Marxism and Difference, Addendum

In my last post I objected to the “labour of reification” through which Marxists seek to produce “ideological sameness”. Here are a few more thoughts about why this is problematic.

I.

Marxist politics often tends to reduce to this: “Everyone must become a Marxist, and then we will make the revolution”.

This is of course, a gross simplification. But is it an oversimplification? Am I making an unfair caricature?

I.1

On a practical level, converting to people Marxism as a precondition for revolutionary struggle has advantages and disadvantages.

The advantages come from the efficiencies granted by ideological homogeneity and collective identity. These are well-known and I don’t need to document them here.

The disadvantages come from the resistance this conversion entails. What if I’m willing to join you in revolutionary struggle but not willing to adopt Marxism as my overall frame of analysis? That is, what if we disagree about cognitive frameworks but nevertheless can work together on practical matters? Struggling to convert me to Marxism detracts energy from the practical struggle, and could sabotage our collaboration entirely.

Don’t the disadvantages outweigh the advantages?

That might depend on other considerations.

II

At a more abstract level, this insistence on effecting revolution through ideological conversion rubs against the grain of historical materialism.

II.1

Historical materialism asserts that consciousness arises from practical life-activity. (Here I am treating The German Ideology as the ur-text of historical materialism.) Hence Marx’s famous statement: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness”.  So why, to make revolution, should we insist on a shared consciousness?

II.1.1

Of course there are answers to this. Elsewhere Marx and the Marxist tradition recognize that ideas can achieve a material force and that consciousness has effects on practical life-activity. Otherwise, there would be no point even in writing analyses of society.

But the materialism of historical materialism means that practice must have primacy over consciousness in some way.  Althusser proposed “determination in the last instance”. I prefer to understand consciousness itself as a form of material practice. However we do this, maintaining the primacy of practice over consciousness raises this question: why insist on shared consciousness? Isn’t that taking the long way around?  Why not just focus on practice?

III

In terms of the meanings of social interaction, the labour of reification functions as a kind of symbolic violence.

III.1

It does this by enforcing a hierarchy: only those who speak according to the reified rules (whatever they are) will be recognized as a legitimate speaker; all others are disqualified.

This is a social hierarchy as well as a discursive hierarchy. Actors get recognized as persons to the varying extents that they can play the language-game according to its rules. All animals are not equal.

III.1.1

Perhaps some form of reification is inevitable in human affairs. I don’t see why, particularly, but common sense insists that it is so let’s allow that assumption.

Nevertheless, minimizing reificiation is precisely one of the goals of an egalitarian movement, and figuring out how to talk and make decisions together without reification is precisely one of the tasks appropriate to a revolutionary intellectual (because this is a specifically intellectual problem, both in the sense of being a problem of intellectual practice and a problem that requires serious creative thinking to solve).

III.2

At a more global level, the labour of reification is imperialistic and even proto-genocidal.

III.2.1

Lyotard’s discussion, in The Postmodern Condition, of the problem of metanarratives gives us a convenient terminology for explaining this.

A narrative is a story we tell about something, whether events or practices or relationships or ideas or anything else. A metanarrative is a story we tell about narratives, i.e. a story about stories.

Metanarratives include the rules for how we make narratives and for adjudicating the relative worth of differing narratives.

Different cultures have different narratives; this is obvious. Less obvious, but crucial, is the empirical fact that different cultures also have different metanarratives. This means that not only different cultures have different beliefs about what is true; they have different standards for deciding what is true and even different definitions of what ‘truth’ is.

How could we possibly adjudicate the relative value of competing metanarratives without drawing from, and therefore privileging, one of those metanarratives?

III.2.2

Metanarrative difference is part of cultural difference; narratives and metanarratives play a crucial role in the production of collective social identity.

Therefore, to establish a single universal metanarrative would involve the erasure of a crucial form of cultural difference and would entail significant damage to all the collective social identities that weren’t already invested in that metanarrative to begin with.

Moreover, how would one accomplish this? I don’t think that human beings naturally tend towards the production of a single metanarrative simply by interacting peacefully with one another. If we reason in different ways to begin with, then the act of reasoning together produces further difference, not consensus.

In historical fact, certain metanarratives have become global and have moved towards being universal. But this process has happened through imperial conquest and colonial genocide.  And these forces of imperialism and genocide still operate in the world today.

Under these conditions, how does it even make sense to talk about the peaceful construction of a single universal metanarrative?

III.3

Marxism is only one metanarrative among others. We need to reformulate revolutionary socialist strategy to incorporate this understanding.

III. 3.1

We can find universal or at least culturally invariant commonalities in how human beings speak and reason. These allow us to translate statements from one language into another, to translate our narratives across cultural differences. However, we must remember that translation always involves transformation.

Reductionists want to insist that these commonalities add up to a”common human nature” that can serve as the foundation for a universally true metanarrative. This kind of thinking is wrong-headed. The elements of narrative production do not dictate how they are to be used; they can be combined in any number of ways to produce any number of metanarratives.

Again, how could we judge among them without presuming what we wish to demonstrate?

III.3.2

Of course one could accept the relativity of metanarratives and simply go about trying to destroy all other metanarraties in an exercise of world-historical will to power. The Nazis took exactly this position.  Some Marxists seem to advocate something along these lines.

But the means by which we construct something determine the form that that thing takes. How could a social order produced through imperialistic violence ever be egalitarian?

III.3.3

If in the pursuit of radical socialism, we turn away from the production of ideological sameness, what other strategies and tactics can we fruitfully employ?

This is the question that interests me.

One thought on “Marxism and Difference, Addendum

  1. Since I first posted it, I have made some revisions to this essay. In the interests of fairness, I should note these for the record.

    First revision:

    Marxist politics tends to reduce to this: “Everyone must become a Marxist, and then we will make the revolution”.

    was changed to

    Marxist politics often tends to reduce to this: “Everyone must become a Marxist, and then we will make the revolution”.

    Second revision:

    At a more global level, the labour of reification is imperialistic and even genocidal.

    was changed to

    At a more global level, the labour of reification is imperialistic and even proto-genocidal.

    Third revision:

    If we turn away from the goal of achieving socialism through ideological sameness, what other possibilities do we pursue?

    was changed to

    If in the pursuit of radical socialism, we turn away from the production of ideological sameness, what other strategies and tactics can we fruitfully employ?

    These are changes of nuance, probably significant only to me, but there they are all the same.

    Liked by 1 person

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