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You are here: Platypus /Capital in history: The need for a Marxian philosophy of history of the Left

Capital in history: The need for a Marxian philosophy of history of the Left

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 7 | October 2008


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The following is a talk given at the Marxist-Humanist Committee public forum on The Crisis in Marxist Thought, hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society in Chicago on Friday, July 25, 2008.

I want to speak about the meaning of history for any purportedly Marxian Left.

We in Platypus focus on the history of the Left because we think that the narrative one tells about this history is in fact one’s theory of the present. Implicitly or explicitly, in one’s conception of the history of the Left, is an account of how the present came to be. By focusing on the history of the Left, or, by adopting a Left-centric view of history, we hypothesize that the most important determinations of the present are the result of what the Left has done or failed to do historically.

For the purposes of this talk, I will focus on the broadest possible framing for such questions and problems of capital in history, the broadest possible context within which I think one needs to understand the problems faced by the Left, specifically by a purportedly Marxian Left.

I will not, for example, be focusing so much on issues for Platypus in the history of the various phases and stages of capital itself, for instance our contention that the 1960s represented not any kind of advance, but a profound retrogression on the Left. I will not elucidate our account of how the present suffers from at least 3 generations of degeneration and regression on the Left: the first, in the 1930s, being tragic; the second in the 1960s being farcical; and the most recent, in the 1990s, being sterilizing.

But, suffice it to say, I will point out that, for Platypus, the recognition of regression and the attempt to understand its significance and causes is perhaps our most important point of departure. The topic of this talk is the most fundamental assumption informing our understanding of regression.

For purposes of brevity, I will not be citing explicitly, but I wish to indicate my indebtedness for the following treatment of a potential Marxian philosophy of history, beyond Marx and Engels themselves, and Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, to Georg Lukács, Karl Korsch, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and, last but not least, the Marx scholar Moishe Postone. And, moreover, I will be in dialogue, through these writers, with Hegel, who distinguished philosophical history as the story of the development of freedom. — For Hegel, history is only meaningful the degree to which it is the story of freedom.

Capital is completely unprecedented in the history of humanity, hence, any struggle for emancipation beyond capital is also completely unprecedented. While there is a connection between the unprecedented nature of the emergence of capital in history and the struggle to get beyond it, this connection can also be highly misleading, leading to a false symmetry between the transition into and within different periods of the transformations of modern capital, and a potential transition beyond capital. The revolt of the Third Estate, which initiated a still on-going and never-to-be-exhausted modern history of bourgeois-democratic revolutions, is both the ground for, and, from a Marxian perspective, the now potentially historically obsolescent social form of politics from which proletarian socialist politics seeks to depart, to get beyond.

Hegel, as a philosopher of the time of the last of the great bourgeois-democratic revolutions marking the emergence of modern capital, the Great French Revolution of 1789, was for this reason a theorist of the revolt of the Third Estate. Marx, who came later, after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century, faced problems Hegel did not.

It has often been stated, but not fully comprehended by Marxists that Marx recognized the historical mission of the class-conscious proletariat, to overcome capitalism and to thus do away with class society. Traditionally, this meant, however paradoxically, either the end of the pre-history or the beginning of the true history of humanity.* — In a sense, this duality of the possibility of an end and a true beginning, was a response to a Right Hegelian notion of an end to history, what is assumed by apologists for capital as a best of all possible worlds.

Famously, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels stated that all history hitherto has been the history of class struggles; Engels added a clever footnote later that specified “all written history.” We might extrapolate from this that what Engels meant was the history of civilization; history as class struggle did not pertain, for instance, to human history or social life prior to the formation of classes, the time of the supposed “primitive communism.” Later, in 1942 (in “Reflections on Class Theory”), Adorno, following Benjamin (in the “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 1940), wrote that such a conception by Marx and Engels of all of history as the history of class struggles was in fact a critique of all of history, a critique of history itself.

So in what way does the critique of history matter in the critique of capital? The problem with the commonplace view of capitalism as primarily a problem of exploitation is that it is in this dimension that capital fails to distinguish itself from other forms of civilization. What is new in capital is social domination, which must be distinguished both logically and historically, structurally and empirically, from exploitation, to which it is not reducible. Social domination means the domination of society by capital. This is what is new about capital in the history of civilization; prior forms of civilization knew overt domination of some social groups over others, but did not know as Marx recognized in capital a social dynamic to which all social groups—all aspects of society as a whole—are subject.

So we must first draw a demarcation approximately 10,000 years ago, with the origins of civilization and class society, when the great agricultural revolution of the Neolithic Age took place, and human beings went from being nomadic hunter-gatherers to becoming settled agriculturalists. The predominant mode of life for humanity went from the hunter-gatherer to the peasant, and was this for most of subsequent history.

Several hundred years ago, however, a similarly profound transformation began, in which the predominant mode of life has gone from agricultural peasant to urban worker: wage-earner, manufacturer, and industrial producer.

More proximally, with the Industrial Revolution in the late-18th to early-19th Centuries, certain aspects of this “bourgeois” epoch of civilization and society manifested themselves and threw this history of the emergence of modernity into a new light. Rather than an “end of history” as bourgeois thinkers up to that time had thought, modern social life entered into a severe crisis that fundamentally problematized the transition from peasant- to worker-based society.

With Marx in the 19th Century came the realization that bourgeois society, along with all its categories of subjectivity including its valorization of labor, might itself be transitional, that the end-goal of humanity might not be found in the productive individual of bourgeois theory and practice, but that this society might point beyond itself, towards a potential qualitative transformation at least as profound as that which separated the peasant way of life from the urban “proletarian” one, indeed a transition more on the order of profundity of the Neolithic Revolution in agriculture that ended hunter-gatherer society 10,000 years ago, more profound than that which separated modern from traditional society.

At the same time that this modern, bourgeois society ratcheted into high gear by the late-18th Century, it entered into crisis, and a new, unprecedented historical phenomenon was manifested in political life, the “Left.” — While earlier forms of politics certainly disputed values, this was not in terms of historical “progress,” which became the hallmark of the Left.

The Industrial Revolution of the early 19th Century, the introduction of machine production, was accompanied by the optimistic and exhilarating socialist utopias suggested by these new developments, pointing to fantastical possibilities expressed in the imaginations of Fourier and Saint-Simon, among others.

Marx regarded the society of “bourgeois right” and “private property” as indeed already resting on the social constitution and mediation of labor, from which private property was derived, and asked the question of whether the trajectory of this society, from the revolt of the Third Estate and the manufacturing era in the 18th Century to the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century, indicated the possibility of a further development.

In the midst of the dramatic social transformations of the 19th Century in which, as Marx put it in the Manifesto, “all that was solid melted into air,” as early as 1843, Marx prognosed and faced the future virtual proletarianization of society, and asked whether and how humanity in proletarian form might liberate itself from this condition, whether and how, and with what necessity the proletariat would “transcend” and “abolish itself.” As early as the 1844 Manuscripts, Marx recognized that socialism (of Proudhon et al.) was itself symptomatic of capital: proletarian labor was constitutive of capital, and thus its politics was symptomatic of how the society conditioned by capital might reveal itself as transitional, as pointing beyond itself. — This was Marx’s most fundamental point of departure, that proletarianization was a substantial social problem and not merely relative to the bourgeoisie, and that the proletarianization of society was not the overcoming of capital but its fullest realization, and that this—the proletarianized society of capital—pointed beyond itself.

Thus, with Marx, a philosophy of the history of the Left was born. For Marx was not a socialist or communist so much as a thinker who tasked himself with understanding the meaning of the emergence of proletarian socialism in history. Marx was not simply the best or most consistent or radical socialist, but rather the most historically, and hence critically, self-aware. By “scientific” socialism, Marx understood himself to be elaborating a form of knowledge aware of its own conditions of possibility.

For a Hegelian and Marxian clarification of the specificity of the modern problem of social freedom, however, it becomes clear that the Left must define itself not sociologically, whether in terms of socioeconomic class or a principle of collectivism over individualism, etc., but rather as a matter of consciousness, specifically historical consciousness.

For, starting with Marx, it is consciousness of history and historical potential and possibilities, however apparently utopian or obscure, that distinguishes the Left from the Right, not the struggle against oppression—which the modern Right also claims. The Right does not represent the past but rather the foreclosing of possibilities in the present.

For this reason, it is important for us to recognize the potential and fact of regression that the possibilities for the Left in theory and practice have suffered as a result of the abandonment of historical consciousness in favor of the immediacies of struggles against oppression.

