We older representatives of what the name “Frankfurt School” has come to designate have recently and eagerly been accused of resignation … The objection, effortlessly rattled off, runs along these lines: the person who at this hour doubts the possibility of radical change in society and who therefore neither participates in spectacular, violent actions nor recommends them has resigned. What he has in mind he thinks cannot be realized; actually he doesn’t even want to realize it. By leaving the conditions untouched, he condones them without admitting it. —Theodor Adorno, from “Resignation
There are moments in your life when you admit a deep and abiding doubt. A doubt that renders a key point in your theoretical framework for a positive politics, well, mute. I have written on the politics of confluence–that ideas and material developments have to develop concurrently, and reaching certain capacities before the ideas are there leads things to stagnate (see the development of the compass in China)
The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism – that of Feuerbach included – is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism – which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such.
I feel ironically like this can be applied to most of what post-Marxists have produced with the focus on discourse, and words. Not to be dualistic about it, words are actions, but they are signifiers too. To focus on them does not necessarily change the reality of and the intention toward the signified. As many have noted for many years, euphemism is a Red Queen game and shame just makes things more internal.
Back to the Theses:
The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.
One feels this over the debates on conscience in nuero-philosophy right now, but as any one from people as different from Sam Harris to Michael Gazzinga to Raymond Geuss such a question would have profound implications for politics if determinism was not true, but may not have any if it is (on this the philosophers and the scientists differ). Yet Marx doesn’t want to deal with this exactly here: true is proven by both reality AND power. It must not just correspond to itself but correspond with the substance of change.
One sees Hegel’s “history is the judge of ideas” if one makes Marx’s subject of history humanity. So far, so good, although you can see where my doubts lie on this.
The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.
The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.”
In strict Hegelian logic or in more analytical modes, this focus on self-changing as revolutionary practice actually isn’t argued for, its just asserted. My more devoted Marxologists will refer to the doubt here as “fear of teleology” in favor of contingency, but that misses the point. Self-changing must be collectively done to matter as according to Marx’s a persons context limits their thoughts and their thoughts limit their actions, only through collectively changing the context can thoughts change and then can society “progress.” He critiques Feuerbach for positing an individual self-exception, where one man or woman stands superior to society and through their knowledge of social process can educate it change. Note, however, that this assumption seems to have been in Marxist thinking perhaps as early as Engels and definitely as early as Kautsky, and while many of the later Marxist thinkers broke with Kautsky, they never broke with him on the focus of the party.
What Marx means is perhaps stated more clearly in the The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,
“Man makes his own history, but he does not make it out of the whole cloth; he does not make it out of conditions chosen by himself, but out of such as he finds close at hand.”
“The tradition of past generations weighs like the Alps on the brains of the living.”
This, however, does lead you into an intellectual cul-de-sac, which the ever meloncholy Adorno did see:
Admittedly, in Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach there lies a concealed wound. He may have presented the eleventh theses on Feuerbach so strongly because he was not entirely sure of it. In his youth, he demanded the ruthless criticism of everything existing, and now he was mocking criticism.
A reminder of what the 11th Theses was: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”
Marx knew that capitalism had not been created as a totality by an act of volition and had documented as much in much of Das Kapital, but he expanded capitalism to dissolve the weight of the past and unleash the forces of production to the point that these limits were dissolve into air. Read the Manifesto, its clear. It’s still clear in the originally unpublished Gothakritik and despite the fact that most Marxists criticize stagism, the stages of development are mentioned vaguely in the Gothakritik itself.
Yet the point is that workers must pick themselves up by their bootstraps because they have nothing weighting them down “but their chains.” However, the great mystery to which one must answer: why did this NEVER happen? And this was why we in the socialist left increasingly focused on psychology, ideology, false consciousness, class consciousness, educational parties, etc.
Yet it never brought any of the change of society in revolutionary means in ways just contingent and accidental developments have brought: communications technology, the space race, etc, most of these were not revolutionary political processes but developments that had specific geo-political rivalries as an impulse or just sheer accident. No one predicted what the internet would truly do even those starry-eyed futurists who make a habit of over-claiming and being wrong.
One suspects that in many issues of hot spots that plague the left, one confuses systemic change with individual shame or symbolic politics has a lot to do with that little has changed about the core ways of thinking about sex, gender, and race since the late 1960s theoretically but there have been all sorts of developments historically. Yet E.B. DuBois feels more relevant today than perhaps even bell hooks. Why? Just my educational bias or the fact that he came up with the pedagogical theory that we have turned into an explanatory one (privilege theory). The core problems remain. We can police work choice and dignity as much as we want and that remains the same. Yes, things have changed since Jim Crow, but as more and more of the African American community is forced into surplus labor from generationally systemic unemployment and prison sentences, the continuity is disturbingly there.
The harder question to ask is was the last half-century of debate and gains Pyrrhic in nature. Have we really uncover the weight of history here enough to be truly revolutionary? What would that mean?
This is a boot-strap problem. We expect to pick ourselves up, but why should something that doesn’t work in individuals and that liberals and leftists rightly mock, be different collectively if we assume both individual and collective consciousness is contextualized by the present?
Furthermore, as Heidegger noted here:
Heidegger is not wrong to point out that Marx, on this very point, is sneaking in an interpretation whilst also mocking the call for it. Ironically, Adorno’s seeming nemesis comes to the same point. It’s a valid one, but its not the only one. IF we assume our context is the limit to the our thought, produced by our alienation from our relations between each other and also our relations between our labor and its product, then we are incapable of changing the world by re-conceiving it, and Marxists in practice have ALWAYS ignored this by focusing on the working classes standpoint in the world and its concept.
But if one can’t pick oneself up by one’s bootstraps alone, why on earth would be be able to do it just by banding together? I realize I risk a part-to-whole fallacy here, but the historical evidence seems to be that human is the subject of human history only in so much as conceptualizing that history, but our ability to break from the weights of the past and be truly revolutionary may actually be what happens at the moment when our agency is seems obvious but the weight of past developments has already moved us forward in its haphazard and lumbering way.
However, if we accept “History informs everything and determines nothing” as Adam Philip’s tells us, then what do we make of Marx’s thinking about a human agency’s relationship to history? What if it is worse than we think. In this I return to Freud, “not that the historical facts [of our lives] are not true, but that the telling of them might be prone to simplification, and particularly when they are at their most devastating.”
This has been something that is possibly devastating to my world view in a positive sense, and perhaps it is time to let it ripple through. History is the judge of ideas, and it seems to have found our ideas wanting.