Marx for Marxism, and Beyond — Rocío Zambrana

In 1991, the GFPJ published proceedings of the 1987 Hannah Arendt Memorial Symposium in Political Philosophy under the title Marxism and Contemporary Philosophy. The Symposium posed the question “Whither Marxism?” In his introduction to the special issue, John Rosenthal indicates that, by 1991, the participants’ shared sentiment that Marxism had already perished seemed to have been historically confirmed. Today, we have seen a renewed interest in Marx and Marxism. The 2008 financial crisis and the continuing effects of neoliberalism evident in devastating austerity measures, for instance, prompt us to consider the value of Marxism once more. The archives of the GFPJ offer interesting resources for rethinking philosophical issues posed by Marxism and for recovering Marx’s insights.

The earliest article on Marx in the GFPJ was published in 1974, the most recent in 2013. The 1974 essay by William Maker, “Marx’s Introduction to the Grundrisse: With What Must the Science of Political Economy Begin?,” traces the parallels between the introduction to the Grundrisse and Hegel’s introductory discussion to the “Doctrine of Being” in the Science of Logic. Like Hegel, Marx argues that we must begin with an abstraction. Unlike Hegel’s, Marx’s abstraction is the real abstraction of modern bourgeois production. The science of political economy must begin with production, Maker shows, since its unfolding provides an account of exchange, consumption, distribution, and so on. As a “concrete abstraction,” then, an account of production makes possible an account of bourgeois economy as a totality. The essay makes a compelling case for clarifying not only the method of a science of political economy and its starting point, but also the need to interrogate society as a complex totality.

In his 1996 essay, “The Ontology of Production in Marx: The Paradox of Labor and the Enigma of Praxis,” David R. Lachterman also focuses on production, yet in order to explore its relation to praxis. For Marx, human activity is shaped by poiesis—which he understands in terms of the production of objects and transformation of external nature. Marx subordinates praxis to poiesis, ultimately arguing that it is only insofar as one takes part in production that one’s transformative power and genuine sociality are realized. If this is the case, the overcoming of poiesis that Marx intimates in the Grundrisse and Capital remains obscure; praxis loses its “orientation.” The promises of praxis so central to Marx’s thought turn out to be “deeply enigmatic.” Lachterman’s essay presses us to consider the critical and political costs of ambiguities in Marx’s understanding of human activity.

Joel Whitebook’s 1975 essay, “The Social and the Natural in Marx,” and John Depew’s 1981–1982 essay, “Aristotle’s De Anima and Marx’s Theory of Man,” offer discussions of conceptions of nature in Marx. Whitebook’s essay examines Marx’s account of the ways in which the foundations of capitalist societies appear as natural. The essay is a meditation on the phenomenon of reification on various levels. In contrast, Depew’s essay examines Marx’s critical naturalism through an account of Marx’s philosophical anthropology. Against Hegel and with Aristotelian resources, Marx understands human activity as a form of conducting rather than overcoming individual as well as species reproduction. Marx’s materialist reversal of Hegel is thereby specified. These essays invite us to reflect on the varied roles that nature and the natural play in Marx’s thought.

Returning to Marxism, the 2009 translation of Trân Duc Thao’s 1946 “Marxism and Phenomenology” seeks to address central tensions within Marxism from a phenomenological perspective. Through a reading of various examples Marx offers, Thao develops the claim that the primacy of economics in fact refers us to lived experience. Marx’s purported economic determinism is displaced, since economic conditions are “necessary delimitations” that define lived experience. Likewise, Thao transforms an understanding of class and its revolutionary situation. Economic constraints are the ground for realizing “true values,” since they call for clarification and “possession” of assumptions implicitly guiding one’s life. This fully develops Marx’s understanding of universal appropriation. The essay offers a perspective from which to reflect on individual experience within Marx’s historical materialism.

Finally, consider Rastko Močnik’s “From Historical Marxism to Historical Materialism: Toward the Theory of Ideology,” published in the 1991 issue on Marxism and Contemporary Philosophy with which I began. Classical Marxism, Močnik reminds his reader, seeks to account for the effects of tensions between the economic and ideological spheres. It is a peculiar form of philosophical-political reflection, since it is a reflection on the “production of the effect of the social,” as he puts it. Post-Marxism—Laclau and Mouffe’s work, but especially Habermas’ work—fails to grasp the significance of the structure of belief involved in the tensions that comprise the social. Drawing on Althusser, Močnik develops a belief-condition aimed at “help[ing] us out of post-Marxism.” Močnik’s article thereby calls into question attempts to develop social and political theories that have abandoned reflection on the origins, logic, and reproduction of capitalism. Taking Močnik’s intervention further, the essay challenges us to reflect on the status of our theories when we fail to account for the role of capitalism—as well as gender and race—in the constitution of and approach to our subject matter.

—Rocío Zambrana

*For recent resources addressing these issues, see Nancy Fraser, “Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode: For an Expanded Conception of Capitalism,” New Left Review 86:1 (2014), pp. 55–72; Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014); Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “Transnational Feminist Crossings: On Neoliberalism and Radical Critique,” in “Intersectionality: Theorizing Power, Empowering Theory,” special issue, Signs 38:4 (2013), pp. 967–91.

Further Reading:

David R. Lachterman, “The Ontology of Production in Marx: The Paradox of Labor and the Enigma of Praxis,” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 19:1 (1996), pp. 3–23.

William Maker, “Marx’s Introduction to the Grundrisse: With What Must the Science of Political Economy Begin?,” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 4:1 (1974), pp. 19–25.

Rastko Močnik, “From Historical Marxisms to Historical Materialism: Toward the Theory of Ideology,” in “Marxism and Contemporary Philosophy,” special issue, Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 14:1 (1991), pp. 117–37.

Rocío Zambrana is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oregon. She is the author of Hegel’s Theory of Intelligibility, forthcoming with The University of Chicago Press, as well as essays on Kant, Hegel, and Frankfurt School Critical Theory.

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