‘Karl Marx and Contemporary Philosophy’ reviewed by Meade McCloughan

and (eds)
Karl Marx and Contemporary Philosophy

Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2009. 288pp., £50 hb
ISBN 9780230222373

Reviewed by Meade McCloughan

About the reviewer

Meade McCloughan is on the organizing group of the Marx and Philosophy Society and teaches …


The title of this book is Karl Marx and Contemporary Philosophy. One could quibble about what is meant by ‘contemporary’ here, given that the predominant philosophical frame of reference is Hegel’s thought, but then I suppose the implicit point is that Hegel is our contemporary. But my focus is more on the idea of philosophy, in particular what philosophy should be from the Marxist point of view. To orient ourselves, we need go no further than the famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “the philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it”. Marx is of course not disdaining interpretation, but rather urging that interpretation lead to transformatory practice. So how are interpretation and change to be connected?

If we consider the two processes, understanding the world and changing it, theory and practice, as relatively separate, the most straightforward way to connect them is to think that one has to interpret the world in order to be able to change it. That is, one needs to know three things: what it is you are changing, why indeed it needs to be changed and then how to go about changing it. (Thus three interrelated theoretical moments: descriptive, normative and instrumental.) But Marx would obviously be dissatisfied with this conception. In keeping the moments of understanding and change distinct, it leaves open the possibility that the world will not be receptive to the kind of change that is envisaged. A disabling dualism would thus threaten to appear. Marx would therefore additionally want to achieve a more dialectical mediation: one also has to interpret the world in order to establish the ways in which it is itself changing, or likely to change, such that one’s own endeavours can be directed accordingly.

Note now that the valence of ‘change’ has itself changed: in the first proposition – one has to interpret the world in order to be able to change it – it is implicit that change is for the better (however construed); but in the second proposition – one has to interpret the world in order to establish the ways in which it is itself changing – this is not necessarily the case, for it could be changing for the worse, or at least not for the better. If the project of understanding the world leads to either of these conclusions, the Marxist can go either one of two ways:

  1. give up on practice, as with for example the pessimistic Marxism of Theodor Adorno;
  2. wilfully maintain practical endeavours in the face of gloomy theoretical prognoses, as in the well-known slogan ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’.

I don’t know quite what Gramsci may have had in mind when appropriating the ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’ adage. And although it has some cachet with leftists, and may well express an admirable positivity of character, it doesn’t seem at all appropriate for Marxists. For one thing, it might be doubted whether the posture it describes is in fact sustainable. If the intellect is accurately portraying the state of the world in such a way as to generate pessimism, then for how long is the will going to be able to maintain its optimism? Surely not for long, at least without splitting and thereby disabling the agent. It might be thought that the Kantian doctrine of the primacy of practical reason could help here, allowing the positivity of the will to remain undaunted by the negativity of the intellect. But this would not be right: Kant would insist that optimism of the will requires and indeed licenses theoretical optimism. And remember that for Kant, this latter move – the licensing of theoretical optimism – is only possible because of the limits placed on theoretical reason, in particular, in relation to the objects of rational theology (God, the immortality of the soul). My reasons for thinking that Marxists should be suspicious of the ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’ slogan also relate to its provenance. The phrase was coined by the French writer Romain Rolland, and it seems likely that he, knowingly or otherwise, copied it from Jacob Burckhardt’s definition of the Greek spirit: ‘pessimism of the world-view and optimism of the temperament’. Burckhardt was a colleague and friend of Friedrich Nietzsche, and his definition clearly resonates with Nietzsche’s own account of Greek culture in The Birth of Tragedy. My hunch, therefore, would be that ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’ is really a description of a certain kind of tragic wisdom; that is, it is about affirming the negativity presented by the intellect, not trying to overcome it. Indeed the slogan only really makes sense as such.

Anyway, back to my main point: Marxists ought to be interpreting the world in order to establish the ways in which the world is changing, or is likely to change, for the better. So where does philosophy fit in? In two ways:

  1. reflexively: articulating that this is the task of Marxist theory, as against more one-sided conceptions of the theory/practice relation;
  2. substantively: providing philosophically informed Marxist analyses of the world, ones which optimally will justify hope for the future and direct action accordingly.

This book – to return to it at last! – works on both levels. Moreover, it demonstrates that both of these philosophical projects are to be accomplished by reference to Marx’s relation to Hegel.

To stick with what I take to be the reflexive aspect of Marxist philosophy. As was implicit in my earlier reference to ‘a more dialectical mediation’, Marx’s conception of the relation between interpretation and change is considerably indebted to Hegel. Of course Hegel was not advocating change, but that was because he took it that interpretation revealed that the world did not need to change or be changed (much), precisely because it had already changed sufficiently. This then enabled Hegel to disdain the idea that theory should ‘instruct’ the world as to ‘how it ought to be’ (e.g. as cited by Robert Fine, 115). Marx inherits and modifies this Hegelian position.

I take it that those who emphasize Marx’s indebtedness to Hegel, as nearly all the contributors to the book do, are thereby inclined to agree that theory should not instruct the world as to how it ought to be. (There is one apparent exception, to which I will return later.) Ironically, the piece which most clearly espouses this position – Andrew Collier’s – does not even mention Hegel, though the latter’s latent presence in the argument (with its references to organicism and dialectic) is fairly evident. But the flipside of this should be a confidence that theory can and does interpret the world as itself changing for the better. At this level, the book presents a much less clear picture. In what follows I will discuss those chapters which directly touch on my theme (which is of course not to imply that the other authors would not have a great deal to say on the topic).

