Marxism, philosophy, and more

Justin Schwartz jschwart at
Fri Jan 27 22:56:21 MST 1995

The discussion of what sort of intellectual work we should be doing and
how we should be doing it is of pressing importance. It's not just a
matter of "philosophy," unless that term is being used as shorthand for
intellectual work generally. Philosophy is no more or less isolated and
irrelevant than economics, political science, literary studies, etc.

I vehemently disagree with Proyect if, in calling us to emulate the
popularizers in the Monthly Review, he means that we know all the answers
and our job is just to translate them into accessible form for the masses.
In fact we do not know all the answers and getting them straight requires
a good deal of hard, technical, specialized, and necessarily unpopular
thinking and debate. As someone once said, introducing a notoriously
difficult work of economics, There is no royal road to science.

If, on the other hand, Proyect just means that these debates and resukts
(when we get them) need popular statements at the MR level and other
levels, sure. Of course not everyone is good at that, and especially not
necessarily those who are good at the technical work. We need both sorts.

However, we still have the face the fact that even MR level
popularizations are too difficult for most college students to grasp
without a great deal of patient explanation, and will not be read by even
them without, typically, the coercive pressure of an examination, and will
not be read by less educated workers at all. So where the hell does that
leave us? And this is not exclusively a problem with philosophy. If
philosophy vanished from the face of the earth, the problem would remain.

I am not sure of the point of Goldstein's comment about the awful things
which happened with Lenin, Sidney Hook, and what not. I suppose the remark
decrying a phony nostalgia about the 30s and before was directed at my claim
that the level of working class culture in some sections of the working
class was higher then. I didn't mean to be nostalgic. I just wanted to
note that once upon a time there was a working class audience for fairly
tough stuff--not just Marxist theory, but literature and general culture
too. See the very non-marxist but absolutely fascinating book by Gordon
Wood on America in the 18th and 19th centuries, in which he discusses the
popularity of Shakespeare, opera, etc. Gompers started out reading Dickens
and sucjh to the cigar workers--they paid him money to do this. Well,
those weren't the good old days. But in our situation we have to deal with
the working class we have, which isn't that one, and how to communicate
effectively with it and learn from it.

Some of us, BTW, Louis, contribute to professional journals because we like to
do it, not just from necessity; because working things out at that level
of detail is necessary for progress in knowledge, and because writing is
thinking and thinking is fun. I hope to continue to contribute to the
journals even though I am no longer an academic. Maybe I will be again,
but in any event.

And Ralph, I see nothing wrong with writing for an audience of specialists
in the academy if what one is doing is specialized work which requires
professional standards of assessment. (Philosophy can be such work too, as
some of the discussion around "foundationalism" seems to me to show.) Of
course if you writing merely so that you will be smart when you're dead,
or to be footnoted in the papers of the Swinging Dicks in your field (the
crude sexism of that expression, which I learned from reading about Wall
Street, is deliberate), and not to further human emancipation, then you
are a lesser person and no revolutionary. (Which isn't to say that your
work can't be useful.)

But the question is then: for those of us who want to change the world as
well as interpret it, to advance knowledge in the service of working class
liberation, what do we do? I wish I knew.

Rorty is not an arch-reactionary. He is a moderately reformist liberal. He
was a signer of a Dissent statement on the general sorry state we're in
and the need to do something about it--given that it was a Dissent
statement, it didn't go further than that. He even came to a panel at the
XIX World Congress of Philosophy in Moscow in 1993 where Frank Cunningham
(a McPhersonian ex-Communist socialist) and I (an analytical Marxist
market socialist) and a then-graduate student of mine defended the future
of socialism in what I fear were the only non-Stalinist terms to be heard
at that conference--I mean all the other defenders of socialism, what few
of them there were there, were Stalinists. Anyway, Rorty came, and I don't
think it was because I was a student of his long ago (he's failed to come
to lots of other talks I've given)--it was because he was interested in
what we were saying. Afterwards he told me he wants to believe that we (Frank
and I) were right. I told him, but we are! So it shouldn't be so hard to
believe it. I have little patience for a lot of his waffle and his
defeatism, as well as his intellectual sloppiness of the last 15 years--he
wouldnm't have let _me_ get away with the sort of stuff he publishes
nowadays when I was a student of his. But I have a soft spot for him: he
taught me those standards in the first place, as well as making me an
antifoundationalist (epistemic). He's no reactionary, not in a world with
Charles Murray, Newt Gingrich, or (in philosophy) Michael Levin.

--Justin Schwartz


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