History as Back Catalogue I: You Gotta Know More Than Just the Hits, Research Time, 31/08/2017

Those were some interesting (and long) riffs on different ideas I encountered reading Perry Anderson’s book Considerations on Western Marxism. I’m not sure how successful those riffs were, but I think I’ve refined a few more of my own thoughts about the last century or so of history on the radical left.*

* Complicated though that history is. Holy crap, it’s bloody complicated.

A young marx sees the modern age.
August Diehl in costume as Karl Marx filming The Young Karl Marx.
A really important part of Anderson’s thinking here is his analysis of Louis Althusser’s ideas and their significance. I wrote quite a bit about Althusser’s thinking when I was reading his collection For Marx in Summer 2016.

Anderson writes about the impact that the discovery of Karl Marx’s early works had on the marxist tradition. Before the Soviet government published editions of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and other of Marx’s manuscripts from the 1840s and 50s, folks in the commie community only had Capital and some journalism.

Nice enough to become the intellectual foundation of a political movement which would affect the development of Earth’s entire human civilization. It would be as if for decades, no one had ever heard any of Curtis Mayfield’s work with The Impressions.

Yes, Superfly! is amazing, but you understand it so much better when you hear “Keep on Pushin,” knowing that they were part of the same ongoing process of creativity.**

** I don’t think anyone has ever made an analogy between Karl Marx and Curtis Mayfield, though I stand to be corrected. I doubt anyone ever will again. No guarantee I won’t.

So a generation of marxist theorists had their minds blown by the publication of this enormous back catalogue that was so different from all the Marx they’d known before. Naturally, they built that mainstream scholarly picture of Karl Marx as having a radical break in the middle of his life.

The analogy might have been a reach, I admit. Okay, it was kind of
ridiculous. But here's something that's never ridiculous – You should
listen to some Curtis Mayfield. It's good for you.
Althusser’s analyses put the more philosophical aspects of Marx’s thinking at the forefront. He understood the earlier, more explicitly philosophical work as the same project as Capital, but in a different context.

Here’s how Anderson puts it. In both works, he was trying to discover what kind of knowledge and self-image could awaken working people to refuse the wretchedness of their lives.

Capital was a very empirical survey – one of the historical genesis projects of the science of sociology – of the material conditions of the urban working class. Marx investigated their legal rights, working conditions, systematic advantages and disadvantages. Most philosophically, he examined the different ways that working class people could understand themselves – which self-conceptions cowed them and which empowered them.

The early stuff like the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and The German Ideology made explicitly philosophical work on the conditions and nature of Europe’s urban working class.

The 1930s generation of marxist theorists were the first to take those works seriously. They built a new, more complex understanding of Marx and his works. They could see more clearly than ever that Marx's writing contained many more vectors and paths for thinking than the straight-up dogmatic reception of Capital.

They could see the multiplicity, the difference, the true complexity of Marx as a philosopher. Just in time to fall under the axe of a marxist political leadership who had no tolerance for multiplicity and complexity.

To be continued

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