I know the point of Markos’ snippet in the mid-day open thread yesterday was geared more towards intellectual wankery than Marx specifically, but I bristle at the sad fact that Marx has become the whipping boy of the new-new left. As an introduction, I’ll supply my bona fides on the wankery issue. I’m one that left academia a few courses short of a PhD in Philosophy for precisely this reason. I was tired of splitting hairs over the meaning of specific sentences, or even sentence clauses, and missing the forest for the trees. I was tired of the petty backstabbing born of such parsing when everyone involved was educated enough that you don’t treat people in that manner. Before I got to grad school, I was an intellectual wanker. I would spend hours with the OED researching words that I could contort to render my writing utterly meaningless [on purpose] – like a sand Mandala. I was of the post-structuralist lit-crit set [until I finally decided that I needed to know what words like commodification actually meant if I was going to employ them ad nauseum]. I could and did wank with the best of ‘em, including Derrida [with whom I briefly studied in grad school].
Something changed when I went to grad school: I realized that ideas have consequences; I began to understand that philosophical frameworks are at play in every social interaction, economic policy and global macrocosm that effects our very real lives. And it was with this realization that intellectual wankery on my part ceased. But it is for this reason that it is very important that all of us understand that we live within a greater web of ideas & intellectualism itself must never be shunned.
As for the terribly askew understanding of Marx held by many in my own generation, I won’t be so mean as to suggest you actually read him... But among the myriad reasons he is still vital to any so-called progressive movement, I’ll outline a triangular sketch.
Marx is the clearest writer when elucidating the idea of “dialectical history” of any that has ever written. Though Hegel is certainly more known for the dialectic, within Marx the meaning of dialectic is rendered simple and clear. The fundamental premise of dialectical history is that within any given social order, there is a collective truth that cannot be realized except by the dissolution of that very social order. As my once good friend Agnes Heller would say, it is a biologistic metaphor: the truth of the tree is the flower, the truth of the flower is the fruit, the truth of the fruit is the seed, the truth of the seed it the tree. Within a “dialectical history” what we study is the underlying ethos that cannot be manifest given the structure of that society. We look at the undercurrents, we look at the macrocosm, we look at the interstices and interpret the ways in which what should be cannot be. It is a tool that is not just historic in its perspective, but has become commonplace in understanding business dynamics. And there are good reasons for this – dialectical history is the very idea of progressive history. Capitalism requires progressive history. Democracy begs progressive history. Science is progressive history. [And as a side note, I find it so disappointing that at least medical science [sic] has seemingly departed from these ideas through the corruption of profit – or maybe that’s because it is now the dominant macro-structure which suppresses it’s own truth, who knows.] The dialectic that Marx so clearly formulated is engrained in everything we take for granted everyday.
Beyond the tool of dialectic itself, the second point on this triangle is what dialectic history means for us as human beings. Our history is a quest for not only our truth as individuals, but our truth as a species that can one day be manifest in our social, political and economic relationships; our history is the history of the manifestation of our truth as a being. Each social and economic order that falls via dialectical history itself reveals something more true about who we are as human beings. And for Marx, the ultimate truth [as for him the final phase of history was Capitalism] is freedom. This isn’t a loose use of this term. Freedom for Marx means the understanding that we are fundamentally self-creating beings. Regardless of the world into which we’re born, what we are, in and of ourselves, are beings that make our own reality. Every generation is different. Every generation creates and leaves something new for its descendents. Humanity, for all its reverence for the past, is free to make something new for its children. Freedom is the very futurity that this precious gift of life promises.
Marx was wrong on the specifics here. Like Smith and Ricardo before him, he believed that there were infinite energy inputs into the engine of Capitalism that would enable this vision to not only gestate, but birth. But the vision itself is a beautiful one, and one for which we as a species should always strive.
And the final point on the triangle is the conception of value. Marx’s concept of value is the equivalent of Hegel’s notion of buildung. Hegel envisioned the history of humanity as being simply an intellectual education – we learn intellectually from our own intellectual history. With the concept of value, Marx departed into a world that Markos himself would be proud; what builds history is not simply the contemplation of philosophers, but the work of potters, and house builders, and engineers, and farmers, and financial gurus, and steelworkers, and service workers, and... Value is human labor. Everything we do in our lives contributes to economy and builds value, builds buildung. Marx was the first to redefine every aspect of each individual life as important to the greater historical path and understanding of us as a species. It was his ultimate philosophical project, interestingly enough, in my humble opinion, carried on by Nietzsche.
So, though I said I wouldn’t, I guess I will say it... The next time you pick on Marx, any of you, why don’t you actually read him.