The initial plan for this lecture was to do a ‘three in one’, this being a dialectical number: three philosophemes, set side by side in their distinction under the general rubric of antiplatonism & so the fourth, which would have made that possible. This fourth is not the sum of these three parts but what makes them appear as parts and thus as a diversity in common. It’s possible that the dialectic requires always this fourth.
These three antiplatonisms also represent three distinct political positions, which adds, I think, another level of interest, given their shared orientation. Marx is a communist and dialectician, as is Plato; Vlastos is a liberal and he considers the debater Socrates to be the same; Strauss is an aristocratic/conservative and finds in Plato’s discussion of the ‘noble lie’ Plato’s rational kernel. Unfortunately, the liberal has to fall out of play here – there is not enough room for him.1 We’ll start with the ‘Marxists’.
In a past lecture mentioned the Timaeus and noted that the dialogue begins with Socrates counting, ‘one, two, three … Where’s number four, Timaeus? The four of you were my guests yesterday and today I’m to be yours.’
Very dialectical, no? Yesterday and today, the one and many, and in this context it is a direct challenge to the arithmetically inspired metaphysics of the Pythagorean, Timaeus, whose story we have to listen too. As always in the dialogues, the opening sets the scene for the ongoing enquiry. As Stalin, who will ultimately be our guide here notes: in ‘ancient times dialectics was the art of arriving at the truth by disclosing the contradictions in the argument of an opponent and overcoming these contradictions.’ Thus in language, the clash of opposites and the disclosure of contradictions, the arrival, if not at the truth of what was at stake, then of what could not be true. In the Timaeus, then, the opening tells us the dialectic will put the arithmetical metaphysics of the Pythagorean to the test.
Yet, as we’ll see, the dialectics of Historical Materialism (Hist-Mat) – which becomes Marxism – if not being itself what Marx had in mind – this has been contentious – is opposed directly to metaphysics, which is sheeted home to the idealists, going back to Plato but through Hegel, whom Marx is supposed to have upended, dialectically, sucking out the rational kernel, as it were. Implicitly, then, whatever dialectics there was in the ancients, limited as it was in its conception to discourse, was nullified in Plato’s supposed efforts to privilege the ideal and the eternal over the inherent antagonisms and qualitative leaps of a dialectics of nature or the stuff that makes up, for this strain of Marxism, concrete social relations. It’s these latter Plato, like Hegel, has inverted for the sake of the ideal, which is to make concrete social relations in its image.
As we know by now, this nomination, anti-Platonism, is rather complicated and doesn't mark a simple opposition. Marx cites Plato positively in several places, for example, in Capital: Chapter 14 of Volume 1, marking him as an example of the writers of classical antiquity, who were ‘exclusively concerned with quality and use-value’. Marx says: ‘This standpoint, the standpoint of use-value, is adopted by Plato, who treats the division of labour as the foundation on which the division of society into classes is based. Plato’s Republic,’ Marx says, ‘in so far as division of labour is treated in it, as the formative principle of the State, is merely the Athenian idealisation of the Egyptian system of castes, Egypt having served as the model of an industrial country to many of his contemporaries also, amongst others to Isocrates, and it continued to have this importance to the Greeks of the Roman Empire.’
Thus, Marx notes, though not necessarily approvingly, mind, that Plato recognises, even if he only makes something ideal and so essential of it, a fundamental materialist basis to social relations and indeed, as I have already remarked, Plato is ever concerned to let us know about where the money comes from, how it is made, what is done with it and how it positions his interlocutors.
But it’s worth noting Marx’s footnote (ever a source of wonder) here because it tells a story that goes beyond the example: He says, ‘the main point with Plato is, that the labourer must adapt himself to the work, not the work to the labourer’. He gives the reasons but note that Plato puts the work first – the work to be done, if you like, ostensibly exists before the worker who must come to it. It’s a long footnote and Marx quotes the Republic: ‘For the workman must wait upon the work; it will not wait upon his leisure and allow itself to be done in a spare moment. … So the conclusion is that more will be produced of every thing and the work will be more easily and better done, when every man is set free from all other occupations to do, at the right time, the one thing for which he is naturally fitted.’
