ontology and political commitment (+)

LeoCasey at aol.com LeoCasey at aol.com
Thu Jun 29 22:44:20 MDT 1995

In a message dated 95-06-29 23:38:46 EDT, Jim Devine makes a number of points
critical of my posting on the subject of Marxism and ontology. There seems to
be some misunderstandings of terminology and concepts. To wit:

>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 worse.

Ontology is literally "the logic of being." In philosophy, it is generally
considered to be the branch of metaphysics which examines the nature of human
beings; hence, my use of the term essence. I don't see any meaningful
differences in the terms 'human nature" and "human essence.' I am somewhat
puzzled by what you are referring to as a "philosophy of what exists." As the
passage from the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts I cited shows, Marx saw
a clear opposition between being (human nature) and existence (human
history). You may be referring to phenomenology, but even that term is
commonly used (as in Hegel's Phenomenology) to refer to the discovery of the
essence hidden within the forms of existence. Some people would argue that
the rejection of notions of human nature does lead to nihilism and completely
subjectivity vis-a-vis values -- a view I would dispute -- but that does not
seem to be your argument here,

>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.

If we adopted the way in which you use the term "teleological" here, in which
the realization of the telos is inevitable, we would be hard put to find any
theory which is teleological. The more common usage, and the way it is
generally applied to both Hegel and Marx, is the sense that there is an
immanent logic to history, starting from an opening moment which contains
that logic in an implicit form and developing to the final moment of closure
in which that logic is fully actualized. The fact that Marx saw a choice
between socialism and barbarism (to borrow Luxemburg's formulation) hardly
constitutes a fundamental break with the teleological model of history he
inherited from Hegel (and simply stood 'on its feet.')

>What Marx's conception of "human nature" was is contentious. But
>it's not what you say... For Marx, human nature was not "labor." >People
make history in lots of ways besides what we call labor.

I don't think you can just assert this position, especially against the
actual passages from Marx I cited. Not only does Marx believe that the
foundation of human being lay in labor, but his whole schematic of history is
based on categories of the different forms labor has taken.  Labor is the
base, the structure, the foundation; the rest is superstructure dependent
upon and determined by labor (even if only in the last instance, to use that
old Althusserian formula).

Moreover, you misunderstood my (admittedly terse) point if you thought that I
was making a specific claim concerning Marxist ontology and state
authoritarianism. My argument is a general one  concerning modern notions of
human nature in political theory; insofar as they are singular in their
conception, and insofar as the idea of the just state is based upon them, an
equally singular (non-pluralistic) conception of the state is derived. The
singularity of the conception of the state is _part_ of the ground upon which
state authoritarianism takes root. There is a complex, mediated relationshio
between theory and practice here -- it is crude and wrong to read the
Stalinism state back into Marx as if it were the fruit that inevitably
flowered on the Marxist tree, but it is necessary to locate the weakness and
lacuna in the Marxist tradition that allowed a Stalinist interpretation of
Marxism and a Stalinist state to take root. To treat Stalinism simply as a
betrayal of Marxism will not do.

>There's a lot of stuff here. Leo, you sure go on & on.

Sorry. I don't know of any way to treat complicated issues of philosophy
without in-depth discussion. That is why I do not rush to respond only in
part. Which reminds me I had better find some time in the next few days to
answer the points about the Holocaust and Crown Heights, or be damned for the
absence of reply.

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