What follows is a draft of the translation of the introduction to Franck Fischbach's La Production des hommes: Marx avec Spinoza which will be published by Edinburgh University Press as Marx with Spinoza: Production, Alienation, History. Posted here in preparation for my forthcoming event with the Marx Education Project, and as part of the process of editing it.
The relation of Marx with Spinoza has often been driven—most notably with respect to Althusser and the Althusserian tradition—by the project of “giving Marxism the metaphysics that it needs,” according to an expression used by Pierre Macherey specifically with respect to Althusser. The intention was laudable, but times having changed, our project can no longer be exactly that. We begin from the idea that the philosophy specific to Marx or the specifically Marxist philosophy is still largely unknown, that Marx as a philosopher is still largely and for the most part unknown. For a long time this was due reasons largely external to the thought of Marx: initially it was due to the urgency of militant practice, then it remains thanks to theme of the rupture with philosophy that is expressed by the eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach or in The German Ideology, any reading of Marx that is resolutely philosophical was suspected as being ideological. Then on the verge of orthodoxy, several authors—and not insignificant ones—both at the heart of the history of Marxism , and outside of it , have maintained that there is a critique of philosophy in Marx , this critique would still be a determinant practice of philosophy. However, the ignorance of “Marx’s philosophy” equally lies in reasons that internal to Marx’s work: the critical relation that Marx enters with philosophy implies in effect that the latter appears in terms of disconcerting new features, which are not those of a doctrine expressed as such (Marx, who never completed any of his grand works, always refused any dogmatic or systematic presentation of his thoughts), but are also not that of fragments. Neither systematic, nor fragmentary, philosophy with respect to Marx, appears diluted, omnipresent but always mixed and everywhere combined with elements of the discourse of history, of political economy, but also the sciences of nature and literature. It is not necessary to reconstruct or reconstitute the philosophy of Marx: that would suggest that it is only present in a fragmentary and dispersed state, and that it is necessary to reassemble and unify—which would lead to dogmatic and systemic presentation that is perfectly alien to the Marxist practice of philosophy.
It would then be a matter of isolating—in the chemical sense of the term—the philosophy of Marx from the non-philosophical elements from which it is amalgamated, on the express condition of returning them to the “compound,” if only in order to see what it becomes and the effects of the philosophical "elements" when they come into contact with elements of another nature. The presupposition here is then quite different, it is no longer that of the dispersion of Marx’s philosophy in order to wait for it to be reassembled: it is that Marx’s thought is in its entirety (one could say from beginning to end) infused, traversed, saturated with philosophy, including and perhaps especially when it appropriates objects and immerses itself in discourses that our not immediately philosophical. It is a matter then of revealing—in the photographic and chemical sense of the word—the philosophy of Marx. It is necessary to have a revealer: for reasons to be explained in what follows, we turn to Spinoza for this role of developer of Marx’s philosophy, in a process which, it should be understood, that does begin with claiming that Marx is basically Spinoza or that Marx was spinozist. The book which you are reading is not a work on Marx and Spinoza, and treating them as two authors or of two “doctrines, “ there is no such equilibrium: it acts first as a book on Marx, but of Marx read in the light of Spinoza in the measure that, or, in this light, the thought of Marx can be seen clearly and properly philosophical.
What result can we expect from such a process? To start off, in order to get to an anticipated fact, there is a simple idea that we find in Merleau-Ponty (but could equally be found elsewhere) “the history that produces capitalism symbolizes the emergence of subjectivity.” An equally simple question which could be posed is to know if this emergence is to the credit or blame of capitalism. For Merleau-Ponty it is clear that it is to its credit, and moreover that Marx himself credits capitalism with the emergence of a society conceived as a subject of its production of itself in which people conceive themselves as subjects. Also in this text when it is a question of Lukács, Merleau-Ponty recognizes that he had the merit of elaborating “a Marxism which incorporates subjectivity into history without making it an epiphenomenon.” As for us, we come to the idea here that, it is true that Marx makes the formation of subjectivity a phenomenon inseparable from the history of capitalism—and therefore something other than an “epiphenomenon” (on this point Merleau-Ponty is right)—it can be seen to be exactly the opposite with respect to the emancipatory process. The history of capitalism (from its formation up to its overcoming) is not that of the increase of the power of subjectivity as the condition of all liberation—the contradiction unique to capitalism is having formed at its center the condition of its overcoming. If Marx only said that, it would be a disarming simplicity, a childish dialectic which would not merit one to dedicate even an hour of time: capitalism has thus produced subjectivity, but it does not produce it without at the same time oppressing and repressing it; what is to be done is to free it. So that, from the retrospective point of view of a liberated subjectivity, a subject emancipated, capitalism appears after such a break as a mode of production which has made a decisive contribution—albeit negatively and in some sense despite itself—in the liberation of humanity finally a subject in and of itself. Depicted in such a way this simplistic version is not without its promoters (more within Marxism than in its adversaries), just because it is simple, nothing would be more false to than to seek in Marx yet another well-meaning description of emergence of the modern subject as a history of progressive liberation.
This is why the contemporary exhaustion of metanarratives of emancipation fundamentally does not concern Marx, so that we cannot conclude from the exhaustion of the former the death of the latter. Because it is a different history that Marx relates to us: what he was concerned with was uncovering the links that inseparably connect the birth of modern subjectivity to economic, political, and ideological processes that have brought about the massive reduction of the majority of people to a total lack of power. It was his task to show that the “pure subjectivity” which is celebrated by theological, political, philosophical, moral, juridical (and nowadays psychologists and media) discourses—is in reality nothing other than the absolute naked exposure of human beings to powers of domination, constraint, and subjection without precedence in history. The problem for Marx was not to examine the possibilities of the liberation of a subjectivity formed in capitalism and oppressed by it, but to comprehend and expose the social, economic, and political processes that have the effect of reducing humanity to a complete individual and collective impotence. In forming subjectivity capitalism has not produced the basis of its proper negation: to the contrary it has engendered and produced an element absolutely indispensable to its own perpetuation.
In brief, our analysis have brought us to conclusions opposed to Merleau-Ponty’s, notably when he writes, “historical materialism…states a kinship between the person and the exterior, between the subject and the object which is at the bottom of the alienation of the subject in the object and, if the movement is reversed, will be the basis for the reintegration of the world with man.” If this is alienation for Marx then one is at pains to demonstrate in what way it differs from Hegel. Merleau-Ponty adds, “Marx's innovation is that he takes this fact as fundamental, whereas, for Hegel, alienation is still an operation of the spirit on itself and thus is already overcome when it manifests itself.” Alienation is thus not radical when it comes to Hegel, and is such in the extent where it would be included in an act of spirit. Everything would thus play out in advance with respect to Hegel: if spirit is capable of going outside of itself, it is also always capable of being recovered and reestablished, of returning to itself to from itself posed by itself as something other than itself. The novelty of Marx consists, if one follows Merleau-Ponty, to not be given this facility, to not have immediately reduced the loss of the subject in the object to an act of the subject itself, but to have started from this loss as a fact, of the originary Faktum. Alienation would thus be a different and more series affair and would cease to be a sort of play of the subject with itself.
This understanding of the “novelty” of Marx is not sufficient in our eyes, notably because it does not make it possible for us to comprehend the difference between Marx and Feuerbach, a difference that Marx never wanted to stop making. One could also ask if such a view of alienation as a “primitive fact” is compatible with a philosophy which moreover, cannot comprehend as alienation as anything other than the result of a historical process and not an ahistorical fact. This is why we interpret Marx’s concept of alienation not as a new version of a loss of the subject in the object, but as a radically new thought, of the loss of the essential and vital objects for an existence that is itself essentially objective and vital. Alienation would not be a primitive fact, but the result of a process that we describe (following Etienne Balibar ) as the becoming-labor of production.
