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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/A Marxist history of the philosophical perspective: An answer to Alan Woods’s The History of Philosophy: A Marxist Perspective

A Marxist history of the philosophical perspective: An answer to Alan Woods’s The History of Philosophy: A Marxist Perspective

Justin Spiegel and Andreas Wintersperger

Platypus Review 149 | September 2022

Alan Woods, The History of Philosophy: A Marxist Perspective (London: Wellred Books, 2021).

“Essence must appear.”

Hegel, The Science of Logic

“Nothing prevents us, then, from tying our criticism to the criticism of politics and to a definite party position in politics, and hence from identifying our criticism with real struggles. Then we shall confront the world not as doctrinaires with a new principle: ‘Here is the truth, bow down before it!’ We develop new principles to the world out of its own principles. We do not say to the world: ‘Stop fighting; your struggle is of no account. We want to shout the true slogan of the struggle at you.’ We only show the world what it is fighting for, and consciousness is something that the world must acquire, like it or not.”

Marx, “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing”

ALAN WOODS, LEADING MEMBER of the International Marxist Tendency (IMT), began writing The History of Philosophy: A Marxist Perspective in the 1990s, contemporaneously with another book, Reason in Revolt, which dealt with “the relationship between Marxist philosophy and modern science.” Woods’s primer on philosophy from Heraclitus to Hegel became too large to fit into the latter book, so he made it into its own project. The manuscript sat around for about 27 years before finally reaching publication. 

As with Reason in Revolt, the question of the relation of Marxism, philosophy, and science is the book’s central concern. How do developments in modern science inform those in philosophy, and vice versa? How does Marxism itself relate to these developments? Does it form a distinct philosophical outlook? What did it mean for the socialism of Marx, Engels, and their revolutionary successors, Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky, to be called “scientific”? Woods sets out to explain these complex historical mediations in terms of two warring “world outlooks,” or philosophies, which have persisted more or less since human prehistory. These philosophies are materialism and idealism:

In all periods of social decline, men and women have two options: either to confront reality, and fight to change it, or to accept that there is no way out, and resign themselves to their fate. These two contrasting outlooks are inevitably reflected in two antagonistic philosophies — materialism and idealism (46).

Marxism — for Woods the highest expression of the materialist philosophy — corresponds to the period of social decline characteristic of capitalism. Therefore, it constitutes the latest in a historical series of attempts to change the world. 

Where does this attempt stand today?

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels on Alan Woods

In the introduction of his book, Woods lays out a clear path for what will follow in the next roughly 300 pages: “The whole of philosophy has been a constant struggle between two hostile and mutually exclusive viewpoints: philosophical materialism and philosophical idealism. That is to say, the scientific approach and the attempt to drag human consciousness backwards to the world of religious mysticism” (14). In “defending a particular philosophical standpoint — that of dialectical materialism” (14), Woods wants to “clear the ground for the successful pursuit of the class struggle” (17). In doing so he claims that

we have no right to turn our backs on the great thinkers of the past: the Greeks, Spinoza, the French materialists of the Enlightenment and, above all, Hegel. These were heroic pioneers, who prepared the way for the brilliant achievements of Marxist philosophy, and can rightly be considered as an important part of our revolutionary heritage. We have a duty to rescue all that was valuable in the history of philosophy, while discarding all that was false, outmoded and useless (17).

It seems that in 2022, in the aftermath of the manically “critical” support and enthusiasm for the Millennial Left’s failed campaigns around Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, which is receding all too quietly and abruptly but nonetheless still bears on the Left internationally, this notion of “Marxist” ideology-critique, however unfortunately put as the question of idealism vs. materialism, addresses a moment of confusion as the next generation is trying to make sense of the “Left.”

Woods’s “Marxist” perspective on the history of philosophy as the battle between idealism and materialism as “two hostile and mutually exclusive viewpoints,” however, misses the meaning of philosophy in its crisis in capitalism. It also produces very questionable readings of philosophers such as David Hume (198), Immanuel Kant (234), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the latter of whom gets about a paragraph’s worth of attention in the whole book, since, according to Woods, Rousseau is “not really a philosopher in the strict sense” (206–07). This review, however, is not meant to dispute all claims Woods makes about this or that philosopher, which would presumably require a more adequate and voluminous format. Rather, it is about showing how calling Woods’s perspective on the history of philosophy a “Marxist” one is potentially misleading for anyone interested in the historical task of Marxism and its meaning today.

