G.U.T #2: The Roots Of Marxism

 

“To be radical is to grasp things by the root.”

Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

 

Though the vast majority of western pundits remain loathe to admit it, Marxism is a foundational strain of thought in the modern western world. In fact it could be argued that it is the intellectual presence of Marxism that precisely differentiates the modern from the pre-modern world. Western politics is entirely colonised with the ideas of Marxism, from progressive left through traditional conservative right, in the same way that the human gut is colonised by the billions of bacteria that process and digest food that the body depends on. The disconcerting truth is that the human host is entirely dependent upon these organisms although they themselves are not actually human. Without these aliens the body cannot digest  and would die. Marxism lives in the gut of Germanic capitalist society and allows it to digest information from modern reality….

 

From a strictly rational point of view ‘Classical’ (pre Marxist) economics has been shown again and again to fail abysmally when faced with the task of ordering and understanding the real world. The final debacle in a long and ignominious history was the failure to predict and deal with the series of calamities that culminated in the disaster of 2007. During the so called financial crisis the entire structure of the global economy and society teetered on the brink of collapse. It was only the abandonment of any last shred of faith in traditional ‘classical’ economic practice that saved the world economy from chaos and disintegration.  So now everybody is a Marxist to a greater or lesser extent. But I confidently predict that is by no means as far as this process will go. In the post modern world, the entire canon of western thought has increasingly come under sustained pressure from post modern polyglot globalism. As the future unfolds Marxism will end it’s existence, not as the haunting ‘spectre’ Marx hoped it to be but rather as a cherished relic of western tradition, like the statues of confederate soldiers presently being defended from defacement and destruction because they are part of American history for good or ill. Marxism will be transformed from an object of specific hate into a totem of common heritage.

 

Face Value

 

But that is for the future, At this precise juncture it seems the only options are either to accept Marxism at face value or to attempt to discredit and undermine it. It has become time to understand what Marxism actually is as opposed to taking part in the Punch and Judy argument that has dominated the last century. The process of real understanding begins with realising that since the moment of its creation there never has been a clear and unbiased analysis of Marxism, because it has never been in anyone’s interest to create one. Anyone’s interest. Or put another way, it has always been in the general interest to avoid creating one.

 

When Marx said:

 

Whatever I am… I am not a Marxist

 

He was in part observing  that no one can actually be a Marxist – until everyone is.

 

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.”

The German Ideology

 

We have to explain why this would be. In part 1 I pointed towards the central question that must be answered, even if we accept Marxism under it’s own terms: How does Marxism explain its own coming into existence and is this explanation credible from a Marxist perspective ? This is by no means a given. The Marxist narrative begins from the argument is that Capitalism is inherently unstable; an observation that is by no means confined to the left. It is one of the successes of Marxist thought that the instability of capitalism  is now generally accepted as an observed truth and as a consequence the idea of a self regulating market is completely discredited. Following on from this Marxism argues that  if thought is the product of material circumstance, then unstable capitalism produces unstable minds which process finds expression in inherent and increasingly violent contradictions within capitalism. These inherent contradictions will fight one another until a new stability supported by experience wins out. Material conditions develop and change and thus the general thought process will also accordingly be forced to change .

 

People will increasingly  see capitalism as illogical until it collapses. In essence capitalism will fall and be superseded by socialism because this is the logical outcome  of human development and people will be forced to become logical because human development itself is ultimately logical, even if people who make up that development are not!. In the past all societies gave expression to the objective conditions that governed them but not in a rational self conscious way. Expressing the objective conditions that give rise to  thought can only be rational in one case throughout history- that of socialism.  After the moment of enlightenment  a person becomes conscious and forever after enlightenment that person’s actions are necessarily conscious actions. Marxism argues that you cannot know something and then act as though you don’t know it. In this sense the triumph of socialism is inevitable. In 1984 Orwell argues on the contrary that knowing something and then acting as though you don’t know it is precisely the basis on which modern society is run. In other words, a certain knowledge by no means necessarily leads to a certain action.

