7. Historical Materialism and Aristocratism: Marx(ism), Strauss (b)
So let’s first reset the terms: dialectic essentially conceives of all the phenomena of nature as being in constant movement and undergoing constant change and the development of nature is the result of the development of the contradictions in nature, as the result of the interaction of opposed forces in nature. So nature is conceived as change and dialectic is the thought of this change. Of how one thing comes to be and another thing comes to go, and so on. Change is what nature is and dialectic is the thought of it as it is. This what it is, is matter or better the matter of nature or the world even, all phenomena, are material. Note here that what is and phenomena are not clearly divided, being and existence are thought together.
Historical materialism names, then, the extension of this into the world of social relations. Thus the dialectic of change inheres in social relations as it does in nature – the phenomena of the social are qualitatively distinct, let’s say, from the natural world but are still, as phenomena, material and so also natural in that respect but as social, so historical; historical materialism is dialectical materialism in the social world, the world of humankind.
This, Stalin says, is the direct opposite of metaphysics. Now what metaphysics consists of, which is to say, the metaphysical disposition, clearly encompasses several assumptions, which are in some way coherent to themselves: if not as a vision of the world as it is. Stalin has a nice way of doing his delimitation. He begins every didactic by saying: ‘Contrary to metaphysics, dialectic…’ So, a negation opening onto an affirmation but, that first negation is already a negation of what is a negation in reality. Metaphysics is the negation of what is real by the Idea – such is the materialist position. Thus to begin by saying, ‘contrary to metaphysics’ is to begin with a negation of that originary negation.
So if I now just speak about what dialectics thinks as the thought of the world you will know by this the metaphysics it has negated.
For the dialectic, the phenomena of nature are connected. That is to say, can only be known in terms of the relations of connection or association. We can only know one thing insofar as we know another and the relation between them – nothing can be known in isolation or abstracted out, if you like.
Moreover, as noted, these relations are all constituted under the condition of movement. So whatever relations there are between phenomena, these are essentially temporary or at least, ever subject to change, hence coming into being and going away. Marxism is concerned primarily with what is coming into being – rather than what is enduring or dying away. Stalin says, ‘the dialectical method considers invincible only that which is arising and developing’. Hence what endures is simply the symptom of its dying away.
A ceaseless flux Engels says – again, note the will to avoid the Idea – which to me, is a much stronger desire in this Marxism than is the affirmation of materialism. It’s the science of Heraclitus we could say, and indeed Lenin thought so, citing Heraclitus as saying, ‘the world, the all in one, was not created by any god or any man, but was, is and ever will be a living flame, systematically flaring up and systematically dying down’; of which Lenin commented: ‘A very good exposition of the rudiments of dialectical materialism.’ But to say it's the science of Heraclitus is really to say it’s an ancient atomism. Marx wrote his thesis on Democritus. So, in some ways, it is that there are atoms – all the phenomena of the world – and void – that space in which they constantly move – and thus underpins whatever relations between phenomena occur. And for Lucretius, ‘any material is subject to irreversible decay…’
Politically, I think it’s an interesting position insofar as atomism poses no internal difference between atoms; thus a fundamental equality between atoms whatever it is that makes them up. Democritus is credited with saying ‘equality is everywhere noble’. But of course, he was a geometer, and he thought that the bastard knowledges of the senses had to be treated by the legitimate knowledge of the intellect, and so he would say that! Still, it is said Plato, that other geometer who wanted to prove in discourse truth of the just city, wanted all Democritus’ books burned. But this is simply historical slander.
Back to Stalin.
Dialectics is not progress – that is to say, a linear development whereby what there is becomes more of what there is – thus a quantitative extension. Rather, these quantitative changes – the result of the process everything undergoes – at a point, realise qualitative changes. Hence things don't just get bigger or more extensive as it were, keeping to a same form, but change in form and type etc. Quantitative change yields qualitative change – leaps and bounds, so to speak. Revolution, for example, in the sense of rupture and reconfiguration. The truly new So change, but not as repetition.
But Stalin, as so often, cites Engels: ‘Here prime mention should be made of Darwin, who dealt a severe blow to the metaphysical conception of nature by proving that the organic world of today, plants and animals, and consequently man too, is all a product of a process of development that has been in progress for millions of years.’
Maybe so, but this only begs the question, I think. For if man is subject to nature alone then repetition is all you get – with some difference, which would also be just a repetition insofar as difference is repeated.
