Critical Thinking Requires a Critical Criterion: Jünke on Kofler

In conversation with Christoph Jünke, on the legacy of German Marxist theorist Leo Kofler and why we need a Marxist understanding of anthropology today

Christoph Jünke is a socialist historian and journalist in Bochum, Germany, and chairperson of the Leo Kofler Foundation. He wrote his doctoral thesis on Leo Kofler and published the first comprehensive biography of Kofler’s life and work. His most recent book, Leo Kofler’s Philosophy of Praxis, is planned for publication in the Historical Materialism Book Series. This interview was published to commemorate Leo Kofler’s 110th birthday on 26 April of this year.

This interview was originally conducted by Arthur Bruls for the Dutch periodical Grenzeloos, and translated for Historical Materialism by Nathaniel Thomas. Many thanks to Loren Balhorn for his editorial assistance.

Leo Kofler portrait
Image copyright Leo-Kofler-Gesellschaft, eV

At the beginning of the 1980s, leftists, socialists, and Marxists still talked quite a bit about “humanity” (den Menschen) as such, while authors like Erich Fromm with his humanism were very popular. Today these discussions are comparatively rare, and the debate on Marxist anthropology is largely over. Where does that come from?

That naturally has to do with, above all, the socialist and Marxist left being shattered, shrunk, and marginalised since the 1980s. The discussion of the concept of man ended in tandem with a specific historical moment as the socialist left largely fell apart at the end of the 1970s and early 1980s – or rather was occupied from the right, by conservatives and liberals and, above all, by the emerging neoliberals and postmodernists. The debate on socialist humanism and a Marxist anthropology was also by no means hegemonic on the left, but in fact quite controversial to begin with.

And how is that all connected in your opinion?

I think that we have a bundle of causes here. For one, there is a historic cause: in bourgeois thought there is a very strong tradition of citing or conceptualising the human as such – and, moreover, of doing so in a horrifying way. All of the biologism and racism of the bourgeois tradition of thought, down to fascism, is naturally something with which the left has always had abundant problems, while questions from that tradition are only begrudgingly posed by the left. Socialists and Marxists would rather avoid these bourgeois anthropological waters.

There are also, however, theoretical reasons internal to Marxism itself. Marxist theory seeks to engage with historical and concrete temporal conditions and emphasize the changeable in history, linking it with an imperative to push said history in another direction. Marxism therefore cultivates a strong tradition of not engaging with allegedly abstract insights into the human essence, but rather concerns itself with what can concretely be changed. One seeks to analyse above all the forms of motion of hegemonic capitalism and what is changeable within it – while anthropology is always insight into essences, the consideration of the unchangeable.

The non-discussion of this topic enjoys a long tradition. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was generally regarded as an inheritance of classical bourgeois humanism, but not as a special topic in itself. That Marxists began to preoccupy themselves more explicitly with questions of anthropology in the 20th century is due, more than anything else, to the experiences of fascism as well as Stalinism, but also due to the Social Democratic movement’s growing integration into welfare state capitalism. The experience of defeat on the part of leftist emancipatory movements plays a particularly central role here, as the question of in what form and with what substance one can and should criticise these no-longer emancipatory movements quickly raises the question of the socialist notion of humanity or of “the human” as such (Menschenbild): can one hold fast to the socialist idea? Can people be taught to be good, or must they teach themselves? Can they do so at all – and if yes, how?

The experience of historical collapse brought many socialists and Marxists, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, to grapple with concepts of the human. Erich Fromm is surely one of the most well-known and important of these thinkers, but we also find comparable work in the writings of Ernst Bloch and Jean-Paul Sartre, Herbert Marcuse and Henri Lefebvre, Che Guevara or Isaac Deutscher, the East European reform Communists, or the Lukács disciples Agnes Heller and Györgi Markus. We find in the middle of the century an attempt to begin anew, where anthropological questions and considerations in fact play an important role.

You have addressed this problematique following the example of German Marxist Leo Kofler.