On the relation between “the person and the exterior,” Merleau-Ponty is right, but he does not see how this relation is radicalized by Marx: it is not necessary to restrict the “person” to the status of the subject. In other terms, the relation of humanity with the world is for Marx the fact that the human beings are immediately a being of the world, or, as he writes in the 1844 Manuscripts, an “objective being” conceived according to an expression of Spinoza reprised by Marx, part of nature (pars naturae, Teil de Natur). This leads Marx to totally rethink the concept of alienation: it is not the loss of subject in the object, rather it consists, for objective beings such as humans as a loss of their “essential objects” that is to say the loss of their proper objectivity (“because a being which has no object outside of itself does not have objective being” and “a non-objective being is a non being”) It is precisely this loss of objectivity that constitutes essentially the becoming subject of humanity, that is to say the formation of the modern subject: subjectivity befalls precisely the being from whom all objective dimension of his or her existence has been withdrawn, which all of its vital and essential objects (those which it depends on to persevere in its being) have been subtracted. Alienation is not therefore the loss of the subject in the object it is “the loss of object” for a being that is itself objective. But the loss of its objects and the objectivity of its proper being is also the loss of all possible inscription of one’s activity in objectivity, it is the loss of all possible mastery of objectivity, as well as other effects: in brief, the becoming subject is essentially a reduction to impotence. The becoming subject or the subjectivation of human beings is thus inseparable according to Marx from what is absolutely indispensable for capitalism, the existence of a mass of “naked workers”—that is to say pure subjects possessors of a perfectly abstract capacity to work—individual agents of a purely subjective power of labor and constrained to sell its use to another to the same extent that they are totally dispossessed of the entirety of objective conditions (means and tools of production, matter to work on) to put to actual work their capacity to work.
Under these conditions, the perspective of emancipation and liberation cannot consist, according to an expression of Merleau-Ponty, in “the reintegration of the world in humanity,” but, to the contrary, in the reintegration of humanity in the world: it is not a matter of resorbing the object in the subject, but to the contrary of realizing the subject in the object, of desubjectivizing people and reobjectivating in the world which is no longer for them, but the conditions of which are in them, which are their at with which they are in a vital and objective relation of dependence. In brief, emancipation does not consist in in integrating the world into humanity but of realizing humanity in the world.
It is necessary on this point, as well on others, to be attentive to the letter of Marx’s text, here for example in The Holy Family: “if man takes all knowledge, sensation, etc., from the sensible world, and the experience at the heart of the world, what matters, is how to organize the empirical world in such a way that man experiences it and becomes accustomed to what is truly human, let him experience his quality as a human being in the world…if human beings are made by experiences we must make experiences humanly.” To human beings grasped as a subject outside of the world, confronted with an alien objectivity that they must reintegrate into themselves, Marx opposes with the inverse process of the reinscription and reinsertion of humans in the world that are such that people are made in the world, the experience of their “human qualities,” or, that they can get used to what is human: if there is for Marx a humanization of the world, its precondition is the worlding of humanity. Only under precondition can make that one does not understand the humanization of the world as a human interiorization of the world, as a subjectivation of the object (that is to say as a purely speculative play of the subject with itself), but that one comprehends, to the contrary, that this process of humanization unfolds entirely in the immanence in a world understood as pure exteriority to itself, without interiority—and that implies and imposes a practical and active transformation of the world such that it is.
To put it briefly, as Spinoza before him and as Heidegger after him, Marx does not begin with the subject, but from the world, a situation of the world understood as unlimited ensemble, without beginning or end, that is to say as a non-totalizable totality of social historical relations woven and knotted with their natural and living existence and determined to produce the means for the permanent perpetuation of their existence in the world. When one begins from the world and not the subject, from the exterior and not the interior, from a plane of immanence and not whatever position of exteriority, foundation or of transcendence, the task cannot be to bring back the exterior into the interior (interiorize the exterior), nor to return the world to the subject (subjectivize the object). Beginning from the exterior, from what Marx refers to as “circumstances,” that is to say from the world insofar as it is an unlimited ensemble of relations necessarily engendered by encounters that are themselves contingent, and, from that, arrives at human beings insofar as they are products of the same circumstances, which is to say at human beings that are always fundamentally beings affected, and therefore being for which the relation with the world is primarily of the order of an encounter with events that happen in the world,--thus starting from there, the task is, as Marx says, of forming these circumstances humanely.
