[OPE-L] exploitation and abstraction

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Fri Jun 29 2007 - 15:05:10 EDT

Hi Michael,

Gyorgy Lukacs once wrote:

"Orthodox Marxism, therefore, does not imply the uncritical acceptance of
the results of Marx's investigations. It is not the 'belief' in this or that
thesis, nor the exegesis of a 'sacred' book. On the contrary, orthodoxy
refers exclusively to method."

But this argument is precisely flawed in my opinion. Why? Here are eight

(1) True orthodoxy refers not to an aping of what a thinker said or did, but
to following his/her known goals, intentions and purposes.
(2) Any method must be appropriate to to the object of investigation to
which it refers, as Gramsci mentioned, and is relevant with respect to that
object. Any attempt to generalise a method from one object for which it was
designed, to another object, usually requires at least an adjustment of the
method. Indiscriminately using the same method for all problems usually
leads to bad results.
(3) We judge a method according to its results, and if the results are no
good, we throw out the method, and try another one. The idea of sticking to
one method for the sake of orthodoxy is mistaken, because if the method
doesn't work, we should abandon it for another one.
(4) The materialist interpretation of human history is not a method, but an
approach, or at best a methodological guide (Marx uses the qualified term
Leitfaden, meaning "guiding thread") which heuristically guides us in trying
to explain phenomena. It tells us that behind an idea is a practice, and
behind the practice is a material and social context. Marx & Engels
themselves were scathing about academics who tried to knock up their
insights into a quick philosophical system that explained everything, they
regarded it as schematism, and indeed the old Engels warned that "the
materialist interpretation of history has a lot of dangerous friends these
days, who use it as an excuse for not studying history".
(5) The striking thing about Lukacs's own work (and that of Lenin),
particularly his early work, is precisely its originality and innovative
nature, ie. its unorthodox application of  Marx's insights in a new area,
that of literature, culture and ideology. It is inapposite to present this
as the height of orthodoxy, except insofar as it honours the goals of the
founder of a research programme. Even so, can we really say that there is
ever an "orthodox" interpretation of a work of fiction?
(6) There simply exists no unanimity about what Marx's research methods
were, leading to many different interpretations of his methods, and thus the
insistence about orthodoxy raises the question of what we can be really
orthodox about in this regard, anyway.
(7) Marx did not simply use one method, he used all sorts of methods in
different contexts, and his methods evolved over time, without ever settling
into one cast-in-stone system. He often struggled a lot with the best way to
write something, and laboriously rewrote things from a different angle.
(8) In reality, Marx often wasn't so self-aware about his own methods, he
simply did things, wrote things creatively, in the way he considered
personally to be appropriate, and then only later tried to make things more

When Marx had to sit down and write a book about his research in a way that
workers could understand, Freiligath passed him an old copy of Hegel's Logic
which inspired Marx's idea that in presenting his conclusions he would
parody Hegel's system, and invert Hegel's dialectic to describe the
dialectics of the movements of capital and its transformation of the world
("the formation of society and social relations by economic/material
means"). But in fact the same research could have been written up in
innumerable different ways, and if he had not been reminded of Hegel at this
particular stage of his research, he might well have written up his
conclusions in a different way, maybe more like he wrote A Contribution to
the Critique of Political Economy. That work however failed to sell, and
Marx evidently was keen to do things in a different way, that would be more
persuasive. He prided himself for applying an original method which
"hitherto has never yet been used in economic science".

Of course, having said this, I do not deny that there are more and less
accurate descriptions of Marx's intellectual method of working, that is
obviously true, and in this sense there is obviously good and bad
scholarship possible, given what we can establish in terms of evidence,
inference and context.

