The Riddle of the Revolution: Between Truth and Totality

13th Apr, 2018

Picture by Jure Opara

Lea Kuhar is a young research fellow at the Philosophical institute, Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Science and Arts (ZRC SAZU) and a PhD candidate in philosophy at the Postgraduate School ZRC SAZU where she is researching the topic of the Marxian Critique of political economy and modern political philosophy. She is also a co-worker and a member of the program committee of the Institute of Labor studies.  Email: lkuhar@zrc-sazu.si

Der Einzelne hat zwei Augen
Die Partei hat tausend Augen.
Die Partei sieht sieben Staaten
Der Einzelne sieht eine Stadt.
Der Einzelne hat seine Stunde,
Aber die Partei hat viele Stunden.
Der Einzelne kann vernichtet werden,
Aber die Partei kann nicht vernichtet werden.
Denn sie ist der Vortrupp der Massen
Und führt ihren Kampf
Mit den Methoden der Klassiker, welche geschöpft sind
Aus der Kenntnis der Wirklichkeit.

                                 (Bertolt Brecht, Lob der Partei)

There are two concepts that were and, as we would like to claim, still are of major importance for revolutionary thought – the concept of the social whole and the concept of its truth. It was a specific conception of truth that was used as a guideline for revolutionary movements in the past and it was because of a specific comprehension of social totality that such guidance was made possible. However, as both the failures of real existing socialisms of the 20th century and the melancholy of today’s struggles have shown, after decades of struggles the left is trapped in a certain paradox: On the one hand, it has to denounce the old conceptions to avoid all their totalitarian traps, on the other hand, it does need to keep a certain universal element and not dissolve into a particularity of countless struggles, each bounded by its different conception of truth.

In order to start resolving this paradox, we believe that a fundamental substitution should be made in the thinking of contemporary left struggles, a substitution of the Hegelian moto das Wahre is das Ganze (“the truth is the whole") with the Adornian das Ganze ist das Unwahre (“the whole is the untrue”). As we would like to argue such a substitution would not only change their basic concepts, but would also have a major influence on the comprehension of revolutionary action as such. However, to understand this new comprehension we first have to take a closer look at the suggested substitution itself.

In his famous passage in The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism Lenin wrote: “The Marxist doctrine is omnipotent because it is true”.[1] Lenin’s professed confidence in Marx’s rightfulness in the quote may leave many astounded, since, if we take it seriously, it provokes a certain confusion: how is it possible to claim so confidently that Marxist doctrine is omnipotent? How is it possible to argue for its omnipotence with one’s own conviction of its truth? The answer to those questions lies in Lenin’s theoretical dispositions whose sources can be traced via Marx and Engels back to Hegel. In the famous preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit[2] Hegel wrote: “The truth is the whole” and by doing so outlined the guidelines for the development of the concepts that had a major impact on the philosophical and revolutionary thought of the next centuries. Hegel was not the first author talking about the big concepts of the whole and the truth. Since its very beginning philosophical thought was trying to find an original principle that would enable it to grasp the world in a consistent and coherent way. The novelty of Hegel’s theoretical approach was, that the truth of the whole of the world was not given from the standpoint of an absolute knowledge that would extract itself from the studied object and judge it from a given exterior position. On the contrary, in Hegel’s theory simple criteria that would enable us to make objective judgments about the world do not exist. However, this does not mean that everything is relative. If we want to find the truth, we can find it in the way we comprehend the object we are exploring.

The best way to illustrate Hegel’s method is to show the path knowledge takes in its quest for truth. Knowledge is driven by the desire to find the truth of a given object. However, every time it thinks that it is finally getting closer, it realizes that its presuppositions of what the truth would look like do not coincide with its findings (e.g. sense-certainty wants to comprehend something as purely concrete but is faced with something purely abstract). This logic repeats itself through the different shapes of knowledge and the path to the truth is set anew each and every time. Nevertheless, Hegel turns what could be seen as a weakness of dialectical thinking into its strength. All knowledge is produced precisely because of the distinction between the concrete and limited point of knowledge and the absolute truth. There is no final merge between the former and the latter, since at the end of the path knowledge realises that the path itself was everything there is. The whole is therefore the path that knowledge walks upon while it chases the truth and truth is the realisation of the whole as a walked-through path.