The boldest position is Martin McIvor’s. Martin reads Marx as a modernist philosopher in the tradition of German idealism. Marx is a modernist because he is concerned with ‘the condition and experience of “modernity”’ (37). Modernity involves both a problem and its solution. The problem is how social practices are to be justified and organized given the breakdown of the old traditional ways; the solution is through collective autonomous self-determination. Martin shows convincingly how Marx’s ideas should be seen as building on those of Kant and Hegel. But I take it that the point of characterizing these philosophers as modernists is to indicate that their ideas both reflect and articulate an aspiration towards freedom which is seen to be developing within modernity. Thus Martin quotes Terry Pinkard saying that Kant ‘captured a deep, almost subterranean shift in what his audience was coming to experience as necessary for themselves: from now on, we were called to lead our own lives, to think for ourselves’ (37). And so we should take it that the philosophical development from Kant to Hegel to Marx remains – however roughly – in step with whatever ‘deep, subterranean’ aspirations are being manifested in the changing course of history. But it is precisely this aspect of ‘the condition and experience of “modernity”’ which gets forgotten in Martin’s account. And maybe not surprisingly, for it could well be thought that the philosophical development from Kant to Hegel to Marx reveals a increasing slippage between the theorists’ ideas and the reality of the modern demand for freedom. To put the point another way, the theorists increasingly over-determine the idea of freedom in the direction of collective identification and self-legislation, in ways which increasingly fail to mesh with what people ostensibly want (which would seem to be something more like negative freedom, or a libertarian version of freedom). Towards the end of Martin’s chapter, we read that ‘what Marx is doing [in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts] is trying to implant a post-Kantian ideal of mutual recognition, or the Hegelian ideal of a fully self-conscious social normativity, more deeply into the very fabric of our most everyday activities and social relationships – such that we see our own production and consumption of material goods as a socially situated and normatively structured activity’ (49, emphasis added). Presumably Marx has to implant it because it is not already there; the theory enables us to see what ought to be the case.

Andrew Chitty’s chapter is more concerned with philosophical anthropology than with the history of the present. But the Marxian texts he is interpreting bring the two together. Andrew says in relation to ‘On the Jewish Question’ that ‘Marx envisages human emancipation as an extension of the emancipation that has already been accomplished in the modern state’ (129, emphasis added). Accordingly, we might suppose that Andrew would see Marx, at least in 1843, as identifying in the modern world a demand for freedom that had been only partially realized in the form of political emancipation and which continued to press – even if only at the level of the dream (as in Marx’s third 1843 letter to Ruge) – for full realization. And indeed something like this must be the case – the philosophical anthropology must manifest itself at the empirical level, and not just in inverted, alienated forms, but also in the struggle for proper realizations of human nature. (Essence must appear.) But again, I wonder just how plausible this is an interpretation of capitalist modernity.

 A quite different tack is adopted by Andrew Collier. Rather than, as with McIvor (and probably Chitty and McCarney as well), identifying some progressive principle in accordance with which the world is already changing, Collier emphasizes the role of a certain kind of conservatism in generating change. This certainly resonates with contemporary experience, in which much effort is (or should be) going into defending both the areas of life not yet invaded by capital and the achievements made against capital in the past. But it is not clear what grounds there are for supposing that these struggles are likely to be successful, still less effect a transition to a new form of society, given the continuing, indeed increasing, pace of capitalist progress (103)

A more optimistic note is sounded by Sean Sayers, who notes that the changing character of work in advanced capitalist societies does mean that for some at least it is closer to Marx’s ideal of that which would be suitable for ‘the fully developed individual’ (156). But it is only a note, not yet a melody.

Moishe Postone’s piece is curious, in that it combines a very Hegelian interpretation of Marx with a quite unHegelian conception of the possible transition to a post-capitalist future. Thus he claims that ‘precisely what Lukács appropriates from Hegel as pointing beyond capitalism – the idea of a dialectical historical logic, the notion of totality, the identical subject-object –are analysed by Marx as characteristics of capital’ (215) – that is, only as characteristics of capital. In other words, the Hegelian inheritance is exhausted in its application to the analysis of capital, and plays no role in informing how we might conceive of moving beyond capital. Postone’s positive conception of this transition appeals to the idea of contradiction, but not, it would seem, a contradiction intrinsic to capital; rather it is the ‘contradiction between existing forms of growth and production and what could be the case if social relations no longer were mediated in a quasi-objective fashion by labour’ (217, emphasis added). That is, a contradiction between how things are and how they ought to be, a contradiction which can only function historically insofar as it motivates action on the part of those who are moved to entertain the thought of it. But where does this idea of ‘what could be the case’ come from? And what grounds are there for supposing that it amounts to a real, and not merely a logical, possibility? At the same time, in fact on the same page, we find Postone reverting to a familiar Hegelian/Marxist trope, claiming that the ‘dynamic [of capital] both generates the possibility of another organization of social life and, yet, hinders that possibility from being realized’ (217). Accordingly, ‘what could be the case’ – a post-capitalist form of society – is in fact already being produced by, is latent within, capitalism. But isn’t this just dialectical historical logic – in fact, exactly the kind of dialectical historical logic Postone has already told us Lukács was wrong to suppose pointed beyond capital?

The other two chapters on twentieth-century Marxism, by Grant and Veneziani, present complementary critiques of two recent traditions in Marxist philosophy, Althusserianism and Rational Choice Marxism. Grant and Veneziani criticize their respective subjects for being unable properly to theorize, and thus engage with, practice; Althusser, because of his over-emphasis on structures, the rational choice Marxists because of their over-emphasis on individuals (and the consequent ‘Prisoners Dilemma’ type problems). But these correctives as such simply take us back to Marx, and a version of the question with which I started: what actual forms of transformatory practice are in fact possible given the way the world is going?

(this paper was originally presented to the Historical Materialism Conference, London, 27 November 2009)

23 March 2010

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