As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Tomash Dabrowski looks at Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s “Western Marxism,” from Telos 6 (Fall 1970).
Prior to 1960, the work of György Lukács was largely unknown in France; Lukács’s work had only belatedly gained influence there with Lucien Goldmann’s translation of History and Class Consciousness almost forty years after its first publication, and five years after the 1955 publication of Merleau-Ponty’s study of his work in Les Aventures de la Dialectique. Merleau-Ponty had in a sense anticipated the French debates on Lukács’s otherwise eminent text, already having cited passages from History and Class Consciousness in 1946. “Western Marxism,” however, is a meditation on a Marxism far removed from the type that Merleau-Ponty was enthusiastic about almost ten years prior. Until 1950 his political commitments were supportive, albeit cautiously, toward the Soviet project; the present work is however concurrent with a disillusionment of institutionalized Marxism, a cynicism that had grown in Merleau-Ponty since the Korean War.
In “Western Marxism,” Merleau-Ponty identifies Lukács as inaugurating a canon of heterodox Marxists who had supplanted the dogma of the Soviet Union (and presumably textual authority as well—the only passages by Marx that Merleau-Ponty quotes are largely those cited in History and Class Consciousness). Indeed, despite the title suggesting a broader study, Merleau-Ponty’s essay is deeply concerned with “very freely” interpreting only Lukács’s work
not because there remains something of it in today’s Marxism nor even one of those truths which miss historical inscription only by chance. On the contrary, there is some foundation to the resistance which it has encountered. We must, however, recall this lively and vigorous work which revives the youth of the revolution and that of Marxism in order to take stock of today’s communism and to realize what it has renounced and to what it has resigned itself. (161)
In point of fact, the description “Western Marxism” was first used pejoratively by the Comintern in a 1923 polemic against Lukács and Karl Korsch. The re-appropriation of the title in Merleau-Ponty’s coinage and, moreover, the re-appropriation of Lukács’ work is immanent to the project of Western Marxism in general. For Merleau-Ponty, the fulcrum of History and Class Consciousness is that Lukács had understood that one cannot “relate themselves to an accomplished historical totality,” but only a totality of what is historically available, and therefore incomplete; history is never given as fact, but instead a set of limited and fragmentary perspectives that are themselves the products of history. Therefore, there can be no priestly sect of philosophers who can enjoy the privilege of observing some stable historical truth, whether it be Hegel or Stalin. Rather, the consciousness of history and the history of consciousness are both partial viewpoints imbricate in each other; in fact they are reciprocally productive of one another. Consequently, the ambiguity of historical reality carries with it the imperative to its own perennial re-interpretation. The project of Western Marxism is then to dispel authoritative understandings of history through its perpetual interpretation in arising historical realities:
there is no event which does not bring an added precision to the permanent problem of knowing what man and his society are, which does not posit this problem as the order of the day, which does not restore the paradox of a society of exploitation nevertheless founded on the recognition of man by man. (146)
Lukács, in grounding knowledge in the flux of historical understanding, is the patriarch of Western Marxism because the heart of his project already anticipates it being surmounted by his intellectual heirs. In this regard he had carved out a far more democratic refuge for his successors beneath the vanguard variants of the interpretation of Marx (although he is sympathetic to Lenin); if the totality of given historical data is a multiplicity of partial perspectives, then theory and practice is reconciled in a communal project that surpasses the limited view of the theoretician. For the Marxist theoretician is not someone with a monopoly of historical truths, which are presented ready-made to the working class; both theory and practice belong rather to a democratic systemization of the situation of the proletarian:
a global project which supports and animates the productions and actions of a class, which proposes to this class an image of the world and of its tasks in this world, and which, keeping in mind external conditions, assigns it a history. This is not just someone’s project, nor the project of some proletarians, nor of all of them, nor of a theoretician who abrogates to himself the right to reconstitute their fundamental will. Like the meaning of our projects, it is not a definitive, closed unity, but it is the heritage of an ideology, of a technology, of a movement of the productive forces, each of which carries the other along, thus receiving support from it, each of which, in turn, plays a never exclusive but directing role and all together produce a qualified phase of social becoming. As the locus of these exchanges, praxis goes well beyond the thoughts and feelings of the proletarians and yet, as Lukács put it, it is not a “pure fiction,” a theoretician’s disguise meant to hide his own ideas about history. It is the common situation of all the proletarians, the systematization of what they do on all levels of their action. It is a flexible and deformable system which allows all kinds of individual mistakes and even collective errors but which always ends by making itself profoundly felt. (154)
Merleau-Ponty’s essay is thus less of a description of broadly shared tenets of a nascent intellectual cannon, but rather raises an imperative to be answered by its successors: the past must be continually returned to, history must be placed under constant scrutiny, and the limits and possibilities of the present must be gauged alongside the expression of their historical conditions. To read Merleau-Ponty adding a phrase to the parlance of intellectual history is to obscure the tenacity of his project; history, intellectual or otherwise, is not a series of given facts and footnotes, but presents us with the responsibility to understand and carry its project forward.
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