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Marxism and Philosophy: a reflection on some misconceptions

Recently, due to a manuscript I've been writing off-and-on for over two years (there's always more to read and Scrivener makes editing and re-editing both easy and eternal) about what it means to practice philosophy after rupture produced by Marx, I finally read Étienne Balibar's The Philosophy of Marx.  When I first thought about writing this book, I decided it was worthwhile to return to Althusser, since he had written a lot about marxist philosophy, despite a decidedly anti-Althusserian bias I had somehow absorbed from the university in which I earned my doctorate.  As noted in the aforelinked blog, since I had read a lot more marxist theory of various tendencies since I had first encountered Althusser (a time in which I was an autonomist), I discovered that I actually agreed with much of what he was arguing, with the exception of a few areas, and that he was a far better thinker than the theorists I liked at the time.  So of course it was only natural that, after re-reading Reading Capital [well, the edited version available in English], I would put Balibar's book about philosophy on my laundry list of "books that are necessary and applicable to untitled manuscript 1." And yes, before you ask, I do have such a list: the problem is that it tends to grow faster than it shrinks.

Aside from being a quick and clear read, The Philosophy of Marx confirmed and intersected with a lot of the concerns of my unfinished manuscript.  This is not to say that it was the same book, or that I even agree with it, but it was definitely tracing a shared trajectory.  What interests me in this post, however, is not the merits of Balibar's book––I am not writing a review––but about how this book, along with others of its sort (so potentially mine as well if it ever finishes and sees the light of day), reveals a general failure amongst marxists to understand the role and practice of philosophy.  To be clear: I think Balibar (following Althusser) understands the meaning of philosophy-as-it-relates-to-marxism quite well; I think a lot of people who are embedded in traditions that promote misunderstandings, if not whole sale disdain, of philosophy tend to read these books, fail to grasp what is being practiced, and become dismissive for reasons that are often quite anti-intellectual.

The anti-intellectualism I mean here is not the critique of academics on the part of those without the same educational privileges that is often mislabeled as "anti-intellectualism"––or even the possibly related disdain levelled at "the ivory tower academic" by the "common person"––but the the intellectual and/or academic sublimated anti-intellectualism.  This is the attitude, common amongst academics and leftish intellectual types, where the arrogant assumption of one's own mental prowess, or even the refusal to think beyond disciplinary and tendency boundaries, leads to inaccurate dismissals of important theoretical work.  The anti-intellectualism that possesses a veneer of intellectualism: those marxists who dismiss the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler without either having read or thought their way through this theory.  The point is not that people should spend all their time reading theory and learning everything there is to know about every theory, but only that: a) we can learn something from various radical theoretical traditions, even if we discover we have problems with their commitments; b) those who do spend most of their time reading theory, and see this as how they are going to spend most of their life, are also those who practice this kind of academic anti-intellectualism.

This type of "anti-intellectualism" is prevalent amongst marxists when it comes to the problematic of philosophy.  After all, there really doesn't seem to be a consensus amongst marxists about the meaning of philosophy, following the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach… And this lack of consensus is shared even by those of us who are marxists and are trained in philosophy: we really don't know what we are doing.  Thus, philosophy becomes treated as some antiquated, speculative practice that just "interprets the world", or simply as some synonym of thinking-in-general.  The latter case is a significant problem: marxist "philosophy" can be deduced from the ways in which Marx thought about the world––it is the combination of historical and dialectical materialism!  Here philosophy becomes confused with science, and Marx's philosophy is simply the totality of Marx's (and thus Engels') initial project.  Bad philosophical approaches to marxism, then, are those approaches that violate what we now understand marxism to be (often presupposing that there is a single and homogenous "marxism" rather than multiple "marxisms" due to the way in which this terrain has been mapped by various tendencies), and the marxist political economist or marxist historian are also marxist philosophers by virtue of being marxist.

At this point I think it is worth discussing a tangental anecdote based on my own experience as a marxist trained in the discipline of philosophy.  (This anecdote is the reason why I originally decided I needed to start thinking about what it meant to do philosophy as marxist––i.e. the definition of philosophy following the rupture promised by the above-mentioned eleventh thesis––and why this practice might in fact be different from the general practice of marxist theory.)  In 2011, a year after defending my doctoral thesis, I presented a smaller version of my paper on sublimated colonialism at the Historical Materialism conference in London, England.  After presenting, I was shocked by one of the questions where an attendee assumed that I was something of an idealist because, due to the fact that I was primarily engaging with an ideological development in actually-existing settler-colonialism, I apparently did not recognize the historical fact of imperialism, and the economic mechanisms behind imperialism, that produced colonial racism.  The argument, here, was that I was somehow violating the constraints of "marxist philosophy" by not reasserting (as if I could in the time allotted), a theory of imperialism that satisfied the demands of political economy.  And though he thought, for some bizarre reason, that I should be referring to Kautsky's theory of imperialism (and when I answered I dismissed Kautsky and referred to Lenin), his point was simply that every marxist intervention must begin with a recognition and summary of the political economy boundaries of thought.  But must they? I wondered as I answered his question and pointed out that the longer version of my paper actually did engage with these facts: can we not take, as philosophers who are also marxist, some conceptual boundaries as theoretical facts because it is upon these facts, and the contradictions between various marxist schools of empirical facts, that we are intervening?

