Talk by Cyril Smith at the Socialist Scholars’ Conference, Manhattan, 1 April, 2000

Some Communist Observatons on Philosophy

Please note: these are not ‘Philosophical Observations on Communism.’ There have been far too many of those already.

To avoid any confusion, let me start by saying what I mean by ‘communism’. I think we should not allow this word to be stolen from us by the Stalinists. It ought to be cleaned of its bureaucratic associations and restored to the meaning given to it by the mature Marx. It implies a conscious movement for ‘universal human emancipation’, the movement through which modern society must get rid of the present socio-economic order, and transform itself into a ‘free association of producers’. Making possible the ‘free development of individualities’, this will be ‘appropriate to and worthy of our human nature’. (These quotations are all from the works of Marx, of course.)

In this talk, I want to make two assertions which might appear to be opposed to each other: a) that the standpoint of philosophy is essentially hostile to communism; and b) that it is essential for communism to understand itself in relation to the whole of the history of philosophy. Please note: I am talking about philosophy as such, not any particular one of the dozens of competing philosophies which have appeared over the past 2500 years.

Now let’s consider what philosophy is. This form of thinking arose with class society, so it has only existed during the last few millennia of human history. Over this time, the free development of humans, as individuals and as a species, has been perverted and imprisoned within social forms based upon mutual antagonism, and its most important developments have been in periods when one of these forms is reaching the end of its life. Of course, each philosopher has necessarily directed his or her attention towards the problems faced by people living at that particular time, but some features have remained constant.

In general, the philosophers have tried to give a rational account of reality as a whole, and usually this has meant attempting to find theoretical ways to reconcile abstract, reflective thinking with the world as it is. In particular, and as far as I know without exception, they all took the existence of private property, together with that of the state power which sustained and expressed it, as given. Some, like Locke, have pretended to explain them, in terms of some supposed characteristics of humans, but these ‘explanations’ have been trivial. Accepting the framework of these abstract – that is, inhuman – forms, the philosophers sought arguments which would interpret them so that they ‘made sense’. A few are still looking.

One important aspect of class rule is the separation between those people who are supposed to do the thinking and those whose lives have to be devoted to what is called physical labour. The standpoint of philosophy as such is inseparable from this division, which is bound up with exploitation and oppression. So [philosophy has regarded itself as a special trade. But this is odd. If your toilet is blocked, you might call in a plumber to fix it. After all, we can’t all do everything. But what about the crap which blocks human social and spiritual life, which soils all our lives? Why is this a matter for a specialist? It can only be because the problem, that is, the false, inhuman way that we all live, appears as a mystery, something beyond the understanding and control of ordinary people. In order to be ‘objective’, philosophy had to pretend to itself that it stood outside and above its object, excluding its own subjective effort from philosophical consideration. It aimed to paint a rational picture of everything, but it could not find a place for itself in the picture.

So the contrast is clear: communist consciousness is the work of the mass of humans, expressing the social character of each individual, and grasping that the existing antagonistic forms of property and state power are ways of life which are not fit for humans. Philosophical thinking, on the contrary, is a craft, the work of specialists, who look at the world as if they themselves were not in it, and try to ‘make sense’ of the world as it is.

Hegel was the first to try to face up to some of these questions. In particular, he was the first to consider the various opinions of philosophers as elements of a unified historical process. Previously, each philosopher believed that his particular way of thinking was true, and the others were false. Now, for the first time, there was a history of philosophy, in which each philosophical outlook was seen to be ‘its own time expressed in thought.’

So Hegel had a different conception of the true from his predecessors. Universal truth, he believed, does not merely deny what is false, but also preserves it. The truth organically grows, and the path to truth is a historical movement called ‘dialectic’. Previous thinkers had the idea of dialectic, as the way an argument developed through the resolution of contradictory opinions. Hegel made this movement central to his conception of history and of logic. He showed how the movement of thought followed the same pattern as the object thought about, and that included the movement of philosophy itself. History was seen to be the self-creating activity of what he called ‘Spirit’.

