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Marx: “The Political Importance of Philosophical Work” – Lucien Sève

Translated Sunday 9 November 2014, by Gene Zbikowski

The philosopher’s new book (1) invites us to understand, in profoundly renewed terms, Marx’s famous “exit” from philosophy. That time, which is both dated and decisive in a revolutionary process, opened the way to a labor of philosophical development of the major categories of understanding and action, which has proved to be of incomparable political fecundity: “Marx’s thought.”

So, here we have the third monumental volume of your tetralogy Thinking With Marx Today, which is dedicated to Marx’s relationship to philosophy. Does this mean that this question had not yet been explored sufficiently?

Lucien Sève: Not in a truly satisfactory way, at least in my opinion. To say the main thing in a word: Marx’s philosophical contribution continues to be broadly under-estimated. Hence the scandalous fact that until now he has never been put on the program of the written exams for the agrégation competitive exam in philosophy, whereas Nietzche, for example, has appeared nine times. The subprime crisis forces one to admit the pertinence of Marx’s economic critique – my book endeavors to get the unequalled importance of his philosophical work finally recognized.

In writing this volume, did you have the feeling of having discovered new things yourself?

Lucien Sève: Yes indeed. In writing a big book, you always learn, as you go, part of what you want to say in it. I learned more than one thing, for example about Marx’s materialist attitude.

The question mark in the title of the book – “Philosophy?” – is to be taken very seriously. Is there a misunderstanding in speaking, as one often does, of “Marx’s philosophy”?

Lucien Sève: Worse than a misunderstanding – a real quid pro quo. Beginning as a student excited by Hegel’s idealist philosophy, although contesting it from the start, and then as a political exile in Paris, he went over to materialism and communism on the eve of the 1848 revolutions and came to understand that all philosophy, even Feuerbach’s materialist philosophy, is in the final analysis a speculative discourse on the world which comes down to legitimizing the world, when it is urgent to change it. Hence his radical and definitive exit from “philosophy.” But – and this is fundamentally different from a positivist – Marx thinks that the work of elucidating the categories of thought and action remain of capital importance – what exactly does one have in view when one aims at the essential, when one says that the world is material, that a different policy is possible, that we want to be truly free? Marx’s work is of irreplaceable fecundity in learning to do the indispensable philosophical work of fundamental clarification.

Hence the formidable temptation – from which, moreover, Marxism has not entirely escaped – of a philosophy that pretends to tell the truth about the world in the place of science, but every bit as much the approach of science, which thinks it can do without this philosophical work. And yet, isn’t this exactly what science often does?

Lucien Sève: Certainly, but that exactly is what never happens without causing serious damage. Isn’t it blatant in this political economy that wants to bullshit us into thinking that labor is a cost, whereas what is a cost for capital is not labor, the sole source of its profits, but something quite different: the private appropriation of labor power, the hen that lays the golden eggs? Or again, research into the brain that mobilizes enormous resources to seek all too often what it will surely never find: the social sources of human consciousness – for lack of having reflected on this major philosophical category? All the more remarkable, on the other hand, are these scientific theories of quantum physics or of biology whose power is inseparable from their philosophical pertinence – among others, I refer you to these great books: le Boson et le Chapeau mexicain, by Gilles Cohen-Tannoudji and Michel Spiro (2), and la Structure de la théorie de l’évolution, by Stephen Jay Gould (3).

You dedicate 200 pages to a tight study of categories that Marx himself very often uses without clarifying them. Was this work of clarification necessary?

Lucien Sève: Affirmative, and unless I made a mistake, I prove it. Moreover Marx himself wanted to expound on what he meant by setting Hegelian dialectics back on its feet in a materialist way, and though he did not do it, he at least gives partial hints – I quote the texts. But his deep-rooted allergy to “philosophy”, combined with the mass of tasks which never ceased to overburden him, resulted in this being rather infrequent. Now, this really is a pity, not only for us but also for him, because what remains unexpressed always remains more or less un-thought-out. One example: He was enough of a genius to see that, next to the surmountable contradiction of Hegelian logic, there is also the insurmountable contradiction of real history. But, for not having conceptualized this discovery in terms of categories, he fails to sketch out the overall panorama that results from this possible transition from a limited dialectic to a general dialectic of immense significance. My book indeed gives other examples, which have become more easily perceptible thanks to the historical perspective that we benefit from. With a number of contemporary philosophers, the declarative exceeds by far the effective content, with Marx, the opposite is true…

So you study two dozen philosophical categories – things like knowing, being, and practice. Can you give an example of the useful use that can be made of one of them by someone who has not studied philosophy?

Lucien Sève: Presupposition. Hegel showed that every concept stands in opposition to another which it presupposes – thus, no negative that does not presuppose a positive, which itself presupposes this negative – you can’t be a father without having a son or daughter. Here, as elsewhere, Marx re-uses Hegelian knowledge while conferring on it a groundbreaking materialist meaning: nothing happens in history without having things that presuppose it – thus capitalism was unable to develop until the laying-off of the lordly suites and the eviction of the land-owning peasants flooded the cities with people who had only their arms to work. Thus every social form has to have social forms that presuppose it, and it itself produces, without intending to, the things that presuppose a possible later social form. Here is something to which Marx attributes – and incites us to attribute – crucial importance. A utopian dreams of another world, which is better than not dreaming at all, but this can hold many tragedies in store for us. A person who thinks with Marx imposes upon himself the study of the real presuppositions of a post-capitalism which even today are being generated by the worst of all capitalisms – an unheard-of productivity of labor, thanks to which the following are no longer inconceivable: “to each according to his need”, a demand for workers’ responsible initiative which can make their managing the economy inevitable, a multiform deployment of human individuality which will ring the death knell of class alienation… People ask themselves anxiously how they can exit this death-generating capitalism; the Marxist answer is: take account of and work to enlarge all the already-existing things that presuppose a communist post-capitalism. Presupposition: Now there’s a category of prime political importance for each and every one of us.

