Long time readers of this blog (all three of them) will know that I often write about my dissatisfaction with the work of recent German marxist and post-marxist writers such as Antonio Negri, Paolo Virno, Louis Althusser, and Gilles Deleuze, among others.


Those writers aren’t really German, I know.

It’s a dumb joke, I know.

Most of my jokes are dumb, I know.

It’s not just a joke though. (I mean, at least it’s not just a joke that I’m making on purpose. Some people might well read some of this and think “what a fucking joke!” Fair enough, hypothetical dismissive readers: by ye marxists then depending on your criteria of evaluation-and-dismissal, we may share some views – as I imply below, I think at the least I come close to a version of the sensibility I’m criticizing.) It’s also a second cut (or just a bit of redundancy, of repetition, of me repeating myself yet again, a bit of redundancy) at the concerns in this post about philosophical registers and sociological/economic registers within marxism. It’s also yet another way to express my admittedly redundant complaints about Negri and co particularly with regard to this stuff on “the common” (jokes aside here, I really mean it, I know I’ve been quite repetitive as I’ve tried to grind out some thoughts on this stuff).

In the introduction to “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific” Engels criticized Karl Dühring, who “suddenly and rather clamorously announced his conversion to Socialism, and presented the German public not only with an elaborate Socialist theory, but also with a complete practical plan for the reorganization of society.” Engels joked in his criticism of Dühring, saying “we Germans are of a terribly ponderous Gründlichkeit, radical profundity or profound radicality, whatever you may like to call it. Whenever anyone of us expounds what he considers a new doctrine, he has first to elaborate it into an all-comprising system. He has to prove that both the first principles of logic and the fundamental laws of the universe had existed from all eternity for no other purpose than to ultimately lead to this newly-discovered, crowning theory. And Dr. Dühring, in this respect, was quite up to the national mark. Nothing less than a complete “System of Philosophy”, mental, moral, natural, and historical; a complete “System of Political Economy and Socialism”; and, finally, a “Critical History of Political Economy” — three big volumes in octavo, heavy extrinsically and intrinsically, three army-corps of arguments mobilized against all previous philosophers and economists in general, and against Marx in particular — in fact, an attempt at a complete “revolution in science” — these were what I should have to tackle. [Engels here referenced his own efforts to criticize Dühring.] I had to treat of all and every possible subject, from concepts of time and space to Bimetallism; from the eternity of matter and motion, to the perishable nature of moral ideas; from Darwin’s natural selection to the education of youth in a future society.”

My German sucks so I looked up Gründlichkeit, the definition I found was “thoroughness.” Engels refered to Dühring’s “systematic comprehensiveness.” Reading this quote, I don’t think it’s entirely unfair to say that Antonio Negri has what Engels calls “a terribly ponderous Grundlichkeit, radical profundity or profound radicality.” For what it’s worth, Engels himself exhibited a fair bit of his own German “terribly ponderous Gründlichkeit,” and Marx certainly was possessed of this quality throughout a lot of his writing career. Much of the Marxist tradition is as well. Much of Marxism is all too Gründlich. I’m interested a non-Gründlich Marxism, one which isn’t after systematic comprehensiveness. As opposed to a thorough Marxism, instead let’s have a partial one.

When I think of this quality that Engels is talking about I tend to think about philosophy, but I don’t think that’s fair. I’m actually quite interested in philosophy. I’m just not sure what it’s role is within Marxism. Or rather, I don’t think it has one role for all contexts, I think it’s role is always context dependent, and relative to some aims and values.

I should say, I recognize that I’m not making an argument here. For people who like this “radical profundity or profound radicality,” more power to you. I like it too, sometimes. Other times, particularly with regard to the role of philosophy within marxism, my attitude is like E. P. Thompson’s toward the end of his life: “I’m less and less interested in Marxism as a Theoretical System. I’m neither pro- nor anti- so much as bored with some of the argument that goes on.” (from “Agenda for Radical History”, an address given in October 1985, p492-4 in The Essential E.P. Thompson)

Here’s another way to frame my complaint. I like tabasco sauce. I like it a lot. Despite my deep love of tabasco, I only use it in some activities: I use it exclusively with food, and only with some foods. Let’s say someone played a prank on me and mixed tabasco with my toothpaste. Upon discovering this while brushing my teeth I might in annoyance say something like “I hate this tabasco!” but really what I would mean is that I’m upset because in that context for the purposes I was interested in fulfilling, the tabasco is counterproductive. Likewise, I like theory and philosophy. I like it a lot. Yet, like tabasaco, it seems to me that philosophy is not universally useful, in all times and places in relation to all subjects, for all purposes. I sometimes sound like and sometimes think I’m irritated with philosophy. I’m not, though. Really, in those moments I’m irritated with the presence of philosophical reflection at a time and place and in relation to a purpose where it seems to me less than helpful or even counterproductive.

