As everyone knows, today is Hegel’s birthday (ht cp). And having been struck down with the flu virus that is afflicting all and sundry in these parts, I was reminded of the dialectic arising from the argument from design. To wit, God did not design the intricate and wily variations of the flu virus merely to afflict human beings with misery. Rather, the careful design of the flu virus produces in response very useful narcotics, such as codeine and pseudoephedrine. I have imbibed both this afternoon and can vouch for their effectiveness. Forget the pretend efforts, such as ‘natural’ remedies or placebos (false dialectical responses). As a chemist once said to me, only narcotics will do the trick. This is the true dialectic.
27 August, 2016
3 March, 2013
‘Are you really sure you want to eat that?’ she asked.
‘Why not?’ I said, pointing to the picture menu. ‘It looks like a delectable dish of tofu’.
‘Stinky tofu?’ she said. ‘Not many foreigners like it’.
‘How can I not eat stinky tofu?’ I said.
I was about to engage in what is arguably one of the most pleasurable experiences in China: a meal with a colleague from Fudan University’s Centre for the Study of Contemporary Marxism Abroad. Why so pleasurable? Apart from the food, it is because my colleague has one of the quickest and sharpest minds I have encountered in a very long time, often leaving me floundering. We share many interests, so we push each other to new thoughts, dipping and weaving in a free play of the mind.
We spoke of Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) and the metaphysics of Marxism; of Anatoly Lunacharsky (1875-1933) and God-building in the Russian Revolution; of revolutionary enthusiasm and calm analysis; and of vulgar Marxism and its dialectical form. All this turned out to be a knot more complex than at first appears to be the case. How so? That knot presents a series of overlapping but apparently irreconcilable oppositions. These oppositions begin with the warm and cold streams of Marxism, but then move on to include fiery passion and careful reason, subjective and objective conditions, and vulgar and ruptural approaches to the dialectic. Let me begin with the warm and cold streams, which will then enable me to engage with the other oppositions.
Lunacharsky and Bloch (who is many respects the heir of the former, even though he was not aware of Lunacharsky’s work) were both proponents of the warm stream of Marxism. By the warm stream I mean the importance of revolutionary passion, of the appeal to the emotions, of a political myth in which one can believe despite the most devastating of setbacks, of a Marxist metaphysics that is able to bring about an Aufhebung of religion. Both Lunacharsky and Bloch were responding to what may be called the cold stream of Marxism, in which rational analysis of the objective conditions of history was the key. All one needed was a greater knowledge of the objectively existing laws of history, especially of the phases of historical development, so that the path to revolution was clear. For Lunacharsky, who was a central figure in the Russian Revolution and to the Left of Lenin, the Second International was the embodiment of this approach, in which Hegel was a bad influence and in which his residue needed to be excised from Marx’s thought. Bloch too found this mechanistic approach troublesome – he had lived long enough to know a little of the Second International, but then also the resolute ‘history is one our side’ approach that continued to bedevil Marxism into the midst of the twentieth century.
So far, this is relatively straightforward: they want a more vibrant, warmer Marxism that touches the heart as well as the mind. They wish to restore the enthusiastic, subjective and moral dimension of Marxism. At this point, one may object: is this not the stuff of demagoguery? Does not such an approach leave one open to the traps of deploying specific techniques to fire up the emotions of the masses? That is, does not this approach leave one open to the charge of ‘vulgar’ Marxism, especially if we understand ‘vulgar’ in its Latin sense of ‘crowd’ and ‘common people’?
Now our knot of problems becomes much more interesting, for Lunacharsky and Bloch (and indeed the Frankfurt School and their inheritors) were profoundly suspicious of ‘vulgar’ Marxism. It all turns on what one means by ‘vulgar’. For them, vulgar Marxism is precisely the coldly rational Marxism I mentioned earlier. Here is the mechanistic, causal understanding of history, which may be broken down into carefully defined stages that lead inexorably to a socialist revolution. But vulgar also operates with the slogan of ‘the base is to blame’. The base or infrastructure provides the real and material cause of all that is; all that is of the superstructure – culture, philosophy, politics, religion, ideology – may be regarded as excretions or epiphenomena of the base. These two elements work smoothly together, for once you know the mechanisms of the base, once you know the socio-economic causes of all that is, you may be able to predict the course of history.
