Sunday 6 July 2014

Pilkington: all Roads Lead to the End of History (i).

I recently commented on Philip Pilkington's "Marx, Hegel, the Labour Theory of Value and Human Desire". There, Pilkington expresses his understanding of Michael S. Roth's understanding of Alexandre Kojève's understanding of what G.W.F. Hegel really, really meant about value; Pilkington's "argument" seemingly being that Marx contradicts Hegel, therefore, Marx is wrong.

In this short series I consider that in more detail. This first post focuses on Hegel and Marx.

Being, as I am, unfamiliar with, and rather uninterested on, philosophy, I shall draw heavily on Peter Singer [*]. This may seem odd: Singer is neither a Marxist, nor uncritical of Marxism/Marx (and it shows). However, he doesn't seem a member of the hydrophobic anti-Marxist pack; this, plus the fact he writes concisely, in English, avoiding unnecessary philosophical jargon (which some use to convey faux authority) and nonsensical mumbo jumbo makes of his book (used as an official university textbook) a reasonable choice.

So, Singer may not be the ideal philosopher for the task, but at least we know he is a philosopher…


Hegel, the first step in Pilkington's philosophical rumba, is well-known: an idealist philosopher, like Plato, who theorized about history.

Singer refers to Hegel in relation to Marx's thought; his account makes Hegel sound definitely mystical.

Hegel started by positing the existence of a "Geist":
"The German word for 'Mind' is sometimes translated as 'Spirit'. Hegel uses it to refer to the spiritual side of the universe, which appears in his writings as a kind of universal mind. My mind, your mind, and the minds of every other conscious being are particular, limited manifestations of this universal mind. There has been a good deal of debate about whether this universal mind is intended to be God or whether Hegel was, in pantheistic fashion, identifying God with the world as a whole." (p 17)
Be that as it may. From those lofty assumptions Hegel concluded that, after the 1806 Battle of Jena, the aristocratic Prussian State became the peak of human development. This had a down-to-earth political implication: there was no alternative to the Prussian State. History had ended, so to speak.

A series of German philosophers (so-called Young, or Left, Hegelians), including Bruno Bauer, Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx (among the younger Young Hegelians), and others, set out to use Hegel's dialectic method against his mystical conclusions: History, they wanted to show, had not ended.

"The transformation of Hegel's method into a weapon against religion was carried through most thoroughly by another radical Hegelian, Ludwig Feuerbach …" (p. 23)
Feuerbach did not stop there:
"Feuerbach's later works went beyond the criticism of religion to the criticism of Hegelian philosophy itself …
"Hegel and other German philosophers of the idealist school began from such conceptions as Spirit, Mind, God, the Absolute, the Infinite, and so on, treating these as ultimately real, and regarding ordinary humans and animals, tables, sticks and stones, and the rest of the finite, material world as a limited, imperfect expression of the spiritual world. Feuerbach again reversed this, insisting that philosophy must begin with the finite, material world. Thought does not precede existence, existence precedes thought.
"So Feuerbach put at the centre of his philosophy neither God nor thought, but man."
(p. 24)
In other words, materialist Hegelianism involved as much Feuerbach (and other Young Hegelians) as Marx. All of them "stood Hegel on his head": to Hegel's "historical mysticism" they opposed their "historical materialism". And they did so deliberately, too; for reasons that, to me (and I may be biased), sound pretty good.

That, apparently, is Pilkington's "gotcha" moment: Marx did contradict Hegel (the original one). Surely he also contradicted Pilkington's understanding of Roth's understanding of Kojève's understanding of what Hegel really, really meant (i.e. something, something, desire)?

What I don't quite understand is how that makes Marx wrong?

At any rate, to focus on Marx, forgetting Feuerbach and the other Young Hegelians, it's not only unfair to these other authors, but also symptomatic of a complex mix of ignorance, intellectual dishonesty and pathological obsession.


