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diversity nests within one or the other of the two modes, and the the opposition between the two modes can never be superceded as long as society remains capitalist.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.

48 thoughts on “Marx’s Urgent Relativism

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

  2. “Marx and Engels’s materialist method”
    I found your comments very interesting, and seeming to be in the same ball park as my own views about Marx and his relativism.
    One disagreement that we might have, though, is your linking of ‘Marx and Engels’. I think that there is a lot of evidence that their ‘materialist methods’ were very different, and that only Marx’s was ‘relativist’.
    Whereas Engels’ method might be called ‘materialist’ (though I also find Engels to be confused and confusing), I think that Marx’s method was ‘idealist-materialist’. That is, ‘theory and practice’, or ‘conscious activity’, or ‘social production’.
    I think that the ‘linking’ of the ‘unity’ of a ‘Marx-Engels’ was the work of Engels alone, after Marx’s death, and taken up by others because Engels’ views on ‘science’ seemed to be far clearer (and acceptable) to the supposed ‘socialists’ of the late 19th century.
    I should also add that ‘democracy’ is also at the core of my thinking, and I think that a ‘democratic method’ is only possible with Marx’s approach of ‘idealism-materialism’.

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    • That’s a good point about Engels’s views differing from Marx’s. I mentioned him in the same breath as Marx because they co-authored “The German Ideology”, which is the principle basis for my understanding of Marx’s epistemology. But I do understand that they were different thinkers, and this difference became especially pronounced after Marx’s death.

      What do you mean by a democratic method? That’s a suggestive phrase …

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      • The whole notion of there being a joint ‘text’ named ‘The German Ideology’ has been challenged by Terrell Carver, supported by Gareth Stedman Jones. Can give further details, if you’re minded to explore the possibility that their ‘co-authoring’ was an invention of David Riazanov in 1924, according to GSJ!
        As to them being ‘different thinkers’, I think it’s probably clearer to say ‘opposed thinkers’, as far their thoughts are of any use today to Democratic Communists. ‘Materialism’ leads to elitism, which Marx pointed out in his These on Feuerbach, which is why Lenin was so keen on Engels’ ‘materialism’.
        Lastly, if ‘truth’, ‘reality’, ‘scientific knowledge’, etc. are social products, and we’d wish to organise for a democratic socialist society, then these ‘social products’ can only be the result of a ‘democratic method’ which creates those social products. This is all a long way from so-called ‘objective science’, and Engels’ and Lenin’s concerns with ‘matter’, a ‘stuff’ that ‘exists’ prior to its creation by human conscious activity, which was Marx’s central concern, I think. According to Marx, we create our object, so any ‘truth’ is always a ‘truth-for-us’. This applies to ‘Our Universe’, too. ‘The Universe’ is not simply ‘sitting out there’, awaiting its ‘discovery’ by a ‘politically neutral method’ employed by an elite of ‘disinterested physicists’. ‘Truth’ is always ‘a truth for someone’, for their needs, interests and purposes. I’d argue that ‘truth’ has to be democratically created, employing a democratic method.

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      • That’s interesting about Marx and Engels; thanks for the source.

        Your final paragraph, I agree with entirely. This is one of my main concerns with realism: that in realist thought, objective reality functions as The Big Other (to use Zizek’s great phrase), relieving humans of responsibility for their decisions while certifying whatever relations of authority happen to obtain.

        Having said that, I think interesting questions arise about what would qualify as a democratic method. Obviously simple electoral democracy is insufficient. Consensus decisionmaking also has its problems. I think the Habermasian model of the ideal speech situation depends on some flawed assumptions. But if we already had a recipe for a properly democratic decisionmaking process then we’d be implementing it already … so for me this is an area of deep and worthwhile problems to engage with.

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  3. “But if we already had a recipe for a properly democratic decisionmaking process then we’d be implementing it already …”

    The key concept here is ‘we’.
    As a Democratic Communist and Marxist, I’d define ‘we’ as the ‘social producers’ (that is, not as a ‘knowing elite’ of bourgeois ideology). I’d also say that the ‘recipe’ is the development of a revolutionary class consciousness amongst the ‘social producers’ of this current society, the ‘proletariat’.
    The building of socialism is the building of OUR world, a ‘reality-for-us’. If one is a democrat, this process can only be democratic, and involving the mass of present society.

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  4. [quote=Chris]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. ….

    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.[/quote]
    This is spot on.
    It was Engels, not Marx, who invented to concept of ‘false consciousness’.
    This is an elitist concept, suited to bourgeois thinking, because it suggests that there is a minority who don’t suffer from ‘false consciousness’, but who themselves alone have a ‘true consciousness’.
    For Marxists, if ‘truth’ is a social product, then ‘capitalism’ is ‘true’ – it’s ‘true-for those-who-produce-it’. That is, currently, for workers daily in their practice (which is informed by bosses’ theory, not their own, as I think that your post says, too). The proletariat currently produce and re-produce capitalism, by their current social ‘theory and practice’.
    That is, to disagree for a moment, Chris, ‘working class praxis’ IS ‘true’, not ‘false’. ‘Praxis’ means ‘theory and practice’ – it’s not a fancy word for ‘practice’, as the Leninists allege.
    Workers’ ‘praxis’ is currently ‘bourgeois theory and proletarian practice’.
    The role of socialists is to help develop the working class, so that they, and they alone, replace bourgeois ideology with revolutionary proletarian ideology: Democratic Communism. There is no short-cut to this, by a supposed ‘knowing elite’ of a ‘cadre party’ who ‘lead’ the passive workers to the Promised Land.
    This is Marx’s view: that only the workers can emancipate themselves.

