Between Left-Hegelian Anthropology and Marx’s Materialist Dialectic: Some Random Observations on C.L.R. James

The transfer of philosophical categories to political practice in an immediate kind of way is one of C.L.R. James’s key theoretical proposals in Notes on Dialectics. He clearly states as much in the third paragraph of page 17 of the book: “Let us transfer this [the categories] to the labor movement. (These transfers are rough but Hegel intended them to be made. That is precisely what logic is, an algebra, but an algebra in constant movement.) ‘Categories’ of the labor movement are, I repeat, union, reformist party, reformist international, revolutionary party, revolutionary international, etc.” This proposal and insistence to transfer philosophical categories to political practice in an immediate kind of way is, I would argue, typical of the Left-Hegelian modality of “contemplative materialism” that Marx criticised in Feurbach’s critique of Hegel. This immediate way of transferring philosophical categories into political practice renders the dialectic a methodological foundation — which is no more than the obverse of dialectic as a (metaphysical) system in Hegel. This, I must say once again, is not the break that the materialist dialectic amounts to. The materialist dialectic, if I allow myself another repetition, is dialectic as the determinate presentation of its asymmetry, which is to say, the dialectic as the determinate presentation of the excess of itself as an abstracted structure. In other words, thinking the dialectic in materialist terms is to think it as an image of the actuality of its own asymmetry. It is to think dialectic as an image of “dialectics at a standstill” (Benjamin). In that context, the modality of the dialectic as a methodological foundation means, among other things, that one does not grasp knowledge as the limit-form of practice (knowledge as praxis in its limit on account of its determinate condition) but rather grasps knowledge as the realisation of practice or praxis. In fact, in this instance, practice and praxis stand conflated. It must also be mentioned here that the algebraic modeling of movement – something that James, as an avowed follower of Hegel, proposes here – is yet another instance that shows how knowledge is, for him, supposed to be grasped as the realisation of practice and not as the latter’s limit-form.

It is for this reason that one critically terms this, following Marx of The German Ideology and Theses on Feurbach, “contemplative materialism”. The only difference between this modality of contemplative-materialist thinking and practice, and that of Hegelian dialectical idealism is that while in the latter practice is realisation of knowledge (the infinity of the geist grasped in and as its finite concrete realization), in the former knowledge is grasped and envisaged in terms of realisation of practice. In either case, knowledge is not seen as the interruption of praxis on account of its determinateness. What merely happens is that from the a priori idea or geist of the latter the locus of ontological expressivity shifts to the historically concrete human agency of practice and the thinking of practice by its historically particular human agency in the former. The result of this shift of the ontological locus of expressivity from a priori idea to a historically concrete practice in terms of how it’s thought by its historically concrete human agency is no more than the radicalisation of the successive continuity of movement that is capital. And what this radicalisation of the successively continuous movement basically amounts to in terms of politics is no more than continuous democratisation of value-relation being mistaken for the real movement in its uninterruptedness, which should actually amount to the suspension of the logic of value-relation itself, and not its continuous democratisation. That James tends to oscillate from one to the other — the real real movement and the mistaken real movement — is often evident in his directly programmatic political writings. We come across this oscillation of James in, for example, ‘Every Cook Can Govern’, particularly when tries to demonstrate how the form of direct democracy as practised in the Athens of classical antiquity is the almost fully-developed political form of revolutionary democracy that socialism is supposed to replicate.

Therefore, in this mode of thinking there is no attempt to grasp a determinate historical practice in terms of its own immanent thought by detaching it from the sense it acquires in the thought of the historically concrete human agency or agentic-subject that, from the perspective of such “practical-materialist” (Marx’s words) modality of thinking practice, would merely be the historical index and anthropological register of its determinate praxis (practice as its own immanent thought in action). Clearly, this particular modality of thinking practice — wherein a historically concrete practice is thought necessarily only in terms of the sense it is given by its historically concrete agentic-subject — has its basis in an expresivist-ontological conception. And it’s due to this particular modality of upholding the centrality of practice that such thinking is arguably termed “contemplative materialism”. That is precisely the reason why both Hegelianism and such Left-Hegelianism, which has as one of its foundational proposals the immediate transfer of philosophical categories to political practice, inhabit the the same Hegelian idealist paradigm as the obverse of one another. And that is precisely why the difference in the respective political practices they generate is the difference between liberal-conservatism and radical republicanism and/or social democracy. A difference, if I I am allowed to be telegraphic here, objectively amounts to little in this late capitalist or neoliberal conjuncture.

