Ingo Elbe. Between Marx, Marxism, and Marxisms – Ways of Reading Marx’s Theory I.1 The Ontological-Determinist Tendency

I.1 The Ontological-Determinist Tendency

Scientific socialism was conceived of as an ontological system, a “science of the big picture”. The materialist dialectic functions here as a “general law of development of nature, society, and thought” 1 ; nature serves for Engels as a “proof of dialectics”2 . Engels already undertakes a false analogy between historical-social processes and natural phenomena by the mere fact that in his elucidations upon the main features of the dialectic, a reference to Subject and Object is missing. “Negation of the negation” or the “transformation of quantity into quality” are identified in the changes in the physical state of water or in the development of a grain of barley. Against a static point of view, dialectic is supposed to demonstrate the “becoming”, the “transitory character” of all existence,3 and is bound to traditional dichotomies of the philosophy of consciousness, such as the so-called “great basic question of all philosophy“ as to which component of the relationship between “thinking and being” has primacy . 4 The dialectic is split into “two sets of laws”, into the dialectic of “the external world” and the dialectic of “human thought”, whereby the latter is understood to be merely a passive mental image of the former. 5 Engels constricts – even distorts – the three elementary praxis-philosophical motifs of Marx, which he had partially still advocated in his earlier writings: 1) the recognition that not only the object, but also the observation of the object is historically and practically mediated , 6 not external to the history of the mode of production. Against this, Engels emphasizes that “the materialist outlook on nature means nothing more than the simple conception of nature just as it is, without alien addition”. 7 The naive realism of the theory of reflection systematized by Lenin8 and others – which falls prey to the reified appearance of immediacy of that which is socially mediated, the fetishism of an in-itself of that which exists only via a historically determined framework of human activity – already obtains its foundation in Engels’ writings. 9 As “things refer to consciousness and consciousness refers to things” , 10 the concepts of praxis and of the subjective mediation of the object, as well as ideology-critical considerations, have hardly any place in this paradigm. 2) The concept of Naturwüchsigkeit (“the state of being naturally derived”), which is still used in The German Ideology also by Engels in a negative sense, is now turned into a positive concept. The sublation of specific social laws resting upon the unconsciousness of social actors is no longer postulated; rather, Engels postulates the conscious application of “the general laws of motion […] of the external world”. 11 3) If Marx writes in the Theses on Feuerbach that “[a]ll mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice” , 12 Engels reduces praxis to the experimental activity of the natural sciences. 13 Admittedly, ambivalences and praxis-philosophical motifs can also be found in the writings of the late Engels, which were largely blotted out by the epigones. Nonetheless, Engels – bundling together the scientism of his epoch – paves the way for a mechanistic and fatalistic conception of historical materialism by shifting the accent from a theory of social praxis to one of a contemplative, reflection-theory doctrine of development.
The vulgar evolutionism in the European Social Democracy of the 19th century is a nearly ubiquitous phenomenon. 14 For that reason, it is not just for Kautsky, Bernstein, and Bebel the case that the deterministic concept of development and the revolutionary metaphysic of a providential mission of the proletariat15 occupy a central place in Marxist doctrine: accordingly humanity is subordinated to a “scientifically verifiable” automatism of liberation. That which presents itself in the modern scientific garb of a fetishism of laws is ultimately nothing other than a historical metaphysic with a socialist signature 16 : precisely the inversion of subject and object that Marx had criticized. A process consummated behind the back of social actors is attributed a morally qualified aim. 17 Ultimately, in the Erfurt Program of the German Social Democratic Party, this revolutionary passivity 18 is codified at an official level as consistent Marxism: the task of the party is to remain braced for an event that will “necessarily” happen even without intervention, “not to make the revolution, but rather to take advantage of it.” 19 The ontological orientation and the encyclopaedic character of Engels’ deliberations also feed the tendency to interpret scientific socialism as a comprehensive proletarian worldview. Ultimately, Lenin will present the “Marxist doctrine“as „omnipotent“, a”comprehensive and harmonious” doctrine that “provides men with an integral world outlook”. 20 Correspondingly, the negative concept of ideology is neutralized into a category for the determinate being of consciousness in general.
All of these developments, which undoubtedly constitute a theoretical regression, ultimately culminate in the theory of “Marxism – Leninism” conceived of by Abram Deborin and Stalin. If for Lenin, Marxism constitutes – despite all emphasis upon the political – a “profound doctrine of development” 21 that calls attention to breaks and leaps in nature and society, in the case of Marxism-Leninism the naturalist-objectivist current is elevated to a state doctrine: the central argumentative figure will be, “what is valid for nature must also be valid for history” or respectively “nature makes leaps, therefore so does history”. Political praxis is thus understood as the consummation of historical laws. This impressive logic is perfected in Josef Stalin’s work “Dialectical and Historical Materialism”, for decades an authoritative work in the Marxist theory of the Eastern Bloc: historical materialism stands for the “application” and “extension” of ontological principles to society, which implies an epistemological essentialism (a theory of reflection, which in the form of Dialectical Materialism conceives of “being” and “thinking” independent of the concept of praxis) and a sociological naturalism (a developmental logic – to be “consciously applied” or “accelerated” by the party as the highest technocratic instance22 – existing independent of human agency). 23

