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No Return to Philosophy!

Mike Rooke

PHIL SHARPE’S article entitled "Defending Philosophy" (What Next? No.19) is aptly named. What it amounts to is a spirited defence of philosophy from a conventional liberal standpoint, involving along the way a qualified defence of Roy Bhaskar’s critical realist project. On the latter I will make no comment, but since Phil Sharpe has a long record as a militant Marxist, his views deserve at least a short reply.

Sharpe’s central argument is that philosophy is an enterprise that is necessary for independent and critical thought, and that Marx’s abandonment of philosophy left his own work deficient in key respects, and has left later Marxists unable to deal satisfactorily with certain fundamental questions.

Sharpe’s conception of philosophy is essentially a Marcusian one – as the repository of oppositional and critical (in fact utopian) thought. It not only acts "as the moral conscience of society", insofar as it challenges and demystifies "ideological forms", but it is more fundamental than science in providing the means to understanding "the general character of reality and the possibility for human freedom". Moreover, this role is a perennial one, not limited to any one period of human history. Philosophy has a universal character, therefore, because it is an activity fundamental to the human condition. Sharpe is really defining philosophy here as critical thinking which requires for its existence autonomy from the dominant power in any society – in other words intellectual freedom and independence.

Sharpe believes that Marx, in his Theses on Feuerbach, did not resolve the question of "whether materialism or idealism is primary", and implies that this was because he relied on the (inadequate) notion of human practice, leaving more fundamental "ontological" issues unresolved. Leaving aside the precise meaning of this phrase, I would suggest that it was precisely the inability of the philosophical approach to resolve these issues which pushed Marx to go beyond Feuerbach.

Marx, I would argue, was declaring the redundancy not only of German idealist philosophy, but of philosophy as such. This in no way diminished the critical importance for Marx of the dialectic which he extracted from Hegel. But, crucially, he believed that Hegel had given us a glimpse of the way in which subject and object interpenetrate to create the world (the dialectic), and Marx famously stripped it of its idealist integument. He then employed the dialectic as part of his attempt to grasp the material reality of human production of the world. This was emphatically not a philosophical project!

In the Paris Manuscripts and The German Ideology Marx laid bare the abstract premises of philosophical idealism, and argued that philosophy’s Promethean promise of freedom could not be realised by it. Such a realisation required starting from the "real premises" of men in their productive relations. But if idealism was speculative and a-historical, materialism (in particular Feuerbach’s) was also marked by its contemplative and passive character. Like idealism, this reflected the dualism of subject and object underpinning its view of reality. Despite the progressive nature of his humanist materialism, Feuerbach could not proceed beyond a purely intellectual critique of the world. This most progressive philosophical criticism could not bridge the divide between theory and practice. This is the brilliantly conceived message of the Theses on Feuerbach, which, we must remember, present in brief format the summation of Marx’s break with Hegel’s idealism and Feuerbach’s materialism.

Having concluded thus, Marx embarked on a study of political economy in order to identify the source of human alienation in the material relations men had constructed for themselves. In doing so, he finds in the being of the proletariat the standpoint for a critique of bourgeois economic categories, a critique which, it has to be borne in mind, expresses the practical struggle of the proletariat against the value form (private property/capital). Practice as class struggle (revolutionary practice) provides the means by which Marx sees/goes beyond philosophy, because in the existence of the proletariat there is both a critique of existing conditions and the prefiguration of a new social humanity (the immanence of communism). It is this standpoint (i.e. of immanent critique) which makes possible an advance beyond the traditional philosophical antinomies of subject and object, theory and practice.1 It is a methodological foundation for Marx’s projected science of humanity, the "general result" which Marx had constructed through his critique of Hegel’s dialectical ontology and classical political economy. Its essentials were in place by the time he completed The Poverty of Philosophy in 1847, and it provided the reference points for all his subsequent work.2 Revolutionary practice was not a political slogan, or a magic talisman. It signified the realisation of philosophy by bringing it down to earth, a perfect example of the working out of the dialectic (i.e. the realisation of philosophy through it dissolution).

