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Thou shalt not worship intellectuals

When I read old books or articles that are totally forgotten despite being brilliant, it saddens me. Siblings of Donald Trump publish bestsellers, while treasures of the past remain buried. I've been known to copy long passages of past works and post them online to make people aware of them. I know hardly anybody reads these things, but if I can reach even one or two people, it makes the drudgery worthwhile. So I've copied below, laboriously, some passages from a book I just read called Gramsci's Political Thought: Hegemony, Consciousness, and the Revolutionary Process (1981), by Joseph V. Femia. When I read them I found them impassioned, brilliant, democratically inspired, and worth preserving.

Granted, I was somewhat drunk as I was reading and copying. But in vino veritas. Femia, whoever he is or was, is one of those rare intellectuals who is wholeheartedly democratic and humanistic. His thoughts below, especially the ones on Louis Althusser, are reminiscent of E. P. Thompson's thoughts in The Poverty of Theory. More significantly, in certain respects they apply not only to Leninists but to idealistic (as in anti-materialistic, anti-realistic, anti-democratic) intellectuals of all kinds. Which is to say: they apply to nearly all intellectuals. The "professional-managerial class"—or rather, the most smug, elitist, and parasitic among the professional-managerial class.

The inhumanity of the three writers Femia discusses is the inhumanity of the culture, the status, they come from.

Seriously, why should writing stuff (like me—ugh!) matter more than morals or clarity of thought?! Georg Lukács wrote The Destruction of Reason, a magnificent polemic, but in some ways he was pretty deluded and dogmatic. For all of history these undemocratic, muddled people have been placed on a pedestal! It's time we accepted the twilight of our idols, including virtually all famous people of the past, and lived and thought democratically. Cast them all aside! One of the few intellectuals I take truly seriously is Chomsky, because he's the anti-intellectual.

Nota bene: I'm friends with a number of "intellectuals" and they're great people. But it isn't necessarily in their capacity as academics that I like them or respect them. It's in their capacity as good, clear-thinking, democratic people.

Anyway, enjoy Femia's demolitions of three flawed thinkers.


...For those who wish to rid Marxism of its uncomfortable association with doctrinaire elitism, Gramsci’s contribution is invaluable. [A debatable claim. I'd say the contribution of common sense is all that's invaluable.] One need only compare his thought with that of other “Western Marxists” to appreciate its merits in this respect. Needless to say, the diverse variants of “Western Marxism” arose as a reaction against the vulgar reductionism of the dialectical materialists. Any gains in sophistication, however, have been purchased at the price of an intellectual arrogance whose practical implications could only be—to borrow a phrase from Labriola—“the pedagogy of the guillotine.” Instead of careful empirical analysis, we are presented with speculative constructions, a priori conceptual schemes so top-heavy that they tend to collapse upon contact with the surface of social life. The very language of Western Marxism has been cast in a specialized and inaccessible mould. Marx wished to develop concepts and categories clearer and closer to material reality than those of Hegel, and to present his work in as lucid a manner as possible. In contrast, Western Marxism, in part because of its divorce from any mass movement, has been caught up in a tangle of verbal complexity which turns theory into an esoteric and exclusive discipline. The cult of words has blotted out the living sense of things. Abstruse diction and inflated abstractions rule, with free-floating concepts and hypnotic formulae taking over from realistic social analysis. Perceived against the purity of grand theory, an insistence upon concreteness, precision, formal logic, and the complexity of reality appears as “bourgeois empiricism” or worse.[1] In its different forms, Western Marxism has fallen prey to the very “spectre of abstractions” from which Marx himself tried to flee. Let us look briefly at three typical examples of modern Marxist thought in order to illustrate the connection (psychologically intelligible if not logical) between intellectual “mandarinism” and political despotism.

