Reviewed by Joshua Moufawad-Paul
François Laruelle’s project of ‘non-philosophy’ exhibits an interesting tension. On the one hand it appears to replicate Feuerbach’s rejection of philosophy-as-such, an examination of philosophy from the standpoint of the non-philosopher. On the other hand, Laruelle structures this standpoint of non-philosophy in a way that Feuerbach would reject: a formal system that resembles the kind of ontological ‘speculative theology’ symptomatic of Hegel. As Ray Brassier once quipped, Laruelle’s importance lies in his formal invention, in the abstract system that he has constructed and that resists instantiation. Leaving aside the larger problem of whether that which resists concrete explanation is a hermetic system that perpetuates itself as a system precisely because it poisons the well of any criticism, my interest in Laruelle’s project is in how it functions according to an object with which I am familiar: Marxism. Thus, after reading Laruelle’s work on non-philosophy in general, I hoped to make more sense of its theoretical deployment upon the terrain of Marxism in his Introduction to Non-Marxism.
Unfortunately, due to the review format, I am unable to do Laruelle’s dense book full justice. Moreover, Laruelle’s non-philosophy has been subjected to a series of revisions and Introduction to Non-Marxism occupies an earlier and transitionary period (what he calls ‘Philosophy III’). Hence, I will focus on key aspects of his engagement with Marxism rather than on a full exposition of non-philosophy. I believe I’m justified in making this choice because Laruelle makes this choice when it comes to Marxism, and this is the problem: he expends very little time in explicating the meaning of Marxism, instead relying on a somewhat straw-person account, in order to present his “non-Marxist” alternative as the rational kernel of Marxism––much like Hegel represented his ontology as the consummation of all philosophy.
According to Laruelle, the problem with philosophy as a whole (whether it be a ‘transcendental’ or ‘immanent’ approach to reality) is that it makes a particular ‘philosophical decision’ to structure the world in such a way so as to organize it according to speculative reflection, but remains unaware of this decision; it is thus trapped by the duality wherein ‘being and thinking are the same.’ (23) Hence philosophy is ‘a fundamental pretension and authoritarian legislation over every other thought.’ (165) Non-philosophy, then, is intended to be the archimedean point capable of unveiling the philosophical decision. Instead of a meta-philosophy (which would just be philosophy explaining itself according to philosophy), Laruelle attempts to construct a unified theory of philosophy and science. Non-philosophy is to philosophy, according to Laruelle, what non-Euclidean geometry is to geometry. Non-philosophy abandons the duality between being and thinking ‘in order to deduce, not thought, but the transformation of thought from the Real.’ (23) Hence, consistent with his overall project, Laruelle approaches Marxism with the same rationale: Marxism is a particular variant of philosophy, though it struggles against philosophy, and so must be grounded according to a non-philosophical elaboration of its theoretical concerns, i.e. non-Marxism.
The primary evidence that Marxism is a quasi-philosophy that struggles with being non-philosophical is, according to Laruelle, its failure to realize its aims. Rather than locate this failure in the inability of practice to realize the promises of the theory itself (the ‘neo-Marxist’ position), or the complete invalidity of the theory (the ‘anti-Marxist’ position), Laruelle argues that, while the failure does reside in the theory of Marxism, this is simply because it is hampered by a failure to overcome philosophy––even its materialism, which is a philosophical materialism, cannot overstep the idealism of philosophy. For Laruelle, Marxism possesses an ‘amphibology’ due to the fact that it is ‘a poorly constructed theory … made out of pieces taken from here and there,’ (20) or ‘a conclusion without premises.’ (74) Laruelle, however, does not think Marxism should be dismissed for the following reason: ‘the use of philosophy by Marxism … is already a “non-philosophical” practice of philosophy, even if this practice is formulated, and more than formulated, with philosophical means.’ (2) Non-Marxism, then, aims at ‘philosophically impoverishing Marxism’ (2) so as to ‘define it by its kernel which is irreducible, and foreign, to philosophy.’ (1)
One problem that is immediately produced by this project, though, is the discourse of ‘failure’ that is the motivation for Laruelle’s intervention. I have argued elsewhere that it is a mistake to approach Marxism from the position of abject failure since it concedes too much ground to an ‘end of history’ discourse and thus undermines our ability to think through concretely the failures of socialist history. Rather, these failures only make sense when judged according to the successes of Marxism, which are also multiple; a dialectic of failure-success might lead to a better appreciation of how Marxism unfolds as a living theory. Since Laruelle is not alone in using the ‘failure’ discourse, however, we can concede the point. Indeed, what is interesting in this context about Laruelle’s approach is that he is not trying to get around the failures of real world socialism by ‘reforming the runaways by making them “sit and learn their lessons again”,’ (12) but is interested in explaining such failure by not appealing to the gap between real world socialism and an ‘authentic’ Marxist theory. Here is the normative significance of his non-philosophical approach: ‘a theory of Marxism’s failure cannot itself be Marxist.’ (15)
The next problem, in connection with Laruelle’s claims about Marxism’s ‘amphibology’, is whether we can properly argue that Marxism is hampered by philosophy in the way that Laruelle suggests. For Laruelle, Marxism’s materialism is a philosophical decision: its ‘crucial problem is that it cannot form its own theory and that it needs an exterior theory, a theory with a philosophical origin; it needs an idealist complement in the form of a materialist position, for example in the form of the category of materialism and the real, of matter, and this complement must carry out materialism.’ (50) Making such a claim, though, is intensely philosophical––the kind of reading that feels like an imposition on the Marxist project. One might as well claim that modern physics is affected by similar prior decisions, requiring a ‘non-physics’ to provide it with a theoretical grounding. My worries notwithstanding, Laruelle does provide a useful insight here, since there are indeed moments in Marxism where particular philosophical decisions regarding the category of ‘matter’ and the position of ‘materialism’ have been made: Engels’ Dialectic of Nature comes to mind, as does some of the Soviet ‘diamat’ approaches to nature. Even so, non-Marxism may also be unable to escape the problem Laruelle has posed; if anything it admits to infinite regress––the need for a non-non-philosophy, a non-non-non-philosophy, etc.
