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.


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.

For a new aesthetic of revolutionary exhibitionism against the aestheticised politics of liberal bourgeois voeyurism

There is a need to think a new revolutionary aesthetics of exhibitionism against liberal exhibitionism — for me, the latter is basically the politics of commodity abstraction and society of spectacle a la Situationists such as Guy Debord. However, in order to do that the scopic drive will need to be rethought and re-envisaged, not in terms of contemplativeness, but contemplativeness pushed to its extreme that renders the contemplated object into a dialectical image. [Now, this is already a displacement of contemplation into practical-materiality — or, at any rate, the former being placed under the condition of the latter — in Marx’s sense of the terms as he explicates them in his Theses on Feurbach and The German Ideology.] That is crucial if desire is not to be conflated and confounded with its cathection (investment). Such cathection or investment being the interruption and concomitant distortion of desire precisely on account of its determinate instantiation. After all, as Lacan would tell us, the “petit object a” is not much more than a metonymy of desire.

And here Nietzsche’s acute poser about whether truth is not a woman can be deployed rather productively. “Woman” here in its Nietzschean articulation must, arguably, be grasped in terms of “becoming-woman”. That is, woman not as an anthropological difference (which is difference-as-identity) but as an ontological difference (difference as differing away from identity). Translating this antidialectical conception of “becoming-woman” into the conceptual framework of the asymmetrical or materialist dialectic we could say, following Lacan, that woman-as-truth or becoming-woman is to be understood as the Real that cannot be inscribed within the horizon of the symbolic even as it founds that horizon. Clearly then, ‘woman’, in “becoming-woman” or Nietzsche’s “woman-is-truth”, is now no longer thinking of even ontological difference but is, instead, a limit-conceptual figure of ontological subtraction.

This, I beleive, dovetails with what I have tried to get at above with regard to grasping the exhibitionism/voyeurism couple not simply as a dialectic, but as an asymmetrical dialectic, and thus as determinate presentation of exhibitionism-voyeurism singularity in excess of their symmetrically dialectical coupling as exhibitionism/voyeurism duality. In that context, the exhibitionist desire of revolutionary militancy is not merely exhibitionism but Dionysian exhibitionism (a la Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, for instance). And here, therefore, the exhibitionist revolutionary-militant is not a declarative-constantive object — or a directive tribune — vis-a-vis a milieu of passive contemplators/consumers he/she subjectivates thus. Rather, he/she is a semiosis of impulse or symptom of performativity, which is the object-exceeding force in the distinct temporality of its own singularising/singular subjective-materiality. Something that renders this sign/symptom a unit of the milieu of active and continuous producers in the Brechtian sense.

In fact, that is precisely the reason why I think Marquis de Sade’s ‘pornography’ poses and articulates a revolutionary-republican aesthetic. If we attend carefully to the apparently pornographic discourse of his literary production — particularly, his ‘Philosophy in the Bedroom’ — we see that not only does it have a didactic form but one whose mode is Dionysian (performative), which this form strives to transparently reveal. Clearly, De Sade’s discourse ceaselessly registers the thinking of the ethical imperative of desire and the moral law together, but in their separateness. It’s this form and mode of what I wish to call the Dionysian didacticism of desire — and not just any form of BDSM pornography — that renders De Sade’s ‘pornographic’ discourse the index of counter-contemplative revolutionary-republican aesthetics. And it’s arguably this formal and modal dimension of De Sade’s literary discourse that Foucault misses when he critically describes the former as “the sergeant of sex”, who, in Foucault’s estimation, elevates transgression itself into a law.

After all, it’s not for nothing that Lacan impressed on us the indispensability of thinking Sade with Kant. In short, the new revolutionary aesthetic of exhibitionism-voyeurism — as a historically concrete reconstitution of the revolutionary-republican aesthetic of De Sade — will be one wherein a form of contemplation is already always a demonstration of the displacement of contemplation. That is to say, such an aesthetic will truly fulfil itself only when exhibitionism is already always the demonstration of excess of exhibitionism in its limit.

Therefore, the problem of pleasure, from the standpoint of revolutionary politics, is ineluctable. However, the question then is whether pleasure is merely subjectively interiorised experience that is grasped by way of phenomenological reduction, or, is the question really of pleasure founding its own duration and historicity. For, if it’s the latter, then it is already a post-phenomenological displacement of pleasure beyond its phenomenological experientiality, albeit necessarily in and through that experientiality and phenomenology of pleasure. Hence, what we have is pleasure as an existential experience informing the constitutivity of an austerely neutral extension, which is the historicity of suspension of history — “historicity without history” in Alain Badiou’s terms. This, to my mind, amounts to pleasure founding its own duration and historicity.

And this, as far as I understand, is the path Freud also prefigures and indicates in his engagement with the question of pleasure. For him, the problem of pleasure is not, in the final analysis, one of interiorised experience, subjective intentionality and thus joyous productivity. Rather, the problem of pleasure (read in terms of jouissance) brings to him, particularly if we read him through a Lacanian lens, the question of lack and/or trauma as the Real. This, from what I understand, is the crux of his “beyond the pleasure principle”. And this reveals why Freud is no phenomenologist of pleasure, one who would be concerned merely with the question of alternation between the reality principle and the pleasure principle. Rather, Freud’s concern — in his concerted engagement with the problem of pleasure — indicates the need to develop an approach that thinks the problem of pleasure and its politics in terms of the suspension of the horizon of this alternation of the reality principle and the pleasure principle.

