Marxism and philosophy

Justin Schwartz jschwart at
Fri Jan 27 09:20:21 MST 1995

As a sometime philosopher by training and formerly by profession, I am
nonetheless inclined to agree with Proyect about the academic (or merely
scholastic) turn ofc the discussion on foundationalism. In my last post on
this I raised the issue myself. In defense of my contributions, I was
merely urging conceptual clarity and precision in the use of language.

Proyect cites a number of past occasions where philosophical disputes have
been thought to be politically relevant. He might have added to this list
Marx and Engels' own settling of accounts with the young Hegelians. In
this case, and with Lenin and the Machists, the issue, or one central
issue, was precisely the question of realism/anti-realism, or, with
Marx and Engels in their critique of Feuerbach, of what sort of realism, which
has emerged in the discussion over "foundationalism."

Lenin was concerned that the Machists' denial of a mind-independent
reality amounted to a claim that there was no deep structure of social
reality to be revealed by Marxist science; he was also concerned that the
phenomenalism of the Machists left room for God, which he considered a
reactionary, "opium of the masses," etc. Although many of Lenin's
arguments against phenomenalism are quite good from a terchnical point of
view, it is not clear that either of his motivations were well placed.
Certainly there is no logical connection between phenomenalism (the
doctrine that what there is are collections of actual or possible
experiences, or as Mach put it, "elements," hoping thereby to get beyond
idealism, which he didn't) and the rejection of any Marxian doctrine or
the acceptance of the existence of God (Mach himself was an
Enlightenment-inspired anti-clerical bourgeois atheist), or indeed between
"fideism"--religiosity" and reactionary politics.

The antirealist arguments of the postmodernists are much more the sort of
thing Lenin was worried about: here the denial of "totalizing" or
systematic theory, "essences" like class position, class itself, and
objective knowledge, as well as Marxism in particular, is quite explicit.
Incidentally Rorty is no kind of a Marxist at all. His calls himself a
postmodern bourgeois liberal and says that there is no alternative to
liberal-democratic capitalism. (His father was an ex-Communist poet turned
anti-Communist, but that's another story.) Except in the _Telos_ turn,
pomo does not have a strong religious component.

Marx and Engels had to deal less with antirealism that on one hand with
what they called idealism, meaning thereby the causal primacy of ideas and
conceptions over social and material reality with Bauer, Stirner, et al.,
and on the other with an ahistorical and nonsocial materialist realism in
Feuerbach. The former they thought politically dangerous as well as false
because it promoted futile and antidemocratic political activity--or, in
Stirner's case, a furious sort of political quietism. The latter they
thought led to neglect of the actual wheels and levers which might lead to
change in a concrete historical situation. Pomo, incidentally, seems to me
to have a lot in common with Stirner.

Proyect says that the irrelevance of philosophy today has to do with the
fact that intellectuals are not part of an active workers' movement. There
is something to that, and it is true that even those of use who are in
organized left groups--mine is Solidarity--do not write for mass
proletarian audiences, because these do not exist. But of course that
problem is not limited to philosophy. People working in economics,
history, political science, sociology, ect. are not read by such an
audience, unless they write for the pitifully small alternative labor
press (_Labor Notes_, for example). _Z Magazine_, which Proyect mentions,
is read by movement types, mostly upper-middle class radicals like us, not
by workers. And I do not mean by workers just blue collar men, but also pink
collar women and service workers of all genders and colors. Of course
there is an important sense in which everyone who works for wages is a
worker, but graduate students, professors, and educated proferssionals are
very special sorts of worker, and Marxism tells us, rightly, that they
cannot be the central pivot of radical change.

So the problem is not just a mattewr of philosophy. It is theoretical
inquiry in general. And as a former university teacher of working-class
and lower-middle class students at Ohio State I found that people--and
these are the ones who came to the university!--are only marginally
capable of reading or thinking about politics in the broadest sense, never
mind philosophy. They do not read, by and large, unless something is
assigned for a class and they think they are to be tested on it. And in
many cases not even then. Any university teacher knows this. Moreover,
when they do read, they find it hard to understand. The situation--I
add--is not a great deal better at more elite schools like the University
of Michigan or even, for the majority of students, Princeton University
(the places where I was educated). Workers who do not go to university, I
surmise, are even less inclined to study.

Of course this has nothing to do with their capacities. Some have such
capacities, others do not. But in the circumstances in which they find
themselves these capacities are not encouraged or developed. Moreover
people who work 8-10 hours a day and have families lack the time to read
anything much more than the newspaper or maybe a junk novel now and then.
So the problem is generally greater and deeper than one withphilosophy in

In Marx's time and in Lenin's too, the level of general culture among some
workers was greater than it is now. The existence of a party or worker's
associations which establishes a culture of wider social concern makes a
great deal of difference. Marx lecture on Wage Labor and Capital to an
audience of hundreds of workers, who seem to have liked what he said. The
Communist Manifesto was read and to some degree understood by thousands of
workers in the 1848 Revolutions. (Today college students cannot understand
these documents without careful explanation.) In addition there is a
peculiarly American cultural phenomena of anti-intellectualism,w hich is
far worse than in many othere countries.

So I agree that debates over schools of philosophy are not reaching or
engaging the concerns of American workers. But neither is anything else
on the left press. And there is the concern that circumstances and
miseducation have created a working class which lacks the time, skill, or
inclination to read anything we might write, even if it's about the Greens.

Am I being too pessimistic? Or, if not, what is to be done?

--Justin Schwartz

On Fri, 27 Jan 1995, Louis N Proyect wrote:

> 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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