Consider Lukács, who counsels us “to leave empirical reality behind.” Genuine knowledge, he announces, can only be generated from the standpoint of the “totality,” which cannot be constructed by accumulating mere facts. Only opportunists and revisionists, lacking rational insight, appeal to facts. If facts contradict the truth, so much the worse for the facts: the overall trend of historical development is more “real” than the data of experience. Indeed, Marxism à la Lukács can survive the systematic disproof of every one of its empirical claims! Thus he declares:

Let us assume for the sake of argument that recent research had disproved once and for all every one of Marx’s individual theses. Even if this were to be proved, every serious “orthodox” Marxist would still be able to accept all such modern findings without reservation and hence dismiss all of Marx’s theses in toto—without having to renounce his orthodoxy for a single moment. [This is the early Lukács, in History and Class Consciousness.]

As Kolakowski rightly observes, “Lukács’ Marxism implies the abandonment of intellectual, logical, and empirical criteria of knowledge.” How, then, do we know what is true? The truth can be revealed only from the perspective of the class whose revolutionary initiative is destined fundamentally to transform the whole of social life: i.e. the proletariat. Its privileged historical role entails the complete understanding of society; only it can apprehend history as a whole. This Truth (Marxism) is nothing but the theoretical awareness of the working class as it matures towards revolution. The proletariat, on this scheme, is the “universal class,” which—like Hegel’s Spirit—embodies the full self-consciousness of history. But, as it happens, the proletarian class consciousness turns out to be an “ideal-type”; it is not a matter of what the empirical working class actually thinks and feels, but what it would think and feel if it perfectly grasped its situation and understood its assigned world historical mission. Unfortunately, the chosen class, by itself, can never rise to true knowledge; and if the workers cannot see the light, then someone else must see it for them and lead them to it. That someone is the Communist Party, which is hypostatized as the institutional will and consciousness of the class. The party embodies “true” proletarian consciousness, which is independent of any historically specific manifestations of popular will and thought. The role of the working class is therefore “not that of a concrete historical force, but that of a hitherto missing term in a geometrical proof.” The political importance of Lukács’s critique of “empiricism” is here evident. One can never comprehend the totality of history and the “real” interests of the masses if one confines oneself to the vulgar observation of actual workers. Nor should the party trouble itself over any empirical evidence which might seem to contradict its doctrine. For if the party by definition embraces the viewpoint of the proletariat, and if the proletariat is theoretically infallible by virtue of its social position and historical task, then the party is always right, notwithstanding any apparently contrary facts. Small wonder that Lukács always glorified the Soviet system, even during the darkest years of Stalin. Was not the Bolshevik Party the supreme fount and criterion of all truth?

Turning to Herbert Marcuse, we come across a similar doctrinal exclusiveness, but one devoid of links to either the proletariat or the party. The sovereign definers are not the leaders of the Communist Party, but some unspecified elite of Platonic guardians, capable of grasping the transcendental demands of rationality according to which the world should be judged and remodeled. The appeal is to an abstract “reason” and “authentic humanity.” But how do we know what these entail? Formal logic cannot help us at all, since it is unable to penetrate to the “deeper” recesses of reality. Any reference to empirical reality is rejected out of hand as a positivist folly, reflecting an uncritical worship of “what exists.” In any case, the one-dimensional automatons who inhabit the affluent society cannot be expected to make any intellectual contribution to their own salvation; their expressed desires or aims are of no consequence in the formulation of political truth. Now, if those who appeal to empirical reality and conventional standards of rationality are dismissed as slaves to instrumental reason, to mystifying modes of thought, then we are left at the mercy of Marcuse and his followers. He (and others of the Frankfurt School) have developed a subjective interpretation of history and society, unconnected with publicly accessible bodies of knowledge or criteria of validity by which its assertions may be assessed. The “critical theorist” sets himself up as the supreme judge of the irrationality of existing society, as the final arbiter of the “real” needs of mankind, and as the sole authority on how these needs must be satisfied.

Marcuse does not hesitate to draw the obvious conclusions for political practice. In establishing the liberated society, those endowed with unmystified consciousness and higher wisdom must not permit indiscriminate tolerance of “false words and wrong deeds.” Freedom of expression is unjustifiable and “repressive” if it perpetuates illusion—as determined by philosophers untainted by “scientific-technological rationality.”