Hegel’s system is a summary of the entire range of philosophical ideas, including the contradictions between them. Their categories arise from each other, unfolding as an organic whole. He tries to give a philosophical account of philosophy, giving it a privileged position in the range of human experiences. Nonetheless, he still remains inside its framework. This is the context for Hegel’s understanding of freedom. The philosophers of the previous couple of centuries had thought of freedom as belonging to private individuals. Hegel sees freedom as a universal process through which the human spirit makes itself in the course of its self-conscious history. And, since he is sure that humanity is essentially thinking, this kind of freedom was the essence of humanity.

But how is it possible for a ‘time’ to be expressed in abstract thought? It can only be because social forms are themselves abstract, and that is why they can and must be enshrined in ideas, in concepts, in those abstract forms which rule our lives. Hegel believes that, once philosophy has revealed that concepts produce themselves in human history. So being ruled by them is freedom and, the end, it is the Idea which is the free, self-governing, self-creative subject. Philosophy is its autobiography.

You could say that Marx’s working life was entirely devoted to the critique of Hegel’s dialectic. I believe that this was at the same time a critique of philosophy as a whole. What does Marx mean by ‘critique’? He does not mean straight rejection, just replacing each false conception with a ‘correct’ one. Rather, by negating its categories, Marx’s critique grasps how they most deeply express the forms under which people live, and underline the fact that it is these forms which are in control. This is powerfully illustrated by his famous remarks about ‘the critique of religion’. He does not simply reject religious belief, as if it were just false logic, nor does he try to establish an improved kind of religion. Instead, Marx sees religion as ‘the cry of the oppressed creature’, and this implies the fight to overthrow the conditions under which people are truly oppressed, the problem to which religion is an illusory response.

Marx sees that Hegel, like all philosophers, is ‘an abstract form of estranged man’, who ‘takes himself as the criterion of the estranged world’. Whereas for Hegel it was the movement of Spirit which was a process of self-creation, Marx sees that the way humanity makes itself is actually through social labour. But this labour is alienated, that is, (a) its products are estranged from the labourer, (b) they become the property of the non-producers and (c) the labourer’s own productive activity becomes alien to him. Marx shows that this alienation of labour, human self-activity, is the real meaning of property.

Thus it was Marx and not Hegel who could make a critique of political economy. The categories of that science at their best express the relations of bourgeois society ‘with social validity’, says Marx. But that is precisely because both of them, both the categories and the way of life they try to present as rational, are quite, quite mad. (Contrary to its rotten English translations, that is what Capital says: ‘verrueckte’ = ‘insane’.) Labour is the human creative activity, but the capacity to labour, labour power, is bought and sold like a thing. Both in life and in theory, people are treated as objects, while only commodities, like money or machines, embody those social forms which rule the humans who set them up. Money and capital have power over humans, including their owners.

Political economy, even at its most scientifically objective, before it was replaced by vulgar apology for capital, is perfectly at home with the madness, and attempts to ‘make sense’ of it. Marx does not throw away this work, for the point is to find, locked away right inside the madness, the possibility for humans to live humanly. The producers as a class, alienated from the products they make, from their conditions of production and from their own productive activity, are driven to fight against those conditions.

Hegel regarded property as the defining characteristic of the person. ‘A person ... relates himself to another person, and indeed it is only as owners of property that the two have existence.’ (Philosophy of Right, paragraph 40.) In the same way, the state for Hegel was the embodiment of freedom. Marx’s critique of political economy, the ‘critical exposition’ of its crazy categories, gets to the heart of the lunacy of capital, and the sanity of the fight to break out of it. This critique must become the ‘mouthpiece’ of the ‘real movement’ (Poverty of Philosophy), which will abolish alienation and achieve human freedom.