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  5. Regarding ‘method’, I think that Marx sought a ‘unified scientific method’, which applies to all so-called sciences.
    That is, a social method that applies to everything from physics to sociology. The division of ‘science’ into two, ‘hard and soft’, ‘fact and opinion’, ‘physical and mental’, etc., was an ideological move by the bourgeoisie from c. 1660, after their triumph in the English Revolution, and the defeat of those sects that wanted a ‘science’ that served the interests of all, a ‘democratic science’.
    Today, even bourgeois physicists realise the difficulties of trying to maintain this division, between ‘reality’ and ‘consciousness’. Some have even argued that we humans create ‘time and space’, and I think that this move is entirely consistent with Marx’s approach, that humanity creates its object.
    What’s more, the tentative model of ‘base and superstructure’ has hardened into a 19th century ‘engineering’ metaphor, as if ‘base’ produces ‘superstructure’, where ‘base’ means ‘matter’, and ‘superstructure’ means ‘ideas’. This is nonsense, of course, and owes its emergence to Engels’ works. For Marx, if ‘base’ meant anything, it meant ‘social production of our being’ – that is, the ‘theory and practice’ of ‘our-reality’. So, ‘base’ also contains as much ‘mental’, ‘ideas’, ‘consciousness’ and ‘theories’ as does the ‘superstructure’. This fits with your quote from Marx’s ‘Preface’, too. ‘SOCIAL BEING determines social consciousness’ IS NOT simply ‘BEING determines consciousness’. For Marx, the ‘social’ is in both ‘being’ and ‘consciousness’ – so ‘being’ is ‘conscious being’ and ‘consciousness’ is the ‘being of consciousness’. The ideological separation of the two inescapable aspects of humanity is found in bourgeois science, too, unsurprisingly, since the exploiters have to separate out ‘matter’, which concept is the physics’ equivalent of sociology’s ‘private property’. The pretence that neither property nor matter have a history or a social producer must be maintained: to do otherwise, is to introduce the potential for revolution into physics, maths, logic, reason, etc. – which all claim to be ahistoric and asocial.
    That’s enough for now!

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    • These comments are a real pleasure to read; thanks for sharing! BTW do you have any sources to suggest re. your point about the ideological move by bourgeois science after the English Revolution to define matter as having no history or social producer? Are you basing that on a socialist reading of Shapin and Schaffer or of Latour, or something else?

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      • Just a short note, lack of time.
        The point I was making above was about the separation of ‘hard’ from ‘soft science’, which I think was a feature of a particular ruling class, the bourgeoisie, after c.1660.
        On the issue of ‘matter’, this seems to be a feature of other ruling classes, too. It seems to be a concept that the Ancient Greek thinkers came up with, for much the same reasons as why other ruling classes are happy with it. That is, the very concept starts from a ‘world’ that pre-exists its production, and so denies a ‘world’ that is socially produced by humans, in its very essence as a concept. Ruling classes, not having done the hard work of production, and being parasitic upon any ‘world’ that now exists for that ruling class, need to pretend, for their own sanity and morality, I think, that they are not taking a world produced by other humans, but are simply trying to ‘discover’ what ‘exists’ before humans. Thus, ‘matter’ is a conservative concept. Of course, ‘production’ is a revolutionary one, at least potentially.
        I’m currently having a look at Protagoras, and the (contrasting?) Greek concepts of hule (matter) and hupokeimenon (lit. ‘underlying’; I think this relates to Marx’s ‘substratum’, something which is an ingredient into activity, and from which is produced ‘objects for us’, like ‘matter’).

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  6. “…which is to say practical material relations…”

    Chris, I’d recommend that you change from the concept “practical material” to something like “theoretical-practical ideal-material”. A bit more long-winded, but, I think, closer to Marx’s starting point (and either of the two hyphenated notions will do, alone, as they mean the same thing). The concept “practical material” is much more one of Engels’ (mis)understandings of Marx’s ideas, and leads inexorably to elitist thought and Leninism.
    I said earlier that I think that ‘idealism-materialism’ is a much better way to get to grips with Marx’s often incomprehensible writings, and there is textual support in Marx’s work for this formulation.
    Although, if you do move in this direction that I’m suggesting, I think that you’ll have to change the name of your site, from ‘The Practical Theorist’ to ‘The Theoretical Practicist’. Much more Marxist!

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    • That’s an interesting recommendation, and if we were to stick to the terms of mind-matter dualism then I’d be inclined to agree with you. The framework I’m trying to use, though, is monist materialism, in which thoughts or forms of consciousness are types of material phenomena. Thus for me there is no formula, of the kind sought by Engels, in which material relations determine consciousness, because consciousness simply is a type of material relation.

      For me one of the advantages of this, aside from sidestepping the determinism I just mentioned, is that it mitigates against the tendency to treat ideational phenomena as a self-organizing “system” for which the body or the material world more generally is an “environment”. This tendency is quite strong in sociology, from Parsons to Luhmann and also arguably to Giddens etc., and inclines sociology towards a kind of idealism.

      For me, monism allows for the exploration of social relations that involve both ideational and nonideational phenomena, even human and nonhuman actors, in a manner similar to actor network theory or Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomatic notion of machines.

      It might not work for everyone but that’s the angle I’m pursuing at the moment …

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      • “That’s an interesting recommendation, and if we were to stick to the terms of mind-matter dualism then I’d be inclined to agree with you. The framework I’m trying to use, though, is monist materialism, in which thoughts or forms of consciousness are types of material phenomena.”

        If there’s a ‘dualism’ in Marx, it’s a ‘mind-activity’ dualism. That is, ‘theory and practice’. ‘Matter’ is a social product of this human activity. This is why Marx didn’t use the category of ‘matter’ (as you are doing, and as Engels did). So, ‘consciousness’ can’t be ‘material’ (if by that you mean ‘matter’ – that is, you’re using ‘material’ as a synonym for ‘matter’).
        This is why I’d recommend that you clarify for yourself whether you regard Marx as a ‘materialist’ (for Engels, this means ‘matter’), or regard Marx as an ‘idealist-materialist’, where the fundamental basis of ‘our reality’ is social production, not ‘matter’. Marx was a social productionist, which requires both ‘consciousness’ and ‘activity’, both of these being ‘social’. ‘Matter’ (ie. Engels’ ‘material’) plays no part in this revolutionary approach. ‘Matter’ is a conservative, counter-revolutionary category. Your ‘framework’ of ‘monist materialism’ will place you into this conservative starting point, evidently against your stated political wishes (which I think I share with you).

        “For me, monism allows for the exploration of social relations that involve both ideational and nonideational phenomena, even human and nonhuman actors…machines…”

        For Marx, ‘actors’ are conscious beings, capable of purposive, meaningful activity, which will give a different approach to those whose ideology is concerned with ‘nonhumans’ or ‘machines’. Humans socially produce a ‘world-for-themselves’. Machines cannot do this. If this is ‘monist materialism’ (embodied in ‘machines’), then it’s nothing to do with Marx’s emancipatory ideas for the self-development of the social producers.

