As a bit of an experiment, coupling my interest in André Tosel and my work on translation, I have decided to try my hand at a few translations of the former when I get the time. These are totally unauthorized, and rough drafts posted for edification and entertainment purposes only. I started on this piece because it is short, and because it works on an area that I need to learn more about, the history of Marxist-Spinozism before Matheron or Althusser. However, the more I worked on this piece, the more I thought that this split between Plekhanov and Labriola, still exists, in the divide between neo-enlightenment Spinozists and what some might call post-modern, but I prefer to call Marxist Spinozists.
The Marxist Uses of Spinoza: Lessons of Method
The history of the role of Spinoza’s thought in the formation and the development of the work of Marx remains to be written, as is that of the history of the diverse Marxist usage (from different Marxisms) of Spinozist philosophical elements. This double history would reveal the work of Marx, and its contradictions, as much it would open up the work of Spinoza himself. Marxisms have reflected their aporias and their hopes onto Spinoza without necessarily truly thinking them through. In other words this is a domain of misunderstandings and equivocations. In order to undertake this history it would be useful to draw some lessons from the encounter of Marx and Marxist thought with Spinoza.
First remark. The encounters of Spinoza by Marxists are discontinuous and contradictory. This discontinuity is initially characterized by the lack of a definitive encounter between Marx himself and Spinoza. Marx is formed through the reading of Spinoza, of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, and the correspondence. Not to learn the lessons of materialism, but an ethico-political lesson. Spinoza is considered as philosopher of freedom and autonomy, modern incarnation of Prometheus and continuation of Epicurus, all at once. Marx, in is progression from Kantian-Fichtean idealism to the speculative communism of the 1844 Manuscripts, develops three theses which are the practical theses of philosophical materialism, without the epistemological and ontological theses of this materialist tradition.
Thesis One: Philosophy has a fundamental interest in the liberty of humanity, understood as autonomy and as the end of all heteronomies.
Thesis Two: Philosophy is critical of all transcendental authorities of all principle of domination which justify and represent their domination through this principle.
Thesis Three: Philosophy is eminently a science, knowledge, but knowledge of life, of the simple life of spirit of bodies rendered by their power. All particular sciences and knowledge must be thought from the point of view of science of life and its forms, as forms of life.
When Marx elaborates the materialist conception of history he revolutionizes materialism but he does this without ever connecting it to the spinozist theory of nature, of the relations of extension and thought, of bodies and mind. He integrates and modifies the strong ontological and epistemological thesis of materialism, but these theses are taken more from Hobbes and other materialists of the eighteenth century than from Spinoza. Let us state these theses which are capable of a Spinozist formulation, without however assuming such a formulation.
Thesis Four: Nature is the original reality and it is organized as matter at different objective levels. Thought cannot be separated from matter.
Thesis Five: Nature in its diverse senses is intelligible. It emerges only from itself, excluding all creation. The human order is not a kingdom within a kingdom and susceptible of being understood.
Thesis Six: All knowledge presupposes the reality of its object outside of thought. The appropriation by the knowledge of its own object of knowledge presupposes the reference to a real object.
It is necessary to pay attention to the debates in Marxism of the Second International in order to see how the question of “Spinoza precursor of Marxist materialism appears.” Emerging in the years of the crisis of revisionism the debate engages above all the German and Russian theorists of social democracy: Bernstein, Kautsky, and Plekhanov. It is in part based on the Anti-Dühring of Friedrich Engels and puts into play the complex questions of the relationship between the materialist theory of history with the sciences of nature with the political problem of the alliance of the intellectual groups in the perspective of socialist transition. This debate between 1896-1900 is inscribed in a theoretical problematic, such of Marxist orthodoxy that will find a new actualization with the problems proper to Soviet philosophy between 1917 and 1931, when it is a matter of specifying what would be called “Marxism-Leninism.” If the question of materialism assumes the continuity between the Spinoza of the Second International and that of the Third, nothing would be more erroneous than to let oneself be taken in by the apparent continuity of an imaginary history of philosophy. These occurrences are in effect specific, they constitute theoretical and political conjunctures which must be grasped in a way that takes into account the strategic dimensions of the class struggle whether or not it is led by Marxist parties, the problem of alliances, that of the intellectual division of labor. Marxist philosophy, as it is officially constituted, is part of the practice of parties, and the reference to Spinoza is overdetermined by the political and theoretical stakes that have to be elucidated in each specific situation. Here we touch on the second lesson of method: it is necessary to historically specify the conjunctures where Spinoza intervenes and where and how there is a specific usage of this prestigious and troubling reference. This method makes it possible to determine what falls under ideological legitimation, and what is inserted at the level of the practical politics of the party, of the state, of the level of specialized intellectuals.
