Tag Archives: Marxism

Review: Valences of the Dialectic

This is a magnificent book. Beginning with a basic restatement of what we mean when we talk about dialectics, with three fundamental ‘laws’ underpinning it as a thought process:

  • The law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa;
  • The law of the interpenetration of opposites;
  • The law of the negation of the negation.

The remainder of the book is then a range of essays, often previously published elsewhere, which implement and expand on the use of dialectics across a range of philosophical and revolutionary areas of interest. Throughout Jameson is keen to emphasise the analytical side of Marx, and to avoid the retrofitting of philosophical ‘systems’ (structuralism, existentialism etc.) onto his thought. In this sense Jameson takes the same stance as David Harvey who in his work on Capital encourages us to read it on Marx’s own terms.

Much of this fascinating and extremely thought provoking. It is not however a basic introduction to dialectics, and you are I think best served coming to this book with at least something of an idea of what it is all about. Some – particularly the final two chapters based on literary criticism – is quite dense reading.

There is an extended discussion of spectrality based on the work of Derrida which is masterful, and quite an achievement to have unpicked from Derrida’s impenetrable work. Jameson also discussed Lukacs in some depth, and does a good job of rehabilitating his concepts of reification and totality as key themes. He also provides a convincing exposition of ‘false consciousness’ which belies the standard use by the worst of vulgar Marxism. The final analysis of time, narrative, and history is hard work but worthwhile for understanding the complexity involved in time as a category.

This book then is a description of the dialectical method, but more than that it is the detailed and expert use of that method in a range of insightful analyses. More than anything it is inspiring for the continued value and use of dialectics in thinking about the modern world.

I wrote more detailed notes while reading this, along with blog posts on spectrality, dialectical materialism, totality and pluralism, and sublation inspired by various sections.

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Modern Capitalism, Sublation, and Corbyn

I have found the Hegelian side of Marxism fascinating for some time now, since coming across Lukacs at university. I don’t think you can truly get to grips with Marx’s analysis without some understanding of dialectics.

One of the things I find powerful about dialectics is how it approaches change, the processes by which things develop. “Sublation” is one of the key concepts which underpins this analysis of change. As things (concepts, theories) change they are gradually negated, turn into their ‘antithesis’, until at the point of change a new ‘synthesis’ appears. Crucially, this new synthesis does not simply replace its predecessor, it subsumes it. The new wholly contains the old, grows from it, can only be understood by looking both back at what came before, and by extension forward to what it will become (something I’ve written about before).

Marx also uses this idea of sublation, particularly when describing the conflict that grows between the developing relations of production and a society built on top of economic mechanisms that are being superseded. The concept runs throughout the Communist Manifesto and is stated in the simplest fashion in the introduction to “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”.

“No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”

(Marx 1971 p.21)

Fredric Jameson makes a similar point in a number of the essays included in “Valences of the Dialectic“. Counter-intuitively he uses Walmart as an example of a company which, paradoxically, has overcome the anarchy of capitalism and the market, providing the necessities of life to an increasingly impoverished public which is incapable of exercising political control (Jameson 2009 p. 422). Jameson makes a connection to Marx’s admiration for the progressive power of capitalism, evident in section 1 of the Communist Manifesto.

“The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part… wherever it has got the upper hand [it] has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations.”

(Marx 2010 p.23)

“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of the instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all… nations into civilisation.”

(Marx 2010 p.26)

Walmart then, for all its exploitative nature within capitalism, is a phenomenon we must ‘sublate’ and overcome rather than trying to pretend that it (and all the other features of ‘postmodern’ capitalism) never happened. Socialism can only be something that develops out of the existing state of capitalism, that subsumes and exceeds where we are now. The ‘postmodern’ age of capitalism with its global reach and advanced communication systems provides the foundation on which the future needs to be built.

“The challenge remains… to try to think a beyond of late capitalism which does not imply a regression to earlier, simpler stages of social development but which posits a future already latent in the present, as Marx did for the capitalism of his day.”

(Jameson 2009 p.408)

This is an analysis which is quite close in principle to the idea of “fully automated luxury communism” promoted by some on the modern left.

As Jameson points out, what this also implies is that Marxism is not a static solution to which we can endlessly “return”. It is a method and means of analysis based on capitalism itself. As capitalism changes, the analysis of its contradictions and instabilities needs to develop, developing and building on the foundational analysis by Marx.

“Marxism is the very science of capitalism; its epistemological vocation lies in its unmatched capacity to describe capitalism’s historical originality… a postmodern capitalism necessarily calls a postmodern Marxism into existence over against itself.”