 

Keep Taking The Tablets

 

Since the force of inevitable progress has decreed that the ideology of socialism must come into existence it will perforce need an intellect to express it- to give it form. This new Law Of Human development  will require a Moses to bring the tablets of it’s commandments down from the mountain. And it is here Marx saw himself entering the story of history -as having been chosen by the inevitable developmental forces that create history to be the one to make conscious that which was previously unconscious and concrete that which was previously without concrete form. Not only would Marx be the one to go to the mountain, not only would his be the finger that inscribed the tablets, his intellect would be the actual stone of the tablets themselves.  Marx is selected by time and place, by the Zeitgeist. the spirit of the age, to transform himself into the vessel of conscious socialism. And so for the first time ever, personality and the conditions that give rise to it are consciously fused. Through this process Man comes to know himself and through this process Man and the universe are finally one..

 

“Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.”

Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844/The Communist Manifesto

 

Truth is general, it does not belong to me alone, it belongs to all, it owns me, I do not own it. My property is the form, which is my spiritual individuality.”

 

Collected Works of Marx and Engels

 

And of course, such a Moses would also need a people to lead out of captivity and a captivity to lead them out of.….what is the point of the tablets if you have no one to give them to….?

 

“Accumulate, accumulate! This is Moses and the Prophets!”

Capital, Vol 1: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production

 

On one level all this might be an amusing diversion  -an intellectual conjuring trick that might  gain its author enough acclaim to  purchase an entrance into society as a bete noir….. And it is possible at some level this is what Marx originally intended. In this had been the case the entirety of Marx’s thought might have remained in the realm of bourgeois intellectualism. But the component parts of the society into which Marxism came into being quickly made clear that it was not content to let Marxism or anyone else write its own story to the detriment of all around.  After all, there were greater things at stake in the debate over the new capitalist society than merely Marx’s reputation and livelihood as an author.. As I have said more than once, capitalism was unstable and as a consequence lacking confidence. In some ways the history of capitalism is the history of an ongoing crisis of confidence and every capitalist has rightly felt like an historical imposter. In light of it’s suspect claim to power, capitalism simply could not stand a critique of any kind. For these reasons and others we will see later Marxism from it’s inception was dabbling in the primordial essence of things.

 

The writer may very well serve a movement of history as its mouthpiece, but he cannot of course create it.

 

 

 

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G.U.T.

Whatever else Karl Marx was, he was not a Marxist- as he himself is reported to have said. This comment is generally taken as a dig at the intellectual quality of ‘Marxists’ and one all the more piquant because it comes from the progenitor of Marxism..  But it is possible to see this from another point of view; as a typically wry observation that Marx himself understood that he could not be a Marxist according to the logic of his own position, because he was unwilling and unable to apply a strict Marxist interpretation to Marxism itself. If Marx was accusing anyone, he was accusing himself…. His favourite motto:

De omnibus dubitandum [Everything must be doubted].”

would of necessity include Marx himself of course…

Marxism as an ideology necessarily comes into existence in it’s own terms. Marxism proclaims that it derives  purpose and validity solely by virtue of it’s own content. For a Marxist, there are no questions to be asked about Marxism’s  origins or the context in which it came to existence outside of the terms of Marxism itself. At first glance his seems a bit knotty, but in fact the logic is quite straightforward. Let me elaborate: Marxism is given as the product of Marx’s intellectual development which in turn is the product of the development of the objective conditions that gave rise to it; (That would be Marx’s intellectual development and also Marxism, which are two different things, but also the same thing,,,ahem..) Let me elaborate further…

The basic idea underpinning historical materialism is that capitalism inevitably comes into existence because of mankind’s increasing productive capacity through technological advance. By the same process socialism/communism also inevitably must come into existence because of the inherent nature of capitalism. In so far as mankind’s development is inevitable, so the development of capitalism from feudalism and then socialism from capitalism is inevitable.  And since socialism is the first truly self aware social movement, it’s ideology must also inevitably come into existence at the same time that socialism itself comes into existence.(Because if it didn’t then it wouldn’t be self aware..and therefore not Marxism/socialism). You can be a functioning capitalist without necessarily understanding capitalism but you can’t be a functioning socialist without understanding socialism. On the contrary, Marxists argue that it is a precondition of being a capitalist that you do not really understand the true nature of capitalism since if you did then you would be…. a socialist!

“Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”
Karl Marx

This fundamental conditionality is encapsulated in the idea of ‘false consciousness’ which, like many such concepts, is used in inverse proportion to the extent it is understood. The vulgar exposition of false consciousness is that workers believe they have a stake in the ongoing success of capitalism when in fact their best interest would be served by its collapse. But actually the doctrine of false consciousness holds that thought is ‘falsely conscious’ when it holds itself to be the product of abstracted reason instead of objective conditions. In other words a thought is conscious in that it wants to be the product of reason (which is what consciousness consists of, according to Marx),  but it is false in that it is not actually the product of reason but an expression of the social relationships that gave rise to that thought. In more prosaic, (but no less convoluted), terms; You think that you think what you think because you have reasoned it out and therefore there is no reasoned alternative to what you are thinking.  But in reality you think what you think because you have been conditioned to think it. Simply because you are unaware that you have been conditioned to think as you do, your conditioned thought is non rational. If you did understand that you have been conditioned to think as you do, then this would necessarily be the first step toward breaking that conditioning and becoming truly aware, (a socialist).

“Necessity is blind until it becomes conscious. Freedom is the consciousness of necessity.”

In general the first step towards becoming a socialist/Marxist is to understand that there is an historical identity to capitalism because that specific understanding breaks the conditioning of capitalism.

“Once the inner connection is grasped, all theoretical belief in the permanent necessity of existing conditions collapses before their collapse in practice
Letter to Ludwig Kugelmann (July 11, 1868)”
Selected Letters: The Personal Correspondence 1844-1877

From this whole cloth the historical materialism I refer to above  is created. Historical materialism holds that the emergence, development and demise of capitalism is part of an ongoing historical process. On the contrary, modern capitalist ideology holds that capitalism itself is the end point of that process. (The ‘End Of History’ a la Francis Fukyama).

A brief word to clarify what is meant by conditioning here. This is not necessarily a directed process in the Pavlovian sense of training a dog to salivate at the sound of a bell, but rather a natural outcome of interaction with the world as it presently is. To a Marxist, thought is the contemporaneous state of the world mediated through the minds of the people that inhabit it.

“Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand.”
Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy

As a consequences of this perspective, Marxism understands thought as a PRODUCT not a cause in distinction from capitalists who regard thought as a means to an end instead of an end product in itself. Thought is unconscious ( falsely conscious), to the extent  of being a product and not a cause. Thought is actually conscious to the extent of being a cause and not a product. ( hence the famous Marx quote:

Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.

Eleven Theses on Feuerbach

These prophetic words are inscribed upon Marx’s grave. Irony.

Marx argued this in direct contradistinction to Hegelian philosophy although he claimed Hegel in part as inspiration. In fact, Marx characterised his materialism in exactly this way as the contradictory argument that refines Hegelian philosophy. Hegel starts from the process of thought and goes on to explain the thought process but Marx ends at thought. In this way Marx directly contradicts Hegel and yet claims though this contradiction to be his successor! This startling conception of the thought process gives rise to a problem however. If a given thought process is the product of the conditioning that created it, surely it is trapped by that very same conditioning. How can such a thought process ever realise that it is the product of conditioning? How can you modify your own thought process just by thinking about it? How can you lift yourself up by your own shoe laces? It is clear that for the argument to work some outside force becomes necessary to break into the conditioning/thinking feedback loop and produce a change.

Luckily as it turns out, capitalism just happens to contain within itself that agent of change!