Marx, Early and Late

by Mark Wallace

The problem with disciplinary thinking is that from an original starting point of thinking about, say, social problems that one has observed and been struck by, it soon gives way to thinking about thinkers who have written on the subject, and each of these thinkers is subject to all sorts of biases, blind spots, personal predilections and obsessions. Many of their observations and theorizations may not be very much to the point at all, and the process by which they have attained to disciplinary centrality may be marked by considerations of fashion, right-place-right-time, personal charisma, connections, etc. Disciplinary thinking is, above all, abstract thinking; a certain facet of reality is abstracted from all others, and forged into a discipline. It is because this abstraction is so unrealistic that a great degree of theoretical sophistication and ingenuity is required to bolster up the discipline. The intellectual energies of the proponents of the discipline, then, go into theorizing it in a way that escapes criticism. The definition of key terms, the choice of key terms, becomes worthy of heated debate – this debate can never be settled, because the niceties that are at issue are often basically metaphysical, having no material basis, and not being in any way verifiable. Thus the proliferation of discourse is assured, and the discipline’s existence is justified, on its own terms.

Metaphysical also means in this sense ideological – for ideology was initially a synonym for idealism (see entry for “Ideology” in Raymond Williams, Keywords). This was Marx’s original use of the term; still in The German Ideology that meaning is present, gradually losing ground to the more familiar rationalization-of-existing-power-structure conception (The German Ideology, ed. by C.J. Arthur, Lawrence & Wishart, 1982, pp. 64-68). Even in that more specialized sense, it remains that any idealistic theorizations are ideological, for Marx insists on empiricism – real is his favorite word in The German Ideology, closely followed by actual. Empiricism is about “sense experience” but mostly, I submit, it is about observation. It is atheoretical as it can possibly be. It is rather Sherlock Holmesian, if one may give it an iconic presence, as opposed to a theoretical justification (which is precisely what one doesn’t want to get involved in giving). As the Great Detective said: “The temptation to form premature theories upon insufficient data is the bane of our profession” (The Valley of Fear). And Holmes’ solutions to his cases were never theories – on the contrary they were explications of entirely unique sets of factors with no general applicability at all. To be able to come to such explication, not a theory of detection was needed, but an attention to the fact that “[a]ll knowledge comes useful to the detective” (ibid). A full theory of detection would be a theory of life. Similarly, a full theory of sociology, of culture, of gender, of anything, would be a full theory of life. In other words, it’s an impossibility.

The solution, then, is to sideline theorization in favour of attention to detail. This attention to detail, directed towards whatever element of society strikes one as worthy of it, will involve a lot of criticism, without much positing of precisely how things could be different – constructing the future of idealistic and ideological; critiquing the present is not. I recently came across a great early letter by Marx, sometimes called “Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing” after an important phrase used therein (phrase actually rendered slightly differently in this translation):

On the other hand, it is precisely the advantage of the new trend that we do not dogmatically anticipate the world, but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one. Hitherto philosophers have had the solution of all riddles lying in their writing-desks, and the stupid, exoteric world had only to open its mouth for the roast pigeons of absolute knowledge to fly into it. Now philosophy has become mundane, and the most striking proof of this is that philosophical consciousness itself has been drawn into the torment of the struggle, not only externally but also internally. But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be. (“Marx to Ruge: Krueznach, September 1843“)

The anti-idealist and anti-utopian stance is strong here. The notion that criticism is in itself a good, unconnected to anything narrowly constructive. This is a stance that I believe contrasts with academic practice, and even with general lay ideology. Nobody likes a critic who just complains without offering a substantive alternative. But yet, it is worth considering that it is through “ruthless criticism” that we begin to arrive at the possibility of progressivism, and we must perhaps lay waste to current ideologies before we can begin to ask ourselves “What do we want?” For as of now, our wants, our very desires, are deeply implicated in socio-cultural and economic practices, so what we want is an index of our being in ideology.

Marx’s intellectual progress should be noted. In this seminar on Capital, David Harvey notes that Marx was not a disciplinarian in a modern sense; nevertheless, Capital marks a very different phase in Marx’s thought from The German Ideology. Now, he has begun to reduce. He has certain building blocks, basic concepts like “socially necessary labour time” from which an entire theory of human living is to be constructed. But Marx’s concepts are suggestive rather than scientific. As Harvey notes, the concept named above was not properly defined by Marx and never has been in a way agreeable to succeeding economists/ social scientists. Therefore any theory based thereon  may well have moments of insight and suggestiveness, but as a theory it is wrong. Or not even wrong – being based on a concept which has no meaning, it is nonsense, in A. J. Ayers’ sense. But wrong as a theory may be, this does not stop other putative theorists from building on it – in fact, the less empirical weight a theory has, the more ingenuity can be applied to proving it logically. It is, indeed, the perfect challenge for the intellectual. But, ultimately, in constructing a theory, no matter how ingenious, on concepts that are empirically unsound, Marx is falling prey to the very ideological system-building he had denounced in his early works. So maybe Marx was Right, as Terry Eagleton and others insist, but the Marx who was right was not the one who wrote Capital, but the one who called for a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing.