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Totality versus theory: Left cognition and social change

Joshua Howard

Platypus Review 20 | February 2010


GEORG LUKÁCS INTRODUCED the notion of totality as a major theme for Western Marxism in his work History and Class Consciousness, where he wrote,

It is not the primacy of economic motives in historical explanation that constitutes the decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois thought, but the point of view of totality. The category of totality, the all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts, is the essence of the method which Marx took over from Hegel and brilliantly transformed into the foundations of a wholly new science...Proletarian science is revolutionary not just by virtue of its revolutionary ideas which it opposes to bourgeois society, but above all because of its method. The primacy of the category of totality is the bearer of the principle of revolution in science.[1]

I wish to take issue not only with the idea Lukács expresses here of totality as a standpoint or point of view from which both to critique the partiality of other viewpoints and to theoretically grasp capitalist society, but also with later Frankfurt School intellectuals, Western Marxists more generally, as well as leading trends in Continental Philosophy that question the very possibility of such a standpoint. For while these anti-totality positions lament the impossibility of such a total understanding while others celebrate it—extending their skepticism also to the practical questions concerning the revolutionary subjects that are supposed to embody or make possible the critique—neither offers any real break from the problems in the Western Marxist notion of totality. Indeed, their perspectives often assume the very concept of totality they critique and thus fall back into the orbit of these problems. Therefore, rather than taking sides in this debate, I wish instead to critique the assumptions common to both sides.

The debate, which has proven to be a circular and unproductive one, has actually served to hinder the development of Marxist theory. This is partly because holistic modes of thinking stand opposed to theoretical reason, in general, and to Marx’s theories, in particular. As a result, Marx’s ideas usually come burdened with philosophical assumptions that distort them, as well as the nature of theory itself and its role in social change. Instead of theories, Western Marxists have sought a method. This search for method coupled with holistic thinking has turned Marxism into a worldview that seems to require that its adherents undergo a religious conversion to arrive at faith, rather than a rational process of assessing a set of theories against reality and other theories. There is no method that will unlock the secrets of capitalist society or guarantee revolutionary results. Despite all the searches for method, there is nothing special about Marx’s theorizing process that separates it from other modes of theoretical reasoning.

In what follows I try to show in a preliminary way how the category of totality and the attendant sense of method have both served to hinder the understanding of Marx’s critique of capital and have had an enervating effect on the ability of Western Marxists to imagine alternatives to capitalism. But this applies well beyond Western Marxism, and a lot of what I say applies to the radical Left in general. This is because the main issue, I believe, concerns a certain way of thinking about capitalist society as a total system.

From Marx’s analysis of capital, as an integrated process of production, distribution, and exchange of value, Western Marxists tend to move, largely through unsubstantiated, analogical thinking, to a theory of capitalist society as a whole, as a completely integrated system that affects everything we think and do. This generates in turn the need for an external position from which to critique this society and a frustrated desire to live outside the system. From here it is but a short step to despairing of ever achieving such a position. But, as soon as one poses the problem in terms of being “inside” or “outside” capitalism, the game is over. This is not least because of the theoretical and practical consequences that flow from Lukács’s claim about the “all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts.”

By regarding capitalism as a total system, encompassing all of society, holistic views such as Lukács’s have also included as part of capitalist totality our very consciousness, so that our inner thoughts themselves are supposed to embody or enact this all-consuming total ideology, which appears to us perfectly commonplace, or “reified” as Lukács says. Radical critics trace all problems of modern society back to capitalism. Their radicalism itself is measured by how much they refuse this total ideology and reject the entire culture. Just as capitalism is seen to mediate everything we do and think, so revolution comes to be imagined as something that entails changing all of society, down to our consciousness.

One practical consequence of this view is that revolution comes to seem impossible, because, well, a scenario in which everything changes is impossible. Social change has never and will never happen this way. And so it is hard to convince rational people of the viability of a revolution against a Lukácsian totality. If a movement to change society requires people first to adopt an entire new worldview, then perhaps we should wonder whether such a vision of social change is not solely a construct of the intelligentsia built into a vision of the world with which they flatter themselves, rather than as a genuinely emancipatory vision opening a viable path towards real social change to benefit everyone.

A second theoretical consequence is that once the ontological priority of the whole over the parts is posited, including the dependence of thought on society, then one must also posit the impossibility of conceiving any alternative to this totality or a theory of how any change is possible. As products of the whole, everything that is thought reflects that whole and is bound by it.

Except, of course, when it comes to the intellectual equipped with the right method, who seems somehow not only able to conceive the whole predicament, but, having scaled the heights of Enlightenment, can direct the benighted masses towards the Promised Land. No matter how much it is denied, such intellectual vanguardism seems built into the very diagnosis of the problem as one of being inside or outside of a total social system. This logic is, of course, characteristic of the Kautskyian/Leninist theory of the vanguardist road to socialism and the Trotskyist/Maoist problem of leadership, but it is also very typical of other flawed critiques of modern society on the radical Left that pit a knowledgeable elite against the rest of society. This “solution” turns from simple top-down elitism to incoherence when capitalism is conceived as an all-pervasive totality. What then gives intellectuals access to this privileged viewpoint? I lack the space to unfold from their inner epistemological contradictions all the vicissitudes of this view over the past century. Rather than concluding that no one can have such access, no one can occupy such a perspective, the upshot seems to be that this is a bad (and unnecessary) way of posing the problem. Western Marxists, and leftists generally, erect this obstacle for themselves. Thinking everyone else is absorbed by the system, it is, in fact, a system of their very own creation that ultimately stems from their disappointment with the working class’s failure to act according to their expectations. In true dialectical form, the diagnosis of one-dimensionality is a symptom expressing its own one-dimensionality. And much of this has to do with the holistic thinking I wish to critique.