Woods’s intention is quite clear, as he writes, “official philosophy is only one more weapon in the hands of the ruling class, and it is used deliberately in order to confuse and disorient the youth, and divert them of the path of revolution” (16).  Marxists therefore have to remove the idealist veil from the eyes of the proletarian masses (and the youth), as it is the ideology of the ruling class that only serves their interests and therefore is the wrong thinking for the proletariat.

Chris Cutrone has argued that to consider philosophy as ideology for the Left today — including the IMT — often means that “somehow the workers would remain ignorant of their exploitation by the capitalists if they remained mired in bourgeois ideology.”[1] For Cutrone, however,

Marxism was originally no such “material analysis” — debunking — of wrong thinking. No. Rather, the original Marxist ideology-critique — Marx and Engels’s ideology-critique of bourgeois society — was the immanent dialectical critique of the way society in capitalism necessarily appears to its members, bourgeois and proletarian — capitalists and workers — alike. It was the critique of the true consciousness of the workers as well as of the capitalists.[2]

Cutrone’s lament that addressing Marxism in these terms “just lost me 99% of ostensible ‘Marxists’ as well as all of the rest of the ‘Left,’ whether socialist or liberal, who do indeed think that the poor benighted workers and other subaltern need us intellectuals to tell them what their true social interests are” unfortunately still holds true four years after it was written. Therefore, we deem it necessary to critically engage with Woods’s History of Philosophy in order to question and challenge Woods’s perspective on the history of philosophy as a Marxist one.

Woods’s reading of the history of philosophy as we have described it — a division into the struggle between mutually exclusive materialism and idealism along with the attempt to rescue all that remains valuable in that history and discard what doesn’t (17) — quickly reaches its own limitations:

We therefore come face to face with one of the greatest paradoxes in the history of philosophy — that the really significant advances in thought in the period after Locke were made, not by the materialists, but by the idealists. Unrestricted by the self-imposed limits of materialism, they arrived at a whole series of brilliant theoretical generalisations, although, setting out from false hypotheses, they invariably had a fantastic character to them. This peculiar phenomenon reached its most extreme expression in the philosophy of Hegel, the most “colossal miscarriage” in history, where all the main elements of dialectics appear in a systematic form, but standing on their head, as Marx put it (211).

It seems as if Woods is unable to grasp what necessarily appears as a “paradox” to him: the historical emergence of modern industrial capitalism as the crisis and self-contradiction of bourgeois society. Regarding the historical difference characterizing this emergence, Cutrone wrote in 2008:

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.[3]

To put it differently: maybe the problem was not just that Hegel’s “idealist” philosophy ultimately proved to be inadequate to understand how freedom unfolds within history but rather that the unfolding itself stopped making sense the way it did to Hegel. When Woods introduces the famous and often-cited formulation by Marx that the Hegelian dialectic was “standing on its head” and that “[i]t must be turned right side up again,”[4] it should be noted that it was Hegel himself who had used this formulation:

Thought, the concept of law, all at once made itself felt, and against this the old scaffolding of wrong could make no stand. In this conception of law, therefore, a constitution has now been established, and henceforth everything must be based upon this. Since the Sun had been in the firmament, and the planets circled around him, the sight had never been seen of man standing upon his head — i.e., on the Idea — and building reality after this image.[5]

What for the genius minds of Marx and Engels necessarily presented itself as an illusion nonetheless was indeed plausible for Hegel’s time: he regarded his own appointment to the chair of philosophy in Berlin in 1818 as evidence for the absolutist Prussian regime under Friedrich Wilhelm III having developed in a more rational direction. And indeed, his lectures soon attracted not only students from all over Germany but also ministers and politicians. Furthermore, in 1815 the King of Prussia promised to deliver a constitution while prime minister Karl August von Hardenberg implemented reforms such as the abolition of serfdom and the opening of the civil service to all social classes. This era of reform came to a halt in 1819, under pressure from the Austrian Empire’s foreign minister Klemens von Metternich, the architect of the conservative-reactionary Holy Alliance. In a recent online teach-in on “Why was Marx’s Materialism ‘Dialectical’?,” Reid Kotlas explained that for Hegel, “raising free individuality into the absolute governing principle of society is purely negative, destructive and self-undermining. For this freedom to realize itself positively it had to reconcile itself to the objective reality of historically developed forms of social life including the political institution of the state and the spiritual institution of religion.”[6]