        As an aside, machines do not have ‘consciousness’, which is why the search for ‘Artificial Intelligence’ seems to me to be doomed to failure, certainly within bourgeois society. We’d define ‘intelligence’ as ‘communism’ (the democratic control of all social production), and so any ‘Artificial Intelligence’ would have as its purpose the destruction of bourgeois society.

        Of course, one could define ‘intelligence’ as something that ‘isolated, biological individuals’ have, and so search inside their brains for it, and then ‘find’ that only a small ‘elite’ have this ‘intelligence’…. I’m sure we can all see where this one is going…. !

        Nah… I’ll stick with Marx’s idealism-materialism, social productionism, active consciousness… errr… even Robot Revolutionism!

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      • Well, I’d be disingenuous if I said I was convinced (this is too brief a conversation for that), but that’s a very interesting analysis and I’m going to take it quite seriously as I move forward. For one thing, my knowledge of Marx is far from comprehensive and I realize I’m projecting some of my own assumptions into my reading of him.

        Do you write about this anywhere else? On your own blog, or in some kind of published form? I’d be interested to read that work.

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  7. You’re completely correct, Chris, not to be ‘convinced by a brief conversation’! There’s clearly lots more to be said, discussed and criticised. And not just by us two, but by the entire working class, as it searches for a suitably democratic approach to science.

    On Marx and ‘materialism’, I think that the third of his Theses on Feuerbach gives the political warning to democrats, that ‘materialism’ inescapably leads to a division of society into those who supposedly ‘know matter’, and those who don’t.

    “The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.”
    https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/theses.htm

    I think that Marx’s claim to have a ‘new materialism’, in contrast to the ‘old materialism’, has led generations of thinkers, influenced by Engels’ misunderstanding, to simply drop the ‘new’ prefix, and just regard both as ‘materialisms’. Marx could have been clearer, but it seems to me that in this brief text (not even meant for publication), and also with his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx wrote enough to show that he took something from both Idealism and Materialism, and rejected something from both Idealism and Materialism. That is, if the term ‘materialism’ is to be retained, then the term ‘idealism’ must also be retained: hence, ‘idealism-materialism’ is a term much closer to Marx’s intended meaning. He actually says in his EPM that he unifies the two.

    It seems to me that Marx was taking from the Idealists their concept of ‘divine activity’, and from the Materialists their concept of ‘human passivity’, and then, ditching the ‘divine’ from one and the ‘passivity’ from the other, brought forth the concept of ‘human activity’. I’d go as far to say, that if one replaces the term ‘material’ in Marx’s work, with the term ‘social’, one has a much clearer notion of what Marx was actually talking about. It wasn’t ‘matter’ (Engels’ rendering of ‘material’), but ‘social production’, that is at the heart of Marx’s ideas. That is, if one replaces ‘material production’ with ‘social production’, it all becomes a lot clearer.

    On your final question, I’ve only argued my case online with a couple of ‘socialist’ parties, as part of my attempt, like you, ‘to figure out’ these political issues, but any questioning of ‘matter’ goes down like a lead balloon with those who’ve got their ‘Marxism’ through the distorting lens of Engels’ mangling of Marx’s work.
    The clinching factor for me is ‘democracy’, and these parties, just like other openly-Leninist parties, always revert to ‘dividing society into two parts, one of which is superior to society’. They always claim that their party knows better than the wider class, and that the class as a whole cannot develop as far as they have themselves. Otherwise, they’d agree to the democratic control of the production of knowledge, but they won’t take this step. They wish to retain political control of ‘knowledge production’ for an elite, which they just happen to be a part of. For them, ‘democratic control’ by workers would go no further than ‘control of factories’, so that workers would control ‘widget production’. But the notion that workers would democratically control their universities, and thus control ‘knowledge production’ and ‘science’, is a step too far. At heart, ‘materialists’ take a dim view of the potential of the mass of humanity to develop itself, as Marx argued for, and wish to keep ‘the unwashed masses’ and their mucky fingers well away from any real power.

    Anyway, I still think that, going by your posting, you’re asking the right questions, about Marx’s ‘relativism’, and having doubts about his supposed ‘realism’ (ie., read ‘materialism’).

    What’s ‘real’ is what’s ‘real-for-humans’. The subject-object link must be maintained. There is no access to an ‘object’ not of our own making. ‘Nature in itself’ is, for Marx, ‘nothing for [hu]man[ity]’, a ‘nullity’. This notion of ‘real-for’ is, of course, a relativist one, as you argue. Otherwise, why would Marx employ the concept ‘mode of production’? Different modes, different knowledge, different ‘realities’.

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  8. I’ve had a further thought about ‘material production’, which might clarify my ideas about Marx for you.
    If workers are to control ‘material production’, the question then arises as to just who will control ‘ideal production’.
    Clearly, for ‘materialists’, it’s not ‘workers’ who’ll control ‘knowledge production’ (otherwise, the ‘materialists’ wouldn’t even make a distinction between these supposed ‘two types of production’, and the ‘materialists’ would just refer to ‘production’, and knowledge would be a part of that).
    No, the ‘materialists’ have the ideological belief that they, the ‘materialists’, and they alone, have the ability to control ‘the production of ideas’. Of course, this ideological belief is tantamount to Lenin’s concept of ‘special consciousness’, that only ‘The Party’ has, and so ‘The Party’ provides ideas for workers, who themselves remain passive, and whose ‘theory and practice’ thus is still not ‘proletarian theory and proletarian practice’, but remains, as it is for the bourgeoisie, ‘elite theory and proletarian practice’. Thus, the proletariat is not a self-emancipating force (as Marx hoped for), but remains under the political, ideological and ‘scientific’ control of the self-selecting ‘materialists’. Democracy plays no part whatsoever in the ideology of ‘materialism’, as Marx pointed out about ‘a part superior to society’.
    As an aside, it’s not a surprise that academics since the 19th century are so enamoured of ‘materialism’. It’s an ideology that fits well with academics’ view of themselves, as an ‘ideal elite’, who ‘teach’ those who wish to become ‘educated’. Marx’s point about separation again, too. Who educates the educators?
    This all means that any hope of ‘democratic education’ goes out of the window, too.

    PS. I should have used the category ‘most academics’, but I just couldn’t resist teasing!

