Western Marxism suffers largely from the same symptom as Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby – each’s fixation on perfection and purity leaves perpetually unfulfilled all that it claims to desire.
On one hand, Jay seeks a return to the purity of his first encounter with Daisy, and in the impossibility of this return to purity, the actual potential for a relationship is lost. On the other hand, western Marxists seek a pure form of socialism, but in the impossibility of such a purity arising, they lose the potential to actuate or defend any socialist revolution. The purity of each is met with the reality that reality itself is never pure – it always contains mistakes, negations, breaks and splits.
Jay Gatsby cannot officially reestablish himself with Daisy insofar as she admits to having loved Tom Buchanan – her husband – during the intermediate time before she re-connects with Jay. This imperfection, this negation of purity, is unacceptable – Daisy must tell Tom she never loved him to reestablish the purity of their first encounter. With no purity, there can be no relationship.
Similarly, for Western Marxists the triumphant socialist experiments of the 20th and 21st century, in their mistakes and ‘totalitarianisms’, desecrate the purity in the holiness of their conception of socialism. The USSR must be rejected, the Spanish civil war upheld; Cuban socialism must be condemned, but the 1959 revolution praised; Allende and Sankara are idols, Fidel and Kim Il-Sung tyrants, etc. What has died in purity can be supported, what has had to grapple with the mistakes and pressures that arise out of the complexities and contradictions of building socialism in the imperialist phase of capitalism, that must be denied.
As was diagnosed by Brazilian communist Jones Manoel’s essay, ‘Western Marxism Loves Purity and Martyrdom, But Not Real Revolution’, western Marxists’ fetishization of purity, failures, and resistance as an end in itself creates “a kind of narcissistic orgasm of defeat and purity”. Comrade Manoel rightly points out the fact that western “Marxism preserves the purity of theory to the detriment of the fact that it has never produced a revolution anywhere on the face of the Earth”. Western Marxists celebrate the emergence of a revolutionary movement; but, when this revolutionary movement is triumphant in taking power, and hence faced with making the difficult decisions the concrete reality of imperialism, a national bourgeoisie, economic backwardness, etc. force it into, the western Marxists flee with shouts of betrayal! For the western Marxists, all practical deviation from their purity is seen as a betrayal of the revolution, and thus, the cries of ‘state capitalism’ and ‘authoritarianism’ emerge.
Manoel, reflecting on the work of the late Domenico Losurdo’s Western Marxism, does a superb job in providing the meat for this thesis. Nonetheless, he (as well as Losurdo) conceives of this theoretical lapse as being “smuggled in as contraband from Christianity”. I will argue that although Christian mysticism may be present here, the root of the rot is not Christian contraband, but western metaphysics (which precedes Christian mysticism itself). The root, in essence, is found in the fixated categories that have permeated western philosophy; in the general conception that Truth is in the unchanging, in the permanent, in substance; and only indirectly in the mystical forms these have taken under the Christian tradition. The diagnosis Engels gave reductive Marxists in 1890 applies to today’s western Marxists – “what all these gentlemen lack is dialectics”.
Parmenides Contra Heraclitus
Whereas Manoel and Losurdo see the root of this purity fixation in Christianity, it is in the classical Greek debates on the question of change – taking place 500 years or so before Christ – where this fixation emerges. It will be necessary to paint with a broad stroke the history of philosophy to explain this thesis.
The Heraclitan philosophy of universal flux, which posits that “everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed”, would lose its battle against the Parmenidean philosophy of permanence. 1 Parmenides, who held that foolish is the mind who thinks “that everything is in a state of movement and countermovement”, would dominate the conceptions of truth in the ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary world. 2 Although various aspects of Heraclitus’ thought would become influential in scattered minds, the dialectical aspect of his thought would never be centered by any philosophical era.
Plato, as the next best dialectician of the ancient world, attempted a reconciliation of Parmenides and Heraclitus. In the realm of Forms, the Parmenidean philosophy of permanence would reign; in the physical realm, the Heraclitan philosophy of flux would. In his Phaedo, Plato would note that the realm of the physical world is changing and composed of concrete opposites in an interpenetrative, i.e., dialectical, relationship to one another. In the realm of the “unchanging forms”, however, “essential opposites will never… admit of generation into or out of one another”. 3 Truth, ultimately, is in the realm of the Forms, where “purity, eternity, immortality, and unchangeableness” reign. 4 Hence, although attempting to provide a synthesis of Parmenides’ and Heraclitus’ philosophy of permanence and change, the philosophy of purity and fixation found in Parmenides dominates Plato’s conception of the realm of the really real, that is, the realm of Forms or Idea.
