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Defending Philosophy Once Again

Phil Sharpe

MIKE ROOKE has developed a thoughtful reply to my initial defence of Roy Bhaskar’s critical realism.1 Unfortunately Rooke is defending an untenable position: the standpoint of the infallible Marx – with himself as Marx’s faithful interpreter!

The problem with Rooke’s view that philosophy is inherently contemplative is that philosophy has never gone away since Marx wrote the scintillating but ultimately flawed Theses On Feuerbach. The most graphic illustration of philosophy’s continued importance and relevance is that, less than 40 years after Marx wrote such scathing criticisms of philosophy in The Holy Family, The German Ideology and the Theses On Feuerbach, Engels was called upon to philosophically defend Marxism against the idealism of Dühring. The result was dialectical materialism, for better or worse! Indeed, it would be remiss of me to forget to mention that possibly the initial inventor of Marxist philosophy was Joseph Dietzgen, a humble worker and self-educated intellectual, who attempted to show that Marxism was actually a specific expression of the historical development of philosophical and scientific thought.

Nor can it be said that Marxism was characterised by philosophical thought only in its infancy. We all know about the momentous dispute involving Plekhanov, Lenin and Bogdanov about the nature of modern materialism and its relationship to science, and at least some of us are familiar with the polemics within contemporary Trotskyism about the relationship between philosophy and programme.2 Furthermore, and possibly most significantly, it was philosophers such as Adorno, Marcuse and Sartre who tried to show that Marxism need not be reduced to the stifling intellectual conformity of Stalinism. They provided arguments as to why the praxis of Marxism was not the praxis of reactionary Stalinism.

In works such as the incredible Negative Dialectics, Adorno essentially argues that Stalinism is characterised by the subjective idealist view that the objective world is basically a projection of the illusions of the subject, a view which is defended in the most unreflective, dogmatic and nihilistic terms.3 In other words the dialectical philosophical subject has retained its relevance because Stalinism is an expression of the most bankrupt form of idealism which needs to be philosophically opposed. Hence it is developments within social reality that show this need for self-critical and reflective philosophy, and it is very naive to suggest that somehow philosophy has been transcended or made superfluous because of the supreme importance of a few brief comments in the Theses on Feuerbach!

Yet, despite the rich tradition and vital necessity of Marxist philosophy, advocates of Marxism still insist on the transcendence of philosophy. The specific reason given by Rooke is positivist. According to this view, the development of Marxist economics as a science has essentially overcome the need for philosophy as a distinct intellectual discipline; thus to argue for Marxism as a philosophy is to accommodate to the traditional contemplative view of philosophy.

Rooke’s justification for this stance is related to economic reductionism. Exploitation and alienation are conceived exclusively in terms of the economic relations of production, and so what is necessary is the elaboration of political economy as historical materialism in order to develop a critique of existing society and show the necessity of a revolutionary alternative: "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."4 This standpoint denies the dynamism of the political and ideological, which are part of the dialectical (contradictory and interrelated) totality of the social relations of production. Formally Rooke would probably accept the important role of politics and ideology, but his actual methodology subsumes politics and ideology within the economic.

On this basis he can dismiss philosophy as essentially idealist, alienated, elitist, obscurantist and contemplative. For what Rooke is theoretically justifying is an emphasis upon structure, which is defined as economic, and this is linked to a related denial of the significance of consciousness. Thus human agency becomes an expression of the structure in a mechanical manner. What is ironic about this defence of a mechanical approach is that it is elaborated in philosophical terms! Rooke’s rejection of philosophy and its replacement by Marxism is premised upon a distinctive philosophical standpoint, as will be shown shortly.

Rooke’s critique of my article is above all a defence of Marx’s materialist philosophical standpoint that "social being determines consciousness": "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."5 In other words the material conditions of capitalist social relations of production provide the objective basis for the proletariat to realise and transcend philosophy. This standpoint of a dogmatic and class reductive, or sociologically conceived, materialist philosophy is the basis for the development of reasons as to why philosophy is not necessary and should be considered an expression of elitist and alienated thinking. Such an anti-philosophical approach (in materialist form) ultimately has to rely upon the premise that the logic of working class struggle will tend towards communism and spontaneously resolve all theoretical questions. Thus Rooke’s self-limiting materialism is actually premised upon an idealist essentialism, which conceives that the subject of history (the working class) will inexorably act to resolve the problems in the objective situation and therefore reconcile the object with the aspirations of the subject.