(Jameson 2009 p.409)

So what is the link to Corbyn? One common criticism of Corbyn is that his agenda is based on the Bennite policies of the early 1980s. Much of this is commentary is plainly scaremongering with a liberal or status quo standpoint. That said I do worry that one strand of the Corbyn ‘project’ is about protecting and defending past victories (or reversing past defeats) rather than seeking to ‘sublate’ capitalism and replace it with something truly radical. Corbyn might be seen as the last social democrat, not the dangerous subversive he is often made out to be.

To put it another way I think that rather than being a dangerous radical, I believe Corbyn isn’t being radical enough.

Jameson, Fredric Valences of the Dialectic (Verso, London, 2009)

Marx, Karl A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1971)

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich The Communist Manifesto (Vintage Books, London, 2010)

Dialectical Materialism

I’ve been reading a fair amount about dialectics recently, working through both Fredric Jameson’s “Valences of the Dialectic” and Slavoj Zizek’s “Less Than Nothing“. I recently captured an interesting passage in Jameson’s book on Lukacs’ use of the concept of “totality” to understand the strategies used in modern society to envelop and incorporate dissent into the status quo (and the potential impacts of that strategy, leading to the eruption of dissatisfaction in other places). I’ll follow that up with more extensive notes shortly.

“Dialectical materialism” however has a poor reputation these days as the term used for the simplified “vulgar” Marxism of the Stalinist Soviet Union. So it was odd to read in Zizek’s book a long quote from Stalin’s “History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks): Short Course“. (I shouldn’t really be surprised, Zizek is such a consistent contrarian).

However, when summarised by Zizek this passage from the relic of the worst period of Marxism becomes a brilliant short explanation of dialectical totality:

“First, nature is not a conglomerate of dispersed phenomena, but a connected whole. Then, this Whole is not immobile, but in a state of constant movement and change. Next, this change is not only a gradual quantitative drifting, but involves qualitative jumps and ruptures. Finally, this qualitative development is not a matter of harmonious deployment, but is propelled by the struggle of the opposites … The trick here is that we are effectively not dealing merely with the Platonic dieresis, the gradual subdivision of a genus into species and the species into subspecies: the underlying premise is that this “diagonal” process of division is really vertical, ie., that we are dealing with different aspects of the same division.”

(Zizek 2012)

I should be clear that I’m not endorsing a “dialectic of nature” here. Rather the thought process that sees a subdivided whole rather than a set of linked but discrete objects.

Just as usefully, Zizek goes on to explain how this analytical concept can become in the hands of someone like Stalin a tool for monstrous political control and persecution. Quantitative change that doesn’t lead to qualitative change is, in this analysis, not true change; qualitative change that does not involve a struggle of opposites is not true change. As Zizek describes it this leads to a “more ominous” description:

“those who advocate qualitative change without a struggle of the opposites really oppose change”

(Zizek 2012)

And to refine it further:

“those who advocate the transformation of capitalism into socialism without class struggle really reject socialism and want capitalism to continue.”

(Zizek 2012)

And suddenly the potential political implications are laid bare, and how it came to be used to underpin the Stalinist terror.

Zizek, Slavoj Less Than Nothing (Verso, London, 2012)

Review: The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View

A fascinating re-examination of the genesis of capitalism, along with some thoughts for what that might mean for its future. The origin of capitalism has been the subject of debate, particularly within the Marxist intellectual sphere because of its significance for how it might finish. The first part of this book is taken up with a summary and brief review of this debate. Meiksin Wood’s focus is on the “commercialisation” approach and its variations. In short Meiksin Wood’s view is that this is based on the presupposition that the logic of capitalism (profit derived from exploitation of production based on workers who do not have independent access to the means of production) is eternal, awaiting only the removal of fetters to be released and grow. Even various strands of Marxist thinking see capitalist laws of motion sitting within feudalism simply waiting to be unleashed. Gradual accumulation through trade eventually reaches a tipping point allowing the existing bourgeois in the cities to overturn their feudal chains.

In Meiksin Wood’s view this is wholly unsatisfactory, taking as given what itself needs to be explained – that is how did capitalist relations and forms of property come to be created in the first place. It is not sufficient to simply assume that capitalism existed latent within feudalism waiting to be released. This would mean that we accept the view common in capitalist economics that the ‘laws of motion’ of capitalism represent eternal rules valid throughout the whole of human history. And yet we know that capitalism appeared late, with most societies functioning in non-capitalist ways.