  1. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1883/don/ch02.htm []
  2. ://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/introduction.htm []
  3. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1886/ludwig-feuerbach/ch01.htm []
  4. ibid. []
  5. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1886/ludwig-feuerbach/ch04.htm []
  6. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/index.htm []
  7. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1883/don/ch07a.htm []
  8. Above all in Materialism and Empiriocriticism, stylized by Marxism-Leninism as the classical textbook of dialectical materialism alongside Anti-Dühring. Here, Marxism becomes an ideology in the strict Marxian sense: a systemization of the forms of thought of a reified common sense. Concerning the political-pragamatical background of the text, usually disregarded in ML, see Busch-Weßlau 1990, page 30 []
  9. Falko Schmieder (2004, p. 213) points out the apriori role of the medium of photography as a foundation of this naive realism in philosophy, as well as the fundamental commonalities between Engels, Lenin, and Feuerbach. []
  10. Sohn-Rethel, 1978, p. 114 []
  11. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1886/ludwig-feuerbach/ch04.htm []
  12. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/theses.htm []
  13. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1886/ludwig-feuerbach/ch02.htm []
  14. For more on this, see the study of Steinberg 1979, above all pp. 45, 63. Approaches toward a social historical explanation are offered by idem, pp. 145-150, Groh 1974, pp. 58-63, Negt 1974, Gramsci 1995, p. 1386 []
  15. For a critique, see Mohl 1978, Sieferle 1979, Elbe 2002a []
  16. Laclau and Mouffe (2001) point out the Darwinist-Hegelian character of this conception: “Darwinism alone does not offer ‘guarantees for the future’, since natural selection does not operate in a direction predetermined from the beginning. Only if a Hegelian type of teleology is added to Darwinism – which is totally incompatible with it – can an evolutionary process be presented as a guarantee of future transitions.” (p.20) []
  17. For more on this, in an instructive manner, see Kittsteiner 1980. []
  18. See Groh 1974, p. 36 []
  19. Kautsky, quoted in Steinberg 1979, p. 61. See also http://www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1906/ethics/ch05b.htm#s5 According to Kautsky, the prospects for freedom and humanity are not “mere expectations of conditions which only ought to come, which we simply wish and will, but outlooks at conditions which must come, which are necessary.” Kautsky defends himself against interpretations of necessity “n the fatalist sense, that a higher power will present them to us of itself,” but Kautsky assumes an irresistible immanent historical-economic compulsion toward revolution, whereby the immanent compulsive laws of capitalism and the formation of the proletariat as a successful revolutionary subject play the same role: “unavoidable in the sense, that the […]capitalists in their desire for profit [!] revolutionize the whole economic life, as it is also inevitable that the workers aim for shorter hours of labor and higher wages, that they organize themselves, that they fight the capitalist class and its state, as it is inevitable that they aim for the conquest of political power and the overthrow of capitalist rule. Socialism is inevitable because the class struggle and the victory of the proletariat is inevitable.” []
  20. http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1913/mar/x01.htm []
  21. http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/granat/ch02.htm []
  22. On the paradoxes of this combination of voluntarism and determinism, see Taylor 1997, 729-731 []
  23. It is precisely Western Marxism that – against Marxism-Leninism – emphasizes the non-ontological character of Marx’s materialism (see Horkheimer 1988, p. 174 as well as Schmidt 1993, pp. 10-59). Stalin determines the components of Marx’s theory as follows: Dialektik: a universal logic of development emphasizing discontinuity, which teaches that everything can be conceived of as in a state of becoming and decaying; Materialism: a contemplative ontology which teaches that consciousness is merely a reflection of a nature existing independent and outside of consciousness; Historical Materialism: the application of dialectical materialism to history; universal historical laws are class struggle, the dialectic between forces of production and relations of production, rooted in the primacy of the development of the forces of production (casua-sui concept of forces of production), and ultimately the law of progress of successive social formations. []

