The Importance and Limits of Rigorous Language in Theory and History Writing
Antoine Lavoisier is a figure about whom I’ve read quite a bit in recent weeks. Part of my ongoing attempt to strengthen my own grasp of Marxist theory has involved an intensive reading program. At the moment, I’m neck-deep in Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar’s Reading Capital, which has yielded a whole notebook worth of insights about the nature of historical materialism and the importance of creating a precise and powerful theoretical vocabulary. Marxism as a concrete abstract theory––a paradoxical phrase that nonetheless makes sense when we have the correct concept of concrete in mind––cannot correctly guide revolutionary action without language that can make sense of the world. Of course, language cannot take primacy and has to derive from and really reflect revolutionary practice. Failure in this regard produces an idealism of language, one that makes refined vocabulary the ultimate goal rather than a tool for overthrowing capitalism and enabling socialist construction. Lavoisier figures prominently in both Reading Capital and Engels’ introduction to the Second Edition of Capital volume one.
Understanding that Marx is at the threshold of a new “continent” of science, one that can revolutionize the world just as assuredly as chemistry and physics, Althusser points to Lavoisier’s discovery of oxygen as a concept as a template for what Marx did with surplus value.² I am also reading a book about the institutional history of knowledge in the Western tradition that mentions Lavoisier’s commitment to specific terminology.¹ Earlier theorists might have produced the word and most of the language we use to describe political economy, but their language was ideological and not scientific. That is, it failed to explain anything in concepts that accurately encapsulated the real world. Soviet philosopher Evald Ilyenkov also grappled with this problem, and writes,
The concept of a phenomenon exists, in general, only where this phenomenon is understood not abstractly (that is, not as a recurring phenomenon) but concretely, that is, in regard to its position and role in a definite system of interacting phenomena, in a system forming a certain coherent whole. A concept exists where the particular and the individual are realised as more than merely the individual and the particular (though recurrent) – they are realised through their mutual links, through the universal construed as an expression of the principle of these links.³
In short, a concept only has meaning in a larger system of words, all of them expressing concrete relations between objects. Understanding situations in concrete concepts rather than as abstract and one-sided phenomena allows us to explain the universal significance of particular situations. Of course, none of this has any relevance if we don’t have a solid hold on the actual situation going on in the real world. All the rigor in the world won’t save an analysis of the war in Kurdistan, for instance, that lacks the facts of the situation. Indeed, here is where we have to reassert the vital, living link between practice, which is the primary field of scientific work, and theory, which is the secondary. Lenin’s aphorism that there is no revolution without revolutionary theory is still valid, but the opposite is equally true. Theory is not revolutionary until it is employed in revolutionary practice, until it passes from the theorist into the hands of the cadre, the organizer, the proletarian soldier, the masses.
It’s these masses, these practitioners, and not philosophers, who are the real agents of historical change. Scientific vocabulary and rigor is only a tool in their hands. If elevated to lofty heights, this becomes what Mao calls book worship, producing a cloistered and deeply flawed tunnel-vision view of the world. Rigor emerges precisely from a rejection of idle intellectualism and through an all-around fusion of people Gramsci called the “organic intellectuals” of the working class and the proletarian rank and file.
To end, I want to venture into the unknown and ask what this has to do with writing historical narratives. Is it merely enough to use theoretical terms in the correct arrangements to discover the underlying structures and processes that govern history at a particular moment? History writing with a revolutionary character is so often merely bourgeois history written in the ideological vernacular of Marxism. There is no decisive separation between materialist method and idealist method in this sense. We still rely on the narrative form, on language that is often meant to serve as an instrument for justifying a particular politics. If our politics and our history are going to be scientific, it seems we have much work to do as historians in reshaping our craft to serve materialist goals. The beauty of the matter is that a properly executed, truly objective account of history will, by its nature, offend the bourgeoisie and serve the cause of revolution. The trouble is that partisanship in history, though necessary, is often a cover for a lack of scientific methodology. Hopefully I can help contribute to the continuing solidification of the science of history and the socialist political mission with my current research on the Middle East. There is no royal road to science, as Marx reminds us, and we should not yield to the temptations of ideological conflict when our aim is to refine and empower our own theory. Conflict of that kind will always been necessary when we’re in the opposition, but this kind of history is not nourishing enough for us, satisfying to our passions but ultimately insufficient for the development of historical materialism.
1. Ian F. McNeely and Lisa Wolverton, Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet, 217.
2. Louis Althusser, Reading Capital.
3. Evald Ilyenkov, Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital.