Post-structuralism: A marxist alternative

by Tony Sullivan • Published 8 March 2020

Post-structuralism has overshadowed Marxism on the campuses and the intellectual left. It has planted its flag in the fields of politics, philosophy, linguistics, literary criticism and the fine arts, and names like Derrida, Foucault and Baudrillard crowd out Marx and Engels in every fashionable bookshop. Often indirectly, its ideas have influenced many people, students especially, who desire social change. All this is a problem for us, because post-structuralism is radically opposed to Marxism. Its popularity is a product of the retreat in social protest that has occurred since the 1970s. Post-structuralism has in turn helped to deepen that retreat by providing its most polished rationale.

The retreat has partly been from direct action to “discourse”, partly from a conception of unity to one of fragmentation. In the 1960s and ’70s, protests in the streets and workplaces linked into each other more often and more deeply than today. The long post–war period of stability and expansion had ended in an upturn of political protest which combined several elements: Western governments were responding to rising worker militancy by launching direct political attacks (in Australia, greater use of the Penal Powers legislation) which produced large scale and politicised resistance by workers. Simultaneously, the worldwide movement against the Vietnam War was training many activists who later took up causes such as women’s and gay liberation. In left wing theory each issue, each instance of confrontation, was quickly generalised and related back to the whole situation.

But worker militancy has long given way to union “concessions” of wages and conditions. In Australia, real wage cuts accepted without a fight by the leaders of the ACTU have been largely unchallenged by their demoralised and passive membership. Meanwhile, former student protesters have moved into academia. As in material life, so too in theory: the most popular conceptions of power today, especially those of post-structuralism, identify it with language and knowledge rather than factories or police truncheons. And today the separation of social issues is almost unquestioned, the separation of protest campaigns, where they still occur, is taken for granted. Trotsky caught the flavour of such turns:

When the curve of historical development rises, public thinking becomes more penetrating, braver and more ingenious. It grasps facts on the wing, and on the wing links them with the thread of generalisation… But when the political curve indicates a drop, public thinking succumbs to stupidity. The priceless gift of political generalisation vanishes somewhere without a trace. Stupidity grows in insolence, and, baring its teeth, heaps insulting mockery on every attempt at a serious generalisation.[1]

Post-structuralism articulates and justifies this fixation on the specific. The Marxist call for “one struggle, one fight” becomes the call to “theorise the totality”, which is not just dogmatic or even quaint, but actually sinister:

(1) it removes from the popular forces the ability to define the limits and aims of practice, and (2) it gives the intellectual power over the liberation movement… If Foucault is right that discourses are already powers, can a distinction be drawn between discourses whose powers strengthen the existing modes of domination and those that work to undo them? If it is impossible…it may at least be possible to enumerate aspects of critical theory which operate as modes of domination, such as Marx’s use of the term “universal”.[2]

Closely related to this fragmentation is the seeming absence of any core or foundation to society, any economic “base” beneath a superstructure, any central underlying tensions – and therefore, any distinction between appearances and the full truth. In most Western countries at least, the surface of society, rarely broken by class struggle, has given little suggestion of hidden depths.

This period of retreat has some similarities to the early post-war era. But today there is a much weaker world economy, social decay, and fears of worldwide ecological catastrophes to add to the more traditional nuclear terrors. Together these things have ruled out a return to the confident liberalism of the 1950s. They have produced a mood of pessimism, which is all the sharper for following the optimistic 1960s. Here too post-structuralism fits with the appearance of things. It is an example of what Georg Lukács called indirect apologetics:

Whereas direct apologetics was at pains to depict capitalism as the best of all orders, as the last, outstanding peak in mankind’s evolution, indirect apologetics crudely elaborated the bad sides, the atrocities of capitalism, but explained them as attributes not of capitalism but of all human existence and of existence in general.[3]

It is this criticism of society that provides post-structuralism’s radical appeal to some of those who want social change. But post-structuralism also appeals to a more conservative audience of yuppies. Prosperity has reconciled a whole social layer, however cynically, to the status quo. As well, Alex Callinicos notes how “a principal feature of post-structuralism is its aestheticism, inherited from Nietzsche and reinforced by the attempts of Derrida, Foucault et al. to articulate the philosophical implications of modernism”. This “accords with the cultural mood of the 1980s. It has become a truism to say that this is a decade obsessed with style”, achieved through consumption. It is best understood against a background “of good times for the new middle class…with more money in its pockets and easier access to credit”.[4] (This “narcissism” is, as we will see, in conflict with the other current of post-structuralist thinking, which in fact denies all importance to the human subject.)

In the light of all this, it is not surprising that post-structuralism ridicules Marx’s visions of workers’ revolution and a free and equal communism. The character of both society and humanity, it says, makes these visions impossible. Its challenge comes on several fronts. First of all, it says that the world of society and nature is unknowable in any objective sense – and therefore scarcely open to conscious mass direction. Jacques Derrida says human thinking is absolutely sealed off from the external world of nature and society by language, the inescapable framework of thought. “There is no outside-text”; things as they appear to us through the medium of language are effectively the only reality.[5] For Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault, this inaccessibility of objective reality is connected to a second idea of post-structuralism, the inherently fragmentary character of existence. Deleuze asserts that reality is a “chaosmos”.[6] For Foucault, no knowledge can be anything more than a perspective, inseparable from one’s place in power struggles that pit everyone against everyone else; there is, as Mark Poster put it, “not truth only truths”.[7]

Thirdly, there is no core to society, no key force unifying it into a meaningful totality, the way that capital and commodity production unifies society according to the Marxist model. Every force in society, every phenomenon, is as important as every other. Thus once again there is nothing hidden beneath appearances. Events, individual happenings, “are ‘ surface-effects’; their meaning is not an essence concealed beneath them, but consists in their differential relations to other events… Deleuze quotes Paul Valery approvingly: ‘there is nothing deeper than the skin’.”[8]

Fourthly, post-structuralism is irrationalist. It says the world is not comprehensible through logic. Derrida finds, within language (our sole effective reality, remember), a “metaphoricity” which “ is the logic of contamination and the contamination of logic”:[9] the most seemingly clear-cut piece of writing turns out to rest on words of uncertain meaning. These are “not (Derrida argues) just casual metaphors or incidental turns of phrase”, because each is an instance that “disrupts the very logic of self-identity, that opens up a play of semantic substitutions beyond all hope of assured conceptual grasp”.[10] Foucault doesn’t like the irrationalist label, but his denial is unconvincing:

The relationship between rationalization and excesses of political power is evident. And we should not need to wait for bureaucracy or concentration camps to recognise the existence of such relations. But the problem is: What to do with such an evident fact? Shall we try reason? To my mind, nothing would be more sterile. First, because the field has nothing to do with guilt or innocence. Second, because it is senseless to refer to reason as the contrary entry to nonreason. Lastly, because such a trial would trap us into playing the arbitrary and boring part of either the irrationalist or the rationalist.[11]

In sum: the chaos, senselessness and brutality in the world around us can never be dislodged by deeper forces at work, because there are none. Appearances are everything. This viciously depthless model of society is also, in a sense, applied to people – most explicitly by Foucault, who implies that there is nothing hidden, repressed or contradictory in human beings. Post-structuralism, like the structuralism of the 1960s, “decentres” the human subject. Methodologically, structuralism began neither from individuals, classes nor humanity in the abstract, but from systems of meaning or “signification”. Drawing on the French linguist Saussure, they argued that a system of binary oppositions constitutes all meaning within language. They then applied this theory to society. In doing so they also denied people any capacity, individually or collectively, to react back on the impersonal social structures that shape them. “Why do we dress in a particular way, eat our meals in a particular order, and so on? Because we are conforming to patterns of signification, was always the answer.”[12]

The political upsurge of the late 1960s therefore embarrassed structuralism. Perhaps to account for the upsurge, Foucault dispensed with “the great model of language and signs” in favour of “that of war and battle”[13], of power/knowledge. But this did not mean people could react back upon social structure. On the contrary, in his most influential writings[14] he saw the human being as shaped down to the smallest detail out of competitive struggles in which people, even in person-to-person encounters, are pawns of an abstract (in fact, a “universal”) drive for power. If people are constituted by and contain nothing independent of existing power structures, how can they be oppressed by those structures? Foucault’s arguments undermine the whole notion of oppression. So, for example, he dismissed the idea of a sexuality distorted by capitalism:

Something that smacks of revolt, of promised freedom…slips easily into this discourse on sexual oppression. Because this repression is affirmed, we can discreetly bring into coexistence concepts which the fear of ridicule or the bitterness of history prevents most of us from putting side by side: revolution and happiness.[15]

Sexuality, as anything more than bodily pleasure, is really a “great surface network” of “force relations”, created blindly on a social scale as individuals seek power over each other by gaining knowledge of them. With the denial of subjectivity (the idea that people react back on their social conditions) goes a dismissal of human nature, insofar as this might be used to provide a content for notions of freedom. He endorses Nietzsche’s claim that “the concept of liberty is an ‘invention of ruling classes’ and not fundamental to man’s nature”.[16] Socialists at the turn of the century “dreamed of an ultimately liberated human nature. What model did they use to conceive, project and eventually realise that human nature? It was in fact the bourgeois model.[17] It is worth noting, however, that the supposedly universal and timeless lust for power does not suffer the same critical scrutiny as the purely “bourgeois” hope for liberty.

A subsequent article will look at the work of Nietzsche, Saussure, Lévi-Strauss, and the post-structuralists themselves. The current article attempts to put a Marxist position on some of the issues they raise. Marxism includes a number of philosophical propositions, among which are: that the world of society and nature quite definitely and demonstrably exists outside of people’s thoughts about it, and that we can have definite, if incomplete, knowledge of this world, using rational thought; that the world can and must be grasped as an integrated whole, rather than as a set of fragments only randomly related to each other; that human beings have an inherent dignity, the needs and capacities of the human personality providing a moral content to the demand for freedom; and that people, while shaped by social forces beyond them, are not endlessly malleable, and react back on those forces.

Materialism and scepticism: can we know what is real?