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  9. After having had a look at some books that I have, I think that it’s worth recommending:

    James Miller (1982) ‘History & Human Existence: From Marx to Merleau-Ponty’, University of California Press

    Especially, on the nature of the relationship between Marx and Engels:

    Chapter 5, ‘Engels and the Dialectics of Nature’ pp. 103-112

    This chapter is a reasonably compact, thoughtful, yet detailed, introduction to some of the alleged differences between Marx and Engels.

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  10. Just another reading recommendation, perhaps to help to orientate yourself for a more ‘substantive reply’.

    Z. A. Jordan (1967) ‘The Evolution of Dialectical Materialism’, Macmillan

    Especially chapters 1 & 2, ‘The Origins of Dialectical Materialism’, pp. 3-15, and ‘Marxian Naturalism’, pp. 16-64.

    It should be said, though, that although I’m recommending these books, I do have some political differences with the authors. That said, they are still a good introduction to the issues surrounding the alleged differences between Marx and Engels.

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    • Thanks again for all of these comments! And the references, which I’m keen to look up.

      I agree with you strongly about democracy and the authoritarianism of theory premised on one or another cognate of the notion of ‘special consciousness’ (is that a phrase Lenin actually used? I’m rusty. It’s a great term, very useful).

      I had interpreted the third thesis a little differently, perhaps. This might be a naive reading, but I took Marx to be rejecting ‘static’ materialisms such as biological or environmental determinism. These materialisms are static in the sense that they give no role to the products of human social activity, so in them there is no history as such, only a succession of system-states, each of which is synchronically determined by “matter” as you call it. So, e.g., the oppression of women is not a product of the historical development of patriarchal social relations but is a product of genetically determined drives or instincts, etc. In such accounts there is no history because what came before is irrelevant to understanding what is. Once we allow that human interaction generates social relations which themselves have consequences, then what came before is crucial to understanding what is now, and we have history – historical materialism.

      But, now this is where you no doubt will disagree with me, I took Marx to still have the view that mind, ideation, is embodied, hence is matter (or matter and energy to be precise). Hence the materialism in historical materialism.

      Or, if Marx is not consistently a monist, then he is inconsistently sometimes a dualist (material social relations determine consciousness) and sometimes a monist (consciousness is a type of material social relation).

      But, like I say, I’m not a Marx scholar, but a systems theorist who takes Marx as paradigmatic. I could easily be wrong about Marx’s intentions. The reason all of this matters to me (no pun intended) is that a monist materialism allows us to incorporate thought itself into historical processes, not just as a cause of events but as an effect of them. Without this, thought or consciousness is basically supernatural, a deus ex machina that intervenes in history but exists outside of it. In which case, we have no real theory of consciousness, only the pseudotheories of the kind developed by the Frankfurt School, in which the material appears as a polluting force corrupting pure, transcendent thought which the theorist has somehow miraculously reconnected with like Plato’s philosopher emerging from the cave.

      So my analysis addresses the same problem as yours, I think, but in maybe slightly different terms? Does that seem accurate to you?

      I’ve got a followup question but I have to get some breakfast first; my brain needs sugar to think clearly …

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    • So my question is, what do you have in mind when you write about the social determination of matter?

      Latour writes about this in his work on Pasteur, not from a Marxist perspective but in terms that I think are complementary to Marxism. If my memory serves, he describes at least three general ways in which the antibiotic effects of penicillin are socially produced:

      1) it is only through a historical social labour that humans produce concepts such as “bacteria”, “antibiotics”, “penicillin”, etc. From a phenomenological view, the objects don’t pre-exist human experience, but emerge into human experience through a work of objectification.

      2) once objectified, or rather as they become objectified, bacteria and antibiotics enter into human social relations in new ways, become social actors by virtue of the work they perform – in this case, as antagonists or allies in the struggle against “disease”, itself a complex historical formation

      3) and on a very concrete level, but one which scholars in science studies had tended to neglect, penicillin and bacteria are physically transformed: there is more penicillin, for instance, because we literally produce it

      So does this more or less summarize your idea of what’s missing from the idea of ‘matter’? Or is there more to it?

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  11. “But, now this is where you no doubt will disagree with me, I took Marx to still have the view that mind, ideation, is embodied, hence is matter (or matter and energy to be precise). Hence the materialism in historical materialism.”

    Marx didn’t use the phrase ‘historical materialism’ – that term was produced by Engels. Same for ‘materialist conception of history’.

    “Or, if Marx is not consistently a monist, then he is inconsistently…”

    Marx is ‘inconsistent’, which is why I think that the proletariat of the 21st century has to sort out the wheat from the chaff of Marx’s works. I regard my conversations with other democrats who also look to Marx (and I’m presuming, from your posts, that you share these two starting points), as part of this necessary process. Marx lived through the 19th century, and was clearly influenced (for the worse, I’d argue), by Engels and contemporary ‘science’, and so his works do show some inconsistency. Only workers today can sort out these issues, as they decide what to take from Marx and Engels, and what to reject. As a rough guess, I’d say that 80% of Marx is useful, but only 40% of Engels (that is, we need to ditch some of what Marx wrote, but much more of what Engels wrote).

    “The reason all of this matters to me (no pun intended) is that a monist materialism allows us to incorporate thought itself into historical processes…”

    Marx’s starting point is ‘conscious activity’ – not ‘matter’, nor ‘passive consciousness’. Marx assumes that ‘thought’ (to use your category) is ‘active’. This is nothing to do with the old argument about ‘which came first, matter or thought?’ That was Engels’ reading of ‘philosophy’, about the two schools of ‘materialism’ and ‘idealism’ being opposed on this issue. From what you’ve said, you take the side of ‘materialism’, that ‘matter’ precedes ‘thought’. Marx starts from the ideological premise that humanity is ‘active consciousness’ which produces. For Marx, the separation of ‘thought’ and ‘matter’ is nonsense. ‘Production’ is a conscious activity, planned by humans for their own needs, interests and purposes.

    As I’ve said previously, this is a central issue that you’ll have to resolve for yourself – is Marx a ‘materialist’, or is Marx an ‘idealist-materialist’? If the latter, then your problem about ‘thought’, ‘matter’ and ‘history’ dissolves.

    The key is ‘social production’, not ‘matter’, not ‘thought’.

    You say that you identify as a ‘systems theorist’ – does this mean that you don’t see ‘system theory’ as an ideology?

    FWIW, I always openly state my ideological beliefs – I’m a Democratic Communist, heavily influenced by Marx.