The Trap of Holism

I want to point to two essential aspects of this prevalent notion of totality, (1) holism about society, or “sociological holism,” and (2) holism about beliefs, or “ideological holism.”

Sociological holism holds that everything in society is part of an integrated whole, with the implication that everything within it is co-opted or absorbed by this whole. On such a view, each component part and every event become an instance of the total system. This process of incorporation is commonly expressed as a logic of colonization whereby contact with a vague, general cultural process—in this case, commodification—irrevocably homogenizes. Becoming commodified is the sign of being integrated into and trapped by the system; as everything has a price, so everything serves capital. Now that all is supposedly commodified, even that which was previously thought to be outside or untouched by capital, such as nature, is no longer. The list extends to include human nature, the unconscious, and ultimately subjectivity itself.

Where Marx specifically analyzed the reification of labor as value, as an objective aspect of the commodity, Lukács turned reification as such into a general organizing principle of capitalist society and its institutions. It is no accident that this widely used concept of commodification can be seamlessly substituted with sociological notions such as Max Weber’s rationalization or Georg Simmel’s objective culture, without losing its meaning. That is because of the divide that stretches between Marx and Lukács. Rather than any Marxist, Weber and Simmel had the largest influence on Lukács’s attempt to link Marx’s analysis of the commodity form to these sociological notions to give them a certain political, anti-capitalist twist, but failed to actually clarify or advance Marx’s theoretical project. Thus, rather than being based on Marx’s analysis of commodity production, reification has the character of a general malaise of modernity, similar to that diagnosed by Weber as an iron cage of capitalist rationalization or by Simmel as the tragedy of culture. Nowadays it is even fashionable to lament reification and commodification, so that it is possible to sound “Marxist” without understanding the specifics of Marx’s analysis of commodity production in Capital.

This holism with respect to society has also been referred to as the real subsumption of society by capital. But this concept is not Marx’s. Many people, most recently Hardt and Negri, with their marriage of Marx and Foucault, mistake Marx’s concept of the real subsumption of labor under capital to mean the real subsumption of the laborer or of society as a whole under capital, so that capitalist society becomes equivalent to capital. How do we escape from this totalizing predicament? Either Marxism (as a method, of course) is the totalizing perspective we need to counter a totalizing social process, or else we can have no such total perspective; there is no outside, so we can only occupy the cracks in the system. Just because Marx did not have such a theory does not mean such a theory is wrong. But Western Marxists have to confront the problems that arise from the logic of the argument.

Ideological holism, meanwhile, holds that the dominant ideology colors everything we believe or, rather, that what we believe stems from the social system itself. A corollary of ideological holism is that the meaning of every belief depends on the believer’s social location; it requires analysis in light of the totality to establish its meaning and significance in the light of history. On this view, every belief is connected to every other belief in a web of ideology, a symbolic system or worldview that perfectly locks into this form of life. Our beliefs are further determined by where we stand in this totality. Hence, you can have a “proletarian science” as opposed to a “bourgeois science.” A new society would naturally bring with it a new belief system for its individual parts, one that we cannot begin to imagine. In a post-capitalist society we would think differently, just as now we think differently from other cultures or historical periods. This would be akin to a conversion process from one worldview or paradigm to another. This holism of belief today has many names, but the logic is the same: Lukács’s reification of consciousness is a species of standpoint epistemology, as is Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge; misunderstandings of Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, the appropriation in the humanities and social sciences of Thomas Kuhn’s notion of paradigm, and Michel Foucault’s epistemes or disciplinary matrices, among others, are all perspectivist viewpoints.

Of course it is true that people do think different things based on the changing conditions of the reality that surrounds them. And, certainly, capitalism does significantly affect certain of these conditions, causing our beliefs and attitudes themselves to change. But these are empirical questions, not foregone conclusions. What I am challenging is the internal holism of this notion of a belief system and its necessary grounding in a form of society as a whole. People’s ideas are not as homogenous nor as limited a priori by the type of society they belong to, contrary to what critical theorists have tended to believe. People basically make rational decisions about their choices in life. Changing conditions would naturally bring about changes in certain beliefs or attitudes, and a socialist society would change social conditions for the better in certain ways. But these would not depend upon, nor produce, some new type of person who thinks in a wholly new and different way.

Totality versus Theory

Holistic thinking seeks a theory of society as a whole or of history as a whole. The reason that Marx provided no such comprehensive theory of society or a theory of capitalist society is because he did not think it was necessary for his purposes and probably thought it impossible. Such a “theory” would attempt to leave nothing out and thus strive to be a theory of everything, but this would no longer be a theory in any real sense. A theory must range over a definite domain of phenomena. It must look for causal regularities and discover the causal mechanisms that underlie those regularities. That is true of theories in general, and of Marx’s theories of capital as a mode of production (conceived narrowly) and of historical materialism, in particular. Marx did not have a theory of everything, nor did he mean for his theories to explain everything.

Holistic accounts of capitalist society, on the other hand, individuate modes of production, social formations, forms of life, worldviews, paradigms, and so on, as wholes, meaning their “parts” depend on their place in the whole, rather than the whole depending on the individual parts. Thus there can be no fundamental change that is not a total change, one in which all the parts, being so dependent, are fundamentally altered. This makes no sense because, if there were no independent parts, if the whole were the only thing with any real independent existence, then there could be no change, certainly not from within the totality. We need not invoke Popper’s critique of utopian social engineering in favor of piecemeal change in order to see that there is a theoretical inadequacy in such holistic thinking. It conceives capitalist society as an abstract, undifferentiated totality and the intellectual as somehow outside it. This can lead only to an abstract negation of society because it lacks any specificity with respect to capital as a totalizing process in anything more than its strict use by Marx in reference to capital’s subsumption of labor processes. Its ineffectiveness is due to its synthetic mode of cognition linking everything to everything else, largely eschewing the theorization of the actual causal mechanisms that run through this society. As a consequence, it is also a bad method from which to think of social change. Not only is there an effacement of how the different parts of this whole relate, no guidance can be derived as to how to get from this whole to the next. If every part is subsumed under the whole, if the parts are not seen as prior to the whole, then the whole must be changed from without. Some mysterious transitionary period is usually delegated to the task of doing the actual work of moving us from capitalism to socialism, but this seems to be a placeholder for ignorance.

Pace Lukács, we do not need a method, but a theory to help bring about a new society. Contra Lukács, we do not need the category of totality. Quite the opposite, we cannot make any progress by declaring the ontological priority of the whole over the parts. Theory entails breaking down the whole and specifying the parts that constitute it. Totality stands opposed to theory because invoking totality absolves the theoretician from having to say anything definite about capitalism, socialism, or a social-economic revolution.

Economics and Social Change

Holistic thinking lays yet another trap for liberatory thought, for it inevitably leads to a view that sees capitalism, socialism, and the move from one to the other as a matter of the primacy of politics. And this is where the totalistic conception of capitalism is most at odds with Marx’s theorization of capital and of its relation to the rest of society. It explains why Leninists and Western Marxists alike are so eager to ditch the historical materialist understanding of how the economic structure of society determines the contours of the legal and political superstructure, a view typically denigrated as “economism.” It also explains why there has been a consistent lack of concern with the need to theorize socialism and its possibility.

Rather than economism, “politicism” has been the more severe theoretical problem in the history of Marxism. The problem is one that Marx identified in Jacobinism, whether in its original form or in that of a Blanquist or Bakuninist conspiratorial elite. On this view, revolution comes to be conceived as a matter of consciousness, politics, and will. Failure is due to false consciousness, a lack of leadership, and a weakness of will. Marx’s analysis of Jacobinism as a political movement fundamentally divorced from the society that it seeks to change is apt here. The Jacobins treated economics as a side issue, believing that change comes externally, from a politics outside or above society. Marx critiqued such attempts to subsume economics under politics for ignoring the objective compulsions of the economy. Jacobinism is not only undesirable because it leads to authoritarianism, but it is impotent to change society. Since societies do not change in this manner, political decisions at odds with the underlying economic realities must ultimately be sustained by force—usually, by terror (terror being the political repression of unintended consequences). While such techniques may achieve their purposes in the short term they remain, ultimately, unsustainable.

I suggest we drop all use of the word “Revolution.” It sounds good, but without specification it lacks any definite content. It also has the almost invariant effect of giving people the impression that the change is political and can be sustained politically. We should ask instead what a revolution must accomplish so that it need not be sustained politically, by a political authority that controls or attempts to control economic and social life. Politics cannot fundamentally change the structure of the society without that new society being dependent upon the whims of some political authority.

For Marx, ultimately the change that is needed is not political, at least not primarily so. Nor can the exercise of political will, however democratic, sustain socioeconomic change. Socioeconomic change will sustain any future political changes. This economic structure would be a complex, dynamic system that would have to be self-regulating in some way. The place to begin to look for what Marx conceived of as a self-sustaining socialist society is his Critique of the Gotha Program. Here Marx, the theorist of socialism, emerges from Marx, the theorist of capitalism, in Capital. If he is correct about the inner workings of the capitalist economy, his theory of capital is a good start to figure out in what ways a socialist economy would have to differ. In his >Critique, socialism is conceived of as a new economic structure that would give rise to different patterns of daily life, new opportunities, and new patterns of making policy, such that individuals can better take control of their own lives—in other words, as Marx put it, the full and free development of each is the condition for the full and free development of all. And this free development depends not on political decisions but on new economic relations. |P

[1]. Georg Lukács, History and Class Consiousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1972), 27.