The Poverty of Philosophy

A classic example of somebody far too caught up in philosophical musings; see "Dialectical and Historical Materialism" - Public DomainA classic example of somebody far too caught up in philosophical musings; see "Dialectical and Historical Materialism" - Public Domain

I should preface by saying that this has nothing to do with Marx’s book by the same name. The title is, however, remarkably relevant to the purpose of this article all the same. Philosophy, to introduce that purpose in short, is a defunct approach to our purposes as Marxists.

More lengthily, I refer to the dogmatic adherence to “philosophy” as espoused by overzealous ‘Marxists’ that pay too much attention to the purely speculative, wordy and immaterial side of Marxism at the cost of focus on real, material issues. The most obviously philosophical contribution made by Marxism is, first and foremost, alienation, which Marx introduced in his “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844”, influenced by an earlier work by Ludwig Feuerbach. Alienation describes the separation necessarily entailing from living in stratified class society of humans from their “species-essence” in a couple of ways. Those ways won’t be detailed here, but just from skimming the surface we can find very clear philosophical implications; the usage of the term “species-essence”, and others like it: i.e., “alienation from the self”, “estrangement from humanity”; the reliance on a “true” humanity from which alienation derails society (“essential nature”), etc. These concepts are metaphysical and garrulous and don’t actually mean anything; they are philosophy for philosophy, and thus should be discarded.

However, it should be recognized that understanding alienation has its merits, too. Alienation provides the only justifiable basis for revolutionary Marxism at all. If not to do away with alienation and everything resulting from it, Marxism is nothing but an analytical system — and we know it’s more than that. If Marxism has a morality to it — and I think it’s foolish to suggest it doesn’t — it is in understanding the principles of alienation. Those principles, however, need to be dug up from under the purely philosophical overtones of “species-essence” and “essential nature”. It’s the adherence to the latter, which often comes in the form of lingering on the “theory of alienation”, that is problematic. It comes in the form of people stressing the importance of studying the “theory of alienation” for itself, that is, without any effort to separate the philosophical (species-essence, etc) from the material (real exploitation, etc). And that over-reliance and lingering on the theory as a whole, not a take-it-and-go-do-something-else approach, is dangerous.

Later came dialectical materialism, in bits and pieces (and a distinction is definitely made between historical materialism and dialectical materialism). Dialectical materialism is, very simply put, the theory of change in nature which relies on thesis, negation and synthesis. In this case, since I don’t actually view that as “wrong”, per se, I make the case that dogmatic adherence to dialectical materialism isn’t defunct to us as Marxists for being speculative and metaphysical, as alienation can come across as, as much as I make the case that it’s defunct for being essentially purely philosophical and impractical. I say this because while it’s not necessarily wrong in its conclusions (though I don’t think it’s always right) and while its methods are pretty generally agreeable (dialectics is a good analytical method), it has absolutely zero relevance to material conditions. Which is ironic, considering its name.

I mean by that that even if it is correct, what does it matter in the slightest? In revolution, is it useful to the general Masses? Is it useful to the leadership? If not, and I think it is not, for revolutions are fundamentally materially based things, who is it useful to? In which situation could it be useful to anybody? If it is a useful thing for understanding why certain things work how they do, is it useful beyond that? Is an understanding of why things work (which, as I’ve conceded, it might be able to do well) reason enough to espouse it as dogmatically as it historically has been, as an absolute necessity, and to decry any who don’t subscribe to it as non-Marxist, as plenty of people have been (as I myself have been)?

No. The truth, I think, is that it’s never been useful in revolution because the Masses do not want it or need it. If it does have a use beyond simple understanding, it is in limited capacity as a tool to analyze previous revolutions and their successes or failures. And even then, a complete understanding of dialectical materialism is probably not even necessary for that.

Indeed, upon writing all of this up, I think it’s best to not even mention dialectical materialism at all.

To reiterate: the purpose, at the end of this, isn’t to dismiss any and all Marxist philosophy, whatever that constitutes, as worthless and defunct for the sole reason of being philosophy. As we have seen, most of those theories which fall under that label do have some definite materialistic undertones; alienation is based on real, material exploitation and division entailing from aspects of capitalism, and dialectical materialism attempts to explain the turnings of the material world in certain ways. It’s also important to recognize, however, the slathering of philosophical paste over the top of some of these concepts (and ironically, it was Marx himself who remarked on the “rational kernel within the mystical shell” of Hegel’s philosophy) that, for many people, mistakenly takes precedence over the concrete material basis. Nearly as bad is when, even if not given precedence over the material aspects, no care is taken to separate (or realize the distinction between) the philosophical frosting from the materialistic kernel.

The problem, as I think is clear, is that people get too caught up in identifying the “theories” of dialectical materialism and alienation. If that sounds muddled, let me clarify; the concepts included in the “theories” of alienation and diamat are an integral part of Marxism anyway, and a person can come to understand these concepts without knowing them as anything separate from Marxism as a whole. They can come to understand these concepts not as “alienation” or “dialectical materialism”, but as Marxism, which as a whole focuses on material explanations. They can come to know these concepts without their philosophical shell, since that shell is a part of the reliance and lingering on of the “theory of” structure and not a part of the Marxism-in-general structure.

That probably still sounds muddled and redundant, and I apologize. In a different way, then: stop talking about alienation and dialectics as a whole. If they are indeed useful for something, apply them to where they are; otherwise, shut the hell up about them! I’m only advocating for a practical and intelligent application of overly-pondered, overly-mentioned, overly-philosophized, overly-romanticized parts of Marxism that otherwise do more to overshadow thoughts of practical action than they do to help anybody. For god’s sake, stop talking about largely useless concepts where they shouldn’t be and talk about material going-ons! To do otherwise is to get caught up in philosophy for philosophy’s sake where it doesn’t belong.