Yes, and I consider Kofler’s work to be one of the most systematic and convincing attempts at such a reworking of anthropological themes. Kofler began addressing the topic systematically in the 1950s, and came to the conclusion that a specific Marxist anthropology does indeed exist – something that others who have studied the topic often deny.

Kofler attempted to conceive anthropology as, and I quote, the “science of the unchangeable preconditions of human changes”. In Marxist tradition, he also stressed that labour as a whole, as human activity, is what makes humans human. However, Kofler emphasised more strongly than most other Marxists that one could not separate this labour or activity from human consciousness, that human activity has always been indissolubly (unaufhebbar) paired with consciousness. In addition, he emphasises that human activity has always had a playful character, that humans strive to engage in their activity as playfully as possible, because in the end labour serves to satisfy human needs, and these needs do not exhaust themselves in the purely material, but rather have an erotic purpose in the broadest sense of the word. Humans consist not only of Reason, but are also irrational, instinct-driven beings (Triebwesen) that, through reasoning, attempt to realise their ultimately irrational human drives.

For Kofler, however – and this is seldom understood – Marxist anthropology was no direct guide to action, although indispensable in the critique of the actually existing and in discussions of necessary and possible alternatives. Kofler sees the human as a holistic being and argues for the full development of its personality as a species-being. Herein lies a critique of capitalist class society, which does not do justice to this human being, and is, for example, always founded upon a repressive, ascetic labour discipline.

Kofler’s teaching of the unchangeable preconditions of human change is thus a type of meta-theory, an auxiliary science in the humanistic changing of bourgeois capitalist social relations. It connects past, present, and future, and exhibits a utopian component in the best sense of the word.

Traditionally, Marxists have argued against this point of view, saying that in the struggle for liberation, questions of the economy, of the material interests of real people, are more important, which means class interests and class struggles.

That is also not incorrect, although it is a bit one-sided. Since the end of the 19th century, there has been a long tradition of Marxist thought that must be characterised as dogmatic and mechanistic, which reduced everything to questions of the economy. That was born out of a certain historical situation, but was nevertheless false in its one-sidedness. Their heterogeneity notwithstanding, the later thinkers of anti-dogmatic Marxism were united in the conviction that this kind of Marxism represented a false interpretation. The human is an active, acting being, and the stakes are higher than the mere economy for them – for them, it’s about human relationships and self-realisation. To paraphrase Brecht: “Man does not live by bread alone, and doesn’t even have this without culture.”

Kofler himself always spoke about this, that one must be clear about what one wants, what one actually understands by socialism. Is it already socialism if we have two or three more sausages on our plate? Or isn’t socialism something that frees humans from the alienation they have historically manoeuvred themselves into? Is socialism not something that understands the individual human as an integral part of the human species-being, without requiring this human to give up their individuality in its uniqueness? Such a point of view addresses the economy only contingently, for the economy and labour are indeed only means to an end. However, it does address the end – the goals of human existence – as well as the relationship between means and ends.

Why exactly did Kofler emphasise this?

That can naturally be traced back to his practical experiences with the socialism of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), where he lived and worked from 1947 to the end of 1950. There it became clear to him in practice that one cannot criticise the social relations under actually existing socialism appropriately without a concept of the purpose for which socialism ought to exist in the first place, what the goal of human emancipation is. However, one cannot have such a concept of emancipation if one does not also have a concept of human existence, of what purpose humans serve and what not, what they may and can do and what not. Critical thinking requires a criterion of critique, and Kofler finds this ethical criterion, so to speak, in anthropological considerations. One cannot bring people to socialism through bureaucratic means, nor through force; this Stalinist technocratism has not only revealed itself to be false and disastrous in both history and practice, but is also incompatible with Marxist theory and humanity as such.

This Stalinist technocratism, of which you speak, exhibits interesting similarities with today’s postmodern thought. Nothing is impossible, as it is said, everything is changeable, including the human itself, even the sex (Geschlecht) of the person. Even many leftists today emphasise that there is absolutely no human sexual essence (sexuelles Wesen).

The fact that some people are born into a sex (Geschlecht) that does not fit them does not mean there is no human sexual essence.