I should say, I don’t have clear criteria for determining the utility and appropriateness of philosophy or tabasco sauce for different contexts and purposes. (I’ll also admit that discussions about where and when and for what philosophy is useful are ones I’m excited about, probably the philosophical discussions I’m most interested in. I follow Richard Rorty here – there’s a quote on this that I can never find or remember when I want it, Rorty says something to the effect of ‘the most interesting philosophical questions are metaphilosophical.’ This may well mean that I’ve got my own “terribly ponderous Grundlichkeit”, that I want to have my cake [sans tabasco] and eat it too.)

I should also say, I’m well aware that sometimes the use of a thing in a context and in relation to a purpose to which that thing has apparently no utility can lead to innovations, the discovery of new uses. I’m told, for instance, that the capsaicin that makes tabasco spicy and good is a powerful anti-fungal. Along similar lines, I can’t rule out that philosophy might produce innovation in some contexts where it may not at first appear to have a use. At the same time, the production of such innovation is not guaranteed. Not to put too fine a point on it, but: I’ll admit philosophy is often useful and can be so in unexpected ways, while at the same time I insist that sometimes for some purposes philosophy is useless.

Most of what I’ve really said so far probably boils down to this: I think it’s pretty uncontroversial to say that it is sometimes correct to say “this stuff is not useful for this time, place, and purpose.” I suspect that a lot of the above is true but merely trivially true (“uncontroversial” is often a synonym for trivially true).

Wir brauchen keine Gründlichkeit, Kameraden.

At least of this sort, at least I think so.

It may be a self contradiction that I’m so interested in what I are I think mainly philosophical points about having a less gründlich marxism, but so be it.

As I think I’ve said before, I’m for a philosophically/metaphilosophically minimalist marxism, without commitments to things like Hegel or Spinoza, or commitments to issues in the philosophy of mind or philosophy of language or philosophy of history. I know I’ve not presented an argument for this here, and I know I probably do differ with Marx’s own understanding of his work at least as presented at some points in his life. I’d argue that the core of Marx’s work and its genius is a philosophically minimalist but tremendously powerful set of ideas and positions, and that their compatibility with so many additional positions is a mark of their power. I’ve put this before (in discussion here, I thought elsewhere too) as a principle of having our key beliefs and principles have as short of chains as possible to their anchors, so to speak, which means to me that they should depend on as a few other beliefs as possible. This is based largely on a crude sort of metaphilosophical intuition about entropy internal to philosophical systems or value systems – the more beliefs or doctrines required for any particular belief X, the more likely it is that something will go wrong with belief X. (This is I think totally compatible with a principle of redundancy, which would posit the more beliefs there are reinforcing a given key belief X, the better.)

I feel like a goof for quoting myself, but here’s how I’ve put some of this before, on a related point, from a discussion at Larval Subjects:

“It seems to me that many marxists engage in explicit theoretical work on totalization and/or do work which involves an implied idea of totalization, but I don’t think that one has to do so to be marxist. I think that marxism and particularly Marx’s understanding of capitalism as I understand it from v1 of Capital is sort of metatheoretically agnostic – it’s amenable to a great many additional theoretical/philosophical perspectives (I like to illustrate the point this way – I’m a communist and I love my wife, if I find out that I’m wrong about my atheism neither of the first two will change) but does not require much in the way of additional perspectives (part of what I’ve found annoying about both Hegelian and Deleuzian marxists, and I’ve known way too many of each, is that they both insist that all marxists must have their larger theoretical perspective or their marxism is somehow flawed). (…) I’ve yet to see any rejection of marxism for reasons to do with larger issues like totality/totalitization and so on where that rejection actually engages with what I take to be the key parts of v1 of Capital and either shows them to be wrong or shows how there’s a better way to do what Marx does.”

Another metaphilosophical point: for any given use which a given philosophical perspective is good for, it is likely that another philosophical perspective could also be used. This has no real force except to say that claims or implications about philosophical exclusivity make me very suspicious. Specifically with regard to marxism and what I think are the most interesting and relevant bits of Marx, I think the types of arguments implied in the philosophical work I’ve seen on the common are not an interesting avenue – I think we can have functioning and interesting marxisms which are compatible with each other whether we’re deleuzian spinozists or adornian hegelians or something else. While I’ve not seen this claim made directly, there’s a strong implication in the work of Negri at al that the philosophical/metaphilosophical framework they use is exclusive, hence the uninteresting asides about dialectics. The irony there is that culturally speaking, as a body of people with habits of speech and thought abstracted from the content of that thought, they have a great deal of bad habits in common with hegelian marxists, including the exclusivity of their framework. All of this is especially ironic when the frameworks are so vague and subject to such variable interpretations.

Further edit:
I tried to guess at some possible uses for all this stuffhere.)