On Materialist Understanding of History

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 11.19.07 AMI was reading a very odd small book from 1931 this morning – Toward the Struggle for the Materialist Dialectics in Mathematics – one of those volumes from early Stalinist period that called on science to get with the socialist construction program. It was the sign of times to make sure that all the scientists were doing their science from “Marxist-Leninist” (and later “Stalinist”) point of view. This one is odd because it is about mathematics, one objective science that, one would think, be impossible to bend into any philosophical direction.

The interesting part is the preface where the Marxist understanding of the relationship between society and science is stated and then almost immediately forgotten (by interpreting it away). The issue was that from Marxist point of view the development of science is determined by the development of forces and relations of production. The collection states that and then immediately moves to say that we, proletarian scientists, must change the science in order to make sure it conforms with the tasks of the socialist construction.

So which one is it then? Do the changes in the economic “base” bring about changes in science (and philosophy) or do the changes in science (and philosophy) simply reflect the changes that already took place? This is one challenge of Soviet understanding of the way history works “materialistically-dialectically” – most of the time the confusion is obvious because there is a sense of passivity when it comes to overall changes in forces and relations of production then influencing “superstructure” of science, but the active tasks of molding the new country into something different would not really allow for such (Marxist) passivity.

The second issue is the role of individuals and ideas – Soviet philosophy was of course notorious for taking Marx-Lenin-Stalin as revolutionary heroes who could potentially be wrong but who were sort of super-thinkers and their ideas molded reality around them. Take your usual discussion of Lenin: without his correction understanding of Marxism (and his constant fights against deviations) there would not have been a coherent theory of socialist revolution and therefore there would not have been a revolution. It’s as simple as that – ideas determine reality. Of course, Soviet writers were able to say things like “but Lenin’s theory came as a result of the experience of the masses and the correct perception of the changes in material reality” but still the issue remained. Great men and their ideas determined history, not, as Marx seemed to have suggested, changes in material conditions determined ideas…

Speaking of Preliminary Unpublished Texts

Marx, of course, is in similar position to Hegel vis-a-vis a ton of unpublished materials related to his economic theory. Here is a new book coming out dedicated to Grundrisse – looks interesting:

In Marx’s Laboratory: Critical Interpretations of the Grundrisse

Edited by Riccardo Bellofiore, University of Bergamo, Italy, Guido Starosta, National University of Quilmes, Argentina, and Peter D. Thomas, Brunel University, London

In Marx’s Laboratory. Critical Interpretations of the Grundrisse provides a critical analysis of the Grundrisse as a crucial stage in the development of Marx’s critique of political economy. Stressing both the achievements and limitations of this much-debated text, and drawing upon recent philological advances, this volume attempts to re-read Marx’s 1857-58 manuscripts against the background of Capital, as a ‘laboratory’ in which Marx first began to clarify central elements of his mature problematic. With chapters by an international range of authors from different traditions of interpretation, including the International Symposium on Marxian Theory, this volume provides an in-depth analysis of key themes and concepts in the Grundrisse, such as method, dialectics and abstraction; abstract labour, value, money and capital; technology, the ‘general intellect’ and revolutionary subjectivity, surplus-value, competition, crisis; and society, gender, ecology and pre-capitalist forms.

Contributors include: Chris Arthur, Luca Basso, Riccardo Bellofiore, George Caffentzis, Martha Campbell, Juan Iñigo Carrera, Howard Engelskirchen, Roberto Fineschi, Michael Heinrich, Fred Moseley, Patrick Murray, Geert Reuten, Tony Smith, Guido Starosta, Massimiliano Tomba, Jan Toporowski, Peter D. Thomas, Joel Wainwright, and Amy Wendling.

But Who Will Pat Down The Pat Downers?

As someone who avoided holiday travel by air, I have to say that this whole TSA thing is really another example of bureaucratic mental lockdown which will only result in more and more ridiculous rules which we will all learn to love and cherish eventually. Trust me, I was born and raised in the Soviet Union.

And now to something completely different. I asked the students to write a small reflection paper on a rather banal but, if attended to, potentially thought-provoking theme (for any smart undergraduate): is our sense of right and wrong innate or acquired? Not surprisingly, they mostly wrote that it is acquired and went on to argue how family, culture, education and environment are all essential elements and so on. However, on almost every paper that made a big deal of education and family I found myself writing something like “Good point, but who educates the educators?” I’m looking forward to asking this question in class tomorrow, but I’m fairly sure it’ll be one of those “Hmmm, I don’t know – their educators?” conversations in which I am trying to explain the paradoxical nature of the claim and the students give me looks like I’m insane, because I make this pretty commonsensical view (“we learn our values from our family/society”) into a problematic one (“this is the whole problem with you, philosophy-types – you take our established beliefs and you attempt to destroy them”).