Of course, I’m not saying that this expressivist thinking of the dialectic as a trans-epochal method is all that there is to Notes on Dialectics. The work is choc-a-block with many many brilliant insights into what the ‘structure’ of dialectical thinking as a rigorous articulation of materialism amounts to. Here is one from Part II of the book: “In reading on ‘Quality’ in the ‘Doctrine of Being’, Lenin writes in very large writing:





“This obviously hit him hard. He wanted it stuck down in his head, to remember it, always. He makes a note on it as follows:

“At the basis of the concept of gradualness of emergence lies the idea that the emerging is already sensuously or really in existence, only on account of its smallness not yet perceptible and likewise with the concept of the gradualness of disappearance.”

Now this acute observation of James’s unambiguously indicates that humanity as fully realised sensuousness can be generic only in its construction, and not in the Left-Hegelian (mainly Feurbachian) humanist sense of being an a priori expressivist ontology and/or the dialectic as a transhistorical methodological ground. This observation of James shows that if one is faithful to Marx, especially the Marx of Capital and Grundrisse, one can never think of the dialectic as a method, much less as a system. Fredric Jameson too says as much in the opening essays of his book, ‘Valences of the Dialectic’. Instead, one has to think of the dialectic, as Marx clearly does in his ‘Afterword to the Second German Edition’ of Capital, Volume I, as the presentation of precisely the determinate excess of itself as an abstracted structure. Hence, the dialectic, when one is in strict fidelity to the Marx of Capital, is not symmetrical, something that both Hegel through the neurosis of his dialectical thinking, and his apparent Left-Hegelians and/or Marxist-Humanist overturners would insist. It is, rather, asymmetrical and thus materialist.

It’s because of such keen insights into the materialist nature of the dialectic in Marx (and Lenin) that I like this book by James, even as I wonder; why then does he continue, more often than not, to swing towards a kind of Marxist-Humanism. After all, it’s not for nothing that James chooses to concentrate on Hegel’s Logic, and not Phenomenology.

Yet, there is no denying his oscillation between that and a Left-Hegelian-type expressivist dialectical anthropology. Therefore, for all its brilliant and lucid insights into the structure and nature of the materialist dialectic, this work by James does not, for me, constitute a decisive break with the Left-Hegelian, expressivist articulation of dialectics,. The former, as far as I am concerned, is in James’s thinking tainted by the latter. It is, therefore, no accident that James described himself as a Marxist-Humanist.

From Theoretical Antihumanism and Practical Humanism to Practical Antihumanism and Theoretical Humanism: Badiou After Althusser

That Badiou continues with Althusser’s terms of “practical humanism” and “theoretical antihumanism” — terms whose explication we can read in ‘Marxism and Humanism’, the last essay of Althusser’s For Marx — is there for all to see. But if we attend a little closely to how Badiou adopts those terms by having them pass through Lacan’s affirmation of the “in-human” as the basis of his “ethics of psychoanalysis (ethics being nothing but the question of practice and practical reason) we will see the radical shift that is effected in the conceptual valences of those terms in Badiou’s deployment of them. As a result, Badiou’s redeployment of the Althusserian term of practical humanism conceptually renders it a practice that articulates the non-human in its human embodiment and thereby is an affirmation of a radically new concept of generic humanity as a subtractive construction with regard to what Nietzsche critically designated “Human, All too Human”.

In Althusser, practical humanism is seen as the effect of theoretical antihumanism that is its thwarted immanence. In Badiou’s redeployment, practical humanism is meant to be the reflexive subjectivisation of its own immanent antihumanist thinking in order to be the actuality of that immanent thought in its (unthwarted, uninterrupted) action. A move that, therefore, makes it practical antihumanism precisely when it’s practical humanism. And what this would amount to in terms of theoretical fidelity to itself is a to-be-actualised generic humanity that is radically new in being a constructionist adventure.

Hence, theoretical humanism is, in this sense, conceptual fidelity to the truth of practical antihumanism that the Althusserian practical humanism has become in Badiou’s inimitable redeployment of it. Badiou’s universal-singularity as nonrelational relationality — or the human under the condition of the non-human — is what this practical antihumanism (the immanent thought of antihumanism in action in its human embodiment) as the condition of the (radically new) theoretical humanism amounts to This is clearly a philosophical manoeuvre — a thought-procedure if you will — of epistemology-ontology short-circuit that underlies Badiou’s engagement and explication of politics as prescriptive thought. A thought that, in Lacan’s words, is the thought that finds and not one that seeks itself in its own cogitative capture. This, if you will, is precisely what is at stake in Badiou’s thinking of “subjectivity without subject” from within Althusser’s “process without subject” but against and beyond it.

