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How would Marx answer his critics?

Marxism’s ideal can come with a high price tag: gulags, show trials, mass starvation, economic misery…


Sean Sheehan


What happened in the USSR under Stalin cannot simply be bracketed off as unfortunate happenstance and the prospects for Marxism in the lived world of today seem more remote than ever.

In our age of populist nationalism – since the Arab Spring there have been no mass emancipatory movements – a return to Marx can only take place in the theatre of philosophy.

This is the common ground   for the three authors of “Reading Marx”. They agree that a return to Marx must imagine how he would answer critics who would bury him in the coffin of irrelevance. Their warning is that capitalism’s collapse is not inevitable. It is, so to speak, the unconscious of “Capital” that needs to be read.

Slavoj Žiźek

Žiźek’s essay is easily the most interesting although his topic is a little-known field of contemporary philosophy: object-oriented ontology (OOO), as presented by Graham Harman in “Immaterialism” (2016).

OOO’s theory is based around the centrality of the assemblage that, unlike Marx’s totality, posits relational arrangements of different entities. The human subject is just one of the elements of an assemblage, one force in a network of mostly non-human forces.

For Žiźek, there is subversive potential in adopting an inhuman gaze, viewing an assemblage from the outside. The result is a deep self-estrangement that un-anchors our human moorings.

“We see something, we impute subjectivity to it, but  we  cannot ever be sure that subjectivity is really   there – what if it is a machine just performing  subjectivity? And here we should go one step   further: subjectivity is in a sense its own performance, something that appears to itself while its ‘’material  base’ ’is just a neuronal-biological apparatus”.

There is, he argues, a raw level of reality that lies behind subjectivity and bearing it is too intense for us to ever safely experience. The ‘in-itself’ of Kantian philosophy, the core reality that transcends the world of experience, is what an inhuman gaze would reveal.

It would be like seeing a video of the passengers’ last moments on the planes heading for the twin towers in September 2011.

It would be like discovering footage of what took place in Auschwitz.

OOO says a subject is just one object among many but reality can only be viewed from a subjective standpoint. Selfhood is how a human organism appears to itself but is not a substance, not one object among many others.

What is ‘really real’ is what has to be excluded from our symbolically constituted reality. To see something ‘in-itself’ would be to see it outside human coordinates.

Photo: Wikipedia

Just how Žiźek’s essay translates into imagining Marx answering his critics is not clear but it remains a fascinating read.

The other two essays are relatively conventional pieces of political philosophy. Frank Ruda reads Marx in terms of Plato’s allegory of the cave and Agon Hamza looks at how philosophy can help in an understanding and a criticism of capitalism.

“Reading Marx” by Slavoj Žiźek, Frank Ruda and Agon Hamza is published by Polity.







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One Comment

  1. “[A] return to Marx must imagine how he would answer critics who would bury him in the coffin of irrelevance. Their warning is that capitalism’s collapse is not inevitable.” We imagine that Marx would answer his modern critics in precisely the way he answered them in “Anti-Duhring”. He would utilize the logical method of reasoning known as dialectical materialism to analyze the class nature of their arguments and would expose them as the cheap philosopher-bandits that they are. For us, the easiest way to do that would be to ask these critics of Marx what revolutionary socialist political party they support/are a member of. That simple exercise would place the vast majority of critics of Marx in the pro-capitalist box in which they belong.
    Marx definitely underestimated the capacity of fake-socialists (like those of the second and third internationals, and today’s philosopher-bandits holding tenured professorships at the world’s leading capitalist universities) to sabotage and betray the struggle for the emancipation of the working class from capitalist wage-slavery. How could he have forseen the base treachery of a Noske or Scheidemann – or the anti-heroic effort of the Second International to rescue the capitalist system from the grave it had dug for itself in WWI? Capitalism has died many deaths since Marx died; it has been the great misfortune of the workers of the world that the leaders of ostensibly revolutionary socialist parties have turned out to be the staunchest and most effective defenders of the capitalist system. The betrayals of the Second International did not occur during Marx’s lifetime; if they had, like any good scientist he would have incorporated those hard-earned historical and political lessons into his revolutionary philosophy as Lenin did later – and he would have moved forward on a revolutionary road. Revolutionary Marxism has been betrayed over and over again by people pretending to be revolutionary Marxist leaders of the working class: this does not in any way impugn the accuracy of Marx’s revolutionary ideology any more than the collapse of five bridges in Italy in the past few years could be said to discredit the laws of physics. The bridges collapsed because their designers and maintainers violated or disrespected physical laws, not because the laws of physics have no basis in material reality.
    Capitalism is preparing to commit suicide once again, as the capitalist nation-state leading the “Free World(TM)” drives the world towards WWIII. Will revolutionary socialists prove capable this time of organizing the working classes of the world’s leading industrial capitalist nation-states in successful socialist revolutions in time to head off the greatest disaster ever to face the human race? Obviously, the likes of Zisek have done nothing at all to ideologically prepare a revolutionary workers party capable of even attempting such a heroic effort to save the workers of the world from the coming calamity. Like Herr Duhring, they toil away in their tenured university ivory towers constructing castles in the sky while the workers of the world are driven towards disaster. Marx, Engels and Lenin would make short work of these fake-socialist pro-capitalist ideologues paving the philosophical road to WWIII.

    Independent Workers Party of Chicago

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