Marxism, Enlightenment & Romanticism

Flannon fjackson at
Sun Nov 13 00:45:51 MST 1994

Alex, I was hoping that you could say a little bit more about your use of
the term positivism.  I've been interested for some time now in the
relationship between positivism and marxist discourse.  In examining this
relationship it becomes difficult to say exactly what positivism is, for
there are several ways to understand this term, and each one of them
proposes an internal consistency which isn't necessarily destroyed by the
existence of the others.  As an initial definition my understanding of
positivism is exactly the opposite of the one you propose, at least in so
far as it relates to Lenin.  In my reading of _Materialism and
Empirico-Criticism_ Lenin forms an identity between Mach's
empirico-criticism and Comte's positivism.  On this account then, the
objective science that Lenin is in favor of is antithetical to positivism
and Lenin's analysis merely repeats the dicotomy of materialism and
idealism in which materialism is the only valuable component.  Lenin also
does something very strange to materialism in that he places Kant squarly
in the materialist camp, in that the thing-in-itself exists as an
objective reality and not as an ideal object whose only existance occures
within the mind.  Though I like the idea of Kant as
something other than an idealist, I'm not sure what to think of it in
relation to Lenin, in that it seems to destroy the strict opposition
between the ideal and the material that Lenin is dependent on.  This,
however, is probably a question for another time.

I'm still working out my inderstanding of the relationship between
positivism and marxist discourse, so what follows should be considered a
working theory and nothing more.  It is sometimes vague and obscure, and
at other times down right contradictory, but having said that, here's my
two cents worth on positivism.

>From Lenin onwards, positivism is denigrated within marxist discourse
according to the material/ideal opposition.  A couple of cases in point
being Marcuse's _Reason and Revolution_, and Sartre's _Search for a
Method_ as well as _The Critique of Dialectical Reason_.  But I'm making
too strong of a case here, because there is another line of possibility
within marxist discourse, as well as outside of it, which produces a
positive sense of positivism, either through direct reference to the term,
or through the employment of certain mechanisms which I think are
characteristic of positivism.  Some examples in which positivism is used
as a specific reference are Galvano Della Volpe's _Logic as a Positive
Science_, and Merleau-Ponty's essay "The Primacy of Perception," in which
he says "..._phenomenological positivism...refuses to found rationality,
the agreement of minds, and universal logic on any right that is prior to
fact."  For examples in which there are some mechanisms of positivism at
work I would propose Althusser, particularly in his reworking of Lenin in
"Lenin and Philosophy", and in "Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy
of the Scientists," as well as in other places.  And Foucault,
particulary in _The Archaeology of Knowledge_ where he distinguishes
between a strict Comtian positivism and the discursive positivities which
he is examining. I think that Negri, Guattari and Deleuze can also be
placed within this group, but I haven't work it out sufficiently to be
comfortable with saying this yet. Within the discourse which employs
positivistic methods, but which doesn't produce a positive science in the
the strict sense of the term, a destructive reversal occures in which the
niave opposition of material/ideal, as a determination of the limits of
truth and falsity, is placed in suspension according to a figurtive
construction of truth

As an initial definition I'd say that positivism is a set of discursive
relations formed at the level of science, which examine an object that
is exterior to consciousness, but  which is nonetheless formed at the
level of an unproblematic consciousness, in that the object of
examination is merely an object of  perception, or a relation of ideas,
and not a physical object, or as the consciousness of an object wherein
the consciousness-of occures as the mediation of a material condition.
I'm using positivism here in the broadest possible context as a group of
relations which define an object of examination in a particular way, and
not merely as a set of ideas which could be said to originate with Comte
and those who claim to follow him.  In this sense Hume and Berkeley
would also belong to the tradition of positivism though they preceed
Comte by fifty years or so, as well as Saussure in that his formulation
of diachronic and synchronic linguistics redeploys the mechanism that
Comte formulates as social-statics and social-dynamics.  However,
Saussure's participation within the tradition of positivism occures only
to a limited extent in that Saussure performs a differential
reconfiguration of positive mechanisms through which signs deployed
according to an historico-material constraint and not an ideal relation
Prior to this reconfigurtion in which Sassure participates positivism can be
characterized as a system in which rationality, or subjectivity as an
interior foundation of understanding, is composed as a secondary or even
a tirtiary effect, if its even given consideration at all, and the object
of examination is constituted as a series of ideal effects on the surface
of consciousness.  At this point the definition of positivism still
functions within the opposition of material/ideal, though here the ideal
is given the place of truth, and the material that of falsity.  Before
the relation of material/ideal can be problematized it needs to
be played out one more time through a comparison of positivism and

Once again taking the broadest possible limits, phenomenology can be
described as a tradition proceeding from Kant through Husserl, Heidegger
and beyond.  First of all I would exclude Descartes from the
phenomenological tradition in that the cogito, as a point of pure
rationality, is incapable of seeing through the opposition
rational/empirical in such a way as to produce anything outside of
itself. Or to put it another way, in Descartes there is no play
between interiority and exteriority because the space of understanding has
been reduced to the single point of thinking.  (This may be a hasty
exclusion in that I have yet to read Husser's _Cartesian Meditations_
which just might open a space within the phenomenological tradition for
Descartes, but for the moment I'll go with it.)  Phenomenology always has
a dialectical component, though the dialectic is not necessarily the
dominant mechanism in any given phenomenologicl investigation.  In Kant
the dialectic can be seen in both the problematization of knowledge in
the "Transcendental Dialectic" of the first critique, as well as in the
ultimate formulation of the knowing subject as the unity of empirical
intuition and rational categories. In the phenomenological tradition the
opposition of material/ideal is overcome in that it produces a synthetic
point between these two possibilities, in which the object of knowledge
is produced as the unity of external reality and internal consciousness.
However, the opposition of ideal/material is re-inscribed by phenomenology,
thoughit occures here a a different level then it does for positivism. The
dialectical motion in phenomenology must always return to subjectivity as a
constitutive interiority, and the object of examination becomes a
constituent feature, or a moment, of this space which is itself wholey
interior. Thus phenomenology reproduces the strict opposition of
truth/falsity  as that of interiority and exteriority, or subject and
object of knowledge.  Here then the opposition of truth and falsity
occures _between_ positivism and phenomenology as a miror effect: the one
constituting its object as a received perception exterior to
consciousness, and the other constituting its object according to the
interior necessity of consciousness.