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    • Briefly, in response to your question about system theory, I wouldn’t say that it is an ideology. There are different ideologies associated with system theory: some system theorists are conservative, others liberal, and some, like Wallerstein, are socialists. My own ideology, as I hope this blog conveys, is a kind of social anarchism.

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  12. “So my question is, what do you have in mind when you write about the social determination of matter?”

    I start from the premise that ‘subject and object’ are in an inescapable relationship. And like Marx, I assume that ‘subject’ produces ‘object’.

    Thus, ‘matter’ is a product of ‘subject’.

    So, I agree with your point 1 – ‘objects’ don’t pre-exist human productive activity (rather than your concept of ‘experience’, which is too passive)

    I don’t agree with point 2 – only humans are ‘social actors’ (to argue otherwise, is just to let ‘objectivity’ outside of human activity in by the back door).

    On point 3, the ‘physical’ is a social product, so any ‘transformation’ of the ‘physical’ is done by us – I might as well go the whole hog, and say that the ‘concrete’ is a social product, too. As I said above, any move away from ‘social production’ of ‘Our Universe’ and ‘everything in it’ is simply an ideological move to sidestep ‘social production’ and get back to ‘objectivity’, a ‘Universe’ simply ‘out there’. This is an ideological move that suits those who wish to deny ‘democracy’ within ‘social production’, and return to ‘elite science’, where (allegedly) ‘disinterested scientists’ have a (supposed) ‘politically-neutral method’, which allows them, and them alone, to determine ‘Reality’, ‘Truth’, ‘Fact’, etc.

    ‘Matter’ plays a central ideological role in this elite ideology. That’s why Engels’ claims about ‘material = matter’ have to be challenged, by any proletarian who is interested in democratising ‘social production’, to help produce a ‘world-for-us’, an ‘object’ of our own making, which we consciously build to our design, for our needs, interests, and purposes.

    The ‘Universe’ is not just sitting ‘Out There’, awaiting our ‘discovery’. We are the creators of ‘our world’. Since we are our own creators, we can change our creation.

    PS. On the issue of social products like ‘penicillin’, have a look at:

    Ludwik Fleck (1981; original 1935) ‘Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact’, University of Chicago Press, where he discusses our creation of ‘syphilis’.

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    • Thanks for these points; they are helpful for clarifying my own thought.

      I have more questions, though. Basically, I’m a bit uncertain as to how to differentiate your position from outright idealism.

      I agree with you that “‘subject and object’ [to the extent that we draw this distinction] are in an inescapable relationship”. But it’s not only the case that subject produces object; object also produces subject. So the statement “we are the creators of ‘our world'” is true but also one-sided; our world creates us as well, and the challenge is to understand both. (A radically relational theory would find a way to supercede this duality, of course.)

      Are we agreed so far? If so, this brings me to a specific question. The common way of speaking about, say, Pasteur, would be to say that the microbes and the penicillin were already “out there”, doing what they do, and Pasteur found a way to incorporate them into social relations, thereby producing them as participants in human life activity (or, at least, as participants-in-a-new-way)..

      So Latour criticizes this way of speaking in the terms that I described. But his critique seems incomplete; there is something left over. Pasteur may have produced antibiotics, but he didn’t produce them ex nihilo. He did not assemble their molecules, write their DNA, and so on. Without resorting to something like the Kantian notion of the noumenon, or to outright idealism, how do we describe this process?

      Or to put it in even more simply: it took a certain social development of science and technology etc. to make “oil” into an object, into a bearer of value and so on, but common sense tells us that independently of that development or, indeed, of the very existence of human beings, that oil was already there in the ground … so if this common sense is incorrect, what would be the correct way of putting it?

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      • “I agree with you that “‘subject and object’ [to the extent that we draw this distinction] are in an inescapable relationship”. But it’s not only the case that subject produces object; object also produces subject. ”

        As I’ve said before, this is an issue of ‘definition’.

        Marx defines (and I agree with him) that ‘subject creates object’.

        If one disagrees with Marx, that’s fair enough, but then one has to reveal which political ideology argues that ‘subject produces object; object also produces subject’.

        For Marx, with his definition, his ideology revolves around ‘social production’ (where the ‘subject’ is a social, not an individual, category). Thus, since all ‘production’ is ‘social’, all ‘production’ can be democratically controlled.

        But for the ‘object also produces subject’ ideology, the ‘production’ by the ‘object’ (perhaps, ‘matter’) is not within the political control of humanity. Therefore, this ideology must have at its heart a ‘non-democratic’ element.

        Marx also warned that, in effect, the ‘objective productionists’ are liars, and that they themselves will take the ‘active’ role in this pretended ‘objective production’. This elite will determine what is ‘object’ and what is ‘subject’, and which ‘production’ is by which. From a political perspective that I think we share, of ‘democracy’, this ‘objective production’ ideology is disastrous, because it places ‘the power to produce’ into the hands of an elite, and (un?)consciously takes it away from all humanity.

        It’s not probably worth going any further with the rest of your post, yet, Chris, until we clarify our respective political positions on ‘subjective production’ versus ‘objective production’.

        Two questions, though – why do you want to argue for ‘objective production’? What’s your political purpose in doing so?

        Liked by 1 person

      • “I have more questions, though. Basically, I’m a bit uncertain as to how to differentiate your position from outright idealism.”

        I should answer this straight away, because it’s a normal position by ‘materialists’ to argue that Marx is an ‘outright idealist’.

        Marx argues that ‘idealism’ (‘outright’ or otherwise) is ‘divine production’. Engels didn’t understand that, and resurrected the old ‘idealism versus materialism’ dichotomy. Marx also argued that ‘materialism’ in effect makes ‘matter’ into its ‘divinity’ (that’s why ‘materialists’ have ‘Faith In Matter’, to the detriment of humans).

        So, ‘idealism’ argues for the elite of a ‘spiritual divinity’, whereas ‘materialism’ argues for the elite of a ‘material divinity’. Neither of these is ‘entire humanity’.

        Marx’s position of ‘idealism-materialism’ (ie. ‘human divinity’, to carry on the theme) is very different to both ‘idealism’ and ‘materialism’. ‘Social production’ is just another term for ‘idealism-materialism’, ‘theory and practice’, ‘active consciousness’.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. That’s a good question. My purpose is twofold, I guess. But first, parenthetically, I don’t think that Marx states categorically that subject produces object and not vice versa. I could be wrong about this, of course. And I’m not sure it would be productive for us to debate over how to read Marx. I just want to flag that my understanding of Marx’s writing – the Theses on Feuerbach, the German Ideology, the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, the Manifesto itself, and of course Capital – seems to be different from yours.