This classic example of idealist teleological reasoning, and the related unintended subordination of materialism to idealism, is yet another demonstration that the attempt to transcend philosophy is illusory and ultimately self-defeating. What Rooke is illustrating is that his rigid materialism can only be upheld by a form of regressive idealism. But, alternatively, consistent and explanatory idealism, in the form of the defence of the philosophical subject, is actually grounded in the objective reality of the problem of the alienation and exploitation of contemporary capitalism. Hence it is necessary to indicate that philosophy is not just an argument about ideas conducted in a university, but rather is an ontological condition. This means philosophy has a complex and mediated relationship with social reality and so it is not an arbitrary and artificial construct.

For example, Jameson and Harvey have shown that postmodernism is a structural condition of contemporary capitalism, which means that there is a rich and concrete relationship between the requirements of flexible capital accumulation and the prevailing ideas of postmodern philosophy.6 Jameson and Harvey show that postmodern ideas have a profound objective and historical logic as the dominant ideas of the age, and which have an immense effect upon the theory and practice of contemporary social activity. In contrast, Alex Callinicos, from a more "materialist" and less Hegelian standpoint than Jameson, prefers to reject postmodernism as the elitist expression of petty-bourgeois radicals in retreat.7 This view identifies postmodernism with being the latest form of idealist obscurantism, which can therefore be dismissed when dissected by the alternative of Marxist materialism. Such a crude understanding of postmodernism as the "false" ideology of idealism cannot actually come to terms with postmodernism as a material condition. The point is, like it or not, is that specific trends within philosophy have a crucial and important material content. These trends can be easily dismissed as "idealist", "false", "artificial" and "ideological", but this does nothing to actually challenge the structural effect and durable nature of the role of these philosophical ideologies which ultimately uphold capitalism. Consequently, the real illusory idealism is to try and ignore the structural importance of philosophy as ideology. Artificial and shallow idealism, which masquerades as materialism, is the view that denies or underestimates the importance of ideas and their role in sustaining and upholding capitalism. On the other hand, a more dialectical approach accepts the historical durability of philosophy and therefore attempts to develop a philosophical alternative to hegemonic and conformist trends such as postmodernism.

In other words what is being argued for is a profound dialectical inversion of the traditional Marxist view that being is primary over consciousness. Instead, the crucial and structural ideological role of ideas shows that ideas as an expression of consciousness are the primary basis for understanding the material transformation of social relations. Obviously the material and objective world is the primary ontological condition for human activity, in that sense materialism is more ontologically coherent than the traditional idealist view that the subject somehow created the world. But the dynamic and transforming role of ideas, which are the expression of material and antagonistic class interests, shows that human history is made intelligible and increasingly emancipatory by the role of ideas. So it was actually an "idealist" illusion of Marx, in works such as The Holy Family and The German Ideology, to dismiss philosophy as false and obscurantist ideology; a viewpoint which led him to consider the only relevant ideas as being those that automatically express economic class interests. Instead, it was the generation of ideas by critical subjects which helped to constitute and cohere oppositional economic class interests.8

Thus the 17th century Cromwellian bourgeois revolution could not have been possible without the various dissident ideologies of religious salvation, and the French bourgeois revolution was philosophically prepared by the Enlightenment. The birth of the modern proletariat in Britain was subjectively related to the ideas of the French revolution and Chartism. So the capacity of the proletariat to struggle against its subordination to capital was connected to the influence of these inspiring oppositional ideas. Hence what is truly transforming about Marx’s Capital is its theoretical and political ability to show that the struggles of the working class are based upon a rejection of the objective value content of its subordinate role within history. Thus Marx’s Capital outlined and vindicated the view that the working class could become a class-for-itself and not just be a class-in-itself. Despite his own intentions, Marx justified the view that he represented the Hegelian spirit of history as reason because he had developed the most convincing and systematic explanation of a historical alternative to the exploitative irrationality of capitalism. So it was Marx’s Capital which spiritually transformed the working class and created the possibility for it to change the world.

But surely I am arguing for another version of idealist essentialism and the perspective that the working class will inevitably change social reality because it represents the subject of history? On the contrary, it is the very dynamic and contradictory character of the conflict of ideas within material reality which shows that there is no inherent telos or subject of history that "has" to be realised. Indeed, Marxism has never been uncontested and has had to develop itself through constant ideological struggle within the working class.