Laruelle thus substitutes the category of ‘the Real’ for ‘matter’ and grounds it in a reconceptualization of ‘determination-in-the-last-instance’ (DLI), a non-philosophical concept he finds in Marx but strips of its ‘philosophical’ trappings so as to form the basis of a non-Marxism, claiming that the Marxist articulation of DLI ‘has been divided between a materialist causality and a materialist or philosophical theory of this causality’ (52), Laruelle argues that it should be properly articulated as ‘the immanent cause or object of its own theory … the theory of the force-(of)-thought,’ as opposed to a DLI grounded in the Marxist category of ‘labour power,’ since the latter is incapable ‘of its own “proletarian” theory, without Hegelian idealism,’ (52) and, limited to the category of economy, lacks the universality of a base that takes every aspect of the Real, and not just the economy (another philosophical decision), into account. Rather than elaborating this intensely speculative theory of DLI any further, I think it is worthwhile to examine what this means for a non-Marxist practice. Marxism is primarily a philosophy about practically changing the world; a non-Marxism that seeks to overcome Marxism’s failure must provide an alternative account of the world and how to change it, or it is not, to my mind, even talking about the same set of concerns.
Overall, Laruelle does not provide a reason as to why his intervention rescues Marxism from itself. Rather, non-Marxism functions as an elaborate thought experiment, the kind of thing that Marxism deemed ‘philosophical’. For example, after dismissing the Marxist insistence on practice as yet another philosophical decision (particularly in how it gets confused with the Real), Laruelle asserts that practice ‘is a transcendental axiomatic but not a pure theory: an immanent and uni-lateralizing formalization.’ (107) To be fair, Laruelle makes some interesting interventions regarding the subject and the matter/consciousness problematic, but there is nothing here that has not been said by other theorists, particular those involved in real-world struggles who have thought through what it means to practice revolution. For Marxism, the concept of practice is not intended to be a vague speculative category, particularly since social movements have engaged in revolutionary practice and have taught us something about the world. It is difficult for me to imagine a non-Marxist practice as more than a bunch of people exercising their force-(of)-thought in a university classroom. Hence, if non-Marxism is to fix the deficiencies of Marxism then it must communicate to actual struggles against capitalism and the practices, in this regard, that may well require theoretical intervention. Whereas the corpus of Marxism still has a lot to say on how to organize and struggle, non-Marxism speaks only of struggle speculatively, as ‘essentially messianic or clandestine.’ (194)
Indeed, the non-Marxist revolutionary subject posited by Laruelle––”the stranger” or “the non-proletarian”––is a vague abstraction. Although Laruelle is quite correct in arguing that ‘[s]ometimes an idealist conception of the subject predetermines class struggle,’ (121) it is difficult to accept that his rejection of the category ‘proletarian’ in favour of ‘non-proletarian’ is not idealist. Here Laruelle is repeating what many post-Marxist thinkers have said: the proletariat is an antiquated concept, there is no longer a revolutionary agent akin to the one Marx imagined, and there might not be anything that resembles class struggle. Laruelle argues for a universalization of the concept of ‘proletariat’ outside of the ‘philosophical’ categories of opposed classes, so that it becomes the negation of class ‘for which the plebe, minorities, the excluded etc. can also serve as materials.’ (139) The problem, though, is that in the real world there is something we can call the proletariat, even if we must stretch our understanding of this category to make room for sites of oppression and marginalization: billions of people live intensely exploited lives so that a minority can benefit. If we pretend that this existence no longer matters as a theoretical category then we are in fact excluding the majority of the world, most of whom live in the global peripheries and work in sweatshops and mines. When Laruelle writes that ‘[n]on-Communism is not made specifically for the “workers” … [but] for every man,’ (141) he demonstrates that he has missed the thrust of the tradition he has critiqued. For Marx and Engels ‘every man’ was a philosophical abstraction. In a context of exploitation and oppression we cannot imagine a movement that locates itself in the multiple positions of individuals from every class, particularly since some of those classes actually do have an interest in exploiting others; to imagine otherwise is the fantasy of moral philosophy. Hence it may very well be that Laruelle’s non-Marxism is, despite its claims, an attempt to re-philosophize Marxism––another ‘philosophical normalization of Marxism … that dissolve[s] its ‘heretical’ effects within an image of thought.’ (34)
18 February 2016