    But as for my political motivations: idealism, understood as the one-sided claim that mind creates reality, is an important aspect of capitalist ideology. Crudely, it is involve in the claim that anyone with sufficient will and talent can rise from rags to riches, that capitalist societies really are meritocracies, and so on. One sees it in the endlessly rehashed claim that with the “power of positive thinking”, by “believing in yourself”, one can achieve anything. Materiality doesn’t matter, class doesn’t really exist, your life is what you make it … I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. And of course this is false. So materialism is crucial to understanding why the poor are poor and the rich are rich: materialist concepts like the alienation of labour-power, surplus value, exploitation, and so on. The worker does not simply produce themselves as a worker, nor the capitalist as a capitalist: both are produced as such by material social relations, by the class relations “definite relations, which are independent of their will” as Marx writes. And of course “independent of their will” is another way of saying “objective”. The seeming paradox is that as long as we believe that we simply create our world, we will remain trapped in capitalist class relations; only by thinking that we are trapped by material social relations that we did not create, can we achieve the means to challenge those relations.

    That’s one side of things. The other side is my specific dispute with Western Marxism. This is where I think you and I might have a fundamental disagreement. As I see it, the predominant tendency in Western Marxism, as chronicled by Martin Jay, and building on the ideas of the Frankfurt School, Gramsci, and Lukacs, has been to put consciousness in the foreground: basically, to say that the thing which is holding back the revolution is the fact that the workers have not achieved class consciousness, and the reason that they have not done so is that they are inundated with capitalist ideology, and the remedy is critical thought. I think this was a reasonable line to pursue in the middle of the twentieth century but I think it has turned out to be a mistake. My hunch, my gut feeling, is that the reason that we have not achieved socialism has to do with the difficulties of building a socialist practice from the ground up.

    My key thesis is that people adopt the forms of consciousness which they are able to put into practice, and sooner or later abandon the forms of consciousness which they cannot effectively practice. So the reason that we don’t have socialism is that we can’t put socialism into practice. And socialism is simply the democratic organization of production. If this is difficult, it has to do with the practicalities of democracy. It’s actually very difficult to organize production democratically on a large scale. The reasons for this have to do with the physicality, the materiality, of collective decisionmaking. We are not pure minds but physical beings embodied in time and space, and so our attempts to deliberate and decide things collectively give rise to emergent dynamics which can subvert even the most well-intentioned and ideologically pure projects. To understand those emergent dynamics we need to decenter concepts like “consciousness” and “meaning” in our study of social relations. Paradoxically, it’s only by doing so that we can give human beings conscous control over their real conditions of life, and our relations with each other.

    Sorry for the long post, and I realize that might sound a bit grandiose. But that’s my answer, off the cuff.

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    • But also I’m going to add this: a few times now you’ve responded to disagreements between us with questions about my politics or my ideology. Those questions are fine, but it’s starting to feel a little bit as if you’re trying to locate the source of our differences in different ultimate aims, as if you are aiming for democratic socialism and I am not and that’s why we disagree on some fundamental things. Maybe I’m wrong about that; it’s just an impression. But if that impression is accurate, I’d caution against that impulse. People who agree on ends can have quite different, even incompatible, ideas about how to reach those ends. And reducing differences of perception or analysis to differing ideological ends can quickly make a discussion sterile.

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      • Well, my ‘ultimate aim’ in my ‘ideology’ and ‘politics’ is ‘democracy’, that is, as for you, ‘democratic socialism’.

        But surely it’s legitimate for me to question you where argue for ‘means’ that don’t have an ‘end’ of ‘democratic socialism’? That is, where your statements about your politics or ideology lead to ‘non-democratic’ outcomes.

        To be blunt, I’m arguing that ‘materialism’ leads to elite politics. In this, I think that I’m following Marx. I don’t think that this leads to ‘sterility’, but to critical thought. And that’s one thing that I think that ‘democracy’ does require. If you can show how ‘materialism’ is ‘democratic’, then your ‘different ideas’ will displace mine.

        To reiterate, I think both of us share the same end. But I’m not convinced that your chosen ‘means’ will lead to that ‘end’.

        Liked by 1 person

    • “I just want to flag that my understanding of Marx’s writing – the Theses on Feuerbach, the German Ideology, the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, the Manifesto itself, and of course Capital – seems to be different from yours.”

      Yes, your understanding is different to mine – that’s why I’m keen for you to read other thinkers on this issue. It’s not just my personal opinion, but a difference that goes back to Marx and Engels, and writers since 1896, like Labriola. Put simply, Marx wasn’t a ‘materialist’, if by that we mean Engels’ ‘materialism’.

      “That’s one side of things. The other side is my specific dispute with Western Marxism. This is where I think you and I might have a fundamental disagreement. As I see it, the predominant tendency in Western Marxism, as chronicled by Martin Jay, and building on the ideas of the Frankfurt School, Gramsci, and Lukacs, has been to put consciousness in the foreground…”

      Well, I disagree with the ‘Western Marxists’, too. Marx puts ‘social theory and practice’ in the ‘foreground’, not ‘consciousness’, nor ‘matter’.

      “My hunch, my gut feeling, is that the reason that we have not achieved socialism has to do with the difficulties of building a socialist practice from the ground up. ”

      Yes, I agree. But ‘a socialist practice’ would have to be built upon ‘a socialist theory’, surely? That’s Marx’s method, ‘theory and practice’ – not, as ‘materialists’ argue, ‘practice and theory’. I’ve yet to here of a ‘Party’ that does as its told by the workers that join it. These ‘Socialist Parties’ always seem to think that they already have the ‘theory’, before the workers have created it! You can see the problem – only ‘theory’ that is controlled democratically by workers, who can thus change it when it suits them, not when it suits ‘The Party’, would be acceptable for any building of a ‘democratic socialism’. That’s why Lenin clung to ‘materialism’ – it argues that an elite ‘knows matter’, and keeps any power out of the hands of the democratic workers.

      “My key thesis is that people adopt the forms of consciousness which they are able to put into practice, and sooner or later abandon the forms of consciousness which they cannot effectively practice.”