One trend with which Marxism was in early conflict was that of Lassallean "state socialism", which defended a reformist and national road to socialism. Hence, even before mass Social Democracy and Stalinism had developed, there was a real and dynamic alternative to revolutionary Marxism and its conception of world revolution. The interaction between this Lassallean ideology and objective material conditions facilitated the ascendency of mass reformist Social Democracy, which marginalised revolutionary Marxism.

Even within revolutionary Marxism, Lassalle’s ideas had an objective impact because the isolation of the October revolution led to illusions in a national road to socialism in 1918. The period of the Brest Litovsk treaty led Lenin to argue that it was possible to build socialism in one country. Lenin tried to reconcile socialism in one country with a world revolutionary perspective, but the theoretical result was to uphold illusions in a national development of socialism.9 So the ideological basis for Stalinism was being prepared before the actual material development of the Stalinist bureaucracy because of the constant influence and role of the Lassallean and nationalist conception of socialist transition. It was this Lasallean ideology which created the bureaucracy and gave it political credibility and the capacity to marginalise the defenders of revolutionary Marxism. The development of the hegemony of the idea of socialism in one country allowed the bureaucracy to ideologically justify consistent opposition to world revolution, and so Marxism was transformed from within into its counter-revolutionary opposite.

Material conditions, such as the unfavourable balance of class forces and the profound economic problems of the October revolution, facilitated the hegemony of the idealist illusions of socialism in one country. But it was the enduring and dynamic role of these reactionary ideas that created the possibility for the Bolsheviks to interpret the adverse conditions in a manner that justified the rejection of their previous revolutionary and internationalist perspective. In other words, the problem of the low level of development of the productive forces and isolation created the objective basis for the Stalinist bureaucracy, but without the dynamic and primary interpretation of this situation on the basis of nationalist and Lassallean premises it would have been far more difficult and problematic to construct an opportunist and privileged bureaucratic stratum. Furthermore, once the idea of socialism in one country became the mass ideology of the most conscious and vanguard sections of the working class, this meant that the revolutionary capacity of the working class was being subsumed into the interests of capital. The ultimate and contemporary result of this process has been the alienation of the working class from Marxism and the related hegemony of postmodernism.

Consequently, the development and conflict of ideas shows that it is a mechanical materialist illusion (which Rooke seems to share) to consider that the objective material and economic class content of the working class will automatically generate the necessary revolutionary class consciousness required to overthrow capitalism. Instead the dialectical conflict of ideas shows that history is far more contingent, uncertain and problematical in its outcome than the presumed progressive unfolding of an objective process of communist transition. The era of globalisation has shown that the productive forces are more materially mature than ever before for communism, but the problem is how can the conflict of ideas be won by revolutionary opponents of capitalism?

In his recent and much derided book From East to West Bhaskar argues for a strategy of emancipation based upon resolving the dichotomy between the material and spiritual.10 Alienation is related to the reification or fetishised primacy of either the material or spiritual. Thus we have either commodity fetishism or the transcendental monasticism of established religion. In contrast to the traditional Marxist rejection of the importance of ideas, Bhaskar shows that ideas have a causal and material content. This is what makes globalisation so subversive, because it actually represents the potential for ideas to have a new and more dynamic content and effect. On the one hand capitalism continually tries to commodify and subordinate ideas to the requirements of capital, but on the other hand ideas have new objective possibilities to resist and challenge their reification in the conditions of the contemporary and more democratic process of knowledge development and communication. This means philosophy is no longer primarily a top-down expression of elitist interests, but is instead becoming a more plural and less academic exercise in knowledge formation. Furthermore, the cognitive conditions are being created for philosophy to once again acknowledge the influence of the spiritual and consciousness. So the contemporary philosophical rejection of the subject as an expression of Descartes’ solitary introspection, is now being challenged by the development of a new holistic subject that emphasises the collective, spiritual and material content of consciousness. Thus the challenge to capitalism is primarily being expressed in terms of this subjective development, and is specifically represented by an ethical critique of the imperatives of global capital.