Aristotle, a student of Plato, would move a step further away from the Heraclitan philosophy of flux. In Aristotle we have a metaphysical system which considers the law of non-contradiction the most primary principle – “the same attribute cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject and in the same respect”. 5 In addition, in Aristotle we have the development of the west’s first logical system, an impressive feat, but nonetheless composed of abstract fixated categories completely indifferent to content. The fixation found in the logic would mirror the fixation and purity with which the eidos (essence) of things would be treated. Forms, although not existing in a separate realm as in Plato, nonetheless exist with the same rigidity. The thinking of essences, that is, the thinking of what makes a species, a type of thing, the type of thing it is, would remain in the realm of science within this fixated Aristotelian framework. Although the 16th century’s scientific revolution begins to tear away the Aristotelianism which dominated the prevalent scholastic philosophy, only with the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species would Aristotelian essentialism be dealt its decisive blow. This essentialism, undeniably, is an inheritance of the Parmenidean philosophy of permanence.
The philosophy of Plato, in the form of Neo-Platonists like Plotinus, would be incredibly influential in the formation of Christian thought – especially in Augustine of Hippo. Christianity would remain with a Platonic philosophical foundation up until the 12th-13th century’s rediscovery of Aristotle and the synthetization of his philosophy with Christian doctrine via Thomas Aquinas. Centuries later the protestant reformation’s rejection of Aristotelianism would mark the return of Plato to the Christian scene. All in all, the Christianity which Manoel and Losurdo see as the root of the fetishization of purity in every moment of its unfolding presupposes Greek philosophy. It is fair, then, to go beyond Christianity and ask the critical question – “what is presupposed here”? : what we find is that in every instance, whether mediated through Plato or Aristotle, there is a Parmenidean epistemic and ontological fixation which posits the eternal and unchanging as synonymous with truth, and the perishable and corporeal as synonymous with false.
Hegel Contra Parmenides
The spirit of the Heraclitan dialectic will be rekindled by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who argued philosophy came to finally see “land” with Heraclitus. In his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Hegel says that “there is no proposition of Heraclitus which I have not adopted in my Logic” 6. It is in Heraclitus, Hegel argues, where we “see the perfection of knowledge so far as it has gone”; for, Heraclitus “understands the absolute as just this process of the dialectic”. 7 Heraclitus’ dialectics understood, as Hegel notes, that “truth only is as the unity of distinct opposites and, indeed, of the pure opposition of being and non-being”. 8 This unity of pure being and non-being is the starting point for Hegel’s Science of Logic. Here, he argues:
[Pure] being, the indeterminate immediate, is in fact nothing, and neither more nor less than nothing… Pure being and nothing are, therefore, the same. What is truth is neither being nor nothing, but that being – does not pass over but has passed over – into nothing, and nothing into being.9
Insofar as being exists in a condition of purity, it is indistinguishable from nothingness. Being must take the risk of facing and tarrying with its opposite in order to be. Being only takes place within the impurity present in the oscillation and mediation from being and nothing, that is, being only takes place when sublated into becoming qua determinate being, as “coming-to-be and ceasing-to-be”.10 This is why, in his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel understands that “Substance is being which is in truth Subject”. 11 Substance, whose purity holds the crowning jewel of Truth for western philosophy, can be only insofar as it is “self-othering” itself. 12 Like Spirit, Substance, must look the “negative in the face, and tarry with it”. 13 Only insofar as something can self-otherize itself, which is to say, only insofar as a thing can immanently provide a negation for itself and desecrate its purity by wrestling with the impure, can conditions for the possibility of it actually being arise. Hence, the “truth of being” is “characterized as Becoming”; truth is won “only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself”. 14 Purity, the “[shrinking] from death [to] keep itself untouched by devastation”, is lifeless. 15 Jay cannot be with Daisy insofar as he wishes to retain the relationship in purity. Western Marxists will never build socialism, or find a socialism to support, insofar as they expect socialism to arise in the pure forms in which it exists in their heads.