He continues: ‘If the work, says Plato, has to wait for the labourer, the critical point in the process is missed and the article spoiled’. And now Marx links this to the present: ‘The same Platonic idea is found recurring in the protest of the English bleachers against the clause in the Factory Act that provides fixed mealtimes for all operatives. Their business cannot wait the convenience of the workmen, for ‘in the various operations of singeing, washing, bleaching, mangling, calendering, and dyeing, none of them can be stopped at a given moment without risk of damage ... to enforce the same dinner hour for all the workpeople might occasionally subject valuable goods to the risk of danger by incomplete operations.’ Marx finishes with the exclamation in French: Le platonisme où va-t-il se nicher! [Where will Platonism be found next!]. Marx, by the way, read Plato in the Greek.
But what I want you to note is that what Marx is highlighting and criticising here is that the work determines the worker. And that it is the reification of this into the ideal of social relations that is problematic. So we have an ontological structure – work determines worker or if you like, being determines appearing or environment determines consciousness, but we have the raising of this into the Idea when for Marx, rather, it is precisely the matter of a social relation and so subject to material and historical analysis given that the evidence of social relations is not that they stay the same but that they change.
The very idea that they stay the same is the problem, the ruse. And hence to provide a history of these is to undermine the Idealism. We all know that today we are told that things are as they are for us naturally – that this is all just human nature. Let’s not let it go unremarked that one form of the criticism of this is that we are not in fact beholden to nature enough.
So the Ideal is an epistemological imposition, the criticism shows, which would cover over that it is a specific and contingent social relation and thus is posed as ontological. The classic materialist position is that for the idealist the world is only the thought projection of the knowing subject – that the work to be done is to make reality fit the idea. The materialist starts with things as they are and not ‘words’ so to speak and if you remember the Cratylus, Socrates says the same thing to the proto-philologist who gives that dialogue its name: ‘we philosophers’, Plato says, ‘begin with things and not words’.
Now, this determination of thought by being is critical to materialism but in Hist-Mat terms it makes the subjective or conscious agency of the worker or the thinker problematic – what worker agency can there be if environment determines consciousness insofar as this suggests that to change consciousness means a change somehow in the environment – but how does the environment change without being consciously changed … and so on?
Well, this is where the dialectic of nature comes in, as working in social relations or in history itself. Thus this change in nature is inherent to nature itself! We’ll come back to this, which for some Marxists is itself metaphysical but it is the basis of the science of Marxism; analysis or enquiring confirms that this process inheres in nature. Thus, as you see, enquiry finds what is already there.
A materialist has to begin with what there is – so being – being and nature appear to me to be interchangeable in most of this field; which is very pre-Socratic and very Heideggerian, and very Green party too. If the dialectic is what there is as a law of being then it inheres in all relations of one thing to another, including, then, social relations. This assumes of course that being determines appearing in a sort of relation of adequation or that there is no gap between what something is and what it appears as – hence being as becoming and hence the dialectic inheres in history or has a history. I have to remark that neoliberalism effectively runs the same ontology (or claim to ontology) when it tells us that a market society is entirely natural – thus it is the appearance of nature itself in human social relations. One should always run when someone invokes nature I think. The difference is I suppose that for the neoliberal this is the end of history as such – the Absolute. And indeed Hayek is a Hegelian of a sort but we know for Marx, ‘communism is the riddle of history solved, and knows itself to be this solution.’
But as we have pointed out previously, the question arises, for example, as to the knowledge of this nature as natural. Cyril Smith, a Marxist, in a critique of Hist-Mat, puts it as a paradox, asking: ‘when the object to be explained is human history, it includes the wills and consciousnesses of the historical agents, not to mention the will and consciousness of the explainer. In general, they considered historical forces as determining the changes in social forms, as though history had nothing to do with the strivings of living men and women. Many devotees of historical materialism believed strongly in a socialist future and devoted their lives to struggling for it. Did they stand outside the causal process they imagined governed history, somehow immune to its influences?’
