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Interpreting the World: philosophy, "marxist philosophy", and why I am always uneasy with my chosen discipline

Some time ago, I wrote about how I was re-reading Althusser and discovering, in this re-reading, that there were less differences between my thought and his than I had once imagined.  In this re-reading I discovered that I agreed with positions I once rejected (i.e. his theory of "epistemological breaks", his analysis of the young/older Marx) while, at the same time, respectfully rather than uncritically distancing myself from some of the positions I still find philosophically unsustainable (i.e. his rejection of the human subject).  And as I continue, now and then, to brush up on my Althusser I discover that there is of points that I find extremely agreeable and important.  He was, as I emphasized in the article cited above, one of the foremost philosophers of marxism; since I also examine the trajectory of marxist thought from a philosophical framework, I keep discovering that i have a lot to learn from this thinker who, at one point and in a period of naive reading, generally dismissed.

Most recently, I encountered his essay Lenin and Philosophy which resonated with my own experience about the academic discipline of philosophy in which I've been trained.  Much of my feelings about philosophy and philosophers were already laid out, in a much more coherent form, in this essay––and since I cannot say the same things with same finesse, it is worth quoting Althusser's way of explaining what I have always found troublesome when it comes to my chosen discipline:
"[I]n order to know itself in its theory, philosophy has to recognize that it is no more than a certain investment of politics, a certain continuation of politics, a certain rumination of politics. […] It is clear that between Lenin and established philosophy there are not just misunderstandings and accidental conflicts, not even just the philosophy professors' reactions of wounded sensibility when the son of a teacher, a petty lawyer who became a revolutionary leader, declares bluntly that most of them are petty-bourgeois intellectuals functioning in the bourgeois education system as so many ideologists inculcating the mass of student youth with the dogmas––however critical or post-critical––of the ideology of the ruling classes.  Between Lenin and the established philosophy there is a peculiarly intolerable connection: the connection in which the reigning philosophy is touched to the quick of what it represses: politics."
Well now: this really gets to the heart of what I have always find troublesome in my chosen field.  And this is because philosophers, especially "political philosophers", imagine that they are somehow above politics and, by virtue of the history of philosophy [which in this essay Althusser also claims is a non-history], are somehow above the classes that compose the mode of production in which they're embedded.  This is because those of us who are trained in philosophy are also trained to think that philosophy is the "queen of the sciences", that it speaks before science can speak rather than appearing in its first systematic form only after science has been established (i.e. again, in this same essay, Althusser points out that Plato, arguably the first systematic philosopher, was only able to philosophize after the establishment of the "continent" of mathematical science), and that it is some pure realm of rationality that places those of us who imagine we are philosophers in a terrain of judgment over the very politics we are at the same time repressing.

Here I am reminded of two anecdotes from my own experience.  Anecdotes that I am not intending to use as proof for a systematic argument (because I believe that anecdotes, by themselves, do not constitute proof) but simply as avenues that will lead to my overall complaint with the discipline with which I am also enmeshed.  Make of them what you will.

The first anecdote has to do with my labour union's strike [the analysis of which is divided up between here, here, here, and here], around four years ago, and the response of those academics, who were also non-tenured university workers, in the philosophy department who chose not to involve themselves on the picket line.  All respect here to my fellow philosophy department workers who helped compose, in their departmental minority, one of the most defiant, dedicated, and organized lines of this strike [fuck yeah, Pond Road!]––but all of us had to deal with the fact that a significant population of our department was refusing to participate in the strike because they were "philosophically opposed" to the fact that we were involving ourselves in a politics.  This is because they were repressing their politics, meaning the default "common sense" politics of the ruling class that has the good privilege of not passing as "political", and defending this repression as logical.  Some idiot who thinks that he can sit in a study carol and, through his contemplation of logical categories, decide the meaning of a political moment––and that his decision can be more correct than his contemporaries who are involved in the practice of politics––is doing precisely what the discipline of philosophy, as a whole, tends to promise: a terrain of activity that is ahistorical, that is outside of class contradiction, that is platonically pure.

The second anecdote has to do with a recent orientation meeting in my philosophy department (where I am now a contract and contingent labourer rather than a student) and the part of that meeting where a representative of the aforementioned labour union tried to convince the new wave of would-be philosophers that they were also workers, because they were selling their labour as teaching assistants, and thus part of a union.  And just what, do you imagine, is the first question these critical philosopher-kings/queens asked?  Nothing critically damning about the entire business of the capitalist university––no, they asked whether they could not be members of said union.  And this question only followed a conversation some of them had shared––a conversation they imagined was critical––about the past greatness of Canada in the Trudeau era.  Again: a commitment to politics that was a default commitment, repressed by the belief that they were outside of the political sphere.  Philosophers imagine they can criticize the great movements of politics while, at the same movement, they take certain political "facts" as foundational and unquestionable.  Convinced that they are the apex of critical thought, many would-be philosophers refuse to question the grounds upon which critical thinking is possible.