Marx’s critique of symptomatic socialism, from Proudhon, Lassalle, Bakunin, et al., to his own followers in the new German Social-Democratic Party and their program at Gotha (as well as in Engels’s subsequent critique of the Erfurt Programme), was aimed at maintaining the Marxian vision corresponding to the horizon of possibility of post-capitalist and post-proletarian society.

Unfortunately, beginning in Marx’s own lifetime, the form of politics he sought to inspire began to fall well below the threshold of this critically important consciousness of history. And the vast majority of this regression has taken place precisely in the name of “Marxism.” Throughout the history of Marxism, from the disputes with the anarchists in the 1st International Workingmen’s Association, and disputes in the 2nd Socialist International, to the subsequent splits in the Marxist workers’ movement with the Bolshevik-led Third, Communist International and Trotskyist Fourth International, a sometimes heroic but, in retrospect, overwhelmingly tragic struggle to preserve or recover something of the initial Marxian point of departure for modern proletarian socialism took place.

In the latter half of the 20th Century, developments regressed so far behind the original Marxian self-consciousness that Marxism itself became an affirmative ideology of industrial society, and the threshold of post-capitalist society became obscured, finding expression only obtusely, in various recrudescent utopian ideologies, and, finally, in the most recent period, with the hegemony of “anarchist” ideologies and Romantic rejections of modernity.

But, beyond this crisis and passage into oblivion of a specifically Marxian approach, the “Left” itself, which emerged prior to Hegel and Marx’s attempts to philosophize its historical significance, has virtually disappeared. The present inability to distinguish conservative-reactionary from progressive-emancipatory responses to the problems of society conditioned by capital, is inseparable from the decline and disappearance of the social movement of proletarian socialism for which Marx had sought to provide a more adequate and provocative self-consciousness at the time of its emergence in the 19th Century.

Paradoxically, as Lukács, following Luxemburg and Lenin, already pointed out, almost a century ago, while the apparent possibility of overcoming capital approaches in certain respects, in another sense it seems to retreat infinitely beyond the horizon of possibility. Can we follow Luxemburg’s early recognition of the opportunism that always threatens us, not as some kind of selling-out or falling from grace, but rather the manifestation of the very real fear that attends the dawning awareness of what grave risks are entailed in trying to fundamentally move the world beyond capital?

What’s worse—and, in the present, prior to any danger of “opportunism”—with the extreme coarsening if not utter disintegration of the ability to apprehend and transform capital through working-class politics, has come the coarsening of our ability to even recognize and apprehend, let alone adequately understand our social reality. We do not suffer simply from opportunism but from a rather more basic disorientation. Today we are faced with the problem not of changing the world but more fundamentally of understanding it.

On the other hand, approaching Marxian socialism, are we dealing with a “utopia?” — And, if so, what of this? What is the significance of our “utopian” sense of human potential beyond capital and proletarian labor? Is it a mere dream?

Marx began with utopian socialism and ended with the most influential if spectacularly failing modern political ideology, “scientific socialism.” At the same time, Marx gave us an acute and incisive critical framework for grasping the reasons why the last 200 years have been, by far, the most tumultuously transformative but also destructive epoch of human civilization, why this period has promised so much and yet disappointed so bitterly. The last 200 years have seen more, and more profound changes, than prior millennia have. Marx attempted to grasp the reasons for this. Others have failed to see the difference and have tried to re-assimilate modern history back into its antecedents (for instance, in postmodernist illusions of an endless medievalism: see Bruno Latour’s 1993 book We Have Never Been Modern).

What would it mean to treat the entire Marxian project as, first and foremost, a recognition of the history of modernity tout court as one of the pathology of transition, from the class society that emerged with the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago and the civilizations based on an essentially peasant way of life, through the emergence of the commodity form of social mediation, to the present global civilization dominated by capital, towards a form of humanity that might lie beyond this?

With Marx we are faced with a self-consciousness of an obscure and mysterious historical task, which can only be further clarified theoretically through transformative practice—the practice of proletarian socialism. But this task has been abandoned in favor of what are essentially capital-reconstituting struggles, attempting to cope with the vicissitudes of the dynamics of modern history. But this re-assimilation of Marxism back into ideology characteristic of the revolt of the Third Estate means the loss of the true horizon of possibility that motivated Marx and gave his project meaning and urgency.

