On the Needed Organization of Marxist Thought
Jan. 23, 2103
I’ll be referring a lot, implicitly and explicitly, to the readings and the audio recording for tonight’s meeting. I want to begin with the audio recording, the conversation between Doug Lain and C. Derick Varn. It seems to me that they end with a problem that seems very perplexing, that of “pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps.” The context is that we’re products of this society and we’re formed by it. So you can have have pseudo-activity, but as long as we remain within the confines of the given, you can’t have real human activity. We’re products of this society, and so it seems that we can’t escape from it.
I think Marx solved this problem, in 1845, in his third “thesis on Feuerbach.” He writes:
The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated. Hence this doctrine is bound to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.
However, this concept of self-change seems impossible––given a particular conception of society, that of a seamless totality in which the whole is expressed in all parts. I think we need a different conception. We need to understand concrete totality; a whole that’s internally differentiated, contains self-contradiction (in the parts and in the whole). This allows for self-change.
Change occurs when one thing acts on another. This seems to be a mechanical materialist conception of change: one billiard ball hits a second one, and the second one moves. But it’s no longer mechanical when the thing is self-contradictory. Then, the change is a change of a thing that is what Hegel called “its own other.” It acts on itself. Hegel called this “the negative relation to self,” and said it is “the innermost source of all activity of all animate and spiritual self-movement” (§1799 of Science of Logic). Or as Marx put it: “it is the situation in which the human being strives not to remain something she has already become, but is in the absolute movement of becoming” (Grundrisse). So I think that self-change can only be understood when you have the standpoint of internal differentiation.
Lain and Varn ended with the own-bootstrap problem. It seems to me that Marxism basically begins with Marx’s solution to it. Now, you can reject self-contradiction here, embrace the theory of one-dimensionality or whatever. What you end up with is one or another form of resignation to what exists, or with vanguardism, “society [divided] into 2 parts, one of which is superior to society,” or the hope that technology will knock us like a billiard ball into a new society or something.
I think that Marx’s solution to the own-bootstrap problem is one of our starting points. The other is the idea that only great masses of humanity can change society for the better—their emancipation can only be their own act. If Moses could lead them into the Promised Land, he could lead them right back out again. So we have to be thinking about the thought and activity of great masses of people. Smaller or vaguer conceptions of “we”—Occupy, “the 99%”––can’t substitute for the mass movement, in activity and thought, that’s needed to change society. We can’t jump-start a revolution or find a shortcut to it, or anything like that, it seems to me. As Raya Dunayevskaya put it, the shortcuts have always proven to be the long way around. In the audio with Lain and Varn, there’s discussion of the Bolshevik call for peace, bread, and land, and the call for all power to soviets. But Lenin could call for all power to the soviets only because there were already soviets! Otherwise, it would have been fantasy. We can’t call soviets into being any more than one calls a general strike—though this was tried by Occupy Wall Street last year.
Once one acknowledges this inherent limitation of revolutionary thought, what is then possible?
The tasks are to be ready, and to be able, to help the movements confront and transcend the contradictions they face when they do move, and to help work out answers to theoretical and philosophical questions, then and in the meantime––answers to the questions that arise from below, and answers to the questions that arise from within the ongoing development of the revolutionary idea.
I think Marxist-Humanist Initiative did have a clear conception early on of what we could contribute, specifically as Marxist-Humanists, to the Occupy movement. At its height, we recognized that this movement wouldn’t be a straight-line development onward and upward. We recognized that there would be setbacks and failures, and that many people would leave or give up. And some would, of course, just keep going on. But we hoped that there would be others, who would then be ready to re-evaluate, to try to work out what was insufficient or what had gone wrong thus far, and ready to try to move the struggle to a deeper level. And we wanted to be ready to engage with them and to help them in this process when the time came.
I think this is what we did. It didn’t go very far, partly because it seems that there weren’t enough people who were ready to fundamentally re-evaluate things in order to move to a deeper level, and partly because Marxist-Humanist Initiative didn’t have the resources to project itself widely enough. But also, I think that we’ve increasingly realized that people sometimes have difficulty understanding what we’re saying, because their premises or starting points are vastly different from ours. So we’ve been doing more to make our starting points clear. I think the FAQs on Occupy and our second meeting on Occupy reflect that. And we haven’t given up on trying to find people who want to re-evaluate things in order to move to a deeper level. This is at least one main reason for this evening’s meeting.
I think one of the main, if not the main, deficiencies in Occupy is David Graeber’s’ recipe for what might be called the absolute non-movement of non-becoming. Eleven years ago, in a New Left Review piece on “the new anarchists,” he wrote,
Where the democratic-centralist “party” puts its emphasis on achieving a complete and correct theoretical analysis … [new anarchist groups like the Direct Action Network] openly seek diversity. Debate always focuses on particular courses of action; it’s taken for granted that no one will ever convert anyone else entirely to their point of view. The motto might be, “If you are willing to act like an anarchist now, your long-term vision is pretty much your own business.” Which seems only sensible: none of us know how far these principles can actually take us, or what a complex society based on them would end up looking like. Their ideology, then, is immanent in the anti-authoritarian principles that underlie their practice, and one of their more explicit principles is that things should stay this way.
