Why a Marx-Inspired Materialist Historiography cannot Afford to be Historicist and yet it often is


A historically determinist (or hitoricist) historiography takes root when the line shifts from construing the discursive inscription of the immanent forces of history-as-movement as their limit, to making sense of such inscription as teleology. It’s this historical determinism as Marxism — which is arguably the result of reading Marx as if he was Hegel than retroactively read Hegel as Marx (i.e. read Hegel against his grain) — that has been the stageist bane of Marxist political interventions in the so-called non-European societies such as ours. The result: Marxist political discourse in the tropics has become a discourse tailor-made for the legitimation of the ideology of liberalism that can ‘survive’ and ‘succeed’ only by instituting its own materiality, which in this late capitalist conjuncture can, paradoxically, be nothing save neoliberalism.

All politico-ideological pleas of formal equality — all leftist struggles to win various violated or un-enforced juridical rights amounts precisely to that — can today succeed only by reinforcing the exchange-principle, and its basis in value-relations as the qualitative equalisation of qualitative differences through their quantitative differentiation. This would mean the reinforcement of value-relations through reinforcement of exchange-relations in their increasing precarity. And since this increasing precarity of value-relations would, in being reinforced, still be animated by the realisation or expression of value as qualitative equalisation in and through quantitative differentiation, such reinforcement of value-relations in its increasing precarity can only amount to increasing oppressiveness. The neurotic simultaneity of oppression and resistance — which is manifest in our current society and polity as the hegemony of competitive identity politics and lobby politics (both in their secular and so-called pre/non-secular forms) — is evidence of that.

In such circumstances, if one reads the Marx of Capital, in terms of his Afterword to the Second German Edition of Volume I, one will clearly see how Marx reverse-shifts the line, as it were, from teleology to limit, in his reading of history. That, arguably, is what his materialist operation on the Hegelian dialectic — the extraction of the rational kernel (of the dialectic) from its mystical shell (of a prioiri orientation) in his famous, and by now much-abused, words — amounts to. This is precisely the moment of Marx’s complete liberation from historicism. It’s this that gives us the Late Marx, who speaks affirmatively, for instance, of the ‘pre-capitalist’ Russian mir as the germ of a possible Russian road of historical development that could bypass capitalism, which for historical determinists was/is a necessary and un-bypassable milestone.

What does this non-teleological historiographical approach of Late Marx — which comes out of his explication of the logic of historical development in its bare and abstract form in Capital — amount to? It means the incompleteness of capital at particular spatio-temporal locations, once capital has come into being anywhere or everywhere else, is already an integral part of capital. Thus, struggles even at those locations that have the discursive appearance of pre-capitalism must be against capital. Which is to say, those struggles have to seek to abolish all teleology, including their own that will be imposed on them as their respective limits by their respective determinate locations. In terms of a philosophy of history, it means one approach each and every moment of history as being internally divided or schizzed between two temporalities — that of contingency and necessity (or, difference-as-differing-away and difference-as-identity). More precisely, it means every moment of history is an internal division between the time of form in and as its contingent instantiation (event) and the time of form as the concrete mediation of its structuring or being-placed. Walter Benjamin adumbrates precisely this as the historical materialist approach to historiography in his ‘Theses on Philosophy of History’, particularly theses V, VI and VII.

One should, however, have no qualms in admitting that even Late Marx’s historical vision is haunted by a tension between historicism and non-teleological history. Considering that Marx envisaged his critique of historicism (the Hegelian dialectic) — as any seriously radical and profoundly engaged critic ought to – from within such historicism, his battle against historicism is always conducted under the ineluctable shadow of the latter.

Marx’s constant endeavour in Capital is to show how capital — which is nothing but historicism in concrete action — is, in its, objectivity, a moving contradiction and thus constitutively neurotic. That is because Capital shows how commodity, which is the basic unit of capital (capital in its cell-form), is an objective demonstration of itself as the mobilisation of its own immanent critique or negativity — what with commodity being qualitative difference that is use-value in its sheer bodily form embodying or phenomenalising its own negation, which is value as the substance of qualitative equalisation. We can, in other words, say that capital for Marx is qualitative differences or use-values and their respectively singular concrete labours in their limit. But precisely in not being recognised in their limit, use-values are rendered neurotic commodities, wherein use-values in their qualitatively different (or singular) bodily forms embody, in and as the equivalent pole of an exchange-relation or value-form, the substance of qualitative equalisation (value) that is their negation as singularities.

As a result, the conception of limit – which belongs to a rigorously materialist historiography – would, in Marx, often find itself encoded in the historicist language, and, at times, even conception, of destiny and inevitability. The most infamous example on that count is the little that Marx wrote on the Latin America of his times. Be that as it may, we ought to read such ‘Eurocentric’ articulations of Marx, pace Jose Arico, as the exception to the rule of materialist historiography that is definitively posed, if not also instituted, by the approach that Marx’s Capital articulates.

In such circumstances, it would not — and should not — at all be an anathema for a Marx-inspired materialist historiography to deal with questions of culture, consciousness and mentalite as a history of phenomenology of difference. But where it would differ from both the established historigraphes of culture, consciousness and mentalite on one hand; and the equally canonised historically determinist historigraphy of the so-called Marxist historians from South Asia on the other, is in its demonstration of how such differences (as subjective experiences) are both themselves and already always their own limit, and thus subsumption into regimes of necessity. It’s in this sense that a radical Marxist historiographer could – in fact, necessarily should — draw as much from the historiographies of culture, consciousness and mentalite as from the various strains of determinist ‘Marxist’ historiography. For, only in drawing from both these kinds of historiography – by thinking difference and its subsumption together, but in their separateness — will he/she be able to complete the incomplete materialism that orients both those historiographical approaches. This rigorously comprehensive materialist historiography — which is exemplified by the historiographical practices of such rarely found historians as C.L.R. James (in Black Jacobins), Timothy Mason and Arno J. Mayer — is a synthesis of both the aforementioned historiographical approaches. And in being such a synthesis the materialist historiography in question breaks with the historiographical horizon constitutive of this duality.

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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 instantiation.as 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:

“LEAP

“LEAP

“LEAP

“LEAP

“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.