The answer to the question: “What is real?”, has been a political issue for centuries. As materialists, Marxists insist that the universe of matter and energy is the only reality. All processes – mechanical, organic, even human consciousness – are nothing more than matter itself, in simple or complex interaction. Marxism is therefore hostile to religion and mysticism. It also rejects sceptical or agnostic attitudes about what is real. There were materialist theories in the ancient world. But modern materialism developed alongside the rise of capitalism in Europe. It emerged from two sources. On the one hand there were major developments in industry during the late 1600s. They were centred around shipping, mining, metallurgy and military engineering. Mechanics was the branch of science that led these advances and developed out of them. Mechanics had the glamour position that today is held by computers and space technology and particle physics. The concepts derived from mechanics dominated the rising bourgeoisie’s world view.

From this outlook, the world consisted of matter in motion. Matter was made up of tiny particles, atoms. Objects could be understood by separating them into their component parts. It was an homogenising theory that explained everything in terms of the same set of laws. Different objects were various combinations of the same particles. As well, the physicist Newton established that planets and stars moved according to the same laws of gravity as things on earth, destroying the feudal notion of an absolute distinction between heaven and earth. And it was mechanical in the specific sense that it explained the motion of objects and the changes they go through in terms of forces striking them from the outside. The scientist Boyle said “I look upon the phenomena of nature to be caused by the local motion of one part of matter hitting against another”.

But capitalist development led into more than one branch of philosophy. Two major schools can be loosely distinguished: mechanical materialism, which became strongest in France, and empiricism, which prevailed in Britain. In France the bourgeoisie had not conquered power. In the eighteenth century it began to struggle to extend its influence against the absolute monarchy and the aristocrats. So its ideologists directed their fire on feudalism and its Catholic mysticism. They rarely went so far as to deny the existence of God altogether. But they explained the ongoing activity of the universe entirely from its own principles, without divine intervention or revelation. But mechanical materialism ran into problems. Neither external action on an entity nor the separate operations of its component parts seemed enough to explain the growth of a living organism, a quality which was both internal to the organism and inseparable from its totality. They seemed even less adequate to explain the conscious thought of humans.

In Britain the bourgeoisie had consolidated its political control through a deal with the nobility in 1688, which left in place a House of Lords, a monarchy and the state Church of England. Empiricism was the philosophical expression of this compromise. The bourgeoisie opposed the outright mysticism of feudal reaction. At the same time they resisted any thoroughgoing materialism which would have challenged Anglicanism, and would have encouraged the poor to look to themselves rather than God for the betterment of their lot. Like materialism, empiricism insists that all knowledge is founded on the experience of the senses. We do not possess innate ideas. One of empiricism’s leading figures, John Locke, pointed out that ideas varied too radically between cultures to allow for any to be inborn. Unlike materialism, it does not base itself on the definite and knowable existence of a material world beyond human thought. It bases itself on sensory experience alone. However, there is an ambiguity in the notion of sense-experience. Although it is usually taken to refer to something outside of our minds in the external world, it also refers to the person, or the mind of the person who receives the sensation. And there is no guarantee that the sensation we receive does not somehow distort what is out there. Our senses make use of ideas in the very act of appropriating information: when we see something we are already making use of concepts such as colour, shape, and depth of field. We select what we already conceive to be significant from a mass of detail. And our ideas themselves are socially constructed, particularly through language. We look at people of different gender and race, for example, through an already established framework of socially built attitudes (even though this is not self-evident in the act of seeing). And yet we can’t make sense of the world without these preconceived, distorting ideas. So there seems to be an unbridgeable gap between our minds and the external reality of nature and society.

Attempting to answer this problem led the followers of empiricism in different directions. Some relied on a “common sense” view that at least certain sensations corresponded to external reality, without being able to show why. This suited the British capitalist class. With its own views now pushed from parliament and pulpit, it had no incentive to cut through the appearances of society.

The most right wing empiricists moved towards idealism. The British bishop George Berkeley argued that sensation was a reality, but that objective matter was an unwarranted assumption from it. Sensation was instead “a sign or effect of the power of God”. Neither are there cause and effect relationships within the material world: heat is merely a signal that melting, say, will follow. We simply associate the two things in our minds.[18] Others were led into a deep scepticism that we could know anything definite at all about the world. David Hume declared:

As to these impressions, which arise from the senses, their ultimate cause is in my opinion, perfectly inexplicable by human reason.[19]

Even the most humble everyday object now seemed enigmatic. In the late 1700s, the German philosopher Kant called this hidden reality beyond sensation the “thing-in-itself”. Kant became for later generations of bourgeois thinkers the most authoritative philosopher. Yet he never came down completely for materialism or idealism. Lenin summed up Kant’s philosophy as “a systematic binding together of heterogeneous, mutually contradictory philosophical orientations… When Kant assumes that something outside of us, some thing-in-itself corresponds to our ideas, he is a materialist. When he states that this thing-in-itself is unknowable, transcendent and from the Beyond, he is making an idealist stand”.[20]

Hegel: totality and contradiction

G.W.F. Hegel solved some of these problems and laid the foundations on which Karl Marx solved the rest. Hegel’s work was the highpoint in bourgeois philosophy. Writing in backward Germany, when capitalism had not yet conquered the old order, he was still interested in discrediting the mystical and irrational ideas of feudalism. He believed Christianity, or his special version of it, could be proven by logic and he scorned all resort to blind faith. At the same time, Hegel wrote during and soon after the French Revolution, the upheavals of which brought the underlying features of society into very sharp relief. The post-structuralists see in Hegel their arch-enemy. Foucault could write how “Our entire epoch, whether by logic or by epistemology, whether by Marx or by Nietzsche, is trying to escape Hegel”.[21]

Yet Marx acknowledged his debt to Hegel. “I criticized the mystificatory side of the Hegelian dialectic”, Marx said, when Hegel was “still the fashion”. But later “ill-humoured, arrogant and mediocre epigones” began to ridicule Hegel and “I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker”.[22] The “mediocre epigones” were the contemporary equivalents of the post-structuralists: they took the return of the world’s surface features, after a period of turbulence, as evidence that real change was impossible. Europe had been through the colossal upheavals of Chartism in England, the revolutions of 1830 in France and across most of Europe in 1848. These events inspired hopes for a world of liberty, equality and fraternity, hopes that were more heady than those of the late 1960s – but, as with that later era, the revolts had superficially come to nothing.