As regards abstraction, this is rooted in the processes of stimulus
identification (selection), stimulus association, stimulus generalisation
and stimulus discrimination, which living organisms are capable of to some
or other degree,  and which enables them to behave and respond with a degree
of autonomy and freedom, by internally prioritising and ordering behavioural
responses, and attaching a value to them, even if only an instinctive
survival value. But the important thing about abstraction is what the
abstraction is an abstraction "from", since you can abstract e.g. (1) from
an empirical object, (2) from concepts, (3) from language and numbers, (4)
from intuition or instinct.  Marx's criticism of the Young Hegelians in part
concerned precisely their mode of abstraction, i.e. that they worked on
"mere thought material" in an idealist way, and juggled with concepts and
language (linguistic apposition), without this being disciplined at all by
practical experience, or with regard for the total context within which
ideas emerged. This Marx considered "ideology", i.e. the true background or
motivating forces behind thought were being obscured or denied. In this
sense, Engels wrote that the ideologist "thinks consciously, but with a
false consciousness" insofar as he is unaware of what is really behind his
own ideation. Therefore, Engels said, the ideologist "speculatively imagines
apparent motives" giving rise to the familiar onion-type layering of ideas
in which one layer hides another layer beneath it. When Lennon wrote his pop
song "looking through a glass onion" this could be interpreted to mean that,
from a certain angle, it would be possible to see through the
stratifications of a person's consciousness, even if, precisely because of
that layering, the person himself was unaware of it and could not see it

In general, my opinion has been that human consciousness has
phenomenologically the following six basic gradations:

- sub-conscious awareness
- conscious subjective awareness (dissociated, focusing inward on the inner
world, or expressing an inner state outwards)
- intersubjective or reflexive awareness (an awareness which occurs in
association with other people, and is internal to that association)
- objective awareness (dissociated, focusing outward to a world that exists
- reality-transforming awareness (transitions in practical action reframing
the boundaries of different forms of awareness and changing consciousness,
or connecting different forms of awareness)
- transcendent awareness (going beyond personal knowledge or experience -
some would include intuition and spiritual insight under this heading).

Now obviously the same applies to Marx himself - to say that he was at all
times objectively aware, or aware in all these gradations simultaneously,
would be to say he wasn't human but a God. But if so, then most probably he
wasn't at all times aware even of his own method of working!

Alfred Sohn-Rethel emphasized once that the market economy itself generated
more and more new abstractive processes, insofar as more and more things
were mediated by money relations that spanned the globe. But this also means
that with the development of a cash economy and a complex division of
labour, abstractive processes themselves undergo change and development, and
in addition modern science makes possible levels of abstraction that simply
were unavailable to Marx. We cannot really say that one abstractive
procedure is better than another, except in relation to a practical task to
which an abstractive procedure is being applied, and its purpose or goal.
What we can say is that one abstractive procedure is likely to get a result,
or unlikely to obtain one, in the light of experience. But that is more a
philosophy of praxis, i.e. a set of rules of thumb or generalisations
developed through reflecting on practical experience.

The bad thing about orthodoxy in this sense is that it prevents people from
thinking for themselves, i.e. using their own original thought processes to
good effect, with the result that orthodoxy stifles creativity, rather than
promote it. Orthodoxy is scientifically or morally only relevant in the
sense of consistency, in the sense of consistently developing a theory,
behaviour or method of working, but we can obviously be perfectly consistent
without being orthodox as well. So the best we can say about orthodoxy, is
that it is an "aid" to consistency. But that is to say, that it is just a
means, not an end in itself - there simply is no rational point in being
orthodox for its own sake. If this idea is accepted, then it is clear that
in truth the pursuit of orthodoxy for its own sake is not rational, but has
to do with aspects of human nature which may not be rationally explicable at
all, such as faith, emotions, hope, and will. But in fact this orthodoxy for
its own sake cannot even succeed by adherence to a method, since the
complexity of life causes the violation of the method in practice, at every
turn. It can succeed at best only in terms of the relentless pursuit of a
goal. In this sense, Lenin for example was very orthodox, namely he sought
relentlessly to promote revolution. Yet he was highly unorthodox in the
methods which he used for this purpose, despite his claim that he was only
doing what Marx said. Along come the Marxists who want to convert dead
thinkers into icons of orthodoxy, but this overlooks precisely the
discontinuities and changes in human lives. This is more a sort of idolatry
which harms human spirituality, rather than enrich it.


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