So in setting up a dichotomy, Smith is arguing, between the human power to produce – and this includes our own history – and the social connections within which this power operates, you create this very paradox. Note, also, you set any possible subject within the framework of some Ideal. In other words, you repeat the idealist hierarchy even if it’s turned upside down. For Smith and many others, this is not what Marx was setting up in his critique of Hegel. But, as Lucio Colletti and Smith both argue, this is what becomes of Marx’s critique in the hands of ‘theory’. We’ll come back to this.
What it all comes down to, vulgarly speaking, is the very opposition between materialism and idealism and we know that ‘history’ has put Plato on the other side and thus historical materialism and its comrade dialectical materialism are set up precisely in opposition to idealism or metaphysics.
The commonplace notion I just mentioned, that Marx turns Hegel on his head, speaks to this insofar as Marx is supposed to have taken Hegel’s method but inverted the starting place – thus from the Idea to matter or from thought to being and moreover refused the terms of the putative synthesis which the Absolute marks, whereby all being is thought in its realisation as Absolute knowledge.
As noted a few lectures back, it is interesting that Plato turns up in the Soviet dictionary of history as the ‘Idealogue of the slave owners’ but it does summarise the general sense of Plato, via the reification or idealisation just mentioned, as the instigator of the mind over matter, knowledge over practice, aristocrat over plebeian, bourgeoisie over worker, city over country, intellectual over manual, series of dichotomies. And it is true that Marx finds this hierarchy in Hegel such that the dialectic operates there to finalise this division as absolute and thus what is the proper end of world history. Hegel stands in for Plato, then, in the history of Marxism, most critically as the author who makes of the latter a system.
I’m not saying that Hegel set out to fix up Plato like Aristotle presumed too, just that if Plato provided the framework of the dialectic of idealism, Hegel provided its absolute form. Or so the story could go. I’m saying this just for convenience sake, to mark the vulgarity if not the ubiquity of the connection.
In this vein, Lucio Colletti remarks, that there is in the substance of some of Marx’s critiques of Hegel the same as that in Aristotle’s critique of Plato. Let’s look at one similarity:
Hegel makes the predicates, the objects, autonomous, but he does this by separating them from their real autonomy, vis. their subject [being]. The real subject subsequently appears as a result, whereas the correct approach would be to start with the real subject and then consider its objectification [appearing]. The mystical substance [Idea, essentially] therefore becomes the real subject, while the actual subject [being, matter] appears as something else, namely as a moment of the mystical substance [thus as projection of the Idea or what thought determines] because Hegel starts not with an actual existent (being/subject) but with predicates of universal determination [ thus with thought], and because a vehicle of these determinations must exist, the mystical Idea becomes that vehicle. [Hence the Idea is what brings being into existence so to speak as subject]
Now Aristotle speaking of the Idea in Plato – as we saw in the second lecture of this series:
…a material differs from a subject matter by not being a particular something [hence a material is being as such]: in the case of an attribute predicated of a subject matter, for example of a man, both body and soul the attribute is musical' or 'white'; and the subject matter of the attribute is not called music', but musician, and the man is not a 'white’, but a white man . . .[ thus the inversion of being and attribute – such that the attribute which is assigned by thought becomes the material being of the being itself] Wherever this is the relation between subject and predicate, the final subject is primary being. [Thus the Idea is the means of the knowing of the material thing which is to say its true being is not its matter but what knows it to be subject].
In Capital, Marx summed the relation to Hegel this way – saying basically the same stuff: ‘My dialectic method,’ says Marx, ‘is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, ... the process of thinking which, under the name of 'the Idea,' he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos (creator) of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of ‘the Idea.’ With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind and translated into forms of thought. (Marx, Afterword to the Second German Edition of Volume I of Capital.)
