The Poverty of Philosophy: What Class Might Mean Today


Common sense people, not unsympathetic to what remains of Marxism today, express their uncertainty about the relevancy of the left’s political project with one primary question: In the world of start-ups and being-your-own-entrepreneur, what does class in the Marxist sense mean, if anything at all, today? This question is often heard with tone-deaf ears by the contemporary “Left,” who dismiss it with the ready-made response: “the point is not to interpret the world but change it.” But without recognition of what it’s doing, the “Left” in responding this way betrayed its own ambivalence toward what they profess to be preaching. For in dismissing workers’ doubts about the applicability of Marxism with a theoretical palliative, the “Left” condemn themselves with the very words they are convinced they are accurately espousing. They think the solution to the dilemma of Marxism in the present lies in offering the correct exegetical framework to the uninitiated sinners who are too blindly stuck in their ways to understand the Holy Truth.

This contradictory relation to its own self-professed goal is expressed in a concrete phenomenon: the Left’s unrecognized ambivalence toward philosophy. The operative (or prevailing?) assumption on the “Left” is that philosophy expresses the position of the disinterested bourgeoisie, who rationalize the suffering of the world with servile theoretical justifications. This is not an unsympathetic take. But the tragicomic character of the situation is not in the Left’s orientation to this philosophy, but in its lack of recognition that its own activity and method of understanding it is what produces what it claims to critique. To put it simply, in telling philosophy that the point is to change the world, the Left is unaware that it is offering its own philosophical solution, thereby missing the point.

The motor that keeps the engine of philosophy running is the insistent impulse to explain to those supposedly concerned with action and the transformation of society what they are actually doing, even despite their own intentions. This form of vindicating itself through reason is not idle. So, if the question is not resolved by simply asserting that “the point is to change it,” it is necessary to theoretically address what Marx poses beyond the level of only theory: social revolution. The problem is trickier than it might seem from both sides. For, on one hand, we must recognize that the correct theoretical conclusions will not only not get us to our self-understood goal, but might in fact exacerbate the problems we are trying to solve. Yet we must also recognize that perhaps the problem with our social reality is not that change doesn’t happen, but that we are unable to theoretically comprehend the transformations we ourselves are participating in through our own activity, whether we know it or not. What Marx lays out in the “11th Thesis on Feuerbach” is not a materialist theoretical framework to replace the bourgeois idealism of philosophy. Rather, what Marx suggests is that the exact object of bourgeois philosophy, social reality, has itself come to task and challenged the conceptual criteria and philosophical superstructure of the bourgeois class that brought it into being. The problem is not solved by recognizing that we have to change the world. The problem is to recognize how we are changing the world already in ways that we ourselves remain unaware of. We are reproducing a bourgeois reality that incessantly explores the bounds of bourgeois thought. Addressing this problem involvesa bourgeois critique of bourgeois thought and a philosophical critique of philosophy.

Perhaps one of the most interesting symptoms in contemporary philosophy is the sly revival of what once was thought outmoded: Hegelian idealism. Theories abound that seek to solve the problem of reality at the level of ideas. This is in good faith, but, following Freud, sometimes an intellectual solution can be a defense mechanism to protect a more fundamental wound.

What remains opaque to those who attempt to theorize the present state of affairs is that the society they are speaking for has forgotten its own beginnings: The world we are living in today, though it may have repressed how it once related to itself, was brought into the world through revolution – revolution not as a fixed theoretical set of commandments, nor as a practical anarchy. In fact, quite the opposite. It’s the complicated task of relating the workers’ own practical activity to the unconscious desire it has yet to make sense of to itself. Therefore, it makes sense to attend to what the contemporary “Left” dismisses as mere superstructure: in other words, how the bourgeois class attempts to make sense of itself and the reality that it projects as if identical to it. This self-understanding is expressed in a variety of phenomena not simply reducible to what is understood as philosophy. When we speak of “bourgeois philosophy,” we are not referring to a concrete set of philosophical dictums, but rather the self-consciousness this reality produces as expressed by the bourgeois class. This self-understanding finds its external reality in every theoretical and cultural product on the market today. But perhaps all the better for us. The multitude of all these seemingly unrelated phenomena amount, in the end, to a very specific task: a clarification of how the bourgeoisie’s own self-understanding is theoretically inadequate to the world it produces.