And indeed the example of quantity into quality that Stalin cites is also from Engels, speaking of the natural world but the thing to recall is that Historical Materialism is what takes this into the study of social relations, so this ‘naturalism’ is naturalised. And so this qualitative effect has quantitative cause and as such it really has no place for the ‘leap’ which would be that of the subject – or where the subject comes to exist.
Dialectic also therefore assumes that everything that is, is both positive and negative, which is to say, is always in relation to other phenomena; in agreement say or in contradiction. Thus passing away or coming to be with regard to other things of the world; struggle if you like. So what is coming to be is in antagonistic relation to what already is such that it will die away should that come to be: ‘the process of development from the lower to the higher takes place not as a harmonious unfolding of phenomena, but as a disclosure of the contradictions inherent in things and phenomena, as a ‘struggle’ of opposite tendencies which operate on the basis of these contradictions. In its proper meaning,’ Lenin continues, ‘dialectics is the study of the contradiction within the very essence of things.’
So this is the basics of the science, so to speak, and Historical Materialism is this science in the world of social relations. First, that they have a history as such: & second that it unfolds dialectically, hence the movement in history in the form of social relations – slave system to feudal to capitalist etc. and this in turn means no social system is permanent or eternal, or immutable thus no ‘eternal principles’ of private property and exploitation, no ‘eternal ideas’ of the subjugation of the peasant to the landlord, of the worker to the capitalist. None, then, are final.
Except perhaps communism, which is the end itself of all antagonism, precisely because the social component and driver of it has gone out of it. We make the qualitative leap that the quantitative contradictions of previous societies have set up. Of course we have again the problem of the subject here. For are we to be the passive receivers of this or to force it as such? Lenin made this choice ostensibly against this objectivism, as all revolutions do.
The problem with Stalin, I reckon, is that instead of continuing onto communism from where the leap left them, he tried instead to invent the preconditions of the leap itself, that is, to go backward to the prerequisite social relations, to make reality accord with Historical Materialism. He idealised it, I suggest, precisely by trying to avoid all idealisation, which is to say, all subjectivity, which is founded in the ahistorical, dialectical act or leap.
So, anyway, in the narrative, this dialectical materialism becomes historical we might say, and as such it is opposed to all idealisms, which, Stalin says, ‘regard the world, that is the real world as the embodiment of the Idea or of Spirit etc.’
The Christians make room for the subject by supposing that the real lacks the ideal insofar as man is fallen, which means it is in his capacity to act that this is so. This is the subject Kierkegaard found lacking in Hegel (though some think its case can be made there).
Anyway, the proletariat are supposed by Marx, I think, to be this very subject who makes of this lack of the ideal the real of the world. Thus, without ideal. But that’s a philosophical claim really.
So for the materialist what there is, is real – thus outside all thought, mind or knowledge and so on – the real world is not the projection of our consciousness or our narratives or a reflection of our identities or our experiences and so on. You can see here that humanism is an idealism – but not everyone thinks so.
Anyway, on this question of the relation of thought to being, Stalin again cites Engels: ‘The material, sensuously perceptible world to which we ourselves belong is the only reality.... Our consciousness and thinking, however supra-sensuous they may seem, are the product of a material, bodily organ, the brain. Matter is not a product of mind, but mind itself is merely the highest product of matter.’
The Brain is the organ of thought he says … thus his naturalism is also an organicism and he is dangerously close to reducing consciousness, cognition or thought to a mere mechanism and no more – the very essence of slavery; the very route taken today by some in the neurosciences linked up with those idiot psychologists I spoke of before, who think they are doing us all a favour in conceptualising human possibility as adaptation and resilience: what we forget to ask of these formulations is, adapt to what? Be resilient in the face of what? The very thing Marxism wants us to look at – the set of social relations as they appear today. Cog-psych, or positive psychology etc. are the ideological wing of neo-liberalism, insofar as they presuppose the immutability of the existing set of social relations, the end of history, and us, then, as only its internal organs which from time to time need retuning.
Again, you can more see what Engels is trying to avoid, that he is trying to avoid in fact. But this is not the method of Marx, I have to say, it’s very reactionary, really. But this relation of thought to being or being to thought is very interesting because for the materialist, thought itself, being only finally organic as such, is matter. The same is to think as to be, we can say, BUT conceived in this way there really is no thought at all, so it’s not the Parmenidean notion that what is thought is being as such but that thought – conceived by the materialist against idealism as matter LIKE anything else – is as at best a reflection of matter or the real world or the actual etc.; of its approximation or adequation, is matter itself. All thought is merely matter – brain – reflecting on itself.
Again there seems to be little room finally for the subject except maybe as what shows up as lacking proper reflection vis a vis the demands of matter.
Materialism is also opposed to idealism insofar as idealism posits the final unknowability of the world. Or in other words, that there are no things in themselves and our very practice in the world, our dialectical history reveals this to us: that we can come to know all that we do not know. Again, things like ineffability, immutability, eternal laws, etc. are nothing but idealist inventions to really keep us in our place – the dialectic as the law of being shows us this.
But this knowledge of the materialist is not subjective in the classical sense but, as noted, objective – we know that knowledge – hence real knowledge – knows the things in the world as they are – or is the sort of knowledge that will, as long as we don't give up. This is consistent of course, these objects are the matter of our thought – they are what we think about when we think and this is so, no matter the stories we tell about them – which are the Ideas we construct to account for what we don't know about them.
OK so Historical Materialism is, as I said, the theory which incorporates this scientific dialectic into its thinking of relations of production. Hence, relations of production take the place of nature as the background by which phenomena appear as they do in the world at any given time, and as such can be said to negate certain naturalist tendencies – for example, theories that suppose that geography or climate determine social relations themselves.
Historical Materialism is the study of the social relations in terms of the productive forces of societies – indeed these latter are what a society coalesces around. So it’s not nature per se, but the method applied to nature is the method applicable to social relations given that they are subject to the same forces in their becoming and being. And as we know, it is out from these relations of production, which secure the stuff of a material life, that we humans invent all our cultural, ideological, spiritual, theoretical and so on adventures.
Hence Marx says: ‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.’
And of course in turn for Marx, this social being realises itself in theory, too: properly, a theory of this social being and Marx says ‘theory becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses’. So the conditions of worker being makes a theory of it possible – or even necessary – and this theory put into practice, thus actualised is actualised against not only the current state of the social relations but critically against what knows and teaches and reproduces this form as the only true one – which would be its form of the Ideal.
I think all this is pretty good, really, mostly, except I have a problem with three things: the conception of nature is problematic insofar as it seems to preclude a subject not reducible to it and so a subject who is capable of not being a subject of nature. Even though in the dialectic the thought of the subject is supposed to be of being itself, and thus, as about all change and so on – and so scientific – that no space, no void is possible between subject and object as it were – even if there is supposed to be, atomically speaking, void everywhere – means that any possible subject is always an instrument of what it cannot effect. This is what vulgar Marxism – and neoliberalism both economisms – share.
There is a problem insofar as whatever thought there is, is in the first instance at least only supposed as an approximation of being itself. Thus, that being appears in thought only as itself. So again, there is no means to think other than those of being itself even if this notion of approximation or reflection points out precisely that what is thought of being as such, is not being as such, but its reflection or approximation and thus the subject insofar as it is the material support of the thought of being is always lacking insofar as it is not the being that it thinks, even though it is matter like everything else.
Thirdly, I don't think the metaphysics which dialectics is not, nor the idealism which materialism is not is what Plato is or founds or licenses. Indeed, what Plato seeks to do in and through the dialectic is to make being thinkable but to do so as the thought of the subject as such – what the subjects thinks is being qua being insofar as it is thought, which is to say, in the dialectic is discovering the ways and means to do so. In being thought, being is both what it is and what it might be. The subject has to be free to think what might be beyond being, so to speak, or even what is not being as such otherwise being is never thought at all but reified as a materialisms secret little Idea. Marx was looking in the dialectic, for this very subject I think, the one Plato tried to think.
Let’s look at Leo Strauss:
He studies in Germany in the 1920’s, with Heidegger and others; friends with Gadamer, influenced by Nietzsche and Kojeve: a Jew, he left for America and became highly influential there and became a poster boy for the neo-cons around Bush even if that manifestation is not an entirely accurate picture of what he was on about. B ut what they clung to or used for their own justification was that what they were up to was for everyone’s good even if only the very few could know this or indeed, were capable of knowing this.
Theoretically it traces back to a reading of Plato which supposes a double discourse, the exoteric/esoteric split or the public discourse and the hidden truth of it. It also means that all philosophy is inherently political but in a special kind of way. The problem with philosophy is that in the name of the search for truth it puts into question all public norms – culture, knowledge’s, beliefs customs etc. This does not endear it to the public of course, which, like Socrates’ interlocutors, gets pissed off when told it doesn't know what it supposes it does. Clearly, this truth telling, as it were, will get philosophy into trouble. We saw this example in the ancients, Socrates of course but others and even since. So for Strauss, philosophers had to find a way to philosophise the truth of the city, the good of it, and to transmit this knowledge, which didn't put them into peril.