A further question needs to be asked: who is responsible for this vulgar Marxism? Given that it is the exercise of reason over the emotions, the use of cold theory, of calm and calculated analysis and discussion, vulgar Marxism is actually the domain of intellectuals. In other words, this type of Marxism is an intellectualist development.
Its obverse is the warm Marxism I mentioned earlier, the Marxism of emotional engagement, of powerful political myth, of the heart rather than the mind. At this point, the dialectic comes into play. The intellectualist, cold stream of vulgar Marxism is a version that flattens the dialectic inherited from Hegel. Here we find the triads of thesis, antithesis and synthesis; here is the Hegel of the progress of history in grand stages. The other Hegel is somewhat different. Now he becomes the proponent of a ruptural dialectic, one of breaks in continuity. Here subjective intervention creates history, over against the objective unfolding of history. This is the complex and sophisticated dialectic that enamoured Lenin so and was a major factor in formulating the revolutionary strategy that led to the success of the October Revolution.
So we have arrived at an unexpected juncture: vulgar Marxism is the simplistic, intellectualist tendency; ruptural Marxism is the sophisticated, complex dimension. On the side of the former may be gathered cold theory, the exercise of reason and the mechanistic understanding of the stages of history. On the side of the latter do we find warmth, myth, inspiration, and above all the revolutionary break.
Do we then take sides, preferring one or the other in light of our predilections? No, for both are actually part of, and necessary to, the dialectical Marxist tradition. I speak not of an Aristotelian golden mean, with a dose of sober theory functioning to dampen too much revolutionary ardour; or perhaps some fire and zeal in order to counter the killjoy rationalists. Instead, I speak of a dialectical tension between them, the one needing the other in order to make the movement viable. In this tension may be found the classic merger theory of the Erfurt Program of 1891: socialism at an organisational level is the merger of intellectuals and the masses, both of whom learn from one another and are changed in the process. It was certainly not a process of some advanced intellectual lifting workers and peasants to a new level of consciousness.
In this tension may Lenin’s thought and practice be located, between a mechanistic vulgar Marxism and a deep awareness of the ruptural possibilities of the dialectic. Lenin often moves between one and the other, but at his most luminous moments the two are juxtaposed against one another. And here do we find Marx’s own thought (let alone that of Engels), who could outdo the best of the vulgar Marxist themselves in his formulations. At the same time, he was by no means unaware of the depths and complexities of a ruptural appreciation of the dialectic.
 For the English translations, see www.germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/pdf/eng/513_Erfurt%20Program_94.pdf. For the German: www.marxists.org.
21 June, 2012
At Deane’s request: was Marx a vulgar ‘Marxist’?
The answer is yes and no. Marx could be as vulgar as the best of them. Let us take the example of religion. He writes in The Holy Family:
The figments of his brain assume corporeal form. A world of tangible, palpable ghosts is begotten within his mind. That is the secret of all pious visions and at the same time it is the general form of insanity (MECW vol. 4, p. 184; MEW vol. 2, pp. 195–6).
Then in Capital I, Marx makes the much-cited crass and ‘vulgar’ point that the ‘religious world is but the reflex of the real world’. He is talking about Roman-Catholicism, which is an external religion and appropriate for a monetary system, in contrast to Protestantism, which is the appropriate reflex of the internalised world of credit and commodities (MECW vol. 35, p. 90; MEW, vol. 23, p. 93). This opposition also turns up in the third volume and Capital and Engels follows suit (MECW vol. 20, p. 267; MEW vol. 16, p. 247). It is in fact an old argument, appearing first in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (MECW vol. 3, pp. 290–1; MEW vol. 40, pp. 530–1).
