Archive for the 'Marxism' Category

The Proletariat and the “Creation of Class”

In an essay on Mao Zeodong’s philosophical  thought Richard Johnson writes:

Because, relative to that of the Communist, the socioeconomic persona of the proletariat is limited–and, give the empirical existence of political vicissitudes, may remain so indefinitely–the chance that from such a basis alone will be launched a coherent, direct, and enlightened politics, is slight.  Understandable then, in this light, is the enigmatic logic of the Manifesto, where, inscribed among the historic character of communists, is the task of the “formation of the proletariat into a class.”  The apparent paradox that an entity that is already a class, must be made to become a class, is comprehensible when it is remembered that the historical process of consciousness is not identical to the consciousness of the historical process; that, moreover, “ideological forms” have a historical depth related to, but not immediately determined by, material development.  It is thus by this logic that the qualitative transformation of empirical, perhaps sporadic, political action into direct, and conscious, class-based political programs exists within the historical scope of an organizing medium led by a group of enlightened elites, vis Communists (211-2).


Johnson, Ricahrd.  “A Compendium of the Infinite: Exercises of Political Purpose in the Philosophy of Mao Zedong.”  In Critical Perspectives on Mao Zedong’s Thought, eds. Arif Dirlik, et. al., 207-233.  Amherst, New York: Humanity Books.

The Falsehood of Multiple Modernities

"On White" by Wassily Kandinsky

Critiquing the concept of alternate modernities and its consequences toward understanding universalist theories, Žižek explains:

The significance of this critique reaches far beyond the case of modernity–it concerns the fundamental limitation of nominalist historicizing.  The recourse to multiplication (“there is not one modernity with a fixed essence, there are multiple modernities, each of them irreducible to others…”) is false not because it does not recognize a unique fixed “essence” of modernity, but because multiplication functions as the disavowal of the antagonism that inheres to the notion of modernity as such: the falsity of multiplication resides in the fact that it frees the universal notion of modernity of its antagonism, of the way it is embedded in the capitalist system, by relegating this aspect to just one of the historical subspecieis…

Jameson’s critique of the notion of alternate modernities thus provides a model of the properly dialectic relationship between the Universal and the Particular: the difference is not on the side of particular content (as the traditional differentia specifica), but on the side of the Universal.  The Universal is not the encompassing container of the particular content, the peaceful medium-background of the conflict of particularities…In other words, the Universal names the site of a Problem-Deadlock, of a burning Question, and the Particulars are the attempted but failed Answers to this Problem (34-35).


Žižek, Slavoj.  2009.  The Parallax View.  Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

West’s Prophetic Pragmatism

Photography by Stephen Charles (click for photographers Flickr page).

In a book analyzing Cornel West‘s (1953– ) philosophy and politics Mark David Wood writes:

Prophetic pragmatism, one of the most fully elaborated and progressive expressions of post-Marxist politics in the present era, appeals to academicians, politicians, and business leaders precisely because it poses no serious threat to the class of individuals who control and appropriate the lion’s hare of the Earth’s resources and humanity’s collectively generated wealth.

[I]t seeks to implement a reform agenda that attempts to address the needs of both rulers and ruled by establishing cross-class alliances on the grounds of shared moral, parental, or national identity…and…it seeks to solve human problems without challenging the moral legitimacy and social consequences of privatized control of production and planning of social development (185-6).


Wood, Mark David.  2000.  Cornel West and the Politics of Prophetic Pragmatism.  Illinois: University of Illinois Press.

Lefebvre’s Dialectical Materialism

Photo by Pablo Secca.

Stefan Kipfer, in the preface to Dialectical Materialism, touches upon one of the key points of French communist philosopher Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991):

This preliminary critique of Hegel provides the basis for the second, and most important, part of Dialectical Materialism: Lefebvre’s argument about the relationship between Hegel and Marx. According to Lefebvre, Marx dealt with Hegel’s legacy in two phases. In his early work, most notably the Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts (1844) and The German Ideology (1845-46, with Engels), Marx lays the foundation for historical materialism. In the Manuscripts, he takes Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind to task for misunderstanding alienation as objectification of the mind, rather than as a form of material dispossession, while mistaking ” alienated life” (religion, law, philosophy) for “real life.” In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels applaud Ludwig Feuerbach’s initial critique of Hegel’s idealism while criticizing his naturalistic, undialectical materialism and his abstract conception of man as a social being. Feuerbach thus fails to place man and things within the web of social relations through which man transforms nature, produces history, and, in class society, gets separated -alienated -from the fruits of his productive activity and fellow humans. Both Feuerbach and Max Stirner fail to see that their starting point (the isolated, private individual) is itself a product of alienation and reification. According to Lefebvre, Marx and Engels’s critique of Feuerbach and Stirner most fully develops historical materialism as ” a unity of idealism and materialism.” (xviii-xix)


Lefebvre, Henri.  2009.  Dialectical Materialism.  Translated by John Sturrock.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Sartre on Class Consciousness

In his work, The Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre elaborates on class consciousness and the formation of working class groups fighting for their own interests:

The events we have studied occurred at a particular moment of the historical process, in a particular field defined by class struggle; and the class struggle itself takes place between [individuals] who are produced by the contemporary mode of production…Conversely the working class defined itself by and through this struggle by its degree of emancipation, that is to say, both by its practices and by its consciousness of itself (which amounts to the same thing). But in truth, the workers’ tactics, the militancy of the proletariat and its degree of class-consciousness are determined not only by the nature, differentiation and importance of the apparatuses (unions, etc.) but also by the more or less immediate opportunity for serial individuals to dissolve their seriality in combat groups, and by the aggressiveness, violence, tenacity and discipline of these groups themselves in the course of the action they undertake (699).


Satre, Jean-Paul.  2004.  Edited by Jonathan Ree and translated by Alan Sheridan-Smith.  Critique of Dialectical Reason: Volume 1.  New York: Verso.

Lukács on non-Proletarians and Revolution

Russian peasants in 1918 during a period of numerous peasant revolts against their previously untouchable landlords (source: )

On a critique of Rosa Luxemburg‘s (1871-1919) “Critrique of the Russian Revolution” György Lukács points out the mistake of just solely focusing on the proletariat in countries that are majority non-proletarian, such as Russia, which had been mostly peasant and feudal based.

[Her essay] consists in the overestimation of its purely proletarian character, and therefore the overestimation both of the external power and the inner clarity and maturity that the proletarian class can possess and in fact did possess in the first phase of the revolution.  And at the same time we as a corollary the underestimation of the importance of the non-proletarian elements in the revolution.  And this includes the non-proletarian elements outside as well as the power wielded by such idologies within the proletariat itself.  And this false assessment of the true driving forces leads to the decisive point of her misinterpretation: to the underplyaing of the role of the party in revolution and of its conscious political action, as opposed to the necessity of being driven along by the elemental forces of economic development (274-5).


Lukács, György.  1971.  Translated by Rodney Livingstone.  History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics.  Cambridge: MIT Press.

Sartre on the “Fused Group”

In his massive existential Marxian work, Critique of Dialectical Reason,  author Jean-Paul Sartre explains how a seriality of seemingly unrelated people (except through markers of class, ethnicity, or gender, etc.) can come together to form a social force: a group:

[I]n the movement of History, an exploiting class, by tightening its bonds against an enemy and by becoming aware of itself as a unity of individuals in solidarity, shows the exploited classes their material being as a collective and as a point of departure for a constant effort to establish lived bonds of solidarity between its members.  There is nothing surprising about this: in this inert quasi-totality, constantly swept by great movements of counter-finality, the historical collectivity, the dialectical law, is at work: the constitution of group (on the basis, of course, of real, material conditions) as an ensemble of solidarities has the dialectical consequence of making it the negation of the rest of the social field, and, as a result, of occasioning, in this field in so far as it is defined as non-grouped, the conditions for an antagonistic grouping (on the basis of scarcity and in divided social systems) (346).

Thus the common praxis, as the totalisation and struggle against a common praxis of the enemy, realises itself in everyone as the new, free efficacity of [their] praxis, as the free intensification of [their] efort; every freedom creates itself laterally as the totalisation of all freedoms, and totalisation comes to it through the others as a lateral dimension of its individuality, in so far as it is freely individual for them.  This has nothing to do with the radical transformation of freedom as individual praxis, since the statute of this freedom is to live the very totality of the group as a practical dimension to be realised in and by its individuality.  But it is true that there is a new relation between freedoms here, since in every totalisation of the group, the freedom acknowledge themselves to be the same…And the unity of this freedom beneath the shifting multiplicity of the syntheses is itself, and fundamentally, the relation between a negative unity of all (totalisation through annihilation by the enemy) and the negation of this negation to the extent that it is occasioned as totalising and that it produces itself freely on this basis (402-3).


Satre, Jean-Paul.  2004.  Edited by Jonathan Ree and translated by Alan Sheridan-Smith.  Critique of Dialectical Reason: Volume 1.  New York: Verso.

Negri & Hardt on Lenin and “Empire”

Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt‘s concept of “Empire” is “in contrast to imperialism, Empire establishes no territorial center of power and does not rely on fixed boundaries or barriers…Empire manages hybrid identities, flesible hierarchies, and plurarl exchanges through modulating networks of communication” (xii-xiii).  While I’m not convinced, one of its most important turns in their argument happens here:

Lenin recognized finally that, although imperialism and the monopoly phase were indeed expressions of the global expansion of capital, the imperialist practices and the colonial administrations through which they were often pursed had come to be obstacles to the further development of capital.  He emphasized the fact, noted by many critics of imperialism, that competition, essential for the functioning and expansion of capital, declines necessarily in the imperialist phase in proportion to the growth of monopolies.  Imperialism, with its trade exclusive and protective tariffs, its national and colonial territories, is continually posing and reinforcing fixed boundaries, blocking or channeling economic, social, and cultural flows…Luxemburg argues in economic terms, imperialism rests heavily on these fixed boundaries and the distinction between inside and outside.  Imperialism actually creates a straightjacket for capital–or, more precisely, at a certain point the boundaries created by imperialist practices obstruct capitalist development and the full realization of its world market.  Capital must eventually overcome imperialism and destroy the barriers between inside and outside.

