Mentor Marx 2

Marx as Warhol
[Second part of my Marx piece. More literary/cultural dimensions…Also bit more memoir here. Translations again mainly my own.]

Mentor Marx, Part 2

Linked to this critical analysis of the roots of alienation and reification in commodity fetishism and the capital relationship is the cultural charm of Marx’ radically ‘modernist’ attitude. Although as much a part of the same post-romantic 1840s generation that founds artistic modernism as are Baudelaire, Flaubert, Wagner, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky or Whitman, Marx is seldom considered part of it despite seeming to incorporate Baudelaire’s defining injunction of ‘il faut être absolument moderne’ as much as the others .

Although implicitly (like many an anarchist) ‘romantically’ motivated by a sense of loss of personal autonomy still to be found in the pre-capitalist free peasant or artisan, Marx’ critique is not based on any romantic or reactionary hankering after any supposedly lost pre-capitalist ‘innocence’. He does not simply and abstractly reject or negate capitalism like contemporary religious fundamentalists, primitivists and anti-modernists. His whole thrust is radically dialectical, transcending modernity, not by totally rejecting it in a reactionary or ‘fundamentalist’ way, but by further developing its own internal contradictions, its necessarily blocked inherent potentials, hoping ‘to heal the wounds of modernity through a fuller and deeper modernity.’

Thus it is well known that the Communist Manifesto – perhaps ‘the first great modernist work of art’ (Morris Berman) ‒ is also an eloquent hymn to the ongoing capitalist construction of the world market.

150 years before any breathless theories of ‘globalisation’, ‘planned obsolescence’ or ‘future shock’, it is still, perhaps even increasingly, resonant for us later generations. It is indeed ‘a document which can be, has been, critiqued and argued with – even by its author – but which will be carried into any future that is bearable to contemplate’ (US poet Adrienne Rich). It, famously, actually welcomes capitalist ‘disenchantment’, the ‘revolutionary, demystifying and ‘civilising’ essence of industrial capitalism, its inherent survival need to incessantly develop technology, expand, subvert and destroy all ‘natural bonds’, all feudal and reactionary relationships and drag them kicking and screaming into the modern age and the total brutal rule of the cash nexus:

“The bourgeoisie, where it has come to dominate, has destroyed all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relationships. It has mercilessly torn apart all the colourful feudal bonds that linked people to their natural superiors and left no other social bond but that of naked self-interest, the emotionless cash nexus (…) It has dissolved personal dignity in exchange value (…) It has, in a word, replaced an exploitation veiled in religious and political illusions with an open, crass, direct, lean form of exploitation (…)

Only the bourgeoisie has proven what human activity can achieve. It has created quite other wonders than Egyptian pyramids, Roman aquifers and Gothic cathedrals (…) The bourgeoisie cannot exist without continuously revolutionising the instruments of production, thus the relations of production and thus all social relationships. (…) The continuous revolutionising of production, the never-ending shattering of all social conditions, eternal insecurity and movement – these characterise the epoch of the bourgeoisie in contrast to all other epochs. All stable, rusted relationships and their venerable views and beliefs are dissolved, all newly formed ones are obsolete before they can ossify. All caste relations and social stagnation melt in air, all things holy are profaned, and people are finally forced to look at their life conditions and relationships in a sober, unblinkered way.”

And this dialectical critique is of course grounded in historical hope, in a ‘messianic’ vision of a post-capitalist free society liberated from the dictatorship and psychosocial alienations of capital, money, wage labour and commodity production. The vision is more assumed than ever really spelled out as it is seen ‒ like the theoretical work of critique itself ‒ as an ongoing work-in-progress, a product of real historical class struggles, not as a utopian and dogmatic blueprint arising in some isolated intellectual’s brain.

Yet there are hints and glimpses. Post-capitalist society is the ‘negation of the negation’ and the ‘inversion of the inversion’. It is the annulling and transcending – on the basis of capitalism’s economic achievements and wealth creation ‒ of social alienation and reification, the assertion of humanity’s freedom and dignity by gaining control over its own run-away economic and political creations.

