The real question, post-1989, post-television, post-Internet, post-everything, is this: What in Marx’s thought is alive, what in his thought is vital, urgent even, for us today? And concurrently, what in Marx’s thought is no longer alive, what is outdated, what is an impediment? I don’t think the answers to these questions are by any means obvious.
For one thing, many people would disagree with my very emphasis on Marx’s “thought.” For many Marxists, philosophical thought (which implies textual interpretation, among other things) is precisely the wrong thing to emphasize, since (in the all-too-often quoted 11th Thesis on Feuerbach), “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” And for many anti-Marxists, thought is also the wrong thing to emphasize, since they refuse to consider Marx worthy of being taken seriously as a thinker altogether, reductively equating his ideas with the practices of Stalin and Pol Pot. (Which, of course, makes about as much sense as equating Darwin’s ideas with the practices of Nazi and Ku Klux Klan eugenics, or equating Einstein’s ideas with the practices of the American nuclear weapons program).
Against both of these objections, I will insist here upon Marx as a philosophical thinker, or a social theorist: somebody who indeed actively interpreted the world. Marx is very much, still, a post-Enlightenment rationalist and humanist; he wants to change the world, but he has nothing but scorn for “spontaneism” and a-rational “direct action” (for which he reproached the anarchists of his own day). In the Theses, Marx certainly objects that Feuerbach’s critiques of religion don’t go far enough.
Feuerbach’s arguments merely expose religion as a fiction; they fail to go on, as Marx does, and examine why such a fiction ever got projected in the first place, what social purpose the fiction plays, and what interests and powers it serves. But exposing all this, for Marx, is still a work of interpretation and critique; though hopefully a work that will serve the interests of change and liberation, instead of one that continues to serve the interests of exploitation and domination...
So, to conclude this (slightly belated) birthday appreciation, I will say that Marx does not have all the answers; but he points us in the right direction, and asks many of the most essential questions, which is no mean accomplishment for a thinker whose second centenary is approaching. I do think that, in the long view (at least as long a view as I am capable of; I am aware that two centuries is not two millenia), Marx’s importance, his urgency for the present, and his capacity to shake up the very roots of our self-understanding, is ultimately far greater than that of the other great iconoclasts of the threshold of modernity, Nietzsche and Freud, with whom he is so often grouped.
And to return to the realm of “pure thought” (where I am always more comfortable, alas, than I am when confronted with “practice”): in the coming years of the 21st century, we may well increasingly find all the passions and disputes of 20th century modernism and avant-gardism to be trivial, quaint, and of very little interest or importance; but we will not, for all that, escape the shadow of the dilemmas and blockages which the 19th century bequeathed to us. And in exploring, and trying to overcome, those dilemmas and blockages, Marx (together with Darwin) is our indispensable precursor. Which is a great enough birthday legacy for anyone. Posted in Theory, Politics 29 Comments » The Pinocchio Theory Saturday, May 6th, 2006 at 9:37 pm