His book Persecution and the Art of Writing sets this out: basically Plato writes a double discourse under threat of persecution – the persecution all philosophy is subject to insofar as it tells the truth against the norms of the polis. Hence for Strauss truths exist – he hates historicism – and the way must be found for them to be transmitted that avoids them being shut down by the clamour of the public and moreover, that these come to form the basis of all rule. He doesn't believe there can be a philosophical city or that philosophers will come to rule or be forced to, as Plato has it but he does believe that philosophy should rule and that the means for this happening are what philosophers are also concerned with. So it's a discourse for the Good of all that the all cannot know, because if they did, Strauss supposed, they’d oppose it, it not being familiar, habitual etc., and so prove themselves as stupid and vulgar as the few think they are by opposing their own good.
So those who rule must be, if not philosophers, then initiates into philosophy as such – in the sense described here. They must be capable, where others are not, of the knowledge of what is true for the proper rule of a city and they must be capable, for the sake of this truth, to tell lies, ‘noble lies’. Hence for Strauss, ultimately, everywhere it is a matter of two discourses or that every discourse is inherently split between what is publicly declared and what is true of that, which is to say, what cannot be declared publicly but is more public than what is declared. This is both a method and a policy – everyone Strauss reads is read for this because for him all philosophy is delivered in this persecuted way – a part of it, thus, is more real than the whole. But this is the problem entirely, because the discourse of the philosopher is always then obscure. What philosophy needs is essentially the force of Law.
Strauss came to Plato by way of studying the Jewish philosopher Maimonides and his Islamic teacher the philosopher Farabi – and in their conception of the prophet we get a sense of what inspires him to the above:
‘In order to rule or tell people how to live, the prophet had to know what was right and wrong; to have that moral knowledge, he had to have knowledge of God, which, in turn, required him to have knowledge of nature as a whole. In other words, the prophet had to be a philosopher who, in addition to his knowledge, possessed the ability to communicate that knowledge, or its practical results, to the uneducated in imagistic terms they could understand. Because people did not always listen to reason, even in its most poetic or persuasive form, his speech could not remain mere admonition; it had to take the form of law, that is, of a command backed by force.’
Farabi and Maimonides' 'prophet', Strauss reckoned, thus amounted to a Platonic 'philosopher- king'. And so when the prophet was understood to be a Platonic philosopher-king, revelation or ‘the law’ came to be understood to be an essentially political phenomenon and so for Strauss philosophy is also essentially a political phenomenon.
Politically speaking there are several assumptions which Strauss argues are in Plato, directly. Recall above Marx says that Plato, in the Republic, basically imports political divisions found in Egypt and makes them the ideal or eternal form. Strauss, from Farabi and Maimonides, accepts the hierarchy as normal or even natural; they don't challenge it but they acknowledge it and recognise it has to be part of what is managed in a city such that conflict is avoided. ‘To join the interests of the few with the interests of the many.’
Of course, this knowledge of the necessity of the hierarchy and the knowledge of the confluence of interests is the knowledge only of the few. For the rest, it is experienced as the natural order of the natural order as it were. ‘A law which aims only at the well-being of the body or, in other words, a law which has no other end than putting in good order the city and its affairs, and keeping injustice and rivalry from it achieves only ‘imaginary happiness.’ True happiness ‘consists in the well-being of the soul, that is, in the knowledge, as perfect as possible, of all that exists and above all of the most perfect beings, of God and the Angels.’
According to Farabi, ‘the perfect city is designed so that at least some of its members will achieve such happiness…’ But the point of philosophy is the happiness of all, they argue, and so it is by the rule of philosophers that the all might be happy. But philosopher’s can’t rule, as noted, because without dissembling they are persecuted, and so really, there can be no good city as such even if some can still achieve happiness in the less than perfect city. For Strauss, this is what Plato teaches – the happiness of the few in the imperfect city – forget, he says, the just city in words of the Republic that was brought up because Socrates needed somewhere else to live.
And this is where Strauss, following these guys, splits Socrates from Plato – even if he thinks Plato is the author of Socrates. It’s not a question of forms, for Strauss – he doesn't even talk about them except to note Farabi ignores Aristotle’s carry on about them as irrelevant. For him, the division concerns two ways of doing politics: Socrates did it in the street, as it were, so he had to either conform to the rules of the city or not – and suffer the consequences. Hence his contestation was essentially finite.