This, however, did not mean subordination of the individual under these institutions but the transformation of those institutions into means of “developing the capacity of that freedom.”[7] These hopes bestowed on Hegel’s followers — the Young Hegelians, including, for a while, the young university student Karl Marx — were ultimately squashed by the ascendance of Wilhelm Friedrich IV to the throne. When Marx finished his university studies in 1841, he did so as a Hegelian philosopher, tasked with a new political situation. “How was philosophy to become practical and transform the whole world according to its principles if it could no longer lead the state to recognize its rational purpose by educating the students in university and influencing its ministers?”[8]

We do not help the self-clarification of the meaning of Marxism in our historical moment of the death of the Left today just by asserting, as Woods does, that Hegel got it wrong because his “starting point was idealism,” which distorts “real, concrete, sensuous human thought” (285). Critiquing Hegel in this way renders the term “idealism” into a completely ahistorical category, void of its critical content that only the reflection on its historically emerging self-contradictory potential in capitalism could bring about. Of course, then, the same goes for the term “materialism” as the “mutually exclusive” counterpart of idealism (14). Kotlas puts it as follows:

Materialism and idealism were themselves bound up in a historical dialectic. For Hegel, the idealism of Christianity was negated by Enlightenment materialism, with his own absolute idealism negating this negation, making the critical and revolutionary standpoint of modern materialism into the basis of a transformed idealism, submitting idealism itself to an immanent critique, thereby transcending the limits of 17th and 18th century materialism’s abstract opposition to ideality. This critical-dialectical idealism was therefore the truth of materialism.

Marx’s materialist inversion of the Hegelian dialectic is also a dialectical inversion of materialism, or rather, restores Hegel’s idealism, itself an inverted materialism, to its proper footing. But this merely exposes the problem: if consciousness cannot be taken for granted as the organizing principle of social life, for Marx this registered the problem that consciousness could and should become this organizing principle. To do so, consciousness had to confront an obstacle not merely in thought, but in the social relations thought reflected, and in which conscious self-determination, freedom, was a subordinate aspect of an unconscious and unfree totality.[9]

Bourgeois society as the concept of the Third Estate fell below its own potential that Hegel tried to grasp as the “progress of the consciousness of Freedom; a progress whose development according to the necessity of its nature, it is our business to investigate.”[10] But it did not simply fall below its own potentiality and reality as Hegel hinted at. The Third Estate harbored within itself a new contradiction that would change the whole meaning of its emergence, its possibilities and aims. Therefore, the whole of human (pre)history suddenly appeared in a different light.

In other words: Hegel’s resolution of thinking and being or subject and object within the self-reflective freedom of the Absolute Idea proved to be illusory. The point, however, is that it was proven to be illusory not just by virtue of what Woods takes to be Hegel’s idealism but by the unfolding of subsequent world history — realizing itself not as the “progress of the consciousness of freedom”[11] but as the “history of class struggles,”[12] which implied “in fact a critique of all of history, a critique of history itself.”[13]

Woods fails to grasp the full scope of the revolution in the “social existence” of society that was already underway for most of Hegel’s own lifetime, though it had not yet fully manifested itself as a deeply symptomatic contradiction of bourgeois society as a whole. The revolution referred to here is the first Industrial Revolution. Marx’s famous formulation that “[i]t is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness”[14] is not to be understood as a “philosophical standpoint” — regardless of how many adjectives such as “dialectical,” “materialistic” or “historical” one might place in front of it. It is the expression of the necessity — put negatively — to overcome philosophy as hitherto known politically. It entails that the self-consciousness of bourgeois society as presented in the Hegelian dialectic of freedom has fallen not only below, but indeed into contradiction with its most fundamental premise of “social existence” — that is, the social character of the production of the means of our existence. As Herbert Marcuse wrote:

Marx’s materialistic “subversion” of Hegel, therefore, was not a shift from one philosophical position to another nor from philosophy to social theory, but rather a recognition that the established forms of life were reaching the stage of their historical negation. This historical stage has changed the situation of philosophy and of all cognitive thought. From this stage on, all thinking that does not testify to an awareness of the radical falsity of the established forms of life is faulty thinking.[15]

These notions of Marxism’s relationship to philosophy as an immanently negative one is fundamentally different from what Woods proposes. He argues that the relation between subject and object or thought and being — one of or maybe the fundamental problem of modern philosophy — “is finally resolved by Marx, who pointed out that, ultimately, all the problems of philosophy are resolved in practice: ‘The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question’” (305). Marx did not “resolve all the problems of philosophy” but pointed negatively to the possibility and necessity of overcoming the split between subject and object on the bases of the self-contradiction of capitalism itself: its regressive need to constantly reintroduce metaphysics while simultaneously preparing humanity’s self-consciousness as species being through the means of industry.[16] For Marx and Marxism, the condition of possibility for the overcoming of philosophy was the conscious transformation of (human) nature conditioned by the global dictatorship of the proletariat.

This, however, brings us to a deeper problem: what Marx could presuppose for his notion of “practice” — a self-organized working-class movement in need of a clarified self-consciousness of its genesis, position, and aim in history — is absent today. Not only is it absent, but the failure of world socialist revolution presents itself as an obstacle to the re-foundation of an emancipatory Left, namely, as a sedimented substratum of 100 years of largely undigested political failure.

Ahead to the past: History in the form of a spiral

At the 1918 founding conference of the German Communist Party, held in Berlin, Rosa Luxemburg declared, “the course of historical evolution has led us back to the point at which Marx and Engels stood in 1848 when they first hoisted the flag of international socialism. We stand where they stood, but with the advantage that seventy additional years of capitalist development lies behind us.”[17] An historical evolution indeed — but one that, in order to advance itself, had to return to an earlier moment! To understand in all its peculiarity this dialectical problem of historical evolution leading inexorably to world revolution, one must grasp what Woods doesn’t: the necessity of progressing Marxism beyond Marx, precisely by way of a return to Marx. In doing so, one must return to the unique historical circumstances that obtained in 1848. In one sense, these circumstances were lost irretrievably by the subsequent development of global capitalism, which threw the entire world into ever-deepening crisis, one that demanded revolution more and more insistently as time went on. In Leon Trotsky’s words, “[t]he 19th century has not passed in vain.”[18] In another sense, however, 1848 needed to be restaged: the Communist Manifesto had to find its way back into the hands of a revolutionary proletariat.

Basing their critique of socialism on historical experience, Marx and Engels could infer from the revolutions of 1848 the necessary next step in the evolution of the socialist movement: the dictatorship of the proletariat. Forgotten over the course of Marxism’s development, this historical lesson was bound to resurface in and through this very development as it reached a critical point. The precise sense in which 1848 demanded restaging had to do with the recognition of continuity in change. What then is this other sense, the “repetitive,” or even “static,” sense of Marxism?

Let us dwell for a moment on “development,” or “evolution,” as conceived by V. I. Lenin in relation to Hegelian philosophy. Such a conception is, he says, by no means the conventional one:

[The idea of evolution], as formulated by Marx and Engels on the basis of Hegel’s philosophy, is far more comprehensive and far richer in content than the current idea of evolution is. A development that repeats, as it were, stages that have already been passed, but repeats them in a different way, on a higher basis (“the negation of the negation”), a development, so to speak, that proceeds in spirals, not in a straight line; a development by leaps, catastrophes, and revolutions . . . these are some of the features of dialectics as a doctrine of development that is richer than the conventional one.[19]

History did not constitute a straight line but a spiral: 1848 was to be repeated, not under the same conditions, but under changed ones, i.e., on the “higher basis” of the crisis of international Marxism, which manifested first in the revisionist dispute and then, in World War I, within “orthodox” Marxism itself. The proletariat, politically embodying the negation of bourgeois society, came to demand negation in its turn: it was tasked with overcoming the material conditions of its existence and hence with overcoming itself altogether. Organized into the mass socialist party, the proletariat could no longer preserve its distance from the State, which it needed to seize, smash, and use as a means for the self-reorganization of society on a higher level. Society itself was to be led — dictated — by the class that represented, immanently, the abolition of society.

