The Victorian Sage

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Tag: marx

Edmund Wilson’s To The Finland Station

Edmund Wilson was maybe the last great humanist literary critic. He’s now “astoundingly irrelevant”, but “The loss is not Edmund Wilson’s. It’s ours.” He was also very interested in Marxism, less in the theory than in its manifestation in post-1917 Russia. Wilson’s To The Finland Station (1940) is still as good an introduction to Marxist theory and history as one can get. It is perhaps all the better for being obviously partisan – and partisan in a particularly problematic and even discredited way, in that Wilson wrote with a great and uncritical admiration for Lenin. This makes the book flawed but none the less interesting for that.

The book is divided into three sections: pre-Marxism (Michelet, Renan, etc.); Marx and Engels; Lenin and Trotsky. It is a book of theory, history and biography. Wilson is not like a modern academic theorist of Marxism in that he never reads theory in isolation from either history or the biography of its author. I am far more sympathetic to the Wilson approach than to the modern-academic: theory without history is pointless, I insist. So, for that alone, I am well disposed to this book.

To The Finland Station does not have to be read in sequence, cover to cover. Indeed, I didn’t read it like that. The one really unmissable section is that on Marx and Engels, which takes up most of Book II. This would constitute a great introduction to Marxism, better even than any of Marx or Engels’ own works. I have said that Wilson has an undue admiration for Lenin, which makes that section rather unconvincing, but he is intelligently critical of Marx. The section follows the lives of its two main actors, stopping for detailed critiques of their works and theories. I knew only vague details of Marx’s life, but  known in detail they provide a context in which his theory becomes more meaningful. The description of Marx and his family’s life in London in the 1850s (the chapter entitled “Marx and Engels Go Back to Writing History”) while he was engaged on research that resulted in Das Kapital, Vol 1 (1867) is harrowing. Marx, wife, and four children moved into two rooms in London in 1850. Another child was born to Jenny Marx just after the move, but died a few months later, and Wilson gives a long excerpt from a moving letter Jenny wrote:

[T]he poor little angel drank in from me so much secret sorrow and grief with the milk that he was constantly unwell[…] [.] He has not slept a single night since he came into the world – two or three hours at most. Now lately he has been having violent cramps, so that the poor child is always hovering between life and death. (204-205)

Further extracts from a police agent’s report and from Marx’s letter about the death of his young son a few years later underline the difficulties the Marxes faced, living in squalor and penury.

Interspersed with such material are Wilson’s reflections on Marx and Engels writings and theories. Wilson is sympathetic, but sharply critical, too. Most interesting, I found, was his chapter on Das Kapital (the chapter entitled “Karl Marx: Poet of Commodities and Dictator of the Proletariat”). The argument of Das Kapital is based on the Labour Theory of Value – a theory which Wilson debunks pretty trenchantly: “The Labor Theory is thus simply, like the dialectic [which Wilson has earlier refuted at length], a creation of the metaphysician who never abdicated before the economist in Marx – an effort to show that the moral values which he wished to impress on people were, independently of our ideas about them, somehow involved in the nature of things.” (293) The thing about Marx’s Labour Theory is that it’s not justified in Das Kapital, but was to be fully elucidated and theorized in a later volume – but no follow-up to the first ever appeared. Marx simply left some notes at his death. Wilson suspects Marx deliberately omitted that element from the book because he simply had no argument to sustain it, and that he deliberately refrained from writing a defense of Labour Theory, leaving it for Engels to do after his death. Labour Theory, then, is “the central fallacy of Marxism” (295). Wilson’s argument is, to me, compelling, and I tend to think Labour Theory is a consequence of Marx’s increasing tendency to isolate himself among books when preparing to write, rather than engaging with history as he did up to the Revolutions of 1848. Thus, I would add to Wilson’s argument, he ends up committing the very same fallacy he ridiculed in his early work. That great early letter to Ruge comes to mind:

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. (September 1843)

Sadly (in my opinion) Marx’s own involvement in the struggle gave way to a “roast pigeon of absolute knowledge” in the form of the Labour Theory of Value. He constructed a wondrous edifice from this foundation, but the foundation itself just wasn’t present. Thus, Marx becomes, in To The Finland Station, a tragic figure in more than one sense.