The Communist Manifesto famously speaks, in anarchist terms, of a post-capitalist society overcoming class conflict as an ‘association in which the free development of each individual is the condition of the free development of all’. Marx speaks in the first volume of Das Kapital of the ‘association of free humans’ (Verein freier Menschen) working with collective means of production and consciously expending their diverse individual energies as expressions of a collective labour. The third volume envisages freedom as a condition in which

“(…) socialized mankind, the associated producers, regulate their interchange with Nature rationally, bring it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by some blind power, and accomplish their task with the least expenditure of energy and under such conditions as are proper and worthy for human beings.”

Using Marx’ theory of alienation, you write a long essay for Christian Enzensberger’s Beckett seminar at Munich University exploring alienation as loss of self and relationship in a long essay ‘The Epistemology of Alienation in Samuel Beckett’s Watt’. Moving beyond the strictures of New Criticism and Leavisite moralism, ‘epistemology’ and ‘hermeneutics’ (the theories of perception/knowledge and interpretation) become new fields of intellectual interest first stimulated by readings of Habermas and, particularly, Adorno. Like your original reading of Waiting for Godot in Sydney, a close reading of Watt’s psychotic procrastinations, confusions, semantic despair again strikes deep chords. Gradually moving away from your previous vaguely Leavisite social liberalism, you see it as a contribution to your mentor Enzensberger’s concept of a ‘literarische Ichgeschichte’, the innovative neo-Marxist notion of pursuing literary criticism as engaged research into the internal history of the bourgeois ego or self in its interdependence with the changing economic and social conditions of bourgeois society. Beckett’s modernist works, for example, can then be read as useful literary documentations of the state of the bourgeois self in mid-twentieth century capitalism (Herbert Marcuse: “The real face of our time shows in Samuel Beckett’s novels” ).

You try the same thing for Shelley’s Romantic nature poetry in a long essay in German entitled Subjektivität und Ding in Shelleys Naturlyrik (‘Subjectivity and Object in Shelley’s Nature Poetry’). Close readings of the poems Mont Blanc, Ode to the West Wind and To a Skylark analyse the epistemological relations between the authorial voice and the natural objects depicted. Within the conceptual framework of a Marxian concept of alienation, Critical Theory (Adorno, Habermas) and Enzensberger’s ‘literary ego history’, you read Shelley’s odes of 1816-1820, albeit rather abstractly, as failed attempts at meaning-making and individuation within the historical context of early industrial capitalism in Britain and its psycho-historical correlates of alienated and reified relationships.

From this neo-Marxist perspective, Shelley’s poetry frantically, mournfully, violently attempts to attain in the medium of language, of art, what ‒ at least under critical-materialist assumptions ‒ can only be realised within real social and productive relationships: meaning and identity. Shelley’s lyrical observer reproduces the self-experience of the isolated, alienated participant of a now fairly generalised market society in early nineteenth century Britain.

In the odes, an isolated observer bereft of social relationships confronts isolated natural objects bereft of social relationships and tries to find personal meaning through the invocatory, pseudo-dialogic literary form of the ode. Various language manoeuvres are attempted. Objects are reduced to the subject (i.e. anthropomorphised) or the subject wishes to be reduced to a thing or passively subsumed under the power of things and natural cycles; the subject projects symbolic meanings onto the object; things are seen abstractly as diverse manifestations of an abstract and unknowable ‘power’.

All these poetic manoeuvres resonate with specific features of Marx’ theory of ‘commodity fetishism’ and its ‘naturally supernatural’ mysteries of concrete-and-abstract-in-one. Finally (in the last poem of the three poems, To A Skylark), the language that is desperately seeking to find or foist meaning in or onto these natural objects seems to break down under the strain and end in abstractions and outright clichés or else the opacity and undecipherability of the artificial and abstract symbol. The psycho-historical and aesthetic threshold from ‘late Romantic’ to ‘early Victorian’ poetry (Swinburne, Tennyson) seems to have been crossed.

Around this time you meet a new friend, let’s call him Mojo: long gaberdine coat, round rimless glasses, mildly unruly straw blond hair, a leftist, hashish smoker, furrow-browed sufferer of migraine headaches and fan of free jazz. He becomes a kind of peer mentor. Your social focus shifts away from the anglophile and apolitical Critical Society to leftist comrades and reading groups, finally to the newly formed Rote Zelle Anglistik-Romanistik (‘Red Cell English-French’). Hardly having read a few short texts of Marx ourselves, we are already in demand to ‘teach Marx’ to other students at the Munich art academy. We take first semester art students through the pre-economic texts Theses on Feuerbach and The German Ideology, emphasizing the former’s stress on the need for (revolutionary) ‘praxis’ and the latter’s stress on the materialist primacy of economic ‘base structures’ over cultural ‘superstructures’. It is a simplified, vulgar form of ‘Marxism’ we ‘teach’; it is the blind leading the blind.

