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.

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The Porn Controversy: Save Desire from the Moral Police and the Sexual Liberaliser Alike


The recent ban on pornography, and the liberaliser’s discourse of outrage it has triggered, proves yet again the problem of sexual/libidinal economy is too serious a business to be left either to the ham-handed ways of the fascistic moral-police or the knee-jerk exertions of the terrorists and (academic) merchants of desire. Truth be told, they are the obverse of one another and are mutually constitutive of the neurotic subjecthood of capital in its late, crisis-ridden, neoliberal moment..

Marquis de Sade’s affirmative conception of an anti-procreative sexuality with its basis in revolutionary republicanism (see his ‘Philosophy in the Bedroom’), together with Wilhelm Reich and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s concerted engagement with the question of sexual economy as an economy of desire — and its productivising regimentation, and psycho-somatic and psycho-social segmentation in capitalism –, point us in directions that are much more fruitful in terms of strategising a politico-sexual revolution that will unleash an emancipated, anti-hetero-normative sex-economy of free association of direct producers.

The government decision to ban pornographic sites on the internet is, therefore, not an occasion for spectacles of outrage and liberal exhibitionism. It is, instead, to be seen as an opportunity to work towards instituting the thinking and discourse of a radical sexual/libidinal economy. For, it’s precisely the absence of such discourse and thinking vis-a-vis the concrete historical circumstances of the conjunctural crisis of capital as manifest in its sexual moment that has led to the consolidation of repressive sexual morality. It is this sexual morality that is the molecular basis of the current ban.

All concerned would do well to realise that the BJP-led Union government’s decision to ban internet pornography is a step forward for the project of politico-sexual counter-revolution. Such a move is counter-revolutionary precisely because it seeks to validate itself by drawing upon, instrumentalising and mystifying objective sex-revolutionary possibilities posited by psycho-social segmentation and psycho-somatic stratification (which includes “genitalisation of desire”) of desire and sexuality in their moment of precarity and crisis. It follows, therefore, that a politico-sexual counter-revolution kicks in and accomplishes itself precisely when objective revolutionary possibilities exist without being subjectively actualised as such.

In such circumstances, to envisage opposition to this ban in reactive terms — without lending even half a thought to how such opposition can be orientated to transform the structure of social relations of production, which in its historically concrete mediation makes possible and indexes psycho-social segmentation and psycho-somatic regimentation of desire — will just not do. Such liberal reactive politics of opposition to the consolidation of repressive sexual morality effectively amounts to no more than demanding the preservation of a given regime or order of socio-sexual privileges that the politico-sexual counter-revolution tends to alter only by preserving and reinforcing its basic structure of psycho-social and psycho-somatic segmentation of desire through its formal recomposition.

Clearly, such reactive politics of opposition to the ban is as implicated and invested in the structure of psycho-social and psycho-somatic segmentation of desire as the counter-revolutionary move to ban pornography. Therefore, the reactive politics of sexual liberalisation — as opposed to the transformative revolutionary politics of sexual liberation — reinforces the discursive-moral paradigm, which provides sustenance and support to the fascistic politico-sexual counter-revolution. Something the proponents of sexual liberalisation apparently oppose with much sound and fury. The reactive, all concerned would do well to realise, is also reactionary. And no less reactionary — probably more — than naked reaction itself because it deceives by the apparent vigour of its oppositional claim with regard to what is openly reactionary, all the while reinforcing the latter’s condition of possibility.