Critical Thoughts on Critical Theory

June 9, 2009 by  

Critical Thoughts on Critical Theory: A Reexamination of the Holistic Critique of “Economism”

By Josh Skolnik

(Note: This was written in response to the original critical comments made by Chris Cutrone of Platypus here and the subsequent discussion on this website. It concerns general issues about Marxist theory raised in the course of this discussion and should be read as continuing the dialogue begun on that thread.)

It seems to me that there is a certain strain of Western Marxist thought that stressed the danger of “economism,” because they wanted to substitute a historicist/culturalist holistic mode of thinking for what they saw as a narrow scientistic reductionism of social relations to economic relations. This historicist/post-historicist thinking, a legacy of conservative anti-Enlightenment thought, seems to be symptomatic of what is wrong with most of Western Marxism.

But “economism” was opposed from various positions for various reasons. Its critics sometimes stressed the greater importance of politics or an orientation to the state, at other times culture or an orientation towards extra-industrial struggles (often as a substitute for struggles at the point of production).

Often enough, though, it was a way of justifying the subordination of workers’ self-emancipation to the decisions of an organization of politicos who think politics (their will) should be in command; the question then being what is the right kind of politics.

And for Western Marxism it was a way of changing the subject to the cultural phenomena literary intellectuals thought could explain the absence of the anticipated revolutionary transformation, the deficiency of socialist “consciousness” (leading to the failure of will of the masses to carry out the will of the leaders of the correct faction of the correct party or the intellectuals who know better what’s in the interests of workers). From this latter perspective then the question turns to what can be done to change “consciousness” so that the right kind of movement can form that follows the right political path chosen by the right leaders.

In neither scenario does anyone bother to ask what economic transformations are necessary for the reorganization of the economy on socialist principles. They don’t even have a clue about what those principles would be (see Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program for a good start). This is not to fetishize the proletariat, industrial struggles, or the point of production to the exclusion of all else. But it is the reality for any historical materialist that the day-to-day organization of economic production will be determinate for the emergence and viability of a new socialist society in which the freedom of each is the condition for the freedom of all. This critique of “economism” seems to have provided a patina of legitimacy for the general move away from economics, towards sociologizing Marx.

For all I know, there was a coherent position or tendency called “economism” that posed the grave danger to the movement its critics claimed of it, but considering where the statist side delivered the Marxist movement, the moral is no longer as clear as it once seemed. It is not only the political failures of Marxism. It is also their failure in thinking that socialism is politics in command of the economy (nationalization of property and state planning).

And on the other side, I would argue that the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that even the caricature of “economism” looks damn good today. Culturalism is now by far the more serious danger that infects Marxism. And it’s surely the case that a certain revival of this post-revolutionary cultural Marxism took place in the wake of the defeats of the New Left because it fit the cultural turn that was taking place across the Left, arguably just as much on the activist Left as on the academic Left. Which is fitting, for this Western cultural Marxism also originated in defeat, that of the European working classes in 1917/19. It is not only the misrecognition of the nature of the failure. It is the failure in thinking that culture and ideology are somehow the main obstacles to transcending capital. Culturalist and historicist thinking are symptoms of defeat, not beacons for steering movements to victory. It is easy to ruminate on cultural objects and political events. It’s hard to theorize about economics. It took Marx himself a couple decades.

So I agree with Andrew Kliman that the best followers of Marx had an “understanding of capital(ism) [that] was undeveloped and flawed” (see the discussion). We have the benefit of hindsight, and equipped with it, I can’t see how one can help but think the revolutions of 1917/1919 were doomed to failure. But the usual implicit reasoning goes like this: if revolution was not doomed to failure because of an inadequate grasp, by even its best leaders, of the economic structure of capitalist society and the nature of a socialist alternative, then what else can explain the political failure? Well, political failures, if politics is in command, are failures of will, of the desire for change, to make the world fit your conception of how it ought to be. So you turn to issues of consciousness and ideological obstacles. Politics, ideology, and culture become the all-consuming “problem of capitalism.” Economics need not concern us, as it didn’t concern the Bolsheviks when they were seeking state power through a party political movement. Unlike those who thought all the action was in the economic sphere and the proletariat’s “historical mission” was no sweat, we are now more sophisticated because we know about the obstacles erected by advanced capitalist society: culture, ideology, reification, hegemony, false consciousness, consumerism (call it what you will); to which the Western Marxist responds with brooding ideology-critique. I would argue, however, that the elevation in importance of politics, ideology, and culture has provided cover for a refusal to rethink basic economic questions. If Moishe Postone is right about anything, he is right about how poorly traditional Marxists, even the most sophisticated Frankfurt dialectitians, understood Marx’s critique of political economy.

Some kind of holism seems to be evoked when there is a general contention that thinking about the economy is not sufficient. It seems that “not sufficient” soon turns into “not necessary,” with ignorance of economics, and the practice of routinely ignoring economics in favor of ideology, politics, and culture, being worn as a badge of honor. When economics is raised, it could perhaps be given lip service, but by itself, it is mere economics. Not as important as thinking about society as a whole or interpreting History. But insufficiency is relative to a goal or desired condition. Thinking primarily about the economy might be perfectly sufficient for some things, such as theorizing about the economy. It’s not sufficient if what you want is to raise consciousness in some vague way. Then you will want to trace vague connections to everything in society that verifies your perspective. In other words, it will only be sufficient when you appear to talk about everything at the same time. But you can’t theorize about a totality because you can’t theorize without specifying a domain. That’s what science is. This is why Marx had a theory of capital, not a theory of capitalism or of (modern) society-nor would have even attempted a theory of modern society.

Lukacs seems to have begun this historicist/holistic phase of Marxism, in which capital becomes the whole of society. There is no effort to specify causal mechanisms that give capital this influence over all the institutions of our social lives. Specifying causal mechanisms that link social institutions to the processes of capitalist production is the only way to advance a Marxist theory of how capitalist production affects other aspects of society. It is customary these days to assert that capitalism infects every aspect of society, including our consciousnesses. But this assertion needs to be substantiated and the processes by which it is supposed to occur specified. And for that you need theory, not some vague philosophical history that connects everything to everything.

Stated abstractly, and attributed to consciousness (and not just labor as in Marx), there is no solution to Lukacs’ problem of reification. It is empirically vacuous. It’s a bad idealism that leads people to basically believe we can just change reality by changing thought or consciousness, without solving any of the hard problems. But that did not stop the Frankfurt School from carrying this vacuousness to its logical conclusion. If you go the way of this losing proposition you are stuck thinking that everything is a manifestation of capital and everything you do reproduces capital. Commodification becomes this catchphrase to turn everything into the walls of some inescapable prison that structures everything we think and do a priori. If Capital is the whole, and not a mode of production within society that can be changed by reorganizing the social production process, then there is no way out, short of some miracle. And that is how revolution is usually characterized, as some miracle, that will come about when people gain consciousness of one thing or another and do something or another.

3 Comments on “Critical Thoughts on Critical Theory”

  1. 1zerohour said at 1:42 pm on June 10th, 2009:I think you are positing an unnecessary dichotomy in the same way you are accusing the cultural Marxists of doing.

    How does transforming the economy occur without a transformation of consciousness, without a political will towards something better than capitalism?

    “It is the failure in thinking that culture and ideology are somehow the main obstacles to transcending capital.”

    No, it is trying to take into account some other significant factors that contribute to that failure. Many Marxists have agonized for years to explain working class support for fascism. How does a deeper understanding of economics alone account for this, other than relying on superficial empiricism?

    Furthermore, how does transforming the economy affect the rest of social life, without conscious deliberation? Should we downgrade other forms of political struggle now? Does this not lead to a politics where issues like women’s inequality will be dealt with “after the revolution”?

    Just as you accuse critical theory of “culturalizing” Marx, I believe you are “economizing” him. His efforts at political economy were part of a larger project of understanding society, and that includes culture and ideology.

    It should be obvious that people don’t just do things, they impute meaning to objects and relations, this is how social cohesion works. Without this understanding, we are left with a technological determinist theory of social change – no politics necessary.

    You have also not made a case for a radical strategy, based on a deep understanding of Capital. I’d be curious to see how this looks.

  2. 2zerohour said at 8:27 pm on June 10th, 2009:Another point. I agree that will and desire are not sufficient to transform society, but you seem to be arguing that they’re not even necessary. And even where radical will is present, it should be focused on economics. Isn’t this a bit like telling a carpenter to focus only on laying down the foundation because the rest of the house will somehow build itself?
  3. 3Chris Cutrone said at 2:16 pm on June 11th, 2009:I think that Josh’s treatment of my arguments is tendentious at best and willfully distorting at worst.

    It is a straw-man argument at least as egregious as that with which I am being accused.

    As “zerohour” has already pointed out, above, consideration of politics as a specific aspect of the reproduction of the social reality of capital does not need to be resolved merely at the level of “will” or “desire.”

    Kant already dealt with this issue of practical reason adequately enough.

    It’s remarkable how the “Left” has essentially abdicated on acting. Acting is not merely a matter of will but also more importantly of self-transformation, not least by allowing oneself to objectify and reflect upon one’s actions.

    Any emancipatory politics must engage practice in order to be able to advance theoretically. We need mistakes to learn from.

    At the same time, we can address the problem of alienation in action at the political and not merely economic-productive level.

    This need not become a matter of “historicism,” but it does involve taking a critical approach to history so that its “progress” is not naturalized.

    All of this is being so vociferously warded off by Josh that the question of what the point of Leftist politics, let alone a Marxian approach to this, would mean to him. I hope that Josh (following Andrew Kliman) doesn’t mean to say that we need a more adequate economic analysis to “figure out” the economic problems of capitalism before trying to “fix” them by proposing an alternative economic model!

    The point is that Marx and the best Marxists did not seek to be original politically, but rather sought to critically grasp what the meaning of calls for the “social republic,” workers’ empowerment, “producers’/economic democracy” (at the “point of production” as well as in society as a whole), and phenomena such as the Paris Commune, the “mass” or political strike, soviets/workers’ councils, etc. meant about the possibility of overcoming capital. They sought to advance existing practice through critical reflection upon it. Marx did this in a specific way in Capital, through the immanent critique of political-economic discourse, whose categories of self-understanding he accepted but sought to push further by rendering them “dialectical.”

    As the Adorno scholar Gillian Rose pointed out, Lukacs, Benjamin and Adorno, et al. recognized that the same approach could be undertaken in law, politics, philosophy and culture more generally, as Marx himself did more preliminarily and perhaps haphazardly than he did with political economy in Capital.


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