Re: [OPE-L] exploitation and abstraction

From: Michael Schauerte (mikeschauerte@GMAIL.COM)
Date: Sat Jun 30 2007 - 01:40:05 EDT

Hi Jurriaan,

I'm afraid that I don't have the time to respond to your interesting post in
any detail. I may have given you the wrong impression by discussing the role
of abstraction, because I'm not all that interested in those Marxists who
detach method from the task of analyzing capitalism and discuss the method
ad naseum without every bothering to apply it. I would say that Lukacs is
one example. I love his writing on literature and I read a number of his
philosophical works (including History and Class Consciousness) before ever
reading Marx very seriously. But I think that he generates the impression in
some of his works that assimilating Marx's method will endow us with near
magical powers, like see-through vision to penetrate beyond the surface of
the reified rations of captialism,. Writers like Kuruma are focused on the
questions Marx poses regarding captialism, not his method detached from its
subject matter. See the discussion of method I translated:

I am a bit overwhelmed with work and family matters at the moment so I
probably won't be posting much in July. Next time I do, I will try to limit
myself to more specific issues. I had no intention of throwing out such a
huge topic as "abstraction" when I first posted that comment on alienation.
And I feel like I have not done a very good job of getting my point across.
But I appreciate your detailed comments.

I hope that you enjoy the summer (be thankful you aren't in humid Tokyo)


On 6/30/07, Jurriaan Bendien <> wrote:
> 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
> reasons:
> (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
> systematic.
> 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
> himself.
> 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
> mind-independently)
> - 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.
> Jurriaan

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