Can we follow Marx and the best historically revolutionary Marxists who followed him in recognizing the forms of discontent in the pathological society we inhabit as being themselves symptomatic of and bound up with the very problem against which they rage? Can we avoid the premature post-capitalism and bad, reactionary utopianism that attends the present death of the Left in theory in practice, and preserve and fulfill the tasks given to us by history? Can we recognize the breadth and depth of the problem we seek to overcome without retreating into wishful thinking and ideological gracing of the accomplished fact, and apologizing for impulses that only seem directed against it, at the expense of what might lie beyond the traps of the suffering of the present?

We urgently need an acute awareness of our historical epoch as well as of our fleeting moment now, within it. — We must ask what it is about the present moment that might make the possibility of recovering a Marxian social and political consciousness viable, and how we can advance it by way of recovering it.

For the pathology of our modern society mediated by capital, of the proletarian form of social life and its self-objectifications, the new forms of humanity it makes possible, which are completely unprecedented in history, grows only worse the longer delayed is taking the possible and necessary steps to the next levels of the struggle for freedom.

The pathology grows worse, not merely in terms of the various forms of the destruction of humanity, which are daunting, but also, perhaps more importantly—and disturbingly—in the manifest worsening social conditions and capacities for practical politics on the Left, and our worsening theoretical awareness of them. If there has been a crisis and evacuation of Marxian thought, it has been because its most fundamental context and point of departure, its awareness of its greater historical moment, the possibility of an epochal transition, has been forgotten, while we have not ceased to share this moment, but only lost sight of its necessities and possibilities. Any future emancipatory politics must regain such awareness of the transitional nature of capitalist modernity and of the reasons why we pay such a steep price for failing to recognize this. |P


* As Moishe Postone put it, in his May 2008 interview with Timothy Brennan for South Atlantic Quarterly (“Labor and the Logic of Abstraction,” SAQ 108.2 [Spring 2009] 305–330),

The condition for the abolition of class society—which I mean in the very general sense of a society in which the many create an ongoing surplus that is appropriated by the few (and which, in this general sense, has characterized most human societies since the so-called neolithic revolution)—is the abolition of the necessity of the direct labor of the many as a condition of surplus production. This possibility, according to Marx in the Grundrisse, is generated by capital itself. . . .
I think it is unquestionable that some sort of interaction of humans with nature is a condition of human life. I do think, however, that one can question today whether that necessarily entails the physical labor of the many. There is a passage—I believe it is in the introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy—where Marx refers to history until now, including capitalism, as “prehistory.” My reading of this passage is that, beginning with the so-called neolithic revolution, there has been an enormous expansion of human productive capacity. This expansion, however, has always been at the cost of the many. All so-called historical forms of society are based upon the existence of an ongoing surplus, and that surplus has always been created by the many. . . .
I said after the “neolithic revolution.” This is not the case, to the best of my knowledge, with hunters and gatherers. Generally, historical refers only to post-neolithic societies. This development may have been a giant step for humanity as a whole, but it certainly was a negative step for a lot of people. The problem with historical societies is not only that an upper class oppresses and lives off those who produce the surplus, but also that the good of the whole and the good of each (or, at least, of most) are opposed. The growth and development of social productivity may benefit or be ripped off by an upper class, but the real problem is that the toil of the many is the condition for the wealth and culture of the whole. I think that, for Marx, capitalism could be the last form of prehistory, because it creates the conditions whereby an ongoing surplus could exist that wouldn’t depend on the labor of the many. This ties in to what you were saying about both theories of intellectual labor and postindustrial society. The problem with both kinds of approaches, which are related, is that they then abstract from capitalism. They see it simply in terms of technological development and then can’t understand the actual overarching trajectory of development. What is powerful about Marx’s approach is that he sees both continued oppression and its growing non-necessity for society as a whole. He analyzes the real oppression of people in a condition where it is no longer necessary. That, in a way, makes it worse. . . .
If capitalism is seen only as something negative—an oppressive, exploitative system that converts quality into quantity (which, I agree, does describe important aspects of capitalism)—then one necessarily has to have recourse to an “outside” as the basis of critique. In my view, however, capitalism should be understood as the social and cultural order within which we live—an order that can’t be sufficiently grasped in negative terms, but that is characterized by a complex interplay of what we might regard as positive and negative moments, all of which are historically constituted. That is, one should understand “capitalism” as a conceptually more rigorous way of analyzing “modernity,” a social/cultural form of life that also has been generative of a whole range of ideas and values (such as equality) that have been emancipatory in different ways.


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