The second and longer section of the book outlines Meiksin Wood’s view that the genesis of capitalism was in fact a specific response to the conditions in rural England in the early modern period. Rather than being driven by the commercial accumulation of wealth, or by technological change, capitalism grows out of the relations of production in the countryside where the development of changed relations between aristocratic landlord and tenant farmer imposes the imperatives of the market on both producers and appropriators. These relations of production, and the creation of a unified national market for domestic products, create an agrarian capitalism that provides the foundation stone for future developments. The bourgeois of the towns and the development of international trade is therefore not what underpins the creation of capitalism, rather it is the changes in the English countryside.

This is an excellent thought provoking discussion of the issues surrounding the development of capitalism in the early modern period.

Meiksins Wood, E The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (Verso, London, 2017)

Opium of the People

Religion is the opium of the people” is a frequently quoted phrase by Marx whose meaning is more ambiguous than it is I suspect often taken for. In this short post I want to capture briefly the interpretation given it by Sven-Eric Liedman in his book “A World to Win” recently re-published by Verso in English translation.

The phrase, is often taken to mean that religion is used by the dominant forces in society as a mechanism of control over the working class, something manipulated cynically as a means to keep the working class quiescent. It seems more than likely that this is a view conditioned by the nineteenth century Opium Wars between the British Empire and China.

Liedman disagrees. He states that in fact Marx was using opium in what might be described as a more ‘self-medicating’ sense. Religion is the drug that allows the exploited and oppressed to

“It is thus the shortcomings of the earthly life that constitute the breeding ground of religion.”

(Liedman 2018, p.99)

He then goes on to quote a longer passage from Marx to demonstrate the point.

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

(Liedman 2018, p.99, quoting Marx “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”)

There is an interesting example of a very similar phenomenon in the description by Cyril Mango of the world view of inhabitants of the medieval Greek Byzantine Empire. Mango describes the invisible world of demons and evil as felt to be very much part of reality by the average Byzantine. What’s more the existence of demons is used to make sense of the world around them, of things for which in the absence of modern science the existence of demons provides a ‘rational’ explanation. Mango notes that

“It would be a mistake to dismiss these as a product of superstition, unworthy of the historian’s consideration.”

(Mango 1998, p.159)

Mango quotes many examples from the lives of saints where ordinary people gain comfort from the intervention of monk or other holy man who drives the demons away. The medieval Byzantine experiencing ‘real distress’ searched for something that could make sense of the world around them, and found the answer in the invisible battle between good and evil, and the comfort of religious protection.

Marx is making a similar point. Superstition and religion are a rational response by ordinary people to the oppression and misery of their daily lives, something that can make sense of what they are experiencing and provide comfort.

Liedman, Sven-Eric A World To Win (Verso, London, 2018)

Mango, Cyril Byzantium: The Empire of the New Rome (Phoenix, London, 1998)

Marx, Karl Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (First published in 1844, available in translation at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm)

Repeating the past

Received wisdom dictates that Marx’s theories have been wholly discredited by the attempt to implement them made by the Soviet Union. Capitalism won, the west declared the end of history, and the left accepted defeat and the necessity of capitalism under the “third way” of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.

In “In Defense of Lost Causes” from 2008 Slavoj Zizek tackles the failures of a number of radical movements, from the Terror of the French Revolution to Stalinism and the Cultural Revolution in China. One thing Zizek challenges is the characterisation of the horrific consequences of these episodes as an inevitable consequence of revolutionary outbursts, that there was only one possible path forward. Does the path taken historically represent the only possible route out of the revolutionary situation?

Discussing Heidegger, Zizek notes that he “locates the future itself into the past”

“not, of course, in the sense that we live in a closed universe in which every future possibility is already contained in the past, so that we can only repeat, realize, what already is present in the inherited texture, but in the much more radical sense of the “openness” of the past itself: the past itself is not simply “what there was,” it contains hidden, non-realized potentials”

(Zizek 2009, p.188).

In other words history is not a deterministic linear process, but nor is it entirely contingent. There are only a limited range of future possibilities and these are built into the past. In this sense therefore we should not reject Stalinism as a ‘distortion’ of Marx or a betrayal of the revolution. We should fully accept it as a natural (but disastrous) path out of the situation in Russia after the revolution, but not the only possible one.

It is in this sense that Zizek suggests we should “repeat Lenin” (or Mao, or Robespierre etc.). Not so that we can repeat the same linear path of failure, but so that at the critical points we can take a different route in pursuit of a more equal society.

Five years after the revolution, Lenin himself seemingly understood this point. He wrote (although he did not finish) an article which was published in Pravda shortly after his death. Here he uses the analogy of a climber ascending a high peak but having climbed high realising that it is too difficult to reach the summit by continuing the path he has chosen.

