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On philosophy and Marxism: response to Suther and Velissaris

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 131 | November 2020

Karl Korsch concluded his 1923 essay on “Marxism and philosophy” with the declaration that,

“Philosophy cannot be abolished without being realized.”[1]

Suther and Velissaris try to explain what Korsch (and Marx before him, and Adorno after) meant by this, but end up avoiding it, and rather restore not only bourgeois philosophy from its fatal crisis, self-contradiction and regression in capitalism and need to overcome it, but restoring traditional philosophy, prima philosophia, pre-critical philosophy — before Kant and Hegel. Despite trying to engage this problem, they merely stave it off, and do indeed turn Kant and Hegel into traditional philosophers. They follow many since the 20th century who have mistakenly tried to secure and justify Marxism philosophically. But Marxism is justified, if at all, only politically.

Velissaris and Suther restore metaphysics — albeit that of bourgeois-revolutionary society — and forget that already Kant and Hegel were post-metaphysical thinkers. Marx was post-philosophical.

In my writings on philosophy and Marxism, I have been aware that one is brought — necessarily and not mistakenly — to the very limits of comprehension — and of comprehensibility. Many of Marxism’s formulations — for instance on philosophy — are beguilingly opaque. As Lukács wrote in the original 1923 Preface to History and Class Consciousness,

“When the professional demolishers of Marx criticise his “lack of conceptual rigour” and his use of ‘image’ rather than ‘definitions,’ etc., they cut as sorry a figure as did Schopenhauer when he tried to expose Hegel’s ‘logical howlers’ in his Hegel critique. All that is proved is their total inability to grasp even the ABC of the dialectical method. The logical conclusion for the dialectician to draw from this failure is not that he is faced with a conflict between different scientific methods, but that he is in the presence of a social phenomenon and that by conceiving it as a socio-historical phenomenon he can at once refute it and transcend it dialectically.”[2]

The philosophy of revolution — as Korsch put it — that links Kant, Hegel and Marx is appropriate insofar as we still live in capitalism. But it is the revolution of bourgeois society that is in crisis in capitalism, and so is its philosophy: Korsch’s 1923 essay, after all, sought to address the manifest crisis of Marxism itself that had occurred in the revolution; this was the problem of “Marxism and philosophy.”

Karl Korsch

Velissaris and Suther forget the clear statement with which Adorno began his Negative Dialectics (1966), that,

“Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.”[3]

They forget that the goal of socialism is to overcome the — real — metaphysics of capitalism. The metaphysics of social labor in bourgeois society has become reified and hypostatized in capitalism. Marxism, in its failure in the 20th century, succumbed to adaptation to capitalism, including philosophically — for instance in becoming the official philosophy of “dialectical materialism” in the purportedly “revolutionary” state. The later Korsch renounced his own 1923 work in recoiling from Stalinism and what he called “Marxist metaphysics,” blaming Lenin and even Marx for supposed “philosophical errors” of “idealism,” and forgetting that the struggle for socialism remained based in capitalism, and so a self-consciously “critical (post-)metaphysics” was still required. What is required is not philosophy but what the Frankfurt School called “critical theory.”

But ostensible “Marxism” after 1923 did indeed become mystified and mystifying — precisely as “philosophy.” Velissaris and Suther’s discussion of “achieving full freedom” from “class society,” for instance, evinces such mystification: for Marx, bourgeois philosophy is not a “class philosophy” in a sociological sense, but rather expresses a historical horizon of politics in capitalism, which reproduces itself through democracy, including through democratic revolution. This is the true meaning of the problem of the “state,” which socialism sought to overcome and abolish as surely as “philosophy.”

Both desiderata of Marxism, to abolish philosophy and the state, seem utopian in the pejorative sense of threatening to do more harm than good: wishing to abolish the state and philosophy now seems to want to go back to a pre-philosophical or even pre-social condition. The emancipatory horizon of socialism in Marxism has been lost. Suther and Velissaris express this loss of the original Marxist vision.

