Whilst Marx was always concerned with the relationship between theory and action, this didn’t mean that he thought theory was a waste of time. Ian Stone argues for a broader view of ‘Marxist’ philosophy.
Though Marx famously stated in Theses on Feuerbach that ‘philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it’, this condensed version of Marxist theory-practice does away somewhat with the vast accumulation of knowledge Marx had achieved even up to this relatively early point in his life. His assertion was, of course, to make a performative but necessary point; the end goal for us all as revolutionaries is the attainment of a radically different society based on need as opposed to greed, and action is necessary to achieve this. Yet Marx was well versed in philosophy; a comparison of the Greek philosophers Epicurus and Democritus views on nature had been the basis of his doctoral thesis and he had also written on 19th-century philosophers Hegel and Feuerbach.
Selective readings of Marxist texts that favour ‘guides to action’ rather than the more reflective philosophical works has somewhat skewed the approach of Marxist organisations in recent years. This has led to the conflation of favourable signs in the movement with victories and victories as evidence that revolution is just around the corner. When we have ‘got ahead of ourselves’ due in part to this approach, there hasn’t always been the tendency to reflect on why we haven’t made significant material gains. This was the case when the huge Stop the War movement of 2003 was not converted into a mass party to challenge the Government of the time. Increasingly, there have also been increasingly formulaic and/or rhetorical versions of Leninism and Trotskyism in particular that have begun to be presented as ‘official versions’ despite their partial readings.
The founding of new radical political groups is an invitation to begin anew. This does not mean the abandonment of central texts that tell us something profound about our experience of capitalism, such as Marx’s Capital. However, there is an opportunity to rehabilitate texts that have been discarded by the movement in the past and question why that was so. Sometimes there was a reason.
Mao’s On Contradiction was once a favoured text of Louis Althusser, who has been highly influential in Western post-war Marxism, but from what we know now of his crimes against humanity Mao is now highly unlikely to be part of a 21st-century philosophical canon. Other times the reason for texts falling out of favour has been less clear. The film theory of Sergei Eisenstein, for instance, is as Philosophically rich as any ‘heavyweight’ Marxist text but bafflingly is somewhat unknown in comparison to his undeniably brilliant films. Some major works have come to light after having been thought lost, such as Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project but somehow have not achieved the status of other lesser works, perhaps because Marxist Philosophy is sometimes viewed as a niche concern compared to former times.
This is an unfair premise and in order to make a strong case for Marxist Philosophy as a vital current we need to argue for it’s importance in understanding the modern condition. This could mean paying greater attention to works which draw on humanism and other aspects of philosophy that lie just outside the Marxist fraternity, such as psychogeography, postmodernism and Semiotics, for instance. And where theories need elucidating or updating, in accordance with a Marxist framework, as with issues of gendered identity or women’s liberation respectively, we shouldn’t be afraid to take a lead. The question vis-a -vis what a Marxist philosophical canon is also needs to be reposed in terms of our experience of the last ten years, and not in terms of what books are ‘acceptably’ Marxist or are unduly prescriptive; ie. what theory helps us to understand our current predicament?
This will be informed undoubtedly by Marxist philosophy that arises out of age-old questions of economy and class history; but class consciousness is also borne out of more immediate philosophical problems posed and forged in the midst of class struggle, and also in the re-emergence of strands of abandoned or ignored thought as it becomes pertinent to the situation, and are assimilated to a reflexive process of trial, error and retrial. We have seen an ideological war waged on immigration and those on benefits and our grasp of our own philosophy will have to be high to effectively counter such right wing arguments.