Marx’s Urgent Relativism

Karl Marx and most Marxists have tended to take philosophically realist positions, often aggressively so. Marx’s work, however, implies a kind of relativism. This relativism actually raises the stakes of socialist intellectual production.

Marx and Engels’s materialist method of history asserts that all human consciousness arises out of practical life experience.

It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness (Marx, Preface to A Critique of Political Economy)

Logically this must extend to the following:

  • all possible ideas about truth;
  • the very idea of truth itself, i.e. the notion that there is such a thing as truth or that some statements are true and others false and so on;
  • all possible means for deciding what is true, including Marxism itself.

Every form of knowledge from religion to philosophy to science is a product of social relations, which is to say practical material relations among humans and between humans and nonhumans.

The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking, in practice. (Marx, Theses on Feuerbach)

What’s more, in Marx’s theory, the totality of all social relations (society) is neither particulate and individualized nor organically functionally integrated. Rather, society is organized by the great dialectical opposition between capital and labour.

This produces two general modes for validating truth-claims.

  • Bourgeois ideologies validate truth-claims relative to capitalist praxis, which works to maximize the rate of exploitation.
  • Proletarian ideologies validate truth-claims relative to working-class praxis, which works to minimize the rate of exploitation, and ultimately to abolish exploitation altogether.

Each ideological mode can support a tremendous diversity of actual theories and even meta-theories, but all such diversity nests within one or the other of the two modes, and the the opposition between the two modes can never be superceded as long as society remains capitalist.

Now here’s the thing: this analysis implies that bourgeois ideologies are not actually false. Or, more specifically, they are false only in relation to working-class praxis, just as proletarian ideologies are false in relation to capitalist praxis.

For instance, liberals claim that wage labour is a contract freely entered into by two equal parties, while Marxists claim that wage labour is a grossly unequal social relation in which workers are coerced into making themselves the temporary property of capital.  Either claim is true, or false, depending on whether one embraces or spurns the project of abolishing exploitation and building a classless society.

So the danger, the urgency, for an intellectual committed to radical socialism: it’s not that the workers will be deceived into the false ideas of bourgeois ideologies, because those ideas are not false. They become true, or at least potentially true, the moment one rejects the project of revolutionary social change.

In other words, the danger is that bourgeois ideas will become true by virtue of the complete social dominance of capitalism. The urgency is not to convince people of a truth which exists independently of revolutionary struggle and which validates that struggle, but to establish a mode of truth which both contributes to and depends upon the success of that struggle.

I think that Walter Benjamin understood this  when he wrote

The only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious. (Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History)

Perhaps Marx himself understood this. Perhaps he understood that his refutations of bourgeois political economy and bourgeois political theory were not just constative but performative. Perhaps he knew that, but dared not admit it.

2 thoughts on “Marx’s Urgent Relativism

  1. Pingback: Inside the Mind of the Cathedral: How the Left Thinks – The Dissenting Sociologist

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