Does this analysis challenge the Marxist conception of the revolutionary role of the working class? Not at all, but rather than wait for economic crisis to catastrophically resolve all our political problems it is necessary to facilitate the possibility of the working class developing its own revolutionary subjectivity. This means encouragement of the working class to have a role in developing knowledge, rather than passively accepting the subordinate status ideologically and economically bestowed by capital. Such a process of cultural revolution requires challenging the mechanical collectivism of traditional Marxism, which considers the working class to be inherent victims of capitalism. This is shown by the anti Billy Elliott mentality of the left. Instead we should encourage everyone to become their own Billy Elliott and if possible develop a talent! Or, as Bhaskar argues, in order for us to become a collective entity capable of challenging capitalism it is necessary to go through our own voyage of self-discovery and spiritual realisation. Alienation has both an individual and collective character, and whilst the individual cannot overcome the collective primacy of alienation, we can still carry out our own spiritual and cultural revolution that can enhance the capacity to challenge collective alienation. By developing the capacity of ourselves and others in terms of wellbeing, trust, care, solidarity and co-operation, we can enhance the possibility of developing a strategy that can effectively challenge capitalism and replace its economic reductionism with a new subjectivity of emancipation.

Some Marxists will object to the above analysis and suggest that the global justice protests represent the potential for a new working class challenge to capitalism. But has the present spontaneity of these struggles provided an alternative to the ideological hegemony of "There is No Alternative to Capitalism" – the view that history has effectively ended in capitalism? There are many interesting critiques of capitalism by the various global justice theorists, but none of them seems to challenge the ironic and reluctant postmodern acceptance of capitalism. Indeed, the very critique of capitalism could become an integral part of the parody and self-deprecation of the ideological values of the postmodern condition. (This totalising process is already taking place.) For what needs re-emphasising is that it is necessary to accept the philosophical challenges within the task of opposing capitalism. After all, was it not Marx who argued that the ideas of the ruling class are the ones that dominate society? But what complicates this question is that the ideas of the subordinated classes are often integrated into these ruling ideas, as with the present postmodern condition of capitalism. This makes it more vital than ever that we elaborate ideas and values that can challenge the power of capital.

It will be claimed that what I have just outlined is an idealist philosophical justification for a rejection of the historical materialist standpoint, according to which the contradiction between the requirements of the productive forces and the existing relations of production is the basis for comprehending class antagonisms. I reject such a criticism, and instead contend that this historical materialist approach is best elaborated and defended in relation to the primacy of ideas in the development and varied outcomes of objectively located class conflict. In his work Dialectical Logic Ilyenkov shows why we cannot envisage any transformation of material conditions without the elaboration of an ideal, or image, of what we intend the material/objective to be transformed into.11 Or, as Marx explained, insects can instinctively construct an intricately designed object but human beings require planning and conscious aims in order to meet their needs in objective and material terms. So, in actuality, Marxism always envisaged an important role for consciousness, but when explaining the differences between the Hegelian and Marxist dialectic Marx put primary emphasis upon the material rather than consciousness. I now think that this was a mistake, and that in fact the Marxist dialectic is not an inversion of Hegel’s dialectic but is instead a continuation of that dialectic, although without Hegel’s teleological limitations.

In other words, consciousness is the primary aspect of material reality, but this does not mean communism is the inevitable outcome of history. On the contrary, what is being explained is the uncertainty of history. This view is not an aberration from Marxism, but is actually expressed in Joseph Dietzgen’s neglected elaboration of dialectical materialism.12 Unfortunately, Marx and Engels did not learn from Dietzgen that ideas are material in content and have a primary role within human history. We would do well to learn from Dietzgen, the self-educated and working class philosopher of Marxism. He didn’t formally go to university, but he learnt from the university of life. This is true of all great philosophy, and we need to reclaim this great tradition of self-education in the struggle for communism.


1. Mike Rooke, "No Return to Philosophy!", What Next? No.20, 2001.

2. Cliff Slaughter, ed, Trotskyism Versus Revisionism, Vols. 5 and 6, New Park, 1974.

3. Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.

4. Rooke, p.24.

5. Rooke, pp.23-4.

6. Frederick Jameson, "Postmodernism, or the Cultural logic of Late Capitalism", New Left Review 146, 1984; David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, Blackwell, 1989.

7. Alex Callinicos, Against Postmodernism, Polity Press, 1989.

8. This point is discussed by Jorge Larrain in Ideology and Cultural Identity, Polity Press, 1994. The works of Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson are very important for relating consciousness to the development of class.

9. V.I. Lenin, "Left-wing Childishness and the Petty-Bourgeois Mentality", Collected Works, Vol.27, Progress Publishers, 1977.

10. Roy Bhaskar, From East to West, Routledge, 2000.

11. E.V. Ilyenkov, Dialectical Logic, Progress Publishers, 1977, pp.256-88.

12. Phil Walden’s theoretical work has outlined the philosophical importance of Dietzgen.