In the philosophical tradition, there are two great currents: the so-called Naturalists, who trace everything back to the nature of the world, and the Culturalists, who recognise everything in culture. Postmodernism, one could argue, stands markedly in the tradition of Culturalism, despite its considerable heterogeneity. Pointedly stated, the human for them is exclusively culture. That naturally has a kernel of truth, but is also not really correct. For me, that seems to be exactly what is exciting about a thinker like Kofler: he tends to overcome the dichotomy between Naturalism and Culturalism.

Discussions today go in this direction as well – particularly in English-language Marxism, which has played a vanguard role in international Marxist theory since the 1980s, and where we find reinvigorated engagement with anthropological questions. Norman Geras was a particularly noteworthy pioneer in the first half of the 1980s. As the decade drew to a close, the critique of postmodern thought emanating from figures like Alex Callinicos and Terry Eagleton helped to sharpen anthropological perspectives. Eagleton has been particularly prolific on the topic of Marxist anthropology for over a decade. Despite coming from an entirely different tradition and flirting with the anti-humanist structuralism of a Louis Althusser, today he not only emphasises the existence of a human essence but also that the left suffers by not taking this question more seriously. We humans, as Eagleton trenchantly puts it, are “cultural beings by virtue of our nature, which is to say by virtue of the sorts of bodies we have and the kind of world to which they belong”.

That, to me, seems to be the central idea of Marxism, which overcomes both one-sided culturalism and one-sided naturalism. The human is both: natural being as well as cultural being. This is the point Leo Kofler made fifty years earlier. Yes, our nature is that we are cultural beings, but we can only change ourselves to a certain point without ceasing to be humans. This arc of suspense appears to me to be Marxism’s exciting and original contribution to anthropology.

And can the currently dominant regime of neoliberalism sharpen this perspective?

Where humans appear to be wolves to other humans; where the human is understood as the individuated individual, as I, Inc., as a lone warrior who throws their individual resources into the competition of commodification – there, leftist, emancipatory considerations on another concept of humanity are more needed than ever.

The Marxist tradition stands and falls with the assertion that, irrespective of all individuality, the human is part of a collective, it is a species-being – and not the individuated individual as conceived today. The human, as Leo Kofler’s anthropological dictum puts it, can only individuate itself in the context of community. What we lack is a consciousness of this collectivity, a consciousness of this solidarity – what can the human do, what can’t the human do?

Can one then, for example, discuss cloning or eugenics without agreeing on one’s concept of the human? That so few Marxists engage in these sorts of discussions shows how much we’ve lost over the last three decades. Naturally, there were and are exceptions. I’ve already mentioned Terry Eagleton. Let’s take as further examples Pierre Bourdieu and Naomi Klein, who were decidedly popular at the end of the 1990s because they convincingly questioned the neoliberal concept of the human, writing popular texts against the kind of capitalist commodification that closes off the human from its inherent possibilities.

If, as I think Terry Eagleton so aptly writes in his impressive work on the meaning of life, the meaning of life lies in the free unfolding of human possibilities and capabilities, then this can be understood in both an individual as well as a collective sense, and requires a conception of humanity that one can only acquire and understand by reflecting on the anthropological foundations of human existence.

Yet how does one approach such a humanism in practice? Erich Fromm, for example, speaks rather often of the human, but barely addresses collective protest or strike movements. We are dealing, generally, with the human as an abstract individual. In Leo Kofler’s view, humanity is formed above all through consciousness and education. Yet how do theory and practice come together in a practical sense?

There are two great sources on which the classical socialist movement builds. On one side, we have the radical tradition of the Enlightenment, which rested above all on education and upbringing; on the other, the working classes’ struggle for their own emancipation. Both elements were increasingly unified in the classical socialist movement, but taken by themselves have little to do with each other. With the end of the classical socialist movement in the mid-20th century, this growing unity of theory and practice slackened noticeably, and also affected the work of a Fromm, Marcuse, or Kofler. It is important to take critical note of this development in retrospect, although it was ultimately largely historically determined.