Which is to say what? Certainly not that one acts to transform the world in such a way that human subjectivity recognizes itself and rediscovers itself, is able to see the world as the moment of its own auto-objectification, in such a way that it is indispensable from its return to the self. Considering that human beings, in their existence in the world are not at all subjects exterior to the world, but are also products, themselves objective, of quotidian circumstances of events and encounters, in the sense of what happens to them from and in the world, “forming these circumstances humanely,” cannot mean for Marx forming circumstances in the manner in which they conform and are adequate to the essence of humanity already posed, this could not mean “giving circumstances a human form” since that would return to the supposition that the human form or essence can exist for and by itself independent of circumstances and before them—which Marx negates.
To understand what is at stake here, it is necessary to proceed from the fact that in the world such that it is, the majority of the circumstances that effect human beings, most of the events that happen to them and the encounters that they undergo are not favorable or useful to human beings, that people are the products of circumstances, events, and encounters that are neither generally nor immediately favorable or useful. From there “forming circumstances humanly” is first to produce and engender as many situations as possible and to select the maximum of encounters that are useful and favorable to human beings, that is to say those that aid and affirm their existence and persevering in their being. The transformation of the world must first be grasped as its reorganization: it is a question of organizing the world in such a way that the events, circumstances and meetings favorable to human beings multiply in number and intensity to the point where human beings find in the world a human way of living. Far from starting from a predetermined essence of man that it would be a question of realizing in the world by transforming this world, and the world only, human beings, according to Marx, are only able to grasp what it is to be human under the conditions of organizing the world that events favorable and useful to human beings are multiplied.
The concept of habit, introduced here by Marx, is decisive: it acts clearly as a reference to Aristotle’s concept of hexis via Hegel’s reprise of the same theme in the Introduction of to the Principles of the Philosophy of Right where Hegel, in defining the “world of spirit” or the objective spirit of “second nature,” indicates that the ethical world is that in which human beings actually form themselves as human through their integration into institutions (family, civil society, corporations, and, finally, the institution that encompasses the former and founds them, the state), within which they experience the repetition of always already objectified humanity. It is from this that Marx writes that it "what has to be done is to arrange the empirical world way that… man experiences and becomes accustomed to what is truly human in it.” Far from knowing immediately what it is to be human and deriving a practical norm from the knowledge of this essence in order to orient the transformation of the world to make it conform with what it must be, it is on the contrary it is through their experience of the world that human beings are susceptible to progressively understand what it means to be human. The difference with Hegel, however, is that this habit does not for Marx entail a reference to the problem of the institution of a second nature irreducible to a first nature: closer to Aristotle than Hegel, habit is considered by Marx to be the formation of a natural character which does not function as an essence valued as a norm superimposing itself, that is itself superimposed and finally substituting itself for nature. (On this point see Ogilvie's book on Second Nature) The formation of human character is not a function of the sense of humanity that is already present in the world and objectified in institutions of “second nature” that makes up “ethical life,” but it is a function of a model of the human which human beings become immanently aware of through their experiences of what suits them by nature, which is to say what is useful and favorable to them. The problem is thus for Marx to organize the world in such a way that one is able to accumulate as much as possible the events and opportunities in which human beings experience the more often what the 1844 Manuscripts calls their “activation” (Betätigung), which is to say a confirmation (Bestätigung) of themselves which is also a renewal of their being and an increase of their individual and collective capacity to act.