These two anecdotes (among many others that I will not relay) should serve as entrance points to my general complaint about philosophy and philosophers: here is a discipline that in the very moment of imagining that it is the apex of critical thought uses critical thought to excuse itself from class struggle.  This is just something that is commonly part of the discipline of philosophy and there are hundreds of anecdotes similar to the ones mentioned above that express this problem––philosophy imagines itself outside of class struggle, imagines itself in the position of judgment, and its moment of non-history thinks that it is not a part of history.  Furthermore, philosophy turns concrete moments of struggle into fodder for philosophical investigation and worries more about things like the ontology and epistemic foundations of the real world of class struggle rather than the fact that philosophers too are immersed in the same struggle––if not on the side of the oppressed, then unwittingly on the side of the ruling classes.  So if you're going to tell someone struggling against colonial oppression about Heidegger's thoughts on the matter, or worry about the ontological foundations of a revolutionary struggle, then you're probably someone who imagines that, by virtue of studying philosophy, that you aren't implicated in the same struggle.

Moving further into the territory opened by the anecdotal avenues I've employed, there is the problem of "marxist philosophy."  [As an aside, I believe that there can be no such thing as "marxist philosophy" and that a marxist who is a philosopher can only do the "philosophy of marxism"––that is, only bring hir training as a philosopher to bear on the terrain of revolutionary science––but this is another issue, and one I am currently attempting to turn into an as yet unfinished, and far from published, book.]  Philosophers who tend to think of themselves as "marxist philosophers" often think they are very important marxists whose work is tantamount to class revolution.  Sometimes they think that they are the true representatives of Marx and marxism, much like other philosophers believe they are the authorities of whatever field they have chosen to interpret.  This is because philosophers have a habit of imagining that their commitment to philosophy provides them with some sort of ontological authority.  Philosophy, concerned as it is with the deep and mysterious questions of reality, is imagined as a position from which final judgment can be passed.  Well… some judgement can be passed, some important interventions can be made (and these might be interventions that speak of the whats and the whys), but it would be a mistake to imagine, as Marx warned us long ago, that philosophy can change rather than simply interpret the world.

And yet there are innumerable marxist philosophers who believe that their philosophizing about the terrain of marxism is tantamount to class struggle.  Some will never involve themselves in concrete class struggle, imagining that they don't have to because the mere act of philosophizing about this sort of thing is more important.  Really, this doesn't make them different from a lot of marxist academics who are content to spend all of their ideological time ensconced within petty-bourgeois academia rather than find a way, however tenuous, to engage with the masses… but at least these other marxist academics try to speak of the concrete and visceral reality of class struggle––they do not gravitate towards the realm of ontological categories, the realm of abstraction, the most opaque state of marxist investigation.

Look, I was trained as a philosopher so I know how the terrain of marxism is supposed to be engaged and how it is engaged by most philosophers.  We geek out over the ontological plausibility of dialectical materialism; we like to import non-marxist thinkers, such as Heidegger or Nietzsche, into a universe that would otherwise treat them as alien; we might even try to reduce the political economy categories of Capital into the language of formal logic.  We generally believe that concrete analyses of concrete situations are in bad taste and that we need to talk about supposedly deep matters that are really only deep because of successive layers of obscurantist jargon culled from a history that we should have realized, long ago, might be nothing more than mystification.  We try to ignore the fact that Marx and Engels, in The German Ideology, advocated the abandonment of philosophical fantasy and the focus on the concrete.  And yet, those trained philosophers engaged in "marxist philosophy" as a whole (but obviously with honourable exception) still waste their time pursuing philosophical ghosts that should be exorcized.

None of this is to say that the work produced by those who call themselves "marxist philosophers" is entirely without merit.  Rather, my point is that being a marxist philosopher often produces a consciousness that is contrary to revolutionary class struggle––the very thing that the science announced by Marx and Engels is intended to embrace.  We only need to turn to Theodor Adorno, one of the paradigmatic examples of marxist philosophers, to understand this retrogression: as I discussed in a previous entry, Adorno resigns from class struggle through the very practice of philosophy when he claims in Negative Dialectics  that "[p]hilosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed."  And here Adorno believes that a properly historical materialist philosophy is that which can redeem the world, that the history of actually existing communism is impoverished because of philosophical mistakes, and that we need to get back into the business of interpreting those categories necessary for change, i.e. that philosophers are some sort of vanguard of the vanguard.

Hence all of the marxist philosophy that has very little to do with class struggle and more to do with abstract philosophical categories that are somehow about marxism––clear, perhaps, to the invisible college of other marxist philosophers, but pretty abstract and meaningless to those that are supposed to be the subject of revolutionary communism.  That is, the oppressed masses who do not have the privilege, let alone the interest, in these rarified categories are not interested in being led by some extremely opaque philosophical marxism if it has little to do with what the entire marxist tradition is supposed to be about: the liberation of human history by history's slaves.

To be clear, none of this is to say that complexity is "bourgeois" and simplicity is "proletarian" or any of that nonsense promoted by anti-intellectual marxists (who are generally also intellectuals) out of some pandering to the working-class sensibility.  But it is to say that the obsession with rarified philosophical categories that have nothing to do with actually existing class struggle might be a problem and might be similar in practice to the non-marxist philosophers in my first anecdote who refused to participate in a strike because they thought they were outside of class struggle.  And though these rarified categories are produced in order to catapult their creators outside of the class struggle, the commitment to class politics still exists even in the moment when these supposedly exterior concepts are being imagined.


  1. You'd probably make an exception for:

    1. Lol... Lovecraft and philosophy? The ontology of shuggoths! The epistemological significance of the Necronomicon!

    2. Look at the writer's name. that is the funny part


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