This formulation, whether recognized or not, speaks to the need for a method anathema to bourgeois thought. Whether it is Jordan Peterson or Zizek, Al Sharpton or David Duke, contemporary bourgeois thought, expressed by both the “Left” and “Right,” arrives at the scene of the crime with pre-established ideals they have fashioned themselves to preach. They recognize a world in disarray and think this testifies to how the eternal bourgeois ideals of the good and the beautiful, justice and truth, have been discarded by a reality that is blind to how, where, and when it lost its way. What they don’t seem to realize is the horrific injustice it does to how those ideals were arrived at and became real in the first place. The bourgeois ideals of hard work and free social association were not sent down by some deity demanding that we spread his timeless and unchanging message. Rather, they were achievements conquered through concrete social and political struggle on every front against an old order that had failed to make good on its promises. They were earned through bitter battle, not pacifications whispered into submissive ears. Uttered today, they should sound a cry of battle, not smugly attempt to hush our discontents with the consoling coos of culture.

Regarding all facets of symptoms objectified in the theoretical and cultural products of our bourgeois world, we must give voice to the true and the good as a way of tasking reality. This methodis adopted with the best of intentions. Yet the way it imposes itself on reality seems bound up with a process whereby reality itself at the same time retreats further and further from the very ideals it seeks to realize.

The Marxist recognizes in this phenomenon the demand to address the world that ensures that those accustomed to conventional understandings of bourgeois thought feel understandably uneasy. For the Marxist, the problem of capitalism is not one of society failing to meet its own ideals, but rather, that the self-professed ideal society is constantly setting for itself a task that is being incessantly burst asunder by society’s own activity. For the Marxist, thinking doesn’t only task the world, but the world itself also tasks thought. This task is what “practice” refers to.

If Marxism called for working-class practice as the solution to the riddle of history, this formulation can give us insight into what class might mean in the present, and how it relates to the problem of how we understand the world. Bourgeois thought understands itself to be detached and outside its object of critique. Whether the enemy is called “capitalism” or “environmental apocalypse,” the problem is framed as a foreign enemy desperately in need of being exposed. The category of “the proletariat” refers in Marx not only to a specific sociological group but to those responsible for meeting the task of formulating the necessary self-understanding for dealing with the problem of capitalism. In other words, for Marx, the problem of capitalism was not only one of what to do, but also one of understanding our position and actions as related to the problem of capitalism. What distinguished the bourgeoise from the proletariat was its self-consciousness about its relation to what was dominating and constraining it: capitalism.

At the heart of what it means to be a proletarian thinker today is whether one chooses to take up the project of a working-class leader who seeks to clarify to workers how they are participating in constituting, through their own social action, a reality that forces them to reconstitute their own precarious and servile position. This compulsion seems like aimless inertia, a reality that forces them to remain blind to their own power and, thus, to succumb to the repressive repercussions that are the product of their own social action. To be a proletarian today means to take responsibility for society and history by recognizing that these phenomena are not foreign objects to be contemplated and classified, but the sites of a battle for a world that must be won through political struggle. The proletarian socialist eschews and exposes prefiguratively manufactured solutions made for mass distribution and consumption. This brings us back to the point of the relationship between philosophy and what it means to be a worker today. For Marxism, the socialist recognizes that the task of understanding the world adequately would be the final achievement after a struggle for power against the self-consciousness of an opposition that thinks that our poor understanding of the world is what is holding us back. The real poverty, however, lies with philosophy. For Marxism, the full richness of truth can’t be testified to by a self-assured set of propositions. The truth is not for us to know and understand, but for us to prove and achieve in a political struggle for power. The workers feel this in their bones, and no philosophical or cultural solution found in the realm of knowledge can pacify this fundamental instinct.