Western Marxism is dominated by the use of empty phrases when the need arises for a practical intervention in the conjuncture. Slavoj Žižek, for instance, has been calling for a “stronger NATO” in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, so that “European unity” can be preserved. The analytical focus is wholly tilted towards ahistorical cultural symbols. For Žižek, a “Eurasian” project is not about the reduction of European countries’ dependence on the US-led unipolar world order through trade with Russia and China. Instead, it represents a fascist third way attempting to find a balance between the individualism of the West and the collectivism of the Far East. This diagnosis is justified through a reference to the “imperial ambition” that is found in “one direction of Russian culture”. The vagueness of this perspective obscures the concrete complexity of the Russian social formation. Its central driver is not, as Žižek suggests, the “ideological madness” of Russian politics, but rather a sovereigntist position that pragmatically operates based on multiple ideologies, challenging the legitimacy of US imperialism. Putin’s geopolitical opposition to the American empire, rooted in a recentralized state system benefiting from extractive ventures, has given rise not to fascism, but to Realpolitik. This approach deploys ideological plurality to contest USA’s hegemonic narratives.
The inability of Western Marxism to situate the dynamics of class struggle in a ramified system of contradictions can be traced to a disciplinary division that forms the core of the imperial academia in the Global North: the ontic or empirical domain appropriate for the sciences; and the ontological or transcendental domain studied by philosophy. This is a neo-Kantian postulate that presents the socio-historic mediation of the objective natural world as a barrier that prevents the human subject from knowing how it is in itself. Considering it is unfeasible to isolate the subjective from the objective, or the human from the non-human, it is senseless to inquire about the essence of anything independently of our relationship with it. Insofar as the difference between the subject and the object is rendered as internal to the subject itself, a subjective order is constituted whose coherence is guaranteed not by an external reference to an ontologically independent reality but by an epistemologically self-sufficient index of constructability. The consistency of these indexes, in turn, is supplied by a second-order subjective structure, which must also be subsumed at a higher level, and so on, thus initiating an infinite regress. This outcome can be obviated only through the positing of an originary independent subject. Hence, we arrive at the idealism of the subject, according to which the human being is an embodiment of a self-constituting subjective essence.
The paradigmatic example of Western Marxism’s subjective idealism is provided by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Their book “Dialectic of Enlightenment” is structured by a binary between the subsumptive abstraction of capitalism and the enlightened sublimation effected by reflexive reason. The totalizing tendencies of “Enlightenment thought” are believed to have occluded the meaningful particularity of nature, consequently giving birth to “instrumental rationality”. This can be corrected through the discerning negativity of reason, which serves as a mediator of human significance by integrating nature into the network of social memory and history. As Ray Brassier notes, this is “the rehabilitation of a fully anthropomorphic ‘living’ nature – in other words, the resurrection of Aristotelianism: nature as repository of anthropomorphically accessible meaning, of essential purposefulness, with the indwelling, auratic telos of every entity providing an intelligible index of its moral worth.” In this instance, the notion of practice only includes the objectivization of the dialectical forms of consciousness, neglecting the subjectivization of the objective dialectic that is constitutive of nature. The human mediation of nature is itself mediated by natural history; the reflexive negativity of reason is always-already circumscribed by the irreflexive negativity of nature.
For dialectical materialism, the idealist inflation of reason ignores the scientific truth of cosmic extinction, which functions as the originary purposelessness driving all organic or psychological purposefulness. Friedrich Engels remarks: “in nature – in so far as we ignore man’s reverse action upon nature – there are only blind, unconscious agencies acting upon one another, out of whose interplay the general law comes into operation…nothing happens as a consciously desired aim.” The concept of a purpose or aim for the universe is dissolved in the context of universal interaction. Humanity emerges within it, develops, and ultimately disappears within it. The idea of the highest aim of human existence is rationalized through the comprehension of its necessary genesis, development, and death within the interdependence of all forms of motion of universal matter. The change, contingency, evolution, and integration that characterize the universal metabolism of nature lead to the self-emergence of the human, whose dialectical power of self-development is dependent upon its physical corporeal existence within the folds of nature. This represents an immanent logical framework, wherein complex intelligibility is divorced from the unicity of meaning. Contrary to Adorno and Horkheimer, who believe that commemorative reflection should give rise to a narrative representation of nature’s presumed richness, the world does not have an author, and there is no inherent narrative encoded in its structure. Nature does not unfold like a story crafted by the self-reflective consciousness of reason.