Ingo Elbe. Between Marx, Marxism, and Marxisms – Ways of Reading Marx’s Theory: I. Marxism

I. Marxism

The term “Marxism” was probably first used in the year 1879 by the German Social Democrat Franz Mehring to characterize Marx’s theory, and established itself at the end of the 1880s as a discursive weapon used by both critics and defenders of “Marx’s teachings”, but the birth of a “Marxist school” is unaminously dated back to the publication of Anti-Dühring by Friedrich Engels in the year 1878 and the subsequent reception of this work by Karl Kautsky, Eduard Berstein, et al. Engels’ writings – even if the terms “Marxism” or “dialectical materialism”, the self-applied labels of traditional readings, do not yet appear in them – supplied entire generations of readers, Marxists as well as Anti-Marxists, with the interpretative model through which Marx’s work was perceived. In particular, the review of Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), the late work Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886) or the supplement to Volume III of Capital (1894/95) achieved an influence that can hardly be underestimated. Above all, however, it was Anti-Dühring that was to be stylized as the textbook of Marxist theory as well as a positive depiction of a “Marxist worldview”: For Kautsky, “there is no other book that has contributed so much to the understanding of Marxism. Marx’s Capital is greater. But it was first through Anti-Dühring that we learned to correctly read and understand Capital.” And for Lenin, it is one of the “handbooks of every class-conscious worker.”
At the same time, something is consummated which will be a general characteristic of the history of “Marxism”: the initiators of the theoretical corpus regard it as “unnecessary […] to themselves make an appearance as eponyms […] the eponyms are not the real speakers.” In many respects, Marxism is Engel’s work and for that reason actually an Engelsism. In the following I will name only two points which an ideologized and restricted reception of Marx could draw upon.

Ingo Elbe. Between Marx, Marxism, and Marxisms – Ways of Reading Marx’s Theory: Introduction

Between Marx, Marxism, and Marxisms – Ways of Reading Marx’s Theory

By Ingo Elbe

[Translator’s note: the complete original German-language text can be viewed here. This English translation will be published in serial form as time permits.]

The intent of the following observations is to offer a rough overview of central ways of reading Marx’s theory. These are to be presented – by means of a few selected topics – as Marxisms that can be relatively clearly delimited from one another, and the history of their reception and influence will be evaluated with regard to the common sense understanding of “Marxist theory”.

A distinction will be made between the hitherto predominant interpretation of Marx, primarily associated with political parties (traditional Marxism, Marxism in the singular, if you will), and the dissident, critical forms of reception of Marx (Marxisms in the plural), with their respective claims of a “return to Marx”. The first interpretation is understood as a product and process of a restricted reading of Marx, in part emerging from the “exoteric” layer of Marx’s work, which updates traditional paradigms in political economy, the theory of history, and philosophy and succumbs to the mystifications of the capitalist mode of production, systematized and elevated to a doctrine by Engels, Kautsky, et al, and culminating in the apologetic science of Marxism-Leninism. The other two interpretations, specifically Western Marxism as well as the German neue Marx-Lektüre (“new reading of Marx”), usually explore the esoteric content of Marx’s critique and analysis of society, often consummated outside of institutionalized, cumulative research programs, by isolated actors in the style of an “underground Marxism”.

In order to characterize both ways of reading, some strongly truncated theses, limited to a few aspects, must suffice. In particular the ambitious proposition, first formulated by Karl Korsch, of an“application of the materialist conception of history to the materialist conception of history itself” that goes beyond the mere presentation of intellectual history as well as an immanent theoretical critique and critically takes into consideration the connection between historical forms of praxis and theoretical formations of Marxism, must be refrained from here. Also, a consideration of those readings which are critical of Marx or Marxism can also be disregarded here, insofar as their picture of Marx usually corresponds to that of traditional Marxism.

I thus begin with the hegemonic interpretative model of traditional Marxism, and only at the end of my presentation will I follow up with a few positive determinations of what I regard as the fundamental systematic intention of Marx’s work. I do this primarily because only in the course of the learning processes of Western Marxism and the Neue Marx-Lektüre can a differentiated reading of Marx’s work be gained.