“He is forced to turn back, descend, seek another path, longer, perhaps, but one that will enable him to reach the summit.”

(Lenin, 2002)

A similar point is made by Alain Badiou in “The Communist Hypothesis“. It is important to acknowledge that the attempts to put communist theory into practice have failed, and not only failed but also resulted in some of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century. This is a conclusion that it should be possible even for partisans of the left to agree now that these attempts are safely in the past.

But this does not mean that we have to accept the conclusion drawn by the supporters of the “third way” with it’s acceptance that the attempt to create a more equal society is structurally doomed to failure.

All of which leads us back to Marx and one of his most famous lines, from “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte“:

“Men make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted.”

(Marx 1973, p.146)

As Bertell Ollman suggests in “Dance of the Dialectic” (Ollman 2003), Marx is proposing that we “read history backwards” seeking the roots of the present in the past, and using that to develop our understanding of the future. The failure of Soviet communism does not invalidate this insight.

So progressives should continue to look for different pathways to the summit. As Zizek explains, the lesson is that of Samuel Beckett from Worstward Ho “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Zizek, Slavoj In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso, London, 2009)

Marx, Karl (ed. David Fernbach) Surveys from Exile (Pelican, 1973)

Lenin, Vladimir Notes of a Publicist (https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/feb/x01.htm, 2002, accessed May 2018)

Badiou, Alain The Communist Hypothesis (Verso, London, 2015)

Ollman, Bertell Dance of the Dialectic (University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 2003)

Reforming Capitalism

Coming back to reading Slavoj Zizek after a break is always an interesting experience. I picked up “The Year of Dreaming Dangerously” in the Verso end of year sale and it is the usual eclectic mix of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and cultural commentary.

In this book he picks up themes developed from an analysis of a range of protest movements in 2010 and 2011 from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring. One thing he specifically challenges is the desire sometimes heard in response to these protests to ‘democratise’ capitalism, to bring it under the control of the rational liberal state.

“There is no lack of anti-capitalist sentiment today… What as a rule goes unquestioned… is the democratic-liberal framework as a means of fighting against these excesses.”

(Zizek 2012, p.86)

A common assumption is that what is missing from the Occupy movement is a political programme. Something that can be fitted into the democratic system and voted for. That somehow the system can be made better if we all just want it to change a little more. That the unfocused nature of the protest is part of the problem.

But we are now at the end of the last attempt to make capitalism ‘nicer’. Under pressure from the collective effort required to defeat fascism and from a seemingly triumphant Soviet communism a number of concessions were made to the working class. Britain saw the creation of the National Health Service and the construction of a welfare state to provide support “from cradle to grave”. These concessions have been under sustained assault since the late 1970s, gradually dismantled in the name of ensuring that the economy remains ‘competitive’.

Perhaps the search for ways to mitigate the worst impacts of capitalism on the “99%” or “ordinary working people” is doomed to failure from the start.

“we should read the ongoing dismantling of the Welfare State not as the betrayal of a noble idea, but as a failure that retroactively enables us to discern a fatal flaw of the very notion of the Welfare State.”

(Zizek 2012, p.15)

In other words that creating a welfare state and leaving capitalist relations in place is at best a short term solution. Capitalist economics will only tolerate its creation when under pressure, will perceive it as a barrier to profit making throughout, and will move quickly to its destruction when it can.

In fact, the liberal state cannot respond to anti-capitalist protest in a way which addresses the root causes of the problem. Democracy has proved to be “impotent in the face of the destructive consequences of economic life.” (Zizek 2012, p.88). We must look outside the existing system for a solution. Occupy Wall Street’s role according to this view is to open up a space for the existing system to be challenged, and as such it does not need to present a programme. But there remains work to be done to transform the energy of protest into transformative change.

“what is conspicuously absent is any consistent Leftist response to these events, any project of how to transpose islands of chaotic resistance into a positive program of social change.”

(Zizek 2012, p.133)

What this implies then is that the Corbyn project is misguided. We cannot realistically defend past victories or rebuild a mythical golden age of social democratic capitalism. We need to be much more radical than that.

“It is the ‘democratic illusion’, the acceptance of democratic procedures as the sole framework for any possible change, that blocks any radical transformation of capitalist relations.”

(Zizek 2012, p.87)

What is at risk is that all Corbyn will achieve is to harness a youthful and energetic protest movement to the next failed attempt to make capitalism nicer.

Zizek, Slavoj The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (Verso, London, 2012)