Marxism Without Progress
June 14, 2018
Jun 14, 2018
17 Min read time
When philosophy tries to reclaim Marx, the duty to interpret comes before the duty to change.
Slavoj Žižek, Frank Ruda, and Agon Hamza
Polity, $19.95 (paper)
Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx's Lost Theory
Verso, $26.95 (cloth)
Isaac Deutscher once told a story “about his difficulties as a young Communist in finding an entry-way into [Karl Marx’s] Capital.” He had been relieved to hear a very famous socialist orator of the day, Ignacy Daszyński, admit that Capital had been too much for him as well. He had still not read it, Daszyński went on, but Karl Kautsky had read it and had written a summary. Daszyński himself had not read the summary, but the party’s chief theorist had, and the party theorist had summarized the summary. He had not read the party theorist either, but a clever Jew named Diamond had, and Diamond had told him all about it.
My own relation to Marxism did not start from reading Capital or joining a group where I would eventually run into someone who had. It came about by studying history, the discipline eventually practiced—after his expulsion from the Polish Communist Party—by the exiled Deutscher. In my second year of college I was assigned a number of Marxist historians—E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, and Christopher Hill—alongside other historians who were not Marxists. I think the teachers in that course (graduate students) preferred the non-Marxists, but they wanted us to make up our own minds.
To me the Marxists made better sense. I didn’t climb the Everest of Capital. It wasn’t there. What was in front of me was a sequence of historical events—for example, how the enclosures of the eighteenth century explained a lot about how early capitalists had managed to force people off the land and into the factories. It was that simple.
Of course, it wasn't really so simple. Controversy about why and how things happen does not go away, nor do the deep uncertainties about what history is, what Marxism is, and how well the two fit together. When I fell for the Marxist historians and abandoned my plan to major in philosophy, what was I committing myself to? What was I choosing, and not choosing?
The allegiance to philosophy entails a de-radicalizing of Marx: the duty to interpret is once again placed above or before the duty to change.
My failure to answer this question at the time, or even to realize it needed asking, hit me with a sudden queasiness when I opened Reading Marx, a short volume of three essays by Slavoj Žižek, Frank Ruda, and Agon Hamza. The point of this fascinating, if somewhat quirky book, is not to talk people out of acquiring the Master’s thought second-hand, as if all problems would be solved by a return to the sacred texts. Reverence for the texts themselves is visible, but Marx is not treated as infallible.
Nor is the point to remind us that our historical baggage, having shifted during flight, requires we keep our wits about us as we find and hoist it. In other words, that in order to change the world we will first have to do some re-interpreting of it. Žižek and his co-authors—all philosophers—seem to want to make a case for their academic discipline. They all announce that Marxism has an unacknowledged need for philosophy. Disciplinary self-interest aside, it is unclear why.
Claims for one discipline are usually pressed against the perception of competing claims by a rival discipline. The explanation that seems most plausible to me is that the authors want to deny a privileged intimacy they feel exists between Marxism and the discipline of history. If there is a battle going on between the two disciplines, with each asserting jurisdiction over Marxism, one would like to know what the stakes are. Indeed I would like to know, having long ago made what looks like the opposite choice.
Žižek and company have in their sights a version of history that assumes that new concepts build and improve on those of the past. Philosophy, like literary criticism, is allergic to progress. It is not hard to see why. One basic premise of both disciplines is that the great works of the past speak unhindered to the present, bringing forward through time a wisdom that can never go out of date. Practitioners of both disciplines pride themselves, of course, on putting their texts in historical context. But this means they operate in a state of unacknowledged contradiction.
History is respectable—maybe even too much so—as the domain of the knowledge of differences. It would be harder to acknowledge the conviction that your subject matter is mysteriously immune to the passage of time, and worthwhile precisely because it sheds its context so as to be freshly and directly in the here and now.
As if to explain what philosophy can do that history can't, each chapter makes a proud display of anachronism. Žižek's chapter lays out Marx’s opinion of the recent fashion for so-called object-oriented ontology, an eco-friendly branch of philosophy that wants to take human-centered arrogance down a notch—as in Graham Harman's Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (2002) and Timothy Morton's The Ecological Thought (2012). (Marx's opinion, Žižek thinks, would be more positive than you might expect, though a world of objects without a human subject really doesn’t work for Žižek or for Marx.)