Spinoza does not only appear only in the emergence of Marxist orthodoxy. He intervenes, in a subterranean manner, in the elaboration of theorists where the considerable theoretical importance has never been associated with an actual political importance. This can be found in the crisis over revisionism in the last century, such that Antonio Labriola in his Essays on the Materialist Conception of History (1895-1898) attests to the presence of a different Spinoza than that of his contemporary Plekhanov and a fortiori than that which was celebrated in Soviet Philosophy in 1927 and 1932. Spinoza intervenes as a critic of the same orthodoxy which returns as elements of an older materialism in another theoretical configuration that has solicited different aspects of his philosophy: no longer the parallelism between extension and thought, not a determinist ontology but the mode considered to be at once conceptual and experimental, the same geometrico-genetic method, in that it now excludes the guarantees of teleological philosophies of history. A contradictory intervention which is not without analogies to another occurrence, the most recent, that of Spinoza in the work of Louis Althusser which can be considered as a systematic deconstruction of the Marxist orthodoxy of the Second and Third International. Between Labriola (1898) and Althusser (1965), if we except the Soviet Spinoza, there is little except Ernst Bloch's remarks that no one has yet taken into account for a history of materialism oriented in the direction of a utopian ontology. This appearance of a Spinoza critical of stated and intended Marxist orthodoxies gives a third lesson of method: the diverse contradictory Marxist uses of Spinoza are situated between two poles, the first is that of an orthodoxy elaborated by the intellectuals of the social democratic and communist parties at the end of an a party/state conception of a finalist world and at the other is from thinkers situated in a problematic relation to the party, who look in Spinoza for other ways to make sense of the world and other practices then the becoming state of the worker parties. This opposition can appear to be schematic. It can be developed into provisional and schematic path of investigation. Such an investigation takes one central question: What is it in the philosophy of Spinoza that authorizes these discontinuous usages, determined by their conjunctures, and perhaps violently opposed?
Confronting therefore these different usages of Spinoza that can be considered historically significant in the course of history, that is to say in terms of their specific conjunctures.
This can be seen with the orthodox use of Spinoza by Plekhanov and the critical usage of Spinoza by Labriola at the heart of the second international. Plekhanov gave himself the task of elaborating the originality of Marx’s philosophy and defending it in the face of revisionists who, with Bernstein, contest the self-sufficiency of Marx’s philosophy, dividing into an evolutionary sociology and a Kantian inspired ethics. For Plekhanov there is very much a Marxist philosophy. It is inscribed in the materialist current which it revitalizes by giving it a historical dialectical dimension. Spinoza is the direct ancestor of Marx in that it is through the monism of the former that one can unify the science of nature and the science of history of the latter. Marx has revitalized substance as historical-social matter, metabolism of humanity with nature, and has inherited his realist theory of knowledge, thought is nothing other than a moment or function of matter. There is a Spinozism of Marx that is the realization of historical Spinozism as a the affirmation of the materialist conception of the world, one predicated on the knowability of matter in terms of its organization at diverse levels. Only this conception of the world can give the workers’ movement its organization and which would permit it to avoid the disorganization that revisionism introduces, neo-Kantian idealism cannot organize the class struggle without harmful compromises.
Spinoza is one part of orthodox Marxism returned to during this period. This Spinoza can authorize the theses of Friedrich Engels, in some sense simplifying the complexity of the Anti-Dühring. Concerned to think together the development of the sciences of nature, the materialist conception of history, and developing a philosophy capable of correct reflection and the movement of the specialization of sciences and the political struggle of classes (alliance with the intellectual stratum), Engles had proposed the idea of a materialist dialectic that oscillates between an ontological conception and a methodological conception of this dialectic. These two conceptions are apparently unified in the idea of “the science of the general laws of motion, both of the external world and of human thought — two sets of laws which are identical in substance, but differ in their expression in so far as the human mind can apply them consciously, while in nature and human history (at least up to now), these laws assert themselves unconsciously, in the form of external necessity, in the midst of an endless series of seeming accidents.” This parallelism between (laws of) movement of the external world and (the laws of) thought has a Spinozist connotation which reinforces the idea of liberty as the comprehension of necessary laws. However, it remains above all intended to make possible a representation of the dialectic under materialism, without examining its own difficulties. Plekhanov is not interested in these difficulties in elaborating a general materialist conception that Marx completes and fulfills through the mediation of Hegel.