This is what it means for Marx to extrapolate from Hegel the rational kernel of the dialectic.
So on the basis of this similarity, which, as I have suggested, really does form the commonplace of the relation of Marxism, or Marxists, maybe, to Plato, I want to take a look at what constitutes historical materialism because this is the name for antiplatonism per se in this Marxist sense: that Plato ignores or falsifies concrete social relations. In terms of the dialectic, which as we know is also Platonic, we can make the same assumption, perhaps – even if it is clear that Plato always starts with what people say, or what is common knowledge with regard to a thing, in order that the thing can be thought despite that common knowledge.
Anyway, as I noted above, there is in Marxism a bit of complicated internal history concerning its two arms, so to speak, historical materialism and dialectical materialism. In essence these become synthesized under the Marxist name – two complimentary parts of its seamless whole. But the history of this synthesis is not so straight forward and reveals a real complexity and it is very difficult to work out both their relations with each other and indeed, as some argue, their relation to what Marx was actually on about. Both terms are post-Marx and he used neither and so in a real way when it comes to Marx we have a problem similar to that we are exploring with Plato; we can use a Deluezian formulation: which one is?
In some ways it can be exemplified in an exchange between Antonio Negri and Alain Badiou at the communism conference in London in 2008. Negri accused Badiou of being a communist without being a Marxist – ostensibly because Badiou does not subscribe to the essential thesis of historical materialism, of the determination of the economy in the last instance or rather, perhaps, that the economy – qua law of production and thus material history of man – should stand in for the being of man as such.
Badiou thus retorted that Negri was a Marxist without being a communist meaning, I think, that Negri – who Badiou elsewhere describes as having a vitalist orientation of the Spinoza variety – effectively de-subjectivises the proletariat by precisely making consciousness subject to the determinations of some being off limits to thought – in the Spinoza-ist sense of a sort of emanating of being itself, consciousness thus being the true realisation of this ‘natural’ determination.
His book Empire suggests this. We could say it’s Hist-Mat Marxism vs. a communist dialectics. The latter, in Badiou’s terms, reserves the place of the subject distinct from ‘being’ or whatever stands in for it. Or more accurately, reserves from the subject its determination by being. I say this because actually Badiou endorses a version of Parmenides (& Hegel’s) assertion that ‘it is the same to think as to be’ which is rather anti-dialectical. Or at least it doesn't suppose the dialectic to be ontological but, we might say, the real of the subject.
Now, it is a guy called Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov who both Colletti and Smith argue, in distinct formulations, provides in the late 19th Century – in league with Engels and under sway of a certain Darwinism – the basis of what becomes Hist-Mat. This is confirmed in the fact that various figures such as Lenin, Lukacs, Stalin and Marcuse accept the terms he sets out. Let me just note here that Engels is squarely in the frame as more than an influence. Colletti, in his introduction to Karl Marx's Early Writings, argues this case convincingly but it is the case that if you try to find out what underpins Hist-Mat for Marxism, most of it traces back to works not by Marx but Engels, wherein a certain life force – whatever it’s nominated as – is the determinate feature of all history or consciousness.
Sentences like this:
‘According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life.’
‘From this point of view all the historical phenomenon are explicable in simplest possible way – with sufficient knowledge of the particular economic condition of society (which it is true is totally lacking in our professional historians), and in the same way the conceptions and ideas of each historical period are most simply to be explained from the economic conditions of life and from the social and political relations of the period, which are in turn determined by these economic conditions.’
‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.’
It's the case though that Engels also notes how man retains the capacity to make its own history, which is to say, to seize on what history delivers to it at some point, as Marx more dialectically contended, as we’ll see in a second. But these citations are worth remarking not just for their influence but also because one can see in them the desperate necessity of leaving no room at all for the Idea – for what remains over and above, so to speak, the twists and turns of natural history or the relations of production. That's to say, any superstructure is reducible to the base.