You contrast what you call “Marx-thought” with the great thinkers of philosophical tradition, from Plato and Aristotle to Kant and Hegel, and also with contemporary authors – with, it would seem, more attention to idealists than in your previous books – from Husserl to Wittgenstein, from Nietzsche to Sartre, and from Heidegger to Deleuze… Does this mean that there is philosophical matter to be meditated on among all these thinkers?

Lucien Sève: It depends, but in a general way, yes, among all the great thinkers, from Plato to Hegel. Over the centuries, they developed these super-precious philosophical categories, which Hegel systemized in his Logic, whose materialist reversal Marx undertook, thus producing a theoretical culture that is indispensable to anyone who wants “to change the world.” But at the same time, persisting in philosophizing as before lost all meaning. We’ve long since entered the epoch of the “end of philosophy,” an epoch in which great writers continue to think but no longer have as their object great “philosophical” works in the accepted meaning of the word. For example, I can’t see how you can avoid being very severe with many of the approaches of a Nietzsche or a Heidegger, or with a book like “What Is Philosophy” by Deleuze and Guattari. This does not prevent one from being attentive to what may enrich categorical thought in work that remains more or less a prisoner of the “philosophical” illusion, including, of course, among many of the idealists – with regard to Marx’s concept of “essence”, for example, I contrast his views with those of Husserl, on whom I had only worked in my youth, and who I re-read seriously.

In the big chapter that you dedicate to Marx’s “materialist attitude,” you contrast his attitude to the naturalist materialism that is very widespread today, for which nothing more than Darwin is needed and which, in the name of biology, proclaims itself scientific. What is it that you object to in naturalist materialism?

Lucien Sève: That it is unaware of the vast difference between social and natural materiality, which is a catastrophic confusion. The result of raising a homo sapiens in Nature alone is a feral or wild child. The thing that changed everything is the production by human labor of an immense cultural, material and socio-historical world, from which point on everything is reversed: it is no longer through the genetic inside that our superior hominization is produced, but through the social outside. This precisely is the crucial dispute with bourgeois ideology concerning “you can’t change human nature” – as if it had not already changed immensely in the course of thousands of years. More broadly, I criticize this naturalist materialism for being terribly reductionist, because it is philosophically unsophisticated. For a materialist like Mario Bunge, nothing exists except the tangible, such that he is incapable of accounting for the virtual, the potential, the cultural, the conceptual, or the mathematical… I attempted, on the contrary, starting from Marx and going further in Marx’s direction, to develop a materialist categorization that makes it possible to think all of reality in its immense diversity. In my opinion, this is being “scientific” in the philosophical domain…

You dedicate your last chapter to dialiectics. It’s a question to which you have insistently returned for many years and in several books… Why?

Lucien Sève: What is dialectics? The logical mastering of contradictions – in thought, in nature, in history. Frankly, in today’s formidably contradictory world, is there a more flagrantly important mode of thought? And do you believe that it’s an accident if there has been such a total suppression of dialectical culture since the enthronement of neo-conservatism? First they tell us that, after the implosion of the U.S.S.R., History has come to an end, hence dialectics has come to an end. And then, since today there are contradictions everywhere, there’s another Thatcherite turn of phrase: there’s no solution to all these contradictions, you’ve got to live with them. And continuing censorship of dialectics. I’m one of those who say no, who persists in working on dialectics – there’s an immense deal to be done – and in making dialectics known. In my book, I dedicate 20 pages to a presentation of dialectics “for beginners.” I say to each and every person: learn to think dialectically because it’s vital.

In the final analysis, if we ask you “what’s the point of philosophizing?”, what’s your answer?

Lucien Sève: If by philosophizing you mean going in for merchandized and media-hyped “philosophy,” I don’t answer “that serves no purpose” but worse: that serves to mystify oneself and to mystify other people. If, on the other hand, what you have in mind is the high culture of thinking and acting logically, I repeat with Diderot: Let’s hurry to make philosophical knowledge popular.

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On dialectical materialism: Lucien Sève, who passed the competitive ‘agrégation” exam in philosophy in 1949, published his first works in the mid-1950s, which he dedicated to French academic philosophy, a merciless adversary of dialectical thinking and of dialectical materialism. In later decades, the history of materialism, dialectics, natural sciences and bioethics, anthropology and religion are the subjects of a considerable portion of his research, the other portion being dedicated to studying Marx’s philosophy, the theory of the State, and the question of communism.

(1) Penser avec Marx aujourd’hui. Volume  III, La philosophie ? Published by Éditions la Dispute, 2014, 708 pages, 40 euros.

(2) Gallimard Folio, 2013.

(3) Gallimard, 2002.

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