Marxist theory, by asserting the meaninglessness of objective reality, creates a political space where the various mediations that underpin the immediacy of meaning can be explored. The best way to understand human agency would be to prioritize the neurological and social mechanisms that construct our perception of our individuality. Whereas Western Marxism hypostatizes agency as a substantive essence, dialectical materialism regards it as a formal logical condition that individuates human beings and diversifies their thoughts and behaviors. Due to its subjective idealism, Western Marxism evaporates the dynamic complexity of concrete existence in the stasis of an abstract universal. As the concept of reality becomes more abstract, its understanding becomes more obscure and easily applicable to various entities. Consider, for example, the equivalence Adorno draws between communism and fascism as two variants of “totalitarianism”. Marxism, on the other hand, begins “from the concept that expresses the real actual cause of the thing, its concrete essence”. The real-universal cause serves as a clearly articulated universal principle through which we can progressively obtain more concrete determinations. The concept that reveals the core of the matter leads to a systematic, interconnected network of determinations that express the specific aspects of the object being examined. All these distinct elements are linked together through a formal complex that logically represents reality, rather than being merely the abstract projection of a human essence. Here, it is instructive to consider Adorno and Horkheimer’s defense of the imperialist invasion of Egypt by Israel, Britain and France, aimed at controlling the Suez Canal and ousting Gamal Abdel Nasser, who pursued a project of autocentric state development. Adorno and Horkheimer called Nasser “a fascist chieftain…who conspires with Moscow”. Furthermore, Israel – a beachhead of US imperialism – was portrayed as a victim of the machinations of Arab states. One can’t help but remember Evald Ilyenkov’s words that “any ‘expert of human nature’ who thinks concretely is not satisfied with any abstract labelling of an event – murderer, soldier, or customer. Such an ‘expert’ does not see in these abstract-general terms the expression of the essence of the matter, phenomenon, human being or event.” However, this basic dictum is ignored by the abstract humanism of Western Marxism, which substitutes the concrete analysis of the concrete conjuncture with the repetition of flowery thoughts.
Insofar as conceptualization involves the analysis of the myriad mediations that form the actual concreteness of reality, it can’t limit itself to the absolutized self-consciousness advanced by abstract humanism. Human subjectivity is attained through a practical engagement with the impersonal reality in which we are situated. Abstract self-consciousness cannot achieve the transition from its simple, essentialist, or egocentric form, where it is certain of its existence, to a self-consciousness that imparts determinateness upon its unity. The sole accomplishment of egocentric self-consciousness is reinforcing itself by unilaterally negating anything different from itself. To break free from this purely egocentric form, the dialectical objectivity of the world needs to be fully acknowledged. This would create an onto-epistemological paradigm wherein the impersonal otherness of objective reality actively negates the putative givenness of subjectivity and pushes it towards a conjuncturally evolving path of the revolutionary re-fashioning of individuality. In the absence of this, the subject continues to treat the world as an alien other that needs to be simply subjected to the transcendental horizon of the subject. This means that new objective dimensions of the world fail to have any intrinsic impact upon the organization of subjectivity.
Western Marxism, insofar as it dissociates itself from socialist experiments, represents a state of subjective tranquility whose distance from actual involvement in organizing is matched by the grandiloquence of its invariant philosophical pronouncements. In actually existing socialist regimes, by contrast, Marxism involves a continually shifting theoretical prism that is refracted by the cadence of class struggle. “In places like Cuba and China,” writes Carlos L. Garrido, “when one calls themselves a communist, they are referring not simply to ideas that they agree with, but to actions which they take within the context of a Communist Party. To be a communist is not simply a matter of personal identification; it is a label that is socially earned by working with the masses through their representative organizations.” The embeddedness of comrades in the collective structure of the party indicates a non-substantive form of agency, whose source lies not in the qualitative uniqueness of an abstract essence but in the impersonality of theory and practice. That’s why comrades are characterized by “machinic impersonality” and “fungibility” – their identity consists in political relationality. Jodi Dean writes: “Interchangeability, whether between soldiers, commodities, schoolchildren, travelers, or party members, characterizes the comrade. As with puppets, cogs, and robots, commonality arises not out of identity, not out of who one is, but out of what is being done – fighting, circulating, studying, traveling, or being part of the same apparatus.”
The subjective collectivization operationalized by the party-form is seen by Western Marxists as a naturalization of the social world, which uses the “dialectical laws of matter” to elide the specificity of the transformative powers possessed by humanity. However, this criticism is based on the cult of the abstract individual who is perennially opposed to the institutional dominance of objective regularity. Politically active Marxist thought, on the other hand, implies that the autonomy of the self can be deepened only through the tracing of its immanent connections with the different aspects of objective reality. That’s why the fidelity of comrades to the truth “is, by definition, ex-centric, directed outward, beyond the limits of a merely personal integrity.” The rigorous elaboration of truth entails fully embracing and following its unfolding consequences. Fidelity suggests that our arrival at truth can only be accomplished through an impersonal process that moves away from the givenness of abstract subjectivity to the disciplined work that is undertaken under the guidance of the party-structure.
Louis Althusser once said that the subject of abstract humanism is like a “little lay god”. Even though it is immersed in reality, it is always endowed with the magnificent ability to transcend that reality. The religio-mythological connotations are not accidental. They are an evidence of the fact that Western Marxism is unable to produce a scientific analysis of the conjuncture. According to Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary destruction of the old and its replacement with the new represents the continuous progress of science. Galileo Galilei challenged the notion of Earth as the center of the universe by proposing the heliocentric model. George Stephenson revolutionized transportation by inventing the steam locomotive. Charles Darwin transformed biology by proposing the theory of evolution. Karl Marx brought about an economic revolution through his studies of capitalism, imperialism, and class struggles. These scientific breakthroughs are condensed in revolutionary theory, which Ho Chi Minh describes as “the science of laws governing the development of nature and society”. Thus, revolutionary theory presupposes that “[r]eality is problems to be solved and contradictions lying within things.” As human production, knowledge, and science advance, the Kantian thing-in-itself tends to fade away. This reflects the maturation of a dialectical and relational perspective that enables us to understand the world in which we belong. Communist politics can be carried out only on this basis.
Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several countries of Latin America.