Philosophers have had various opinions on aspects of social life. Some of them might have favoured changes in particular features. But none of them has seen that the mass of the population can take conscious charge of social transformation. Marx broke with the philosophical attitude to the world when he called for the mass of people to ‘win the battle of democracy’. His conception of revolution as ‘universal human emancipation’ is the nub of the conflict between communism and philosophy.

Even during Marx’s lifetime, his followers worked hard and with great devotion to turn his ideas into a philosophical doctrine – and thus to falsify them totally. After his death, the leaders of the Second, Third and Fourth Internationals, not to mention hundreds of lesser academic scribblers, erected an iron orthodoxy, a party dogma called ‘dialectical and historical materialism’. (Of course, under Stalin, it became a state religion.) Lenin’s brief encounter with Hegel’s work, while of great significance, never brought him anywhere near to Marx’s understanding of freedom. Even those few Marxists who attempted to break through this bureaucratic perversion of Marx’s communism thought they had to defend a Marxian philosophy, instead of making a critique of philosophy.

Now that a large part of Marx’s writings is available for study, and now that some of the old bureaucratic machines have disintegrated, it becomes more possible to read what Marx wrote, rather than ‘interpreting’ him into safe academic shapes. He is opposed to all utopian dreaming. Nor does he present us with a ‘doctrine of freedom’ – there could never be such a beast. Rather, he but shows us how humanity can free itself, and learn to live without alien forms, without doctrine, without categories.

Let me conclude with an illustration of these points, by looking at how Marx’s main teachers, Aristotle and Hegel, and Marx himself, used one particular term: friendship.

Friendship, or love, the Greek philia, plays an important part in Aristotle’s Politics and in his Ethics. (Do not forget, by the way, that these two books really form a single work.) Philia and justice hold the polis together. But then ‘the Philosopher’ has to explain the facts of slavery, of buying and selling, of the oppression of women. The greatness of the slave-owning Aristotle is to be seen in his struggles to reconcile all these. ‘Can a slave be a friend?’ he worries. Among other amazing observations, he tells us that: ‘Where there is friendship, there is no need for justice’. Aristotle also tries to grasp the nature of exchange, which he sees as the social adhesive. But, he explains, the exchange of commodities in the balanced running of a family enterprise (economia) is quite different from unbounded buying and selling to make money out of money, which he sees as quite hostile to philia. As Marx points out, it is not possible for Aristotle, without the modern conception of labour, to work it all out.

2000 years later, Hegel is attempting in his Philosophy of Right to show the relationship between the three elements of Ethical Life: family, civil society and the State. Love can no longer be the cement in this system, except as the foundation of the family. (In Hegel’s story, the family is also the place where women belong. They play no part in the higher levels of his edifice. For example, education is not for the likes of them. Into the kitchen with you, woman!) But outside the walls of the family abode, in civil society, governed by private property, love is quite out of place. It’s war out there! So, for all their differences, Hegel agrees with Hobbes that the State is needed to stop the citizens from destroying each other.

Marx’s critique of Hegel takes a huge step forwards in 1843, when he criticises Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. He sees now that Hegel’s attempt at reconciliation is a swindle. Human life demands the transcendence of family, private property and the state. A few months later, Marx is clear that this transcendence takes the form of humans producing for each other humanly, that is, in mutual love. (He says this in the 1844 Comments on James Mill. Capital is ‘merely’ the elaboration of these brief notes.)

But Marx could only make this advance through his critical study of the false solutions which philosophy had propounded for the problems it had itself uncovered. All of these great thinkers, whether slave-owner, feudal monk or bourgeois professor, has to be studied with care, for they have probed the contradictions arising from the unity and conflict between alienation and sociality. Now, Marx can show, these problems can be resolved, not in philosophical discourse, but in revolutionary practice, and this must be inspired by the critique of philosophy. That is why we must not pick out the ‘nice’ statements of the philosophers, the ones which seem to fit our own notions. In particular, if we put what are apparently Hegel’s most reactionary statements through Marx’s meat-grinder, we can gain the most profound revolutionary knowledge.