To think the question of pleasure in those terms – i.e. to think pleasure as an experiential-phenomenological moment of the post-phenomenological movement of its own overcoming (beyond the pleasure principle) — is to already have pleasure-as-joyous-productivity displace and thus transfigure itself into the neutral of subtraction. An engagement with the affective experience of pleasure, if it’s rigorous, is, arguably, bound to lead one towards its post-phenomenological beyond – which, in the same movement, would also obviously be a radical break with the horizon of the reality principle. That is demonstrated, besides Freud, by Roland Barthes: a thinker of pleasure for whom the twinned-questions of “zero degree” and “the neutral” are what ultimately matter.

As for me, I have been helped quite a bit in this respect by Badiou’s critique of what he calls “democratic materialism” – the differing alternation of bodies and languages (or joyousness and its interruption) – as also his attendant critique of Deleuze’s anti-Freudian productive conception of desire (“desiring-production”).

Charlie Hebdo Attack: Who will criticise the critics?

What would criticism of heaven be without criticism of the earth? And what does one do when criticism of heaven fails to be a criticism of the earth and becomes complicit precisely in conserving and/or reproducing the earth as it stands? Is that not the question that comes to us via Marx’s critique of Bruno Bauer’s secularist criticism of Jewish religioisity, or Feurbach’s (liberal and partial) atheism? Shouldn’t, therefore, the criticism of heaven begin with criticism of the earth — a criticism that is as much a critique of heaven as a critique of those whose criticism of heaven serves, unwittingly or otherwise, to conserve and reproduce the earth as it stands?

To paraphrase and slightly modify comics-artist Alan Moore in Watchmen:who will criticise the critics? In other words, shouldn’t criticism of murderous fanaticism in the name of Islam, if such criticism has to be really effective, locate it in its condition of possibility that is capitalist modernity, even as it unsparingly condemns the concrete operations of such murderous fanaticism. In the event of criticism of murderous religious fanaticism failing to achieve such comprehensiveness, which would admittedly be a tortuous and complicated articulation, it becomes no more than liberal breast-beating. In the current instance of the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo, such liberal breast-beating and the attendant politics of condemnation from an Archimedian point participates in, whether it admits to itself or not, the prevailing climate of Islamophobia. However, the class culpability and complicity of such politics of liberal-secularist breast-beating, which smacks of utter political irresponsibility, is equally in play when such politics seeks to confront the mobs of lumpenised unwashed masses rallying out in favour of majoritarianisms of different kinds.

Such liberal, secularist politics, which is supposedly pacifist and for peace, is against the violence of fanatical mobs — whether minoritarian or majoritarian — not because such fanaticism is religious but because through opposition to such fanaticism this politics seeks to ensure that the utterly unequal and iniquitous class structure, and its inherent structural violence, is left undisturbed and in peace. Clearly, what bothers the purveyors of such politics most is how such violence openly manifests the violence and inequality always inherent in and foundational to the structure that makes possible their privileged peace. It’s precisely on account of the adoption of such secularist politics of dubious peace by even those who project themselves as champions of revolutionary leftist politics of social transformation that the eruption of structural violence into the open inevitably comes to have a mystified-fanatical direction, whether in a minoritarian or a majoritarian idiom.

In having adopted such liberal secularist politics of dubious peace in their fight against majoritarianism(s), our so-called revolutionary leftists have been rendered incapable of nurturing the violence internal to the iniquitous structure of capitalist-modernity against that structure. And that is at the root of their failure to mobilise and articulate the open eruption of structural violence in a revolutionary-messianic, structure-unravelling direction.

It’s, therefore, only to be expected that most such liberals in revolutionary-leftist garb should ambivalently oscillate between unwitting (if not deliberate) Islamophobia, and condemnation of majoritarianism(s). That many of those liberals in revolutionary-leftist clothing should, in the context of the Charlie Hebdo affair, be found making statements that are serving to strengthen the prevailing Islamophobic consensus, is thus not surprising at all. In fact, even those who are not exactly doing that are being driven to make weak, ambivalent statements such as we condemn the attack but we also condemn the fetihsation of secularism and so on and so forth. What more can a politics impelled and guided solely by the registration of condemnation of iniquities of modernity be expected to deliver? To say that such ambivalence, and ambidexterity of ‘on-the-one-hand-and-on-the-other’, is no good for forging an effectively concrete politics of anti-capitalism is a no-brainer. An effective anti-capitalist politics would be one that in the face of iniquitous multiplicity that is modernity targets capital as the structural condition of possibility of those historical iniquities in the process of targeting those iniquities in their empirical concreteness. The politics of condemnation as criticism, driven as it is by the tendency to horizontalise all iniquities wrought by the global and globalising system of modernity as the manifest operation of the capitalist structure of differential inclusion, can do precious little than reproduce precisely that structure and its iniquitous systemic operation in and through history.

So, yes condemn the murderous attack on the French satirical periodical by all means. Because the condemnation of all such vengeful acts of violence — which are immersed in ressentiment, reactivity and slave morality — is the first step of divine violence. But what is perhaps more important if we truly wish to begin abolishing such vengeful violence is to focus on making sense of such acts of violence in terms of elaborating their structural causality, which ought to also include the elaboration of how the western phenomenon of satire of Islam — and its liberal, supposedly anti-fundamentalist mediatic ideology — is a key enabler of that differentially inclusive structure of capital that as its realisation in and through history is the systemic iniquity of modernity. Without such elaboration divine violence gets hypostatised as its first step of condemnation to undergo an absolute reversal to become an integral dimension of the law-constituting and/or law-preserving violence that is as vengeful, if not more, as the overtly murderous violence it is meant to be a criticism of.

And yes, this is roughly how I would want to approach not only the recent massacre of children in Peshawar by the TTP but also, and more importantly, the global outrage and condemnation that followed.