“Materialist philosophy” or philosophy’s materiality? Karl Korsch on Alan Woods

In what sense did this task of the dictatorship of the proletariat — the distinctive contribution of Marx,[20] which was exhumed at the turn of the 20th century after having been buried beneath the longue durée of the 19th — involve the prosecution of philosophical problems? To grasp this relation of philosophy to Marxism, it is important to grasp the relation of Hegel to philosophy, since, as Engels notes, the proletariat was to be “the inheritor of classical German philosophy.”[21]

Regarding the relation of Hegel to philosophy, Woods writes,

Hegel did not set out to deny or demolish previous philosophy, but to summarise all previous schools of thought, and arrive at a dialectical synthesis. But in so doing, he pushed philosophy to its limits. Beyond this point, it was impossible to develop philosophy without transforming it into something different. It is possible to say that, since Hegel, nothing new has really been said on the main philosophical questions. Subsequent schools of philosophy, which purport to be new and original, merely rehash old ideas, invariably in a more superficial and unsatisfactory manner (254).

Woods goes on to say that it was Marx and Engels who brought about this much-needed transformation of philosophy into an instrument of revolutionary practice.

In discussing Hegel as the pinnacle, or highest form of expression, of philosophy as such, Woods puts his finger on the pulse of a problem with which we are arguably still stuck today, more so than ever. This is the problem of historical regression. Why is it that, over two and a half centuries after the birth of Hegel, it seems there is nothing new to say? Plenty has happened in the meantime — in society, let alone in philosophy! — and plenty has been said about what has happened. But so little of what has been said seems an adequate expression of the real problem. Why, then, does philosophy continue to fall short of its historical horizon — to obscure, rather than to resolve, its fundamental issues, as time marches on?

To ask this question is to ask if perhaps there is a problem in social reality which can’t be mediated philosophically. It is, moreover, to ask about the inadequacy of Hegel himself for our time, let alone that of the philosophy to follow. This question came to appear in philosophy as the problem of sorting out what was “living” from what was “dead” in Hegel: it took the form of the disintegration of the Hegelian system itself.[22]

In Marx’s time, there was certainly a recognition of Hegel’s inadequacy in light of new historical developments. This recognition found expression in the distinctively political struggle waged by Marx and Engels against their contemporaries and former friends, the Young Hegelians. Such struggle expressed the disintegration of the Hegelian system in real time, presaging its abandonment altogether in the mid-19th century.

How does Woods treat this problem of Hegel’s abandonment? He writes that “the real reason why Hegel became converted into a non-person is because it was realised that his dialectical philosophy was the point of departure for the revolutionary ideas of Marx and Engels.”[23] In other words, Hegel was found guilty by association with the later, Left-revolutionary direction of his ideas. But Karl Korsch, preeminent theorist of the crisis of Marxist orthodoxy, tells a very different story.

Korsch notes that not only bourgeois historians of philosophy, but also Second International Marxists themselves, came to neglect the relation of Marxism and philosophy elucidated by Marx and Engels in the 1840s. Should Hegel have been abandoned in the 19th century simply by virtue of the Marxist connotation of his ideas, one would have expected Marxists proudly to carry the torch of Hegelian philosophy through the turn of the 20th century. This, however, didn’t happen. The Second International’s neglect of philosophy mirrored, in many fundamental respects, that by the bourgeois camp. Korsch connects this neglect of philosophy by Marx’s epigones to their neglect of a parallel problem, the relation of Marxism and the State: “is the neglect of the problem of philosophy by the Marxists of the Second International also related to the fact that ‘problems of revolution in general hardly concerned them’?”[24]