Colletti notes that Plekhanov (but also other famously influential figures like Bernstein and Kautsky) was formed in a cultural milieu dominated by Darwinism: ‘The cultural mentality common to this whole generation, behind its many differences reposed upon a definite taste for great cosmic syntheses and world-views; and the key to the latter was always a single unifying principle, one explanation embracing everything from the most elementary biological level right up to the level of human history.’
This is the very basic context, Colletti continues, ‘which enables one to understand the remarkable importance of the philosophical works of Engels for this generation of Marxists: Anti-Duhring (1878), The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) and Ludwig Feuerbach (1888). These Post-Marx works coincided with the formative period of the generation to which Kautsky and Plekhanov belonged. Furthermore, Engels shared this milieu’s interest in the culture of the period, in Darwinism and (above all) the social extrapolations to be made from it, down to the most recent findings of ethnological research’. (‘Darwin himself started the whole thing by telling us that he got the idea for the universal Struggle for Existence from reading Malthus’s famous tract against the old Poor Law. To the extent that any hypothesis about history can be said to be clearly true, the claim that Darwin’s view of the natural economy comes out of his understanding of political economy is clearly true, at least in the view of those who do history of science for a living.’)
Ultimately, Colletti notes, ‘of the two founders of historical materialism, it was Engels who had developed what one might call its ‘philosophical-cosmological aspect, its philosophy of nature; it was he who had successfully extended historical materialism into ‘dialectical materialism’. Indeed, he was the first to employ this term. Max Adler - a strange mix of Kantian and Marxist – wrote in 1920 that Engels’s work contained precisely the general philosophical theory whose absence had been so often lamented in Marx himself.’
Colletti makes the case that all these figures new little of the early Marx (Engels reading of Hegel also differed greatly from Marx’s) and especially of the philosophical premises which underpinned his early engagements with Hegel. Indeed some of you might know that this engagement is highly problematic for 20th C Marxism, and Althusser made it an imperative to divide Marx from himself, adapting Bachelard’s phrase ‘epistemological break’ to apply to the early and late Marx.
But it was already in play, Colletti argues. Thus the effort to divide the Hegelian Marx from the scientific Marx. The latter being he of the critique of political economy or in Engels hands, of the naturalisation of production, or if you like, the vitalism of the economy. Colletti’s argument is that in fact the philosophical aspects of Marx, evident in his engagement with Hegel, are the methodological framework of the critique of political economy and cannot be divorced from it.
Anyway, this is a little internecine, except that the emphasis on the later Marx as it were as Marx by Marxism and especially in terms of what becomes Hist-Mat is precisely that Marxism which Idealises Plato and if Colletti is in any way correct, mistakes Marx’s critiques of Hegel thereby.
This is how Plekhanov defines Hist-Mat – we’ll take him as the operative figure – mainly because as Smith says, he is one of the very few who even bother to offer its definition – for the most part it is ‘assumed’: well, except Stalin, who writes the tract Dialectical and Historical Materialism in 1938 and who, as we’ll see, not only references Engels way more than Marx or even Lenin but also explicitly posits dialectic as against metaphysics and concomitantly, materialism as against idealism, and when I say against, I mean not as what contests them as such but falsifies them absolutely as the truth of being itself.
So, Plekhanov: ‘It is the economic system of any people that determines its social structure, the latter, in its turn, determining its political and religious structures and the like. ... (T)he fundamental cause of any social evolution, and consequently of any social advance, being the struggle man wages against Nature for his own existence.’
Marx’s fundamental idea can be summed up as follows:
1) the production relations determine all other relations existing among people in their social life.
2) the production relations are, in their turn, determined by the state of the productive forces. The basic principle of the materialist explanation of history is that men’s thinking is conditioned by their being, or that in the historical process, the course of the development of ideas is determined, in the final analysis, by the course of development of economic relations. … historical materialism claims to explain history as such thus dealing with the causes of social evolution, stressing that history is governed by necessary laws, that are as immutable as laws of nature.