Ruda imagines that Plato's allegory of the cave elucidates the obscurity from which we suffer under modern capitalism. And what if, Hamza asks, instead of considering Marx as a reader of Hegel, we were to consider Hegel as a reader of Marx? Maybe Hegel would be usefully critical of Marx’s labor theory of value and would see labor as less emancipatory and even more alienating than Marx thought it was. Maybe his own vision of labor would turn out to be superior to Marx’s. After all, later doesn’t always mean better.
But wait—who thought it did? It would be embarrassing if the authors were really training their big guns on so trivial a target. In fact, Žižek, Ruda, and Hamza seem to be aiming at bigger game: history in general, history imagined as progressive. And, if they are pushing for a Marxism without progress, their enterprise becomes bolder, and also riskier.
Rejecting progress may seem plausible enough. In the era of climate change, who does not take the occasional potshot at progress, whether because it is seen as faith-based rather than fact-based or as irremediably tainted by the complacency of its nineteenth-century adherents? The anti-progress position seems less secure, however, when you think of what it means day to day. It means believing that nothing we do will make a real difference, which is to say a difference that lasts beyond the feel-good doing of it.
This latter belief has no doubt come to seem more credible given the sorry state of the job market for intellectual work and other factors too numerous and depressing to list. Still, it is a belief, not a self-evident truth that transcends its present historical context. Žižek and company do not quite say that they are giving up on progress as a necessary assumption for any and all political action—they make the usual pious noises about revolution, emancipation, and the search for alternatives—but they come very close to admitting that they no longer hold with Marx's eleventh thesis on Ludwig Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world. . . . The point, however, is to change it.” Their allegiance to philosophy seems to entail a gloomily de-radicalizing reversal of Marx: the duty to interpret is once again placed above or before the duty to change.
Is capitalism really like Plato's cave? Capitalist ideology throws our economic reality into the shadows, but much of that reality is perfectly visible—even if it often seems there is no alternative to it.
It is a new monasticism, a rebirth of the monks' decision to withdraw from a darkened world after the fall of Rome. You can do nothing about the barbarians frolicking destructively outside, the reasoning seems to go, so sit tight within your walls, keep your philosophy alive, and hope for some sort of renaissance. You can see the attraction.
If a new monasticism is indeed on the agenda, it is strange that each chapter bows more or less deeply to Hegel. Hegel, after all, was not enthusiastic about monasteries.
The gesture is familiar in Žižek, for whom Hegel has long served as an escape-hatch from crude versions of economic materialism and as a stepping-stone to Jacques Lacan, which is to say to a recognition that the real is inaccessible and human desire is complex and perverse. Like Judith Butler, Žižek makes a pretty good case that Hegel anticipated what was going to become poststructuralism.
It is less clear that Hegel suits Hamza's project. With help from the late Moishe Postone, Hamza wants to beckon Marxism away from what he sees as its too positive idea of work. Marx’s concept of work is too humanist, he argues—work should not be seen as the human essence—and it is also in need of sociological updating. If you are still waiting for the workers of the world to unite, you should probably take a long look at the numbers of those around the world who are unemployed and underemployed—and the even larger numbers who soon will be. Marx did not predict a drastic increase in the unexploited. On the humanism point, however, Hegel does not improve on Marx.
Also, one can't help but notice that in displacing work from Marxism's anthropological center, Hamza is also displacing the imperative to activism. For him, Hegel is a “contemplative philosopher,” one who “never embarked on an ambitious project to change the world.” If not, however, it is because Hegel approved of the way the world was already changing—notoriously, the Prussian state's passage beyond feudalism.
In Ruda's case, the turn to Hegel seems revealingly out of place. Plato assumes that only the darkness of the cave keeps its inhabitants from recognizing the brightly illuminated truth outside. Is capitalism really like a cave? Ruda says yes: capitalist ideology throws our economic reality into the shadows. But one could as easily say no: much of that reality is perfectly visible, even if it often seems that “there is no alternative” to it.
For what it's worth, Ruda is contradicted on this point by Hamza. For Hamza, previous social systems had hidden the exploitation of the poor by the rich, and what is distinctive about capitalism is that for the first time it unveils that exploitation. In other words, capitalism is not a cave. There is plenty of textual support in Marx for this.
Progressive change is possible because it has already happened. Enlightenment and emancipation are not otherworldly ideals; they are part of the historical record.
But there is something worse about referring to Hegel in an argument about Plato's cave. Plato obviously has little respect for the cognitive value of ordinary human experience, en-caved as it is. Hegel has much more. And when you get past the debates about teleology, that is what makes him so enduringly useful as a model of historical thinking. Hegel does not imagine that in order to see the light, you would have to escape from the cave. Even the most benighted, for him, have some hold on the relentlessly mobile truth of a world in motion. A duffer's guide to the dialectic could do worse than expand on that rough point.
Hegel’s Lord/Bondsman dialectic, on which Hamza comments, begins with the figure who is to become the Lord (there are no identities at the outset) making the right choice: he decides there is something higher than animal life. But it is the one who makes the wrong choice (clinging to animal life) and thus becomes the Bondsman who ends up learning about the natural world and about his power to shape, preserve, and mix with it rather than merely consuming it. He thus attains a higher degree of self-consciousness. The word “higher” can be used without any pretense that the story has come to an end. Knowledge leads into error, and error leads to an advancement in knowledge.
I did not read Hegel’s Phenomenology in college, but looking back, that book makes sense of my choice of history over philosophy. Like Hegel, I resisted the assumption that people lived in a cave-like darkness. This did not suggest naïve belief in a progress that was somehow guaranteed. It meant only that progressive change was possible because progressive change had already happened. Enlightenment and emancipation were not otherworldly ideals; they were part of the historical record. Yes, there were the enclosures, of course, but there was also the victory of Cromwell's New Model Army in the 1640s and the execution of the king.
Marx found the forces unleashed by the bourgeoisie inspiring, and he was not wrong to be inspired. The capitalist state set up commissions of inquiry into factory conditions, the commissions of inquiry wrote up Blue Books of their findings, and the Blue Books enabled Marx to write Capital. There is no critique of the status quo that does not shine from within the status quo. Capitalism's present is not a cave. It glimmers with various possible futures.
In the long run, as Keynes said, we are all dead. The sun will go out, and well before it does, the waters will rise. That non-human perspective makes things hard for storytellers. Animals, a thread running through all three chapters in Reading Marx, suggest a turn toward the non-human that may also be another background for the book’s turn away from activism and its defense of philosophy against history. But climate change (which of course does not rule out linear and totalizing meta-narrative, but on the contrary requires it) is more of a Mike Davis subject.
Two of the four essays in Davis’s Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory (all previously published in New Left Review) are about the challenge to Marx—and to us—of global warming and, more generally, of learning how to think differently about nature. A fascinating essay on the Russian anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921) retrieves Kropotkin's work as a geographer and his untestable speculations about the effects of climate change on history as part of a renewed discourse on human and non-human historical causality. The book's conclusion is, as Davis says, a “debate with myself” between “arguments for believing that we have already lost the first, epochal stage of the battle against global warming” (labelled “pessimism of the intellect”) and arguments proposing that the city might be “its own solution” (a shorter section, labelled “optimism of the imagination”).
The discussion of the low-carbon city is sharp and energizing, but it is not a fair fight. An impartial judge would be hard pressed to declare imagination the winner. That said, Davis speaks in the name of activism. Or more precisely, activism in the past.
Davis's Marx is a story-teller, a journalist whose timely analyses of events departed dramatically from the theory that came to bear his name.
The full title of the title essay is “Old Gods, New Enigmas: Notes on Revolutionary Agency.” The chapter—almost a book in itself—tells story after story of revolutionary agency, from Marx's early adulthood (when he was 20 years old in 1838), through the nineteenth century, and into the early twentieth century. But it is strange, to say the least, that this long chronicle of struggles has almost nothing to say about the world after 1921.
After 150 pages, we leap in a single paragraph from the Bolshevik Revolution and the less successful struggles that accompanied it in Europe to the United States after World War II, the Marshall Plan, the long postwar boom, and so on. Nothing is said about why the economic crisis of 2008 did not lead to a renewal of worker movements. Are we supposed to be so fired up by the thick history of working-class movements, organizations, and confrontations that we no longer need or want to ask about what happened afterwards—why the slate of working-class struggles looks so much weaker and thinner today?