      Well, since ‘materialism’ prevents any ‘effective practice’ by workers, it’s not surprising that they constantly abandon this ‘form of consciousness’. I suppose ‘my key thesis’ is that the form of ‘socialism’ that workers have been exposed to throughout the 20th century is nothing to do with ‘democratic socialism’. Every time a ‘materialist party’ is formed, and recruits workers, it ends up driving the workers away. Or shooting the more critical ones.

      “And socialism is simply the democratic organization of production. If this is difficult, it has to do with the practicalities of democracy. It’s actually very difficult to organize production democratically on a large scale. The reasons for this have to do with the physicality, the materiality, of collective decisionmaking.”

      Hmmm… so the ‘theory’ of democracy is fine (as an ‘ideal’), but the ‘practicalities’ get in the way? And it’s a ‘physical, material’ cause? What is any worker, who’s starting to look for ‘democratic socialism’, to make of your view? It sounds like you’re arguing for the ‘organisation of production’ to be done by an elite. That is, that ‘democratic socialism’ is for the ‘small scale’ (read: ‘powerless stuff’), whilst the ‘large scale’ (which will inevitably feature in any ‘world socialism’) will be ‘undemocratic non-socialism’.

      “Paradoxically, it’s only by doing so that we can give human beings conscious control over their real conditions of life, and our relations with each other.”

      Well, I define ‘conscious control’ as ‘democratic’, so I don’t see this as being ‘paradoxical’ to my aims of ‘democratic socialism’. Perhaps, by ‘conscious control’, you simply mean ‘individual control’? Isn’t that a bourgeois ideology, which we have now?

      Liked by 1 person

      • So to sum up so far: I think we disagree about some aspects of what Marx was saying, and maybe on the meanings of the terms “materialism” and “idealism” more generally. But we seem to agree on the bad democratic record of Marxist parties so far, and on the fallacy of thinking one can reach democracy from a top-down mode of theorizing-practicing.

        As I see it, science as a distinct form of epistemic practice tends mainly (there are always exceptions) towards a certain elitism, for two ‘structural’ reasons. First, the esoteric character of advanced scientific knowledge. Second, the objectifying mode (which I think is part of your objection to ‘materialism), in which the object of knowledge is treated both as pre-existing social production and as an inert, passive target of technoscientific manipulation.

        This elitist tendency shows up in the technocratic projects of modernist social theory and accounts, I think, for the kinds of problems that critical theorists blame on an ideological attachment to rationality.

        So the problem, for me, then, is: how to help develop a mode of inquiry that helps equip workers to organize democratically, without operating as some kind of blueprint handed down from on high?

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  14. “So to sum up so far: I think we disagree about some aspects of what Marx was saying, and maybe on the meanings of the terms “materialism” and “idealism” more generally. But we seem to agree on the bad democratic record of Marxist parties so far, and on the fallacy of thinking one can reach democracy from a top-down mode of theorizing-practicing.”

    Yes, but politically our ‘agreement’ far outweighs our ‘disagreement’, and that ‘disagreement’ can be discussed with reference to some of the thinkers that I’ve already pointed to, and I can supply many more, if you’re inclined to delve deeper into this ‘disagreement’.

    “As I see it, science as a distinct form of epistemic practice tends mainly (there are always exceptions) towards a certain elitism, for two ‘structural’ reasons. First, the esoteric character of advanced scientific knowledge.”

    Yes, but ‘science’ as we know it is a product of the bourgeoisie, so we’d expect it to ‘tend to elitism’, for good political reasons. Since bourgeois society is non-democratic in its production, we’d also expect its ‘science’ production to be elitist, too.

    As for ‘esoteric knowledge’, do you regard this as inescapable, or, like I do (as a democrat) as a social product of an elite, which prefers its social activities to be shrouded in ‘esoterism for the masses’ (if that’s actually a word!)

    One way of looking at this is through historical analogy. Whilst uneducated peasants couldn’t read the bible, not least because it was written in Latin, the bible had to be ‘interpreted’ for them by an elite of priests, who told the peasants ‘what the bible says’.

    Isn’t this simply what is being done now, with physicists, reality, and maths? Replace those three terms with priests, bible, and Latin, and you’ll see my political point. Of course, when the bible was published in the vernacular, so that many more people could actually read ‘what the bible said’, and found that the priests had simply been making up much of their ‘interpretation’ to serve their own elite interests, this publication was a revolutionary act.

    So, I’m arguing that ‘esoteric knowledge’ is not a property of an ahistoric ‘scientific knowledge’, but a political property of a ‘bourgeois scientific knowledge’, and one that can be changed, if a social subject with a democratic method was minded to produce ‘proletarian scientific knowledge’. I’m sure that you can know see the relationship between the ideology of ‘matter’ and ‘non-democratic science’. If this ‘matter’ can only be described through ‘mathematics’, then we’re beaten from the very start, in our desire for ‘democratic production of knowledge’. Of course, the ‘mathematisation’ of science has been heavily criticised, not least by Einstein.

    “So the problem, for me, then, is: how to help develop a mode of inquiry that helps equip workers to organize democratically, without operating as some kind of blueprint handed down from on high?”

    Perhaps to provide a ‘blueprint’ that can only be acceptable to those workers who already want ‘democratic production’? That is, a ‘blueprint’ that meets their democratic needs, interests and purposes. A ‘blueprint’ that has at its heart a ‘democratic science’ which produces ‘democratic knowledge’. If so, I don’t think that ‘materialism’ can be this ‘blueprint’. ‘Materialism’, as history has shown, and as Marx warned, is a ‘blueprint’ for an elite.

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    • I should clarify that when I say, “the problem, for me, is this …”, what I mean is that this is the thing I want to work on. “Problem” in the sense of, “challenge to overcome”, not “reason to give up”.

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      • Yeah, that’s what I understood that you were saying.

        My point is: “is ‘materialism’ ‘the thing you want to work on’?”, “is ‘materialism’ the ‘challenge to overcome’?”.

        As a democrat, I implore you not use ‘materialism’ as a ‘reason to give up’!

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  15. Perhaps I should also ‘sum up so far’.

    I think that politically we’re both ‘democratic socialists’, and for the time being we can leave alone any further discussion about just what ‘democratic socialism’ means.

