Notes on the Prague Meeting (“Praxis in Marx and Marxisms,” December 14 and 15, 2022, Institute of Philosophy, Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague).

These are preliminary reflections meant as an invitation to further discussion—I have not reread the papers and only have my own impressions, faulty as they may be in terms of my own memory of the event, etc.  But I think, given the fact that we did not have a final session that would have helped us make sense of what we did, that a proposal for further discussion is warranted.  It does not have to happen here, in this blog—but we need to prepare the publication of the papers as well as we can.  My sense is that something like a fundamental discussion—a discussion on foundations, a discussion on fundamental issues–almost took place, but not quite.  Perhaps we can push it.  I only want to offer a presentation of some of the problems that surfaced—I will be by no means exhaustive.  

The invitation said the following: “The question of praxis has become a vexed one, and not just in its relationship to theory. Is transforming the world simply a matter of political engagement? Is it a matter of socio-economic production or a more fundamental engagement with what Marx called the capitalist social form? Or does it call for a reconsideration of human activity as a whole? Following Moishe Postone’s influential argument, the traditional Marxian notion of praxis clearly remained subject to a productivist ontology. In the wake of Postone’s critique, however, subsequent value-form readings of Capital as a monetary labour theory of value have arguably turned away from the problem of praxis to address the exegesis of Marx’s categorial critique of capitalism. Can the notion of praxis be revised in the context of planetary climate change and the persistence of late capitalism? Can Marx’s thought, and a fortiori traditional Marxism, withstand a challenge to a deeply embedded notion of productionist praxis? Is there an alternative that might still remain faithful to the Marxian oeuvre, or to its spirit?”

In other words, if I may drastically summarize, the question was whether Marxism is prepared to offer itself as an adequate tool to think the possibility of a politics (and, more ambitiously, a possible ontology) for the Anthropocene.  Or whether the time of Marxism is past—just a part of history, just a part of modern metaphysics which is therefore itself part of the problem and not of the solution.  There were, to start with, different positions regarding the Anthropocene.  Some of us thought that its peculiarity consists in turning the notion of “being towards death” from a notion that has primary relevance regarding singular existence into a notion that concerns the potential extinction of humanity in general, humanity as we know it.  Some of us thought that the situation is far from being so dire, and some of us thought that the Anthropocene is simply another instance of woke culture.  There was no agreement to start with, therefore, which made the question of the “epistemological commons” a particularly perplexing one. 

Transversally in regards to the question of the true import of the Anthropocene was the issue of left-Heideggerianism.  Can Heidegger’s thought offer the possibility of a supplement to Marxism, if we take “supplement” in the full Derridean sense: not just a complement but also a substitution, not just a substitution but also a complement?  A subsidiary and nevertheless all-important aspect of this question was whether Marx’s thought counts today primarily as an analysis of the law of value in capitalism and therefore of capitalism as the law of value or whether it still holds as a philosophy of history, namely, as what has been called historical materialism or, even more heavily, dialectical materialism.   Some of us thought that the contemporary relevance of Marxism has to do specifically with the great synthesis Marx obtained in Das Kapital: Capitalism as the monumental display of the principle of general equivalence understood as accomplished nihilism.  Some of us still found relevance in historical materialism, and materialism tout court, as a way of relating to the world in a total manner, i. e., as a totally integrated understanding of historical process culminating in a formally necessary push for communism as the goal of philosophy of praxis, that is, as the goal of any conceivable philosophy of praxis.   At this point it was a matter of a confrontation between what we can call, only half-jokingly, the “true believers” versus the already disenchanted ones, the skeptics and doubters:  Marxism as the true and right Golgotha of spirit or Marxism as a mere path to more crucifixion. 

The possibility of common ground perhaps rose with the idea that Heidegger’s notion of Ge-stell, variously rendered as “enframing” or “positionality,” could be linked to the Marxian idea of general equivalence as universal value.  This would be crucial.  The destruction of the history of metaphysics as ultimately a history of nihilism goes through the destruction of the principle of general equivalence, which is also the possibility of finding an alternative beginning for thinking the world beyond positionality.  The question came up as to whether cybercapitalism, understood as the new mode of production already dominant and becoming ever more dominant, is to be understood as the “precipitous fall” Heidegger had pointed out in “The Question of Technology” of the time of Ge-stell, which is the time of Capital: the moment when the human subject, up to then committed to the domination of nature as object, takes itself as the object, and the human itself is equally reduced to quantity and data production, distribution, circulation, and consumption.  The Anthropocene is to be seen, then, against the background of nihilism as the total quantification, not just of nature, understood in modern terms, but also of existence, resulting ultimately in the annihilation of both nature and existence themselves.  A passage beyond the nature-culture divide becomes imperative at this point. 

