Dialectics and Spinoza

“Have you ever wondered why sociologists still study Marx if he was wrong?”

(Erik Olin Wright, “Analytical Marxism”)

This fragment grew into a series of YouTube videos: Rationalism and Socialism

The time has come for socialists to reconsider Spinoza. As Macherey put it in his 1979 book Hegel or Spinoza, “the entire problem is that of the dialectic.”

A Leftist movement is manifestly underway. Interest in Marxism is palpably increasing in the Americas and elsewhere. Basic Marxist concepts like class conflict, surplus value, and means of production have worked their way into the everyday vocabulary of Leftist organizers and their allies.

On the other hand, the idea of dialectic, which played so central a role in the thinking of socialists in prior generations, arises less often in present-day conversations.

Indeed, entire traditions of Marxist thought arising from English-language academic philosophy reject the dialectical method. These traditions promise a Marxism purged of any vestigial traces of latent Hegelian idealism—a “non-bullshit” Marxism, as G.A. Cohen said.

But as Macherey suggests, a dialectic without bullshit—or at least the germinal notion of one—can perhaps be found in Spinoza, whose thought provides an inoculation against Hegelian philosophy by abolishing all teleology.

Now, English-language academic philosophers are unlikely to be satisfied by any proposed Spinozan alternative to Hegel. Any show of sympathy with a European metaphysician constitutes a potentially fatal black mark for the career of an “analytic” philosopher. For them, the question “Hegel or Spinoza?” merely asks which flavor of metaphysical bullshit the reader prefers.

The appeal of Hegel and Spinoza to autodidacts, however, is a historical fact, as centuries of theory nerds demonstrate. One always has a sense of great moment when reading both authors, even when, frustratingly, one has hardly any idea what is being said. The autodidact is quite likely to pose the question to themself, “Hegel, or Spinoza, or both?”

Spinoza and Hegel “have something in common that distinguishes them from everyone else,” as Macherey says: they both begin from the assertion that “there is something of the absolute [in rational thought] that connects it to the real”. At the other end, so to speak, of the very different lines of reasoning the two men unfold beginning from this assertion lies the promise that the rational development of consciousness must inevitably lead to collective empowerment.

We must not abandon this promise if we wish to be called Marxists. It is the germ of the idea that building class-consciousness builds political power. It is also the theoretical basis for the proposition that rational collective behavior—e.g. socialized production—maximizes the individual’s ability “to exercise their powers and faculties in complete freedom”, as Engels put it.

If we can understand what makes the philosophies of Hegel and Spinoza irreconcilable, it is possible that a truly materialist dialectical method may be recoverable from Spinoza’s philosophy. This would constitute an alternative to taking either the “analytical” road which begins with British philosophy and ends with a “Marxian” rational-choice sociology, or the “transcendental” road which begins with Hegel, passes through Lacanian psychoanalysis, and dies in coffeehouse conversations about the meaning of the word “ideology”.

Although theorists in the English-speaking world have tended not to ask the question “Hegel or Spinoza?”, in late 20th-century Continental philosophy, the conversation was a lively one. We find Macherey, Deleuze and Guattari, and from a very different perspective Althusser, on Spinoza’s side, against which were arrayed Lacan and Derrida, and later, Butler and Zizek. The latter camp accused the former of naive “positivism”; the former derided the latter as “priests” of negation.

But the value of the question “Hegel or Spinoza?”, and of the dialectic method in general, is too great to leave the discussion confined to the rarefied atmosphere of Western academia and the intellectual rock stars of past decades. We aim to make plain the stakes of the debate for ordinary people today. We aim to articulate a Spinozan and materialist dialectical method. We aim to state principles for social science based on the social-ontological premise that class-consciousness is accessible through reason and is necessary for collective empowerment.

To specify exactly what this premise means, without bullshit, from a rationalist and empiricist perspective, in a manner that is consistent with age-old scientific best practices but not committed beforehand to any particular norm currently prevailing in any particular field of science: that’s the project.

There’s nothing at all novel about any of the ideas expressed here. This is just personal research preliminary to future work in social science. “It is at the frontier of our ignorance that we imagine we have something to say.” This is a blog, and I’m writing to learn.

“Besides the negative refutation of seventeenth-century theology and metaphysics, a positive, anti-metaphysical system was required. A book was needed which would systematize and theoretically substantiate the life practice of that time. Locke’s treatise An Essay Concerning Human Understanding […] was welcomed enthusiastically like a long-awaited guest. The question arises: Is Locke perhaps a disciple of Spinoza? ‘Profane’ history can answer: […]”

(Marx and Engels, The Holy Family)

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