    There are two key points, as far as I can tell, so far:

    1. Is ‘materialism’ democratic, and, if not, why would any ‘democratic socialist’ adhere to an ideology of ‘materialism’?

    2. Was Marx a ‘materialist’? Given our first point, if Marx was a ‘materialist’ (as the Leninists claim), then a ‘non-democratic socialism’ is our aim. That is, ‘materialism’ and ‘Leninism’ are completely compatible.

    I should make clear my stance on these two points:

    1. ‘Materialism’ is an undemocratic ideology.

    2. Marx wasn’t a ‘materialist’ (and Engels is the source of this belief, which is why Lenin quotes Engels, but not Marx, his book ‘Materialism and Empirio-criticism – thus, Lenin has to argue for the ‘unity’ of ‘Marx-Engels’, a single source, from either of which components ‘Marxism’ can be based).

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a very clear way of laying it out 🙂

      It’ll be no surprise that I see things a bit differently. Here’s how I see it.

      1) Despite the attempts of figures like Lenin etc. to claim that materialism is a specific ideology with specific normative implications, I don’t think it is. I think materialism can inform many different ideologies, both authoritarian and democratic.

      2) I think Marx defined himself as a materialist. He argues against certain crude, ahistorical materialisms, but I think he proposes his own materialism centered on human productive activity.

      But at the end of the day, it’s not so important; we don’t need to agree on these points. What matters is how to put democratic socialism into practice. On that point we have the same goal, so our having different theoretical perspectives can be productive, giving us different but hopefully complementary observations and insights.

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      • Thanks for your points, Chris. In answer to them, I’d say:
        to 1) If you think that ‘materialism’ (of some sort) can be ‘democratic’, you’ll need to explain ‘how’. As I’ve said, Marx pointed out that ‘materialism’ leads to a ‘separation in society’, with ‘one part superior to the other’. This leads me to think that ‘materialism’ (of any sort) leads to elitism, and I’d ask you to point to just one historical example of a ‘materialist’ Party (and I’ve already said that, historically, this means ‘Leninist’) which is democratic (by which I mean “workers’ control of the party”, not “central committee” control of the party).
        to 2) I can understand why you claim that ‘Marx was a ‘materialist’ ‘ (it’s the dominant ideology within ‘Marxism’), and I’ve supplied some references for you to explore, and so we can continue to discuss this point. In effect, you’ll find it argued that (what most take for) ‘Marxism’ is actually ‘Engelsism’ – and so, I’ll also say that your statement that ‘Marx defined himself as a materialist’ is open to questioning about ‘what do you define as ‘materialism’ compared with what Marx defined as ‘materialism’ ‘.

        “But at the end of the day, it’s not so important; we don’t need to agree on these points. What matters is how to put democratic socialism into practice.”

        But… ‘practice’ requires ‘theory’. Marx’s method is ‘theory and practice’. Engels and ‘materialists’ claim that the method is ‘practice and theory’, so from ‘practice’ emerges ‘theory’. I suspect that this is the method that your espousing in your statement.

        Clearly, for Marxists, democrats, employing ‘theory and practice’, the ‘theory’ is immensely important, and must be critically examined prior to any ‘practice’. I’d argue to fellow workers that the attempt to move straight to practice, is a political attempt to conceal the ‘theory’ being secretly espoused by those saying that prior critical discussion and democratic agreement upon our theory is ‘not so important’. That is, ‘practice and theory’, the ‘materialist’ method, is an elite method, which keeps power out of the hands of the masses. That is, supposed ‘atheoretical practice’ is non-democratic, and I’d recommend that any ‘democratic socialist’ workers politically challenge this ‘practice’ of deferring democratic ‘agreement’.

        “On that point we have the same goal, so our having different theoretical perspectives can be productive, giving us different but hopefully complementary observations and insights.”

        Once again, my ‘goal’ is ‘democratic socialism’, and I think that we workers have to be very careful which ‘theoretical perspectives’ we entertain. Are all ‘observations and insights’ ‘complementary’ to the ‘goal’ of ‘democratic socialism’? And the very idea of ignoring any ‘theoretical perspective’ and moving to straight to ‘practice’ is itself a (dangerous) ‘theoretical perspective’ (in my political opinion).

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      • “I’d ask you to point to just one historical example of a ‘materialist’ Party (and I’ve already said that, historically, this means ‘Leninist’) which is democratic (by which I mean “workers’ control of the party”, not “central committee” control of the party).”

        I think this might be an unreasonably high standard. Can you point to a single example of *any* political party that’s done this, whether materialist, idealist, or materialist-idealist?

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  16. Chris, on the issue 2 above, (“was Marx a ‘materialist’?”), after you’ve had a look at my earlier reading recommendations, Miller and Jordan, I think you might be interested to read:

    George Kline (1988) ‘The Myth of Marx’ Materialism’, in:
    ‘Philosophical Sovietology: The Pursuit of a Science’, Eds. Dahm, Blakeley and Kline, Reidel
    (Sovietica, Volume 50), pp. 158-182.

    Kline gives about 8 (it depends upon how one counts them, see p. 160) meanings of ‘materialism’ in Marx’s works.

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    • Thanks for the references, and this new one. I think I’ll have to read your recommendations before we can get much further on this. If you’re right, then it’s a whole new view of Marx very different from how I’m used to thinking of him. It’ll take some time, though; I have other reading projects on the go. So we might have to let this lapse for a while.

      Just quickly, though: do you remember offhand where Marx says that materialism creates a division in society? Is that a specific passage that I can look up?

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      • No problem!
        I think that you’re right, that it’s best we suspend the conversation until you’ve had a chance to do some further research.
        Again, you’re right, that ‘a whole new view of Marx’ is involved – revolutionary thought, eh?
        On Marx, ‘materialism’, and ‘division in society’, it’s his Theses on Feuerbach, III, which I think that I quoted and linked to, above.
        Any other queries about further information, please email me.
        Good luck with defining ‘democratic’ axioms!

        Liked by 1 person

  17. ““I’d ask you to point to just one historical example of a ‘materialist’ Party (and I’ve already said that, historically, this means ‘Leninist’) which is democratic (by which I mean “workers’ control of the party”, not “central committee” control of the party).”

    I think this might be an unreasonably high standard. Can you point to a single example of *any* political party that’s done this, whether materialist, idealist, or materialist-idealist?”

    I can’t!

    That’s why it’s revolutionary, comrade!

    Liked by 1 person

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