It is then with subjectivity as with philosophy, if only because the second is essentially presented up to now as the thought of the first, one cannot realize it without negating it, and negate it without realizing it. Reobjectifying humans, that is to negate their subjectivity as otherworldly subjectivity, it is negating that they are subjects exterior to the world that act on it insofar as it is an object, but at the same time it is to adopt a point of view in which that which philosophers call “human subjectivity” appears as a reality that effectively and objectively exists in the world. What remains of what up until now has been called subjectivity when one undertakes making it worldly, objective, and natural? What follows is that activity (Tätigkiet), more specifically vital productive activity, is to be understood not as the production of objects by subjects (that is productive labor, which is not the same thing as productive activity) but as a production which is always in the same time self-production, as a production of things which is at the same time a production of the self by the self, thus confirmation and activation of the self. The activity by which human beings constitute themselves as objective beings, as things in the world, is thus at the same time the destructive activity from which, in the same world, constitutes the reduction of human beings to an impotence of a bare and otherworldly subjectivity. Human beings are only able to affirm their actual power to by destroying at the same time and effectively the real causes of their lack of power: that is why “The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.” If “communism the real movement that destroys the present state of things” it is in the sense in which it is the process of the negation and destruction of the actual circumstances which reduce human beings to impotence, which separate them from their power. This is not just a theoretical transformation, the act of shifting from a conception of themselves as subjects to a conception of themselves as “beings of nature,” but a practical transformation effectively lived as an increase of power, as the individual and collective appropriation of a hitherto unknown power. Communism is therefore the real process, the ethical experience conducted by which people in changing life also change their life.
Returning human beings to the world: this was already the project of Feuerbach, except that for Marx it is not sufficient, all it can do is return to L’Anschaueung, that is an sensible intuition that is essentially contemplative and therefore passive. Overcoming this conception (that Spinoza calls imaginary) of human beings as subjects exterior to the world and for which there is an objective world, that can only be made by a massive transformation of their relation to humanity, that is to say a practical transformation of their consciousness of self, and therefore by an self-production and self-engendering of new ways of being a self and a thing in the world. This is what give philosophy, for Marx as well as Spinoza, a properly ethical transformation of the self, a radical modification of in theory and practice of the self and the world. But can one transform practically their way of being without at the same time revolutionizing the world, that is to say without reorganizing practically the space in which that self is proven and confirmed.
To the question that Foucault poses, “How can the world be the object of knowledge and the at the same time the place of the subjects test?” and that he considered to be the fundamental problem of western philosophy, Marx, had he been able to respond, would state that the world, as the natural world, is not for beings that—as human beings—are themselves part of nature, an external object to know via tekhné, and that, as a historical world (but, to say the truth, it is always the same world that one acts in), it is not, in the actual state of things, a space where “oneself” can test itself as an ethical subject of truth --and that it can only become at the prices of its radical transformation. Moreover, from the point of Marx, the two aspects of the question formulated by Foucault are indissociable: the world can only become the space of the real and positive experience of the self, an experience which is also an affirmation of the self—on the condition of surmounting the conditions which make the world a simple object delivered over to tekhné or to subjects. These conditions have their existence primarily in the mode of production: it is in this element that reigns the conditions that reduce at one time the self to the impotence of the subject and the world to the objectivity of a manipulable object. These are the conditions that engender the separation between, one the one side, subjects as owners of purely subjective labor power, and, on the other, the objective conditions that put to work this power (in as much as these conditions appear that are less the conditions of the labor process than the conditions of the valorization of capital ). This separation makes it so that the subjective power of labor is defined as an impotent power, a power that can do nothing by itself because it is separated from the conditions of its proper objectivity. Conquering the objective conditions for an affirmative and powerful experience, that is to say the joy of the self in the world, making the conditions of individual and collective self-affirmation, that is what it means for Spinoza and Marx to change one’s life.
Jason Read is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern Maine. He is the author of The Micro-Politics of Capital: Marx and the Prehistory of the Present (SUNY 2003) and The Politics of Transindividuality (Brill 2015/Haymarket 2016) and a forthcoming collection of essays, The Production of Subjectivity: Between Marxism and Post-Structuralism (Brill 2022) as well as The Double Shift: Marx and Spinoza on the Politics and Ideology of Work (Verso 2023). He blogs on popular culture, philosophy, and politics at unemployednegativity.com.
This article was republished from Unemployed Negativity.