Agency in the past—it sounds like a paradox. If it is, it ought to be a familiar one. Although Davis is more a writer than a scholar, his paradox would belong to historical scholarship of the most established and respectable kind. Much of what I was given to read as a student of history could be described in the same way: as evidence of strong and neglected dissent, all of it however safely in the past, untroubled by evidence of continuity or reasons for discontinuity with the immediate present.
Davis is a natural-born storyteller, and his preferred Marx is also a story-teller, a journalist whose timely analyses of events departed dramatically from the theory that came to bear his name. Davis suggests that it is time to associate Marx's name with a different theory, and one that answers my objection above.
The second essay, “Marx's Lost Theory,” focuses on Marx's accounts of France during and after the 1848 Revolution (published as The Class Struggles in France and The 18th Brumaire) in order to argue that here, if not later, Marx recognized non-industrial workers, including peasants, as part of the proletariat. To understand the revolutionary potential of peasants, rising up against taxation and onerous credit arrangements rather than against capitalist employers, is to understand the political potential of our own present, in which industrial workers will never again be able to represent humankind as a whole. Today, Davis suggests, many of capitalism's victims are structurally more similar to nineteenth century peasants than nineteenth century workers.
People can be treated very shabbily—and can resent their treatment very passionately—without their resentment turning in an anti-capitalist direction.
That seems plausible, and definitely worth pursuing, even if the essay’s argument does not quite stand up. For Davis, the revolutionaries of 1848 were also nationalists, summoned to confront a foreign threat, and nationalism will be key to rekindling a future working-class movement. Davis rejects the idea that the working class got caught up in the nationalist fervor at the outset of World War I and instead tells a couple of stories of mutiny. That's not convincing history. Today, nationalism has certainly been rekindled, especially in portions of the U.S. working class. But they cheer for Donald Trump, of course, and it is not clear that the emotions behind “Make America Great Again” can or should be re-functioned for less xenophobic, more progressive purposes.
The simple fact is that people can be treated very shabbily—and can resent their treatment very passionately—without their resentment turning in an anti-capitalist direction. Davis makes much of the high proportion of nineteenth century workers who were domestic servants. Marx knew this—it is in Capital, as an explanation of what exploitation is not. Marx also doubted, correctly, that anything of political substance would come out of that not very organized collectivity, which did not generate surplus value for their employers.
The question is whether victims of injustice under capitalism, such as women, will draw the conclusion that they should turn against capitalism. All progressives can be glad that the movement for gender justice has the kind of energy it has today. But is it anti-capitalist? Davis gives no real reasons why “patriarchy was the true Achilles heel of the labor movement.” That is what killed the labor movement? Really? The phrase seems a loose bit of piety, not a responsible answer to the question of where resistance to capitalism has come from and is likely to come from in the future.
For Marxism, the point is to answer this question, not to recognize suffering and injustice wherever they exist. Suffering and injustice have always been with us. But they have not always led anywhere. By character, Marxism is quite severe.
And if this severity is non-negotiable, then Marxism may well have put itself out of business. Live by historical relativizing, die by historical relativizing. The idea that Marxism may itself be historically relative—and indeed past its sell-by date—will surprise no one, even those (they are many) who happily recognize its continuing power as an analysis of capitalism's dynamics and ever-increasing economic inequality.
It may be that the claiming of Marxism for philosophy, as in Žižek and his co-authors’ work, is a move to protect Marxism from this historical self-dissolution. It may also be that this is the only way in which Marxism can be protected from history's power to relativize. On the other hand, history is not just a relativizer. We won't know where it is going until we get there.
Help fund the next generation of Black journalists, editors, and publishers.
Boston Review’s Black Voices in the Public Sphere Fellowship is designed to address the profound lack of diversity in the media by providing aspiring Black media professionals with training, mentorship, networking opportunities, and career development workshops. The program is being funded with the generous support of Derek Schrier, chair of Boston Review’s board of advisors, the Ford Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, but we still have $50,000 left to raise to fully fund the fellowship for the next two years. To help reach that goal, if you make a tax-deductible donation to our fellowship fund through August 31 it will be matched 1:1, up to $25,000—so please act now to double your impact. To learn more about the program and our 2021-2022 fellows, click here.
June 14, 2018
17 Min read time