Fifty years after the release of the Phenomenology of Spirit, Marx’s Critique of Political Economy turned Hegel’s philosophy back “on its legs” by making a materialistic turn that enabled it to find a “rational kernel” in its “mystical shell”. The path of Hegel’s knowledge thus becomes a reflection of concrete social relations and has as such a concrete materialist grounding. However, in spite of the materialist turn, some basic claims stay the same. Like Hegel, Marx did not try to find an objective place in the social structure from which he could make absolute judgements about the concepts of political economy. On the contrary, he entered the already existing discourse of political economy and showed us how its concepts are the products of concrete historical circumstances and explained how they exist, evolve and function in those circumstances. By doing so he taught us that the contradictions of the dialectical movement are not just contradictions of thought (such as the one between knowledge and truth) but social contradictions (such as the one between labour and capital).

In Lenin’s times a specific way of understanding socio-historical contradictions prevailed. They were understood in a historical determinist and evolutionary way. The materialist dialectic worked as an ontological system comprehended as the science of the big picture and could as such explain the beginnings and workings of all phenomena. It fulfilled the function of a general law of the development of thought, nature and society. As the reflection of the movement of nature, social phenomena were understood in very vulgar and deterministic terms. The laws that were valid in nature were valid in history.[3] However, as the explanation of every law of social movement, this theory was not only valid for contemporary social phenomena but was expanded and applied also to the laws of time. Since they knew the logic of the laws of society, they could determine how those laws will work in the future and therefore could determine how they should work. We could now observe the capitalist mode of production in the same way that we can observe the formation of a plant from a seed in nature and proclaim it as a mere stage in socio-historical development – a stage that will fade away sooner or later. The task of the party is thus to facilitate this course of events.

The main problem of this Marxism-Leninism or, as it has often been referred to recently, Engelsism (that was raised to the level of the state doctrine during Stalin’s time) is not only in the vulgar materialist comprehension of social development, but in a certain paradox belonging to both the materialist and idealist version of the dialectics. It is a paradox based on the fact that, on the one hand, the fate of either knowledge or the working class can only be disclosed retrospectively but on the other hand, it has to be presupposed from the very beginning, so it can resolve the contradiction in the right way. To put it differently, when Hegel talks about the progression of consciousness, he does that from the standpoint of limited knowledge but at the same time he thinks of the process in its entirety from the standpoint of the final knowledge. For the whole to move, for knowledge to progress, there always already has to be a presupposed point of the final stage. However, what is at the first glance a less important theoretical contradiction of Hegel’s philosophy shows its horrific consequences when it is put into a revolutionary practice. When Lenin talks about the working class and its emancipation, he does that from the standpoint of the party as the one that already carries the resolution of the main social contradictions and is therefore able to lay out the battles for the masses, so they can progress in the right direction. By doing so he does not just root the struggle in a predisposed path. Once we put ourselves in the position of the already walked-through path, the totality of currently existing society does not resolve itself (as it was supposed to) but gets fixated.

The famous poem Lob der Partai (In praise of the party) by Brecht tells us that “the party has a thousand eyes, the individual has only two”. The party does not have a thousand eyes just because the sum of individual eyes would see more than the eyes of a single person. The party sees more because it stands on the point of the whole from where it can see everything – it can see the whole social structure and it can see the fate of its progressive development. The position of the party is the point of absolute knowledge; it is the point that can claim judgements on the truth of the rest of society. This state of affairs, as Alain Badiou explains in The 20th Century,[4] gives the possessors of truth a certain paranoid fear that the real is never real enough, that the whole is never whole enough. Standing on the position of absolute knowledge there is always a chance that “we are not there yet”, that the synthesis has failed, a fear that reality is just a bad copy of the original idea, which ultimately leads to the constant purification of reality itself. The crucial problem being that the knowledge of the party does not establish itself anymore through a relation to the truth, but becomes the truth itself. Social reality becomes a reality of suspicion, where the more a subjective stance shows itself to be true the more we suspect it. This is also the reason why in a revolutionary moment, where the striving for freedom should be at its greatest, enemies can be found everywhere. It is also the reason why the 20th century, which included Stalin’s purges and post-war killings was recorded in history to be “the century of destruction”.

When Gramsci said that “the Bolshevik revolution was the revolution against Marx’s Capital”[5] what he had in mind was the aforementioned critique of the vulgar comprehension of the historical process. As contemporary interpretations of Marx’s work (e.g. Neue Marx-Lektüre) have shown, Marx did not simply historicize the already existing categories of the capitalist mode of production. He analyzed the way in which those categories function and most importantly, he explained why they exist in the form they exist in – the form of value. By doing that he unveiled a new content that comes out of the specific resolution of the given form – the content of the form itself –  Capital. To put it differently, in Capital Marx demonstrated that we already have a materialized form of Hegelian dialectics –  capital itself. If the Bolsheviks would have considered that, they would have known that the capitalist mode of production cannot be sublated (Aufhebung) by materializing the Hegelian form in another way, meaning to replace capital with the working class. Since this did not happen, since the revolutions were the revolutions “against Marx’s Capital” we remain stuck in the reality of global capitalism where through the process of real subsumption capital is successfully fighting every attempt at revolution.     

What is to be done? If we want to repeat Lenin’s gesture, we would need at the very least a new orientation in thought and action. To get a new orientation in thought would mean to conceive of knowledge in a way, where a presupposed notion of truth is not necessary; it would mean to have a concept of truth that guides our knowledge and action without a prior characterization of its path; it would mean to have a concept of the whole, that would capture exactly what is missing in today’s all-encompassing capitalist system – what is not and what can’t be subsumed in advance under a certain concept.

An attempt to form such a theory was already made by Theodor Adorno in his 1966 book Negative Dialectics.[6] Despite his critique of the evolutionist comprehension of history, Adorno did not just reject Hegel’s dialectics. The negative dialectic remains a dialectic since in a similar way as Hegel, Adorno agrees with the conceptual distinction between knowledge and truth. Adorno also recognizes, similarly as Hegel, all the attempts of knowledge to grasp its truth and its repeating failures. However, the main focus of Adorno’s theory is on the moment of this failure. He wants to preserve this non-identical moment between knowledge and truth instead of trying to reach their synthesis. To preserve the moment of the non-identical does not simply mean that the whole is false and that truth can only be found in individual particularities. In his famous passage from Minima Moralia[7] Adorno does not say “the whole is false” but “the whole is the untrue” – das Ganze ist das Unwahre. The distinction may seem minimal, but it is crucial. The sentence “The whole is the untrue” means that truth is constituted by that which falls outside of the conceptual determination of the object – by what thinking itself “is not”, its non-conceptual, non-whole, non-true moment. Hegel found truth in the positive side of the difference between knowledge and truth. Adorno, on the contrary, says that the only true thing about this path is its moment of the non-identical, the moment because of which the path never stops. This moment can be found only by leading the internal conceptual development to some external consequence. To preserve the possibility of a whole we therefore have to, paradoxically preserve its un-true moment.[8]