As I alluded to before in reference to Saussure, there is a point at which
these two traditions converge, and in the convergence the opposition
material/ideal is broken off from the relation true/false and it
comes to express something else, and something more.  The convergence
occures within Nietzsche's critique of language, where the true world
becomes a fable, science looses its solemnity, and all words become
tropes that have forgotten their original meanings and now masquerade
in the disimulation of their origin.  It also occures in Freud and the
problematization of consciousness by the unconscious.  And
it occures within Marx, though I hesitate to say it for I am still
unclear as to whether or not it actually occures in those texts that can
be attributed to Marx directly, or if it actually occures in the
discourse of marxism and not in Marx proper.  The same problem also occures in
relation to Nietzsche and Freud.  Leaving aside these problems for the
moment, it can be said that in th collisionbetweenthe traditions of
positivism and phenomenology the dialectic is disrupted as a stricly
internal motion, and the object of knowledge is no longer composed as a
single truth aimed towards a teleological necessity, but as an exterior
multiplicity.  In the convergence of positivism and the
phenomenological traditions the object of knowledge is created in a form
that looks like the Deleuzo-Guattarian body-without-organs whose surface
is cross hatched with multiple lines of flight.

This exteriorization of the object of knowledge and the concomitant
disruption of the dialectical motion can be said to occure within within
Marx.  Specifically in the preface of _A Contribution to the Critique of
Political Economy_, when Marx says "It is not the consciousness of men
that determines their existence, but their social existence that
determines their consciousness."  Here social existence constitutes the
possible object of knowledge which is necessarily outside of
consciousness itself.  A similar type of relation can be seen in Marx's
inversion of Hegel and the extraction of the rational kernal from the
mystical shell.  The problem here is that I can't distinguish whether
this actually occures in Marx, or if it actually occures only in
Althusser's reading of Marx, since both of these points are employed by
Althusser to disrupt the strict dicotomy between truth and falsity so as
to give ideology in general, and scientific ideology in particular, a
necessary relationship to the truth that cannot be thought of as
falsity. It must also be pointed out that while this disruption of the
strict opposition between truth and falsity is not limitable to Althusser,
and can be found in other places within marxist discourse, as well as
outside of marxist discourse, it is by no means exhaustive of marxist
discourse but represents only one very limited trajectory within marxism.
The counter veiling force to this trajectory is offered in
Sartre's reading of Marx in _The Critique of Dialectical Reason_.  Here the
dialectic maintains an interiorized configurtion which strictly opposes
any conflation or disruption of the opposition of truth and falsity.

Like I said before, this is still pretty rough and there are some hugh
gaps that need to be filled in, but there it is for now.


On Sat, 12 Nov 1994, Alex Trotter wrote:

(several lines deleted)

> 	Although Marx had a lot of the Romantic in him, his followers for
> the most part did not. From the start, 2nd International Marx-ism became
> a positivistic *ideology* in which the Dialectic was identified with
> linear progress and teleological closure--a continuation of Christianity
> in a sense, albeit in materialist form. The Russian marxists followed the
> German Social Democrats on this. Plekhanov, for example, is a real High
> Enlightenment Westernizer, and Lenin was his epigone. To know what I mean
> when I refer to marxism's fetishism of Science and Reason, just look at
> Lenin's polemical work of 1908, _Materialism and Empirio-Criticism_,
> which insists on a 100% objective epistemology based on the natural
> sciences and a 'copy-cat,' *tabula rasa* theory of consciousness. No room
> for subjective imagination, no zone of unknowability here: everything can
> be explained by positive science with its 'objective' standards.
> (Interestingly, this work was written to discipline and defeat the
> Nietzschean tendency in the Bolshevik party, grouped around Bogdanov,
> Lunacharsky, and Gorki. Now, *that* would make an interesting topic for
> discussion.) And the fellow Lenin was polemicizing against, Ernst Mach,
> was an early associate of Albert Einstein--there's a lot of interesting
> stuff going on there.
> 	Basing a revolutionary doctrine today on science, you would have
> to come to grips with chaos theory. You would have to abandon concepts of
> linearity and Progress, and you won't be able to dismiss chaos as an
> expression of the decadence of the bourgeois intelligentsia, or whatever.
> Sure, there's still a dialectic, but not as it was conceived in the 19th
> century. It could be defined (perhaps) as order spontaneously emerging
> out of chaos, and vice versa. Angels turn into devils and back again in
> the fractal blink of an eye, and not necessarily in the direction of the
> End of History. See what I mean? Revolution (how about insurrection? I
> actually like that term better) is a matter of the heart as well as the
> mind, and cannot be embodied in an organization, particularly not the
> Labor party that Tom espouses. And especially not if, as I suspect, that
> party would be modeled after the Labour parties in Britain and Australia.
> See how revolutionary they are....
> --Alex Trotter


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