If Marxist epistemology, in spite of everything, was always based on the idea, explicitly asserted by Stalin, that the “deep structure of thought is a reflection of the deep structure of reality itself,” with Marxism occupying, naturally, the place of discovery of the “deep structure of thought,” then it becomes tautological to claim that the function of human knowledge is simply mapping the territory, in other words, charting the real to the point of total coincidence of thinking and being—absolute knowledge, full accomplishment of full subjectivity, total transparency of the world to itself (thanks to the Marxists). 

But there might be a different understanding of the Parmenidean word that opens philosophical reflection for the West: “being” and “thinking” may be the “same” not as full coincidence of subject and object of reflection but according to a very different and radically alternative determination of sameness. 

This other “sameness,” perhaps heretofore unthought, for which the figure pf Empedocles was suggested as a possible precursor—is it the very possibility of a new praxis, against the poietic understanding of praxis in Marxism? 

Can Marxism persist as a historical presence in the strong sense, can it foster an other beginning for thought in the epoch of the Anthropocene?  Is emancipation still the goal of political praxis? 

The “real movement” of things may be far from presaging communism—the age of total subsumption, the age of data as a deepening of the Gemeinwesen that Marx still thought was the money form, may call for a different praxis of thought, which is a different praxis of existence. 

2 thoughts on “Notes on the Prague Meeting (“Praxis in Marx and Marxisms,” December 14 and 15, 2022, Institute of Philosophy, Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague).

  1. At times it did feel as though the question of the conference were “Is Marxism still fit for purpose?” But it seems to me that we don’t have to answer that question either positively or negatively to be able to say that there are surely elements within the Marxist tradition that are still valuable, even if they have to be reworked for our current moment.

    The question then is less “yes or no?” to Marxism, but which of its elements still have life in them, and which should instead be “buried” (to pick up on a word that also floated around the conference), with more or less dignity and/or respect.

    Specifically, then, the question that we didn’t quite manage to pose clearly enough, but around which the conference turned, was whether “praxis” could be reworked (as you suggest here in this blogpost) or should instead be buried (as I think you were more keen to suggest in the conference itself).

    Personally, I’m easy. If I were to forced to save one concept from Marxism (on a desert island, say), I doubt it would be “praxis.” But I appreciated the challenge posed by the conference to think whether it could or should be reworked and maintained.

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  2. Dear all,
    Many thanks again for a rich exchange. In retrospect, I would focus on the clear distinction that I believe developed in the course of our discussions between the positions of “Marx and Marxism” in our title. On the one hand, it became clear to me across a number of talks that Marx only ever developed the Hegelian philosophy of “Praxis” in a number of unpublished notebooks from 1844-45, then abandoned this philosophical position to develop his “scientific” critique of political economy (with a number of recrudescences of this mode of thought, for example in the 1859 preface and the passage from the 1864 Vol III notebook that Gareth cited). In contrast, the richest part of the discussion to my ears addressed the central place of this philosophy in Twentieth century Marxism, say from Gramsci in 1917 to Petrović in 1979, along with its critique, above all in Heidegger, with specifically rich elaboration of both the Heideggerian critique and Gramsci’s thought, as well as the place of this philosophy in East Central European Marxism in the 1960s. In contrast again, I don’t believe anyone put forward the case of a significant post-1989 thinker who continues to develop or adhere to the Marxian-Hegelian philosophy of Praxis, except as an aspect of the history of Marxist thought, nor can I think of one myself. Perhaps I’m missing a more general point, but it seems to me that we risk flogging a dead horse in striving to take a position for or against the philosophy of praxis today. While many of us may identify as “Marxist,” the word is obviously capacious, and only Michael did so explicitly; his talk on value, anti-value and fictitious capital as I heard it, however, owed nothing to Marx’s 1845 philosophy of praxis but was instead indebted to and demonstrated the contemporary relevance of Marx’s mature categorial critique of the capitalist social form in the era of fictitious capital’s dominance. Other categories came up here and there, such as emancipation, but while obviously related, I don’t think emancipation can be equated with praxis, nor did we adequately discuss it (save perhaps for Alberto’s talk); perhaps that’s a topic for another discussion?

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