There is a certain problem embedded in Adorno’s theory – the problem of how to think the un-whole moment without thinking it, since by thinking it we would subsume it fully under a given concept and therefore extinguish its non-identical part. The question of “what is to be done?” is therefore replaced by the question “how it is to be done?”. The first possible answer would be not to think it at all, and to use critical theory only to present non-identical moments. However, in this case we stay trapped in our own negativity – a negativity that doesn’t let us affirm any actions. The second answer was proposed in Adorno’s inaugural lecture to the faculty of philosophy of the University of Frankfurt,[9] where he explained his view on the role of philosophy in today’s society. According to Adorno, its role is to harvest all of the un-true and non-identical moments of society and to form riddles out of them. Why riddles? The riddle functions by restructuring the elements of a given society so it can show a certain meaning “without really showing it” – without subsuming it under a pre-given concept. It is crucial for the riddle’s existence that the answer it seeks remains unknown since in the moment of its disclosure the riddle’s role would be extinguished. The meaning of the riddle is not its answer since both the riddle and the answer can’t co-exist. However, the answer is always already present in the riddle itself as something that over-determines it (in Althusser’s meaning of the term) and as something that makes it appear, but has to, paradoxically, stay unknown. If Hegel’s whole was based on a temporal loop that made something retroactively that which it has always already been, Adorno’s riddle functions as a future that will never come, as a future that can never come since its coming would extinguish the present. However, it does exist as something and since it exists as an undefined something it functions in its own way. It functions as a presupposition that can invent new forms in place of the old ones and can think its non-identical, un-true elements without really thinking them. The riddle is therefore for Adorno the form of thinking that can act as a form of invention (ars inveniendi) and can, at the same time, allow knowledge and its truth to recognize each other without merging.

In The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts Marx wrote: “Communism is the riddle of history solved and it knows itself to be this solution”.[10] We would like to argue that the main challenge of the struggles of today’s left is to stop acting as if the repetition of the answers to the old questions would solve their problems instead of trying to open up spaces where new questions could be produced. As we briefly tried to emphasize, communism has to be the answer that over-determines the riddle of history and not the answer that extinguishes it. The main challenge for the contemporary left is therefore the forming of a riddle that would take the impossibility of its answer as the condition that (paradoxically) enables it to act. When we therefore say that the revolution is a riddle, we don’t just mean that we can’t find its answer. We mean it literally. The revolution has to be a riddle; we have to think it in the form of a riddle. To do that, we have to, polemically speaking, show, why “Marx’s doctrine is omnipotent because it is the untrue”, why for Marx the true is only that which is the un-true. We have to show how his theory can not only give us the explanation of how the current world functions but can give us the instruction how to find in it its un-real, non-identical moments, the missing moments inside the all-inclusive capitalist whole. Only in this way can we repeat Lenin’s gesture and try to form a new approach to revolutionary action.

 


[1] Vladimmir Ilyich Lenin, The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism (1913). Available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1913/mar/x01.htm

[2] G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

[3] A good example of deterministic understanding of socio-historical process is a book by Frederick Engels, titled Dialectics of Nature (1925), available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1883/don/index.htm. For the distinction between traditional Marxism-Leninism and later forms of marxism we recommend reading the introduction to Ingo Elbe’s book Marx im Westen. The English translation, Between Marx, Marxism, and Marxisms – Ways of Reading Marx's Theory is available at: https://www.viewpointmag.com/2013/10/21/between-marx-marxism-and-marxis…

[4] Alain Badiou, The Century, UK: Polity Press, 2007.

[5] Antonio Gramsci, The Revolution against 'Capital' (1917), available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/gramsci/1917/12/revolution-against-cap…

[6] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectic, New York: Continuum, 2007.

[7] Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, London: Verso, 2005.

[8] Following this argument, we could find the truth of every concept formed in the capitalist mode of production e.g. freedom, equality, democracy, etc. Taking for example the concept of equality, we could argue that its truth could be found only in the moment where equality is not equal to itself – in the inequality of the “equal exchange” between the worker and the capitalist.

[9] The script of the lecture titled The Actuality of Philosophy (1931) was found post humanly in Adornos estate. In was published for the first time in vol. I of Adornos Gesammelte Schriften and is also available at: http://www.platypus1917.org/wp-content/uploads/readings/adorno_actualit…

[10] Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/comm.htm