My Trouble With Marxism, A History Boy Composing Research Time, 25/02/2015

Marxist thought haunts me, and I'm sure it'll haunt the Utopias project in significant ways. It even came up as a brief issue for Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, even though it’s a book of ecological philosophy pitched in a context of posthumanism, because one of my proposal reviewers mistook common ideas in environmentalist moral theory, like humanity’s alienation from nature, for Marxist analysis because of coincidentally common terms.

We must never presume that the progress of history is
inevitable and universal. I remember Antonio Gramsci
writing about his frustration with his revolutionary
colleagues who believed this.
But when I was first formulating the Utopias project, I explored how much I’d have to engage with Marxism, and some of the first comments I got from Marxists and Marx specialists among my personal networks were very dogmatic. I've also met several university-based Marx scholars whose way of engaging their critiques are similarly dogmatic. Unproductively so.

When I posted a long article by Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis the other day, with a long preamble of my own, on my Facebook profile, I got some very productive criticism from my old friend John-Boy. I was too quick in my preamble to describe Marx himself as having supported violent revolution during his own lifetime, which was a failure of historical knowledge on my part. 

Another acquaintance was just as dogmatic as my unfriendly critics from 2013, having accused me of never actually having read Marx. If I’ve learned anything from my skeptical readings of Marx and Marxist thinkers since starting Adam Writes Everything, it’s that the field of Marx readers is filled with dogmatic people who denounce criticism instead of engaging it, or treating it as a teachable moment. John-Boy really did it right, filling me in with some historical links tempered with his usual friendly sarcasm.

Because despite the latest accusation from one Marx loyalist, I first read his works in my undergraduate years, through a class in political philosophy. Not all of them, but I’ve read the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, The German Ideology, “The Communist Manifesto,” and scattered chapters of Capital, though not the whole thing.

Judging from Veroufakis’ article, he’s encountered a lot of similarly dogmatic resistance to his own compromises (though his critics would say betrayal) of his Marxist philosophical heritage. Antonio Gramsci described a similar doctrinaire, conformist attitude in the 1920s and 30s. I think it might be an ideological discipline that grows from the sub-culture having spent a long time as violent militant revolutionaries requiring comprehensive loyalty from adherents to prevent subversion from government agents.

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis.
Veroufakis himself describes a profound departure from orthodox Marxism (if we can call anything orthodox Marxism in this slippery and enormous field of theory) in his own thought, which justifies why he wishes to save capitalism from itself. He breaks with the traditional Marxist understanding of catastrophe’s role in the progress of humanity.

The basic structure through which Marx understands history is Hegelian. Veroufakis describes his fellow Marxists as advocating letting the European economy fail because such a catastrophe is the condition of social progress. Hegel conceived of history as the collective human self-(sub)consciousness, humanity’s spirit, developing through the growing social prominence of movements that embody contradictions.

And I mean contradictions in a literal, logical sense. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit describes contradictions occurring in history (A is the negation of B, but A and B both happen), being resolved in moments of catastrophic reorganization, and the new social order contains all the progressive elements of both previous patterns, but none of the flaws. 

We should not be too pious to our influences.
Veroufakis analyses contemporary capitalism as a collision of contradictions: economic productivity depends on the qualitatively creative contribution of labour, but economic management pressures both employers and workers to quantify labour through wage calculations and HR classifications. The more you quantify labour value, the less room you give for its creativity, and a totally quantified labour will be valueless, having wiped out its creative factors. This contradiction, he says, is the underlying tension whose break facilitates the collapse.

Grant him this for the sake of argument. His break from the Hegelian (and Marxist) conception of history comes from what he takes to be the result of collapse. Such a realization came after Marx’s own lifetime, and I see its ground in the philosophies of human nature in Sigmund Freud and Gilles Deleuze. The destabilization of society is not only a phenomenon in pure reason, but in the daily experience of people. And when people’s social foundations are destabilized, they become paranoid and hostile.

This is why a more enlightened anti-capitalist or anti-oligarchy movement wasn’t the most prominent political result of the socio-economic collapse of Greece. Although the anti-austerity Syriza has taken the government, their central rival is the fascist and racist Golden Dawn, a party who are openly Nazi revivalists.

The Hegelian vision of history that informed Marx’s theory of historical dialectical materialism focusses too much on the logical character of rationality considered in the abstract. Human history is a collision of millions and billions of individuals whose idiosyncratic psychologies interact at differing levels of influence to determine how a society develops. 

Hegel’s philosophy was the unfolding of reason in history. But in the real, material world, the future is in our hands, for better and worse.

We must never presume that the progress of history is inevitable and universal. 

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