The Paradox of Western Marxists
Having shifted our focus from Christianity to the purity fixated epistemology-ontology of western philosophy, we can now see the fundamental paradox in Western Marxism: on the one hand, in hopes of differentiating themselves from the ‘positivistic’ and ‘mechanistic’ Marxism that arose in the Soviet Union it seeks to return to Hegel in their fight against ‘orthodox dogma’; on the other hand, although producing remarkable works on Hegel and dialectics, Western Marxist’s interpretive lens for looking at the world remains with a Parmenidean rigidity and Aristotelian form of binary thinking. Western Marxists, although claiming to be the ones who rekindle the spirit of Hegel into Marxism, are the least bit dialectical when it comes to analysis of the concrete world.
They are unable to understand, as Hegel did, the necessary role apparent ‘failures’ play as a moment in the unfolding of truth. For Hegel, that which is seen as ‘false’ is part of “the process of distinguishing in general” and constitutes an “essential moment” of Truth. 16 The bud (one of Hegel’s favorite examples which consistently reappears in his work) is not proven ‘false’ when the blossom arises. Instead, Hegel notes, each sustains a “mutual necessity” as “moments of an organic unity”. 17 Socialism is not ‘betrayed’ when it, encountering the external and internal pressures of imperialism and a national bourgeois class, is forced to take more so-called ‘authoritarian’ positions to protect the revolution. Socialism is not ‘betrayed’ or transformed into ‘state capitalism’ (in the derogatory, non-Leninist sense) when faced with a backwards economy it takes the risk of tarrying with its opposite and engages a process of opening up to foreign capital to develop its productive forces.
The ‘authoritarian’ moment, or the moment of ‘opening up to foreign capital’, are not the absolute negation 18 of socialism – as western Marxists would have you believe – but the partial negation, that is, the sublation of the idealistic conceptions of a socialist purity. These two moments present themselves where they appear as the historically necessary negations needed to develop socialism. A less ‘authoritarian’ treatment of the Batista goons after the Cuban revolution would have opened the window for imperialism and national counter-revolutionary forces to overthrow the popular revolution. A China which would not have taken the frightening risk of opening up would not have been able to lift 800 million out of poverty (eradicating extreme poverty) and be the beacon of socialist construction and anti-imperialist resistance in the world today.
Hegel understood that every leap towards a qualitatively new stage required a long process, consisting of various moments of ‘failures’ and ‘successes’, for this new stage to mature into its new shape. Using for Spirit the metaphor of a child he says,
But just as the first breath drawn by a child after its long, quiet nourishment breaks the gradualness of merely quantitative growth-there is a qualitative leap, and the child is born-so likewise the Spirit in its formation matures slowly and quietly into its new shape, dissolving bit by bit the structure of its previous world, whose tottering state is only hinted at by isolated symptoms. 19
Western Marxists ignore the necessity of the process. They expect socialism, as a qualitatively new stage of human history, to exist immediately in the pure form they conceived of in their minds. They expect a child to act like a grown up and find themselves angered when the child is unable to recite Shakespeare and solve algebraic equations. They forget to contextualize whatever deficiencies they might observe within the embryonic stage the global movement towards socialism is in. They forget the world is still dominated by capitalist imperialism and expect the pockets of socialist resistance to be purely cleansed from the corrupting influence of the old world. They forget, as Marx noted in his Critique of the Gotha Program, that socialist society exists “as it emerges from capitalist society which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges”. 20
Where is Hegel, in concrete analysis, for these Western Marxists? The answer is simple, he is dead. But Hegel does not die without a revenge, they too are dead in the eyes of Hegel. Their anti-dialectical lens of interpreting the material world in general, and the struggle for socialism in specific, leaves them in the lifeless position Hegel called Dogmatism. For Hegel,
Dogmatism as a way of thinking, whether in ordinary knowing or in the study of philosophy, is nothing else but the opinion that the True consists in a proposition which is a fixed result, or which is immediately known. 21
Western Marxist dogmatist fetishize binaries, the immediate (either intuitive or empirical), and the pure. To them, something is either socialism (if it is pure) or not-socialism (if it is impure). They cannot grapple, in practice at least, with the concept of becoming, that is, with the reality of the construction of socialism. Socialism must be constructed, it is an active enterprise emersed necessarily in a world riddled by imperialist pressures, contradictions, and violence – both active and passive. Western Marxist will write splendid critiques of positivism’s fetish of the ‘fact’, but in their own practical analysis of socialist construction in the world they too castrate facts from the factors that allowed them to exist.