As I have written elsewhere, for instance in “Capital in history” (2008)[4], “The Marxist hypothesis” (2010)[5] etc., the principal danger facing the struggle for socialism — revealed clearly in the failure of the Revolutions of 1848 — is its collapse and liquidation into bourgeois-revolutionary democratic (for instance petit bourgeois radical) forms of politics, which reproduce capitalism. This can be seen in the failure to observe, acknowledge, recognize and pursue the difference of Marx and Marxism from Kant and Hegel, who were historically bourgeois-revolutionary thinkers but not socialists. Marxism does take up (Aufheben) the bourgeois-revolutionary tradition — including German Idealism philosophically — but seeks to go beyond it. This is because the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism already goes beyond it.

The struggle for socialism is the next necessary step and not the last word in history: there will be no “full freedom” in some absolute sense, but what is foreseeable, however dimly, is only overcoming the unfreedom of capitalism. — Beyond that, who knows?

As I wrote in my “Ends of philosophy” (2018) that Velissaris and Suther reference in their article,

“Kant, in ‘beginning’ philosophy (anew), and Hegel in ‘completing’ this, did not seek to replace the thinking of others. No. Precisely the opposite: they sought to free philosophy, to make it ‘worldly.’ They thought that they could do so precisely because they found that the world had already become ‘philosophical.’

“After them, they thought there would no longer be a need to further develop Philosophy as such, but only the need for philosophical reflection in the various different diverse domains of human activity. Our modern academic institutions reflect this: one receives the PhD, Doctor of Philosophy, in Chemistry, meaning one is qualified to ‘doctor,’ to minister and correct, to treat the methods and attendant thinking — the ‘philosophy’ — of the science of chemistry, without however necessarily becoming an expert specialist ‘philosopher of science,’ or studying the specialized discipline Philosophy of Science per se. According to Lukács [in ‘Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat’ from History and Class Consciousness], such specialized knowledge as found in academia as well as in the various technical vocations — such as law, journalism, art, etc. — exhibited ‘reification’ in capitalism, a disintegrated particularization of atomized consciousness, in which losing the forest for the trees was the very predicate of experience and knowledge. But this was the opposite of what Kant and Hegel had expected. They expected not disintegration but the organic, living and changing relations of diverse multiplicity.

“Marx found a very different world from Kant and Hegel’s, after the Industrial Revolution. It was not a philosophical world in capitalism — not an ‘enlightened’ realm of ‘sober senses,’ to which bourgeois philosophy had aspired, but something much darker. It was a ‘phantasmagoria’ of ‘commodity fetishism,’ full of beguiling ‘metaphysical subtleties,’ for which one needed to refer to the ‘mist-enveloped regions of religion’ for proper models. In capitalism, bourgeois society was sunk in a kind of animism: a world of objects exhibiting ‘theological niceties.’

“There was a need for a new Enlightenment, a Second Enlightenment specific to the needs of the 19th century, that is, specific to the new needs of industrial capitalism, for which the prior thinking of bourgeois emancipation, even at its best, for instance by Rousseau, Adam Smith, Kant and Hegel, was not equipped to adequately address. It needed a new recognition of the relation between social being and consciousness.

“But for Marx and Engels, this new task of enlightenment was something that could not be accomplished philosophically — could not be brought to fruition in thinking — but only in actual political struggle and the transformation of society.”[6]

In order to clarify this issue, I will let Hegel scholar Robert Pippin speak through what he has written, in a brief but core reading on Platypus’s syllabus from the very beginning of our project, “Critical Inquiry and Critical Theory: A Short History of Non-Being” (2004):

“The basic claim is that ‘First Philosophy,’ the foundation of all premodern university learning and all science, was not in fact any longer regarded as first. A critical account of the possibility of such, or any other claim to know, was first necessary. . . .

“The most important result of the all-destroying Kant was the destruction of metaphysics as traditionally understood (a priori knowledge of substance). Philosophy, nonempirical claims to know, could not be understood as about the world or things in themselves but rather had to be reconceived as concerned with our mode of knowledge of objects. . . .

“But the most important result for later critical theory concerned the status of necessity in philosophy or Kant’s attempt to argue that some philosophical account of the once-and-for-all necessary conditions of knowledge was possible. To make a very long story very short, after Kant, while the critical attack on the very possibility of first philosophy survived, this faith in a formal philosophy, capable of delivering an epistemological form of necessary truth, did not. Retaining the notion of a subjective contribution to, legislation of, the possibility of representational content, or all aspects of human experience ‘fraught with oughts,’ but without the necessity or fixity, meant that it wasn’t long before the most important aspect of the Kantian aftermath was apparent: Hegel’s famous claim in the preface to the Philosophy of Right that ‘philosophy . . . is its own time apprehended in thoughts” or that every philosopher is essentially a “child of his time.’ . . .

“I should say that I still believe that the Hegelian response to this situation (postmetaphysical philosophy, radical historicity, modernist dissatisfactions) is the most promising. It is tagged by such phrases as the causality of fate, internal critique, and determinate negation. . . .

“I would say that the level of discussion and awareness of this issue, in its historical dimensions (with respect both to the history of critical theory and the history of modernization) has regressed. . . . [T]there is also a historical cost for the neglect or underattention or lack of resolution of this core critical problem: repetition. . . . [T]he dim understanding we have of the post-Kantian situation with respect to, let’s say, ‘the necessary conditions for the possibility of what isn’t.’ But, however sketchy, that is what I wanted to suggest. I’m not sure it will get us anywhere. Philosophy rarely does. Perhaps it exists to remind us that we haven’t gotten anywhere.”[7]

(Critical Inquiry 30, Winter 2004, 424–428.)

Unfortunately, Velissaris and Suther forget such realization, which Platypus as well as Pippin received from the Frankfurt School and Marxism — as well as from Kant and Hegel themselves. Kant and Hegel demanded to go beyond Kant and Hegel. So did Marx demand to go beyond Marx. The question is fulfilling them as a condition for getting beyond them. Politically, this means the necessity of the democratic revolution leading to socialism.

As I wrote in my “Ends of philosophy,”

“Capitalism is the model of the Marxist-Hegelian procedure of immanent dialectical critique: this is how capitalism itself moves, how it reproduces itself through self-contradiction. Capitalism is its own practical critique, reproducing itself by constantly overcoming itself. As Marx put it, the only limit to capital is capital itself; but capital is the transgression of any and all limits. It is the way capitalism overcomes itself, its dynamic process of change, which is its unfreedom, its self-limitation. The Marxian horizon of freedom beyond capitalism is freedom beyond the Hegelian dialectic, beyond the bourgeois dialectic of transformation — beyond labor as a process of self-overcoming through production.

“There thus remains a unitary metaphysics binding all social practices, dominating, constraining and distorting their further development in freedom under capitalism: the bourgeois right of labor. The form of total freedom in bourgeois emancipation — self-production in society — has become in capitalism the form of total unfreedom. The social condition for labor has become that of the self-destruction of labor in capital. The goal of labor in capital is to abolish itself; but it can do so only by realizing itself — as self-contradiction. Hegel’s ‘negative labor of the concept’ must be completed; short of that, it dominates us.

“Overcoming this will mean overcoming metaphysics — overcoming philosophy. At least overcoming philosophy in any way known — or knowable — hitherto.”[8]

Suther and Velissaris forget the fundamental point of Korsch’s essay on which they have written their article, the historically new and unprecedented need to “realize philosophy by abolishing it” in socialism. | P


[1] Karl Korsch, “Marxism and philosophy” (1923), in Marxism and Philosophy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970 and 2008), available online at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1923/marxism-philosophy.htm>.

[2] Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (1922), trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1973), xlvii 1922

[3] Negative Dialectics, trans. E.B. Ashton (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007; 1966), 3.

[4] Chris Cutrone, “Capital in History: The need for a Marxian philosophy of the history of the Left,” Platypus Review (October 2008), available at <https://platypus1917.org/2008/10/01/capital-in-history-the-need-for-a-marxian-philosophy-of-history-of-the-left/>.

[5]  Cutrone, “The Marxist hypothesis: A response to Alain Badiou’s ‘communist hypothesis,’” Platypus Review (November 2010), available at <https://platypus1917.org/2010/11/06/the-marxist-hypothesis-a-response-to-alain-badous-communist-hypothesis/>.

[6] Cutrone, “Ends of philosophy,” Platypus Review (July-August 2018), available at <https://platypus1917.org/2018/07/30/ends-of-philosophy/>.

[7] Robert Pippin, “Critical Theory and Critical Inquiry: A Short History of Non-Being,” Critical Inquiry 30.2 (Winter 2004), available at: <http://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/issues/v30/30n2.Pippin.html>.

[8] Cutrone, "Ends of philosophy."

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