Korsch pursues this parallelism into World War I, which he says engendered a crisis within orthodox Marxism itself — whereas previously, this crisis had been limited to a dispute between the orthodox Marxists, on one hand, and the avowedly reformist revisionists, on the other. As the crisis within Marxism advanced, however, the Kautsky-led “Center” within the German SPD, though upholding Marxism theoretically, came more and more to replicate the practice of the revisionists, who wholeheartedly accepted the terms of the bourgeois State as providing the arena for politics. Meanwhile, an emerging tendency within orthodox Marxism itself, consisting of the revolutionary Marxists Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky, sought to affect a split within the International. The war, for these leaders, expressed the over-ripeness of the potential for world revolution, and therefore, for the Second International simply to try to “survive the war, like a rabbit waiting out the storm under a bush,”[25] would mean to sit by idly while world history subsumed itself. The impulse of the International towards self-preservation had thus become an obstacle to the revolution. Marxism had proven its own greatest threat. Regarding the form that this reassertion of revolutionary Marxism took — i.e., a return to “orthodoxy” — Korsch argues that the apparent return to original Marxism in the work of revolutionaries like Lenin and Luxemburg was the result of the fact that the stage of proletarian class struggle had become objectively revolutionary, and Marxist theory therefore needed to be “liberated” from “the inhibiting traditions of the Social Democracy of the second period.”[26]

Following the outbreak of the war, Lenin undertook a deep study of Hegel’s Science of Logic, occasioned by the revolutionary necessity of effecting a split within Marxism internationally.[27] This revisitation of the relation of Marxism and philosophy was a phenomenon of changed historical conditions, which transformed the revolutionary task that Marxism had met in its earlier periods. The crisis of society in capitalism had only deepened since Marx’s time, not least on account of Marxism itself. In Hegelian terms, the contradiction (capitalism) had been transformed by its self-consciousness (socialism): it demanded renewed prosecution on account of the activity of socialism itself, which in no way resolved the contradiction but merely posed it in a fashion adequate for politics.

Faithful as always to the spirit of Hegel, Marx and Engels recognized that they could never settle accounts with Hegel “once and for all.” They knew that they could resolve no problems in philosophy, as Woods writes, but that this was a task for the proletarian revolution itself. In other words, to resolve problems in philosophy would have entailed overcoming philosophy altogether, just as to resolve problems manifested in the State would have entailed smashing the bourgeois State, thereby inaugurating the process whereby the State as such is overcome, or “withers away.” Like the State, philosophy could be neither instantaneously deflated, nor shown to “persist” beyond bourgeois social relations in any conceivable sense.

To approach the relation of Marxism and philosophy as revolutionary Marxists did, i.e., as a problem for the party, meant in the first place the further prosecution of the revisionist dispute: the spiral-shaped struggle against those tendencies within the party that sought to flatten the dialectic and reassimilate socialist back into bourgeois politics. As capitalism was further problematized in and through the activity of socialism itself, the dialectic came to demand constant reinvigoration by “orthodoxy” against opportunist betrayals. These betrayals were not mere thought-mistakes; they arose with necessity, by way of the reaction of the historical process on socialism through the latter’s attempts to direct the former. Either socialism would change the world, or the world would “revise” Marxism, with a pen dipped in the blood of the proletarian masses.

This prosecution of the problem of philosophy within the context of the social revolution was, therefore, like the seizure and smashing of the bourgeois State, a life-or-death matter for Marxism, part of the battle against pseudo-Marxist tendencies which threatened the very existence of the proletarian movement. On this necessity of giving philosophy its due political importance, Korsch writes,

It is essential for modern dialectical materialism to grasp philosophies and other ideological systems in theory as realities, and to treat them in practice as such. In their early period Marx and Engels began their whole revolutionary activity by struggling against the reality of philosophy; and it will be shown that, although later they did radically alter their view of how philosophical ideology was related to other forms within ideology as a whole, they always treated ideologies — including philosophy — as concrete realities and not as empty fantasies.[28]

