Photograph of Edmund Wilson [n.d.]
Edmund Wilson
“As against those who would mummify Marxism into a system of eternal truths, one can only welcome the irreverent and civilised approach of Edmund Wilson. . .. . Wilson, however is not concerned with bringing Marxism up to date; on the contrary he has set out to prove that Marxism is alien to modern thought and he all but urges that it de deported back to the nineteenth century.” Thus begins William Phillips’s response to Wilson’s piece.

Phillips charges that Wilson, by placing the dialectic at the centre of his argument, and deriving all parts of the theory from it without regard to the movement of history itself, turns living Marxism into a static polemic. So, while Phillips agrees with Wilson’s argument about the difficulties of thinking of Marxism as a modern science, he thinks that Wilson has chosen the wrong topic: he should be looking at its philosophy of history. Here, Marx indeed thought of the dialectic of history in relation to the stages of his model. And so the historical movement from Greek and Roman slaves systems through feudalism, capitalism, and then to Socialism. Importantly, it was not a natural dialectic at work here, but an historical one – developed through and in relation to actual human consciousness.

William PhillipsIgnoring this distinction as well as the empirical evidence which Marx cited to prove  his theory, Wilson simply attaches all the odium of the ‘natural dialectic’ to Marx’s laws of history. Yet the actual conclusions of Marx and Engels about the direction of history were not derived from the Dialectic, but were arrived at inductively through a study of political and economic facts. Surely, Mr. Wilson cannot hope to bury all this scientific in the grave of the dialectic..”

Phillips next defends the Marxist approach to ‘inevitability’ against what he takes to be Wilson’s idea that Marx was preaching patience and inevitability in a passive way. He says:
“All that can be said– and all that he did say was that the alternative to [socialism] is barbarism or chaos: nor has the evidence of history from the upheavals of 1848 to the October Revolution and the Spanish Civil War provided any refutation of Marx’s political theories.”
  Marx, that is, was a revolutionary activist.  Yes, admits Phillips, Marx may have spoken of the inevitability of socialism, but only if Marx’s model was right, that is.  And anyway, Phillips writes that Marx was an agitator, so give him a little rhetorical slack.

Next in his criticism of Wilson comes the issue of the ‘last instance’ a discussion that is certainly not settled in the late 1930s. You have only to consider Louis Althusser’s insistence on the importance of the ‘last instance’ – which in the 1970s and early 1980s was often seen as the Euro-Communist answer to the brutality of the ‘Tankies’ and their supporters in the  theory-wars —  What Wilson writes is, indeed, vague about the problems of the superstructure, problems which many over the last 50 years have tried to solve or at least model in more productive ways than simply the ‘superstructure ‘reflects’ or more analytically, is produced by the ‘base.’

But what is most galling to Phillips is that Wilson metaphorises Marxism as a ‘myth, ’ which is a serious blow to the status of the model itself.  But this, is a way is part of the problem of the last instance itself. Wilson has just been finishing his history, To the Finland Station, a strong narrative of the philosophical pre-history of the October Revolution, and he is aiming, I would say, to draw in readers who need to know more of what happens in lived experience to ideas and concepts. That he draws on the category of myth for discussing what he sees as a pathway that some accept as the core of Marxist thinking – the Dialectic – and in doing so clarifies that this pathway leads back into Idealism, is an important caveat to the reductionism that has plagued revolutionary Marxism, as we know.

Phillips next defends the Marxist approach to ‘inevitability’ against what he takes to be Wilson’s idea that Marx was preaching patience and inevitability in a passive way. He says:
“All that can be said– and all that he did say was that the alternative to [socialism] is barbarism or chaos: nor has the evidence of history from the upheavals of 1848 to the October Revolution and the Spanish Civil War provided any refutation of Marx’s political theories.”
  Marx, that is, was a revolutionary activist.  Yes, admits Phillips, Marx may have spoken of the inevitability of socialism, but only if Marx’s model — that of “social action” was right, that is.  And anyway, Phillips thinks of Marx was an agitator, so we should give Marx a little rhetorical slack.

But what is most galling to Phillips is that Wilson metaphorises Marxism as a ‘myth, ’ which is a serious blow to the status of the model itself.  But this, is a way is part of the problem of the last instance itself. Wilson has just been finishing his history, To the Finland Station, a strong narrative of the philosophical pre-history of the October Revolution, and he is aiming, I would say, to draw in readers who need to know more of what happens in lived experience to ideas and concepts. That he draws on the category of myth for discussing what he sees as a pathway that some accept as the core of Marxist thinking – the Dialectic – and in doing so clarifies that this pathway leads back into Idealism, is an important caveat to the reductionism that has plagued revolutionary Marxism, as we know.

Phillips’s main argument is that Marx’s empiricism was a function of his commitment to what Phillips calls a ‘way of  life.’   The problems that Marxism presents can be avoided “only by seeing Marxism as a philosophy of social action.”

He goes on:  “Marxism is  way of life: a way of  acting, thinking, feeling… it also reflects the moral needs of the proletariat.” Phillips thus finds that cultural and emotional aspects of Marxism are indeed the way in which the superstructure acts as a conduit of creativity to the proletariat.  His polemical voice breaks out here: “The value of Kant’s system, for example is hardly a live issue outside the classroom; whereas the Marxism is debated in the streets, gaining new supporters when the working class is flushed with victories, and losing them after defeats.”  Phillips gives a reading of Marxism here as in movement always and always attached to, as he had said often, the state of consciousness of humans themselves.  

 

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