Marxism and philosophy

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at columbia.edu
Fri Jan 27 06:52:22 MST 1995


Somehow much of the discussion about Marxism and philosophy,
including the recent exchanges over "foundationalism" seems, if
you'll excuse me, rather academic.

This wasn't always the case however. At one time differences over
philosophy went to the very heart of the revolutionary struggle.

Lenin's fight with the Bogdanov ultraleft minority in the Bolsheviks
prompted him to write "Materialism and Empirio-Criticism". For
Lenin, Bogdanov's tactical views resulted from his blend of Marxism
and Mach's empiriocriticism. The belief that a tie existed between
dialectical materialism and consistent revolutionary politics and
conversely that Bogdanov's "incorrect" philosophical views were not a
proletarian philosophy gave the dispute between Lenin and the
opposition a life-and-death character.

Years later, a fight broke out in the much smaller and much less
consequential Trotskyist movement in the United States. Sidney Hook,
a party member, had studied with Lukacs and credited him in 1933 in
the preface to his "Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx" with
confirming his own belief that dialectical materialism was a pure
dogma. Hook, James Burnham and Max Schachtman launched a
struggle against the Trotskyist party tops over the nature of the USSR
on the eve of WWII. In their eyes, the USSR was no longer a workers
state and was no more progressive than the fascist states. Trotsky
entered the debate and defended the philosophical underpinnings of
orthodox Marxism in the writings which appear under the title "In
Defense of Marxism". Trotsky, like Lenin in an earlier period, saw a
distinct connection between deviations from dialectical materialism
and the abandonment of revolutionary politics.

What Lenin and Trotsky on one hand and Bogdanov and Sidney Hook
on the other hand have in common was that they were all within the
workers movement. They all belonged to socialist organizations and
viewed their philosophical beliefs as integral to their political activity.

Today's academic Marxists like Richard Rorty et al don't address a
proletarian audience the way party intellectuals from the earlier period
did. People like Bogdanov and Sidney Hook did aspire to influence the
masses. But our academic Marxists speak to and write for other
academic figures. Their struggle is a struggle over curricula,
reputation and possibly tenure--not over strategy and tactics for the
organized left.

What are the real philosophical questions that deserve consideration? I
think its probably a waste of time to be rehashing logical positivism,
phenomenology, structuralism, poststructuralism, etc. unless you're
trying to carve out an academic career.

(For me, the most interesting philosophical questions have to do with
the Green challenge to Marxism. People like Murray Bookchin, Jeremy
Rifkin et al reject what they perceive as the anthropocentrism of traditional
socialism, and their ideas have influence over a rather large milieu
including the figures associated with Z Magazine. Marxism needs to
confront the ideas of such individuals and arrive at a higher synthesis
between socialism and environmentalism. The Greens certainly can't
be ignored. I'm trying to sort out my own ideas on these matters and
may have more to say in the future.)


Louis Proyect, Ph.D, DDS, SQL
Columbia University, Department of Hydrophonetics

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