For three or four years you read a lot of social theory instead of literature and feel no urge to write poems. When one then does arise again it becomes, after Dadaist beginnings, short allusions to beloved poets and a passing muse, almost necessarily ‘political.’

Black Power Meat Flower

ba ba ba lu la
ba ba Babylon
o hide, object
abject reject
baby Billy Blake
blow your horn blow:

it is the reddishness or suchness
of the red that is different
from the suchness of the blue…

of the neon furry plastic
perambulating her breasts
o baby long
a long long time a cummings

but Coming the implosion
black blood on oil stains
singing the abstraction of the streets
Watts Harlem Detroit

jes groovin’
The Trane like a carnivorous flower
hear it comin’ long
the wired freeways


During this period there is, for a time, a pervasive sense of ‘the establishment’ being caught on the back foot, of not really having any arguments or viable ideology with which to counter our new-found, New Left Marxism. We are invited to the humanist philosophy seminars of the elderly and charmingly urbane Italian philosophy professor Ernesto Grassi who is sympathetic to the student movement and Marxist humanism. He seems keen to learn more from us Neo-Marxist students. Flattered but not showing it, and having just read a few pages of Marx, we pretend to all-encompassing insight into the ‘fundamental self-contradictions’ of capitalism and the blindingly ‘obvious’ nature of socialism as its necessary replacement.

Our energy and radicalism is an expression both of the marvellous surplus energy and moral outrage of youth and the spurious, overcompensating pseudo-confidence that derives from a felt (but never openly acknowledged) ignorance. At times this denied ignorance takes on the form of an over-compensating, outright boorish arrogance. When an elderly visiting critical Marxist of the famous Yugoslav Praxis school, Gaijo Petrovic, is a guest in a Grassi seminar, my friend Mojo (albeit visibly sweating under his own chutzpah) lectures him at length on the ‘simple reason’ for the absence of ‘real’ socialism in Yugoslavia: money has not been abolished. A strange oversight by our Yugoslav comrades. QED, case closed.

On the other hand, the basic tenets and radical social perspectives of Marx and Marxism are (like the writers, artists and art movies of the previous seven or so years) another, and lasting, form of cognitive liberation, a stepping out of some mental box or cage . At times it feels like the famous Renaissance image of Copernicus thrusting his head through one of the planetary spheres of medieval thought to see the new modern reality of a heliocentric solar system. Marx has provided a new ‘sun’ around which your forming mind can revolve, his analysis of the commodity and capital.

Thus the often confusing surface complexity of modern society, the total environment of commodities and commodified images experienced daily (Guy Debord’s ‘society of the spectacle’), the inexplicable simple ‘naturalness’ or sheer static ‘givenness’ and opacity of social phenomena, their apparently ‘eternal’ nature – all this starts to become more transparent, more comprehensible once, under a Marxist lens, they are related to historical developments, class and power struggles.

Central to these, in turn, is the ‘great transformation’ (Michael Polanyi) ‒ the great social inversion and alienation ‒ that has defined capitalist production since its beginnings. Suddenly there is some kind of measuring stick, an alternative (not merely intellectual but somehow gut-level) set of criteria with which to perceive and understand social realities and commentaries. Holden Caulfield reads Das Kapital: the Marxist perspective provides an intellectually sophisticated version of a bullshit or phoniness detector.

Also central to this radical distancing from ‘consensus reality’ and official phoniness is the new found key notion of ‘ideology’. This term denotes not its common, trivial (and Marxist-Leninist) sense of any belief system or Weltanschauung, but its original critical Marxist sense of socially produced ‘false consciousness’. Ideology in this critical sense is a social form of the personal defence mechanism Freud termed ‘rationalisation’: seemingly rational theories are used to buttress personal unconscious or semi-conscious needs or perceived interests.

The critical Marxist understanding of ‘ideology’ is that it is not arbitrarily or ‘wrongly’ but in fact necessarily produced by the ‘false’, alienated relations of production and distribution (at least as long as people remain caught and conditioned within the systemic social roles which express and maintain these alienated relations). Ideology in this sense is ‘socially necessary appearance’ (gesellschaftlich notwendiger Schein).