Finally, one must emphasize that good as Wilson is on Marx, he lets the book down by his section on Lenin. Here Wilson’s critical faculties desert him, and he fawns over his subject throughout. As Louis Menand’s Foreward makes clear, Wilson was clear that Soviet Russia had turned into a totalitarian state, but he blamed Stalin (hardly mentioned in Station, which ends at 1917, at the moment of Lenin’s great triumph), and refused to countenance the possibility that the development could have any roots in Lenin’s rule. Menand notes that Wilson’s portrait of Lenin is based entirely on Party-controlled publications. Even though more critical sources were available, Wilson ignored them. This is bad, very bad, and maybe it explains why the book has become semi-forgotten. But it still has plenty to offer, and was half way towards being a great book before Wilson let his Leninophilia take over.


Edmund Wilson, To The Finland Station, foreward by Louis Menand (Phoenix, 2004)

Interesting piece by Louis Menand on Wilson from The New Yorker here


Marx, Early and Late

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. 

Žižek’s Ideology

In the entry on “Ideology” in New Keywords (ed. Bennett, et al., Blackwell Publishing, 2005), it is noted in that “the academic centrality of the concept in theoretical debates and political analyses has declined in the e21C (178). The one great exception to this rule is, of course, Slavoj Žižek , probably the most famous of all academic cultural commentators at this time. It’s quite characteristic of him to take this theoretically outmoded concept and revamp it to use it against contemporary orthodoxy. But I have problems with his usage of the word as outlined in perhaps his most famous book, The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989) – an intellectual tour-de-force and a frequently stimulating (if sometimes difficult) read.

Žižek ‘s big move in Sublime Object – well, one of them – is to reverse the standard Marxist position. Marx’s famous dictum is: They do not know it, but they are doing it. This describes ideology for Marx because the members of a society unthinkingly objectify their labour and reduce materiality to abstraction, without being conscious of it. Žižek ‘s inversion is: They know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it (25). This inversion is, I suppose, historically specific: they (we) now know what we are doing when we participate in capitalist economics because of Marx and his followers and popularizers. But, yet, nothing has really changed at the level of activity.

We might be tempted to give ourselves a pat on the back here because Žižek allows that we have surmounted the “false consciousness” of ideology that Marx described – unlike our 19th-century forebears, we know. But that’s even worse, because we are still doing it. We are allowing the disconnect between our thoughts and actions to grow and to continue inscribing itself in the mechanisms of our society. Ideology, then, Žižek argues, is  not, at least in contemporary societies, a matter of thought, but of action.

If we want to grasp this dimension of fantasy, we must return to the Marxian formula “they do not know it, but they are doing it”, and pose ourselves a very simple question: where is the place of ideological illusion, in the “knowing” or in the “doing” in the reality itself? (27)

For Žižek it’s in the doing, not in the knowing. We know, for example, that money is not really an embodiment of wealth, but we act as if it is. Of course, the societal and structural pressures to do so are immense, and well-nigh irresistible.

So how do we overcome this impasse, where our doing conflicts with our knowing?

For Žižek, the main technique that is used in contemporary societies is irony or cynicism. Nobody actually believes in the values are social and economic structures are supposed to represent, but while we give free rein to this unbelief, we simply act as if we did believe. The falseness that is incorporated into this cynical worldview is as follows:

The model of cynical wisdom is to conceive probity, integrity, as a supreme form of dishonesty, and morals as a supreme form of profligacy, the truth as the most effective form of a lie. (26)

According to this form of wisdom, there is no alternative to cynicism, so we carry on as we are, while keeping an “ironical distance” from our actions (30). Our actions, then, are ideological: “the illusion is not on the side of knowledge, it is already on the side of reality itself, of what people are doing” (29-30).

So, in the face of ideology having become an outmoded concept, Žižek is basically inverting the entire concept. Now it doesn’t deal with the “phantoms of the human brain“, but with socio-economic “reality”. This may be an entirely un-Marxist concept: if this reality doesn’t actually create epistemological distortions in those who live within it, then Marx’s entire thesis about the relationship between relations of production and ideas falls down. And ideology becomes about material and institutional structures rather than about consciousness. That’s a large sacrifice, and if that is required to make the term acceptable to current intellectual paradigms, then it is proof that “ideology” really is no more. So Žižek ‘s is less, I would say, a theory of ideology than an anti-ideological theory. It has interesting elements, undoubtedly, and the focus on cynicism/ irony is useful and pertinent, but there is more to be said about ideological consciousness than that. Ultimately, cynicism is not the defining mood of any generation because there is an incessant pull away from it: most people still cannot handle too much cynicism, and need something to believe in. It may not be something narrowly political: it’s more likely to be an abstraction like Love. Or what about Tolerance, a term Žižek himself has spoken and written on quite a bit? This, too, is a quasi-official  ideology that people espouse without apparent cynicism. The interplay of such powerful idealist concepts with the economic base is what could still be examined by an ideological critique, so there’s no need to throw it all out the window for an emphasis on a (paradoxical) ideology of doing.