One major reason for the post-structuralists’ hostility to Hegel is that his dialectical logic overcomes the limitations of formal logic – limitations which their own denigration of logic in general rests on. In this, they resemble earlier irrationalists. Lukács described how the limitations of formal logic:

can become the starting point for the further development of thinking, for dialectics. Irrationalism, on the other hand…stops at precisely this point, absolutises the problem…and indeed mysticizes into a “suprarational” answer the problem thus rendered artificially insoluble.[23]

Since Hegel is so often attacked from the right, it is important to understand where he was indeed mistaken. Hegel was an “objective idealist”. Like all idealists, he believed thought was more fundamental to reality than matter. But unlike “subjective” idealists, Hegel correctly insisted that there was a definite and knowable objective material world, and that thought could never exist without a material embodiment. He gave thought priority over matter because he identified it with all processes of development – as if the blind forces at work in a tree’s growth were evidence of an intentional plan. In fact, he believed the entire universe was developing towards the pre-given goal of God’s self-realisation. Humanity’s long and painful journey has been the final stage. As Charles Taylor summarised it: “If the structure of the universe is as it is in order to be the embodiment/expression of Geist (a form of God), then Geist comes to self-awareness when this is recognised. Of course, this can only be recognised by ourselves, finite spirits, for we are the only vehicles of awareness”.[24] When we grasp this, we supposedly also come to see that nature and humanity are all one in God – thus dissolving the barrier between us and the external world.

Despite his errors Hegel made gigantic advances in philosophical method. In explaining his ideas he started from the world as it confronts us, with all the limitations of our senses. But, he added, we must not make the mistake of looking at things out of their physical context. We can consider objects separately from their position in time and space, and sometimes it is useful to do so; in the concretely existing world this separation does not exist. So Hegel spumed Kant’s idea of the thing-in-itself. Nothing exists purely within itself. Everything exists in contrast with other things and in interaction with other things. “To qualify something as hard is to say something about its penetrability, malleability, etc. in contrast with other things; to qualify it as square is to say something about what it can fit snugly alongside of”. And to talk about an object as something distinct from all its qualities is meaningless. “It is also defined by the type of causal interactions with others which beings of this kind enter into, in which interactions the maintenance, alteration or destruction of the thing concerned is always at stake”.[25] The essential inner nature of anything is only established in close relationship to other things, to things outside itself. So you can only say what it “is” by also saying what it “is not”.

Things exist not only in relation to their immediate surroundings but also in relation to their total environment: a totality being an entity “in which each part is what it is only in relation to others and to the whole”.[26] Even something as seemingly separate from the rest of the world as a boulder reflects the existence of wider rock formation; its motion through space (and motion is an inherent quality of all matter) is only explicable by reference to the Earth’s rotation. So the rock exists in its own right, which Hegel refers to as being “self-identical”, and it simultaneously exists as a mere part of a totality. And just as something exists among the totality of other things, it also exists as a totality through time. A rock comes into existence as a separate object, undergoes minor changes and finally is destroyed. The rock exists at anyone point of time, but its complete existence is spread out through time. Hegel uses the terms “being” and “becoming” for the two states.

Now all these features of reality in the inorganic world acquire far more complexity and depth with life. Whereas a rock is only distinct from other things through passive contrastive properties, or by mechanical interaction with external forces, life forms have an active relation to their surroundings. An animal exists in continuous interaction with “what it is not” by breathing, eating, drinking and so on. If it ceases to interact in this way then very quickly it dies, that is, it becomes non-life, the distinction between it and its non-living surroundings collapses. It is again a separate thing and part of a totality. A pine tree not only exists separately but pollinates so as to be fertilised by other pine trees, that is, it does things that are only explicable by its nature as a mere part of the whole genus of pine trees. And it exists through time in a far more profound sense than the rock, as it goes through an inner process of growth.

When we consider life on earth as a whole this becomes more evident. The non-living world has been radically changed by living things: the chemical composition of the air, the seas, the soil, in fact the very existence of soil, mean that the inorganic world can only be understood by reference to its opposite, the organic. Similarly, life reflects the non-living world that has shaped it. Animals evolved eyes because there were light rays to make use of. So in its own internal make-up, the animal expresses something about its opposite, the thing it is counterposed to, the non-living world. The very presence of sense-organs is one demonstration of the objective existence of the material world. So the physics and chemistry of the earth, and the life upon it, can only be understood by looking at it as a contradictory totality, a unity of opposites. (The mystical significance attributed to this by supporters of “Gaia” rests on implicitly associating holistic properties with planning and agency.[27])

Hegel also argued that society is a totality. He challenged the atomistic ideas of the Enlightenment, which saw society as simply built out of individuals like bricks in a wall. Contradiction develops a deeper sense when we come to society. Contradictions come to mean an active inner conflict, that undermines or “negates” things. (Hegel himself strained unsuccessfully to apply this fully developed sense of contradiction even to the inorganic world, to say that even the rock is destroyed by inner contradiction. This was part of his argument that all movement ultimately represents progress towards the self-realisation of God.[28]) Hence Marx’s famous application of the idea to the working class as the negation of capitalism. Contradiction drives society forward, as inner conflicts come to a head and get decided in active struggle.

But before going on, it is worth stressing an important point relevant to both nature and society. Despite the inner contradiction in any given thing, Hegel correctly insisted that it remained a single, unitary thing as well. So we can say capitalism is one single, unitary, “self-identical” system, even though it is also a battleground between classes. A blood cell is self-identical as well as being a mere part of the body (and thus containing contradiction). The oak tree exists both at any one time and over time. Both sides of the matter are true, even though opposites. Hegel called this “the identity of identity and non-identity”, the uniting of oneness and inner opposition within one thing. Most attacks on dialectics particularly contest this vital point. Some say that contradiction can only exist in our thinking (in a formal sense[29]); in the outside world (or some say just the natural world), contradiction cannot exist. So, for example, “the presence of redness in your eye and its absence, is just impossible”.[30] But an eye may become red: in motion the laws of formal logic (where everything is only self-identical) break down.

Marx: the centrality of labour

Marx freed dialectics from Hegel’s closed, teleological system in which all major processes of development had a predetermined outcome. Marx also demonstrated, from the material world’s own principles and without any God, both the objective existence of matter and how we can know true things about it. Historical materialism further led him to identify the content of human nature, of the relationship of the individual to society, and of human agency to objective social structure, in ways utterly opposed to post-structuralism.

Hegel had seen that the mechanical materialism of the Enlightenment had failed to recognise the important consequences of the interaction between things for each thing’s own inner nature. He had also seen that human sensory experience was more than a passive reception of things from the outside, that it was in fact a constructive act in its own right, an act of appropriation. But for Hegel, human interaction with the world was crucially intellectual. Marx looked at people in their bodily and mental totality when he considered their interaction with the world. He saw that it is our activity, above all our labour to maintain our humble independent self-identities in the non-human world, that demonstrates the reality of that external world and the truth of our thoughts about it:

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-worldliness of his thinking in practice.[31]

Our sensing and conceptualising are simply the intellectual side of our active involvement with external reality. Just as the presence of eyes in a creature points to something beyond that creature, tells us about the presence of light in the world with which it interacts, so, when we interact, the systematic inner connections within our human sense-experience point to something beyond sensation. The sight of our hand on a hotplate, for example, will be reliably accompanied by other sensations fed to us through the skin. We begin to define things. Each time we interact with something we fill out the details of it a little more. The earliest human beings must have learnt the consistent link between the sight of fire and the smell of smoke and the feeling of heat, whether the fire was small or raging. Unlike animals’ automatic response to stimuli, they must have learnt to think abstractly of the general concept of fire. They must have learnt to connect such stable abstract categories through logic: if A happens then B follows; if it rains you get wet, every time. The deep probing about the nature of matter in the atom-smashing machines of particle physics descends from these first steps.

There is a potential confusion here. What we learn through practical activity is objectively true, but at the same time partial and limited. For example, human beings came to understand distinct qualities about the world such as space, mass, time and velocity. Einstein discovered these qualities are not, as previously thought, absolutely distinct. This did not invalidate but only qualified and enriched our previous knowledge, since under many circumstances these phenomena certainly are objectively independent of each other to a very high extent: “independence” here turns out to be a relative relationship subject to qualitative changes, not an absolute. Only religion can pretend all-encompassing or ultimate knowledge. That does not undermine the objective truth of what we have managed to learn.

Practice can tell us objectively true things about society as well as nature. Different groups in society stand in different relation to society and to other groups, and this of course affects their attitude to facts. “For I do not doubt,” wrote Thomas Hobbes:

…that if it conflicted with somebody’s proprietal rights or (to put it more accurately) with the interests of proprietors for the three angles of a triangle to be equal to two corners of a square; then this thesis, if not disputed, would nonetheless be suppressed through the burning of all geometry books, as far as those involved were able to carry it through.[32]

“Far more important still”, Georg Lukács comments on this passage, “is the fact that social determinants rule the thinkers concerned down to their most private convictions, their manner of thinking and the way they set out a proposition, etc., unknown to themselves”. The key social determinants are the range of experiences society offers to different social groups. Hence Marx described thinkers by a particular class label, not because they consciously identified with that class but because they did not get beyond the theoretical horizons which society and limited social experience imposed on that class.[33] But as Chris Harman points out, a rising social class experiences society with a breadth not given to those defending their existing control of economic organisation and the state. The activity of the latter is

concerned with the perpetuation of what already exists. Anything else can only be conceived as a disruption of a valuable, harmonious arrangement. Therefore, even at times of immense social crisis, its picture of society is one of a natural, eternally recurring harmony somehow under attack from incomprehensible, irrational forces.

