Why Should Marxists Read Spinoza?
The demands of academic writing have been bearing down on me lately, especially my 50-page opus about Iran-US relations that I hope will see a broader audience someday. But that does not mean I don’t have time for some recreational reading. For the last two months or so, I have been engaged in a mostly-attentive reading of Baruch Spinoza’s major works: his Ethics, the Theologico-Political Treatise, and the Political Treatise. Between reading the second and third of those books, I also read Deleuze’s book Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, which has a useful dictionary of Spinozist terms and some original analysis I found illuminating. Not to mention some dark comedy:
“[Spinoza’s] biographer Colerus reports that he was fond of spider fights: ‘He looked for some spiders and made them fight together, or he threw some flies into the cobweb, and was so well-pleased with that battle, that he would sometimes break into laughter.”¹
Thank you, Deleuze, for reminding me of my cruel halcyon days, spent torching ants on the sidewalk with a magnifying glass. Beyond the casual arachnophobic cruelty, Spinoza is a singularly intriguing figure, and I can understand why so many people, especially Marxists, have been attracted to him. Marxian appreciations or uses of Spinoza have come from the Soviet dialectician Evald Ilyenkov, the Althusserian group of French philosophers (especially Balibar), and, of course, Deleuze and his descendants. In these digital days, there is even a whole blog dedicated to Spinoza-spiced autonomism. Reading that blog is what gave me the idea of reading Spinoza in the first place, and it provided me with a little laundry list of what to expect;
- A thoroughly immanent form of analysis, integrating God and Nature into a kind of rationalist-materialist system.
- A pathbreaking psychology that in some ways prefigures Freudianism.
- His love of happiness and vitality, for which Deleuze would compare him to Nietzsche––the latter of whom actually despised Spinoza.
I did find these things, and moreover discovered that, in thoughtful translations, Spinoza is fairly easy to grasp once you have a handle on his “geometric” method and peculiar vocabulary. But what use is Spinoza to Marxists?
I am no autonomist, being a party-builder and vanguardist to the core, and it seems that most of the attention Spinoza has gotten has been from autonomists and their ilk. Most prominently, authors like Fréderic Lordon––whose book on Marx and Spinoza I have acquired but not read––see in Spinoza a way of exploring the production of capitalist subjectivity. In other words, the old 17th-century rationalist’s Ethics are meant to fill in the gaps in Marxist ideas about how capitalism manufactures not just goods but consent for its domination. I can’t comment much further on Lordon, except to say that reading the book’s conclusion makes it seem more speculative than useful. But after a first read of Spinoza’s works on politics and ethics––or “ethology” as Deleuze puts it––I can see the attraction. For me, that attraction has to do with what Ilyenkov identifies here:
The sole ‘body’ that thinks from the necessity built into its special ‘nature’ (i.e. into its specific structure) is not the individual brain at all, and not even the whole man with a brain, heart, and hands, and all the anatomical features peculiar to him. Of necessity, according to Spinoza, only substance possesses thought. Thinking has its necessary premise and indispensable condition (sine qua non) in all nature as a whole.
But that, Marx affirmed, is not enough. According to him, only nature of necessity thinks, nature that has achieved the stage of man socially producing his own life, nature changing and knowing itself in the person of man or of some other creature like him in this respect, universally altering nature, both that outside him and his own.²
Spinoza understands the link between thinking and material reality is not mechanically materialist nor is it that the world only exists as sense impressions in the brain, but that human beings as a part of natural substance alone can exhibit the powers of thought. Of course, what Ilyenkov is doing here is establishing Spinoza as a historical and genetic predecessor to Marx, who himself did little to nothing with Spinoza in his own work. As for what Spinoza can teach us these days, about political economy, psychology, or anything, to me has to do with emotions and the body, as well as his understanding of freedom as recognition of necessity. I don’t have very coherent thoughts on these matters as of now, but here is my best shot.
One of the most famous Spinozist phrases is “we know not what the body can do,” that it is not consciousness but what we are unconscious of that conceals true potential. Our bodies are, as Deleuze writes, “a complex relation between differential velocities, between deceleration and acceleration of particles.”³ There is no absolute evil, but only what is bad, what causes the power or integrity of a particular relation to deteriorate. To me, to get into some thoughts that are still speculative and unmoored, the analogy of an organism or ecosystem to a mode of production has always been attractive. All function as system of information and energy flows and processing; just as the marshland has to harness new sunlight to maintain its energy levels without entropic decay, so capitalism has to exact its demands on nature, which it imagines to be external, without limit. Deleuze identifies that which breaks down such systems as “toxins” or “poisons,” foreign elements that disintegrate the system. My question is this: is there any practical or even rhetorical value to conceiving of a communist movement, of a vanguard party, as a poison for capitalism? From capitalism’s point of view, the proletariat and oppressed masses are useful elements but can also transform into revolutionary elements bent on its destruction. The good of the world depends on the destruction of capitalism, but what is the best concoction, the best venom, for the job? Clearly, this is an unsteady foundation, and is beginning to sound like rambling. But, at the same time, the connections between our own bodies and the systems into which our bodies are inserted excites me, at least in an academic sense.
And when examination season and the uncertainty of summer are bearing down on you, even the gentle respite of pleasant reading means more than one might think. In any case, I have found Spinoza useful to my Marxist thinking as a peripheral character, one who has a rigorous vocabulary for thinking immanently about systems––we haven’t even gotten to conatus or “affects” in this post––and who has been used by many Marxists in the last fifty to sixty years or so.
1. Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy (San Francisco: City Light Books, 1988), 12.
2. Evald Ilyenkov, Dialectical Logic, 23.
3. Deleuze, 123.