To neglect philosophy as a real material force proved just as stifling to the revolutionary theory and practice of Marxism as to affirm one-sidedly its autonomy vis-à-vis other spheres of social life. But what did it mean to treat philosophy as a reality, and not as some autonomous, heavenly realm, or else as a sophistic epiphenomenon of real conditions? Korsch quotes Marx on “the method necessary for a concrete and critical history of religion”:[29] “It is in fact much easier to uncover the earthly kernel within nebulous religious ideas, through analysis, than it is to do the opposite, to see how these heavenly forms develop out of actual concrete relations.”[30] This latter approach, Korsch goes on, sets Marxism in stark contrast not only to idealism, but to all materialism so far. One could not simply “take a side” in the struggle of materialism and idealism, as Woods does; rather, one needed to know what made this struggle possible and necessary in the first place. Feuerbach presented just as much of a problem for Marx and Engels as did Strauss and Bauer: ideological representations, for Marxism, were not, as Feuerbach reckoned, reducible to an earthly kernel, to which revolutionary action was exclusively directed. Rather, these representations were phenomena — necessary forms of appearance — of real social relations. One had to grasp their conditions of possibility in order to grasp the conditions necessary for overcoming them. In other words, and obviously, the workers couldn’t just be told that their “bourgeois ideology” didn’t matter, that it was reducible in the last analysis to Marxism!

On the necessity of Marxist leadership

Woods sets out in his book to demonstrate to the workers, as the content of their daily struggle, the contradictions plaguing capitalism:

The task of Marxists is not to introduce into the working class a socialist consciousness ‘from without’, as some have imagined, but to proceed from the existing state of awareness of the class, and show concretely, step-by-step, how the problems which workers face can only be resolved by a radical transformation of society. It is not a question of preaching from without, but of making conscious the unconscious aspiration of working people to change society. The difference is that this process is not brought to fruition exclusively in the debating chamber, but by practical activity, struggle and the experience of the class itself. The problem, nevertheless, remains essentially the same: how to break down existing prejudices and get people to see the contradictions present, not only in their heads, but in the world in which they live — to get them to see things as they really are, not as they imagine them to be (90).

The formulation, which Woods rejects, that socialist consciousness had to be brought to the workers “from without” — in other words, by Marxist leadership — has its origins in Kautsky but is taken up by Lenin in his pamphlet What Is to Be Done?, concerning the tasks involved in building the party:

We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals.[31]

Although it sought to clarify to the working-class movement its necessary task, Marxism was produced under different conditions than those that produced the working-class movement. Marx and Engels were, by origin, bourgeois intellectuals. Lenin, too, was by his own words a “Jacobin” who wholly identified “himself with the organization of the proletariat.”[32] To be a Marxist was to be a bourgeois intellectual who grasped the necessity of a political form for mediating working-class consciousness — a form of consciousness that remained wholly bourgeois when left to its own devices. The party was precisely this form that allowed intellectuals and the working class, theory and practice, to interpenetrate. Without the party, we are left with the problem of “extracting” from working-class consciousness its “true” preoccupations, of showing the workers the world in which they “really” live (as if it weren’t this one!). We are forced to shove the bourgeois ideology of the workers “unceremoniously aside,” without, however, comprehending it as an expression of the real problem of capitalism rather than as a function of the workers’ runaway imagination.

Woods does set out in good faith to understand working-class consciousness as precisely this kind of expression of capitalism, but without the party, he inevitably concedes to an undialectical materialism — one that looks for the earthly kernel in religious ideas rather than for religious ideas in real social relations. Though spontaneously bourgeois, working-class consciousness is irreducible: it presents a reality of its own that does not serve simply as a stepladder to a “realer” reality. The workers are to be won over to socialism in a continuous struggle, not only against the bourgeoisie, but primarily against themselves. It is the contradictions within working-class consciousness itself that express the potential for socialism, rather than any merely “objective” contradictions that lie behind this consciousness and would obviate the latter if explained thoroughly enough. After all, it is precisely the workers who reconstitute capitalism day after day. Their neuroses are not to be circumvented or replaced with more accurate thought-forms, since they provide the party with precisely the revolutionary material it needs. The revolution is made no more possible by trying to get the workers to think differently.