With this quandary in mind, let us return to Balibar's Philosophy of Marxism.  Not the book itself, but the way in which it has been apprehended by some marxists who, despite seeing themselves as "intellectual" enough to review such a book, are far too committed to a way of seeing a world to recognize the particular concerns of a sophisticated marxist engagement with the meaning and place of philosophy.  Since I have a tendency, after finishing a book, to look for reviews online and see what other reviewers thought about the same book, I very quickly stumbled upon a 2007 review that was published in the International Socialism journal [ISJ], an organ of the Socialist Workers Party [SWP], and that is a paradigm example of the anti-intellectualism amongst marxists when it comes to the area of philosophy.  Although the ISJ is the journal of the SWP, its review of Balibar is significant insofar as: i) it is edited by someone who is an important marxist academic (Alex Callinicos); ii) this editor used to be an authority on Balibar's teacher, Althusser, and even published some interesting work on Althusser, but was forced to recant this work in order to remain within the SWP.  Meaning that: here we have an academic that allows the shutting down of intellectual investigation within a journal that is aimed at intellectuals; this academic should know better because he was once intimately familiar with Balibar's way of seeing the world.

For Balibar, as with Althusser, there is a distinction between marxist science and marxist philosophy.  In The Philosophy of Marx, Balibar is interested in making sense of the philosophy marxism so as to claim that there really is no such thing as a marxist philosophy (following the eleventh thesis) while, at the same time, this "no such thing" may constitute some philosophical process.  He calls this a non-philosophy [but not in the sense indicated by François Laruelle who, though basing his entire life's work on this term, didn't realize a more radical version of non-philosophy happened with Marx], and attempts to show that Marx's philosophical concerns, due to his training, were informed by particular periods of rupture.

The problem with the ISJ review (which is more of a simplistic dismissal than an actual review) is that it begins by conflating marxist philosophy with marxist science, a move that anyone who is aware of Balibar's theoretical commitments (which are Althusserian commitments) should know is an immediate mistake.  Callinicos should have known that this was a fact and questioned a review that stated: "But [Balibar] denies that there is a unified 'Marxist philosophy' that can act as a guide for socialists."  Well of course Balibar can deny this because he believes, following Althusser, that what is the guide for socialists is a unified science and that this is not philosophy.  The problematic of Balibar's book is philosophy, particularly how philosophical concerns were understood by Marx at various periods in his life, and philosophy is less important than science when it comes to revolutionary practice.

(Of course, whether or not there is a "unified science" depends on whether or not we accept that this science develops according to world historical revolutions; in this sense the SWP would disqualify itself from speaking with authority on this matter since it still sees this "science" in a dogmatic manner, stagnating in 1917 with some modern but formal updates, according to a specific interpretation of an insignificant 4th International… But this is another problem.)

Aside from the fact that the review in question was probably somewhat dishonest (it assumes that Balibar thinks we can't learn anything from the way in which marxism has been implemented in the practice of revolution, it claims he thinks certain axiomatic claims of Marx are dogmatic when in fact he is simply saying they are not philosophically supportable, etc.), perhaps based on some SWP anti-Althusserian dogma, it is significant insofar as it demonstrates the specific "anti-intellectualism" discussed above: a refusal to grasp particular disciplinary concerns based on the assumption that we already know, without any reason, what these concerns should be in the first place.

What Balibar was trying to accomplish in The Philosophy of Marxism was nothing more than an explanation of the ways in which the concerns of philosophy are expressed by Marx at various periods of his overall project.  Was philosophy as a practice simply annihilated or was it rearticulated over and over?  Was it banished by the eleventh thesis altogether or does this thesis, along with Marx's own long-standing interactions with philosophical thought, tell us something altogether different?  And if this is the case, can we not also say that the philosophical framework, due to the very fact of philosophy, is changed as it is dragged along by the scientific investigation of historical materialism?  While we may possibly reject such philosophical conceits (as the ISJ reviews recommends) as being besides the point, this does not mean they are unworthy of investigation; they may in fact teach us something about the origin of certain concepts, or why Marx stopped using the concept of ideology to explain concrete reality once he had the concept of commodity fetishism in place.  Does this mean we dispense with the concept of ideology altogether?  No: it simply means we find, after the emergence of the theory of commodity fetishism, a way to rearticulate it in retrospect.

Most significantly, when we examine Marx's relationship to philosophy we also discover that Marx was not always consistent in the realm of thought.  But only dogmatists will demand that we think otherwise, afraid that some marxist purity is lost once we question the supposed infallibility of its initiator.  Do we treat marxism as nothing more than the conglomerate of Marx's writings or do we treat it as that which is derived from those world historical moments where a science was operationalized and developed?  Can we not, at the same time, treat this philosophical fallibility as evidence of the fact that revolutions are necessary in order to establish revolutionary theory?

One of things I find philosophically interesting about marxism in particular, and science in general, is the way in which practice retrospectively structures the terrain.  With Marx we only have the basis for historical materialism, the main principles, and a whole bunch of other data that required the revolution in Russia and the theorists connected to this revolution to provide this structuring (which I've examined at other points on this blog, and am investigating more thoroughly in yet another unfinished manuscript I've been working on––yes, I tend to rotate between projects).  When we examine this philosophical question and others––such as the way in which commodity fetishism may have been used, by Marx, as a replacement for his earlier theory of ideology (a point Balibar finds interesting, and there is indeed a lot of proof to back him up, but that the ISJ review rejects off-hand for reasons that are merely dogmatic)––we may provide some level of clarity to certain theoretical line debates in the marxist terrain that cannot be solved simply by political economy or historical investigation… especially when these forms of theoretical labour produce the same amount of evidence (counter regions within the terrain, if you will) and thus a solution must be extra-economic and extra-historical––but in the disciplinary sense, obviously not in some idealist sense that assumes a critique can come from some pure ahistorical objectivity outside of society and history (which would be ludicrous since all thought and activity is social and historical)––in such a way as to force a decision on what theoretical (political, economic, historical) is the most internally and externally consistent.  Internally consistent in that it is not logically contradictory [in the formal sense]; externally consistent in that it accords to the terrain's overall logic.

The problem, however, is that theorists often become spontaneous philosophers when they encounter a problematic that possesses various and contentious interpretations.  Althusser has demonstrated, by appealing to Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, how this happens in the natural or "hard" sciences; I think we can add, without stretching Althusser's analysis too far, that this also happens with marxist theory as well.  Here we find political economists debating over a certain economic interpretation within the terrain, and labouring to develop the terrain's theory in this regard; here we also find historians debating over the historical basis for certain claims.  Upon encountering debate, they most often become spontaneous philosophers: there is just as much empirical evidence for their position and the position of their opponent(s); the solution is to argue that their position makes more sense according to its own logic or some foundational principle in Marx.  Due to its spontaneous nature, this move into philosophy is often unconscious and poorly performed.

I'm not going to elaborate further on these points; consider them "teasers" for the unfinished manuscript from which they have been drawn.  [Another teaser, posted months back, can be found here.]  Mainly, this post was simply a reflection on my thoughts about the need to properly understand philosophical practice as marxists, not to conflate it with theory, and to realize, as Balibar (along with Althusser and others) teach us, that while Marx put an end to philosophy-as-such, he was possessed various philosophical concerns that influenced key conceptual developments in his thought.  After Marx, and after the 11th thesis, we have the emergence of a philosophical practice, that is not the same as theoretical practice, and it is this we need to understand for certain kinds of assessments theoretical engagements rather than being dismissive and dogmatic.


  1. dont you think that Zizek is a coward for not debating Raymond Lotta? it is imperative that people like you, professional philosophers, urge Zizek to debate Lotta over Zizek's distortions of Maoism and the New Synthesis.

    1. First of all: this comment has nothing to do with this essay. Secondly: the New Synthesis is neither new nor much of a synthesis; it's garbage. Thirdly: I don't care about Zizek or Lotta. Fourthly: what sort of "imperative" do I have to urge Zizek to do anything connected to a revisionist organization in the US? Indeed, the very fact that you are incapable of thinking critically in your comments, and just sound like a member of some cult with a one-track culty mind, makes your comments insignificant. Stop trolling.

    2. yo jmp i love ya man but you take trolls way too serious sometimes

    3. The amount of trolls I delete outweighs the ones I take seriously! The problem with the above trolling (which I did end up just deleting eventually) was that it was hard to tell whether it was a troll or someone seriously invested in the RCP-USA. You know, the whole "poe's law" thing.

  2. This is a very interesting article. I am particularly impressed with the idea behind ".... whole bunch of other data that required the revolution in Russia and the theorists connected to this revolution to provide this structuring....."
    wow, too true


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