ontology and political commitment (+)

James Devine JDevine at lmumail.lmu.edu
Thu Jun 29 21:05:49 MDT 1995

Leo Casey writes >>Engels confused Lamarck and Darwin.<<

I think that this is inaccuate. Engels was clearly Lamarckian and
therefore wrong. But so was Darwinian theory at the time, since
Darwin hadn't been linked to Mendel, who provided the mechanism
by which Darwin's theory works.

In reference to Marx, he also writes that: >>... once one starts
from a singular notion of human essence, which most concepts of
human nature necessarily do, one invariably produces equally
singular notions of what human subjects should do ... and of what
a just state or society might be, and in so doing, establishes a
theoretical basis for state authoritarianism.<<

What Marx's conception of "human nature" was is contentious. But
it's not what you say. Marx thought that people make history and
society (though not exactly as they please) and that society
makes people. He thought that under capitalism, people were
making history in an alienated way, that is, in a way that was
not being consciously being decided upon by humanity in a
democratic way. (He has all sorts of references to Adam Smith's
invisible hand as steering history, without Smith's assumption
that the invisible hand would serve humanity well.)  In the
THESES ON FEUERBACH (among other places) he rejected the
authoritarian solution (he asks: "who teaches the teachers?").
His solution was that only the working class could liberate the
working class (a principle that can easily be extended to other
oppressed groups).

>>... I find Marx's ontology of human nature as labor an
inadequate basis for a theory of social change.<<

For Marx, human nature was not "labor." People make history in
lots of ways besides what we call labor. Marx pointed to the
separation between labor and non-labor as _part of the problem_,
part of alienation. Human nature is more than "labor" but
capitalism (and other exploitative systems) tend to  restrict us
to mere labor.

>>Parenthetically, in this critique of ontology one can also find
the outline of a critique of the dialectic in Hegel and Marx.
Since both thinkers saw the dialectic not as an abstract tool of
logic, but as the apprehension of the workings of history, and
since both thinkers saw history as a teleological development
from the original state of nature to its actualization in a state
of human nature...<<

I don't want to talk about Hegel who was very different from
Marx. It's not true that Marx's vision was "teleological" except
in some of his rhetorical flourishes. He thought workers had to
struggle if they wanted to attain communism. His dialectic only
said that communism was _possible_ and that the dynamics of
capitalism would throw up _opportunities_ for the creation of
communism. But in the end, history has to be _created_.

There's a lot of stuff here. Leo, you sure go on & on. You also
seem to get the concept of "ontology" confused with the idea
someone has of "essence." Ontology refers to the philosophy of
what exists, while the latter refers to a specific theory of what
exists. To me, to reject "ontology" is to assert that everything
is subjective. This opens the door to idealism, nihilism, and

for socialism from below,

Jim Devine   jdevine at lmumail.lmu.edu
Los Angeles, CA (the city of emphysema)

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