Can a Marxist Tell the Difference Between Theory and Thought? Research Time, 06/09/2017

That was a nice break, even if I did get rained out of our campsite and had to travel home from Algonquin Park on a Highway 60 that was more river than pavement.

I want to get back to this problem of history and philosophy blending together. The example, drawn from some old history books of Perry Anderson, is the marxist tradition of political thinking as the theorists grew separate from the activists.

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno were both terrible activists
at the time of their greatest influence during their lives. Their works
were ambitious and known for being terribly difficult, but their
connection to the political movements of the period was, overall,
pretty tenuous, if it existed at all.
But I look at them during this time, and I instinctively imagine
each of them thinking, "Man, I'm too old for this shit!"
The direct cause was the brutal censoring of original thought in Western Europe’s communist parties on directions from Stalin’s Soviet government, and which lasted until pretty much the fall of the Soviet Union. The theorists’ refuge in the United States found them isolated from political activism of the same kind in the university system.

This is, I think, a flaw in Anderson’s analysis. He’s wedded – at least in this early book – to Lenin’s model of theorist / party leader. So he doesn’t really consider the personal connections of people like Max Horkheimer and Angela Davis, or the involvement of Jewish refugee professors at black colleges in the Civil Rights Movement.

It worries me that Anderson seems to downplay the importance of race as a vector in oppression or progressive politics.

But a key advantage of radical left theorists being shunted away from direct activism and into the university system is that they became, more completely, philosophers. Let me explain how with a few one-time-only definitions-for-the-sake-of-explanations.

In the marxist tradition, a theorist is a thinker-activist according to the models of Karl Marx himself, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin. You’re on the front lines of the political movement, organizing different party members, support from trade unions and other civil society groups. But in your off-hours, you’re writing political theory.

Notice that I didn’t say philosophy. That’s because, for the sake of making this distinction, I’m using the two words to mean different things.* A theorist, in this example, is someone whose work is specifically about updating the marxist theory of history as dialectical materialism to the modern conditions of your society.

I get the distinct feeling that Perry Anderson was too invested
intellectually in the British and European politics and experience
of the labour movement to understand the politics of racism,
particularly the complex American version so steeped in both
extremism and denial that there's even a problem. So while I
find his historical insights intriguing in their abstract form, this
empirical blindness seriously concerns me.
* Even in my everyday writing, outside of this illustration, I don’t really use ‘theorist’ in the same sense of ‘philosopher’ that most folks do. I mostly alternate ‘philosopher’ and ‘thinker.’ I consider that a more accurate pairing.

In contrast to a lot of message board marxists today, the early 20th century’s most important theorists didn’t consider an ideological / economic analysis of mid-19th century western Europe to apply equally well to our multi-centred globalization and high-speed communication networks. That would just be silly.

Just as Marx himself built dialectical materialism and applied it to understanding the European economy and society of his own time, early-20th century marxist theorists applied the same conceptual tools to their own time. Conservative Hegelian metaphysics blends with qualitative economic and social research to confront the political mainstream with a radical socialist alternative.

In the 1960s, thinkers like Louis Althusser and Theodor Adorno blew this tradition apart by introducing concepts from non-marxist philosophical traditions into marxist theory. Althusser brought Spinozist ideas to the tradition, while Adorno blended marxism with existentialism and the more complex cultural criticisms of Walter Benjamin.

I’m not sure whether I should credit either Adorno as a forerunner of the radical democratic tradition that Utopias will develop. Althusser certainly is, since he was the first thinker to see the continuity of the concepts of Marx, Machiavelli, and Spinoza.

Adorno, I’m still not sure. I may look into more of his works later on. There are still parts of this bed of concepts that I want to fill in from my sure bets. More on that coming soon. Or eventually.

1 comment:

  1. You might like this. "Lenin was a very moderate person," said Ezra Pound. "Apart from the social aspect he was of interest, technically, to serious writers. He never wrote a sentence that has any interest in itself, but he evolved almost a new medium, a sort of expression halfway between writing and action."

    I'm not a very close reader of Lenin. But it sounds like something a bit different than leader by day / theorist by night. In fact, today's soi-disant leftists, it seems to me, also have a hard time keeping things separated. But instead of using language in a way that is virtually action, they are reacting to language as though it's a kind of violence. Instead of leveraging theory as a kind of practice, they seem constantly to let their theoretical insights devolve into an impractical outrage. They don't stop feeling long enough to actually have a thought.

    The trick, I think, is to maintain the distinctions between theory and practice, thought and feeling, and then to try to be precise in everything we see and do. This is hard, which is why many people choose only to see or to do. Some then go the extra step of calling their seeing a kind of doing, their deeds, visions. But I don't think such mysticism is a good strategy.