Phantoms of the Human Brain

[W]e do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.

Above is a famous passage from Marx and Engels’ The German Ideology (written: 1846; first published: 1932). In a sort of impressionistic way, it is my favourite formulation of the concept of ideology. I am not really a Marxist: at least, I do not accept – or, at least, am not interested in as a form of analysis – the base/superstructure distinction; and certainly, the Althusserian notion that Marxism is a science is not one I share. But, as Marxism is the most well-articulated alternative to the institutionalization of greed that is Capitalism, no reflective person can fail to be interested in it. And ideology, taken in itself – indebted as any usage must be to Marxist use of the term – doesn’t necessitate that we speak of an economic base, nor does it have a pretension to a science in the references in German Ideology. Rather, to define the term at an unacceptably general level, it is a tool for examining the processes by which people come to hold conclusions on political and social issues.

One formulation in the above quote on ideology that appeals to me is that of phantoms formed in the human brain, which applies to all morality, religion, metaphysics. This has that element of naked scorn that I like in my thinkers. But, of course, academically, one has to question oneself before using such a phrase. Who are you (one asks oneself) to dismiss the ideas of others as phantoms? It were better, perhaps, to retreat from such blatant judgmentalism and simply perform a discourse analysis on certain expressions of these ideas, thus, it is argued, avoiding the epistemological assumptions of the ideologist. But the epistemological assumptions of Marx and Engels have a clear basis: observation of real, active men and their real-life processes. That is the key: not to derive a philosophy from arguments in the “discipline” of philosophy, but rather to strip all that away and return to observation of people in their everyday. For observation is relatively reliable, but idealist speculation is not. And here may be the key element missing in a discourse analysis – a commitment to beginning from real-life processes. For by beginning and ending with discourse only, such an analysis, while keeping itself safe from epistemological questionings, is, in precise proportion as it is doing this, sealing itself off from an ability to engage with anything beyond the purely textual. By thus limiting itself, it is keeping itself very much a “discipline”, but a discipline that will have to entirely collapse and remake itself if it is to make a bridge across the divide between textual analysis and a fuller engagement with all elements of being-in-this-our-world.

And Another Thing: Ideology and the Base/ Superstructure Divide

(Further to my last post on Michele Barrett’s book.)

Barrett states that: “Foucault believed that the concept of ideology was irretrievably contaminated by the unilinear economic determinism characteristic of Marxism” (130). This is an important point, because the most common objection to the term ideology is that it is implicated in the Marxist economic determinism, aka the base/ superstructure divide. This is more a measure of Marx’s ubiquitous influence in academia than a true reflection on the term itself. Histories of the term are found in potted form in Raymond Williams’ Keywords and the more recent edition of same by other authors. But even more interesting is consulting the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives four usages:

1: The original usage of the term was to designate the study of ideas, and this is still meaning number one in the OED.

2: The second usage, both historically and in the present OED, is:

“Abstract speculation; impractical or visionary theorizing. Now rare.”

3: Third is as a synonym for idealism, also now rare.

4: This is the everyday, man-in-the-street version:

A systematic scheme of ideas, usually relating to politics, economics, or society and forming the basis of action or policy; a set of beliefs governing conduct. Also: the forming or holding of such a scheme of ideas.

Again, in four, the economic is only a secondary and optional element of ideology; as a term it is given no more weight than politics or society.

In short the OED would give no support whatever to the general academic notion that Foucault expressed and that Barrett supports. And even within academia, the economic basis for ideology is far from the only one. An avowed Marxist, Stuart Hall, defined ideology thusly:

By ideology I mean the mental frameworks – the languages, the concepts, categories, imagery of thought, and the systems of representation – which different classes and social groups deploy in order to make sense of, figure out and render intelligible the way society works. (Qtd in John Storey, “Introduction”, in Storey, ed., Cultural Theory, p. vvii)

Again, no mention of an economic basis. The economic argument against ideology, in other words, is lazy and straw-mannish. It’s not even clear that Marx himself held an economic determinist view of ideology – that is to say, his pronouncements, as is clear from Barrett’s discussion of them in her opening chapter, are somewhat contradictory and don’t add up to a clear position. But it suits opponents of ideology to treat it as implicated in economic determinism. It suits them, because if that is ideology, then ideology is clearly a concept of limited usefulness, and space is open for a new term such as discourse, etc. But if ideology has a far wider and richer usage-history than Foucault realizes, then the debate is far from settled.


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