All of this lead me this week to Marx’s Third Thesis on Feuerbach:

The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated. Hence this doctrine is bound to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change [Selbstveränderung] can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.

It is a rather cryptic note and I’m sure some scholar dedicated a good book to it already, and I’d like to read it.

How does one approach this problem – educators need to be educated – without avoiding a kind of infinite regress? Does it mean that this “revolutionary practice” in a sense destroy the very traditional notion of education?

Useful Resource: Hans Ehrbar’s Annotations to Marx’s Capital

[Das Kapital, special edition with gold-edge… I simply had to have it!]

This 3178 page document (yes, that is correct) is a treasure for anyone reading Capital. I was looking for a good English equivalent to Schatzbildung (translated as “hoarding” in Capital, chap.3:3) and came across it. The best part is that it’s easy to use because of all the hyperlinks and searchability. I hope more scholars put up their work online and challenge the system of subscription-only access to knowledge and research, especially in humanities.

Ehrbar also has a full German/English (side-by-side) text of Capital here and other resources here.

Random Quote: Marx on Russians

Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann (October 12, 1868):

Russian aristocrats are educated as youths at German universities and in Paris. They always snatch up the most extreme of what the West has to offer. This is pure gourmandise, and a part of the French aristocracy also carried on in this way during the eighteenth century. “Ce n’est pas pour les tailleurs et les bottiers,” said Voltaire at the time, speaking of his own Enlightenment philosophy. This does not prevent these Russians from becoming scoundrels as soon as they enter the civil service.

Damn Russians, I tell you!

Rethinking Marx and Religion (by Alberto Toscano)

An interesting piece by Toscano on Marx and religion:

In the contemporary study of religion as a factor of social change and political mobilisation, Marx is treated as a marginal reference at best, a ‘dead dog’ at worst. The global impasse, or even reversal, of a secularisation process that Marx appears to take for granted; the turbulent rise of explicitly religious forms of political subjectivity; the persistence or resurgence of religion both as a principle of political authority and a structuring presence in everyday life – these current trends seem to militate for the relegation of Marx to a historical moment (that of the European nineteenth-century), a political subject (the workers’ movement), and a notion of temporality (the one encompassed by notions of progress, development and revolution) which have been inexorably surpassed in a globalised scenario (whether we grasp this scenario through the differential lens of postcolonial critiques, the hegemonic and homogeneous prism of neoliberalism, or the bellicose culturalism of the infamous ‘clash of civilisations’). To compound this state of affairs, which could also be read in terms of a revenge of the sociology of religions against a Marxian ‘master narrative’ – and with all the apposite caveats regarding the discontinuities between Marx and historical Marxisms, practical and theoretical – we cannot ignore the significance of the religious question within the so-called ‘crisis of Marxism’ of the 1970s and onwards.

When Michel Foucault, in his enduringly controversial reports on the Iranian revolution, stressed the irrelevance of Marx’s dictum on religion as the ‘opium of the people’ in accounting for the role of Islamic politics in the overthrow of the Shah, he was expressing a commonly-held rejection of the supposed secular reductivism characteristic of Marxist theories of social change and prescriptions for revolutionary action. Alongside Iran, the complex entanglement of popular rebellions and religion in the Polish Solidarnosc movement and Latin American liberation theology wrong-footed a theory of revolutionary praxis which took the ‘practical atheism’ of the proletariat as a sociological datum. This situation has been exacerbated today in a context where the ebb of projects of human emancipation is accompanied by the pauperisation and brutalisation of a ‘surplus humanity’ living in a ‘planet of slums’, the catalyst for a twenty-first-century ‘reenchantment of a catastrophic modernity’ in which ‘populist Islam and Pentecostal Christianity (and in Bombay, the cult of Shivaji) occupy a social space analogous to that of early twentieth-century socialism and anarchism’.

Tough Shit Justice, or Changing the World

Marx’s famous pronunciation, 11th thesis on Feuerbach – Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt aber darauf an, sie zu verändern[Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it] – makes me wonder (and always did) whether philosophers should be trying to change the world as philosophers or if they should abandon their futile efforts to explain the world (or leave it to scientists) and do something else (that else hopefully would be directed at changing the world). Continue reading

Philosophy as a Practice of Political Intervention.

Marxist-Leninist afternoon continues with a section from Althusser’s Lenin and Philosophy:

In a lecture now a year old, published in a small volume by Maspero under the title Lenin and Philosophy, I have attempted to prove that Lenin should be regarded as having made a crucial contribution to dialectical materialism, in that he made a real discovery with respect to Marx and Engels, and that this discovery can be summarized as follows: Marx’s scientific theory did not lead to a new philosophy (called dialectical materialism), but to a new practice of philosophy, to be precise to the practice of philosophy based on a proletarian class position in philosophy.

This discovery, which I regard as essential, can be formulated in the following theses: Continue reading