Too many have cited such passages as though they expressed Marx’s quintessential position, in which the ‘base is to blame’ (a slogan once used for a ‘Vulgar Marxist’ group I organised). But Marx can also turn out the most dialectical assessment, which seems to stand in stark opposition to the vulgar Marx. Once again, on religion:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering but also the protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people (MECW vol. 3, p. 175; MEW vol. 1, p. 378).
Of course, the last sentence, the famous opium statement is usually taken as an example of Marx’s vulgar approach to religion. So it is worth noting that in contrast to our own associations of opium with drugs, altered states, addicts, organised crime, wily Taliban insurgents, and desperate farmers making a living the only way they can, opium was a much more ambivalent item in nineteenth-century Europe. Widely regarded as a beneficial, useful and cheap medicine at the beginning of the century, it was gradually vilified by its end by a coalition of medical and religious forces. In between debates raged: it was the subject of defences and parliamentary enquiries; its trade was immensely profitable; it was used for all manner of ills and to calm children; it was one of the only medicines available for the working poor; it was a source of utopian visions for artists and poets; it was increasingly stigmatised as a source of addiction and illness. In effect, it ran all the way from blessed medicine to recreational curse.
Marx too was a regular user, along with those other useful medicines, arsenic and creosote. As he slowly killed himself through a punishing schedule of too much writing and smoking, too little sleep, and an inadequate diet, Marx would use it for his carbuncles, toothaches, liver problems, bronchial coughs and so on. As Jenny wrote in a letter to Engels in 1857:
Dear Mr Engels, One invalid is writing for another by ordre du mufti. Chaley’s head hurts him almost everywhere, terrible tooth-ache, pains in the ears, head, eyes, throat and God knows what else. Neither opium pills nor creosote do any good. The tooth has got to come out and he jibs at the idea (MECW vol. 40, p. 563; MEW vol. 29, p. 643).
All of which means that a Marxist approach plays off vulgar and dialectical dimensions, as Lenin saw so well. Lose the vulgarity and you lose the Marxism; but so also with the dialectics.
19 March, 2010
While I was out on my bicycle tour, Sean Burt posted this comment on my entry from 25 January called Dis/Re-enchantment:
I’ve been thinking about this idea for a bit. I fundamentally agree with you here, though I’ve been wondering — if the narrative of re/disenchantment is fundamentally of a capitalist world, what can that lead us to say about pre-capitalist (i.e. ancient) fantasy literature? I’m thinking about Apulieus, Lucian, even Tobit (maybe you could even go with apocalyptic here, but I’m thinking more of the narrative, ‘novelistic’ mode). Why would ancient people have flights of fancy if their world wasn’t disenchanted? That’s not a rhetorical question — it really is something that’s been puzzling me!
This post was ages ago in internet time, but in the chance you see this, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.
In a few earlier posts (here, here and here) I had argued that the idea of re-enchanting the world is one that is generated out of a capitalist context, where the narrative of enchantment-disenchantment-re-enchantment itself arises. Only in a world that seems to be abandoned by God (Lukacs) does it become possible to dream of re-enchantment. So a politics of re-enchantment (as the Radox – Adam Kotsko’s wonderful term – people propose, or as some like Michael Carden would like to see) is itself tied in with the logic of capitalism itself.
However, Sean raises another issue: did people view the world in this way at other times and places? Initially, I would have to say yes. Think of the ancients who began to allegorise the gods of Homer, as but one example. What do I do with these earlier moments? One path is to pick up the argument of Adorno and Horkheimer and suggest that a dialectic of enchantment and disenchantment has been with us for some time now. Invoke disenchantment (science, reason, common sense) and you get all manner of enchantments cropping up; push for re-enchantment and you will find an internal push to disenchantment (as, for example, with the Christian logic of the secular state). Another path, which actually carries on from the preceding one, is to argue that the possibility of thinking in such terms only arose in a certain capitalist context, which can then be retrofitted into earlier historical moments. It’s a little like the feeling one gets in applying a new method to the Bible: it all seems to work so well, so much so that the biblical authors seem to have read Lacan, Derrida, Zizek or Marx …