Plato looked beyond the immediate and aimed for eternity, we might say, thus he theorised what Socrates practiced and hence it was not necessary to change the city as such, just make it possible that wrong opinion could over time be substituted with truths. Philosophy is thus the search for truths impossible for most and the effort to secure these truths in and over time via non-dogmatic means – educational, if you like.Under persecution from the laws of the city, philosophy has to insinuate itself by unobvious means and ultimately, if possible, become law – indeed, for Strauss, law is the only way a truth can achieve its proper effect.
Which is also to say that philosophy is not the practical application of truths but the search for them which makes possible such an application, which is of course by no means necessary to a city, but without which a city will never know happiness as such and, paradoxically, it’s unhappiness comes down to its refusal to acknowledge that it lacks, precisely, that upon which happiness depends – the capacity for truth. And this is the rub because for Strauss, ancient thinkers, and Plato being exemplary, didn’t think that the many had the capacity for truth – ‘truth could not be spread in the form of popular opinion simply because most people would never have the time, ability, or desire to apprehend it; it was the problematic character of truth itself that precluded its widespread acceptance.’
And for Strauss this is why Plato wrote dialogues – because truths as such were what was sought after and could never be finally stated as such or as fact and this is why qua philosophy they were no use, publicly. ‘His teaching can never become the subject of indoctrination. In the last analysis his writings cannot be used for any purpose other than for philosophising. In particular, no social order and no party which ever existed or which ever will exist can rightfully claim Plato as its patron.’
Hence, in the city there is no time for the time of philosophy and hence it falls to the few and the few have to thus find ways to protect themselves from the public and one way to do it is like Plato, speak in and through others, thus not in your own name – this is another reason of the dialogue form. And again concerns persecution; the philosopher writes as an other necessarily and if not, he will suffer.
This is how Strauss projects this politically: ‘As both Socrates in the Republic and the Athenian Stranger in the Laws observe, the institution and preservation of political society require public agreement on a teaching concerning the highest and most fundamental questions about the gods or nature. To teach openly and unambiguously that no human being can ever know anything for certain about these matters is to destroy the protective atmosphere of authoritative opinion.’
So the truth, which absolutely exists to be known, cannot be known by all lest it do what truth does and that is undermine authority by being what cannot be definitively known. But authority is paramount to the institution and preservation of the polis and hence in order that truth function at all it must remain unknown as what it is, except by the few, capable of handling the truth, so to speak, and thus must be presented as what it is not and so as law – hence as what inheres of tradition, habit, belief and so on. The truth must dissemble in its presentation, otherwise it is ruined.
For Strauss, maybe paradoxically, this vision of truth, of how philosophy is manifest as the search for it, is also what is invariant to philosophy – that's to say, it is what makes it possible for us to understand the ancient and the modern authors alike; that in their writing there is this constancy relative to the conditions in which they find themselves.
Some conception of the invariant – which is an anti-historicity and also then anti-relativist conception – is, I’d argue, crucially Platonic. It is precisely not impossible that we can come to know what is true for all but the thing about Strauss is that this knowing about what is true for all is never knowable by all at all. Whoever is philosopher king, whoever, that is, that can come to occupy that position in the field of politics, rules on the supposition that that position gives them this access to truth like no other.
I’d argue that philosophy, really, is the effort to think truths but without kings at all, that no place at all exists where truth must exist or be dissimulated from. There are truths, truths are invariant as such – the same here as in the ancient world – but there is no place of truth that is always the same place. Philosophy is always the displacement of places and the un-law of the law – Strauss says this, but he also makes it impossible – thus he makes a separation and retreats to a limit that I’d say Plato did not want to know. That's to say, which was everywhere invisible but was not at all impossible to not know, which was the challenge.
Ultimately, I think Strauss’ notion of truth is always negative. What it seems to amount to for him is that one never knows all of what they know – hence what is true is what Socrates says when he professes not to know. Strauss thinks that is what is true alone, hence there can be no affirmative notion of truth and so he knows then that nothing truly new is possible, which in the context is to say that we can never know a politics other than that of hierarchy and division and their amelioration. Thus, as persecuted, philosophy is reactionary, requiring a conservative politics for its survival. But tasked to think, as Strauss says, against the norm, thus to think the truth of such norms, then philosophy must also be able to think a politics which is not structured a priori in hierarchy and division as such and if so to think a new politics against the non-knowledge of its form. Rather than rest assured in the knowledge of Plato, this is to take another step in the Platonic trajectory.
Catherine H. Zuckert, The Truth about Leo Strauss.
Joseph Stalin, Dialectical and Historical Materialism
Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing
The Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws
The City and Man