As noted, then, it's the last bit that seems problematic: If there is something called the immutable laws of nature, they are there, operate, interminably as the very being of being itself; then to say that man – the proletariat – is subject to them in what he does means that the proletariat is not subject in the sense that it can do anything about intervening on them.
Of course this history is meant to be taking the proletariat to the promised land but it doesn't seem to be liberating, finally, which is to say, it’s an objective not a subjective communism? Or to put it in terms of the neoliberal sublime: subjectivity is merely or only adaptation – thus there is what is and our reaction to what is determines our place with regard to it – the horrible positive psychology rubbish of well-being calls this same structural de-subjectivisation, ‘resilience’.
Now the famous words of Marx’s 18 Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte seem to offer some comfort to this post Marx Marxism but it also problematises it:
‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.’
So as you can see, the dialectic is here a bit tortuous because there is here a point at which men are not determined by this history and that is the point at which they act on it, or rather the act itself cannot be subject to this history unless it be a repetition in some way.
And I think Marx sees this when he then describes how: ‘The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.’
Meaning that this act is precisely so singular that:
just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionising themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language. Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95. In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.
Basically, what he is saying is man is want to Idealise – thus to return always to the safety of this structure which will re-secure our ‘un-historical’ act to the movement of history and thus save us from ourselves as subject. One should note on this I think Marx’s Thesis on Feuerbach: not the famous thesis 11 which is also inscribed on his grave – Hitherto philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it – but the first thesis which, critiquing Feurbach’s brand of materialism, claims that the (concept of) subject has been left by such materialists to the idealists – thus is considered an idealist or metaphysical category (as in Heidegger too and Poststructuralism as such) – and thus what is necessary is not to have done with the subject because of this – but to come up with a properly materialist conception of the subject . This is how he argues it in Theses 2:
The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.
And in 3:
The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.
What Hist-Mat has delivered, it can be and has been argued, is a naturalist version of this mechanist materialism and thus its subject: hence, one without subjectivity or if you like one with-out history, and really, finally, as subject to objectively true nature as the idealist subject is to the impossible truth of the idea. So the inversion has happened but has anything changed?
This is my suggestion following the line of critique or division that runs within Marxism but which Hist-Mat has overdetermined as it were. Not materialist enough, would be the criticism.
So let’s run through a bit of Stalin’s pamphlet, Dialectical and Historical Materialism. Now there is almost no-one who is a fan of Stalin these days – or who might admit to it – maybe Zizek, but such provocations are required from court jesters. But on the other hand such consensual disavowals have their own problems (which Zizek is excellent at parodying).
Posing as ethical this consensus it is actually imperious; telling us what cannot and indeed must not be thought. So we know we have to hate Stalin, we learn in the abstract that he was the ‘ideal’ mass criminal etc. But what is not to be known is what actually took place, that's to say, the material political history is off limits to thought. It seems that to even think through the process is to be complicit in it (whatever ‘it’ is) once again, to indeed, make it live again and thus to make it less than the ideal evil it must be. It’s the same with Mao etc. And indeed, in the 1970’s, the time of the birth of the return to ‘ethics’, this list was extended to include Hegel and Plato too … (if anyone is interested in some real thinking on Stalin – see the relevant recent issue of Crisis and Critique).
But anyway, what interests me in this text is that Stalin is on the one hand doing no more than giving the didactic form of the history of this assumption in Marxism and in doing so he squares off directly against metaphysics. Of course for us, it’s what this metaphysics is said to be that is really at issue, given that metaphysics is all Plato’s fault, finally, and that metaphysics is at base the disavowal in the Idea of the historical reality of concrete social relations and as such the occluding of the dialectic as immanent force.
J. V. Stalin, Dialectical and Historical Materialism
Cyril Smith, Marx Versus Historical Materialism
Lucio Colletti, (Introduction to) Early writings of Karl Marx