Ideology is then in most cases not simply ‘untrue’ or a cynical Machiavellian lie (although these are of course still used where possible, e.g. in crude forms of propaganda). The apparent paradox is that, given a ‘false’ reality, ideology, although ‘false consciousness’, may, as an expression or mirroring of this false reality, thus often in fact contain a lot of (unconscious) ‘truth’ about that reality. Your neo-Marxist Ideologiekritik – so central to the work of the Frankfurt School and your main intellectual occupation at the time – is based on this central dialectical notion of the falsity of that masquerading as official truth and of the truth hidden within the false.

Moreover, such a notion of ideology can be linked not just to the contents but to the very forms of abstract thought, your now increasingly consuming occupation. To express, for example, everything ideologically in the science of numbers, dollars and statistics, to reduce all thought to quantifiable ‘information’ (as in information theory, cybernetics, IT), may reflect the extent to which modern reality is in actual fact completely dominated by the reign of money, capital and quantity.

Or (to take another, earlier example), to believe, like philosophical idealism, that reality is created exclusively by the mind or that cognitive abstractions (The Mind, The Ideas, The One, Transcendental Apperception, The Absolute, God etc) are as real as the printed paper page you are reading, may in fact also express a real historical abstraction and inversion: the reign of money and abstract exchange value over humans, qualities, use value. The invention of money may have changed human neurology.

Monotheism, Chinese and Greek philosophy arose in the historical phase in human development in which a new, major abstraction actually began to dominate society: generalised commodity production, coined money and its inherent real ‘abstraction’ from the use value of goods, the brutal realities of (often slave) exploitation and the traditional customs and reciprocities of human community.

As ‒ on the basis of commodity production by slaves ‒ the abstractions of money, trade and exchange values became increasingly widespread (particularly among the ruling classes exploiting and divorced from the realities of production and nature), they indeed tended to dominate society, to become rulers, to invert human agency. (In the Marxist reading, this inversion occurs on a total scale only much later in industrial capitalism, the now socially generalised rule of money and exchange values, in which even human labour has become just another commodity to be bought and sold).

Thus the formal ‘truth’ of the cognitive abstractions and inversions of philosophy, science and theology may (irrespective of their particular contents) lie in their ideological (unconscious) reflection of real ‘abstractions’ and power inversions in human social organisation and intercourse. This notion of the inner historical and formal relationship between abstract thought and social commodity/money relations is one central to and scattered throughout the works of various members of the Frankfurt School, in particular those of T.W. Adorno.

[An explicated, more classically Marxist theory of this notion can be found in Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s Geistige und körperliche Arbeit (1970), Warenform und Denkform (1971) and Materialistische Erkenntniskritik und Vergesellschaftung der Arbeit (1971). Adorno and Sohn-Rethel corresponded on these issues in the 1930s. British Marxist historian George Thomson’s more empirical historical study linking commodity production, the circulation of money and the origins of Greek philosophy (The First Philosophers, 1955) also expresses an intellectual debt to Sohn-Rethel.]


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on June 26, 2014.

3 Responses to “Mentor Marx 2”

  1. Reblogged this on nickweechblog's Blog and commented:
    I find this all so fascinating and dense, so hard to get it clear. Deep but I’m persevering. Thanks for it Peter

  2. Quite an intellectual journey, Peter, and through such interesting times.
    I am still caught up with this notion of ideology, believing it in some way holds the key to understanding the failure of “proletarianization”. If we accept “the truth hidden within the false” , we have to understand this masking mechanism and how this residue or kernel can be discerned.

    You touch on “the unconscious” in a few spots , which I believe is a glimpse into that realm beyond mere abstraction, and points the way forward ( dream- work and psychoanalysis) If you should get a chance, Mapping Ideology, edited by Slavoj Zizek, really confronts this question from many perspectives. I believe his own contribution, The Sublime Object of Ideology has many great insights as does the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantell Mouffe with their “chain of signifiers” and re-working of Gramsci. How ideology is tied in with hegemony and “the organization of consent” is the practical problem we confront (as with IOPS) . We all consent to recognizing the commodity-form or money AS IF it were the pure realization of value, KNOWING FULL WELL it is not. It is in our acting, our doing, rather than our thinking, that the illusion, the fantasy, the “mis-recognition” takes place, no?

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