It would be an exaggeration to say that, on the basis of these intuitions, Lenin’s analysis of imperialism and its crisis leads directly to the theory of Empire.  It is true, nonetheless, that his revolutionary standpoint revealed the fundamental node of capitalist development…either world communist revolution or Empire and there is a profound analogy between the two choices (Negri and Hardt, 233-234).

I would still argue that we live in a time of imperialism and that, while it could be true that we are in Empire (or that we are headed toward Empire), the increasing militarization of the world by the U.S. and its continued use of “hard” and “soft” power to further extract more variable capital is a counterpoint to this.  However, it could be noted that this over stretch of U.S. power is due to it trying to stem the “tide of Empire.”  I’m assuming Multitude has an answer to these questions.


Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri.  2000.  Empire.  Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Review of “Latin America and Global Capitalism”

Serra Pelada gold mine, Brazil (Photo by Sebastiao Salgado).

Jeffery R. Webber, of University of Regina, reviews the book Latin America and Global Capitalism: A Critical Globalization Perspective by William I. Robinson in the October edition of the Monthly Review:

In chapter two, one of the most powerful and persuasive, Robinson charts the crisis of developmental capitalism, or import-substitution industrialization, in the 1960s and 1970s, and then shifts to neoliberalism, or export-led development, in the 1980s and 1990s across Latin America. Drawing on the historical materialist categories of proletarianization and primitive accumulation, he examines the contours of the new economic model through a focused exploration of nontraditional exports and services. He offers a penetrating look at the cut flowers industry in Ecuador and Colombia, the explosive growth of the fruits and wines sector in Chile, soy production in Argentina and the rest of the Southern Cone, and winter fruits and vegetable production in Central America. He demonstrates how there has been an “accelerated replacement of noncapitalist by capitalist forms of agricultural development” and a “concomitant displacement of the peasantry and its conversion into a rural proletariat. This has occurred along with an increase in rural to urban and transnational migration”; promotion of “flexible…work in the new agro-export platforms”; a move to “predominance of female workers in these platforms”; and “the articulation of local agricultural systems…to global agricultural and industrial food production and distribution chains.”

The main weakness in this otherwise compelling portrait of the political economy of the Latin American countryside today is the one-sided structural power allotted to capital. Opportunities for increases in agricultural workers’ bargaining power under certain conditions, such as those examined by Ben Selwyn in his important study of export grape production in North East Brazil, are elided.

Bourdieu & Gramsci

Gramsci (Red)

Antonio Gramsci

P. Kerim Friedman reviews Peter Ives‘ book Gramsci’s Politics of Language and the connections between Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) and Antonio Gramsci:

In Bourdieu’s early work with Jean-Claude Passeron, we find the term “the cultural arbitrary” used in a way which seems quite similar to Gramsci’s concept of normative grammar: “In any given social formation the cultural arbitrary which the power relations between the groups or classes making up that social formation put into the dominant position within the system of cultural arbitraries is the one which most fully, though always indirectly, expresses the objective interests (material and symbolic) of the dominant groups or classes.” In developing this concept, Bourdieu draws upon William Labov’s early work which showed that “members of a speech community can share allegiance to the same standard, despite differences in the (nonstandard) varieties they themselves speak.” Bourdieu’s work with Passeron serves to highlight how the educational system institutionalizes these arbitrary standards; thus naturalizing the success of the elite who are socialized into these norms before they ever set foot in school. Unlike normative grammar, however, the phrase “cultural arbitraries” reveals a lingering Saussurian structuralism. The specific content of the dominant cultural or linguistic form is less important for Bourdieu’s theory than the mere existence of an arbitrary standard which is recognized as legitimate even by those unable to perform it.

Gramsci’s historical method serves to highlight the cross-class alliances that stabilize in any given “historical bloc”-a phrase that refers to the “complex, contradictory and discordant ensemble of the superstructures” and corresponding “relations of production.” The hegemonic ideology of any given bloc does not simply reflect the interests of only the ruling elite, but also those of the other classes with whom they have entered into alliances and even the very process by which that alliance took shape. For instance, even though America’s financial elite share a generally secular libertarian ideology, the conservative movement was able to succeed by combining elite interests with those of evangelical southern white Christians. This has its roots in post-Civil War Reconstruction and in the “Southern strategy” adopted by Nixon’s Republican party in the wake of the civil rights movement. Choices regarding hegemonic cultural forms are not arbitrary nor do they simply reflect the cultural forms of the elite. They are the product of the “complex, contradictory and discordant ensemble” of a given historical bloc. While Bourdieu may tacitly acknowledge the importance of such processes, his theory of the “cultural arbitrary” retains its structuralist roots. (Friedman, 361-363)


Friedman, P. Kerim.  “Ethical Hegemony.”  Rethinking Marxism 21, no. 3 (July 2009): 355-365.


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