Returning to Woods as quoted at the outset of the review, we see him argue succinctly for the necessity of a Marxist perspective on the history of philosophy: “if we desire to change the world, it is necessary to understand it” (46). Although understanding the world certainly does condition its change, so too does changing the world condition its understanding. Woods expresses only one side of this dialectic of theory and practice. Korsch, following Lenin, following Marx, notes Marxism’s “categorical rejection of all theory, philosophical or scientific, that is not at the same time practice.”[33] Reversing Woods’s dictum, then, can we truly grasp the world without the party? Without a movement for revolutionary change, hasn’t the world itself become profoundly lost to our understanding? If we acknowledge, indeed following Woods, that nothing since Hegel has been adequately said, then in what sense should we keep our mouths shut? Should the wreckage of the 20th century call for the reinstatement of right-thinking as against wrong-thinking, or should it humble us into a beneficent silence? How, in the first place, might we be able to recognize the revolution amidst all the clatter of pseudo-revolution? To borrow Trotsky’s metaphor: unlike Kautsky, who, exciting his students about the prospect of spring all winter, then revolted against its actual arrival and demanded that everyone stay inside and wait for “true spring,” the Left today thinks that there is only one season all year round: spring.[34] But the struggle can never be resumed so long as it only “continues”!

We cannot say with Woods, therefore, that the careful study of some perennial struggle of materialism against idealism, projected backwards onto human history, supplies us with a ready means of prosecution of any political problems. “Dialectical materialism” merely expressed, in theory, that which in practice was the revolution itself. The recurring specter of Hegel, together with the continually re-asked question of the relation of Hegelian and Marxist dialectic, was a phenomenon of the crisis and ambivalence of socialism, of its potential for failure as well as success at the turn of the 20th century. The necessity of reasserting the dialectic expressed the self-contradiction of the socialist party, and hence the imminence of the very revolution which the party was supposed to lead. Nowadays, without a party to lead the revolution, the apparent contradiction between materialism and idealism — such as befell the Hegelian system and, later, in altered form, the Marxist Second International — remains unmotivated. Although negatively expressing the task of the party, this antinomy absolves Woods from grasping that task. In trying to make the party a problem for philosophy, rather than vice versa, Woods distorts the sense of the party’s necessity. Like all other philosophy, from neo-Kantianism to post-structuralism, “materialist philosophy” or even “the Marxist world-outlook” becomes just another tool for the reintegration of discontents into capitalism — a pacifier for those upset with the aftermath of the recent political crisis of global neoliberalism.

“Materialist philosophy” therefore comes to stand in for and displace a humbling consciousness of the non-necessity of the 20th century — of the spectacular historical failure of Marxism in whose aftermath we continue, however begrudgingly, to live. |P

[1] Chris Cutrone, “Ends of philosophy,” Platypus Review 108 (July–August 2018), available online at <>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Chris Cutrone, “Capital in history: The need for a Marxian philosophy of history of the Left,” Platypus Review 7 (October 2008), available online at <>.

[4] Karl Marx, Afterward to the Second German Edition, Capital, vol. I (1873), available online at <>.

[5] G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, quoted in Friedrich Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880), available online at <>.

[6] Reid Kotlas, “Why was Marx’s Materialism ‘Dialectical’?,” School of Materialist Research, June 15, 2021, available online at <>.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Kotlas, “Why was Marx’s Materialism ‘Dialectical’?”

[10] G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of History, available online at <>.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), available online at <>.

[13] Chris Cutrone, “Capital in history.”

[14] Karl Marx, “Preface,” in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), available online at <>.

[15] Herbert Marcuse, Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960).

[16] Cf. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844), available online at <>.

[17] Rosa Luxemburg, “On the Spartacus Programme” (1918), available online at <>.

[18] Leon Trotsky, Results and Prospects (1906), available online at <>.

[19] V. I. Lenin, “Karl Marx: A Brief Biographical Sketch with an Exposition of Marxism” (1915), in Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 21 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), available online at <>.

[20] Karl Marx, “Letter to J. Weydemeyer” (1852), available online at <>.

[21] Friedrich Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886), available online at <>.

[22] Adorno, “Aspects of Hegel’s Philosophy,” in Hegel: Three Studies, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994), 1.

[23] Ibid., 252.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Rosa Luxemburg, “The Junius Pamphlet” (1915), available online at <>.

[26] Korsch, “Marxism and Philosophy.”

[27] See Cliff Slaughter, “Lenin on Dialectics” (1962), available online at <>.

[28] Korsch, “Marxism and Philosophy.”

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] V. I. Lenin, What Is to be Done? (1902), available online at <>.

[32] V. I. Lenin, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (1904), available online at <>.

[33] Korsch, “Marxism and Philosophy.”

[34] Trotsky, Results and Prospects.