A rising class is part of these changes.

At first, at least, it has no fear of new forms of social activity which disrupt the old relations of production and their superstructure along with it. It identifies with and understands these new forms of activity. Yet at the same time, because it is also in collision with the old order, it has practical experiences of that as well. It can develop some sort of view of society which sees how all the different elements fit together.[34]

Thus the range of its knowledge of objective social reality is qualitatively greater. Marxism looks at society from the viewpoint of the proletariat, a class whose activity puts it both at the core of society, in production, and in struggle with the established order. During revolutions the proletariat has time and again made a practical challenge to the whole existing social reality of capitalism and therefore tested the whole of that social reality. Marxism is the distillation of those tests. That is the basis for Marxism’s claim to objective knowledge of society.

Human nature

The needs for physical well-being and sexual activity are common to human and animal nature. But people, Marx said, “begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence”.[35] Labour was always collective. “Thus it is quite obvious from the start that there exists a materialist connection of men with one another, which is determined by their needs and their mode of production, and which is as old as men themselves”.[36] The human is “not merely a gregarious animal” like a dog, “but an animal which can individuate itself only in the midst of society”.[37] Language offers the clearest example. We need social tools, words, to view, think and reflect as individuals. “Language is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness that exists for other men as well, and only therefore does it also exist for me; language, like consciousness only arises from the need, the necessity of intercourse with other men”.[38] But co-operation becomes more than just an externally imposed necessity. It becomes needed as an end in itself.

Since human nature is the true community of men, by manifesting their nature men create, produce, the human community, the social entity, which is no abstract universal power opposed to the single individual, but is the essential nature of each individual, his own activity, his own spirit, his own wealth.[39]

Creative work similarly becomes an end in itself. Marx contrasted the rudimentary labour of certain animals with human labour, especially labour as it could be in communist society. Animals “produce only in a single direction, while man produces universally. They produce only under the compulsion of direct physical need, while man produces when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom from such need”.[40] At first our limited control of nature, and later class society, have imposed a narrow division of labour, limiting each individual to an “exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape”.[41] Under capitalism especially we are “crippled…through the suppression of a whole world of productive drives and inclinations” – in today’s world, chained to the monotony of VDUs and checkout counters.[42] But the potential communist society “regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow…just as I have a mind”.[43] Communism, then, would allow us to fulfil our need for creativity and community.

Supposing that we had produced in a human manner; each of us would in his production have doubly affirmed himself and his fellow men. I would have: 1. objectified in my production my individuality and its peculiarity and thus both in my activity enjoyed an individual expression of my life and also in looking at the object have had the individual pleasure of realising that my personality was objective, visible to the senses and thus a power raised beyond all doubt. 2. In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have had the direct enjoyment of realising that I had both satisfied a human need by my work and also objectified the human essence and therefore fashioned for another human being the object that met his need. 3. I would have been for you the mediator between you and the species and thus been acknowledged and felt by you as a completion of your own essence and a necessary part of yourself and have thus realised that I am confirmed both in your thought and in your love. 4. In my expression of my life I would have fashioned your expression of your life, and thus in my own activity have realised my own essence, my human, my communal essence.[44]

This does not mean communism is some final, static society. The meeting of needs and desires always give rise to new ones. The tools people use have always created the need for new tools, ever since the first sharp-edged stones for killing animals or digging roots created a need for implements to sharpen them. Equally, new types of work widen people’s life experience and give rise to new cultural needs and desires. Human beings, unlike any animal, are in an open-ended process of development. Norman Geras makes a useful distinction between “human nature” as the set of “permanent and general human characteristics” and “the nature of man” as “the all-round character of human beings in some given context”. The “nature of man” recognises that the relatively timeless features of human behaviour never appear except in unity with the qualities that mark out a specific epoch. “Hunger is hunger”, Marx wrote, “but the hunger gratified by cooked meat eaten with a knife and fork is a different hunger from that which bolts down raw meat with the aid of hand, nail and tooth.[45]

History is also the story of brutal counterpositions between different needs within each person, forced on people first by nature and then by class society as well. In societies based on extreme scarcity, newborn babies have sometimes been left to die, old people expected to take their own lives, the people of other tribes killed as rivals for meagre resources. Class society brought the rise of the state and women’s oppression. In such societies, people’s needs are more than ever turned against one another’s. And because we develop personalities “in the midst of society” we internalise the harsh, competitive values of that social world and so have contradictory desires. But competitiveness exists in contradiction to the need to co-operate, which we are also taught, and internalise. And in the modern working class this need to co-operate reaches the highest level yet seen. And while competitiveness, apathy, selfishness and so on are the transitory products of class societies, the needs for a sense of community and varied creative self-expression are virtually permanent, only changing in their specific forms. Communist society could begin a phase of human development where people are no longer brutalised by an all-powerful nature or class divisions, and where their mutual needs meet and harmonise.

The totality of society

At the heart of all societies, binding them into an overall unity, are specific types of labour, products of labour, and most especially those products used in further production (tools and machinery). These things determine how much control is exercised over nature and how much is known about it. The control over the means of production (the machinery, cultivated land, mines, etc.) ensures control of wealth and crucially decides relations between different social layers, i.e. divides society into classes. Production therefore determines what natural and social constraints people operate within, the boundaries within which culture and politics may vary, and the possible avenues open for social change. This is frequently caricatured by opponents of Marxism into an oversimplified model of society which crudely reduces everything to economics and class. But seeing the centrality of production and class to society does nothing to reduce its complexity.

