right way up’) and those of other philosophers, but I fail to see anything in Marx’s actual work that suggests he was influenced in his thinking by any of these (when he came to write ‘Das Kapital’), except perhaps at a very superficial level. [This extends no further than his use of certain terms drawn from Hegel’s work, with which he merely wished to ‘coquette’.]

    As far as his scientific analysis of capitalism and the development of class society are concerned, he drew many of his core ideas from Aristotle, Kant and the ‘Scottish Historical School’ (of Ferguson, Millar, Robertson, Smith, Hume, and Steuart), but, as I said, these influenced his scientific ideas, and in no way can they be regarded as ‘philosophical’.

    Of course, that raises the question how we distinguish Traditional Philosophy from science (or even how we define ‘philosophy’). To state the obvious, this a knotty problem which I hope to tackle at my site, but one thing is reasonably clear, the confused and mystical theories Hegel (unwittingly) bequeathed to our movement are in no way scientific, and can’t be put use in science in any meaningful way.

    Again, that is another problem I have (already) tackled at my site, where I show that the entire ‘dialectic’ (as Hegel understood the term) is based on a series of crass logical blunders, chief among which was his misconstrual of the so-called ‘law of identity stated negatively’ with the ‘law of non-contradiction’ (compounded by his insistence on interpreting the ‘is’ of predication with the ‘is’ of identity, a trick invented by Roman Catholic Logicians and Theologians in the Middle Ages).

    This means that there is no rational basis for ‘the dialectic’, upside down, or ‘the right way up’. Confused thought is no less confused before of after being rotated through 180 degrees.

    Finally, my analysis of the logical blunders Hegel committed does not constitute a refutation of his theory — since that would be to argue his theory is false. In fact his ideas are far too confused for anyone to be able to say whether or not they are true or false, valid or invalid. This undercuts the argument that to refute Hegel is to prove him right, since that would also be part of ‘the dialectic’ — and this is because there isn’t anything comprehensible *to* refute in Hegel’s work, any more than is in, say, the Jabberwocky:

    “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
    Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
    All mimsy were the borogoves,
    And the mome raths outgrabe.”

    The only difference is that it is easier to spot incoherent non-sense in Lewis Carroll’s work; Hegel’s takes a little more effort.

    You can check out my arguments to this effect over at Wikipedia:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Law_of_thought#Problems

    Or, here:

    http://anti-dialectics.co.uk/Outline_of_errors_Hegel_committed_01.htm

    The above was written for absolute beginners in modern logic, and the philosophy of logic.

    [If you are using Internet Explorer 10 (or later), you might find some of the links I have used at my site won’t work properly unless you switch to ‘Compatibility View’ (in the Tools Menu).]

Leave a Reply