I think that the times are over when one could have believed that people will become socialists through upbringing (Erziehung) alone. The experience of the old labour movement makes the limits of pure education quite evident. These organisations failed when those limits were reached politically, because they did not understand in what form and to what degree the consciousness of broad sections of the population was created and sharpened by social practice – by demonstrations, actions, and strike movements, by day-to-day class- and mass struggles.

However, this does not mean that the practical movement is everything. Not at all. It should be understood to mean that without practical movement, theory not only does not come to fruition, but cannot even be developed properly. One becomes a socialist in that one has practical experiences and then develops these experiences theoretically. Both, however, cannot really come together without the presence of mass social movements. One must rediscover a way to connect consciousness work, theoretical work, and educational work in everyday life with oppositional struggles in the broader sense, and labour struggles in the narrower sense – although the working class of today is of course different in many ways. That strikes me as the main task confronting Marxists today: finding a way to reunite both of these strands.

That this undertaking went so poorly last time around is just a sign that, despite some positive indications, in general the outlook for socialists and Marxists remains fairly grim. The practical discussion of a new form of socialism for the 21 century is just beginning to develop, and it requires larger mass movements in which new thinkers can develop themselves, to which they can contribute as much intellectually as they themselves are intellectually invigorated and enriched by these movements. If intellectuals shut themselves away at their desk and maintain a distance from the movements, they also change their own way of thinking – although it’s of course also impossible for intellectuals to be practically involved in everything.

In this context, is it an advantage for you that, as a general rule, today’s working class is better educated and skilled than it was in previous eras?

One would hope it’s an advantage. The average wage-labourer today is not only more feminine and ethnically diverse, they also appear more enlightened and educated than 50 or 100 years ago. On the other hand, this advantage encounters phenomena that can twist and partially dissolve enlightened consciousness. It is no coincidence that leftists and socialists have grappled so intensively with the culture industry and media policy over recent decades. Today’s education system or television broadcasts are more often than not really just systems of dumbing down the population. One is “enlightened” here in a way that is not practical.

For example, today’s secondary school students are forced to cram the intricacies of mathematics into their heads, but hardly anyone can say why they would need these skills later in life. Students don’t learn why they need these skills and, correspondingly, the interest of most is lacking in how to appropriately acquire this knowledge. In school today, one can learn how a computer is built, but not how to appropriately and responsibly interact with it. School conveys theoretical media knowledge, but rarely media competence. The entire recreational and media industry today after all continues to exist largely to shut off the consciousness of the consumer. It still only meets needs of relaxation and distraction. Thus, the average European today is certainly more enlightened but, for the aforementioned reasons, doesn’t necessarily take to the streets to fight for their needs and wants. We can’t afford to be naïve on this point: we can hope that processes of becoming conscious will take place much more rapidly once masses of people start getting active and defending themselves, but we have to get to that point first – and the few swallows we see today don’t quite make a summer, so to speak.

In general, a form of everyday cynicism is dominant today that barely existed in this form a few decades ago. The contemporary bourgeois concept of the human is certainly a largely pessimistic one, a negative one, and people resign themselves cynically to this state of affairs: “That’s just how humans are…”, etc. Interestingly, Leo Kofler already broached this issue in 1960 in his book on State, Society, and the Elite between Humanism and Nihilism, although certain parts of society, like the Catholic labour movement of the 1950s, were indeed of a bourgeois character, but were certainly not cynical.

You’re right: this phenomenon of an all-pervasive everyday cynicism in this form is historically novel, and Kofler perceived it and theorised it very early on. In fact, the work you mentioned reads more convincingly today than it did then, as this everyday nihilism so prevalent today only affected a small layer of society at the time of his writing. Today, it affects the majority of society. Back then, however, Kofler’s book was not noticed or absorbed – it was regarded as stale. In the 1980s, I still occasionally heard claims that Kofler’s discussions of, as he wrote, “occurrences of decadence, of cynicism and nihilism in the postmodern manner” were considered antiquated and out of proportion. That doesn’t seem so convincing anymore. Of course, we can’t apply what Kofler wrote a half-century ago to today on a one-to-one basis, but the basic thoughts seem even more relevant to me today than they were back then.