That Badiou is a thinker of practical antihumanism and theoretical humanism in the sense I’ve tried to argue above is most clearly evident in his Ethics and the last chapter of The Century — “The joint disappearances of Man and God’ — where he engages with Sartre’s “radical humanism” and Foucault’s “radical antihumanism” by attempting to read them in their dialectical encounter with one another. I will make two brief citations from that chapter here in the hope that they will somewhat demonstrate Badiou to be a thinker of practical antihumanism and theoretical humanism in the sense that I have tried to bring out above:

“As is the wont of the dialectical thinking of contradictions, there is a unity of the two conflicting orientations. That is because both of them treat this question: What becomes of man without God? And they are both programmatic. Sartre wishes to ground a new anthropology in the immediacy of praxis. Foucault declares that the disappearance of the figure of man is ‘the unfolding of a space in which it is once more possible to think’. Radical humanism and radical anti-humanism agree on the theme of Godless man as opening, possibility, programme of thought. That is why the two orientations will intersect in a number of situations, in particular in all the revolutionary episodes.

“In a certain sense the politics of the century or revolutionary politics more generally, creates situations that are subjectively undecidable between radical humanism and radical anti-humanism. As Merleau-Ponty saw perfectly – but only to draw from the undecidable indecisive conclusions —the general heading could very well take a conjunctive allure: ‘humanism and terror’. While the twenty-first century opens with a disjunctive morality: ‘humanism or terror. [Humanist] war against terrorism.

“This conjunctive dimension, this ‘and’, which can already be registered in the thinking of Robespierre or Saint-Just (Terror and Virtue) – a conjunction that authorizes us, forty years later, to write, without a hint of paradox, ‘Sartre and Foucault’ – does not hinder, but rather demands, in order that we may be worthy of what happens to formalize the conflict of radical orientations….”

And then again the following from the end of the same chapter:

“Through the great voices of Sartre and Foucault, the century asked: The coming man, the man who must come, in the guise of an existence or of a thought, is he a superhuman or an inhuman figure? Is the figure of man to be dialecticized, surmounted? Where else will we install ourselves? In an ‘elsewhere’ that Deleuze declared to be ‘interstellar’.

“At the century’s end, animal humanism wants to abolish the discussion itself. Its main argument, whose obstinacy we have already encountered several times, is that the political will of the overhuman (or of the new type of man, or of radical emancipation) has engendered nothing but inhumanity.

“But that’s because it was necessary to start from the inhuman: from the truths to which it may happen that we partake. And only from there can we envisage the overhuman.

“About these inhuman truths, Foucault was right to say (as was Althusser with his ‘theoretical antihumanism’ or Lacan and his radical dehumanization of the True) that they oblige us to ‘formalize without anthropologizing’.

Let call our philosophical task, on the shores of the new century, and against the animal humanism that besieges us, that of a formalized in-humanism.”

Zeleny and Althusser: A New Humanism through the Antihumanist Route

“In France and Italy Althusser’s interpretation of Marx has recently attracted attention. As opposed to a mass of superficial literature –unscientifically grounded and lacking textual analysis — which is trying to surmount a dogmatic Marxism by reinterpreting Marx in the spirit of a Feurbachian, existentialist anthropology, Althusser emphasizes the text and the intellectual development of the young Marx. When he insists that we have before us in the Theses on Feurbach and The German Ideology a new stage of Marx’s theoretical and philosophical development which transforms his preceding views, in particular the standpoint of the Paris manuscripts of 1844, we find that our results agree. But they are distinguished from Althusser on such questions as the content of those stages. Althusser characterizes the transition from the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts to The German Ideology as a break or clevage (‘rupture; coupure epistemologique’) which corresponds to a transition from humanism to anti-humanism; in that sense Marx utterly rejects his old problems and concepts, and appropriates radically new ones and a radically new method.
“Our analysis is the foundation for the view that the theoretical, philosophical standpoint of the Theses on Feurbach and The German Ideology represents a new form of humanism. In the Paris manuscripts and in The German Ideology Marx deals above all with ‘real’ men. In both cases he takes on the task of explaining social and historical reality solely from the life process of ‘real’ men. If from the standpoint of The German Ideology, from that conception of ‘real’ men and history as introduced in the Paris manuscripts, Marx appears ‘ideological’, then we are dealing in The German Ideology — following our preceding analysis — with the radicalization of humanism, the creation of a new form of humanism.
“Althusser’s error in connection with humanism can be illustrated in his citation of one of Marx’s comments on his method in Capital:

“[Wagner] who has not once noticed that my analytic method, which does not start out from man, but from the economically-given social period, has nothing in common with the academic German method of connecting concepts…’

“The concept ‘economically-given social period’ was not understood by Marx as objective, divorced from the activity of human individuals. This Marxian observation does not prove his anti-humanism, but rather refutes the ideological concept ‘men in general’ (‘Man’) and advances a theory based on ‘real’ men in the sense of practical materialism. He wants to say only what he had already said about the starting point for economic theory in the Introduction of 1857: ‘Individuals producing in society — hence the starting point is naturally the socially determined production [carried on] by individuals.’ ”
–Jindrich Zeleny, ‘The Logic of Marx’

I entirely agree — from the vantage-point of Badiou’s “practical antihumanism” and “theoretical humanism” — with Zeleny’s insistence that Marx in breaking with Feurbach’s expressivist ontology of the human pointed in the direction of developing a radically new conception of generic humanity. But what I wish to doggedly insist is that this theorisation cannot be grasped with adequate rigour unless one necessarily passes through Althusser’s antihumanist reading of Marx. The determinate dialectic of concrete and abstract labours (or productive forces and social relations of production) must be grasped by disentangling it from its historically concrete, phenomenalised agentic-subjecthood, albeit of course by passing through the latter. Such a move is basically what Althusser’s theoretical antihumanism amounts to. Only through such a theoretical move can real historical men be grasped as historical indices and anthropological-passional registers (not particular agentic-subjecthoods) of determinate antagonism between politics and history, and thus the asymmetrical dialectic of concrete and abstract labours. And only then can real historical men and women truly become the constituents of the radically new generic humanity that Marx sought to theorise. A humanity that would be a constructionist adventure rather than an historical unfolding. So, to affirm real historical men without effecting this shift in the conceptual valency of the term real historical men will keep returning to us through the rear window what we are throwing out of the front door: the expressivist dialectical anthropology of the Left-Hegelians.

I’m not, therefore, claiming that this is Zeleny’s problem too. From the way he affirms the conception of real men — i.e. through a close reading of The German Ideology and Capital — that seems far from being the case. And yet his criticism and rejection of Althusser’s “theoretical antihumanism” misses the importance of Althusser’s conceptual privileging of the determinate dialectic of concrete and abstract labours, which is registered by real historical men, over this register itself. Even the 1857 Introduction of Marx that ends the Zeleny quote above points precisely in the direction of conceptually privileging that which is registered (productive forces, social relations of production) over that which registers it (real historical men).

In this context, it must be said that what such a surreptitious return of the abstract Feurbachian man, with the conception of real historical men acting as its Trojan Horse, amounts to in political terms is an ethical socialism of commonisation, if not an out-and-out rights-based politics. Ranciere, for instance, walks exactly into such a trap when he breaks with Althusser’s antihumanist Marxism in that thoroughly Oedipalised and cantankerous work of his: ‘Althusser’s Lesson’.

Hence, it is absolutely imperative that one grasps the two distinct conceptual valences that the term real historical men has. For, neither can withdrawal and difference, exhausted solely by a politics of resistance, be equated with subtraction as an articulation of revolutionary (or law-unravelling) violence. Nor, for that matter, is our politics, which accords theoretical and political centrality to the self-activity of workers and self-organisation of the working class, the same as anarchism. To insist on this distinction (both in conceptual and political terms) then, is to guard against being perceived by certain ‘autonomist’ tendencies’ — with whom we vigorously interact and engage as we should — as being part of their thoroughly anarchist formation. What could be far worse, however, is that we ourselves lose sight of that political and theoretical difference between their ethical commitment to an anarchist socialism and our revolutionary commitment to communism.

The distinction of conceptual valences for the same terminology of real historical men must be tightly held on to for another equally important reason. Many of our radical friends, who don’t tire of swearing their loyalty to sundry Marxist-Leninist groups, and thereby also to Marxist theory, seek radical legitimacy for the reformist and rights-based politics of their respective organisations, if not also for their own individual lifestyle politics, through a theoretical manoeuvre that conflates the two distinct conceptual valences for the term real historical men.