The transcending of philosophy, therefore, is inseparable from Marx’s very conception of revolution and communism. Communism represents the practical annulment of private property, the material basis of the transition from human pre-history into truly human history. The moving force of this tendency towards communism is the antagonism inherent in the value form of labour, an antagonism which can be resolved only by the reuniting of the direct producers with the world created by them. The divide found in class societies between the specialist practitioners of politics, philosophy and religion, and the subordinate classes (the direct producers), ultimately has its root in the divide between the conception and execution of work, of production. It was precisely this form of alienated human life that communism would overcome. In the communist form of life the conception and execution of work is reunited, thus losing its alienated character, and just as the raison d'être of the class state withers away, so do all those specialist ideological activities which underpin it.

For Marx, philosophy as an intellectual practice reflects a relation to society that is alienated. Its esoteric, contemplative and closeted character (revered as necessary and desirable by all philosophical schools) only ultimately reflects the separation of the producers from the means, conditions and product of their labour. It is an alienation which is summed up in those notions of the "autonomy" and "independence" of thought so prized by intellectuals. The adherence to this contemplative and passive nature of the philosophical approach to society is only the most refined form of the reification of social thought which Lukács identifies in History and Class Consciousness.3 When examined, Sharpe’s defence of philosophy is identical to a liberal championing of the discipline. Philosophy is defined in the most general way as critical and reflective thinking, and any critique of its role and function (as in Marx and later Marxists) is deemed to be an attack on critical thinking. The claims which Sharpe makes for it in this form (its ability to provide foundational knowledge) are quite inconsistent with any principled adherence to Marx. While the maximum freedom of thought should always be defended by Marxists, we should never raise the autonomy of philosophy to the status of a universal principle.

The logic of Sharpe’s viewpoint is to see Marxism as a project of political and economic change which will always require philosophy for its ontological or epistemological grounding. Beyond politics there is always philosophy, just as there always used to be religion! It is as if the Paris Manuscripts and The German Ideology had never been written! Marx never accepted the separation of human activity into discreet realms of politics and philosophy, seeing this as a product of class society, and the rest of his life’s work was a de facto rejection of the myth of an autonomous realm of philosophical truth. Despite the damage done by Social Democratic and Stalinist deformations of Marx’s work, and the efforts of "Western Marxist" philosophers (e.g. Lukács, Sartre, Marcuse) to reinstate a role for (Marxist) philosophy, and therewith the very metaphysics which Marx had tried to get rid of, contemporary Marxists need to defend and develop Marx’s starting point. This starting point was a post-philosophical dialectics of labour.4

Marxism is not about the substitution of critical thought by dogmatism. The whole point of Marx’s critique of speculative (i.e. philosophical) thinking was to shift the critique of existing conditions onto a scientific (empirical) basis (in Marx’s sense of scientific). Such an empirical starting point (which has nothing in common with positivist conceptions) was intended to counter the abstract premises of philosophy, thus enabling "real premises" to be the starting point. This required a critique of the economic categories (systematised in political economy) that expressed capitalist relations of production. As Marx famously said, where speculation ends, there the critique of real life begins. To adopt Sharpe’s definition and role of philosophy, however, is to fundamentally devalue, if not to totally ignore, this achievement. It in fact takes us back to the point reached by the Left-Hegelians and Feuerbach – a speculative philosophical standpoint. All the talk about fundamental questions which science cannot resolve really comes down to this, and in my view represents a massively retrograde step.

Marxists are still in the business of the critique of philosophy, but mistake their task if they see themselves as engaging in the enterprise of philosophy as such, whether this be in the form of conventional philosophical approaches or that ultimate contradiction in terms – Marxist philosophy. Phil Sharpe’s position will only reinforce the traditional divide between theory and practice which has dogged the Marxist movement. The question is not that there are unresolved problems to address/resolve, nor that Marx provided all the answers to these; it is rather on what basis do we undertake the task. Back to Philosophy is a negation of the ground gained by Marx’s general result. We give it up at our peril!


1. For the way in which Marx overcomes the duality of theory and practice, see Franz Jakubowski, Ideology and Superstructure in Historical Materialism, Allison and Busby, 1976.

2. Takahisa Oishi, The Unknown Marx, Pluto Press, 2001.

3. Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, Merlin, 1971.

4. Mike Rooke, "Commodity Fetishism and Reification", Common Sense, 1998.