Next we look at Althusser’s fusion of Marxism with structuralism. Structuralism in general aims to uncover the basic and universal systems of code lying beyond the empirical diversity of human societies. The world of structuralism is a world of sameness in its depths: all societies are constructed from a limited set of elements susceptible of combination in a limited number of ways. It is also a world of determinism, which eliminates the conscious activities of real-life individuals and social groups from the scheme of explanation. Society is therefore discussed in terms of bloodless categories. Althusser’s work represents a complete academization of Marxism: we are presented with a tireless elucidation of concepts, but one which rarely leaves the conceptual level to deal, as did Marx himself, with the historical specificity of social structures. The whole point, it seems, is to insulate Marxist theory from reality. Science, we are informed, cannot be bounded by “external” criteria of truth, but creates its own “scientificity” in its own “theoretical practice.” Althusser rejects as empiricist the idea that concrete reality might form part of the raw material of “theoretical practice,” insisting instead that the production of knowledge takes place “entirely in thought.” Immediate experience is a source of illusion, not truth. The object of knowledge is situated within the realm of abstraction and has little to do with real, sensuous objects. Indeed, since for Althusser theory is a form of practice, the problem of the relation between theory and practice simply disappears. This problem is solved by taking a “proletarian class position,” which is not to be confused with what the proletariat actually believes; it is what Althusser thinks they should believe. Once again, the relationship between Marxist theory and the working class becomes one of exteriority; the former is—in effect—produced completely outside the latter, and must be imported into it. And so we come back to Lukács—except that Hegel has been replaced by Spinoza and Claude Levi-Strauss and human subjectivity has been abolished. Since it is fatuous to assume “that the ‘actors’ of history are the authors of its text, the subjects of its production,” there can be little point in trying to win men’s minds for a more just social order. (In fact, Althusser believes that the masses can never fully escape the phantasms of ideology.) Moreover, if blood is spilt in the name of impersonal “laws” or necessity, then there may be regret but no remorse, and the way is set for all obstacles to be crushed with ruthlessness. Despite its unrelenting intellectualism, “theoretical practice” supplies a respectable “scientific” justification for old-fashioned Stalinist intolerance.

The Marxist mandarins, it can be seen, exhibit little but contempt for empirical reality; within their respective frameworks, the working class remains a rather insubstantial entity, and the concern is with how the author would wish to define its “interests,” not with how its own members actually do so. Worse, the mandarins disdain all conventional rules of thought, whether empirical or formal. But once these shared principles are abandoned to the higher intuition of either the Communist Party or a new breed of philosopher-kings, intolerance and thought control become the order of the day, as the privileged few are no longer obliged to defend their opinions by invoking the common stock of logical rules and empirical procedures. Lurking behind the convoluted prose and the maze of neologisms is the despot’s aversion to free and rational debate.

The authoritarian degeneration of Marxism in power….is to be sought in the Leninist heresy which proclaims that the “genuine” needs and desires of the workers can be discovered through rational speculation, without any reference to workers’ explicit wishes; and that, therefore, it is perfectly legitimate for an enlightened elite to impose its “discoveries” on the benighted masses—by force of arms if necessary. According to this distorted view, to force human beings into the right pattern is no tyranny but liberation in the truest sense. The fault, in short, lies in a dogmatic approach to Marxist theory, not in the admirable values and ideals expressed by the theory…

[1] [Incidentally, this is one of the few respects in which postmodernism was healthy. It was necessary to throw aside all the elaborate, massive "meta-narratives" of Marxism-Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism, Keynesian liberalism, etc. and get back to basics, "deconstructing" systems that had become untenable.]

Coda: "Not the least of Gramsci's contributions was his insistence, against the main currents of Marxist thought, on patient examination of the particular and the concrete. [Ugh! That's supposed to be the whole point of Marxism! How sad that the essence of contemporary intellectual culture can so corrupt Marxism among its ostensible practitioners!] He had no terror of the commonplace: for him, a loaf of bread was a loaf of bread was a loaf of bread; there was no need to locate it within the 'totality' of experience or to search for the 'hidden structures' or 'dialectical laws' it manifested. Always wary of a priori constructions, he placed his faith in empirical actuality. Genuine knowledge was based on sense perception; it was not a purely logical or formal development of concepts..."


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