In the first place, it is a contradictory totality. The drive to push back the constraints of nature encourages the development of new production techniques. Beyond a certain point these changes disrupt the established lines of control over the means of production, and give rise to new contests for control. These clashes also become unavoidable since established class relations in fact begin to obstruct production; at that stage each major class, merely to hold on to whatever benefits it has traditionally enjoyed, must challenge the benefits of the other. But there are also secondary contradictions in which each phase of capitalism builds obstacles to its own further development, materially (e.g. the current round of restructuring going on in the Australian economy) and sometimes ideologically (e.g. anti-Asian racism, long useful to Australian bosses but at present an embarrassment in its dealings with Asian trading partners).

Secondly, capitalist totality is the most complex and also the most integrated of any yet seen; its integration and complexity go hand in hand. “Capital”, wrote Marx, “is a collective product, and only by the united action of many members, nay, in the last resort, only by the united action of all members of society, can it be set in motion”.[46] Profits depend on producing goods more quickly and efficiently than a socially determined standard, what Marx called socially necessary labour time. Inefficient producers will be undercut on the market. An analogous process goes on in military competition. Weapons systems are of little use to superpowers unless they match a standard set by those of international rivals. The Soviet Union’s entire economy has been organised around such military competition which has given it a capitalist dynamic since the rise of its bureaucratic ruling class in the late 1920s. Its current economic collapse, with all its complex consequences, is the direct product of its inability to match increased arms spending by the USA in the 1980s.

Thirdly: while production and class shape society, their role in shaping people and personal relations (the sphere in which the crudeness of Marxism is most alleged) is very indirect, but no less real for that. Capital rests on commodity production. But it is not just the products of labour that are bought and sold. The commodity form is generalised, so that even virgin land is saleable as real estate. Above all, our capacity to create – our labour power – is a commodity, the price of which rises and falls like any other. The very thing which makes us distinctively human, and shapes so much of our life and sense of identity, now puts us on the same level as an inanimate object. In this context it becomes possible for people to accept as “normal” other degradations of people to things: women’s sexuality becomes a commodity, or a means to sell commodities; aspiring immigrants are assessed as abstract economic inputs to “the nation”; mass deaths from famine or war in the third world are just figures in a newspaper. Supporting commodity production are the regimentations of the schoolroom, the workplace itself, and the family hierarchy. A society whose values started from the actual needs of people, for security, stimulation, warmth and so on, seems by contrast quite alien.

Capitalism imposes on women the role of unpaid housework, especially child-rearing, as a vital back-up service. This is maintained partly through ideological conceptions of women’s nature, which in turn reinforces the restriction of women to lower paid jobs, especially within the working class. This enforced role therefore affects even women who do not have children or keep house for men. It remains the basic cause of women’s oppression. There is of course a great distance between this broad economic fact and the often subtle forms of discrimination against women in daily life. Attitudes which both men and women bring to bear in dealing with women are built up over a lifetime of experiences of their parents’ roles, the media and books, peers and so on. Does it make an explanation of women’s oppression any more complex or sophisticated, though, to view all these factors as essentially unrelated to women’s role for capitalism, or to the human degradation of commodity production?

Yet again, capitalism is a contradictory totality. The same system that degrades workers as commodities binds them together in collective units in the workforce, and at times drives them to act collectively in defence of their conditions and living standards. This generates new experiences, and a new confidence to act, and this too permeates the entire society.

Human agency

As Marx put it, people “make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted”.[47] At most times, the ruling class monopolises armed force, economic decision-making and the means of propagating ideas. The oppressed classes’ experiences are too limited to give the lie to ruling class ideology. Therefore members of the oppressed classes react back on society within tight constraints and without understanding what they are dealing with. In opposing liberal individualism, the ideology of the “free” market, we have to stress these restrictions. But in opposing the notion of ordinary people as a mindless herd, which equally derives from capitalist conditions and ideology, we have to stress that people do react back on their circumstances. Natural needs and desires will seek outlet under all social conditions. Moreover, I would like to argue that each individual develops, in the midst of society, an intellectual, emotional and moral character which enters as an independent factor in their behaviour in any situation. This is why we can expect, for example, that one man will rape a woman, or one mother will bash her child, while another in effectively identical circumstances will not. To accept this does not mean losing sight of the wider social causes of rape and child-bashing. Finally, the objective social conditions themselves are riven with internal tensions, which periodically weaken ruling class control and intrude into people’s lives as social crises. People, especially workers, then have more space in which to fight oppression, to learn about society, and act with more knowledge.

The next article in this series will consider the alternatives put forward by the post-structuralists.

Read part two in this series here.

[1] L. Trotsky, My Life, Pathfinder, New York, 1970, p517.

[2] M. Poster, Foucault, Marxism and History, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1984, p59.

[3] G. Lukács, The Destruction of Reason, Merlin Press, London, 1980, p207.

[4] A. Callinicos, Against Postmodernism, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1989, pp168-9.

[5] Quoted in Callinicos, Against Postmodernism, p68.

[6] A. Callinicos, Is There a Future for Marxism?, Macmillan, 1982, p88.