Hence Žižek, the most prominent Hegelian Marxist today, couches his anti-dialectical bourgeois critiques of socialism in Cuba (as well as China and pretty much every other socialist experiment) within a reified analysis that strips the Cuban reality from its context. It ignores the historical pressures of being a small island 90 miles away from the world’s largest empire; an empire which has spent the last 60+ years using a plethora of techniques – from internationally condemned blockades, to chemical attacks, terrorist fundings, and 600+ CIA led attempts on Fidel’s life – to overthrow the Cuban revolution. Only in ignoring this context and how it emerges can Žižek come to the purist and anti-dialectical conclusion that the revolution failed and that the daily life of Cubans is reducible to “inertia, misery, escapism in drugs, in sex, [and] pleasures”.
The Panacea to the Fetishes of Western Marxism
In sum, expanding upon the analysis of comrade Manoel, it can be seen that the purity fetish, and the subsequent infatuation with failed experiments and struggles which, although never achieving the conquest of power, stayed ‘pure’, can be traced back to a Parmenidean conception of Truth as Unchanging Permanence which has permeated, in different forms, all throughout the various moments of western philosophy’s history.
This interpretive phenomenon may be referred to as an intellectual rot because; 1) at some point, it might have been a fresh fruit, a genuine truth in a particular moment; 2) like all fruits which are not consumed, they outlive their moment of ripeness and rot. Hence, the various forms the Parmenidean conception of Truth took throughout the various moments it permeated might have been justified for those moments, but today, after achieving a proper scientific understanding of the dialectical movement in nature, species, human social formation and thought, Parmenidean purity has been overthrown – it has spoiled, and this death fertilizes the soil for dialectical self-consciousness.
Although all theorists are still class subjects, bound to the material and ideological conditioning of their class and geographical standpoint (in relation to imperialism specifically) – the panacea for Western Marxists’ purity fetish is dialectics. Dialectics must not be limited simply to the theoretical realm in which they engage with it. If it stays in this pure realm, it will suffer the same fate socialism has for them – nothingness, absolute negation. Dialectical logic must be brought beyond the textbook and used as the interpretive framework with which we analyze the world in general, and the construction of socialism in specific. Only then will Western Marxism gain the possibility of being something more than a ‘radical’ niche of Western academia, focused only on aesthetics and other trivialities where purity can be sustained without risk of desecration.
- Wheelwright, Phillip. The Presocratics. (The Odyssey Press, 1975). pp. 70.
- Wheelwright, Phillip. The Presocratics. (The Odyssey Press, 1975). pp. 97.
- Plato. “Phaedo” in The Harvard Classics. (P.F. Collier & Son Corporation, 1937). pp. 70, 90.
- Plato. “Phaedo” in The Harvard Classics. (P.F. Collier & Son Corporation, 1937). pp. 71.
- Aristotle. “Metaphysics” In The Basic Works of Aristotle. (The Modern Library, 2001)., pp. 736.
- Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Lectures on the History of Philosophy Vol I. (K. Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Company, 1892)., pp. 278.
- Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Lectures on the History of Philosophy Vol I. (K. Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Company, 1892)., pp. 282, 278.
- Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Lectures on the History of Philosophy Vol I. (K. Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Company, 1892)., pp. 282.
- Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Science of Logic. § 132-134.
- Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Science of Logic. § 187
- Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Phenomenology of Spirit. (Oxford University Press, 1977)., pp. 10.
- Phenomenology of Spirit. (Oxford University Press, 1977)., pp. 10.
- Phenomenology of Spirit. (Oxford University Press, 1977)., pp. 19.
- Hegel’s Lectures pp. 283 and Phenomenology pp. 19.
- Phenomenology of Spirit., pp. 19.
- Phenomenology of Spirit., pp. 23.
- Phenomenology of Spirit., pp. 2.
- In Hegel’s jargon, ‘absolute negation/negativity’ refers to the second negation, i.e., the negation of the negation. This is not how I am using it here. Instead, what I intend to mean by ‘absolute negation’ here is simply the complete annihilation of the original conception, as opposed to the process of aufhebung, where the cancelation is partial and a part of the old conception is sustained or elevated into the new one in a higher ‘level’.
- Phenomenology of Spirit., pp.6.
- Marx, Karl. “Critique of the Gotha Program” In Robert C. Tucker’s The Marx-Engels Reader. (W.W. Norton and Company, 1978)., pp. 529.
- Phenomenology of Spirit., pp. 23.
Re-published with permission from Midwestern Marx.