Scientific Revolution: Marxism Beyond Social Criticism
Labouring over papers and articles makes me restless at times. It’s not just a matter of extended physical inactivity that does it, though that can certainly be unhealthy. Sunrise to sunset, I’m committed to responsibilities as a student and, to a much lesser extent, a writer for this blog. Since I’m living through a physical form forged in prehistoric times to hunt, kill, and stockpile food, slothfulness in itself can be enervating. I can work on a sentence or paragraph or section for hours and have done little other than typed or taken a brief walk. More to the point, however, I find the kind of work I do more confining than I ever have before. Poring over tomes that are exciting in the academic sense leaves me brimming with energy, ready to take these frameworks and use them in active work. I’m confronted with a situation where I have a lush, overgrown sense of certainty about theory but lacking much useful knowledge.
For the vast majority of the time, this blog is dedicated to social criticism. Even before I embraced Marxism––not to speak, for now, of becoming a Marxist––I’ve focused on that form of analysis. This lark of a blog, founded to help facilitate conversations with a close group of fellow students, is now a freestanding outlet for my writing. As it’s gotten further and further from its inciting purpose, this blog has gotten better but also opened up more frustrations. Namely, I’ve become cognizant of the limits of social criticism. In effect, I’m dedicated to taking objects and trends and running thought experiments on them. Take certain overarching concepts B, apply them to object A, and write down the results. No doubt I’ve grown in my understanding of culture and the world of social relations and objects around me. I hope that I’ve helped my readers in the same way. As my awareness and understanding have grown, so has my agitation. Marxism is not, first and foremost, a mode of social critique. It’s a revolutionary science, a theory of the mechanism and causes of social change and of the means to create a political process with the wherewithal to overthrow capitalism.
That is the summit to which we aspire. In speculative fevers, we can imagine that it’s some transcendent truth. Most of the time, I succumb to the temptation to practice it as if it were much less than a revolutionary scientific and political project. It posits that there is a real world, that the social and political spheres are part of this world, and that they can be comprehended objectively and changed radically. Social criticism, the use of Marxism as a “critical theory” primarily oriented towards producing readings and ideological perspectives on this or that bit of ephemera––that’s not why I’m here. Even if that is the primary function of the blog, it’s worth keeping in mind that the knowledge we are producing has to be used if it is to be worth anything. Theoretical practice and political practice cannot be separated “all the way down.” At some point, the question of political power will weigh on our minds as Marxists, even if we often forget that we have within reach the most powerful means of changing most of the social ills we spend our hours pondering.
Some may find it ironic, even comical, but these thoughts arose from a reflection on arch-theorist Louis Althusser. In his Elements of Self-Criticism, the French philosopher defends Marxism as a scientific practice. If we believe that we can effect powerful and permanent transformations without the kind of rigorous and powerful knowledge Althusser talks about, we are stuck in a hallucination. Without lapsing into intellectual lounging, we can weaponize theory, philosophy, history, the very objective knowledge we are so often told is neutral in the political sphere. It is anything but. It demands that we wage just as fierce a battle in thought as we do in the fields and streets. I leave you with the excerpt that sparked this musing, and hope you find it as enlightening as I do.
We therefore have the right, and the duty, to speak (as all the classics have done) of Marxist theory, and, within Marxist theory, of a science and a philosophy: provided that we do not thereby fall into theoreticism, speculation or positivism. And, to touch immediately on the most delicate point: yes, we have the right, as far as theory is concerned, and the duty, politically, to use and defend — by fighting for the word — the philosophical category of “science”, with reference to Marxism-Leninism, and to talk about the foundation by Marx of a revolutionary science. But we must then explain the reason for, the conditions and sense of this unprecedented combination, which brings about a decisive “shift” in our conception of science. To use and defend the word “science” in the context of this programme is a necessity, in order to resist the bourgeois subjective idealists and the petty-bourgeois Marxists who, all of them, shout “positivism” as soon as they hear the term, no doubt because the only picture they can conjure up of the practice and history of a science, and a fortiori of Marxist science, is the classical positivist or vulgar, bourgeois picture. It is a necessity if we want to resist the petty-bourgeois ideologists, Marxists or not, who like to weep over the “reification” and “alienation” of objectivity (as Stirner used to weep over “the Holy”), no doubt because they attach themselves without any embarrassment to the very antithesis which onstitutes the basis of bourgeois legal and philosophical ideology, the antithesis between Person (Liberty = Free Will = Law) and Thing. Yes, it is quite correct for us to speak of an unimpeachable and undeniable scientific core in Marxism, that of Historical Materialism, in order to draw a vital, clear and unequivocal line (even if you must — and you must indeed — continue forever to “work” on this line, to avoid falling into positivism and speculation) between: on the one hand the workers, who need objective, verifiable and verified — in short scientific — knowledge, in order to win victory, not in words, but in facts, over their class opponents; and, on the other hand, not only the bourgeoisie, which of course refuses Marxism any claim to be scientific, but also those who are willing to content themselves with a personal or fake theory, put together in their imagination or according to their petty-bourgeois “desire”, or who refuse the very idea of a scientific theory, even the word “science”, even the word “theory”, on the pretext that every science or even every theory is essentially “reifying”, alienating and therefore bourgeois.