[7] Poster, Foucault, Marxism and History, p12.

[8] Callinicos, Is There a Future for Marxism?, p91.

[9] Quoted in C. Norris, Derrida, Fontana, 1987, p39.

[10] Norris, Derrida, pp36-8.

[11] Quoted in P. Rabinow (ed.), The Foucault Reader, Pantheon, 1984, p13.

[12] R. Bradbury, “What is Post-Structuralism?”, in International Socialism, 2:41, Winter 1988, p150.

[13] Quoted in Callinicos, Against Postmodernism, p81.

[14] In his last writings Foucault appeared to do a back flip by stressing subjectivity. He is reproducing an ambiguity already present in the writings of Nietzsche, whose influence Foucault acknowledges. This will be taken up in a later article in this journal. See also Callinicos, Against Postmodernism, pp.87-91.

[15] M. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, Penguin, 1981, p7.

[16] Quoted in Rabinow, The Foucault Reader, pp78-9.

[17] Quoted in F. Elders (ed.), Reflexive Water, Souvenir Press, 1974, p174.

[18] Quoted in G. Novack, Empiricism and its Evolution, Pathfinder, New York, 1971 pp63-4.

[19] Quoted in ibid., p68.

[20] Quoted in Lukács, The Destruction of Reason, p216.

[21] Quoted in Callinicos, Is There a Future for Marxism?, p112.

[22] Quoted in G. Novack, Polemics in Marxist Philosophy, p194. When Lenin sought to understand why almost all supposedly Marxist parties supported their own ruling classes in World War One, he read Hegel as well as Marx. “It is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital”, he wrote, “without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consequently, half a century later none of the Marxists understood Marx!!” (Quoted by J. Rees, “The Algebra of Revolution”, in International Socialism, 2:43, June 1989, p173.) The same applies to the Stalinist “Marxism” of Louis Althusser, who attacked Hegel in the 1960s.

[23] Lukács, The Destruction of Reason, pp.97-8.

[24] C. Taylor, Hegel, Cambridge University Press, 1975, p91.

[25] ibid.,p235.

[26] ibid., p83.

[27] If the Gaia theorists are correct that the biosphere regulates the earth’s temperature and thus sustains conditions for further life, this would still demonstrate nothing more than a blind process at work, fortuitous for life on Earth the same way blind Darwinian evolution succeeds for some species. Yet they leap from this to imply intention and volition. See the essays by J. Lovelock and D. Abram in P. Bunyard and E. Goldsmith, Gaia, the Thesis, the Mechanisms and the Implications, 1988. For example Abram, p125, where he is counterposing Gaia theory to a purely mechanical approach: “We may say that Gaia is a machine, or set of mechanisms, that is building itself. Fine! But…we have no guarantee, for instance, that the so called ‘mechanisms’ that Gaia employs to regulate the salinity of the oceans, or to limit the influx of ultra-violet radiation into the atmosphere, are precisely the same that she will be employing a hundred years from now”.

[28] Taylor, Hegel, p236. See also C. Harman’s article “To Be and Not To Be”, Socialist Worker Review (magazine of the British Socialist Workers Party), April 1988.

[29] A distinction has to be made between formal and dialectical contradiction. Formal logic, in which everything is self-identical, has a real if limited sphere of validity, and within this sphere contradiction cannot exist. It is indeed nonsense to say “a chair is not a chair” unless we are contrasting its self-identity to its place in the totality of space and time, i.e. moving into the sphere of dialectics.

[30] T.K. Seung, Structuralism and Hermeneutics, Columbia University, New York, 1982, p13.

[31] Marx, “Second Thesis on Feuerbach”, in “Feuerbach” (chapter one of The German Ideology, published separately), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1978 p96

[32] Quoted in Lukács, The Destruction of Reason, p101.

[33] Marx, Surveys from Exile, Penguin, 1973, pp176-7.

[34] C. Harman, “Base and Superstructure”, in International Socialism, 2:32, Summer 1986, p30.

[35] Marx, Feuerbach, p25.

[36] ibid., p39.

[37] Quoted in N. Geras, Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend, Verso, 1983, p81.

[38] Marx, Feuerbach, p39.

[39] Quoted in Geras, Marx and Human Nature, p76.

[40] Quoted in E. Fischer, Marx in His Own Words, Penguin, 1970, p31.

[41] Marx, Feuerbach, p43.

[42] Quoted in Geras, Marx and Human Nature, p86.

[43] Marx, Feuerbach, pp43-44.

[44] Quoted in D. McLellan, The Thought of Karl Marx, MacMillan, 1971, p25.

[45] Geras, Marx and Human Nature, pp24, 90-1, 112.

[46] Karl Marx, Communist Manifesto, Peking, 1970, p49.

[47] Marx, Surveys From Exile, p146.

Poststructuralism: A Marxist alternative – part two

In part two of this series on poststructuralism, Tony Sullivan critiques the ideas of Nietzsche, Foucault and Derrida, putting forward alternative views of power and social control.

Engels after Marx: A (critical) defence

Darren Roso enters the debate on Engels’ contribution to the Second International after the death of Marx.

Daniel Bensaïd and “the last generation of October”

Darren Roso on the political activity and theoretical concerns of an important figure on the French far left from the mid-1960s until his death in January 2010.