One final thing: this essay may give rise, as many others like it have, to cries of “vulgar materialism!” or claims that I simply don’t understand the very concepts I’m arguing against. People will say that those terms I singled out as overly philosophical have proper meanings that I’ve criminally simplified. People will say that I don’t grasp dialectics — the infamous battle cry of leftists touting it as some kind of ultimate weapon, brandishing it as the sword of “scientific Marxism”. If this is the case, you’ve enormously missed the point.

“Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

  • Karl Marx, 11th Thesis on Feurbach

About the Author

Bazyli Kronstadt
I write some things. I'm most interested in the Middle East, specifically the Kurds and Rojava.

5 Comments on "The Poverty of Philosophy"

  1. > alienation is based on real, material exploitation and division entailing from aspects of capitalism, and dialectical materialism attempts to explain the turnings of the material world in certain ways. It’s also important to recognize, however, the slathering of philosophical paste over the top of some of these concepts (and ironically, it was Marx himself who remarked on the “rational kernel within the mystical shell” of Hegel’s philosophy) that, for many people, mistakenly takes precedence over the concrete material basis. Nearly as bad is when, even if not given precedence over the material aspects, no care is taken to separate (or realize the distinction between) the philosophical frosting from the materialistic kernel.

    I think you are right, except for this paragraph’s core claim that material basis is somehow not a philosophical speculation itself. The very conception of the materiality of human sociality is the result of a long history of material and philosophical speculation trying to understand what was in the world and how. What you are doing is separating theory from action, precisely the very problem Marx’s system aimed to eradicate. The communist project is a project that needs unity of theory and action in some sense. Someone has to know why things are happening and being done as they are done. Action without fundamental theory is the reason revisionist social democracy gained ground, it is the temptation to believe that answers are present immediately in just empirical experience that is the fraud of natural thinking. Science, as anyone who studies it knows, is exactly and precisely the lesson that reality isn’t what it immediately appears and indeed has led and has been led by philosophical speculation in its proper moments.

    You don’t outright deny that theory is useful, but you are not giving it its due. It’s one thing to say that the masses don’t need to understand it in order to move, but it’s another to say that it’s unnecessary to have theory to guide action to achieve what we aim. In this sense you are being reductive and vulgar in your materialism. Theory is not just for looking backwards, but it also guides forwards by providing the fundamental aspects of what must be avoided and what can be expected in general even if not in specifics.

    • Bazyli Kronstadt | December 20, 2015 at 9:23 pm | Reply

      Thank you for your response. I was interested in how you might respond since you seem into philosophy. Glad to see you don’t entirely disagree with it all, haha.

      Your argument is a good one and I can certainly see where you’re coming from. Dialectical materialism (though I prefer historical materialism, since it describes exactly what you mentioned — the march of history, human history — without devolving into the futility of what a lot of dialectical materialism tries to do, like apply itself to all of nature) has its usefulness, and I may have been too heavy-handed in dismissing it. My biggest gripe with it is, I suppose, it’s over-emphasis among the more zealously philosophical portions of the left; the subjects of my attacks. The over-emphasis, and not the theory itself, is the problem since it distracts from anything else. And, like I said, for this reason it might be good to not even mention it at all. As somebody said in the comments of your own article on dialectics,

      “Real dialectics is like porn: you know it when you see it. And talking about it too much betrays a profound sickness of the mind. It should seldom be brought up in polite conversation.”

      • Very true. The whole philosophical reasoning of dialectics is something unnecessary for the masses, but the leadership, of which if there is to be anything accomplished they has to be to guide the movement, has to know these things.

        It’s like engineers and physicists, the first do practical applications with no need to understand the theoretical apparatus’ explanations, while the latter focus on extending the apparatus and understanding its meaning. Engineers can do all that is needed to be done, but without theory they would lose the leading power that theory gives in pointing towards possible discoveries and understanding.

  2. >‘Marxists’ that pay too much attention to the purely speculative, wordy and immaterial side of Marxism at the cost of focus on real, material issues.

    Is focusing on real material issues enough? I think you would get something like Chomsky’s discourse, were you point out many material injustices, but provide no narrative as an alternative, and have basically no material power to fight against the mainstream narrative.

    I see more problem with people holding deprecated symbols, than people holding deprecated theory. Like for example speaking of the working class or the proletariat is still kind of trendy, but does it make sense when there’s plenty of people that won’t hold a decent job ever in their lives to speak to them as workers? Does it make sense when everybody is interpellated as a small capitalist at all levels? Does organization around unions make sense when just being exploited in a job already puts you in a position above the majority?

    I think the problem is more the inability of the left to go back to the fundamental theory, and produce new symbols with any kind of material power in the current world, than a problem of the fundamental theories. The problem is that communist organization had a lot of power in a context were countries were being industrialized, trying to apply the same structures in countries were industry is fleeing to the third world, and wealth is produced through virtual markets that can be moved anywhere in the world with a click of a mouse is not going to cut it.

    Pointing out injustice is very important. Producing new social currents that have enough power to solve those injustices is just as important.

    • Bazyli Kronstadt | December 21, 2015 at 1:23 pm | Reply

      Thank you for your response.

      In this case pointing out the problem was all I was trying to do. We need to analyze, find out what the problem is, before we put forth a solution.

      As for the rest of that, about going back to the fundamental theory, I really can’t say. Truthfully, that’s a little out of my league. I like to focus on the here and now, on material applications at this moment, which is what prompted this article. Leave the theory-building to others, and if I have the time I’ll look into what they’ve said, and if I agree with it I’ll probably adapt what I do to that. But otherwise, I’ll stick to what I do best.

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