So here we have collective action, without collective thought. Keep your “long-term vision” and your “point of view” to yourself. That’s “your own business,” it’s not our business. And “things should stay this way.” “Ideology” should remain “immanent,” or only implicit––indefinitely.
I would like to suggest, in light of this, that the failure of Occupy to develop theoretically wasn’t an accident. From the perspective of an influential current within it, the lack of theoretical development was no failure at all. It was the way things should stay. But I don’t think thoughtless activity on the part of a collectivity is going to be any more successful, when all is said and done, than thoughtless activity on the part of an individual.
Of course, there is something called Occupy Theory and the publication Tidal that emerged from Occupy Wall Street. But one of the main people in Occupy Theory and Tidal, who came to the first Marxist-Humanist Initiative meeting on Occupy, told me after the meeting that he was hoping to get consensus around some tenets or items for a vision, or whatever. Now, this might seem to be the opposite of what Graeber recommended. On the one hand, we have keeping your ideas to yourself. On the other hand, we have this notion of large numbers of people “agreeing” to certain tenets by consensus. But these are opposite sides of the same coin. In neither case is there a collective process of thought, ongoing development of thought, public critique of thought, or testing of thought in the realm of thought itself.
It is this process that’s all-important, it seems to me. The epigraph with which chapter 9 of Dunayevskaya’s Marxism and Freedom begins is about this process. What’s being discussed there is what Hegel called the “third attitude” or “third position” of thought to objectivity, in his Smaller Logic. This third attitude or position is the standpoint of immediate knowledge, intuitionism, in other words, the idea that knowledge can be acquired intuitively. Dunayevskaya is criticizing this attitude in the epigraph, and she continued to criticize it for the next 30 years, and increasingly so.
The context of her remarks is the debate within German-idealist philosophy over whether reason can arrive at absolute truth, or whether absolute truth can only by attained by means of faith or belief, intuitive means. Hegel says that both Kant and the philosophies that he, Hegel, is criticizing at this point held that reason can’t arrive at absolute truth, but that there’s a crucial difference between Kant and these philosophies nonetheless. In Kant’s case, this was a result, a conclusion he arrived at through philosophical cognition. In the case of the philosophies that Hegel is criticizing here, however, this conclusion is turned into an immediate starting point. So philosophical cognition is cut away beforehand, before it begins. In this way, Hegel says, the Kantian philosophy gets turned into a pillow for intellectual sloth, which comforts itself in thinking that everything is already proved and settled.
I think this is why the process becomes all-important, rather than the conclusions. As we say in this pamphlet on the “self-thinking Idea,”
Genuine self-development of the Idea requires continual “check[ing],” continual proving, but the process of proving is obviously not something the thinker carries out on his or her own. The very point of the process is to subject an argument that the thinker regards as proof to the scrutiny of others, in order to see whether it withstands their scrutiny. No proof is accepted on anyone’s say-so.
And this is where organizational responsibility for Marxist-Humanism comes in. Intellectual production without the necessary public process of demonstration and rigorous scrutiny is insufficient for the continued development of Marxist-Humanism, no matter how many works are republished or new ones are published.
And in the announcement for tonight’s meeting, we said,
The ideas necessary for an emancipatory alternative to capitalism must proceed along a dialectic of self-development that is only possible through a collective of individuals that constantly subject each others’ arguments to the scrutiny of others. … Development of emancipatory ideas needs to take place in an organized and collective manner.
So I don’t want to get into the business of specifying any particular action, based on any particular idea, that should have been taken or should be taken now, by Occupy or anybody else. I think that’s a trap. No beginning is perfect. So the point is to improve. Since the beginning is imperfect, we have to improve, to overcome the imperfections. This is a matter of thought as a process, not a particular thought, taken as a result. So what we come back to is the organization of Marxist thought, as Dunayevskaya put it. It requires a corporeal organization like ours to take responsibility for ensuring that the process is ongoing. And it requires as many people as possible to help, to become part of the process. That’s what I think we should focus on, not any particular action, based on any particular idea, taken as a result. That’s only going to take you so far, because everything has its limits and its imperfections. So we need that ongoing process.
In light of this, I want to end with something Adorno says in his “Resignation” essay. “The consolation that thinking improves in the context of collective action is deceptive: thinking, as a mere instrument of activist actions, atrophies like all instrumental reason.” So he counterposes thinking, presumably individual thinking, to collective action. It seems to me that this conflates two different things, which is perhaps excusable since Adorno seems to have had particular cases in mind in which both things were present. Nonetheless, they’re different. One thing is the relation between individual and collective; the other thing is the relation between thinking and action. So, on the one hand, Adorno criticizes the notion that “thinking improves in the context of action.” I think he’s right that, when thinking becomes a mere instrument of activist actions, it atrophies. But I don’t think this has anything to do with individual vs. collective. I don’t think it’s the case that “individual thinking atrophies in the context of collective thinking.” I think the collective process improves both the individual thinking and the collective thinking.
So to summarize, we need thinking, not just action. But we need collective thinking, not just individual thinking. And we need thinking as a process, not just thoughts as static results. In short, we need the organization of Marxist thought.