Next, Singer shifts to Marx:
"In his brief spell as editor of the Rhenish Gazette, Marx had descended from the rarefied air of Hegelian philosophy to more practical issues like censorship, divorce, a Prussian law prohibiting the gathering of dead timber from forests, and the economic distress of Moselle wine-growers." (pp 24-25)
For Marx, unlike Feuerbach and Bauer, religion wasn't alienating, per se; the economy, where religion was embedded, made it alienating: "It's the economy, stupid".

Singer uses a sort of Feuerbach/Marx "translation key": Feuerbach says "God" or "religion", Marx says "money" (p. 27); then he points to this passage from Marx's 1843 essay "On the Jewish Question":
"Money is the universal, self-constituted value of all things. Hence it has robbed the whole world, the human world as well as nature, of its proper value. Money is the alienated essence of man's labour and life, and this alien essence dominates him as he worships it."
Drawing on his experiences as an ethnic Jew, Marx observed that in European history, the role of money-lender, banker, financier (hence, the "money" reference) had long been reserved for Jews, contributing to shape their identity. To liberate Jews from that stereotype it was necessary to break that nexus. Marx generalized from this to society as a whole.

Commenting on Marx's passage above, Singer writes:
"The final sentence points the way forward [i.e. for Marx]. First the Young Hegelians, including Bauer and Feuerbach, see religion as the alienated human essence, and seek to end this alienation by their critical studies of Christianity. Then Feuerbach goes beyond religion, arguing that any philosophy which concentrates on the mental rather than the material side of human nature is a form of alienation. Now Marx insists that it is neither religion nor philosophy, but money that is the barrier to human freedom. The obvious next step is a critical study of economics." (p. 27)

This account only scratches the surface of Marx's historical materialism (BTW, "dialectical materialism", which Pilkington used, apparently as a synonym, is a different thing, developed after Marx's death. But -- shush! -- don't tell him: he bites). Still, it's useful for my purposes.

For one, it makes clear that Marx's historical materialism focuses on facts, as opposed to metaphysical speculation and moralizing. You would think at least this would be welcomed by mainstream macroeconomists of all stripes (yes, I include at least one PoKe "economist" there), who take great pleasure on criticising Marxism: theirs, after all, is also a form of materialism, even if they don't realise it. Aren't they always talking about positive vs normative economics, hard data, evidence and such?

But if you thought that, you would be disappointed: with Marxism is a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't. In spite of their pragmatist/scientific rhetoric, mainstreamers denounce Marxism as metaphysical, while obtusely prattling about their unmeasurable utilities, "symbolic positions in the inter-subjective network of desires", just deserts, invisible hands, Walrasian auctioneers, confidence fairies…

Give me a break.

[*] Singer, Peter. Marx, a Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press: London. 2000.


  1. Pilkington is either an ignoramus or a liar. Take your pick.

    Marx's LTV does not come from Hegel but from John Locke and the classical economists' (Smith and Ricardo) adoption of Locke's natural rights philosophy into their economic theories.

    It is odd that Pilkington felt compelled to refer to marginalism (i.e., the neoclassical economics of Marshall), which came after Marx and apparently as a response to the reliance of Marx and George in their respective deconstructions of classical economics, then the basis of social order. Well, maybe not that odd.

  2. "Take your pick".

    How about a little bit of A and a little bit of B? :-)

    Seriously now. In my opinion (and I am no psychologist) he is a believer trying desperately to find a reason for his beliefs. I guess, he doesn't really know -- or finds himself compelled not to reveal -- why he feels what he feels. So, he's in search of a reasonably-sounding reason. Any reason (the word is a rationalization).

    To put it graphically: like a blindfolded kid trying to hit a piñata, he strikes here and there, hoping to hit the damned thing.

    And trying to convince others of that.

    What pisses me off is that, absurd as it may sound, there are people who swallows that tripe.

    "It is odd that Pilkington felt compelled to refer to marginalism"

    That's because he thinks of himself as the guy who will bring balance to the Force (this may be cryptic now, but the next post in this series, which you may enjoy, will make that clear). :-)