Antonio Labriola, who wrote “Origin and Nature of the Passions According to Spinoza’s Ethics” at a young age (1866), refuses this ontologization or methodolization of the dialectic in order to develop the idea of a philosophy of praxis as a philosophy immanent to a new conception of history, reflecting the constitution of history as a complex unifying ground and surface. In this sense, the Plekhanov project, apparently Spinozist, of thinking the continuity of nature and society at the heart of a substantial and homogenous causality loses its sense. The process of social life must be desubstantialized at with it the philosophy that is presented as a hyperphilosophy or super science organized as “theosophic or metaphysic of the totality of the world, as if by an act of a transcendent knowledge we can arrive at a vision of substance and all of the phenomena and processes under it.” Antonino Labriola as much as he refuses to make man an ‘kingdom in a kingdom’ refuses the naturalization of history and the transformation of Marxism into a naturalist ontology where social practice becomes a species of being in general. Labriola denounces a matter found on things as a form of metaphysical superstition. Spinoza is evoked as a hero in the struggle against the imagination and ignorance that resurfaces in Marxist orthodoxy under the form of universal materialism. It is necessary above all to think of the diverse levels of the “animation” of matter, and therefore the specificity of the “artificial terrain” which constitutes practice. What Spinoza knew how to do for the theory of passions must be done for praxis: each one, the relations of affects and and those that constitute praxis, are not ruled by a subject and for this reason must be studied through a genetic method. Labriola speaks of a genetic method that also defines the method of Marx in Capital. The genetic method takes its distance from the dialectic and its teleological philosophy of history and established guarantees.
For Labriola the turn to Spinoza is less about the strengthening of a materialist monism than it is about the possibility of reinterpreting Marx’s Capital as a geometry of capitalist social being. The geometrical method is an instrument of internal purification destined to eliminate the finalism of productive causes and biological predetermination from Marxist orthodoxy. The philosophy of praxis manifests the basic critical and formal tendency of monism: everything is conceivable as a the causal genesis of a complex totality. The materialist dialectic is neither a universal method nor a logic of being, but constitutes the critical movement internal to knowledge which acts on the practice of philosophy and makes it a “conceptual form of explication” parallel to contemporary science. The reference to Spinoza intervenes in the critique of a Marxist orthodoxy which is supposed to include in a dogmatic manner Spinoza’s own materialism. Marx and Spinoza are considered as two practitioners of philosophy who refuse the closure of knowledge in favor of the immanent self-reflection of knowledge. The lesson of Spinoza is not to find the unity of knowledge under a principle but to demystify the fetishes which substitute imaginary principles for the movement of practice.
One could develop a similar analysis of the confrontation of the Soviet Spinoza of the Third International to the Spinoza of Louis Althusser.
The Soviet Spinoza is an impoverished and petrified version of the Spinoza of Plekhanov. With respect to Althusser, Spinoza’s critique is referenced constantly and augmented, infinitely better elaborated than in Labriola, since it acts this time not as a critique of metaphysical fetishism, even materialist, but of the metaphysics of the juridical subject characteristic of occidental rationalism.
The contributions of R. Zapata and J.-P. Cottent have clarified these points, but it seems opportune to underly the paradox of this history: it is possible to tie together the diverse uses of Spinoza, one against the other. If Spinoza is enrolled in the constitution of a “conception of the world” which intends to complete a current of philosophy and which cannot at any time criticize its presuppositions, it is also possible, as with Althusser, to think the structure of ideological interpellation that constitutes the ideological subject and invalidates philosophy considered as a theory of knowledge. If Spinoza makes possible a conception of the world in which the State Party is supposed to be the subject of history accomplishing its ultimate ends, it also makes it possible for Althusser to try to reconstruct Marxist theory on the ruins of the triple myth of origin, subject, and the end. The Labriolian critique of imaginatio and ignorantia is radically interiorized in the destruction of Marxisms of the Second and Third International. The recourse to structural causality supposed to have been developed in the theory of modes and substance serves as an incomplete program to develop the theoretical revolution of Marx.
However, it goes further still: there are two Spinoza’s in Althusser himself. The Spinoza critical of any theory of knowledge ultimately occludes the Spinoza of structural causality: the denunciation of the triple myth of origin, subject, and end is lead to the liquidation of the rational modernism present in Marx. However the pars destruens always prevails over the pars construens. The idea of structural causality (such that of substance as the absent cause over the modes and affects) is accompanied with the affirmation of an unknown radicality of Marxist science, but the critique of the metaphysics of subjectivity in the teleology of Marxism that accompanies it announces the crises of Marxist liberation in the last interventions of Althusser. Everything comes to pass as if Althusser deconstructs a dogmatic Spinoza in the name of another Spinoza, more secret and more enigmatic. Spinoza is always divided from Spinozism which claims to define him
Originally published in Bloch, Olivier, Editor, Spinoza au XXe siècle, Paris, PUF, 1993.